Austen's power

It is a truth universally acknowledged that one of the most loved books in the English language must be in want of a sequel; a spin-off perhaps, a complete rewrite, or even the addition of a few zombies.

The works of Jane Austen, particularly Pride and Prejudice, have been made over, pulled apart and re-shaped like so much literary plasticine, possibly more than those of any other author, save Shakespeare.

Want to know what happen after Lizzie and Darcy cosied off into the Regency sunset? Or how Emma Woodhouse would cope if she found herself flipping burgers in Ashburton? The answer seems to be, write it yourself.

A Google search for Jane Austen fan fiction brings up a vast range of websites, with content ranging from the chaste and traditional to the kind of bodice-ripping sauce that's far too obsessed with the contents of Darcy's britches.

But why Austen? Why, of all the writers in English literature, is it Austen's canon that most often comes in for such poetic licence on the part of her fans? Even the biopic starring Anne Hathaway seemed more fancy than fact.

English author Lynn Shepherd says her recent novel, Murder at Mansfield Park, (Allen & Unwin, $35) was inspired out of sheer irritation.

"Mansfield Park has always been seen as something of a problem child in Jane Austen's works - it's very different from the other books. No one argues that it's not beautifully done, it's just that the central character, Fanny, is so unbelievably passive. It always struck me that there was another novel in there trying to get out."

It seemed to Shepherd that Austen started out wanting Fanny and Edward to come together at the end, with Mary Crawford set up as a bete noir for our heroine, "but the whole thing runs away with her, and it seems clear, that left to their own devices, Mary and Edmumd would end up a couple".

It led Shepherd to wonder how things would play if Fanny's passivity was merely a manipulative tool to afford her social advancement.

"If you look at it from the point of view of Mary, who seems a much more traditional Austen heroine, suddenly it's a very different book; one that's a lot more lively."

So Fanny Price, cunning villainess, is born. But despite her treatment of "poor" Fanny, Shepherd insists that Murder was also a labour of love.

She thinks it's the fairy tale qualities of Austen's stories, the romance of the characters and the world they inhabit, that makes fans so keen to write their way back into it.

"I think a lot of people yearn for a slightly more civilised world. It looks and feels very elegant. It's a comforting place to immerse yourself in."

For Steve Hockensmith, author of the latest Austen monster mash, Dawn of the Dreadfuls (Quirk, $29.99, a prequel to last year's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), the appeal of Austen's world is simple. "It's the characters. The Bennet family, in particular, is such a wonderful, rich creation.

"I think readers feel like these are real people; people they know and like. It's only natural that fans would want to spend more time with those people. Unfortunately, Jane Austen is not around to accommodate that wish - but plenty of other writers are."

He says the horror-based Austen pastiches work purely because of the humour. "The title Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is just very, very funny because it promises something people obviously respond to: injecting modern pop culture irreverence into an old-fashioned, seemingly untouchable classic."

Otago university professor Dr Joceyln Harris, an Austen expert, says the variations all have one thing in common - they recap bits of the Austen books we all know and love. They rely on a familiarity with Austen's world and her characters.

"It's about celebrity. People feel like they know Jane Austen, some people know whole tracts of the books off by heart. And they know these characters." Add to that the explosion of online communities and Austen-ites suddenly have a place to gather to talk about the books. That in turn inspires their own ideas and gives them a fairly non-threatening place to publish.

Harris says Pride and Prejudice particularly appeals for modern adaptation because it's about an intelligent, feisty young woman determined to make her own choices. "What's not to like about that?"

She adds that the reworking of the works is not new, or limited to literature. She cites the movies Clueless and Bride and Prejudice and the TV series Lost in Austen, particularly its reworking of the equally infamous BBC white-shirted dunking of Mr Darcy.

"I just want you to do one thing for me," says the main character Amanda, transported from modern London to Lizzie Bennet's Hertfordshire - and in the next scene Darcy emerges from the water in his wet regency shirt, a la Colin Firth in 1995.

"That's saying: 'we know the book and we know the BBC version - so let's play'," says Harris. "It's that sense of fun that makes the adaptations work. The best ones are, like Austen, astute, funny and very, very smart."

And although it is P&P that is most often made over, Harris thinks there's plenty of other Austen material for fans to work with, such as her unfinished Sanditon. "You can go where you like with it, and it's a fairly modern story, essentially about beachfront property developers - and it is very, very funny."

And to all the Austen fans who think this kind of malarky is disrespectful, Shepherd says: "Jane Austen did it herself; writing parodies. And she meant it as a tribute. "I think she would be hugely flattered that her works have inspired others to write."

READING LIST

The good: The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet, Colleen McCullough (Pocket Books $24.99), A satisfying, well-written, often hilarious adventure of the late-blooming, feminist, misunderstood and underestimated Mary Bennet.

The bad: The best guide is to avoid those that take themselves too
seriously and forget about Austen's famous humour. Without it, it all goes a bit swoony Mills and Boon-y.

The ugly: The monster mash-ups continue, with varying degrees of
success. The series of cheap-to-produce success stories which started with Quirk Books' Pride & Prejudice & Zombies has caught the eye of other publishing companies - so keep an eye out for Mansfield Park and Mummies and Emma and Werewolves.

The online: For any possible variation on Austen's stories - modernisations, spin-offs, fan fiction and pastiche, visit austen.com and there are also extensive reading lists at The Republic of Pemberley, pemberley.com

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