Posted 30 June 2008 in Books by Catriona
What is it about Jane Austen that prompts so many people to take her world as the basis for their own works?
(Admittedly, that’s largely a rhetorical question. I don’t know the answer. I don’t even know if there is a single answer to that question; I doubt there is.)
But it fascinates me. What is is about that England that Austen created—an England hovering somewhere in the thirty years that made up the late eighteenth century and the Regency, an England that, excepting some encamped soldiers and Anne Wentworth’s vague fears for her husband’s future, seems so isolated from the Napoleonic Wars—that so fascinates authors seeking a world in which to place their own characters?
Make no mistake: I revere Austen, but not without some reservations.
Pride and Prejudice I will say nothing against: I don’t know how many times I’ve read that book, and it delights me every time. I see no flaw in it. (Excepting, perhaps, John Sutherland’s apt question in one of his books of Victorian literary puzzles: who does betray Elizabeth Bennett? Who tells Lady Catherine of the likelihood of her marrying Darcy? But that’s a small question.)
When Nick and I watched the recent BBC adaptation—I’d seen it before; Nick had not—I thought at first it would be a failure; the first installment failed to draw Nick into the narrative. But when, at midnight, we got to the end of the third episode and I suggested we go to bed, he looked at me as though I’d suddenly gone insane: “But she’s just rejected Darcy’s proposal!” It took us until 3 a. m., but we watched it all. Apparently, Austen can even amuse a man who won’t buy a book that doesn’t have a spaceship on the cover.
Sense and Sensibility I re-read quite often, as well, despite the fact that Elinor is really too sensible and Marianne too much a victim of sensibility—and that the marriages are rather unsatisfactory.
Northanger Abbey is hilarious, and I’m partial to Persuasion, as well—it’s gentle and melancholic, but the heroine is delightful and the happy ending satisfying.
I’m less enthusiastic about Emma, although I’m aware that that’s rather an unpopular opinion. It just seems to me that Emma is less lively and intelligent than she is callous in her prosperity and actively cruel to the less fortunate. I find it difficult to re-read Emma without skipping over that final act of wanton unpleasantness to poor, dependent, scatter-brained Miss Bates.
The one that causes me real problems, though, is Mansfield Park—I can’t stop reading it, and yet it drives me mad. I feel as though there must be a key to it that I haven’t yet picked up; I can’t quite believe that the woman who created Elizabeth Bennett created weak, passive-aggressive Fanny Price and expected us to sympathise with her.
(Janet Todd’s Women’s Friendship in Literature—although almost thirty years old now—has a fascinating section on critics’ responses to Fanny, which she divides into “the hostile critics who find her distasteful or nauseating,” “the approving critics, who find Fanny the true embodiment of the ideals of the novel,” and “the ironic critics who consider Fanny fatally flawed, an ironic creation of Austen” (246-47 n.1). The debate, indeed, is analogous to that which raged around Pamela’s marriage to Squire B. in Richardson’s novel. While I can’t say that Fanny thought to make a small fortune through her face but now thinks to make a large one through her vartue—a paraphrase, since I can’t find my copy of Henry Fielding’s Shamela—I certainly think she plays her cards very cleverly. It’s what I’ve seen elsewhere called “the tyranny of the weak,” and it works—but how will Edmund stand living with a wife who becomes faint every time she’s faced with something she doesn’t fancy doing?)
But my interests aside, what is it that prompts so many authors to use Austen’s settings and characters for their own works?
I don’t even know how many have done so, but consider this—a certainly incomplete list gleaned from Amazon.com:
- Skylar Hamilton Burris has written a sequel to Pride and Prejudice called Conviction, which focuses on the marital opportunities for Darcy’s sister—and I sincerely hope that it is only in the Amazon blurb, and not in the novel itself, that her name is mis-spelt as “Georgianna.”
- Helen Halstead has written a sequel to Pride and Prejudice as Mr Darcy Presents His Bride.
- both Pamela Aidan and Amanda Grange have “rewritten” the novel from Mr Darcy’s perspective, the former as a trilogy under the umbrella title Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman and the latter as Mr Darcy’s Diary.
- in what to my mind is the most disturbing of these examples, Linda Berdoll has carried on the original novel in two sequels: Mr Darcy Takes a Wife and Darcy and Elizabeth: Days and Nights at Pemberley. Does that second title give anything away? Does it help if I mention that the first key term that Amazon lists under the title is “physical congress”? I’m sure I wish Darcy and Elizabeth all the happiness in the world—but I don’t want to read about it.
I’m quite sure that’s not a full list—and that’s only the Pride and Prejudice spin-offs.
I don’t imagine that Austen alone is subject to this type of response: I shudder to imagine how many times Wuthering Heights has been re-written from Heathcliff’s perspective or provided with a sequel.
But I do wonder why.
I’m not interested in these re-writings and sequels. I’m not entirely immune to the attractions of the world; I’ve read a completion of Sanditon that, while not Austen, was smooth and enjoyable; I wouldn’t be adverse to reading Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen Mysteries; and I read and enjoyed the first in Carrie Bebris’s Mr and Mrs Darcy Mysteries, which is what prompted this post.
Is Bebris’s work Austen? Of course not.
Do I think Elizabeth Bennett would ever have said “it’s a really shiny stick” (46)? Probably not: that use of “really” is too colloquial, it seems to me, for the period.
Is the strong supernatural aspect to the mysteries in keeping with Austen’s world view? No: but, then, this isn’t Austen.
I have no real point to make here: just some confusion to express about the proliferation of works that adopt, manipulate, or radically rework Austen’s individual version of English society in the production of modern narratives.
Certainly, Austen is marvellous. But do people do this with Charles Dickens? And if not, why not?