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Posts tagged ‘Pride and Prejudice’

[guest post] Pride and Prejudice and Socks


My wife is a mild-mannered Children’s Book Editor by day, and a chef, knitter, puppy mom, and editor some more by night. Tonight, to my surprise and great pleasure, she wanted to post some thoughts on character idiosyncrasy, because I am lazy and didn’t get around to writing a post and she’s kind and understanding to a fault, and totally not writing this. Please, welcome her first guest post here, and enjoy!


It could be the wool fumes going to my head. It could be that this past weekend was the first time in the months since a colleague mentioned ‘The Lizzie Bennet Diaries’ that I found myself a) in front of a computer, b) not working, and c) with headphones, and thus spent much longer than I’d ever intended watching video after video of Lizzie, Lydia, and Jane Bennet (and other characters) in vlog form.

But somehow, my first thought this morning (besides the usual bemoaning the alarm clock and general desire for coffee, a shower, and a productive work day) was “I really want to wear my new socks!”

These new socks I wanted to wear were not your standard, six-pack from Target, run of the mill socks. Oh no. These were hand-knit, multicolored in the skein, mostly-wool, sized-just-for-me, made-them-myself new socks. This weekend I had finished some work. I had remembered that long-ago mention of Pride and Prejudice for the internet age. I had only half the length of my (admittedly short) foot to go on the second sock. And so, dear reader, I finished it.

Hence my first coherent thought this morning. Hence the shoes I drew forth from the slightly haphazard pile of footwear at my desk. Hence the comment from a co-worker this morning: “Wow, you planned your whole outfit just to show off your socks, didn’t you?”

But truly? Until she pointed it out – that I had on black tights and a black dress and black ankle-boots and SCREAMINGLY BRIGHT HAND KNIT WOOL SOCKS – I hadn’t even realized that I was the sort of person who would do something like pick out an outfit to showcase a particular article of clothing.

I mean, I make stuff all the time. Mittens, hats, shawls that I wear as scarves, socks, etc. I occasionally get asked whether I’ve made something, like a scarf, that I’m wearing to a meeting or on the way out to coffee with work friends. But base a morning’s wardrobe choice around my socks? Not necessarily how I would characterize myself.

And that is what’s so great about characters. Characters walking down the sidewalk in New York, characters in vlogs, characters in books. Characters are everywhere, and characters everywhere are idiosyncratic. I wonder if we’d all love (I’m a children’s book editor – trust me, we all love her) Anne of Green Gables if she wasn’t delightfully idiosyncratic – if she didn’t name plants and places, or hate her red hair, or dramatize every incident and story she read, or talk copiously and at great speed. I wonder if we’d all shudder at Roald Dahl’s witches if we didn’t know that they had squared-off feet and blue saliva and were constantly scratching their scalps underneath the very itchy wigs they must wear? I wonder if Meg Murray would be half so appealing if we didn’t know she’d like a tomato sandwich and not the liverwurst and cream cheese one Charles Wallace offers to make for their mother? Would we find Katniss Everdeen as sympathetic if she hunted for her family simply to feed them and because she needs bow-and-arrow expertise for the plot, rather than realizing how much she loves being outside the fence around District 12?

Probably not.

One of the nicest things about surrounding myself with characters all the time – in manuscripts at work, in people I spend time with, in books on the shelves at home that I stare at longingly because there are always more manuscripts that need to become books and don’t allow much reading time – lies not in realizing how they work, or in being able to designate what constitutes a good character, or what makes for an uninteresting voice (though I do that too). It’s that characters are so delightful. And though in the books I work on and the books I enjoy reading voice and world-building are the aspects of a story that attract me the most, characters are what give those fictional worlds reason to exist, and what are behind the voices I’m drawn to.

And characters, whether they’re real or online or in books, are idiosyncratic. I am hardly through the existing videos of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, but just a little way in, it’s already clear that people playing along with the vlog feel strongly about particular characters (and not just that the man playing Bing Lee is adorable). The creators seem a little apologetic that certain viewers don’t like Lydia’s character very much, or even Lizzie’s. But guess what? The fact that viewers are able to like or dislike them, or find them annoying (for the record, I find the whole thing to be a lot of fun, and Lydia’s character in particular, like, totes adorbs) means that the writers and actors have done a good job in creating believable characters.

Because we all know what’s going to happen! I imagine that relatively few viewers of the LBD vlog haven’t read Pride and Prejudice, or seen the movie with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth (or even the Kiera Knightley version, if they’re willing to make life choices different from mine). We know that Darcy and Lizzie will end up together, his pride and her prejudice notwithstanding. We know that Lydia and Wickham are going to run off together (though I can’t imagine Lydia being ruined a good impetus for the Bennet family to panic if it’s set in the present day, so I’m looking forward to seeing how the show handles it). We know that Jane and Bing Lee, the two nicest people in literature, are going to reconcile despite Lizzie’s prejudice and Darcy’s pride. So why keep watching?

For some? Because we are (read: I am) total suckers for retellings of Shakespeare, fairy tales, and Jane Austen novels. I am there in the acknowledgements of Elizabeth Eulberg’s delicious Prom and Prejudice for a reason, and not just because we have been known to occasionally geek out over movie versions of Jane Austen together. But for anyone who’s not already a fan, or doesn’t know the plot inside out and backwards? It’s because the characters are so well done. For the LBD viewers complaining that Lydia is annoying and skipping over the videos that she posts – isn’t that degree of engagement with the character the point? She’s always inserting herself into Lizzie’s videos, so it makes complete sense for her character to take over Lizzie’s vlog when her big sister is away, or to post her own videos when she’s off staying with her cousin, because she loooves the attention. She goes so far as to create a twitter account for her cat! And Jane? Who always apologizes when she comes to talk to Lizzie and the camera’s on, and has to be dragged into participating with the re-enactments, even though most of the actual content being discussed on Lizzie’s vlog is about Jane’s life? Her character’s participation on the site is mostly pictures of outfits that she’s worn or wearing or planning to wear for a specific occasion. Silent, posed, unobtrusive photos. Because that’s in line with the character as written for the site.

So in a way, it stands out that Lydia would post videos on a site that’s supposed to be her sister’s vlog – yet it’s completely in line with her character’s personality. Or it’s interesting that when two of three Bennet sisters post videos, the eldest posts photos instead of vlogging. Also totally what that Jane Bennet would do.

Because characters, when done correctly, when written so that readers or viewers believe in them enough to root for them or complain about them, when they come alive, are idiosyncratic. They do or say or think things that don’t move along the plot but do underline the way they are. Other characters they encounter might be surprised by certain small traits they possess – but they’re believable in no small part because of those small practices and habits and private traditions and actions and thoughts that don’t mean anything except to them.

Sometimes characters surprise themselves with their own idiosyncrasies as much as they do their authors or readers. Sometimes they wake up and commute in to work and get halfway through their morning before a friend points out that they’ve dressed themselves with the single goal of showcasing their new, hand knit socks.


And here are those hand knit socks she mentioned:
Hermione's Everyday Socks

Negotiating the Borders of Intimacy and Imagination: Romance and Fantasy


Last week, I came across Jacqueline Lichtenberg’s Big Love Sci-Fi series of blog posts (part 1, part 2, and part 3). I had been thinking about how romance, sexual tension, and emotional intimacy is built and maintained in books, and so her suggestion that romance in fiction is actually a negotiation of the borders of intimacy particularly struck me. As I thought about it some more, I realized that in some ways the romance genre and fantasy are analogous. If romance derives its power from the borders of intimacy, then fantasy builds its sense of wonder from negotiating the borders of imagination.

Borders of Intimacy: A Framework for Thinking about Romance

Romance may well be the oldest genre in existence. Since before the written word, stories and myths were full of love, sex, and betrayal. And why not? It’s fun! It grabs our attention, focuses our minds, and gets our hearts racing. What’s not to like? Artists have known for millenia that sex sells, but the methods by which it’s portrayed are culturally dependent.

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice manages romantic/sexual tension very differently from Laurell K. Hamilton’s Guilty Pleasures. 19th century readers had different standards of intimacy: the kind of hot-and-heavy sex scenes we take for granted today would have been off limits back then. Even more graphic 17th century romances like Eliza Haywood’s Love in Excess; or, the Fatal Enquiry (which was called pornographic when first published) lack the overtly-described throbbing body parts of today’s sex scenes. Despite the changing standards of intimacy, romances from Ovid to Danielle Steele engage us by bringing characters to an emotional precipice, and then having them finally plunge over it.

The Facets of Intimacy in Romance

An overly-simplistic view of romance says that it’s just sex. But Jacqueline is exactly right when she says that a sex scene lacking emotional depth is just boring. In western culture, the physical act of sex has always been used as a proxy for other intimacies:

Aspects of Intimacy

Aspects of Intimacy

Marriage (which traditionally precedes sex) represents a type of familial intimacy: one person’s family opens up and accepts a new member, or two families join. Probably the best example of this is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Of course, the two families alike in dignity reject that intimacy. But nonetheless, the underlying tension of that love story rests on Romeo and Juliet trying – and failing – to negotiate that familial intimacy. Here, death plays the role that sex often does: it represents the culmination and climax of their negotiation.

A different type of intimacy is the philosophical or worldview model that Austen nailed so perfectly: both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility deal with the protagonists adjusting how they perceive other characters. This is a philosophical intimacy, where the climax is the moment of acceptance rather than the moment of marriage (let alone sex). For Austen, sex – of course preceded by marriage – is in fact the denouement, never shown but instead implied by her heroes’ betrothal.

Spiritual intimacy between characters can likewise be negotiated. Unfortunately, I had some difficulty thinking of romances that deal with this facet of intimacy, but ultimately I think Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is probably the most succinct example. Dagny Taggart’s relationships with Hank Rearden, Francisco D’Anconia, and John Galt all oscillate around her most fundamental spiritual values. While Rand might well have spit nails to see those values described as spiritual, there is no change in Dagny’s philosophy over the course of her relationships. Instead, the climax of these relationships is her finding her idealized counterpart, the impossible superman who personifies her ideals. If we were to swap Rand’s Objectivism for any religion, the relationships would still function the same way (though the plot’s MacGuffins would not).

The Borders of Imagination and the Fantasy Spectrum

If the core of romance is characters negotiating the borders of their intimacy, then I suspect the core of fantasy might be negotiating the borders of the reader’s imagination. Love titillates us because it speaks to something deep within our hearts, touching on our innermost desires, exciting us with the promise of fulfillment. But intimacy doesn’t lurk alone in the deep, dark corners of our soul. It shares those caverns with our imagination.

A romance hinges on the borders of intimacy between the story’s characters. Typically, that intimacy is indelibly linked to the story’s plot. For example, the plot of Romeo and Juliet would fall to pieces without the Capulets and the Montagues. But fantasy’s relationship with imagination tends to be slightly more removed from the story’s plot, and it does not need to rely so heavily on proxies the way intimacy often does.

The Borders of Imagination

The Borders of Imagination

Fantasies make us look at reality sideways, utilizing evocative imagery, secondary worlds, strange creatures, and magical powers to broaden our understanding of our own reality. Superficially, elves, monsters, and wizards are cool plotting devices that let us tell entertaining stories. Who doesn’t like magic and monsters? But beneath that surface level, they give us a new lens through which we can see an oblique picture of the world.

Imagination operates on a spectrum that describes a relationship between the story’s characters, the reader, and their environment. At one extreme we have our world, in all its mundane glory. It is at this end that we find mainstream literary fiction, where the world operates according to the real-life rules that govern our everyday existence. The range of plot options or the focus of characterization at this end of the spectrum is nearly limitless: we can deal with a plot-driven mystery, or a character-driven rumination. The focus can be narrow, internal, psychological or just as easily societal, philosophical, or spiritual.

At the other extreme we have a secondary world, where anything goes. A secondary world does not even need to have human characters – consider Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland. Immersive fantasies – which force the reader to suspend disbelief and to accept the prima facie rules that govern the secondary world – operate at this level. Just as with mainstream literary texts, their range of plotting options and focuses is nearly limitless. However, unlike mainstream literary fiction, immersive fantasies have the ability to use different rules of existence and their accompanying imagery to cast a different light on aspects of our reality.

Portals and the Broad World Perspective

If we start in our real world, then we can gain access to the rich imaginative vocabulary of the secondary world. But to do that, we have to take our characters from our world and bring them to the secondary world, typically through the use of a portal of some kind. In her excellent Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn conflates the portal fantasy with the quest fantasy, and while this works at the level of plot, it does little to explain how portal fantasies interact with the reader’s imagination. That’s because we can have an immersive quest fantasy that takes place in a completely secondary world (think Tolkien, Brooks, etc.), but the thematic, plot, and character focus tends to be different if we start in our world.

The moment our characters go through the portal, everything in their new reality is contrasted to our world. Whether it is in Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by starting the story in mundane reality we establish the reader’s (and characters’) initial state. Whatever imagery follows can then be related back to our real life, and can be interpreted as a thematic symbol. From a plotting standpoint, the secondary world is often thinned and ultimately by the climax of the book, comes back to some sort of eucatastrophe that leads to its restoration.

Intrusions and Narrow Focus

Intrusion fantasies – where the secondary world inserts itself into our reality – are the mirror image of portal fantasies. Consider Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, or China Miéville’s King Rat. Here, the secondary world is dark, dangerous, and forbidding as a general rule. Its intrusion into our own world tends to be frightening, disorienting, and leaves our heroes struggling to find their own place in the world.

Just as in the portal fantasies, the fantastical elements can be interpreted as thematic symbols. But the mood tends to be darker, and the focus of the story narrower. While portal fantasies tend to focus on the world at large and build towards eucatastrophe, intrusion fantasies focus on the narrower, private world of the principle protagonists. Rather than building towards a climactic eucatastrophe, they instead build towards a moment of personal climax/realization/rejection.

Liminal Fantasies: Philosophical by Design

Liminal fantasies either dance on the border between two worlds (like John Crowley’s Little, Big) or ambiguously hint at the existence of a secondary world (Graham Joyce’s How to Make Friends with Demons). In these cases, fantastical imagery is often used allegorically and the reader’s position relative to the events of the text is always ambiguous. Reading these books, we wonder if we are – in fact – operating within a fantastical reality? Or are we instead merely using allegory to highlight and comment upon philosophical, emotional, and spiritual considerations?

Understandably, the focus for such liminal fantasies is always narrow, focusing on the values of the protagonist. Their emotional climax typically lies not in picking a side: choosing our “real” world or the secondary world. Instead, it rests in becoming comfortable with that middle ground between the two. Acceptance on an emotional, philosophical or spiritual level, as opposed to the more conflict-oriented eucatastrophe or resolution.

Symbols, Imagination, Plot, and Emotion

While fantasy makes it possible to use a rich palette of imagery, fantasy is not merely symbolic: sometimes, a talking tree is just a talking tree. Plot is just as important as the underlying themes of a story, and images are used not just to represent values and thoughts in the real world. They can just as easily be used to evoke certain emotions, to raise tension and the like. What specific imagery we utilize should tie into our goals for a particular scene, whether those goals are emotional, thematic, or both.

And of course, part of the fun is when we combine aspects of romance (negotiating the borders of intimacy) with aspects of the fantastic (negotiating the borders of imagination). Fantasy and romance are genres that can contain multitudes, after all.

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