A Couple of Austen-Inspired Novels

Several years ago I taught a first-year Major Themes in Literature course I called “Transformations.” All the readings had transformations of various kinds in them, and I paired “classic” texts with later “transformations” by other writers. We started with fairy tales and ended with Austen: in one semester, Emma with Amy Heckerling’s film Clueless, in another, Pride and Prejudice with Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. A modern re-imagining can shine new light on a classic and vice versa, and the pairings help students find a way in to reading analytically. There are awful examples of this kind of “transformation,” but I love good ones; in my search for more, I recently read a couple of Austen-inspired books, with mixed results.

Taking on a beloved classic is an enterprise fraught with peril, and though Kate Hewitt says in an interview with CataRomance that she “leapt at the chance” to rewrite Emma for a Harlequin Presents series paying homage to romantic classics, she is also frank about the difficulties. The Matchmaker Bride didn’t work for me as well as The Man Who Could Never Love for two reasons: a) Austen’s tart, ironic narrative style isn’t a good match for Hewitt’s sweet sincerity (that sounds belittling, but I like that about Hewitt); b) Emma–and Austen’s Augustan restraint generally–isn’t a good fit for Harlequin Presents, a line characterized by angsty, over the top emotion. Moreover, although it ends with a slew of marriages, Emma is far less shaped by the plot conventions of romance than Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion. It’s a comedy of manners about the heroine’s education. Matchmaker Bride felt caught between the conflicting demands of its source and its Harlequin category.

Hewitt makes Emily Wood, her Emma, head of HR at the hero’s civil engineering company, a clever way of giving her the managing, meddling role Austen’s Emma plays in the village of Highbury. (Naming the hero “Kingsley” cracked me up. Is that upgrade of “Knightley” a parallel to the way the millionaires of Presents titles have lately become billionaires?) But her role as youngest-ever head of HR creates an inconsistency: the hero describes her as “scatty and silly,” an unsuitable candidate for his wife, a typical way for Presents heroes to see their heroines, but what does that say about his decision to promote her and his skill as CEO? In the same way, Jason Kingsley has to have some of the brooding, sexy alpha characteristics of a Presents hero, but the heroine must rather implausibly see him as boring (poor Knightley, he does come off that way).

Harlequin Presents novels are about the hero humbled by love; Emma is about the heroine humbled–sometimes humiliated–by a hero who represents the virtues of Austen’s world. Hewitt moves the major humiliation to the past and makes it accidental, a choice which makes sense for her story but means she loses the “educational” theme of Emma and never quite finds something to put in its place. Both hero and heroine of Matchmaker Bride learn the value of love, but to me that message felt generic–i.e. both bland and simply a feature of the genre–where in The Man Who . . . the same theme was developed in a way that felt integral to those characters. Though this book was “meh” for me, it had some of the good qualities I’m coming to think of as characteristic of Hewitt: a hero who isn’t too much of an asshole, a heroine who isn’t too much of a doormat, and some poetic lines about the nature of love (here it’s like water flowing over barriers) which are both romantic and meaningful.

I followed Hewitt’s novel with Polly Shulman’s Enthusiasm, a Young Adult novel in which heroine Julie’s best friend Ashleigh, the enthusiast of the title, comes to share Julie’s love of Austen, with typically embarrassing results: they crash the dance at the local boy’s boarding school looking for their Darcy and Bingley. Since they both identify with Elizabeth and both choose the same Darcy, confusion and suffering ensue.

High school is a great setting for an update of Austen: it’s got the hierarchical society, the strict rules of behavior, the gossip, the mortifying experiences from which we learn. Julie’s first-person narration strikes a nicely Austen-esque tone without taking it too far: “There is little more likely to exasperate a person of sense,” it begins, “than finding herself tied by affection and habit to an Enthusiast.” This opening evokes not only the famous pronouncement that opens Pride and Prejudice (“It is a truth universally acknowledged . . . “) but also the Dashwood sisters of Sense and Sensibility. Enthusiasm is less a reworking of Pride and Prejudice than a literate, gleefully allusive mash-up of various Austen and Shakespeare works. Spotting the references was a big part of the pleasure of reading it.

Julie and Ashleigh try out for parts in the boys’ school musical, Midwinter Insomnia, a play set at a boarding school and clearly based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So we have a novel in which characters put on a play, and the “romantic mixups” among the play’s characters are reflected by those among the actors/novel characters (Mansfield Park!); like Dream, Insomnia has a play within a play (Romeo and Juliet). Mise-en-abyme! All of this is very clever, and the romance is sweet–I would have swooned over Parr if I’d read this as a teen–but it doesn’t ever rise above the level of witty confection to the moral seriousness of Austen’s novels.

Not every novel has to have that, of course, and I enjoyed Enthusiasm very much on its own terms. At the same time, some serious issues got short shrift. For example, Julie’s parents are divorced, and her father is remarried to a woman who, Julie eventually discovers, was pregnant with his child even while he was going to counselling with Julie’s mom and swearing he wanted to make their marriage work. Amy miscarried, and she does again during the course of the novel, something Julie is at first oblivious to, though Amy and her father seem to assume she knows. I couldn’t figure out whether they are really not being upfront with her or whether she’s not telling the reader things because of her dislike of Amy and anger at her father. There’s the possibility of an Austen-esque confrontation with one’s own prejudices here, but it never happened. Enthusiasm was fun, but less than the sum of its parts.

Do you have a favorite reimagining of a classic literary text?

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One Response to A Couple of Austen-Inspired Novels

  1. Kate Hewitt says:

    Just saw this… thanks for the honest review 🙂 I will admit my greatest challenge was exactly what you said–making the story of Emma a Presents. It isn’t really. And yes, btw, I did upgrade Knightley to Kingsley on purpose! At least you knew it was Emma… I received one review on Amazon that said how stupid it was to make Emily a matchmaker–and then have her be bad at it.

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