From the desk of Katie Jackson:
Long before Jane Austen was widely known for her six complete novels, she was a youthful storyteller who wrote humorous tales for the amusement of her family and friends. In more recent years, Austen’s juvenilia has been put in the spotlight and given the adaptation treatment that was previously only bestowed on her most famous works. Indeed, this year’s Jane Austen Society of North America Annual General Meeting focused on Austen’s earliest stories. Robert Rodi—author of this latest juvenilia variation—was a plenary speaker at the JASNA AGM and discussed how Austen’s writing had evolved from pure farce to social satire and finally to the irony of her mature novels.
The original Amelia Webster epistolary short story by Jane Austen—introduced by the young author as “an interesting & well-written Tale”—was comprised of only 454 words in seven brief letters, and yet masterfully presented eight protagonists and a fairly complete storyline. In a most amusing fashion, Robert Rodi has crafted a sardonic wink of a novel out of Austen’s juvenile attempt in the upcoming Amelia Webster: A Novel After Jane Austen.
Welcome to the tiny village of Rovedon in Hertfordshire, where the gossips make sport of predicting the nuptial pairings in the extremely limited number of local youth. Our narrator begins with the introduction of Tom Pierce and Jack Fitzmark, two gentlemen who “took up residence together at two-and-thirty, thus making it apparent that they would marry no one at all.” (4) Tom and Jack, no longer the subjects of matrimonial speculation themselves, carry on with their own thoughtful conjectures about the eventual wedded bliss of the remaining young people.
The female component is comprised of only “three marriageable daughters among the village elite (the others being as yet too young and green, or too old and overripe).” (7) Although the Hervey sisters, Maud and Sally, were initially considered on equal footing with their counterpart, soon enough “a distinct advantage was awarded to Miss Webster when her cousin-in-law’s son contracted to wed the grand-niece of a viscount. This gave her a family connexion to the nobility that must make her the village’s prize catch.” (9)
Tom and Jack were particularly fond of the Hervey girls for their kindness and serenity, “and considered Amelia Webster excessively proud. (Tom had famously quipped, ‘Were she to hold her nose any higher, a sudden rainfall might drown her.’)” (13) Her haughty expectation of deference from all those around her, including her downtrodden parents, meant that “Amelia Webster was, as a result, much respected, but not at all admired.” (27)
The male contingent, on the other hand, complicated matters, seeing as how there were only two of them to choose from: George Hervey, Oxford graduate and brother of the Hervey sisters, and Benjamin Bar, heir to a rich uncle in ill health. Alas, George preferred the friendly Italian ladies he’d met during his Grand Tour of the continent. He “did not openly rebel against his parents’ efforts to attach him to Miss Webster, but only because he harbored an intention someday to dishonor them more profoundly, by marrying abroad.” And Benjamin, whose heart belonged to another lady, pursued Amelia only so as not to risk disinheritance.
In a surge of cleverness, Tom Pierce suggests to George Hervey that he invite his Oxford friend, Henry Beverley, to visit Rovedon. Tom “considered that the addition of a new bachelor in town might reorient the unhappy state of its current matrimonial outlook.” (66) Similarly, Amelia Webster herself seeks resolution by hosting a dance in the assembly rooms of a nearby village. “‘I have it in mind,’ she said in a voice like cut glass, ‘to use the occasion of this dance to determine which of my suitors I will encourage to declare himself.’” (131) With the stage set for merriment in equal numbers of ladies and gentlemen, the intrigues have only just begun.
Although I typically prefer a relatable heroine over an obnoxious one, I enjoyed the ways in which the author demonstrated how Amelia Webster is both a recognizable villain as well as someone to be pitied. Her puffed-up ego was most certainly a result of her parents enabling her sense of entitlement out of a misguided desire to dote on their only child. Of course, it is to their own detriment and the detriment of all those unfortunate souls in her sphere, as is often the case with unintended consequences.
Those who enjoy sarcastic wit, clever turns of phrase, and nonsensical musings will be entertained by Amelia Webster: A Novel After Jane Austen.
4 out of 5 Regency Stars
- Amelia Webster: A Novel After Jane Austen, by Robert Rodi
- Independently Published (August 1, 2020)
- Trade paperback (216) pages
- ISBN: 979-8663912631
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Cover image courtesy of Robert Rodi © 2020; text Katie Jackson © 2020, Austenprose.com