Browse Tag by Pride and Prejudice
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Review: The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet

lizzie-bennet-diaries-book-coverIf you haven’t watched The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, do that before reading this review (I’ll wait). Produced by Hank Green and Bernie Su, the webseries is a compelling modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice told through videoblogs. As a broke, unemployed 24-year-old grad student, Lizzie is relatable, flawed, and funny, and the series focuses on more than just the relationship statuses of the Bennet sisters. I was – and continue to be – a huge fan of the show, participating in the fandom, writing a grad paper and contributing to the show’s wildly successful Kickstarter (my DVDs just arrived in the mail!) One of my favourite aspects of the series is its transmedia element: during the run of the show, active social media accounts for each character allowed the story to unfold over multiple platforms, and allowed direct interaction between the viewers and the characters; LBD’s transmedia storytelling even won the show an Emmy. The last transmedia frontier was a book, which publishes on June 24. A novel based on a webseries based on a novel? As much as I love the videos, I was hesitant at first – how much new material could the book really give? The answer: not as much as I was hoping, but I still enjoyed reimmersing myself back in Lizzie’s life, and I think other fans will too.

The novel is set up as Lizzie’s pen-and-paper diary, sectioned into days that follow the arc of the videos closely. At the end of some chapters, the corresponding videos are linked (in my ebook version, anyway) for those who want to track the diary against the original videos. I liked this touch, since it reinforced the transmedia roots of the series. However, sometimes I felt that these links didn’t allow the book to breathe on its own, since it allowed for no distance between adaptations at all. More than once I was surprised to see that there weren’t diary entries between some videos at all – surely Lizzie would have something to say about events significant enough to record in her videos?

My main complaint is, that for a novel that positions itself as Lizzie’s “means to express [her] most private feelings,” it doesn’t actually explore Lizzie’s inner emotions more than visible on video. Yes, deflection and avoidance are prime Lizzie Traits, but I felt like the book favoured rehashing canon events rather than exploring what Lizzie is actually feeling in any depth. For example, something that bothered me is that, while the majority of the novel is split into first-person diary entries, the chapters corresponding to episode 60 and episode 98 – the two Darcy “proposals” and huge moments in the original series – are verbatim transcripts of the videos. I understand that when you have these two very popular canon scenes, it is a lot of possibly redundant work to recap these events in a new way or perspective, but I didn’t appreciate the break from Lizzie’s internal monologue to have these transcripts slotted in, especially when the next diary entries are days after these events; I felt cheated of Lizzie’s internal struggle and immediate feelings.

Another irritation I had was that characters, especially Lizzie, didn’t feel developed any more than we’ve already seen them on video. I understand that a lot Lizzie’s characterization work has been done already and entirely new traits and hobbies would be obvious retcon, but to me, it felt kind of lazy. I actually found Lizzie to be flatter than in the videos; I suspect this is because I didn’t feel that the novel was told in Ashley Clements’ voice (which is funny, since Bernie Su and Kate Rorick were both writers on the series). Lizzie likes: books, school, and presumably watching Youtube, although this is mentioned so in passing in her diary that it’s laughable (“I’m a fan of the Vlogbrothers and other videos of this style, so it [videos] can’t be too hard to produce, right?”). Along these same lines, the novel would have been a great opportunity to expand on places and events outside of Lizzie’s bedroom that the viewer never gets to see because of the inherent limitations of the vlog. However, this is another opportunity wasted: it turns out what Lizzie does when not making videos or participating in awkward Darcy run-ins or sister drama is go to the library, a lot. The amount Lizzie visits the library approaches Hermione-like proportions: she seems to spend almost every waking non-video moment there over the summer. It feels like they needed to make her do something, and settled on this; whatever the reason is, it gets kind of boring. Similarly, there are few descriptions of unseen locations (a notable exception is Lizzie’s house-sitting gig in San Francisco, which seems too good be to true). An actual line: “Netherfield is gorgeous; I’m sure I don’t have to elaborate.” Actually, this would have been a great place to elaborate, since all the viewers saw of it was one purple bedroom!

The novel dispelled many of my personal headcanons, but that is to be expected, and there were some nice surprises: we learn where Lizzie got her idea to start vlogging and where her camera comes from, more about her home life and time spent jobshadowing, and exactly when her feelings for Darcy start. There are couple juicy nonvideo plotlines and information, such as new insights into Jane and Bing’s relationship, Darcy’s letter, and seeing Lizzie’s parents in more depth. Other details – such as Caroline’s job, what was happening with Bing’s med school, and why Lizzie didn’t watch Lydia’s videos – are also given, but felt more filling in obvious plotholes, but I appreciate that the authors addressed it, all the same. If you are looking for final authority as to what Jane’s indescretion was, prepare to be disappointed.

Despite my complaints, the book really is enjoyable. There are many running jokes and fandom references (Seahorse count: 1), and I sincerely hope that the line “My phone lit up like a Christmas tree” is a TFIOS allusion.

Agreed, tumblr user makeyourdeduction, agreed.

 

There is a lot more Darcy, since, without Lizzie being limited by the camera, we can live her accounts of the Most Awkward Dance Ever, every uncomfortable Netherfield moment, and the San Francisco tour first-hand – all entertaining, all primed to show how skewed Lizzie’s perspective is. I think my favourite part of this book was the fact that two new bonus LBD videos were produced to promote it; whatever that might say about the quality of the book itself, it was worth it for that new content alone. Overall, it was a delights to spend more time with Lizzie Bennet and I hope this isn’t the last we see of her.

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Longbourn and Pride & Prejudice

Longbourn (Random House of Canada) is a delightful revisiting of the Bennet household, examining social questions and historic conflicts in a different light than Pride and Prejudice.

The novel follows the Bennets’ below-stairs help, particularly the housemaid Sarah and her relationship with the new manservant James. Besides an interesting servant’s perspective of the Bennet family, other new characters and downstairs drama add colour to the classic novel.longbourn-cover-1

Longbourn is true to Pride and Prejudice and Baker’s attention to detail allows the reader to easily map the events of the novel to the original. I learned a lot about how housework was done in Regency England – I’m quite thankful laundry no longer involves handwashing everything in vats of boiled water and lye. Despite Baker’s obvious love for the novel, I’m not sure if I liked the histories she invents for some of the original characters, Mr. Bennet in particular; however, I accept that our headcanons are different. One addition I really enjoyed was the character of Ptolemy Bingley: the dynamic he brought helped broaden the scope of the novel beyond the Bennets’ kitchen, where I felt a lot of the action was (fairly or unfairly) centred.

Baker’s novel is a wonderful retelling of  Pride and Prejudice with a Downton Abbey twist. I enjoyed seeing the Bennets from the perspective of someone who might not hold them with the same kind of reverence as modern fans might (although it was a relief that Elizabeth and Jane, at least, passed the test). Longbourn captures what I love about Pride and Prejudice and creates a rich look at love, work, and ambition in a Regency-era household.

I was fortunate enough to win tickets to Jo Baker on Pride and Prejudice, thanks to Random House of Canada and Indigo Events. The event was wonderful; following a screening of Joe Wright’s 2005 film Pride and Prejudice, Jo Baker and Eleanor Wachtel (host extraordinare of CBC’s Writers & Company and TIFF’s Books on Film series) discussed both Baker’s new novel Longbourn and the film adaptation.

It was not my first time seeing this version of Pride and Prejudice (far from it), but my first time seeing it in theatres. The film was beautiful as always. During the opening remarks, Baker said that what she enjoyed about Wright’s movie was that it was “grittier” than most period films since it showed the dirt and livestock that were a part of everyday life. She suggested that this time around that we pay attention to the servants in the background, and the handkerchief. Baker considers the scene which follows a housemaid – the equivalent of Sarah in her own Longbourn – singing softly to herself as she moves throughout the Bennet house a “beautiful moment.” It was wonderful to see the movie on the big screen; the audience lent a new energy to the film on my umpteenth viewing and reminded me how funny this version actually is (possibly my favourite audience member was the man who had clearly not seen the movie before and laughed loudly at the funny parts).

Eleanor Wachtel interviewing Jo Baker. Photo by Monique Mongeon
Eleanor Wachtel interviewing Jo Baker. Photo by Monique Mongeon

Following the film, Eleanor Wachtel interviewed Jo Baker, with the conversation ranging from where Jo Baker’s interest in service came from (her grandmother was a housemaid), on what subject was her Ph.D thesis (Irish literature, particularly Elizabeth Bowen, who writes about the country house and social class in a manner not totally divorced from Austen), and whether Baker would consider adapting another Austen novel from the perspective of the servants (no). When Wachtel noted Baker’s apparent fondness for Mr. Collins, she said she could relate to his awkwardness: “We all have awkward moments, his is just lasting a lifetime.” Following the interview was a Q&A and a signing. It was wonderful to spend an evening in the company of so many people who love Pride and Prejudice.

You can watch Jo Baker talk about Longbourn here.