I can still remember it so clearly – my first encounter with Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. I was in my pink-walled, sloping-ceilinged, shoe-box bedroom, staying up way past bedtime reading Pride and Prejudice for 7th Form English. I was just as captivated by Austen as Mr Darcy was by Elizabeth’s fine eyes and lively, playful disposition. Till then, the books my teachers had made me read were nothing short of torture (Lord of the Flies, anyone?) But with Austen, I was in heaven!
I laughed. I cried. I held my breath when Mr Darcy told Elizabeth how ardently he loved and admired her. And when Elizabeth told him he was the last man in the world she could ever marry. Would they ever get their happy ending? I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough!
I couldn’t wait for the end – and I wished it never would end. Isn’t that the paradox of a great book?
If a book is well written, I always find it too short.
~ Jane Austen
Of course I didn’t stop with Pride and Prejudice. Without a next chapter, the next book is the next best thing. But sadly, the list of “Next Books” is tragically short. Austen only wrote six novels. Six! Die hard fans can also read the half-finished-only-just-begun novels Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon, and there’s her teenage writings, but after that there really is no more.
Un-less, that is, you make a foray into the weird and wonder-ful world of Austenesque and fan-girl novels. Our catalogue is just bulging at the seams with sequels and sidequels, spinoffs and knockoffs, re-writes and re-hashes. These spin-offs take Austen in every literary direction imaginable. Of course there are your regular, romantic, chick-lit books. Then there are zombie-monster-vampire stories, murder mysteries, modern retellings – even duckish picture books!
And, I was surprised to find, this is not a new phenomenon. Joan Aiken revisited Mansfield Park back in 1984. “Another Lady” (aka Marie Dobbs) completed Sanditon in 1975. And in 1926, Rudyard Kipling (I know! Kipling!?) wrote The Janeites.
You might think that I, being an Austen fan and all, would have read some of these books. But no. With some trepidation, I decided it was time to change that. I wasn’t sure what to expect…could anything be as good as Austen?? Would they be…well –crappy??
Well, you won’t know till you try, will you? So here is what I’ve been reading lately:
- A Weekend with Mr Darcy was an amusing, lightweight read. I thought the hero was more of a Mr Rochester than a Mr Darcy, though, and I couldn’t help feeling a little bit sorry for the soon-to-be-cast-off almost-ex-fiancé.
- I really enjoyed Whatever Love Is by Rosy Rushton. It reminded me a bit of Clueless – I guess that’s not surprising since they are both modern retellings featuring rich, and somewhat silly teenagers. Not Frankie, though. I think I liked her better than Austen’s Fanny Price – is that a sacrilege? The best thing was that it made me want to read Mansfield Park again, because I hardly remember it!
- Now, I admit that I haven’t actually read Bridget Jones’s Diary, I’ve only seen the movies. I didn’t even realise it was based on Pride and Prejudice till I clicked that Colin Firth is Mr Darcy in this movie too! And now I discover that The Edge of Reason is based on Persuasion. Do I not know my Austen as well as I thought I did? Or did Helen Fielding miss the mark?
- The Darcys Give a Ball is my favourite so far. It was originally subtitled “Whatever became of Charlotte Lucas?” and it’s set 25 years after Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage. I thought that Elizabeth Newark did a really good job capturing Charlotte and Mr Collins, though perhaps not quite such a good job with Elizabeth Bennet. It was great that Newark stuck to the futures that Austen herself had imagined for the Bennet sisters. I laughed out loud at her pairing of the Collins’ boy with the Elton’s daughter. But I got a bit annoyed with the name dropping. I mean, come on, did she have to use every single one of Austen’s characters? It was a bit, well, Austen-tatious. Apart from that, it was a great read!
- I found Joanna Trollope‘s Sense and Sensibility a little, well…dull. All the nonsense about heirs and primogeniture seemed rather silly in this day and age, and the general patheticness of all the Dashwood women (including Elinor, who should have had more sense) rather annoyed me. It started to pick up a bit somewhere in the middle, but unless you’re intent on reading your way through all The Austen Project books, I don’t think I’d bother with it. I’ve got Alexander McCall Smith‘s Emma on hold. Will it be better, I wonder?
- Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is sitting on the hall table waiting for me to read. I’m not at all sure what I’m expecting! Ultraviolent, zombie mayhem isn’t generally my cup of tea, but I have heard it’s quite good, actually. We’ll see!
So I’ve rather enjoyed my trip into Austenland, after all!
It’s Jane’s 239th birthday today – she was born on 16 December 1775, so why not celebrate with an Austen-inspired read yourself? I’ve put together a list of some likely looking titles, and I’d love to know how you enjoy them!