Tuesday, 22 October 2013

'The person…who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid'

So said Mr Tilney, in Northanger Abbey, reflecting Jane Austen in typically waspish form (if you don't think waspishness is typically Austenian, stop watching the TV adaptations and start reading the books). I'm not sure he's right – my own dear parents have never knowingly opened a novel but aren't noticeably stupid, but it's a good line.

There's a new Austen project afoot: six very well-known authors have been commissioned to write new versions of Austen's novels. Joanna Trollope's Sense and Sensibility is out now, followed by Val McDermid's Northanger Abbey, Curtis Sittenfeld's Pride and Prejudice and others to follow. Interesting choice of authors. Trollope does social mores well, McDermid's crime fiction lends itself well to the creepy mock-Gothic of Northanger, while Sittenfeld's Prep, The Man of My Dreams and American Wife all deal with territory close to Austen's: forming a self, finding a place, being a woman in a masculine public sphere.

I'll be buying them. I think it's an interesting idea, and I like the authors so far (though I've only heard McDermid speak, rather than read any of her books). I'm interesting in Jane Austen's afterlives as much as I am the books. My boss calls her 'the most dangerous author in literary history': he sees her work as a trap for women reader and writers, and as a diversion from literature's counter-hegemonic mission (I think: I only got the short version of his quite famous lecture, delivered in a corridor on the way to a seminar). I can empathise with the argument but for me Austen is the author of despair, desire and yawning insecurity: beyond the frocks, these women are engaged in a desperate battle for survival no less real for the privileged surroundings. I'm fascinated by what happens to Austen afterwards: the way her family and admirers tried to hug her work to death for instance, burning diaries and suppressing anecdotes which made Jane look less saintly. Then there are the cults of Austen which popped up in unlikely places, such as WW1 trenches as escapist fantasies and reminders of the values supposedly being defended (read Harman's Jane's Fame and Sutherland's Jane Austen's Textual Lives on this). I enjoyed Bridget Jones as an Austen adaptation, appreciated Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as well as Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen as witty homages, and above all Clueless: it lost the political edge but remains one of the truest film adaptations of all, despite the total absence of corsets and carriages.

I also hugely enjoyed a spiritual ancestor of this project, ITV's tongue-in-cheek Lost In Austen. 

So I'm going to buy these adaptations, despite the critical alarm at the project. Yes, it's clearly an attempt to cash in on Jane to shift some books, but I can't get angry about that. I'm actually quite appalled at the idea raised by Elizabeth Day that it's a waste of time 'reading something that lifts its ideas from someone else'. I haven't read her novels, but I'd be surprised if they were entirely original, given that even Shakespeare nicked large chunks of plot from a plethora of sources including Chaucer, who lifted enormous chunks of his work from the Italians and so on ad infinitum. Day worries that there's no suspense in the adaptations because we know what happens - but surely any sophisticated reader will enjoy the quality (or absence thereof) of the writing: we don't always read for the plot (I hope).

It's long been a cliché that there are only six basic plots to any narrative, but it's nonetheless true(ish). Even if these books are terrible – and the shadow of PD James's awful Death Comes To Pemberley hangs over them like a ghost at the party – they'll be interesting.* Austen's novels weren't 'original' in that they're largely about privileged young women getting married, but the way she handled the elements was original. What will be interesting about these texts is the decisions made about which Austenian elements are retained, or adapted, or dumped. How much water has flowed under the cultural bridge since then?

I don't really buy the argument that Austen needs to be made 'relevant', nor the argument that we should read her work because it's 'relevant'. Relevance be damned. I'm not an upper-class early Victorian virgin in want of a husband and large estate, but I read Austen because I'm capable of empathy and because the work is well-written. If Trollope's Sense and Sensibility is rubbish, I'll hurl it into the circular file, but I don't 

When Day criticises these authors for 'lifting' ideas unoriginally, I imagine someone round at Turner's house ('Not another fecking seascape!') or Stubbs's latest viewing ('Horses again, George? Really?'). Nobody criticised the English Renaissance writers for attempting sonnets, with all the rules handed down: what people criticised was the worst practitioners' adherence to the letter rather than the spirit of the law, hence Shakespeare's mocking 'My Mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun…'.

I've still got Walter Benjamin and Baudrillard on my mind: these adaptations certainly strip away the 'aura' of genius – which is a good thing – and are in a sense hyperreal or second-order simulacra, but I don't think we should worry. Jane's work is good enough to withstand a few shonky adaptations. Relax!

*Seriously, you'll want to pluck out your eyes and wipe your memory after this excrescence.

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