Still a novel proposition

As Jane Austen movies and mash-ups multiply we examine the 19th-century author's enduring appeal.

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Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Yes, it really exists. In this particular update of Jane Austen's novel, the Bennet sisters are martial arts warriors (naturally) and Darcy's good looks remain unruffled despite the plague of undead roaming 19th-century England.

Not convinced? It has become a best-seller, been developed into a video game and a film is on the way. Not surprising, really, when it features such classic lines as "apart from the attack, the evening passed off pleasantly for the whole family... despite having their gowns soiled with blood and brain, Catherine and Lydia had been fortunate enough never to be without their partners, which is all they had yet learnt to care for at a ball."

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters swiftly followed late last year. And then, the pièce de résistance: Elton John's film company announced the development of Pride and Predator, where - and we're not joking - an alien killing machine drops into Longbourn and mows down anything in its path, perhaps singing Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting as it goes. All great fun - but there is a serious point to be made here. We're familiar with the lavish costume drama adaptations of the 19th century English writer's books, but the cult of Jane Austen shows no signs of abating. Every generation reads the originals and adapts them for their own ends. Not all involve blood spurting everywhere, of course; Bridget Jones' Diary, with its foolish matchmaking mother and - a bit more obviously - a Mr Darcy, is Pride And Prejudice given a chicklit sheen. But how is it that a woman who wrote about a barely recognisable world of duty, honour and status can be so relevant almost 200 years on?After all, Austen wasn't a Shakespeare-style writing machine: she published just six books.

A new book edited by Susannah Carson, A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Reasons Why We Can't Stop Reading Jane Austen, aims to answer that question via the thoughts of writers past and present. It's brilliantly compiled: W Somerset Maugham's essay on the structure and technique of Pride And Prejudice is hard up against a treatise by Martin Amis on the same novel, which suggests a steamy 20-page scene between Lizzy and Darcy. Fay Weldon proposes that the bad girls in Mansfield Park have more fun, just after philosopher Alain De Botton has investigated the book's moral and status hierarchies. It finishes with Jay McInerny confessing to his crush on most of Austen's heroines - but not before we've had classical essays from Rudyard Kipling and Virginia Woolf. And it all began with an overheard television commercial for yet another Jane Austen film.

"It was an especially fluffy one, and I had the thought right away - wouldn't it be nice if all these people who love Jane Austen had access to some of these essays?," says Carson by way of explanation. "That way, they could go back to the originals and really, really enjoy them, rather than having to get their fix from watching all these stories that are merely Austen-esque." The book soon snowballed into something bigger than that initial, rather scholarly, conceit. She spoke to contemporary authors whom she believed had something of the Austen essence in their writing and asked them to contribute. She got in touch with non-fiction authors, who could offer a perspective on the cultural phenomenon of the writer. And perhaps most interesting, she spoke to a film-maker.

Amy Heckerling's contribution to A Truth Universally Acknowledged is crucial, if only because Clueless - the 1995 film which Heckerling directed, starring Alicia Silverstone, where Emma is transposed to Beverly Hills - is widely regarded as being the best adaptation of recent decades. As Heckerling writes in A Truth Universally Acknowledged, "Emma is better than modern, it's timeless and universal. It had the perfect structure for the growth of an optimistic person... could anyone have laid out a better teen romance film?" Such adaptations do, though, play fast and loose with the originals. Heckerling considered the Jane Fairfax character a bore, so she left her out. So as a signed-up Austen devotee, does Carson take the modern adaptations - zombies and all - with a pinch of salt?

"I am interested in these mash-ups," she says. "Especially since I think Jane got there first anyway, with the gothic-romantic spoof Northanger Abbey. In general though, the idea is fun but the execution is mediocre, and I've been waiting for one to come along that's not just a curiosity piece but just plain good." Carson does, however, like Michael Thomas Ford's Jane Bites Back, with Jane Austen as a vampire, Love, Lies, and Lizzie by Rosie Rushton and Prada & Prejudice by Mandy Hubbard. And of course, Clueless. "Amy's film is classic. It makes sense though: all of Austen's heroines - with the notable exception of Anne Elliot - are in their late teens and early twenties, so they translate easily into modern adaptations for a slightly younger age group."

Go up an age demographic, and there's been the feel-good book and film The Jane Austen Book Club - where said group ended up in scenarios mirroring the themes of the novels they were reading. On television, Lost In Austen featured a girl transported into the events of Pride And Prejudice. Even the all-ages costume dramas played pretty straight are hugely popular - as 2008's Sense And Sensibility by the BBC proved. But what's often overlooked is that the original books are still immensely popular, which for Carson is a huge excitement.

"Spending time in Jane Austen's world is something readers can't get enough of," she agrees. "It's easy to dismiss the notion of that world as a matter of high-waisted dresses and barouche-landaus, but in the end there's something about her great scope, her capacity for joy, the depth of her characters, the surface rhythm of her sentences. All the way down to the detail of the trimmings on a bonnet, it all really does matter.

"Jane Austen famously critiqued her own Pride And Prejudice as 'rather too light, bright, and sparkling' - but how could we not want to live for as long as possible in such a world? And Austen is funny. We emphasise the romance of the novels, but at heart they're each infused with a wry but generous humour from beginning to end." And that's why whole subgenres of chicklit evoke Jane Austen, Bridget Jones included - because in a sense chicklit evolved from Austen's books. Carson - as you'd expect - can talk for hours on the reasons why Austen has not only endured but actually become more popular; she talks of the surge of feminism, of films being able to technologically capture more of the novels, of our nostalgia-heavy culture where writing and receiving letters, candlelit evenings, even village life are held up as being laudable aspirations.

"There are lots of possible reasons for her enduring popularity," she says. "But the reason behind them is that Austen gives us a feeling of belonging. Whether we belong to an academic community or a book club, we're already part of a welcoming, friendly readership that extends through time and across all sorts of ages, personalities, languages, and cultures. I just found out that there's to be an edition of my book in China, and Jane Austen has a great fan club in Brazil. I can only wonder what it's like to read her in the Middle East."

So perhaps our current culture is obsessed with Austen because her novels influenced the sorts of people we have become - or would like to be. They're easy to transpose to ridiculous zombie scenarios because there's no need to explain the characters - we're all familiar with their language and their mannerisms, even their behaviour. "I'm going to say something stronger," says Carson. "I genuinely believe Jane Austen has changed the world as we live it. We have her thoughts on money and happiness, her thoughts on marriage and romance, her thoughts on morals and what the 'good life' is. All of that is timeless, and we recognise it when we go back to Jane Austen because it came from Jane Austen in the first place?whether we know it or not. Her beautiful philosophy infuses our literature: the stories we read, watch, tell, and bring into our own lives."

A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Reasons Why We Can't Stop Reading Jane Austen (Penguin) is out now.