There is a time to be born, and a time to die.
There is a time to fall into despair about the state of the nation.
But let’s take a break from that. Let’s
READ JANE AUSTEN.
Jane Austen is a unique author.
She wrote six novels (Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and Mansfield Park) all of which are hugely loved and admired, and two of which would be strong contenders for best-loved novel in English. (I don’t think this is an exaggeration.)
She also wrote a seventh novel in letters, Lady Susan, recently filmed under the odd title of “Love and Friendship”. Lady Susan is much less famous than the others, partly because it was only published in 1871, sixty years after the author’s death, and partly (my theory) because it’s an early work, not really as good as the others (although still worth reading) and therefore talking too much about it would interfere with Austen’s reputation as the Author Who Can Do No Wrong. The film has been much praised, but I don’t think it entirely escapes the problems of plot and characterisation present in the original.
Yes, I know, that is heresy.
She also left behind :
Unfinished : The Watsons, middle period Austen, left unfinished after her father died; and Sanditon, left unfinished at her own death. (Interestingly, Sanditon satirises hypochondria.)
Juvenilia : Love and Freindship (sic), surely the most intentionally hilarious work ever written by a teenager; The History of England; and two more unfinished works, Catherine and Lesley Castle.
And out of this, look at what later writers have made, much of it before the invention of fan fiction and Create Space:
(I have not read all of these, but I’ve read quite a lot. Many of them are by very distinguished authors in their own right.)
Sequels to Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and at least two to Emma;
An alternative version of Emma from the point of view of Jane Fairfax;
Completed versions of Sanditon and (I think) The Watsons;
A rewrite, not in letters and with a slightly different ending, of Lady Susan;
A detective-story/sequel to P & P, Death Comes to Pemberley, by PD James. (I’m the grumpy person here who thought this didn’t quite work, either as sequel (characters not sufficiently recognisable) or as detective story (huge amounts of back story towards the end meant no reader could have solved the crime);
Longbourn, by Jo Baker. This has been billed as “the servants’ take on P&P.” It’s not really; it’s a completely separate story that was going on in the servants’ hall during the events of P&P, which is not the same thing. Of Austen’s major characters, only Wickham and Mr Bennet really take part. It’s still very good;
The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler, who is now more famous for her Man Booker shortlisted We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Her Austen tribute (5 women and 1 man reading Austen in California) has also been filmed. I highly recommend both book and film. Her questions for book groups are particularly hilarious;
Lost in Austen, the TV series that puts a modern girl into P&P and changes the plot;
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters etc) – I have not read these…
Bridget Jones’ Diary and the Lizzie Bennet Diaries…
At least one set of decorous detective stories with Mr and Mrs Darcy as the detectives;
Rudyard Kipling’s (Rudyard Kipling!) homage in the form of a poem Jane’s Marriage (“Jane went to Paradise/That was only fair…”) and short story The Janeites (both available online);
An independently-published work I’ve just found online where Mr Darcy has a “body-swap” experience with Mr Collins;
The fact that there exist or existed romance novelists writing under the pseudonyms Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet;
A certain magical school caretaker’s cat called Mrs Norris
…and a book purporting to be the story of the Darcys’ children, which I shall not name, because it just reads like a standard Regency romance using Austen’s name to sell.
People have played around a bit with the characters created by Ian Fleming, A A Milne and the Brontes (Wide Sargasso Sea), but is there any other novelist who has been manipulated and delighted in so much? Even Shakespeare is treated less chummily. Compare Dickens – yes, somebody took the obvious step of completing his The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and there was a recent TV series mixing his characters, but who has written the adult lives of Oliver Twist or Barnaby Rudge? Why aren’t there spin-off murder stories for Bleak House’s Inspector Bucket to solve? Where are the fantasy authors developing more adventures in Emily and Charlotte Bronte’s imaginary countries, Gondal and Angria?
Because Jane Austen is uniquely cherished. As Karen Joy Fowler says, “each of us has a private Austen.”
As for myself, and my own development and delight in Austen:
- Signing myself off The PPI Blogger is of course an Austen reference. When she was about fifteen, she wrote The History of England from the Reign of Henry the 4th to the Death of Charles the 1st, by a partial, prejudiced and ignorant Historian… NB There will be very few Dates in this History. If Jane Austen can be partial, prejudiced and ignorant, so can I!
- It was in the dialogue of somebody’s rewrite of Lady Susan (see above) that I first learned that Edmund Spenser’s poem The Faerie Queene wasn’t just a long poem about Queen Elizabeth, but an exciting narrative which an ordinary person might read and enjoy, as I have since done. (I think the rewrite was by Phyllis Ann Kerr, but I don’t know, because it was authored “By Jane Austen and Another Lady”. It was very good.)
- And a confession of my own bucket list. As far as I know, no one has yet completed Austen’s juvenile work Lesley Castle. The only Austen work I believe to take place partly in Scotland, this story hovers between the gorgeously preposterous (but still satirical) Love and Freindship and the immature and realistic (but still funny) Lady Susan. Lesley Castle pokes fun at the romanticism of her time, partly by creating the unromantic character of Charlotte Lutterell, a young lady whose principal interest is cookery. She would like to travel, but not to see ruins or meet young men – “I always longed particularly to go to Vauxhall, to see whether the cold Beef there is cut so thin as it is reported, for I have a sly suspicion that few people understand the art of cutting a slice of cold Beef so well as I do…” In the meantime her sister Eloisa’s fiancé is killed in an accident a few days before the wedding. Charlotte’s main concern is how all the food prepared for the reception is to be eaten up. And that’s just the English part of the story: meanwhile her correspondents in Scotland claim that they are “handsome my dear Charlotte, very handsome and the greatest of our Perfections is, that we are entirely insensible of them ourselves”.
I really do want to complete Lesley Castle… I may send the characters to the moon, which they would take in their stride. But at the moment I’m a bit busy.
So who is your private Austen?
Yours etc (as they conclude in Austen letters)