Austenesque author Rebecca Ann Collins: Decidedly Discusses Jane Austen Sequels

 

Image of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Pride and Prejudice, (1995)

“Upon my word,” said her ladyship, “you give your opinion very decidedly for so young a person. Pray, what is your age?”  

“With three younger sisters grown up,” replied Elizabeth smiling, “your ladyship can hardly expect me to own it.”  

Lady Catherine seemed quite astonished at not receiving a direct answer; and Elizabeth suspected herself to be the first creature who had ever dared to trifle with so much dignified impertinence. Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 29 

Win a copy of The Pemberley Chronicles! 

Image of the cover of The Pemberley Chronicles (2008)Recently, Austenprose was sent a review copy of The Pemberley Chronicles written by Rebecca Ann Collins, a sequel based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Being unfamiliar with the series, we were astounded to learn that this is the first novel in a series of ten that were previously published in Australia between 1997- 2005. We were curious about the author, who we learned writes under a nom de plum. She kindly sent us her story that she had previously contributed to, Jane Austen: Antipodean Views, edited by Susannah Fullerton and Anne Harbers, for The Jane Austen Society of Australia, Sydney 2001.

Let it never be said that author Rebecca Ann Collins does not express her opinions decidedly, turning her displeasure of other Pride and Prejudice sequels into writing ten novels to suit her notion of what Miss Austen’s Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet’s future life was like together. Like Jane Austen’s character Lady Catherine de Bourgh, we were both intrigued and astonished by her decided opinions on the Jane Austen sequel industry. One of the benefits of writing anonymously is that you can say what you will, and she does! We offer a few responses, because, we must always have our share of the conversation.

Image of Mr. Darcy, Charlotte Lucas and Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejuidce, (1995)

“How I came to write The Pemberley Chronicles makes an interesting tale. The BBC’s magnificent TV production of Pride and Prejudice had just concluded in 1996 when I was given a video copy to which I soon became addicted. Having read the book many times, I enjoyed seeing Miss Austen’s witty masterpiece brought stunningly alive, perfect in every detail. (None of the productions before or since has had the same energy and polish.) 

We heartily concur with Ms. Collins there! The recent ITV and BBC adaptations were ‘nice’, but did not match the “light, bright and sparkling” darling of Austen adaptations, the 1995 BBC/A&E Pride and Prejudice. 

Pride and Prejudice Continued“That Christmas, a well meaning niece presented me with two books- sequels to Pride and Prejudice by Emma Tennant titled, “Pemberley” and “An Unequal  Marriage“. To my huge disappointment, I found that in these “sequels” Jane Austen’s beloved Elizabeth and her Mr. Darcy had been transformed into players in an American style soap opera – set in Regency England! Shallow, self-indulgent and often downright silly, they were quite unrecognisable. Their superficiality, lack of judgement and total disconnection from Miss Austen’s original characters so appalled me that I sent off an irate letter to the publisher and the Jane Austen Society of the UK.” 

Having not read Ms. Tennant’s novels, we can not comment on the truth of their silliness, but we are aware of several other Pride and Prejudice sequels that would certainly qualify as being written in the style of an American soap opera, and even, dare we say, soft-porn! Others readers do too, and we were reminded of this amusing and tongue-in-cheek review on AustenBlog.

“But the more I fulminated, the more frustrated I became. It was in this context and with the encouragement of a literary friend whose judgement I respected, that I began work on The Pemberley Chronicles, which I saw as a means of extending  the lives of Jane Austen’s own characters into the  wider environment of nineteenth century England.” 

Hell wath no fury like a woman scorned, or a Janeite who has had her Austen characters trifled with! 

“I wanted to place them in the context of that most dynamic and interesting period of English history and observe them as they dealt with events in their own lives and the consequences of profound social, political and economic change. A sort of “Life after Meryton” exercise- if you will.” 

Image of the cover of Regency Buck, Georgette Heyer, (2008)Ms. Collins historical research is quite extensive. Even though Miss Austen concentrated on the microclimate of her characters country lives, and rarely mentioned their outside world, Ms. Collins’ novels delve beyond the Austen realm of working “on three or four families in a country village” and place the characters in full historical context. She has created a much wider environment evolving into the historical romance genre, similar to Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series or Georgette Heyer’s Regency Buck.

“I could not accept that after Waterloo, with change all around them transforming the lives of all the people in England, educated and intelligent men and women as Darcy and Elizabeth are shown to be in the original novel, would spend all their waking moments absorbed by the most superficial matters of fashion, romantic intrigue and gossip – before falling into bed again! Yet, that is exactly how they are portrayed in a rash of so- called “sequels, which have come thick and fast since the BBC made Pride and Prejudice and to a lesser degree Jane Austen – a cult! In some parts of the world sequel writing appears to have reached epidemic proportions – with no accounting for quality.” 

When one looks at sequel authors and publishers, her mention of “some parts of the world” appears to be the USA. Being Americans, we’re not sure we appreciate the spirit of that remark. The cult of Austen sequels has certainly become a cottage industry, but Americans by no means have a monopoly on accountability of quantity and quality. We are a nation founded upon free speech and capitalism. We agree that sequel quality varies, but the appeal to readers is as diverse as Miss Austen’s characters in her novels.

“More recently, there have been attempts at bizarre distortions of character and increasingly improbable sexual adventures – to “spice-up” the reserve and dignity of Miss Austen’s characters – all of which serves to reveal an ignorance of the complex values and morés that underpin the world view of Jane Austen.” 

Image of the cover of Mrs. Darcy\'s DilemmaWe take the Jane Bennet approach to the whole business, and try to make them “all good”, until proven otherwise. We love the language and style of Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma, but the sales of author Linda Berdoll’s ‘Darcy‘ series would support that the majority of readers like silly and sexy in their sequels. The difference, in our minds, between a good sequel and a bad sequel is honesty, respect and loyalty to Miss Austen.  

“Hers was not the world of Tom Jones or Vanity Fair; rather, her main characters in whom she invested a great deal of integrity and commitment, reflect the best of eighteenth century Augustan values. They were no less passionate or emotional for being imbued with a sense of dignity and decorum. Like Jane Austen, they valued reason, wit, and sound judgement in both public and private life. Those that did not – like Lydia and George Wickham, or Maria Bertram and Henry Crawford ( Mansfield Park ) were shown up for what they were. Jane Austen is quite pitiless in exposing them to censure and ridicule.” 

Image of Mr. Collins, Pride and Prejudice, (1995)

This is beginning to sound like a Fordyce sermon. We appreciate Ms. Collins’ passion, but she is preaching to the choir here. We abhor sexing up Austen under the pretext of modernization. Austen did indeed apply morality lessons through her un-proprietous characters, but some authors and screenwriters have not heeded her example! We have not read all ten novels in The Pemberley Chronicles series, but we can safely say that there is little “spice” or “adventure” to throw off Austen purists in the first one. Thank you Mr. Collins, – oh we meant Ms. Collins!

Nor was I comfortable with the kind of linguistic “pastiche” – using Jane Austen’s phrases and other contrived “regency-style” constructions that seem to be de-rigeur among many sequel writers. I make no attempt to imitate Jane Austen’s literary style; that would indeed have been presumption of a high order. 

Austen is all about language and style, so we are at a bit of a loss here. If a sequel writer does not wish to emulate Miss Austen’s “Regency-style” or language, does just borrowing her characters names qualify a novel a Jane Austen sequel? 

“I do not pretend to be another Jane Austen – I merely affect a recognisably ‘period style’ of writing to suit the context of the stories I tell – which range over a fifty year period of the 19th century. So, as you see, The Pemberley Chronicles was a sequel which resulted from a reaction against another, earlier sequel. Almost one might say an Austenian irony of circumstance – but to judge by the response of my readers – a very happy one. 

The Pemberley Chronicles begins with the marriage of the Darcy’s and Bingley’s, and progress into the next generation and beyond for 50 years. Ironically, it may have been inspired by the author’s dissatisfaction of another authors sequel of Pride and Prejudice, but her vision of how the Darcy’s lives continue has evolved into an entirely different genre, and may not be a sequel at all.

Image of the cover of The Pemberley Chronicles (2008)CONTEST: Win a copy of The Pemberley Chronicles, Volume I. Leave a comment before 11:59 pm on April 30th, stating your opinions pro or con on the recent “epidemic proportions” of Austen sequels, and your name will be entered in a drawing to be announced on May 1st.  The winner will receive a new copy of the book by mail.

Austenesque Author Diana Birchall: Brouhaha in the Haha!

Image of the cover of Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma, by Diana Birchall, Sourcebooks (2008)LAUGH

“Oh! shocking!” cried Miss Bingley. “I never heard anything so abominable. How shall we punish him for such a speech?”

“Nothing so easy, if you have but the inclination,” said Elizabeth. “We can all plague and punish one another. Tease him — laugh at him. Intimate as you are, you must know how it is to be done.”Caroline Bingley & Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 11

My introduction to author Diana Birchall came in a very humorous round-about-way. Last fall, as I wandered onto a book review of a new Austenesque sequel that she had reviewed on AustenBlog, I was doubled over with laughter and filled with awe.

In my professional capacity as a bookseller, I read book reviews by the boat-load, always searching for a new author or title to recommend or enjoy myself. Many of the reviews are skillfully written by professionals who use trite phrasing and power words. (blaugh) Few rarely tell the truth. This was not the case with Diana’s review. She had entirely broken the mold, caught my attention, and earned my deep respect.

It’s always a good sign when the reviewer has me laughing within the first paragraph, and even more astounding when it continues throughout the entire book review – to the point of hysteria! Something very honest and profound resonated with me in her confident off-the-cuff remarks laced with irony and wit. What aplomb! What talent!

I was delighted to learn that her book Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma, which had been previously published in England, had been picked up by SourceBooks and would hit the bookstores in April 2008. It could not have happened to a more talented or virtuous Janeite. Better yet, she might receive the recognition that she deserved, and other readers would have the opportunity to share in the delights of one of the finest writers in the Austenesque genre.

Diana has kindly agreed to contribute a bit of writing to bring us up-to-date on her latest news about her book, and her amazingly diverse life.

Wednesday 12 March, 2008

RE: Brouhaha in the Haha

Dear Laurel Ann:

Can any other author of Jane Austen-related fiction be having a stranger week than I am?  First, this week my Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma has sailed into all the Barnes and Noble bookshops across the country, flags flying and sails fluttering.  My son and I rushed to the one in our neighborhood last night, and he took a picture of me plopped down on the floor among the books, grinning ear to ear, and pointing wildly and inaccurately at a book by Maeve Binchy.  Very exciting!  And the overwhelmingly warm reception the book has already been given by a dazzling cyberuniverse of book reviewers has made me, as an author, feel like Fanny Price when Edmund assured her of his love:  “Let no one presume to give the feelings of a young woman on receiving the assurance of that affection of which she has scarcely allowed herself to entertain a hope.”  Happiness indeed!  Why, at this very moment, a cat temporarily named Mr. Darcy is pondering, on the Dove Grey Reader site, who is to win five free copies with a touch of his paws!

So, wild and wonderful happenings enough for one week, you’d think.  But no.  I’ve just been told that I am to fly to New York on Wednesday to appear as a deponent in the Harry Potter Lexicon trial!  The connection between Jane Austen and Harry Potter may appear to be tenuous; though in fact there is more than one link:  J.K. Rowling is known to be an Austen fan (or why else would she name a cat character Mrs. Norris?), and of course both are well beloved in our time.  Jane Austen, however, is dead, more’s the pity; and safely in the public domain, so that people like me and many of you can frolicsomely write about her characters, and she can neither complain nor institute intellectual property lawsuits.

That is not the case with Harry Potter.  J.K. Rowling has filed a lawsuit against the author and would-be publisher of a Harry Potter Lexicon, an encyclopedia dealing with her books, and the case is to be heard beginning on March 24.  So that is how it happens that J.K. Rowling and your far humbler author and blogger, namely me, will take the stand!  You may well wonder how this came about.  For I have lived in Austen’s created worlds for several decades now, reading her novels so many times as would always be called thousands. I actually wrote Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma as long ago as 1994; it was originally published in England, and I am thrilled that SourceBooks is giving it international publication in this very exciting week.

But my “day job” is at Warner Bros Studios, where I work as a Story Analyst.  This means that I read novels, manuscripts, sometimes quite old books (I’ve read all of Jane Austen for work at one time or another) to see if they’d make movies.  I love my work, but it’s usually fairly quiet in nature.  In fact, the years of my career have passed quite uneventfully, with nothing much happening except that I’ve read and recommended books and scripts that became movies ranging from Rocky and Terminator to Moonstruck and Becoming Jane.  Inevitably, I’ve read quite a lot.  And written a bit too:  a scholarly biography of my grandmother, the first Asian American novelist Onoto Watanna, as well as my Jane Austen-inspired fiction:  Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma and several Mrs. Elton stories, published as In Defense of Mrs. Elton and Mrs. Elton in America.  Late last year, however, it fell to me with my Story Analyst hat on, to do the literary/legal assignment of comparing the Harry Potter Lexicon with the Harry Potter novels of J.K. Rowling.  Compare them I did.  And that, in short, is how it happens that I am being Disapparated to New York next week.

It should be an extremely interesting experience; the case (which I will not describe explicitly for obvious legal reasons) is a fascinating investigation into intellectual property matters, and it is certainly shaping up as the biggest media circus I’ve ever been, or am ever likely to be, involved with in my life.  I labor, after all, in far more modest literary pastures than Ms. Rowling – mine is “the modestest part of the business,” as Mary Crawford said.  But I am not such a modest creature as not to be thinking how this remarkable media storm might be made, like the forked lightning that raked Harry’s brow, or the thought of love that fled with the speed of an arrow into Emma’s heart – into benefiting publicity efforts for my book!

Perhaps I ought to draw the curtain here; an author’s flailing energetic promotional efforts are not a pretty sight, and ought to take place behind the scenes.  Yet several helpful friends have already come up with suggestions.  I take the stand wearing a “Buy Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma” T-shirt.  I hand Ms. Rowling a copy of the book.  I give interviews and invoke the name of Mrs. Darcy twice for every once I say Harry Potter.  No:  I must regretfully conclude that the two events, my publication and this trial, had better not be mixed.  They are an unequal match.

Yet it is undoubtedly an exciting time.  My spirits, like Elizabeth’s, are sometimes in a “high flutter”; but then the next moment I feel like another heroine:  “Never had Fanny more wanted a cordial.”

Perhaps I should stick to the subject at hand here and tell you about Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma.  One thing I can promise you:  it is not as dull as Fordyce’s Sermons which had Lydia gaping.  No, it is a work, I hope, light, bright and sparkling; though as it opens twenty-five years after the close of Pride and Prejudice, Mr. and Mrs. Darcy’s eyes are a little dimmed by time.  Their love for each other is as strong as ever, and they are happy in their mature lives.  Until, that is, a certain possibly unwise invitation is issued and Lydia’s two daughters descend upon Pemberley, with consequences to the neighborhood, to the Darcys’ sons, and to the London theatre. The book takes place in changing times, when the young Queen Victoria is coming to the throne, and she is the exact age of Elizabeth’s daughter, who…

But I must not tell the whole story!  Don’t you want to own a book that by this time next week, J.K. Rowling herself may be reading?

Diana Birchall

Image of author Diana Birchall in Barnes & Nobel with Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma (2008)Thank you Diana and good luck with your Potter exploits. We hope to have a review of your book, Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma up shortly, but “I would not wish to excite your anticipation” by thinking that it will contain a fraction of humor or insight of your own genteel, but no-holds-barred book reviews! La!