It took all of two minutes of deep thought — well, of thought — to answer the question put to me: would I like to join a small group of writers invited to do new versions of Jane Austen’s novels? That is not a question one is asked every day, and it probably deserves a long period of contemplation before being answered. I have no idea how the others responded, but I suspect their replies were as immediate as mine was. Of course I would. What other answer could there be?
There were very few conditions. In fact, as far as I could make out, there was only two: the original title had to be kept and the novels should be set in the present. It seemed perfectly understandable that the title should be the same, not only because homage to the original lay at the heart of the whole project, but because most of Jane Austen’s titles are so delicate that any attempt to play around with them would appear crude. Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Emma all say everything that needs to be said about the stories they tell.
I thought of the offer as the equivalent of being given a large box of chocolates. Like most people, I have literary enthusiasms that mean a great deal to me. W.H. Auden leads that list, but not far behind come R.K. Narayan, Barbara Pym and Jane Austen. The three novelists on this list have more than one thing in common. Not only do they create perfect, small-scale fictional worlds, but they do so with great humour. This humour lies entirely in the observation of day-to-day, usually mundane, human exchanges. It is as dry as pale sherry, and is best taken in small sips. It involves a gaze that, although sympathetic, penetrates to the very heart of human ambitions and foibles.
It occurred to me that although I had readily accepted the challenge to reimagine (a handy word) Jane Austen’s Emma, I would be reluctant to attempt the same thing with Narayan or Pym. What would be the point? One might write something in the style of these authors, but it would be no more than pastiche. What made the difference with Jane Austen is that the story of each of her novels has achieved the status of myth. Austen’s themes are now every bit as implanted in our imagination as Greek myths or the central pillars of European folklore. Indeed as fewer and fewer people now recall the cavorting and tantrums of the Greek gods, these universal stories have been replaced by themes portrayed in that supreme medium of our age: film. More people today, I suspect, are familiar with Jane Austen through film than they are through the books. These are simply great and familiar stories of our age, admittedly packaged as costume dramas, but for all that doing the same job as the novels themselves. To retell such tales is not a presumptuous act of interference with an original: the retelling in one form or another of myths and key stories has a long and respectable history in literature.
Reimagining or re-envisioning is not the same as writing something new about somebody else’s characters. That is something that publishers have been enthusiastically encouraging for some time. Ian Fleming’s estate has been particularly active in that regard, with a succession of contemporary authors being invited to write new James Bond novels. The Fleming estate’s invitation has been taken up by authors who are perfectly capable of creating their own characters but who have been tickled by the thought of writing about Bond. As well they might be: there is something intrinsically satisfying about joining in an already existing story, especially when the central character is somebody as widely shared as Bond. It is the same pleasure that we get from telling one another about the latest exploit of somebody we all know — a mutual friend or acquaintance. And it is not just Bond who has received that treatment: George MacDonald Fraser did it with his Flashman novels, Sherlock Holmes and Watson make regular further forays, and we are shortly to see the reappearance of Hercule Poirot, up to now an off-limits asset of Agatha Christie’s heirs.
The task of retelling Emma was not one of writing a new chapter in her life, as in a sequel; rather it was to be a recreation of her story. This meant that there was to be a transfer of the events of the novel to a contemporary setting by creating characters similar to the originals and then letting them play out the original story in their new circumstances. But there could be more than that: a retelling may give a new slant to the original story — indeed it may give an entirely fresh interpretation of what happened. In the case of a Jane Austen novel, this means that contemporary insights can be brought to bear on situations that in Austen’s day would have been looked at in an entirely different way. It is perfectly possible to retell a Jane Austen story through a Freudian lens; exactly the same things may happen, but we will see them as happening for a very different reason. Sometimes this may have a significant impact on the way we will feel about a character. Mr Darcy, for instance, has been diagnosed by some contemporary critics as suffering from autism. That puts a very different complexion on his difficult behaviour (and also affects the prospects for that particular marriage).
A major issue with a rewrite of Emma was the setting. One could easily put Emma into a modern urban England, but that would deprive her of much of her charm. Emma lives with her father, and modern urban young women live in flats. Her father, Mr Wodehouse, is an essential part of the story, and so the family remains in the countryside, where it is just possible that a daughter might not go off on a gap year or share a flat with co-evals. So all the trappings are retained. There is a vicar, but he is non-stipendiary; Mrs Goddard’s school for young ladies becomes an English language school for young people from Italy and Japan; there is a drink-driving incident, a BMW and a Mini (in British Racing Green). And the astonishing thing — for me at least — was that it all seemed quite natural. Admittedly it was about a rural style of life that is becoming somewhat rare, but that was not the point. The point was that fiction does not have to be realistic as long as it pays attention to social relations between characters, the exchanges of wry observations, the sheer social comedy that we can see in all life, in all settings — in other words, things that are universal. Austen transcends time and place. Emma could be anywhere at any time: she’s still with us. We know her. We know Mr Wodehouse. They are right there — in our midst. To use Jane Austen’s own strikingly apposite metaphor, they are there on that small square of ivory on which our own lives play out and are portrayed — still.