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From Phyllida's Desk

Rosencrantz and Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet and Guildenstern....

In this brief window of opportunity, when my new novel is still “new,” and somebody might actually care why I wrote it, or why I wrote it the way I did, I'm going to grab my chance and talk about that stuff.

One thing I hadn't anticipated when I began laboring over Pride/Prejudice back in the Bronze Age of Austen pastiche was the mash-up, like the Zombies and Sea Monsters. My models were sequels: for example, Mr. Darcy Takes A Wife, by Linda Berdoll; and versions, like Darcy's Story, by Janet Aylmer, or the Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman trilogy by Pamela Aidan. Those books didn't really change anything in Austen's story; they simply took up where she left off or told the same story from Mr. Darcy's perspective, giving us more of his inner life.

So when I set out to tell what I still think of as “The Hidden Story,” the same-sex relationships that might exist below the surface of the original, I had two goals: like the other pastiche authors, not to change anything substantial in Austen's world; and, purely for my own satisfaction as a writer, not to rely on copying or paraphrase if I could avoid it. Whether I succeeded at the first goal is a matter of opinion, especially for those readers who feel that adding sex of any kind inevitably changes an Austen story. But success at the second goal leads to a consequence I hadn't fully understood when I set out: the result is one of these odd, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, inside-out, reverse-image stories. Like Tom Stoppard's groundbreaking play, a book like my P/P is a not a conventionally-shaped work. It's a perimeter of bits and pieces, like the scraps left over when you cut out a sewing pattern.

In other words, I have written an experimental novel, not a solid, satisfying work of genre fiction, neatly shaped and with the climactic scenes arriving at the climactic moments. The big famous scenes—the Netherfield Ball, Mr. Darcy's first proposal—aren't even there. I've necessarily had to write around them.

Why would anyone do such a thing? One reason is what I've said in some earlier posts: what writers often most want to write isn't always what readers most want to read. I wanted to see if I could tell the story this way, and, as with any act of creative writing, learn about the characters and myself in the process. Being at the low end of the publishing world, I have the luxury of doing exactly what I like. If I ever hope to get an agent, or earn an advance that pays for more than a few months' rent, I will have to cater to the marketplace. Until then, I'm enjoying the ride.

But the other reason is more complicated. Laura Miller, in her discussion at Salon.com of the superfluity of recent Austen pastiche: http://www.salon1999.com/books/laura_miller/2010/01/20/jane_austen/index.html
speculated on why we rip-off writers do it. We want more Austen, was her thought. Since there are only six published novels along with some juvenilia and fragments, there just isn't enough to keep the fans satisfied. While there may be some truth in this, what I've noticed is something truly odd: there seem to be a lot of writers out there these days who deliberately set out to change Austen's stories—specifically, to make them “nicer.”

Here are some recent examples: Lady Vernon and Her Daughter, by Jane Rubino and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway; Longbourn's Unexpected Matchmaker, by Emma Hox; and Rainy Days – An Alternative Journey From Pride and Prejudice to Passion and Love, by Lory Lilian.

Lady Vernon is based on Lady Susan, a novella-in-letters that Austen wrote in her twenties—that same optimistic, brash, witty writer who wrote First Impressions, the earliest version of Pride and Prejudice. The title character is the only protagonist in an Austen work who is not only not nice—she's a very nasty piece of work indeed. As her name indicates, she's the daughter of a nobleman, an earl or higher, and it's been suggested that in creating this scheming, amoral and frightening woman, Austen was influenced by Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the 1782 epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. Sounds plausible. Lady Susan is a beautiful widow in her mid-thirties with a sixteen-year-old daughter she despises, blithely carrying on an affair with a married man while scheming to marry her young brother-in-law, and trying to force her daughter into a loveless match with a wealthy buffoon. Austen never wrote anything like it again, but it reflects her jaundiced view of the upper classes.

In Lady Vernon, the authors have changed aristocratic Lady Susan into Lady Vernon, a woman of the middle class or lower gentry, struggling to make a decent life for herself and her daughter in a world where women are at a disadvantage, at the mercy of gossip and scandalmongers... It's much more familiar territory for Austen fans, written in a meticulous imitation of Austen's style, and incorporating some of the original letters.

In the rainy weekend story, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth, trapped indoors by bad weather, talk out their “issues” at the beginning, so all that tiresome misunderstanding and conflict between the two is done away with. You know, the stuff that makes up the masterpiece called Pride and Prejudice. In Matchmaker, Mr. Bennet is changed from his acidulous, passive-aggressive self into a benevolent father, worthy of a daughter like Elizabeth.

As someone who has done more than her share to keep the “rolling in her grave” tongue-cluckers busy for at least a decade, it's not for me to throw stones. I haven't read any of these novels, but I'm willing to take the reader reviews at their word that these books are well-written. Why shouldn't they be? There are a lot of good writers out there. This kind of stuff has been going on for some time, after all: think of the sympathetic Lady Catherine de Bourgh in the 1940 movie. And that screenplay was written by Aldous Huxley; you can't blame it on some Hollywood hack.

All I'm asking is: Whyyyy??? Why would anyone want to take the outline of something different and original and fill it in with the same old same old?

One reason might be the problem of “unlikeable characters.” Writers love creating them; readers hate reading about them, at least as protagonists. Francine Prose, in her Reading Like a Writer, says that characters don't have to be likeable, only interesting. Austen's novels are populated by interesting, if not always likable characters, and Lady Susan certainly qualifies. You can just see the young Austen cackling to herself as she gives her anti-heroine another zinger to write or another misdeed to plot. (My favorite line: Lady Susan's description of her friend's husband as “too old to be a agreeable, and to young to die.”) The one really unpalatable aspect of Lady Susan's character is her toxic relationship with her daughter; I was grateful for the hasty, tacked-on happy ending Austen provides, and I can see why modern writers would want to soften it. But why make Mr. Bennet into a better person? He's not the hero, and recognizing, through repeated readings over the years, just what a failure he is as a father despite Austen's amusing presentation of his acerbic humor, is one of the many pleasures of experiencing Austen's layered storytelling as a mature reader.

So, what's the second reason I wrote my Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern P&P? Writing the scenes around the main ones was the only way I could “enhance” the story without changing it.

The Zombies and Sea Monsters, much as I've disparaged them privately, actually begin to make a lot more sense. Ben H. Winters, author of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, in a panel discussion at the Morgan Library, describing his concept of Colonel Brandon as a tentacled man/creature, claimed he had used the device to intensify Brandon's already unappealing qualities. Poor fellow! I don't think he deserves such a fate, but at least it's meant to be consistent with Austen's original. And the Zombies book, as most people know, is 85% copied text, with a flesh-eating-ghoul plot sandwiched in for the other 15%. As Miller points out, that book is the only bestseller of the lot, because it's mostly genuine Austen, not pastiche.

To answer Miller's question, why there is so much pastiche: Jane Austen is finally being recognized for the genius she was. Like Willy Sutton, who robbed banks because that's where the money was, if you're going to do pastiche, you want to rip off the best. I don't feel guilty about what I've done. I mean, come on—Austen is much too great a writer to be even slightly damaged by all of us pastiche writers put together.
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