Jane Austen horror show: abominable proposals, literary vampires, awful whispers
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We love talking about the terrifying aspects of Jane Austen. Because amidst the romance and bantering in the privet hedges of England, which we also love-but-of-course, it’s the cruelty, the terror, the danger, the “awful whispers” (hello, John Dashwood), the abominable proposals (ahem, Mr. Darcy), the horrors in the corridors (get back, Lucy Steele) that carry the social commentary that Jane Austen is also doing - but of course!
So you might call this a compilation post, a Halloween gift, a spooky missive from your epistolary Plain Jane - just some frightening feminist fun with this selection of our most horrifying posts so far here at the Austen Connection.
Here we go - trick or treat!
Darcy vs. Elizabeth: ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’
This film based on the book sets Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in a zombie apocalypse (with seriously high production values) might well be your Halloween viewing and if not, why not?!
This Austen Connection post revisits this improvised classic. It’s funny how the best of the best adaptations seem to draw out themes from the actual novels that we might not have emphasized so much, and in this case it’s that knock-down-drag-out battle of the sexes that is lurking in the shades and the subtexts of Austen’s classic. Below is the fight scene where Elizabeth comes at Darcy with an actual letter-opener. Bewitching, indeed!
Fanny Price, zombie slayer
Why does Fanny cry so much? Why is she so self-righteous? Why is Henry Crawford, whom we’re obviously supposed to dislike taking our cue from Fanny, such a frightful dish?
All of these questions are explored in this post on Fanny Price, as we indulge in an unconventional take on this heroine Austen pretended to portray as a compliant, mousy, thing. But lurking below the text emerges another Fanny Price you can be sure Austen also wanted us to see: a superior-in-all-things conqueror whose ascendent success rises in direct proportion to the dissolution of Mansfield. Basically, Fanny reduces bucolic Mansfield Park to another apocalyptic nightmare. Just sayin.
Horror Show: Mansfield Park
And similarly, friends, Mansfield Park as a place is ostensibly serene, aristocratic, bucolic, a bed of literal roses. But look closer: Sir Thomas is at best a benevolent dictator with his own awful whispery-ness; the young people are practically devouring each other, including the spoiled elegant Bertram sisters; Aunt Norris is a sadistic purveyor of pruning sheers and prayer books; and even the scorching rose garden is way too hot for Fanny.
For fun, make a list of the things and people in the house that are more valued than our heroine, impoverished niece Fanny Price, and that list will include: each and every member of the Bertram family, of course, the mean old aunt, of course, the dodgy neighbors the Grants and their dodgy visitors the Crawford siblings, of course. But also: Pug the pug, possibly Edmund’s horse, and the actual roses that Fanny is made to brave hot weather to harvest. Fanny Price starts life at the lowest level, and that is why she must conquer and slay her way to the top of this hellscape known as Mansfield Park. Horrors!
The ‘Awful Whisper’ and John Dashwood
Oh we love to be spooked by John Dashwood, truly a horror lurking in the hallways of Austen.
In this post about the Bad Dads of Austen, which is scary in its own right, we enjoyed teasing out that line where Austen gives the worst brother in literary history an “awful whisper,” evoking a horrifying specter in this privileged patriarch who will convince himself he’s generous while basically letting you suffer and die. Fright Night!
Lucy Steele’s Side Eye
And while we’re in demonic Devonshire, is Lucy Steele possibly the creepiest character in all of Austen?
What we love about the creepiness of Lucy Steele is that when you really look at the passages on this character you can see Austen’s layered artistry at work - creating out of a stereotype of feminine elegance a rather uncouth (in imitating her accent, Austen the Author is also at her meanest) and sinister fiancee for dear, hapless Edward.
Not only does Lucy pretend to not know Elinor’s feelings on the surface, Lucy simultaneously shows that underneath in fact she does know Elinor’s feelings and also that she knows that Elinor knows that she knows Elinor’s feelings - and yet this intrepid horror-show of a girl does not flinch. She ghouls on. Horrific! ‘
‘Begotten to be devoured’: Sitting-room hellscapes in ‘Sense and Sensibility’
When it comes to the horrors of Austen more than a few of these frightful people and situations are created by the practice of primogeniture or inheritance laws, even for an oldest son like Sense and Sensibility’s Edward and even more so for a younger son, like Mansfield Park’s Edmund, and no one says it better than Thomas Paine writing in The Rights of Man, in 1791 (when Austen was about 16 years old):
“Aristocracy has never more than one child. The rest are begotten to be devoured. They are thrown to the cannibal for prey …”
In this post we visited the deathly drawing rooms created by primogeniture, social anxiety, and class oppressions in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and not just the cruelty of John Dashwood the Awful Whisperer and his wife Fanny, evil incarnate, but also the Sir John and Lady Middleton hellscape of a sitting room: Its inhabitants include Lucy Steele and is haunted by the specter of horrifying Mrs. Ferrars overpowering her eldest son Edward and looming over all. Spooky!
Vampires, celebrities, and scary Regency stuff
In this fairly recent post that pays tribute to Robert Morrison’s history of the Regency, we celebrate that era that seems to have discovered vampires, and also a few other items: Celebrity mania, recreational drugs, and the vampire craze as well as alarming heights of injustice it’s easy to forget about when watching a costume drama, but all are here in Robert Morrison’s book The Regency Years. We enjoyed the trajectory he traces from Mr. Darcy, Lord Byron, the creation of the vampire, and its conflation with all the Rakes of the Regency, from real-life libertines to Austen’s creations. And we could keep going from here straight on to the dangerous attractions created by Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyer. Thrill-fest!
Sir Walter Scott, literary vampire
And here’s a new vampire for you, just in time for the occasion: Our Austen Connection reading this month has been Devoney Looser’s powerful new biography of the Porter sisters, Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës.
And lo and behold, a vampire lurks in these pages, and it’s a literary one! (Which is the best kind!)
In her chapter “Monstrous Literary Vampires: Jane and Maria, After Walter Scott,” Looser traces the documentation of a basic literary theft: Sir Walter Scott, he of the famous and influential Waverley series, was actually an acquaintance of the Porter sisters from their childhood days in Scotland, and he went on to create what might have been considered to be among the first works of historic fiction - except that the Porter sisters got there first, and had published numerous works of historic fiction already. And he never gave them credit! And furthermore as Looser describes, his success managed to eclipse their own, and it may even be a reason most of us have never heard of the Porter sisters - until now!
Because the exciting thing is that Looser’s #MeToo literary sleuthing may well be set to address this crime of literary vampirism: These Porter sisters, and this book which is the product of 20 years of research by Looser, is fascinating, and is setting the record straight.
So, we’re ending this chamber of horrors, where we began, with a woman wielding a letter-opener. The Porter Sisters: Slay!
And after this trail of horrors, how can anyone suspect Jane Austen of not going there - there being the abomination and banality of evil, cruelty, and real harm in our world and unfortunately in our interactions with each other. But the evil is not necessarily to be found in gothic melodrama and flamboyant villains - for Austen, it’s right there in the drawing room, and within the landscape of literary realism.
So, friends, take these terrifying moments and, even while you’re keeping a lookout for the Lucy Steeles and the John Dashwoods lurking in bucolic and civilized settings, transform the terrors into a Halloween full of good treats, good tricks, autumn leaves, spicy soups, and pumpkins in your pies, your lattes, and on the porches.
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Join us for a discussion on Sister Novelists and a live taping of the Austen Connection, which you can be part of! We’ll be joining author Devoney Looser, author of The Making of Jane Austen, for a lively conversation at AustenCon 2022, this weekend, Nov. 4th/5th (depending on what country you’re in). We’ll talk about Regency women writers in action and all about the writing of Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës. You can get tickets here. You can order the book, just out this week, here.
Are you listening to The Thing About Austen podcast, and if not, why not? What’s your favorite episode so far? The podcast episode about Lady Bertram’s garden, and also this one about Lady Bertram’s pug, alerted us to Fanny’s place on the hierarchy in the Bertram household: Truly scary stuff here. Also, as it happens, The Thing About Austen podcast hosts, Zan and Diane, are the keynote speakers at Austen Con this weekend - another reason to join us there.
See you at Austen Con!
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