Over the past several years we’ve seen a flood of Austen reimaginings. From Bollywood’s ‘Bride and Prejudice’ to ‘Lost in Austen’ and ‘Clueless’, Austen’s characters have found themselves far away from their Regency drawing rooms. And it’s not just screen adaptations. The Jane Austen Project from Harper Collins recruited big name authors to reimagine all six of Austen’s novels in contemporary settings. Excitingly, this year we’ll also be seeing a number of LGBT+ retellings—including my own, of course!
But why Austen? What is it about her works that inspires writers to retell her stories over and over, to adapt them for the screen, and to transpose them into a world so markedly different from Austen’s?
Perhaps the most fundamental reason is that they work so well.
Austen’s heroines and heroes slip out of their muslin gowns or buckskin breeches and into a pair of jeans with ease. Unlike Dickens, whose characters shoulder a weight of social commentary, or the Bronte’s, whose characters are drenched in Victorian melodrama, Austen’s characters travel light. They leave her pages almost naked, ready to step seamlessly into the modern world. None of which is to imply that her characters lack depth. They are rich, fully developed people who readers find relatable and compelling even 200 years after Austen’s death. And that’s not an easy trick.
Hey, don’t I know you?
Austen’s ability to create characters that not only leap off the page through their dialogue but also feel fresh and real even two hundred years later is remarkable. Who hasn’t tried to escape a Miss Bates around the water cooler, or sat next to a Harriet Smith on the bus and listened to her obsess with her BFF over her latest boyfriend drama?
But just as importantly, they exist independently of the period in which they live. Their nineteenth century speech patterns and language aside, the characters talk and act like people you might meet at work, people who could easily be your friends, your family, or the love of your life. They feel like real people because Austen wrote real people. She didn’t write stereotypes or caricatures, and the only points her characters make are about fundamental human nature. “For what do we live,” asks Mr. Bennet, “but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?” It turns out that, by and large, people are as risible today as they were two hundred years ago.
Spare me the details
“Mr. Bennet protested against any description of finery.” And so does Austen. Look as hard as you like and you’ll see no description of finery, or anything else, in Austen’s work. Even the delectable Darcy is only sketched as ‘tall’ and ‘handsome’. Austen’s characters reveal themselves in different ways, through their actions and words, and Austen allows them to earn our respect or ridicule accordingly. Which leaves readers plenty of room to interpret the characters as they choose, and so each generation can find something of themselves in her heroes and heroines.
It’s not only physical details that Austen avoids. She’s often criticised for the lack of social context in her work. Where are the conversations about the abolitionist movement, the wars with France, or the social unrest ravaging Regency England? Helena Kelly’s book Jane Austen, The Secret Radical makes a compelling argument that readers of the day would have read more subtly and knowingly than modern readers, that they would have understood more than we do about what Austen’s characters were and were not saying between the lines. (And let’s not forget that Austen was writing at a time of repressive sedition laws that restricted severely what she could print). Kelly’s book is a fantastic read and I recommend it thoroughly to any Austen fan.
But perhaps one of the side-effects for modern readers of being somewhat blind to Austen’s subtle social commentary is that her characters appear to be highly context-free. We can lift them from her pages and put them in our own world without losing anything essential. Better than that, we can allow them to interact with our own society and contextualise them in a way that reflects our world without it feeling forced.
Get me out of here!
If Austen’s novels have one consistent theme, it’s the heroines’ pursuit of freedom. Whether it’s Emma Woodhouse finding a way to marry and yet keep something of her independence, or Elizabeth Bennett finding the financial security her careless father failed to provide, Austen’s heroines start the novels trapped by society and circumstance and end them free—or as free as was possible for a nineteenth century middleclass woman. Perhaps Anne Eliot, consigned to an uncertain spinsterhood by poor choices and her vain, profligate father achieves the greatest freedom in the end. We can imagine Anne Wentworth accompanying her husband beyond the far horizon, seeing a world far beyond the claustrophobic constraints of Uppercross drawing rooms.
Enlightened as we see ourselves in 2018, we’re still bound by social conventions—race, class, sexuality, and gender all play their part in limiting our freedoms and opportunities. Perhaps that’s why Austen’s novels adapt so readily to an LGBT+ retelling; social attitudes toward the LGBT+ community still reflect many of the restraints nineteenth century England imposed on its inhabitants.
We’re not worthy
Austen was a genius. No doubt about it. She was a genius of observation, of dialogue, and of craft, and no re-telling or adaptation of her work will ever equal the original. If you haven’t read them, you’re missing out. But what a re-telling or an adaptation can do is have fun with beloved characters and stories, allow us to spend a little more time with them, and perhaps hint at what Austen may have been writing about had she been living today.
Perfect Day, my contemporary male/male retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, is published on 13th August 2018.
Love doesn’t burn out just because the timing’s wrong. It grows. It never leaves.
When Joshua Newton, prodigal son of one of New Milton’s elite, fell in love with ambitious young actor Finn Callaghan, his world finally made sense. With every stolen moment, soft touch and breathless kiss, they fell deeper in love.
Finn was his future…until he wasn’t.
Love stays. Even when you don’t want it to, even when you try to deny it, it stays.
Eight years later, Finn has returned to the seaside town where it all began. He’s on the brink of stardom, a far cry from the poor mechanic who spent one gorgeous summer falling in love on the beach.
The last thing he wants is a second chance with the man who broke his heart. Finn has spent a long time forgetting Joshua Newton—he certainly doesn’t plan to forgive him.
Love grows. It never leaves.
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