August 2015 Meeting: The Austen Project

Prepared by member Cheng, with thanks to Anna for leading our discussion with a set of useful background notes.

The most noticeable aspect of this month’s topic was that it was not approached with universal enthusiasm. Only one member had dutifully read the three books already published by HarperCollins in their Austen Project (A.P). Most had read one or two and a couple none. Publishers beware: this group has suffered a surfeit of spin-offs.

Naturally, the first question was why is this series being written? As an introduction to Jane Austen for young readers? Or an ego-fuelled literary lark by six best-selling authors invited to write “their own unique take on Jane Austen’s novels”. The discussion of the actual concept behind the A.P. and whether of not it was achieved was far more interesting than the three books.

We agreed that there is a basic necessity to first recognise exactly what a book is about and what drives it before attempting to convert it into a film or a sequel, prequel or spin-off. With Jane Austen there is so much more complexity, insight and depth of emotion to consider than merely the plot.

Class matters – as in any English situation – determines the outlook, actions and lives of all the characters. If you change this in a retelling then you’ve changed far more than the plot. The A.P. gets it glaringly wrong.

The NORTHANGER ABBEY  by VAL McDERMID was voted the least memorable by those who had read it. A home-schooled, Twilight obsessed Cat Morland in Dorset is invited to the Edinburgh Festival by wealthy neighbours and meets the Tilneys, who have a gothic castle on the Scottish Borders. So the book follows the original plot closely and is well written but has nothing new to say. Crucially, the voice in Jane Austen’s work is of such importance that without it this version just doesn’t work. (See review in The Guardian by Jenny Colgan)

SENSE AND SENSIBILITY by JOANNA TROLLOPE also sticks to the plot and does successfully take the two sisters into the modern world. The updated characters – Wills the shag-bandit, Nancy Steele and her plastic surgery, Robert Ferrars the gay party-planner, etc. – are amusing reinventions. And Marianne’s asthma and depression are a clever 21st century way of making her illness credible whilst avoiding the darker and deeper turmoil of Jane Austen’s heroine. It was felt that this was the best of the three offerings and Trollope was more comfortable keeping her tale closer to her usual milieu. (See review in The Guardian by Paula Byrne)

McCall Smith, EmmaStrongest disappointment was expressed over ALEXANDER McCALL SMITH’s EMMA, one member averring that it was below par, lacking all subtlety and wasted reading time!

Emma is perhaps the most difficult character to take into the modern world, particularly if the author doesn’t grasp the precise nature of her aloneness, her lack of worldly experience outside the boundaries of a small village and her subsequent development of an over lively imagination. Transposing her into a confident university graduate returning home to Norfolk to run her father’s life and meddle in everyone else’s starts the book on a steep descent into pure satire. We discussed various possibilities for alternative contemporary settings, none completely satisfying. McCall Smith has been quoted as saying that he doesn’t like Emma. Did he focus his attention on her father instead? Eight chapters to introduce him! (Please read Anna Creer’s perceptive review in the Sydney Morning Herald)

Deidre Shauna Lynch, writing on “Sequels” in Jane Austen in Context (p. 160) was quoted :

Never wasting words, practising an exquisite economy … Austen represents in several accounts of the development of the novel the innovator who trimmed away the flab of the form. Yet through a strange twist of fate she appears to be the cause of verbiage in others.

Readers yearning to escape their own terrible times and immerse themselves in an attractive Regency world where men were men and women were fragile have ensured a constant flow of Austen-inspired sequels, prequels, spin-offs and updatings. You-tube and blogging are now almost O.C.D. However, our members were divided over whether the A.P. will really draw younger readers to the ‘true texts’. One thought that in this online, screen-obsessed world, films such as Clueless and the Bollywood Bride and Prejudice are more likely to succeed.

We digressed into trying to recall how many other authors had sequels – will someone in years to come write continuations of Harry Potter? A member quoted Deidre Shauna Lynch again:

Indeed, the history of Austen sequels – and, in particular, the timing of the up-turns in their production – seems to confirm a cynical understanding of sequel writing as the literati’s closest approximation of a get-rich-quick scheme.

The A.P. seems to have come to a crashing halt right now – these three novels were all available as remainders last Christmas.

Will we be re-reading them? No.

After this thought-provoking discussion we tested ourselves with queer quotes and questionable quizzes and confirmed that our topic for September would be Letters in Austen’s novels. We also sent best wishes flying to a couple of members who missed the meeting for health reasons. We hope they’ll be back on board for our next meeting.


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