Austen Economics and the Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

lizziecartoonSo, a pretty big thing happened in the last fortnight – the Lizzie Bennet Diaries came to an end. This popular web serial ran for 100 episodes, plus several extra Q&A vids, and a bunch of short spin-offs which explored self-contained, highly relevant side stories.

The premise was a modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, told via the web diary of media student Lizzie Bennet. And it was simply wonderful. The performances were great, the writing was exceptionally clever, and the lampshading of the format only strained in very few places – whenever the audience started to question whether the characters would realistically share so much on camera to an internet audience, the script was usually there in time to provide extra motivation or exceptional circumstance.

Character arcs were often deeply affected by whether or not a given character had seen the videos in question, for example – so as well as looking at many of the themes of the original story, the LBD also looked at issues to do with internet safety, the ethics of talking about or even filming people behind their backs, and WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THAT PERSON FINDS YOUR BLOG AND CATCHES UP ON ALL THE TERRIBLE THINGS YOU’VE EVER SAID ABOUT THEM OMG.

Lizzie-Bennet-Diaries_The fandom surrounding LBD was pretty rabid, and it was fascinating at times to follow the tags on Tumblr which revealed how many fans of the show had not in fact read the original book, or come across a previous film/TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Many were coming to the story cold, and a whole bunch of teenage girls read P&P for the first time during the last year, entirely because of LBD.

While I enjoyed the meta within the story’s framing narrative, such as the Q&A vids where Lizzie would frown and wonder why so many people were asking if she could play piano, for example – which relied on the joke that much of the audience had read the original by Austen, I mostly avoided as much of the ‘outside meta’ of the show as I could, only catching up on interviews and behind the scenes stuff after the fact, though I did catch the occasional article here and there. I find it interesting that much of what the creators said about LBD revolved around what they were doing “differently” to Austen – more focus on Lizzie’s friendships and family relationships rather than just romance – when in fact, I was most impressed by what they were doing that was exactly the same as Austen. Ahem. Such as the focus on family and friendships.

lizziegirlsAnyone who thinks Jane Austen just wrote romances has not in fact got Jane Austen. I try to be outspoken about this topic thanks to Joanna Russ, who was the first scholar to clarify for me how much women’s writing, especially women’s writing with any kind of romantic storyline, is often categorised firmly as ROMANCE rather than FICTION. This is not a slight against romance or indeed Romance, but such a categorisation can seriously impact the reading and reception of the story, as well as how it is remembered.

This is particularly important with the Brontes – Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are simply awful if you try to read them as Great Romances, and often discussions about Charlotte and Emily Bronte descend into readers trying to justify their emotional love or hatred for those stories in terms of how the ‘romance’ worked for them. (It also explains why people making movies of Wuthering Heights often cut out out the most interesting and redemptive half of the story, dealing with the generation that came after Heathcliff and Catherine)

I have nothing against romance as a theme or a genre, but I think it’s important to note how badly a reading of a novel can be skewed if it was not formally written as a Great Romance but is being read as if that’s what it should be – it’s a bit like trying to judge Bleak House on how it works as a murder mystery. (hint: it is actually the worst murder mystery of all time)

It’s also I think worth pointing out that even category Romance novels, the most romancey books of them all, are rarely 100% about a love story. The really good ones are usually as much about community, friendship, travel, time travel or the workplace as they are about the romantic connection between two people.

Jane Austen’s novels have even more trappings of Romance than those of the Brontes – her stories start with single people and end in marriages, they feature love narratives, and they have at times a pretty high Swoon Factor. Especially if you’re comparing the lads in them to Heathcliff or Rochester.

But where the Lizzie Bennet Diaries got it absolutely right, perhaps more right than any other adaptation ever, is in recognising that Pride and Prejudice, like many of Austen’s novels, has as much to say about economics as it does about romance.

Elizabeth Bennet’s story is not just about looking beyond first impressions to discover that the conveniently wealthy man she has been swapping snark with is a bit dishy, really. It’s also about the precarious legal and financial situation of women of her era – and how easily the privilege that her quite well off family is clinging to might be lost because her father had no son.

Sense and Sensibility explores the potential fate of a widow with daughters, offering an alternate history timeline for the Bennets. Mansfield Park takes it to the next generation, showing the contrast in fortunes of sisters who marry for financial security vs. love. Pride and Prejudice may allow us through Elizabeth and Jane to have our cake and eat it too, combining financial security with love as its narrative climax, but it is also swift to point out that not all women are that lucky.

Elizabeth never considers taking the ‘secure’ option of marrying Mr Collins to protect her family, rightly surmising that it would make her miserable. After justifying her position to her mother and being supported (despite all financial sense) by her father, she then struggles with her friend Charlotte’s choice to “sell out” and accept that same loveless marriage as a better option than spinsterhood. Losing and then regaining her respect for Charlotte’s choice despite disagreeing with it is a vital part of Elizabeth’s journey. Likewise, the effect that Lydia’s scandalous behaviour has upon the whole Bennet family, not just socially but for their future economic security, is an important story note because of the complex ways in which social reputation, marriage, and prosperity were all linked together in this era.

[If you want to experience the creative choices of LBD without being spoiled, go watch it now & come back after that!]

The aspect I most enjoyed about the Lizzie Bennet Diaries is that while it has an emotional centre and conveys its love stories very effectively, most of the high stakes situations for the women in the story revolve around work as much as (if not more than) romance. Mr Collins offers Lizzie a chance to work for his corporate video company, which would involve ditching her education and the work she is doing with her own videos, but give her a financial security her family could definitely use. She turns him down, and is devastated when Charlotte takes the job instead, rightly pointing out that she is sacrificing less than Lizzie because she wasn’t working on her own original projects anyway. She wants to work in the industry, and the Collins offer has more appeal to her.

lizzie-bennet-diaries-collins-and-charlotte-x-400As with the Charlotte in the novel, she takes control of the situation and makes the best of the “marriage” to Collins and Collins – by the end of LBD, Charlotte Lu has achieved personal success and is on track for a great career, due to her skills in compromise and negotiation. Lizzie meanwhile has also ascended due to her rather more slapdash and creative (if precarious) methods, but a lot of that has to do with luck and being the main protagonist of the story. Charlotte got there by a tougher but more realistic route. They’re both doing great. Hooray!

Likewise, the awful Lydia scandal is no longer about a young woman damaging her family’s reputation by eloping with a man who does not intend to marry her, but becomes a story of emotional abuse, culminating in Wickham’s attempts to profit financially off their relationship (and avenge himself on Lizzie/Darcy at the same time) by setting up a paid subscription sex tape with a countdown ticking away…

lizzieLydiaLydia is one of the best characters in this series, a bright and frivolous girl with bags of personality, and the more I fell in love with her, the more I worried about how the Wickham storyline would be handled. It was genuinely distressing, particularly the way that we saw her become more muted and devoted to Wickham in their separate vid stream, and the obvious (to us) methods he was using to manipulate her in front of an audience.

This was especially hard to watch because Lydia’s descent had been so gradual and was so personal – we had followed her through so many ups and downs with her family, her growing friendship with her dour cousin Mary, and she had largely (cleverly) been used as a charming comic relief character for much of the LBD narrative. It’s much harder to cope with Pride and Prejudice’s storyline if you genuinely like Lydia as a character, and LBD pulled no punches here. The use of George Wickham and the progression of his character from likeable hot boy and Lizzie’s sort of someone special to his darker side was also very well conveyed, as was (however painful) putting Lydia and Lizzie in a bad enough place that Lydia would indeed go after the boy her sister had liked. Austen’s Lydia would not have thought twice about it, but the LBD Lydia needed to be emotionally wounded already to do that – and this made for painful, confronting watching!

tumblr_inline_mgmlfqD3701rcve8pThe only thing that makes no sense about the narrative of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is that there would have been plenty of viewers watching both sets of videos who would have emailed Lizzie LONG BEFORE the reveal to tell her she desperately needed to see what was going on with Lydia and George once it all turned super creepy. Her dodgy phone and the distractions at Pemberley Digital honestly was not enough to explain this disconnect, as the real time nature of the story meant that the bad stuff went on for WEEKS.

It was also really upsetting for me to see how badly Lydia was damaged and quietened by her experience with Wickham, even once the day had officially been saved. Part of me did feel that she was being punished for her exuberance and her flirty nature – all those things that had led to Lizzie’s misreading of and misunderstanding of who she was as a person. But on the other hand, it was a devastating betrayal and there wasn’t really time to see her bounce back from that credibly.

LBD trod a really thin line with Lydia between commentary about slut-shaming and the assumptions people make about young women who get drunk, like to party and flirt and so on, and actually shaming Lydia for her behaviour. I think they just came away from it on the right side of the line, but only because of the deep focus on the three sisters supporting each other at the end. Unfortunately this is one case when the actual plot and structure of LBD got in the way of things, however, as it feels like the point was hammered home a little too forcefully after being made.

On the other hand, Lydia wasn’t stuck with the evil bastard for all eternity like her Austen counterpart, so thank goodness for progress.

Back to happier storylines!

lizzie-bennet-diariesJane and Bing’s relationship is rife with class issues that have to do with his status as a son of a moneyed family in America as well as his impending status as a “DOCT-AH” (the latter of course being what Mrs Bennet is most interested in). Some things, sadly, never change. Much of the early LBD vids revolve around Lizzie’s frustrations with her mother’s old fashioned attitude to marrying off her daughters, but I did like that the underlying money issues their family was having (while putting three 20 something daughters through college) and the threat of losing their house were played with such sneaky subtlety.

lizziebennetdiares_LargeWideLike Austen’s Elizabeth, we get to see that Lizzie is often judgemental and not always right – Jane and Charlotte in particular point out that her characterisation of her mother is often unfair or one-sided, and this is to become very Plot Relevant with her equally narrow characterisations of Lydia and Darcy. On the other hand, the anachronistic attitude of Mrs Bennet is an important narrative thread – and I am VERY glad that they never actually showed us a real Mrs Bennet in the videos, as well as that in character she never discovered those videos. Probably.

Jane’s characterisation and narrative remains very similar to Austen’s Jane. But she benefits greatly from the different opportunities allowed to women now – and her story is as much about her career as her romance. I liked how Jane’s character was expressed through her attitude to her work – when we first get to know her she is struggling in a minimum wage fashion industry job which requires a long commute (which Bing eases through use of his car, just as he uses his wealth to make her life easier in other ways, contributing to Caroline’s concerns that Jane is using him) and we get the impression that Jane is taken advantage of at work because of her nice, helpful nature. In the wake of the Bing breakup, she takes a much better job in LA, which at first looks like it might be her following him to get some answers about their relationship. But when that comes to nothing, she focuses on her career and becomes happier and more self-contained despite her romantic sadness.

Jane then sacrifices that job she loves to help her family during the time that Lydia’s drama comes to a head, which is akin to the loss of marriageability that Jane, Elizabeth and her sisters are threatened with upon the elopement. Ultimately she is rewarded not only with an abashed Bing (whose discovery of Lizzie’s vids allows him to see how he was manipulated and misled about Jane) but with a further job opportunity taking her to New York, and building that career of hers again. Bing, meanwhile, has been dealing with his own issues after giving up his medical degree, and wants to follow Jane as they repair their relationship, rather than having her follow him as might originally have been expected. He’s rich and privileged still – he plans to work for charities – but he is not the DOCT-AH his and her family thought he would be, and there is a kind of equality between them now. The episode in which she uses her new confidence to lay out the boundaries and conditions upon him joining her in New York was pretty spectacular. (thinking about this it has almost a Jane and Rochester vibe to it, or Claudio and Hero, whereby the privileged man has to be humbled in order to earn back the woman he has wronged)

lizziedarcyThe importance of Lizzie’s changing attitude towards Darcy based on her visit to Pemberley was gorgeously realised through the ‘shadowing Pemberley Digital’ storyline, and I love that she learns new sides to his character based on how he is as a boss, and the excellent work that his company produces, as well as the quite dreamy funland that is the workplace itself. This leads a lovely play on the not-quite-joke of ‘I began to love him when I saw his fine house at Pemberley’ from the original novel.

I was very relieved that once Darcy and Lizzie got together (OMG OMG shut up it was awesome) she did not choose the ‘easy’ route of accepting a job at the dreamy funland, rightfully pointing out that while it was obviously the best place to work ever, being the girlfriend of the boss was an uncomfortable place to be. Instead, she’s going to use the resources and offers that tend to come your way when you have a massively successful web series (META! The story would have had to go differently if only 12 people had watched these vids) to become one of his competitors. Happy ending!

So yes, love, but also work and family and friendship. The portrayal of the Bennet sisters and Charlotte in the Lizzie Bennet Diaries was splendid, and I especially like the way that modern technology and its effect on our social lives/interactions was explored. This was particularly the case with the character of Gigi Darcy who gets to be more than just the sister who was formerly abused by Wickham (her role is pretty minor in the book) – here she is also an avatar of Darcy’s fabulous web company, and a Lizzie Bennet’s Diary fangirl who totally ships Lizzie and Darcy.

Screen-Shot-2013-02-15-at-12.07.01-PMI am not surprised at all that Gigi is going to figure greatly in the new series by the same team, Welcome to Sanditon, which looks to be taking Jane Austen’s unfinished novel and turning it into a story of society and technology colliding – the little Domino mini-series of vids which showed Gigi, Darcy and Fitz working to bring down Wickham was the closest that this show got to science fiction, even if it was a science fiction of the William Gibson “ten minutes from now” variety, and they were obviously having a lot of fun with that. I look forward to seeing what this team does with a story with more freedom to its structure.

I love Pride and Prejudice in all its forms. I love it with Greer Garson and with Jennifer Ehle, with Laurence Olivier and Colin Firth. I love it on stage, on the page, in comic book form and on screen. If I could bring myself to watch the Keira Knightley version I’d probably love that too. I’m a lot less keen on the spin offs and rip offs of the story, especially those involving sequels or zombies, though anything that gives Mary Bennet her own storyline is okay by me.

(the fact that Kitty Bennet in LBD is an actual kitty fills me with such glee whenever I remember it)

After I watched Bride and Prejudice (which is pretty awesome, especially with the relationships of the sisters) I assumed that it was the only way that you could tell a straight modern adaptation of P&P – setting it in a cultural background with more old-fashioned attitudes towards marriage and women’s roles. I don’t count Bridget Jones as it takes so little from the original story, basically excising the romance and discarding all the important bits.

But I was wrong, and I was glad to be wrong, because the Lizzie Bennet Diaries gave me a different way to look at storytelling, and it never lost sight of all the many different facets of this iconic 200 year old novel. There may have been a narrative cheat or two along the way, but I never felt that the characters were behaving anachronistically in any way to help the story shadow the original.


5 replies on “Austen Economics and the Lizzie Bennet Diaries.”

  1. I’m another who gets annoyed when people treat P&P as a romance. Sometimes I think it’s a feminist rage-tract about how many women’s entire life course and economic security relies on finding a man, with a fantasy ending to disguise the anger.

    I admit I’m a little surprised LBD could manage to be such a good adaptation of P&P if the creators didn’t notice the importance of friends and family in the original.

  2. Marianne Jablon says:

    Hi Tansy! I am so not reading your post yet because a link to it (from FB I think) is how I learned about the Lizzie Bennet Diaries and I must watch them first! And then I’ll read this post. Just watched the first few and am excited to see the rest, and then stumbled across the introductory video by Hank Green and I hadn’t even realized he was the creator. So, cool! I am excited because I do like me some Vlog Brothers sometimes… looking forward to watching the rest. 🙂

  3. tansyrr says:

    Hi Aqua

    It’s not surprising, you often find creators of shows dissing their source material or what has come before – they don’t necessarily MEAN to diss them, but get carried away with their own enthusiasm for what they’re doing now.

    Hi Marianne

    SO PLEASED you’re not reading the post. Much of the fun of this series is discovering how they keep pulling the very contemporary story back to the original text. (and of course those people who have never read Austen got to enjoy it cold as a story with different tensions!)

  4. Marg says:

    I spent two days of the Easter weekend watching these and I was totally hooked. I can’t decide if I regret not being in at the beginning or if I am glad that I could just watch the whole thing straight through.

    Hmm.. I think I might need to go and watch episodes 98 and 99 again!

  5. tansyrr says:

    I need a rewatch!

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