misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Graham-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies: The queering of Jane Austen

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.

Tags: jane austen criticism, jane austen novels, jane austen sequels, women's novels

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