Old Friends and New Fancies by Sybil Brinton

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Reviewed by Harriet Devine

There is one characteristic which may be safely said to belong to nearly all happily married couples – that of desiring to see equally happy marriages among their young friends.

If you’re anything like me, you will probably recoil at the thought of a Jane Austen sequel.  That’s not to say that there haven’t been any good ones, and in a way I can understand those people who feel deprived when they’ve read all of Austen’s novels  and long for a bit more, but somehow I am always aware that I’m reading a pastiche, and long just to hear Jane’s own authentic voice.

However —  even if you do feel that way, I must urge you to make an exception for Old Friends and New Fancies. This was the first ever sequel, published in 1914, and it is a sheer delight from start to finish. Sybil Brinton — about whom little or nothing seems to be known — had the happy idea of writing a continuation, not just of a single Austen novel, but of all of them rolled into one. This in itself is such a joy. Everybody from every novel turns out to  know everybody else. You may think this is stretching a point, and in a sense it is, but on the other hand nothing is more likely, really, when you come to think about it. All these people move in the same social circle, after all, and at this period you would be bound to meet people of your own age and class in Bath or in London. So of course Elizabeth Darcy knows Ann Wentworth, Mary Crawford is forming a friendship with Colonel Fitzwilliam, Kitty Bennett stays in London with Emma Knightley, Elinor and Edward Ferrars live close to Pemberley, the Wentworths have befriended Fanny Price Bertram’s brother William, and so on. So yes, it makes sense, but each time  somebody new pops up, you get a little thrill of delight (or I did, anyway).

Brinton really knows her Austen like the back of her hand, and seems able to reproduce her voice, her plotting, and her ethos, with uncanny accuracy. The plot is ingenious, and very true to Austen’s manner and methods. The chief protagonist is Georgiana Darcy, who is a delightful and very typical Austen heroine. She has all the intelligence, the charm, the moral fibre, and the ability to suffer her pains and troubles alone, that we are used to meeting in Austen’s own much loved heroines.  As the novel begins, she is just in process of breaking off an engagement with Darcy’s cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam, and feeling very unhappy and guilty about it, even though Elizabeth and Darcy assure her that it is the right thing to do and that he will not suffer. Then there is her best friend, Kitty Bennett — and how nice it is to find her getting a fair crack of the whip here, after being so much subsumed by Lydia. Kitty has fallen madly in love with William Price, now a successful young naval man waiting to get his first command, and shares her numerous ups and downs with her friend. As we are frequently told by the critics, Austen ‘s heroines can be divided into two kinds, heroines who are right and heroines who are wrong (and who learn by their mistakes, obviously). Kitty is wrong, in one important way anyway, and hopefully she does learn, though in fact we don’t really see her doing so. However, she is rewarded by a happy marriage, and things look bright for her future. Then there’s Mary Crawford, a much sadder and wiser woman since her brother eloped with Maria Rushworth, enveloping her and her sister Mrs Grant in the resulting scandal. Still extraordinarily beautiful, and independently wealthy, Mary is much sought after by gentlemen in search of an attractive wife, one of whom is Sir Walter Eliot, still as egregious as before…

Well you get the general idea. Other people also get things wrong, and there are a satisfying number of misunderstandings, love affairs that look as if they will never be sorted out, hearts that seem irretrievably broken, illnesses, and confusions. Emma Knightly has not stopped matchmaking, Mrs Jennings still interferes in her silly well-meaning way, Lady Catherine is just as high-handed as ever (though Elizabeth has learned to handle her better), Tom Bertram has reformed somewhat, William Price has turned out really really well, Catherine Morland’s brother James is now the vicar of a church near Pemberley, and so on and so on.

Brinton seems to channel Austen’s prose in a remarkably satisfying way. I’m terribly fussy about the way language is used, and a false step grates on me horribly, so I was happy not to find any here. The only real way in which this novel departs from Austen’s practice is the fact that we get quite a bit of insight into the thoughts and feelings of the male characters, and sometimes into their conversations with each other, which, as you know, are signally omitted by Austen herself. But that’s OK as Brinton handles it all extremely well.

In this little attempt at picturing the after-adventures of some of Jane Austen’s characters I have made use of the references to them which she herself made, and which are recorded in Mr Austen-Leigh’s ‘Memoir’.

So says Brinton in her ‘Author’s Note’. The researcher in me is immediately tempted to follow this up, but life is short so I probably won’t. Anyway, it doesn’t matter because in all essentials, she has got it absolutely right. I suppose anyone would enjoy this book even if they were not already familiar with the originals, but clearly it is intended for people who are. So full marks to Hesperus for re-publishing this to coincide with the centenary of its first appearance.

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Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Sibyl Brinton, Old Friends and New Fancies (Hesperus Press: London, 2014). 9781843915348, paperback, 331 pp.

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