Should we rewrite Jane Austen’s classic novels?

Plans to reinterpret Jane Austen’s novels for a modern-day audience have divided leading academics

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While many have welcomed the Austen Project, which will see six contemporary authors rewrite Sense & Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Pride & Prejudice, Emma, Persuasion and Mansfield Park, others have called into question its necessity.

Val McDermid will write a 21st-century version of Northanger Abbey, and Joanna Trollope Sense and Sensibility.

Emma will be rewritten by Alexander McCall Smith, while Curtis Sittenfeld will rework Pride and Prejudice.

Taking these stories as their base, each author will write their own unique take on the novels.

The writers of Persuasion and Mansfield Park are yet to be revealed.

But is it possible to update these classics, and should we try? We asked Jane Austen experts Professor Kathryn Sutherland from the University of Oxford, and Professor Emma Clery from the University of Southampton, for their thoughts.

 

"I wonder how necessary this experiment is"

 

Professor Kathryn Sutherland: I had the chance over the summer to read a proof copy of Joanna Trollope’s rewrite of Sense and Sensibility

The story translated smoothly and the rewriting is very respectful, as well as clever, and contains some nice little surprises  – a male Austen figure, for instance, and an original line from Austen hidden inside Trollope’s text. 

It is true to the original and had the effect of making me more aware of the sheer amount of plotting in Austen’s novel.  That’s something Austen herself appears to underplay but which comes to the fore, inevitably, in a close reworking. 

But I wonder how necessary the experiment is. Is Austen’s language really inaccessible to a modern audience?

And do the moral and social dilemmas of her characters need reinterpretation? Or updating? 

I also felt the formula was constraining for Trollope, who is a good novelist in her own right and writes in a not dissimilar style to Austen.  But ultimately Trollope failed to write at her best in this very respectful experiment.

Reinventions and adaptations perhaps work best when they are given more liberty. For example, a shift of medium (novel to film or play) or if the work is re-imagined through generic shift or clash, as in the Zombie and Vampire mashes. 

These may be outrageous, and some are just bad, but they can also provide critical perspective through the distance they travel from the original.

 

"There's room for this kind of celebration of her perennial appeal"

 

Professor Emma Clery: People might expect a scholar of Austen's works to disapprove, but in fact as a devotee of her writing I see this 'updating' as an interesting and even rather moving phenomenon: a tribute to her enduring power as a writer, that doesn’t only draw parasitically on her cultural capital.

I think we need to make a distinction between ersatz sequels and secret 'diaries' – which personally I find a rather tedious feature of the present-day book scene, relating to a mythical Austen world rather than anything real in her writing  – and modernisation of the plots, as in the film Clueless, widely considered as one of the most successful film 'adaptations' of an Austen novel.

What I think the Austen Project does is acknowledge the importance of Austen as the creator of a collection of modern fairy tales.

Of course, the success of the venture depends on the quality of the writers. I haven't read Joanna Trollope's version of Sense and Sensibility yet, and I can't say that I'll be rushing out to the bookshop to get it, but from the reviews, it sounds like she's done a good job and found ingenious 21st-century equivalents to early 19th-century predicaments in women's lives, that may tell us something about why her narratives never seem to lose their appeal.

At heart I'm a purist, and it's Austen's language that I find endlessly engaging and want to go back to again and again. But she was a multi-faceted genius, and there's room for this kind of celebration of her perennial appeal as a spinner of tales.

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