Saturday, September 1, 2007

Old Friends and New Fancies AND Letters from Pemberly

Old Friends and New Fancies, by Sybil G. Brinton
Letters from Pemberley the First Year, by Jane Dawkins
Reviewed by Melissa

Fan fiction has probably been around as long as books have, and while it doesn't garner the respect that some think it should, that has never stopped fans from writing sequels and situations involving their favorite characters. No author is immune to this, least of all, the founding mother of chick-lit, Jane Austen. The only difference is that Jane Austen fan fiction is more likely to be published (Austen's work being in the public domain and all).

Old Friends and New Fancies, by Sybil G. Brinton, is the premier Jane Austen fan fiction. Published in 1913, the cover touts it as the "first Jane Austen sequel ever created". And Brinton spares no punches. The book contains a plethora of characters from every single book Austen wrote. Which is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it's fun in a "what-are-they-doing-now" way; on the other hand, it's an awful lot of characters, most of them minor, to keep track of. There isn't much of a plot: various characters from Pride and Prejudice meet other characters from the other books and fall in love. Interestingly, no one falls in love with a character from their own book. Colonel Fitzwilliam falls in love with Mary Crawford (Mansfield Park); Georgiana Darcy falls in love with William Price (Mansfield Park); Kitty Bennett falls in love with James Morland (Northanger Abbey). Other characters from all the books pop in and out to create conflict and interest, which created a problem in itself. Austen's books are full of enough characters to keep straight; put them all together in one place, and it becomes nearly impossible. More times than I can count, I flipped to the chart in the front of the book, wondering which book that particular character was from. And I'm fairly versed in Austen's novels. Think how it would be for someone who wasn't.

My main complaint with this book, though, is the challenge fan fiction authors have: embodying someone else's characters is extremely difficult, and while the end result may be similar to the original character, it can't be the same. I felt it keenly in this book; I never could get past the difference in characters between this book and the originals to enjoy the story. I felt like Emma Knightly became a twit, which bothered me immensely. Anne Wentworth wasn't quite the Anne I remember from Persuasion; she was nice enough, but had no depth. Robert and Lucy Ferrars were not only obvious social climbers, but outright mean and despicable. Elinor Ferrars was a shadow of herself. In some ways, it's wiser to stick with the minor characters and flesh them out, because readers don't have the same attachment to them. Hence, I found both Georgiana and Mary Crawford to be more sympathetic and interesting and bothered me less than some of the other characters.

The other problem was that while Brinton had Austen romance down to a formulaic science, she completely missed out on the wit. Everyone was so darn earnest. Elizabeth was always being too nice, even when Lady Catherine was her normal snobbish self. Emma was more about being a busybody rather than trying to help other people. Anne was cloying and often hiding behind her husband. And even Mrs. Jennings (Sense and Sensibility) was more irritating than humorous. Austen had a gift, there, and obviously it's not easily imitated--at least not by someone writing in the early 20th century.

Unlike Brinton, Jane Dawkins, in Letters from Pemberly, captured the feel of Austen much better. This slim novel is a series of letters from Elizabeth to Jane during their first year of marriage. Again, there is very little plot, but I felt in this circumstance, it worked much better. The letters express Elizabeth's concern with the task of becoming mistress of Pemberly, with how the neighbors and Mr. Darcy's friends will react to her and her station in life, and her separation from Jane. The affection Elizabeth has for Jane comes through well in the letters, as does Elizabeth's character.

I think it helped, too, that while Dawkins included characters from other books, she chose to change their names, which allowed me, at least, to accept them better. The Daleys, for example, are none other than Emma (who is much less irritating in this book, I might add) and Mr. Knightly. There were other characters that I could place, or almost place -- Sir Walter Elliot made his appearance, as did the Dashwood sisters. I also could tell that Dawkins did her research; rather than just parroting scenes and phrases from the Austen books (a common problem in Brinton's novel; in fact a whole scene was lifted from Emma, practically intact), she embodied the spirit of the books by really knowing the early 1800s. She did research into novels, poems, landscaping practices, and other seemingly trivial elements that gave the book a more authentic feel.

Dawson does touch on the romantic Austen, but she also manages to include some wit, with choice nods to the original book. In one instance, Elizabeth recounts this scene, at a ball given at Pemberly:

Mr. Darcy and I danced four dances together and amused ourselves recollecting the first time we had danced together at Netherfield. He wished to know was I still at work on a character sketch of him, would he be obliged to make conversation, or was he to be permitted to enjoy the dance in complete silence? I took delight in telling him that while my sketch of his character is not quite complete, it is far enough advanced that I would gladly spare him punishment of conversation while dancing. Besides, since I had the rest of our lives to complete it, there was no immediate urgency to the matter.

Not Austen, but amusing, nonetheless. Which, I suppose is the best that can be said for Letters from Pemberly: it isn't Austen, but it's a decent take on the books.

If you would rather read the original works by Jane Austen, a schedule for spreading them out over the course of a year, posted by Cheryl Klien, can be found here.

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