Probably anyone who’s ever talked to me knows that I love a Pride & Prejudice retelling. Jane Austen’s classic is one of my favorite stories ever told and I’ll never get tired of experiencing it in any new format. From The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (perfection) to Bride and Prejudice (spectacular) to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (fantastic) to Heartstone by Elle Katharine White (sensational), we’ve got a plethora of creative and interesting retellings to choose from. Fortunately, I will read or watch just about any retelling that comes along, so I’m here today with a handy guide on how to write a retelling of Pride & Prejudice, including how the new Pride by Ibi Zoboi stacks up alongside its prodigious fellows!
Step one: The setting is key. Once you’ve got the setting decided, all the other pieces will start to fall into place. It’s important to find some way of replicating the strong class divisions in Regency England. Why is Mrs. Bennet so obsessed with making sure Elizabeth and her sisters to get married? What social divisions exist in this setting that can highlight the different worlds that Elizabeth and Darcy occupy? These questions are key since they lay the groundwork for the entire conflict.
Step two: The setting should then help you decide who Elizabeth is. If the story takes place in modern day Southern California, Elizabeth can be a grad student drowning in student loan debt. If it takes place in India, she can be a woman proud of her culture and close with her family but jaded by the idea of marriage. No matter what, though, Elizabeth should be a strong, opinionated, headstrong character, a woman somewhat ahead of her time, and starting the story with some strong biases and prejudices.
Step three: Next up, of course, is the whole Bennet family. Even though Elizabeth finds them annoying at times, they are a major part of her life, and they love each other even when they drive each other crazy. Mrs. Bennet must be over-the-top and obsessed with matching her daughters up with suitors, whereas Mr. Bennet must be apathetic and solitary. Jane and Lydia are the mandatory sisters, though Mary and Kitty are fun characters to add in as well. Jane is obviously Elizabeth’s best friend and confidant in every version of the story, and Lydia is always Elizabeth’s opposite and clashes with her in every way. (The retellings I love most, though, show that Elizabeth and Lydia do love each other, despite their differences.)
Step four: We can’t have a Pride & Prejudice retelling without our Mr. Darcy. In every iteration of the story, Darcy is a socially awkward rich guy who seems to place his foot in his mouth every time he opens it, though deep down he is a Soft Boy™. Whether that makes him a hipster digital media CEO, a monster killing dragonrider, or a hotel owner, Darcy always ends up being the fish out of water when he first meets the Bennets. He comes across as conceited and arrogant to Elizabeth but, even though the story is told from her POV, it’s usually pretty easy to tell that he’s infatuated with her.
Step five: You know the story. Jane and Bingley meet and immediately fall in love, while Elizabeth starts hating Darcy almost instantly. Her opinion of him only gets lower the more time she spends with him, worsened when she meets Wickham and learns his “tragic backstory.” This backstory usually involves Darcy supposedly depriving Wickham of his deserved money and/or reputation.
Recommended but not required: The Charlotte and Mr. Collins storyline. Many adaptations include this, but others leave it out or minimize its importance for whatever reason. It can be used to show Elizabeth’s situation and stubbornness more clearly, as well as prompt Elizabeth to be a bit less judgmental, through Charlotte.
Step six: The turning point is always The Confession. You know, the part where Darcy confesses his love to Elizabeth and she screams about how much she hates him? Good times. This is the moment where Elizabeth has to reevaluate everything she thought she knew, and it’s the first step to all that great character development. Around this point, Elizabeth also gets Darcy’s letter, in whatever form that takes, which is when she begins to change her opinion of him. Here, she learns the truth about Wickham, which always involves him doing something terrible to Darcy’s younger sister.
Step seven: Another turning point is when Elizabeth sees Darcy in his own home with his sister. This is important because up until now, Elizabeth has only seen Darcy when he’s uncomfortable and out of place, whereas in his own home he feels at ease. She also sees how much he cares about his sister, which helps turn around her opinion of him. This is the part where that Delicious Pining starts up.
Step eight: Disaster! Wickham and Lydia! What exactly happens with these two may vary, but in any case, Elizabeth is horrified and blames herself, leaving Darcy immediately. What follows is the Bennet family in disarray, while Elizabeth wonders if she’s lost forever her chance with Darcy. The pining continues.
Step nine: The denouement, wherein there is some sort of resolution with the Wickham situation, Jane and Bingley get back together, and finally Elizabeth and Darcy get together. They both realize that they’ve been too harsh and prejudiced toward each other, but they’ve both grown as characters enough that they can move beyond this and meet as equals. It’s all very beautiful and satisfying and adorable. And just like that, you’ve got yourself a Pride & Prejudice retelling!
PRIDE by Ibi Zoboi
For me, a retelling of Pride & Prejudice set in the hood and dealing with race and gentrification could not be more perfect. So, that’s step one squared away. This setting so perfectly captures the social stratification and anxieties of 19th-century England that I’m almost shocked no one’s done it before.
Our Elizabeth Bennet character is seventeen-year-old Zuri Benitez, whose pride in her Brooklyn neighborhood and her Afro-Latinx family won’t be dampened by the new rich neighbors, the Darcys. Zuri is just as headstrong and bold as you’d expect an Elizabeth character to be. She’s a poet, she’s a loving sister, and she cares deeply about the changes happening to her home. She’s also quick to judge others, especially those who she thinks are judging her (i.e. most people outside her Bushwick social circle). Her voice throughout the book is so clear and helps to underscore her character and the development that she eventually goes through.
Darcy becomes Darius, the Benitez’ new neighbor. Zuri instantly dislikes him because he doesn’t fit in with the boys she’s used to living in her neighborhood, she feels like he’s looking down on her and her family, and she sees him as a threat to her rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.
The themes of Pride & Prejudice translated so well into this new setting and these characters, and Ibi Zoboi really took advantage of them. Moving from Regency England to modern day Brooklyn never felt stretched or forced. I felt like I got such a clear a glimpse into this world, and probably understood it even more because of my familiarity with the original story.
It’s so difficult for me to separate this story from the original, which means that any changes to the basic storyline (which I know so well) throw me off. Pride had several changes from the Pride & Prejudice story that, though relatively small, forced me to reevaluate how accurate I expect retellings to be. I don’t know if I would have liked those changes if I didn’t know the original story, if the only reason they felt weird to me is because the original story is so familiar. I’ve read and watched so many different versions of Pride & Prejudice that I’ve come to expect certain elements, and when those elements aren’t there, I’m a little disappointed. But again, I don’t know if I would feel that way if I were thinking of Pride as a completely separate story.
I will say, though, that I didn’t find myself rooting for Zuri and Darius quite as much as I usually would. Normally, by the end of a P&P retelling, I’m pulling for the main couple so hard, I believe they can overcome any differences of class and personality because they belong together, dammit! In this retelling, I felt a little less sure. I wanted them to be together, of course, but I didn’t feel as strongly that they could withstand the challenges to their relationship.
Along with the slight changes in the story, there were a few, shall we say, additions to the plot near the end that I actually quite enjoyed and felt wrapped up other loose ends nicely. See, changes can be good! I didn’t feel like they altered the story significantly, but they allowed for some additional tension and further character growth.
Overall, I ended up rating this book 4 out of 5 stars. It’s not my absolute favorite Pride & Prejudice retelling, but it retold the story in a creative and incredibly relevant way, making an old story accessible and applicable to today’s world. And, let’s be honest, I love this story and these characters so much, I’ll never grow tired of reading about them.
What do you like to see in a Pride & Prejudice retelling? Do you want retellings to stick to the original story or are you okay with them changing things?