“Do I Need to Read Jane Austen Before I Read Your Books?” A guest post by Tirzah Price
As the author of multiple retellings of Jane Austen’s work, one of the questions I am asked most frequently is: Do I have to have read the classic before I read your book?
Usually this is asked with a sense of dread or reluctance, as most people are a little abashed to admit they haven’t read any Jane Austen. But I always, always respond with a cheery, “Absolutely not!”
This has shocked some people, especially those Austen lovers who think that because I love her enough to essentially write fan fiction of her books, I should be evangelizing the classics. But here’s the thing: Reading the classics is hard for some people. For a lot of people. And a lot of people simply won’t pick them up. That’s okay.
As a young reader, I was someone who burned through books at an alarming pace. By the sixth grade, I’d read most of the books in my tiny school library, and people started nudging me toward the classics—we had Accelerated Reader, and Jane Eyre, most notably, was in my reading level by the time I was in sixth or seventh grade. I knew nothing about it, other than it was a classic. And being someone who thrived on praise about what a great reader I was, I picked it up.
And I failed to make it past 30 pages.
For the next six years, I struggled with classics. I wanted to love them. I thought I should, since I loved books and reading so much. But as I stumbled my way through Dickens and Austen, I didn’t feel the same sense of passion or love for the material that I did picking up the newest Meg Cabot book. And while I eventually did find my attitude toward the classics shifting as I studied literature in college, I realized that what instilled a love for the classics in me wasn’t just picking up and reading them—it was in consuming the media inspired by them.
I remember watching the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice for the first time, checking out the VHS tapes from the library one by one. Going to see the 2005 movie version in theaters and holding my breath at the end as Darcy strides towards Elizabeth. Watching Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma at junior high sleepovers. Making my first new a friend in high school by bonding over our love of Bride and Prejudice. These adaptations and retellings taught me about Austen long before I actually had the patience (and let’s be honest, maturity) to read the books on their own. But even in college, where I studied as an English major, I would feel a bit embarrassed about admitting that the only way I was able to stick with Jane Eyre (my second attempt, at age 18) was because I checked out the TV miniseries starring Ruth Wilson from the library and watched it first. (This is the superior adaptation, in my opinion!)
I was forced to confront my secret shame about five years ago, when I was working as a public librarian and I was in charge of running a teen book club. One of our picks was Brittany Cavallaro’s A Study in Scarlet, which is a gender bent retelling of Sherlock Holmes set at a contemporary boarding school. As I signed up teens and handed out free copies of the book, I had more than a few parents fret, “But they haven’t read any Sir Arthur Conan Doyle before—is that okay?” As any teen librarian knows, you’re not going to turn away teens from any program or event, so I said, “Of course that’s okay!” And it really was—I didn’t care if teens didn’t know who Sherlock Holmes was, I just hoped they’d show up and we’d have a good discussion over pizza and pop. And we did, even though none of them had read a single Holmes story before. It was such a great discussion that by the end of the night, most of our Sherlock Holmes books were checked out.
It seems obvious now, but that was a real shift for me as I realized that there is nothing shameful about watching a movie adaptation or reading a retelling of a classic if doing so gives you the tools needed to then take on the classic itself. And I’ll take that a step further to add that there is nothing shameful about only reading or consuming retellings and adaptations and then never picking up the classic itself. These retellings and adaptations keep the classics alive and culturally relevant by interpreting and reimagining them in new ways, whether it’s a murder mystery slant on your favorite novel of social manners, or a cheeky, anachronistic reimagining of the same story (I’ll admit it—I liked the Netflix version of Persuasion!).
It wasn’t long after that book club meeting when I first started writing Pride and Premeditation, and the entire time that I drafted I tried to keep those book club teens in mind. As a Jane Austen lover, I knew what I would appreciate and like to see in such a retelling, but what would an Austen newbie connect with in the book? How could I write a story that both sets of audiences would enjoy? I’ll let the readers judge whether or not I was successful in my mission, but it truly brings me joy when I hear that readers who’ve never read Austen are now curious to pick up her books after reading mine. But I get the same amount of satisfaction when people tell me they’d never pick up Mansfield Park, but are excited to check out Manslaughter Park, or that they liked the way I imagined the Dashwood sisters in Sense and Second-Degree Murder. While I know my own efforts could never surpass Jane Austen herself, there’s a lot of fun to be had in connecting with people over her work more than 200 years after it was first published. I hope she’d been honored that her words continue to inspire so many.
So no, you don’t have to have read Austen before reading my books. And if you never read her either, well—that’s totally okay, too.
Meet the author
Bio: Tirzah Price holds an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is a senior contributing editor at Book Riot. When she’s not writing, reading, or talking about YA books, she splits her time between experimenting in the kitchen and knitting. She lives in Michigan.
About Manslaughter Park
In this queer retelling of the classic novel and third book in Tirzah Price’s Jane Austen Murder Mystery series, Mansfield Park is the center of a deadly accident (or is it?). Perfect for fans of the Lady Janies and Stalking Jack the Ripper.
Aspiring artist Fanny Price is an unwelcome guest at her uncle Sir Thomas Bertram’s estate. It’s his affection for Fanny that’s keeping her from being forced out by her cousins Tom and Maria and nasty Aunt Norris, back to a home to which she never wants to return. But then Sir Thomas dies in a tragic accident inside his art emporium, and Fanny finds evidence of foul play that, if revealed, could further jeopardize her already precarious position.
Edmund, her best friend and secret crush, urges Fanny to keep quiet about her discovery, but Fanny can’t ignore the truth: a murderer is among them.
Determined to find the killer, Fanny’s pursuit for justice has her wading into the Bertram family business, uncovering blackmail, and brushing with London’s high society when Henry and Mary Crawford arrive at Mansfield Park with an audacious business proposal. But a surprising twist of fate—and the help of local legends Lizzie Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy—brings Fanny more complications than she ever expected and a life-altering realization about herself she never saw coming.
“Pride and Premeditation is a romantic and entertaining page-turner, sure to delight readers of any genre.” —Kerri Maniscalco, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Stalking Jack the Ripper series
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/27/2023
Series: Jane Austen Murder Mystery Series #3
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
SLJ Blog Network