I have been thinking about the appeal of derivative Jane Austen novels. Some of these fall into the “The Continuing Adventures of [Favorite Character]” while others can be described as “[Favorite Jane Austen Novel] With [Supernatural Element].” The latter can be playful or absurdist, and in general make no pretense of authenticity (at least, I presume that Austen herself would not have considered zombies, vampires, or mummies as legitimate story elements). Even the best of these appeal because of their novelty, the startling and amusing combination of incongruous elements, rather than because they offer a reading experience like that of the original. I think these “mash-ups” are basically a fad; a very few readers will love this type of story, but most of those who try will read one or maybe two and then lose interest. (Now I sit back and wait for howls of disagreement. Done? Onward!)
The first category, far more interesting in my opinion, is broad enough to contain variations. Some truly are “continuing adventures,” taking up where Austen leaves off. Others re-tell the same stories from the viewpoint of a different character. To a greater or lesser degree, these are posthumous collaborations in a way that the “mash-ups” are not. Depending on the skill and care of the “junior author,” the results can be either clumsy and unbelievable, riddled with anachronisms as well as literary faults, or surprisingly faithful to the tone and diction of the original.
For me, the most interesting of these involves changing one or more elements from the original and letting them play out through the story. The author asks, “If such and such had been different, how would Austen have written about it?” These books are a little like “alternate history through Austenian sensibilities.” Part of the appeal lies in the “what if” as applied not only to events and conditions but to how a writer of Austen’s wit and perspicacity would have responded to them.
A case in point, one of the best Austen take-offs I have read, is James Fairfax by Adam Campan. Campan begins with a small number of changes: the legitimization of same-sex relationships, including marriage, and changing the gender of a few characters. He follows the original plot of Emma but allows these differences to unfold in ways that show how the eventual outcome changes, but also, more importantly, how it remains the same.
Lynn Shepherd’s Murder at Mansfield Park is a bit of a “what-if” and a bit of a literary mash-up. That is, it’s a combination of an Austen novel and an Agatha Christie English country house mystery. There’s no reason Shepherd could not have devised her own version of Mansfield Park estate, although she’s taken many of the relationships and situations (not to mention a great deal of prose) from the original. Instead of adding sea monsters or writing about Fanny and Edmund’s children, she’s changed the personalities and occasionally the histories of many of the characters, added the element of violence that did not exist in Austen’s work but did exist in that of Austen’s contemporaries, and followed the conventions of a murder mystery but in a style that, for me at least, created the reading experience of “if Jane Austen had written an English country house mystery, it might have been like this.”
For a reader whose dearest wish is that Jane Austen might have lived to write more novels (or perhaps a long-lost manuscript might be discovered in a dusty attic), a well done Austen “what-if” or “continuing adventure” brings a special pleasure. I think this is one of the reasons we ourselves write fan-fic, as well. We experience a sense of grief at the end of a beloved story. We don’t want to leave our dear friends and companions, or return from that realm fraught with danger and beauty to the mundane world. We want more of the same but different, as the publishing joke goes. So we write our own, to lesser or much-lesser success, and occasionally we come up with something that pleases us and doesn’t violate the author’s copyright. And even more rarely, we find someone else has done the same, even better, and we get to relax and go along for the ride.
format ebooks here on Book View Cafe. Her most recent print publication is Hastur Lord, a Darkover novel with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley.