- "Not Usually a Gawker":Fame, Notoriety, and Austenian Youth Culture
At a nineteenth-century academic conference a few years ago, another female scholar and I spoke with a male scholar about our work. When I mentioned I worked on Jane Austen, the male scholar said, quite disbelievingly, "What does Austen write about other than romance?" The female scholar and I looked at each other in shock and, completely unplanned, both said at the same time, "Well, money." When the male scholar expressed more disbelief, we launched into quite the impassioned tale of the Bennet sisters, close to homelessness, and the Bennet mother, desperate for her daughters. What Austen writes as comedy, we said, was actually a bitter truth for so many women in the nineteenth century. Too middle class to go to work—remember, this is before the Hungry Forties and the great onslaught of Jane Eyres searching for governess positions—the heroines of Austen's novels, excepting Emma, of course, are desperate about money. Anne Elliot, whose blackguard father spends all his family's money on elaborate clothes and lodgings, the Dashwood sisters, reliant on the meager generosity of their step-brother, and Fanny Price, poor cousin, are perhaps less famous than the Bennet sisters, but all experience the same concerns of the nineteenth century: the strictures placed upon women due to class, socioeconomic status, and concerns over modesty.
Part of Austen's appeal in contemporary culture is that very romance the male scholar scoffed at: these Bennet sisters, for good or ill, exist in a world of seemingly make-believe: balls and dresses, handsome gentlemen in possession of good fortunes who, it must be imagined, are in want of equally handsome wives. The Bennet sisters, particularly Jane and Lizzie, seem to represent what it means to be a Regency woman. Except, of course, they do not, because what is often glossed over in contemporary retellings of Austen is the desperateness of the Bennet mother, with the inheritance of Mr. Collins looming over her. She and her five daughters will be practically [End Page 78] homeless if Mr. Bennet dies and the estate and little amount of wealth turn over to Mr. Collins, the next male to inherit. The sparks that fly between Lizzie and Darcy are not those of attraction—well, not entirely—but those of class; it is a truth not-so-universally acknowledged in twenty-first-century retellings of Austen that a handsome gentleman of good fortune is certainly not in want of a wife of Lizzie's class. Lower middle-class, living a provincial life that does no one any good, over-educated for their station and age but without the accomplishments of the Bingley sisters, Lizzie and Jane technically have very little chance of good marriages. The fairy tale of Austen is that good triumphs over class in the end, but we all know, especially in light of the reality of the Regency era, that it is just a fairy tale.
What is also often left forgotten are the concerns Pride and Prejudice raises over the titular pride, and prejudice, as well as gossip and social ranking. These aspects of social culture, however, transfer so easily to the twenty-first century, and through these aspects, I argue, we can understand contemporary teenagers as part of an Austenian youth culture. Claire LaZebnik's Young Adult (YA) novel Epic Fail presents an Austenian youth culture caught up in misunderstandings of fame. Like its nineteenth-century inspiration, Epic Fail responds to social anxieties regarding over-exposure of youth, and the dangers in the novel are the dark side of fame. The confusion over Darcy's character, the publicizing of Lydia's antics with Wickham, and the scandal of Georgiana are written as twenty-first-century concerns about youth culture's notoriety and their right to privacy in the contemporary age. Complicating these themes of teenagers' fame and notoriety is the metatextual fame of Austen's own novels, which have been lovingly incorporated into—and rewritten as—YA texts by many writers. Given the recent popularity of rewriting Austen, Epic Fail's concerns about over-exposure and the influence of fame are representative of...