The literary life can seem somewhat bleak at times, for those of us devoted to the 19th-century novel. Our authors never seem to bestir themselves to produce new books.
There is no hope of catching William Makepeace Thackeray at a book and author luncheon, or of hearing George Eliot spilling the racy details of her unconventional life on a television talk show. Not one of them will ever send out an autographed picture, or impart the secrets of successful authorship as a writer-in-residence.
It is some satisfaction, therefore, to note that two people have newly undertaken to help. Jane Gillespie, a British novelist, has written a Jane Austen novel called "Ladysmead," and Michael Noonan, a novelist and writer of juvenile books who has lived in New Zealand, Australia and London, has added "Magwitch" to the work of Charles Dickens.
Appreciation must be expressed before the cruel point is made that Gillespie is not Jane Austen, and Noonan is not Charles Dickens. These writers have at least made educated and industrious efforts to tell us more about well-known characters whose lives were cut short some time ago.
You surely remember the handsome and headstrong Bertram girls, Maria and Julia, who lived in "Mansfield Park" with their poor, unselfish, modest (and, to say the plain truth, insufferably priggish) cousin, Fanny Price, abetted in their vanities by their devotedly snobbish Aunt Norris, the arch-meddler?
Though but newly married to the dunderheaded and heavily propertied James Rushworth, Maria came to a bad end, having run off with the dashing and unprincipled Henry Crawford, with whom mutual disillusionship quickly set in. "It ended," Austen noted in signing off her chronicle of their lives, "in Mrs. Norris' resolving to quit Mansfield, and devoted herself to her unfortunate Maria, and in an establishment being formed for them in another country--remote and private, where, shut up together with little society, on one side no affection, on the other, no judgment, it may be reasonably supposed that their tempers became their mutual punishment."
"Ladysmead" is the name of that establishment as Gillespie takes up the narrative and introduces what was indeed well described as "little society"--a respectable, reclusive clergyman and his seven daughters, of whom the still-unmarried eldest is beginning to despair of ever having an establishment of her own on which to exercise her scrimping talents. Well might Maria atrophy in her petulancy, and Mrs. Norris in her officious querulousness, in this meager company. Their spirits flag and, what is more to the point, so does their ability to reveal themselves inadvertently with amusing irony.
When we last saw Philip Pirrip--Pip--he was either strolling off into the evening mists with the once-imperious Estella, or had been left sadder from a poignant last encounter with her in her new humility--depending on whether you accept the final, happy ending of "Great Expectations," or the original one.
"Magwitch" is an account, wedged between Pip's early life and that happy ending, of the 11 years between chapters 58 and 59. Pip spends the time following the ghostly path of his late criminal benefactor, Abel Magwitch, in Australia, the scene of his exile and rise to fortune.
Pip is amazingly given to brooding in italic quotations from his memoirs as he explores the low life, past and present, of an Australia populated by Miss Havisham's illegitimate daughter, Estella's look-alike half-sister, a transported Mr. Jaggers, and some new people with names like Samuel Bullwinkle and the Rev. Chilblud. He is also less morally fastidious than he used to be, perhaps under the shock of finding that Magwitch is not an engagingly eccentric old reprobate after all, but a vicious killer.
It is the task of dealing with 19th-century morality that troubles both works. Virtue, from a 20th-century hand, has no bite to it. Sophia Lockley, who represents it in "Ladysmead," seems good only from a failure of imagination, while her spiteful neighbors represent the normal standard; the Pip of "Magwitch" slips easily into dubious practices because he inhabits a world where crime is clear-cut and waffling acceptable.
Neither book, therefore, offers the sort of zesty struggle one expects from the original authors. What we have, instead, are more like gossipy "personality profiles" of familiar characters, adding to the details of their lives without illuminating their characters. But we have all that from the original works. Isn't it the literary fringe activities, after all, that were missing?