“Tell me,” asks Christian Grey when he first meets Anastasia “Ana” Steele in this week’s blockbuster 50 Shades of Grey, “Was it Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, or Thomas Hardy who first made you fall in love with literature?” After biting her lip for a moment (one of the character’s defining tics), she tells him that her favorite is Hardy, to which he replies, “I would have guessed Jane Austen.”
The exchange doesn’t exist in the books, where Christian somehow divines Ana’s preference for Hardy after she tells him that she would like to go to England someday “because it’s the home of Shakespeare, Austen, the Brontë sisters, Thomas Hardy.” I wonder if the screenplay writers for the movie saw what E. L. James did not – that while Anastasia Steele may identify more with Tess Durbeyfield than she does with Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennet, 50 Shades of Grey is so structurally similar to Austen’s novels that it could almost be a modern-day Pride and Prejudice. So what do we make of the connection between 50 Shades – recognized even by its defenders as no pinnacle of prose – with Jane Austen’s masterpiece? And can the enduring popularity of Austen help us understand the immense success of E. L. James’ trilogy, usually explained as coming from the accessible, low-fat kinkiness of the BDSM relationship between the main characters that barely covers up a modern Cinderella story?
The 50 Shades books were initially written as an alternate-universe Twilight fanfiction, and Stephenie Meyer, the author of Twilight, has claimed that the first book in her series is loosely modeled on Pride and Prejudice. In that sense, Jane Austen is woven into 50 Shades’ DNA. But James’ series actually hews closer to Austen than its source material. Like Pride and Prejudice, 50 Shades of Grey tells the story of a young woman who attracts a much richer man only to reject his initial, unsatisfactory offer. The two can only find happiness after the hero changes and compromises. (In a surprising reversal, in the third book of the series Ana saves Christian’s kidnapped sister, much as Mr. Darcy pays off Mr. Wickham to save Elizabeth’s sister Lydia.)
Much of the negotiation between the hero and heroine occurs through the medium of the written word: Ana and Christian find it easier to talk to each other through emails rather than face-to-face, and Pride and Prejudice contains so many letters that many scholars believe that Jane Austen’s first version of the book, First Impressions, may have been an epistolary novel. 50 Shades of Grey also shares this thematic concern with first impressions: Christian tells Ana in their initial meeting that his financial success is due to his ability to accurately assess people at a glance, but he soon realizes that he was mistaken in his first impression of Ana as a natural submissive.
In many ways, 50 Shades of Grey is truer to the spirit of Austen than the many erotic sequels written to Pride and Prejudice, including the parody 50 Shades of Mr. Darcy, which begins with the sentence “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that every man in possession of a good riding crop must be in want of a pair of bare buttocks to thrash.” The new movie’s casting of Jennifer Ehle – the lead actress in the iconic 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice – as Ana’s mother Carla seems like a brilliantly self-aware move: Anastasia Steele almost literally becomes the daughter of Elizabeth Bennet.
So is it any wonder that 50 Shades has been so successful? It combines the characters of Twilight, one of the biggest literary phenomena of the past decade, with a plot that playfully reimagines the central tension of Pride and Prejudice, one of the most popular novels of all time.
But while the popularity of Jane Austen may account for that of E. L. James, it also raises questions of its own. In fact, Austen’s enduring popularity might be an even bigger mystery than the blockbuster success of 50 Shades of Grey. It seems unlikely in the extreme that we’ll still be talking about 50 Shades of Grey two centuries from now.
While some might attribute that to the greater literary merit of Austen’s works, her sparkling dialogue and memorable heroines alone can hardly account for the fact that Austen has enjoyed popular success almost continuously for 200 years, inspiring countless film adaptations and unauthorized sequels and prequels. Why do modern readers feel so drawn to read and reread and reimagine books that are culturally situated so firmly in a tiny segment of nineteenth-century bourgeois British society? Why has Austen continued to feel relevant while her near-contemporaries, like Anne Radcliffe, now lie in relative obscurity? It’s too easy to claim that she’s just “better”— she might be a stronger prose stylist than Radcliffe, but her books are not necessarily more sophisticated or even more fun than Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones or Samuel Richardson’s Pamela.
For many readers Austen now largely stands in for an entire period in the history of the novel. While perhaps lamentable, this tendency is hardly new. The two most influential contemporary reviews of Austen’s work – Sir Walter Scott’s review of Emma in 1815 and Archbishop Richard Whately’s 1821 review of Persuasion – both preface their discussions of Austen’s novels with brief treatises on the merits of the genre as a whole. In the early nineteenth century, the novel (especially, although not exclusively, the female-authored novel) was considered almost as trashy of a genre as romances like 50 Shades of Grey are considered now.
Scott defends the novel on the basis that it brings people joy to read: “…[I]n truth, when we consider how many hours of languor and anxiety, of deserted age and solitary celibacy, of pain even and poverty, are beguiled by the perusal of these light volumes, we cannot austerely condemn the source from which is drawn the alleviation of such a portion of human misery, or consider the regulation of this department as beneath the sober consideration of the critic.” In other words, there’s nothing wrong with literary escapism, whether it comes in the form of upper-class British courtship or BDSM romance. And while Austen’s novels certainly offer gorgeous formal effects, what readers often take from them is more simple — gripping, sometime tortuous love stories. It’s a different pleasure, but not necessarily a lesser one.
It’s easy to criticize, mock, or dismiss 50 Shades of Grey – for its sophomoric prose, its two-dimensional characters, its depiction of a relationship that often seems more like abuse than an aspirational love story. But I wonder how many of those critics would deny having read and enjoyed the works of Jane Austen, and how much of their pleasure came just from the prose. It’s difficult to determine precisely what characteristics made either author into such a monumental success, to the degree that they both eclipsed their contemporaries to become exemplars of their genres. But E. L. James is a part of Austen’s legacy, and she shares Austen’s keen insight into what women want to read.
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