It’s a truth universally acknowledged…

Can we treat a youtube series based on Pride and Prejudice as a piece of literature in its own right?

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries are the brainchild of Hank Green (of Vlogbrothers fame) and Bernie Su and aim to re-tell the story of Jane Austen’s famously unwed Bennet sisters. Lizzie is now a 24 year-old grad student in mass communications, living at home and filming a semi-weekly video blog with the help of her best friend and classmate Charlotte Wu. The episodes, averaging about 4 minutes each, follow the basic plot of the novel with a few tweaks: Mary Bennet is their cousin, Kitty Bennet is a Lydia’s cat, Mr. Bingley is now Bing Lee, handsome doctor-to-be, and Mr. Collin’s proposal is a job offer.  That said, I’m not terribly interested in the actual content of the videos or how it has to change from the original to make sense in a 21st century context. Mrs. Bennet is still overly concerned with eligibility of her daughters and George Wickham is still a bit of a smarmy prick.

The shift of platform, medium and genre, while telling essentially the same story, accommodates interaction in a way the previous re-imaginings of this work, however true to the original or wildly off-script, simply cannot. Using Youtube’s established comment system, the audience interacts with the narrative (and with other audience members) in the comment section. Responses range from warnings to this Lizzie not to trust Wickham’s version of events to viewers who have not read Pride and Prejudice and are responding with Lizzie to the plot as it unfolds. Within the context/structure of the video blog-as-narrative-tool, the audience asks questions of Lizzie, which Lizzie occasionally answers in special episodes. Suddenly this sequestered, canonized fiction recreates itself as mutable reality. No where does the artificiality of the performance reveal itself (except under the narrative, where a production list indicates to the audience that this is a performance…Interestingly, one of the characters is played by Lonelygirl15 cast member, Maxwell Glick. That early web series caused a stir when it was revealed that it wasn’t an actual video blog, but a scripted show.)

In the medium of the video blog as personal diary, the perspective of the work shifts from third-person omniscient(ish) to first-person (fairly) limited. The technology of webcam affords the audience only a narrow glimpse into the girls’ lives and the show creators exploit that limitation for narrative effect. Outside a brief foray to vidcon (where the actress as Lizzie fangirls her series creator…playing himself) and a somewhat more extended stay at the Lee’s while the Bennet house is renovated, we do not see the girls outside Lizzie’s bedroom. This in itself functions as a comment on Austen’s own limited scope. While Austen excelled at capturing family life for women of a certain class in England in the early 19th century, her male characters lack that same richness and typically fall into three camps: good, good but brusque, and awful. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries drastically limits the appearance of all the other characters. Instead, we get them though Lizzie’s retellings and reenactments (with the help of Charlotte, Jane, and Lydia.)

Surely, no one would say that watching this series is identical to reading Pride and Prejudice. But it does force us to ask how this is different. In many ways, the comment section suggests that this re-telling mimics the earlier experience of the text: the viewers want Lizzie to be happy and are hurt by Bing Lee’s sudden departure. The comment section could even be said to function as an online book club. No one there is “reading” this text as we would for a class…but how many people read analytically outside an academic or professional setting? If the book is its story, this is not fundamentally different. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries doesn’t replace Pride and Prejudice any more than any of the other countless retellings and adaptations If anything, the changes in medium and genre that force the narrative’s interactivity interrogate what it is to experience a book and what it means to be a text.

3 thoughts on “It’s a truth universally acknowledged…

  1. As much as I love the vlogbrothers projects, I think the only reason why this series gained as much attention as it did is because of its attachment to the ever popular Green brothers. It absolutely is an interesting usage of new media, but I question its lasting value outside of the umbrella of Hank Green’s promotion on his own sites. Really, there is a very exclusive YouTube community that decides what is and is not popular, and I feel like a project like this is only allowed to come into the public sphere because of the production of others.

    That said, excellent choice for a creative response. I didn’t even think of YouTube projects when I wrote my own response.

  2. Oh, absolutely. It’s association with Hank Green creates and perpetuates a built-in audience. But there’s nothing wrong with that. As for lasting? That’s a judgement call I can’t make and I don’t really want to. I’m not particularly interested in how long this lasts or even if they complete the project. I wanted to examine it specifically as an adaptation in a different medium and on a different platform (or series of platforms since you could say that both the computer and YouTube constitute their own platforms) and how that changes the viewing/reading experience.

    More to your point, “I feel like a project like this is only allowed to come into the public sphere because of the production of others.” This is absolutely on point, but as you state it, it reads like this is a value judgement. Every “new” piece relies on other works…even texts that do not borrow from other material so openly. Nothing gets created in an artistic vacuum. So LBD relies on the name recognition of both Hank Green and Jane Austen. It’s not trying to hide that. Less explicitly, it needs the previous success of other vlogs-as-mockumentaries and the establishment of that as a legitimate genre by pieces like lonelygirl15. I see it as an exceptionally open form of intertextuality.

    …this response got a lot longer than I intended. Sorry for that.

    • I’m glad the question of “long-lasting”-ness came into this. That’s typically a criterion we use for judging a work’s value. But one thing I admire about digital literature is that it often thematizes the ephemeral nature of new media artifacts, and some pieces are even only meant to be experienced once, before vanishing (William Gibson’s “Agrippa” is a famous example; once you read the electronic document, it deleted itself.)

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