Won’t you please leave Jane Austen alone please? I’m serious. This means you.
Everything you may hear or read about Jane Austen must best be approached with a wary eye — except, of course, for the greatness of her six novels. This is, alas, not a truth universally acknowledged.
On the contrary. Fresh news regarding some aspect of Jane’s life or work or death is breaking all the time, though curiously this seems to happen usually around the time major new books or movies are about to appear. That’s not even to mention the constant production of sequels, prequels, and pastiches of her own works.
Sometimes it seems that Jane is the Kim Kardashian of classical literature — though much better behaved — so intense is the perpetual interest in all things Austen. I wish her devotees loved her less.
Consider: In just the last fortnight or so we’ve seen a crime novelist speculating that Jane, who died in 1817, age 41, of a mysterious ailment, may have been murdered by way of arsenic poisoning (shades of Agatha Christie!).
The evidence amassed by Lindsay Ashford, mostly circumstantial, is not unpersuasive. But I bristled and sag at the same time when I learn that Ashford just happens to have a
convenient new novel out. The title: The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen. In fairness, the Guardian likes the book, finding it “lively.”
In the same period of time another writer, biographer Paula Byrne, claims to have discovered a previously unknown Jane Austen portrait. Up till now, only two drawings of Austen were in existence.
Byrne’s husband bought her the portrait at an auction, where it was presented as an “imaginary” depiction of the great writer. Someone had scrawled “Miss Jane Austen” on the back. But Byrne, thinking she recognized the long straight Austen family nose, had “a visceral” reaction to the image.
Like Ashford, Byrne piles up some semi-persuasive circumstantial evidence: The notion this was created as an “imaginary portrait” is anachronistic, for one thing: “That genre doesn’t exist, and this looks too specific, too like the rest of her family, to have been drawn from imagination.”
Byrne consulted “various experts” before submitting the portrait to what she says are the three top Austen scholars in the world.
“Two out of the three do believe that this could be Jane Austen and it presents a very professional woman writer at the height of her creative powers,” Byrne says. “They believe it dates to about 1815, before Austen died in 1817.”
Again, in fairness, Byrne is a prize-winning biographer with books on Evelyn Waught, Austen, and the poet Mary Robinson to her credit. She currently has nothing to sell except a BBC documentary on her search to verify the portrait, scheduled to air in the U.K. on boxing day, Dec. 26.
Byrne’s flogging the thing pretty hard, though, with a Twitter feed and everything. To join the fun, visit her website — where one of the highlights is a rather MILFy portrait of Byrne herself.
Finally, and saddest for me, is the new mystery novel by the esteemed P.D. James, Death Comes to Pemberley. I’ve long stood against the appropriation of the work of great writers by way of pastiche, whether it be by swooning ladies longing for more Regency romance or cheeky careerists inserting a few zombies for Elizabeth and Darcy to slay on their way to a happy ending.
I will concede, however grudgingly, that pastiche does occasionally result in something of lasting value, the prime example being Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, a brilliant riff on Jane Eyre from the point of view of the mad wife in the attic.
If anyone can do rightby Jane, it might be P.D. James, and I must admit the opening pages of Pemberly do seem to be an expert performance of authorial ventriloquism.
James explains her motivation for writing such a novel in the Telegraph. USA Today calls the result “magnificent.” And you can sample an excerpt of the opening pages at Publishers Weekly. Judge for yourself.