Juliet Archer describes herself as ‘a 19th-century mind in a 21st-century body – actually, some days it’s the other way round’. She is on a mission to modernise all six of Jane Austen’s completed novels. The first in the series, The Importance of Being Emma, was shortlisted for the 2009 Melissa Nathan Award for Comedy Romance – a genre she believes Austen excelled at. The second, Persuade Me, will be published in September. You can find out more about Juliet on www.julietarcher.com and www.austenauthors.com; she is also taking part in the Austen Twitter Project. Today she is talking to My Jane Austen Book Club about Austen’s heroes and offering a copy of The Importance of Being Emma as a giveaway. Please comment and provide your email address if you would like to be entered into the giveaway competition.Open worldwide, this giveaway ends on April 14th.
Hi, everyone! And thank you, Maria , for inviting me along. I love your blog and drop in as often as I can.
Some of you may be asking, ‘Why on earth would anyone tamper with Jane Austen?’ Well, first of all, my theory is that most romantic fiction is modeled on one of Austen’s stories. Hate at first sight? Think Pride & Prejudice. Lost love regained? Persuasion. Old friends falling in love? Emma. Love Gothic-fantasy-style? Northanger Abbey, and so on. Second, if you want to write comedy romance, why not learn from the master of the genre? Austen attained absolute perfection with her unforgettable characters, sparkling dialogue, elegant prose and page-turning plots.
But in my view there’s no point in producing a pale imitation – you have to tamper with it to make it your own. That’s why I’ve decided not only to bring Austen’s novels bang up to date, but also to get inside the heads of her heroes. I find that this is the most enjoyable part of modernising Austen – filling in the gaps that she left in our understanding of her male characters. Apparently, she never wrote a scene with just men in it – there had to be a woman. For each of her heroes, therefore, she provides a starting point and an end point and a few little clues along the way – but the rest is up to me!
Inevitably, modernising Jane Austen’s novels means taking certain liberties with the originals, mainly around transporting the characters, dialogue and plot lines into today’s world. These liberties are acceptable to Austen fans, because without them the modernisation would be stuck in a time warp, belonging to neither the 19th nor the 21st century.
|See all Jane Austen heroes HERE|
When it comes to tampering with Austen’s heroes, however, an author is treading on far more dangerous ground. Imagine Mr Darcy with a lisp, or a manic-depressive Henry Tilney! But sometimes leaving them unchanged just will not do.
When I started my first modernisation, The Importance of Being Emma, I took a long, serious look at George Knightley. Forget Jeremy Northam, Mark Strong and Jonny Lee Miller, who portray him on screen! In the original, he’s 37, has no apparent history with the opposite sex, is a pillar of Highbury society and woos Emma with the immortal line, ‘God knows, I have been a very indifferent lover’. So, on paper at least, he has far less appeal for most readers than Darcy or Wentworth. And why would 21-year-old Emma Woodhouse, with her rampant eligibility and penchant for matchmaking, consider him remotely lustworthy? Well, knowing the original Emma, she was after position rather than passion – but my heroine was already evolving into a sassy, savvy, 21st-century woman.
There was no alternative: George Knightley had to have a makeover. I cut the age difference between him and Emma, to make sure he’s not old enough (technically) to be her father. Changed his first name from George to Mark (in spite of my weakness for George Clooney, ‘George’ just didn’t feel right as I didn’t know any 34-year-olds by that name – they’re all much older or younger). Gave him a stunning girlfriend, and kept him well away from Highbury while Emma was growing up. It seems to have worked: readers love the new Knightley, as does Emma who we first meet at 14 years old, in the prologue. It’s a flashback to the moment when Knightley discovers she has a crush on him; he deals with it less than sympathetically, giving Emma every reason to resist his charms when they meet years later …
And if I say that Mark Knightley is six foot two, dark-haired and blue-eyed, can you guess who my inspiration was for this makeover?
|Yes! Richard Armitage. Who else?|
Moving on to my next modernisation, however, the hero of Persuasion didn’t need any tampering with – apart from giving him a more convincing reason to disappear for 8 years than the Napoleonic Wars! I still wanted him to do something sea-related – so Captain Frederick Wentworth has become Dr Rick Wentworth, a marine biologist who’s become a world expert on sea dragons, beautiful creatures that live only off the south coast of Australia. He returns to England on a book tour and meets Anna Elliot, the girl who refused to go to Australia with him 8 years ago. The words ‘forgive and forget’ aren’t in Rick’s vocabulary, but the word ‘regret’ is definitely in Anna’s. When they meet again, can she persuade him that their lost love is worth a second chance? You’ll have to read the book to find out – although I suspect you already know what the answer is!
I’ve already started work on my third Austen modernisation, Northanger Abbey. Like Wentworth, the delicious Henry Tilney doesn’t need much tampering with. Neither will Darcy, I’m sure, when I get round to updating Pride & Prejudice.
But what about Edward Ferrars and Edmund Bertram? They’re often considered the least attractive of Austen’s male leads. For a start, each is entangled with the anti-heroine, Lucy Steele and Mary Crawford respectively, to a far greater extent than Austen’s other heroes. Both have a second, potentially more attractive, male lead to contend with – Colonel Brandon and Henry Crawford. Finally, on the page their personalities have less impact than playful Henry Tilney or brooding Fitzwilliam Darcy. At this stage, I see Edmund as more of a challenge than Edward – but who knows?
Let’s return now to my 21st-century version of Wentworth and an extract from Persuade Me – that fateful moment when he and Anna meet again in Uppercross, at the house of Charles and Mona (another name change, for obvious reasons!) Musgrove:
Charles took a little turning off the lane, beside a large sign saying ‘Uppercross Manor’, and Rick followed him blindly. Down a side path, into a sudden fragrance of lavender, across a wide sunny terrace strewn with kids’ toys. Then through a door and –Two worlds collided. The one he inhabited now, with its ship-like order and restraint; and the one he’d glimpsed eight years ago. With a girl who’d once wiggled her toes at him until he caught hold of her small, perfect foot and covered it in kisses.This girl. These toes. This foot.He dragged his gaze to her face. She was too busy with the little boy to notice him, so he had several long seconds to study her haggard, unkempt appearance. He felt oddly pleased that she’d lost her looks; especially since she wouldn’t see much change in his.At last, she glanced up and their eyes met. He watched her smile fade and her face go rigid with disbelief; then she flushed and looked away.The boy broke the strained silence. ‘Who dat man?’Charles breezed in – Rick hadn’t even realised that he’d gone out of the room – and said, ‘That’s Rick, he’s coming up to see our lake. Sorry, Rick, haven’t introduced you. This is Anna, Mona’s sister, and my son, Harry. By the way, Anna, have you seen my spare rod?’She gave him a stunned look, but said nothing.Charles’s voice softened noticeably. ‘Don’t worry, you’re obviously on another planet, I’ll check the shed.’ He turned to Rick and added, ‘She’s whacked – my other son sprained his ankle yesterday and he’s had a bit of a restless night. Poor Anna bore the brunt, she’s wonderful with the children, always happy to come and help us out.’Quite the little ménage à trois, Rick thought sourly. He cleared his throat, muttered ‘Hi’ and followed Charles outside.It was over. He’d met her again and he’d felt nothing. Nothing at all.
I hope you recognise something of Jane Austen’s original hero and feel that my tampering has not been in vain!
Thank you for ‘listening’ – any questions?