This year marks the 200 anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice. Because of that, I come with a confession. This might be social suicide, but I will risk it: I think Jane Austen is terribly underrated. I truly do. I think that even Jaenites underrate Jane Austen. This isn’t a typo.
What’s my deal? Do I live in a cave? Am I unresponsive to the events taking place in my surroundings? Look, no. I’m aware Jane Austen is probably the most talked about female classic author. There are so many adaptations of all of her novels that sometimes you wonder if they’re truly necessary (and the answer is YES, by the way: every adaptation is necessary, every reread is necessary, do not ever let the world tell you otherwise). I was about to affirm that Jane Austen is the most adapted author of all time, but a quick Google search told me it was Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Still, I think that had I told you Jane Austen was, you would have believed me, because it simply makes sense. It simply feels right.
So why on earth would I say Austen is underrated? Well, nine times out of ten, I will get strange glares whenever I proclaim to the world I LUV JANE AUSTEN. Nine times out of ten, people will believe Jane Austen wrote “those romance novels” and will go away thinking their snarky remarks are… acceptable. Nine times out of ten, a news article or whatever we call it these days will describe Jane Austen as the writer that “knew all about romance, despite being a maiden herself!”
And that is why it is with great sadness that I said goodbye to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries last week. Because The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is not merely an adaptation of Austen’s work, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries takes Austen’s work a step forward and that is, in my humble opinion, what adaptations should be all about. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries has not only adapted Pride and Prejudice to a modern setting successfully, creating a narrative that is both fluid, relevant and realistic, but it also has incorporated the 2.0 era into it, retro alimenting itself, in a very post-modern way (the show exists thanks to the wonderful mediatic world of Youtube, so the show is a big and long love letter to Youtube as a platform as well). It has also managed to adapt the novel culturally and socially into this day and age, and what is more, it has done it right.
Pride and Prejudice is a protofeminist novel (protofeminist being understood as a text that contains feminist elements, literary wise, but that was produced in an age when feminism still had no name as such, and had no movement attached to it). As such, the revolutionary tones of Elizabeth as a protofeminist heroine have been translated into today’s settings in Lizzie as well. Elizabeth is a very revolutionary character for the times, this might come out as a shock but there are a few of her qualities as a character that make her so: consider the fact that she rejects Mr. Collins because she dislikes him, when Mr. Collins is actually the only way out of the incredibly poor economic situation of the Bennets. By marrying Mr. Collins, all of her sisters, as well as her mother, would not have had to worry about their future upon their father’s death. By rejecting him, she is refusing to sacrifice her future happiness for her family, as well as refusing to accept to play by society’s rules (those that denied women a right to inheritance, thus forcing them to attach themselves to a man as a piece of property). But that’s not the only thing making Elizabeth a revolutionary character: she is outspoken, critical and opinionated. The Lizzie Bennet’s Diaries’s Lizzie refuses a very juicy job offer from Ricky Collins in a time and age when not only her family but also herself need economic income desperately. But she does not want to “sell herself” to a kind of field she does not like, she prefers to stay true to herself and find her own way, rather than following her family’s wishes. She is also opinionated and outspoken, of course, and refuses to follow society’s rules (which is not seen as clearly as with novel-Lizzy, but can be found in the little details: she refuses to sell herself to a job, she refuses to maintain relationships, as well as forming acquaintances with people she dislikes, et cetera).
The show takes special care for making all of these characters, not just Lizzie, three
dimensional. Each character has their special purpose and even their personal subplots (as can be seen through the creation of additional secondary Youtube channels for certain characters that had a ‘back story’ in the novel but that could not be easily explored in the series). All of these characters have dreams and hopes, they have good qualities as well as flaws.
Lizzie wants a future, she wants a career. She moves for her family and friends but she’s thirsty (albeit slightly terrified) for change. She’s professionally driven, and extremely loyal. She’s valuable to herself and wishes to be independent, and she wishes to achieve such independence by herself. But she’s not the only character like that, this adaptation takes special care to make all characters refreshingly modern. Jane herself, who in the novel was described as a lovely creature but that was mostly exploited in regards of her love story with Bingley, is here given a very interesting career, one with which she fights for and one she puts before her love life on a number of occasions. She refuses to put up with the behaviour of those around her (as novel-Jane didn’t, in a way) and puts her own rules when it comes to forgiving and rekindling her relationship with Bing Lee. Lydia, somewhat underexplored and dismissed in the novel, considered the mindless, accelerated and promiscuous sister, is here given a different turn. The adaptation took special care to construct a back story that dealt with her romance with Wickham, giving it a frightening abusive twist (taking a look at the cheerful, lively Lydia of the first episodes, and the Lydia under Wickham’s influence as well as Lydia post-web-scandal was too heartbreaking).
Not only our females have purposes, the way in which Collins, Bingley, Darcy and even Wickham are portrayed is admirable just as well. The most obvious instance is Bingley: Bingley’s proposal to Jane was revolutionary because he was marrying for love, to the woman his family somewhat disapproved of. In a modern setting, dating somebody your family disapproves of would not be enough, so what Bing Lee does it not only come back for Jane, he also refuses to confine himself to the family expectations by quitting his medical career, and decides to do things his own way, at his own pace. Only then, when both Jane and Bing have found themselves individually, then, and only then, do they decide to start something together.
Still, and getting somewhat personal, I have to say my favourite of all is Charlotte. The way in which the adaptation has incorporated Charlotte into the narrative, allowing her to bloom as a character, creating an incredible bond between her and Lizzie and at the same time not condemning her choices, which so easily contrast with Lizzie’s, making her a very driven, loyal, independent, outspoken, successful, unique and ultimately powerful woman, is simply brilliant.
I’m afraid there is no short article that could make any justice to this adaptation, I would gladly write a dissertation on it, and even then I would still feel I am leaving details unexplored. But I tried to pick some representative examples to try and explain why I feel the way that I do. As I mentioned, I am a big Jane Austen fan, and as such I’ve seen many obscure adaptations of her work. But, as such a fan, not all of those have been particularly pleasing. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, however, has managed to do beautiful things with Austen’s work, and it has made me incredibly proud, week after week, to see that I am not alone in seeing her work as something other than a prolonged exploration of romance. Austen’s work was about women fighting their environment, and Lizzie Bennet is the proof of that.
If you are so unfortunate as not having been able to follow this wonderful experiment live, you can change that right now by clicking right here, and starting from the very beginning. Be warned, though, it’s 100 episodes, and you will laugh but you will also cry (and squee, probably).
You might also be interested in taking a look at Hank Green’s video where he explains the way the idea came to him and the reason why he chose Pride and Prejudice to develop as a web series: