Jane Austen the ultimate undead writer?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that, despite their advancing years, Jane Austen's novels continue to dominate our literary consciousness. Sense and Sensibility may be celebrating its bicentennial this year, with Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma enjoying similar anniversaries in the coming decade, but they remain some of the best-loved, most influential and timeless books of English literature.
And not just with readers or lovers of period drama on television: authors continue to be in thrall to Austen. Take the country-house settings of Alan Hollinghurst's new book The Stranger's Child or Ian McEwan's Atonement, so reminiscent of the Bertrams' pile in Mansfield Park or Mr Darcy's Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice.
In recent decades there have also been countless rewrites, sequels, prequels and thinly veiled copies. Sometimes, these books are chokingly reverential - as in the case of Janet Aylmer's Darcy's Story. Others show rather less respect for the original, such as Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, in which a particularly hungry hammerhead shark does for the wealthy landowner Henry Dashwood.
Anyone who found the notion of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies laughable (and who wouldn't?), had to stifle their guffaws when Seth Grahame-Smith's rewrite tore up the bestseller chart with much the same gusto as Elizabeth Bennet tore through the massed ranks of the 19th-century undead.
This fascination with Austen's storytelling shows no signs of abating. The publisher HarperCollins this month commissioned the best-selling novelist Joanna Trollope - the author of romantic family dramas such as The Rector's Wife - to fashion a contemporary reworking of Sense and Sensibility. Presumably, without the sea creatures or zombies.
In fact, at the launch of the project, Trollope promised that she would be updating with "consummate respect", that this would be "not an emulation, but a tribute". Which is slightly troubling. All art is in some ways influenced by its predecessors, but the best writing doesn't concern itself with history; it shapes those influences into something completely new.
Still, Trollope is, as HarperCollins's publishing director Louisa Joyner pointed out, the perfect choice for Sense and Sensibility, because she and Austen share "an extraordinary ability to combine heart-rending plots with a social acuity".
However, one does wonder who exactly will read the update. Is this an attempt to make Austen more relevant, more contemporary? In which case, with the best will in the world, commissioning a novelist approaching her 70s is hardly "cool". And anyway, the continued success of television period drama would seem to suggest we do actually like to be transported back to Austen's simpler time.
The prospect of Elinor and Edward announcing they've finally got together via Facebook, in a 2011 Sense and Sensibility re-rub, is too depressingly prosaic to contemplate.
Still, it's fun to guess whom HarperCollins might pick to rewrite Austen's five other books. Last year, Penguin published a series of essays on her work, which suggested that Martin Amis would be a brilliantly mischievous choice for Pride and Prejudice, while the feminist author Fay Weldon might just ramp up the action in Mansfield Park.
Incredibly, HarperCollins is not the only major publishing company to announce new Austen-inspired work this month. Faber disclosed last week that a new book from the crime writer PD Jameswould be set in the world of Pride and Prejudice.
This time, it's not a rewriting of the story but a sequel - of sorts. Death Comes to Pemberley takes place six years on from the original novel, with the youngest Bennet sister Lydia arriving at the autumn ball screaming that her husband has been murdered. But by whom?
For James's part, she says on the Faber website that it "has been a joy to revisit Pride and Prejudice and to discover, as one always does, new delights and fresh insights". She also apologises to Jane Austen for involving her beloved Elizabeth in a murder investigation.
In many ways it seems like a more inventive use of Austen than Trollope's Sense and Sensibility: a re-imagining rather than a re-telling. In much the same way that Jean Rhys's 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea acted as a prelude to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, and Susan Hill's Mrs De Winter followed up Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, there's more of a chance that books only loosely connected to their "parent" novel will be successful, freed as they are from the shackles of adhering to the original plot.
One thing's for sure, both Trollope and James will have to write something truly brilliant for their Austen tributes to have a life and identity beyond the books on which they were based.
Updated: October 2, 2011 04:00 AM