Having long been credited as the grandmother of the romance novel, it is an interesting notion to ponder if Jane Austen can also be attributed as an early feminist writer. Did she gently inject progressive thinking into her female characters to bring about the equality of the sexes? While we have been admiring Austen’s style, wit, and enduring love stories, were we missing the subtext that Austen’s strong female characters were also way ahead of their time?
Rational Creatures, a new Austen-inspired short story anthology edited by Christina Boyd posits the possibility. Sixteen Austenesque authors have been challenged with the task to create original stories inspired by Austen’s ladies—both heroines and supporting characters—revealing details, backstories, and asides that could have been part of the narrative.
If you are doubtful of the feminist infusion gentle reader, then let’s take a closer look at the famous quote from her final novel Persuasion, which obviously inspired the title of the anthology.
“But I hate to hear you talking so, like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days.”
In the foreword, Prof. Devoney Looser explains how for two hundred years we have turned to Austen to “reflect on the world’s unfairness, and to laugh at its trivial absurdities…to avoid unequal marriages…and seek Austenian combinations of inventiveness, wisdom, and entertainment.” I could not agree more. In an era when women were treated like tender plants, Austen bravely portrayed her ladies’ vulnerabilities and strengths. In this collection, there is a wide variety of stories from heroines and minor characters who exhibit intelligence, patience, resilience, and grace to advance their own causes. Here is a brief description of the stories that await you:
- “Self Composed,” by Christina Morland – With the death of her father and the passing of the Norland estate to his eldest son, stoic Elinor Dashwood continues sketching her environment and the people in her life as way to cope with the loss of her home, to hold on to memories of happier times, and the affection that she harbors for her sister-in-law’s brother Edward Ferrars. Confined by her sex, social strictures, and reduced finances, she can do little but draw, and wait. (Inspired by Sense and Sensibility)
- “Every Past Affliction,” by Nicole Clarkston – Marianne Dashwood reflects upon her own sensibilities after a grave fever almost takes her life. Still resistant to Colonel Brandon as a suitor, her sister Elinor and her mother already see him as her intended. Gradually, the loss of her first love and the torment from her unguarded behavior are replaced with a sense of hope and renewal, and a new love. (Inspired by Sense and Sensibility)
- “Happiness in Marriage,” by Amy D’Orizo – As Elizabeth Bennet and her sister Jane discuss the possibility of her accepting the unfavorable Mr. Collins’ looming offer of marriage – they also debate the merits and shortcomings of the unions of their own parents, their aunts and uncles, and the qualities of the young men of their acquaintance as perfect, or imperfect gentleman. Later when embraced by love, Elizabeth discovers that she must re-evaluate her list of priorities. (Inspired by Pride and Prejudice)
- “Charlotte’s Comfort,” by Joana Starnes – Being unromantic, Charlotte’s marriage of convenience to Reverend Mr. Collins has more benefits than she expected, though her best friend Elizabeth Bennet can find few. As her life takes unexpected twists, amazingly she always lands on her feet. (Inspired by Pride and Prejudice)
- “Knightley Discourses,” by Anngela Schroeder – Nine years into her marriage with Mr. Knightley, Emma nee Woodhouse, is bored with her settled life of comfort and ease at Donwell Abbey. Warned by her husband George not to meddle or match make, her curiosity with the Winthrop family, whose return to Highbury after many years of absence, causes her to do exactly what her husband wished she would not. (Inspired by Emma)
- “The Simple Things,” by J. Marie Croft – The weight of the world lies on Miss Hetty Bates’ shoulders. As a middle-aged spinster, she has refused an offer of marriage from their landlord. Certain he will evict her and her elderly mother in an act of revenge, she takes action. Reflecting upon her youth and her one lost chance at love, she is grateful for friends and family, and the strength of her own convictions. (Inspired by Emma)
- “In Good Hands,” by Caitlin Williams – After falling in and out of love three times, Harriet Smith is in London staying with Mr. & Mrs. John Knightley when love #1, Robert Martin, arrives to deliver papers from Mr. George Knightley. Against the former advice of Miss Woodhouse, she learns to trust her first instincts. (Inspired by Emma)
- “The Meaning of Wife,” by Brooke West – Taken in as an impoverished cousin by her rich Bertram relations, Fanny Price has been raised to be subservient and meek. Amid a household of immoral and dissipated cousins, her one solace and love has been her cousin Edmund. When he finally asks for her hand in marriage, she hesitates unsure that he truly knows her heart after she reads Mrs. Wollstonecraft’s, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. (Inspired by Mansfield Park)
- “What Strange Creatures,” by Jenneta James – While living in London with her uncle, Mary Crawford is visited by a local magistrate, James Hunter, who is investigating the disappearance of a young heiress with connections to her family. Puzzled by this and a string of other missing young ladies, Mary is compelled to do her own sleuthing. Instead, she discovers unsettling news that will change the course of her life. (Inspired by Mansfield Park)
- “An Unnatural Beginning,” by Elizabeth Adams – Young Anne Elliot meets dashing naval officer Fredrick Wentworth, and after a short courtship accepts his offer of marriage, only to be persuaded by a well-meaning family friend into declining it. Three years later another man calls on her wanting her hand. Can she ever love another? (Inspired by Persuasion)
- “Where the Sky Touches the Sea,” by KaraLynn Mackrory – Subsequent to dining with the Musgroves, her brother Captain Wentworth, and Anne Elliot, Sophie Croft, wife of a rear admiral of the white, reflects on their fifteen-year marriage and the one year that they spent apart while he was on duty in the North Sea. Left to wait twelve months before his return, her worry for her husband results in the worst year of her life. (Inspired by Persuasion)
- “The Art of Pleasing,” by Lona Manning – Mrs. Penelope Clay, daughter of Sir Walter Elliot’s solicitor Mr. Shepherd, visits the Elliots at Kellynch Hall to spy on the family for her father and advance his hopes that they will come to reason regarding their financial crisis and retrench. Taken to Bath with the family, Penelope maneuvers the Elliots into household economies by flattery and devotion in hopes of being the next Lady Elliot. When cousin and heir William Elliot arrives in Bath, they are soon locked into a deadly dance of power and deceit. (Inspired by Persuasion)
- “Louisa by the Sea,” by Beau North – After suffering a head injury from a tragic fall from the Cobb in Lyme Regis, young Louisa Musgrove drifts in and out of consciousness hears poetry recited to her, and is cared for during her recovery by the Harvilles and Captain Benwick. The carefree girl who leapt from the sea wall for Captain Wentworth’s arms is now inclined toward the other captain who was there to catch her during her recovery. (Inspired by Persuasion)
- “The Strength of the Attachment,” by Sophia Rose – Following her engagement to Henry Tilney, Catherine Morland unknowingly befalls adventure abroad in Oxford while seeking her missing brother James, whose disturbing lapse in communication with his family requires further investigation. Challenged by many obstacles, Catherine never knew she was born to be the heroine of her life. (Inspired by Northanger Abbey)
- “A Nominal Mistress,” by Karen M. Cox – Eleanor Tilney, the dutiful daughter of a tyrannical father, navigates her second Season in hopes of finding a suitable husband to meet her father’s demanding standards, and stir her heart. Life sends her the second son of an earl, who must shortly depart for Barbados to attend family business. Will she follow her heart and elope, or abide by her father’s wishes and marry a titled lord? With the help of an unlikely ally, she may surprise herself with her decision. (Inspired by Northanger Abbey)
- “The Edification of Lady Susan,” by Jessie Lewis – Miss Susan Beaumont, her family, and closest confidant Miss Alicia Ffordham, correspond with each other engaging in idol talk and spurious gossip, admonishment and flattery, and speculation and scheming, all while maneuvering attachments within their sphere. (Inspired by Lady Susan)
With an anthology of 486 pages, it is unfortunately impossible to review every story for the benefit of the reader. I will instead mention a few that I found outstanding. They all have a common thread—they evoked strong emotion; either laughter or tears, and sometimes both. First up is “Knightley Discourses,” (Schroeder) perfectly captured the personalities of Emma and George Knightley while they discussed their day’s events during pillow talk. They say dying is easy, comedy is hard. I laughed so hard I startled my cat. “Where the Sky Touches the Sea,” (Mackrory) was a beautifully written backstory of one of the few happy marriages in Austen’s canon. Impressive in style and scope of characterization, I will never think of Sophie Croft and Persuasion again without remembering this 2-hankie weeper. “Louisa by the Sea,” (North) visualized Miss Musgrove’s physical recover adeptly and her romance with her new beaux was swoon-worthy too. “The Strength of the Attachment,” (Rose) re-imagined the naïve spirit of a heroine in the making, Catherine Morland, to my delight. #TeamTilney will be happy that he arrives in his gig, albeit a bit late in the story.
All-in-all, Rational Creatures is an “excessively diverting” bespoke short story anthology inspired by Jane Austen’s socially and romantically challenged female characters, who after 200 years continue to reveal to us why being in love is not exclusive of being a rational creature.
5 out of 5 Regency Stars
Rational Creatures: Stirrings of Feminism in the Hearts of Jane Austen’s Fine Ladies, edited by Christina Boyd
The Quill Ink (2018)
Trade paperback & eBook (486) pages
Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Cover image courtesy of Quill Ink © 2018; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2018, Austenprose.com