Huffpost Books
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Bill Deresiewicz Headshot

Jane Austen Porn: We're All Guilty

Posted: Updated:

Pornographic Austen? The LA Times reported this week about a "raunchy new version" of Pride and Prejudice that promises lots of kinky sex, "the book Jane Austen would have written, if only she'd had the nerve!" The obvious thing to say about this is that it reaches a new low in Austen-exploitation, even worse than Pride and Predator or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. There was no shortage of kinky sex in the novels of Austen's time -- adultery, voyeurism, incest, rape. If there's no sex in her books, that's because she wanted us to understand that love is about something more than two bodies slamming together, and also because she respected her characters too much to violate their privacy. Apparently, that's more than some people are willing to put up with now.

But I also believe something more interesting is going on. I was thinking about this last month as I went around the country to promote my own Jane Austen book, A Jane Austen Education, especially the night I appeared with Karen Joy Fowler, the author of The Jane Austen Book Club. Someone asked us about the fan fiction, whether we liked to read those sequels that people were always publishing. Another wanted to know if we'd heard about the opera someone was making from Emma. A third brought up the movies.

And that's when it hit me. Jane Austen is an author, uniquely, whom we all feel the need to possess -- which means, to rewrite, to retell. It's not enough for us to read her stories, we also have to turn them into our own. After all, that's what Fowler and I had both done. She wrote a very Austenian novel about people reading Jane Austen, and I wrote a memoir about the ways that reading Austen changed my life, a book that traces the arc of an Austen novel (first you grow up, then you fall in love). Movies, miniseries, fan fiction, stage adaptations, operas, zombies -- now this, the X-rated version. Everyone wants to play.

So what's going on? George Eliot is equally great, but we don't do this with Middlemarch. Mark Twain is equally beloved, but we don't do it with Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. We don't do it with Dickens, we don't do it with Shakespeare, we don't do it with anyone except Jane Austen. Surely it's because she has an unsurpassed ability to make us feel as if we know her characters as well as we know the people in our own lives. They're friends of ours -- no wonder we want to keep gossiping about them.

What's really interesting is that Austen's impulse to write began with her own response to the things she was reading. Before the novels came the juvenilia -- satirical skits and sketches she produced as a girl for the entertainment of her large, literate, fun-loving family, some of which were written when she was no more than twelve and all of which were wicked parodies of the fashionable fluff that people read at the time. But she read it, too, otherwise she could never have known it well enough to send it up as brilliantly as she did. She probably would have rolled her eyes at the zombies, and Porn and Prejudice, or whatever they're calling it, would certainly have raised a smile of contempt, but our helpless need to write back to her novels, to answer story for story, to keep the conversation going, she would have comprehended very well indeed.

Around the Web

First zombies, then monsters, now Jane Austen meets . . . lust

'Austen' portrait fails to sell

Do you want a XXX Jane Austen? Vote in our poll.

Misogyny is Alive and Well: VS Naipaul on Female Writers

VS Naipaul feels superior to Jane Austen? Sorry, but he's just not

Jane Austen's Women brought to life by Eastleigh actress