Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Elizabeth Bennets

Pride and Prejudice (1995) Poster - a post by Jeanna Mason Stay

Last night I dreamed I was watching Pride and Prejudice (the BBC version with Colin Firth of course) but something was different. I discovered that BBC had filmed two versions of the movie, and the only difference was that in the version I was watching, Elizabeth Bennet was much more sedate, much more proper. Essentially she was a lot more like Jane.

Recently the ladies of my book club and I were talking about the characters of Jane Austen. My good friend Elissa pointed out that the popularity of Pride and Prejudice over the other Austen novels was probably largely because Elizabeth Bennet most closely suits our modern notions of what a heroine should be—outspoken, vibrant, unwilling to marry just to suit society.*

This had never occurred to me, but I realized that she was probably right. Who else can compare to Elizabeth? The Dashwood sisters? No, Marianne is too histrionic, Elinor too reserved. Emma? A busybody. Who’s not even very good at being a busybody. Catherine Morland—amusing, but in real life wouldn’t you just kind of want to smack her upside the head and tell her to stop reading Stephen King novels?** Anne Elliot is such a shrinking violet that I had to look up her name because I couldn’t remember it. And Fanny Price is very, very moral—which is sort of out of favor these days too (she’s also a shrinking violet).***

I have now, I’m sure, completely insulted your favorite Austen novel and/or heroine. Trust me, I realize that they all have more depth than just the one character trait I pointed out. And I have liked many of them for various reasons (and I really need to give at least one of them another chance). But, as we discussed at my book club, most of their characters—while holding up very well in the society they would have lived in—have major traits that conflict with modern ideas about leading ladies.

And that, my friends, was a major sidetrack from the original point of this blog post. So now let’s get back to the dream.

Watching the new Elizabeth Bennet in my dream, I realized that I still liked her this way, although she didn’t have quite as much sparkle. Her backbone still came through, but her personality was not as big. I would love to see this movie version in actual person, not just in my dreams.****

Well, okay, I’m not going to get that wish, but it did occur to me: What if I took a character I was working with and completely revised one or two of her/his strongest characteristics? Turn down the humor dial, crank up the grumpiness knob (I envision character traits on a really old staticky radio). How would it change the story and how people reacted to them—both characters within the novel and also readers without?

So that’s my advice/suggestion for the fortnight.***** Are you stuck in a story? Are you bored with it? Or is it just fine, but maybe it needs a bit more sparkle? Turn those character knobs, people. Just for fun.

(Alternately, you could just go on an Austen binge. But that probably won’t help with your writing.)

* Okay, let’s be honest, the popularity of P&P also probably has a large bit to do with a certain Colin Firth.
** Or, you know, Ann Radcliffe. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.
*** Fanny Price is, in fact, so morally upright that when they made Mansfield Park into a movie (the 1999 version), they decided to dispense with her strict morals and have her make a decision that the original character would never have made. Just so the rest of us can feel better about our bad decisions, I suppose?
**** Do you think it’s too much to ask to create a time machine, go back to when it was first filmed, and ask BBC to do two versions instead of just one? I bet if Peter Jackson had directed it, he’d be willing. 
***** Fortnight! Austen would be proud.


  1. oooOOOOooooh..."character knobs"...I really like that...

    1. But don't forget, the radio has to be nice and staticky. :)

  2. I actually preferred Kiera Knightey's portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet. Colin Firth was a better Darcy though. :-)



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