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Dear friends and readers,

You may recall that in my blog of May 24th, 3 days ago I told of a DC-JASNA picnic Izzy and I attended and how in the raffle she won Sethe Graham-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies.  She wrote about the picnic too (see her blog for May 23rd).  I didn't say she was philosophic about this win as she had said she might like to see the movie, Jane Austen and the Sea Creatures, and took it home thinking she might try to read it.

Well, she has, and for tonight I present a more detailed critical assessment than you will hear anywhere else -- and more open-minded too because Izzy goes to movies and knows something of the genre Graham-Smith has mixed into Austen's Pride and Prejudice: Kung Fo movies.  Her verdict is JA and the Zombies is an amusing but not intelligent book.  I put on this blog what I got down in Pittman sten in the back pages of my book from what she said.

One of the book's several illustrations

She read Graham-Smith's website and found there that he claims the idea for the book came from his agent: the agent called Graham-Smith up one day and suggested he write a book with the title, P&P and the Zombies.  Seth-Graham started with a vision of zombies running about and causing mayhem and acting violently.  But it's more than that: he's mixing kung fo kind of movie stuff into what he conceives to be Austenland.  Izzy said if you have seen Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, you have seen a remarkably intelligent and arty version of one of these formulaic films. They glorify martial arts and violence.  So the reader reads sudden violence repeatedly placed in familiar scenes.  The opening sentence will give a first idea:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want or more brains.  Never was thsi truth more plain than during the recent attacks at Netherfield Park, in which a household of eighteen were slaughtered and consumed by a horde of living dead.
    'My dear Mr Bennet,' said his lady to him one day, 'have you heard that Netherfield Park is occupied at last ...'"

Other instances from famous scenes: after reading Darcy's letter Elizabeth attempts to kill Darcy for taking Bingley from Jane. During the set-up between Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Lady Catherine attempts to murder Jane. The way in which such scenes are described are in the mechanically sudden wild way of these kung fo films.  If you have a copy of the book, and go to  p. 299 you will see this.  These scenes are often written as gags -- even though some transparent excuse is made for explaining how say Lady Catherine knows to use a sword (she was trained in Japan I think Izzy said).  Marriage to Mr Collins turns Charlotte Lucas into a zombie is one typical joke.

Now here it might seem that Graham-Smith entered into the mind-set of Austen's book.  What else could marriage to Mr Collins turn anyone into?  But, Izzy noticed that there is no real understanding of Austen's book.  Graham-Smith's perspective or understanding of Austen seems to stem from the kind of idea that led to the 1940 Pride and Prejudice: this is cozy silly women's romance where no harm comes to anyone for real.  Any notion that it has serious themes like women's condition is not apparent at all.  Indeed Graham-Smith robs Mrs Bennet of any redeeming qualities by denying the girls had to get married.  Nonsense.  Graham-Smith appears to have read no mature literary criticism of Austen. 

A silly pop view infects his book throughout and since the philosophy he says (on his website) that he followed (he uses the word philosophy) was to change something on every single page of Austen's book, one can see the dumbing down that could occur.  I looked at this book and saw he copies out whole swatches of Austen but also (as in popular abridgement) simplifies the language as he goes now and again. Many of the changes were just this sort of crude thing.

The questions at the back of the book (set up just like publishers' books where what is implied is this will be read in a book club) give away his attitudes when you compare them to what you find in the book. I said the violence is gags -- well, some of it reminded me of the kind of grotesquerie I noticed in gay texts -- sudden huge monsters of the kind you find in Angela Carter's burlesques, are used in the similarly jerky and awkward figures in the film adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Orlando by Sally Potter. 

out of disguise, or period costume, from Sally Potter's Orlando

Izzy and I wondered if there was a gay subtext going on here.  Well some of the questions reinforce my wonder. For example, question 5:  we are asked if Austen intended Elizabeth Bennet to be "gay?"  Her independence, her reluctance to marry just anyone, and her strong aggression (as Graham-Smith sees this), her distrust of men (as he sees it) seems to suggest to him that Austen's Elizabeth is gay.  "And if so, hw would this Sapphic twist serve to explain her relationships with Darcy, Jane, Lady Catherine and Wickham?" Question 6 asks about symbols in the book which distrust marriage and so it goes.

Needless to say when Lydia runs off with WIckham in this book there is no sense she will be ruined.  Again there is a duel. pp. 219-20. If Mr Darcy had not rescued Lydia, she would have ended up beheaded.  At the end of the novel Wickham goes off to a seminary, badly crippled, and Lydia takes care of him. Very strange unless you begint to add to the Kung Fo nonsense a sort of anti-marriage, anti-heterosexual subtext going on here.

Jill H-S's Unbccoming Conjunctions did not go this far in her queering of Austen -- or quite this far.

Izzy says Graham-Smith (like many) does like Elizabeth, sympathizes with her, she is superpowerful and her sudden grotesqueries of violence are presented as making us fond of her.

To Izzy's report I'll add this perspective:  One might ask (remembering Johnson irritated with what he called the imbecility of Cymbeline) why waste time on such a mish-mash. Well it's well to know what is being read by many people as a legitimate rewrite of Austen -- complete with funny illustrations.  It is troubling to see a book whic erases so readily what is worth while and serious in Austen because there are so many other texts more respected which do this too -- like for example Galperin's chapter on Persuasion. If you read Persuasion as slapstick as he claims to do, why not this?

I have had many students by now who will say they know and love Austen and when I examine what this knowing and loving consists of, it's watching the 1995 P&P which switches the perspective of the book so it becomes Darcy-centered and an Oepidal kind of ordeal, heavy on the urge of girls to marry (heterosexuality is assumed).  Then they might come to this. 

It really hurts to see a book which made women's traditions of books deeply rich and is a core of women's books still today (Elizabeth Jane Howard's Falling ends on comparing our heroine to Jane Bennet) treated this way. It's another form of erasure of women's traditions and books.



( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 29th, 2010 11:03 am (UTC)
The queering of Jane Austen
From a friend:

"I'm surprised that you seem surprised by how pernicious that Zombie book is. Many vampire and zombie books have gay themes, that's part of the usual package - but nobody's really had a good hard look at how decadent and destructive it is to treat Jane Austen this way. They think it's just fun. I don't agree."

Well, we had no idea. Izzy told me the details of grotesque sizes, and gags that reminded me of scenes in Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus, some of the lyrics of some of Sondheim's stranger (less popular songs). This morning she tells me that the book suggests Mrs Gardener has a lover, and then what we discover that *Mr* Gardener has a male friend that he is "very close" with. Elizabeth worries lest Mr Darcy get "involved" but he doesn't.

So it's another aspect of the sexing up of Austen.


Edited at 2010-05-29 11:33 am (UTC)
May. 29th, 2010 03:29 pm (UTC)
Destructive nature of such Zombie books
From Diane R:

"I read the Zombies and PP post and have to say, I am repulsed more than ever by the whole idea of the book--not that the gay theme bothers me in the least--but the whole enterprise in general. It's the destructive nature of it that troubles me ... it makes me uneasy about who reads these lists and what could be made of a stray comment. But that's life. One can only be so careful in a public forum. I recognize that people are going to cash in on Austen regardless of what we do or don't say."
May. 30th, 2010 04:18 am (UTC)
Destructive of Austen
I agree with my two friends that these books are destructive of Austen's texts. I've nothing against homosexual sex (male or female), but know that simplifying Austen's text (which is what abridgements do), interweaving this kind of camp jeering material,
erasing all the woman-centeredness and concerns of the novels is to destroy their very souls.

Enough people want to read these books as ridiculing characters, as slapstick, want to sex up Austen so that books of this sort (and Galperin's and Unbecoming Conjunctions) can be written in the expectation they will sell, make money, further careers. To me it shows just how heartlessness has become an acceptable norm for social life.

Destructive of Austen. Indeed. Much of the commercial modern world is.

May. 30th, 2010 10:52 am (UTC)
Vampire and gay subtexts
"I think it's more the vampire genre that is very commonly taken as a gay metaphor: a secret society of people who engage in deviant and sensual practices considered evil by the normals - I don't have to spell it out. There's endless critical commentary on the vampire genre as gay metaphor. That quality in it wouldn't change when
it's introduced into Austen....
May. 30th, 2010 11:01 am (UTC)
Modern vampires and zombies and 18th century gothics
Very interesting, Diana, I can only keep saying I was unaware that these zombie and now some vampire stories are used this way. I've taught gothics repeatedly and know there are many which are not. In fact the problem with much of the vampire literature is it's deeply misogynistic, and moves into porn. The source is usually finally Stoker with his group of men driving stakes into the evil woman, Lucy (turned vampire). There are a number of Victorianist essays showing how Stoker's book can be read and used this way. A source of such tales (popular, widely read) is Ryan, Alan, ed. The Penguin Book of Vampire Tales. Penguin, 1987. ISBN 0-14-012445-4.

Yet more interesting for me is the connection between subversion and zombies -- precisely because of the 18th century connection. The gothics of the 18th century were terrains where all sorts of unaccepted truths could be presented (like the abuse of women in the culture); Darnton has written books showing how these books were part of the questioning of the enlightenment and you can certainly see this in the German ones. We might say this level of fantasy where the taboo against discussing and making fun of the dead (out of deeply atavastic fears of dead bodies and violating them) can be home to all sorts of subversions. Thus we see a link between the modern forms of gothic which move into camp and those of the 18th century -- and Walpole, sometimes said to be the first one, is camp -- he was probably a closet homosexual too.

Myself I don't have a taste for this stuff at all: it seems silly or ridiculous and I don't like jeering. But suddenly I see how Walpole's audience (often made up today of gay readers and sympathizers) can like his awful Castle of Otranto.



Jun. 17th, 2010 02:53 pm (UTC)
Vampire books not necessarily about gay themes
From Diane on WWTTA:

"Vampires and gay culture came up a few weeks ago, and I would be
interested in knowing more about this connection. The one vampire book I have read is the first in Stephanie Meyer's vampire series, with the "lead" vampire, Edmund/Edward?, named from Jane Austen. I found that book, the name of which I can't remember (Twilight?), highly disturbing, because of the way it infantilized the human protagonist, Bella, who falls in love with the vampire. She is protected by superhuman--ubermensch--vampires, who as superior to her as parents are to a toddler and treat her in similar ways--force her into a carseat "harness," hold her wrists, carry her cradled in their arms, straddle her piggyback, make decisions for her, sneak into her room while she is sleeping, etc etc. However, I didn't detect any gay theme in this book, which was written by a Mormon. Thus my interest in how other books might treat vampires.
Jun. 17th, 2010 03:08 pm (UTC)
Vampires by no means simply gay literature
Diane, the reason I was started to discover that it's a widely-known truth (not universally acknowleged at all though) that books with zombies and vampires are a campish form of gay literature is that I've spent literally years studying and several times teaching the gothic, and never came across this.

Well, not quite. I did know that the attribution of the invention of gothic to Walpole and his (absurd) Castle of Otranto had roots in the reading and tastes of (unacknowleged) gay people of the 18th century and today a camp gay text (as is, believe it or not, Richardson's Pamela).

My experience of vampire literature until this new emasculation I'll call it is it's deeply misogynistic, filled with brutal violence and a terrain where much p*rn and sadomaschistic texts develop -- Bram Stoker's is a case over the top. Just try Ryan's Penguin Book of Vampire Tales. Not all of them are this way, but most are, and even a couple by women.

It not only infantilizes the female characters to present vampires who won't even have sex with the girl until he properly marries her, but it shows an infantilization and avoidance of sexual realities in women readers akin to the kind of thing one used to find on Bone and Mills (?) romances. Now she is invited to have fun with this and it becomes a license for more "hard" vampire stories. You get arguments that revenge-horror rape movies are somehow feminist and the most muddled pretenses past muster.

Charnas's early version of this (Vampire Tapestry) where her vampire was a victim, and the fiction (unusual this) seriously feminist, still had him brutal, a killer, and someone who did not bother rape because his interest was in feeding himself.

I don't have time to explore this now but I am thinking about it in terms of the paper I mean to start later this term and the panel I'll be chairing at an EC/ASECS meeting in early November. I do have a lot of stuff here:


here especially:


This is the proposal for the panel (I was reading and accepting two papers last night):

The Gothic as Recovery. In The Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Genre, Anne Williams differentiates persuasively between male and female gothic; she shows how treating these as the same loses the meaning of female gothic and its particular paradigms. Williams argues that the female gothic, far from being masochistic and enervating, is empowering: we see the education of a young woman who integrates herself into her society on terms favorable to her. I invite papers on various authors’ use of the gothic as a mode of recovery, of rediscovering the self amid traumatic and anxiety-producing experiences. I’m thinking primarily of later eighteenth-century women authors like Anne Radcliffe, Jane Austen, Charlotte Smith (Ethelinde), Mary Shelley (Matilda), Sophie Cottin, Stephanie-Felicite de Genlis, Germaine de Stael (Delphine) but equally welcome papers across the long eighteenth-century and later in genres where the author uses the gothic. Abstracts or completed papers to Ellen Moody (George Mason U): ellen.moody @ gmail.com

I've extended it to "Gothic as Trauma and Recovery," for I know that many of these texts show no recovery from trauma at all. The overtheme of the conference was about "recovery" in 18th century texts which is why my original emphasis.

I'd like to come back and discuss this some more. I originally wanted on ECW to read De Sade's Marquise de Granges, a semi-realistic gothic novel based on a real court case where the woman was continually brutalized (a rare novel by Sade not meant as pornograpy). Though I'm open to the relatively new idea that gothics can be sanguine, show an empowerment of women, my real hunch is this is just one vein of them and not the most important. Austen's NA teeters over this abyss in an intriguing way.

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