Mansfield Park and Persuasion, retold by Gill Tavner, illustrated by Ann Kronheimer (Real Reads series)

A while ago, I offered to review two “Real Reads” retellings of Jane Austen for the Jane Austen Society of Australia journal. Unfortunately my review, plus those of the people reviewing the other books in the series, took up far more space than the editor could justify allocating to them, and so she was forced to ask our permission to severely cut the reviews to just a few grabs (naturally we all quite understood her dilemma, and were happy to give such permission). However, since lack of space is not a problem with a blog, I thought I might as well post my full review here. Though be warned – it is quite long.

It would appear that the Jane Austen Real Reads are aimed at the pre-teen, probably female, demographic. So my first question is why? There are many, many good books written for girls of this age. Frances Hodgsen Burnett, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Mary Grant Bruce, Noel Streatfeild, Louise Fitzhugh, Hilary McKay, Odo Hirsch: for over a century, people have been writing books for girls that are stimulating, challenging, exciting, or simply really good stories. So is there really a need for girls to be introduced to “adult classics” at this age? Particularly since the majority won’t really want to go straight from the cut-down to the full versions: most (though, of course, not all) would probably be better off waiting until they are a few years older before reading Jane Austen. So I don’t really see the point in introducing the stories this early.

But obviously someone disagrees with me, and so we have Real Reads: “Pick up these great little versions of the world’s greatest books, and you’ll discover that Real Reads are a Real Treat.” I volunteered to read Persuasion and Mansfield Park, but I’m afraid I didn’t find them a real treat, and I’m not sure I would have even as an 11 year old. Unfortunately, I did not have a tame pre-teen to try them out on, so the following review is based purely on my own reaction to the books.

On starting to read, the first thing I realized was that, although the cover says “Jane Austen” in big letters, and “Retold by Gill Tavner” in smaller print, the key word is definitely “retold”. These are not abridged versions of the book, they are complete rewrites. The narration contains little to nothing of Jane Austen’s words, and although the dialogue fares rather better, I would say that barely 50% is from the original books.

In some ways, the storytelling reminded me of film novelizations. An author writing a book-of-the-film, who has probably had nothing to do with the original production, presents the story in a perfectly competent manner, but is not allowed to put any stamp of his/her own individuality into the retelling. Similarly, in these two Real Reads, all of the Austen narrator’s personality is removed, and it is replaced with … nothing.

The books are also very short: 54 pages each, including illustrations and a two page character list (plus another ten pages on “Taking things further”). Unsurprisingly, therefore, a number of subplots are sacrificed, and most of the rich characterisation is also lost.

Persuasion does a reasonable job of covering the salient plot points, although the removal of all reference to Fanny Harville means that Benwick’s personality is something of a blank. (In case you are wondering, it also means that Anne does not talk about constancy to Captain Harville, who barely appears. But she has a similar, if shorter, conversation with Admiral Croft, enabling Wentworth to overhear and write an abbreviated version of the letter we all know.) I was also a little surprised that the book actually opens with the events of the year Six, rather than presenting them in flashback. But perhaps Gill Tavner felt that her readers do not yet have the literary sophistication to cope with a non-chronological ordering: as she is a teacher, I will defer to her greater knowledge of this age group’s capabilities.

The cuts to Mansfield Park are more extreme, but then the book is longer and more plot-intensive. I was particularly struck by the curtailing of the Sotherton scenes: the various meanderings through the garden are reduced to “[Mary] wanted to discuss the matter [of Edmund taking orders] with her brother, but as he and Maria had left the group to explore a more overgrown path, she would have to wait”. And the visit to Portsmouth is removed entirely! Gill Tavner also seems to have had some trouble with Lovers’ Vows: she describes it as “inappropriate”, without explaining why, and redefines Henry’s and Maria’s characters as lovers (in the same sense as Mary’s and Edmund’s characters), rather than as a mother and her illegitimate son.

The books are full of colour illustrations: these are not unappealing, but they didn’t always seem entirely right. However, this might just mean that Fanny Price and Anne Elliot aren’t really suited to this style of illustration: I thought the cover pictures for Emma and Northanger Abbey really did capture the spirit of the books.

But, for me, perhaps the single biggest problem with these retellings is … they aren’t funny. Admittedly, Mansfield Park and Persuasion are perhaps the least “light, bright and sparkling” of Jane Austen’s books, but they nevertheless have some wonderful comic scenes and ironic authorial comments. And all of these are totally absent from Gill Tavner’s versions.

So if you lose the authorial voice, the rich characterisation and the comedy of the original novels, is there any real point to these versions? I can’t help feeling that if the objective is to introduce young readers to the Austen’s stories – and I’m still not convinced that this is a good idea, particularly for an age group this young – it might be more effective for them to watch one of the better film/television adaptations. Even where these diverge markedly from the original plot (and in some cases, the amount of divergence is no greater than Gill Tavner’s) they offer an artistic reinterpretation of the novel, rather than just a cut-down, blanded-out retelling.

This is not to say that a child reader might not enjoy Real Reads. They are competently written, and pleasant enough. But if one ignores the fact that they are based on classics, then they don’t really have a great deal to offer. It seems to me that the time spent reading them could be much better spent on Saffy’s Angel, or Something’s Fishy Hazel Green, or Harriet the Spy, or Ballet Shoes, or The Secret Garden – classic or modern, these children’s books offer a much richer reading experience than Gill Tavner’s retellings of Mansfield Park and Persuasion.

Let Austen wait until the reader is ready for the originals – be that at age 12, age 17 or age 35. And let her (or him) enjoy seeing the story unfold, without pre-knowledge of the plot. We only ever have one chance to read Jane Austen for the first time. Why spoil it?

The Convict’s Opera (Stephen Jeffreys – adapted from The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay): Sydney Theatre Company at the Sydney Theatre

I believe in its original incarnation, The Beggar’s Opera was quite a searing look at 18th century society. The same cannot be said of its reworking into The Convict’s Opera.

The basic premise is that a number of prisoners on a convict ship bound for Australia are given permission to put on a production of The Beggar’s Opera. So rehearsals of portions of the Opera are seen (fortunately in chronological order) interspersed with non-rehearsal scenes in which we learn about the convicts’ backgrounds, see the effect being involved in the play has on them and follow events such as a planned mutiny. There was enough plot and characterisation to keep the whole thing moving along, but nothing all that powerful or insightful about it.

Original songs from The Beggar’s Opera were mixed with more modern numbers, such as Sailing, 500 Miles, You’re So Vain and I Want to be Straight – though often with the words somewhat changed to fit the historical setting. There was no separate orchestra: where there was music, it was provided by the actors themselves, playing instruments on stage (or, if they weren’t actually playing them, doing a very, very good impersonation). For some reason, the actors seemed a little less comfortable with the very simple settings of the original songs, whereas some (though not all) of the modern songs were delivered very effectively. Overall, I thought the mix of old and new worked reasonably well, but not outstandingly so.

This was a co-production between the Sydney Theatre Company and Out of Joint: five of the actors were Australian, and five from the British company. I thought the cast was solid but not brilliant, with the best performances probably being Catherine Russell (Mrs Peachum/Bett Rock) and Brian Protheroe (Peachum/Ben Barnwell). I would also be curious to know whether the costume design was done before or after Juan Jackson was cast as Macheath/Harry Morton. Not that many actors have the physique for a final entrance in nothing more than a pair of budgie-smugglers, but he absolutely did!

Stephen Jeffreys, who did the adaptation, had previously written The Art of War, which was one of my favourite plays of 2007. The Convict’s Opera wasn’t painful to sit through, but neither did it even come close to the achievement of Art of War.