Jane Austen fans everywhere are rejoicing. The famed author of Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Persuasion, among others, has released a new book this past weekend.
Or rather, it is an old book updated to fit modern tastes. With modern changes in values and the arrival of feminism, many readers have complained that Ms. Austen’s works are sexist, portraying weak, helpless and poor women who must vie for the attentions of handsome, capable and wealthy men.
“There’s no doubt Ms. Austen has literary talent,” assents Joanna Willoughby, leader of the New York City, NY chapter of the Jane Austen Society. “But she must learn to loosen up and be more relevant to today’s women. Otherwise she stands to lose her timelessness. I foresee a huge reduction in book sales and a lessening interest in films based on her work if she does not start to change her tune.”
In response to these accusations, Ms. Austen has released an updated version of her book, Pride and Prejudice, renamed Humility and Tolerance. “I am most excited to see how it is received,” says the writer. “I aimed to appeal to the gender bending sensibilities of our modern age.”
The novel tells the story of Elias Bennett, a poor, unmarried young man who has four unmarried brothers: John, Marius, Carlos, and Lyle. They live with their parents, hyperactive Mr. Bennett and antisocial Mrs. Bennett. (“Mrs. Bennett!” sobs her husband in one scene, “You have no compassion for my feels!”) The family is delighted to hear that Miss Charlotte Bingley is moving to the neighborhood, Charlotte is a rich heiress who has a younger brother, the scheming and mean-spirited Carl. John and Miss Bingley take a liking to each other right away, but Carl is determined that his sister will not waste her fortune on such a lowly man.
With the Bingleys come their friend, Miss Darcy. Miss Darcy is even richer than Charlotte, but she is extremely humble. She dresses in rags and her house, Pemberley, is in ruins because she deems it too prideful to make repairs. Her money languishes in a bank, building up every year. When she and Elias Bennett meet, there are fireworks, but not for the right reasons. “He is too tolerant,” Miss Darcy says to Charlotte, “and far too handsome to be interested in me. I am a lowly worm, and of no consequence to gentlemen who see the good in all ladies.”
Throughout the book, we see that Miss Darcy’s extreme low self-esteem frustrates Elias’ tolerance of everyone and everything. Miss Darcy cannot believe that Elias would stoop to such a low as choosing her. Elias, on the other hand, wishes that she would be kinder to herself and to use her money for the good of society. Miss Darcy refuses, stating that “my pride once lost is lost forever.”
Excitement arises when the ballet troupe comes to town, which captivates Elias’ younger brothers Carlos and Lyle – wild, silly womanizers who, egged on by their father, go to see the ballet dancers perform in the town square. The prima ballerina of the group, Miss Wickham, is a middle-aged cougar who soon steals Lyle’s heart. The Bennett family is at first excited to entertain such a notable guest, and Elias’ generous spirit glazes over Miss Wickham’s rather creepy pursual of his brother. Miss Darcy, however, acts cold toward the prima ballerina, which annoys Elias, who perceives Miss Darcy as being intolerant and jealous.
Things get awkward when Reverend Collins, a distant relative of the Bennetts’ and the first female vicar in the country, comes to visit. Miss Collins wants to marry, but no men have given her the time of day because her role as a clergywoman is such a controversial position (she also has a very unpredictable temper, insulting everyone she meets.) She decides to try her luck at the Bennet household. Mr. Bennett enthusiastically welcomes her, but Mrs. Bennett sees her as strange and infeminine. Elias is rather taken aback when Miss Collins proposes to him, and when he refuses, she flies off the handle and suffers a nervous breakdown, enraged because no men want her. She finally elopes with Elias’ friend Charlie, who is getting up in years and will take anyone.
Chaos ensues when Lyle runs away with Miss Wickham, making Elias realize that his tolerance of her was wrong. He confides in Miss Darcy, who reveals that the cougar once tried to make off with her younger brother Georgie for his money. (Georgie at the time was still in primary school – homeschooled, because his sister deemed it less ostentatious.) Miss Darcy swears to make the situation right, and decides to put off her humble lifestyle for once in order to use her wealth and power for good. She uses her connections to find Miss Wickham and Lyle in London, and she breaks out of character to duke it out with Miss Wickham, who finally agrees to marry Lyle after a few bloody noses and some extra cash. They are married and all is well.
Elias and Miss Darcy finally realize that they are in love, and they get married in a double wedding with John and Miss Bingley. Miss Darcy finally makes repairs on her house (which was on the verge of being condemned) and she and Elias open a school for boys.
Ms. Austen agrees that there are some purists who might be outraged at what some have called a “mutilation” of one of her most beloved works. The author, however, keeps a cool head.
“The person,” she says, “be it a guy or a woman, who has not pleasure in this reworked novel, must be intolerably sexist.”
Who are we to disagree?