In 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.
For 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.
Austen 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.
The 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 iUniverse.net, any fan fiction author can have her book printed and distributed as a real novel.
From 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.
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:
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.
Images via Novel Reaction, Kitcher’s Cafe, Squeetus, A Library of My Own, A Lady’s Diversions