Jane Austen and the Cult of Retelling

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Fanfiction is a fact of life – at least for fandoms. Some are good. Some are bad. Some are downright ugly. Websites dedicated to this particular form of fan-tribute have sprung up across the internet, catering to users of all different languages and genres. And yet, there is a particular sort of fanfiction that has gone beyond the realm of freely shared entertainment and into the world of paperbacks, television series, and blockbusters. That particular sort is Jane Austen fanfiction.

It breaks every supposed rule governing the relationship between fanfiction and source material – the do’s, don’ts, and impossibilities. For instance, there exists today a complete miniseries based on an “OFC” (Original Female Character – a woman invented by the fanfiction author and added to the original story) who assumes the place of Lizzie Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. What’s more, the story features an OC/Darcy ship. Coming soon to the silver screen is an adaptation of the same original material with the addition of zombies. The cast is so star-studded it dazzles, and the budget was anything but low. This is no indie movie made by slap-happy dreamers. This is actual – anticipated – A-list movie material. And it was based on a novel-length fanfiction that soared to the bestseller list.

And those are only the strangest examples – there are plenty more. Major motion pictures. Modern AU (Alternate Universe) revisions on Youtube. Entire book series elaborating on the life beloved characters and their imagined children have after the books’ final pages. There is quite a lot floating around, especially seeing as how the first published work of Jane Austen fanfiction dates back to 1913.

How is this possible? What other work of literary fiction could be morphed into so many different shapes, sizes, and sentiments? It’s the same stories, even if they do qualify as drama, horror, or comedy depending on who handles them. The only comparable literary retellings come from the great horror classics of the gothic movement, stories like Dracula and Frankenstein which strike readers on a deeply emotional level, but still wear such bizarre set-dressings they are easy to transform into parody. But Jane Austen fanfictions and retellings aren’t all (or even usually) mocking. Even Lost in Austen, the afore mentioned OFC miniseries, takes the stories and their dilemmas seriously. Although humor is an element, it is not a farce or parody.

The answer cannot be found in the books, but in the people who read them. Jane Austen is a cultural phenomenon as much as a literary one. Although Austen’s stories inspire strange behaviors, dazzling productions, and many, many retellings, there are plenty of books about the fans themselves. Austenland. The Jane Austen Book Club. On the whole, Star Wars makes a better comparison to Jane Austen’s work than any works from the author’s own era. The fans are interesting enough to warrant their own stories. People celebrate the stories in costume at special events designed particularly for their fandom.

Unlike Star Wars, however, Jane Austen’s work is now in the public domain. This lends creative minds a great deal of freedom when reexamining the source material, and as the times change, the themes shift – ever so slightly – to match. Or, you know, zombies appear. Or sea monsters, of course.

Jane Austen was popular in her own time because her characters were simultaneously relatable and inspiring. She is popular today because those elements have stood the test of time. Conservative readers enjoy the emersion in another, more “decent” time – and Lizzie has just enough independence to be sympathetic for modern readers (who enjoy more freedom on the whole). Liberal readers enjoy the fact that, historically, Lizzie was a very forward woman, indeed, and they, too, enjoy the twinkling fripperies of an age gone by. And if a reader doesn’t like Pride and Prejudice, chances are they can enjoy one of the other many stories Austen penned.

The combination of mass appeal and boundless freedom (with some alarmingly devoted fans sprinkled on top), makes Jane Austen’s work perfect material for retelling. It is a myth set not so far from our own time to seem bizarre, but far enough removed to idealize. And anything idealized must, of course, be reexamined, explored with new characters, and – sooner or later – thrown to the zombies.

M. Leigh Hood is a rare beast of the Cincinnati wilderness typically preoccupied with writing, nerding, and filming The Spittoon List. For more articles and stories by M. Leigh Hood, look HERE.

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