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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Scream Queens: a melting pot of visual references to teen movies and horror films

The TV show’s parodic tone is mirrored in its knowing references to classics of the genres.

The American series Scream Queens is a strange beast: part college drama, part horror, part black comedy, it follows teenagers at a sorority house as a disguised serial killer begins a murderous rampage on campus, picking off a handful of characters each episode. The result: a parade of mean girls in prom dresses, covered in blood and guts. The makers of the show are keen to pay homage to the classics that have influenced them, and many viewers have pointed out deaths that reference major horror films: whether it’s freezing to death in a maze à la The Shining, getting a Hellraiser-esque makeover, or being hacked to tiny pieces in the style of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
But the show takes its teenage dream aesthetic just as seriously, and frequently acknowledges and subverts the tropes and quirks of the high school movie genre, from implicit nods to direct parodies.


Heathers (1988) is an obvious source for Scream Queens: following two outsiders as they systematically murder the most popular kids in school, it’s sardonic, garish and brutally violent. Sorority head Chanel forces her minions to call themselves Chanel #2, Chanel #3, and so on, an overt reference to Heathers's three queen bees (all called Heather). The makers of Scream Queens also repeatedly play with the film’s opening croquet scene in the show’s first episode.

The Craft

Only witches and ritual murderers are that into candles. The teen witch aesthetic of The Craft (1996) continually seeps in to the show, even if it’s at odds with the usual sugary-sweet palette.


It’s hard to think of pretty blonde girls in prom dresses covered in blood without thinking of Carrie (1976). The opening scene of Scream Queens sees a girl in a trance-like state with bloodied hands walking through a pastel party. But in Scream Queens, no one’s that bothered: “I am not missing 'Waterfalls' for this. 'Waterfalls' is my jam.”

Gossip Girl

Gossip Girl (2007-2012) spawned a thousand glossy, bitchy children, and Scream Queens could be its slightly unhinged niece. Chanel #1's silky, preppy wardrobe calls to mind some of Blair's pristine outfits (even if she'd never be seen dead in a pink faux fur jacket), and the sorority house, with its sweeping staircases, soft carpets and luxurious flower arrangements, is strikingly similar to the Waldorf’s apartment. One of the most obvious references to the show is Mrs Bean, Chanel’s maid, who follows in the footsteps of Blair’s maid Dorota, (right down to the old-fashioned uniform). While Blair grows incredibly close with Dorota (she’s maid-of-honour at her wedding), Chanel burns Mrs Bean’s face of in a deep-fat fryer. Lovely.

Mean Girls

Makeovers, hazing, and neck braces: there are several obligatory references to cultural touchstone Mean Girls (2004), including matching pink outfits and vengeful collages

The Powerpuff Girls

What happens when you mix sugar, spice, and all things nice with a mysterious and explosive chemical? Either the Powerpuff Girls, or the Chanels.

Now hear Anna discussing Scream Queens on the New Statesman’s pop culture podcast, SRSLY.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.