Partly in celebration, I take it, of the bicentenary of Sense and Sensibility comes this collection of Austenabilia. There are twenty-two stories commissioned for this book which center on Jane Austen or her characters in some way – a wide variety of ways, from what has to be admitted to be fan fiction to insertion of Jane or her ghost as a player in the cast to largely unrelated stories that barely brush the subject at hand. The general premise makes me a little uneasy; would Miss Austen have approved of impertinent strangers jumping her characters through new hoops, much less using her as a character? Perhaps she would. But given that a big part of the little I know about her involves her desire for privacy, I seriously tend to doubt it. It’s a matter of respect for the author, for the person. (I seem to be one of the only people bothered by this… which is nothing new.)
One note to writers who may one day be included in future Jane Austen-themed anthologies: please, for the love of God or whatever else you love best, do not – do not – make your first line any form of play on “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” I’m begging you. There are half a dozen stories in this collection that use it – all right, two, but it seemed like half a dozen – and … really. Refrain.
The cover, I feel, is not a great design. What is close-to obviously meant to be a French memo board (French!?) with cartes de visites tucked into the ribbons just reads from a distance as two deep pink X’s crossing out the female face and the cover itself, cluttered with off-white rectangles. Even though only nine of the contributing writers (23, including the editor) were given a place on the cover, it makes for a crowded image. This placement of the painting detail is better; tucking small cards in the ribbons running across that would read much better.
I admit to being a little perturbed that the book’s official website mentions an enhanced eBook edition; I feel a bit slighted. I can’t find detail about what the enhancements might be, though.
Putting all of that aside, taking the stories individually as stories … well, as is usual for an anthology, there’s a little bit of everything.
1) Jane Austen’s Nightmare – Syrie James
First person POV Miss Austen, literally her nightmare of meeting many of her characters face to face and coping with their reactions to how they were written. Partly written as if the characters existed before Jane wrote them, partly acknowledging that they came from her – it made some sense, but not enough – honestly, unless she did not create him and was in fact slandering a man who existed somewhere independent of P&P, Mr. Collins would be too thick to recognize the satire of his portrait. This was an awful thing to do to a beloved writer. Not the worst thing this book does to this beloved author, unfortunately.
2) Waiting – Jane Odiwe
Hole-filler for Persuasion, puttying in the gap of Anne waiting as Frederick informs her father of their engagement. Hence, along with the obvious 9-year wait for both of them, the title. Not a gap that really needed filling in – I’m not sure that this added anything to the story – and I’m afraid that the writer’s attempt at writing in Jane Austen’s voice (always a hazardous thing to attempt) does not stand up well at all to the inevitable comparison.
3) A Night at Northanger – Lauren Willig
Present-day visit to Northanger Abbey by a Ghosthunters-like team; more clever than I was ready to give it credit for, providing a rather clever fictional history of how the book came about. I hated the beginning, and wound up mildly approving. And then lost a little respect when forty-five seconds’ research showed that it had absolutely no basis in fact. It’s a cute idea – but not nearly as cute as if either Northanger Abbey really did exist or if this story took place in the world in which it does exist and there was the faintest hint that Jane actually wrote the book out of boredom and badness and in such a brief period of time. In the end, rather than giving me the impression that this is a whimsical what-if, it just makes it seem that Lauren Willig didn’t bother to do that 45 seconds’ worth of research.
4) Jane and the Gentleman Rogue – Stephanie Barron
Jane as detective. Barron was either the first to use Jane as a character, or just the first one I encountered. (She might also have been the first or one of the first to use a historical character as her detective, which is not a trend I would want to be responsible for.) I tried the first book in the series, and didn’t care it at all; again, plopping a real person into a wildly fictional setting just makes me very uneasy, and there was nothing in the novel to overcome that feeling. Here either. The story was all right, I suppose, but the heroine could have been any 19th century lady without impinging on it at all – in fact it might have helped it. Using Jane Austen as the main character smacks of disrespect and a simple and basic desire to grab the lady’s coattails, and trying to write in her voice is usually a massive mistake. And I can say with certainty that in the unlikely event that I write anything worth remembering in two hundred years, if anyone gives me the Stephanie Barron treatment I swear I will find a way to come back to haunt her in the most vicious and unpleasant ways possible. So mote it be.
5) Faux Jane – F.J. Meier (Frank Delaney & Diane Meier)
Present-day story regarding fake signed Austen first editions. Again, some background information I hadn’t known, this time real (afaik); but Jane was utterly tangential to the story. It could have been nearly any writer – or a forged painting or fake antique chair or vase or armoire – and the story would have been unaltered, and the clever main characters no less clever. The writing felt oddly disjointed, and there was a page-flipping sense of “wait, what?” several times – which might (though shouldn’t) make sense in that it was written by a team. I’m mildly interested in the characters, despite their shows of hair-trigger jealousy and some murky moments which seemed to depend on a reader being familiar with the authors’ books; I hope most of my approval wasn’t just because of the dog.
6) Nothing Less than Fairy-Land – Monica Fairview
Follow-up to Emma: Mr. Knightley is trying to move in to Hartfield, and Mr. Woodhouse is making it difficult. Making everything difficult. While I understand that coping with Mr. Woodhouse nearly every hour of every day would be a different prospect than seeing him only on visits, I didn’t like the complete about-face in Knightley’s attitude toward him; I don’t believe it, and I don’t like it. He’s not stupid, far from it, and no one but Emma knew Mr. Woodhouse better – he knew what he was getting into. Jane Austen’s heroes do not sulk. I also don’t like the plot device of the renewed match-making – and, again, I don’t believe it. And Ms. Fairview’s Mrs. Elton was nothing more than a rearrangement of lines from the novel. The writing was unobjectionable; I found the story highly so.
This isn’t going well.
7) Love and Best Wishes, Aunt Jane – Andrea Trigiani
An imagined letter from a modern-day Jane to her niece on the occasion of the niece’s engagement. Very pretty sentiments, but not something that rings true as being written by Miss Austen. Maybe I was made too cynical by the first six stories.
8) Jane Austen and the Mistletoe Kiss – Jo Beverley
A brief historical romance with Miss Austen as a walk-on character. Interesting enough to make me consider looking at Jo Beverley’s writing, if it does not fall too solidly into the realm of romance. But – spoiler, sorry – the idea of a pair of brothers marrying a mother and daughter makes me a little queasy, and I don’t think it would be legal. I can’t find anything that says it wouldn’t be, but it feels like it ought to be. It’s squicky.
9) When only a Darcy Will Do – Beth Pattillo
Present day, a Janeite finds herself another Janeite. A little too easy. Cute, though, and neatly avoids all of the things that make me uneasy about so many of the other stories: Beth Pattillo’s characters (though they may superficially resemble Jane’s) are her own, and Jane herself is not utilized. I already liked Pattillo from Jane Austen Ruined My Life; I will keep going with her, though I’m not sure this would have sold me on her.
10) Heard of You – Margaret C. Sullivan
Another gap-filler for Persuasion, this time showing how Frederick was responsible for bringing his sister and Admiral Croft together. There was a threat that was never fulfilled, love at first sight, and a fifteen-year-old Freddie: this felt the most like fan fiction. I love the Crofts, but I’m not sure this was a story that cried out to be told. The description: In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, we are told that Admiral and Mrs. Croft married a shockingly short time after their first meeting, but that they had heard a great deal about each other before they met. How could they have known each other so well? In the midst of war, an unlikely Cupid brings together one of Austen’s best married couples in a story inspired both by Persuasion and by Captain Frederick Marryat’s novel Peter Simple. I’m not sure it’s a great thing that such a short work draws strong inspiration from two novels.
11) The Ghostwriter – Elizabeth Aston
The bitchy, unlikable ghost of Jane Austen helps a writer plagiarize a 19th century novel, thereby fixing her career, and also fixes her love life for her (though how is left open). Ick. I truly disliked this one. I see the merits of submitting an unknown novel to her editor as her own work; the writer actually can write (just nothing her editor wants), and she will be using the original author’s name as her pseudonym, and it will return the book to the public eye as the original author would have wanted. But no amount of convincing will make me believe that Miss Jane Austen, clergyman’s daughter and upright individual, would not just encourage but instigate an illegal act, whatever the benefits for all and sundry. Find a scholar and give her the now-unknown novel to get republished? Absolutely. Tell some woman to retype the thing and pretend she wrote it? Absolutely not. Didn’t like the FMC, hated “Jane”, didn’t think much of the dishraggy MMC. You’re leaving her and you give her a gift that must have cost thousands? What kind of message is that supposed to send? And I didn’t care for the ending. Actually, I didn’t care for any of it.
Also, while the writer has an interesting take on Elizabeth and Darcy – that Lizzie was based on Jane’s sometime paramour and Darcy was based on herself – it fails to hold water for me. From Wikipedia’s article on S&S, fwiw: The plot revolves around a contrast between Elinor’s sense and Marianne’s emotionalism; the two sisters may have been loosely based on the author and her beloved elder sister, Cassandra, with Austen casting Cassandra as the restrained and well-judging sister and herself as the emotional one. If this is correct, Jane = Marianne would hardly translate to Jane = Darcy.
12) Mr. Bennet Meets His Match – Amanda Grange
Gap-filler for Pride and Prejudice: the answer to every thinking reader’s question – “How in the name of all that’s holy did Mr. Bennet get himself shackled to that silly bint?” I like it. Well thought out.
13) Jane Austen, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah! – Janet Mullany
A young British teacher in 1964 brings clearer understanding of Sense and Sensibility to three teenaged girls through the Beatles – and comes to a clearer understanding of her own goals at the same time. This, I think, was the first story I genuinely, whole-heartedly liked. I resisted, but it won me. (Unfortunately, the author bio at the end proudly proclaims she writes Jane-and-zombie type books and smut, so … oh well.)
14. Letters to Lydia – Maya Slater
Different angle on P&P. Letters from Maria Lucas to Lydia, a one-sided conversation (we never see Lydia’s letters) about the events of Pride and Prejudice from a different, air-headed and gossipy, point of view. Interesting alternate-angled fan-fic, with a decent attempt at the juvenile little bint’s voice, but what it added to the story was not something I found palatable.
15. The Mysterious Closet: A Tale – Myretta Robens
Modern day, an American tourist in England meets a perfect Austen hero. Sort of. This story reminded me of the Twilight Zone episode “Going My Way?” Not in a good way. I have no idea what the point was supposed to be – is this heroine’s, Cathy’s, fate the same as that of Nan in that episode? Is she delusional, and if the perspective of the story pulled back from tight third-person to a more omniscient point of view would we see Cathy sitting blissed out and strait-jacketed in a room with soft walls? Or … there really isn’t a third option, not the way this was written. Odd. And, again, not in a good way. One little hint would have been nice as to what and how and why. As it is, I just have no idea what to make of it.
16. Jane Austen’s Cat – Diana Birchall
Jane Austen as character, interacting with nieces. They request fairy tales from her, and she gives them Lady Catherine DeBourgh and her own love life couched in tales about cats. Nicely imagined, nicely written. Sweet.
17. Me and Mr. Darcy, Again… – Alexandra Potter
Present day… Um. A woman meets Mr. Darcy, who gives her relationship advice and more. Me&MDA started off on a very bad foot with me for two reasons: it’s in the present tense, which I loathe, and it assumes from the title onward that the reader is familiar with the preceding book. I’m not. I own it, but I have not read it – and having read this story and looked at some of the GR reviews for the book, I’m worried.
The story was not terrible. I will say that, despite the abuse I’m about to heap upon it. It was very readable. I can’t say I liked anyone in it, or anything that happened in it, but … Um. That does usually mean a terrible story, doesn’t it. Um. I can’t even say I liked the writing, because that damned present tense grated on me throughout. Oh dear. Sorry.
The sense of humor was questionable – the very pregnant friend with the execrable (but expensive) taste was trying. The idea that a woman can have a fight with her boyfriend and pick up and fly to England at a moment’s notice – that two women can do the latter, in fact – leaves me disgruntled: I don’t know a soul who could pull that off, in terms of money or responsibilities. And there were the “Wha -?” factors… Such as: Spike? Really? My sister’s boss has a Bichon Frise named Spike. Alternatively, there is Buffy’s Spike. Other than for cute and fluffy dogs and big bad vampires whose names are actually rather ironic, really, “Spike” should be used very sparingly indeed. Maybe it’s explained in the book, but – honestly – who would want a marriage proposal from a guy named Spike?
And as for the illusion or delusion or ghost of Mr. Darcy … well, what is he? A fictional character’s ghost? A manifestation of what one of the other stories talks about, enough people concentrating on one fictional character that he develops a life of his own? Only this one doesn’t know he’s from a book …? Or is the main character going to join that other story’s heroine strait-jacketed in a padded room rocking back and forth and staring dreamily into space? I don’t know. I just don’t know. I read fantasy, and am willing to suspend disbelief even when the writer makes it difficult. In this story and the other one I just can’t make out which disbeliefs to suspend.
18. What Would Austen Do? – Jane Rubino and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway
Present day, Austen as inspiration. I groaned when I started this – another one in the present tense. And oh, great, an adolescent POV. But. I genuinely liked this, a lot. It’s a brilliant and unique take on the theme. A boy who’s smarter than the average vamp, who has grown up in an atmosphere completely saturated with Austen, discovers almost accidentally that his mom isn’t the only female who admires Jane. And that there are certain advantages to approaching life as an Austen hero might. The biographical note at the end states that the authors are considering expanding the story into a novel; I’ll buy it if they do. I use “charming” very sparingly, but it applies here. Also: delightful.
19. The Riding Habit – Pamela Aidan
Sequel to Pride and Prejudice, as Darcy determines to teach Lizzie to ride whether she wants to or not, and Lizzie feels herself deep in over her head trying to juggle the myriad details of planning Georgiana’s coming out ball. For a change this is a story I like more as I think about it; often that’s detrimental. But it felt true to the characters, Darcy’s blind spots and Lizzie’s stubbornness. And – at least in retrospect – I loved the self-referential touch of Lizzie’s fury with the novel she was reading.
20. The Love Letter – Brenna Aubrey
Present day, a young man receives a page from Persuasion in the mail from an unknown source just as the only woman he ever loved comes back into his life. Oh, well done. Brenna Aubrey won a contest hosted by the Republic of Pemberley website with this story, the prize being inclusion in this collection. Honestly, I think it’s the collection that won, and Ms. Aubrey did it a favor by contributing this – it was beautiful.
21. The Chase – Carrie Bebris
The story of how Jane Austen’s brother Frank achieved promotion to post captain. This was much better than I expected. I apparently don’t seem to have the same objection to the use of lesser known historical figures as main characters: Jane Austen as MC = bad, but Frank Austen = fine. (I’m inconsistent. So sue me.) I may have to overcome my prejudices and try one of the writer’s books. My main hurdle with this kind of story is lack of respect; that doesn’t seem to be a problem. Here at least.
22. Intolerable Stupidity – Laurie Viera Rigler
I expected to hate this; I didn’t, but wasn’t enamored of it. When I realized this was the last story I skipped ahead to it because I didn’t want the collection to suffer from OnTheProwl-it is: hideous last entry leads to low rating for collection and leaves bad taste in mouth. But the story handled the idea more adroitly than I expected. I liked that it took on the problem I’ve been complaining about: the cheek of using someone else’s characters in ways the Creator would not have countenanced. I did not like “Fritz Williams” – the name, at least; the character was all right. The story was more over the top than I generally enjoy, but actually a smart way to close out the book.
So, on the whole, the lesson I take away from this collection is multi-leveled. Be very judicious (and respectful) in using a real historical personage as a character, and the same goes for another person’s fictional creations. If you do so you must take off from very solid ground: apart from the obvious, don’t make random crap up, because it will only make you look foolish. And don’t under any circumstances begin with any “truth universally acknowledged”.