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Should we rewrite classic literature for the modern times?

Should we rewrite classic literature for the modern times?

Should we rewrite classic literature for the modern times?

Classic literature endures for a good reason: it's powerful and beautiful writing. But in our modern era, the language of these books can make for challenging reading. So should we translate classic literature into modern English?

I first came to literature as a very young child, when my parents and my governess would read to me from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Kim. Of course, I did not necessarily understand every word and every nuance of meaning – but I followed the stories just fine, and I was stirred by the beauty of the language:

This is a brief life, but in its brevity it offers us some splendid moments, some meaningful adventures. (Kim)

Come my teenage years, Jane Eyre was the most well-thumbed book on my shelf. I loved Charlotte Brontë’s spirited heroine:

‘Do you think I am an automaton? — a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal — as we are!’ 

Not only is the sentiment inspiring here, but the language, I felt even then, is perfection. The more classic literature I read, the more I wanted to read. Yes, sometimes I had to work as I read to uncover the meaning, but I was richly rewarded for doing so.

As a young woman, I attended university, and I elected to read French Literature. For three wonderful years I was immersed in the great works of Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, Voltaire, Stendhal, Molière, Charles Baudelaire, Gaston Leroux – masters of their craft. I learned so much from studying how they wrote, and of course I was deeply inspired by their example.

After my degree, I built a career in property renovation and I raised two children, until finally, once they had flown the nest, I felt the time had come to pursue my long-held dream: to write novels. And when I came to put pen to paper, I found that all those works of classic literature I had read and studied in my formative years were still there, as a foundation; helping me to form each sentence, to tell my story in an evocative way. As Anton Chekhov advised: ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’

So, having established that great works of literature have shaped me into the writer I am today, I ask: Should we rewrite classic literature for the modern times?

Few doubt that the stories and characters of classic literature have an important place still in our world. We should know about the orphan Oliver and the Artful Dodger and the tragic Nancy; we should know of Victor Frankenstein’s monster. But there is no denying that those works whose language and style is archaic in our modern times can be difficult to read. Dickens, for example, liked to write in long sentences that are quite out of fashion today:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. (A Tale of Two Cities)

In a world of Twitter and Facebook, of quick-grab articles on the internet and the prominence of ‘commercial’ fiction (meaning easy to read) over literary, can we expect people to read the classics? Can we expect schoolchildren to engage with these older texts? Or do we need to coax these works into the modern era by ‘translating them’, reworking them?

The debate over ‘modernising’ classic literature is ongoing. In 2013, for example, the Guardian newspaper in the UK asked, ‘Should we rewrite Austen?’ Six novelists were asked to write their own versions of Jane Austen’s novels. ‘Is this a creative endeavour to be welcomed?’ the Guardian asked. The response wasn’t exactly positive. Writer Elizabeth Day said:

I can’t help but feel there is a distinctly patronising subtext – an assumption that, in these dumbed-down times, we are simply too lazy or too dense to be able to read the original Austen…

The words ‘lazy’ and ‘dense’ are quite emotive. As a reader, I do not want to be either: I read to learn, to understand, and to be inspired. Personally, I have always been prepared to put in the work for these rewards.

For me, the answer to whether we should rewrite the classics is ‘no’. First, because I feel it is disrespectful to the author. As Sam Leith put it in the Guardian article, ‘If you rewrite an actual novel, you look the author in the eye.’ Second, because evidently the original work is powerful given that it has endured, and to interfere with the work risks diminishing that power.

Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart!’ No, I would not change a single word.

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