Dancing With Mr. Darcy: Stories Inspired by JANE AUSTEN and CHAWTON HOUSE

When I was growing up, my dad talked about the short stories of Sholem Aleichem. He was impressed that, with such restrictions on time and space, Aleichem created little worlds for his readers in which we felt immediately drawn to his characters and their stories.

Not all short stories are created equal, of course, and some can’t get us to understand or to care what’s happening before the time is up. Fortunately for readers of this little collection, many of the stories here are worthy of our time because they immediately bring us where we need to be.

My favorite was “Eight Years Later,” in which a young man brings his mother to Chawton—both because she is very ill and loves Austen, and because he hopes to reunite with a long-long lost who also loves Austen. I risk ruining a short story by saying much more, but happy details for me included the details of Chawton that I remember (the same gardens I just walked through, the same “low door frames” and creaking floorboards!), the connections to Persuasion, and the story’s lessons about love. Kudos to Elaine Grotefeld.

I also especially enjoyed: “Jane Austen Over the Styx,” in which Victoria Owens sends Austen to “the court of the dead” to answer charges against her, except in this court, all the judges are British and have snuff boxes, and all the plaintiffs are characters from the novels who claim that Austen has, without exception, maligned and misrepresented aged women; “The Watershed,” which conveyed a warm father-daughter relationship (he calls her “my darling,” for instance) that moved me; and “Cleverclogs,” in which  a grandmother encourages her young granddaughter to read Sense and Sensibility, and, years later, when the grandmother falls ill and cannot speak but the granddaughter doesn’t know quite what to say, she reads to her from S & S.

I have learned from this reading experience that short stories can offer opportunities to try a style that isn’t usually one’s preference without fear of great suffering in the process. In “Broken Words,” for instance, I really didn’t understand the significance or meaning of anything that happened until I read the author’s explanation of her inspiration, and even then, the resolution felt incomplete. Not only were there no direct Jane Austen references, but also there was nothing Regency, nothing paralleling one of the novels, nothing giving me the framework by which I was supposed to read the story. No doubt, some readers prefer it this way, more open to interpretation and less limited by the writer’s choices, but that is not my personal preference. Nonetheless, the story moved quickly, and the language was clean, so it wasn’t a problem the way, say, getting through Ulysses was a problem. Mary Howell apparently wanted a story that did not work out at the end. Though I cannot understand why anyone would seek that from her fictional world, I suppose I understand that better than I did the story that resulted. “We Need to Talk about Mr. Collins” sounded more intriguing to me than I found it, perhaps because I was confused by the strange series of events that occurs. “Second Fruits” centers around the relationships of a father and daughter and a young couple; this story I found quite compelling though I need the “Inspiration” to realize the link to Austen.

Elsa A. Solender’s “Second Thoughts,” by contrast, grounds itself in Austen’s own life, and we know it almost immediately—we have Harris’s name, we have the first-person perspective (it’s Jane’s), and we know this story—but we’ve never heard it told in quite this way before. Elizabeth Hopkinson’s “The Delaford Ladies’ Detective Agency” places us Regency England shortly after Sense and Sensibility closes, so there, too, even though the plot is new to us, we know what to do with it. I found Elinor’s gravitation toward detective work logical, actually; the text explains that people had always naturally confided in her, so she’d be more likely than other people to learn private information, which is exactly what she needs to do in the course of this story. She is also naturally discreet. Hopkinson nicely echoed some of Austen’s stylistic trends—Major Black is a “pale, quiet man not unlike the Colonel,” for instance—and a description of Elizabeth Bennet in P & P is here applied to Miss Amelia Black (“there was something in her eye which suggested rather more of quickness than the other ladies”).

I was impressed by the creativity of these writers. In “One Character in Search of Her Love Story Role,” for instance, Felicity Cowie begins with a fascinating premise: characters in modern novels go back and visit characters in older novels to learn from them via informal interviews and cross-book journeys. At the very beginning of “Somewhere,” we realize our narrator is a character IN Mansfield Park, but before we can decide who it is, Kelly Brendel offers several facts that lead us to different possibilities. While I appreciated the explanation of Brendel’s inspiration (“if one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another”: do YOU remember whose idea that is?), this perspective would just not have occurred to me. “The Jane Austen Hen Weekend,” in addition to having one of the most intriguing titles, is a lot of fun. This story tells of a weekend of bridesmaids’ delight simulating Regency life to honor the bride-to-be. The protagonist is a teacher, there’s a “proper fit” plumber whose shirt gets wet and thus must be removed, and there are an appropriate number of Colin Firth references; I don’t think most of us need much more to enjoy a story.

In her introduction to these stories, Sarah Waters says that each of them is a “celebration of [Austen’s] work” and that, “collectively they lead us back to her with fresh eyes.” That, they indeed do.

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Published in: on January 30, 2011 at 10:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

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