Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

How Not to Improve the Estate: Lopping & Cropping Jane Austen

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

How Not to Improve the Estate: Lopping & Cropping Jane Austen

Article excerpt

Perhaps it is unfair to ask a book that clearly aims to be cute and goofy for a rigorous reexamination of Regency society under pressure from zombie hordes, but 300 pages is a long way to stretch one joke. - Craig B. Jacobson 

"Has there ever been a work of literature that couldn't be improved by adding zombies?" Les Grossman's oft-cited Time review of Seth Grahame-Smith's bestselling Quirk Classic, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, is a rhetorical question for the ages. Or, at least, a rhetorical question for our age. An age in which, as Helene A. Shugart and Catherine Egley Waggoner insist, "one cannot consume popular culture without consuming camp" (1). In their deliberate excessiveness and aggressive unnaturalness, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and its equally suspect successor, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, typify the campiness that has come to characterize the insatiable cottage industry of Jane Austen. Insofar as the augmentations of the monstrous mash-ups metaphorically make manifest the Camp sensibility that has long been latent in Austen's original works, there is, surely, an argument to be made for reading into the Quirk Classics some semblance of literary merit. But frankly, these gimmicky texts are far less compelling on their own than they are in the context of the metanarrative of Austenmania that has surged in recent decades. To the extent that the mash-ups can be considered valuable commentaries on the Austen canon, it is because, as Grossman's initial inquiry conveniently evokes, their unchecked attempt at enhancement taps into a preoccupation with improvement that is both thematized within Austen's novels and symptomatic of the broader project of renovating the literary landscape that is Jane Austen's oeuvre.

Austen's name has been synonymous with improvement since at least 1971, when Alistair Duckworth first published The Improvement of the Estate--a seminal study that explored the significance of property and home "improvements" (landscaping, ornamenting, denaturalizing) within the larger context of Austen's storylines. But, as indicated by the overwhelming commercial success of the Quirk series, it seems that this pathology of improvement has seeped through the walls of Pemberley and Barton Cottage, traveled across the English countryside, escaped the confines of Austen's novels completely, and firmly planted itself deep within the consciousness of American popular culture. In first acknowledging Austen's own ambivalence towards the conceit of improvement, and then tracking the mash-up trend within that framework, this essay takes up Grossman's question with enough semi-seriousness to ask: Is there a way in which the monster mash-ups, with their campy commitment to the cultivation of unequivocally bad taste, could rightfully be categorized as works of improvement, or are they, in the end, only imprudent alterations that degrade both Austen's novels and her readers? This essay argues that, as much as the Quirk Classics add to Austen's novels (and they add a lot to Austen's novels), they fail to contribute anything to the original texts--or at least anything that wasn't already there. Significantly, the campy extremity of the monstrous mash-ups works to illuminate Austen's own Camp sensibility; but in calling attention to the inherent campiness of Austen's prose, the derivative texts only further signal their own inferiority. Because, of course, Camp is, above all, about the veneration of aesthetics. And while the mash-ups may seem, initially, to embody this statute of style over substance, their stylish insubstantiality ultimately comes at too high a cost: the bastardization of Austen's substantive style.

To say nothing of improvement, it is apparent that the stuffy contents of the canon have been revitalized by the addition of zombies. Like it or not, there is no denying the success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which--as outlined by Marie Mulvey-Roberts in her pioneering article on the novel and the imprint it engendered--"has sold over one million copies and been translated into more than twenty languages" (18), outperforming even its greatest expectations. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.