Vintage British awkwardness, once a virtue, has now been supplanted by brazen approach & publishing houses have come up with ‘sexed up’ versions of Pride and Prejudice.
We have come a long way since Jane Austen first published Pride and Prejudice in 1813 and the British literati heaved sighs soaked in 19th century restraint-laced romance. Long walks in the countryside, manners and mannerisms, old fashioned pleasantries interspersed with superheated battle of wits had to make up for the inability of the author, or the reader, to indulge in sexually explicit scenes. But wasn’t there an air of overcharged eroticism engulfing all of Austen’s, or even the Bronte sisters’ novels that still make them such breathless reads? Why do we keep revisiting their relatively ‘tame’ narratives, if there wasn’t the aura of something throbbing and lurking under the soft domestic strokes of their disciplined literary flourishes?
The vintage British awkwardness, once a virtue, has now been supplanted by a risqué approach so brazen that publishing houses have come up with ‘sexed up’ versions of 19th century classics, particularly Pride and Prejudice, that has completed 200 years since its publication. All thanks to the phenomenon called Fifty Shades of Grey — a three-volume saga by the 50-year-old British author EL James (real name Erika Leonard) of a virginal Anastasia Steele who’s enlisted as a ‘sexual slave’ by the Seattle billionaire Christian Grey. Like a spruced up avatar of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Mr Grey, much like his literary predecessor Mr Rochester, has a room dedicated to his excesses of sexuality, in this case, of bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism.
Although separated by two centuries, Pride and Prejudice shares much with Fifty Shades, which include the classic female fiction tropes of fairy tale romances. The medieval stereotype – of the chaste and very young (but now willing, a merciful 20th century amendment) heroine, who is overpowered by an older man, impeccable in character, strength as well as social stature, but proud and condescending – remains intact. While Austen unravels her plot in the verdant fields and manor houses of Pemberley, James takes her narrative to fast-paced American cities such as Seattle and Washington. While Darcy is torn by his moral uprightness that clashes with his repressed sexuality, Grey is battered by his sexual overdrive and alterity, which are counterpoised to an inner kernel of societally approved definition of what is normal and what is right.
In a way, Christian Grey is what Fitzwilliam Darcy has transformed into after 200 years of literary and cultural re-imagination.
Of course, literary prudes and cultural snobs can dismiss such an odious comparison as total hogwash, saying that the narrative merits of Austenprose outshine by a million times the hazy, neon-lit, pathetically consumerist sex scenes of James’ Fifty Shades. That the latter started off as a ‘fan fiction’ self-perpetuating on the sidelines of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga is another interesting twist to the story. That one of the best-selling books of our times has had such an unoriginal origin is a development that sheds more light on how we read and stumble upon works of fiction these days, more than the literary merit of the particular book itself.
Like Pride and Prejudice, Fifty Shades too has reached a cult status, although one cannot be sure if it will stand the test of time and lure readers 200 years into the future that Jane Austen’s novels are guaranteed to do.
Another thread linking the two polar extremes is the genre of the chick-lit, the books on life, romance and the urban woman exemplified by the series Sex and the City. Yet, unlike Carrie Bradshaw and her friends, who are women of supreme independence, the typical chick-lit protagonists tend to fall back on the tried and tested tropes of marriage and fulfillment of love.
That is where Fifty Shades of Grey meets Pride and Prejudice, in its continuation of the ‘manhunt’ by the willing women of our times.