Monday, February 8, 2010

O, to have been born a heroine!

I'm teaching Northanger Abbey right now. I'm using it to make the boys in my class love Jane Austen.  (My success in this endeavor remains undetermined.)  It has a reputation of being one of Jane Austen's lesser novels, which I personally think is a completely unfair assessment.  It's no Emma and it will never have the following of Pride and Prejudice (unless Colin Firth somehow shows up in the movie version) but it is smart and I think its the funniest of all of Austen's novels.  It gets skipped over by most people unless they decide to read all of Austen's works, but I think that is a real mistake.  I like it because it is snarky without being openly judgmental.

I once took one of those online quizzes (don't pretend you're too cool for those) that promised to reveal "Which Jane Austen Heroine Are You?"

Of course I rigged my answers so that I would be Elizabeth Bennet.  Like the protagonist in Lost in Austen (and I did get lost in that film--for three beautiful hours, thank you very much), I want to be like Elizabeth Bennet.  She's everything a good Austen heroine should be--well read, self-possessed, pretty, and always ready with the appropriate verbal response for every situation, even the terribly awkward ones.

But the truth of the matter is that I am far more Catherine Morland than Elizabeth Bennet.  Northanger Abbey opens with the line, "No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her to be born to be a heroine."

(category: Best Opening Lines in All of Her Novels.  Winner:  Jane Austen.)

Catherine is totally normal.  Her family is normal.  Her life is undramatic.  She's good-natured and friendly but a little shy.  She's not pretty but not ugly.  She finds drama in the books she reads--gothic novels, of course.  She makes lots of silly mistakes, she is a bit naive, but in the end she is a pretty reliable interpreter of people and circumstances.

Catherine Morland is not my favorite of Jane Austen's heroines.  And I think that is because I see too much of myself in her.  I would rather be the sort of girl who makes rash decisions and eloquent speeches and turns down proposals and then ends up marrying Mr. Darcy.  I would rather be Elizabeth Bennet!

But I like teaching Northanger Abbey because I think it's nice that just because Catherine Morland doesn't look like or act like a typical heroine, that doesn't mean that she doesn't have a story worth telling.  Her story is about reading novels, and writing novels, and letting one's imagination get carried away, and trying to be polite, and trying to do the right thing, and being embarrassed, and feeling unsure of oneself, and discovering real friendship, and falling in love.  It's a great story.

Even if it doesn't include vampires or zombies.

My brother read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies over Christmas and then lent it to me, saying that he didn't understand why anyone read Jane Austen.  I ignored him (years of practice has made this easy to do) and eagerly took up P&P&Z for my own reading pleasure.  I got about ten pages in and realized what he was talking about.

Understand that I had every expectation of liking this book.  One of my favorite things about Jane Austen is that she doesn't take herself too seriously (unlike many other nineteenth century authors, cough cough George Eliot, God love her anyway).  I loved Emma the musical because Austen can do campy musical theatre.  I assumed I would love this book just as much because of course Elizabeth Bennet would easily slay zombies while winning Mr. Darcy's heart.  In theory, it was a work of genius.  I particularly liked the cover art.

But in reality?  It was horrible.  Horrible, horrible, horrible.  Sure, it was a little amusing that Elizabeth had to fight zombies on her way to Netherfield Park.  But the problem was that this version took out everything that makes Austen so wonderful--all the subtle implications, all the moments of unremarked wordplay, all the humor and spelled it all out or canceled it out completely.  Made it totally obvious.  Instead of clever dialogue in Austen's remarkable prose style (hello?  Free indirect discourse! Kind of a trademark, folks!) it's just the bare bones of the story with zombies thrown in.  

It occurs to me that it might be a little obnoxious to note that in rewriting this novel to include zombies, the soul of the novel was destroyed.

But that's exactly what happened.  All the good parts are taken out, and the new goods parts (ie. brain eating zombies) just don't do enough to salvage the novel.  It could have been so great!  I had such high hopes!

But, alas.  Nobody can do Austen like Austen.

Except, of course, Masterpiece Theatre.


  1. Did you ever watch the South Park about Great Expectations? has all the episodes for free. Season 4, called 'Pip'. It's far better than the original.

  2. Yes, I have seen that episode. In fact, I showed it to one class I taught on Great Expectations. I'm not sure about it being far better than the original... it actually follows the plot pretty closely. Up to a point.

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