The new queer romantic comedy “Fire Island” features a multiracial cast and a slightly bawdy family vacation. It may not closely resemble its literary inspiration, “Pride and Prejudice”, but the film’s take on Jane Austen’s observations of class, power and relationships show how the novel, published in 1813, remains relevant today.
“People think of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ as a love story, and there’s a call for a beautiful romance in which two smart, attractive people meet at the end,” said Tara K. Menon, assistant professor of English, who first read the book as a teenager. “But in some ways it’s not about love at all. It’s about class and marriage and economic security. It’s really about money more than anything else.
Students in Menon’s courses, including “The Age of the Novel”, uncover the legal and financial realities of Austen’s world in the 19th century to better understand the social and economic decisions of its characters. “I provide context on, for example, primogeniture – the law that meant only first-born sons could inherit – to show how critical understanding of this law is to understanding the social dynamics of the novel,” a- she declared.
Alejandro Eduarte ’23, an English hub from Minneapolis, came away from “Age of the Novel” with a series of questions about the relationship between “Pride and Prejudice” and its historical setting.
“It’s a testament to the novel’s greater power that it can still force questions like: how is feminism configured in the novel? What’s going on with the way the British Empire’s activities work in the novel? It is a generative text in this sense.
At the same time, Menon argues that the emotional connection people feel to Austen’s work should not be dismissed as frivolous. In fact, it’s this deep connection that led to recent adaptations of Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Pride and Prejudice” (“Eligible,” featuring magazine writer Elizabeth Bennet living in present-day Cincinnati) and Uzma Jalaluddin (the contemporary Muslim romance “Ayesha at last”).
“There was a tendency to dismiss feelings, especially in graduate school, and to talk with people who said things like ‘I love Elizabeth Bennet’ or ‘I hate Mr Collins’ – to dismiss that as a really naïve, unsophisticated way of talking about fiction,” she said. “Since so many people read fiction like that, it’s actually more important to try to help people understand why they feel certain things about the text or the characters in the text.”
The timelessness of the characters — the calm Jane Bennet, the hard-breathing Mr. Collins, the cheerful Lydia Bennet — lends itself well to contemporary adaptations, Menon said. One of his favorite works inspired by Austen is the 1994 film “Clueless”, based on the novel “Emma”, due to his understanding of social types that transcend time. Another favorite is “Love & Friendship,” a 2016 film by Whit Stillman based on the novel “Lady Susan.”
“If you were to talk about Austen’s tone, I think the word I would use is something like cruel,” she said. “The humor isn’t sweet, and I think Stillman’s ‘Love and Friendship’ really captures that.”
Two centuries away from Austen’s earliest readers, Eduarte was pleasantly surprised to find that her high, arching tone stood out in “Pride and Prejudice.”
“Much of the direct speech of the characters in the novel, even if much of it is filtered by a certain class of people, still sounds humorous,” he said. “The way the novel portrays Lady Catherine de Bourgh, for example – we can always have hearty, complete laughter at her truly grandiose proclamations on seemingly every subject on the planet. We all know a Lady Catherine.
“In terms of adaptations, I can see that people will continue to draw endless inspiration from Austen because even though the novels are, in some ways, so specific to 19th century England, they are about characters, and especially about relationships, even aside from romantic relationships, which are part of almost every culture I can think of,” Menon said. “I don’t see those things going away anytime soon.”