(A portion of this has been condensed as Mr. Darcy and the Utmost Force of Passion for Darcyholic Diversions)
Much ado has been made over the recent threats that our beloved Pride and Prejudice, as well as other classics, would soon be receiving a “50 Shades of Grey” make-over by Total-E-Bound Publishing as part of their “Clandestine Classics” series. My first reaction was to wonder if they planned to rewrite it in first person present tense with terrible prose, ridiculous metaphors, and nonsensical dialog. (Full disclosure: I have not read 50 Shades of Grey and doubt I ever shall. I have been unable even to finish the Kindle sample, so I take my opinion from the short portion I did read as well as from the plentiful excerpts available in book reviews. This seems to be the type of novel one either loves or hates, and I am certain to fall into the latter category.) Hence, my curiosity led me once again to the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon to take a peek at Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen and Amy Armstrong.
Relieved to find none of that dreadful first person present tense, I read a few paragraphs to see if I could gather the co-author’s intention. The novel begins with the opening scenes culled from the original but with a deeper point of view from Elizabeth. Hence, I did the unthinkable. Yes, gentle reader, I have read the Clandestine Classic Pride and Prejudice - so you don’t have to. What I found, however, would disappoint lovers of Austen and erotica alike. Just beyond the copyright, the publisher issues a warning, which in and of itself was enough to make me blush: “This book contains sexually explicit content which is suitable for mature readers. This story has a heat rating of Total-e-sizzling and a sexometer of 1.” (Emphasis in original.) I had no idea what that meant; but as my publisher classified my novel Pulse and Prejudice as an “erotic” romance, which created great amusement in my household since it is anything but, I ventured forth.
The following paragraph contains spoilers. Ms. Armstrong has taken the text of Pride and Prejudice in its entirety and added a few naughty bits here and there, much as Seth Grahame-Smith did with zombies and martial arts in his “mash-up.” I must own to being disappointed by the lack of original material. Not that I looked forward to being offended, but I had hoped at least to be diverted. Early on, whilst in Mr. Darcy’s point of view, I found my colour heightened by the use of a certain coarse term for a certain part of the male anatomy – especially as I found the first appearance in a scene during which he partakes in a certain activity not uncommon to young men while thinking of a beautiful woman. Alone. In bed. (I have found a similar scene in several variations, so I suppose this provides titillation to some demographic, of which I am not a part.) After that, the comparatively mild sex scenes intrude in Miss Austen’s prose more like a commercial break before returning to the original programming. At first I reasoned that at least the promise of sex would incite some people to read Pride and Prejudice when they never would have before, but alas the additional insight into Elizabeth’s thoughts as she reflects on her intimacies with Mr. Darcy show her to regret refusing his proposal at the parsonage and also pining for him before their reunion in Derbyshire. This lessens the value of Mr. Darcy’s transformation into a man capable of pleasing a woman worthy of being pleased and, at times, directly contradicts Miss Austen’s text, which is retained verbatim.
The attention this new “50 Shades” version has received almost aroused in me a modest amount of sympathy for Annabella Bloom, whose “Wild and Wanton Edition” received no such fanfare when released last year and contains scenes of a far more graphic nature. Although she, too, used virtually all of Miss Austen’s original, she helpfully put her own additions in bold type, which clearly demonstrates that she included far more of her own writing (as offensive as much of it can be) than did Ms. Armstrong.
All of this raises the question, “Why do some authors of Austenesque novels, such as myself, include romantic scenes of varying levels of sensuality?”
Through my own extensive analysis of some ninety minutes, I have divided lovers of Austen literature into five categories. First, we have the purists who believe any variation, adaptation, sequel, or spinoff to be akin to defacing the Mona Lisa. This metaphor never worked for me because, unlike the result of vandalizing a da Vinci, the original classic remains unscathed. Copies of Gone with the Wind did not spontaneously combust with the release of its sequel. I once tried my hand at painting Café Terrace at Night, but not to worry! Van Gogh’s masterpiece is safe in a museum in the Netherlands despite the atrocity hanging in my office.
Secondly, some Austenites enjoy variations and sequels inspired by Pride and Prejudice but want Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy to remain chaste, many not even allowing for a kiss, as in the original. A subcategory of these will allow consummation of their marriage vows but only behind closed doors.
Next, fans of sequels often allow for certain levels of sensuality as long as the Darcys have taken their marriage vows. The fourth category, in which I classify myself, are those of us who enjoy variations and adaptations that might allow our beloved couple to “anticipate their vows” as long as it is tastefully done. Finally, some lovers of Austen love lovers and enjoy far more explicit love scenes, which bring blushes to the rest of us.
Now we have this new group that defies categorization: Fans of “mash-ups.” I have met some readers who appreciate Austen but also find the introduction of monsters or sex into the original text of Pride and Prejudice to be entertaining. I have also spoken with many people who, much to my chagrin, have only read the “mash-ups” and like them exceedingly. (I back away slowly.)
I cheated with my paranormal novel Pulse and Prejudice by creating both an adaptation and a variation, teetering between categories two and four. The first three volumes follow the plot and style of Pride and Prejudice but from Mr. Darcy’s point of view (and he just happens to be a vampire). The brief moments of physical contact he shares with Elizabeth arise in the context of the paranormal. Then I added a fourth volume – Beyond Pride and Prejudice – which veers from Miss Austen’s original with my story of the weeks leading up to the wedding. As you might have guessed, in this volume, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth “anticipate their vows” with a certain level of sensuality; but as one reader said of my love scenes, “You write it in a sultry way that’s not lewd.” (That’s good because my mother-in-law reads them!)
I can only speak to my own motivation in including this in my variation. For one thing, vampires notwithstanding, I strive for historical accuracy; and during the Regency, couples typically enjoyed intimacy after betrothal but before vows. If such were not the case, we should try to learn their trick for having so many eight-pound babies after only six months’ gestation. At that time, engagements were rarely broken; and a man who “cried off” could find himself a social pariah.
Of course, many couples did wait until their wedding night; but for a novel – a love story, a romance – the scheduling of a first romantic interlude denies us spontaneity of emotion. I want that “utmost force of passion” Mr. Darcy feels for Elizabeth, which leads him to risk being ostracized from his friends and family and polluting the shades of Pemberley by marrying her, also to overwhelm his reserve and adherence to propriety as he surrenders to his ardour. To sense a love and desire that overcomes all obstacles of reason and will does not require crude language or vulgarity or a “50 Shades” makeover. And for those who prefer our couple to remain chaste, Miss Austen’s unadulterated Pride and Prejudice will always be there.