The Austen Project

Northanger Abbey Val McDermidLast week, in a bookshop, I came across a copy of Northanger Abbey. But it wasn’t by Jane Austen, the author of Northanger Abbey. It was by Val McDermid, a woman who generally writes crime novels. 

Northanger Abbey is one of my favourite books – to my mind, it’s Austen’s funniest, and it targets exactly the kind of idiocy that I am so prone to. In addition to the humour, it’s also very sweet, providing a much more emotional love affair than Pride and Prejudice.

Naturally enough then, I was curious to see what Val McDermid had written about it. I assumed that it would be a crime novel, and probably one in which Austen’s book played a large role, or was mirrored to some extend. Perhaps someone was killed over a first edition, or the victim based her entire life on one of Austen’s protagonists. It might, it occurred to me, be something rather like Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, in which a detective has to chase a criminal through the pages of the original novel by Charlotte Brontë.

I was expecting, in brief, a homage, an inspired work, a new take or twist upon the idea – something that took Austen’s work and showed it from a new perspective, or the smae themes explored in a different way. Instead, as I read the blurb, I realised that the book I was holding wasn’t inspired by Northanger Abbey, or tackling similar ideas, or even one in which the novel was a plot point: it was just Northanger Abbey, again, with a different author’s name on the cover. Alexander McCall Smith, Emma

Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey is a “retelling” – the same plot and cast, the same sequence of events, just jerked forwards in time. Similar retellings exist currently for Emma (written by Alexander McCall Smith) and Sense & Sensibility (Joanna Trollope). Those authors, and soon three more, are all taking part in The Austen Project.

The Austen Project’s aim is to update the classics – to have each of Austen’s novels rewritten by a modern author for a modern audience. Each author is meant to bring their own “unique take” to Jane Austen.

For several reasons, I find the whole thing infuriating. Everything about The Austen Project grates on me, suggesting a whole raft of views and perspectives on Austen and literature that I find I disagree strongly with.

The first issue I have is one of attribution – of the three books out so far, only one of them (Alexander McCall Smith’s) has any hint of what it is on the front cover. Even on that one, Jane Austen’s name does not appear. In Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, the only one of the three I possess in paperback, Austen’s name also does not appear on the back cover, or the spine. She has been removed from a work that could not have existed without her.

She is mentioned – briefly – inside the book. A couple of the publicity quotes name-drop her in passing, and she does feature in the acknowledgements. Not the dedication, which goes to a friend of the author, but in the acknowledgments, ranked alongside copy editors and publishers. Being a copy editor is, no doubt, an important and vital job that deserves commendation, but I really do feel that, above all other people ever, Jane Austen should get credit for her own books.

Joanna_trollope Sense & SensibilityThere’s something that feels rather dishonest about the whole thing – the authors are content to lift her plot and characters wholesale, but not prepared to acknowledge it publicly. Yes, the information is readily available online or obvious with a little education on Austen, but that is beside the point; she is important enough to the whole endeavour that she should be at least mentioned – a sticker, or single line – in the most prominent place for the books: the covers. I am rather reminded of Arthur Dent’s conversation with Prosser in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or of newspapers that emblazon nonsense across the front page, then issue retractions in fine print on a back page three weeks later.

But that is a minor annoyance, really. I have bigger problems with the whole concept. The classics are classics for a reason – they’ve stood the test of time, been read and enjoyed and understood by people from different times and cultures. They don’t need updating; that’s literally the whole point of classics. They are good as they are.

I’m not, I should stress, against retellings and reimaginings. So much of art is inspired by and built on earlier works, and some of my favourite books are variations on a theme or based on an earlier story. My shelves groan under the weight of fairytales and mythologies reimagined and altered, some ridiculous percentage of modern films are at least partly based on Jesus, and none of Shakespeare’s plots were original. I get it – authors are inspired and borrow from each other, and I have no problem with that at all.

“Updating”, however, is a different story. Homages and inspired works bring something new to the table, updating just alters the externalities – changes the setting, swaps out the details that show the time period. The plot, ideas, and characters remain the same. It doesn’t do anything new, just allows a new author to benefit from an earlier author’s art.

Because, in the end, what does updating really add? A few clunking pop culture references that will be dated by the time the book comes out? A character whose actions make no sense in the context of her time? It can hardly be that the additional ingredient is incredible prose, because the books have already got that. If anything, the prose is going to get worse, unless your updater happens to be a more elegant writer than one of the acknowledged most accomplished English authors.

There’s also something rather disdainful about the motivation here, one that looks down on both the earlier author and the modern audience. If a work needs “updating”, the obvious implication is that it is out of date. It’s an attitude that can come, to my mind, from one of two beliefs: either that the modern author is better than the older author, or that the modern audience is stupid.

I love Jane Austen. Not all of her work – Pride and Prejudice leaves me cold – but I would defend both Persuasion and Northanger Abbey to the hilt. There aren’t many authors who are her equal for biting social commentary, and there should be even fewer who would suggest themselves as either her equal or her superior. It strikes me as a rather arrogant undertaking, to seek to update such an author.

An updating already accepts that the initial author was talented – no one selects McGonnogall to “update” poetry. The initial author’s everything is swiped wholesale, showing the imitator values it, but is then dismissed and devalued: all of this is great, but I could do it better. I’ve read all three of the authors currently involved in this project, and they’re fine. But, and I really don’t mean this as an insult, they aren’t as good as Austen. There aren’t very many authors who fall in the same bracket, who stand the test of time. I don’t think they’ll be read in a hundred years.

And then there’s the audience. If Jane Austen needs updating, then it follows that the modern audience is seen as unable to access it – too unused to different settings and ideas to cope with a book that doesn’t mention Facebook every three pages. Again, that is a rather arrogant idea: I understand this, but the masses won’t, so I have to make it safe and familiar for them. Again, the idea of a classic exists in direct opposition to that idea; a book so good that people hundreds of years later can still read and enjoy it.

Modern audiences can cope with the supernatural, with the idea of hyperspace drives, empathise with blue space-cats and immortal shapeshifters. It doesn’t, to me, seem beyond the bounds of possibility that they might also be able to empathise with a character who wears slightly different clothes and talks slightly differently. I think that they can deal with this.

We know, in fact, that they can deal with this. We know because the organisers of the Austen Project must have read and enjoyed Austen to even think of updating them. We know because Austen has countless fans around the globe. Unless everyone of them is over a century old, there are constant and numerous examples of people who don’t need Austen updating. Frankly, if someone does need gratuitous mentions of iPods and Twitter to read novels, then they probably don’t have that much interest in Austen’s work whatever you do.

I can’t really find a positive motivation, to be honest. The books aren’t going to get better with updating. The books aren’t going to leap from obscurity with updating, because they aren’t in obscurity. The books aren’t going to suddenly encourage a legion of new fans to read the books, because the new versions don’t prominently mention Austen, and because all that this has done is muddy the waters for somebody looking for Austen. It’s either an inexpertly executed cash-in, or indicative of a disdainful attitude towards writers and readers.

I did buy Val McDermid’s book, in the end – I dislike being critical of books without actually being familiar with them, and too many people dismiss things they know nothing about. Hopefully, the book itself is good and I can pour scorn on the whole idea of The Austen Project without trashing the book as well.

It may seem, from this, that I am overly-annoyed by The Austen Project’s attempt to update classics. It could be argued that I am being too harsh and negative about the idea of bringing new audiences to the classics, of keeping art alive in a modern whirlygig age. But I don’t think I am. I’m prepared to accept that The Austen Project and its authors are well-intentioned, but if that’s the case, they’re still going about this in a spectactularly wrongheaded way.

If you want to read a version of a Jane Austen novel that is entertaining and relevant to the modern age, might I suggest a novel by Jane Austen. They’re very good, and not at all hard to understand.

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