Adapting Austen – "It is a truth universally acknowledged…."

Published On October 19, 2011 | By Richard Bruton | Comics, Reviews

Pride & Prejudice

Adapted from the original novel by Jane Austen, text adapted by Ian Edginton, illustrated by Robert Deas

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

For one reason or another, I’m utterly unaware of Jane Austen’s work. I know of it, of course, but aside from catching the occasional glimpse of an adaptation on TV, I have to admit that I’ve not once read anything by her.

But Mrs Bruton, Louise, is a very big Austen fan, and Pride and Prejudice is her favourite. And although it’s not often she’ll agree to looking at graphic novels, this time her interest was piqued…. how would they tackle something she loved so much?

(Elizabeth Bennet. From the adaptation of Austen’s Pride And Prejudice by Edginton and Deas.)

For those of you, just like me, who know little of the basics, a quick recap from Louise…..

The story of Pride & Prejudice is a simple one. It is a drama of manners, of society, of pride, set in 19th Century England. The Bennet family have five daughters, none of whom will inherit their father’s estate. Faced with potential eviction and ruin, their only choice is to marry, and marry well, something that fills the every waking thought of their magnificently over-the-top mother, with her perpetually shredded nerves.

Each sister has her own particular character, but there are three essential to Austen’s story; Jane is the eldest and regarded as the beauty of the family; Lydia the youngest, flighty and frivolous – the party girl, desperate to get into society. And intellectual Elizabeth, who has vowed only to marry for love, obviously her father’s favourite, her insistence sends her poor mother into nervous exhaustion each time it sabotages carefully laid plans.

The girls receive various suitors, each time lifting poor Mrs Bennet’s hopes, each time something happens to wreck the potential match. The subtle machinations along the way bring about a comedy of manners, and the introduction of proud and distant Mr Darcy, much to Lizzie’s vexation, leads us to the one of the greatest will they, wont they love stories of all time.

It is simply a magnificent story, and one I love.

(The other side of this perfect love story – proud, arrogant Darcy … but appearances can be deceptive. From Pride And Prejudice by Austen, Edginton and Deas.)

Now, what really matters here …. over to Louise again for her verdict:

I absolutely enjoyed it, and yes, with reservations, it got almost everything right. The intensity of the relationship developing between Lizzy and Darcy felt right, and the utter arrogance and air of superiority of the man was just perfect. The cover sets it off so well, the arrogance of Darcy, the distaste of Lizzy, yet both are subtly casting glances to the other, the beginnings of the attraction so plain.

Although the book was really enjoyable it didn’t quite convey the desperation, the panic, and the urgency the family faced in their hunt for five suitable husbands. And a big part of that was the underplaying of Mrs Bennet throughout, but some of that is down to no-one being able to better her portrayal by Alison Steadman in the BBC series, the best adaptation of the work there has been.

But if it fails just slightly with Mrs Bennet, they have Mr Bennet to a tee. And although each girl’s personality comes through very well, Lizzy felt somewhat too stern, always that disdainful frown – Lizzie to me was always very determined and thought deeply about things, but had more lightness in the book to balance this steel. However, the scenes between her and Darcy capture the developing attraction so very well.

Whilst the adaptation fails to convey all of the complexity and nuances in Austen’s original, it certainly captures the spirit of what I love about Pride And Prejudice. A very enjoyable comic experience.

(Three separate scenes between Lizzy and Darcy, illustrating what Louise means when she describes the graphic novel as capturing the developing attraction between them. And what I really enjoyed – the sparkling, razor-sharp dialogue throughout.)

So, the Austen fan really liked it. And as for myself, I think I enjoyed it more than Louise, possibly because I had nothing to judge it against.

As with previous adaptations I’ve read by Edginton (Dorian Gray, and the four Sherlock Holmes graphic novels – all with INJ Culbard), Pride And Prejudice is a perfectly restrained example of how to do it right. Edginton expertly navigates the adaptor’s main problem – leaving enough out to make the adaptation work, yet doing so without affecting the flow and structure of the story.

(Mr Bennet’s perfect rejoinder to dear Mrs Bennet’s  nervous complaint. From Pride And Prejudice, by Austen, Edginton and Deas.)

I never thought of Austen as a writer of comedy before, but it’s certainly here,  right from the start, with that delicious scene above encapsulating the relationship between Mr and Mrs Bennet, her nerves and his subtle yet hilarious digs in her direction.

Likewise, the sparkling dialogue between Lizzy and Mr Darcy that crackles with attraction and heavily veiled sarcasm – a perfect comedy of manners is delivered. And it’s credit to Edginton that he keeps all of this in.

As for Deas’ artwork, it’s not perfect, with his mixed media work,  the digital effects all over his backgrounds sometimes pulling my eye away from where it really should be. But where it counts, with the figure work, and especially the facial expressions throughout, it’s all rather exquisitely done.

Overall, for the Austen fan and the new reader alike, if the criteria for success here is bringing it to life in comic form, then it’s a great success.

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About The Author

Richard Bruton
- Started in comics retail aged 16 at Nostalgia & Comics, Birmingham. Now located in Yorkshire, he's written for the Forbidden Planet International Blog since 2007. Specialising in UK Comics and All-Ages comics, Richard's day job in a primary school allowed him to build the best children's graphic novel library in the country.

4 Responses to Adapting Austen – "It is a truth universally acknowledged…."

  1. Joe says:

    Friend in my book group who is a massive Jane Austen fan had a read and was quite impressed with it too. For those who’ve always meant to dabble in some Austen but not quite gotten around to it yet, it would be a lovely introduction.

  2. Jack French says:

    I’ve never known a literary (or movie) adaptation to succeed in comics and from the excerpts here this doesn’t look very inspired.

    I’m all for publishers trying to find ways of attracting new readers to comics, but this smacks too much of an ‘easy read’ way into the classics (like Manga Shakespeare). But Jane Austen isn’t hard to read and the TV and film versions already offer an easy way in.

    Something like this will get a bit of coverage in the media like ‘Pow! Jane Austen comes to comics’, but the writer and artist would be better off doing something of their own.

    • Richard says:

      Jack, my dear wife would have been the first to denounce it if it wasn’t a success. She’s the big Austen fan, read it when she was young, loves it still. The Beeb adaptation is a favourite of hers as well. I guess it’s just personal preference, but she certainly would disagree about the uninspired thing.

      And denouncing them all as “easy read” ways into comics is a bit harsh. If the film and TV adaptations offer a legitimate alternative as you seem to suggest, why can’t comics adapt the classics as well? It offers another way of looking at them. Indeed, for classics like Shakespeare, you could make an argument that anything with a visual element is far, far closer to the idea of the original medium of the play than flat prose or reading the script.

      We’ve recently decided to do a “classics” section in the school library and it’s full of the sort of “easy read” stuff you don’t like, but the children enjoy it. And alongside the abridged versions we have the full versions as well. It’s a way to introduce them to older “less cool” literature. And if graphic novels have a part to play in that as well I’m all for them.

      But I also believe there’s nothing wrong with adapting a classic to graphic novel form.

  3. Joe says:

    Jack, while not subscribing entirely to the notion of comics adaptations being ‘easy’ all the time, I have found them to be a great way to bring in reluctant readers (of all ages) to some classic prose they may not otherwise have read. A bestselling author I know told me how his son showed no interest in Jekyll and Hyde until he read the comic version done as part of a literature campaign to schools, after which he wanted to read the original text, and that’s not an isolated occurence.

    And I’d disagree that comics adapatations of books never work – both Mattotti and SelfMadeHero’s adaptations of Jekyll & Hyde worked brilliantly and used the comics medium to add something as well as adapting the text (and I speak here as a purist when it comes to Stevenson). Culbard & Edginton’s series of Sherlock Holmes adpatations too were very fine, and again I say that as someone who had read and re-read the original books since I was a boy, I’ve been quite happy as a bookseller to recommend them to encourage reading and know many librarians who have also embraced them as a way of encouraging reading and leading those readers on to the original text, which has to be a good thing.