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.
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.
Cross-Atlantic cultural exchanges happen this week in Vulpes Libris.
Monday 30 June: With the new version of Roots starting Monday on US television, Jackie remembers the impact of watching the original.
Wednesday 1 July: Kate wonders about the flaws in Barbara Pym's Jane and Prudence.
Friday 3 July: Guest reviewer Susan from The History Chicks podcast and the Kansas City Star goes back to This is Where The World Ends by Amy Zhang.