Classics enter the Western canon for a reason: because as readers, we can’t stop going back to them. But for better or worse, neither can writers. Every year, we get a new crop of reimagined classics, from Helen Fielding’s superb Pride and Prejudice rewrite Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996) to Seth Grahame-Smith’s more violent Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009).
This year has been no exception: In addition to Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, a take on the quintessential Austen love story, there’s also a slew of new titles riffing on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre thanks to the 200th anniversary of that author’s birth, among other rewrites.
Adapting a centuries-old story for contemporary readers requires a certain balance between looseness with the facts and faithfulness to the feelings. These new releases span a wide range of fidelity. Eligible takes the events of Austen’s story and transplants them to contemporary Cincinnati, adding details about CrossFit and reality TV but hewing closely to the character arcs of the original, while Catherine Lowell’s The Madwoman Upstairs takes a more liberal approach to recasting the narrative of a Jane Eyre-ish girl and her own Rochester-esque paramour.
These books also demand varying degrees of familiarity with the originals. Readers would do well to brush up on the finer plot points of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights before reading Alison Case’s Nelly Dean, whereas readers of Theresa Rebeck’s I’m Glad About You might not even pick up on the fact that she drew inspiration for her characters from Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and George Eliot’s Dr. Lydgate from Middlemarch.
Here’s a closer look at seven writers paying homage to their foremothers this year:
The author of Prep transposes the Bennet family to contemporary Cincinnati, where all five grown siblings are home after their father’s heart attack. Liz is a women’s mag writer; Jane is a yogi; Kitty and Lydia are CrossFit junkies with no real jobs and Mary is working on the latest in a string of online degrees. Darcy and Bingley are both doctors, and Bingley is an alum of a The Bachelor-esque TV show, Eligible, which figures in the novel’s denouement.
I’m Glad About You
The playwright and creator of NBC’s Smash takes inspiration from two characters in classic literature to tell the story of what happens when you find your true love too young. Alison (loosely drawn from Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie) is an aspiring actress who finds success in New York. Her high school sweetheart, Kyle (inspired by Dr. Lydgate from George Eliot’s Middlemarch) is back in Cincinnati, practicing medicine and unhappily married to a woman who grows more distant every day. Throughout the adventures and disappointments of their 20s, neither one can stop wondering what would have happened if they’d ended up together.
The Madwoman Upstairs
When America Samantha Whipple goes off to study at Oxford, her reputation precedes her: she is a descendent of the famous Brontë family, and her father (lately perished in a fire) was a famous writer himself. With speculation rampant about a hidden, lucrative Brontë estate lurking somewhere in the world, Samantha—herself a kind of modern Jane Eyre—sets out to learn more about her mysterious family with help from her tutor, a Rochester figure with baggage of his own.
In this Jane Eyre rewrite, the heroine breaks the fourth wall with a different confession: “Reader, I murdered him.” Jane Steele’s life runs in parallel to the other, more famous Jane, but this 19th-century governess is mad as hell and looking for vengeance. As she fights to win back the family home that was promised to her, she leaves a string of corpses in her wake.
Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre
Top-tier writers like Tessa Hadley, Emma Donoghue and Lionel Shriver contribute stories inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s classic, from a tale of love in a Zambian village to a dystopian romance. Some imagine the story from the point of view of other characters, like Rochester and Grace Poole.
Nelly Dean: A Return to Wuthering Heights
The narrator of Emily Brontë’s novel returns, this time to tell her own story. The housekeeper of Wuthering Heights writes to Mr. Lockwood to expand on the details she previously shared with him about Cathy, Heathcliff and the gang. As her own life progresses, she becomes further entangled with the family and faces her own personal letdowns and tragedies.
Jane Austen’s Emma moves to a Midwestern college campus where our protagonist, Harriet, uses a pseudonym to write an advice column in the school paper. But like her namesake, it turns out she could use some advice herself. As Harriet finds herself in the middle of a love tangle (à la Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax in the original), she has to decide whether or not to leverage the power of her column in her own favor.