Books

Updating Classics

I’ve developed a habit of listening to audio dramas before I go to sleep at night. I find that they’re a good way of bridging the awake and asleep modes — a little time with the lights out but the brain still somewhat on, and then I fall asleep much more quickly after that night’s episode is over. The BBC web site is full of these, and a lot are classic literature, so I get to refresh my knowledge of some of these stories, or else experience them for the first time.

Recently, I listened to a version of Jane Eyre, and after that there was Jane Austen’s Emma, and then Pride and Prejudice. That got me started thinking — there have been modern versions, updatings of Emma (Clueless) and Pride and Prejudice (Bridget Jones’s Diary, among many others), but has there been one of Jane Eyre? I know there have been other books inspired by elements of it (I even used the governess and employer with a secret in Rebel Mechanics), but they usually take place in a Victorian-like setting, not in modern times. It’s not just that comedies work better than more serious dramas for updating, since there have been a lot of modern versions of Romeo and Juliet, for instance (West Side Story, Twilight).

You really couldn’t just stick the plot of Jane Eyre into modern times because it would fall apart. Divorce is more common and socially acceptable, and there are treatments for mental illness, so the mad wife in the attic as an impediment to remarriage wouldn’t be an issue. I did manage to strain my brain to come up with a way to kind of get the same effect in a modern setting, but then I started wondering if it’s a story that should be updated. It’s very much a story of its time and place.

When you look at the stories that get retold and put into current settings, it tends to be the ones that have an element of universality to them. There will probably always be people who think they know it all while they’re actually oblivious to the damage they’re doing by trying to “help” others, so you can take the plot of Emma and put it into almost any time and place (hmmm, now I want to do the space opera version). Ditto with Pride and Prejudice — bad first impressions are always going to happen. Not all of Austen’s novels get updated. A lot of the plot of Sense and Sensibility falls apart when there’s no real social stigma to a man breaking an engagement, though I think the emotion vs. reason, and there being positives and negatives about both, theme is universal enough that you could probably do something with it, even if the plot had to be changed somewhat to find some other reason Elinor and Edward can’t just get together. Mansfield Park is very much of its time and place and would be hard to put into a new setting because its themes aren’t that universal.

If you look at themes in Jane Eyre, while the mad wife in the attic is very specific to that story, I think the theme of Jane’s resilience and her awareness of her own standards is something that could hold up in any situation. As desperate and vulnerable as her situation is, she holds true to her values, refusing to live as man and wife with Rochester when she’d know it wasn’t true and that he had another wife, and then refusing to marry St. John Rivers just as a cover for them to do missionary work together while living like a brother and sister, because that marriage wouldn’t be true, either. Maybe that story could be moved into the workplace, where someone who desperately needs a job won’t compromise with employers who want her to cross ethical lines, and her stand on that makes one of her employers realize he needs to change his ways.

And now I think I may have a possible plot for a future Christmas story — kind of A Christmas Carol (one that gets updated a lot) meets Jane Eyre.

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