Celebrating Jane Austen: Reboots and Reimaginings

What to read if you love Jane Austen

This month is the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, and her novels are as much loved and relevant today as they were in her own time.  Her acute understanding of human nature, her wry observations and her ability to create complex three dimensional characters leave her stories feeling so modern in many ways.  Or if not modern, then enduring… timeless.

Perhaps this is why her books still matter.  Despite the fact that many women today have more agency than they would have had in Regency England, many readers still relate to the dilemmas and conflicts that Austen’s characters face, the internal and external tensions in our lives as we seek the path that is right for each of us.

I’m not a Janeite, myself…  not yet… but my love for Jane Austen and her world is growing, and I especially like some of the modern twists on her writing.  Here are several novels that are Jane Austen adjacent, a contemporary adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, a biographical film, and a fantasy film and television show for the Janeite in all of us.

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn
Two researchers from the future travel back in time to 1815, two years before Jane Austen’s untimely death, to befriend the novelist and steal her letters and an unpublished manuscript. Presenting themselves as distant relatives from colonial Jamaica, the time travellers must settle themselves into Regency society and convincingly pass themselves off a brother and sister from that time.  I loved this novel for its insight into a historical period I knew little about, and the many facts that I gleaned about the Austen family and Jane Austen’s life.  While the character depiction of Jane is fictional, it’s a charming way to widen the net cast by her novels and imagine her as a character in her own story.

Longbourn by Jo Baker
An engrossing recentred telling of Pride and Prejudice from the servants point of view.  This novel begins on washing day, when a maid at the Bennett house, Sarah, bemoans the fact that Lizzie Bennet likes to go for muddy walks in the fields – as Sarah is left scrubbing her petticoats. All the action from Pride and Prejudice is still there in this novel, but is off to the side, while Sarah’s life and the interest caused by the arrival of a new footman takes centre stage.  A gorgeous love story set in familiar territory, but seen with new eyes.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
A thoroughly modern take on Pride and Prejudice, set in contemporary America.  Jane is a 40-year old yoga teacher, Lizzie is a journalist, Kitty and Lydia are obsessed with paleo diets and crossfit, Mary is undertaking her third Masters degree online, and Mrs Bennett has a shopping addiction.  Jane and Bingley met on a Bachelor style reality TV show, the ball at Netherfield is replaced by a particularly crass game of charades, and Lizzie and Darcy keep running into each other while out jogging.  Not one for the purists, but I loved this modern take on a classic (and the plural ways we can find love and happiness that it offers)

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What to Read After Watching Dunkirk

If you Enjoyed Watching Dunkirk, Try Reading...

I have never been very interested in the military side of World War II, but a few novels read recently have captured my imagination with their detailed depiction of the evacuation of British Forces at Dunkirk during the Battle of France.

Christopher Nolan’s new film Dunkirk just premiered in cinemas, and is likely to be one of the biggest films of the year.  Nolan has stated that Dunkirk is not a war film, but is ‘a survival story and first and foremost a suspense film.’  If you find you enjoyed the film and your interest in this era in history has been piqued, here are some suggestions for novels to read if you want to learn more about the Dunkirk evacuation and the experiences of Allied civilians and soldiers during World War II.

Their Finest by Lissa Evans
A wonderful (if more light hearted) counterpart to Nolan’s Dunkirk, as this novel is about a British propaganda film made about the Dunkirk evacuation.  It felt particularly meta and intertextual reading the farce of this filming recently, as promotion geared up for the release of Dunkirk.  A film adaptation of Their Finest was also released in 2017.

Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis
In Connie Willis’ novels about time-travelling historians trapped in WWII England, the details of the evacuation at Dunkirk are crucial to the time travellers own evacuation back to the 21st century. The second novel All Clear also has some really fascinating detail about Operation Fortitude and other counterintelligence measures taken by the Allies.

Atonement by Ian McEwan
The hellish experience of being far from home during wartime is captured well in McEwan’s WWII novel, which features Robbie, conscripted into the army to avoid a prison sentence, at Dunkirk – awaiting the evacuation. Robbie’s experiences in Northern France are vividly depicted in the novel, and the evacuation is featured quite prominently in the 2007 film adaptation by Joe Wright.

The Maggie Bright by Tracy Groot
When a woman unexpected inherits a yacht, she discovers that the boat hides secrets that could shed light on Hitlers darkest schemes. This novel really brings to life the experiences of the soldiers evacuated at Dunkirk.

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
This novel doesn’t feature Dunkirk, but it is one of my favourite WWII novels – focusing on some of the counterintelligence that went with the Allied forces cracking the Enigma Code.  This is a big sprawling novel that I think is one of the best post-modern historical novels about WWII out there (a good one to read if you liked Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon or The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan).

If you enjoyed watching Christopher Nolan's film Dunkirk, try reading some of the follow novels set during WWII that feature the evacuation of Allied Forces during the Battle of France

If You Liked Life After Life…

life after life

‘Time isn’t circular,’ she said to Dr. Kellet. ‘It’s like a … palimpsest.’
‘Oh dear,’ he said. ‘That sounds vexing.’
‘And memories are sometimes in the future.’

Life After Life was my first Kate Atkinson, and while I hear that it’s not very much like some of her other writing, I very much enjoyed this novel for its recursive overlaying of stories, and the many replays of Ursula’s life.  I thought Kate Atkinson played with some very interesting ideas related to memory, fate and the idea of personal agency.  It was another of those excellent novels that pairs just a little bit of speculative writing with a lot of historical detail.

If Ursula’s many lives in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life also appealed to you, you might want to try some of the following:

If you liked the detail about the London Blitz and the multiple, complex and recursive storylines you might like Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis

If you liked the fatalistic aspects of a personal life revisited repeatedly, you might like The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger or the film About Time, directed by Richard Curtis

If you liked Ursula’s growing awareness of her reincarnation and kept reading to experience her journey, you might like Every Day by David Levithan or The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin

If you would like to read more about the Todd family, you might like Kate Atkinson’s follow up novel about Ursula’s younger brother Teddy, A God in Ruins

If you liked Fox Corner and the complex relations between members of the Todd Family, you might like a like a book with a similar dynamic like Howard’s End by E.M Forster or the more modern Brother of the More Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido

If you liked the idea of altering history explored in Life After Life, you might like Kindred by Octavia Butler, or Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card

If you Liked… Downton Abbey

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Now that the last episode ever of Downton Abbey has aired, I have been thinking about where I can go next for my quintessential British fix.  For those days when reading Tatler on the bus just doesn’t cut it, I will likely turn to some of the following:

Longbourn by Jo Baker
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Ashenden by Elizabeth Wilhide
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
Howard’s End by E.M. Forster
The Camomile Lawn by Mary Wesley
Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy
Falling Angels by Tracey Chevalier
The House at Riverton by Kate Morton
Life at Blandings by P.G. Wodehouse
Blackout by Connie Willis
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin
The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Below Stairs by Margaret Powell
Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth-Century to Modern Times by Lucy Lethbridge
Gosford Park directed by Robert Altman

If You Liked… The Luminaries

As a New Zealander who likes historical novels that have a modern sensibility, when I first read The Luminaries I felt like it had been grown in a lab just for me.  My favourite way to describe the Booker Prize winning novel is to say that it is ‘Middlemarch meets Deadwood’.  I am a huge fan of both the HBO series Deadwood, and George Eliot’s classic novel, and I am pretty sure Eleanor Catton is too.

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