The Modernization of Elizabeth Bennet

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune… must be in want of a wife.” One of the most well-known lines in literature has been reiterated once again—except that this time, it’s plastered on a bright fuchsia T-shirt.

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So begins The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012-2013), an Emmy-winning web series that reworks Pride and Prejudice for the modern age, featuring an endearing but sarcastic twenty-something Lizzie Bennet played by newcomer Ashley Clements.

In the series’ opening moments, Lizzie defiantly mocks the hideous fashion statement that, she tells us, had been gifted to her and her sisters by her Southern-accented, “crazy” mother the previous Christmas. Following this parodic introduction of Mrs. Bennet’s age-old aphorism, the 100 episodes of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries unfolds as a first-person video web log, or “vlog,” offering 3-minute glimpses into Lizzie’s young adult life. In the vlog, Lizzie narrates to us, her online audience, the trials and tribulations of her educational, economic, and social woes as “a 24-year-old grad student with a mountain of student loans, living at home, and preparing for a career.” (Sound familiar, dear reader?)

“Who am I? I’m a 24-year-old grad student with a mountain of student loans, living at home, and preparing for a career. I like rain, classic novels, and any movie starring Colin Firth. I’m in grad school studying Mass Communications, so I read a lot, I write a lot, and especially at this moment,  I talk a lot.

So that’s me!”

In this contemporary rendition of Austen’s classic, Pemberley Digital‘s The Lizzie Bennet Diaries re-interprets Austen’s familiar girl-meets-boy tale for the new millennial generation. It revises the witty and subtle dialogue of Austen’s ballroom scenes into the self-ironizing repartee of Lizzie’s confession-style posts reminiscent of reality television. While Lizzie directs and stars in these homemade videos, her best friend Charlotte Lu and her two sisters, Jane and Lydia, are often prodded into becoming her partners in crime. Jane, Lydia, and Charlotte act as Lizzie’s confidantes throughout the series. But they are most often corralled into being reluctant participants in Lizzie’s exuberant “costume theater” re-enactments, through which she re-tells events through her own distinctly Lizzie-colored glasses.

costume theater

While I could write an entire book (and maybe I will!) about how The Lizzie Bennet Diaries enters into the long-running phenomenon of Austen adaptations, what I thought I would share in this post are a few of the insights that I think LBD can offer for the contemporary undergraduate classroom.

I had not known about LBD for very long before choosing to include it as part of a class I designed in Fall 2013, an entry-level course for prospective English majors heralded as an Austen seminar, titled “What Would Jane Do?: Austen and her Audiences.” In this course, we read three novels—Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Persuasion—and watched at least one adaptation of each text. Since this was a composition-heavy rather than a strictly literature-based course, we ideally could have read more, but both time and the students’ tolerance for reading simply did not allow. Nevertheless, we had ample room in the syllabus to explore the interesting modern phenomenon that is today’s Austen-mania.

My students—and I—deeply enjoyed watching and discussing the two film versions of Pride and Prejudice that I had assigned for the course: Simon Langton’s famous six-part BBC miniseries starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth (1995), and Joe Wright’s Hollywood version with Kiera Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen (2005). Set in comparison, these two renditions worked well together, especially pandp2005_proposal2wwhen we examined their various takes on key scenes: the dance at Netherfield, the proposal, the visit to Pemberley, the closing act. The students swooned, as they have been programmed to do, at Colin Firth’s sexy lake plunge; they laughed, as I hoped they would, at Macfadyen and p&p2005-templeKnightley’s climactic confrontations. We simultaneously relished and scorned the lovers’ impassioned, rain-soaked spat, set so wonderfully with unrealistic, dramatic gusto—outdoors in the midst of a rainstorm, yelling at each other, their heated battle conveniently accented by clashes of thunder and lightning.

When it came to the Lizzie Bennet Diaries’ quite different approach to this tale, the students at first had mixed reactions. (To give them credit, it takes about as long to watch the 100 online episodes as it does to enjoy the entirety of the BBC drama, and I’m not sure all of them made it the entire way through.) For the most part, they enjoyed the development of the Jane/Bing Lee relationship as well as that of Lizzie and Darcy. There was less that was “new” to be said, though, of these romances than there was to be discussed about the other aspects of Austen’s novel that LBD brings to the foreground. These aspects included Lizzie’s relationship with her sisters, and Lydia’s fall at the hands of George Wickham.

As in Austen’s narrative, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries highlights the turbulent love and lust of the on-again/off-again love relationships, delighting viewers as the hipster-typed Darcy becomes more appealing and less snobbish, and satisfying us when Bing Lee finally admits he has messed up and wants to follow his adored Jane to New York City for her new job. But despite its faithful love-story impulses, the true emotional crux of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries falls to the love affair between sisters, rather than lovers.

The students quickly noticed this shift, and it guided us to re-think the importance of Austen’s sisterly relations.

In episode two, “My Sisters: From Problematic to Practically Perfect,” Lizzie formally introduces these sisters who will take precedence throughout the series.

Tlydiahere’s the youngest sister, Lyida: bubbly, energetic, and overly exuberant—whom Lizzie is “very proud she’s now too old to be on any reality shows about having babies in high school.”

janeAnd then there’s the kind eldest sister Jane, whom Lizzie teasingly marks as the syrupy sweet one, “practically perfect in every way.”

Together, the three redheaded Bennet girls occupy comically stereotyped sibling roles, a typification of which the show remains poignantly self-aware: “That’s right,” Lizzie ironizes, “I’m the dreaded middle child! Doomed to a life of drug addiction, irresolute drinking, and out of wedlock pregnancy!” Even though they’re translated into twenty-first-century terms, these personality differences between these Bennet sisters made apparent for my students the kind of diverse sibling roles that originated with Austen’s novel.

Lydia and Jane "take over" the video post in episode 5.
Lydia and Jane sneak in and “take over” the video diary.

By watching The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, my students began to pick up on the centrality of such relationships in Austen’s original. While they had all been trained to follow the storyline of Elizabeth and Darcy—even those who had never read the novel or watched an adaptation intuitively “knew” the storyline from its cultural currency—they now re-considered their appreciation for the family dynamics in Austen’s story. (For those of us looking for the missing Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 3.22.18 PMtwo Bennet girls: Mary is cast in the role of mopey, “emo”/goth cousin who appears only in a subsidiary video series produced by Lydia; and Kitty is…well… a kitty.)

Jane, Lydia, and Lizzie endure a variety of familial and personal dramas together, from Bing Lee leaving suddenly without explanation to the family home being remodeled (displacing the girls, conveniently, to Bing’s home at Netherfield) to money troubles threatening the future of the Bennet household. While Austen’s Elizabeth confides in Jane and finds comfort in their many conversations, LBD’s Lizzie records such conversations with a frequency and honesty that reminds us of how important that sister relationship was to the original.

In focusing us on these family-oriented aspects of the novel, LBD importantly also shifted our sense of an ending. While the BBC and film versions of Pride and Prejudice concluded with romantic, sensual, and even erotic registers of physical intimacy between the newly-conjoined Elizabeth and Darcy, the Bennet Diaries reminds us just how important it is for Elizabeth Bennet to be situated amongst her family at the end: Jane lives nearby, the Longbourn home is a short visit away, the Gardiners are now welcome at Pemberley.

In LBD, the final sign-off is provided by Lizzie herself, with no Darcy in sight. As we know from the previous episodes, Lizzie has already turned down Darcy’s offer to work at his burgeoning video company, though she’ll be working in the same city and starting a tentative romantic relationship with him. In the final episode, Lizzie not only affirms her independence—paralleling the feminist impulses we so often desire to uncover in Austen’s text—but ends her video diary log along with final visits from Lydia, for whom she has a newfound appreciation, and Charlotte Lu, her best friend and former editor/co-producer. Lizzie confirms in this final video just how important her family and friends have been to the core of her journey and all its drama.

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Lizzie says goodbye with an emotional “Thanks” to her viewers.

Perhaps the most useful pedagogical offering from the entire LBD series, however, resides in the Lydia-Wickham saga. For students who consistently register nineteenth-century narratives as having taken place in a far-off distant universe known as “Ye Olden Days,” Lydia’s elopement subplot never seems to register. With LBD’s fresh (and refreshing) interpretation of Lydia’s scandal, its modern comparative aids tremendously with students’ abilities to comprehend just how surprising, significant, and even horrifying that elopement was—and is.

While it begins as a typical flirtation, Lydia’s relationship with George develops into genuine affections that we witness off-stage—she then starts her own spin-off video diary so that we can follow her and Wickham’s budding relationship. Soon, however, Lydia becomes unintentionally entangled in a scandal that threatens to expose her reputation of being a superficial flirt into something much more seedy.

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After several weeks of dating (we find out after the fact) Wickham had convinced Lydia to make a video of a certain…er… “questionable” nature. Unbeknownst to her, however, he has also published a website to solicit monetary subscriptions for the public release of said video. Horrified when she discovers what she thinks her sister has done, Lizzie turns on Lydia, lecturing her and reprimanding her for not realizing that “the internet is forever” and badgering her for such blatant irresponsibility. But when Lydia reveals her own shock at finding out about the site, Lizzie realizes she must now protect and comfort her sister rather than censure her; Lydia has been the victim, not the culprit.

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Lizzie comforts her distraught sister, Lydia

In this age of TMZ, with tabloids seeming to publish celebrity sex tapes on a rotating basis, this version of sexualized betrayal may seem like it would not faze our already desensitized students. But The Lizzie Bennet Diaries has found a successful way to pull at our heartstrings and disgust us with the threat of poor Lydia’s undoing.  My students genuinely “got it,” and they finally understood why the original Lydia’s failed elopement, and the resulting forced marriage, were such a “big deal.” The series not only makes us thoroughly shocked by Wickham’s actions but allows us to understand just how easily an unsuspecting, and even well-intentioned, girl might find herself embroiled in a situation not of her own making. Lydia’s foolish exuberance, easily mistaken for pure recklessness, is exposed as something that is much more nuanced, sensitive, and complicated.

This, in the end, is the crowning achievement of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Taking material that has already been so thoroughly churned through the machinery of Hollywood, LBD takes Austen’s story and dresses it up anew. Yet it does not simply translate an Austen tale into contemporary terms, as perhaps was done with the 1990s cult classic Clueless, in an effort to intrigue modern viewers by telling the same story in contemporary terms. More importantly—whether consciously or not—The Lizzie Bennet Diaries sheds light on material that we have lost over the years. With the legend of Darcy-mania always filtering our readings of the novel, never quite allowing us to approach the tale with a blank slate, the Bennet Diaries returns us to Austen’s original with a new lens, one that points incessantly back to the family of sisters who have always been so intrinsic to the tale, but whom we might have started to forget on our (narrative) way to the altar.

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