Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Austen Retellings

Bottom line: Do you like Austen retellings?

Holly: For some mysterious reason, I became the go-to person for Austen retellings here at TSR, so I’ve read a fair number. (This is ironic to me because Erin and Ingrid introduced me to the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, which was my very first Austen experience.) When they’re good, they’re really fun…but oh boy, are there some bad ones out there. So this one really hinges on the execution.

Erin: I tend to prefer my Austen retellings in A/V format. I think I might have been most delighted to find those Pemberley Digital serialized versions of Emma and P&P on YouTube back in the day. In books, I definitely tend to enjoy the Austen retellings more if they’re not completely invested in the original because a lot of aspects of the period don’t translate well or simply take up space in retellings.

Ingrid: I’m warming up to them. To be honest, I have historically had a bit of a snooty attitude about them? I guess in my head I thought, hey, the original was just fine and messing with it isn’t necessary…but just because it isn’t necessary doesn’t mean it isn’t a lot of fun. (This is what I’m discovering.)

What criteria are required for a book to qualify as an Austen retelling? What makes for a really successful retelling of Austen’s stories?

Holly: So first, the story has to follow the basic beats of the original. It helps if some of the names are similar, so the reader can easily orient herself. (Note: I personally do not count postscript stories—you know, the continued love of Lizzie and Darcy after the wedding, such as in Death Comes to Pemberley—as strict retellings.)

However, there’s a fine line here. The story should be close enough to be recognizable, but not so close as to be a complete retread, only in a different time period or with dragons or whatever. The worst one I’ve read (which I DNFed and didn’t review) lifted whole passages of dialogue from the original, even though we were in the 1950s American South instead of 1800s England, which just didn’t work for me. 

What I think makes for a really successful Austen retelling is a deep understanding of the source material, and then a willingness to throw it away a bit, so we can really get in to these new characters and believe their path to true love is inevitable because of who they are, and not because of who they are based on. 

Erin: I’d say Holly summed it up nicely. (That’s why she’s the Austen retellings person, obvi.)

Ingrid: Holly shoots, Holly scores.

Why do you think Austen retellings are so popular (both as genre romance as literary fiction)?

Erin: Austen is literary women’s fiction romance, right? So the source material is smart and hopeful and not by men. It feels like it belongs to Romancelandia more than the sources of other retellings. Plus she created some great tension in the originals that doesn’t need to be totally reconsidered because the foibles of people are universal. (I’d say let’s just ignore the social commentary aspect of her writing (which is probably more relevant than the romance), but I don’t think we need to because there’s plenty of romance that also engages in social commentary.)

Holly: Speaking to the romance side of things, her books draw on some hugely popular ideas that have become central tropes in genre romance. Enemies to lovers? Check. Friends to lovers? Check. Second chance romance? Check. Uh…I can’t tell you if there’s a trope in Mansfield Park, so let’s stop while I’m ahead. 

Ingrid: I would also suggest that almost everyone I know stumbled across Jane Austen at about the same age or phase of maturity…so there’s this really kind of visceral Austen response people have when they connect with her at just the right time in their lives. I feel like there’s a thread of connection Austen fans share that is really kind of unique.

What do you think is fun about Austen retellings?

Erin: She’s using some really great tropes and characterizations, and those can be tinkered with and played on in ways that are still delightful.

Holly: What Erin said. Plus! Part of the fun of reading a retelling—any retelling—is recognizing the source material, and therefore knowing what to expect, but then still being surprised, and hopefully delighted, by the way the author plays with the story. 

I’ve also been thinking a lot about this thread by Bianca Hernandez-Knight—mostly her point that romance is a way to Austen for some readers. Because also, Austen is a way to romance. Genre romance is in conversation with Austen, and reading them together can open the door to different ways of thinking about love and society and how books can reflect these ideas. 

Ingrid: Austen has just layers upon layers of juicy characters, I absolutely agree. Each supporting character is just BURSTING with potential and backstory, and Austen manages to really pull these characters along for their own just desserts as well, so it’s ripe with possibilities for retellings.

What do you find problematic about Austen retellings?

Holly: Some of the tensions in the originals don’t translate well to contemporary settings—so when authors try to shoehorn a desperate “I must marry off my daughters or face penury” plot into a modern setting, I generally find it a little bit cringeworthy. 

Erin: You know I love me a Darcy, but honestly there might be too many Pride and Prejudice retellings. Collins and Wickham get shoehorned in whether they’re warranted or not, and it’s just boring. 

I think a lot of Austen retellings also want to play with the storytelling but don’t make the effort to interrogate social issues like Austen was doing. 

Ingrid: Any time you take something that just works really well as it is and you try to morph it into something fresh you’re going to be taking a big risk. So there’s that, and there’s also missing all those subtleties that are in the originals. Darcy is iconic because he’s Darcy–which means he’s one way on the surface and then through the cracks of his shell the light kind of comes streaming in until he’s just radiantly dreamy. You can’t just take him and repackage him, you have to really see it and let it unfold. So I think it’s probably really easy to love Austen’s characters but it’s very difficult to take the time to unfold them the way they deserve to be unfolded.

Do you have a favorite Austen story you like to see retold?

Erin: My favorite Austen is Persuasion, which is weird because I don’t love second chance romance, but I think it’s the most romantic of her books. But I’ve never read a Persuasion retelling. So I guess in practice, with my limited options, I’ll have to choose Emma. Knightly is totally my speed.

Holly: Emma is my favorite Austen because it’s so stinking hilarious and I love me a difficult heroine. But I’ve never read an Emma retelling. Does that mean I should pick Persuasion as my favorite, for symmetry? My real answer is: please send me all the recs for Emma retellings, thanks. 

Ingrid: Emma. Second choice would actually be Pride and Prejudice, but only if it’s done RIGHT.

What’s one Austen retelling you loved? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles repackaging the source material in a new and exciting way?

Erin: Holly picked a movie for one of our prior LTT discussions, so that opened the gates and I’m going to pick Clueless. It’s so 90s and really, really ridiculous, but aww. And you can watch it and realize that yes, it is true that Paul Rudd does not appear to age at all. 

Slash also after reading Wulfric Bedwin for 5 books, Slightly Dangerous by Mary Balogh totally hit the spot.

Holly: Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev. Dev just absolutely nails the balance between telling a recognizable story and making it her own. 

Ingrid: What is the matter with you guys?? You’re completely ignoring the classic, Bridget Jones’s Diary. It is both a stellar book and a phenomenal movie and it has Colin Firth in it. Colin FIRTH. And he COOKS and he SMIRKS. And if you recall, he likes her just the way she is after throwing Hugh Grant across the street. We clearly need to discuss this further.

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