Austen-ish – A Reading List of Austen-inspired fiction

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Compiled by Annabel and Elaine

Perhaps more than any other author, including Dickens and the Brontës, Jane Austen has inspired other writers to use her characters and settings to write sequels, retellings and homages of her six novels and handful of her other writings. We have surveyed this huge field to select our favourites plus a few notable (or notorious!) others. Space precludes including more, but we hope you’ll all leave comments to share your favourite Austen-inspired novels.

Modern Retellings – The Austen Project

HarperCollins’ project to publish modern retellings of Austen’s novels, seems to have hit the pause button after the first four titles – there is no news on who will take on Persuasion and Mansfield Park. The series started with Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility which followed its source closely. It was followed by Val McDermid rewriting Northanger Abbey as a frothy YA novel with the Gothic becoming Twilight’s vampires – NA’s protagonist is only seventeen and it was Austen’s first novel to be completed, if not published, and I felt McDermid was misunderstood in taking the YA route (review here). Alexander McCall Smith was next, taking on Emma, but his version of Austen’s heroine was more than unlikeable, she was cruel. Arguably the most successful in this series so far is Curtis Sittenfield’s Eligible which retells Pride and Prejudice, relocating it to Cincinatti, (by the way, Ursula Le Guin in the Guardian didn’t like it!). Given that these retellings have been given a hard time, dare any author take on one of the other two?  Annabel

The Monster Mash-up – Pride & Prejudice & Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith (and Jane Austen)

This became a huge bestseller with a film adaptation last year. Purists didn’t like it, but I did! What Grahame-Smith does very cleverly is to preserve much of Austen’s text intact, editing and then inserting his own words to give us the zombies. Just read the opening:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains. Never was this truth more plain than during the recent attacks at Netherfield Park, in which a household of eighteen was slaughtered and consumed by a horde of the living dead.
“My dear Mr Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is occupied again?”
Mr Bennet replied that he had not and went about his morning business of dagger sharpening and musket polishing – for attacks by the unmentionables had grown alarmingly frequent in recent weeks.

It takes a comic approach rather than a horror one and this works very well. The zombies though, with one notable exception, are expendable extras – there is a high turnover in servants. Grahame-Smith nearly pulls it off, but the zombie mayhem did flag in the latter stages. Quirk Books went on to bring out Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Ben H Winters – but that may be stretching the monster mashup concept too far methinks.  Annabel

The below stairs angle – Longbourn by Jo Baker

Sub-titled Pride and Prejudice, the Servant’s Story, in Longbourn we view the Bennett family and their ups and downs through the eyes of those below stairs.

We are so used to loving Elizabeth and Jane and thinking how delightful they are, so it comes as a slight shock to see them portrayed as rather careless of the feelings of their servants, taking them for granted. Sarah is up at dawn on washday and her hands are chapped and bleeding:

If Elizabeth Bennett had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah thought, she would be more careful not to tramp through muddy fields.

Readers of Pride and Prejudice are used to thinking of Elizabeth as a good sister who walks to the Hall when Jane is ill, we never think of the hard work this entails at laundry time.

Longbourn is a fascinating take on Pride and Prejudice and Jo Baker makes us look at Austen’s characters in a totally different way. We feel sorry for Mrs Bennett at the contempt with which her husband treats her, and Mr Darcy seems even more forbidding than normal in Sarah’s eyes. What makes this book so interesting and delightful is the feeling of family between the servants. Mr and Mrs Hill have a convenient marriage with affection and friendliness for each other; Polly the young orphan girl is loved and nurtured and protected from the attentions of Wickham; Mrs Hill and Sarah have a kind of mother/daughter relationship. We all know what happens to the Bennets, but I want to leave you wondering what happens to James, Sarah, Polly and Mr and Mrs Hill. A wonderful book.  Elaine

The Crime Sequel – Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

Set at Pemberley six years after P&P closes. Elizabeth and Darcy now have an heir and spare in the nursery, Elizabeth is settled as mistress of the manor and Darcy is a local magistrate. It’s the night before the annual Pemberley ball held in honour of Darcy’s late mother. The Darcys and Bingleys are having a quiet family dinner with their houseguests.

Suddenly, a commotion stops the dinner party in its tracks. A chaise rattles from the woods and out spills Lydia, saying that her husband Wickham is dead! Whilst no-one would be sad to see the last of the dastardly Wickham, (or to suffer less of Lydia’s histrionics), to have him killed off in the opening chapter would have been remiss. A search party does find a body and – it’s not Wickham. Indeed, he appears to have been the perpetrator and is taken into custody.

James’ main arc thus belongs to Darcy, and she fleshes out his and Wickham’s back story. Darcy plays a sort of Dr Watson to the succession of investigators, and having a foot in both camps we gradually get a real feel for Wickham the man. Meanwhile, Elizabeth ministers to all her charges, including the staff who are fond of her. She has the knack of finding out little confidences, which help everything to add up in the end complementing Darcy’s more robust stance. All that remains is to decide whether James has cracked it. She knows her Austen, although Darcy and Elizabeth feel more like their television incarnations. We do get a good picture of the Regency judicial process. Death Comes to Pemberley is an entertaining if solid mystery.  Annabel

Handing on the story – Mansfield Park Revisited by Joan Aiken

Mansfield Park used to be my least favourite Austen. I found Fanny Price acutely irritating and always felt that I wanted to give Edmund a kick up the backside. Since then however, the more I read it, the more I like it. Fanny is still too good to be true and can appear priggish, but she is a good person who sticks to her principles and ultimately gets her just reward.

In Aiken’s sequel, Sir Thomas has died and his elder son is now the baronet at Mansfield Park. Edmund and Fanny embark on a voyage to Antigua to attend to the family properties there, thus removing them neatly from the scene, and leaving the way clear for us to concentrate on Susan, Fanny’s younger sister, who came to live at Mansfield at the end of the Austen novel. She is more fearless than Fanny, less shy and nervous, and has made her mark at Mansfield and settled in well. Out of the blue a letter for Fanny arrives from Mary Crawford, who has been unhappily married, is now ill and who wishes to come and stay nearby for the summer to convalesce. It is with some trepidation that Susan goes to meet this notorious and fascinating character and gradually falls under her spell, as does Tom too.

Mansfield Park Revisited is really a rehabilitation of the Crawfords. By the end of this sequel, the Crawfords had proved themselves to be much nicer characters than we have been led to believe. Joan Aiken avoids the main trap of any Austen sequel or prequel in over egging the style of writing and speech which make some of this genre so difficult to swallow, and I found the fascination of this story all over again. In the end, I found myself liking Mary Crawford enormously and feeling for her as her illness drew to its inevitable conclusion. Despite Mary Crawford’s demise, there is a happy ending which proves just how well the transplanted Fanny and Susan Price have settled in Mansfield. I won’t say any more…  Elaine

A Golden Age Curiosity – Darkness at Pemberley by T.H. White

T.H. White is famous as author of the marvellous Arthurian stories collected as The Once and Future King. However, I’ll bet you had no idea his first book was an Austen-linked Golden Age crime novel, published in 1932 when White was in his twenties. The Austen connection isn’t clear at the start. The first part of the book, which is set around 1930, tells of a murder at a Cambridge college. It’s a classic locked room scenario in which a Fellow appears to have shot himself after murdering another student in lodgings nearby. Inspector Buller is on the case. Buller works out who the murderer is, but doesn’t have any evidence. The murderer, another Fellow called Mauleverer, can’t keep quiet. He privately confesses all to Buller, knowing that Buller can’t prove it.

In part two, Buller retires from the force, disillusioned after his failure to convict. He goes to stay with a friend – Sir Charles Darcy, who lives at Pemberley in Derbyshire with his sister Elizabeth. Charles and his wife had lived quite a wild life, but she died in an accident, Charles ended up in prison and he now keeps to himself at Pemberley, looked after by Elizabeth. Buller recounts the crime to Charles, who is so incensed on Buller’s behalf that he leaps in a car and drives down to Cambridge to put the threateners on Mauleverer. Mauleverer’s response is to come to Pemberley and terrorise Buller and the Darcys further. He plays with them, using the network of conveniently recently swept chimneys to make ghostly appearances and leave messages in the house – before things take a deadly turn once again and then Elizabeth disappears leading to a wild goosechase up and down the country before the denouement at Pemberley.

Buller remained a well-drawn character, and I did take a liking to Elizabeth – however the many contrivances in the longer country house mystery section of the book required too much suspension of disbelief. Darkness at Pemberley was entertaining but, as an Austen-inspired novel, it is a mere curiosity. Annabel

The next generation – Mrs Darcy’s Dilemma by Diana Birchall

Sequels to Pride & Prejudice abound, varying wildly from boring to soft porn (which I binned!), but this book by Diana Birchall certainly does not fall into either of these categories and is excellent. She catches the ironic tone and rhythm of Jane Austen’s language beautifully.

The Darcys have three children, Fitzwilliam, Hugh and Jane. Fitzwilliam is rather a dull uninteresting heir to Pemberley and his parents worry about him and how he will manage Pemberley in the future. Jane and Mr Bingley also have problems with their only child Jeremy, who is weak and lacks character. Meanwhile, Bettina and Chloe, two of Lydia’s numerous children, are invited to Pemberley for a visit and Fitzwilliam forms a passion for Bettina, whereupon history repeats itself as they run off to live together in London…

Mrs Bennett is no longer with us, but we have a brief scene with Mr Bennett before he dies, where his wit is still very much in evidence.

“I am glad you are here my Lizzy. I confess I have been in terror of joining your mother and hence I have kept off the eventuality as far as was possible”.

We meet many other characters again, including the ghastly gorgon Lady Catherine de Burgh, who is just as haughty, proud and unpleasant as she has always been. Likewise, the ubiquitous Mr Collins is as humble and obsequious as ever. We reacquaint ourselves with Mr Bingley’s sister and Kitty and Mary Bennett and I am delighted to say that they remain as unpleasant or as silly as they have always been. Anybody who loves Jane Austen and who is eager to find out what happened next will greet this book with eagerness and joy. I loved it. Elaine

The Theme Park – Austenland by Shannon Hale

When a thirty-something New Yorker with a Colin Firth as Darcy fixation that no mortal man can live up to is stuck in a rut, what’s to do? Jane swears to give up men, but her old aunt sees through her, and when she dies, she leaves Jane a holiday experience – a trip to Pembrook Park in England. Jane will spend three weeks of total immersion, role-playing at an exclusive resort, where the Regency rules, where you can live out your Austenland fantasies – and maybe even find your own Mr Darcy.

This novel cleverly pastiches Austen, but the laugh is on us. Hale builds in many little anachronisms to keep reminding us that we’re not in the Regency era, it’s the 21st century, and everyone except Jane and two other guests, are actors – it’s all fake and they all have a role to play. This means for instance, that a romance with the gorgeous gardener should be totally out of the question for Jane – the Darcy-esque Mr Nobley has been put there to parry with her,

I have to admit that I found myself enjoying this novel. It is a very light and very frothy romcom, but it is imaginatively written and a cure for the Darcy blues.  Annabel

We hope you’ve enjoyed our small selection of Austen-ish novels. We didn’t have room for Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding, The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler, Love & Friendship by Whit Stillman, just to name a few. Don’t forget to let us know any others we missed and that you’d recommend in the comments…

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Elaine blogs at Random Jottings.

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