Jane Austen-Inspired Books Keep Coming

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Walk down the aisle of any bookstore, perusing the covers, you are bound to find more than one reference to Jane Austen: “The Jane Austen Society”, “The Jane Austen Book Club”, “The Other Bennet Sister “, “Jane Fairfax”, “The Jane Austen Project.” A literary and industrial complex has grown up around the Regency-era author over the past two decades, fueled by readers who, after reveling in one, two or all six beloved novels, rushed to take the adjacent titles. The publishers, high turnover figures that dance in the head, willingly feed the machine, with mixed results.

With “Godmersham Park”, British writer Gill Hornby makes a second fictional foray into Austen territory. The first, “Miss Austen”, was closely related to what is known of the novelist’s older sister, Cassandra. But by choosing Anne Sharp as the subject of his new novel, Hornby has fewer facts to tell. Sharp, aged 31, became the governess of Godmersham Park, Austen’s brother’s home in Kent. There she met Jane Austen. The two became friends and corresponded until the writer’s death. But Sharp’s origins are a mystery, leaving Hornby with the unenviable task of fashioning an imaginary past for a flesh-and-blood figure – never an easy fictional sleight of hand, and even harder when the gaps in the historical record are chasms. The main plot – Sharp navigating the attentions of an unwanted suitor while performing a piece called “Virtue Rewarded” – works quite well and mimics Austen’s “Mansfield Park”. But the backstory that Hornby makes up for Anne, featuring a dastardly lawyer, a wise old servant, and a fallen wife, owes more to Charles Dickens than Austen, and clingers may find this incongruity detracts from an otherwise tale. playful. Hornby’s hold on her semi-fictional heroine isn’t always secure either: Sharp isn’t sharp enough to understand her father’s profession, but is portrayed as smarter than those who employ her?

Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” is all the rage. It was time.

Of course, much of Austen’s fanfiction exists entirely in the realm of fantasy. ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’, the 2011 PD James mystery, is set on the grand estate owned by Mr Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ love interest, and borrows little apart the framework. In “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”, a 2009 sci-fi/horror novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, there are still five Bennet girls and proms attended by eligible men. But zombies roam Regency England; wealthy young girls are trained in martial arts, and Mr. Darcy ends up stabbing the villainous Wickham in the chest to prove he was always undead.

The best homages to Austen forgo Austen’s locations and time period in favor of her brilliant characterizations and solid storylines. “Bridget Jones’s Diary”, by Helen Fielding, about a contemporary London bachelor in search of love, is the urtext here. More recent is “Unmarriageable,” an entertaining 2019 novel by Pakistani American novelist Soniah Kamal, which knowingly reworks Austen while confusing the modern Pakistani obsession with class. But the task of redesign is not easy. The modern update of bestselling author Joanna Trollope’s “Sense and Sensibility” fell flat in 2013. So far, no account of Austen in print demonstrates the bubbly humor and admirable audacity of “Clueless”, a time-traveling film “Emma”. dropping the story in the Clinton era, at a Beverly Hills high school.

A writer spent years reading only the work of Jane Austen. She learned a lot about herself.

Other Austen-inspired fiction features minor characters from Austen’s novels. For a 2020 novel, Janice Hadlow plucked up the courage to take on the simple, disgruntled Mary in “The Other Bennet Sister.” The events of “Pride and Prejudice” are skillfully told from Mary’s point of view, after which the socially awkward young woman comes into its own, quite plausibly. But the secondary character’s subgenre is Jo Baker’s “Longbourn,” a “downward” view of the Bennets told by Sarah, their orphaned maid, whose frozen hands are raw from washing and starch. linen; who gets up before 5 a.m. to make fires; who serves as a silent witness while waiting at the table. Familiar characters, seen from Sarah’s point of view, take on a new dimension and the world of Regency, with all its inequalities, comes to life vividly.

A sweet confection called ‘The Jane Austen Society’, by Natalie Jenner, has sold out rapidly since it was published in 2020. Located in Chawton, the Hampshire village where Austen resided for the last eight years of her life, it imagines a group of residents who endured the hardships of World War II there, coming together to salvage artifacts from his life and discuss his books. As in Karen Joy Fowler’s 2004 “The Jane Austen Book Club,” later made into a movie, the characters find lives of their own alongside the plots of the novels.

‘The Jane Austen Society’ Will Delight Austen Fans Who Can Recite ‘Persuasion’ From Memory

Austen’s books wouldn’t be enchanting if the gripping stories weren’t underpinned by a solid foundation of moral principles. The latter doesn’t come naturally to modern writers, which is part of why no new offering with tempting titles can compete with the originals. Read or reread “Mansfield Park” and see Fanny Price resist any temptation to compromise her beliefs. Or check out Persuasion, Austen’s glorious latest novel, with an autumnal tone, perfect for November. Austen’s biographer, Claire Tomalin, has speculated that patient and long-suffering protagonist Anne Elliot, after the blossoming of youth, may have been inspired by Austen’s friend Anne Sharp. We’ll never know. But whatever.

Clare McHugh is the author of the historical novel “A Most English Princess”.

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