Is there anything that better illustrates literary fiction's contemporary enthralment to the market than HarperCollins' series of Jane Austen modernisations? As John Mullan points out in the Observer, Austen's novels are specifically about the manners, modes and social constructs of the time in which she was writing, all of which have now gone by the board. He outlines them all and shows how Austen's plots hinge on them entirely: the formality of naming which creates the crucial romantic misunderstanding in Sense and Sensibility, the rigid rules of sexual behaviour which, adhered to or breached, can create commitments and misunderstandings that would never happen now (Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility), the unbreakable trap that marriage was, the fact that a single woman had lost her chance of it by the age of 27, and so on...
I suppose people will object that it's the characters that can be replicated, that the interest is in seeing those same characters negotiate a different set of social circumstances. But this is to subscribe to a pretty naive concept of 'character' and, more crucially, of what a novel is. Most of us, I guess, have been told that we are like a certain older relative, that we share their character, and many of have us felt that indeed we are and do, and in that sense we can see character as something that is passed down through families, determined by our genes, and therefore given and constant. But we are not in fact those older relatives: we may share certain personality traits but we are also formed by the different things that happen to us and the different society in which we live. Change the circumstances and you change the way a person is going to a behave, and thus in turn their character. And what is a novel - that most social of forms - but a depiction of the way people behave (action) when a certain set of social circumstances is applied to them?
A novel and its characters, as I discussed in a previous post, are also, supremely, constructs of language: to change the language of a novel - an essential part of the project in any modernisation - is to destroy its soul. And as Mullan points out, when the Marianne of Austen's Sense and Sensibility is finally driven to swear it is a most dramatic moment, but Joanna Trollope has her 'using the F-word on page 6, so when things turn really bad what extreme words does she have left?' Swearing means something different nowadays: it doesn't indicate the same thing about situations or characters, and the fact that Trollope's Marianne swears does not make her the same character as Austen's.
I really can't see what's actually being replicated here. Except for one thing: the lovely glow that a best-selling classic lights in the heart and a publisher's bank balance.