Inspired by Jane Austen

by Elaine Stewart, Library Associate
Originally published by Columbia Daily Tribune.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that every article about Jane Austen must in some way include that quote about "a single man of good fortune being in want of a wife." And now that that's done, I have joined the ranks of countless fans who cannot seem to refrain from quoting and attempting to emulate the English author even hundreds of years after her death.

Pride and Prejudice

So why can't we leave the poor woman alone? Literary critics say the enduring appeal of her six novels, "Sense and Sensibility" (1811), "Pride and Prejudice" (1813), "Mansfield Park" (1814), "Emma" (1815), and "Northanger Abbey" and "Persuasion" (both published posthumously, 1817), is no surprise. Austen's expert plotting and use of satire illustrates the tragicomedy of ordinary life in a way that resonates with readers, compelling them to extend and explore their reading experience through writing.

Some of the most enthusiastic Austen imitators take liberal license with Austen's characters, involving them not only in unexpected love tangles but scintillating sexual encounters that would have been taboo in the author's day. Abigail Reynolds' "What Would Mr. Darcy Do?" (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2011) takes up the story of Austen's well-loved character Elizabeth Bennet just after her younger sister, Lydia, has run off with the reprehensible Mr. Wickham. Unlike the original version, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy openly console one another in the midst of the scandal, becoming so intimate that they succumb to their desires and are then discovered in a compromising position.

The Jane Austen Marriage Manual

"The Jane Austen Marriage Manual" (St. Martin's Griffin, 2012), a contemporary chick-lit novel by Kim Izzo, tells the story of Kate Shaw, a single, 30-something magazine editor who is content with her career-oriented life until she is unexpectedly fired. Then, when financial disaster befalls her family, the Austen devotee finagles her way into the jet set-setting crowd, intent on testing the theory that she can happily marry for money.

Recent Austen-inspired mysteries do a good job of representing the historical details of the original novels while engaging the reader in tales of murder and mayhem. In "Death Comes to Pemberley" (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), the best-selling P.D. James has crafted an intriguing sequel to "Pride and Prejudice" in which the wedded bliss of Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy is disrupted by their troublesome brother-in-law, Mr. Wickham. When Wickham faces a possible death sentence after being accused of murdering a man on their estate, the Darcys feel obliged to intervene even though they still loathe the man who once nearly ruined Elizabeth's family.

Jane and the Canterbury Tale

Jane Austen herself is brought to life in a series of mysteries by author Stephanie Barron. In "Jane and the Canterbury Tale: Being a Jane Austen Mystery" (Bantam, 2011), the fictional Austen discovers a body while rambling on her brother's estate and reluctantly consents to help investigate the crime. Just when she is certain she has discovered the culprit, a second corpse suddenly appears, and Jane must outfox the murderer before she, too, becomes a victim.

"Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance—Now With Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!" (Quirk Books, 2009), by Seth Grahame-Smith, departs from the classic story and, well, reality by complicating the already rocky romance of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy with killer zombies running rampant through the English countryside. Grahame-Smith is one of many popular writers who have created best-seller "mash-ups," in which they inject elements of fantasy fiction, including zombies, sea monsters, vampires and the like, into classic literature.

A Jane Austen Education

For some fans, Austen's novels are not just entertainment but have informed their lives in meaningful ways. In "A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship and the Things That Really Matter" (Penguin, 2011), William Deresiewicz describes his shift from a sardonic student of literature who reviled all things Austen to a young man who slowly began to mature under the enlightening tutelage of Austen's novels. Literature teacher Amy Elizabeth Smith shared her love of Austen on an adventure through six Central and South American countries in "All Roads Lead to Austen: A Year-Long Journey With Jane" (Sourcebooks Inc., 2012). During Smith's traveling book discussion experience, she introduced Austen's novels to newfound friends in Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay and Argentina. While exploring the differences between these foreign cultures, Smith discovered innumerable commonalities through her Austen dialogues.

Austen's novels have even been the focus of sociological commentary. In "So Odd a Mixture: Along the Autistic Spectrum in 'Pride and Prejudice' " (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2007), Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer writes about the surprisingly large number of quirky characters in Austen's most popular novel. The awkward encounters, obsequious displays and crude outbursts of Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine De Bourgh and even the dashing Mr. Darcy are all textbook examples of mild to severe autism, Bottomer says. The author's accurate portrayal of a syndrome that had not yet been medically defined leads to speculation that she was describing traits of her own neighbors, friends and even members of her extended family — likely sufferers of autism spectrum disorder.

The reimagining of everything Austen might seem excessive at times, but I believe if the author could speak from beyond the grave, she would express surprise and delight at having been a catalyst for all of these creative endeavors. In a quote from "Northanger Abbey," she revealed just such a thought: "Life, if you live it right, keeps surprising you, and the thing that keeps surprising you the most … is yourself."

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