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Jane Austen: The Queen of Romance?

Is it merely repackaging of the novels or dumbing down of classics into Mills and Boon types?

india Updated: Jan 19, 2006 14:48 IST
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Jane Austen, darling of Hollywood costume dramas, is getting an image makeover as a queen of romance that could see her novels stacked high in supermarkets and airport bookshops.

But critics bridle at any trivialising of "the godmother of modern women's fiction" whose novels offer publishers the perfect chance to repackage classics for a mass market.

Austen's six novels are being re-launched in May by Headline publishers as "Classic Romances" with glossy pastel covers portraying dashing dandies and bonneted Regency beauties.

"Our aim would very much be every airport bookshop, every supermarket," said Headline fiction editor Harriet Evans.

She complained that Austen's novels had always been packaged in a very dry and academic way.

"It is such a shame as she is the archetypal popular novelist. She is the godmother of modern women's fiction," she told Reuters.

Patrick Stokes, chairman of the Jane Austen Society which boasts 2,000 members in Britain, was delighted: "I am all for it. Any publicity is good publicity -- as long as it is within the bounds of decency."

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."

That accusation was strongly disputed by Headline's Evans who said: "It is not making them like Barbara Cartland or Danielle Steel. This is not making them look like Mills and Boon."

Austen consistently appeals to film and TV screenplay writers as a perfect romantic formula with Pride and Prejudice adapted recently both by Hollywood and Bollywood.

But the Austen book makeover is about competing with top authors like Dan Brown, John Grisham and J K Rowling who are favoured by risk-averse publishers and bookshops.

"Publishers are increasingly concentrating on just a few titles as it is so hard to break new works into shops," said Joel Rickett, deputy editor of trade magazine the Bookseller.

He said that in Britain last year, a total of 160,000 copies were sold of all Jane Austen's books compared to 190,000 for just one Danielle Steel novel.

'This is the first time I have seen a 19th century author being given a more contemporary look," he told Reuters. "Repackaging the classics is a tried and tested formula -- oldies are still goodies.

First Published: Jan 18, 2006 19:42 IST