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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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge