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14 November 2011 @ 03:23 pm
review of Mitzi Szereto's version of Pride and Prejudice  
Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts by Mitzi Szereto (Cleis Press, 2011).

Reviewed by Jean Roberta (see author interview at end of this review).

This book appeared because its time has come. Current writers of literary erotica claim that if publishers and the reading public had accepted explicit sex scenes in the mainstream literature of yesteryear, some writers would have written them in where they fit instead of simply ignoring sex or referring to it in grandiose but evasive metaphors (“the earth moved”).

The romances of Jane Austen (1775-1817) have never really fallen out of fashion since they were first published. Recent television and film versions have been produced with scrupulously accurate historical settings and costumes. Passionate attraction is the lifeblood of Austen’s plots, so it was only a matter of time before uninhibited modern writers would put a modern spin on them.

The retellings have begun. Steve Hockensmith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies taps into the popularity of one of Austen’s best-known novels and that of “living dead” characters in current paranormal romances. Other writers have approached Austen from different angles.

Before writing her own version of Pride and Prejudice, Mitzi Szereto was already a pioneer in literary erotica.  An expatriate American in England, she has become a kind of erotic Renaissance woman: she writes, blogs, edits and runs erotic writing workshops. Her retelling of Austen combines a faithful imitation of Austen’s writing style with paradoxically over-the-top yet plausible sexual descriptions and social satire, some of which is present in the original novel.

The surrealistic effect of Szereto’s novel is almost impossible to describe without quoting directly from it. The reader is invited to suspend his/her disbelief as polite Georgian parties segue into outdoor gang-bangs, private rumination turns into extended masturbation scenes, and courtship always involves dampened womanhood and bulging breeches. All the characters from Pride and Prejudice are present in Szereto’s version. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are still the lead characters, and they still have to surmount their differences to reach a happy ending.

Here Elizabeth’s father, Mr. Bennet, remembers his carefree youth:

“How very distant those days now seemed when he had had access to any number of servants in the household, none of whom would dare to turn away the advances of a lusty young man, particularly when the young man was the son of their employer. Mr. Bennet would often begin his day by applying himself to the womanhood of the maid who had come to tidy his room, raising up her skirts as she bent forward to attend the bed linens and thrusting inside her before she even realized what was happening, his hands grabbing hold of the abundant flesh of her bosom, which he had freed from her stays, to keep himself steady. That his attentions were unwelcome was not the case, for his manhood always met with a generous wetness, followed by a most agreeable clenching of the maid’s interior, serving to expedite his release, his pleasure discharging inside her just as she finished plumping up the pillows on his bed.”

To console himself for the absence of such pleasures, Mr. Bennet now orders erotic drawings which cost more than he can easily afford, and he hopes that Mrs. Bennet won’t ask about the parcels that arrive regularly by post.

The sex in this book appeals to almost every taste. There is much good-natured male-female humping, haughty Dommes birching the willing backsides of male admirers, a barely-closeted gay clergyman who enjoys vigorous young men, Elizabeth’s lesbian friend (who enters a mutually-advantageous engagement with the clergyman), sex toys and self-pleasuring.

During a family crisis, Mr. Darcy comforts Elizabeth in a most peculiar way:

“Elizabeth felt something warm and moist touching her lips in a gentle kiss, and suddenly her eyes flew open. The hand that had been in her hair now contained something long and fleshy, and it was being offered to her mouth. She recognized it instantly; it had been the inspiration for many nights of solitary pleasure ever since the moment of its introduction. ‘Mr. Darcy!’ she cried, all astonishment. Her face burned with heat, and she knew not whether to be embarrassed or pleased that he had once more seen fit to honor her with the presentation of his manhood.”

Humorless Janeites are not amused, but in its way, this novel is quite respectful of the original. Szereto’s version is hilarious and accomplished. Who is to say that Jane Austen wouldn’t have written something like this if the zeitgeist of her era had been more like that of ours? In years to come, this book will probably be regarded as a classic in its own right.
Mitzi Szereto chats with Jean Roberta

JR:  How long did it take you to write your version of Pride and Prejudice after you first conceived of it?

MS:  This was actually done on a much tighter time frame than I'd typically have for writing an entire book, so I'd say less than four months from the time I signed the contract to the time I turned in the manuscript. I had no idea where I was going to take the book when I wrote up the proposal. In fact, I had no idea I would even end up turning it into a historical parody a la the Zombies versions. The book just seemed to take on a life of its own, taking me along for the ride!

JR:  Were you inspired by James Lear’s erotic retellings of classic novels (thinly disguised)? Was your novel a joint project planned by you and Cleis Press?

MS:  Actually, no. I'm rarely inspired by anyone in particular - I tend to dance to my own tune, as you've no doubt noticed! Cleis Press had no idea what I would give them as a finished product; all they knew was that they were going to get from me a new version of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, but with sex in it. We'd discussed doing something Jane-related and I'd suggested P&P, since it's Austen's most popular and best-known novel - everyone knows the story, even if they've never read the book. And it was a favorite of mine as well, so it was, to me, the most obvious choice. I suspect Cleis was surprised by what they got, but hey, they didn't complain, so I reckon all's well with the world!

JR:  Are you a long-term Janeite?

MS:  Not really. In all honesty, the BBC TV series of Pride and Prejudice (the one starring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy) is what really reeled me in. Any author who can create such wonderfully absurd characters was an author I could definitely appreciate. I should add that Jane Austen probably created one of the most romantic characters in literature as well: Mr. Darcy. If you think about it, generations of women since the time the book was written up until today have fallen in love with Mr. Darcy, so that’s saying a lot! Austen also had a wonderful sense of satire and was not afraid to show society for what it truly was. Her honesty about life, love, and human nature transcends time, which is likely why she still remains so popular.

JR:  Your novel seems to be in a British tradition of erotic comedy that doesn’t exist in North America, or at least not as visibly. Some of the details in your version are simply over-the-top social satire. Has the book had a different reception on each side of the Atlantic?

MS:  You're right, my book does bring to mind a bit of Benny Hill as well as Monty Python and the old “Carry On” films from here in the UK. It's true; North America doesn't have much of a tradition in the erotic comedy genre, unless you count the crude and tacky attempts put out by the Americans that are aimed toward a boys’ locker room mentality. As for the reception I've had, I think it's been about equally split. People either "get it" and love what I've done with Pride and Prejudice, or else they flat-out hate it. The haters tend to be mostly hardcore literary purists who haven't even read the book or else people who were looking for a typical one-handed read, only to discover that they actually have to engage with the content in a more tongue-in-cheek manner that requires a sense of humor. I'm actually quite surprised at the amount of people who seem to be devoid of a sense of humor. Having said that, the majority of reception I've had for Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts has been extremely positive, and that includes many hardcore Jane-ites. My book was even selected by a chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America to be a raffle prize at one of their conferences. If that isn’t a stamp of approval, I don’t know what is!
JR:  Do you think your novel would have been less controversial if you hadn’t named it after the original Pride and Prejudice?

MS:  I think I got a bit of backlash from the sheer numbers of P&P/Jane Austen re-imaginings that have been churned out, so even if I'd named it Abe's Kosher Deli: Hidden Lusts, it probably wouldn't have mattered all that much. I do believe the sexual element is sparking more controversy than the actual reworking of Jane Austen, however; and many people have commented similarly. As for the name of my book, I worked from the original Pride and Prejudice; it’s essentially the same basic story, so what's the point of naming it something completely unrelated just because a handful of people might get their knickers in a twist?

JR:  Are you familiar with the actual settings (e.g. Kent and Hertfordshire) described in the novel (both yours and Jane Austen's)?

MS:  I've been to these counties, yes, as well as visited Jane Austen's house in Hampshire (Chawton). I'm also very familiar with Derbyshire, having lived nearby, which gave me the opportunity to take many trips into the county’s lovely countryside with its equally lovely villages. I even lectured in creative writing at the main university there, as it happens, so I know Derbyshire, home of the famous Pemberley, quite well. You can find many places in England that are like those portrayed in Pride and Prejudice.

JR:  Any further comments?
MS:  Well, since you asked, I happen to have another book out – Red Velvet and Absinthe: Paranormal Erotic Romance. It’s an anthology of short stories that pays homage to the Gothic tradition in literature and all those wonderful writers of the past, from the Brontë sisters and Bram Stoker on up to Anne Rice in the present. It features writers from around the world, including myself. It’s a very different project to Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts. But then, I like doing something different with each book!
Author website: http://mitziszereto.com
Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts website: http://mitziszereto.com/prideandprejudicehiddenlusts/
Red Velvet and Absinthe website: http://mitziszereto.com/redvelvetandabsinthe/
Errant Ramblings: Mitzi Szereto's Weblog: http://mitziszereto.com/blog
Facebook Author Fan Page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Mitzi-Szereto/24537936152
Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/mitziszereto
Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/72445.Mitzi_Szereto
Mitzi TV: http://mitziszereto.com/tv
MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/mitzi_szereto
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