It is a truth universally acknowledged that Pride and Prejudice is one of the most famous books on the planet – not bad for an author who never left Britain.
With very little action and absolutely no sex, the plot doesn’t scream ‘modern best seller’ but, like thousands of others, I’ve fallen in love with Jane Austen’s romantic classic.
The story focuses on a handful of wealthy people in Regency England. The comparatively poor Bennet family (and I do mean comparatively – they have servants!) need to marry their daughters to wealthy gentlemen.
When Elizabeth Bennet meets rich Mr Darcy, she dislikes him almost immediately. They overcome pride (his), prejudice (hers) and a string of appalling relatives to reach their happily ever after.
The book’s an enjoyable mixture of balls, bonnets and scathing satire. Jane Austen called it “too light, and bright, and sparkling” but generations of readers have disagreed.
Jane Austen purists should probably look away now; I’m about to talk about spin-offs. The story has been read and rewritten dozens, if not hundreds, of times by its fans. Together Elizabeth and Darcy have solved murders, survived zombies and lived in space (though I admit I haven’t read that last one).
I’ve only read a tiny fraction of the retellings; more are being published every year. Here I’ll be talking about six novels that wouldn’t have existed without Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
So, if you prefer this classic in its original Regency form, now is a good time to stop reading!
Bridget Jones’ Diary, Helen Fielding
Remember these? The Bridget Jones books and films were a massive hit around fifteen to twenty years ago. Set in the 1990s, Bridget wears enormous pants (translation for Americans, this means knickers) and chain smokes her way around London as she searches for her perfect partner.
The author, Helen Fielding, told the BBC that parts of the plot were based on Austen’s work: “the book increasingly began to mimic and nick stuff from Pride and Prejudice. But it’s a very good plot and I thought Jane Austen wouldn’t mind, and anyway she’s dead.”
These days, Bridget’s life is a bit dated and parts of the plot are problematic. But, it’s still easy-to-read (and watch).
Casting Colin Firth, the star of the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice adaptation, as Mark Darcy was a brilliant choice for the film and Hugh Grant makes a suitably dastardly Wickham-style character.
Quick quote: “It struck me as pretty ridiculous to be called Mr Darcy and to stand on your own looking snooty at a party. It’s like being called Heathcliff and insisting on spending the entire evening in the garden, shouting ‘Cathy’ and banging your head against a tree.”
Death Comes to Pemberley, P.D. James
It’s takes a special type of person to look at a classic romance and think ‘this would be better with a grisly murder’. Luckily, P.D. James, the late Queen of Crime, had a terrifying world view.
Death Comes to Pemberley is set soon after Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth and Darcy’s marital bliss is shattered when a blood-covered corpse is found in the grounds of their beautiful home.
A murder investigation takes place to find the killer. Could Elizabeth’s brother-in-law, Wickham, be back up to his unpleasant tricks?
This book is great fun and full of twists and turns. It focuses mostly on Darcy’s viewpoint and, if I have one complaint, it’s that Elizabeth is absent for big chunks of the novel (at this time, most women didn’t take a big part in hunting for murderers).
Still, this is a well written story and I’d recommend giving it a read. Even if you’re not a Pride and Prejudice fan, it’s fascinating to see how P.D. James thinks serious crimes were dealt with during this era.
Quick quote: “They slowly moved forward as one, all three holding their lanterns high; their strong beams, outshining the gentle radiance of the moon, intensified the bright red of an officer’s tunic and the ghastly blood-smeared face”.
Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld
So, what’s going on with the Austen Project? A few years ago HarperCollins announced plans to team all of Austin’s novels with some of today’s most popular authors.
They published a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice (thank you, Curtis Sittenfeld), Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey and Emma. Then, things seemed to…. trail off. I’m assuming the scheme has been dropped.
Now, I have a confession. I enjoy Curtis Sittenfeld’s writing (read Prep if you haven’t already) but her Pride and Prejudice rewrite wasn’t my favourite of her books.
Still, it’s certainly worth a read. The story stays fairly close the famous plot but the setting has changed and so have the characters. However, some things stay the same. Mrs Bennet’s behaviour (now upgraded to narrowminded bigotry) will still make you cringe.
The original sisters had to marry or face destitution, but in Eligible the two oldest Bennet siblings have their own jobs in New York.
Their ages have been changed too, from their early twenties to nearly forty, and they’re facing a different set of social pressures.
Quick quote: “both quite accidently and quite horribly, Liz had found herself on a webpage featuring cannibal lemurs.”
Longbourn, Jo Baker
If you’ve ever wondered who cleans Elizabeth Bennet’s muddy petticoats, here’s your answer.
Longbourn looks at the people who slipped from Pride and Prejudice’s pages; the maids doing laundry, cleaning and cooking, the errand-running footman and the elderly coachman.
Author Jo Baker goes below stairs to tell the story of the Bennet family’s overworked servants. She describes their early starts to light fires, empty chamberpots and scrub clothing, and their painful chilblains.
Although the main story follows Sarah, a maid with two suitors (the Bennets’ footman, James, and Bingley’s servant, Ptolemy) the author squeezes in predatory gentlemen preying on servants, the horrors of the Napoleonic Wars, the upper classes’ neglect of their illegitimate children and racism among servants.
This story isn’t light or sparkling and may mean you never look at the Bennets in the same way again.
Quick quote: “The young ladies might behave like they were smooth and sealed as alabaster statues underneath their clothes, but then they would drop their soiled shifts on the bedchamber floor to be whisked away and cleansed”.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen
If you’re expecting a serious novel, look away. This ridiculous gore-fest takes the original book and shoe-horns in a legion of brain-eating zombies.
England is being swarmed by the undead and the upper and middle classes have started sending their children to Japan and China to learn ‘the deadly arts’.
The Bennet sisters alternate searching for husbands with fighting the ‘unmentionables’. They’ve sworn to defend the county of Hertfordshire until their deaths (or their marriages).
Balls are interrupted by plagues of brain-chewing monsters and Mr Darcy’s formidable aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, is (of course) proficient in mass slaughter.
You might struggle to get all the way through this book but it’s a memorable retelling of a classic.
Quick quote: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”
Unmarriageable, Soniah Kamal
This book was released last month and sparked my Pride and Prejudice spin-off reading-binge. Unmarriageable transports the characters to Pakistan in the early 2000s.
The Bennets are now the Binats and still in a precarious financial situation. Luckily Mrs Binat has a solution: Her five daughters must find wealthy husbands.
Alys (Elizabeth) is ignoring her mother’s demands to ‘grab’ a man. Happily single, she supports her family by teaching English and tries to empower her young, female students.
I’ve never visited Pakistan, so loved the glimpse the author offered into cultures and customs.
Soniah Kamal investigates at the demands placed on women by society and asks how language impacts on identity. She adds beautiful discussions about literature and mouth-watering descriptions of food – I ended up googling recipes.
To read my full review, click here.
Quick quote: Darsee asks Alys: “you talked of a Pakistani Jane Austen. But will we ever hear the English or Americans talk of an equivalent?”
Have you enjoyed any Jane Austen spin-offs, especially ones I haven’t mentioned here? Let me know if there are any titles I need to add to my must-read list.