Adapting Austen

Translating Jane Austen’s Linguistic Consciousness Through Time

Photo by Paolo Chiabrando on Unsplash

It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is a distinctive stylist. Austen’s use of language is, as critics such as Graham Hough and D. A. Miller stress, one of the most characteristic aspects of her work, contributing in critical ways to her nuanced production of meaning (1970; 2003). While Austen’s stylistic richness is clearly of interest in its own right, it offers considerable challenges to authors engaging with the ‘iterative turn’, a term used by Kaja Marczewska to describe ‘the propensity to copy as an expression of creative and critical practice’ (2018: 6–7). Whilst Marczewska’s arguments centre on ‘Erasure, transcription, and code-generated poetries’, my own argument focuses on adaptations as adaptations, that is, texts that are overt about their relationship to Austen’s original narratives (2018: 218). Robert Stam productively shifts adaptation theory ‘beyond fidelity’ into realms of ‘intertextuality’ and ‘transtextuality’, and his terms ‘transposition’ and ‘translation’ are key to my own argument (2000: 54–76). Whilst most theories of adaptation assume that ‘story’ and ‘character’ are the aspects of the source text that are transposed across different media and genres when adaptation occurs, this dissertation argues that authors of adaptations ‘translate’ Austen’s linguistic consciousness through time. I argue the importation of a different set of moral precepts and values has the effect of reconfiguring Austen’s original interest in normativity and prescriptivism in ways that can resonate with contemporary concerns.

Language has, as I will demonstrate, inevitable salience in relation to the temporal shifts that adaptation involves, which is why I will examine Austen’s interest in communicative acts as social and moral discourse in the context of the linguistic and grammatical customs of the eighteenth century, before thinking about the challenges posed to writers adapting Austen’s language, syntax and grammar for a twenty-first century audience. My focus is on the set of adaptations written for The Austen Project, a series published by The Borough Press (an imprint of Harper Collins). Four of six proposed retellings have been published to date: Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility (2013), Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey (2014), Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma (2014), and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible (2016), the latter of which is a retitled adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

Reviews of these texts reflect a cultural anxiety about fidelity to Austen as source which seems to stem from Romantic notions of authorship, originality and textual ownership, as well as the cultural significance given to Austen. Viv Groskop of the Guardian argues it is McCall Smith’s fidelity to Austen as source that creates, ‘all sorts of practical problems’ (2014: para. 4). More positively, Jo Baker (author of Longbourn [2013]) writes about McDermid’s prose, ‘beautifully echoes Austen’s own’ (2014: para. 5). There is a suggestion in these reviews that authors of adaptations need to capture qualities present in Austen’s original narratives, whilst simultaneously adding something new, if they are to be successful. This reflects the need for a theory of adaptation which emphasises repetition, but crucially, repetition with a difference.

Palimpsestic Models of Adaptation

Jane Austen’s writing is frequently a ‘palimpsest’ in a literal sense: ‘A parchment or other writing surface on which the original text has been effaced or partially erased, and then overwritten by another; a manuscript in which later writing has been superimposed on earlier (effaced) writing.’ [OED Sense 2a].[1] Study of her manuscripts and juvenilia reveals the ways she revised or re-wrote her characters and plots, often started in her youth, and in doing so accentuated linguistic, syntactic and grammatical elements that are now considered fundamental tenets of her literary style. For instance, Mary Lascelles explores the way Austen revised Sandition, so that, ‘Mr. Parker’s idiom, his habit of thinking in phrases, becomes more marked’ (1995: 99–100). Although Austen’s novels were not published until the nineteenth century, I argue their language belongs to the eighteenth century because this is when Austen began many of her drafts.[2]

As noted by Timothy Corrigan, the model of the palimpsest is also an increasingly utilised trope in adaptation studies (Leitch, 2017: 26). Another OED definition of ‘palimpsest’ reflects the critical utility of ‘palimpsest’ as a metaphor, and illustrates the potential for a simultaneous process of preservation and effacement when Austen’s texts are translated through time: ‘In extended use: a thing likened to such a writing surface, esp. in having been reused or altered while still retaining traces of its earlier form; a multilayered record.’ [Sense 2b]. I argue that The Austen Project narratives are ‘multilayered record(s)’ which reflect processes of language and value change. This model of adaptation as ‘palimpsest’ speaks to my central question of the extent to which Austen’s linguistic consciousness can be ‘translated’ through time: is something lost, effaced or partially erased in the act of modernisation? Or can The Austen Project adaptations add something to Austen’s original narratives?

Locating Austen’s Language and Grammar in the Eighteenth Century

In order to understand what, if anything, has been ‘effaced or partially erased’ when Austen’s narratives are adapted or ‘overwritten’, it is first necessary to understand what makes Austen’s literary style distinctive and what locates her novels in their historical movement. One frequently cited aspect of Austen’s style is her use of irony (e.g. Thompson, 1986: 527; Lindstrom, 2011: 503). This can be illustrated by a brief example from her juvenilia, specifically the opening line of the story of ‘Frederic & Elfrida’, from Volume the First of her teenage fiction: ‘Nay even their most intimate freinds had nothing to distinguish them by, but the shape of the face, the colour of the Eye, the length of the Nose & the difference of the complexion.’[3] The near-anagrams of the names ‘Frederic’ and ‘Elfrida’ seem to support the tale’s insistence about how hard it is to tell them apart, and yet the list of their physical differences farcically contradicts the tale’s opening assertion, calling the integrity of the whole story into question. This is related to Austen’s comic mode — the story is a satiric assault on novels of sensibility, fashionable in the eighteenth century — but also illustrates Austen’s awareness of the potential for language to deceive the unwitting or inattentive reader.

Graham Hough suggests that there is a potential for Austen’s readers to be ‘led astray’ in the same way that Austen’s protagonists often are, and that this potential is encoded in the lexical fabric of Austen’s fiction (1970: 213). Similarly, Mary Poovey argues that Austen’s layering of tenses demands a process of double reading (H. Momma and Matto, 2010: 464–70). These critics’ arguments are supported by a consideration of Austen’s language, and suggest that changes made by those adapting Austen’s novels may compromise the cumulative effect achieved by Austen’s interest in words, meanings, grammar and syntax, as it is the clustering of these features which makes up her distinctive style.

Austen’s mature style is characterised by an interest in norms and normativity, and her characterisation and plot is closely imbricated through the careful inscription of a grammatical, lexical and semantic standard against which her characters’ speech and behaviour is measured. Her attitude to prescriptivism is part of a broader cultural attitude to language, evinced by Robert Lowth’s A Short Introduction to English Grammar: ‘The principal design of a grammar of any language is to teach us to express ourselves with propriety in that language; and enable us to judge of every phrase and form of construction, whether it be right or not.’ (1762, 1774: 1). This suggests a readership alert to the socio-cultural clues of grammatical infelicity. Unlike other eighteenth century writers such as Frances Burney, Lascelles argues Austen suggests social variants in speech by syntax and phrasing rather than by vocabulary (1995: 95). The social variance between Emma Woodhouse and Harriet is certainly suggested by Austen’s use of prescriptive grammatical norms:

“Mr. Martin, I suppose, is not a man of information beyond the lines of his own business. He does not read?”

“Oh, yes! — that is, no — I do not know — but I believe he has read a good deal — but not what you would think anything of. He reads the Agricultural Reports and some other books, that lay in one of the window seats — but he reads them to himself.”[4] (E: 702)

Harriet’s speech is constructed as a form of marked discourse which stands out from the prescripts of the age, and reflects that Harriet is from a lower rank of the gentry than Emma. The false start of ‘Oh, yes’, which Harriet corrects to ‘that is, no’ and then ‘I do not know’ creates both semantic and syntactic incoherence, which betrays the fact Emma’s attempts to educate Harriet have not got far: her intent of improving her ‘little friend’s mind’ does not get beyond the reality of ‘a few first chapters, and the intention of going on to-morrow’ (E: 725). This is supported by the conjugation of verbs, with Harriet mistakenly using ‘lay’ instead of ‘lie’. Harriet also uses the preposition ‘of’ in the final position, an idiomatic tendency which Lowth observes, ‘our language is strongly inclined to; it prevails in common conversation, and suits very well with the familiar style in writing’. However, as he adds, ‘the placing of the preposition earlier is more graceful, as well as more perspicacious, and agrees much more with the solemn and elevated style’ (1762, 1799: 95–6).

An article by Joseph Addison in the Spectator, which was a key influence in late eighteenth-century prescriptive norms, argues writers should guard ‘against Idiomatick Ways of Speaking’, and that ‘perspicuity is the first and most necessary Qualification’ of writers (1712: para 4). A letter from thirteen-year-old Jane addressed to the editors of the Loiterer (which was edited by Austen’s brothers) on Saturday 28th March 1789 reveals her to be a ‘great reader’ familiar with several periodicals, including ‘the Tatler and Spectator’ (1789: para. 1).[5] As a reader of the Spectator in her early years, it follows that this attitude to ‘perspicuity’ would inform Austen’s later writing; indeed, in her subsequent fiction, characters who are not ‘perspicuous’ and whose speech is full of idiomatic expressions are often marked as deviating from the author’s own ‘solemn and elevated style’. Austen recurrently plays off the habitual precision of her language to delineate characters who are not complying with the author’s moral or social standards. This can be seen the characterisation of General Tilney in Northanger Abbey, whose use of negatio in ‘flattering himself however that there were some apartments in the Abbey not unworthy her notice’ reflects his false modesty and alludes to his materialistic nature, which culminates in his rejection of Catherine once he realises she isn’t as rich as he imagined her to be. Mr. Collins similarly uses negative self-expression when he writes to Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice: ‘I cannot be otherwise than concerned at being the means of injuring your amiable daughters’ (PP: 244).

Austen frequently uses doublets to prompt the reader to interrogate the gap between two apparent synonymns, and ‘amiable’ and ‘amicable’ are one of the lexical contrasts she establishes; ‘amicable’ refers to a friendliness or goodwill between people or groups whilst ‘amiable’ refers to a person’s friendly disposition.[6] Stuart M Tave argues of ‘amiable’, ‘To stupid Mr. Collins, a self-conscious master of complimentary terminology that has not much to do with real life, the word is a valuable all-purpose superlative’ (1973: 119). Mr. Collins’ use of ‘amiable’ is therefore ironic, because Mr. Bennet’s daughters are far from kindly disposed towards a man who is to inherit their father’s estate when he dies. Mr. Collins’ declaration betrays the fact he has no reason to be ‘concerned’ because he, unlike the Bennet sisters, has financial security. The combined effect of these two characters’ use of negative self-expression draws attention to their fundamentally self-interested natures.

Lexical infelicity is not constrained to Austen’s dislikeable characters; in Pride and Prejudice Mrs. Gardiner is explicitly critical of Lizzie’s use of the idiomatic expression ‘violently in love’: “It is as often applied to feelings which arise from an half-hour’s acquaintance, as to a real, strong attachment. Pray how violent was Mr. Bingley’s love?” (PP: 288).[7] Following Mrs. Gardiner’s assault on the idiom ‘violently in love’, Elizabeth accordingly revises her statement to, “I never saw a more promising inclination” (PP: 288). It is significant that Austen allows generally favourable characters like Elizabeth to make errors, as their process of language alteration reflects their personal growth. This is particularly the case in Northanger Abbey, where Henry Tilney corrects Catherine Morland’s lexical missteps, such as her borrowing of ‘amazingly’ from Isabella Thorpe (NA: 1013). His criticism of the naïve protagonist’s use of the word ‘nice’(NA: 1014) echoes the author’s ironic assault on the use of the adjective ‘fine’ as vague term of generalised approbation (NA: 961), when it really means, ‘Of a quality or attribute: perfect, pure, genuine; utter, sheer’ [Sense 1a].[8] In Northanger Abbey, both Catherine and the reader must learn to interrogate whether the words characters used are truly appropriate to situations. When Catherine receives a long-awaited letter from her supposed friend Isabella Thorpe and, ‘its inconsistencies, contradictions, and falsehood, struck her from the very first’ (NA 1072), she demonstrates a newfound alertness to the cliché of conventional utterance. This also reflects Austen’s tendency to use the way characters write, as well as how they speak, to impart valuable information about their moral character.

The epistolary element is considered by many critics to be a fundamental tenet of Austen’s style; Lascelles looks at Austen’s characters’ letters to explore the author’s interest in communicative acts as a social and moral discourse (1995), whilst Ingrid Tieken Boon von Ostade turns to Austen’s personal correspondence, using corpus linguistics to gain access to Austen’s patterns of language use (2014). The latter’s work suggests, ‘the letters that the eighteenth century judged its best are not thoughtless outpourings’. Instead, they have the ‘appearance of spontaneity’ and were consequently ‘the result of considerable, if varied art’ (2014: 9). Her claims are supported by a fictional letter from Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensibility:

I know your friendship for me will make you pleased to hear such a good account of myself and my dear Edward, after all the troubles we have went through lately, therefore will make no more apologies, but proceed to say that, thank God! though we have suffered dreadfully, we are both quite well now, and as happy as we must always be in one another’s love. (SS: 150)

The exclamative ‘thank God!’ is used by Austen to signal Lucy’s emotional state in the moment of composition, lending the letter the appearance of spontaneous composition. However, the other elements support my argument that Austen uses letters as sites for moral discourse. Lucy uses the adverb ‘quite’, which J. F. Burrows, through stylometric analysis of Austen’s novels, famously associated with ‘the speech of the vulgarians, especially the women who predominate among them’ (1987: 646–65).[9] This passage certainly shows that the Steele sisters can be classified as ‘vulgarians’, through Austen’s use of marked discourse and grammatical infelicity. Not only does Austen signal Lucy’s grammatical infelicity in her use of ‘went’ instead of ‘gone’ or ‘been’, but her use of the modal ‘always’ signals a degree of certainty that calls into question the notion that Edward and Lucy will ‘always’ be ‘happy’ ‘in one another’s love’: the falseness of this claim is supported by Lucy’s eventual marriage to Robert Ferrars.

Throughout her fiction, Austen uses adverbs, modals and intensifiers to signal the gap between the proclaimed depth of feeling, and the reality which is seen in the characterisation of Isabella Thorpe, who claims her attachments are ‘always excessively strong’ (NA: 975), and Mrs. Elton, whose speech is characterised by grandiose, sweeping statements such as: “I absolutely cannot do without music. It is a necessary of life to me; and having always been used to a very musical society, both at Maple Grove and in Bath, it would have been a most serious sacrifice.” (E: 840). The adverb ‘absolutely’ acts as an intensifier, suggesting that music is more ‘necessary’ to Mrs. Elton’s ‘life’ than it really is, whilst the adverb ‘always’ in the second sentence calls into question the truth of Mrs. Elton’s proclamation that she is used to a ‘very musical society’. Janine Barchas argues that ‘very’ can ‘can call into question the exact qualities that it emphasizes’; indeed, the intensifier has the effect of furthering the hyperbole of Mrs. Elton’s speech (2007: 313).

Austen’s readers are trained to be sceptical of these hyperbolic, superlative constructions; Elinor explicitly warns readers to be careful in Sense and Sensibility, for, “Sometimes one is guided by what they say of themselves, and very frequently by what other people say of them, without giving oneself time to deliberate and judge.” (SS: 52). Following her own advice, Elinor rejects Sir. John’s idiomatic clichéd assertion that the Miss Steeles are the ‘sweetest girls in the world’ because ‘the sweetest girls in the world were to be met with in every part of England’ (SS 66). The use of clichéd language invokes a domain of meaninglessness, where what is said cannot possibly be true. Indeed, the Steele sisters are far from ‘sweet’, and Austen illustrates this by their register; Anne can ‘talk of nothing but beaux’, whilst Lucy Steele’s attempts to ‘turn the discourse’ lead her to admire ‘the house and the furniture’ (SS: 69). The unassimilated French loan word ‘beaux’ is foregrounded by its phonal morpheme and reflects the superficiality of the Steele sisters. Hough notes how, whilst materialism is a sign of inferiority in the novels, this is not a standard that Austen holds herself to in her letters, which suggests it is employed for deliberate ends in her fiction (1970: 218). Those who overuse the semantic field of fashion are treated with derision by Austen. This is something that, as the next section will illustrate, authors writing in our consumer, brand-orientated world, must attempt to reconcile in their adaptations.

Translating Austen’s Narratives Through Time

Brian C. Southam argues Austen’s novels are, ‘determinedly English through and through’ (2008: 187), a statement which cannot be applied to the novels of The Austen Project. Shopping is referred to as ‘retail therapy’ in McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, which suggests inattention to the pragmatics of Mrs. Allen’s materialistic concerns with Miss Tilney’s “very pretty spotted muslin” in Austen’s original narrative (NA: 992). Although Mrs. Allen is still the ‘most empty-headed woman’ (14), Austen’s moral commentary is inevitably reduced in the adapted text by the presence of consumerism in our daily lives. Furthermore, the use of the American, idiomatic expression ‘retail therapy’ seems to ignore Austen’s deliberate use of ‘Idiomatick Ways of Speaking’, and her distinctly English vocabulary.[10] The importation of American language reflects a process of globalisation where Americanisms have become part of everyday English discourse. Curtis Sittenfeld’s adaptation translates the Bennet’s home to the other side of the Atlantic and uses American English throughout the novel: they live in a ‘sprawling eight-bedroom Tudor in Cincinnati’s Hyde Park neighborhood’ (2) that epitomizes an earlier, medieval architectural style that is completely at odds with the historical English setting of Austen’s novels in the Regency period.

That is not to say consumerism has made it impossible to use materialism as a moral discourse in adaptations of Austen’s fiction: using the metonymic substitution of cars for carriages, McCall Smith uses proper nouns to signal characters’ socioeconomic status and their relative familiarity with luxury goods such as ‘Land Rovers’ and ‘Mini Coopers’. When Emma calls Philip Elton’s car a ‘BMW Something-something’ and Harriet repeats the expression in her question ‘So how can he afford a BMW Something-something if they don’t pay him?’ (189) there is a sense that she does not know this is not actually the name of the car. This is consolidated by her use of the full brand name ‘Mini Cooper’, whilst in contrast, Emma — the owner of the car — refers to it by the popular shortening of ‘Mini’ and rolls her eyes when Harriet expresses her excitement, having ‘never been in a Mini Cooper’ (177). In Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility, cars are similar indicators of wealth: Margaret asks John Willoughby if his car is a ‘Ferrari’ only to be told it is an ‘Aston Martin’. Her response is ‘Wow […] I never saw one before.” (104–105) which reflects a similar naivety to Harriet, and is indicative of the Dashwood family’s socioeconomic position. These authors’ use of the semantic field of fashion, with their emphasis on brand names as status symbols, expands Austen’s typically narrow social range into a broader social commentary than is reflected in Austen’s original narratives, which are frequently noted to have limited social range.

That Emma can even go to University in Bath in McCall Smith’s Emma reflects the social progress and expansion of education opportunities available for women in the twenty-first century. As Elinor observes in Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility, “This isn’t 1810, for God’s sake. Money doesn’t dictate relationships.” (150). Women have greater autonomy when it comes to relationships, and can marry for love rather than financial security, unlike Charlotte in Pride and Prejudice. Pre-marital sex is also less taboo, with Trollope and Sittenfeld both explicitly referring to sex in their narratives. These factors are undoubtedly the result of feminist progress, but also suggest that different criteria for politeness are held by modern readers.

Feminism is addressed explicitly in Sittenfeld’s adaptation, where Catherine de Bourgh is transformed from Mr. Collins’ patroness to ‘Kathy de Bourgh’ who is a ‘famous feminist’ (53) who ‘Liz’ Bennet wants to interview in her capacity as a journalist for Mascara: ‘To Kathy de Bourgh’s publicist, Liz had sent emails that were, in various iterations, light-hearted and casual, stern, obsequious, and desperate.’ (101) Whilst on the level of plot, Sittenfeld is clearly interested in updating Austen’s narrative for an increasingly liberal twenty-first century audience, there are clear attempts to emulate Austen’s literary style; the use of doublets such as ‘light-hearted and casual’ and the careful use of the preposition ‘to’ next to the relative which it governs ‘Kathy de Bourgh’s publicist’ complies with Lowth’s previously mentioned definitions of ‘graceful’ and ‘perspicuous’ style. These changes on the level of plot support Linda Hutcheon’s theory of adaptation, where she argues that there will be, ‘multiple possible causes of change in the process of adapting made by the demands of the form, the individual adapter, the particular audience, and now the contexts of reception and creation.’ (2006: 142). These examples suggest that whilst Austen’s narratives are ‘partially erased’ and ‘overwritten’ on the level of plot by the authors of these adaptations, Austen’s linguistic consciousness is preserved to different degrees by McCall Smith, McDermid, Trollope and Sittenfeld.

Politeness, Proper Names and Age Gaps

Characters like Lady Catherine are altered across The Austen Project on the level of nomenclature. McDermid converts ‘Catherine Morland’ to ‘Cat’ and ‘Miss Tilney’ to ‘Ellie Tilney’; Trollope abbreviates ‘Willoughby’ to ‘Wills’, Sittenfeld shortens ‘Elizabeth’ to ‘Liz’, suggesting that the modernisation of character names is part of adapting Austen’s novels for a modern audience. And yet, in Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, the ever sardonic Mr. Bennet responds to a nurse who addresses him as ‘Fred’ ‘though they had never met’ with ‘fake enthusiasm’, reading his name tag he cries, “Bernard! We’re mourning the death of manners and the rise of overly familiar discourse. How are you?” (61), which reflects Austen’s interest in manners and decorum.

McCall Smith is clearly also aware of the signification of Christian names and their relationship to manners and propriety in Regency England, evinced by Emma’s declaration that, ‘Mrs. Firhill’s called Betty. I know that. Betty Firhill — not that I’d ever dream of such familiarity. She’d faint if I called her Betty — and so would I. Both of us would be out stone cold.’ (188) However, when Mrs. Elton refers to Mr. Knightley as ‘Knightley’, and the narrator refers to him as ‘George’ throughout McCall Smith’s Emma, a reader familiar with Austen’s original text is struck by the infelicity of such actions. Mrs. Elton’s over-familiar use of ‘Knightley’ is a linguistic transgression. The narrator’s use of Mr. Knightley’s Christian name seems to be somewhat of a solution — that is not necessarily successful — at reconciling the impropriety of a twelve-year age gap between Emma and her beau: ‘she was a good dozen years younger than he was, and so when he returned to Donwell at the age of twenty-one she was only nine — a mere child’ (48). The renaming and abbreviation of character names in adaptations suggests that contemporary audiences have different criteria for politeness and moral standards for relationships than Austen’s original audiences: that is, her family with whom she shared manuscript versions of her work in the eighteenth century, and readers of her published fiction in the nineteenth century.

Letter-Writing and Computer-Mediated Communication

All of The Austen Project adaptations convert Austen’s epistolary element to different forms of computer-mediated communication (CMC), such as texts and emails. The only exception to this metonymic substitution of one form of communication for another is Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth which Sittenfeld preserves in Eligible. The reader is told Darcy’s letter to Liz, ‘filled four pages of notebook paper’ (288). The prose mimics the spontaneous composition of eighteenth century letters, through the use of ellipsis: ‘I didn’t think such shallow, pampered egotists existed except on reality television… which brings me to my next point.’ (289), and yet the use of a hyper-formal semi-legal register, with the use of ‘frankly’, ‘nevertheless, ‘refute’ and ‘reiterate’ has the effect of suggesting that Darcy’s letter has been carefully composed. Like Darcy’s original letter its function is to relay information in a ‘coherent way’ (291). Sittenfeld clearly felt that it was necessary to retain Darcy’s letter in its original form. Why then, do other authors convert Austen’s letters to emails and texts? And how successful are these new mediums at translating Austen’s interest in communicative acts as social and moral discourse?

Simeon J Yates observes how email messages are sent asynchronously — delayed in time — in the same manner as letters (Barton, 2013: 235). In Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility, Elinor tells her sister Margaret that, ‘Lucy only writes to me like this so that I will forward the email to Mrs. J. and Mary and everyone, and they’ll think: Ah bless, what a lovely person Lucy is and how horrible the Ferrarses are’. This reflects the fact that emails have the same capacity to be shared as personal correspondence as letters did in in the eighteenth-century. Whilst they seem to share circumstances of distribution and reception, text and emails are not necessarily able to translate tone, as illustrated by an example from Northanger Abbey. James Morland’s heightened emotion, upon the discovery that Isabella Thorpe is betrothed to Captain Tilney, is clearly articulated in his letter to his sister:

Thank God! I am undeceived in time! But it is a heavy blow! — After my father’s consent had been so kindly given — but no more of this. She has made me miserable for ever!

His syntax comprises of lots of short clauses, which convey his frantic emotional state, along with the repetition of exclamation marks. This seems related to the aims of letter-writing, which Austen reveals in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, to ‘express on paper what one would say to the same person by word of mouth’ (Vol I, Letter 29, 1801: 68). The profession to speak ‘no more of this’ followed by his immediate return to the subject conveys his resolve to move past the emotional slight, whilst his inability to do so emphasises the immediacy of the news. Val McDermid converts the asynchronous, carefully constructed form of communication that is letter-writing into the more synchronous, spontaneous form of communication that is texting rather than email, which has the effect of allowing Cat to interject and ask questions:

Feel like shit. Finished with Bella. Left her & Edinbro y’day. Never want 2c either again.

WTF? What hap?

I’m stupid, that’s what hap. I trusted Bella, big mistake. Feel total fuckwit, esp after talking to M&D about getting wed.

The abbreviated sentences, with a lack of pronouns in ‘Feel like shit. Finished with Bella’ have the effect of conveying the information of plot in a short period of time but do little to characterise James’ emotional state, whilst the run on of exclamative sentences in his letter in Austen’s original narrative convey his shock and anger. The use of expletives in the noun ‘shit’ and ‘fuckwit’ and Cat’s acronym ‘WTF’ (‘what the fuck?’) to some extent emphasises his negative emotional state and his sister’s shock, but this pejorative lexis diminishes the emotive effects of Austen’s original prose. The use of outdated forms of textspeak, including the use of shortenings such as ‘2c’, ‘cuz’ and ‘txt’ is particularly problematic. Jonathon Green refers to these ‘abbreviations and acronyms’ as ‘ephemeral’, the product of ‘technology’ (2016: 39). Because technology is such a rapidly changing medium, and character constraints are no longer an issue for most people texting in 2018, merely four years after McDermid’s adaptation was published, her novel already appears dated. The same applies to Trollope’s use of slang; Nancy Steele speaks using outdated abbreviations such as ‘totes’ (totally) and ‘def’ (definitely), with Urban Dictionary identifying the most frequent use of these terms in 2012.[11] Whilst Austen’s novels are generally applauded for their ‘timelessness’, the use of textspeak and slang locates these adaptations in a very specific temporal moment.

But perhaps texting has more in common with letter-writing than may first appear, supporting the idea of adaptations of Austen as palimpsests, or rather, multi-layered records of the way we communicate. In McCall Smith’s Emma, texting has certain associations with the pragmatics of letter-writing; Emma convinces Harriet to send a text which says, “I’m sorry but I can’t come out. Got to work. Sorry’ and then she instructs her to add ‘See you sometime’, (P.151.) explaining that, “Saying to somebody that you’ll see them is utterly meaningless,” she said, “See you means, in fact, goodbye”. To be “absolutely unambiguous”, she tells Harriet she could add the word ‘not’, although she says, “That, though, would be cruel, and I wouldn’t do it.” (151–2). This seems to reflect a characteristic Austenian interest in decorum and manners. People clearly say things in texts they do not mean, and to this end they emulate the polite machinations of Austen’s letters, which are evinced by Lucy Ferrars’ polite address to Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility, wherein she informs him she has married his brother. The list of three which closes the letter, ‘Your sincere well-wisher, friend, and sister’ (SS 199), has the effect of highlighting Lucy’s insincere, self-serving nature — and her behaviour towards Edward and Elinor alike shows she is neither a good lover, nor ‘friend’.

Literary Taste and Models of Literacy

One thing McDermid does accomplish in her adaptation is meditate on the way that material culture and the emergence of digital technology such as phones and television affects what characters read. This reflects a shared interest with Austen’s original narratives in how characters’ reading habits — or lack thereof — shapes their moral and social awareness. Meta-literary references to adaptations such as ‘Pride and Prejudice with Zombies’ (36) combine with conversation about Stephenie Meyer’s vampire romance series (49), and references to Jean Rhys’ 1966 postcolonial novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, ‘a prequel to Jane Eyre’ (45) to make McDermid’s text meta-literary in its reflections on iteration as creative practice, whilst simultaneously updating Austen’s original meta-literary concerns about highbrow and lowbrow forms of fiction.

By characterising James Morland as ‘not much of a reader’ (50) and John Thorpe as a ‘gamer’ (66), McDermid engages with the emergent phenomenon of electracy, a term coined by Gregory L. Ulmer to describe the thought transition between a culture of print literacy to a culture saturated with electronic media. He argues this is a model of literacy that is ‘being invented not to replace […] orality and literacy […] but to supplement them with a third dimension of thought, practice, and identity’ (2014: para. 3). The idea of supplementation is useful because it supports the model of palimpsest as ‘multi-layered records’, in this case of reading practices. This supports Marczewska’s arguments that the ‘Iterative Turn’ is a shift in aesthetics that is still in motion, and involves a shift in attitudes to authorship and originality which accompanies the developments of new digital technologies (Marczewska, 2018: 6).

To some extent at least, McDermid seems aware of the difficulties that the emergence of new technologies creates for an author adapting Austen’s original narratives. McDermid’s solution to the problems posed by new technology is to acknowledge them in the narrative; Henry Tilney and Cat debate the differences in male and female use of social media in their first interaction (28–29). In doing so, McDermid opens the can of worms that is language and gender theory, and cannot sufficiently address the issues she alludes to without derailing Austen’s original plot. As the next section will demonstrate, Sittenfeld’s Eligible is more conveniently primed to take up language theory, given the novel’s thematic interest in prejudice.

Remodelling Propriety as Politically Correct Language

Sittenfeld’s Eligible remodels Austen’s interest in ideological and grammatical normativity, by juxtaposing politically correct (PC) language with taboo language. Sittenfeld uses the novels communicative acts to extend Austen’s original focus on the pride and prejudice of Elizabeth and Darcy to encompass a whole range of modern prejudices towards those of different sexual orientations, gender identities, as well as religious and racial backgrounds. The principal target of Sittenfeld’s assault on word choice is Mrs. Bennet, who is ‘prone to making declarations about almost all religious and ethnic minorities that were often uncomfortable for her listeners’ (48). Mrs. Bennet remarks to Liz, ‘Liz, I don’t know if Kitty and Shane are serious, but life can be very hard for mulatto children.” (443). ‘Mulatto’ is a racial term used to refer to a person ‘of mixed race’ and the fact the OED cites no twenty-first century usages is telling regarding how outdated a term it is, it is marked as ‘chiefly offensive’ [Sense 1].[12] Indeed, Geoffrey Hughes includes it in his encyclopaedia of offensive language (2006: 57–8, 148, 408). Mrs. Bennet’s use of this racial slur is supported by the fact that Liz is ‘pretty sure a black adult had never visited her parents’ house in a social capacity’ (167).

Mrs. Bennet also says of Lydia’s boyfriend, Ham, that, ‘no one at the Cincinnati Country Club would want to change into their bathing suit around a person like that’ (362). This euphemism looks back to Austen’s original narrative, where Lady Catherine de Bourgh criticises Elizabeth for giving her opinion and refers to her as ‘a person’ (PP: 301). Her use of ‘a person’ rather than use of Elizabeth’s name shows her lack of respect for the Bennet family. In Sittenfeld’s adaptation, Mrs. Bennet’s use of ‘a person’ rather than correct masculine pronouns illustrates a similar lack of respect as for Ham well as lack of understanding on the part of Mrs. Bennet about transgenderism. Over the course of the narrative, Mrs. Bennet comes to understand transgenderism as a ‘birth defect’. Darcy takes responsibility for her use of this language: ‘I’m afraid the birth defect explanation isn’t politically correct, but I was trying to find terms that would be understandable to someone of her generation’ (466–7). Whilst not necessarily PC, this is clearly the closest thing to understanding that Liz is going to get from her mother. Furthermore, in Austen’s original narrative, Lady Catherine refers to Mrs. Bennet and one of the Bennet sisters with the deictic ‘that’: ‘that I suppose is one of your sisters’ (PP 401), which contributes to her condescending air and in turn marks Mrs. Bennet as a problematic character in the adapted text through her use of similarly euphemistic expressions in reference to Jane’s lesbian friends as ‘those ladies’ (190), and her labelling of Anne Lee as “that nice Chinese girl” (436) (italics mine). Mr. Bennet is presented as only marginally more tolerant than his wife; he asks Liz if there is any truth to Mary being homosexual, under the guise that, “Your mother wouldn’t like it, of course. But what’s the old saying about people going about their business as long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses” (60). This idiomatic expression has the effect of exposing the distance between his proposed acceptance of Mary’s alleged homosexuality, and the reality, which is that the idea makes him uncomfortable, supported by his euphemistic use of ‘it’.

Like her parents, and indeed Austen’s own Elizabeth Bennet, Liz is not perfect; Liz and Jasper both ‘bit back smiles when the books editor, who was from Delaware, pronounced the word ‘memoir’ mem-wah’(18). Without being side-tracked by the accent variations of American English, this comment reflects Jasper’s tendency to lead Liz astray; like Wickham in Austen’s narrative, his character threatens to lead Liz away from sympathetic acknowledgement of social difference, instead taking her character closer towards prejudice and mockery. This takes on particularly sinister connotations when it is revealed that he was expelled from Stanford University because he has committed a racial hate crime.

Crucially, though, unlike her parents, Liz proactively endeavours to educate herself about the correct terminology; she buys her parents ‘a paperback titled Transgender 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue’ (379), and ‘via her smartphone learned about the kathoey in Southeast Asia and the salzikrum of the ancient Middle East’ (356–7). The geographical distinction between ‘kathoey’ and ‘salzikrum’ reflects a need for precise semantic definitions, which is characteristic of Austen, whilst also supporting the theoretical belief that truly politically correct language needs to be intersectional. By the end of the novel Liz is able to tell Caroline Bingley that, “no one uses the word tranny anymore. Or at least no one with good breeding does” (459), having learnt over the course of the novel that it is ‘gender reassignment’ rather than ‘sex change’ and that it is ‘no less rude to speculate about the genitals of a transgender person than about those of a person who was nontransgender, or cisgender’ (356–7). This comment seems to reflect a characteristic Austenian interest in manners and propriety, as well as the need to be precise with language. Overall, the effect of Sittenfeld’s Eligible is an ideological updating of Austen’s interest in precise and correct use of language within the social framework of propriety, which reflect processes of globalisation and contemporary attitudes to ideological intersectionality.

Moral Discourses of Class and Power

Whilst Liz Bennet clearly undergoes a process of positive education in Eligible which reflects a generational willingness to learn and challenge existing beliefs, Alexander McCall Smith is interested in different levels of education and their relationship to socioeconomic conditions in his version of Emma. He amplifies the influence that Miss Taylor has on Emma’s education, expanding her backstory at the beginning of his adaptation. Miss Taylor’s own snobbery is shown to have inflected Emma’s; her use of Latin expressions such as cadit quaestio ‘the question falls away’ is used ‘when she wished to put an end to a discussion’ (22). Emma similarly sees the potential in Latin expressions; ‘Emma loved Latin because it gave her a sort of power.’ (63). Latin creates a shared bond between the two women: ‘They both smiled. Impedimenta was a word that Miss Taylor had taught Emma and Isabella when they were very small.’ (204). The use of Latinate expressions has the effect of creating shared cultural knowledge between Miss Taylor and Emma, with the effect of excluding anyone who has not had experience of similar education levels. To this end, Latin loan words functions slightly differently in McCall’s Smith’s adaptation than in Austen’s, where the use of lexical affectation is a criticism of fashion. For McCall Smith, loan words are markers of prestige and privilege which the author uses to demonstrate Emma’s ignorance as to her own foibles, and her misunderstanding of the difference between intelligence and the direct benefits of specific education opportunities.

Emma displays an Austenian alertness to Harriet’s use of idiomatic expressions such as ‘to die for’:

Emma put down her pastel and stared at Harriet. To die for… Nobody said to die for any more. ‘Good-looking?’ she said.

‘To die for,’ replied Harriet.

Emma clearly understands Harriet’s meaning, evinced by her offer of a positive synonym with ‘good-looking’, which suggests she is being pedantic and prescriptive: she clearly believes her use of language is the standard against which others should be measured. However, Harriet’s resistance of Emma’s correction reflects her lack of awareness about her linguistic transgression, which suggests that there is a fundamental difference in the education levels of these two characters. Harriet has ‘one A level, and it’s a C in drama’ (114); Emma went to Bath University.

Like Austen, McCall Smith uses lexical affectation and grammatical infelicity to signify differences in Harriet and Emma’s social status and education levels; Harriet’s mislabelling of earl grey, ‘early grey’ and her description of quails eggs as ‘cutissimo’, leads Emma to wonder whether she should ‘tell Harriet about Italian plurals’. She decides that, ‘the Italian plural — and gender — was a lost cause in England, where people ordered cappuccinos without shame and shouted bravo! Rather than brava! When applauding a soprano.’ (117). This seems to articulate a similar criticism of foreign loan words as the one implied by Anne Steele’s use of the French loan word ‘beaux’ in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, suggesting that lexical decay is an inevitable effect of globalisation. At least Anne Steele uses the French loan word correctly: Harriet clearly doesn’t understand the French expression ‘au naturel’, when she agrees to sit for her picture. Emma ‘struggled to keep a straight face’ which suggests she enjoys the fact that ‘Harriet appeared not to understand’. When the narrator provides access to Emma’s thoughts (albeit not through free indirect style but explicitly telling the reader), it becomes clear that Emma has overestimated Harriet’s level of education: ‘She must know the word, thought Emma; perhaps she was just pretending’ (225). Emma’s assumption that Harriet ‘must’ know the meaning of a word reflects her own ignorance and presumption on the part of other’s education levels.

McCall Smith’s novel interrogates the difference between ‘education’ and ‘intelligence’. Throughout the adaptation, Emma is judgmental towards those who have had less access to education than herself, and suspicious of those who are intellectually superior; in a moment of free indirect narration, we are told Emma, ‘was not accustomed to intellectual inferiority and felt it keenly’ (216). Emma’s dislike of Jane Fairfax is amplified by her discovery that Jane went to Cambridge: ‘The University of Bath was below Cambridge in the pecking order of universities, and this disclosure […] made her feel that her own experience of the department of design at the University of Bath was distinctly inferior’ (216). This is overt language of hierarchy, supported by Emma’s insistence throughout the text that the Martin family run a ‘B&B that masquerades as a hotel’ (150).

Refusing to accept the idea that Jane Fairfax might be more intelligent than herself, Emma looks for excuses as to why Jane might have been accepted into Cambridge, including the fact that ‘she was an orphan’, which Emma believes ‘would count for a lot in the admission process’ (216). This class-based rhetoric engages with access debates surrounding the institutions of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and has the effect of characterising Emma as a snob, who believes that certain opportunities should not be afforded to people from certain socioeconomic backgrounds. It also illustrates that she has an over-inflated sense of her own intelligence, and reflects that she does not know the true meaning of ‘success’ as a reward for merit or hard-work — which is addressed in Austen’s original narrative when Mr. Knightley questions Emma’s use of the word ‘success’ to describe her matchmaking efforts. He posits that ‘lucky guess’ would be more appropriate, pragmatically suggesting she does not merit the credit for Miss Taylor’s marriage (E: 693).

McCall Smith uses the language of egoism and power to frame Emma’s match-making actions. Harriet’s over-familiarity with Mrs. Goddard is a social transgression that results in her nick-naming her ‘Mrs. God’, which, as Emma points out, ‘sounds a bit odd’ (182). This shortening seems related to McCall Smith’s desire to cast Emma as ‘God’, which would have been blasphemous to Austen’s original readers: ‘There was, she decided, a very particular pleasure in bringing two people together and seeing what would happen; in a way, it was rather as God might feel — if he felt anything.’ (140). The scepticism felt by the narrator and Emma regarding God’s existence comes across in the conditional ‘if he felt anything’, which reflects a shift in attitudes to religion since the eighteenth century. Consequently, the novel becomes a moralising critique of class and power structures that exceeds Austen’s own implicit criticism of her protagonist.


Focusing on the ‘iterative turn’ — a shift in attitudes to authorship and creativity, emerging from the presence of new technologies — has illustrated the merits of iteration as a creative practice. Building on Marczewska’s theory, this dissertation is the latest contribution to adaptation scholarship. None of The Austen Project adaptations are perfect, but that does not mean these iterations are without creative or critical merit. I have shown that the authors adapting Austen’s cherished tales are alert to the building blocks of language, syntax and grammar which make up Austen’s characteristic style. Austen’s prescriptivism is held up critically, in the context of ongoing debates about literacy and socioeconomic opportunity in Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility and Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma. McDermid’s Northanger Abbey repurposes Austen’s meta-literary debates about highbrow and lowbrow forms of fiction, meditating on the different kinds of adaptation through intertextual references. She also considers the impact of electracy, a new kind of literacy, on reading practices. Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible creatively reconfigures Austen’s interest in propriety and normative discourse as a liberal push for inclusionary, politically-correct language surrounding, race, and gender identity.


[1] “palimpsest, n. and adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, January 2018. Web. 5 March 2018.

[2] See Jan Fergus for details of publication circumstances of Austen’s fiction (Todd, 2006: 8).

[3] ‘Frederic & Elfrida’, Jane Austen, Teenage Writings ed. by Kathryn Sutherland and Freya Johnston (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 3–9, p. 3.

[4] All quotations from Austen’s published novels are taken from The Complete Novels of Jane Austen (London: Penguin, 2007). Page number(s) follow an initialism which indicates the source text: ‘NA’, ‘E’ ‘SS’ and ‘PP’ hereafter refer to ‘Northanger Abbey’, ‘Emma’, ‘Sense and Sensibility’, and ‘Pride and Prejudice’.

[5] Peter Sabor argues this letter, published under the pseudonym ‘Sophia Sentiment’, is Jane Austen’s first published work (2016: 402).

[6] Kathryn Sutherland argues that Mr. Knightley’s rejection of Emma’s description of Frank Churchill as ‘an amiable young man’ interrogates the difference between the French and English meanings of the term (2014: para. 6).

[7] Austen proves Mrs. Gardiner’s claims to be true when she uses the idiomatic collocation of ‘violence’ and ‘love’ for ironic purposes in Mr. Collins’ earlier proposal: “And now nothing remains for me but to assure you in the most animated language of the violence of my affection.” (PP: 269). The word ‘violence’ collocates with ‘passion’, not mere ‘affection’, which creates a mismatch which betrays Mr. Collins’ indifference to which of the Bennet sisters he marries.

[8] “fine, adj., adv., and n.2.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, January 2018. Web. 6 March 2018.

[9] This position was recently repositioned by Victorina González-Díaz, who uses her own corpus-based analysis to suggest that ‘gender (rather than vulgarity) is the main factor determining the socio-stylistic variation of quite in Austen’s novels’ (2014: 326).

[10] Chicago Tribune (Nexis) 24 Dec. 2 ‘We’ve become a nation measuring out our lives in shopping bags and nursing our psychic ills through retail therapy.’

[11] ‘totes’, Urban Dictionary, <> [D.O.A. 12th January 2018]; ‘def’, Urban Dictionary, <> [D.O.A. 12th January 2018]

[12] “mulatto, n. and adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, January 2018. Web. 5 March 2018.



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The Indiependent Founder, NCTJ qualified journalist, Oxford University grad. Interested in tech, political communication & data ethics. Tweets: @BettyKirkers

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