Some of my regular readers may be familiar with the name of Jessica Grey through her involvement in Fairy Tale Fortnight; others among you may have noticed her name popping up in our fun little Janeite chats. Today, you're going to get to know Jessica a little bit better as she takes on one of my favorite topics and major book buzzwords, gender-bending, and tells us what it was like to gender-flip Darcy and Lizzie in her book, Attempting Elizabeth!
Sound like your thing? Click through to read more! And keep an eye out for a giveaway from Jessica later in AIA!
I’m a total sucker for stories that take classic tales and flip the gender the roles. My favorites are when fairy tales are gender-flipped; I love it when the princess rescues the knight. You can almost guarantee that I will purchase a book if that plot is included. But in spite of my obsession with the gender-flip device, when I started working on Attempting Elizabeth, making the female protagonist the Mr. Darcy character was literally the farthest thing from my mind.
For one thing, I’d just released a modern adaptation of Sleeping Beauty that had the gender roles switched. By the end of chapter three the hero is magically knocked out and stays that way for a decent portion of the story. I mean, I’ve admitted to loving to flip gender roles, but two books in a row? Talk about a one trick pony! But then I met Kelsey Edmundson, the main character of Attempting Elizabeth, and everything changed.
Attempting Elizabeth started out as a pretty simple idea—what if a modern American woman found that she could “get into” Pride and Prejudice and inhabit characters there? And what if, once she discovered this novel-jumping super power, she kept jumping in and out of characters in an attempt to be Elizabeth Bennet?
This premise worked great as a short story but when I decided to expand the concept to novel length, I realized that the the main character needed a strong real-life storyline that complimented the fantasy plot of novel jumping. And that storyline ended up being a modern Pride and Prejudice. Here’s the main problem: Elizabeth Bennet is not really an insecure character. She’s not the type to wish she was someone else. She’s pretty darn okay with herself.
The first time Kelsey ends up inside the pages of Pride and Prejudice is an accident—and she does go a bit crazy trying to figure out how to get out, but once she’s back in the real world, she decides to keep jumping back into the book. I just don’t see a modern Elizabeth Bennet doing something like that. There has to be a reason you spend that kind of energy on trying to be someone you aren’t (besides being a total lit geek, which Kelsey definitely is), but there has to be a certain level of insecurity, enough that we believe the character is just slightly uncomfortable in their own skin.
She had to be Darcy.
Now some fans might argue that Mr. Darcy is just misunderstood. That he’s not, in fact, insecure. I beg to differ. I’m not saying he’s a raging mass of vulnerability, but at some point he becomes aware that there’s a disconnect between what’s happening in his own head and what the world/Lizzy is seeing from him. He admits as much to Lizzy at Rosings: “I certainly have not the talent which some people possess...of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”
So Darcy is obviously shy (much like his sister Georgiana), but other passages lead me to believe it is more than just shyness. The whole first proposal proves that Darcy has stuff going on in his head that he assumes Lizzy has understood (asking her about being settled too near one’s family, which he takes as almost a discussion of their courtship and she just assumes is typical awkward Darcy conversation, is a good example). He is really, truly surprised that she has no idea of his intentions toward her.
So it’s not just shyness; there’s a level of being self-conscious but not really self-aware that Darcy has in his character that really appealed to me. This was exactly the kind of quality that I needed for my heroine. And though Lizzy goes through a transformation of her own, the biggest transformation in Pride and Prejudice is with Darcy. If I wanted the story to be about Kelsey learning to really know herself—changing from being self-conscious and wanting to be someone else—she just had to be Darcy.
In a way this was totally fun because it meant I got to write a male Lizzy! I love writing good-guy heroes. As much fun as dark, brooding rakes that get reformed are, I have a soft spot for good guys. And Mark Barnes is a heck of a good guy. He’s self-confident without being a jerk, he’s laid back, he has a great sense of humor, and he’s both interested in and confused by Kelsey. (Oh, and he’s hot. Bonus!). That doesn’t mean that Mark doesn’t need to learn anything; just like Lizzy in Pride and Prejudice, he’s not perfect, but then he’s not the character with the biggest transformation.
That transformation belongs to Kelsey. She’s smart, and she can be funny, but she tends to live inside her own head and overthink things...and she tends to blurt out the most awkward things (“not handsome enough to tempt me,” anyone?). I realized as I wrote Kelsey that there is an inherent sexism in how we view characters. A man can be brooding and difficult, and people think he’s strong and silent. Whereas when a woman is brooding and difficult, she’s seen as...well, difficult at best. In a way I had to embrace that inherent sexism. I had to acknowledge that it happens, that we read characters this way. One way to get the reader to accept Kelsey’s standoffishness is to put the reader in her head, which is why I chose to write Attempting Elizabeth in the first person. When we are inside her head, it’s easier for us to understand why she acts the way she does, though it doesn’t make it any less cringeworthy when she puts her foot in her mouth. Hopefully, if I did my job right, Kelsey’s transformation into a woman comfortable in her own skin is as rewarding as Darcy becoming the humble man worthy of Elizabeth’s love.
What say you? Are you a fan of the gender role flip in retellings and adaptations? If you could gender flip any Austen character whom would you pick?
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