Deborah Yaffe

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The Austen Fiasco?

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 16 2015 01:00PM

Halfway to the finish line, the Austen Project is looking increasingly like the Austen Fiasco.


The Austen Project, as you may recall, is publisher HarperCollins’ effort to confer respectability upon the much-maligned genre of Jane Austen fan fiction by assigning a modern-day update of each Austen novel to a commercially successful yet critically acclaimed contemporary writer.


The first three volumes have now been published, and each is, in its own way, pretty bad. No adapter has yet been announced for Mansfield Park and Persuasion (although I’m rather partial to my husband’s suggestion that E.L. James should take on Fanny Price), and the project’s web site shows signs of infrequent updating. Could it be that HarperCollins is having trouble persuading writers with the appropriate track record to jump aboard this listing ship?

Of course, all these bad vibes could vanish next year, when the American novelist Curtis Sittenfeld releases her version of Pride and Prejudice.


This week brought hints that Sittenfeld may be trying to make her book into something more interesting, or at least more fun, than its Austen Project predecessors: Twitter-powered glimpses of a Sittenfeld book with a new title (Eligible), a non-British setting (Cincinnati, standing in for Meryton) and perhaps a reimagined Darcy (forty-something doctor, rather than twenty-eight-year-old rich guy).


I know nothing about the Austen Project’s sales so far, but judged solely in literary terms, I think the venture badly needs whatever jolt of energy Sittenfeld may be preparing to inject.


The first Austen Project outing -- 2013's Sense and Sensibility, by Joanna Trollope, a British novelist of domestic life – was slavishly faithful to the original, even when the cultural norms of nineteenth-century courtship made no sense in a twenty-first-century context. Verdict: Pallid and unconvincing.


The second – 2014's Northanger Abbey, by crime novelist Val McDermid – transformed Catherine Morland’s Gothic novel fixation into an obsession with vampire stories, asking us to buy the proposition that a girl with a smartphone and a Facebook page could become convinced that her new friends the Tilneys were for-real bloodsuckers. Verdict: You’ve got to be kidding me.


The newest – the just-published (in the US) Emma: A Modern Retelling, by detective story writer Alexander McCall Smith – takes a different tack. In place of fidelity-to-the-point-of-implausibility, we get an Emma update written by someone who doesn’t seem to much like the original.


Nearly a third of McCall Smith’s 361 pages are given over to backstory that Austen dispatches in a few sentences, or ignores altogether. We wade through many pages devoted to Mr. Woodhouse’s early life, Miss Taylor’s arrival at Hartfield, Isabella’s marriage to John Knightley, and Mr. Weston’s guilt over surrendering baby Frank to the Churchill relatives before arriving – finally! – at the story of the twenty-something Emma.


Once that story gets underway, Austen fans are likely to feel more disoriented than enthralled. A few of the familiar plot markers are in place – Emma’s Mr. Elton humiliation, Jane Fairfax’s mysterious piano, the Box Hill unpleasantness – but just as many are missing.


Look in vain for any parallel to Mr. Knightley rescuing Harriet from the Eltons’ snubs, or Frank Churchill rescuing her from the gypsies, or anyone at all picking strawberries at Donwell Abbey. In their place, we get pointless maunderings about Harriet Smith’s job or heavy-handed dialogue about the legacy of the slave trade. (Perhaps McCall Smith is auditioning for the Mansfield Park job?)


By the time Emma falls into the arms of her designated hero, so truncated is the plot that the happy couple seem barely to have exchanged a word. Emma’s vaunted maturation, although repeatedly announced in Spelling It All Out passages like “It had been an important summer for Emma, as it had been the summer during which moral insight came to her,” remains undramatized.


Here and there, McCall Smith offers glimpses of the playful, irreverent book he might have written. Emma paints Harriet in the nude, scandalizing the Hartfield staff. John Knightley is a long-haired, tattooed fashion photographer who sweeps Isabella away on his motorcycle. The aging hippie Mrs. Goddard passes out hash brownies at the Box Hill picnic. It’s not Austen, but as long as it’s entertaining in its own right, who cares? I’ll take a lively, lesbian-themed, pot-infused Emma over a blandly faithful imitation any day of the week.


Alas, McCall Smith fails to milk his tantalizing hints for their full comic or subversive potential. The book reads like the Emma update he sketched on the back of a cocktail napkin during lunch with his agent and then fleshed out, just barely, during a couple of afternoons of desultory work.


Where Trollope and McDermid took their updating too seriously, following Austen’s template even when it didn’t make sense, McCall Smith seems not to have taken his book seriously at all. No need to do any real work here! Those Austen fans will swallow anything!


I’m booking the next flight to Cincinnati.


4 comments
Apr 16 2015 09:27PM by Mags

I have been wondering why they haven't announced the last two writers, too. I figured it was a big flop and they hadn't moved on, but your theory of not being able to find a writer willing to do them is a good one. I had an email discussion with some Janeites about how to make an updated Persuasion. One pointed out that it would be hard to update Persuasion because modern audiences would find it difficult to understand Anne's sense of duty to Lady Russell that caused her to break up with Wentworth. I think modernizing Fanny Price might prove equally difficult (but I also think it can be done). They are two characters very much bound up in the social mores of the 19th century.

That being said, I have long thought that a film sequel to Clueless should take Persuasion as its inspiration. I had a whole plot worked out for it. But duty didn't really come into it. The inspiration was broader, not so specific.

Apr 16 2015 09:46PM by dyaffe

The Persuasion fanfics I've read tend to a) make Anne into a doormat who caved to family pressure; b) make her into a reformed snob who shared Lady Russell's prejudices about rank; or c) cop out by attributing the extended nature of the breakup to intercepted letters and lost emails, or similar contrivances. Claire LaZebnik's young adult version is pretty good, actually; since it's about high school students, it can get away with having Anne ditch her nerdy freshman boyfriend because of peer pressure from nasty friends, only to have him return in senior year, post-puberty, as a hottie. Definitely hard to make this plot work with 21st-century adults, though.

Apr 27 2015 04:48AM by Mags

I'm re-reading the book now (actually listening to the excellent Naxos audiobook read by Juliet Stevenson) for my JASNA book group. Something that sort of jumped out at me, and it also came up in the book group discussion, was that the main reason Anne capitulated to Lady Russell's wishes was because LR convinced her that an early marriage would hold Wentworth back in his career. It wasn't because he was poor. (And then during the Long Walk to Winthrop, Louisa artlessly reveals that Anne refused Charles Musgrove's marriage proposal, surprising Wentworth--I think at that moment he realized she hadn't refused him due to ambition, because if she were simply ambitious, she would have jumped at the chance to marry Charles.) So there's your modern version--Anne is convinced that a youthful marriage would hold back Wentworth in whatever career he has. Though I would be surprised if it weren't the Royal Navy. And he can certainly go off to war and be coming home at the end of hostilities if they set it very recently.

Apr 27 2015 02:09PM by dyaffe

The problem is, what modern career could you possibly have in which an early marriage would hold you back? (Not the military -- many servicepeople marry very young, at least in the enlisted ranks.) In Austen's time, a man who married early would soon have a non-income-generating wife and a zillion kids to support, which might well constrain his professional choices. But nowadays, he'd pursue his career while she pursued hers and they used contraception to make sure they could delay childbearing until they had the money. I think your Persuasion update needs to find a way to substitute psychological barriers for the social barriers that worked in Austen's story. IIRC, that's the approach taken in Debra White Smith's Christian update, Possibilities: because the Anne character lost her mother so early, she's terrified of losing the love and approval of her remaining family, so she's susceptible to their pressure. (This is also the book in which the Mr. Elliot character's first wife died in an attack of killer bees. Smith's books are sometimes surprisingly outrageous.)

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