From Fan Fic to “Murder at Mansfield Park”: Because We Want More

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.

Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her novels Jaydium and Northlight are available as multi

format ebooks here on Book View Cafe. Her most recent print publication is Hastur Lord, a Darkover novel with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley.

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From Fan Fic to “Murder at Mansfield Park”: Because We Want More — 14 Comments

  1. I just read this recently, and loved it! In fact as I read the last page I was already hopping onto the internet to let Sherwood know. BVC mavens have probably seen her reworking of the ending of MANSFIELD PARK. (If I were were more handy with the web site I could add a link to it.)

  2. I think the danger of saying “If Jane Austen would have written X it would have come out like this” is that most who have read a great deal of Jane Austen will come back and say “No, she wouldn’t.”

    I noted a huge divide on Goodreads in response to a fine spec fic writer’s “Jane Austen with magic book.” Roughly, most of the Janeites were disappointed–said the characters were flat, there was none of Austen’s wit or subtlety, etc, etc, but those who began reviews with “I don’t like Jane Austen” or “I’ve only seen the movies, but . . .” absolutely adored it. Or if they didn’t adore it, but found problems with the ending, or how little the awesome magical twist impacted society, it wasn’t on the grounds of being “not as clever as Austen.”

    I haven’t read the reviews of ‘Murder at Mansfield Park” yet, as I’ve only gotten a chapter or two into the book, but I notice that while the prose is much more skillful than the above-mentioned book, it’s still not as witty as Austen’s. But the biggest problem for me is that so much has been changed that none of the actual Mansfield Park is present. She might as well have written a historical novel set at Manning Estate, wherein the Carter brother and sister visit the Barlow family, and introduce them to the con artist Fancy Preston.

    I think two things work in the mash-ups: one, the juxtaposition of two radically different sorts of text (the quiet humor of P&P with zombie grossness shoveled in) which works on surprise, or taking a familiar text and playing with it, but still keeping the crucial elements that make it recognizable. As Vera Nazarian did with “Mansfield Park and Mummies.” Or, in film, the filmmaker did with “Clueless.”

    Are mashups still selling well? I wonder about that as the surprise element would be pretty much gone by now.

    I might have a different feeling when I finish “Murder at Mansfield Park” but right now it’s difficult to get back to it–so far, what makes Austen great is conspicuous by its absence, in spite of all the familiar names, and the careful period construction of the sentences.

  3. I am one for whom the Austen/Bronte/Alcott with supernatural elements thing was a good one line joke. I gave up on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies after about three pages; I don’t say this to be superior–it just didn’t tickle me (although I did love the cover of Little Women and Werewolves). I do understand the desire for more of an author’s work, and I do understand the wish, or need, to massage it until it becomes more amenable to addition or wholesale alteration.

    I work in something approaching Austen’s world and attempt a version of Austenian diction (without pretense to her wit or acuity…I have that much humility, anyway). Sometimes having the extra leeway that a tweak to reality gives you is a godsend. There were female thief takers in the 18th century, but I could not shoehorn a well-born female gumshoe into Miss Austen’s world and live with myself; so I tweaked the history, which gave me the space I needed to do what I wanted to do.

  4. Madeleine: I see a distinction between writing stories set in the period in which Austen wrote (or an alternate version, in fact, it could be argued that they are all alternate versions), and experimenting with her texts.

    It could be I’m the only one who sees this distinction because I really enjoy Silver Fork novels of the sort Georgette Heyer wrote, which I see as a direct descendant not of Jane Austen (whose included a lot of satire) but Catherine Grace Gore and Theodore Hook and Benjamin Disraeli, who wrote novels about romance in the beau monde. It’s harder for me to get into novels that experiment with Austen’s text.

  5. Sherwood: I’m sometimes interested in books like Jane Fairfax, which look at the story from a different angle–Rosencrantz-and-Guildensterning the story, as it were. I tend to be far less interested in faux sequels about Lizzie and Darcy’s children or Fanny Price’s sisters, perhaps because those characters seem so complete in and of themselves. And the writers who experiment with Austen’s text set themselves up to be compared with Austen herself–a really dangerous thing to do, if you don’t want to bring down heaps of dismay on your head.

  6. Sherwood, I agree that none of the derivatives match Austen’s originals in wit, style, and handling of character. Much as I enjoyed Murder at Mansfield Park, I also agree (and believe I said as much) that it could just as well have been done as a complete stand-alone without any reference to Austen’s book.

    One of the things we learn to do as pro writers is to take whatever appeals to us in what we read (or watch, or dream) and work with it until it’s truly our own. So the author could have begun with Mansfield Park and let it grow and evolve into something that’s a Shepherd original, not an Austen knock-off. It feels as if Shepherd still has one foot stuck in fandom, not ready yet to let go of her source inspirations. She’s more skillful than most, and this is her first novel, so I’m willing to cut her some slack.

    The other sad fact is that retaining the Austen reference boosts sales. Why else would some be writing one mash-up after another, except that there are a certain number of readers who’ll buy them regardless of quality?

  7. Has anyone read JANE FAIRFAX and how was it?

    I love the concept ABRAHAM LINCOLN, VAMPIRE HUNTER but shudder to think what the story itself must be like.

  8. I thought JANE FAIRFAX was a perfectly good Regency romance, it just wasn’t anything like EMMA, with which (I thought, anyway) it suffered by comparison. I thought, as I do about Murder at Mansfield Park, that the authors would have done better to make up new names and places, and write their own story. But I also understand the lure of extra cash by using the name of Jane Austen!

  9. I feel that the heroine in MURDER AT MANSFIELD PARK is not quite the same as the Mary of the Austen novel. But it is she, if anyone, who is the avatar of the writer.

  10. Interesting discussion – I wrote a piece on the whole sequel/prequel/pastiche/mash-up phenomenon for the Society of Authors magazine The Author, autumn 2010 issue. The article was called ‘Imitation: the sincerest flattery?’ but it’s not available online I’m afraid!

    And Deborah – you may be interested to know my next book is not pastiche, though it does have a complex and (I hope) rich relationship with another text.

  11. The Spouse was called by the ALVS production team for advice and vetting as to what the music should be at a big plantation ball out in the sugarlands of Louisiana.

    Needless to say, the kind of music they wanted the orchestra to play — indeed, the ‘orchestra’ itself as they conceived it was Not Right.

    Not that it matters, though they think it does — “We are 100% historically correct, except for that one little thing about Abraham Lincoln and the vampires who run the slave trade.”

    As they didn’t actually want to pay for the time it would take to really give them the information and music examples etc. they wanted, he gave them the briefest moments of his time he felt was polite.

    Love, c.

  12. I’d probably never have realised how amazingly clever EMMA was if I hadn’t read JANE FAIRFAX, a perfectly nice Regency Romance. I like Aiken as a writer. But what JANE FAIRFAX did for me was make me see that here was the story anybody would have written from those characters and starting points, and want to hug Austen for writing EMMA instead and turning the whole thing inside out.