even two hundred years after its publication, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice remains indisputably popular, a fact largely attributable to the ideological conflict it embodies. In his seminal book Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading Alan Sinfield asserts, “meaning, communication, language work only because they are shared” (29), and he notes that in literature “action advances through a contest of stories, and the conditions of plausibility are therefore crucial—they determine which stories will be believed” (30, Sinfield’s emphasis). Pride and Prejudice contains such competing stories, of varying plausibility, told both through speech and through actions: Is Darcy a haughty man who snobbishly has caused Wickham’s financial difficulties, or is he a kind and devoted friend and brother? Is Elizabeth just a pretty girl from a vulgar country family, or does she possess individual qualities that will make her the appropriate wife of a wealthy man? Is Jane in love with Bingley or merely flattered by his attention? Should a woman accept a proposal of marriage from a man who will make her financially comfortable, or should she wait for a man she loves and respects? This last pair of competing stories points out the ideological heart of the novel. Sinfield notes that “the social order cannot but produce faultlines through which its own criterial of plausibility fall into contest and disarray” (45). Sinfield describes “faultline stories” as “the ones that require most assiduous and continuous reworking; they address the awkward, unresolved issues, the ones in which the conditions of plausibility are in dispute” (47). Pride and Prejudice demonstrates the faultline in early nineteenth-century marriage ideology, which demands that gentlewomen find both financial and romantic fulfillment in marriage. With its continued popularity and countless adaptations, Pride and Prejudice is a perfect example of a text that contains faultline stories that are continuously reworked.
One of the latest adaptations of this story is the Emmy Award-winning YouTube Series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, produced by Hank Green and Bernie Su, which has become a social media phenomenon as it uses transmedia storytelling by presenting a modernized adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice through several YouTube channels as well as Twitter and Tumblr accounts (and even Pinterest and Lookbook accounts). In this series three adult Bennet sisters—Jane, Lizzie, and Lydia—live with their parents as they cope with school, student loans, and underemployment in a struggling economy. Jane is a fashion merchandiser who has defaulted on her student loans, Lizzie is earning a master’s degree in mass communications and accumulating loans she may not be able to repay, and Lydia is enrolled in community college but takes partying far more seriously than her academics. Like its ur-text, the YouTube series points to the continuing contradictory messages that women hear from our culture: do women’s success and happiness depend on financial security or on having good relationships? The Lizzie Bennet Diaries suggests that women can and should achieve both, but while Pride and Prejudice suggests that love should lead to financial security, the YouTube series privileges career over romance and, despite its supposedly happy ending, calls into question the cultural mandate for women to balance successfully their careers and their relationships. In both the novel and the video series, ideological faultlines can be seen in the stories of Lydia, Elizabeth/Lizzie, Jane, and Charlotte.
The series has received some critical attention. Most media coverage has praised The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. In The Guardian Kaite Welsh calls it the best small-screen Austen adaptation, noting that “[i]n theory, it should be terrible. In practice, it’s pure genius.” Emily Eifler, writing for northern California’s public television station KQED, asserts that “[f]ew remakes have captured the essential feeling of the source material while simultaneously having their own voices as well as The Lizzie Bennet Diaries does.” Writing on the Ms. magazine blog, Susan C. Greenfield calls the series “brilliant,” adding, “The series’ humor, its meta-narratives, its poignant comparison of 19th century female disinheritance with today’s crippling student loans all work beautifully” (“Pride and Prejudice at 200”). Dozens of Janeite bloggers have shared their adulation for the series, but some of the best early critical responses to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries have also come from the blogosphere, as writers and academics use their blogs to share their thoughts on the series.
Much of this commentary has centered on Lydia Bennet’s storyline in the series, a focus that is unsurprising, given the unique and innovative way the series has simultaneously made Lydia’s mistake with Wickham still threatening both to her and to her family and maintained the audience’s sympathy for Lydia, a feat that Austen does not even attempt. In Austen’s novel Lydia’s story negotiates the ideological faultline that occurs when financial need collides with sexual desire. Lydia puts her sexual desire ahead of both financial concerns and propriety and runs off with Wickham, who balances his economic concerns and sexual desire by living with Lydia without marrying her until Darcy’s intervention makes marriage to Lydia financially advantageous. This story illustrates the ways that the financial and sexual consequences of marriage ideology affect men and women differently.
In The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Lydia’s story negotiates a different ideological faultline: in a culture in which sex outside of marriage is no longer taboo, how are women still victimized by men? Green and Su provide their Lydia with context and a back-story—a kind of counter-narrative to Lizzie’s story—through her own series of vlogs. In these videos viewers see Lydia from her own perspective rather than through Lizzie’s rather narrow lens. Lydia is repeatedly criticized by both Lizzie and their mother. For example, in Lizzie’s second episode she calls Lydia a “stupid, whorey slut” (“My Sisters”), and in one of her own videos, Lydia quotes her mother calling her “selfish and irresponsible,” and she adds, “Nothing new there” (“Runaway”). Lydia has heard criticism throughout her life, even from people outside her family. In another of her videos Lydia mentions that her third-grade teacher told her that she would make “nothin’ of her life” (“The D-Word”). This Lydia clearly uses her energetic and flighty persona to hide her insecurity. Trudy J. Morgan-Cole points out that Lydia’s “early videos imply, though never directly state, that it’s not easy being the least obviously bright and talented of the Bennet daughters, nor being the odd girl out of Lizzie and Jane’s tight sisterly bond.”
More than giving Lydia a back-story, however, Green and Su make her a sympathetic victim of George Wickham’s abuse and manipulation. Lydia’s videos show her transformation under George’s influence from an energetic, outgoing young woman to a subdued, needy one who agrees to make a sex video with George, never imagining that he plans to sell the video online. As Sarah T. from the web site Girls Like Giants explains, “The fact that Wickham preyed on her insecurities and then betrayed her isn’t a reflection of Lydia’s character or a judgment on her decency and virtue. It’s a reflection of the fact that Wickham is a horrible human being who doesn’t treat women as if they’re actual people.” Lydia’s story demonstrates that even with greater sexual freedom and equality, women remain vulnerable to unscrupulous men. By making Lydia a victim rather than an agent in her disgrace, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries not only makes her more sympathetic but also emphasizes the importance of the close relationship of the Bennet sisters. As Greenfield points out, “Unlike in Pride and Prejudice where Elizabeth scapegoats Lydia and steps into the conservative comforts of marriage, Lizzie finally starts seeing herself as Lydia’s equal and her defender, and she recognizes their ineffable bonds” (“Of Jane Austen”). Thus, the sister who seems to be left out of the sisterly bond ultimately strengthens and reaffirms the value of this relationship.
Although the revision of Lydia’s character draws attention to the ways in which views of female sexuality have changed during the past two centuries, my interest lies in how Elizabeth’s story is reworked in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. After all, it is the heroine Elizabeth, not Lydia, who has attracted readers and viewers. Elizabeth’s story is the most significant faultline story in the novel, as she faces the ideological contradiction between marriage as a gentlewoman’s means of financial security and marriage for love. Pride and Prejudice negotiates this faultline by suggesting that the best scenario is to achieve both. Elizabeth turns down the financially stable but ridiculous Mr. Collins and also rejects Darcy’s pompous first proposal when she still finds him repellant. Yet, as Elizabeth and Darcy become better acquainted, she discovers that she loves him and thus marries a wealthy man she loves and respects. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries continues this tradition of having the main character achieve both financial security and love, with the title character gaining both a romantic relationship with Darcy and a potentially successful career. The massive popularity of the YouTube series suggests that many viewers find this story to be plausible; they accept that women should gain success in both career and love. Yet this conflict has been updated to reflect the twenty-first century: while Elizabeth Bennet’s life focuses on the search for a loving marriage with financial security as an appealing bonus, Lizzie Bennet concentrates on completing her graduate school requirements and obtaining a career that will help her pay off her student loans, with finding love along the way just a piece of good luck. This shift of primary focus from courtship to career explains what Greenfield calls the series’ “refusal to over-romanticize the hero William Darcy” (“Pride and Prejudice at 200”). Instead, the series focuses on a narrative, Greenfield writes, “about a heroine who must learn to see herself. The romance plot is secondary.”
Furthermore, the romance plot is secondary to the story of Lizzie’s career. This focus is clear from the beginning of the series. Lizzie introduces herself as a graduate student who is resisting her mother’s pressure to find a man to marry. In fact, her mother’s fixation on marrying off her daughters is viewed as absurd and anachronistic. As Lizzie comments in the first episode while discussing her mother’s view of how her daughters should act because the wealthy Bing Lee has moved into the neighborhood, “It’s not like we’re all gonna put our lives on hold because some rich single guy dropped from the sky” (“My Name”). Morgan-Cole notes that “though financial pressures exist and Mrs. Bennet would like to see her daughters marry rich men, marrying ‘up’ is no longer seen as a career move. Mrs. Bennet’s obsession with marrying off her daughters is always presented as a personal oddity rather than the pressing economic necessity it is in Pride and Prejudice.” Much of the plot has shifted from a focus on courtship to a focus on career. Lizzie even asserts that a job interview is a more high-pressure first impression than dating because “what you think of them doesn’t even matter. They take their pick, and you’re it or you’re not” (“The Semester”). The Mr. Collins of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries offers Lizzie not marriage but a lucrative job. As Welsh points out, “When Lizzie is offered the chance to step straight into her dream job at Collins and Collins and turns it down in favour of finishing her masters degree, the secure financial future she is turning down is real and immediate.” Thus, the Lizzie Bennet of the series aims to attain financial security not through marriage but through her career.
And she succeeds. In fact, her vlog is the catalyst for this success. As Lizzie explains to Darcy in her penultimate video, “When you have a video diary that gets millions of views, it attracts the attention of several people who run digital media companies” (“Future Talk”). Furthermore, her education has provided additional assistance in guiding her next career move. Lizzie continues telling Darcy that she is “thinking of becoming one of your competitors. Since I wrote about the diaries as a startup for my final independent study, I have the business plan in place. And since I mentioned that project on the internet, I’ve been getting messages from potential investors.” Furthermore, while Pride and Prejudice suggests that love can lead to financial security (provided, of course, that one falls in love with a financially stable partner), in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries the education that Lizzie is completing as part of her career track leads her to shadow at Pemberley Digital, where she encounters Darcy again but this time falls in love with him.
This refocusing of the message of the narrative is also evident in Jane’s story. In Austen’s novel Jane’s narrative negotiates the faultline that women faced between indicating romantic interest and maintaining female modesty and diffidence. Jane temporarily loses Bingley because Darcy convinces him that Jane possesses no romantic interest in him. Jane and Bingley become engaged only after Elizabeth informs Darcy of Jane’s feelings and Darcy repents of his interference. Thus, Jane demonstrates that being overly diffident can cause romantic misunderstanding and may attract the intervention of others. In The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Jane and Bing Lee also are temporarily separated through interference, but the more interesting faultline is the collision between the two careers of the lovers. In contrast to the novel, Jane is not a young woman waiting at home for a husband; instead she is pursuing a promising career in fashion. Early in the narrative Lizzie tells the viewers, “It frustrates our mom to no end that Jane hasn’t snatched up a husband yet. She’s doing so much more with her life than prancing around as some trophy wife” (“My Sisters”). Ultimately, rather than following Bing and his potential medical career, Jane pursues her own career to New York, and Bing follows her there. Morgan-Cole notes that Bing and Jane’s “relationship is resolved in a way that makes it clear that Jane’s career is just as high a priority to her as her relationship with Bing, if not higher.” Thus, while Pride and Prejudice focuses on love as a means of gaining financial security, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries emphasizes the importance of pursuing a career and finding a mate who supports that career.
The shift from emphasizing marriage in Pride and Prejudice to privileging career in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries becomes especially clear in Charlotte’s story. Austen’s Charlotte Lucas quickly becomes engaged to the absurd man Elizabeth has refused, making a clear choice for financial security over romance. In contrast, Green and Su’s Charlotte Lu accepts the job offer that Lizzie has declined, a decision that requires her to drop out of her master’s program and move to a new city. Early in the series Lizzie predicts that Charlotte will “be famous and successful and most of all happy,” which Charlotte refers to as Lizzie’s “imaginary fantasyland.” Charlotte insists that “success is mostly luck—luck, hard work, and more luck.” She also asserts that “you can’t predict happiness” (“Happiness”). When Lizzie accuses Charlotte of “throwing away your dreams” in taking Ricky Collins’ job offer, Charlotte responds, “What do you know about my dreams?”
Lizzie ignores Charlotte’s perspective and instead insists that the “stupid, mind-sucking, pointless job” at Collins and Collins will mean that Charlotte will lose her personal dreams: “You’ll never have time to work on your own stuff anymore” (“Friends”). For Charlotte in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries the faultline is not the collision of finances and romance but of finances and personal fulfillment. Yet both Charlottes ultimately find personal fulfillment (though not romance). Charlotte Lucas enjoys the contentment of managing her own household, and Charlotte Lu eventually gets the impressive career opportunity to run Collins and Collins when Ricky moves to Canada to develop the company there. Thus, in both versions of the story Charlotte demonstrates to Elizabeth/Lizzie that there are different paths to personal fulfillment and that faultlines may be negotiated in diverse ways.
Despite a shift in focus from a privileging of romance in Pride and Prejudice to a favoring of career in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, however, the two heroines interact with their ideologies in similar ways: by earning a seemingly frivolous graduate degree in mass communications, Lizzie seems to be resisting our culture’s emphasis on beginning a career, much as Elizabeth Bennet seems to have no urgency to marry. Furthermore, although Lizzie is a far more progressive character than her inspiration, she nevertheless comes to a similarly romanticized, neat, and faultline-covering ending. Despite Elizabeth’s refusal to compromise her romantic ideal for a financially safe marriage, in the end she succeeds in finding a wealthy man she loves, and she enters a conventional marriage. Likewise, Lizzie postpones entering the workforce and resists her mother’s pressure to marry, but ultimately, she becomes a member of the workforce who also is no longer “perpetually single,” to borrow Lydia’s phrase.
It is a mistake, however, to accept these faultline-suturing conclusions as the resolution of the ideological conflict. During the past few decades, countless feminist scholars have refused “to respect closures,” as Sinfield puts it (48). For example, Katherine Sobba Green notes that Austen “suggested alternatives to the subject positions society made available to women in her period” (153). Instead, scholars such as Green find “that the middle of” Pride and Prejudice “arouses expectations that exceed closure” (Sinfield 48). Even though Elizabeth Bennet’s story ends with a conventional marriage, what about the countless women in early nineteenth-century England who were unable to achieve marriages that were both loving and financially stable and instead settled for loveless marriages, poverty, spinsterhood, or some combination? Likewise, viewers of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries must unpack the faultlines of the vlog, questioning the values that the series reinforces. Our culture tells us that women can have thriving careers but simultaneously demands that we meet the needs of our lovers, family, and friends. How easy is it really to have it all: successful career and fulfilling relationships? How much does The Lizzie Bennet Diaries merely reinforce the ideology, and how much does it challenge it?
Despite its seemingly tidy conclusion, the series demonstrates the challenges women face as they aim for both professional success and satisfying relationships, romantic and platonic, with those around them. After she fights with Lydia, Lizzie’s focus on school, her vlog, and her company shadows distracts her from paying attention to what is happening between Lydia and Wickham until it is too late. As soon as she hears the news about the sex tape from Charlotte, Lizzie recognizes her failure to balance her life, telling Darcy that “if I hadn’t been so wrapped up in my own life, I might have had a clue about it, and I could have warned her about him.” And later she says again, “I could have prevented this” (“Ugh”). When Lizzie reconciles with Lydia nearly two weeks later, she tells her two vital things: “I love you,” and “I’m sorry I wasn’t there before” (“An Understanding”). And as Lizzie and Darcy discuss their future, she warns him to “be aware that my vision of the future includes lots of trips home and visits from Lydia. I’m really enjoying getting to know my little sister better” (“Future Talk”). Lizzie has learned the difficulty of finding balance among competing demands and the importance of prioritizing the aspects of life that matter most.
Nevertheless, it is unclear whether Lizzie has learned this lesson well enough to ensure the longevity of her relationship with Darcy. She is wise enough to turn down his offer of a job at Pemberley Digital, telling him, “I want to be with you, but I don’t want to be the girl who dates the boss” (“Future Talk”). Instead she chooses to start a company that will compete with Pemberley Digital. As a twenty-first-century relationship that is just beginning at the end of the series, Lizzie and Darcy’s relationship lacks the permanence that Elizabeth and Darcy’s has at the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice.
Despite the questions that Austen’s novel and the YouTube series raise in the middle of their narratives, both texts ultimately suture over these conflicts with happy endings in which the heroines attain both love and financial security. The continued popularity of Pride and Prejudice and the astounding success of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries suggest that these conclusions satisfy the audience’s desires. Why? We want to believe the closures of the narratives because they portray the successful balance we seek in our own lives. These texts model for us characters who achieve both ideological demands: financial stability and romance. As long as we experience this conflict between the demands of love and the demands of financial security, Pride and Prejudice will continue to attract new readers and generate new adaptations.
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