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Thursday, December 15, 2011

On Writing Jane Austen Sequels


And what Jane Austen fan hasn’t written one, if only in his or her imagination?

I know I thought about it once, though like many I’m sure, I never scratched out even a single sentence. But in my imagined sequel, all of the central lovers from Austen’s novels, due to a wild collection of circumstances, would meet up to do—what? I’m not sure. I never got that far. It was fun enough simply to think of Elizabeth Darcy making friends with Anne Wentworth, and the Knightleys chatting with Mr. and Mrs. Ferrars after church.

Many authors have gleefully given in to the temptation to continue the stories of Austen’s characters—sequels to Pride and Prejudice being the most popular choice. No doubt many of these have been dreadful. Would Western Civilization been incomplete, after all, without Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Even the celebrated mystery writer and Austen afficionado, P.D. James, who has just come out with her own Pride and Prejudice sequel, Death Comes to Pemberley, has been the victim of tepid reviews on Amazon.

But I have come to praise Jane Austen sequel writers, not to blame them. For I think the impulse to write such a sequel is an admirable one. It comes from the noble desire of not wanting the party to end—especially when the party is comprised of the best of one’s friends. And this is a heavenly desire. Indeed, a desire that can only really be achieved in that ultimate sequel in Heaven.

The essence of comedy is culmination in timeless festivity. Thus all five of the great Austen novels end with a joyous marriage, and do not linger long to tell us much if anything about what happened next. The effect of which is to make the joy last forever. The taking up of Austen’s characters by sequel writers does nothing to undermine this sense of timeless festivity. Quite the contrary, it acknowledges it. For if Austen’s characters did not enjoy a semi-divine status in a fictional heaven, they would not be able to appear in countless other tales just as they are, and just as they will always be.

No one, in other words, writes a sequel to The Sun Also Rises.

This is a point Chesterton made about the characters of Dickens:

Dickens was a mythologist rather than a novelist; he was the last of the mythologists, and perhaps the greatest. He did not always manage to make his characters men, but he always managed, at least, to make them gods. They are creatures like Punch or Father Christmas. They live statically, in a perpetual summer of being themselves.

This is what the Austen sequel writers are after: the play of demigods in a perpetual summer. It is, as Chesterton further notes, a basically religious impulse:

Dickens is, in this matter, close to popular religion, which is the ultimate and reliable religion. He conceives an endless joy; he conceives creatures as permanent as Puck or Pan—creatures whose will to live, aeons and aeons cannot satisfy. He is not come, as a writer, that his creatures may copy life and copy its narrowness; he is come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.

So let us praise the efforts of Jane Austen sequel writers. Theirs is the will to live that cannot be satisfied by anything but a life that never ends. “Both popular religion, with its endless joys, and the old comic story, with its endless jokes, have in our time faded together,” writes Chesterton. “We are too weak to desire that undying vigor.”

Some may be. But not the author of Death Comes to Pemberley.

3 comments:

  1. I thought of your post as the CEC staff members each received a copy of this book yesterday from our dear director. :) A combination of two of our favorite things around here - P.D. James and Austen. I look forward to reading it over the Christmas holiday. Best wishes for a happy and holy Christmas to you and your family.

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