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 Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge