Jane Austen conquered the world, or so Claire Harman tells us in the subtitle of her 2009 Jane’s Fame. What seems certain is that Austen has conquered the chick lit novel. A recent article by Marilyn Francus in Persuasions On-Line focused on two examples: Alexandra Potter’s Me and Mr. Darcy (2007) and Shannon Hale’s Austenland (2007). Francus argues that these two chick lits read Austen as romance, doing away with the socioeconomic tensions in her novels. Although Francus claims that Me and Mr. Darcy does not add anything to our understanding of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I would argue that both texts shed light on each other. Through the interplay of the gaze, Potter’s pastiche of Austen opens new (more feminist) possibilities in chick literature.
Me and Mr. Darcy follows that of a romantic comedy. Heroine Emily Albright has given up dating modern men. After various disastrous dates, she decides that the only men she is interested in are those in the pages of the classics of literature, for such men are chivalrous and trustworthy. Joining a Jane Austen literary tour in England for the New Year, Emily encounters two very different candidates: Darcy and Spike. Mr. Darcy—breeches included—appears mysteriously at some points of the novel, finally declaring his undying love for the heroine. Yet he has a strong competitor in Spike Hargraves, an attractive, albeit messy and absent-minded, journalist who is writing an article on why Jane Austen’s hero is most women’s dream date. Needless to say, Spike and Emily participate in constant quarrels, especially after he makes an unflattering comment about her, which she overhears.
Both Pride and Prejudice and Me and Mr. Darcy depict complex visual exchanges that elude conventional gender categorizations. In her ground-breaking article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey coined the label “the male gaze” to describe the act of looking usually exercised by men on women: by imposing his look on the actress, the male viewer turns her into an erotic object. Looking becomes spectacle, a source of pleasure derived from the contemplation of bodies on the screen (8). In Austen, however, onlookers belong to both sexes. Men watch women: Bingley praises Jane Bennet as “‘the most beautiful creature I ever beheld!’” (PP 11, my italics); as for Darcy, “turning around, he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own” (11-12). But women also exercise the power of the look: Miss Bingley delights in “watching the progress” of Darcy’s letter to Georgiana (47), a metonymy for her (sexual) gaze at Darcy writing the letter. Wickham similarly becomes “the happy man towards whom almost every female eye was turned,” Elizabeth’s included (76). Austen’s text, therefore, does not fit Mulvey’s notions, as the novelist empowers both sexes as subjects while simultaneously disempowering them as objects of the gaze. In Austen’s novel, no one gender has the exclusive control of the gaze.
Alexandra Potter’s depiction of the gaze could by one definition be considered more feminist than Austen’s, for it involves a straight gender reversal that privileges the female subject. In her relationship with her “fantasy” Darcy, Emily becomes the onlooker who imposes her gaze on the hero. This sexualization of Darcy’s body is part of a general trend initiated by Simon Langton’s 1995 adaptation for the BBC, as Lisa Hopkins as well as Mireia Aragay and Gemma López have noted. Hopkins, for one, defines the TV series as being “unashamed about appealing to women—and in particular about fetishizing and framing Darcy and offering him up to the female gaze” (112).
Whereas Pride and Prejudice gives almost no details about the hero’s physical appearance—just a reference to “his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien” (10)—in Me and Mr. Darcy he is repeatedly described for the benefit of the female eye, or mind’s eye. Every time Darcy materializes, Emily comments on how “tall and broad” he is and especially on his “thick black hair curling over his collar and dark eyebrows that look like two smudges of charcoal” (69). Additionally, the novel abounds in verbs of looking, especially during Emily and Darcy’s rendezvous. In their date at Winchester Cathedral, one of the tour’s destinations, Emily’s account emphasizes her visual dominance: “I stare at his shiny boots”; “I look up”; “I stare blankly at his impossibly square jaw with the sexy cleft in his chin”; “I glance surreptitiously at him” (112, my italics). This lack of balance in the emphasis on Darcy’s physique points towards a twenty-first-century prioritization of the female gaze, reversing the traditional power structures in which men are the primary onlookers and women the selfless objects.
If there were no further complexity, Me and Mr. Darcy would merely stand as a simplistic, albeit feminist, rewriting of Pride and Prejudice. Happily for Austen and chick lit fans, Potter adds another layer to her text by mimicking Elizabeth and Darcy’s confrontation through gazes. In Pride and Prejudice, the protagonists return each other’s gaze. Aragay and López note that, although Darcy exercises the pleasure of looking, Elizabeth refuses to be objectified (206). Her resistance is especially obvious in the Netherfield episode: Miss Bingley and Elizabeth, Darcy claims, may be pacing around the drawing-room “‘because you are conscious that your figures appear to the greatest advantage in walking’”; hence, “‘I can admire you much better as I sit by the fire’” (56). This instance, with Darcy imposing his look on the two young women—and comfortably sitting down as the typical male spectator—illustrates what Aragay and López describe as his “inquisitive and possessive” gaze (206). Contrary to the expectations for nineteenth-century females, Elizabeth resists the male gaze through humor and wit. She spiritedly tells Miss Bingley that the best way to punish Darcy is to “‘Teaze him—laugh at him.—Intimate as you are, you must know how it is to be done’” (57). By transforming Darcy’s gaze into a joke, Elizabeth undermines his masculine authority. But she too is an onlooker and has previously been observing Miss Bingley’s flirtatious attempts and Darcy’s dismissals (47).
Similarly, in Me and Mr. Darcy, in addition to Emily’s one-directional “attacks” on Darcy, there is a permanent combat between Emily and Spike (the “real” hero of the novel). An obvious example is the lift incident at the Old Priory, one of the first stops of the tour. Noticed first as a speaking voice, the journalist interrupts Emily’s conversation with the hotel manager, as she asks him about the nonexistent elevator: “But just as I’m about to correct myself, I hear a derisive snort behind me and someone mutters, ‘Americans, huh?’ . . . I twirl round and see him leaning up against the desk, arms folded, picking his teeth with a matchstick: Mr Asshole. I glare at him challengingly” (44, my italics). After glowering at Spike—a look far from Mulvey’s eroticizing gaze—Emily confronts him directly, but the hero returns the gaze: “he fixes me with his heavy-lidded eyes and adopts a bemused expression” (45). Not only is Emily glaring at Spike and Spike looking back, the rest of the tour members are also watching them: “We eyeball each other. . . . Everyone has stopped what they’re doing at the front desk and are now watching us like spectators at a boxing match” (45). Here, adding to the already complex visual dimension of the novel, the gazing hero and heroine are framed and turned into cinematic spectacle themselves.
The connections between Austen’s and Potter’s representation of gender interactions reveal the feminist potential of their texts. Pride and Prejudice and Me and Mr. Darcy disrupt not only the unidirectional tendency of Mulvey’s gaze and its gender bias, but also later theories of the gaze. Among them, Ann Kaplan is a prominent example: reversing Mulvey’s scenario, Kaplan claims that the gaze can be female as well. For Kaplan, however, female onlookers end up occupying a masculine position and become divested of their “feminine” qualities—kindness, humaneness and motherliness (29). Elizabeth Bennet and Emily Albright elude this redistribution of conventional gender traits, for despite wielding the look, they do not step into “male” shoes. Just as Elizabeth is kind while nursing her sister Jane, Emily worries about Maeve—a diffident fellow traveler in her fifties—and encourages her to be more social and courageous.
The heroines are also kind to those at whom their gaze is directed. Elizabeth shields Georgiana from Miss Bingley’s questions about Wickham’s regiment: while Elizabeth “answered the question in a tolerably disengaged tone,” “an involuntary glance shewed her Darcy with an heightened complexion, earnestly looking at her” (269, my italics). Elizabeth’s sympathy is mirrored by Darcy, whose grateful look is now different from Mulvey’s objectifying gaze. Emily is initially kind to Spike when she smiles as he gets on the bus: “Suddenly he looks right at me and I smile politely.” However, the mirroring effect here works differently: because Spike answers “with a filthy scowl,” the heroine feels “infuriated” and responds “by glaring right back” (40). Austen’s novel and Potter’s with it go beyond the static representation of gender roles and features implied by Kaplan and Mulvey, proposing a fluid sexual universe instead. The peak of Elizabeth and Darcy’s negotiation and redistribution of power is reached in the first proposal scene, where Darcy insults the heroine by exposing the inferiority of her connections while Elizabeth scolds him for his “abominable pride” and ungentlemanly manners (192-93).
Just as Me and Mr. Darcy stresses some of the gender complexities of Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s work sheds light on Potter’s and the chick lit genre as a whole. Undoubtedly, as Francus has pointed out, Me and Mr. Darcy shows the current romanticizing of Austen’s novels. Emily has idealized Darcy, so much that when the novel opens she wonders in despair, “Why aren’t men today like the men in books? . . . Just imagine being in a world where men didn’t steal your cab, cheat on you or have an addiction to Internet porn, but were chivalrous, devoted and honorable” (8). This comment sounds like typical chick lit material, in line with Kristin Billerbeck’s What a Girl Wants, whose protagonist, like Emily, feels the pressure of being single at thirty-one: “That’s a depressing day, when you realize Prince Charming isn’t riding in on a white horse, and J. Vernon McGee is starting to sound awfully handsome on the radio” (2). At the same time, Potter’s imitation of Austenian visual struggles makes her novel more complex, for it refuses to follow two commonly trodden roads: the Mills-and-Boon hero who sweeps women off their feet (by transforming them into the looked-at object), or the simplistically feminist heroine who casts her gaze on the male character. The Austen connection brings some dignity to the abused genre of the chick lit novel by showing it to be other than one-dimensional. Chick lit has often been found wanting as a feminist genre,1 yet Potter, through Austen, develops chick lit’s potential feminism.
So far Me and Mr. Darcy mirrors the gender tensions in Pride and Prejudice, but how does Potter’s novel differ from Austen’s? The key lies in language, for Spike, unlike Darcy, is a great speaker. In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy’s power is frequently undermined by his shyness and not so developed linguistic skills: “‘Mrs. Long told me,’” says Mrs. Bennet about the hero, “‘that he sat close to her for half an hour without once opening his lips’” (19). Darcy himself acknowledges his deficiency in fluency to Miss Bingley when she praises his speed: “‘You are mistaken. I write rather slowly’” (47). Even if occasionally he can write effectively (as in his letter to Elizabeth), Darcy’s linguistic power tends to fail in direct communication. In contrast, Elizabeth possesses a mastery of language. Darcy repeatedly listens to her conversation with others: while she observes the progress of Jane and Bingley, he looks at her and eavesdrops on her conversation with Colonel Forster. “‘Did not you think, Mr. Darcy, that I expressed myself uncommonly well just now, when I was teazing Colonel Forster to give us a ball at Meryton?’” she asks him, simultaneously exercising her power of language while commenting on it (24). Whereas, as Aragay and López observe, Elizabeth and Darcy’s persistent confrontation of gazes prevents her objectification (206), the hero and heroine’s unbalanced linguistic skills create an interesting power dynamics. This dynamics clearly favors the heroine, as the proposal scene analyzed above suggests: curiously, only Elizabeth’s voice can be heard in this passage, for Darcy’s remonstrance is mainly conveyed through free indirect discourse.
In contrast to Austen’s hero, Spike Hargreaves is linguistically competent, so much so that language becomes more important than looking in the novel, hearing more crucial than sight. As a journalist, Spike possesses highly developed verbal skills, and unlike Emily’s Darcy, he talks quite often. In the pub, he is said to be “deep in conversation” with one of the locals (93). Another instance is his telephone conversation that Emily overhears from the toilet, which includes an insulting comment about her. Obviously, at this point she is unable to see or even recognize the speaker; her interest lies purely in what is said (especially about her)—that is, she is focused on the voice and not on the image or physical appearance of the speaker. Hence, in this episode Spike becomes purely voice, temporarily losing his physical presence for Emily, in favor of his discourse.
This shift from sight to hearing in Me and Mr. Darcy implies a more contemporary interaction between men and women, where battles are not only visual but also aural. In fact, Spike is frequently perceived as a voice when he suddenly emerges from nowhere in the middle of Emily’s conversations with other characters. During breakfast, for example, Emily is curious to learn what black pudding is made of. The journalist appears unexpectedly and answers her question: “‘Dried cow’s blood,’ says a male voice next to me, and I turn sideways to see Spike pulling out a chair and sitting down” (106). Chick lits tend to put an emphasis on female language, for like What a Girl Wants and Bridget Jones’s Diary, they usually have a first-person female narrator. But the fact that both hero and heroine are defined in terms of their language in Me and Mr. Darcy separates the novel from mainstream chick lit, while bringing Austen into the twenty-first century through an adaptation of the battles she depicts.
Spike’s new model of masculinity also contributes to the modernization of Austen. Like Alex Wyler in The Lake House, he is a New Man, more deeply in contact with his own feelings.2 After Emily’s harsh rebuff, he protests, “[Y]ou didn’t have to be such a bitch about it. I do have feelings, you know” (231). Both Spike and Darcy are capable of feeling deeply, but while Darcy might also have uttered Mr. Knightley’s famous claim “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more” (E 430, my italics), Spike cares about others and has no qualms about showing it. For instance, he helps Maeve find her long-lost daughter and Rose, a retired and forgotten actress, have her picture hung next to Judi Dench’s. So, whereas Darcy frequently gives offence, Spike is generally esteemed by the elderly ladies in the tour.
Cheryl Nixon has connected Darcy’s lack of verbal skills in Pride and Prejudice and Langton’s adaptation with his emotional repression: “Darcy’s physical activities reveal the violence of his emotions while his longing stares restate his inability to express verbally those emotions” (31). In contrast, in a twenty-first-century context, Spike is a sensitive man, capable of articulating his feelings and not ashamed to do so.
Spike’s and Emily’s development in the novel differs from that of Darcy and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice. Undoubtedly, both Darcy and Elizabeth grow, as they realize how proud and prejudiced they have been towards each other. Yet Emily and Spike’s development is complicated further by their mutual rejection of sexual myths. If Emily’s idealization of Mr. Darcy represents a failure of perception, Spike is similarly flawed in his veneration of French women and his prejudice against the heroine’s American nationality. At the outset of Me and Mr. Darcy, Spike is dating a French girl, Emmanuelle, but their interaction—if analyzed in visual terms—is clearly indicative of future failure. Spike’s fascination with glamorous French girls is derived from film: “My first love was Betty Blue. I adored her. Passionate, sexy, French. Normal girls didn’t match up” (139). As the traditional male onlooker Mulvey describes, Spike simply imposes his gaze on Emmanuelle as he had on the actress playing Betty Blue. Both are turned into erotic objects, the images on display for the benefit of Spike’s sexual pleasure. As a result, Emmanuelle emerges as a stock character who simply delights in throwing plates or yelling at the journalist (139).
The lesson Spike and Emily have to learn, then, is the same: both characters must demystify their sexual ideals to have a “real” relationship, not one derived from the pages of a novel or the scenes of a French movie. Like Elizabeth Bennet, Emily refuses the power of Spike’s gaze, a response that suggests they could have a future together in Austen’s universe. Nevertheless, this refusal of mutual objectification ultimately frightens both characters, as the hero admits: “that would mean being in a real relationship. . . . I’m not sure I’m ready for that. To be honest, I think it scares me” (139).
While in Jane Austen’s novel socioeconomic disparities and the prejudices relating to them emerge as the main impediments towards romantic fulfillment, in Me and Mr. Darcy sexual myths are the primary obstacles. Darcy is rewritten as a sexual myth, and this kind of fabrication is revealed as shield against a “real” relationship. Mulvey describes the fetish, the worshipped object that triggers sexual desire, as “more reassuring than dangerous” (14). Such a fetishized love object becomes a way of dealing with personal anxieties and insecurities—fear of commitment and maturation. By idealizing English gentlemen and French women, Emily and Spike remain in a semi-childish state where adult liaisons are unnecessary, and the fetishized members of the opposite sex become comforting. Spike and Emily’s relationship is one between equals—and that is scary.
Thus, Alexandra Potter’s Me and Mr. Darcy modernizes Pride and Prejudice, exposing contemporary social maladies, and perhaps—to follow up Francus’s argument—proposing a therapy or cure: a demythologization of childish ideals. Me and Mr. Darcy reproduces the power dynamics of Austen’s novel. At the same time, Potter’s greater linguistic focus, her new model of masculinity, and her sexual demystification provide a commentary on contemporary gender relations. The two novels add meaning to each other: Me and Mr. Darcy brings some of the sexual and power struggles of Austen’s novel to the forefront. By emphasizing an aspect of the original that often goes unnoticed (the battle of gazes), Potter reawakens some of the gender complexities of Austen’s novel that, for the contemporary reader, lie dormant. Jane Austen is positioned as a protofeminist, a writer who eludes modern—and supposedly sophisticated—theoretical approaches.
Pride and Prejudice also enriches Potter’s novel and the chick lit genre as a whole. Potter’s mimicry of some of the debates in Austen’s text makes Me and Mr. Darcy more sophisticated than most chick lit novels. If Kristin Billerbeck’s What a Girl Wants opens like Potter’s, it concludes very differently: mixing the Mills-and-Boon and the sentimental novel, the hero confesses: “I adore you, Ashley Wilkes Stockingdale. When I think about going to Arizona without you, my chest hurts. It would be more than a desert for me” (293). Whereas Billerbeck suggests that this is what a girl wants, Potter complicates the picture. Through its Austenian connection, Alexandra Potter’s Me and Mr. Darcy complicates female desire and points towards a possible feminist future for chick lit—a future beyond naive and simplistic reversals, where the notions of gender, power and control are more open and fluid. We only have to hope that this road is followed. Mr. Darcy, after all, is not what modern women want.
1. These works are often criticized for avoiding big plots and presenting instead predictable stories where boy-meets-girl and the couple ends up happily together. Jennie Bristow, for instance, defines chick lit as “books about girls who want to be in love” (“Chick Lit to Smith Lit” 1), and Lola Young condemns the “cult of big advances going to photogenic young women to write about their own lives, and who they had to dinner, as if that is all there was to life” (qtd. in Bristow “Women’s Fiction” 4).
2. In “Persuasion Moves to Chicago: Rewriting Austen’s Classic in The Lake House,” I proposed that The Lake House was an adaptation of Persuasion in modern dress through its multiple connections with the original: characters, plot and themes. Alex Wyler, the modern Captain Wentworth, is, however, more sensitive and open about his feelings, which in conjunction with the representation of Spike Hargreaves, suggests a modernization of the Austen hero. In other words, twenty-first-century women want Austen’s heroes with a difference, and adapters are selective in the aspects they copy or rewrite.
Aragay, Mireia, and López, Gemma. “Inf(l)ecting Pride and Prejudice: Dialogism, Intertextuality, and Adaptation.” Books in Motion: Adaptation, Intertextuality, Authorship. Ed. Mireia Aragay. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005. 201-19.
Austen, Jane. Jane Austen’s Letters. Ed. Deirdre Le Faye. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1995.
_____. The Works of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.
Beineix, Jean-Jacques, dir. Betty Blue. Perf. Jean-Hughes Anglade and Beátrice Dalle. Cargo Films, 1986.
Billerbeck, Kristin. What a Girl Wants. Nashville: WestBow Press, 2004.
Bristow, Jennie. “Chick Lit to Smith Lit.” Spiked-Culture 8 Mar. 2001. http://www.spiked-online.com/Articles/000000005474.htm
_____. “Women’s Fiction: Piddling the Books. Why is British Women’s Fiction Such a Sensitive Subject? Interview with Lola Young.” LM July-Aug. 1999. Rpt. in Spiked-Culture 27 Feb. 2001. http://www.spiked-online.com/Articles/0000000054DC.htm
Cano López, Marina. “Persuasion Moves to Chicago: Rewriting Austen’s Classic in The Lake House.” Persuasions On-Line 29.1 (2008).
Fielding, Helen. Bridget Jones’s Diary. New York: Penguin, 1996.
Francus, Marilyn. “Austen Therapy: Pride and Prejudice and Popular Culture.” Persuasions On-Line 30.2 (2010).
Hale, Shannon. Austenland. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007.
Harman, Claire. Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2009.
Hopkins, Lisa. “Mr. Darcy’s Body: Privileging the Female Gaze.” Jane Austen in Hollywood. Ed. Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1998. 111-22.
Kaplan, Ann E. Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera. London: Methuen, 1983.
Langton, Simon, dir. Pride and Prejudice. Perf. Colin Firth, Jennifer Ehle, David Bamber, and Crispin Bonham-Carter. BBC/A & E, 1995.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18.
Nixon, Cheryl L. “Balancing the Courtship Hero: Masculine Emotional Display in Film Adaptations of Austen’s Novels.” Jane Austen in Hollywood. Ed. Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield. Lexington: U P of Kentucky, 1998. 22-43.
Potter, Alexandra. Me and Mr. Darcy. London: Hodder, 2007.