Jane Eyre, Lizzy Bennet, and Jo March Walk Onto a Stage: Remixing a New Canon of Heroines

By
Share:

Last night I saw You on the Moors Now , an experimental play currently running in New York City’s Greenwich Village, which cannily combines characters and plot points from four novels: Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. The story, such as it is, consists of the respective heroines banding together after spurning their various suitors. They end up camping out on the moors. Meanwhile, they are pursued by the rejected men, themselves united in an attempt at revenge, or requited love, or some other concession. The cast features a delightfully queered Mr. Darcy, a manic Jane Eyre who longs to travel in space, a Cathy Earnshaw with unexpectedly pronounced leadership qualities, and sundry twists and gimmicks which wouldn’t have worked if much of the audience didn’t have a basic understanding of at least a few of the four novels.

A cast of jeans-clad secondary characters switch in and out of minor roles, giving pleasure to audience members like me who know lots of inside-baseball (or inside-drawing-room) references: four-and-20 families is the number of people Mrs. Bennet brags she dines with. Nelly Dean is the unreliable narrator of much of Wuthering Heights, and so on and so forth. Amusing as well is the way that writer Jaclyn Backhaus enlists these minor players into espionage, spying for either Team Men or Team Women as the tension heats up.

At the close of the show, actors pull up the floorboards to reveal reams and reams of text, which they then read from. It’s appropriately symbolic and not too on the nose. After all, the books the show references really are the ground beneath our feet.

The idea of remixing and reinventing these classics of “women’s literature” is hardly new. Popular romance and mystery novelist Georgette Heyer traded in books that were sophisticated Austen fan-fiction, while Daphne DuMaurier and Jean Rhys were spinning off the Brontës, offering their own retort to these earlier authors. And still, the echoes of these formative books’ plots in literature are everywhere. Wuthering Heights is the godmother of a lot of YA romance, with its privileging of intense, all-consuming emotion and its angst about sex and the end of childhood’s gender freedom. Jane Eyre is the parent of feminist resistance novels and Gothic romance all at once, while Pride and Prejudice gave birth to the romantic comedy structure and the use of satire and wit to critique a male-driven world.

Recently, pop culture and the Internet have sped up this literary repurposing process until it’s so lightning-fast we can’t keep track. Blogs, memes, parodies, and high-art borrowings commingle with, as an Austen character might remark, no regard to decency or propriety. Just this week Book Riot published a mash-up of Pride and Prejudice with Parks and Recreation. A raging debate about Austen vs. Fifty Shades of Grey, of all things, continues unabated both in silly and highfalutin iterations.

Recently, another play, Chiara Atik’s Women, fused Little Women with HBO’s Girls. I attended a rock musical about the Brontë siblings not long ago. Books have sprung up exploring the meaning of these stories, including Erin Blakemore’s The Heroine’s Bookshelf and Samantha Ellis’ How to Be a Heroine, recently praised by Elisabeth Donnelly as an inspired look at how “the books we read as passionate young girls looking for clues on how to be in the world.” And then, of course, there is the Texts from Jane Eyre phenomenon; Mallory Ortberg’s series of posts, and now book — and the many similar gambits strewn across the moors of the Internet — wouldn’t work as they do if readers didn’t share the same fundamental canon literacy.

I say canon because what we’re seeing is the establishment, or reaffirmation, of one. I’m not going to say it’s “the woman’s canon,” since it’s no more universal to womanhood than the previously established, Harold Bloom-approved canon is to all human beings under the sun.

But for those of us who are influenced by this canon, which is quite a large group of readers of all genders and backgrounds, these texts are foundational due to the way they occupy themselves with the sometimes conflicting ideals of self-actualization and romantic love. In You, on the Moors, for instance, the female characters travel away, finding jobs, even studying organic chemistry. Eventually, in the show’s final scenes, some are able to find love, but only after having “found themselves” first. This isn’t really a new innovation. In fact, it underscores the plot points that all the novels (save the more complicated Wuthering Heights) share: a woman’s journey is first to an understanding of both her limitations and her power. Love comes later, a cherry on top.

“These books provide an alternative to the hero’s journey,” Blakemore tells me. Even for contemporary readers who can’t relate to the sheltered gentility, the remoteness or the privilege of these worlds, the choices the heroines have to make between pragmatic love, compromised love, heady love, love of work, love of freedom, and love of family resonate. Readers in New York or Texas or Vancouver may not be as strictly proscribed by gender and social status as they once were, but constraints linger in altered form. In a rape culture, in a world that still is absurdly obsessed with marriage as symbol of female success and safety, that threat to an authentic female self posed by romantic ideals remains of paramount concern.

The books in this heroine canon are rich in literary value. But they are also so beloved because they are so rare. We may currently be living amid an explosion of girl culture, but for decades, the options for female literary expression and exploration were limited. “When you consider the fact that women’s voices were silenced throughout history, these books become more than just books. They become historical artifacts and courageous statements and perspective-shifting teachers,” Blakemore says. “When you explore relationships, cultural institutions, and narrative structure through a girl’s-eye view, you challenge the subtle and not-so-subtle ways our culture tells us history, life, and stories are all about men.”

At its best, You, on the Moors Now uses canonical characters to provide a cutting commentary on the kind of gender norms that bloggers and personal essays writers are tackling every day. “These men, they grieve,/ They go riding/ Or they travel/ Or they ask someone else to marry them/ Or they take it out on the person nearest them/ Or all of the above,” says Lizzy Bennet. To which Jane Eyre chimes in, sounding decidedly modern: “The world gives them the chance to ‘get over it’/And we climb over hills away from them/ We starve ourselves/ And run away.”