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Austen University: Accessing Austen through Alternate Universes

Though I have since read and re-read all of her works, my very first introduction to Jane Austen was through an adaptation.  This particular adaptation was short and to the point, and featured perhaps the cutest Darcy I have seen to date1 “Furst Impressions,” an episode of the children’ television series Wishbone (1995-1998), gave a condensed version of the story and featured an adorable Jack Russell terrier with a highly active literary imagination in the Darcy role.  I remember feeling keenly embarrassed for the actress who had to dance with a dog, though otherwise the plot didn’t make too much of an impression on my eight-year-old mind, or so I thought.  A few years later when I saw the title Pride and Prejudice on my grandmother’s bookshelf, I remembered the episode, and decided to give the book a read.  The rest, I suppose, is history, since I am now in the process of writing a dissertation on Jane Austen and adaptations.

Perhaps because it was through this series and other adaptations that I first became familiar with Austen’s work, I have never felt threatened by adaptations as usurping or ruining Austen’s texts as some faithful readers seem to do. To me, Austen’s adaptations have acted as a gateway to her novels, at first allowing me access to texts that, though enjoyable, were at times too difficult for an eleven-year-old to fully comprehend without having first witnessed a film version to help me understand the intricate plots and dynamic characters; and then, as I became a more seasoned reader able to understand the texts on my own, allowing me extended time among favorite characters, storylines, and well-beloved friends. Though these adaptations have never been “perfect” representations of my experience with the text, they have allowed me to revisit Austen’s worlds time and time again, as well as revisit my own relationship with Austen as I navigate what it is I value most about her writing, and how and why I sometimes interpret her words the way that I do. Because of this, I firmly believe the success of an adaptation lies less in whether or not it perfectly re-creates a text, but instead how it allows new access to that text, encouraging readers to think in fresh ways about the subject matter, characters, themes, and perhaps even the author herself.

Naturally, as a fan of both Austen and every adaptation I can get my hands on, as well as a creative writer, I have often thought how I might choose to translate Austen’s works if given the chance. It’s a daunting task, and one I would never undertake lightly. I would have to truly believe I had a unique vision for Austen’s texts, one which I had not yet seen brought to life in other adaptations—whether because an adaptation of this text had not yet been made (unlikely, unless thinking about her Juvenilia or some of her unfinished works); because an adaptation of this text had not yet been made in the form in which I was interested in exploring this text (e.g. vlog, graphic novel, and so forth); or because I did not like the adaptations already available for this text, or feel as though they had left out something important in my understanding of the novel (e.g. all film versions of Mansfield Park)2. Frankly, even with one of these pressing reasons motivating me, I would feel very intimidated to undertake an Austen adaptation, for a variety of reasons. First, because so many fantastic adaptations have already been made, which although perhaps not infallible in their rendering of Austen’s world, add something rich to the cultural ideas of that text and would be difficult to overcome completely. Second, because Austen’s fans are so very well-versed in her writing, and would be certain to notice any mistakes, deviations, or rearrangements of her ideas, and would probably have their own strong opinions of the text in a way that might not completely match my own. And last but not least of all, because my own envisioning of Austen’s novels is so dear to me, that I do not know if I could fully trust even myself to express it.

However, I do believe there is a potential loophole that could soften some of these stakes for me, that would allow me to engage with these texts in a fresh way that wouldn’t necessitate compromising my view (or hopefully anyone else’s) of an individual novel: simply, to not adapt any one novel, but to attempt to combine them all together. My vision for this undertaking would be called Austen University3, and would feature a variety of Austen’s most beloved characters attending college together. Set in modern day, the story would be told by an omniscient narrator using free indirect discourse, and would follow a variety of Austen’s characters who all either belong to one of the school’s fraternities or sororities, or who aspire to do so. Unfortunately, after one of the pledges is murdered during rush week, Austen’s heroines must team up to discover who the killer is, while also navigating the hierarchy of higher education, and of course, falling in love.

Though this might seem a radical departure from Austen’s novels, many of the major elements would, in fact, stay the same. The overarching plots of Austen’s novels would necessarily be discarded to fit into this new storyline, but some of the character arcs and romantic subplots would parallel the originals, such as Emma’s self-discovery, Catherine’s coming of age, and Elizabeth’s slow realization of her love for Darcy (because I, for one, refuse to acknowledge the possibility of any reality where Elizabeth and Darcy don’t belong together). The use of a narrator similar to Austen’s own voice would hopefully retain some of the wit and humor that makes her novels such a pleasure to read, and when appropriate, some of her classic lines would be reused to reward faithful Austen readers. The use of the sorority and fraternity world may seem an odd choice, but it would allow me to explore some of the issues of class so present in Austen’s novels, and to create a sort of hierarchy that might parallel Regency society. The murder may seem an even odder choice, but I intend to use it similarly to how Austen used the Gothic in Northanger Abbey: satirically, yes, but also in ways which will ultimately reveal things about the characters, their relationships, and the social order in which they live.

However, because this will not be a straight adaptation, there will necessarily be some changes made. Linda Hutcheon and Gary R. Bortolotti suggest that adaptations, like genes, must “evolve with changing environments” such as time and space, which allows for “a way to think anew about the broader questions of why and how certain stories are told and retold in our culture” (444-445). Though often adaptations are judged by their fidelity to the original source text, just what “fidelity” means has proven to be quite subjective. To some, Simon Langton’s Pride and Prejudice (1995) stands as a hallmark of faithfulness, since the costuming and décor reflect Austen’s time period; the structure follows most of the main plot points and sequences from the novel; and many quotations are taken verbatim from the book. To others, the same adaptation largely inflates Darcy’s role, makes him far more emotive than Austen’s original, and in some ways casts him as a figure equal to, if not surpassing, Elizabeth’s in narrative importance. Similarly, some might balk at Heckerling’s Clueless (1995) being set in Beverly Hills in the ‘90s, though others praise her work as being faithful to the witty spirit of Austen’s Emma. In short, since the notion of fidelity seems to alter depending on one’s relationship to the text, it will perhaps be more fruitful to embrace what is “unfaithful” about Austen University, and why I feel it is so important for these choices to be made.

As Julie Sanders notes in Adaptation and Appropriation, “it is usually at the very point of infidelity that the most creative acts of adaptation and appropriation4 take place” (20). Some of these changes will be immediately recognizable in Austen University: a removal of the structure of the novels’ various plotlines, a change of time period and setting, and an exploration of a new form/genre. Others may be less apparent, and slowly reveal themselves over the course of the adaptation. The ideal form of Austen University would be a television or book series, to allow ample time for the story, relationships, and mystery to unfold; as such, the amount of time spent with these characters may ultimately alter our relationship with them. I am especially interested in fleshing out some of the minor characters who inhabit Austen’s texts, and seeing what stories they might have to share if allowed the time to further develop. YouTube series such as The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012), Emma Approved (2013), and From Mansfield with Love (2014) have all taken advantage of multi-episode formats to let some of the lesser-known characters shine, such as Charlotte Lu (Charlotte Lucas), B-Mart (Robert Martin), and Rory Rushworth (Mr. Rushworth); some of these have also challenged the way we look at Austen’s original characters, such as Lydia in Pride and Prejudice, and her redemptive story arc on The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. I similarly hope to explore some of my favorites among Austen’s minor characters, such as Mrs. Jennings (who almost certainly must be a sorority house mother, mustn’t she?), Jane Fairfax (who is never fully explained to my satisfaction in Emma, and who I am convinced must be harboring some more secrets than even the narrator lets on), and the wonderful trio of Sir Walter, Elizabeth Elliot, and Mrs. Clay (whom I envision as a tenured professor who leaves all the real teaching to his T.A.s; a graduate student who refuses to leave the university; and an administrative sycophant, respectively). In order to consolidate some of the storylines, I will also play tongue-in-cheek tribute to some of Austen’s “stock” characters who appear with little variation between novels (e.g. something along the lines of “Isabella Crawford” or “John Elliot Wickham”). Some references will not be to Austen’s novels directly, but to popular conceptions of the characters (e.g. much will be made of how little people like poor Fanny Price), and to the adaptations which have sometimes become conflated with how we think of the characters (Darcy, naturally, will be captain of the swim team).

One of the pleasures of updating a classic text to modern times is the humor that can be produced by the incongruity between the time periods. Emma Approved, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, and Lost in Austen (2008) all monopolize on this, the former two more subtly, such as changing English gentleman of leisure Charles Bingley into Asian-American medical student Bing Lee; and the latter more overtly, with Amanda wearing leather pants, attempting to use her cell phone, and singing Petula Clark’s “Downtown” when asked to perform on the pianoforte. Thomas Leitch further defines this pleasure: “This surprise and delight in the resemblance between two disparate cultures, a perspective that illuminates them both, is the defining pleasure of the neoclassic imitation” (105). Yet to say these series use a modern-day setting merely to show off their cleverness would negate an important social commentary that happens as a result—not only of Austen’s texts and times, but of our own culture. Carole M. Dole writes, “…adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels hold a mirror up to our own society even while not seeming to do so. Beyond the Empire-style dresses and baronial estates is an inflexible and complex social system that may be more like our own than we can easily acknowledge” (59). In fact, modernizing a text may be a sure way to aid the audience in seeing those parallels they might otherwise brush over.

As much as we may learn about Austen, her themes, and her characters through these adaptations, in the best retellings, we also learn much about ourselves by how we choose to adapt her. Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield suggest, “These adaptations, then, have more to tell us about our own moment in time than about Austen’s writing. In watching them, we watch ourselves” (11). I admire the recent trend of adding diversity into the casting of Austen adaptations, such as the above-mentioned change of Bingley to Bing Lee in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries; the recasting of Catherine’s brother James to sister Jamie in Northbound (2015), creating the opportunity for LGBT representation in her relationship with Isabella; and the alteration of settings from Hertfordshire, England, to Amritsir, India, in Bride and Prejudice (2004). These modifications reflect our modern society and the variety of individuals who inhabit it, but also point to the universal themes in Austen’s works, and how readily they transfer across time, place, and culture. In Austen University, I would make careful choices to include similar diversity, attempting to use this change not only to open up the text to a broader audience, but also to provide new insight to characters through these new cultural layers. Perhaps Fanny Price will be treated so differently by the Bertrams because of issues of race; perhaps Brandon won’t initially be dismissed as being an ideal suitor because of age, but because of a disability; perhaps Henry Crawford won’t be a terrible flirt with just the ladies, but with the men as well. All changes would be rooted in the culture of a small s outhern university, but would also find their cues in Austen’s novels, allowing readers new access points to her texts, and new ways to engage with the characters they already know so well.

Austen University reflects my enthusiasm for Austen’s works, and my adamant belief in their ability to translate into virtually any form, setting, and society, and still maintain the ability to move us and reveal something about ourselves. Having just taught a semester of students—some of whom were reading Austen for the first time—I can attest firsthand to her continued ability to make new generations laugh, think, and feel. I can further attest to the ability for adaptations to be used as a way to approach Austen’s novels for those who might otherwise be daunted by such a classic text, or those who might not think someone writing in the early 19th century has anything to do with them until they first see her characters and storylines set in a more approachable world. The best adaptations don’t replace their sources, after all, but help us see them in a different light, make new connections, and allow us to revisit our most beloved friends in boundlessly innovative ways.



1No offense intended to Mr. Colin Firth, who will hopefully agree to being perhaps more “handsome” than “cute.”

2Though I like parts of the versions of Mansfield Park I have yet seen, and can admire them as narrative forms, none have yet captured my experience with the novel, especially in the characterization of Fanny.

3The usage of this title is intentional, since the initials for Austen University would read “AU,” a commonly used term in fandoms meaning a story is set in an “alternate universe,” or using the same characters from a canonical text and placing them in a different time period, setting, or storyline.

4According to Sanders, “appropriation” is slightly different from adaptation in that it signals not just a shift from one genre to another (novel to film, for example) but rather a shift from the original text’s material, perhaps loosely retaining some of its structure or major plot points/characters, but embedding them in a new storyline that strongly deviates from the original (26).  An example of this might be Sharon Maguire’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), which uses the Mr. Darcy character (name and all) and loosely parallels the Darcy/Elizabeth/Wickham love triangle, but otherwise deviates almost entirely from Pride and Prejudice’s characters, plot, and structure.

Works Cited
  • Andrews, Guy, creator. Lost in Austen. Mammoth Screen LTD and ITV, 2008.
  • Bride and Prejudice. Directed by Gurinder Chadha, performances by Aishwarya Rai, Martin Henderson, Daniel Gillies, and Naveen Andrews, Miramax Films and Pathe Distribution, 2004.
  • Bridget Jones’s Diary. Directed by Sharon Maguire, performances by Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant, and Jim Broadbent, Studio Canal and Working Title Films, 2001.
  • Clueless. Directed by Amy Heckerling, performances by Alicia Silverstone, Stacy Dash, Brittany Murphy, and Paul Rudd, Paramount Pictures, 1995.
  • Dole, Carol M. “Austen, Class, and the American Market.” Jane Austen in Hollywood, edited by Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield, University Press of Kentucky, 1998, pp. 58-78.
  • Green, Hank, and Su, Bernie, creators. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries from YouTube, 9 Apr. 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KisuGP2lcPs&list=PL6690D980D8A65D08
  • Hutcheon, Linda, and Bortolotti, Gary R. “On the Origin of Adaptations: Rethinking Fidelity Discourse and ‘Success’—Biologically.” New Literary History, vol. 38, no. 3, 2007, pp. 443-458.
  • James, Kimberly, creator. From Mansfield with Love from YouTube, 3 Dec. 2014.
  • Langton, Simon, creator. Pride and Prejudice. BBC One, 1995.
  • Leitch, Thomas. Film Adaptations and Its Discontents: From Gone with the Wind to The Passion of the Christ. John Hopkins University Press, 2007.
  • Mansfield Park. Directed by Patricia Rozema, performances by Frances O’Connor, Jonny Lee Miller, and James Purefoy, Miramax Films and BVI, 1999.
  • Sanders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropriation. Routledge, 2015.
  • Su, Bernie, creator. Emma Approved from YouTube, 7 Oct. 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aeeXkf8LZ_8&list=PL_ePOdU-b3xcKOsj8aU2Tnztt6N9mEmur
  • Troost, Linda, and Sayre Greenfield. “Introduction: Watching Ourselves Watching.” Jane Austen in Hollywood, edited by Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield, University Press of Kentucky, 1998, pp. 1-12. 
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