Classic novels, retold

For my Day 19 Zero to Hero post I published a gallery of photos accompanied by a cento, which is a poem created with lines by poems from different authors. The Zero to Hero challenge for Day 21: “publish a post inspired by your post from Day 19”.

Initially, ideas for this post didn’t flow freely but composing the cento got me thinking about reimaginings and retellings of other peoples’ work. A lot of retellings are of classic novels ‘updated’ for the modern age. Sometimes these reimagined works add something new to interpretations of the original, for example, a novel which retells Jane Austen’s classic, Pride and Prejudice, from the point of view of the servants was published last year and received very good reviews. I haven’t had the time to read it yet but I saw copies in a bookstore today and was very tempted to buy myself a copy!

Public domain photo source

Public domain photo source

However, most of the time I feel that rewriting a classic novel to bring it up to date is unnecessary. I wrote about this in September when I published a post, “Do Modern Retellings of Classic Novels Actually Work?”, in which I discussed Joanna Trollope’s updated version of Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen.

One of the problems I found when reading the novel was the sheer amount of social differences between Jane Austen’s time (the Georgian era) and modern-day life:

“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”

Click here to read the full post. What do you think about updated versions of classic novels?

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.