It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen slays.
The English writer, whose witty novels chronicled the place where women's fortunes and hearts intersected (or didn't), has been dead more than 200 years. But that hasn't stopped others from following in her dainty footsteps. Hardly a month goes by without a novel that either repurposes her characters or, like this week's "Jane Austen and the Final Mystery," puts the writer herself front-and-center.
Whether they're updating Austen (like Curtis Sittenfeld, who introduced trans characters to Austen in "Eligible") or veering off in bold new directions (like "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," which is just what it sounds like), many of today's writers owe Austen residuals — or at least a respectful curtsy.
A few titles to consider:
"Bridget Jones' Diary" — It's the most meta of these titles because not only does the main character's choice between a rake and a guy who only seems rakish mirror Elizabeth Bennet's in Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," but one of Bridget's suitors is named "Mr. Darcy," same as Bennet's ultimate love. And Bridget's Darcy is played by the actor who portrayed Darcy in a BBC adaptation of "P and P," Colin Firth. (Said "Bridget" writer Helen Fielding, "It's a very good plot and I thought Jane Austen wouldn't mind, and anyway she's dead.")
"Eligible" — Curtis Sittenfeld's contemporary update of "Pride and Prejudice" shifts the action to Cincinnati and focuses on the two eldest of the five Bennet sisters. Sittenfeld asks her characters to figure out what they think about many things Austen never had to worry about — reality TV, gender identity — but her smartest update is to make her story less about marriage than what it means to be a parent.
"Jane and the Final Mystery" — The 15th and, ominously, last of Stephanie Barron's mysteries is set in 1817, the year the beloved writer died. In each of the 15 books, the "Emma" author puts down her quill long enough to solve the murders that follow her and her family as they make their way from one corner of southern England to another, depending on the kindness of relatives. Barron has written better mysteries in this series (this time, Jane helps an adolescent neighbor who is wrongly accused of killing his bully), but the real joy of these books is how Barron recreates the witty, coded language of the Georgian era and incorporates historical material about the Austen family, gleaned from the correspondence its members left behind. Verily, the books are fictitious but they feel like they pull back the curtains on Austen's real life better than any biography could.
"The Jane Austen Book Club" — Karen Joy Fowler's bestseller works as an introduction to all six of Austen's most famous novels because each member of the titular club is a present-day take on a different Austen protagonist ("Emma," "Mansfield Park," "Northanger Abbey," "Persuasion," "Pride and Prejudice," "Sense and Sensibility"). The conceit is that the club members, re-reading Austen favorites, realize how pertinent they remain today. (The movie version, starring Emily Blunt, is just OK.)
"Longbourn" — Jo Baker's novel is one of the best of this Austen-tatious bunch because it so deftly combines the familiar with the unexpected. While the events of "Pride and Prejudice" are going on upstairs (they're briefly glimpsed, but it helps to be familiar with that novel), "Longbourn" takes us downstairs to see what the long-suffering servants must put up with and how much better they are at navigating their limited circumstances than the swells upstairs.
"Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" — Seth Grahame-Smith, who subsequently shifted to writing screenplays (including "The Lego Batman Movie") has fun with the contrast between the prim-but-surprisingly-action-heroic heroines and the bloody fight scenes in this comedy of undead manners. Grahame-Smith has a good ear for the etiquette problems created by packs of roving flesh-eaters, even if the premise does run out of steam by the end of the novel. Lily James starred in the movie adaptation.
"Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors" — Like many Austen updaters, Sonali Dev shifts the setting. Her "P and P' takes place in San Francisco, mostly in the Indian American community there. That gives Dev opportunities to reflect different cultural mores, as does her decision to flip the genders: the "Elizabeth" is the male half of the central supercouple (he's a chef) and the "Darcy" is a female neurosurgeon. Comparisons to Austen get muddy in the writing (you're better off if you haven't read the original), but there's plenty of fun to be had.
"The Three Weissmanns of Westport" — Cathleen Schine's clever update of "Sense and Sensibility" transports the action from bucolic England to beachy Connecticut. But the main characters remain the same: a complainy matriarch and her two daughters, one ruled by her heart and the other ruled by her head.