Classic Novels and the Fan Phenomenon

Classic Novels and the Fan Phenomenon | Lexie WinslowIn Shannon Hale’s novel Austenland (2007), a single woman in modern-day New York City spends her saved-up personal days on a long vacation at an English estate. The twist is, the manor and its staff (all trained actors) belong to the year 1815. The women who visit this resort not only vacate their daily responsibilities, they also vacate their century, checking jeans and cell phones at the door and spending three weeks (minimum required stay) in Jane Austen’s world of parlors and parties. The main character in particular wants to escape her consuming obsession for Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), and especially BBC’s 1995 miniseries version, by submerging herself in the plot and, she hopes, finding a way to move on. She blames the novel for fostering unrealistic expectations of love and happiness, the kind that real boy-meets-girl relationships can never live up to. She is desperate to let Fitzwilliam Darcy go, and to replace him with a non-fictional man in her life.
Pride and Prejudice Lexie WinslowFor many readers today, such a fanatical response is not entirely an exaggeration. For my project, I focus on the fan fiction and film adaptations of two canonical nineteenth-century novels: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). Since publication, these novels have garnered unusually powerful responses from readers. They are now considered reading-list staples, classics, the sorts of books that women first read at a young age and then come back to repeatedly, until the binding wears away. Their legacies involve more than rereading, however. In the last hundred years, both have been explored, manipulated, and reevaluated through the vehicles of fan fiction and adaptation. The readers, mostly women, are insatiable, generation after generation. For modern-day fans, that need is perhaps greater than ever before: they cannot let the books rest; they demand more from the stories and characters. Through published prequels, sequels and companion novels, fans augment or reexamine the original texts. Through film and theatrical adaptations, fans manipulate the story to explore particular aspects, or to amend elements that they dislike. This phenomenon is an extreme, advanced example of reader response. These are the readers who fell in love with the books, whose reading experience changed their lives. In an effort to hold on to that connection, the readers continue engaging the novels in a creative medium.
Jane Eyre Lexie WinslowAusten and Brontë fans both engage in these creative processes, but for different reasons, and with different results. Both groups produce non-canonical creative works: novels in the sub-genre of fan fiction, or film adaptations, works that exemplify the values of readers from the 1990s to today. In the Austen fan creations, it is clear how much anxiety the modern woman feels about family: the tension between individual desires and familial obligations, the burden of motherhood, the difficulty of being a good spouse. For the fans of Brontë, more nuanced social commentaries come into play: cognizance of the marginalized role of women, the oppression of colonized people, the need to develop a healthy sense of individuality, the desire for a rewarding relationship with God.
In the realm of Pride and Prejudice fans, creating fan fiction or watching film adaptations serves as wish fulfillment. Austen’s world is orderly and polite, with a happy ending guaranteed. The droves of post-1995 Pride and Prejudice authors have almost universally created sequels about the blissful first years of Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage. Most writers simply want to expand upon the happy ending, sometimes testing, but mostly rewarding, the main characters. For the fan fiction writers especially, there is a sense of safety in projecting contemporary problems into the Pride and Prejudice universe. Marital troubles, infertility, and many issues of trust and intimacy appear in the fan sequels, with the reassurance that Elizabeth and Darcy will be strong enough to resolve any problem thrown at them.
Conversely, the fan fiction writers and film adaptors that come back to Jane Eyre seek to untangle the emotional, conflicted relationships of the original text, often with a perspective influenced by modern social justice. Brontë’s famous romance takes place in a world full of secrets, pain, and hierarchy. While happily-ever-after sequels have reached publication over the years, most are unbalanced, awkwardly trying to make Jane and Rochester fit into an Elizabeth and Darcy plot. Often, an ill-constructed streak of menace or violence carries over from the original text, resulting in unresolved story lines. The prequels and companion novels of the later twentieth century, in which authors flesh out the troubled back-stories of the characters, are more remarkable than any pure Jane Eyre sequel. Authors often take up the point of view of a marginalized character, reexamining the themes of Jane Eyre in a feminist or post-colonial light.
Additionally, there have been nearly twenty film or television miniseries adaptations of Jane Eyre, all portraying very different interpretations of Jane, Rochester, Bertha, and several minor characters among the servants. For these readers-turned-filmmakers, more effort must go into resolving the novel’s conflicts before the happy ending becomes acceptable in modern terms. The Jane Eyre film adaptations display a wide variety of interpretations about the text, especially Rochester, since his relationship to Bertha must be justified to a mainstream modern audience. Another layer of complexity comes from gender roles, both within the text and for the interpreters: on every feature film except one, the screenwriters and directors have all been men. The single female screenwriter, of Jane Eyre (1934), created a starkly different movie compared to the original text and other adaptations. Film is central to the Pride and Prejudice fan world as well, with the galvanizing 1995 BBC miniseries version ushering Austen into a renaissance. Since the release of that made-for-television version, upwards of fifty companion novels have been published, and three more adaptations have been filmed.
Letters from Pemberley Lexie WinslowThe impulse of contemporary fans to reimagine canonical plots into original creative works is part of an older tradition in literature. Throughout the ages, beloved characters from myths and folktales have been reincarnated in fresh stories. Even in terms of the modern publishing industry, fan-fiction is not a new invention; for nearly a century, readers have written sequels, prequels or adaptations based on Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, as well as other canonical novels. (The first Pride and Prejudice sequel is Old Friends and New Fancies (1913), and the first Jane Eyre silent film adaptation appeared in 1910.) However, the last decade’s sudden increase in computer technology has created an unprecedented boom in fan writing. These authors are readers who have especially deep emotional responses to the texts, and feel the urge to explore that connection through original fiction. Any reader with access to a computer is currently able to type up a manuscript and immediately circulate digital copies to other readers. Moreover, through the advent of self-publishing websites such as, any fan fiction author can have her book printed and distributed as a real novel.
Wide Sargasso Sea Lexie WinslowFrom this high volume of material in the sub-genre of women’s literature fan fiction, I have elected to read only the fan fiction published in book form and sold through national book vendors. Even within those parameters, however, a great diversity exists. Submissions range from the Jean Rhys post-colonial classic Wide Sargasso Sea (1967) to the sentimental, self-published and nationally distributed Pride and Prejudice sequel, Jane Dawkin’s Letters from Pemberley (2006). Although some of the authors I have read used the Internet to produce their own books, most have gone through the traditional cycle, originating as manuscripts, and selected, edited, and published by a publishing house. Regardless of the format, these readers are united as an unusually dedicated group of fans. The original novel stirs them so deeply that they need to create a new narrative to supplement, continue, or reevaluate the story.

Works Cited
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London, UK: Penguin Books, 1996.
Brinton, Sybil G. Old Friends and New Fancies. Naperiville, IL:
Sourcebooks, Inc., 2007.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Richard J. Dunn. Third ed. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.
Dawkins, Jane. Letters from Pemberley: The First Year. Naperville, IL:
Sourcebooks, 2006.
Hale, Shannon. Austenland. New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2007.
Jane Eyre. dir. Theodore Marston. Hollywood, CA: Thanhouser Film Corporation, 1910.
Jane Eyre. dir. Christy Cabanne. Hollywood, CA: Monogram Pictures, 1934.
Pride and Prejudice. dir. Simon Langton. London, UK: BBC, 1995.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. Ed. Judith Raiskin L. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.

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“I Had Not Known Myself:” A Poignant Narrative Moment in Pride and Prejudice

"I Had Not Known Myself:" A Poignant Narrative Moment in Pride and Prejudice | Lexie WinslowJane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) is one of the most successful love stories in print. It has been adored by readers and lauded by critics from its publication through today. It is continuously appealing, a beautiful Cinderella story, with more substance to it than most. The main characters are memorable, and the supporting cast is extensive, allowing the reader to be engaged through multiple readings. Austen’s novel is a victory for the written word, describing places, situations and people that are thoroughly accurate, while simultaneously telling a transcending, accessible love story. Especially important to its success is the unassuming realism of the text: the reader can appreciate an era long over, while still finding passages to relate to in a modern way. At heart, Pride and Prejudice is a moving romance, but in large part the eventual triumph of love is so satisfying because of the deep progression the characters experience along the way. The supporting sentiments, such as dislike, resentment and shame, signify the growth of the characters as they endeavor to achieve a perfect love. Through her superb narration, Austen captures the struggles of self-improvement, and this work remains the standard of the genre.
Upon writing Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen inherited an established legacy of realism, and in her novel of manners she capably unites many of the strengths distinctive to the authors preceding her, resulting in a work that surpassed them all in quality and popularity. Ian Watt’s literary critique, The Rise of the Novel (1967), catalogs the relative successes of three eminent eighteenth-century novelists, Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding, in their efforts to define the English realist novel. He articulates their task in terms of accuracy: “particularization of time, place and person; …a natural and lifelike sequence of action; …style which gives the most exact verbal and rhythmical equivalent of the object described” (Watt, 291). Moreover, the exercise is about chronicling the lives of multi-dimensional characters. The heroes and villains alike have flaws and temptations as well as virtues and triumphs, and replace the stock characters that populated romances, morality tales, epics, and other established genres of fiction. The plots are liberated from conventional heroic cycles or supernatural influences. Watt particularly appreciates the style of Richardson, for his insights on individuals, and Fielding, for his story lines. The two exemplify a tension between a story driven by relationships and one driven by events; the difference between narrating from an inner or outer perspective. Watt clearly values the contributions by both authors to modern literary techniques, and concludes his long reflections and analyses with the declaration that Jane Austen, a few generations later, united their strengths to achieve “the full maturity of the genre” (Watt, 296).
The bulk of the credit for Austen’s success must go to her usage of the narrator. Watt offers no shortage of praise for her talents on that particular, declaring that her narrative voice is able to observe tender reflections as well as biting irony, and still “not seem to come from an intrusive author but rather from some august and impersonal spirit of social and psychological understanding” (Watt, 297). Watt has a fondness for Austen’s narrator in Emma, but accedes that it is surely executed to the best of her abilities in Pride and Prejudice. Austen seamlessly switches between earnest character revelations, amusingly honest descriptions, and sharp irony in her narration of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s treasured love story. The narrative voice is an indispensable tool in Pride and Prejudice’s stunning depictions of a wide spectrum of sentiments, and validates the work as a rich commentary on human nature. The narrator’s insights are honest and humorous, but always contain a sense of care; its effectiveness is apparent by how dear the book is to so many readers. Among the main characters as well as the supporting ones, there is a sense of intimacy, since the narrator discloses so much about the proclivities, faults and merits of the people in Elizabeth’s world.
There are multiple instances of the union of impeccable narration and memorable events in the course of the famous story. One of the most beautiful and articulate passages of close narration within this novel is arguably Volume the Second, Chapter 13, in which Elizabeth Bennet digests the information in Mr. Darcy’s letter. Before receiving the letter, Elizabeth has proven herself to be playful, observant, and confident in her own opinions. Even with the apparent shortage of respectable role models, she exudes ladylike manners and genuine affability. She particularly delights in discerning her companions’ characters, and considers herself accomplished at it. Due to this assuredness, Elizabeth is thoroughly surprised by Mr. Darcy’s marriage proposal, but it is his subsequent letter that truly shakes her self-awareness to the core. In his message, he touches on topics concerning many of Elizabeth’s favorite people, and though it takes her several attempts to read and understand the entirety of his missive, her opinion of the others and, more importantly, of herself is completely altered by the time she is finished.
The first portion of the letter regards Darcy’s scheme to separate Bingley before any regrettable engagement to Jane Bennet could be finalized. His words are callous and boastful. He explains that Bingley had often formed fleeting crushes on other women, but concedes that his friend had truly started to love Jane. He defends his actions with the inaccurate assertion that Jane’s “heart was not likely to be easily touched” (Austen, 195). Most hurtful of all, his bitterness builds to the declaration that the greatest impetus for their parting was “the total want of propriety” (Austen, 196) displayed by the other Bennets. Elizabeth’s patience for Darcy’s terse explanations is pushed to the breaking point, as “his account of the real, the worst objections to the match, made her too angry to have any wish of doing him justice” (Austen, 201). His description of her family passes discourteous and borders on cruel, and reinforces all of Elizabeth’s predispositions: namely, that he is a self-important man, whose words merit indignation and rejection. The narrative voice in this passage effectually portrays the urgency and tumult of Elizabeth’s reactions, as she processes the first portion of the letter.
Though she hesitates, Elizabeth resigns to continue reading the rest of the letter, which is composed with a marked difference in tone and sincerity. The glib superiority abundant in Darcy’s account of Bingley and Jane is replaced by the guarded, pained narration of Wickham’s bad conduct and the danger once posed to Georgiana. As Elizabeth moves to that part of the note, the narrator describes that “her feelings were yet more acutely painful and more difficult of definition… astonishment, apprehension, even horror oppressed her” (Austen, 201). Elizabeth’s struggle to process the revelation of Wickham’s evil character is manifested physically as well, as she banishes the letter to her pocket only to unfold it hastily again. Soon after, she endeavors to fashion reasonable arguments against Darcy’s assertions. The more thought she pays to the allegations, however, the more fault she finds in Wickham’s behavior: his complete lack of long-term acquaintances, the paucity of actual good deeds besides his friendly manner, and his rushed intimacy upon first meeting her. “She saw the indelicacy of putting himself forward as he had done, and the inconsistency of his professions with his conduct” (Austen, 203).
The narrator perfectly captures the spectrum of emotions Elizabeth moves through, once her doubt of Wickham begins. She feels heartsick over his history with Miss Darcy, and grows thoroughly embarrassed of all her interactions with and feelings towards him. It dawns on her, how capriciously she allowed herself to esteem Mr. Wickham and hate Mr. Darcy, “pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance” (Austen, 205). Elizabeth realizes her failure as a judge of character, the particular trait that she most liked about herself. She takes stock of her behavior, soberly regretting how often she discounted Jane’s generous forbearance, and admitting, “vanity, not love, has been my folly” (Austen, 205). These revelations, unexpected in themselves and from the most surprising source, rush upon her, and she burns with humiliation. It is one thing to have unwittingly given Mr. Darcy hope of an attachment, but quite another to discover the total impropriety of her actions over so many months. This moment of awareness is seminal for Elizabeth, a swift and private instance of reckoning.
When she rallies, she resolves to discard her impudent prejudices, and returns to the beginning the letter with a fresh eye. In this penitent and honest state of reflection, she recants her previous stubbornness, and acquiesces to the shameful truth:
as she considered that Jane’s disappointment had, in fact, been the work of her nearest relations, and reflected how materially the credit of both must be hurt by such impropriety of conduct, she felt depressed beyond anything she had ever known before. (Austen 205)

This insight, adeptly simple, is an incredibly formative moment for Elizabeth. It is absolutely true that she has never known such a degree of sadness or turmoil before. Elizabeth’s family is intact; there is no hint of any bereavement in her past. She has always lived within the comfortable security of Longbourne, with her flawed yet loving family and the colorful friends in the neighborhood. She has never actually known loss, deprivation, or severe disappointment. Now, appraising herself and her relations with objectivity, she is able to understand the full scope of last six months’ failures; most especially, she feels the cruelty inflicted on Jane, the most virtuous of all, by the others’ vices and shortcomings. The emotion of the preceding speech about misjudging Wickham and Darcy is surpassed by the understated, effectual narrative voice.
This small chapter bears so much consequence because it is the turning point in her relationship with Darcy. From the moment they met, they had been misinterpreting each other abominably, creating an unwarranted dislike in one and an unwanted attraction in the other. In the disastrous proposal at Hunsford, and soon after in Darcy’s letter, both of them say honest yet hurtful things. Darcy realizes his mistake about Jane, and reels from the biting appraisal of his incivility and haughty pride. Likewise, Elizabeth learns the truth about Wickham, and feels for the first time disappointment and shame over her own conduct, as well as her hopes for the future. They both depart from Kent cowed by the unpleasant reflections on character and behavior. It is from this event, the conflagration of love and animosity and errors and honesty, that Darcy and Elizabeth are able to improve themselves, and finally deserve each other when they are united in the end. The greater fanfare may belong to Darcy’s transformation, but it is important to acknowledge that Elizabeth learned from him as well, and went through a corresponding progression of self-awareness. With the inclusion of this moment of heartache, the eventual victory of sentimental love is truly perfect.

Works Cited
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Carol Howard. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003.
Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. London, UK: Chatto & Windus LTD, 1967.

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