Book Review: Three new novels extend the beloved stories of Jane Austen

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By Brigitte Weeks
Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Three new novels

inspired by Jane Austen.

Fifteen years ago the name Jane Austen resonated mainly with earnest high school students and any of their elders who remembered the 1940 black-and-white "Pride and Prejudice," adapted by Aldous Huxley and starring Laurence Olivier. Then the literary tectonic plates shifted. Suddenly, Colin Firth and Hugh Grant, dressed in very tight britches and ruffled shirts, were pursuing Elizabeth Bennet (Jennifer Ehle) and Elinor Dashwood (Emma Thompson). The movies did more than please viewers; they inspired novelists to pursue the lead characters beyond the farewell kiss. Since that Jane hit the screen, dozens of sequels, prequels and alternative plots have been written for fans who could not bear to lose sight of Austen's characters.

The shift continues. Novelists are now focusing on the effect that Jane has on readers and writers in the 21st century.

In Beth Pattillo's Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart (Guideposts; paperback, $14.99), a self-sacrificing office manager named Claire arrives in Oxford from Kansas City to present her ailing sister's paper at an Austen seminar. She meets an eccentric old lady, a member of the Formidables, a secret society committed to protecting the manuscript of an Austen novel titled "First Impressions" -- an early draft of "P&P." Claire struggles with the conflicts within the secret society, her misgivings about her sports-addicted boyfriend and years spent trying to adjust to the sudden death of her parents. Standing in for her academic sister brings Claire new perspective on her role as the family fixer, as well as the opportunity to meet up with a couple of Darcy-like guys.

Elizabeth Aston's Writing Jane Austen (Touchstone; paperback, $15; forthcoming in April) also involves a secret manuscript. Georgina, a rather self-righteous and pedantic novelist, has written one literary bestseller, but at the start of her second novel, she fell into a deep pit of writer's block and moved to England. As she waits for inspiration, her aggressive agent calls. The first chapter of an Austen novel, "Love and Friendship," has been discovered in the ancient files of a publishing house. The agent and publisher are determined to make a fortune with Georgina's completion of the manuscript. But Georgina, who has never read a single Austen novel, tries desperately to refuse the commission -- until her bank account is overdrawn.

Both Pattillo and Aston clearly relish imagining what Austen might have written had she not died at a youthful 41. Too canny to offer their versions as finished work, they present only fragments. Both these romantic comedies are fun to read -- full of speculation as to how the world would react to a "new" Jane Austen novel and how rich it would make the lucky finder.

Ann Herendeen's erotic Pride/Prejudice (Harper; paperback, $14.99) is quite different from these stories of 21st-century pilgrims. It breaks open a new genre of Austen-based fiction while extending one of her masterpieces. Herendeen's "slash fiction" retelling portrays homosexual relationships between Austen's characters -- a release, we're told, from the sexually repressed society of early 19th-century England. Her vocabulary is harsh, and the numerous sexual encounters too explicit to quote here. The main plot takes place during the three months that the brokenhearted Jane Bennet visits London, where Charles Bingley is kept in ignorance of her presence by his friend and lover, Fitzwilliam Darcy. The question the novel raises is, of course, who will win the battle for Darcy's sexual prowess -- Elizabeth Bennet or Charles Bingley? Janeites will not be pleased, but Oscar Wilde might have welcomed such a transfiguration.

If Austen has broken your heart by writing only six novels, read them repeatedly and remind yourself of the untouchable elegance and delicate irony of her prose. The "real" Mr. Darcy and Miss Bennet will always tower over everything written about or in pursuit of "Pride and Prejudice," but their creator's ability to inspire other writers to write books about them is unique.

Weeks is a former editor of Book World.

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