By Brigitte Weeks
Sunday, December 16, 2007
Why now? What powers the onrush of Jane Austen sequels and clones? At the root of this popularity surge seems to lie the contrast between those smart, elegant and quietly reserved sisters, Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, and the female idols of our own hour such as Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears. The latter shed their garments and invite us into their private moments. They quarrel over child custody rather than genealogy, choose rehab over a carriage drive. Why wouldn't we be wistful for the rules of conduct that shaped Austen and her characters? Our unpredictable, aggressive world makes the drawing rooms of Austen's era a refuge.
Any search for the key to her 200-year survival as a beloved novelist combined with the current outpouring of television series, movies, books and even create-your-own-adventures runs smack into the hero of Pride and Prejudice, Fitzwilliam Darcy. He plays by the rules yet manages to snare a woman of substance. It is his star-crossed romance with plucky Elizabeth Bennet that has always proven irresistible to Austen worshipers, imitators and exploiters.
A scan of recent Darcy literature yields almost two dozen titles, including period sequels that extend the life stories of the Darcys, the Bennets and the Bingleys, as well as present-day encounters with Darcy reincarnations, ghosts or plain old fantasies. Alexandra Potter's Me and Mr. Darcy (Ballantine, $12.95) is one of the most winning of the latter. Potter's novel is a funny, sometimes moving first-person story of Emily, the manager of an old-fashioned New York bookstore. On the spur of the moment she signs up for a Jane Austen Literary Tour of England and finds herself with a group of senior citizens and a reporter for a London newspaper -- all in search of Jane. While exploring various literary sites, Emily encounters a phantom Darcy and even goes horseback riding with him in the moonlight. However, in a nice twist, she finds her initial worship begins to fade as he criticizes her dress, her manners and her independence of mind. Pride and Prejudice followers can be reassured that there is a second-string guy on the tour whom Emily, of course, detests -- at first.
A less successful attempt at Austenian time-travel is Laurie Viera Rigler's Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict (Dutton, $24.95). Courtney is a groovy California chick who, after canceling her 2007 wedding day in L.A. and going to bed reading Pride and Prejudice, wakes up as a Regency maiden in 1813. In a traumatic encounter, a local doctor tries to bleed her using a less-than-sterile knife. She subsequently meets Jane Austen herself in London and tries to tell her about the movies made from her books. Naturally, Courtney receives a cold set-down from JA, who thinks she is deranged. It is all rather silly but pleasant.
The most convincing P&P sequel set in 18th-century England and peopled with Jane's characters is Helen Halstead's Mr. Darcy Presents His Bride (Ulysses, $14.95). This novel, first published in Australia, is an intelligent and mostly believable chapter in the lives of Elizabeth and Darcy after their marriage. The Bennet family, especially Mrs. B. and her youngest daughter, Lydia, continues to flout proprieties and embarrass the more reserved Jane and Elizabeth -- not to mention Darcy, who cannot avoid inviting his in-laws to his elegant country residence at Pemberley. In Halstead's tale, Lizzy has to deal once again with the huffy side of Darcy that so enraged her when they first met.
Amanda Grange's Mr. Knightley's Diary (Berkley, $14) gives us a new look at Emma Woodhouse. Grange is also the author of Mr. Darcy's Diary (Sourcebooks, $14.95) so she has a close knowledge of Austen's other reserved and initially un-romantic hero. Knightley's journal sticks close to the plot of Austen's Emma, mixing his initially censorious view of Miss Woodhouse with his notes on managing the hereditary seat at Donwell Abbey and affectionate asides on his collection of young nieces and nephews. Emma's querulous father tries Mr. Knightley's patience, as does the self-confident Emma. However, Mr. Knightley, as we already know, does come to his senses.
A welcome re-issue brings the most ambitious sequel of all. In 1913, Sybil G. Brinton penned Old Friends and New Fancies: An Imaginary Sequel to the Novels of Jane Austen (Sourcebooks, $14.95) -- yes, all the novels. Little is known about Brinton except that she was born in England around 1874 and seems to have written nothing else. But the extent of her ambition is clear on the opening page, which carries a list of 39 characters from the six novels who play roles in her re-creation. The writing is plain and no match for Austen, but the intricacies are irresistible. Many marriages have taken place: Georgiana Darcy and Kitty Bennet from Pride and Prejudice both fall in love with William Price from Mansfield Park; Lady Catherine de Bourgh behaves insufferably to poor Mary Crawford, also from Mansfield Park; and Mrs. Jennings from Sense and Sensibility is still sowing discord by passing on unfounded gossip. The book is a romp that encourages readers to return to the originals to untangle this fretful web.
The Austen vogue has also spawned a variety of literary tadpoles: In Two Histories of England (Ecco, $16.95), Jane's 16-year-old effort to write "The History of England" to entertain her family has been dusted off and reissued in a small volume along with an excerpt from Charles Dickens's "A Child's History of England." Here is Jane turning her nose up at history and generally sounding like a teenager. She dismisses poor Edward V's three-month reign thus: "This unfortunate Prince lived so little a while that nobody had time to draw his picture. He was murdered by his Uncle's Contrivance, whose name was Richard the 3d." She skips most of British history because "the recital of any Events (except what I make myself) is uninteresting to me." It is good to know that for part of her short life she was outspoken and cheeky!
Three other recently published books try hard to catch hold of Jane's sleeve: Margaret C. Sullivan's The Jane Austen Handbook: A Sensible Yet Elegant Guide to Her World (Quirk, $16.95) does just that. It contains instruction on "How to Ride Sidesaddle," "How to Pay a Morning Call" and -- less primly -- "How to Elope to Scotland." Emma Campbell Webster's Lost in Austen: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure (Riverhead, $14) is a complicated and somewhat irritating attempt to involve readers in the minutiae of the novels. Dear Jane Austen: A Heroine's Guide to Life and Love (Plume, $12), is a strange little book by Patrice Hannon, an even less successful attempt to renovate Jane. She extracts quotations from the novels to address fictitious pleas to Jane for advice on contemporary dilemmas (fear of driving, how to keep a boyfriend, cellphone etiquette, etc.). Cute, but the results make one wish for 18th-century copyright laws. These offerings fall into the same trap: They shrivel before the original novels.
Of course, the inspiration for all these literary pilgrimages comes directly from the novels themselves. Responding to Austen's recent increased visibility on both screen and printed page, Vintage has reissued all six in elegant matching paperback editions for $5.95 to $7.95 each. They are the heart of the matter, the reason for all the fuss. They deserve to find their way into many backpacks and, one hopes, even a few briefcases.
Is there a danger here for Austen lovers? Is this derivative work a manifestation of admiration: the better the novels the more profound the tribute? Or do these doubly fictitious characters intrude? Does a married Lizzy Bennet, Emma seen through George Knightley's eyes, or Caroline Bingley in avaricious pursuit of a wealthy husband creep into our minds and take up residence shoulder to shoulder with the characters their creator presented? Do we want to think of Lydia suffering from syphilis, or Lizzy having a miscarriage? Are these tributes or acts of vandalism?
At times, the better the sequel, the harder I find it to hold on to the originals. My new Mr. Darcy as a husband and father is not the romantic hero of Pride and Prejudice. But clearly, a large number of readers don't care. They want to linger in those drawing rooms and take comfort from a society that knew exactly who took precedence at the dinner table. The tiny but vibrant business of becoming Jane is unlikely to die out anytime soon. What would Miss Austen have made of it all? *
Brigitte Weeks is a former editor of Book World.