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.