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Appropriating Austen

Or, Why I Hate to Love Hate-Reading

As you may have noticed, I read.  A lot.  Books have been an integral part of my life for as long as I can remember.  Even before I knew how to read, I pretended that I could, turning the pages of my children’s books with the same level of seriousness one adopts when reading high literature.

Unlike with other things in life (e.g. shoes, men), I’m not particularly picky when I comes to the books I read. (I’m referring specifically to fiction, here.  I’m very picky when it comes to non-fiction.)  As long as the story is somewhat entertaining and/or intriguing, and the characters are relatively interesting, I’ll read just about anything.  So it was that when I stumbled across Katie Oliver’s Prada and Prejudice from her “Dating Mr. D’Arcy” series, I decided to give it a try.  Though I haven’t read Pride and Prejudice yet (!), was curious about Oliver’s book because it appeared to be a contemporary adaptation of Austen’s work.

By the end of Prada and Prejudice, I discovered that the book is less “adaptation” and more “appropriation”:  Oliver basically plays with the title, and some of the characters’ names (e.g. the female protagonist’s last name is “Dashwood”), and uses them as a hook into her own derivative, marginally interesting story.  Not only are the characters predictable and shallowly-drawn, but the females exist on an emotional pendulum that is more appropriate to a petulant teenager, rather than the grown-ass women (Tricia™) they are supposed to be.  Their irrational outbursts seem only to serve the purpose of driving the plot (e.g she thinks her man is cheating on her, so she decides to get him back by going out with another man.  Hijinks – ostensibly – ensue).

As far as I could tell, there was nothing even remotely Austen-ian about the story (say, for example, a pithy, veiled critique of societal gender norms), save for the fact all the characters are English, and that the male love interest is, at first, an arrogant and/or dismissive and/or philandering jerk.  (I presume this is to signal to readers that he is the “Mr. D’Arcy” of the piece. ‘Cause, you know, they wouldn’t have been able to figure that out on their own.) This is true for all of the books in the series.  How do I know this?

Because I. Couldn’t. Stop. Reading. Them.

Seriously. There are three books in the “Dating Mr. D’Arcy” series, followed by three more in the “Marrying Mr. D’Arcy” series.  So help me, but I hate-read them all in the space of about three weeks.  Part of my entrapment can be explained by the compulsion some of us have to keep reading something awful because a) we can’t believe that it’s really that bad; and b) we’re waiting to see just how bad it’s going to get.  I can’t explain why, but there is a delightfully perverse pleasure in doing this.

My entrapment can also be explained, however, by the fact that I’m a sucker for a serial narrative, especially romantic ones that promise a “happily ever after” at the end.  JustMom’s response to my previous post¹ beautifully explains why those narratives are so compelling:

LOVE TRANSCENDS ALL:

A defense of the pathology that is love between Cathy and Heathcliff.

Lordy, Lordy, Child! Me thinks I hath truly faileth thou!

For me, your comments are truly those of an academic, and reflect what most bothers me about the ACADEMIC-IZATION of the mind. It can cause one can miss a great deal. Whereas I have difficulty with the literary Canon, I also have difficulty with the position that, for one to insert oneself in the narrative of a story, it must reflect one’s experience. If that is what you are saying² and if it is true, then I have missed something. For me, it seems that every story reflects my (one’s) experience, whether that story is One Hundred Years of Solitude or The Pilgrim’s Progress. We, our experiences, are in every story ever written.

I won’t deal with Sense and Sensibility, but with Wuthering Heights.  Sure, Cathy and Heathcliff can be seen as ridiculous, but their attachment is more pathological than ridiculous. We see Heathcliff as some kind of crazy man, grabbing and kissing Cathy’s corpse. (Today we call it necrophilia, perhaps it was rather commonplace back then.) Old, deranged Heathcliff also mistakes the sound of dry branches scratching on the window for Cathy’s ghostly return; he even bashes his head on the trees.  Yes, I can see and appreciate the weirdness of it. Now, “Just Dominique”, we can say that that was the way of excessive attachment back then, but, as far as I can tell, the excess is alive and well today, streaming through human consciousness, but differently.

Today there is the husband who can’t accept his wife’s death. Daily, he betakes himself to the cemetery to spend the greater part of his day prone, spread-eagle style, on her grave.  There is the wife who, daily, eats a bit of her husband’s ashes. Her intention is to absorb him, to take him in, so as to keep him safe within her until she dies.

Did you study Romeo and Juliet and or Anthony and Cleopatra?  Okay, Romeo and Juliet are seen as a very sweet love. Young lovers, who kill themselves in the belief that the hereafter will be kinder to them than the here and now. Anthony and Cleopatra, I have argued before, are Romeo and Juliet grown up. They, too, do the murder-suicide thing, but after Anthony’s death, and just before she knocks herself off, Cleopatra PLACES ANTHONY AMONG THE STARS!  In a soliloquy, just before she grabs her asp, she says something about how he bestrides the heavens. Her love allows her to place him in the heavenly realm. In the case of both Bronte and Shakespeare, this is either a conscious or unconscious response the the belief that LOVE TRANSCENDS ALL.

(Bronte was a pastor’s daughter:  what a great way to convey such a teaching to the masses of the time.)

This belief in the transcendent power of love is expressed by both the young and the old in our times. Young lovers, particularly in countries where love is A MATTER OF AUTHORIAL ARRANGEMENT, will kill themselves. The aged, like your dad and me, when the pension funds are no longer adequate and cat food becomes a gourmet delight, will do the murder-suicide thing, and go together. Neither wants the other to continue with the suffering on this earthly plane. I believe that those folks have a faith that assures them that the strength of their love will take them to a safer, purer, place “over there”.  A place in which love can flow, without the restrictions, oppositions, repressions that distort and deform it into a pathology.

I hold that what Ms. Bronte did was present, through Heathcliff, the factors, or some of them, that can distort love. Cathy holds the purer love and so is stronger. Bronte shows the power of pure love to transcend, because for Heathcliff and his Cathy, not only did their love ENDURE AFTER DEATH, but it was SEEN to have endured. It was EVIDENCED, WITNESSED, as being ALIVE AND WELL by the locals, who would have sworn that they had seen Cathy and Heathcliff WALKING ON THE MOORS. For all we knew, some may even have spoken with them!

And so I disagree with you and your friend Tricia. For me, Wuthering Heights conveys a powerful message: love may not find a resting place on this here earthly plane, but that does not matter because it is liberating, expansive and TRANSCENDENT. Perhaps the characters are pathological – that will be another lecture – but with what passes as love today, they ain’t so crazy.

JustMom, everybody.  (Would I be a terrible daughter if I pointed out that her missive is quite “academic-ized” as well?³)

In response, I agree that love can be pathological.  In the words of the inimitable Willow Rosenberg, “Love makes you do the wacky.(see: Nick and Amy Dunne in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl).

I also agree that, ultimately, love is transcendent.  This is why it has such a powerful draw on the human mind, and forms the basis of so much of our storytelling.

It’s also why I simply had to finish the Oliver series, even though the “plots” (such as they were), and the annoying, whiny, screechy, blithering “heroines” (such as they were), often made me wish I could steal one of the women’s beloved Manolos and gouge out my own eyes with the heel.

I guess Spike is right:  “I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m (wo)man enough to to admit it.5

______________________________________________________

1 – She sent it to me via email.  I included it here with her permission, and edited slightly it for clarity.

2 – Not quite.  My point was that you can’t separate one’s experience from one’s identity (i.e. one’s subject position).  Moreover, space and place are used fictionally to signify actual times and contexts.  This “actuality” means that, if one’s identity is marginalized in that time or context, one experiences it as such, even as one is identifying with the characters.  Essentially, it’s a form of double-consciousness:  simultaneously being aware of one’s marginalized subject position, relative to the characters and context, while also identifying with and being immersed in the narrative.

3 – No.  No, I would not.

4 – In my opinion, there’s never a bad time for a Buffy reference.

5 – See?

 

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