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What Jane Austen has in common with Michael Crichton.

May 24, 2011

Michael Crichton

It’s not as unfair as it might at first appear, linking these two authors from opposite ends of the literary spectrum. Crichton may be light on the proto-feminist drawingroom comedy, to be sure, but Saint Jane never fully grasped the appeal of the junk science action thriller.

Reading Pride & Prejudice as a young adult was a signal event in my reading life–the sheer delight of the language, the subtlety of characterization, the gentle social satire, and above all the wit and humor gave me a frisson of delight while exploding my concept of what great literature could do: You mean the Great Authors could be funny?

Michael Crichton, on the other hand, once kept me handily diverted over the course of a seven-hour train ride from West Palm Beach to Jacksonville as I read one of his most ridiculous novels, Congo. A lost African city is involved, as well as diamonds, intelligent homicidal gorillas and a nicely timed volcanic eruption. I could not turn the pages fast enough, which, when done well, is nothing to sneer at.

That’s not to suggest Austen and Crichton share equal literary footing, but each of these authors delivers splendidly on a promise of pleasure — one coarse, the other fine. Both give value for your time and money.

And they each have an unpublished novel in the news. Ladies first:

If you’re a Jane Austen fan and you have something in the neighborhood of a half-million dollars handy, you could be the proud new owner of The Watsons, an unfinished novel written circa 1804 and considered by scholars the first work of her mature period.

What’s more, this is an autograph version of the manuscript, which does not mean that Austen signed it, but that it’s written in the author’s own hand. At 68 pages, it is the longest surviving Austen manuscript, matched only by Sanditon, another uncompleted fragment. Autograph copies of her published novels have been lost.

Though abandoned when Austen was only about a quarter of the way through, The Watsons has given scholars insight into how the great Jane worked, Sotheby’s Gabriel Heaton told Reuters.

The Watsons is quintessential Jane Austen in style and the influence of this novel on her later works can be clearly seen,.” he says.

Modern critics and writers hold the novel in high esteem. British novelist Margaret Drabble, for example, called it “a tantalizing, delightful and highly accomplished fragment, which must surely have proved the equal of her other six novels, had she finished it.”

Break the piggy bank: Sotheby’s will auction the manuscript July 14.

Cricthon fans will be able to get their hands on his new novel for quite a bit less. A posthumous novel, Micro, goes on sale in Novemer, HarperCollins announced yesterday.

The author was only a third of the way finished when he died of cancer in 2008 at the age of 65. But he left a well-defined outline, a cast of characters and a bibliograhy running to more than 100 books and DVDs, “as well as detailed notes and research,” according to the Michael Cricthon website.

Working with HarperCollins, the Crichton estate hired novelist and science writer Richard Preston, best known for the nonfiction book The Hot Zone, which introduced American readers to the terrors of the Ebola virus, to finish the novel.

“I was driven by a desire to honor the work and imagination of one of our time’s most visionary and creative authors,” Preston said in a statement.

My guess: Micro, a high-concept thriller set against “cutting edge” developments in biotechnology and micro-robotics, will be goofy, sciency scary fun.

But here’s the book I’d like to see. If some wise guys can hit pay dirt with something called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, essentially turning Austen’s greatest work into a Crichtonesque adventure, then why can’t we have something like Persuasion and Disclosure, transforming Crichton’s anti-feminist corporate thriller into a Regency romance?

Fair’s fair, after all.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    May 24, 2011 3:45 pm

    Sounds good to me.

  2. May 24, 2011 8:38 pm

    Well, I’ve all of Austen and, like you, I was totally smitten. But not a line of Crichton. Which book of his would you recommend, Chauncey?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 25, 2011 10:59 am

      Keeping in mind that Crichton, for all his expertise, is essentially an author of old-fashioned pulp potboilers — in other words, the lower your expectations, the more fun you’ll have — I’ve always liked his sillier books better than his more (heh-heh) “serious” ones.That means I prefer the above described Congo to, say, The Andromeda Strain or Jurassic Park. My very favorite, though, and this is a minority view even among Crichton fans, is Eaters of the Dead, a delightful gloss on Beowulf that features an Islamic scholar, traveler and diplomat ( a real figure from history), the last Neanderthal population in Europe, and a depiction of Vikings as joyously profane and alien as you could want. It was made into a 1999 film called The 13th Warrior that is also great fun if you don’t expect too much.

      • May 25, 2011 8:51 pm

        Okay, I can go with Viking stuff with allusions to Beowulf. That’s the one I’ll read. Many thanks, my friend.

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