Edited by Laurel Ann Nattress of AustenProse fame, Jane Austen Made Me Do It is a collection of twenty-two short stories from established authors which are centred around the ‘theme of exploring Austen’s philosophies of life and love by reacquainting readers with characters from he novels or introducing original stories inspired by her ideals’. Having enjoyed Dancing With Mr Darcy, a similar project, I decided to take a closer look. What I discovered were a range of good-natured spin-off pieces from a range of authors – strangely to me but perhaps unsurprising, many of the writers involved were already familiar to me from the wider Austen community. Jane Austen Made Me Do It presents the harvest of many of the great lady’s most devoted fans.
As with many anthologies, some stories were more enjoyable than others. The book opens well with “Jane Austen’s Nightmare” by Syrie James, which sees Jane encountering her own various fictional creations, with Marianne Dashwood demanding to know why she is the only one of Austen’s heroines who is unable to marry her one true love while Marianne’s sister Elinor, arm in arm with Fanny Price, explains that it might have been better if Austen had made them slightly less perfect. Stumbling to get away from characters who feel she has done them wrong, Jane runs into Susan Moreland and explains that she does intend to buy the copyright to her back from the publisher, but once she does, she’ll be having to change Susan’s name to Catherine. Nodding happily, the future heroine of Northanger Abbey skips away. Finding herself in peril from a mob led by all of the many Austen monsters (Mr Collins, most of the Bennets, Caroline Bingley, Lady Catherine, the Eltons, the list goes on), Jane wakes up with a start and decides to write Persuasion.
Still, not all of the stories caught the right note. I found Jane Odiwe’s ‘Waiting’ to be unreasonably irritating in how it deviated from the canon events of Persuasion (as if Mary Musgrove actually knew about Anne’s previous engagement – no way would she have been able to keep that secret) but then last year I gave up on Jane Austen Rides Again which was by the same author so perhaps she and I just don’t quite share the same Jane Austen. It’s just that I imagine the version of Jane Austen that I know would roll her eyes at a story which ended ‘good things come to those who wait’. Similarly for the stories which included a ‘ghost’ Jane Austen appearing to offer advice to an otherwise modern heroine, such as in ‘A Night At Northanger’ or ‘The Ghost-Writer’ – I felt that these writers were summoning upon the spirit of the lady of the portrait with with the blank eyes and empty head, Divine Jane rather than the woman who actually once lived, breathed and wrote some incredible novels.
Overall, when Jane Austen Made Me Do It is good, it is very, very good but when it dipped into the realms of cliche, it became quite tedious. I could not care for ‘Jane Austen and the Gentleman Rogue’. Stories which attempted to poke trouble into the happy conclusions such as ‘Nothing Less Than Fairyland’ also felt unnecessary. And then in ‘Love and Best Wishes, Aunt Jane’, author Adriana Trigiiani has her depiction of Austen announce to her niece Anna that James Austen had been her favourite brother, which given the wealth of biographical evidence that shows that he wasn’t seems more peculiar than anything else. Obviously though, a theme as broad as Austen’s ‘philosophies on life and love’ will provoke a range of responses, particularly with an author as open to interpretation as Austen.
Better perhaps to focus on what I did enjoy. Having read Maya Slater’s Mr Darcy’s Diary, her chapter ‘Letters to Lydia’ was a lot of fun, showing the events of Pride and Prejudice from the muddled perspective of Maria Lucas and fitting in nicely with Slater’s previous work. Diana Birchall’s ‘Jane Austen’s Cat’ was a lovely imagining of Austen as Aunt, while having read in Among The Janeites about how Pamela Aidan’s hobby of writing Darcy-focused internet fan fiction helped her to escape an abusive marriage, it was a delight to realise with ‘The Riding Habit’ that not only that, her stories are actually really good! Still, I had to giggle over Laurie Viera Rigler’s ‘Intolerable Stupidity’ which saw Austen characters complaining about the influences of fans, with Mr Darcy complaining that since 1995, he has constantly had a cold due to being constantly wet, but then more recently he has even found himself growing fangs. Despite all this, my favourite story of the collection was Janet Mullany’s ‘Jane Austen, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah’, set in the 1960s with a teacher who manages to make Sense and Sensibility relevant to a group of girls in detention by relating the story back to the Beatles, all the while considering her own future. It was reassuring to realise that true creativity can still found in such well-worn territory.
Jane Austen Made Me Do It feels like a bubblegum read after a lot of hefty biographies – fun, fizzy and fairly harmless but perhaps best enjoyed by the fans.
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Published by Ballantine Books on October 11th 2011
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