Jane Austen: she’s the gift that keeps on giving. Quite literally – if you google ‘Jane Austen gifts’, you get almost 8 million results, including socks, stationery sets, jigsaws, jumpers, cushions, coasters, and books called things like ‘What Would Jane Do?’
Of course, no one knows what she’d do (invite Colin Firth round for tea?) since she died in 1817, leaving very little behind other than six wonderful novels, which continue to yield over and over across the centuries. There was the boozy Nineties diary version, the zombie version, the murder mystery version, the Bollywood version and the YouTube vlogger version – and that’s just Pride and Prejudice.
Some work, and others don’t. A good Austen adaptation captures her spirit and comedy, stays in dialogue with the original source material but adds something of its own. The crummier ones think Austen is all about bonnets and swooning. As Paula Byrne wrote, “If Austen were alive today... she would be baffled by the fact that the majority of films emphasise the romantic aspect of her novels, when her intention was to subvert and undermine the romantic.” So: Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, which took Emma and moved it to an American high school, has entered the canon, but the prissy, muslin-heavy Gwyneth Paltrow star-vehicle adaptation of the novel has not.
A recent Austen reworking that’s had a seal of approval from audiences and critics is Pride & Prejudice* (*Sort Of), transferring to the West End this month after a hit run at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre in 2018 and a national tour. Written and directed by Isobel McArthur, it tells the story through the novel’s unseen servants, played by an all-female cast of five, who also play all of the other characters. Oh, and they do it with karaoke.
McArthur, who also performs in the show, pitched it after the Tron’s artistic director Andy Arnold said he was looking for an adaptation of a popular novel. At that time, she’d never read P&P; when she did, she was surprised at how funny it was – and how different to the preconception of a “starchy and inaccessible” English writer. Her challenge was to kick away those assumptions and make her appealing to a Glaswegian audience, even though “I could absolutely relate to the fact that my aunty wouldn’t necessarily want to come and see a Jane Austen.”
The formal inventiveness made a virtue of needing to be resourceful: McArthur knew the show needed music, but there wasn’t the budget for a 12-piece band. “That’s when I thought, maybe the love language in this show is actually karaoke. With karaoke, we’ve all got a form of expression, and it can all come out of a wee machine. It’s a recognisable common pastime that doesn’t exclude, but really includes across circumstances and cultures – fancy parties, scummy parties, back rooms of pubs. It offers everything from peacocking and showing off, to being really drunk and heartbroken and vulnerable.” Songs in the show include You’re So Vain (finally we know who Carly Simon wrote that song about) and Every Day I Write the Book.
As she was adapting, McArthur knew there were three types of audience members she needed to bear in mind: people who’ve never heard of Pride & Prejudice before, people who think they know the novel and are aware of all its “pop cultural baggage” like brooding Darcy emerging out of a lake, and Austen aficionados who want the story told right and will await all their favourite quotes. Emma Thompson knew this too: in her on-set diaries during the filming of her Oscar-winning 1996 Sense and Sensibility adaptation, she fretted, “Must avoid twee. Oh please don’t let any of it be twee, I’ll die. I’ll be assassinated by the Jane Austen Society (who rang James [Schamus, co-producer]’s company in New York to complain about the casting of Hugh Grant as Edward – too good-looking apparently).”
Diehard fans have their own name: Janeites. It’s not always applied kindly, because – let’s face it – the world is still snobby about her books and those that are fanatical about them. So ingrained have they become in the Austen industrial complex that they inspired the 2013 film Austenland, starring Kerri Russell and Jennifer Coolidge and set in some kind of demented, immersive Jane Austen theme park.
But you don’t have to be a fully paid up Janeite to feel a sense of ownership over Austen; anyone who cares about her doesn’t want to see her done wrong or misrepresented. It felt quite frankly rude to have had her played by Anne Hathaway – an American! - in the insipid 2007 biopic Becoming Jane. And who could forget that, after a successful campaign to get her on the £10 note in 2013, the final design was apparently mocked up by someone who had frantically googled ‘good Jane Austen quotes’. The quote it featured - “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” - was actually said by shallow anti-reader Caroline Bingley. And a recent ITV adaptation of her unfinished novel Sanditon by Andrew Davies – the writer behind the now infamous 1995 Pride & Prejudice adaptation with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle – sent the Daily Mail into overdrive for the number of untrousered tushes it featured. A typical breathless headline noted the presence of ‘MORE nude backsides’.
Resistance, as they say, is futile. Even Firth had to eventually submit, after years of living under the shadow of Darcy – he classily got in on the joke by playing Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Why, though? How did a 41-year-old woman from the 1700s end up presiding so powerfully over our culture, and bringing us so much endless pleasure and inspiration?
Well, on the most basic level we can enjoy her books as perfect, escapist romcoms, but these novels are really about... well, everything – money, power, family, politics, society. That they feature female protagonists who must reconcile a desire for autonomy in a world not set up to grant it to them makes her work radical. As McArthur says, “One of the really unfortunate reasons that Austen endures and is still relevant is because we haven’t solved half of the problems that she’s highlighting. We’re still divided by notions of class and gender. And women still find themselves in impossible positions, just as they do in Pride and Prejudice. And men still have an awful lot to learn about what they think is the norm, which is to take up space and have a high status and never have to apologise or compensate for themselves.”
Adapting Austen, says McArthur, also requires asking the question: why now? And right now, there are two Persuasion adaptations in the works – one starring Succession’s Sarah Snook, the other with Dakota Johnson. There’s also a stage adaptation arriving at the Rose Theatre in Kingston next year. In my university copy, there are pencil marks next to Captain Wentworth’s “you pierce my soul” letter to Anne Elliot that simply read: !!!!!!! Perhaps it makes sense that Austen’s final, elegiac novel would be the one embraced by Gen Z, who think and feel deeply and are inheriting a precarious world. What’s certain is that Austen will continue to fascinate us, because in her work we’ll keep discovering ways to find out more about who we are.
Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort Of) is at the Criterion Theatre, booking until February 13 prideandprejudicesortof.com