The Austen industry

A wealth of books build on the Pride and Prejudice author’s legacy

You don’t read just anything when you’re really sick. C.S. Lewis said that at his lowest all that would suffice was The Wind in the Willows. I agree, but, laid up these last few weeks, I’ve been exclusively rereading Jane Austen, occasionally breaking the print paralysis to stumble downstairs and view a BBC Austen prizewinner, though any Austen film has substance enough to merit a biggie.

I’ve always advocated reading an Austen a year and in the seventh year starting over. (There are only six novels.) So that’s my advice today—and you don’t need to be ill. Pride and Prejudice is the best known, even though Austen, otherwise so generous in detail, leaves to the imagination the final love scene we’ve been anticipating for more than 300 pages, but some (including Austen herself) believe Emma to be better.

There’s lately grown an industry of sequels, parallels or even prequels of famous books. We now know how connubial life was for Jane and Rochester (not good) or visit Gone with the Wind from another viewpoint. I’ve found the Austen continuations (try Google; there are too many to enumerate here), interesting but not to be reread. Elizabeth Aston’s Mr. Darcy’s wealthy daughters face the opposite problems in marrying that the impoverished Bennett sisters did, and the adventures of Miss Alethea Darcy cannot quite rival Lydia Bennett’s. I’ve not yet sampled the 10 novels of the Pemberley series by Rebecca Ann Collins (an unfortunate last name, though I understand she killed off her namesake in an early novel). The recent Jane Austen Book Club barely rates a description, though the movie is rumored to be better.

But let me call your attention to a mystery series available at Lincoln Library in print and tape. Jane Austen has a “hidden” period in her life—one during which she produced no books—and this period, like Christ’s life between the ages of 12 and 30, has been the subject of much conjecture. Stephanie Barron has filled this void by having Jane keep a journal and solve mysteries. Barron, a scholar, knows her Austen and the period impeccably, and she writes with a tone and detail that will delight Austen lovers and could well create new ones. Her tales are a little uneven, as are Austen’s—no Fanny Price can equal Elizabeth Bennett as a heroine—but all are worth reading. At one point Barron introduces a dashing love interest, but the reader knows that, alas, there will be no Pemberley in Austen’s future.

Judith Everson, long a teacher of always-full Austen seminars at the University of Illinois at Springfield, says, “Jane Austen has inspired more clever and creative riffs than any of her contemporaries,” and she recommends In the Steps of Jane Austen, by Anne-Marie Edwards, for your next trip to England. I say don’t miss Fay Weldon’s Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen, a treasure you give your daughter, granddaughter, or niece (or even a son; surely Willoughby and Wickham are villains enough for any teenage reader and Mr. Darcy and Colonel Brampton sufficient heroes) when she’s 12, along with her first complete set of Austen hardbacks. And speaking of England trips, I never fail to visit Winchester Cathedral and stand alone before the grave marker on the far wall that reads only “Jane Austen—Spinster.” I confess to tears.

The newest Barron, A Flaw in the Blood, “an enthralling suspense novel centered on Queen Victoria’s troubled court—and a secret so dangerous it could topple thrones,” is due in early 2008. Jane will fix things, I’m sure. I am eagerly awaiting my copy.