Friday 23 January 2015

The Challenges of Writing a Jane Austen Sequel

It is my pleasure to welcome Amy Street, author of Becoming Mary, a Pride and Prejudice sequel, to discuss the challenges of writing a Jane Austen sequel. You'll find two extracts from the book below the post, I do hope you enjoy it!

Becoming Mary


The challenges of writing a Jane Austen sequel – it’s not all about sex, you know. But it is a bit.

When the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice came out, it caused a furore of creative activity. The writer Andrew Davies deliberately set out to make this a sexed-up version of the book, with a lot of focus on the erotic tension between Darcy and Elizabeth, culminating in the wonderful wet shirt scene.  (I have to include a picture of it here, why wouldn’t I?)

Colin Firth

Jane Austen fan fiction had been around before 1995, most of it rather classy and respectable. But following Colin Firth, acres and acres of sexual fantasy about the characters appeared, mostly on the internet, and for many writers and readers, sex has been what it’s all about.

I yield to no-one in my enjoyment of Pride and Prejudice fan fiction. But when it came to writing my own I had a very different agenda. Rather than write explicit, behind-the-scenes action, I wanted to stay as true as possible to Jane Austen’s original characters and style. I wanted the unspoken, the ironic, the comedy of manners to remain as much as possible – at least, to the best of my ability.

I took as my subject the minor character of Mary Bennet, plain, pompous, essentially ridiculous and of course – extremely unattractive. Rather than transforming her into the feisty, proto-feminist that we might wish for, it was important to me that the Mary Bennet of my novel was recognisably the same Mary that Jane Austen had created – a dreadful and hilarious caricature: conceited, lacking in self-awareness, a failed blue-stocking, mouthing platitudes in place of thinking for herself. In fact, she’s a thoroughly unlikeable person – and a very unlikely heroine.

Where I departed from Jane Austen, and I guess where my own 21st-century preoccupations took over, was that the original caricature of Mary, was going to grow and develop, through a series of mishaps and errors, into a more rounded, half-way decent person, who the reader could identify with – she would go from a bit-part player, existing to provide laughs and a foil to her prettier, livelier sisters, to the real deal, a person with her own subjectivity and her own story. 

In this I think I was influenced by later works – particularly Jane Austen’s Emma, and North and South by Mrs Gaskell. In these novels the heroine has to change drastically and learn about the world from a different perspective, often quite painfully. Just as Emma had to compare herself to the truly talented and hard-working Jane Fairfax, so Mary in Becoming Mary is faced with the genuine talent of Georgiana Darcy.

Margaret’s revelations about working people in North and South are echoed in Mary’s contact with the beginnings of the industrial revolution in a town near Pemberley.

And of course there is sex in Becoming Mary. It’s not explicit – but it is spoken of: after all, Jane and Lizzy are married now, and might be presumed to have something to say on the matter to their virginal sister. And for fairy tale, happy-ever-after endings, well, there has to be a little frisson of something or other. As a contemporary author, I have the freedom to write about these things a little more directly than Jane Austen could.

About the Author

Amy Street has written all her life. Her first story was called “She Told” and was strictly autobiographical, all about how her brothers and sisters were mean to her, and she told on them. That was pretty much it.

Amy's grandmother was impressed and told me her she could write, and apparently that was all the encouragement she needed.

She has a crime novel in her bottom drawer with a rather troubled amateur investigator heroine, The Advice Lady, which she’ll release  as an ebook fairly soon.

Her hobbies are Drop 7, Beethoven, nailbiting and twisting my hair, guilt and doodling.

Find Amy on:

Becoming Mary

Buy Becoming Mary
Amazon UK
Amazon USA

Extract 1 from Chapter 1

My Uncle Philips had been at the point of death for so many months, that I could not understand why Mama was so shocked by the tidings that he had died at last. When the express came from Meryton that evening, her wailing could be heard all over the house. Kitty came into the music room where I was playing the piano.

“Mary! Stop that dreadful noise and come into the parlour!” she said. “Do you not realise that Uncle Philips has died?”

“Of course I do!” 

“Well then, I would have thought that even you would have had more consideration than to carry on playing. Come through at once and help with Mama!” 

I did not understand why she was so vexed; I had deliberately chosen a piece in a minor key to provide a fitting accompaniment.

“I am helping!” I said. “‘Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day’.” I was not precisely sure what this meant but I had memorised a number of suitable quotations in preparation for my uncle’s death.

“Don't be ridiculous! You are making it worse! Now stop talking nonsense and come into the parlour to comfort Mama!”

Mama was laid upon the sofa, alternately wiping and fanning her face with her handkerchief, emitting sobs and groans. Papa was by the fireplace, his expression one of boredom and impatience.

Extract 2
Chapter 34

My face went hot with shame because in that moment I realised he was right; there had been a response in me which could only be considered to be enjoyment. This was entirely dreadful. Now I remembered there had been a strange tingling sensation inside me, even though at the same time I was disgusted and morally outraged. What kind of creature was I becoming? Was I as debauched and depraved as Lydia? 

Jane was regarding me with curiosity.

"Jane!" I began, hardly knowing what I was going to ask her. "When you and Mr Bingley - when you were first married - oh, this is impossible!"

"What is it, Mary? If you have a question, I will try to answer it as best I can. It is - it is quite usual for unmarried girls to have questions to ask of married ladies, especially if - "

"Especially if what?" I asked warily.

"Especially if they are considering matrimony themselves. And who better to ask than your own sister?"

"I wish everyone would not think I was considering matrimony all the time! Cannot a woman talk to a man without everyone accusing her of flirting or trying to catch a husband?"

"You may not be on the catch for a husband, Mary, but that does not mean that the gentlemen concerned are not looking for a wife."

I pursed my lips. "I am sure I know nothing of that. But Jane, what I wanted to ask, what I do not understand, when - when you and Mr Bingley - " My mind froze at this point in my sentence: I knew the words, they were there in the marriage service for all to hear, the actions themselves were there on the farm for all to see, but I could no sooner utter them than I could stand on my head.

Jane was waiting patiently for me to speak, but I shook my head, unable to form the words.

"Shall I try and answer what I think you want to know?" Jane asked. I nodded, still mute with embarrassment. 

"I think you are asking about the relations between a man and a woman in marriage, the physical relations?"

I nodded again.

"And you are wondering what it was like for me when I was first married to Mr Bingley?"

"Yes. Did you - like it?"

Jane stared off into the distance. "I did like it. I do like it. It was strange and perhaps uncomfortable at first, but when a man and a woman love each other and wish to devote their lives to each other, then any difficulties can be overcome with time and patience."

"But if - if one were to feel a feeling - not within marriage - then, is that not wrong, would not that mean that one was no better than a wanton, than a woman of ill repute?"

Jane smiled. "I do not think a woman can help her emotions, Mary. It is how she acts that is important. Unmarried women can feel a wish, a wish for something which morality forbids, but feelings can be regulated, and - and a desire for physical relations is not necessarily the best guide as to whether a man would make a suitable husband."

"Oh no, indeed," I replied.

Written content of this post copyright © Amy Street, 2015.

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