Time After Time: Why Modern Authors Continue to Adapt Jane Austen

Photo © Shutterstock

Editor's Note:

Hillary Manton Lodge is the author of the critically acclaimed Two Blue Doors series and the Plain and Simple duet. Jane of Austin is her sixth novel. She resides outside of Memphis, Tennessee, with her husband and two pups. She can be found online at HillaryMantonLodge.com. She joins Signature to discuss why Jane Austen adaptations are popular in modern writing.

I can’t think of another author whose works have been adapted and re-adapted the way Jane Austen’s works have. As readers, we respond viscerally to her stories, and it leads us to using her characters and tropes like paints and brushes to create our own versions. Working with a Jane Austen story is like recording a Beatles cover – you’re working with top-notch material, but somewhere in your head, you know that you’re working with something deeply beloved. There’s a responsibility – but also joy.

Joy because the original material is so good. Austen renders her worlds with vivid characters and shining prose. To work with it means you’re working with the best – you don’t have to throw glitter on it to make it acceptable.

There are dozens of reasons why Austen’s novels have both attained and maintained the massive popularity they’ve enjoyed over the years. Her protagonists have an every-woman appeal; each English village is populated with characters who feel familiar. We all went to high school with a Fanny Dashwood and a Mr. Elton, listened to our best friends deal with Marianne Dashwood-level breakups. We see ourselves, our life – or the life we wish we had – in her novels.

But it’s foolish to look at Austen’s novels and see nothing but romances set in the English countryside. Happily-ever-after is never truly the point – it’s a byproduct. By the end of Pride & Prejudice, more pages are spent with Elizabeth and Darcy parsing their own regrets and bad behavior than their felicity at finding love with each other. That kind of three-dimensional characterization for a woman? Nearly unheard of in the fiction of Austen’s day. But 200 years later, it’s why we attach to her characters deeply enough to adapt them.

What we do with the adaptations can vary wildly. Some are simply affection-fueled send-ups. Other adaptations take the material one genre into another. But the best adaptations use the original material to find something new to say. They’ll pick and choose which parts to lean into, shedding light on the original in a new way.

The 2009 adaptation of Emma, written by Sandy Welch, is one of my favorite examples of a great adaptation. The prologue highlights how Emma, Jane Fairfax, and Frank Churchill all lost parents in their early childhood, and how their lives spun out in different ways. A scene shows Mrs. and Miss Bates sacrificing the little they have to support Jane. Most astutely, Welch’s adaptation takes Mr. Woodhouse’s quirky hypochondria and portrays it as very real clinical anxiety.

The result is a story full of dynamic characters. Emma and Jane’s conflict hits harder because we see how similar and well-matched they could be as friends. Miss Bates’s obsession with Jane’s letters and successes makes sense because she’s put everything she had into Jane’s future. And we get to see Emma as more than a wealthy busybody. When she’s not rearranging her friends’ romantic lives, Emma is a full-time caretaker for her father. While she’s devoted to her father, it’s also a role that is generally taken for granted. Emma’s world is small and Mr. Knightly is the only one who notices.

When I reworked Sense & Sensibility for my own novel, Jane of Austin, I wanted to keep the architecture of the original while still crafting something fresh. Telling the story from Marianne’s perspective, I explored the idea that while Marianne has her flaws, martyr-like Elinor does too. In Jane of Austin, Celia goes through a breakup. In her grief she shuts out Jane and makes arrangements for the sisters to leave California for Texas. That rejection sends Jane careening into a relationship with musician Sean Willis, and the cracks in the relationship between Jane and Celia only deepen.

And then there’s Colonel Brandon. Austen herself sketches out his past lightly, but I wanted to unpack more of the emotional ramifications. After all, he was a second son, not expected to inherit. His sweetheart was married off, unhappily, to his older brother. And when he does inherit, he comes home to a mess. How does he handle that? What are the lasting effects?

In both cases, I worked to keep the characterizations and motivations rooted within the original, but enjoyed getting to dig deeper. Because the secret to Austen – why I think we keep coming back to her – is that every dive into her text results in treasure. There’s always a turn of phrase, a bit of characterization, a wry observation about humanity that’s just as true today as it was 200 years ago. All these years later, Jane Austen still has a handle on the state of humanity. Maybe in adapting her work, we’re hoping to understand it better ourselves.