Austen’s Transition to Modern Adaptations

Jane Austen’s works are often classified as “romances.” The assumption comes from the premise that if the heroine meets a handsome man in Chapter One, he must be the hero. Fitzwilliam Darcy is the romantic hero of Pride and Prejudice, and although he does not appear in Chapter One, he does make an appearance by Chapter Three, and Austen’s chapters are short in comparison to contemporary writers. However, if you know nothing of the story line nor do you have sweet dreams of Colin Firth emerging dripping wet from a placid lake (Sigh!) or of Matthew Macfadyen walking through the morning mist with an open shirt and lots of chest hair (Sigh!), you may not think much of the infamous Mr. Darcy.

Quite frankly, upon our first meeting of this wonderful character, he is a jerk. He makes a horrendous “first impression.” But that is the thing with Austen. Her original title of the novel and her theme are one and the same: first impressions are misleading.

From the first line of Pride and Prejudice, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” Austen plays a merry game with her readers. “First impressions” are misleading: Darcy does not come to Hertfordshire seeking a wife; Wickham is not the perfect mate for Elizabeth; Jane might be more beautiful than Elizabeth, but she lacks her sister’s depth of character; Darcy’s best quality is not his wealth, nor is his worst quality his pride. Austen’s theme permeates every line, and, generally, the reader does not recognize that our favorite author hits us over the head with it. Readers simply sense the resonance found within Austen’s works.

Theme explains why Austen’s works are considered “classics.” Theme, well done, brings us universal truths, and discerning readers revere truth well told. Austen writes about the truths of an imperfect humanity.

What we find in Austen, as well as in the Brontes, Dickens, Conan Doyle, Shakespeare, etc., is how easily her stories are transferred to the present. Critics of “remaking” the classics refer to the phenomenon as “nostalgia.” Yet, it is much more than a longing for an easier time. If it is “nostalgia,” then what is missing from our current time that brings us to seek out another?

It is more than an “escape” into the past. Why do readers and viewers return again and again to these tales? What parts of these remakes of the classics speak to our present-day needs and fantasies? In reality, we often use a magnifying lens to view the world. This lens has a filter known as the “past.” We view contemporary society by reinventing the past. Parts of the past survive, while others fade away. From the perspective of current cultural and social ambitions, politics, and historiography, the past is remade. Do not our grandparents tell us of a simpler time? Do we not look back and see with out “selected” memory a past in which life moved as an easier pace? Yet, in truth, those easier times had issues similar to those of which we deal every day. Death, famine, disease, betrayal, corruption, etc., exist in each era.

As a writer of Austen-inspired novels, I strongly feel that I “hold” the past in waiting for my readers to cherish, but I also believe that my novels, as well as those of other writers of remakes, reshape the past in the current styles and fashions. Remakes appeal to both our need for the classics and our need for popular culture. As a teacher for 40 years, I repeatedly asked my students to read and view and analyze – to imagine themselves in relation to a past and an ever-changing present. 

As a writer, I reimagine Jane Austen’s works as a portal through which the reader can consider what we were, what we are, and what we want to be. In doing so, I underscore the importance of permitting the canon and its past to be complemented by, and in some sense supplanted by, the tools and technologies of our contemporary culture and popular media.

In such adaptations, those of use who delve into these remakes, retain the specifics of the context and the historical setting, while highlighting and exploring current issues. In my many Austen sequels/adaptations, I have used political intrigue, issues of race, women’s rights, the plight of the poor, post traumatic stress syndrome, childbirth, governmental spies, etc. These issues fit the historical setting, but they also speak to modern times.

So, how popular are these remakes? How easily have Jane Austen and others made the journey into contemporary times? In 1995, A&E Network aired an Andrew Davies’ retelling of Pride and Prejudice. It earned the network its highest rating ever in the U.S. In England, 21% of British viewers watched the last episode of this series, which starred Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. Sales of Pride and Prejudice hit 35,00 copies per week during the broadcast.

In the past twenty years, there have been more than 32 films and TV adaptations of Austen’s works, as well as over 300 continuations and sequels based on Austen’s six simple novels. Multiple markets have grown up around the love of Jane Austen: music to read Austen by; boutiques; guidebooks; cookbooks; dolls; advice books; organized tours, etc.

Based on what I have already shared, it shall not surprise you when I say, “Hello, my name is Regina, and I am a Jane Austen addict.” I own a Jane Austen action figure, Scrabble squares, paper dolls, and a jigsaw puzzle. I attend Austen conferences and dress in period costumes and try not to stumble through a country line dance. I sleep with “Mr. Darcy,” a teddy bear with a monogrammed shirt, as well as an image of Matthew Macfadyen on my pillowcase. Colin Firth is my screensaver. I have multiple autographed images of Firth and Macfadyen framed and mounted on my home office wall.

Because of Jane Austen, I have been a guest panelist at the Smithsonian. Because of Jane Austen, I have endured caustic criticism and glorious praise, sometimes in the same review. Because of Jane Austen, I have developed wonderful friendships with others who love her works as much as I. Because of Jane Austen, I see things as they are and as they ought to be. From Austen, I have learned that ordinary people can have interesting lives. So, I am a card-carrying Janeite, a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America. I am in love with a simpler time, and I wonder why everyone else does not love my best friend “Jane” equally as well.

 

 

 

Book Blurb:

Liz Bennet’s flirtatious nature acerbates Will Darcy’s controlling tendencies, sending him into despair when she fiercely demands her independence from him. How could she repeatedly turn him down? Darcy has it all: good looks, a pro football career, intelligence, and wealth. Pulled together by a passionate desire, which neither time nor distance can quench, they are destined to love, as well as misunderstand, each other until Fate deals them a blow from which they can no longer escape. Set against the backdrop of professional sports and the North Carolina wine country, Honor and Hope offers a modern romance loosely based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

 

 

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About reginajeffers

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