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CLASSICS VANDALISM: HANDS OFF JANE AUSTEN!

21 Comments

jo-trollopeausten

As I was cleaning the oven this morning (a thankless if necessary task made only marginally more acceptable by a fresh crop of this week’s arts, books and music podcasts, the family sensibly staying away from me as I swore and scrubbed with a mad gleam in my eye), I reflected on the current Austen debate.

Cleaning the oven and thinking about Jane Austen may, at first glance, seem an oxymoron, but as I battled with seemingly irremovable burned-on grime, it appeared a suitable metaphor for a malaise spreading through the literary world: scouring the classics, re-inventing the déjà-vu.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all in favour of the next film adaptation of Wuthering Heights or David Copperfield, but it seems to me that Classics Mania is spawning a new breed of literature: Classics Reinvention, whereby contemporary writers are commissioned to write sequels to, or radically review our well-loved favourites.

In the columns of the British press, we’ve seen a sparring match between writers Sam Leith and Elizabeth Day in The Observer over the so-called “Austen Project”. For those not in the know, this HarperCollins publishing initiative involves six novelists reworking Austen’s oeuvre for the 21st century. Joanna Trollope has just published (and note the ampersand) Sense & Sensibility; out soon are Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Pride and Prejudice and Alexander McCall’s Emma.

Leith is all in favour – there’s nothing wrong with dressing an old aunt in new clothes, he says, citing Bridget Jones as the obvious pastiche-to riches phenomenon . Day, however, is scathing. “I’d much rather read a new book….containing inventive ideas and new ways of seeing human behaviour than a novel that is constrained by someone else’s plot devices handed down through the centuries.”, she writes.  “I don’t need to read about Mr Knightley listening to Arctic Monkeys on his iPod to be convinced that Jane Austen is ‘relevant’. I already know she is.”

There are in fact two ideas here. The first stream is the homage novel, inspired by a piece of fiction, but remaining highly original, with its own take on character and plot.  Although I’m not a Helen Fielding fan, Bridget Jones clearly falls into this category.  So does a work such as Zadie Smith’s fabulous On Beauty which revisits Howard’s End in a completely individual way.

A few years ago, BBC TV produced a superb series where a number of Shakespeare comedies, including Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night’s Dream were re-interpreted for today. Although plotlines were subscribed to in principle, the writers enthusiastically fitted them to contemporary mores, so they became free-standing works of art.

The second stream is where pure spin-offs or sequels of original works are written, which I have greater difficulty accepting. It’s all very well to say such books acquire a separate personality and should be judged accordingly but why tamper with what already works? Cynically, this seems to be an exercise in pure greed and commercialism, with publishers and the media cashing in on our seemingly unending appetite for much-loved classics.

There was a ghastly reworking of Pride and Prejudice on television a few years ago called Lost in Austen where a modern day London gel time-travels  back to the 19th century and finds herself living and acting out the role of Elizabeth Bennett. It was so unbelievably awful that I can’t recall it now without shuddering.  As a spoof, it was crass beyond belief and seemed to me to be merely exploitative, with no artistic merit whatever.

It’s not only Austen, of course.  David Benedictus has revisited Winnie-the-Pooh. This year, Sebastian Faulks has given birth to a new Bertie Wooster and William Boyd has launched a revamped 007. I’m sure that the authors who have been commissioned to write these “new” works have done so with respect, a high level of craft and great intelligence. And yet, and yet, I remain unconvinced. I truly enjoy the work of Sebastian Faulks but  have absolutely no interest in  a 21st century version of Jeeves.  I’ll keep on reading Wodehouse as I’ve always done.

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Author: Dina Ross

Dina is a writer, reviewer, journalist and broadcaster. It goes without saying that she loves books. Her blog, Books Now! can be viewed on www.dinaross.com.au and offers news, reviews and interviews with writers from around the corner to across the world.

21 thoughts on “CLASSICS VANDALISM: HANDS OFF JANE AUSTEN!

  1. Hear, hear! I am interested in new ideas too. I want to read authors who comment on today’s society and its issues, just as Austen did her day.

  2. I got an advanced reader copy of the Joanna Trollope version of Sense and Sensibility a couple of months ago. I read it because I was curious and reading it inspired me to write a blog post, “Do Modern Retellings of Classic Novels Actually Work?”. In my opinion, the original is always best. I have been an Austen fan for half of my life and I have read her novels over and over again. No modern author can match her style. There were some amusing moments in Trollope’s version but overall I don’t really see the point in these new versions. I tried to keep an open mind but I think there are much better ways of paying tribute to Austen than rewriting her novels.

    • Thanks Grace – this seems to be the recurring theme among responses to this post. I would be interested to see sales figures and track progress.

      • I imagine a lot of people will purchase it out of curiosity so I think the Austen Project will probably be a good moneyspinner for the publishers. It has mixed reviews on Amazon. Some people love it, others (mostly Austen purists, like myself!) dislike it.

  3. So Dina you noticed the elephant in the room or should that be “The Emporer’s New Clothes”. I too have a problem with reworking the classics and as for rewriting Jane Austen, oh please.
    I tried to read Longbourn and may have succeeded if it had not been so harsh on the Bennetts; had the Smith family been the subject if the downstairs gossip, so be it. I also rejected ideas of Colleen McCullough’s “The Independence of Miss Mary Bennett”, although have to admit I did finish it because of the writing.
    Joanna Trollope and Val McDermid surely don’t need to ride on Miss Austen’s coattails!
    Thanks for Books Now Dina, I enjoy your blog.

    • Thanks Karen. No-one has asked for a sequel to Anna Karenina from Vronsky’s perspective, or followed up Oliver from Oliver Twist (unknown to everyone, Bill and Nancy had a baby daughter. Years later, Oliver finds her and….). I wonder if some novelists are considered too sacred to tamper with? Or wouldn’t the books sell?

  4. Reading tastes vary. Being interested in deeper layers of the psyche, for me the psychology of characters can work in any time, past, present or future, as in timeless myths and fairy tales. Well done, especially when engaging my senses, I enjoy the fresh perspectives on archetypal themes. Romeo & Juliet seem to fit into any setting 🙂

    When it comes to well-known and well-loved protagonists from twentieth-century novels, the ones I grew up with, where the ambience of place and customs are wedded to the complexity of the character, this is more tricky., and I have on occasions felt irrationally annoyed, for the same reason that the movie version of a book I cherished might distort or demean what I had created in my imagination. An exception re: films, for example, is ‘Kill a Mockingbird,’ which was as gripping and atmospheric as the novel.

    Re: novels, as you say, there are re-workings that are free-standing works of art.
    Sometimes a writer identifies strongly with a character from a novel that was formative in their lives and wants to add a different spin. But when it comes to publishers commissioning writers to exploit classic iconic characters, it smells of brand exploitation. An interesting trend, which will continue as the copyright of works passes into the public domain. I hope it’s not signifying that our mechanised culture is eradicating unique individuals.

    • Thank you – I think you’ve given me an idea for another BlogSpot: book vs film!
      I agree with you about “To Kill A Mockingbird”. Other iconic film adaptations I have enjoyed include “The Grapes of Wrath”. In a week when we celebrate the centenary of the publication of Proust’s “In Search of Time Lost”, we’re yet to see a satisfactory film interpretation of this novel.

  5. I’m with you all the way. I read the Guardian piece http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/01/modernising-jane-austen-traps-to-avoid the other day and was appalled. Apart from Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, I have yet to come across even a spin off that works (I remember a Rebecca sequel that made me squirm). Inspired by, OK; bought up to date, yuk!
    I realise that I am inconsistent as there are many opera productions or even Shakespeare productions, reset in another era, that I love – but they don’t tamper with the language.

    • Yes, I also loved the Jean Rhys, but again, this was very much a retelling from Bertha’s viewpoint, so it became an unique piece of fiction.
      I think when we see Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream or a “Ring” set in Afghanistan’s war zone, we respond to the dramatic, directorial and novel production values that have been assigned to the opera or play. The text/music itself remains unchanged. We’ve had a huge debate here in Oz over a number of theatrical productions recently where the directors have radically altered original texts – in one case, excluding the last scene of “Death of a Salesman”. Once again, I think there’s a big difference between interpretation and a hacking job.

  6. I’m going to have to restrain myself here because I could go on a total rant about this topic! I couldn’t believe it when Joanna Trollope came out with Sense and Sensibility and I was horrified to hear they were remaking the rest! I don’t mind classics inspired things either but can’t people come up with their own stuff? And I really hate sequels to the classics – if they were meant to have a sequel the actual author would’ve written it. I don’t want to know what happens after Mr Darcy and Elizabeth move to Pemberley or anything like that!

    • I think Bel Mooney (it may be another author) wrote a sequel to P&P a few years ago but I agree, the growing number of spin-offs is disturbing and completely unnecessary in my view.

  7. Interesting! I am inclined to agree with you, with one exception: I love Alexander McCall Smith…and I know he will create something special with Emma. He could write ad copy on the back of a cereal box and I would read it and love it!

  8. I didn’t see this come through … Am wondering if my subscription to your blog has fallen off somewhere. Anyhow, I’m a member of the Jane Austen Society of Australia so am a keen Austen fan? Some members like spin offs and sequels but I’m not one of them. I’ve read one in my life … And that was the recent PD James because our Canberra branch decided to do it. None of us liked it. I might read Longhorn next year because we are going to look at servants in Austen and apparently the writer of that has done a good job of understanding/imagining the lives of the servants.

    I don’t mind homages … But tend to see the film versions eg Bridget Jones, which I haven’t read, and the really very enjoyable Clueless.

    • It’s such a contentious issue. I’d rather see more original creations for sure. The recent Wodehouse rewrite has been panned, although the new Bond has been praised. But I think there are some writers, like Austen. who should be left alone.

  9. I am afraid that one of your commenters above may be true: ‘money-spinner for the publishers’. I’m with you, leave the classics alone and let authors write their own original stuff. SD

  10. Yeah, I generally find it difficult to accept contemporary writers being commissioned to write sequels of classics too. But am keen on reading ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ by P.D. James.
    I wasn’t aware of the Austen Project, until I read this.
    Nice Blog

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