Appropriations of Jane Austen’s "Pride and Prejudice" in contemporary British fiction

Thesis (M.A.), 2006

85 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction
1.1 Preliminary Remarks and Elementary Presumptions
1.2 Pride and Prejudice in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century

2. Literary Status Quo

3. Structure, Style and Narrative Technique

4. Selected Characters and Their Relationships
4.1 Love and Respect
4.2 Decency and Tediousness
4.3 Convenience and Obligation
4.4 Resignation and Indifference
4.5 Imprudence and Mischief

5. Under Pressure: The Significance of Status

6. Conclusion


Deutsche Kurzfassung

1. Introduction

World literature is full of great love stories, but there are few that make it through the centuries and are as well-known and loved today as they were decades ago. One of those writers, who have the ability to leave an everlasting impression, is Jane Austen, who “wrote of a time, but also beyond it; her voice continues to enchant and enthral” (Crusie 1). Her novels are undeniably among the most examined works of English literature. Over the years, scholars, laity as well as professionals, have approached Austen’s writing from various perspectives and hence innumerable papers, dissertations, articles and books have been written about the author and her work in general and especially about her novel Pride and Prejudice. Since its publication in 1813, it has called forth heavy criticism as well as effusive praise and it is remarkable that, although the literary world has changed noticeably in the course of nearly two hundred years, her novel is still admired and considered to be of significance today. From Austen’s contemporary writing and its scarce possibilities for female novelists on to the emancipation of the female author and the increased literary output of postmodern writers at the end of the Twentieth Century and to the possibilities for women novelists in the recently developing genre labelled chick lit – Pride and Prejudice still continues to fascinate readers and thereby encourages other writers. Especially the developing relationship of the two protagonists Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy captivates readers all around the world and proves that their story is as appealing in the present as it was in the past.

1.1 Preliminary Remarks and Elementary Presumptions

When Jane Austen first published her writing in the early Nineteenth Century, she gained recognition among some contemporaries, but at that time the extent of her long-term success was not to be foreseen. Considering the amount of literary works that have been inspired by Austen’s novels she can be called one of the “founders of discursivity”[1]. This expression was coined by Michel Foucault in his essay “What is an Author?”, where he states that “it is not true that the author of a novel is only the author of his own text; in a sense, he also, provided that he acquires some ‘importance,’ [sic] governs and commands more than that” (Foucault 206). As Austen’s continuous achievements prove her worthy to be considered important, calling her a “founder of discursivity” indicates that with her writing she “opened the way for a certain number of resemblances and analogies which have their model or principle in her work. The latter contains characteristic signs, figures, relationships, and structures which could be reused by others” (206). The appeal of Austen’s best-known and probably most famous novel Pride and Prejudice to literary posteriority lies in the astonishing emotional impact of a seemingly simple story: A young girl and a young man, destined for one another, loathe each other from the very beginning because of wrong first impression and bad influence from others. They gradually have to overcome these obstacles in order to recognise the nobility of each other’s characters and find happiness together. This paper sets out to examine how this formula was put to use to yield three contemporary works of British fiction; Kate Fenton’s Lions and Liquorice, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and Melissa Nathan’s Pride, Prejudice and Jasmin Field and what transformations it has experienced in the process.

Kate Fenton’s postmodern novel Lions and Liquorice, written in 1995, is an updated version of Jane Austen’s novel with the sexes of the protagonists reversed. It tells the story of Nicholas Llewellyn Bevan, a divorced and temporarily unsuccessful writer, whose quiet life in a North Yorkshire countryside village is harshly interrupted when the BBC starts filming a television version of Pride and Prejudice under supervision of the condescending director Mary Dance. In 1996, Helen Fielding finishes writing Bridget Jones’s Diary, the second work of literature that will be the subject of this paper. In a fictitious diary – as the title already implies – the protagonist describes her life as a single woman in her thirties in London. Bridget’s resolutions for the New Year include losing weight, cutting down on her drinking and smoking habits and hopefully meeting the perfect man. As the story unfolds, Bridget learns that the sophisticated and handsome lawyer Mark Darcy might not be as repulsive to her as he initially seemed. Melissa Nathan made her debut into the literary world with her novel Pride, Prejudice and Jasmin Field in the year 2000. Jasmin Field, a columnist for a British women’s magazine, is cast as Elizabeth Bennet for a charity stage production of Pride and Prejudice directed by the snobbish actor Harry Noble. However, as the rehearsals for the one-night-only production advance, not only the play follows Jane Austen’s plotline, also the actors themselves seem more and more caught up in it.

In this paper, the four novels written by Jane Austen, Kate Fenton, Helen Fielding and Melissa Nathan will be contrasted with special regard to the relationship of Elizabeth and Mr Darcy. After the novels have been shortly introduced, a brief insight into the overall conditions of literature in Great Britain at the end of the Twentieth Century seems necessary in order to explain these authors’ choice of characters and events, as well as any alterations they intentionally or unintentionally made. The status quo of contemporary novel writing will be outlined as well as a concise introduction of the recent establishment of chick lit and the popular occurrence of rewritings in general because they are factors that eventually led to the recent adaptations of Pride and Prejudice.

Before directly proceeding to a full discussion of Jane Austen’s novel and its contemporary appropriations, first of all an insight into the structure, style and narrative technique of the four novels will be given, which is necessary to fully understand the literary work of the authors. In these opening paragraphs, it seems appropriate to stick to a chronological order of the rewritings. Apart from the fact that their date of creation suggests so, there also exist reasons on the ground of content that support this order. While Bridget Jones’s Diary and Pride, Prejudice and Jasmin Field are both chick lit novels[2], Lions and Liquorice has been written before this term was even coined. Thus, it seems natural to put Fenton’s novel first and treat it as a more immediate successor of Austen’s original. Her novel deals with the original very accurately and wraps the plot up in a postmodern shape. The two novels of Fielding and Nathan are a kind of unity in the respect that they both belong to the newly developing genre chick lit. Fielding, as an initiator of this new genre, mainly influenced Nathan’s work and therefore there are not only traces of Pride and Prejudice to be found in Pride, Prejudice and Jasmin Field, but also relations to Bridget Jones’s Diary.

The success of Pride and Prejudice is mainly due to Austen’s skilful combination of her characters and their relationships. Therefore, in order to enable a full comprehension of the four books discussed herein, chapter four will have a close look at Fenton, Fielding and Nathan’s general approach to the characters of Pride and Prejudice. The analysis will focus on the central couple Elizabeth and Darcy; four further relationships will be regarded with the intention of emphasizing in what way the bond between the two protagonists stands out from the rest. The adding and removal of characters will be considered, as well as rearrangements of the original plot and additional alterations the authors think much more appropriate for the contemporary reader. Thus, this part is dedicated to the various characters depicted in the novels with special regard to the concept of its contemporary appropriations. It will be discussed in what way the authors’ employment of the protagonists bear a resemblance or vary and what undertone their male and female characters carry. It will also be taken into consideration to what extent the time the story is set in matters, including questions of sex, status and restrictions arisen from society’s demands. What parallels are there between the novels and their protagonists and in how far are Elizabeth, Nicholas Llewellyn, Bridget and Jasmin as well as their respective partners children of their time?

The next chapter will deal with the issue of status and the pressure of expectations on a budding love. The way in which it is depicted in Pride and Prejudice will be examined and contrasted with the way it reappears in Lions and Liquorice, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Pride, Prejudice and Jasmin Field. Elizabeth and Darcy not only have to sort out their own feelings, they also have to overcome rigorous conventions that restrict their lives on the grounds of social rank and material wealth, not to speak of the intricate diplomacy of courtship. It will be of major interest to find out which obstacles stand in the lovers’ path in the late Twentieth Century.

The examination of Pride and Prejudice and its three appropriations will conclude with a summarizing comparison in the final chapter. By then the assumption should be proven that the appeal of Austen’s story can be found in the simplicity of the plot outline but the literary quality of the work is due to the abilities of the author; therefore, a mere reproduction of Austen’s plot does not necessarily make a appealing adaptation. The summary will discuss whether the three novels succeeded in adapting a seemingly simple plot that was originally written about two hundred years earlier for a very different audience and transfer it successfully into the late Twentieth Century. Every aspect of the paper will be analysed proceeding from Jane Austen’s original work and discussed with respect to the way in which Lions and Liquorice, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Pride, Prejudice and Jasmin Field conform to it or differ, although also similarities and differences between the adaptations will be pointed out.

1.2 Pride and Prejudice in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century

Pride and Prejudice,“the mother of all romance novels” (Crusie 1), is one of the most successful books of all times[3]. While Jane Austen herself thought her work to be “rather too light & bright & sparkling” (Austen, Letters 203), David Cecil observes:

As few novels have ever done, it satisfied the rival claims of life and of art. Presenting us with what is, but for an occasional touch of exuberant caricature, a convincing picture of ordinary life, it manages at the same time to be continuously entertaining. (160)

The novel has gained a lot of recognition and was quite successful when it was first published[4] and the ‘continuous entertainment’ has gone on as it led to various adaptations, rewritings and the production of sequels in the following two centuries. Ever since the first attempts of recreating the novel emerged, including the recent adaptations of Pride and Prejudice that are subject of this paper, authors have striven for a repetition of Austen’s success. This chapter sets out to analyse and compare the contemporary novel appropriations of Kate Fenton, Helen Fielding and Melissa Nathan with Jane Austen’s novel.

The changes in the literary world and especially the emergence of the genre chick lit have likewise influenced the adaptations of Austen’s novel, especially since Fielding initiated the flood of chick lit books when she published Bridget Jones’s Diary. Considering the postmodern developments in the field of literature and the noticeable change of the reader’s demands and reading habits in the few years between the three rewritings, there might be a significant difference between their approach to the original novel, as well as their focus of interest. Yet, all three authors are united in their attempt to put Austen’s novel into the context of the Twentieth Century after it had been originally written for the Nineteenth Century audience. However, it is not enough for the writer of an adaptation to present the events taking place in the novel to a very different readership. Instead of simply updating the plot of Pride and Prejudice, it is necessary to adjust the current background, making the characters appeal to the contemporary readership and writing in an accessible language. Therefore it is important for the authors to obtain a very special understanding of Austen’s novel and to develop their distinct personal style when writing their own adaptations. In this chapter, it will be analysed in what way Fenton, Fielding and Nathan stuck to the original and whether they succeeded in successfully recreating Pride and Prejudice by giving it a new and contemporary touch.

The time around 1800 was a decisive period in the history of England. As a result of the French and the Industrial Revolution, attempts to reform the country with the help of technological and economic inventions emerged. Society divided into upper, middle and lower classes and the largely landowning upper middle class, the gentry, formed a huge part of society at that time. During this time of social change, Jane Austen and her family led a very secluded life in the countryside. Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775 in Hampshire and spent her childhood and most of her adult life in a rural area. She chose the seclusion of her home to write her novels, and this decision is also reflected in her work. By choosing the homely instead of the public sphere for her writing, she describes the very limited stratum of society that she herself experienced. Her novel does not aim at criticising the contemporary historical situation; her subject is rather the moral progress of the individual, personal struggles and the resolution of conflicts under difficult circumstances. However, her characters live and act in the early Nineteenth Century and present the reader with an authentic view of the roles of men and women of the gentry demanded by society and of their way of thinking of their time. With her writing, “Jane Austen was one of the first female authors to actually invent a genre (the novel of manners)” (Sauer, “Austen Appeal”). Pride and Prejudice is such a novel of manners[5] that above all emphasises the exemplary character of the heroine Elizabeth Bennet. As will be pointed out in chapter four, Mr Bennet is far too weak a father figure for Elizabeth to lead her through the process of maturity that is central to the novel of manners. Therefore, it is Mr Darcy that initialises and mainly influences Elizabeth’s development and thereby, while changing himself, functions as a mentor for Elizabeth. One form of initiation in a novel of manners is that the heroine makes a mistake by misjudging her surroundings. The most obvious of Elizabeth’s misjudgements is the wrong opinion she forms about Mr Darcy from the very beginning. However, apart from this apparent misjudgement, she is also mistaken about her friend Charlotte Lucas and Mr Wickham, too. In her friend’s case “[s]he had always felt that Charlotte’s opinion of matrimony was not exactly like her own, but she could not have supposed it possible that when called into action, she would have supposed every better feeling to worldly advantage” (Austen 87). The favourable first impression Mr Wickham makes[6] is reason enough for her to believe every story he tells, especially the lies about Darcy. Elizabeth regrets every single one of her misjudgements while the story unfolds, but although she feels sorry for her mistakes, the only one she admits them to and apologises to is Mr Darcy[7]. By changing her positions she changes herself, which is a turn of events that is anticipated by the reader.

Between October 1796 and August 1797, Austen finished the first draft of Pride and Prejudice, an originally epistolary work with the title First Impressions [8]. However, the publisher she consulted did not want to publish it and therefore, in 1809, she started to revise the novel. In January 1813, it was finally published under the title Pride and Prejudice and up to today it has remained very popular and has frequently been republished. An important issue within the novel is for the protagonists to choose a suitable partner for life. On the one hand, this search is subordinate to the rules of proper social behaviour; on the other hand, it requires a maturity that is the most important foundation of reciprocal respect. The differentiation between first impressions and true insight into character when it comes to choosing a suitable spouse forms the central plot of the novel. Elizabeth Bennet, the attractive and witty daughter of a member of the landed gentry, is under the social and especially parental pressure to choose the right husband from a limited choice of potential candidates. Elizabeth not only refuses the proposal of the silly and self-centred Mr Collins but also rejects the proposal of proud Mr Darcy. He unequivocally opens Elizabeth’s eyes concerning her family, life and character and thereby insults her very much. Adding up to this affront she is convinced that Mr Darcy betrayed her friend Mr Wickham and separated her sister Jane from the man she loves, and therefore rejects his proposal. Not only do they both have to face various obstacles, for example the elopement of Elizabeth’s youngest sister with the rascal Mr Wickham and the objections of class-conscious Lady Catherine, but they also have to undergo a process of maturing whose sometimes painful experiences lead them to an objective self-knowledge before they can marry.

Kate Fenton worked for the BBC before she moved to North Yorkshire in 1985 and began to write novels. In 1995, she finished Lions and Liquorice, her third book, which is undeniably influenced by Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. In “Austen Through the Looking Glass”, a ‘footnote’ to Lions and Liquorice, the author explains her choice:

I was seeing the ultimate comic subversion of the romance game. P & P, after all, is surely the sublime blueprint which has cloned hundreds - thousands, tens of thousands - of markedly less sublime imitations, the fluffy girl-meets-boy/girl-hates-boy/girl-marries-boy tales which have tended to give the whole genre a bad name. Darcy, the rich and powerful master of Pemberley, is surely your definitive tall, dark and to-die-for hero. Lizzy, not as beautiful as her elder sister, is the perfect, sparky and likeable heroine. And she does contrive, very plausibly, to loathe Darcy for an awful lot of pages before seeing the light. (Fenton)

Fenton is obviously fascinated with Austen’s plot and especially its protagonists and as a result, Lions and Liquorice has turned out to be, plainly speaking, Pride and Prejudice set in a contemporary England with the protagonist’s sexes reversed. Nicholas Llewellyn Bevan, a novelist in a creative crisis, lives in Maltstone, a village in North Yorkshire that is turned inside out when a TV production company arrives in order to make the latest film version of Pride and Prejudice. The company brings turmoil to the village, not only by preparing the scenery for the filming itself. On top of that the presence of the cast and crew of the production have an impact on the inhabitants of Maltstone on a practical as well as very personal level. While the leading actress, Candia Bingham, instantly falls in love with the widower John, her friend and director of the film, Mary Dance, is snobbish and looks down on nearly everyone. Especially Nicholas Llewellyn merits her contempt. Ever since their first meeting at a dance, the author and the director fall into the habit of quarrelling with each other. The novel changes completely from chapter thirteen on; everything that happened so far turns out to be a novel within the actual novel. These chapters form the first part of Nicholas Llewellyn’s new novel, though the events taking place are not entirely fictional but more of an attempt to weave his experiences with the TV company into a story. Therefore, though some of the names, facts and events are influenced by the writer’s creative imagination, the plot itself is not. From this point on, the reader follows the ‘real’ events taking place in Nick’s life. After he is encouraged by his literary agent George to go to a Literature festival in Wales in order to promote his last book, he meets Mary again. Though they spent the night together, they go separate ways the next day. However, when Nick’s son Christopher gets into serious trouble, it is Mary who finally sorts things out and brings about a happy ending.

In talking about successful female writers of the last century, one does not get around Helen Fielding and her novel Bridget Jones’s Diary. Fielding worked in television journalism for several years before she started writing novels. Bridget Jones's Diary, which has its origin in a column in The Independent that started 1995[9] and was continued in The Daily Telegraph in 1997 for another year, is her second novel. With the publication of Bridget Jones’s Diary in 1996 Fielding has gained a lot of attention by various critics and it “was an instant success, helping to spawn the literary genre we now know as chick-lit: agents and publishers were soon falling over themselves for tales of young women about town and their emotional ups and downs. To date, around 10 million copies have been sold in 35 countries” (Kirby, “True Story”). Bridget Jones is a thirty-something[10] , single, lives in London, has a job with no perspective and in the upcoming year she wants to change her life completely: Quit smoking, lose a few pounds, “[f]orm [a] functional relationship with [a] responsible adult” (Fielding 3), and not “[f]all for any of the following: alcoholics, workaholics, commitment phobics, people with girlfriends or wives, misogynists, megalomaniacs, chauvinists, emotional fuckwits or freeloaders, [or] perverts” (2). She records her progress and failure in a diary that reports her daily highs and lows; each entry begins with an itemised listing of cigarettes, alcohol units and calories consumed, including attempts at interpretations of current obsessions[11] and daily progress. Every day Bridget is confronted with all sorts of trouble, most of which she gets herself into. Apart from very embarrassing situations at work, at home and in public, Bridget worries about her mother, who leaves her father, starts an affair with a dubious Portuguese man and is about to be arrested for fraud. The passionate feelings for her boss, Daniel Cleaver, who does not object to heavy flirting and a vague relationship with Bridget while planning to marry someone else, and people who keep reminding her about her biological clock ticking away do the rest. However, she is not desperate enough to think of the arrogant divorced lawyer Mark Darcy as an option. Although her mother and friends think him a good catch, Bridget is appalled by his condescending behaviour, appearance and style. After overcoming several misunderstandings, Mark Darcy helps Bridget to save her career, family and reputation and she soon realises that her initial swift judgment of Mr Darcy was based on misinformation, misunderstandings and misinterpretation.

Pride, Prejudice and Jasmin Field is the first novel of Melissa Nathan, who works as a journalist and deputy editor of Woman's Weekly. The plot of her novel revolves around the journalist Jasmin who thinks it might be of public interest to write her column about a charity-play of Pride and Prejudice from an insider’s point of view. Jasmin, her older sister Georgia and her flatmate Mo audition for parts in “the celebrity fundraising theatrical experience of the millennium – Pride and Prejudice, An Adaptation” (Nathan 6), directed by the Oscar-winning actor Harry Noble, member of a much respected family of actors. On stage Jasmin gives an excellent performance of the insulted Elizabeth Bennet because shortly before she overheard Harry make a condescending remark about her and therefore she is angry enough to audition and prove him wrong. As a result, Harry casts her as the protagonist. Furthermore, her older sister Georgia, the acknowledged beauty and professional actress in the family, gets to play the part of Jane Bennet and her flatmate Mo gets the part of Charlotte Lucas. From the first rehearsal on Harry and Jasmin quarrel and dispute, because Harry is condescending and Jasmin is not impressed by his fame and glory. It gets worse when Harry stands in for the role of Darcy. The events taking place on stage as well as off stage start to mix and as the rehearsals advance, so do the conflicts between the protagonists. In William Whitby, who has been cast as Mr Wickham, she finds an unforeseen companion in her aversion against Harry. While she tries to avoid Gilbert Valentine, an oily theatre journalist and gossiper who feels under protection of Harry’s influential great aunt Alexandra, Harry reluctantly declares his high regard for Jasmin. Still, she cannot stand him and rejects him, but soon Jasmin’s situation changes rapidly. Her career and her family are suddenly in danger because of a prowling scandal called forth by an affair between her married younger sister Josie and William. It is Harry who saves the situation and, once again, the heroine has to overcome her pride and prejudice in order to see the truth behind misleading first impressions.

2. Literary Status Quo

Obviously, the circumstances for an author in our times differ fundamentally from Jane Austen’s pre-Victorian days. In the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, in England as well as anywhere else in Europe, all literature was written for a rather small audience, literacy being virtually limited to clerics and nobility. Two hundred years later, at the dawn of a new millennium, illiteracy is mostly considered a marginal, if existent, phenomenon in industrialised countries, and the market for printed matter has grown to previously unthinkable dimensions. Of course, this is just one aspect of the tremendous cultural, economic and social upheavals of the past two centuries. Today’s Western civilisation is marked by a form of pluralism that would have been inconceivable in Jane Austen’s days[12]. Very few rules and values are considered absolute, lifestyles are diverse and subcultures abound. In contrast to Austen’s time, contemporary society is confusingly fragmented rather than neatly organised in a small number of social ranks with strict, well-drawn boundaries. Class difference can no longer be easily determined, nowadays people define their social position according to less tangible criteria than, for instance, birth right or vocation. The habits of consumption have arguably become one of the most important indicators of social distinction, even more so than material wealth alone. It is undeniable that the transformation of Western culture hinged as much on an intellectual evolution following the Enlightenment as it did on scientific and technological progress:

The conditions affecting literature have been revolutionized from time to time. The inventions of printing, the extension of literacy and leisure, the mechanization of book production, each in turn brought in new readers, and in the end the readers determine the books. (Butler, “Repossessing the Past” 9-10)

These developments have led, among other things, to the emergence of a popular culture just as dazzlingly complex as the civilisation that created it. In contemporary society, any product must satisfy the demands of a group of consumers of a considerable number. The eagerness of business to try to collectively conquer every last niche of the marketplace has generated a plethora of popular genres in all media, from science fiction to murder mysteries, and new sub-genres are being born all the time.

Nowadays it is hard to draw a clear line between popular culture and ‘real’ literature; proponents of postmodernism generally agree that this is a distinguishing feature of our purportedly postmodern culture. If one subscribes to the viewpoint that no cultural object is intrinsically more ‘precious’ than another, then it follows inevitably that even classic masterpieces can no longer be considered sacred, but must be seen in the context of vast sets of references, where they coexist with all sorts of artefacts regardless of their canonical status[13]. Hence, cultural actors are free to use existing structures to their own ends; accusations of plagiarism or travesty are thus insubstantial. As a matter of fact, the

[r]emaking, rewriting, ‘adaptation’, reworking, ‘appropriations’, conversions, mimicking (the proliferation of terms suggests how nebulous and ill-defined is the arena) of earlier works into other media is an important feature of the current landscape. (Wiltshire 2)

These methods of re-creation can of course be used for different purposes; whether an author has purely artistic ambitions or seeks to exploit the expressive force of classic masterworks in pursuit of commercial success is less a question of legitimacy than of different merits – at least from a postmodernist point of view. In fact, dressing up well-known and well-tried stories in different guises has been a favourite recipe for profit in the entertainment industry for quite a while now. In recent years, this recipe has turned out one particularly remarkable success story, namely a variety of popular fiction for women that was at some point given the catchy label ‘chick lit’. There is significant justification to the claim that this new, fashionable brand of ‘lit’ constitutes essentially a contemporary reinvention of the novel of manners, as Stephanie Harzewski asserts:

Chick lit reinterprets the legacies of the novel of manners and domestic fiction’s marriage plot, chronicling the heroines’ fortunes on the marriage market and assessing contemporary courtship behavior, dress, and social motives. (41)

For the purpose of this paper, and in the spirit of the above elaborations, ‘chick lit’ will be treated as a literary genre, even though it has more in common with a brand name. This specific variety of popular fiction originated in the mid-1990’s, and it is Bridget Jones’s Diary, with Candace Bushnell’s congenial Sex and the City coming in second[14], that is commonly seen at the root of the phenomenon. The genre’s now quasi-official name, however, has its origins in a literary effort that is none too sympathetic with its causes: If one believes Cris Mazza’s account, which is backed by enough verifiable facts to make this a reasonable proposition, then the term ‘chick lit’ was first used by Jeffrey DeShell and herself as the title of an anthology named Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction, a project which aimed for nothing shabbier than “artistic, as well as cultural, value” (Mazza 19). It is not absolutely clear why and when mainstream media started using the term to denote “a "fun", pastel- covered novel with a young, female, city-based protagonist, who has a kooky best friend, an evil boss, romantic troubles and a desire to find The One - the apparently unavailable man who is good-looking, can cook and is both passionate and considerate in bed” (Thomas, “Chick-Lit Conspiracy”). Although at present it cannot be foreseen whether this genre will be a long-lasting success, its popularity at the moment is immense, owing at least in part to the fact that

[c]hick-lit, much like Pride and Prejudice, gives us a view of someone struggling with our issues. It’s not big business, it’s not a murder at the Louvre, it’s not a hunt to uncover a terrorist plot. Instead, it’s women looking for fulfillment, whether that fulfillment takes the form of a husband, a new job or a pair of strappy sandals. It’s girls occasionally behaving badly. It’s friendships and fashion and fun, and it’s growing up, at least just a little. (Crusie 24)

It is also publishers looking for fulfilment, which most certainly ought to take the form of staggering sales. Ferriss and Young quote an abc news item with an estimation of about $71 million of total earnings from chick lit books in 2002[15]. Newer figures are hard to come by, but with genre titles still occupying best-seller lists, it is safe to assume that chick lit will continue to be a multi-million dollar business in 2006.

At any rate, the massive popularity and financial success of the “chickerati” (Harzewski 30) suggest another parallel with their historic ancestress of which “many achieved popular recognition and sizeable capital, inciting the wrath of their male counterparts” (30). Then and now, the ‘frothy’[16] romance novels sparked a heated controversy of taste. If romance novels were ridiculed for their heroines’ pursuit of “husband hunting as a quasi-professional career” (Wells 55), journalist Anna Weinberg satirises chick lit’s simple formulaic structure in a four-step instructional diagram entitled “Make Your Own Chick-Lit Novel!” (see Figure 1).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1: “Make Your Own Chick-Lit Novel!” From Book magazine, July-August 2003.

This uniformity, however, cannot be the sole cause of chick lit’s bad reputation, since many of the great classics of world literature have been crafted just as obviously following a simple recipe[17]. Something less technical than that must be at fault then. And indeed, it is not hard to spot questions of gender, class, and identity at the heart of the problem. When journalist Nicholas Royle expresses his disdain for “a sub-genre of popular fiction that is sociologically banal, intellectually inert and about as much use as yesterday’s TV listings” (Mazza 25), he gives us a good idea of the diverge nature of much of the noteworthy criticism of the genre, where the word ‘noteworthy’ excludes, of course, such assaults that are unabashedly sexist deprecations of “writers with double-X chromosomes” (27). On the one side, there are serious concerns about its potentially detrimental effect on women’s self-image and consciousness. It is not hard to see why it would pain seasoned feminists to see young women actively identify with a narrative that not only evidently declines progressive ideals of gender equality, but in the eyes of some is qualified to “thwart female liberation” (Harzewski 36) by keeping the reader a “slave to the romantic myth” (36).

On the other side, however, it is plain to see that in many cases, this contempt for what is basically light entertainment is convoluted with an elitist disregard for cultural products perceived as unserious, unchallenging, and ultimately low-brow. At the outset of practically every novel there is a protagonist who is almost invariably a woman of “a specific age, race, and class: young, white and middle” (Ferriss and Young 8). The heroine is usually caught up in an excruciating job and on the search for love. Furthermore, the novels are written in a style that enables fairly quick and effortless reading, concerning both language and plot, and feature characters and situations that facilitate a positive identification. This means, however, that from reading “the literary equivalent of a fast-food restaurant” with its “connect-the-dots plots” (Thomas, “Chick-Lit Conspiracy”), very little cultural distinction can be gained; on the contrary, the reader may be branded as unsophisticated and undiscerning.

Hence we can identify two very different, but not at all mutually exclusive, motivations for resentment toward the chick lit phenomenon: on the one hand, a certain contempt of the identification marks of the lower caste, on the other, disapproval of genre conventions which serve “to reinforce traditional categories of sex and gender divisions while appearing to do the opposite” (Thomas, “Chick-Lit Conspiracy”). However, chick lit also has its defenders, apart from its fans, of course. Novelist Jeanette Winterson, author of the critically acclaimed Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, says “she has ‘no problem’ with chick lit” (Ferriss and Young 2), and New York Times Book Review columnist Laura Miller volunteers: “I still say in defense of chick lit that nobody else is writing as much about (middle-class) young women’s work lives” (Mazza 25).

In the following chapters it will be interesting to keep in mind that there exist astonishing parallels in the perception of the reader of both the original and the new novel of manners:

In the first place, the generic novel-reader (the “fair one on the sofa”) was typically characterized as young and female; and in her inexperience and presumed impressionability, she came to function metonymically for all the new readers whose entry into the culture of literacy the reviews were monitoring. (Ferris 20)

Ina Ferris’s statement refers to the Nineteenth Century audience, but in more than one respect it still holds true for today’s chick lit consumers.

3. Structure, Style and Narrative Technique

Although Kate Fenton, Helen Fielding and Melissa Nathan take shots at recreating the same story, their individual approaches are profoundly different from the pre-text, concerning both, focus and form. It should be illuminating to have a close look at the formal differences between Austen’s novel and its appropriations, in order to allow a deeper insight into the authors’ contrasting ideologies, artistic intentions, motivations, their perception of Pride and Prejudice and their literary approach to it.

The probably most superficial examination of a work of literature is to have a quick glance at its cover. Even without taking into consideration the design of the cover itself, it is especially the title that already bears several layers of information about the text contained within – and also about its author. Book titles usually aim to intrigue the potential readers just enough to make them pick up the book without giving away too much of the story beforehand. Their purpose is to attract a certain kind of reader and evoke expectations, which the stories have to live up to in order to satisfy the readership. Almost two hundred years before the birth of chick lit, with its uniform book covers in pastel colours and catch-phrase book titles, Jane Austen had to make concessions to marketability to get her book published. In November 1797, Austen first sent the manuscript of what would eventually become Pride and Prejudice to a publisher; the draft that was at that time so bluntly rejected[18] was then titled First Impressions. After years of revision and abridging, a more concise and readable version came to be published under the alliterating, rhythmic and arguably more appealing title Pride and Prejudice. Although both titles serve the purpose of foreshadowing central themes of the novel, it is the trochaic Pride and Prejudice that is apt to catch the reader’s interest in an immediate and affective way. Even though the title of Fenton’s novel, Lions and Liquorice, remains faithful to Austen’s original, concerning the use of alliteration and rhythm, its actual meaning cannot immediately be understood in its entirety. The image of the lion, a majestic, powerful and wild animal, juxtaposing the image of liquorice, a bittersweet treat, remains mysterious to the reader at first. However, after reading the first chapters of the novel, the reader begins to understand the actual meaning of the title, as the lion stands for the male inhabitants of Maltstone. The town’s cricket team are named The Lions, and their regular meetings are held at the local pub called The Black Lion, or The Red Lion in Nick’s manuscript, affectionately nicknamed The Fat Cat[19]. ‘Liquorice’, on the other hand, is a hint at Mary as a representative of the female characters in the book. Mary originally comes to Maltstone in order to find a location for her film project The Liquorice Fields [20], a First World War drama about the fate of women who, left to their own devices, have to fill in the positions of their husbands, sons and fathers in a factory that produces Pontefract cakes[21]. It is interesting to note that in 2005 Lions and Liquorice was first published in America under the new title Vanity and Vexation. A Novel of Pride and Prejudice. Almost ten years after the publication of Fielding’s novel and the ensuing emergence of chick lit, a direct reference to Austen seems to be more of a selling point than a postmodernist puzzle of a title. In contrast, the book title chosen for Bridget Jones’s Diary refrains from explicitly mentioning its relation to Pride and Prejudice. Instead the word ‘diary’ instantly signalises privacy and confidentiality and prepares the prospective readers that they are up to reading something secret that was probably not meant for their eyes. Moreover, the title already introduces the protagonist of the novel, Bridget Jones. Finally, Pride, Prejudice and Jasmin Field does not merely introduce the heroine in advance, but also references Pride and Prejudice directly and explicitly, without the need for subtlety and wordplay.

Jane Austen published her novel in three volumes; volume I: chapter 1-23, volume II: chapter 24-42 and volume III: chapter 43-61. The narrated time in these volumes amounts to about one year. Volume I comprises the months from September to December, volume II from December to July and volume III from July to October as well as another year and ‘the future’. In Austen’s novel not only the narrated time, but also the place of action is clearly delineated. Pride and Prejudice is set primarily in Hertfordshire in the early Nineteenth Century, but Austen does not describe Longbourn in detail. The reader only learns about the estate that it is located close to the town of Meryton. While in volume I, Longbourn takes the central position, in volume II the domicile of the Bennets is merely starting-point and destination of the journeys to Hunsford in Kent and to London. In volume III the action is set in Derbyshire, Pemberley and again in Longbourn. Thus it can be said that the action takes place in a rather limited area which Austen puts noticeably little emphasis on describing. Moreover, Austen keeps her chapters rather short, which gives another hint that she seeks to direct the reader’s attention onto the development of the plot rather than minuscule details. Arguably, the chief topic of Pride and Prejudice is human fault and betterment, and for this reason, the relationships between its personages, as well as their manner of bearing, are of foremost significance to the author.

Lions and Liquorice is divided into four episodes. The first of these comprises chapters 1 to 13, the second chapters 14 to 23, the third chapters 24 to 33 and the fourth and final episode chapters 34 and 35. Contrary to Austen, Fenton is very explicit when it comes to describing “North Yorkshire’s picturesque, but not noticeably fashionable, Maltstone” (Fenton 7). The little community close to the “River Malt” (18) is described as being “bigger than many villages but by no means a town, [it] trickles haphazardly along a green valley between hazy, moor topped hillsides. Once, beyond even the longest living memory, its broad principal thoroughfare housed a bustling weekly market. Now the settlement can boast only a post office, a general store, a butcher and three gift shops” (18). The home of Nicholas Llewellyn, Cote Green Farm, is an old farm house that was renovated by his friend John[22]. In comparison, it can be said that Fenton describes landscape in more detail than Austen. However, as her episodes become shorter towards the end, like the three volumes of Pride and Prejudice, she too puts more emphasis on the relationship of the characters and raises the suspense for the reader.

Fielding’s novel, purporting to be a year’s journal, consists of twelve chapters, each one dedicated to one month and bearing a title of its own. “The reader consuming Bridget Jones’s Diary in print experiences events contemporaneously with the narrator—we learn of events as she records them after they have occurred in time” (Ferriss 76). Through the “first-person intimacy of the diary” (75), Bridget relates her misadventures to the reader in an almost confessional tone. The length of the journal entries in Fielding’s novel varies, depending on the heroine’s mood and on the importance, emotional or otherwise, of the day’s happenings. However, this structure stretches the limits of credibility at times. For instance, when Bridget’s preparations for a dinner party she is giving at her home go horribly awry, she is under a lot of pressure in order to get ready for her friends’ arrival, yet she seems to find the time to note her chaotic mishaps neatly in her diary[23]. As especially this episode is very amusing, the reader forgives Fielding these discrepancies between written and experienced time. The plot of the novel takes place within exactly one year and is mainly set in London and sometimes moves from that in the Yorkshire neighbourhood. The cardinal point of Bridget Jones’s life is the city of London where she works and lives. On a few occasions, she visits her parents in Northamptonshire, she attends the Edinburgh Festival with Perpetua and her friends, and goes on a ‘mini-break’ to Wovingham Hall[24] with Daniel. Even though it is apparent in Bridget Jones’s Diary how much more available and affordable commodity transportation has become during the last two hundred years, for the most part the narration takes part in Bridget’s closer environment.


[1] cf. Foucault, “What is an Author?” 206.

[2] cf.

[3] For instance, in 2003 Pride and Prejudice was voted the UK’s second-best-loved novel in the BBC’s Big Read Top 100 (cf.

[4] The first edition of Pride and Prejudice, all in all 1,500 copies, had sold out within six months after publication (cf. Littlewood, Introduction V.)

[5] cf. Wells, “Mothers of Chick Lit?” 53.

[6] Mr Wickham’s favourable first appearance will be the subject of further examination in chapter four.

[7] cf. Austen 246-249.

[8] cf. Littlewood, Introduction VI.

[9] cf. Kirby, “True Story”.

[10] At some point in the story, Bridget has a “severe birthday-related thirties panic” (Fielding 63), but her actual age is never revealed in the novel.

[11] For instance, 1471 calls (cf. Fielding 129) or the number of Instants she buys (cf. ibid. 108).

[12] cf. Butler, “Repossessing the Past” 13-14.

[13] cf. ibid. 12-13.

[14] cf. Ferriss and Young, Introduction 6.

[15] cf. Ferriss and Young 2.

[16] cf. Harzewski 29.

[17] cf. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism.

[18] cf. Cecil 80.

[19] cf. Fenton 117.

[20] cf. ibid. 170-180.

[21] According to the Oxford Dictionary ABC of Food and Drink, Pontefract cakes are “small flat round liquorice sweets as made originally around Pontefract, a town near Leeds in West Yorkshire” (262).

[22] cf. Fenton 20.

[23] cf. Fielding 270.

[24] cf. Fielding 156.

Excerpt out of 85 pages


Appropriations of Jane Austen’s "Pride and Prejudice" in contemporary British fiction
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Fachbereich 05 - British Studies)
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ISBN (Book)
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Helen Fielding, Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones, Elizabeth Bennet, Chick Lit, Contemporary British Fiction, Adaptation, Rewriting, Appropriation, Lions and Liquorice, Kate Fenton, Melissa Nathan, Jasmin Field, Darcy, Mark Darcy
Quote paper
M.A. Julia Wilhelm (Author), 2006, Appropriations of Jane Austen’s "Pride and Prejudice" in contemporary British fiction, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • Julia Wilhelm on 6/11/2010

    Julia Wilhelms Buch greift in sechs Kapiteln das Thema der "Wiederverwertung" und des "Updatens" von Austens Roman für die heutige Leserschaft auf interessante und unterhaltsame Weise aufBeispielsweise war mir nicht klar, wie häufig man heutzutage den "klassischen" Jane in dem häufig als "seichte Frauenliteratur" beschimpften Genre Chick Lit begegnet. Im Buch geht es aber nicht nur um das Beispiel Helen Fielding - "Bridget Jones's Diary", sondern es werden auch noch andere, weniger bekannte (aber deshalb nicht unbedingt schlechtere) Adaptionen von "Pride and Prejudice" diskutiert, z.B. Melissa Nathans "Pride, Prejudice and Jasmin Field"Insbesondere Kapitel 5 "Under Pressure: The Significance of Status" vermittelt anschaulich, dass es nicht damit getan ist, oberflächliche und "kosmetische" Veränderungen an Austens Vorlage vorzunehmen, um die vermeintlich "neuen" Chick Lit Romane für die heutige Leserschaft plausibel zu machen. Die Thematiken und Problematiken, denen sich Austens Protagonisten stellen - Identitätsbildung, von der Familie ausgeübter Druck, die Doppelmoral der Gesellschaft und die Schwierigkeiten, die die Suche nach dem geeigneten Partner ins sich birgt -, müssen auf vielen Ebenen angegangen und für das heutige Publikum greifbar gemacht werden. Wilhelms Analyse legt die diesbezüglichen Defizite in den neuzeitlichen Adaptionen deutlich darNicht nur für Fans von Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy und Bridget Jones ist die Analyse von Julia Wilhelm sehr interessant, auch Leser, die sich zum ersten Mal mit dem Thema befassen, können die dargestellten Zusammenhänge von Austen's "Novel of Manners" und Fielding's "Chick Lit Novel" gut verfolgenWie gesagt, man mag vielleicht das Chick Lit Genre als zu seicht empfinden, aber das Sachbuch von Frau Wilhelm ist es sicher nicht. Wen das Thema "Austen heute" also interessiert, der sollte da wirklich einfach mal reinschauen.

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