Thoroughly modern Jane
Novelists are updating Austen's 200-year-old plots and characters for the 21st century
Karen Doornebos poses Friday, October 21, 2011 at the Newberry Library in Chicago with her new book, "Definitely Not Mr. Darcy," a spin-off from a Jane Austen novel. (Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune / October 21, 2011)
In recent years, Lizzy Bennet — the genteel and sheltered heroine of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" — has been reimagined by novelists as a former gangbanger from the South Side of Chicago ("The Man Who Loved Pride & Prejudice"), a tart-tongued retired librarian living in South Florida ("Jane Austen in Boca"), and the lead singer in an up-and-coming girl band ("Fitzwilliam Darcy, Rock Star").
This fall, two Austen updates were released by different publishers on the same day, and — days after that — HarperCollins announced that it will commission a series of high-profile contemporary adaptations of Austen's novels, beginning with Joanna Trollope's take on "Sense and Sensibility."
Why are writers and editors so eager to drag Jane Austen into the clatter and clamor of the Kardashian era?
"I think it's a form of homage — I really do," says Karen Doornebos, author of the new novel "Definitely Not Mr. Darcy," in which a modern Austen fan competes in a "Bachelor"-style reality dating show with a twist: The contestants must dress in 19th century attire, live without modern conveniences and follow Austen-era rules of dating decorum.
"Jane Austen's work is so timeless," Doornebos says. "The characters are characters we would recognize today in a heartbeat. We've got the hypochondriacs, the bad boys — you name it. They're all there, and that hasn't changed."
Observers note that the literary updates are by no means the only sign of an infatuation with all things Austen. The books have spawned a host of literary spinoffs, parodies and sequels, many set in the 19th century.
Austen herself is a modern Facebook sensation with more than 400,000 "likes" — more than Dickens or Shakespeare. Her fans plug events such as "Talk Like Jane Austen Day" (talklikejaneausten.com) on Sunday.
The literary update phenomenon began in earnest in about 1996, when "Bridget Jones's Diary" by Helen Fielding, with Bridget standing in for Lizzy Bennet, became the subgenre's first major hit, according to Linda Troost, a professor of English at Washington & Jefferson College and co-editor of "Jane Austen in Hollywood."
But the true starting point was probably the 1995 BBC adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice," a TV miniseries that had an electrifying effect on women on both sides of the Atlantic because of its authentic dialogue, its gorgeous scenery and the inspired casting of the then-relatively unknown actor Colin Firth as Lizzy's beau, Mr. Darcy.
Fans such as Shannon Hale, who later wrote "Austenland," had already read all the Austen books but found something different in the five-hour BBC adaptation. Though remarkably faithful to the text, the show emphasized the passionate love story over the clear-eyed social satire. The result was less complex and profound than the book, but more swoon-worthy.
"It was just the most intense romance I'd ever been subjected to," Hale says.
"I started noticing that all my friends were kind of obsessed with this movie, and we found the language of the movie kind of creeping into normal dialogue."
"Bridget Jones's Diary" made reference to the budding obsession with the BBC "Pride and Prejudice," and Hale was one of many authors who began turning a (gently) critical eye to the phenomenon, asking to what extent should modern women (many of whom watched the BBC version repeatedly) immerse themselves in the fantasy of the handsome, arrogant rich guy with a heart of gold?
And why would they want to?
That question hovers at the edge of even more conventional modern updates such as "Rock Star," which opens with a delectable take on the fawning celebrity profile, in which "enigmatic virtuoso guitarist" Fitzwilliam Darcy comes across as both a principled artist and an overprivileged jerk.
Exploration of the Austen fixation is central to novels such as Doornebos' "Definitely Not Mr. Darcy," in which a die-hard Austen fan encounters the not-so-romantic realities of Regency life: the corsets, the chamber pots, the lack of hot running water.
One of the inspirations for the book was a vacation at a Victorian health spa, says Doornebos, 46, a longtime Austen fan who lives in Riverside with her husband and children. The spa's outdoor tubs, fed by spring water, were beautiful, she says, but because of the high sulfur content, they smelled like rotten eggs.
"That's when the idea really hit me: What if someone went back to Regency times and it just literally stank?" she says.