November 6, 2009


Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith
Quirk Books

Review by Paul Fenton

Let me state up front: I am not an aficionado of the classics. Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Henry James, Shakespeare … to me they are quaint, historical figures whose books, when tastefully leather-bound, can be used to fill out a bookcase which is otherwise loaded with novels promoted by the power of positive thinking (“The New #1 International Bestseller” their covers predict). Sure, I don’t mind the odd Dickens or Hugo, but I find it a chore to read something if I can’t relate to the characters. Or the setting. Or the story. Or the language. Or the fashion.

Many have tried to contemporise the classics in film. “Romeo and Juliet” became “Romeo + Juliet”, “Cyrano de Bergerac” became “Roxanne”, “Much Ado about Nothing” became “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”, I think … I could go on. I won’t, as that would require research, and The X-Factor is starting soon.

To date, no-one has attempted to modernise the written form in such a way. (Well, maybe they have. Again, the research thing, but let’s just run with it.) And why not? It would be boring, let’s face it. A story about a fop and a maiden prancing about a country estate in the twenty-first century is not so different to the original. And the result would be so clearly derivative, a dreary transposition of scene and character across centuries. Who wants to read something like that? Not me. No, what those stories need is some spark, some life, some relevance.

This is precisely what Seth Graham-Smith has provided with his treatment of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”. He has not attempted to relocate Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy into twenty-first century Britain; instead, he has taken a current issue and planted it back in the time of the original story, and what we have as a result is a refreshed classic: “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”.

Here’s the opening sentence: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” That sold me.

Mr Graham-Smith has amended the original text based on the conceit that the zombie plague currently afflicting the globe had already begun at that time. Immediate relevance!

Elizabeth Bennett is not only sharp of tongue but sharp of blade, her long dagger always strapped to her thigh in case of an encounter with zombies – or “unmentionables” as they are quaintly referred to, a nod to the formality and sensibility portrayed throughout the novel – or her katana for more formal occasions. Together with her sisters, they battle the zombie scourge in their home county of Hertfordshire.

The modern reader’s empathy for Elizabeth can’t help but bloom throughout the story as she cuts through forests of decaying unmentionables, applying her tutelage in the deadly arts with a precision and commitment her old Shaolin monk master would have serenely approved of. And here again Graham-Smith has skilfully adapted another aspect the modern zombie issue to an age gone by, highlighting the dual prosperity-survival gap. The Bennett sisters, coming from a family of lesser means, were sent to less-trendy China when they were young, to be trained in the deadly arts by the Shaolin monks; the moneyed upper-class opted for their slaying instruction to be taken in cool Japan, and the more privileged of those would be accompanied by ninja bodyguards when back in Old Blighty. The parallel to the present day is clear, where those who can afford private zombie slaying instruction get the finest training and protection, while the less fortunate have to make do with luck and instinct; the middle-class scrape by with “Zombie Slayer Academy” on the Nintendo Wii.

Graham Smith has weaved the contemporary into the archaic with minimal disruption to the original storyline and themes. True, the Bennett girls in the original version weren’t often seen blood-streaked and gore-spattered, and Mr Darcy and Elizabeth’s ponderous courtship didn’t include quite so frequent a double entendre (though in my opinion this does make the pair of them more likeable and less nauseating), but one can now return to the original copy with fresh eyes and revived interest, and amidst the formal rituals of matchmaking and manners, one’s attention can now be held in check by the promise of dry leaves being pushed aside by disrupted soil and the hoarse plaintive moan of, ‘Brains, brains …’ filling in all those otherwise proud pauses.

As for Grahame-Smith’s follow-up, “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters”, that might be a touch too fanciful for my tastes. Adding some topicality to the classics is all well and good, but you don’t want to ruin them.

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