5 Books For Jane Austen Lovers Who've Read 'Emma' Too Many Times
Few classic authors are more beloved than Jane Austen: her novels have sparked countless film, television, and even YouTube adaptations, while her devoted fans boast their very own subculture (they're called Janeites, and they date back to the 19th century). But here's the snag: while fans of, say, Dickens, have approximately 800 completed works to wade through, Austen devotees have only six. And yes, they're endlessly re-readable, but once you're quoting Sense and Sensibility in your sleep, it's probably time to switch it up. These five contemporary books for Jane Austen lovers are, therefore, the ideal solution.
There's a wide variety of modern takes on Jane Austen: some take her plot and characters and resituate them in the present day, while others stick to the early 19th century. Some, like Ayisha Malik's Sofia Khan is Not Obliged, draw inspiration from Austen's tone while establishing an entirely new literary world; others, like Jo Baker's Longbourn, take Austen's characters and settings and employ them to a different end. The common thread through each book listed below? They're witty, deeply human, and every bit as compelling as Jane Austen's finest. Budge up, Northanger Abbey: it's time to add some new books to your shelf.
1. 'Sofia Khan is Not Obliged' by Ayisha Malik (2016)
Sofia Khan works in publishing in London, and is asked by her boss to write a book about Muslim dating. (Similarly, a coworker at Random House, where author Ayisha Malik works, suggested she write a book about Muslim dating.) Tired of constantly answering questions about her romantic life as a Muslim, Sofia agrees. After breaking up with her boyfriend, Imran, she plunges back into dating to find inspiration for her book — and naturally, romance follows. Malik cites Austen as one of her primary influences as an author, and Janeites will find all of Austen's heart and wit in Sofia Khan is Not Obliged.
"Part of the fun of writing the book was just that it was telling people about a very normal Muslim existence and how these bigger issues filter into your life, but they’re not actually that big a part of it. The day-to-day living of being a Muslim is just like anyone else’s," Malik told the New Statesman. And the result? A more than Austen-worthy, warm, hilarious delight to read (and there's a sequel, The Other Half of Happiness, should you crave more from Sofia).
2. 'Eligible' by Curtis Sittenfield (2016)
In 2013, publisher HarperCollins launched The Austen Project — beginning with Joanna Trollope's Sense & Sensibility — in which modern authors rework Jane Austen's six published novels. Eligible is the fourth such novel, which relocates the Bennet family to Cincinnati, Ohio. 'Liz' Bennet is a magazine writer whose spars with neurosurgeon Darcy frequently result in passionate moments, while Kitty and Lydia are infuriatingly obsessed with CrossFit. Mr Bingley, meanwhile, is a doctor who recently failed to find love on the dating reality show that gives the book its title.
Eligible is sharp, keenly contemporary, and extremely fun; as the New York Times comments, "not since 'Clueless,' which transported 'Emma' to Beverly Hills, has Austen been so delightedly interpreted."
3. 'Longbourn' by Jo Baker (2013)
Class and social status are constant preoccupations across Jane Austen's six novels, and yet her fiction rarely acknowledges the working classes. This imbalance is redressed in Longbourn, a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the servants' perspective.
Remember when Jane falls ill at Netherfield, and Elizabeth walks through rain-soaked fields to nurse her? It's the servants, including protagonist Sarah, who are forced to bleach her muddy petticoats. And the villainous Wickham's advances don't stop with Lydia — he also preys on the orphaned Polly downstairs. If finishing Pride and Prejudice (for the 11th time) left you a little bereft, turn to Longbourn to inhabit the novel from a different perspective.
4. 'Emma' by Alexander McCall Smith (2014)
Emma is another title in HarperCollins' Austen Project series (it actually precedes Eligible, but this is my list and I will order it how I please). McCall Smith's Emma is a recent university graduate and budding interior designer, living with her father in Norfolk. And she's as resolute a matchmaker as ever, though her social circle is somewhat modernised: John Knightley is a magazine photographer, for example, while Harriet Smith is a teacher's assistant. Ever felt Austen could be improved by the addition of texting and a Mini Cooper? McCall Smith's got you covered.
5. 'Death Comes to Pemberley' by P.D. James (2011)
P.D. James' crime-inflected sequel to Pride and Prejudice begins with a huge promise, swiftly followed by a disappointment. Lydia Bennet arrives at Elizabeth and Darcy's marital home wailing that husband Wickham is dead (it's what he deserves!) — but it turns out, lamentably, that it's his best friend, Captain Denny, who's been murdered, and Wickham is the prime suspect.
A sequel to Pride and Prejudice is admittedly a pretty bold undertaking, but James pulls it off, scattering Easter eggs throughout for the keenest Austen devotees. As the Independent observes, "Austen buffs will have great fun spotting references which roam freely in the Austenian landscape: we learn that Mr and Mrs Knightley are well established at Donwell Abbey and that Wickham has behaved scurrilously in the household of Sir Walter Elliot." Plus — and I acknowledge I should relinquish this grudge — it's just really satisfying seeing bad things happen to Wickham.
So there you have it: almost as many contemporary takes on Jane Austen as there are completed Austen novels. Put down that dogeared copy of Mansfield Park, Janeites, and try out a new author for a change.