It was inevitable that The Austen Project would prove controversial. Since Harper Collins announced its initiative to refashion Jane Austen’s six novels for a modern audience, opinion has been polarised over the concept of rewriting such a literary colossus. Some have welcomed it as a creative experiment; others have lambasted it for shamelessly milking a classic author as a money-making brand. Now two years and two novels into the project, and its exact merits remain dubious.
Of course, the writers approached for these ‘contemporary reworkings’ are all of a suitably high calibre. Joanna Trollope released her version of Sense and Sensibility last year, followed by Val McDermid’s modernisation of Northanger Abbey; Alexander McCall Smith is due to take on Emma, Curtis Sittenfeld the favourite Pride and Prejudice, and the authors of Mansfield Park and Persuasion are yet to be revealed. Moreover, none of them are claiming any attempt to surpass the quality of the originals: as Trollope said, ‘There is a huge gulf between being great and being good… This is a project which will require consummate respect above all else; not an emulation, but a tribute.’
But this admission leaves the greater question even more difficult to answer: putting to one side the obvious matter of financial benefit, is there any artistic or literary value to this so-called ‘tribute’? According to journalist Sam Leith, apparently so: ‘Writers always exist in dialogue with their predecessors. To ask [these authors] to rewrite the actual novels is to make that dialogue explicit at the level of the page… It’s to write fiction as literary criticism.’
In my view, however, there is a clear distinction to be made between reinventing older texts (check my earlier blog, The Age of Reinvention) and rewriting them for the sake of it. The former has the potential to be an enriching exercise – Things Fall Apart‘s response to Heart of Darkness is a perfect example of ‘fiction as literary criticism’, and even Bridget Jones’ Diary presents a fresh take on Pride and Prejudice without regurgitating the source material – whereas the latter is only fiction as fancy dress; substantially, it offers us nothing lasting or new.
No doubt the reader might have some momentary fun in seeing Austen’s characters depicted as the cast of Made in Chelsea, or Wentworth’s heart-wrenching emotions communicated as a Snapchat. But as most reviewers have remarked, these reworkings will only redirect you to the originals. In fact, it is very revealing that every interview surrounding this rewriting of Austen has fixated over the author’s experience in translating the original. This is a project which is stimulating and exciting in the creative challenge it poses the author, but offers little to the seen-it-all-before reader.
Cynical as it may sound, The Austen Project is founded on little other than commercial greed, and presents little opportunity for creative good. I can understand the appeal of television adaptations, films, spin-offs – but to remake something in its own medium seems an obscure and fruitless endeavour. These new novels may well provide an enjoyable read, how many of them will be sitting well-worn on the bookshelf in years to come? At a sure guess, far fewer than Jane Austen’s herself.