Sunday, January 29, 2006

The chicklit-ing of Jane Austen

First in today's blog

Washington Irving's room at the Alhambra

This week I've been re-visiting the Spanish city of Granada and spending a night, for the first time, in the less well-known city of Cartagena.

In the early Nineties, Mr Bookworm decided to learn to ski. Where better to start than on the sunlit pistas of the Sierra Nevada, the great range of mountains which includes the highest point in Spain?

Being totally unathletic, apart from my morning walks, and also prone to vertigo, I spent the days exploring Granada and sketching in the narrow streets and small squares of the Albaicín, the old Moorish quarter of the city. We went there several years running which led me to write a book called A Night to Remember, the story ending with the hero, a Spanish grandee, taking over the whole of theAlhambra for his wedding night.

At the time it was a slightly far-fetched, although not impossible, ending. Ten years on, the Alhambra attracts many more visitors - as many as 8,000 a day in high season, I've read - and I doubt if, in 2006, the grandest of grandees would be able to give his bride such a romantic surprise.

He would probably have to make do with the expensive [986 euros a night!] king's suite at the five-star La Bobadilla near Loja, described as
"Reminiscent of a romantic recreation of a tiny Moorish village with its own Mediterranean chapel, the hotel's rambling sections are interconnected by a labyrinth of quaint overhangs, flowerings courtyards, vaulted passageways and a soaring marble colonnade.
This private, 350 hectares estate of varied and unspoilt countryside has rolling hills and valleys covered with wild flowers and fragrant culinary herbs, forests of holm-oaks, olive groves and almond tree orchards: it is a paradise for animals, birds and game. You may enjoy superb walking, as hard or gentle as yo wish. The air is full of birdsong, the views are breathtaking. La Bobadilla is not just a Hotel, it is a philosophy created by Jesús del Valle, an architect from Granada."

On last week's trip, accompanied by our son and his wife and their small son, we stayed in a more modest but comfortable hotel a few minutes' walk from the Alhambra. Others staying there included a large party from Japan and some young Americans who made enthusiastic use of the hotel's internet access facilities in the foyer. I took my laptop with me but never opened it, being in domestic rather than working mode.

I was dismayed to see that, further down the hill, the hotel named after American author Washington Irving appeared to have closed down. But a member of staff at our hotel told me the closure is temporary while the building is renovated.
There's an empty room in the Alhambra used by Washington Irving during his stay in Granada. Largely forgotten now, he was extremely famous in his day, not only as the creator of Rip Van Winkle.
After the death of his English mother, Irving, who was a short story writer, essayist, poet, travel book writer, biographer [notably of George Washington], and columnist, decided to stay in Europe, where he lived for seventeen years from 1815 to 1832. He is said to have been the first American author to become internationally famous.

There's a nice story about his friendship with Charles Dickens. When, visiting America, Dickens made a speech in Irving's presence, he said, "There is in this city a gentleman who, at the reception of one of my
books-I well remember it was the Old Curiosity Shop-wrote to me in England a letter so generous, so affectionate, and so manly, that if I had written the book under every circumstance of disappointment, of discouragement, and difficulty, instead of the reverse, I should have found in the receipt of that letter my best and most happy reward. I answered him, and he answered me, and so we kept shaking hands autographically, as if no ocean rolled between us."

The chicklit-ing of Jane Austen

"Populist makeover for Austen" was the heading of a piece in the 13 January issue of Publishing News.
Harriet Evans, fiction publisher at Headline, was quoted as saying, "We want to appeal to fans of women's fiction who wouldn't ordinarily think of picking Jane Austen up. We want to let people know that her books aren't just A-level texts - they're gorgeous, truly absorbing romances that are completely accessible for a contemporary audience."

For today's readers, the problem with Jane Austen's novels is not their packaging - I have sets, bought long ago, attractively bound and beautifully illustrated by Hugh Thomson and C E Brock - but the fact that they are set in a period when, for most women, happiness depended on making a good marriage.

To a large extent it still does, but not in the same way. It's difficult for someone like me, a journalist and writer since the age of 18, to identify with young women who had no career options and whose only hope of a comfortable, interesting life was to attract a man who could provide it for them.

In the same PN piece, Headlines's UK sales director, James Horobin, said, "With the Headline approach to everyone's favourite author, these titles are sure to be summer blockbusters in all outlets from bookshops to supermarkets."

He's probably right : but a side effect will be that many former Janeites, if they haven't already been put off by the movie and TV versions of the novels, will be alienated by the mass-marketing.

The snag with mass-anything from mass tourism to mass mailing is that is alienates the more discriminating customers. This doesn't particularly matter with Jane Austen because discriminating readers have had her to themselves for decades and have now moved on

But the bid to update the author of "Pride and Prejudice" for a new generation was greeted with derision by Patricia Clarke of the London branch of the
Jane Austen Group
"It is a pity that everything has to be dumbed down. I know it gets people into books but I think she is classic and pure. If you dumb down, you turn her into (mass produced romance specialist) Mills and Boon."

Note : I've been having connection problems, possibly caused by unusually severe weather in Spain. So this blog is not quite as planned and I haven't been able to check the links as I usually do.