The word “pimp” has evolved so that currently it not only signifies its historical connection to prostitution but also serves as popular culture vernacular for customization: MTV, for example, airs a show entitled Pimp My Ride, which features the radical customization of cars. Indeed, a fetish with customization seems to have permeated consumer culture, ranging from the popularity of custom-built homes to Burger King’s “Have It Your Way,” from customizable computer desktops and cell-phone ring tones to highly stylized scrapbooks, from the rage for personalized videogame characters to the proliferation of customized tattoos. The extensive list of popular fiction based on Jane Austen’s life, novels, characters, and even her readers suggests that Austen has been pimped by the many authors who have commodified her name and customized both Austen’s body of work and her biography to accommodate niche markets. By customizing Austen to their vision of the author and her texts, these readers-turned-writers strive to fill in gaps in Austen’s biography and plots.
Jane Austen has permeated the twenty-first-century book market thanks to those readers-turned-writers who have adorned their own novels with Austen’s name or with an evocation of her characters or plots. Cecilia Salber observes that “except for certain science fiction works, there is perhaps no other genre or author with as many prequels, sequels, and continuations as Jane Austen” (121). Suzanne Pucci and James Thompson concur, noting that a successful market has arisen from a resurgence in popularity that has been labeled “Austenmania” (1). Marjorie Garber has coined the term “the Jane Austen syndrome” to describe how “‘Jane Austen’ (the sum total of her language, plots, biography, and landscape) is marketed, consumed, and disseminated” (200). Although there are divergent approaches to capitalizing Austen, her name has unified these approaches into an Austen “brand.” A sample of recent adaptations and spin-offs of her novels gets at the diversity within the brand: a novel exploring a love affair between Jane Austen and Mr. Darcy that transcends time, a mystery series that stars Jane Austen as a shrewd detective, a Christian Romance series that superimposes twenty-first-century characters onto Austen’s plots, an innovative interpretation of Pride and Prejudice set in a Jewish retirement community, and a novel whose plot centers on characters reading Austen’s novels. The popularity of these adaptations attests to readers’ need to have Austen their way—whether through popular genres or through the reconstruction of Austen’s life to fulfill their fantasies of the enigmatic Austen.
Wolfgang Iser’s theoretical discussion of the inherent imbalance between a text and a reader illuminates the impulse reader-writers have to create new Austens or new versions of her novels. Iser argues that a reader’s comprehension of a text is aided by his or her ability to negotiate the “blanks,” or gaps, in a text by making connections and closing those gaps: blanks “are present in the text, and they denote what is absent from the text and what must and can only be supplied by the reader’s ideational activity” (216). Iser warns, however, that to achieve a viable negotiation of these gaps, readers must be “controlled in some way” (167). And yet, the new Austen canon suggests that readers have so actively engaged Austen’s texts that they have turned into uncontrolled reader-writers, who have produced hundreds of texts to fill in the gaps—in both Austen’s novels and her biography—according to their own desires.
Throughout history, Austen has been altered, or customized, to suit the needs of various stakeholders. According to Emily Auerbach, the first alterations to Austen were undertaken by her family: her biography and portrait were enhanced to make her image more suitable to the family name and to Victorian sensibilities (17-19). Auerbach claims that the family “had the nerve to tamper with [Austen’s] manuscripts and add ruffles and ringlets to [her] portrait” (4). Kathryn Sutherland asserts that, in fact, Austen’s nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, was responsible for “beginning the process that made Jane Austen into a special cultural commodity” (61) through the publication of his highly Victorianized version of Austen’s life in his Memoir of Jane Austen (1870). Auerbach’s and Sutherland’s observations are interesting because they call to attention the ease with which Austen has been—and can be—appropriated and transformed according to the whims of those who would capitalize on her name.
Many scholars, including Gina Macdonald and Andrew Macdonald as well as Harriet Margolis, have argued that Austen’s readers desire to form proprietary relationships with Austen and her characters based on their sense of nostalgia for a time they have only experienced through fiction. Much of their research has been directed at examining exactly what quality Austen exhibits that continues to attract fans to her fiction and characters nearly two centuries after her death. Macdonald and Macdonald acknowledge that the concerns about “translation versus imitation, problematic reader/viewer response, intertexuality, the profit motive, and exchange-value ethics” (3) are all important issues raised by the existence of the adaptations. Margolis asserts that the “phenomenon of Austen adaptations . . . is an effort to capitalize on people’s desire for a stable, recognizable world” (23). Margolis’s assessment has merit, but the kind of adaptations I’m concerned with usually transcode Austen’s characters and plots into the current time. Nostalgia seems to be an inadequate impetus for the explosion in Austen-related fiction, especially considering that several of the adaptations are set in America during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, not in Regency England. In fact, Pucci and Thompson reject nostalgia as the impetus for the “striking surge in Austen’s cultural capital,” claiming that it is an insufficient explanation (10).
Therefore, an examination of current popular and consumer culture might be a more appropriate investigation into this phenomenon, which Pucci and Thompson argue “has crystallized at a particular moment in our own contemporary culture” (10). These adaptations and spin offs are not content to link themselves to Austen merely through intertextuality (as does Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary) but seek to capitalize on Austen’s name to sell their books: hence, Jane Austen in Boca, The Jane Austen Book Club, and The Man Who Loved Jane Austen. In Searching for Jane Austen, Auerbach argues, “Paradoxically, Jane Austen nowadays seems everywhere yet still hard to find” (3). It is not so much that Austen is encountered everywhere; it is that so many different Austens are encountered. Allison Thompson, who examines the fans’ consumption of Jane Austen through the plethora of material artifacts (tee-shirts, clocks, bumper stickers, action figures, etc.), also argues that fans have created “very different Austens.”
In his discussion of readers’ fascination with authors, Roland Barthes posits that to greatly esteem the “‘person’ of the author” is the “epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology,” and that “the image of literature . . . found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, [her] person, [her] life, [her] tastes” (143). While Mary Ann O’Farrell agrees that popular culture has created multiple Austens (46), she does not see Jane Austen as having been commodified in the same way as her texts and characters have been. She claims that there exists “an oddly bounded and consumerist space at [the Austen market’s] center that is the suppositious and unconsumable Jane Austen, person” (46). But an interesting twist to the trend that Barthes discusses has occurred through the publication of novels offering highly stylized fictional biographies for Austen that present readers with imaginative glimpses into the life of an elusive literary figure.
A novel that presents an alternative biography for Austen is The Man Who Loved Jane Austen by Sally Smith O’Rourke, which explores a love affair between Jane Austen and a twenty-first-century, time-traveling Mr. Darcy. Rather than culling biographical detail from historical and primary biographical sources, The Man Who Loved Jane Austen mines one of Austen’s most popular novels, Pride and Prejudice. O’Rourke does not try to emulate Austen’s narrative style, except in Jane’s dialogue and letters to Fitz: “you must tell her she is your dearest and loveliest desire” (291). Of course, readers of Pride and Prejudice recognize the echo from one of its key passages, in which Darcy has proposed to Elizabeth Bennet for the second time (Austen 369), in O’Rourke’s saccharine ending: “At length Darcy smiles and there were tears in his eyes as he lowered his face to hers and whispered, ‘Dearest, loveliest Eliza . . . ’” (291).
Though Austen’s novels can be characterized as romantic comedies, O’Rourke’s novel fits firmly within the romance genre. The love story, except for Jane Austen’s falling in love with one of her own characters, is not particularly original or literary. However, the novel satisfies the curiosity Austen fans have about Austen’s own love life. In a blurb on the back cover of The Man Who Loved Jane Austen, Jessica Barksdale Inclán gushes that the novel is perfect “[f]or all of those readers who longed for Jane Austen to have the kind of love she gave her characters—and for all those readers who longed to have Fitzwilliam Darcy to themselves.” Inclán implies that the readers of Austen are privileged over historical truth and contemporary reality: they can have Austen their way. Further, Inclán’s remark about readers’ desire to “have Fitzwilliam Darcy to themselves” suggests ownership that the readers, not Austen, can maintain over the character. In this way, especially given the changes to Darcy made by O’Rourke, it appears that Darcy has been pimped as well.
Stephanie Barron’s Jane and the Genius of the Place is the fourth installment in the Jane Austen Mystery series and another example of a fictionalized biography. The text, like the others in the series, is laden with footnotes that correspond to the “authentic” historical Austen through the use of her letters and other biographical materials. The first-person narrative capitalizes on Austen’s reputation for a sharp wit and keen observation of human folly, and it mimics Austen’s narrative voice:
Within the compass of my sight, I assure you, were any number of the incipient scandals. The countenance of more than one gentleman was flushed with wine and the course’s promise, or perhaps the anxiety attendant upon heavy betting—for in the decision of a moment, fortunes might be made or lost, reputations sacrificed, and ruin visited upon more than merely the horse. (2)
As delightful a read as the Austen mysteries are to the Austen fan, the only distinguishing characteristic that sets them apart from the plethora of novels in the mystery genre is the main character: Jane Austen. This series does not offer a prequel, sequel, or adaptation of any of Austen’s novels; instead it offers an adaptation of Austen’s life that straddles two markets—the “Austenmania” market and the mystery genre. The positioning of Barron’s novels within two highly lucrative markets not only ensures their commercial success but also echoes the earliest biographies that transformed Austen’s life into a viable product.
Like Barron, Debra White Smith writes books that are poised for commercial success as she capitalizes on Jane Austen by appropriating her into a popular genre, Christian romance. An adaptation of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Smith’s Reason and Romance is set in the twenty-first century. In addition to the synonymous, alliterative title linking her novel to Austen’s, Smith includes a cast list of her characters to demonstrate their correspondence to Austen’s characters. Despite its classification as a Christian romance, Reason and Romance is more overtly sexual than its counterpart:
The two of them slammed against her locked front door and Elaina smashed her lips against his. His arms flailed. His eyes bugged. And Ted was pulled under by a kiss that rocked the neighborhood. He closed his eyes, wrapped his arms around Elaina, and kissed her back with a passion long held captive. (311)
Despite Smith’s sexualized adaptations of Austen’s Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars, Harriet Margolis notes similarities in the values of Smith’s and Austen’s novels. Margolis argues that, like Austen’s heroines, romance heroines experience a shift in identity and in their relationships to their larger community (24). She also argues that, like Austen’s heroines, the female protagonists of the romance genre must succeed despite subjection to patriarchal power (24-25). And yet, Smith’s novel does not seem to cater to nostalgic readers but rather to those familiar with the conventions of the romance genre.
By adapting Austen into popular, formulaic genres, reader-writers of Austen have ignored the notion that Austen should be bounded within any single, definable literary tradition. Juliette Wells’s assertion that this series of Christian romance novels “demonstrate[s] Smith’s determination to appropriate what she considers important from Austen’s fiction and to weave in the evangelical content that her own readers expect” (7) is indicative of the way that reader-writers consider Austen and her works malleable to their own purposes. Deidre Lynch addresses the tension (such as that which arises with the use of Austen’s name to sell Christian romance novels) between critical and popular reception of Austen’s texts and their adaptations, noting that “the worry that Austen has been affected by the wrong sort of popularity seems a backhanded acknowledgement of the tenuousness of the boundaries between elite and popular culture” (8). This kind of appropriation has a long history. John Wiltshire defends the practice of recycling texts as “the central motor of artistic development,” arguing that texts “only partially belong to the original author: they are constantly being reworked, rearranged, recycled” (3). And yet, despite the similarities that Margolis invokes between Austen’s novels and the contemporary Christian romance, the appropriation of Austen’s name for commercial viability seems to be the driving force behind the creation of Debra White Smith’s Jane Austen Series.
A quirky adaptation by Paula Marantz Cohen is more difficult to categorize as genre fiction than Smith’s Christian romance series. Despite the implications of the title Jane Austen in Boca, Jane Austen herself is not to be found in Boca Raton, Florida. The plot of this innovative adaptation of Pride and Prejudice revolves around three elderly Jewish women and their love interests. Although the plot structure mostly parallels the plot of Austen’s novel, it diverges by introducing passages in which the retirees take a community college course about Jane Austen. Even though Cohen’s novel does not fit neatly into a specific genre, it does customize one of Austen’s novels for specific niche markets. The plot’s focus on older Jewish adults living in Florida seems to cater to the desires of older readers who want to continue believing in the fairy-tale endings bestowed upon Austen’s younger heroines. Salber argues that the title, Jane Austen in Boca, resonates in the novel because Boca is the setting where “Austen’s work is reenacted, a place where Austen’s work is studied, and a place where Austen’s work is adapted. Actually, Boca is timeless, Boca is everywhere” (128). Without the name “Jane Austen” in the title, however, readers—or at least purchasers—might find it difficult to make the connection to the Austen “brand.”
Barthes theorizes that the “birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author” (148). His insight is useful for understanding the space in which Austen can be customized: Barthes argues that “the reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination” (148). Some reader-writers of Austen seem to subscribe to Barthes’s theory, as evidenced by the number of novels that focus on people reading Jane Austen’s novels. The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler explores the appeal of Jane Austen. The narrator articulates the unique connection to Austen that readers feel: “Each of us has a private Austen” (1). The word “has” again suggests ownership, as does the adjective “private,” as if Austen is a material commodity. The simple statement is also loaded with the implication not only that Austen is changed according to individuals’ perceptions of her but that she is simultaneously Jane Austen and a multiplicity of Jane Austens. For example, to Jocelyn, the character responsible for the formation of the book club, Austen is the consummate novelist who “wrote about love and courtship, but never married” (1). For other characters, Austen is a “comic genius” (1) or a “daughter, a sister, an aunt,” but a pragmatist all the same (2). For the young lesbian in the group, Austen belongs in the horror section (3); the only male in the group is the sole member whose Austen is, at least initially, impossible to discern. Of course, these readers view Austen through the lenses of their own experiences, creating a kaleidoscope through the sum of their little bits of Austen.
The repeated use of Jane Austen’s name has created a globally recognized franchise in which reader-writers, readers, and publishers are the three major stakeholders. In a consideration of the effect of internet culture, Kate Bowles recognizes the apparent abandonment with which a new generation of authors has taken ownership over everything Austen. She argues that “Austen has not been so much commercialized as floated, and the multiple shareholders of Austen, Inc. are engaged in a substantial restructuring” (16). This restructuring has resulted in the creation of a Jane Austen brand. And just as Pimp My Ride subsumes the customization of many different models of cars into one recognizable brand, now Austen scholars and enthusiasts must concede that there is an identity that—Pimp My Austen!—subsumes all of the divergent customizations and genre-fications into the Jane Austen brand. Surely, Jane Austen has been pimped.
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Barron, Stephanie. Jane and the Genius of the Place: Being the Fourth Jane Austen Mystery. New York: Bantam, 1999.
Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. 2nd ed. Ed. David Lodge and Nigel Wood. Harlow, UK: Pearson, 2000. 146-50.
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Cohen, Paula Marantz. Jane Austen in Boca: A Novel. New York: St. Martin’s, 2002.
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O’Farrell, Mary Ann. “Jane Austen’s Friendship.” Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees. Ed. Deidre Lynch. Princeton: PUP, 2000. 45-62.
O’Rourke, Sally Smith. The Man Who Loved Jane Austen. New York: Kensington, 2006.
Pucci, Suzanne R., and James Thompson. Introduction. Jane Austen and Co.: Remaking the Past in Contemporary Culture. Ed. Suzanne R. Pucci and James Thompson. Albany: State U of New York P, 2003. 1-12.
Salber, Cecilia. “Jane Austen Now Through the Lens of Boca Festa.” Persuasions 25 (2003): 121-28.
Smith, Debra White. Reason and Romance. Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2004.
Sutherland, Kathryn. Jane Austen’s Textual Lives: From Aeschylus to Bollywood. Oxford: OUP, 2005.
Thompson, Allison. “Trinkets and Treasures: Consuming Jane Austen.” Persuasions On-Line 28.2 (2008).
Wells, Juliette. “True Love Waits: Austen and the Christian Romance in the Contemporary U.S.” Persuasions On-Line 28.2 (2008).
Wiltshire, John. Recreating Jane Austen. New York: Cambridge UP, 2001.