The Wilder Aisles 

Janice Wilder has been a legend of Sydney bookselling for over 40 years.

A modern take on Jane Austen

 - Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Six contemporary authors have been chosen by the Jane Austen Project to write modern versions of Austen's six complete novels. So far, Sense and Sensibility has been rewritten by Joanna Trollope and Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid. Of the two I think the Trollope has been the most successful at bringing the Austen narrative into the 21st century. A modern light is cast over the Dashwoods—Fanny and John, Belle and her three daughters, Elinor, Marianne and Margaret. I liked the idea of Elinor studying to be an architect, and although she doesn't finish her degree, she still gets a job to help with the family finances. This is a necessity after they lose their family home to John, who being male inherits the estate. I have always liked Elinor more than Marianne. I find Marianne's emotions difficult to take, but having said that I also find, at times, Elinor's tight rein on hers hard to take as well. In Trollope's version, Marianne throws herself on Willoughby at a dance, causing great embarrassment to Elinor. In the original, the scene is less dramatic but still very distressing to both Marianne and Elinor. Reading this new version sent me back to the original, and I definitely enjoyed it all the more as a result of reading the Trollope.
Northanger Abbey was never a favourite of mine, although my daughter tells me I missed the point—she reads it as a satire on gothic romances like The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, which were popular in Austen's time. I've always found Catherine Morland's rather hysterical manner difficult to cope with, and I find her even worse in McDermid's update. Catherine, who has been living a rather dreary life in Dorset, deprived of the romance and excitement she yearns for, is thrilled when she is invited to the Edinburgh Festival by her neighbours, the Allens. In Edinburgh, she attends a Highland dance class and meets the lovely Henry Tilney. Later she meets Bella, a girl of the same age, who shares her passion for supernatural novels. They become friends, but Bella, unfortunately, is not to be trusted. Through meeting Henry, she is invited to stay at Northanger Abbey, and on arriving her imagination starts to run riot. With its secret chambers, ghosts and crumbling turrets the ancient Abbey is exactly as she hoped. In her fevered imaginings, maybe even vampires have feasted in the dark, gloomy halls. What Catherine finds, of course, is that it's better to be in the real world than lost in the macabre reality of her imagination. Having said at the top of the column I liked the Trollope better, I find on reflection Val McDermid's outing was really quite fun. I actually much preferred Henry Tilney to both Willoughby and Edward from Sense and Sensibility. I of course went back and reread the original, and again enjoyed it more this time. The next two in the Project are Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld and Emma by Alexander McCall Smith. I am looking forward to both of them. Perhaps the purists would take issue with this whole project, and a lot of people I've chatted with seem to ask 'Why? regarding the project—I don't see why not. I also don't think Jane would mind (especially if it meant royalties and a room of her own).

Children of War is the latest novel by Martin Walker featuring Bruno Courrèges, St Denis' Chief of Police—in thePérigord region of France. The beginning is quite hard to take—the body of man is found in the woods, brutally murdered. It turns out he was an undercover policeman, and a Muslim. A disturbed Bruno intends to make finding the murderer a high priority. However, his boss the Brigadier has other ideas. Meanwhile, Sami, a young Muslim boy from St Denis has been found on a French army base in Afghanistan, trying to get home. A friend of Bruno's has helped to smuggle Sami back into France, but the FBI are after him as well as an American woman who has an order for his extradition to the States. Bruno must unravel these various strands—the death of the policeman, Sami's time in Afghanistan, and why all these people are so very keen to get their hands on Sami. The seriousness of the situation becomes critical when Bruno himself is attacked, and he feels a desperate need to protect his town and his people from those who want to cause trouble. Alongside the Afghanistan story, another one is unfolding. A Jewish woman, who spent time as a young girl hidden from the Nazis in St Denis, has returned. She wants to visit the places where she stayed, and to make a donation towards some kind of memorial honouring those who kept her and other children safe throughout the war. How this story becomes part of the other, makes for very interesting reading. I think that Martin Walker's books are bigger than your basic crime novel—there is always so much more than murder and police procedurals going on. And there is of course the wonderful food and wine of the Périgord region, especially duck and goose and truffles—known as black gold. His website has lots to say about all this. It is great fun.