May 20, 2013 § 1 Comment
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an emerging medium in possession of a large audience must be in want of a Pride and Prejudice adaptation.
Enter The Lizzie Bennett Diaries, a retelling of Jane Austen’s most famous novel as a modern-day Lizzie’s serialized video blog, In this version, Lizzie is “a 24-year-old grad student with a mountain of student loans, living at home and preparing for a career,” but despite her unglamorous circumstances, she still bewitched plenty of viewers. The series posted its last episode this March and went on to complete a Kickstarter campaign for a DVD that raised 800% of its initial goal and made it the site’s fourth-most funded video/ film project. Lizzie and Darcy are, apparently, just as compelling on YouTube as they are on page and screen.
Jane Austen’s internet success isn’t so surprising. She is, after all, one of those few authors who live on as both a pop-cultural phenomenon and a dissertation topic. In fact, given her talent for snarky dialogue, Austen and the internet seem like a perfect match. For what do we use social media, after all, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?
The series is well-acted and adapted with skill and sensitivity, but what turned it in my mind from a quality procrastination device to an object of critical attention was an analysis of Austen’s popularity I read while researching my obsession: the similarity between the 1790s panic over proliferating print-culture and our own internet anxieties. In The Work of Writing, Clifford Siskin argues that the reason Austen enjoyed lasting success while many of her female contemporaries were forgotten was because she and her novels helped to make the technology of writing feel comfortable and safe. Contemporary reviews of Emma praised it as “inoffensive” and “a harmless amusement.” Siskin ties the safety of Austen’s novels to the way her stylistic and publication choices assuaged turn-of-the-19th century concerns about the power of writing. Her ironic treatment of sentimental situations contrasted favorably with “sentimental novels” that critics feared would unduly influence the feelings and actions of their readers. Her decision to publish her novels as stand-alone volumes rather than serially in periodicals played into the creation of a hierarchy of publication modes (books over magazines) that helped to conquer writing by dividing it.
Siskin focuses his analysis on Northanger Abbey, the Austen novel that takes the novel itself as one of its themes. The novel’s heroine is rather fixated on gothic romances, and occasionally interprets real life through the prism of her reading material, to embarrassing and comedic effect, but without disastrous consequences. Siskin writes of Northanger:
“The discomforting question is whether we become what we read. Austen’s answer—an answer that I would argue signals a change in the status of writing from a worrisome new technology to a more trusted tool—is “Yes and no, but don’t worry.”
Procrastinating to The Lizzie Bennett Diaries while researching Romantic-era print culture, I realized that what Austen did for the novel, LBD creators Hank Green and Bernie Su do for the vlog, and digital media generally. They take a story telling medium that is new and strange and potentially threatening, and they make it comfortable. read more
PHOTOGRAPH: Carmen Gonzalez