Jane Austen: Reimagining the Text.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any blog post about Jane Austen must begin with an awkward homage to her best-known novel, Pride and Prejudice (1813).

It is also a truth universally acknowledged that, since her death on 18 July 1817, aged only 41, many writers have sought to capture the magic of Austen’s writing, and to pay tribute to her through imitations, sequels, retellings, and reimaginings of her work.

So, in honour of Austen’s birthday (16 December 1775), I wanted to share six of my favourite literary reimaginings and retellings of her most famous work. For keen readers of Austen, I hope these will share new light upon a favourite novel. For those yet to become acquainted with her, maybe these will serve as a means of introduction? For me, the versatility and variety of the following books demonstrates the genius of Austen’s characterisation and plotting, the timelessness of her themes, and the resonance that the stories she told continue to have for thousands of readers today.

The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow

Published in 2020, Janice Hadlow’s The Other Bennet Sister tells the story of Mary, middle of the five Bennet girls, plainest of them all and, arguably, the most overlooked by both her family and her creator. An introvert in a family of extroverts, Mary is very much a peripheral figure within Pride and Prejudice – and is usually depicted alongside Mr Collins as a figure of fun in the many film and TV adaptations. Hadlow, however, manages to convey the depth of Mary’s character, showing us a young woman who, though different from her siblings, has no less passion and no fewer dreams. For those new to Austen, this lively modern novel may encourage you to read Pride and Prejudice the first time whilst, for Austen-lovers, seeing Lizzie, Darcy, Jane, Lydia et al. from Mary’s point of view provides a chance to reflect on the value of wealth and beauty from the perspective of a young woman without either.

Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin

Set in modern-day Canada, Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha at Last takes the plot and themes of Pride and Prejudice and combines them with a modern Muslim romance. Heroine Ayesha Shamsi has set aside her dreams of becoming a poet to pay off her debts to her wealthy uncle. Adding to her problems, she’s still single whilst, as her boisterous family are always reminding her, her flighty younger cousin Hafsa is close to rejecting her one hundredth marriage proposal. When Ayesha meets Khalid, she finds herself irritatingly attracted to someone whose conservative and judgemental nature means he looks down on her choices and dresses like he belongs in the seventh century. Yet unbeknownst to Ayesha, Khalid is also wrestling with what he believes and what he wants. Despite announcing a surprise engagement to Ayesha’s cousin Hafsa, Khalid just can’t get the outspoken Ayesha out of his mind. Ayesha at Last is a lot of fun and, for me, demonstrates that the themes and concerns of Austen’s novel resonate not only across time but also through cultures. Another modern re-telling worth a shout is Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, which moves the action to modern-day Ohio and adds in a dash of reality TV.

Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James

Pride and Prejudice…and murders! Queen of Crime P. D. James brings her expert plotting and fine eye for detail to Pemberley in this elegantly gauged tribute to Austen’s vitality. Set in 1803, the orderly world that Darcy and Elizabeth have created for themselves is threatened when, on the eve of their annual ball, Lydia Wickham – Elizabeth’s unreliable sister – stumbles out of a carriage screaming that her husband has been murdered. James’s pastiche of Austen is laced with authentic smatterings of Austen’s trademark wit, combining this with a thoroughly researched portrait of Georgian law and order. As a crime story, Death Comes to Pemberley is deeply enjoyable in its own right but, for me, it also demonstrates the versatility of Austen’s imagination and the way in which her sharp observations of society and wicked sense of humour underpin a genre so seemingly disparate as crime fiction. For more genre-bending Austen, fantasy fans might also like to look up Heartstone by Elle Katherine White for Pride & Prejudice with additional dragons.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith

Okay, so I mostly put this one in here because it’s Pride and Prejudice WITH ZOMBIES. And what isn’t to love about that as a concept? Look beneath the parodic swordfights and ignore the ninjas for a moment (because yes, there’s also ninjas in this one), however, and you’ll find a wry commentary on literary expectations and Regency-era society. The academic literature on this adaptation of Austen’s classic is, honestly, very interesting and considers everything from the meaning behind Charlotte Lucas’s zombification to the importance of sword-wielding heroines for modern female readers. For those seeking to move beyond Darcy and Elizabeth, Grahame-Smith added a kraken and some pirates to Austen’s first published novel to create Sense and Sensibility and Sea-Monsters, and wrote a sequel called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After.

What Matters in Jane Austen by John Mullen

Mullen is a Professor of English at University College London and has taught Austen to university students for over a quarter of a century. Distilling that knowledge into a lively and accessible piece of literary criticism, What Matters in Jane Austen endeavours to answer twenty crucial puzzles about Austen’s work including, How Much Does Age Matter?, Do We Ever See the Lower Classes?, and Is There Any Sex in Jane Austen? Mullen is an entertaining and knowledgeable guide – especially to Austen’s lesser-known works – and his book is the perfect primer for revisiting the novels with a fresh critical eye.

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Speaking of the lower classes, who does wash the mud of Elizabeth Bennet’s skirt after she troops over to Netherfield Park to appal polite society? The answer, for Jo Baker at least, is Sarah: one of the housemaids at Longbourn, the Bennet family home. Baker’s eye for detail undercuts the televised romanticisation of Austen’s era, depicting not only the lives of those who do the dirty work that enable Austen’s polite heroines to take tea or go to balls, but also reflecting on the turbulent politics of the era and, poignantly, on the aftereffects of the Napoleonic Wars.

These are just a smattering of many adaptations and appropriations of Austen’s work but, hopefully, they’ve given you a flavour of just how resonant her writing remains. More than 200 years after her death, Austen’s novels and short fiction continue to be read and enjoyed by readers across the globe. And whilst F R Leavis saw Austen as one of the cornerstones of the ‘canon’ of English Literature, for me, her work resonates not because of its universality or intrinsic brilliance (although I do think Austen is brilliant) but because of the way that her intricate examinations of love, marriage, family, society, and commerce invite new perspectives, new approaches, and new imaginings that encourage us to reflect not only on the period in which she lived and wrote but on our own experiences and society today.

Amy Blaney

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

This week, it is 123 years since the birth of CS Lewis (B. Nov 29th, 1898). Children’s Literature provides a fascinating lense through which to view social attitudes to childhood and to explore the development of fantasy literature as a form. Here at Staffs Uni, we take a look at Children’s literature from both a critical and a creative perspective.

CS Lewis’ best known novel, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was written in the immediate post-War years (1948/9) and published in 1950.

The seemingly escapist fantasy of the novel – with its talking animals and fairytale story elements – looks at first like an uncomfortable juxtaposition with the grim reality of a scarred and austere society seeking to re-build after the catastrophe of the war.
However, there are many aspects of the narrative which reflect the time of its production. For example, the novel is a reflection on evacuation and its effects on children and the dislocation of family. These would have been familiar scenarios for child readers at the time of publication. It is a wartime narrative of children separated from parents – fathers at the front, women working for the war effort, fathers killed in action, parents killed in the Blitz. The children negotiate the world without adult supervision or authority. Now, this is a familiar trope that is familiar in everything from Alice to Swallows and Amazons, Enid Blyton, all the way to Harry Potter. The professor is a distant but comforting figure who is sympathetic to the children’s stories; he seems to understand children but not the wider social realm. He is a link between the world of fantasy and imagination and a primary or real world. In this respect, he is similar to the narrator who is also more concerned with the interests of children than the adult world. Finally, Turkish Delight reminds us that sweets, chocolate and biscuits were rationed into the 1950s and rationing didn’t entirely end until 1954, 9 years after the war had ended.

The most significant convention of children’s literature here is the movement between a primary world and one of fantasy or imagination. It is important to consider the journey through the wardrobe – this magical portal – as an ambiguous journey for the children, as both real and not real. It is significant, I think, that initially it is the younger children who are able to go through the wardrobe to Narnia. The balance between the children is interesting and symptomatic of some of the observations made by the critics whose definitions and approaches we have just looked at. We have two younger children and two older children, with a male and a female child in each. The older children take responsibility for their younger siblings, allowing the reader to see how the war is reshaping childhood and reshaping our understandings of knowledge and innocence. The younger children, however, have not lost their innocent trust in freedom and imagination, leaving them able to conjure other worlds. Does Narnia exist or do they encourage their big brother and sister to join them in a game so convincing it becomes real to them all?

The older children are caught between the world of adults and the world of children, while the younger children demonstrate the power of the childhood imagination over the rationality and diminishing creativity of adolescence and early adulthood. Equally, we see how gender roles are socially motivated and the ideologies of gender work at a very early stage in a child’s development.

The wardrobe – a portal between this world and another – is a familiar trope in children’s literature, from Alice’s looking glass (which gets an oblique reference here) to platform 9 and 3/4 in the Harry Potter novels. Here, the children travel from the corrupted world of war, violence and destruction to a wood – a natural world that should be a haven for them and provide protection. This, after all, is the Romantic view in children’s literature. The wood, in contrast to expectations, is itself riven by a battle between forces of good and evil and the children are forced to take sides and, crucially, take action to establish a moral principle. Again, a distinct echo of the real world beyond the wardrobe door and a recognisable one for the contemporaneous reader. The forces of good face an overwhelming and immoral foe who has all the characteristics of a charismatic and violent dictator. The animals of the wood along with their allies, the children, then become the plucky resistance able to challenge the occupation of the White Witch. There are, though, collaborators who must be punished at the end.

So Narnia becomes the site of negotiation of the adult world of conflict and the expectations that are to be placed on our central characters as they mature. In this natural fantasy realm the children face challenges that children should not face. They challenge evil in battle and become fair and just when called upon to rule. The parallel or fantasy world functions as an alternative or symbolic site through which issues of growing up, responsibility and good and bad are explored and negotiated.