This post originally appeared on Austen Authors on 17 February 2018.
Here I am in the first week of a blog tour for the FIFTH book in a series, and I am now questioning where it can be placed upon the Jane Austen Fan Fiction spectrum. This ultimately begs the question, “what is JAFF?” And, furthermore, as the genre evolves, how might the boundaries of JAFF change the further we move away from the origins of Regency Romance and deeper into the 21st Century?
There will be those who question if Regency Romance and its subset, Pride and Prejudice Variations, needs to seek out new means of presenting the transcendent themes inherent in the Canonical novels. After all, authors have been composing variations on the ODC stories for over a century with the last 20 years seeing a resurgent popularity rising out of the 1995 film. I cannot agree that the field must remain static and faithful to the highly readable guidelines laid down decades ago. However, I am not arguing that authors must find try to “outdo” the others with something more graphic (yes, sex) and gratuitous (yes, violence) in order to keep the required plot lines “fresh.” That, I believe, is wrong-headed thinking.
In fact, the popularity of our genre offers something else entirely. Well-read observers of the publications being released cannot help but notice that, as more individuals seek to express themselves through the writing of works based upon Austen’s originals, we are seeing what can only be described as natural growth and change. Much as the Classical music embodied in well-established Haydn and Mozart in the late 1700s was transformed by a young Beethoven after the Eroica in 1803 into something new, so, too, the field originally laid down in the 1920s by Heyer now is responding in the second decade of the 21st Century because new voices are taking paths through wildernesses yet unexplored.
This does not make any novel or novella hewing to the traditional modalities a less worthy outing, especially if the author takes care to refresh older plot tropes and adds unique, but not unwarranted, devices that surprise the readers. On the contrary, I can easily list a cavalcade of twenty (or more) writers who consistently produce superb mainstream work that makes me whisper, “I wish I had written that.” However, like the Academy Award winner, rather than try to mention all by name and forget one or two, I will simply say that you know them when you read them.
We are in a glorious period of trial and error. New voices courageously examine different ways of interpreting Austen’s great themes for a 21st Century Millennial audience. New, powerful books and series grapple with questions not only of love and romance, but also of slavery, the relationship between the rulers and the ruled, and the fact that wealth does not automatically confer virtue any more poverty does not suggest an infirmity of character. Likewise, authors are now accepting the challenge of turning many stereotypical side characters into fully three-dimensional heroes and villains.
I am not arguing that to be “new,” one must ignore Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam. On the contrary, I have discovered in my own work that ODC is the center around which the universe revolves. However, there are so many interesting questions to ask and, to those questions, posit answers.
As Rod Serling would say “May I offer for your examination…”
If George Wickham was of an age with Fitzwilliam Darcy, was educated in a like manner, and afforded similar pecuniary resources, why did he turn into a darker mirror image of Darcy? Would this not be contrary to John Locke’s ‘tabula rasa’ found in the ‘Treatise on Human Understanding?’ Are we left to somehow assume that because the adolescent Wickham was still ‘just’ a steward’s son, the offspring of a servant, he could never act like a gentleman?
Actually, he did. In fact, Wickham acted much like many aristocratic scions through his gambling, carousing, and running up of debt. His ultimate sin was that he welched on what he owed unlike the rich boys who got bailed out by Daddy. We are left to wonder if the genteel Austen was commenting about Wickham aping his betters or wielding a sword suggesting that the aristocracy was acting like the crass lower classes.
I attempted to provide an answer for the shaping of Wickham’s personality as it was portrayed in the Canon in this most recent book The Exile: The Countess Visits Longbourn.
I believe that we are observing a change from what has driven our genre for decades to something that can only refresh the field. T’is no longer “fan fiction” except that those who write it have immersed themselves in the universe created by Jane Austen. Likewise, the readers may be “fans” of the themes laid down by Austen, but they are also discriminating readers seeking to find literature that appeals to them in the same motion that it challenges them.
This process is opening up exciting new literary channels that can only demand that readers begin within the space created by Austen. Authors have a different task, I believe, and that is to broaden their work away from hewing so tightly to Austen into being inspired by Austen and using the memes and mores of the modern age.
Jane Austen Fan Fiction implies to a degree, I think, that the work is less serious, the creation of “fans,” when that is the furthest thing from the truth. Yes, each author is a “fan” both of the original Canon as well as the subsequent outpouring of material that carries the ideas and characters along, often to the same destination. Readers, too, are “fans” of the same. There are moments, though, when JAFF becomes a throw-away term to readers of other genres.
So, if the appellation has difficulties, what are we to do? Recall that “science fiction’s” Golden Age (1930s-mid-50s) involved a lot of work that had BEM’s (sorry, Bug-Eyed Monsters) threatening plucky men and submissive women. It had limited appeal to any but teen-aged boys grappling with their own sense of powerlessness. How did it grow past that stage into the “speculative fiction” of today? Simply, it evolved until it was something new and refreshed with offerings by a new generation of writers–women and men–who looked at the world around them and found great material with which to create new fiction. Oh, many of great authors of the Golden Age found a way to change with the times and managed to survive the 1960s and still stand astride the field into the 1980s.
For me, therefore, I find that much as we do not speak of ‘Science Fiction’ anymore, rather naming it ‘Speculative Fiction,’ calling that which we write ‘Jane Austen Fan Fiction’ is exclusionary to those not already reading the works.We, too, can do the same as the SFers, by daring our authors to take a risk and challenge us to rethink our preconceived notions of what we expect from a book growing out of Austen.
And that is why I am suggesting that (as I plan to do) we begin to move away from calling that which we do as JAFF. For instance, my new Twitter handle is “AustenesqueAuth.” I believe that we should change our brand to a term familiar to many of us, but also one that would imply less “tribute band” and more sensibility to creating a broader appeal.
I would cherish your thoughts on this.
Please enjoy this excerpt from The Exile: The Countess Visits Longbourn.
This excerpt is ©2018 by Donald P. Jacobson. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction of this work through either electronic or mechanical means is strictly prohibited. Published in the United States of America.
Here Wickham, accompanied by a new acquaintance, Captain Richard Sharpe, ponders the reasons he descended so far from the advantages afforded him by Old Mr. Darcy. Corporal Charlie Tomkins and Sergeant Henry Wilson are soon to be detached by Sharpe from the South Essex Regiment into the service of Wickham’s 33rd, “Wellesley’s Own.” Some additional name references are found in Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe novels. Tomkins and Wilson are new characters who have been seen in my earlier non-Bennet Wardrobe novella, “The Maid and the Footman.”
Tomkins walked point while Wilson brought up the rear. The positions suited each well for the attention of an aggressor would be focused upon the two officers walking side-by-side thus leading him to ignore the small, wiry man out front to their certain chagrin. Anyone charging from the rear would immediately run headlong into the broad shoulders and swiveling shako of the redoubtable Sergeant Wilson.
Thus protected from the denizens of London’s alleyways, the Captain and the Lieutenant, greatcoats warmly wrapping them against the chill dampness, continued their conversation.
Sharpe mused at the many parallels between his life and that of George Wickham. Both had moved above their station in the face of resistance if not outright hostility from their betters; Sharpe much further…from the docks and workhouses of London while Wickham had had a comfortable start as the son of the man charged with the day-to-day management of one of Britain’s largest estates. Both were surprisingly well educated, although Wickham had enjoyed a university experience while Sharpe had bent his own mind toward improvement. Finally, both men had discovered some degree of purpose in a martial existence.
Sharpe had peeled back a number of the layers that made up the onion known as George Wickham. Yet, like Aristotle’s hydro-argyros,[i] Wickham proved to be mercurial, refusing to be held in place to be measured, to be weighed. Thus, Sharpe had to channel his own inner Major Hogan, to apply the techniques that worthy used in the service of Wellesley in the pursuit of the Lieutenant’s inner truth.
Much as Hogan would quiz a French captive, Sharpe laid his conclusions before Wickham. Their validity was not the central point for a compliant Wickham would correct him if he was in error, and, in so doing, would provide more information, perhaps much that he sought to conceal.
Beginning at the end was often a way to get at the beginning. Sharpe was seeking an understanding why two men of an age, raised in a similar manner, and given like opportunities would be shaped into such diametrically opposed beings.
Sharpe began his gambit by looking at the critical moment, the crux, which proved to be the point where Wickham’s life swung in a different direction.
He squeezed the sore spot, “From what I can see, your life has had a Vauxhall Gardens way about it…all froth and fizz, full of an unreal quality, but possessing little of substance that would appear worthwhile in the harsh light of day. And, like the excitement of a young girl upon her first trip to the pleasure dome, you soon discovered that all good things must come to an end.
“Thus, the death of old Mr. Darcy put paid to your seemingly endless winning streak. He had covered up your sins for you, as did his son. You discovered that your distance from Pemberley had softened the impact of your behavior upon your godfather; that it had served to allow the old man the chance to deny what he prayed was not true.
“Not so his son, for that young man often had to pick up after you. His patience lasted only as long as the father lived because the youth sought to spare his sire the disappointment of dashed hopes for your elevation from your background.
“You were forced to make your way in the world, but you quickly discovered that you were unprepared to do anything but playact as a rich man’s son.
“Sadly, you were not a pampered fop, were you?”
Each declaration struck a body blow to Wickham, already weakened by days of self-reflection. For a time, the only sound to be heard was a continual scritching as the grit beneath their feet was ground to dust between leather soles and damp cobbles. The group was passing along the boundaries of Hyde Park, following the carriageway, deserted now in the midnight blackness.
Then Wickham sighed, a deeply depressed release of air that carried the freighted feelings that had so borne upon him since he had first tried to explore his emotional motivations. He glanced up, his sight catching the guttering streetlight upon which he focused until all else vanished from his awareness. As his mind drifted away from his conversation with Sharpe, his pace slowed until he stopped, forcing the other three to begin to hold their places until they realized that the fourth member of their little tetrarchy, silently staring at the lantern, was no longer with them.
Wickham’s eyes drifted shut. His breathing became deeper and more regular the further he slid into the trancelike reverie. A sense that another had joined him became stronger. This being/part/portion had always been within, but buried by layers of emotional scar tissue laid on one offense—perceived or real—at a time. Yet, this segment of him had been growing stronger ever since that August morning in St. Clement’s when, in spite of his previous pedigree, he agreed to protect another. Time—both in reality as well as an imagined constraint—vanished as the sentience came closer. Words, communication felt, not heard, initiated the instant an image appeared in Wickham’s mind’s eye.