I don’t know what happened to me this week…but I read Death Comes to Pemberley.
I don’t really read Austen sequels/take-offs/embellishments/reinterpretations, and by “don’t really read,” I mean “have never read, not even one.” But I was at Miss Osborne’s and raiding her bookshelves, and she told me about the copy of Death Comes to Pemberley she’d found on the book-trade shelf at a friend’s apartment building. I don’t know what came over me, but I took it home.
I read the whole thing, and…I still don’t get it. I like Jane Austen, of course, and I like a good mystery novel, and I see the theoretical pleasure of mixing the two; it’s just that, in practice, the two don’t really mix in any substantive way. They can’t, really, unless you make someone big and important—say, Elizabeth or Darcy—the killer, in which case you’re kind of veering into Pride and Prejudice and Zombies territory, messing with the genre just for the sake of it. And because—spoiler alert!—that’s not the case here, the mystery lives in the realm of supporting and original characters, and we essentially have a historical mystery existing alongside familiar background that doesn’t actually mean anything.
This isn’t to say the book was bad; it wasn’t. It was fine—solid mystery, a little funny, mostly well-written. It’s just…I don’t see the point.
A few specifics (nothing TOO spoilery, but if you don’t want to know anything, consider yourself warned):
- Oh, Denny. He always seemed like a good guy! I think he’s actually a great choice of victim—being somebody we know, but not somebody we care about in particular—though he would also have made a good up-and-coming character, had he lived.
- My favorite parts, by far, are the moments where James executive-decides that the Austen canon is, in fact, a single Austen Universe, and incorporates the other novels in small ways. Wickham gets a job with Sir Walter Elliott! Something spoilery happens to Harriet Smith! This kind of goofy continuity is insubstantial but makes my heart sing nonetheless.
- One moment that stood out to me was James’s assertion that Darcy and Mr. Bennet are friends—not just friendly, but some kind of genuine kindred spirits. I’m undecided. These guys love their books, and they love Lizzy Bennet, and maybe that’s enough…but maybe I just think Mr. Bennet doesn’t really have any friends.
- Well, I’m glad Georgiana ends up with cute Henry Alveston, because he is cute. Not that there’s anything wrong with Colonel Fitzwilliam! But: cute. Get it, girl.
- I have nothing to say about Elizabeth, which I think sums up my whole feeling about this book. How can there be nothing to say?
Have any of you read Death Comes to Pemberley, Austen Nation? What’d you think?
To be fair, the article does address the fanfiction elements of this story—both the fact that Austen fanfiction is to the Internet like the crocodile is to Earth (that is, an early and successful inhabitant) and the fact that Fifty Shades began its life as Twilight fanfic, only to later be published for profit.
Really? Thirty seconds on Amazon didn’t tell you about The Darcys: The Ruling Passion, published last October? Not Mr. Darcy’s Undoing or Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts or any of the countless sexy sequels/reimaginings published long before 50 Shades got search-and-replaced into semi-respectability?
Nice work, Vulture. When the Times finally gets there, you can feel superior again.
I know I’m no fun, but I think we’ve established that Jane Austen prequels, sequels, mash-ups, and other literary Photoshoppings make my heart sink and my blood pressure rise. It’s not that I don’t appreciate fandom (heaven knows I appreciate fandom), or that I don’t have a sense of humor about Jane—I do, and anything else would miss the point. This isn’t even a Jane Austen Hates You post; it’s just that, well, I don’t want the Darcys’ sex life play-by-play, and I don’t want to see the Bennet sisters fight monsters (sea, nocturnal blood-sucking, or otherwise), and I don’t want to hear about Jane coping as a swingin’ modern-day vampire looking for love in the big city.
To which I say, who doesn’t love a good bhangra number?
For me, it’s all a question of basic (if implied) intent. Austen sequels, mash-ups, and the like so often come across as attempts either to paint Jane in a hipper, funnier light—as if she needs the help—or to add to the canon she left behind. The implication is that Jane’s work has no place in contemporary culture if we don’t see it through the familiar lenses of bodice-rippers/Sex and the City/debilitating irony; even straight-up sequels set in Austen’s universe, which are clearly labors of love on the parts of the authors, tend to imply that Jane’s work deserves some kind of follow-up (and, with a brand of guts that I personally could never muster, that they are the one to provide it!). On the other hand, Bollywood Jane is—so far—a work of pure appreciation. In Bride and Prejudice, nobody ever implies that Austen needs changing or supplementing, or that the Indian audience wouldn’t relate to a straight re-telling. There’s no sense that the original novel would be better with a modern-day Indian setting; if anything, it’s the other way around. In fact, the change of scenery and style occurs almost separately from the story, and function as a tribute to the universality of Austen’s themes—as the setting changes, the narrative and key themes remain surprisingly the same.
Besides, Bollywood Jane gives a whole new meaning to the term “choreographed group dance.” I love a ball, indeed:
If Aisha can offer the same thoughtful, affectionate take on Emma, well, bring on the dhol.
Okay, global publishing industry. Let’s talk. Put down that Chicago Manual; I want to see the whites of your eyes. I know we’re all having great fun (and by “we” I mean “you,” and by “having great fun” I mean “swimming in your Scrooge McDuck money vaults”) with the explosion of pseudo-Austen legal-fan-fiction goodness, but there’s a new sheriff in town, and her name is Austenacious, and she’s drawing a line in the fine English country soil.
Here’s the thing: go ahead. Sequels, mashups, reimaginings; call them what you will, and print them by the thousand. Live and let live, and all that. But have a little dignity; set some standards for yourself. We’d like the Austen fandom to be a lobotomy-free zone. Wouldn’t you? We’ll even help you out: here, for future reference, are the top five Austen derivatives that let you know you’ve hit the bottom of the acceptable barrel:
Relations and the Country
Four Austen heroines (spunky Lizzy, romantic Marianne, independent Emma, and dramatic Catherine) cavort about the countryside, discover all good-looking young men to be blackguards, and attempt to find true love in unexpected (older, previously disdained, sometimes grizzled, often related)places while also having brunch and attending balls. Critics complain that nobody actually wears muslins like theirs.
We already have Mr. Darcy, Vampyre; if our dear Fitzwilliam starts to sparkle, it’s Game Over. Period. End of story.
The Anglican Code: A Mr. Collins Mystery
What’s that you say? Mr. Collins is an operative of a secret anti-Church of England sect operating from within? And the secret numerological terrorist plan is hidden in the banisters and inlaid floors of Rosings Park, which (as we know) cost 500 pounds apiece? We’d name Charlotte Lucas as the intrepid love interest/detective, but she doesn’t get to come back in the second book. Hmmph.
Consume Consider Pine
Fanny Price travels the Home Counties in search of a spine, food that isn’t cold meat, and a guy who’d rather hang out with her than be in plays. Result: Enlightenment! Find a wealthy uncle to fund your spiritual journey today!
He’s Just Not that Attached to You
Having trouble attracting a man? These easy steps, inspired by the real women of Jane Austen’s novels, are sure to garner you a steady heart and an income of five thousand a year, at least! Ladies, never forget the magnetic power of repeated rejection, the sharpened senses that come from social misunderstanding, and the no-fail trick of falling down a hill in the rain! Guaranteed to find your knight in gaiters and top hat!
Now, don’t we all feel better? Publishers, like children, need boundaries. Now go and design us some pretty, matching editions of the originals, stat!