The Chronicle Review

See Jane Bite

Katherine Streeter for The Chronicle Review

March 14, 2010

This year, Jane Austen is not simply timeless—she is undead.

Following the spectacular success of Seth Grahame-Smith's 2009 mashup novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, there has been a slew of vampire Austen books glutting the market. They include Amanda Grange's Mr. Darcy, Vampyre, which follows Darcy and Elizabeth on their action-packed Grand Tour honeymoon as Elizabeth gradually realizes that her new husband is not all that he seems; Regina Jeffers's Vampire Darcy's Desire, which takes place in a steamy alternate-reality version of Pride and Prejudice in which Elizabeth and Darcy practice sword-fighting outside Netherfield and fondle on the sly; Michael Thomas Ford's wry Jane Bites Back, in which an undead Jane with 200 years of publishers' rejection letters seeks revenge on a hack writer profiting off her name, sleeps with her sire Lord Byron, and battles an envious undead Charlotte Brontë; and Janet Mullany's forthcoming The Immortal Jane Austen, part of a two-book deal with HarperCollins featuring Austen as a Buffy-esque vampire slayer.

According to Nina Auerbach in Our Vampires, Ourselves, "every age embraces the vampire it needs," transforming the metaphor of the undead to articulate Western culture's worst fears and deepest fantasies. Ever since Lord Byron and the Romantics helped to popularize vampires, they have never quite left Anglo-American popular culture, inspiring everything from art-house films to undead pulp seductions. Recently vampires have arisen in all their otherworldly splendor to fascinate a new generation of readers and film viewers addicted to the Twilight series and True Blood. Since the Victorian era, Austen has been much hotter as a dead writer than she was as a living one, but why is she now living-dead?

"Austen is all the rage," the fictional writer of Waiting for Mr. Darcy confesses in Jane Bites Back. "You put her name on anything and it will sell." Scholars have long examined Austen's remarkable adaptability to fan fiction and film, but in the past few years, Austenmania seems to have intensified exponentially. There have been innumerable sequels and revisions to her novels (well over 30 of Pride and Prejudice alone, and most in the last decade) as well as recastings of her books in contemporary times (not only Clueless and Bridget Jones's Diary, but also the recent My BFF, Perfect Fit, A Little Bit Psychic, etc.) or fictionalizations of Austen fan culture (Lost in Austen, What Would Jane Austen Do?, The Jane Austen Book Club, Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, Jane Austen Ruined My Life, The Man Who Loved Jane Austen). There are soft-core-porn narrations of Elizabeth and Darcy's honeymoon, diaries by the Bingleys and the Woodhouses, Choose Your Own Adventure-style Emmas, foot-fetish Elizabeth Bennets, confessions by Colonel Brandon and Captain Wentworth, tales of Austen possessions and séances, and even a series in which Austen features as a detective. So beloved are her books that fans wish the texts would continue indefinitely and long for other versions to glut their Austenlust. You can't bury her; just when you think the market is oversaturated with Austenmania, she keeps rising again and again in a new incarnation.

The recent vampiric additions to Janeism not only feed on the Austen craze but also provide a metaphor for the wider parasitic trend itself. In a publishing climate in which Wal-Mart and Target lower the price of best-selling hardcovers to $9 in a desperate effort to lure readers, and Kindles are offering free e-book versions of the classics, Austen adaptations are a sure sell. Also a perennial are vampire seductions—Stephenie Meyer's books have sold more than 85 million copies worldwide, and Barnes & Noble now features a special vampire teen-lit section. Morph Austen fan fiction with the Twilight craze and you have the makings of a megahit.

So it is not surprising that in addition to two vampire novels featuring Austen herself, there are also two vampire Pride and Prejudice adaptations, a potentially unstoppable combination of one of the most popular love stories of all time and the biggest publishing hit since Harry Potter. Once one gets over the shock of Mr. Darcy with fangs or Jane Austen schtupping Lord Byron (he did, after all, draft the first prose vampire story in the English language), such unholy pairings make a certain amount of sense. There has always been something a bit Byronic about Darcy anyway, or perhaps Darcyan about Byron. Austen undoubtedly read Byron; she mockingly told her sister in a letter, "I have read the 'Corsair,' mended my petticoat, and have nothing else to do," and in Persuasion, Byron forms an eponym for a melancholic disposition and acute sensibility. In 1813, the year Austen published Pride and Prejudice, Byron published "The Giaour," which includes a description of vampires feeding on their own kin. Austen's Darcy and Byron's vampire Darvell share a common lineage, deriving from the Faustian figure of Gothic romance and the Wertherian hero of sensibility. Darvell, like Darcy, is "a man of considerable fortune and ancient family," with a fascinating and infuriating "reserve of ... manners" and proper pride in his heritage.

Wickham, in turn, bears a passing resemblance to Lord Ruthven in Polidori's Byron rip-off: They both feed on virgins and have a penchant for disastrous gambling, a tendency Regina Jeffers makes even more monstrous in her fiendish version of Pride and Prejudice. Janet Mullany, author of the forthcoming Immortal Jane Austen, concurs: "There are characters in Austen's novels who are clearly vampires—Willoughby, the Crawfords, and Wickham," she revealed in an interview. "They exploit and feed off others, they're amoral and handsome and they wreak havoc. So obviously Austen knew about vampires as well as sex."

"Austen and Byron, close contemporaries, beg to be talked about together, and frequently have been," observes Rachel Brownstein, a professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. "They seem to embody and invite and thus reinforce familiar binary opposites: male and female, free and constrained, celebrated and obscure, self-indulgent aristocrat and saving, respectable homebody; Romantic poet and domestic novelist, careless producer of endless versions and careful rewriter, oversexed and asexual, sinner and saint." In other words, ripe for an upyr romance novel such as Jane Bites Back.

But why do so many contemporary readers have—like Antigone—a "hot heart for cold things"? Once you get over the lack of a heartbeat, it's not difficult to see why. Vampires are the very essence of taboo eros, seductive and unreachable and otherworldly. "When I am from him, I am dead till I be with him," Sir Thomas Browne wrote of a friend in Religio Medici, expressing a sentiment that also pulses through contemporary vampire teen fiction. "United souls are not satisfied with embraces," he continues, "but desire to be truly each other; which being impossible, these desires are infinite, and must proceed without a possibility of satisfaction."

With vampires, even the embraces are an iffy matter. Edward Cullen can't get too close to Bella for most of the Twilight series lest he forget himself and feed. Likewise, in Mr. Darcy, Vampyre, the Dracula Darcy keeps his distance from his new bride, Elizabeth, offering up a variety of excuses for not consummating their love. (When she finally ditches him for a time in Venice, the reader heartily approves.)

Since the Romantics, vampires of both sexes have become increasingly seductive in fiction, from Le Fanu's undead lesbian Carmilla in the Victorian era to the Civil War veteran Bill in Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire Mysteries and their television adaptation, True Blood. In folklore, vampires tend to be squat, red-faced zombies, but literary vampires are incredibly good-looking and ageless as they feast on naked skin. When a revenant takes a second look at a heroine and decides she offers more than just a snack, the ordinary miss feels special, singled out by a more-than-man with preternatural powers (especially when he has a conscience, as vampires post-Anne Rice tend to have). In Vampire Darcy's Desire, for example, Mr. Darcy must learn to use his vampire powers for good, stopping time and hearts with the awesome power of his living-dead will and thoroughly vamping the independent Elizabeth.

In contrast, the zombie portion of the undead Austen trend seems geared toward male readers disgruntled by all the Austen chick flicks and adaptations with titles like The Man Who Loved Jane Austen. Thus, the blurb on the back of Grahame-Smith's blockbuster hit reads, "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you'd actually want to read." For all those who gritted their teeth through Austen in high school and college, there must be a certain satisfaction in reading about skull-crunching zombies chewing their way through Netherfield Park. The book also offers something for those looking for strong female figures: Grahame-Smith's Bennet women are so skilled in Asian swordplay that they could give Uma Thurman a run for her money in Kill Bill.

One of the most surprising aspects of the undead Austen trend is how it has in turn infected other parts of the canon with ungodly mashups and supernatural spinoffs. In addition to the inevitable Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Mansfield Park and Mummies, and Emma and the Werewolves, the discerning reader can now raven on The Undead World of Oz: L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Complete With Zombies and Monsters, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim: Mark Twain's Classic With Crazy Zombie Goodness, Android Karenina, Alice in Zombieland: Lewis Carroll's 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' With Undead Madness, and the Quirk Classics prequel to the zombie hit that started it all, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls.

Fiction, it seems, has become a giant Mad Libs game. What's next? War and Peace and Warlocks? The Brothers Karamazov and Klingons? History of the Decline and Fall of the Ogre Empire? The undead-Austen fad has resurrected the canon gasping on Kindle life support, and one wonders where it will all end. The vampires and zombies may die down for a time, staked and decapitated from the pages of Lit 101 and then left to crumble into dust in remainder bins. But not for long. We will undoubtedly see them again in a few years. The word "revenant," after all, literally means to return.

Purists will no doubt shudder, but Austen herself was not a snob about novels—as long as they had "genius, wit, and taste to recommend them." Oh, that's all. She thoroughly enjoyed the bloody horrors of Matthew Lewis's sexually charged The Monk and—as anyone knows who has read her Gothic spoof Northanger Abbey—she was also an avid fan of Ann Radcliffe and other "horrid" novelists, as well as of the works of Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott. Austen confessed in a letter, "I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life," but she did like to read them. In her youth, she also penned wild satirical tales having such lines as this: "I murdered my father at a very early period of my Life, I have since murdered my Mother, and I am now going to murder my Sister."

She might well have bristled, however, at the historical anachronisms in these sanguisage seductions and winced at the liberties taken with her characters (such as smutty scenes involving diaphanous chemises and hard manhood). Perhaps after reading all the Austen revenant novels, she might even have been tempted to quote from Vampire Darcy's Desire: "They are as awful as I suspected." But she would also, I imagine, have entered into the spirit of fun and granted her fellow novelists the right to craft bloodsucking fictions. "Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans," she wrote in her defense of the novel in Northanger Abbey.

Then again, this is also the author who said, "Abuse everybody but me."

Amy Leal teaches in the English department at Syracuse University and is working on a book about John Keats.