Book reviewer Ron Charles from The Washington Post simply describes my reaction to hearing about The Austen Project, a series of Jane Austen novels retold by modern bestselling authors, in his review of Eligible, the modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice:
[Mrs. Bennett has] the right idea when she says, “I’ve always far preferred a good book.” We already have that book. We’ve had it for 200 years. And it’s worth rereading.
When I first read about Eligible being published (April, 2016), I was very interested in reading it. But when I learned about The Project, I became a little uneasy. Why rewrite these masterpieces (including Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Emma) when the original works are so readily available, and when there are so many analytical and annotated works dedicated to these for readers who want or need another perspective while reading? There is a reason they are cherished, promoted, canonical – they are timeless and beautiful works of art. In another, more melodramatic sense: Why are these authors and publishers trying to ruin my life/readers’ lives with watered down, superficial, modern (sometimes I equate modern literature with superficial literature; this is a fault, I know) retellings of these stories?!?
First of all (I sternly say to my skeptical self), these retellings are being written by bestselling authors (my opinions on “commercial authors” I will save for another time), so they know how to write convincingly and with purpose. Second of all, I could be more positive, recognizing this Project as a way of analyzing the tropes and characters of the original novels, like many academics have done since they were written. In one sense, the task of modern retelling is another way to show how timeless Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and others are; even if you take out all that makes the originals beautiful and try to work modern elements like ABC’s The Bachelor into the storyline (yes, really), the fundamental lessons and messages will survive. And, I have to believe that these modern authors are admirers of Jane Austen, because they have undertaken a truly incredible task.
With that being said, I just cannot get into Eligible. I am too distracted with thoughts of “Why am I not just reading Pride and Prejudice?” and “Why do these characters seem too contemporary, like in order to get as far away from the early 19th century, author Curtis Sittenfeld over-exaggerated how modern they are?” But maybe, after getting these thoughts out in the open, rereads of the originals alongside first-reads of The Austen Project’s retellings will change my mind. Maybe I will start with Northanger Abbey, since I have not read that for a few years, and because I think it would make a fun, and maybe a little edgy, modern novel – don’t let me down, Val McDermid.
I have added the classic and modern versions of these titles to my shelf, The Austen Project, on Goodreads, which will be updated once I start rereading. And as always, share your thoughts about this in the comments or in an email.