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From Phyllida's Desk

Jane Austen and Zombies

By a strange confluence of programming during last month's Jane Austen Society of North America's annual general meeting (JASNA AGM), I would come home after a full day of sessions about the seduction of conversation, coded sexual references in Austen's fiction and gendered ways of speaking, and watch a couple of episodes of Season 2 of The Walking Dead, the popular zombie-apocalypse cable TV show--my own version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Of course I didn't plan it this way; it just happened. I had tried Season 1 a while ago on Netflix, been blown away by the brilliant storytelling and dark, graphic violence (based, appropriately enough, on a series of graphic novels), and had waited, along with millions of other fans, for Season 2, which was finally released in September. And it made me think about the reasons that someone can like both Austen and graphic novels, eighteenth-century and futuristic fiction, realistic stories and paranormal, without feeling like some kind of split personality.

I often think about the difficulties my eclectic tastes pose for the algorithms of Netflix and Amazon, which recommend new movies for me to watch and books for me to buy based on my previous choices. Sometimes I imagine that, if a human mind were behind the formulas, he or she would be convinced that at least two people lived at this address. There's the woman who likes Jane Austen and other historical costume dramas and period pieces; and the man who watches those erotic gay romances and raunchy comedies. I'll read a prize-winning work of literary fiction for my book club, and the following week, a category romance or a series mystery.

Surely most people do the same—or do they? With so many books and movies and shows available, of so many different types, who would want to restrict their reading and entertainment to just one genre? Yet I often have the sense when comparing my likes and dislikes to other people's that there are quite a few readers who only read mysteries—or romance, or thrillers, or nonfiction. And I figure the same limitation could apply for movies.

Which then leads me to ask: what makes one person enjoy Jane Austen and someone else prefer zombies? I'm not convinced it's only about "good taste," or having higher "literary" standards, although that can enter into it.

During the session at the AGM on Mme. de Stael and conversation (written up in a previous blog post) we were amused to learn that she had referred derisively to Austen's writing as "vulgaire"—commonplace, ordinary. Like her fellow practitioners of the Romantic, as well as the previous generation's Gothic writers, de Stael believed that everyday life as most people lived it was not a fit subject for art. Only great themes were worth writing about. And surely many of today's readers, not all of them unsophisticated, feel the same. We/they don't want to read about normal, ordinary people and their normal, ordinary problems and uneventful lives. We/they want war, murder, grand passions, and our modern gothic favorites, vampires and zombies.

Austen's greatness lies not just in her elegant prose, wonderful as it is, but in her ability to illuminate those ordinary events and problems in a way that resonates with readers who see themselves in her characters and their lives in her stories. Austen understood that for most of us, money problems, nosy neighbors and the fear that we will never find Mr. or Ms. Right are our zombies. These commonplace, mundane troubles are what keep us awake at night, and their horror can be every bit as great as an encounter with an army of flesh-eating ghouls. After all, a bullet in the head solves a ghoul problem every time, but does nothing for a meager bank balance or empty love life. Austen's genius is to both recognize that these ordinary troubles are, in fact, unimportant in the grand scheme of things, unworthy of great emotion, and at the same time to portray with sympathy and humor the immense heartache, sadness and loss these seemingly minor problems cause.

Sometimes this brilliant evocation of the horror of the mundane is exactly what we want to see or read. It helps us to keep things in perspective, to know that our problems are shared by everybody else, and that compared to the sufferings of people living amid wars, famines and natural disasters, our little worries don't amount to a hill of beans.

And then there are times when we need something like The Walking Dead, times when some of us, for a variety of reasons, need the vicarious experience of violence and supernatural horror. Sometimes it helps to see something truly horrific so that we can say, "Well, thank goodness, at least I'm not dealing with that."

But some of us, while we may not be enduring war or famine, really do face problems greater than those found in the village life of Austen's fiction. For some of us, our daily lives more closely resemble a battle with the undead than an encounter with Mr. Woodhouse or Miss Bates of Emma. And we're not always exaggerating or complaining, even if the outside world can't see the demons we face.

Sometimes, in other words, a zombie is exactly what we want to see. When the actors open the body of a rotting, tattered, teeth-gnashing ghoul, sloshing about with both hands in the black-bloody viscera, searching for the remains of a missing girl; when a legion of soulless ghouls, the former family, coworkers and friends of a local farmer, comes lurching out of the barn where they have been penned and every last one of them is methodically shot in the head; when their surviving human friends and family members shriek in mourning and keen over the corpses; and when the last ghoul shuffling out in the wake of all that carnage is that missing twelve-year old girl, frail and slight, but growling and snarling, turned into a monster like the rest, we watch open-mouthed, in an ecstasy of horror. Yes, we say to ourselves, it's like that.

That is catharsis, as only tragedy can give us. It may not be tragedy in the Aristotelian sense, the fall of greatness, but it is our modern version, and right for us.
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