Sunday, January 25, 2015

Still Just a Little Bit Obsessed

For many years I have loved all things Jane Austen, including movies, miniseries, and of course her seven novels. I blogged about it early in my blog career in a post entitled A Frivolous Entry about My Austenian Obsession here. Another book I love is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë to which my level of obsession is nearly comparable, although Mr. Rochester does not delight me as much as Mr. Darcy. But then, who could?

I have in more recent years discovered a new genre of fiction and in the last few months I have immersed myself in them.  These are novels which feature the same characters, but are either a modern retelling of the story, or further develop the existing characters, or flesh out the characters of people marginal to the original story. They may also be sequels or prequels to the story or perhaps add a zany element to the story-line such as Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies which I must admit made me laugh out aloud, despite the utter desecration of Austen's story. Then there are novels about present day characters who themselves are obsessed with Jane Austen such as The Jane Austen Marriage Manual, a book I am most ashamed to have read all the way through.

Admittedly many of these novels, which some would denigrate as fan fiction, are rather poorly written. Others have the potential to completely ruin a character for you, if only temporarily. Some I couldn't finish or even get into. In the case of Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls by Steve Hockensmith , a book gifted to me by a sister who had witnessed my enjoyment of Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies, it was the graphic level of gore. Two titles focusing on Mary Bennet The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet by Colleen McCullough and The Unexpected Miss Bennet by Patrice Sarath were discarded, as one of them portrayed not only Bingley but also Elizabeth and Darcy in an unfavourable light, and the other was rather dull. To be fair, I don't think any book with Mary Bennet as the main character could engross me long enough for me to appreciate the aptness of a social commentary on the society. And any book in which Darcy and Elizabeth don't live happily ever after together fails to provide the escapist quality I am looking for, although it may be more realistic and better written in an objective sense.

Here are some short blurbs of some titles I have read, only one of which now has a permanant place on my bookshelf:

Longbourn by Jo Baker

This engaging book, subtitled "Pride and Prejudice: The Servant's Story," lives up to its positive reviews. As a lover of Downton Abbey, I was fascinated to see the story again from the perspective of the servants and to witness the intersection of upstairs and downstairs life. The quality of the writing and reimagining is hinted at by this delightful quote "If  Elizabeth Bennett had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she'd most likely be a sight more careful with them." 

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

This book held my interest and was well-written. However James' Elizabeth lacked the wit and the intelligence of Austen's original. If you are a fan of crime fiction and/or P.D. James and also appreciate Pride and Prejudice, you will probably appreciate this book.

Sense and Sensibility Joanna Trollope

A modern retelling of Sense and Sensibility, it was interesting just in the ways the story is adapted to fit life in a contemporary era. Some things worked and other things fell flat. I was much more sympathetic of the dilemma of Austen's Elinor somehow. This is more of young adult book with the purpose of increasing Austen's accessibility to younger readers.

Northanger Abbey, Val McDermid

One of my least favourite Austen novels and this contemporary recasting of the story kept me reading but did not engage my imagination. Some of the characters were even more annoying than the originals like Bella Thorpe and her brother Johnny. Similar to Trollope's Sense and Sensibility, it follows Austen's plot points slavishly, but there were a couple of surprises. I don't think this version will age well.

Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman Trilogy by Pamela Aidan

This trilogy by Pamela Aidan provided more than I could have asked for. The mysterious, rather enigmatic Fitzwilliam Darcy of Austen's Pride and Prejudice is transformed into an endlessly introspective figure, more besotted by Elizabeth than previously imagined. When it comes to the inner thoughts of a romantic sex-god, apparently less is more. Still I have to admit there were moments of pure enjoyment and I did finish the series, after all.

As for Jane Eyre treatments, I have only read two. Wide Sargosso Sea is one I would like to read again for its subtleties. The story of the woman Rochester calls Bertha, who he keeps hidden in his attic tower, is a postcolonial novel of rare power. The other The Flight of Gemma Hardy suffered a little by following so closely to the story of Jane Eyre, though setting it in a new place and time, and in my opinion, it stretched a little too far. Neither was Gemma Hardy as likable a character as Jane.

Currently I am reading a retelling of Emma by Alexander McCall Smith whose No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series I love. His books are as light, fluffy, and entirely enjoyable as a chocolate truffle. For Christmas I received a copy of Death of a Schoolgirl The Jane Eyre Chronicles by Joanna Campbell Slan which I have yet to start.

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