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Adapting a Classic for Children by Katherine Woodfine

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Katherine Woodfine

Katherine Woodfine

Awesomely Austen: Rewriting Pride and Prejudice for today’s young readers

I was twelve when I discovered Jane Austen for the first time. Andrew Davies’ superb adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, was on TV – and I was immediately captivated.

My friend Felicity and I fell head over heels in love with the story of Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters. We adored the colourful characters (dastardly Wickham, awful Mr Collins and haughty Lady Catherine de Bourgh), the glorious Regency world of balls and country houses, the bonnets and petticoats, and especially the romance between Elizabeth and Darcy. We were forever quoting our favourite lines to each other: ‘Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?’ ‘Go to Brighton? I wouldn’t trust you as near it as Eastbourne!’ We even used to write each other long letters in the characters of Elizabeth and Jane.

That Christmas my best presents were a double VHS cassette of the TV series, which I watched so many times I could recite it by heart, and a hardback Everyman Library edition of the novel, which I dived into straight away. I went on to devour everything else Austen had written – and so a lifelong Austen fan was born.

Fast-forward twenty-something years, and I’d still count Pride and Prejudice as one of my favourite books. Yet when I was invited to contribute to Hachette Children’s Books Awesomely Austen series, retelling Pride and Prejudice for today’s young readers, I’ll admit I had to think twice.

There was no doubt that twelve-year-old me would have been thrilled by the thought of my name on the cover of a book alongside Jane Austen’s. But attempting to retell Pride and Prejudice was a daunting prospect. How could I possibly expect to do justice to the complexity and subtlety of the novel in just 30,000 words? How could I retain the wit and sharpness of Austen’s writing, yet use language that would work for children? How could I make the intricacies of Regency society make sense to today’s young readers? And was it even right to consider ‘tampering’ with a beloved classic in this way?

In the end, it was returning to my own first encounter with Pride and Prejudice that made up my mind. As the familiar titles and theme music played, I remembered not only how much I’d enjoyed watching it for the first time, but also how it inspired me to go on to read the novel and all the others. Thinking about it, that BBC TV series had been a kind of gateway drug that got me hooked on Austen for life.

In fact, I quickly realised that my childhood had been filled with these kinds of encounters with literature. I read a host of classic stories in Ladybird book form; I watched animated versions of Shakespeare’s plays; and I was inspired to read Agatha Christie after seeing TV adaptations of Poirot and Marple. I had my first encounter with Dumas’ Three Museketeers through the cartoon Dogtanian and the Muskehounds, and was kept awake half the night reading my abridged Puffin edition of Jane Eyre. Looking back, these early encounters with classic stories made me feel comfortable with them. They made literature a familiar place – it was somewhere I felt at home.

In this way, projects like Awesomely Austen have an important role in terms of offering an accessible ‘way in’ to books like Pride and Prejudice that will make young readers feel like literature is ‘for them’. There are countless examples of excellent versions of literary classics for children out there, from CILIP Carnegie Medal-winning author Tanya Landman’s beautiful retelling of Jane Eyre for Barrington Stoke, to Jack Noel’s forthcoming re-imagining of Great Expectations as an illustrated middle grade story for Egmont. Reading books like these, young readers will be entertained – but perhaps also inspired to go on and read the original novels when they are ready.

What’s more, for me as a writer, what had originally seemed so daunting about the project soon proved to be what made it so much fun. I loved the chance to immerse myself completely in Austen’s writing, trying to work out how I could best capture her characters, and evoke her language. It was an enjoyable challenge to try and explain the details of the plot in a way that would make sense for kids today – whether it was exactly what is meant by Longbourn being ‘entailed away’, why Mr Wickham’s behaviour makes him such a cad, or why Mrs Bennet might be so incensed by Elizabeth’s refusal of Mr Collins’s proposal of marriage.

In fact, writing Awesomely Austen: Pride and Prejudice quickly felt less like work and more like play. I came to relish being part of a long tradition of experimenting with Austen’s work in different ways –  after all, there have been hundreds of retellings of Pride and Prejudice, encompassing everything from contemporary reimaginings (Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary), versions of the story told from the point of view of different characters (Natasha Farrant’s Lydia and Jo Baker’s Longbourn), to even a horror version (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith.) Then there’s the numerous TV, film and stage versions – not to mention the likes of riotously-entertaining improv show Austentatious, which takes anarchic delight in playing with Austen’s work in different ways.

In the end, did I do justice to Jane Austen? Well I’m not sure that’s entirely possible. But I did have a lot of fun, and I hope I’ve retained some of the spirit of her writing. Most of all though, I hope that I’ve helped set some young readers on the path to reading the original novel and discovering the delicious wit and cleverness of Austen’s writing – and ultimately becoming lifelong Austen fans themselves.

(c) Katherine Woodfine

About Awesomely Austen: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

A fresh, funny and accessible retelling of Jane Austen’s best-known story, with witty black and white illustrations throughout.

Elizabeth Bennet is the second eldest in a family of five daughters. Although their mother is very keen to see them all married to wealthy men, Elizabeth is determined that she will only ever marry for love.

At a ball, Elizabeth meets Mr Darcy, who at first she believes is proud and haughty.

But perhaps there is more to him than first meets the eye…

Katherine Woodfine is best known for her historical series, The Sinclair Mysteries, which includes The Clockwork Sparrow. A huge fan of Jane Austen from a young age, she’s perfectly placed to bring the Bennet sisters to a new audience.

Eglantine Ceulemans captures all of Austen’s satire and wit, bringing her colourful casts to life with warm and funny black and white illustrations.

Illustrated and retold editions are also available for: Emma, Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey. The perfect way to discover Austen for the first time, this bright and bold collection features some of the most inspiring and famous heroines in English literature. For readers aged eight and up.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

I’m the author of the bestselling Sinclair’s Mysteries series, including The Clockwork Sparrow, which was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, longlisted for the Branford Boase Award, and nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal.
Until 2015 I worked for reading charity Book Trust on projects including the Children’s Laureate, and was also part of the founding team being YALC, the UK’s first Young Adult Literature Convention. I now combine writing with reviewing children’s books, organising book events and presenting Down the Rabbit Hole, a monthly radio show and podcast about children’s literature.
My newest book, Taylor & Rose Secret Agents: Peril in Paris, follows the heroines of the Sinclair’s Mysteries as they venture into the thrilling world of Edwardian espionage.
Find out more at katherinewoodfine.co.uk and @followtheyellow

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