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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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem