200 Years and Counting…
CMC's Audrey Bilger in the Forefront of 200th Anniversary of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
Some things never really go out of style: blue jeans, hoodies, Ray Bans, classic cars, and … Jane Austen?
If you’re a bit skeptical about the last entry on that list, then Monday, Jan. 28 might get you thinking twice. It marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Austen’s classic novel, Pride and Prejudice, and if you don’t think Austen fans and literary types around the world aren’t buzzing about the calendar date, well, just do a Google search. Movies, teas, receptions, talks with Austen scholars––even, in the case of the BBC, a recreation of the seminal 1813 Regency Ball featured in both the novel and in various film adaptations.
On this side of the “pond,” few people are in a better position to weigh in about all things Bennet, Darcy, and Austen than Audrey Bilger, faculty director of the Center for Writing & Public Discourse and professor of literature at CMC. Bilger teaches a seminar course at CMC on Jane Austen, tasking her students, among other things, with reading all six of Austen’s published novels plus items from her adolescent and teen years. A decade ago, Bilger herself wrote Laughing Feminism, a book revolving around Austen, and the first––the CMC professor says––to situate the novelist’s sense of humor within a tradition of Enlightenment feminist writing. Says Bilger: “I showed how the cornerstone of Enlightenment feminism––that women are rational creatures who should be viewed as men’s equals––played out in the realm of comedy in jokes about men’s innate superiority and satire aimed at those who saw women as, in the infamous phrase of Lord Chesterfield, ‘children of a larger growth.’ ”
With excited fans counting down the bicentennial, and headlines already circulating about the well-read novel’s milestone anniversary, Bilger is among the ranks of experts weighing in. She has co-written Pride and Prejudice Forever with Susan Celia Greenfield for the Jan. 27 issue of Los Angeles Review of Books , as well as assigned and edited two other pieces. She also turned around articles for Ms. (Happy 200th Birthday, Elizabeth Bennet) and Bitch magazines’ blog sites, and was a guest on KPCC’s Take Two radio program on Monday morning, Jan. 28, discussing––among other things––the link between Austen and popular female comedians Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Kristen Wiig.
View the site to download her 7.5-minute interview, by clicking on the “Listen Now” earphones on the left.
We asked a very busy Bilger about Pride and Prejudice anniversary festivities, and about why Austen never seems to go out of style, no matter what millennium it is.
CMC: How do you think Austen (who published her writing anonymously when she was alive) would react to all the hoopla surrounding the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice,sa and the fact that the novel is considered a classic?
Bilger: First off, it’s worth noting that publishing anonymously was a norm, not an exception in Jane Austen’s day, and even though her name did not appear on the title pages of her books, her first novel included the words “By a Lady,” so she wasn’t hiding her gender. It’s impossible to know what she would have thought about her fame, but we do know that she wrote down people’s opinions of her novels and that she very much wanted her books to be read—and to sell. I believe she would be gratified to see how beloved her novels are. She referred to Pride and Prejudice as her own “darling child” when it was published. Two hundred years later, that child has worldwide celebrity status.
CMC: What makes Pride and Prejudice and, indeed, Austen’s entire oeuvre, so relevant today? She has never really gone out of style.
Bilger: Austen’s novels have a remarkably modern feel. In each book, characters strive to find happiness and to understand themselves and the world around them more fully—and readers root for them to succeed. Pride and Prejudice is a classic romantic comedy, and it set the pattern for countless books and movies to come. When we first meet the novel’s heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, she is a confident woman who feels free to reject not one, but two marriage proposals because she values love over status and material concerns. As the plot gets more complicated, she learns that she may not be able to control every aspect of her own fate, and the novel’s resolution involves connecting her with a hero, Darcy, who respects her and genuinely wants to set things right for her. Austen develops the story in completely realistic ways, and her commitment to realism has helped her writing stand up to the test of time. She once wrote, “Pictures of perfection…make me sick and wicked.” She doesn’t give us perfect heroines or idealized heroes. Instead, she created characters we can believe in.
CMC: How would you briefly describe the current perspective on Jane Austen, and how is your perspective different and/or unique?
Bilger: In the popular imagination, Jane Austen tends to get depicted as if she wrote bodice-ripping Regency romances. In worst-case assessments, she gets trivialized as having written “chick lit,” and many potential readers get scared away by that label. I look at how Jane Austen’s novels took part in a counter-tradition of feminism that was alive and well in the 1790s and early 18th century when she was writing, and I argue that even though each of her books end in happy marriages––and the stories are, indeed, quite romantic––she promoted ideas about women that were far in advance of the realities for women in her time. Pride & Prejudice is a beloved novel in part because of the heroine’s strength of character and her sharp wit. It’s hard now for readers to see just how modern a woman Elizabeth really is. She stands up against her mother, who pressures her to marry an unsuitable man because the match would be financially beneficial, and she speaks her mind to the man whom she will ultimately marry, and he likes that she does so. I’m beginning a new book project on Austen’s progressive ideas about women that will look at how Jane Austen’s feminist message is one that women and men today can still learn from.
CMC: Your book, Laughing Feminism, revolves around Austen….
Bilger: In addition to my goal of revealing the previously unexplored history of Enlightenment feminist humor, I also traced a history for the often-repeated myth that women have no sense of humor. People have been saying that for over two centuries, in spite of abundant evidence to the contrary. If you like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, you can thank the many women humorists who came before them and know that they’re not anomalous.
CMC: Is there a subtext to her writing that people may not be aware of?
Bilger: Even though she does get credit as a writer of romantic comedies, I don’t think many readers recognize just how satirical and politically astute her writings can be. I focus my work on her gender politics, but she also satirizes the idea that some people are inherently more important than others because of birth. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, an aristocratic woman faces off with the novel’s heroine and tells her that she can’t marry Darcy, the novel’s hero, because he’s too high-status for her. Elizabeth stands up for herself and refuses to accept the equation of rank and merit. Austen’s later novels value merit over titles even more explicitly.
On a related point, I think that biases against Austen as an alleged chick-lit writer make people miss just how funny she can be.
CMC: What do you consider to be the best film adaptation of the novel––the recent Keira Knightley version or possibly the longer BBC version starring Colin Firth?
Bilger: The BBC version, in part because its much longer, is much more faithful to the book than the 2005 adaptation. Colin Firth really brought Darcy to life and even made him a sex symbol, in a scene (not in the book) where he emerges from a swim wearing a flimsy, revealing wet shirt. In the Los Angeles Review of Books on the novel’s anniversary, my coauthor and I talk about how you can divide Pride and Prejudice appreciation into two periods: Before Colin Firth (BCF) and After Colin Firth (ACF). In the BCF period, the book’s fans tended to focus on Elizabeth Bennet—and many of the most ardent admirers were male literary critics, who declared that they were in love with her. After the BBC series, in the ACF era, Darcy gets the spotlight.
CMC: Austen clearly has a huge female following, but do we know (or can we calculate) how many men read her?
Bilger: When someone tells me they don’t like Jane Austen, they’re often implicitly or explicitly boasting about the really important things they actually do like. Austen declared in a letter to her sister, “I do not write for such dull elves /as have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves.” Readers who pay attention to Austen know that she’s an incredibly subtle writer. The unfortunate stereotype these days, and especially in the ACF environment, is that Austen wrote “chick lit,” and that her books are sentimental stories about women who can’t wait to get married. It is certainly true that Austen’s books focus on female protagonists, and it’s also true that her heroines are hemmed in by a society that places restrictions on them because they’re women. However, the love stories are much more about women and their chosen spouses finding a place in an uncertain world, and not really at all about hearts and flowers. One of the biggest challenges in teaching Austen is to get students past the stereotypes to see what’s actually on the page—social criticism, satire, and revelations about human nature. Unfortunately, for some people and not just male readers, anything that’s associated with women gets viewed as less important and valuable than things associated with men, and that’s a shame.
CMC: What work of Austen’s would you personally like to see dramatized in film or mini-series form that hasn’t been adapted yet (or has been adapted badly)?
Bilger: Hmm … I don’t have an answer to this one. I always see the adaptations as their own things, separate from the novels, so I don’t get too close to them.
CMC: Circumstances/obstacles for women have changed since Austen’s time. But are there issues that we still face and relate to, albeit with a modern spin, that are touched upon in the novel?
Bilger: We all have to make our way in the world and face obstacles, whether they’re social barriers erected by snobbish customs, as is the case in Austen’s fictional world, or unpleasant co-workers and people who just don’t get us. As much as we like to believe that individual striving will bring success, what we discover as we go through life is that we need friends and if we’re fortunate enough to find a life partner to share our adventures, and a community that cares about us, then we will have a greater chance at finding happiness.
CMC: Are there any modern pointers or dating tips that can be gleaned from Pride and Prejudice, on how to fall in love?
Bilger: Absolutely. Elizabeth and Darcy become a good couple at the end of the novel because they have mutual respect, and they value one another’s point of view. At one point in the novel, when Elizabeth is fending off an unwanted marriage proposal, she begs her foolish suitor, Mr. Collins, to put aside his stereotypes about women (he thinks that women always say “no” when they mean “yes”) and to listen to her as a “rational creature speaking the truth from her heart” (i.e., she really does mean no!). That idea of being respected as a rational creature is key to the romantic resolution of the novel. Once they are engaged to be married, Elizabeth tells Darcy, “You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking, and looking, and thinking for your approbation alone.” He tells her that he admires her “for the liveliness of your mind.”
In this sense, by the way, I think the novel presents a strong model of courtship and marriage not just for heterosexual couples, but also for lesbian and gay couples as well. People sometimes think that my writing on marriage equality and my work on Jane Austen occupy two different hemispheres of my brain. In fact, in writing about marriage, whether in Austen or in my anthology Here Come the Brides! Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage, I put the emphasis on equality. I firmly believe that the best marriages take place between two people who stand together as equals.
CMC: You’ve tweeted about the upcoming recreation in England of Pride and Prejudice’s pivotal Regency Ball (“tweeting” isn’t very period, you know!) What are your thoughts on that?
Bilger: I’ve been tweeting quite a bit about the Pride and Prejudice bicentennial because it’s a big event in the literary world and, believe it or not, Austen has a big following on Twitter. I actually have an Austen-themed Twitter feed, separate from my personal one. I tweet as Cassandra Austen (@austenwomen) when I want to connect more intimately with the Austen Twittersphere. I started that feed a few years back as homage to Austen’s sister Cassandra, who outlived the novelist by over 27 years and who cherished her sister’s memory over that long span of time. Cassandra is often maligned by Austen critics because she destroyed a great deal of her sister’s correspondence, but she deserves credit for preserving the letters we have, and for recognizing the value of her sister’s work during an interval when it looked like Austen’s books might go out of print. Austen called her sister “the finest comic writer of the present age,” and I like to think that the two sisters shared many a joke that helped to sharpen the rightly celebrated humor in the novels.
It’s amusing to imagine Jane Austen actually writing on Twitter. In her juvenile writing, she took a great deal of pleasure in shrinking long literary works and histories into one or two pages. I’ll bet she would have excelled at posting witty 140-character observations on life—and she’d have millions of followers.
CMC: Can you provide a nutshell description of your seminar class?
Bilger: In the Jane Austen seminar students read all six of her published novels plus the things she wrote when she was an adolescent and teenager and a selection of her letters. They also study critical essays, biographical information, and current representations of Austen in pop culture. The point of the class is to look closely at what makes Austen one of the most important and innovative writers in the history of English literature.