Downton Abbey: the Non-Contest Results

I could not be more pleased to announce the winner of our latest non-contest, whose name I mention in the next paragraph. Entrants were asked to render a famous author’s impressions of Downton Abbey, as portrayed in the popular television show Downton Abbey.

The following winning entry comes from author C Wallace Walker:

Jane Austen’s Visit to Downton Abbey

May 4, 1913

Dearest Cassandra,

The house has been in such a bustle, I could scarce command quiet time to compose a letter to you. The new heir, Mr. Matthew Crawley, yesterday arrived with his mother. They are lodging at Crawley House but dined with us at the big house last night.

Mrs. Crawley is a pushy sort, but not nearly the equal of old Lady Grantham. I maneuver away from her ladyship whenever possible, though do try to remain within earshot of her remarks. Her wit is not to be missed as long as it is not directed at oneself. The Lady does heartily approve of my performance at the pianoforte. She cannot tolerate ragtime and prefers the waltzes and quadrilles with which I am familiar. I had not the heart to tell her that for want of a secluded room in which to practice, I would wish to learn the contemporary pieces. The house contains an abundance of modern sheet music, but the only pianoforte sits in the library, a room nearly always occupied. In a stroke of fortune, the library also contains books enough for even me.

Mr. Crawley, aside from being bestowed with a future of both rank and fortune, seems of good character, despite having once studied the law. The Lady Mary clearly considers her station above Mr. Crawley’s, though she is neither the eldest son of a man of fortune, nor engaged to be married to a man of fortune. Lady Mary is perfunctory in her behavior toward me and the other guests, summoning a servant to attend to any of our needs but not troubling herself. She is so wholly unhappy with the threat to her position that the entailment poses. Lady Mary is the Charlotte Lucas of Downton, only in better clothes, prepared to steer her heart to the most advantageous attachment.

Quite the opposite, Lady Sybil the youngest, handsomest sister, cares nothing for rank or fortune. She is a headstrong girl, who feels a conviction to speak her mind, yet hopes to marry.

Lest you think me too severe on our sex, Lady Edith and I are similar in disposition and temperament. Like me, she takes pleasure in a good novel.

Lord Grantham is all you would expect for a man of his situation in life, a fair and kind master, neither soft nor severe. Aside from the unfortunate fact that Lady Grantham is American, one would never suspect that she is of no breeding.

In closing my dearest Cassandra, I do you wish you could see the grounds of Downton. I would sketch them for you, but my drawings are horribly unlike their subjects. With more than 50 bedrooms the house is impressive, but most majestic are the Lebanon cedars that surround the gardens. I long to walk among them with you and listen to the wind whisper in their branches.

Yours very affectionately,

JA

*****

Congratulations, C Wallace Walker, and thank you for entering!

You can reread Walker’s entry at our tumblr page right now, where we’ve also posted the work of three finalists, Jack Anderson, Michael Credico, and David Nahm, who channeled Cormac McCarthy, Lydia Smith, and W G Sebald, respectively.  We could not have been more pleased to read their work, and we hope you will wheel on over and check them out.

Riding Jane Austen's Coattails

I have a confession to make. Currently hidden under a pile of books in my bedroom there is a paperback copy of Lost in Austen: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure. Essentially, the book reads like the choose-your-own-adventure books made for children, splicing together characters and events from Austen novels into a story about the ultimate search for a husband. To make the journey a bit more complex, the reader gains or loses points for Accomplishments, Intelligence, Confidence, Connections, and Fortune along the way. It’s ridiculous, frivolous, and, well. . . not exactly a literary masterpiece. My only defense is the fact that I did not buy the novel myself; it was a gift from a friend.
Earlier this month, I joined a group of my girlfriends in viewing the new biopic Becoming Jane. Although I’ve read and enjoyed my share of Austen novels, I am no militant Janeite and was prepared for a somewhat romanticized, largely speculative depiction of Austen’s development as a writer. The theater was not, as I’d anticipated, filled with Austen readers but rather with pre-teen girls who sighed and awwwed every time the Anne Hathaway-embodiment of Jane retreated to her desk to passionately pen the words “Mr. Darcy” as a means of coping with her own similar but failed relationship. Leaving the theater, I listened as my friends discussed the film. When I mentioned my disappointment in the portrayal of Jane, my concern was dismissed as secondary to the importance of the dashing Tom Lefroy’s gorgeous eyes. Somehow I’d missed this aspect of the film—perhaps because each appearance of Lefroy reminded me of the actor’s previous role as the centaur Mr. Tumnus in Narnia.
A few days later, I noticed a display of Austen-related books at the local Barnes and Noble and stopped to browse. The variety of plots both astounded and terrified me. Several, though written by women authors, claim to be Mr. Darcy’s version of the Pride and Prejudice plot. Others, such as Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife and Excessively Diverted, were essentially sequels about Darcy and Elizabeth’s marriage and children. These knockoffs are understandable. The more interesting novels, however, are more convoluted in their conceptions and plots. One, Austenland, tells the story of a present-day Jane, who, in love with Colin Firth’s portrayal of Mr. Darcy, travels to Pembrook Park, a British re-creation of an Austen setting, in search of a romantic story of her own. Me and Mr. Darcy and Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict also present contemporary Darcy-obsessed women who have difficulty finding a husband when the standards are set so high. In both, resolution—or resignation—involves time-travel.
The market for such books seems to be thriving. Why not? It’s chick lit with some historical and literary legitimization. Or at least the appearance of it. The endless reincarnations not only ride Austen’s coattails, or skirt hems, I suppose, but also verbalize contemporary fantasies. Instant gratification for romantics, these novels are unlikely to have any lasting impact. As I discovered from watching Becoming Jane, many contemporary viewers and readers seem to like the idea of Austen more than Austen herself. I can only hope that, in the same way that the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightly inspired my younger sister to toss aside the most recent Shopaholic novel in favor of Austen’s classic story, readers of Austen knockoff fiction will also, at some point, turn to the originals.
On returning from Barnes and Noble, I laughingly told a friend about my bookstore experience. As I explained the Lost in Austen premise, he was interested: “So like an RPG [role playing game] for women? Awesome.”
His curiosity must have been greater than mine; a few days later he pulled the book out of his bag and suggested we discover who could secure the better marriage proposal. He did.