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.