The real Jane Austen

HarperCollins is commissioning six contemporary authors to write modern versions of Austen's six novels. The first is Joanna Trollope, who will rewrite Sense and Sensibility.

Most Austen fans will be apprehensive, or at least sceptical, myself among them. I'd like to think it's not just my inner pedant, that there are reasons such a project might at least run into difficulties. With all due respect to Trollope and her fellow imitators, here are several:

  1. Austen's characters are judged according to their breeding, their education and information, their adherence to subtle civil codes. Part of the exercise of reading the novels is in projecting oneself into a social millieu in which manners count in a way they no longer do. Do the modern mores of social media or cafe-haunting present the same possibilities of complexity and climax?

  2. Austen's plots all turn on social, moral, and economic circumstances that mostly no longer exist. What is the modern moral equivalent of Lydia Bennet's elopement or of Mr Willoughby's fickleness? What's the modern equivalent of the impropriety of Frank Churchill's secrecy, or of Mary Crawford's sentiments, or of the Musgrove sisters' inferiority?

  3. Austen's prose is pretty close to perfection. Without being lyrical or even very descriptive, her prose is inimitably beautiful, and constitutes perhaps the greatest of all the pleasures of reading her. Though we wouldn't expect a contemporary novel to sound like her, it's hard to imagine how even a great contemporary author could approach that facility, that felicity of syntax and delicate balancing of phrase and cadence that make her so deeply satisfying to read.

  4. Austen's wit is disarmingly sharp, sheathed as it so often is in gentility. Her singular ability to skewer insipidity, vulgarity, complacency, or dishonesty with the thrust of a few demure lines is a mastery against which few would be willing to pit their own weapons.

  5. Austen's world of tea and cambric, empire lines and lavender water is no inconsiderable element of her popularity. Many of her readers take up her works precisely for the genteel joys of this quiet, indoor elegance, with its bonnets and dresses and silk shoes and shawls, its china and lacework and likenesses, all afloat a soft continuous billow of solo piano. How is this world, now synonymous with Austen, to be recreated?

There might be reasonable answers to all of these objections, and the new books themselves might prove my apprehensions groundless. However if the best these writers can do is find modern correlates for the plots or characters, correlates which naturally preclude the very Jane Austen-ness of her own period that so delights modern readers, I find it hard to see how they could be entertaining either in their own right or for her sake. I must hope, therefore, to be surprised.