Friday, May 1, 2009

Jane Austen and "Another Lady"

While at my weekly Library Trip (yes, with dried pee on my capris), I noticed a book by the name of Sanditon under the Jane Austen section. I pulled it out, and indeed, it was by Jane Austen and "Another Lady" (complete with quotation marks). Apparently the year before she died Austen began a book, but was only halfway through the eleventh chapter before she grew too ill to work on it any longer. Sometimes I wonder how I have managed to obtain the age of 26 1/2 without being aware of this (as well as another unfinished novel, the Watsons).

I gave the book a try and was pleasantly surprised. On Goodreads I gave it a three out of five. The second author was not Jane Austen, and the further the story line went the more un-Austen like it became (although immediately I could tell the break. For one thing, Dobbs, the second author, used words like jealous. Austen wouldn't say jealous, when she could say, 'a vague feeling of unease stole over Charlotte's consciousness, which she effectively repulsed by squarely turning away from the vignette of Mr. Parker and Miss Brereton in conversation at the window, and inquiring after Lady Denham's health.') The end of the book ends in a most un-Austen like manner more reserved for the later Bronte sisters, who do not mind a bit of melodramatic villainy, nor exposing their heroines to walk homeless over the moores.

As well, in the first 10 1/2 chapters there were delightful moments of pure sardonic wit that is what I love the most about Austen novels. Ultimately I can get romantic plots from any library shelf, but only in Austen do I usually have gems of sentences; "Mr Parker's character and history were soon unfolded. All that he understood of himself, he readily told, for he was very openhearted; and where he might be himself in the dark, his conversation was still giving information to such of the Heywoods as could observe." The rest of the book does an admiral job of affecting the general style of Jane Austen, nor does it fall into the common problem of sounding like a "historical novel" rather than one written in the time period, and not just about the time period. (Of course, I enjoy many historical novels. The Work and the Glory certainly do not sound like novels written in the 1830s and 1840s. Nor would I want them to. But Jane Austen's style is not about the time period as much as her writing.), but it falls short of being Austen prose.

Occasionally later in the book, I could almost feel that perhaps this could be Austen, but then all too soon I felt I was seeing Austen through a glass darkly - the characters became more shallow, less bound by the mores of their day, and rather more unpleasant to read. Plus Austen does a combination of third person narrative and third person omniscient. She will have descriptions of people that the main character could never know, such as this one; "Sir Edward's great object in life was to be seductive. With such personal advantages as he knew himself to possess, and such talents as he did also give himself credit for, he regarded it as his duty. He felt that he was formed to be a dangerous man, quite in the line of the Lovelaces. The very name of Sir Edward, he thought, carried some degree of fascination with it."

After the changeover, the book proceeded only with third person narrative, thus missing some of the greatest Austen moments when she describes directly to the reader the world, without an intermediary heroine's perceptions. One of the defining qualities of Austen is her subtlety, and this point comes to the fore when reading prose attempting to be Austen herself. The main characters as seen through Dobb's eyes are all more gross, more plebeian, painted with broader and brighter strokes, defined more by their acclaimed hobbies and quirks and less by the casual verbal interplay that over time displays their multi varied personalities. Charlotte, the heroine, becomes more critical and debased, and even the villain loses out.

With all this said, I still felt it was the best fan fiction of Austen I have read. In a fit of weakness this week, I also picked up a book called Emma and Mr Knightly, which was rather ghastly. The author tried, but with phrases like "naked flesh" and "white bosoms" thrown around, not to mention a strongly hinted lesbian friend of Emma's, and of course the necessary half year misunderstanding between Emma and Mr Knightly, a year after their marriage, that results in, shall we say, separate bedroom arrangements that leads to no conjugal bliss, shall we say. Sure, for a modern romance, it was positively prim - but I think if Austen herself read this novel, she would have unleashed the full scathing force of her pen against such a book. I did not actually read the novel - after a couple chapters I began paging through to the end, only stopping so Avram and I could chuckle at yet another improbably plot twist that the world of Emma and Mr Knightly could no more exist in than their marriage moving wholesale into our modern world. Compared to this book, Sanditon was quite the masterpiece.

As Jane Austen meticulously records life for the gentry and the delicate social dance of courtship of the early 1800s, she is so much more than a romance novelists. Her plots extend beyond placing two persons together in marriage. Sanditon devolves into merely a romance - striking in some areas, decidedly mediocre and dragging in others, but ultimately "just" a romance. And this is, for me, the most striking difficulty with reading fan fiction of Jane Austen. So many love her for just the romance, just the Mr Darcys and the love letters of Captain Wentworth, that perhaps to them any Austen-like romance will do. I suppose for myself and others like me, I shall have to wait until the Millenium. Do you think then Austen could be compelled to keep her pen flowing?

(I do recommend the book, especially if you enjoy regency romances in general. Then this book does a very good job of delivering a good romance, and the Hero, Sidney, is quite enjoyable. Just don't think of it as an Austen novel.)


  1. Jane Austen did not write romances, as you said, nor do I think were they regarded as such in her lifetime. I think they were what we would call nowadays "mainstream fiction". I wish she had written more.

  2. If you can analyze writing that well and perceptively, you're ready to write your own novel. I'm waiting.

  3. You've echoed my own feelings about Sanditon perfectly. I expected the ending to be weak when I first picked it up, but was shocked at the clear line between Austen and Dobbs' work. It was mildly apalling, and yet I was grateful that Austen's own work on the post-mortem joint effort had been published for public consumption.

  4. Can we put in requests? I think you should read the other editions by different continuators and let us know which one is best.