Twitter has misinformed me. There I was, getting all excited about #AustenInAugust, and it turns out not to be a thing. It was a thing in 2019, but apparently not this year.*
Do I care? Not a fig, for that tiny bit of misinformation led me, via a circuitous route too complex to recall, to this little bit of fan fiction published just as WWI was preparing to change the face of Europe.
Old Friends and New Fancies: An Imaginary Sequel to the Novels of Jane Austen (Sybil G. Brinton, 1914, NYPL e-book) is the likeliest candidate for the prize of First Piece of Jane Austen Fan Fiction. Brinton’s only novel, it gathers primary and secondary characters from Austen’s six major works, focusing to a greater part on Georgiana Darcy, Kitty Bennet and Mary Crawford, whom Brinton has chosen to place at the center of her marriage plot. Austen herself had said that Kitty eventually married a curate who lived near Pemberley (which Brinton uses), but gave no hints of Georgiana’s and Mary’s fates. That Brinton rehabilitates Mary Crawford initially struck me as odd, but of all the women left unmarried in Austen’s work, she is, in fact, the most attractive and intelligent. In the end, I was relieved that all barriers to her happiness were removed, just as with the others. After all, that is what a marriage plot is about.
Most of the familiar characters are there: The Wentworths, Tilneys, Knightleys, Bingleys and Darcys, Edward Ferrars, and Edmund Bertrams are all healthy, still happily married and comfortably settled throughout England. They provide houses — both in the country and in London and Bath — for the others to visit and intermingle, setting up all kinds of possibilities for match-making. The fact that these families all know each other seems a bit far-fetched, given the range of their wealth, but it isn’t strictly impossible. (It makes me want to write a sequel/s that show how each meets the others.)
Knowing Austen’s plots certainly helps in understanding relationships between and among characters, especially as some are only briefly referenced, but isn’t required. Being a Janeite is required, however, in being able to appreciate Brinton’s attempt to model Austen’s style. Here, for instance, is Brinton’s first sentence:
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; and in some cases, where their wishes are strong and circumstances seem favorable to the exertion of their own efforts, they may even embark upon the perilous but delightful course of helping those persons whose minds are as yet not made up, to form a decision respecting this important crisis in life, and this done, to assist in clearing the way in order that this decision may forthwith be acted upon.
It’s an excellent attempt, although perhaps a bit long and lacking Austen’s spritely tone. Compare it with this:
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
Note the word seemed, in which Austen suggests that Emma, “handsome, clever, and rich”, may be missing something important to her maturity — something that, perhaps, can only come from being distressed and vexed. Brinton’s sentence, no matter how closely it adheres to Austen’s style, gives no hints of unformed character, nor does it make any satirical statement, as do the starts of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. It lacks that knowledge of human nature that lies behind all of Austen’s prose.
It’s a brave soul who takes on the burden of writing sequels to Austen, which these days run the gamut from murder mystery (P D James) to romance (Joan Aiken) to horror-parody (Seth Grahame-Smith), not to mention all the modern reworkings for film (Clueless, Bride and Prejudice, etc.). I can understand the allure: Austen’s characters are irresistible. When Brinton brings Jane and Elizabeth’s father, Mr. Bennet, to Pemberley for a short visit, I relished every statement he made concerning Kitty’s frivolity and desire for attention. On being asked for permission to marry Kitty, Mr. Bennet explains to the man,
Let me know when the time comes to wish you joy …, and I will do it, but life is so uncertain that I think for the present I had better refrain. Have you ascertained whether Kitty can cook, make her own gowns, and trim hats? I understand it is a great promoter of married happiness when the wife can do so, and I am not sure whether all my girls have turned their education to such good account.
I wish Mr. Collins had also appeared, and I absolutely longed for Henry Tilney’s teasing wit.
Despite its failings, Old Friends and New Fancies was good entertainment. I generally feel about Austen sequels the way Dr. Johnson felt about women preachers: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” To be honest, Brinton has done surprisingly well with this sequel. I can recommend it to anyone who is not ready for another read-through of Austen’s oeuvre.
*If #AustenInAugust2020 is out there, please let me know!