Classics — whether they are novels, plays, or epics — offer us great characters, interesting plots, and lots of things for discussion … but sometimes they can be a little tough to tackle. Sometimes we adore them, but sometimes we can’t get past page 3, let alone the requisite 50. That doesn’t mean that we should give up what they have to offer, though, does it? Many of today’s authors try to use these classic works as a starting-off point to write a more modern version. If done well, these contemporary versions can have a huge impact and impart the same wisdom that made the earlier story gain its classic status. Jessica Pryde and I decided to find and examine some great pairs of classics and their contemporary rewrites to see if they are successful … or maybe not.
The Classic: Persuasion by Jane Austen
You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever.
Anne Elliot had once been happily betrothed to a poor but kind naval officer, Frederick Wentworth. When both her family and a trusted friend objected to the match, however, Anne broke the arrangement and spent the next nine years deeply regretting her action. When Wentworth reemerged a newly rich and successful Captain after the Napoleonic Wars, Anne’s family was on the brink of financial ruin. To help defray costs, they’d rented their home and lands to Wentworth’s sister. Forced to be in each other’s company once again, Anne and Frederick must each decide whether they can be persuaded to put aside their own hurt and mistrust to reconcile with the one person they each treasured the most.
The Contemporary: For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund
In a post-apocalyptic world, Elliot North and her island neighbors believe that they may be all that is left of humanity. Following a pandemic that “Reduced” the majority of the world’s population, making them unable to care for themselves, Elliot’s ancestors and those others who had sworn off the technological advances that caused the Reduction are now the ruling upper class. These Luddites have strict governances regarding social customs to “protect” the world’s population from overstepping their God-given roles again. Growing up Luddite on a large farming estate, Elliot feels a strong sense of duty to protect her family’s less fortunate workers, including Kai, the mechanic’s son who grows to be Elliot’s best friend and first love.
When Kai, who is a functioning “Post” (descendant of a Reduced, but unafflicted himself), decides to run away from the North estate in search of a better life than being used and abused by Elliot’s father, he asks Elliot to run away with him, but she refuses, unable to leave behind those for whom she bears responsibility. Four years later, when Elliot turns eighteen, her irresponsible father has almost run their farm into the ground and the only way their estate may survive is to rent out her grandfather’s adjoining property and shipyard to the wealthy group of Captains comprising the Cloud Fleet.
Elliot is shocked the first time she is introduced to her new tenants and discovers that the famous Captain Malakai Wentforth is in fact her childhood beau, Kai. Now bitterly mistrustful of all Luddites, especially Elliot and the Norths, Kai refuses to interact with Elliot, even as she pines for the closeness that they used to have. As circumstances bring them back together, can Elliot and Kai find it in their hearts to reconnect in spite of their differences?
What do I think?
*sigh* Sometimes I have this uncanny knack of convincing myself that I’m largely unromantic, too much a pragmatist to embrace the epic love stories that are so pervasive in classic literature. Then I read (or reread) something like Jane Austen’s Persuasion and I am instantly contrite. Not only was Austen’s original wildly romantic, with one of the most quoted love letters in history, but Austen also embarks upon a thoughtful investigation of character and societal expectations in her final novel that can be effortlessly reflected to our current time. Anne Elliot is a heroine who can be commended for being intelligent, mature, and true to her own self, even able to admit when she has made a mistake that could ruin the rest of her life.
Thankfully, Diana Peterfreund’s Elliot North stays true to the spirit of Anne Elliot. Though Elliot may be younger, in the post-apocalyptic world that Peterfreund created, her emotions and convictions ring true in the same way, regardless of time and place. Peterfreund’s retelling effortlessly blends a new world and a new, struggling society with the heart and soul of Austen’s tale. The science fiction themes are easy to understand and seem to integrate themselves seamlessly into the story so that even readers shy about delving into the genre will have no trouble navigating this foreign world. Peterfreund’s readers will find themselves considering the same important themes from Persuasion, and hearts will beat faster because of the same romantic gestures. Some may even be inspired, as I was, to delve back into Jane Austen’s classic with freshly plucked heartstrings.
I couldn’t leave you without a final quote from For Darkness Shows the Stars:
No matter where I went, I always knew my way back to you. You are my compass star.
— Jessica Miller, currently reading Between the Lives by Jessica Shirvington and Lair of the Serpent by T. Lynn Adams.
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