Are the re-imaginings of Austen and Shakespeare any good?

by Paula Morris / 08 August, 2016
As Shakespeare and Jane Austen’s works are “reimagined” by today’s leading novelists, Paula Morris asks how true they are to the originals and whether they are any good.
Jane Austen and William Shakespeare: being revived for new audiences. Photo/Getty Images
Jane Austen and William Shakespeare: being revived for new audiences. Photo/Getty Images

In 2013, HarperCollins realised Jane Austen had been dead for almost 200 years and that there were only so many movie and television adaptations that could be available on DVD at one time. So they launched the Austen Project, commissioning contemporary updates of her six novels.

To date, in the hands of Joanna Trollope, Curtis Sittenfeld, Alexander McCall Smith and Val McDermid, we’ve got Austen-lite (and often frothy): Elinor Dashwood works for an architect in Exeter; the Bennett sisters are stuck in Cincinnati; Emma Woodhouse studies “decorative arts” at university; Catherine Morland is a home-schooled teen obsessed with vampire novels. My fervent wish is that HarperCollins commission no more re-imaginings – particularly ones in which characters say “Totes okay” – and that Mansfield Park and Persuasion can survive with their original features intact.

Shakespeare has been dead for twice as long as Austen, so the Hogarth Shakespeare initiative is even more ambitious, turning eight of his plays over to “today’s best novelists” for some topical retelling. (All these best novelists, by the way, are British or North American, apart from Norwegian thriller-writer Jo Nesbø, who is to get his hands bloody with the Scottish Play.)

This series – launched because Shakespeare’s death + 400 years = marketing opportunity – declares its novels will remain “true to the spirit” of the plays: they’ll borrow their stories from the Bard just as Shakespeare borrowed stories himself. Shylock is My Name, for example, is Howard Jacobson’s take on The Merchant of Venice, a play that drew on various sources, including a 15th-century collection of tales, Il Pecorone, by Giovanni Fiorentino.

Jeanette Winterson has written The Gap of Time based on The Winter’s Tale – a sort-of comedy with the most unsettling of happy endings; Shakespeare found much of the source material for it in Robert Greene’s 1588 novella Pandosto: The Triumph of Time, although he changed the plot, the ending and some characters.

The latest in the series is Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler. It’s a remake of The Taming of the Shrew, a play that drew on traditional sources about beautiful girls and their shrewish sisters, as well as more ancient dramatic precedents for comic tales of disguise and surprise.

All three are problematic plays for contemporary audiences. We read misogyny in The Taming of the Shrew and anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice, and we don’t know who to cheer for in The Winter’s Tale, or what exactly we’re celebrating at the end, or why the journey there has been so very confusing and charmless.

The Hogarth Shakespeare initiative is similarly confusing in its aims. The press material talks of “introducing his plays to a new generation of fans”, but how? That suggests that the story is the thing, rather than the play itself.

It’s changing the form as well, from a play that is experienced live over a few hours, with all its in-the-moment risk and audacity and performance of emotion, to a novel that might take days to read and relies on access to consciousness rather than action to investigate its characters’ psychology.

All three Hogarth Shakespeare titles so far have their strengths, but also fundamental flaws that hamper them both as novels and retellings. Vinegar Girl is perhaps the least ambitious, and the most successful. By “least ambitious”, I mean it appears to be trying to fulfil its brief, to lure that “new generation of fans”: it reads so much like a YA novel that I was surprised to read that its heroine, Kate Battista, is 29.

Kate is a preschool assistant who’s too prickly to succeed in that touchy-feely line of work. She gave up her botany degree to look after her oddball scientist father, a widower, and Bunny, her spoiled younger sister, now 15. Kate has lovely hair and a way with gardening and accounts, but she’s odd and friendless. So her work-obsessed father concocts a plan for her to marry Pyotr Shcherbakov, his Russian lab assistant who will otherwise be deported. Pyotr is endearingly goofy, as out-of-step with the modern world as Kate, so she begins to see their marriage of convenience as a “chance to turn my life around”.

The men in Kate’s life are brainy but emotionally stunted: as she points out in her Big Speech, it’s “hard being a man … Anything that’s bothering them, men think they have to hide it.”

That’s Tyler’s solution, then, to the problem of the Shrew’s capitulation: Kate discovers empathy and, by chance, a marriage of equals. (He encourages her to go back to college!) Hmm. Let’s hear it for arranged marriages!

At first Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is My Name seems a much meatier novel, capable of greater imaginative flight. Shylock has unmoored himself from time and drifted into affluent contemporary Cheshire, both a man from another world and a concrete presence in this one. He’s there as ally and antagonist of Simon Strulovitch, a rich art collector with anger-management issues who – like Shylock – can’t control a wayward daughter. Shylock tells Strulovitch that it’s impossible to escape his heritage: “If a Jew strikes a bargain it is assumed it will be harsh. If a Jew makes a joke it is assumed it will be barbed. So why fight your history when your history is bound to win?”

Unfortunately, most of the novel’s other characters are ludicrous, drawn so broadly that the nuanced arguments of Shylock and Strulovitch seem to take place in another book entirely. The wayward teen is in thrall to a third-rate Gentile footballer “with an appetite for Jewesses”, abetted and encouraged by the Antonio and Portia stand-ins: D’Anton, a gay art importer who’s ferociously anti-Semitic, and Plurabelle, an amoral wastrel of an heiress with her own reality TV show. They’re too awful, much larger than life, and their chapters are dull and silly.

In The Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson has been much more faithful to Shakespeare’s play than he was to his own sources, to the novel’s detriment. CK Stead reviewed it for the Listener last November, and complained that what “is improbable and lyrical in Shakespeare becomes absurd and ugly” and that we plunge “from Shakespearean riches into contemporary banality and modishness”. He could have been describing the entire Austen Project as well.

To his complaints I’ll just add that the use of Louisiana as a setting for New Bohemia is unnecessary, as almost every detail is wrong, and that the Jewish character of Pauline, who uses Yiddish words in every sentence, is a far worse stereotype than any Jacobson lampoons.

Of course, it’s possible to re-imagine and reset a classic work, as Michael Cunningham demonstrated in The Hours. A novel like Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea would no doubt be refused for some Brontë Project for straying too far from the original plot of Jane Eyre, but its art is equal to the first novel’s and it does far more than re-assemble the usual suspects. Imaginative daring: that’s what Shakespeare demands of anyone brazen enough to set up a covers band. I have my money on Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood’s version of The Tempest, due in October.

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