Jane Austen’s shoes are impossible to fill.
Let me just state that up front. As a published author of six romantic comedies, I’m no stranger to the writing game – or to the debt that authors and readers alike owe Miss Austen for the literary and romantic trail she blazed. Just today I studied the photo of her small, round writing table and chair at Chawton cottage and was amazed by the novels she penned there…Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Mansfield Park, Persuasion…effortlessly capturing the foibles of society and the pursuit of love with her singular precision and wit.
So when my publisher, Carina UK/Harper Collins, suggested I ‘reimagine’ three of Austen’s beloved novels – Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility, I admit it…
No way, I thought, panicked. I couldn’t possibly. How could I – how could anyone? – reimagine perfection? I might as well try and reconstruct War and Peace, or the Bible. It was audacious. It was crazy. It simply wasn’t going to happen. Oh…and did I mention I had only six months to produce three finished books? Gulp.
But eventually (about ten minutes later) I decided to give it a try. It was a challenge that I couldn’t resist.
Luckily, modernizing Austen didn’t prove quite as daunting as I’d initially feared. Because one thing remains constant – people still have the same vices, failings, and idiosyncrasies they had during the Regency (snobbery, jealousy, avariciousness, envy, to name but a few), and human nature is nothing if not consistent. The tendency to behave either (a) badly or (b) stupidly is inherent in all of us and is pretty much a given, and that will never change.
So, with that in mind, I pondered the characters and plots of each of Austen’s three beloved novels. How to capture the essence of those stories and yet give them my own spin? How to create something “fun and flirty” (editor speak) and still stay true to Austen’s examples of deeply felt love and loss, of steadfastness, of integrity and honor?
I started with three sisters…Emma, Elizabeth, and Charlotte Bennet. I combined Austen’s Kitty and Lydia into Charlotte, the youngest (and most boy-crazy) Bennet sister, and dispensed with Mary altogether. The first book would tell Lizzy’s story, with the second belonging to her older (and meddlesome) sister, Emma. The third book left the Bennet family altogether to focus on the Holland sisters, Marianne and Elinor. (Since I already had a Dashwood in my first book, Prada and Prejudice, I had to ditch the Dashwood surname. Needs must.)
Each story would feature love found, lost, and found again.
With three plots in place and characters in mind, I began to write. The biggest problem? My characters stubbornly refused to speak in modern vernacular. “Let’s go for a walk” became “Shall we go for a stroll?” and “nice” became “very pleasant indeed.” It was difficult to keep my characters from lapsing into Austen-ese whenever they conversed; so difficult, in fact, that I went back to tweak the manuscript to reword overly formal bits of dialogue.
Next, I had to update the books. A popular trope for any modern romantic comedy is the ‘meet cute,’ wherein two love interests collide (sometimes literally) in an embarrassing and amusing way. They might back into each other in a parking lot; get their dogs’ leashes hopelessly tangled up on a crowded city street; or engage in an undignified tug of war over an old lamp sitting on the curb that they both want, for equally compelling reasons.
In What Would Lizzy Bennet Do? (my alterna-version of Pride and Prejudice), Lizzy knows Hugh Darcy most of her life, so the first-meet trope didn’t really work. But I managed a ‘meet cute’ for Darcy’s younger brother Harry, when Holly – his brother’s fiancée – falls for him, literally and figuratively. Emma and Marianne also have, shall we say…unique introductions to their respective love interests, as well.
It proved to be a fun and rewarding – if challenging – exercise. I’ve gained new respect for the authors of any book based on Austen – from Bridget Jones’s Diary to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries – because it isn’t an easy task.
After all, it’s nearly impossible to follow in the footsteps of perfection…
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