In the years during which Jane Austin wrote and published her six major novels, war raged between Britain and France across the battlefields of Europe, while at home the Industrial Revolution and an increasingly tumultuous economic climate caused discontent and sometimes violent protest among the impoverished working classes ... But you'd be hard pressed to glean any of that from the content of Austin's works themselves.
Jane Austin wrote acutely observed romantic tales of social commentary, which concerned themselves almost exclusively with the efforts of lower middle-class women in early nineteenth century England to secure their prospects and raise their station in life among the landed gentry of Regency society by means of an improving marriage, while also avoiding the pitfalls associated with the attentions of the apparently chivalrous 'rakes' and 'scoundrels' they were liable to encounter along the way -- all of whom might well seek to take advantage of them.
So -- if as is the case in Seth Grahame-Smith's parallel universe 'mash up' version of Austin's most celebrated novel, "Pride and Prejudice", flesh-eating zombies also happened to roam the large stretches of fair countryside between the cities and market towns of England, then it would probably be the case that they would play no greater part in disrupting the mind-set of families such as the Bennets, for instance, than the already well established horrors of the Napoleonic Wars or the bands of marauding Luddites; they would doubtless continue to obsess over the finer details of manners, breeding, education and deportment that could well one day be the deciding factors in seeing one of their daughters secure an adequately moneyed and titled husband for herself, thus ensuring that the rest of the family continued to enjoy the pleasures of a roof over their heads upon the eventual death of their patriarchal provider.
This is where the true comic genius of the text novel "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" actually lies, and it is just as apparent in acclaimed comic writer Tony Lee's Graphic Novel adaptation, which accompanies the distinctive pencil sketch and ink artwork of Cliff Richards for this glossy, coffee table publication by Titan Books. The fact is that Austin's actual story has barely needed to be altered at all, despite its vivid representation of a sedate Hertfordshire countryside now populated by shambling bands of raggedy, cadaverous zombies, hungry for the brains of anyone they can lay their grave-dirt-encrusted skeletal fingers upon.
Here, Mrs Bennet still longs to find a husband for at least one of her five daughters: for under the terms by which her husband has inherited their home of Longbourn House, the property and their wealth can only pass to a male heir upon his death. When the neighbouring Netherfield Park is rented for the Summer by handsome Mr Bingley and his sisters, along with his wealthy but excessively aloof friend, Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy, plenty of opportunities for a felicitous union that will adequately solve the family's money worries seems to be on the cards, since the eldest Bennet sister, Jane, is widely considered to be the most beautiful lady in the neighbourhood.
The misunderstandings and hardships that ensue as witty, second eldest daughter Elizabeth Bennet fends of the attentions of her pompous cousin Mr Collins in her battle to marry for love (despite the wishes of her mother -- for Mr Collins enjoys the patronage of the wealthy but snobbish Lady Catherine de Bourg); in the perplexing mystery of why Mr Bingley breaks off his association with Jane, despite their apparent fondness for each other; and in the difficult relationship between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy -- for attractive and dashing though he is, he is also acutely taciturn and unyielding, and seems also to have been involved in the breaking off of his friend Mr Bingley's special friendship with Jane Bennet, thus sullying him forever in the eyes of Elizabeth. Confirming second hand knowledge of Mr Darcy's deficiencies arrive from a childhood friend of his called Mr Wickham, but is the man all he seems?
So far, so normal. But embroidering and colouring this rendering of Jane Austin's classic tale of Regency manners and mores is another slightly more fantastical element. The characters speak of it euphemistically as 'the strange plague'. Those who have become its victims instantly become 'unmentionables' and no longer a fit subject for polite conversation. But since a walk into Meryton or a carriage trip to Netherfield Park is liable to come under attack from these sorry hordes of moaning flesh-hungry creatures, any decent young lady needs to know how to handle herself. As Darcy himself puts it: although "a woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing and the modern languages." - she must also be "well trained in the fighting styles of the Koto masters -- and the tactics and weaponry of modern Europe." Thus, all five Bennet sisters have each received extensive training in the deadly arts at a Shalon temple in the Henan Province. Elizabeth in particular is known for her great swordsmanship, her uncommon skills with a Katana blade, and is an excellent shot with a musket!
Nevertheless, there are those who still consider such skills 'unladylike', so one must always balance the requirement for them with an equally necessary sense of discreetness and grace. If an acquaintance should happen to fall victim to the strange plague, for instance, decorum and manners demand that one should look the other way; especially if, as happens to Elizabeth's best friend Charlotte -- bitten in an unmentionables attack just before married to Mr Collins -- one should discover them gnawing at their own wrist at the dinner table! It is also considered rather an indicator of one's 'low connections' to be caught (as is Elizabeth at one point) with pieces of undead on one's sleeve while in polite company.
The story is packed with details which amusingly augment the major incidents and plot points of the original novel: in the novel we never learn why the militia are stationed in Meryton, for instance, but in this version of events we are told that they are in fact there to exhume corpses and 'burn coffins'; many of Elizabeth's witty verbal joustings are now made literal and accompanied by a sword battle or two, and those walks into town often result in the party witnessing, for example, the zombified residents of the local orphanage chowing down on some poor unfortunate who's been negligent enough to have been caught unawares, or on the corpse of one of the their past acquaintances, having her brains greedily removed by an unmentionable raiding an upturned carriage. The Lady Catherine De Bourgh of this version of the story now has her own private guard of Ninjas on standby and is famed throughout the land as the destroyer of the most unmentionables in England. And the gaiety and social graces of a Netherfield ball might occasionally suffer the intrusion of a horde of the undead storming through the main halls and having to be decapitated with a Katana and some deadly Ninja skills by some ladies and gentlemen who, moments before, were engaged in a pleasant dance!
All this has the potential to be beautifully cinematic, and indeed a film version does appear to be in the pipeline. But until then we have this comic version to enjoy: presented in black and white, Cliff Richards' artwork for the most part tells the story in wispy pencil sketches. Sometimes the backgrounds of the scenes inside the panels almost have a hasty, slightly doodled quality to them that causes the eye to skip across them without really taking much in; but the main characters in the foreground are more detailed in their presentation, and inked much more vividly. Elizabeth Bennet is presented as a sort of Lara Croft super vixen who only posses behind a prettified Regency veneer, just waiting for the moment she can tear off her slip, and get to work thrashing through the rotting, worm-ridden zombie hordes with her samurai sword. The zombies themselves -- or rather 'unmentionables' -- are the artwork's strongest selling point though. Richards' realisation of the zombie scenes goes all out for a classic EC Comics vibe: the unmentionables are hideous, skeleton-like, maggoty creatures, clad in the torn remainder of clothes from the mid-eighteen hundreds and inked in suitably lavish detail. There are many striking images scattered throughout the book: a zombie child mewling in the arms of its zombie mother; or the carnage as Elizabeth dispatches swathes of the creatures, blowing them to bits with gunpowder or decapitating and eviscerating them with her Katana. More time and care seems to have been spent on producing the zombie art than any other area of the book, and it is the episodes which involve them that end up making the most lasting impression on the reader. This is a pretty enjoyable rendering of the tale, then, although the attractive, lush colour cover art makes one wish it had been possible to present the entire strip in such a fashion. The appearance of the volume itself is very attractive and glossy and is presented in large format paperback. I would have no hesitation in recommending it to fans of the Seth Grahame-Smith novel, although the material has even greater visual potential as a feature film.