Book review

Pride and prejudice and zombies: The classic Regency romance—Now with ultraviolent zombie mayhem!, by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Craig B. Jacobsen

Mesa Community College, Mesa, Arizona, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Derivative novel; Zombie

Jacobsen, Craig B. 2009. Pride and prejudice and zombies: The classic Regency romance—Now with ultraviolent zombie mayhem!, by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 3.

Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. Pride and prejudice and zombies: The classic Regency romance—Now with ultraviolent zombie mayhem! Philadelphia, PA: Quirk Books, 2009. $12.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1594743344.

[1] It is early 19th-century England. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have five unmarried daughters, and though the Bennets are well enough off, at Mr. Bennet's death, his estate will go to a cousin, Mr. Collins, upon whose mercy Mrs. Bennet and the girls will be forced to depend unless the daughters can be made suitable matches. When rich and attractive Mr. Bingley moves in nearby, the unsubtle Mrs. Bennet works to secure a marriage for eldest daughter Jane. Bingley's boorish friend Mr. Darcy incites loathing in Elizabeth Bennet through his callous nature and past mistreatment of Elizabeth's friend, Mr. Wickham. Complications ensue, reversals are themselves reversed, Bennet sisters imperil their reputations, and in the end, three Bennet daughters have been matched with husbands. Oh, and there are some zombies. And ninjas.

[2] That is the basic plot of Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and, minus the zombies and ninjas, of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. The congruity is perhaps not surprising, but it is disappointing. Grahame-Smith's revision declines a thorough reimagining of Austen's work, an extrapolation of what would happen if Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy met in an England beset by the walking dead, and is instead simply what the title page admits: "The Classic Regency Romance—Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem." With ninjas. The result of Grahame-Smith's fidelity to Austen's plot is an amusing parody of the original, Pride and Prejudice with a few scenes of martial arts battling and zombie killing that highlight the sublimated conflict of the source novel.

[3] Regrettably, the derivative work's premise—that by the time Elizabeth and Darcy meet, England has been fighting off a plague of zombies for more than five decades—has far more potential than Grahame-Smith exploits. An infection that causes both the dead to rise from their graves and the living bitten to become zombies, a plague that makes it unsafe to travel the roads and requires the fortification of London, ought to have altered English society more significantly than it seems to have. The novel flirts with exploring the implications of this fundamental change. For example, the Bennet sisters have been trained in zombie killing by Shaolin monks. While the Chinese connection (and the Japanese ninjas who also appear in the novel) may seem forced, training in self-protection hardly seems far-fetched, given the circumstances. However, in Grahame-Smith's zombie-riddled England, martial training and the exertion required by it remain what they would have been in Austen's England: markers of the Bennet sisters' unsuitability for marriage into respectable upper-class families.

[4] Perhaps it is unfair to ask a book that clearly aims to be cute and goofy for a rigorous reexamination of Regency society under pressure from zombie hordes, but 300 pages is a long way to stretch one joke, and Grahame-Smith's work does so less successfully than some other of contemporary derivative literature, like Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair (2003), for example. The book never rises to the level of derivative works such as John Gardner's Grendel (1971) or even Gregory Maguire's Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (2000), but in a side plot, Grahame-Smith gives a glimpse of what the book might have accomplished without becoming overly cerebral or ponderous. As in Austen's original, in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Elizabeth Bennet rejects the advances of her cousin, Mr. Collins, even though marrying him would help ensure a secure future for her mother and sisters. In both the original and derivative works, Mr. Collins's attention then turns to Elizabeth's neighbor and friend, Charlotte Lucas, who cultivates his affection. In both works, Charlotte is driven by the practical considerations that drive marriage in her culture: she must secure the best marriage she can manage, regardless of romantic notions. Doing so means honestly assessing her prospects and pursuing suitable opportunities. While Charlotte's actions may seem mercenary and cold in contrast to Elizabeth's passionate emotions, they reflect a realistic response to her cultural context. Given that Charlotte is judged to be plain and aging, her pursuit of Collins makes sense. When Grahame-Smith adds to this Charlotte's awareness that she has been infected by a zombie bite, he integrates the zombie plague into the already existing social pressures that guide the characters' decision making. As the plot and Charlotte's disease progress, zombieism takes its place alongside sex, love, and money as things not talked about in polite society, even when they are obvious. Charlotte's subplot hints at what might have been if the zombies, and the idea of zombiness, were fully intertwined into the text as more than excuses for action scenes as characters travel from one Austen scene to the next. Sadly, the novel's central plot, Elizabeth and Darcy's relationship, remains largely oblivious to the zombies at the door. Despite their oft-mentioned martial prowess, Grahame-Smith's Bennet sisters are in the end married off, just as Jane Austen's are.

[5] Interestingly, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is likely of more interest to Jane Austen fans than zombie aficionados. The plotting, characterization, and much of the description is Austen's work—so much so that the book would be more accurately titled Pride and Prejudice (with Some Zombies and Ninjas). The zombie killing interludes inserted by Grahame-Smith don't detract from Austen's work; rather, they highlight that well-crafted scenes in which characters spar with words and react to subtleties of manner can be far more suspenseful than campy fight scenes and copious vomit. Although this may sound like the out-of-hand dismissal of a derivative work by a faithful defender of the Austen original, it is not. A more ambitious work would have been of interest both to Austen scholars examining the resilience of her work in the hands of subsequent authors, and to scholars of derivative narratives interested in the strategies used to craft such reimagined narratives. Unfortunately, there is likely more of interest to scholars in the book's astoundingly successful viral marketing campaign than in the text itself. The novel is a part of Quirk Books' Quirk Classics line, literature no longer protected by copyright deemed ripe for enhancement by the insertion of zombies, robots, aliens, monkeys, and other miscellaneous elements (Quirk's follow-on, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, reworked by Ben H. Winters, appears this month). Originally slated for a print run of 10,000 copies, the leak of the striking cover image and back cover blurb for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies led to its going viral, the book's appearance on the New York Times best-seller list, and 850,000 copies in print. Hollywood rumor has production companies vying for the rights to adapt the work. The book's success is a tribute to the power of viral marketing, enduring interest in Austen, and the current zombie zeitgeist.

[6] Zombie literature needs powerful and enduring works: the history of zombie narratives is dominated by important films and influential computer games. Book-length zombie literature has a sparse and inglorious history, with few texts that successfully exploit or explore the power of the zombie as metaphor. It can be done, as a work like Max Brooks's 2006 novel World War Z (which history may regard as the zombie genre's Dracula) demonstrates. Zombie narratives can make social commentary without losing a sense of humor, as in the film Shaun of the Dead (2004), which implicitly equates the routinized lives of the urban working class with the shuffling zombies invisible among them. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, coming as it does in the midst of a zombie renaissance, simply misses the opportunity to be something more than a clever title and a striking cover image.

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