Yes, that’s right. That’s what she’s become…
Before I go any further, let me say, I was reading another author’s blog this morning about Austen and he was ranting away about how her sharp and satiric work has been stripped of its cleverness, its irony and repartee and bundled into the emotional erotica of Regency Romances (and no, I’m not referring to Georgette Heyer, here)…and I’m thinking, I could have a heated agreement with this person.
Which brings us back to now.
Because what I wanted to say, besides agreeing with this chap, is just how deeply disturbing it is and it should be–not just to me, but to those who call themselves Janeites and who read and admire her work–that she’s thus treated.
The latest instalment in this saga is the announcement by Harper-Collins that they’ve signed Joanna Trollope to write a new, contemporary Sense & Sensibility. When I broke this news to a friend (with an MA in English) she burst out laughing and all she could manage for some time was, “Joanna Trollope? Joanna Trollope?” before falling about in another fit of mirth.
But ye gods and little fishes! If HC thinks that Ms. Trollope (who I am sure writes lovely, wonderful, superb novels–I haven’t read any but I’m sure she’s excellent…) can replicate the gimlet eye of the wise and sardonic Miss Austen, I can only stare in amazement.
Because Austen isn’t what those who like to watch Keira Knightley simpering and gawping through that lobotomised version of Pride & Prejudice think she is.
She isn’t nice. She wasn’t writing romance–as I’ve said elsewhere. She’s honest.
For starters, she doesn’t necessarily admire the clergy–which given the day and age in which she was writing, plus the fact that her father was a clergyman, is pretty strong stuff. In fact, one might even go so far as to say she frequently thinks them odious. And given that she would have met a fair few, as the daughter of a vicar, I fancy she was writing from life.
If you doubt me, examine the various clergymen in her novels. Mr. Collins, in Pride & Prejudice, may be all I need to say to prove my point. But Mr. Elton in Emma is pretty skin-crawling too. Both of them might be said to have the Christianity of a tableleg…though perhaps I’m being unjust to tablelegs here; they, after all, serve a useful purpose.
And yes, there is Edward Ferrars in Sense & Sensibility, who disappoints his social climbing family in order to become a country vicar. There is likewise Edmund Bertram who marries Fanny in Mansfield Park–he being the only redeeming feature of the entire Bertram family.
But for the daughter of a patriotic clergyman to be saying this? At a time when Christianity or Anglicanism was wholly enfolded in what it meant to be English? (As opposed to their enemy, the French, who were, following the Revolution, considered godless, with Napoleon as the veritable anti-Christ. And no, I’m not exaggerating.)
You’ve got to hand it to her. The woman had guts. But no wonder she published anonymously.
But she didn’t just use her pen as scalpel to carve up the clergy. For Austen also wasn’t too keen on parents. Which isn’t particularly ‘nice’ either.
Mr. Bennet is a witty idler who doesn’t look after his daughters and won’t bestir himself, hence nearly brings the family to grief. Mrs. Bennet–well, she speaks for herself. She bellows, simpers, shrieks, moans, cries and carries on for herself too.
What about Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion? Vain, stupid, conceited, useless, feckless…did I mention vain?
Then there’s the gorgon, Mrs. Ferrars, in Sense & Sensibility. The woman is a veritable Medusa. And vicious too–when Edward announces his engagement to the penniless Miss Steele, the old bag cuts off his inheritance and gives it to his foppish brother. But when the chancer, Miss Steele, transfers her affections to the brother with the money and dumps Edward, the old trout doesn’t likewise disinherit the brother. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove are fine parents and it’s clear that Austen held them, or those upon whom she modelled them, in great affection.
But old Mr. Woodhouse? A hypochondriac who keeps his daughter dancing attendance on him through his constant fears and fancies about draughts…
Which brings us neatly to Miss Austen’s view of those who manipulate through pretended ill-health. And note here–four out of six completed novels feature one of these characters. So what is she saying about that and who exactly got up her nose to such an extent that she skewers them ever so slyly in four novels?
Equally, for one who’s considered (mistakenly) a romance novelist, count how many less than perfect unions Austen portrays in her work: the Bennets; Lydia and Mr. Wickham; Charles and Mary Musgrove; Willoughby and Miss Grey; Colonel Brandon’s brother’s abandoned wife and child…
She was writing about life, Austen was. The petty, ignoble, constricting, often loveless reality of a woman’s lot in the early part of the 19th century. What is Trollope going to replace that with? (No, don’t tell me, I don’t think I wish to know…)
Sadly, however, HC isn’t alone in cashing in on the craze–a craze that reaches its apogee in Bath. (Which is rather ironic considering that Austen hated, loathed and despised Bath and all it stood for.)
For it is in Bath, where the bookshops on the High Street, now housed in shopfronts which Miss Austen herself might have hurried past in the pelting rain, most assiduously cater for this mangled affection which mistakes the empire waistline and a well-cut coat for Austen’s intellectual agility and unflinching wit. For it is there, on full frontal display, notching up several ticks on the gag-o-meter, that one finds the sequel novels to Pride & Prejudice.
The latest in this pantheon of cloying pseudo-Austen creations is an oeuvre published by a small firm in Illinois.
Now generally I walk past said Bath bookshops rather briskly–on account of the aforementioned rain. But on this particular day, my attention was arrested because on the cover of one of these novels is the portrait which also graces the cover of my May 1812, that of Captain Hugh Clapperton by Sir Henry Raeburn. Which, I confess, startled me, though it did not make me as angry as I believed it should have done.
Frankly, I was too astonished by the title: The Trouble with Mr. Darcy. (Instantly my mind sought out those troubles…and yes, my mind being generally smutty, you may well imagine what I was thinking…)
And yes, you have guessed it, morbid curiosity (or intellectual masochism) drove me to purchase a copy. I should have known better. I should have reminded myself of that excellent analysis of this issue written by one Mr. Crace, recently found on the pages of The Guardian: “It is a truth not universally acknowledged that a classic novel is not in want of a sequel,” and moved on.
In arguably one of the worst openings ever written, we find our hero, Fitzwilliam Darcy, now married and transformed into a modern metrosexual dad, foregoing dinner with his wife so that he can stay with the baby as it falls asleep.
Now perhaps at this point you have joined me in thinking that the new Mr. Darcy, in this era of Pamperless living, must have soggy patches on his inexpressibly clad knees.
Or perhaps you are wondering why the child isn’t off with the wet nurse? Well, according to this oeuvre, Mrs. Darcy is feeding the child herself–and yes, it is perfectly true that Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, insisted on nursing her own children, much to the alarm of her mother and husband as it was believed to be dangerous to the mother. Austen’s own mother sent her children out to a wetnurse and didn’t have them back in the household until they were nearly four, so it’s impossible to guess at what Austen would have chosen…
However, the whole tenor of this novel speaks of only the vaguest acquaintance with either the early 19th century or indeed England itself. The author knows little of England or of life in a large country house; she has no concept of rank, position, authority, what it’s like to live with servants, or even the basic structures of 19th century society. And how much time a man like Darcy would spend with his steward is quite beyond her ken.
She apparently knows not that floors were filthy–inevitable in a household, however clean, where the heat was supplied by coal fires, there were no Dysons, and mud was a way of life. She has no understanding of the separation between generations of the era–the concept of ‘family’ such as we understand it was in its infancy.
Putting all that aside, we are then treated to Darcy and Elizabeth in their bedroom, whereupon Darcy’s uncle (a recent bestowal, courtesy of the author) wanders in without knocking. (Yes, yes, I know, you just spat tea on your laptop. Well, I spat tea on my duvet, so we’re even…)
Then, following a cringe-making foray into Mr. and Mrs. Darcy’s intimate relations, we read the inimitable words: “I love you, Elizabeth. You are a marvellous gift to me, and now you are blessing my life further with our children. I will be content with whatever God allots us, but I must say I selfishly wish for many.”
(And now, I shall stop quoting because the next few pages were nothing but erotic slop, full-on winners on the vomitometer.)
But are we really meant to believe that the same fellow who spoke thusly as he was ‘snaking’ his hand up Lizzie’s thigh, also said (as written in elegantly balanced prose by Austen):
“I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught was was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately an only son, (and for many years an only child) I was spoilt by my parents, who though good themselves, (my father particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable,) allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing, to care for none beyond my own family circle, to think meanly of all the rest of the world to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, from eight to eight and twenty…”
Forgive me, my imagination is good, but it simply cannot make leaps across the Grand Canyon like that.
I have nothing against erotic novels dressed up in any kind of clothes you like. Read ’em, don’t read ’em, write ’em, re-enact ’em, use ’em for kindling. I don’t care.
But this kind of literary pillage can only have been driven by the tawdriest of publishing avarice: “Slap the words Mr. Darcy on a book and the Janeites will buy it” is obviously the beginning and end of their cynical marketing strategy.” It’s historical romance’s own celebrity-itis–no marketing needed, and no matter who wrote it, just the name on the book will sell it.
And, while I hesitate to say that Austen was a genius–genius being perhaps the most over-used and misunderstood word in our over-saturated by PR lives–she was in whatever century one places her, a fine and gifted writer. A writer of great perception, compassion, cleverness and humour. She could and did write character as well or better than most. She could summarise an evening’s action more succinctly than any of her successors. (Her summary of Mr. Collins’s first meal with the Bennet family is delicious.)
Austen’s art deserves respect, not repellent drivel dressed up as quasi-adulation. Indeed, it is more than time that this debased form of literary grave-robbing ceases to find a market. Even in Bath.