Do Modern Retellings of Classic Novels Actually Work?

What would you say if I told you that one of the most popular classic novelists of all time was coming back, with her works reimagined for a twenty-first century audience?

When I received an advance reader copy of Sense and Sensibility last week, my initial reaction was curiosity, followed by thoughts about the audacity of the title: the blue cover with “Sense and Sensibility” emblazoned on it in gold lettering. You see, this is not Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Look upwards from the golden title and you will see Joanna Trollope’s name glinting on the cover, above an image of two modernized Regency-style silhouettes.

The Austen Project is “a major new series of six novels teaming up authors of global literary significance with Jane Austen’s six complete works”.

Three of the titles are still to be revealed but the reimagining of Sense and Sensibility will be followed by crime writer Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey in March and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Pride and Prejudice in fall 2014.

In a quote which appears on the website of the Austen Project, Joanna Trollope says that it is “not an emulation, but a tribute”. I realize that these retellings are not intended to be imitations of Austen’s novels. Whether you like or dislike Austen, the originals are obviously far superior!

When I heard about this project, I immediately felt irritated that the titles are the same as Jane Austen’s. Imagine going into a bookstore and asking for a copy of Pride and Prejudice. “Oh, do you mean the Jane Austen or the Curtis Sittenfeld one?” Because the copyright on Austen’s novels expired long ago, people can do what they like with them: reimagine the books, use their titles, create zombie mash-ups of them. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, regrettably (or delightfully, depending on your opinion), is a real title.

Why was The Austen Project created? It is a good money spinner for the publishers, no doubt. The Jane Austen phenomenon reached a peak in the 1990s with the BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice and the infamous “wet shirt” scene. Today, there are Austen festivals, sequels and endless film and television adaptations filled with gorgeous scenery and good-looking young men chopping logs, such as the 2008 BBC television adaptation of Sense and Sensibility (trailer below)

But, money aside, why is it necessary to update Austen’s works? Part of their greatness lies in the fact that Austen was writing during a very different era. Context is key: without the complex social mores and historical detail of the Georgian period, her characters and stories do not hold the same weight.

If you don’t know the plot of Sense and Sensibility, three sisters, Elinor, Marianne and Margaret, and their mother are turned out of their grand Georgian home when their father dies and the estate is passed to the next male in line. They are forced to move to a small cottage owned by a distant relative, Sir John Middleton, and their lifestyle changes dramatically. The only hope for Elinor and Marianne (Margaret is a minor character in the story as she is only thirteen when it begins) is to marry men who can provide for them.

Today, of course, this is completely irrelevant and there is no obstruction to being an independent woman. But when Jane Austen was alive, women in the middle and upper classes did not have many choices other than to marry or become a governess. As Austen herself wrote in a letter in 1816, “Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony“.

Do modern retellings of classic novels work? It is impossible to translate the restricted roles which women had in Austen’s time to the present day. Therefore, some of Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility comes across as a bit far-fetched; Marianne and Elinor do not need to marry to find a way out of their impoverished situation. This type of issue is one of the problems with updating classic novels into a modern-day setting. But I had to smile at some of the modernizations — when Marianne is sad about having to leave her home, instead of taking solace by playing the piano (as she does in the original) she picks up her guitar and plays Taylor Swift’s Teardrops on my Guitar.

Despite being critical about Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility, I am enjoying it more than I initially thought I would. It is best if you have already read the original novel before you read the retelling, otherwise you will miss out on a great deal.

Although any answers to this inquiry are purely speculative, one of the most pressing questions on my mind is “What would Jane Austen say?” I wonder if she would be insulted or pleased or perhaps rather bemused by it all.

Jane Austen, in a watercolor painted by her sister in 1804. (Photo credit: Wikipedia. This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired).

Jane Austen, in a watercolor painted by her sister in 1804. (Photo credit: Wikipedia. This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired).

Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope will be released in hardcover in the U.S. on October 29 and in the U.K. on October 24.

What do you think about the modernization of classic novels? Join the discussion by leaving a comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Alnwick Gardens and a trip to Hogwarts (Alnwick Castle)

Situated in the north-east of England, the Alnwick Garden is a wonderful place to spend a day, exploring and wandering around the 12-acre garden. It is next to the historic Alnwick Castle, which was used as a filming location for the first two Harry Potter movies. Formal gardens at Alnwick were first created in 1750 by the well-known Georgian landscape architect, Lancelot “Capability” Brown.

Throughout the centuries, the gardens at Alnwick were developed by the Dukes of Northumberland, especially during the Victorian era when it was a time of great discoveries in the plant kingdom. Today the Alnwick Garden is owned by a community charity. After a period of development, the gardens opened to the public in 2002.

The Grand Cascade is the focal point of the garden.

Grand Cascade Alnwick

There are steps each side of the Cascade, allowing visitors to get up close and personal. Every thirty minutes, jets of water spray up from the Cascade in a dancing display of water which moves from the top of the water feature right down to the very last pool.


Fountain 2

It reminds me of a similar water feature at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, although the Chatsworth cascade is 300 years old (you can see spectacular photos by clicking here). The Grand Cascade at Alnwick is a modern interpretation with a classical style.

Near the Cascade is a topiary serpent and between its coils, you find contemporary water features which delight children and adults alike with their mixture of visual effects and illusions.

After enjoying the water features hidden in the coils of the topiary serpent, we strolled through the bamboo labyrinth which was created by Adrian Fisher. If you have followed Cultural Life for a while, you might remember that I wrote about another of Adrian Fisher’s creations a few months ago: the ostensibly straightforward but fiendishly difficult five-pointed star maze at Scone Palace in Scotland. The bamboo labyrinth was a lot easier and it took less than five minutes to weave our way through it.

A clue inside the labyrinth

A clue inside the labyrinth

We had lunch in the Treehouse Restaurant, a truly unique dining experience. It is one of the largest tree houses in the world and it feels like something out of the Harry Potter books!

The Treehouse Restaurant

The Treehouse Restaurant

You reach the treehouse via aerial walkways, lined with twinkling lights.

I enjoyed a two course lunch of grilled red mullet and baby squid followed by halloumi salad with artichoke heart and chickpeas.

Inside the Treehouse Restaurant

Inside the Treehouse Restaurant

After lunch we walked to the Ornamental Garden, a pretty area just above the Grand Cascade.

The entrance to the Ornamental Garden

The entrance to the Ornamental Garden

A peaceful place to sit

A peaceful place to sit

Alnwick Castle, owned by the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, is a short stroll from the gardens. It was used as a filming location for the first two Harry Potter movies. Photography is not allowed inside the castle but I took a few photos of the exterior. You can view some photos inside the castle on their website here.

Part of Alnwick Castle

A view of part of Alnwick Castle

The castle is filled with history from different eras. But it is still very much a family home; the Percy family have lived in the castle for 700 years. As well as the beautiful furniture and historical artefacts, a lot of people visit the castle due to the Harry Potter connection. Harry’s first broomstick lesson took place within the grounds of Alnwick Castle (aka Hogwarts!) and when Ron crashed the flying Ford Anglia into the Whomping Willow in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the scene was filmed at Alnwick Castle.

Quidditch lessons were filmed on the lawns at Alnwick!

Quidditch lessons were filmed on the lawns at Alnwick!

The beautiful blue of the clock on the Alnwick tower stands out on a rainy day

The beautiful blue of the clock on the Alnwick tower stood out.

I plan to post all these photos plus a few more into a Cultural Life gallery in the next few days; I hope you enjoy browsing them.

Alnwick Castle and Gardens are wonderful places to visit. There is so much to see and do and a whole lot of history to soak up.

Do you enjoy visiting gardens and historic buildings? Let me know your recommendations from around the world!

The joy of great radio: 6 reasons why I love This American Life

Ira Glass, the host and executive producer of This American Life. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons (image author: Tom Murphy VII)

Ira Glass, the host and executive producer of This American Life. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons (image author: Tom Murphy VII)

In the New Year of 2011 I was standing at the kitchen sink, washing the dishes after dinner. So far, so ordinary. But then I switched on my iPod and something magical happened. My first time listening to This American Life happened. On that dark January evening as I scrubbed saucepans clean and rinsed soapsuds from plates, This American Life opened my eyes to a whole new way of looking at money and thinking about the world.

It all started when I got my iPod for Christmas 2010 and I explored the podcasts section on iTunes. The first episode of TAL I downloaded to my podcast was The Invention of Money (you can listen here: The Invention of Money). Like a paradigm shift, it gave me a completely new perspective on money and the world. From that moment on, I was captivated.

Now, over two years after my first time listening, I am a fan, a devotee, an addict. I listen to This American Life every week. If I miss an episode, I start to get withdrawal symptoms. Why do I love it so much? Let me count the ways…

1. FormatThis American Life has a very simple but very effective format.

In the words of its host, Ira Glass, “Each week we choose a theme and put together different kinds of stories on that theme”.

This sentence, like a mantra, is always tucked into the first few minutes of each TAL broadcast. The audience is ready, waiting like children eager to hear a story, and the show begins.

2. Theme – the show covers an endless variety of themes. I looked through the TAL Radio Archives and picked out a few of my favorite episodes:

The Invention of Money – the first episode I ever listened to. It is truly enthralling.

Invisible Made Visible – this is the radio version of a live show which TAL produced last year. I picked it as one of my favorites because of Ryan Knighton’s contribution. Ryan is blind and in Act 1 he talks about trying to explain what that means to his young daughter.

Return to the Scene of the Crime – I spent a while trying to remember the name of this episode and trawling the archives for it because I really want to share it with you. It made me wince and laugh (Mike Birbiglia in Act 1: “D-u-why?!”) and cry (Dan Savage talking about his mom’s death in Act 3: “Our Man of Perpetual Sorrow”).

In Dog We Trust – stories about the animals in our lives. I particularly recommend listening to the last act, Act 3: Resurrection.

3. Journalism – the stories that TAL produces are examples of journalism at its finest hour, encouraging listeners to think creatively and giving them a different angle on everyday life. This article from the July/August 1999 edition of the American Journalism Review explains exactly what sets TAL apart.

This American Life wordle

4. Storytelling – On the About Our Radio Show page on the TAL website, they explain that the journalism on the program “tends to use a lot of the techniques of fiction: scenes and characters and narrative threads”. That technique is what struck me when I first listened to This American Life on that dark winter evening two years and eight months ago. The producers took an ostensibly humdrum topic of money and opened my eyes to a whole new perspective. The program was factual but the method of presentation was like a riveting novel that I couldn’t bear to put down.

Conversely, “the fiction we have on the show functions like journalism”. Some of my favorite moments on TAL are stories told by contributors such David Sedaris and David Rakoff, for example, the unique retelling of Franz Kafka’s short story, The Metamorphosis, which is about a man, Gregor Samsa, who wakes up as a cockroach. What would happen if Samsa wrote to Dr Seuss, imploring for help? Act 2, “Oh! The Places You Will Not Go”, of episode 470 is a correspondence between Samsa (Jonathan Goldestein) and Dr Seuss (David Rakoff).

5. Ira Glass – Ira Glass is a public radio veteran, having worked in the field of public radio for more than thirty years. As host and executive producer of This American Life, he is one of the masterminds behind the show and he is definitely part of what makes it great.

6. Relaxation – Listening to This American Life is one of my most favorite ways to relax. My preferred way to listen is to download each week’s episode in podcast form to my iPod and curl up under the covers to listen. TAL is an excellent sleeping aid! If I can’t sleep, all I have to do is put TAL on a low volume and before you can say “This is Public Radio International”, Ira’s voice lulls me into a peaceful slumber.

In short, This American Life is funny, moving and brilliant. The stories range from the day-to-day lives of ordinary Americans to bizarre stories which challenge your views and make you reconsider your opinions. And these things are all part of a unique listening experience: the joy of truly great radio.

Are you a This American Life listener? What do you love about the show? If you’re not a TAL listener, have I convinced you to check it out?