Saturday, January 7, 2012

Pride and Prejudice, the many sequels

To note PD James new Pride and Prejudice sequel, A Murder at Pemberley, which I have not read yet but will soon, I resurrect this several-year-old column on the many sequels to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice -- there have been hundreds.
- Doug Gibson

To some readers, the classics, or just a good novel, are made to have a Part Two. Unfortunately, few authors feel the same, and many a great novel ends in suspense. For six decades, Margaret Mitchell fans waited to find out if Scarlett O’Hara ever won back Rhett Butler. The soft-spoken Mitchell, when asked that question, always replied, “I don’t know.”

Eventually, the long-dead Mitchell’s estate, eager to make a big pile of cash quickly, commissioned romance novelist Alexandra Ripley to write a sequel. The result was Scarlett, a long, semi-bloated, often lackluster, sometimes entertaining continuation that resulted in Rhett and Scarlett hooking up for good in Ireland. It wasn’t a bad novel, but the characters, so well defined by Mitchell in Gone With the Wind, seemed like caricatures. It was as if readers were at a community playhouse watching semi-talented locals reciting lines. The film version of Scarlett was worse, but that’s another essay...

Wanna know a secret? When it comes to the classics, Scarlett ranks as one of the greatest sequels not crafted by the original author. For decades, fans of the writing greats have succumbed to the temptation to continue a tale best laid to rest. I admit it’s an alluring thought. I’d love to know if 1984's Inner Party was ever overthrown, or if Doremus Jessup, the hero of It Can’t Happen Here, ever managed to help restore America to democracy. Or did Clinton-like preacher Elmer Gantry ever face a scandal that ruined him?

Jane Austen whets the appetite for a sequel. Her main novels, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Emma and Northanger Abbey are masterpieces of characterization and parody. Although she’s never lagged in interest, Austen has experienced a surge in popularity the past decade. Most of her books have been made into films recently and Jane Austen clubs dot the world. Any day, crowds of Austen fans will file in to the local library and eagerly take in a lecture. A sample topic might be the “difference between attachment and connection in Austen’s England, and how that relates to Sense and Sensibility....” Austen died relatively young, and never attempted a sequel.

With the current Jane-mania, however, comes a new round of unauthorized sequels cluttering up space in bookstores and public libraries. Some authors are adoring fans, clumsily trying to pay homage to their favorite authors. A few are professional romance novelists looking to cash in on Austen to make a quick buck. Others, more atrociously, are post-modernists trying to attach Austen’s settings and characters to politically correct ideals.

A casual perusal of listed more than a dozen Jane Austen sequels:

- The Bar Sinister: Pride and Prejudice Continued

- Letters From Pemberley: The First Year: A Continuation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

- Presumption: An Entertainment: A Sequel to Pride and Prejudice

- Consequence: Or Whatever Became of Charlotte Lucas

- The Ladies: A Shining Constellation of Wit and Beauty

- An Unequal Marriage, Or Pride and Prejudice Twenty Years Later

- Desire and Duty: A Sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

- Lady Catherine’s Necklace

- Pemberley or Pride and Prejudice Continued

- The Diary of Henry Fitzwilliam Darcy

- Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen

- Virtue and Vanity

- Old Friends and New Fancies: An Imaginary Sequel to the Novels of Jane Austen

No doubt there are more. The first sequels to Pride and Prejudice were published in the 19th century.

Eager to find out what others believed were the fates of the Bennets, Darcys, Collinses, Bingleys, De Bourghs and other Pride and Prejudice characters, your reviewer managed this past summer to slog through four of these unauthorized Pride and Prejudice sequels. They were Presumption, Desire and Duty, Lady Catherine’s Necklace and Pemberley.

The best of the lot was Presumption, by Julia Barrett. It’s very mediocre, but at least Barrett understands what the others apparently don’t: Jane Austen was poking fun at sentimental novels of her era. Her novels were parodies, as is Presumption. The title tells you that it’s all for fun. Presumption focuses, as most of the sequels do – on the love life of Mr. Darcy’s younger sister Georgiana. She’s tempted at first by a dashing officer, but eventually finds love with an architect. They quarrel for a while before falling in love. The parallel to Darcy and Elizabeth is a safe, and obvious, creative tool by Barrett. The weakest part of the novel is Elizabeth’s constant fear that she will never gain approval of Darcy’s elder friends and relations. To highlight this threat, a ridiculous subplot involves Elizabeth’s Aunt Phillips being accused of theft, which threatens her reputation by association.

However, Presumption is a gem compared to Desire and Duty, written by the husband/wife team of Ted and Marilyn Bader. The Baders are devoted fans of Austen, and the authors try desperately to follow Austen’s style but it is a crude effort. The plot plays like an older version of Sweet Valley High in pre-Victorian London. Once again Georgiana is the focus, but she spends most of the novel unmarried, eventually fluttering around the possibly haunted Darcy estate learning of her dead mother. The lack of focus on a much-needed key plot element makes Desire and Duty frequently dull for long spots.

The Baders are nothing if not persistent, however. They’ve recently had the chutzpah to publish Virtue and Vanity, a sequel to a sequel.

Nevertheless, Desire and Duty is a better novel than Lady Catherine’s Necklace, a boring sequel composed largely of characters from Pride and Prejudice that no one cared about. Forget about the major characters. They at best have cameos. The plot involves Anne De Bourgh and her search to learn more about her deceased father. I could tell you more, but you’d stop reading this essay. One major gaffe by author Joan Aiken is having Anne be too young. She’s maybe 17, but she was earlier considered marriage material a few years earlier for Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Another presumption is Aiken having Colonel Fitzwilliam, a thoroughly decent man in P&P, turn out to be a cad. That’s an insult to Austen’s memory.

As bad as Lady Catherine’s Necklace is, it’s still better than Pemberley, the worst of the P&P sequels reviewed. This book is so terrible, I’m surprised Jane Austen didn’t rise from her grave and strangle author Emma Tennant over her word processor. The plot runs like a bad season of Ryan’s Hope. Elizabeth loses all her will and is a silly ninny who takes to her bed during a crisis. Georgiana loses her loyalty to Elizabeth and joins Caroline Bingley in teasing her. Writing gaffes include Jane Bennet with one child and already pregnant with another. Worse, Lydia has four children. This is all supposed to have occurred around a year after all three were married, an impossibility.

Pemberley achieves camp, however, when Mrs. Bennet discusses feminine hygiene at the Darcy dinner table. Readers will finally throw the book up in the air (or in the fireplace) when it’s revealed that Jane’s hubby Mr. Bingley had an affair with a French woman prior to his marriage.

Pemberley is an example of post-modern ninny authors trying to sexualize Jane Austen’s works. To do this they attempt to show the characters as sexual beings. But that’s contrary to a message that Austen revealed in P&P despite the comedic elements: Virtue, morality, fidelity, love and honesty are rewarded. Sexual permissiveness, as in the case of Lydia and Wickham, hamper the reputation of both. It is the positive examples of Jane and Elizabeth that lead to success for the Bennet family.

I’m through with wanna-be sequels. The best solution for creating a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, or any beloved novel, is for the reader’s imagination to carry the plot. It’s a method that allows total editorial freedom, and a chance to correct bad plot turns without revealing your weaknesses to the rest of the world.

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