I have mixed feelings about much of the contemporary fiction inspired by Jane Austen, despite or perhaps because of my own efforts to write some myself. The work, and I include my own in this comment, often disappoints. Perhaps, like Marianne Dashwood, “I require so much!” Or perhaps the problem is inherent in inviting comparison with one of the wittiest writers to ever pick up a pen; one’s efforts can hardly avoid seeming pallid by contrast. It fails to be Jane Austen, as most everything does.
Despite the perils, people keep doing it, drawn like moths to a flame: writing sequels and prequels, imagining Jane Austen as a vampire, a sleuth or a con artist who fakes her death at age 41 and runs away, disguised as a man, to start a theater troupe, for which she writes all the plays, that tours the young nation of America. Actually, I made that last bit up. Nobody has written that book, which is not to say nobody ever will.
What makes them (us) do it? I suppose there are as many reasons as there are retellings of “Pride and Prejudice” through Mr. Darcy’s eyes: simple homage, awareness that there is an already created fan base, the same spirit of fun that impelled the teenage Jane Austen to mock the fictional conventions of the late 18th century. Then, too, there is the desire to fill in the unknown bits, and a large element of wish fulfillment. If reading a story is a way to indulge one’s fantasy of being or having what one is not or lacks in real life, then writing one is even more so.
And perhaps the strongest wish of all is to somehow be closer to Jane Austen, to connect with her spirit, her genius. The same spirit animating the women who sew their own Regency outfits and then model them on YouTube videos inspires others, more adept with a keyboard than with a needle, to write fan fiction. Jane Austen Made Me Do It! one can imagine them explaining with a shrug.
And that is the inspired title of something else I read recently, a new anthology of short stories edited and delightfully introduced by Laurel Ann Nattress, who runs Austenprose, one of the best Austen blogs out there. Featuring some big names in Jane Austen fan fiction (as well as some exciting work by newcomers), JAMMDI offers an excellent tour of the promises and pitfalls of this kind of fiction, in 22 stories running the gamut of Jane Austen reaction.
Of the 22, 11 are set more or less in our own time, with the others set in Jane Austen’s. Five have Jane Austen as a character, while two have Jane Austen as a ghost. Five of the Austen-era ones set out to fill in perceived narrative gaps in the novels: “Waiting,” by Jane Odiwe, imagines a scene only hinted at in “Persuasion,” when Captain Wentworth comes to seek formal permission from her father to marry Anne Elliot. Since we know from the novel that worked out without difficulty, though, creating suspense and surprise was something of an uphill battle. “Nothing Less Than Fairy-land,” by Monica Fairview, more promisingly imagines a scene after the marriage of Emma and Mr. Knightley, seeking to answer a question many readers have probably asked themselves: How is that actually going to work, having Mr. Knightley move into the household of the querulous, change-hating Mr. Woodhouse? “Heard of You” by Margaret C. Sullivan amusingly explores how Captain Wentworth’s sister Sophie might have met her husband, the future Admiral Croft, something alluded to but never explained in “Persuasion.”
“Mr. Bennet Meets His Match,” by Amanda Grange, imagines a young Mr. Bennet and his attraction to his future wife. This has some funny moments, but rather like “Waiting,” struck me as a solution in search of a problem. From “Pride and Prejudice” we pretty much already know what brought the Bennets together: sexual attraction on his part; high animal spirits and the disinterested desire for an establishment on hers. In “Letters to Lydia,” Maya Slater retells “Pride and Prejudice” as a series of letters from Charlotte Lucas’s younger sister Maria to the youngest Bennet sister. It shows considerable technical mastery of a certain overheated epistolary style apparently popular with girls of the age, but for some reason I had trouble getting completely engrossed in it. Maybe because I know how “Pride and Prejudice” ends? But that hasn’t stopped me from rereading it many times.
Turning to an imagined Jane Austen, “Jane Austen’s Cat” by Diana Birchall gives us a quiet conversation on a summer afternoon between Jane Austen and three of her favorite nieces. Cute without being precious, both imaginative and factually accurate, this is one of my favorites in the collection.
Another winner is “Jane and the Gentleman Rogue” by Stephanie Barron, whose series of novels imagining Jane Austen as a detective (less absurd than it sounds) accomplishes the rare feat of delivering a similar sort of pleasure that reading Jane Austen does. There is the same sense of wit held in check, of there being a world outside the frame. Her work imaginatively enlarges on the world and the character of Jane Austen without doing violence to the reality of it, which is harder than it looks.
“Jane Austen’s Nightmare,” by Syrie James, in which Jane Austen dreams of her characters coming to life, and for the most part being really annoyed with her, is a witty imagining of Jane Austen’s relation to her own work, marred only by a strange blunder. The premise of the story is that Jane Austen, who has the dream shortly before starting work on “Persuasion,” is inspired by the reproaches of her other heroines to create Anne Elliot, appealing without being too perfect. Yet when most really hateful characters are gathering around their creator with torches and pitchforks, right before she wakes up screaming, several of the malefactors are characters from “Persuasion.” What??
And as for the modern stories… they were a mixed lot, but I can write no more right now, being already over budget and way past deadline. This review will have To Be Continued.