Stop messing with Jane Austen!

Murder mysteries, zombie horror stories, eye-watering erotic novels - why does everyone rewrite Pride & Prejudice?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that anyone who writes about Pride and Prejudice cannot resist riffing on its deliciously measured opening sentence. Granted, they never improve on the original - nor do the adaptations that have tried to capitalise on its enduring appeal. The only one that comes close is Andrew Davies's BBC series, although even here Colin Firth's damp shirt and Elizabeth and Darcy's closing-credits smooch gave the purists palpitations.

I'd happily name Pride and Prejudice as my favourite novel. Spending the past year studying its forebears (particularly Frances Burney's fabulous but flawed novels Evelina and Cecilia) has only made me appreciate it more. It's happy without being mawkish, structured without being sterile and waspish without being arch. And what is the response of the publishing industry to such perfection? A temptation to meddle.

The grande dame of detective fiction™, P D James, is the latest author to commandeer my beloved Lizzie Bennet for her own ends. In the newly published Death Comes to Pemberley, Darcy and Elizabeth have been married six years when "their peace is threatened and old sins and misunderstandings are rekindled on the eve of the annual autumn ball". Up rocks Lydia Wickham to announce that her no-good husband has been murdered.

Death sentence

I'll reserve judgement until I get to the end, but at least James begins well. Her opening sentence has enough of the cadence of the original to please the devoted Austen fan without straying into burlesque: "It was generally agreed by the female residents of Meryton that Mr and Mrs Bennet of Longbourn had been fortunate in the disposal in marriage of four of their five daughters."

If only the same could be said of Seth Grahame-Smith's effort, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. This was received with hysterical acclaim on its publication in 2009, leading to sequels, spin-offs and whispers about a film adaptation. (Blank-eyed, unthinking, inhuman characters, you say? Finally, a Pride and Prejudice film Keira Knightley will be good in!) It had a spirited go at the first line - "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains" - but honestly, inserting your own prose next to Jane Austen's is only going to make one of you look bad. "What an excellent father you have, girls!" Mrs Bennet tells her zombie-hunting daughters. "Such joys are scarce since the good Lord saw fit to shut the gates of Hell and doom the dead to walk among us!"

The ultimate liberty taken with Lizzie, however, must be in Mitzi Szereto's Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts, which describes itself as a "reimagined red-hot Regency romance". I don't want to steam up your magazine by quoting from it, but suffice it to say that it's the type of erotic novel that uses the word "manhood". I'm extremely proud to be prejudiced against it.

P D James's "Death Comes to Pemberley" is published by Faber & Faber (£18.99)

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 07 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The triumph of the Taliban

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue