This book did have a slightly amateurish feel – Sarah Waters explains in her foreword what her criteria were for a winning entry. Not only was ‘good writing’ necessary (a hard-to-quantify term if ever there was one) but also a certain way in which they engaged with the source material. I found it interesting the way that Waters described the often cartoonish Austen fandom of recent years; fixated with Mr Darcy and generally synonymous with Pride and Prejudice only. Miss Austen was author to more than one book. Certainly, I felt that this anthology achieved what it had set out to do in widening the scope of thinking about Jane Austen but I definitely found some of the stories were more effective than others.
My favourite was the first one, ‘Jane Austen over the Styx’, where Miss Austen is put on trial after death by her most unlikeable characters – the middle-aged women. Mrs Norris, Lady Russell, and Mrs Bennet all get to have their say and Jane is forced to defend herself and her punishment does seem a cruel one. Another highly evocative chapter was ‘Second Thoughts’, featuring that infamous night when the Ultimate Spinster Miss Jane Austen found herself briefly engaged to Mr Bigg-Wither. As Jane tries to summon up reasons to be happy about the match, her fears and doubts mount up until only one option can be possible. I also enjoyed ‘The Delaford Ladies’ Detective Agency’, although I still think that trying to inject a mystery into Jane Austen never has much chance of success, as Death Comes To Pemberley proved quite so spectacularly. The attempts to modernise Sense and Sensibility via ‘Marianne and Ellie’ felt more believable than Joanna Trollope’s effort last year but still lacked a certain something.
|Jane Austen’s home in Chawton|
The re-tellings set in the modern world were an interesting mix. I felt rueful recognition at the precocious child in ‘Cleverclogs’ who smugly read Austen for the achievement rather than from any true understanding (I was nine when I first tackled Pride and Prejudice). I also thought that the wartime staging of a theatrical P & P had a sweetness to it that reminded me of certain black and white wartime films. The narration by the topless model studying literature surprisingly did put some of Austen’s observations about womanhood into a modern context – this was clearly a competition with very high standards. Still, I was surprised (or perhaps not so surprised) by the number of stories which took the idea of rediscovered love as their theme, borrowed from Persuasion. Is this what we are all secretly longing for? To find our way back into the arms of a lover long-forgotten?
I doubt that I will ever seek this book out again but I still felt a respect for what it had set out to do; after two hundred years of Janedom, to consider her work with a fresh eye. So many of her observations on the world still hold true today and yet to the casual observer, she is merely the creator of Mr Darcy, that writer whose main focus is to marry her heroines off to very rich men. True fans know that nothing could be further from the truth, that Austen was an ironist, that love was not her focus but rather the lives of those she had around her. In opening up the field to everyone, the editors of this collection attempt to translate Austen’s words for a new and fresh audience, to prove that these stories are not for the rarified or the costume drama fan. To paraphrase Mr Darcy, ‘every savage can dance’.
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Published by Harper Paperbacks on October 19th 2010
Genres: Fiction, General, Short Stories (multiple authors), Spin-off
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