Prawn and Prejudice by Belinda Roberts

When I first spotted this self-called “novelette” in the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, I was surprised; I had never seen it before, in any American bookstore or on Amazon, when I do my “checks” to make sure I know what’s happening in our little universe. At five pounds, it was less expensive than many of the other temptations in the store, so I bought it.

What a delightful, British treat. This “seaside version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice” uses similar phrases as the original text but places the whole situation in modern times. [Occasionally, that seeming paradox of speech feels awkward—“My dear Mr. Bennet! How can you be so tiresome? You must know that I am thinking of him going out with one of them and if we are lucky marrying one of them” (5)—but most of the time, it’s just funny—“I text rather slowly,” Darcy says in response to Caroline’s praise (33).] There are also a few strange insertions of what I thought was “Valley speak”—Kitty says “What! Have you, like, dared to try it on?” (13) and gansta versions of Valley Speak—Lydia says, “Whateva” (13). When Bingley tries to introduce Darcy to Elizabeth, Darcy says “Boo that” (16). In no world, however modern or sea-side, would Fitzwilliam Darcy say “boo that.”

For the most part, however, the strange lingo exists because the text is English! The British use words, and combinations of words, that Americans just don’t (I learned that on my recent excursion). I have to assume that words such as “gormless,” “cracking” as an adjective, “pifflingly,” “gobstoppers,” “yonks,” “potted” as an intransitive verb a ball does,  “barmy,” “splodge,” and “shaley” are commonly used in England (6, title page, 31, 41, 64, 67, 74, 83, 111). It was rather pleasant to watch the characters in their own native environment, rather than as I usually do, through an American, or American-conscious perspective. Cultural references, too, become a small challenge—Y-fronts, Quba bags, Fonshaw Mini Fits, and the class implications of polo vs netball and public vs state schools (38, 69, 70, 31, 31)—but really help the reader understand how English society works. The disgust Caroline (Cazza) feels because the Bennet girls are “state educated” reflects the class divide in England that (we just learned on our trip!) still permeates English society (30). I wondered if this text isn’t more popular here because of its firm grounding in British language and culture, but I think Americans are fascinated by other cultures (we are, after all, from those other cultures) and would enjoy learning more. (Amazon does sell it, but not directly, and not inexpensively.)

Besides, all of us enjoy a quintessentially British “jolly good!” (57).

Setting the story by the sea gives Roberts a lot of room to have fun. Netherfield becomes Netherpollock, Sir William becomes a health marshal of sorts (a dream job for, say, a valetudinarian like Mr. Woodhouse), Mrs. Bennet (Frances) sends Jane to visit Bingley on a boat, rather than on a horse (Jane “had on a flimsy dress on top of which she wore a bright orange bulky life-jacket which slightly spoiled the delicate effect of the dress but even Mrs. Bennet did not want her daughter to actually drown,” 27), the militia become life guards, walking becomes swimming (or sailing), piano-playing becomes sandcastle-building, and difficult sea creatures (including prawn) are used by various characters to symbolize Darcy. The word prawn is used several times, in fact (sometimes awkwardly:  “I would forgive him for being such a bad prawn if he had not made me feel like one too”—what does that even mean? 21).

This text, like so many others, is plagued by typos and grammatical errors (at least it isn’t just an American problem). Windcot is a “delightful home which often opened it’s gardens to the public” (my emphasis) (41). The “it’s” error occurs multiple times, in fact (74, 79, 82, 91, 99, 105). Leaving off the final “e” of the verb “breathe” occurs many times as well (97, 114). Everyone observes how Bingley took his time “helping [Jane] on board, and how his eye’s followed her every move” (my emphasis) (15). Mr. Collins’ nervousness is described this way: “Anxious for action but unsure how to proceed, the Bennet girls’ plan for the day would prove to give him the opportunity he urgently desired” (the plan becomes anxious?) (58). In light of these errors, Charlotte’s idea that the “purpose for university would only be to secure a career or a husband” and since she has Mr. Collins, there is no need for further education—or career, is even more disturbing (65).

There are some other unusual moments in this otherwise light text. When Darcy first reveals his love for Elizabeth, she slaps him across the face because it seems like “the only course available to her” (82). If I understood the text correctly, Wickham reveals something quite shocking with respect to his own sexual inclinations after the incident with Lydia (108). The great moment when Elizabeth rescues Georgiana from the mean Bingley sisters is gone, even though the rest of the scene is there. And there are several near-death experiences—one involving Mr. Collins, but, more seriously, a choking incident with Maria at Lady Catherine’s, a near-drowning of Mary with mouth-to-mouth and chest pumping (after which, everyone resumes enjoying the picnic), and a backwards stumble off a cliff for Darcy just before the second proposal (he takes out Pride and Prejudice, which he just happens to have on his person, after the fall, and is reading chapter 58 in this text’s chapter  58 while he decides whether to give up and plummet to his death or to rally his strength and try to climb) (72-73, 112-13, 120). Since many of us read Austen precisely because she avoids melodrama and sticks to situations that are believable, some (all) of these scenes felt a bit over-the-top to me. After all, if we wanted that, we’d pick up a Bronte novel, right?

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Published in: on July 12, 2010 at 12:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

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