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Thursday, September 2, 2010

Of Manners and Monsters and Mystery Fiction

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any essay with a remote connection to Jane Austen's works must begin with "It is a truth universally acknowleged...". Herewith no exception: a link to the literary icon so remote as to be almost unviewable not only from the beauteous peaks of the Lake District famously visited by Miss Lizzie Bennett in 'Pride and Prejudice', but indeed from the tallest modern manmade construction in any major city in the world. As remote, indeed, as the link between Miss Austen's acclaimed classic work and the more recent novel of which she is listed a co-author. Can the gentle reader be yet in doubt as to the title of the tome in question?

"Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith was the first of the Austen-Monster mashups. After three full seasons of ignoring its existence, I was finally worn down by the mute endurance of a friend's loaner copy gradually losing its colour as it languished, face up, in full sunlight by the picture window. A faded cover seems friendlier, somehow. Anyway, I opened it.

Skim city.

The principal charm of this book is its conceit, taken in one of two senses of the term (its principal failing being applied to the author in the other sense of the word).

The highest of its precepts is not that a well-honed dagger at the ankle is an indispensible part of a young lady's toilette. Rather, the highest precept here is represented by the book's very existence: the vast gulf between the constrained society of Austen's day, in which a young lady's life might be blighted forever by unsuitable reading material, undesirable companions or unthrifty ancestors, and the present day, in which young ladies are as free to read of zombies and violence as they are to read Jane Austen, their life choices enriched by a vast range of freedoms both societal and economic, freedoms never before quite as accessible to quite so many women at the same moment in time.

The freedom that allows women to feel both gently bred and kick-ass in the same moment, or to explore all facets of their personality by turns, is worth preserving. And worth expressing, whether exercised in full or in fiction.

Western women's participation in male literary domains is a relatively new freedom, just slightly more venerable than the right to vote. When Jane Austen was writing in the early 1800's, fiction for women was overwhelmingly ghettoized, its virtuous heroines most threatened by monstrous villains in gothic castles. Jane broke the mold by making her monsters other women - of the ilk of Lady Catherine DeBourgh - who ruthlessly enforced a rigid social code upon the young heroines and punished them for deviations. Women's fiction was never to be taken as literature, its subject matter and style unlikely to appeal to male readers. Mary Shelley had made inroads fifty years earlier with Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, a decidedly masculine novel for a woman of her time. But for all her literary reach she was severely punished by society because she violated the rigid social mores applicable to women.

A hundred years after Austen, Baroness Orczy was encroaching on the male domain of detective novels with 'Lady Molly of Scotland Yard', first published in 1910. Her readers were still mainly women, reading about a woman, but this woman stood up for more than the right to marry or not. She stood up for justice, like any male detective. More daring still, the baroness breached the male preserve of literary derring-do with The Scarlet Pimpernel, in which Lady Blakeney had a voice not limited to screaming for help. Men as well as women began to read these novels of the French Revolution as avidly as they had Dumas' Three Musketeers and other adventure tales written by men. Mary Shelley would have been in awe. Jane Austen would have reveled in that freedom, and written more about her male characters than she had dared do 100 years earlier.

Dorothy L. Sayers, one of the first women to receive a degree from Oxford Univeristy (in 1920), broke another barrier in 1923 when she published a novel featuring a male detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. Partway through his wildly popular series, she gave him in Harriet Vane a female partner in life and in detection. Their relationship, developing over several books, is not only one of the great romances of detective fiction but an early literary example of a relationship remarkable for egalitarian balance. Harriet was intellectually his equal, independent in spirit, financially self-supporting, and although grateful after being saved from certain death by Lord Peter, she did not submerge her own interests merely because he decided to marry her. Did that example contribute to myriad readers of both genders becoming more open to egalitarian tendencies in their own relationships?

Enduring fascination with Lord Peter and Harriet Vane led to the series being revived long after Sayers' death. In time for the 21st century, Jill Paton Walsh finished Sayers' unfinished manuscript, 'Thrones, Dominations', and went on to write two further novels of Harriet and Peter, 2002's 'A Presumption of Death' (set in WW2) and, now on the cusp of release in September 2010, 'The Attenbury Emeralds' which combines Lord Peter's first case - never previously published but set post-WW1 - with further insights into the mature couple's intellectually egalitarian relationship.

Nowadays, it is difficult to find mainstream fiction in which the heroines lack choices. Women buy more fiction than men, and women do not often buy books in which the heroine is passive. Less than a hundred years ago that was not the case, and two hundred years ago our options were even more limited. From Jane Austen's mannered, marriage-minded novels, in which the monsters were apt to be other women, through to 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' in which Lizzie Bennett dispatches monsters by her own skill with weaponry, we've come a long way, baby.

All of which is not to say I'll read every word of that latter title. It is not dazzling in style, wit, characterizations or plot. Not worth my close attention. I do confess, however, that I will be peeking at pages until I discover whether Mr. Collins eventually gets et. Some things a girl's just gotta know.


  1. It was the Peak District in Derbyshire, not the Lake District; remember, her uncle had business and they had to cut the trip short. Of course, that's where Pemberly was located, and ....

  2. You are so right, Bonnie. I have the image of Jennifer Erhle standing on the windswept tor, holding onto her bonnet.

    Either I mentally transposed the words 'Lake' and 'Peak', or, in 'P&P&Zombies', which I was reading last, Aunt really says 'Lake District'when inviting Lizzie to come with them. I suppose I'd better go back and look that up to be certain, even though I was ready to give up on that book entirely.

  3. Oops again. No 'r' should be in 'Ehle'.

  4. jayne, what fun to discover that we share another passion--Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, & co. And, yes, I also enjoy Stephanie Barron. her White Garden--while not JA, is a wonderful book.

    I saw on your DL post that it's cold in Calgary alrady. I'll pack my thermals, shall I?

  5. I read your comments on 'White Garden' elsewhere, Donna, and must find a copy for myself. Stephanie Barron has a beautiful command of language, no matter what she writes.