Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Improving on Jane Austen. A Janeite asks: Why? Just … why?

Part of Hatchet Job Week.

Oh dear – I’m not sure how good I’m going to be at this hatchet wielding thing. I’m quite a shrinking violet. I’ll get going, then maybe I’ll find I warm to my task. It’s hard to lay into books that give pleasure to millions, garner 5 star reviews online, and fulfil the curiosity and desire of readers to know more about favourite stories and characters.

But here goes: I Hate Jane Austen Sequels, Prequels and Spin-offs. The books I mean, and specifically the ones that purport to continue, explain or flesh out the storylines of Jane Austen’s characters, and/or bring in hitherto unsuspected cousins, nieces, nephews, in tribes as numerous as ‘Rabbit’s Friends and Relations’ *.

*For those not in the know, a reference to another unique work of genius, and resistant to successful sequels: A A Milne’s ‘Winnie The Pooh’.

The question that is uppermost in my mind is Why? Why do this, and why want it? I am very clear that it’s just these books that I’ve come to hate – it has taken some time, and a few attempts to be more charitable to come to this conclusion; as a result, I’ve managed to scrape together three examples from my bookshelves – a sequel and two spin-offs, all triumphs of hope over experience. I’m an avid consumer of all the other derivatives – films, TV and radio adaptations, even merchandise. I’m a huge fan of re-workings of the original plots and characters (so long as they are the work of a distinct artistic imagination), and I’ll come to some of these later. But the heart of Jane Austen’s genius is the choice and arrangement of words on the page, to describe the world as she saw it, and the people who inhabited it. So, why settle for anything less than the real thing? For, to describe this world, anyone else’s words on the page are as Angel Delight is to clotted cream.

So, what do I hate, and why do I hate it? It is all pithily summed up in the blurb of one of my three little purchasing mistakes (which shall remain anonymous):

In this witty sequel, the reader finds out what happened to Elizabeth and Darcy, and meets again the domineering Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the absurd Mr Collins, Elizabeth’s mismatched parents, and many other old friends.

First of all, witty sequel – that’s as maybe. It seems to be code for an attempt to emulate Austen’s language. Some of these sequels deal in pastiche, some have gone for a more ‘plain English’ approach. Neither is very satisfactory. The pastiches seem to operate on the basis that sprinkling a few trigger words around, such as ‘tolerable’, ‘remarkably fine’, and making reference to bright eyes in a female character, will come up with the goods. Sadly, for me, no. The ‘Plain English’ variety can come from a rather more interesting cultural phenomenon: the sequel not to Jane Austen’s novel, but to the filmscript of the novel. There is one series (which of course I haven’t read because I hate it) that was inspired by the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice – the author saw this first, was inspired to write (which is a wonderful outcome, please don’t get me wrong), and only then read the novel. So, a homage not so much to Jane Austen, as to Deborah Moggach. Being inspired by the filmscript rather than the novel gives carte blanche for the author to peek into places that Jane Austen never thought to take us – the bedroom, for instance. Maybe I’ll just park these, and say that those who like this sort of thing, will find these books the sort of thing they like. For myself, I can’t help resenting the re-appearance of Jane Austen’s characters on the page after they have been through this homogenisation process.

Secondly, ‘What happened to …': whatever it was, it isn’t half as interesting as what happened to them in the original novel. Jane Austen leaves her heroes and heroines generally at the resolution of the most important dilemma of their lives. Her wrap-ups are perfunctory, and almost impatient. There may be the potential for further dramatic events and crises, but the novels are without exception about the convergence of two people, and the denouement the point at which their lives meet and join. Thereafter, they are a unit, and no longer the same as the hero and heroine we have separately learnt to care for. It is a faintly dispiriting thought I sometimes have, that they will never be so uniquely happy again. Happy, yes, but not uniquely happy. All happy families resemble one another …. . Darcy switches from presenting one sort of face to the outside world, to learning the hard way to present another. Wentworth is at by far his most interesting, eloquent and beautiful when he is ‘half agony, half hope’. Of the Knightley marriage, a friend of mine came up with the wonderful line ‘there’s the prospect of far too much conversation about fatstock prices over breakfast’. Sorry, but you cannot step into the same river twice with these characters.

Thirdly, ‘many other old friends': it doesn’t work. Once Lady Catherine has said ‘I take no leave of you, Miss Bennet. I send no compliments to your mother. You deserve no such attention. I am seriously displeased.’ nothing the author can write, or the reader can read, will ever top that. I know that on the last page of P&P, Lady Catherine is permitted to visit, in a spirit of nosiness, her nephew and his wife at Pemberley; but, if she becomes a character in these sequels, which are meant to be airy confections, to be read for pleasure, it seems too hard to avoid her becoming the Dame May Whitty figure of the 1940 film (which I enjoy tremendously, by the way – no-one told me I had to be consistent), with bark worse than bite. This is not doing her any sort of justice; she can only be the true original that she is, if she remains a malevolent throwback to the age of ‘Clarissa’, with a bite that is likely to cause septicaemia.

Mr Bennet, too – all attempts to reproduce his sardonic voice and lancet-like humour just do not work for me. Here’s a less than sparkling sally from my nameless sequel, when Jane gives birth to a female junior Bingley: ‘… my dear Mrs Bennet … you will prove a sore perplexity to the neighbours: there are few who will believe it possible for one so handsome as yourself to be the recipient of another generation of offspring. How they shall wonder at it! Mrs Bennet a grandmother, they will exclaim, why, that cannot be!’ Now, how on earth can this wittering be thought worthy of the character who once exclaimed ‘O that he had sprained his ankle in the first dance!’ and who generally complimented his wife in these terms: ‘You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least.’ Far more Miss Bates than Mr Bennet. I rest my case.

What else do sequels, prequels and spin-offs do that I don’t like? Well, one of my three purports to retell Pride & Prejudice from the point of view of Darcy – thus depriving me of the exquisite pleasure of reading between the lines, and working out for myself what and who he was. I read this version, and he wasn’t ‘my’ Darcy, as well as being clumsily written, so I hurled it across the room. Even though I’d bought it in Chawton Cottage. So I’m steering clear of that variant. The spin-off variety, featuring the friends-and-relations, is really just trading on the immensely strong Austen branding. My example (still being discreet and leaving out the title), has a distant Darcy cousin, cast off by her family and adrift in London, (Saints Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth conveniently out of range to assist), navigating the rigs and jigs of London Town with ridiculous, implausible ease, and generally displaying a 21st century independence. Now, by all means write this book. Make it a Regency romance. Call your characters whatever you like, but don’t (for my part) write me a book that Jane Austen would never even have recognised, let alone deigned to write, and put the name ‘Darcy’ on the front cover, or I’ll call in Trading Standards …..

The explosion in writing JA sequels essentially dates back to the pivotal TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 1995, when her work truly went mainstream. Reading Claire Harman’s Jane’s Fame, reminded me that this was followed very shortly by films that were successful worldwide, of Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility and Emma. I came across the following gloom inducing explanation in her final chapter, Jane Austen(TM):

People truly can’t get enough Jane Austen, and talk of their cravings in terms of bingeing and unlicensed self-gratification. Deb Werkman, of publisher Sourcebooks, explained the public hunger for Austen in this way: ‘I think Jane Austen simply didn’t leave a big enough body of work [H thinks: honestly, Jane - shape up!] … you read them again and again. But after reading them fifteen times, you just begin to want more. Anything that will evoke the work of Jane Austen becomes very appealing.’ (Jane’s Fame p267)

Fifteen times? Lightweight. Anything? I hope not. Really, for me, this just will not do. So, where to go, if you want more? Well, my response is that I read the novels again, for the sixteenth time. They will stand it, and I find I still see something that I did not see before. Or I’m a different person, and have learnt something since the last read that makes a passage stand out in a new way. And then, I look for re-workings of Austen’s themes and characters of genuine imaginative power. I find them in adaptations for film, TV and radio, and in other novels that are not part of the Austen-mania production line. The P&P plot can be enjoyed in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘North and South’, among other places. Emma is particularly well-served by brilliant re-imagining: I think that Amy Heckerling’s Clueless is by far the best film realisation of Emma. The Emma character (‘handsome, clever and rich’) is a gift for the author to subvert. She appears as Flora Poste, in Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, having miraculous success in all her machinations in a place as far removed as possible from Highbury, and marrying the sensible Knightley figure in the end. And in Elizabeth Taylor’s truly brilliant ‘The Soul of Kindness’, the Emma figure is Flora Secretan, loved, revered and cosseted, never told she is wrong, interfering in people’s lives, and finally getting the really good kicking we’d all secretly love to give to Emma herself.

So – there are some recommendations. More is not always better – sometimes, More is just more. This Janeite will always seek more of Jane Austen through the authors and other creative artists who take her inspiration and use it to infuse their own unique voice, but will never expect to find reading pleasure from authors who seek to beat, or in any way equal, Jane Austen at her own game.

With thanks to M.Elena (while wondering why ‘Captain’ and ‘Wentworth’ are not more prominent) for this gorgeous ‘Wordle’ of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, reproduced from Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Sharealike 2.0 Generic licence.

30 comments on “Improving on Jane Austen. A Janeite asks: Why? Just … why?

  1. Peta
    April 7, 2010

    Excellent post and well said!

  2. Claire A
    April 7, 2010

    “Why? Just… why?”
    I suspect, sadly, because it sells.

    I, like you, loathe all this stuff… but mainly because I am a Jane Austen fan (I also think Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion are far more interesting books than P&P, but hey, the public has spoken) and this all feels rather sacreligious for me. It really annoys me that these authors claim to write these lame spin-offs out of either ‘a love of the book’ or (in the many cases where all they’ve seen is the BBC adaptation/movie) ‘a duty to the fans’. Bullshit, frankly. Jane Austen shifts books — she’s become a multi-million pound business and if you can think of an even vaguely smart re-imagining/prequel/sequel, you’re in the money. But even when you overlook the mercenary attitude, you can’t help but wonder… who the hell do these people think they are? I mean what next? Writers queueing up to write the next ‘Hamlet’?! P&P is an amazing book because Austen was a top-class writer. Anyone who even dares pick up the baton from someone so brilliant has to be an idiot, surely?!

  3. Clare
    April 7, 2010

    Thank you Hilary. Very well said. The only benefit these dreadful books can have is to remind us what a matchless writer Austen was and how wonderful her books are. But who needed the reminder? The only book I’ve ever thrown in the bin was a Pride & Prejudice sequel. It received some scathing reviews which, because I am perverse, actually encouraged me to buy it. How bad could it be after all? Answer: very bad indeed. One of the book’s reviewers said Jane Austen would be spinning in her grave but personally I doubt she would go to the trouble of shifting for such dismal rubbish.

    It’s very odd that bold reimaginings of Austen’s work can be so successful – like you, Hilary, I love Amy Heckerling’s Clueless – but that these prequels, sequels and alternative POVs seem to set their satnav for Little Trite on the Twee and head straight there. Very odd and very tiresome. You can tell in a nanosecond that they are the full gorgonzola. Open one of these books on any page you like and some piece of failed wit will be limping off for a lie down, probably accompanied by two anachronisms, a complete character change (if only Jane Austen had known the truth about Mary Bennett eh?) and an “I’ve-done-my-research” namedrop.

    These books have a sort of horrible fascination don’t they? Perhaps we need a support group. I for one am resolved: no more rubbernecking. No more standing at the Waterstone’s 3 for 2 table dropping some ghastly Austen rip-off back on the heap like I’ve been scalded. Just say no.

  4. Oscar Windsor-Smith
    April 7, 2010

    Dear Book Foxes,

    I am surprised and disappointed to find no mention here – even in a Hatchet Job sense (which I’m sure would not prove necessary) – of the most excellent Mrs Darcy Versus the Aliens. http://www.mrsdarcyvsthealiens.com/

    Is this simply an unfortunate oversight, or because you foxy bibliophiles have not yet acquired a taste for electronic formats? The former, I hope, lest your species enter a terminal decline, which would be a shame.

    Yours sincerely, in any format

    Oscar

  5. The Literary Omnivore
    April 7, 2010

    Seeing these sequels drive me up the wall, and I’m not even that much of a Janeite. (I just finished reading Pride and Prejudice.) Mr Darcy, Vampyre was quite the last straw. (Although I really want to read Jane Bites Back. Ahem.) I’m not saying that there can’t be a good one, but it’s difficult to reproduce Austen’s writing and further the characters properly.

  6. jilly
    April 7, 2010

    Interesting article and I do agree with you as regards many of the sequels etc out there. However I do like Elizabeth Aston’s novels which use an imaginary next generation of Pride and Prejudice characters – e.g Darcy and Elizabeth’s children. The characters from P&P rarely appear – though Mr Collins and Charlotte Lucas do appear at the start of one of them and seemed – to me – to be faithful to the original. These books do not pretend to be imitations and can be read as novels in their own right though of course they make full use of JA in the advertising!

  7. Hilary
    April 7, 2010

    Thanks for all the great comments!

    Oscar – the Bookfoxes are so wired up, you could light a small town off us, believe me! Here we are online, with our e-book readers within easy reach, ipads on order, and ready to embrace all new channels for literature of quality and charm. However if I can’t cope with a few straight sequels, you can imagine that I’m incredibly likely to eschew, nay, diskard, all sequels that contain aliens, vampires, sea-monsters, zombies, trolls and mythical little folk of all kinds. And they make me grind even more teeth, I regret to say, because they are presented with a sub-text of ‘Can’t take a joke, then, eh? Eh?’ Sigh. Well, sometimes I can, but I’m not going to try the experiment, I’m afraid, with the inimitable Jane Austen.

  8. RosyB
    April 7, 2010

    I have to admit to a bit of a yen to read “Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies” – wasn’t it a major sleeper hit? Or am I getting confused?

    I am not a Janeite by any means but there IS a different between sequels and parodies and pisstakes. Austen is so much a part of our cultural heritage that surely she both invites, and can take, a bit of zombifying occasionally. It’s like Shakespeare – go to the Edinburgh fringe and you will see every kind of weird and wacky Shakespeare production under the sun. I remember reading about a festival in Norway for – was it Ibsen – that was as playful and irreverent. Which we would never be with his stuff here. It’s the sign of a classic that has become an unassailable part of the culture.

    On Desert Island discs the other day Emma Thompsom was saying that she got the job writing Sense and Sensibility screenplay because of her comedy series where she did an Austen-take-off sketch. Just goes to show, you can never tell.

    I REALLY have to take a look at that zombie book now to redress the balance. :) (But I don’t much like the sound of the sequels I must say. I think to do something like that you have to be very bold and playful or not at all. But that’s just my view.)

  9. RosyB
    April 7, 2010

    Thompson. (Honestly!)

  10. Jonathan Pinnock
    April 7, 2010

    I’m not a big fan of sequels that seem to exist purely to satisfy a (probably illusory) demand for more of the same (for example the Winnie the Pooh example that you’ve mentioned already, or the recent Hitchhiker’s Guide sequel – what was Eoin Colfer thinking?), but there’s surely mileage in taking something and running off with it in a completely different, preferably daft direction. Which I think is what RosyB is getting at when she says that you have to do something bold or playful or not at all.

    OK, time to declare an interest. I’m the author of the story that Oscar W-S has alluded to above, Mrs Darcy vs The Aliens (URL again in case you missed it: http://www.mrsdarcyvsthealiens.com). Interestingly, my audience seems to contain a mixture of open-minded diehard Janeites and people who can’t stand her, with a wide range in between. And there are definitely no zombies in it. I really would suggest you take a dip into it, Hilary. You might be surprised at what you find.

  11. RosyB
    April 7, 2010

    Jonathan – elegantly done. Your comment did make me laugh. Have you read this? (I promise I don’t mean it rudely! :))

    http://vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/2008/12/16/the-tuesday-alternative-the-art-of-plugging/

    But you can only comment on it if you leave an ISBN. (But not on Hilary’s post, or she’ll have my guts for garters.)

  12. RosyB
    April 7, 2010

    Also, with parodies, can’t a Darcy and Zombies/Aliens/Vampires idea only really work the once?

  13. Llyn
    April 8, 2010

    Dear Hilary, you are a woman after my own heart. Thank you for articulating all that I hate about the Austen sequels. If one more well meaning friend shoves Pride and Prejudice and Zombies at me, so help me….

  14. marco
    April 8, 2010

    What about The Jane Austen Book Club (the book, not the movie) ? More homage and inspiration then a sequel/prequel/spin-off.

  15. Nikki
    April 8, 2010

    I totally agree with you. What about something like The Jane Austen Book Club? I’ve never read it, but I’m not put off because it takes inspiration from, rather than rehashing the characters. Funnily enough though I loved Lost in Austen and have the DVD…

  16. Hilary
    April 9, 2010

    Well, I was so very scrupulously avoiding naming names … just exploring my own reaction to a literary phenomenon. I’m more than happy to see that the comments thread has turned into a place for recommending exceptions to my rule – and throwing out some more sub-categories such as the merger between the fiction and the biography. Although I need to say to one poster that this – conceivably by his classification – closed-minded, slightly soft round the edges Janeite thought that four comments with links to a single project verges on what Regency romance would call ‘the outside of enough’.

  17. Jonathan Pinnock
    April 9, 2010

    Ouch. I would never describe the good people of Vulpes Libris as “closed-minded”. Perish the thought. And those links were primarily intended to illuminate the discussion, although I see that the posts in question are sadly still marked as “awaiting moderation”, so perhaps such illumination will not be provided after all. I do, however, apologise if I have abused your hospitality in any way, and I hope you appreciate the fact that I have inserted no more links in this comment. Apart, of course, from the one attached to my name, as invited to do so by your submission process :)

  18. Hilary
    April 9, 2010

    Apology graciously accepted – I rather felt that you sort of slightly had …. . What did Goldfinger say? something like ‘once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action’. The number of links in your current post is just right.

  19. Jonathan Pinnock
    April 9, 2010

    :)

  20. Arnie Perlstein
    May 4, 2010

    Hilary (if I may),

    Overall, I agree with you, I have little or no use for fanfics and sequels of Austen’s novels, but my primary complaint is not that they purport to “flesh out” the shadows of her novels, but that they do it without regard to the ACTUAL shadows which Austen herself subliminally, but very meticulously, planted between the lines of her novels.

    And Emma is in a league of its own in terms of inspiring other writers to riff off it in some way, because Emma’s has the most perfect and complex “shadow story” of all her novels.

    I finish by pointing out to you that the most inspired novel inspired by Emma is Agatha Christie’s Murder At The Vicarage.

    Cheers,
    ARNIE

  21. Arnie Perlstein
    May 4, 2010

    I forgot to add—I found your website because a good Janeite friend had recommended I read Elizabeth Taylor’s The Soul of Kindness as being a particularly interesting bit of “midrash” on Emma.

    I have not yet had a chance to read it, but Google just showed me the first lines of Taylor’s novel, and it is one designed to signal the alert Janeite that this is going to be all about Emma:

    “Towards the end of the bridegroom’s speech, the bride turned aside and began to throw crumbs of wedding cake through an opening in the marquee to the doves outside.”

    Was that with, or without, Mr. Woodhouse’s approval? ;)

    Cheers, ARNIE

  22. Hilary
    May 4, 2010

    Thank you, Arnie (if I may too) for your great comments. I’m glad I’m not alone in finding that Emma is such a mine for original treatments. Thanks for the Agatha Christie tip – I confess I’ve never been a reader of hers, but this is a truly intriguing recommendation. I’d love to hear what you make of The Soul of Kindness – I keep buttonholing people and telling them how terrific it is. And I hadn’t even made the leap from the wedding cake to Mr Woodhouse myself! So thank you for that too.

  23. Arnie Perlstein
    May 4, 2010

    Hilary (now that we are so quickly on first name terms!),

    Not only are you not alone, Emma is the one JA novel which triggers “midrash” from other, later major fiction writers than any other of Austen’s novels–its shadow world is so complex and deep, and yet its “tentacles” reach into the subliminal perception of the reader in a thousand places.

    As soon as I receive The Soul of Kindness, I will quickly devour it and report back to you (and to my friend Marilyn who recommended it to me in the first place!) with my thoughts.

    That “wedding cake” allusion shows me that Taylor was deeply cognizant of the playful hinting that is everywhere in Emma–what better way to show it than to lead off with wedding cake, which of course ALSO appears in Chapter 1 of Emma!

    If you’d like, check out my blog, and if you feel inspired to respond to anything I wrote there, I’d be very pleased! ;)

    Cheers, ARNIE

  24. Jonathan Pinnock
    May 4, 2010

    Did I hear someone say “tentacles”? Now we’re talking …

  25. Hilary
    May 4, 2010

    Thanks, I shall enjoy looking at your blog. Very curious to find out what you mean by the shadow world of ‘Emma’ :)

    *Friendly wave at Jonathan*

  26. Arnie Perlstein
    May 4, 2010

    Thank you very much for your interest!

  27. Jonathan Pinnock
    May 5, 2010

    *Friendly wave back*

  28. Pingback: The Soul Of Kindness, by Elizabeth Taylor « Vulpes Libris

  29. Pingback: Prequel, sequel, spin-off: le perpetue riscritture di Jane Austen | Austenismi

  30. Pingback: Longbourn, by Jo Baker | Vulpes Libris

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