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.

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26 thoughts on “Do Modern Retellings of Classic Novels Actually Work?

  1. I don’t think I’m a big fan of this idea. Why? that would be my question. Why not just read the original works, and why not just write original works. I’ve read some Joanna Trollope, and I thought her books were fine but a very different experience from reading Jane Austen. I read quite a lot of Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen mysteries and I liked those, but the idea of actually rewriting the books makes no sense to me. I think authors should write their own books, not try to rewrite someone else’s.

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    • Although I am enjoying Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility, it does feel a bit odd and I am not entirely comfortable with the idea.

      I think that if people really wanted to pay tribute to an author such as Jane Austen, then it would be better to celebrate and discuss her works without needing to rewrite them. One of the things which really irked me – and I wrote about it in this post – is the use of Austen’s titles. Couldn’t they have thought of something else, a little bit original?

      I understand where you’re coming from. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  2. Well I should admit that I liked the zombie version. I know, you are disappointed. Saying that, I’m so tired of all the remakings and retellings of classic novels and movies. There are so many writers out there with “original” stories. Can’t we focus on new stuff and appreciate the old?

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  3. Sorry I am late to the discussion, but I have just found your blog (and am very glad that I have), and it happens that the aunt who came to stay with me this weekend was reading Trollope’s version of Sense and Sensibility. It was the first I’d heard of these ‘re-imagining’ Austen novels. My aunt said she was really enjoying it, but I am of a similar opinion to most of the previous comments. I can never understand why Hollywood keeps remaking the same franchises/adaptations or ‘updating’ classics, so I can’t say I’m a fan of it happening in literature. Even if it is near impossible to come up with wholly original themes for fiction, surely capturing the ‘essence’ of a previous writer is better than rewriting their book for a time in which it doesn’t really fit?!
    What did you think of Trollope’s version overall? Is it worth reading? I might just go back and re-read the originals instead!

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    • Please don’t apologize for being late to the Austen party! I always enjoy comments on my posts, no matter how late. πŸ™‚

      “surely capturing the β€˜essence’ of a previous writer is better than rewriting their book for a time in which it doesn’t really fit” – I agree with you. Austen’s times do not translate well to the 21st century and with good reason: etiquette, manners, social customs, the role of women, style of clothing etc. have changed so much in two hundred years. 1813 to 2013? Not a great fit!

      John Mullan, a Professor of English and literary critic, wrote an interesting piece for The Guardian a few days ago – here is the link: Modernising Jane Austen: 10 Traps to Avoid. He identifies some of the problems which Jane Austen updates and modernizations encounter. One interesting point he makes is about Marianne and Colonel Brandon’s marriage. In the original S&S, nobody thinks twice about their considerable age gap because large age differences were quite common in Austen’s times. But as Mullan points out, “Perhaps we would nowadays flinch from a 17-year-old marrying Colonel Brandon, a man “the wrong side of 35”?“.

      Is it worth reading? Well, yes and no. It made me laugh and it was a quick, fluffy read. I read it mostly out of curiosity and the fact that I was lucky to get my hands on a free copy! As Elizabeth Bennet might say, I was “excessively diverted” by it. But on the whole, given a choice between this and the original, I would re-read the original.

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      • Thank you for replying! That link covers more points than I had considered. The money one, with regards to knowing everyone’s ‘price tag’ in Austen’s day, was particularly interesting. I guess these updates are harmless but unnecessary – what’s wrong with giving the original books a nice new cover like they did with all F. Scott Fitzgerald’s recently!
        And I can’t believe I hadn’t come across the Austen Project before this weekend, because now it seems to be everywhere I look! This was in today’s Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/04/sense-sensibility-trollope-digested-read John Crace is much less kind than your review, but then I don’t think I’ve ever read a review of his where he is anything less than scathing! But I find him funny. Maybe if I happen to come by a copy I’ll read it, but my “to read” pile of books is like an eternal well – it seems impossible to reach the bottom!

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  6. Great post. Many (if not all) works borrow elements from established literature, but I’ve wondered whether retellings go too far (and I say this as someone who has modernized a classic). The hope is that the updated book is an homage to the original work rather than a rip-off of it.

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