With “Godmersham Park,” British writer Gill Hornby makes a second fictional foray into Austen territory. The first, “Miss Austen,” hewed closely to what’s known about the novelist’s elder sister, Cassandra. But in choosing Anne Sharp as the subject of her new novel, Hornby has fewer facts to go on. Sharp, at age 31, became the governess at Godmersham Park, the home of Austen’s brother, in Kent. There, she met Jane Austen. The two became friends and corresponded until the writer’s death. But Sharp’s origins are a mystery, leaving Hornby the unenviable task of fashioning an imaginary past for a flesh-and-blood figure — never an easy fictional sleight of hand and harder still when the gaps in the historical record are chasms. The primary plotline — Sharp navigating the attentions of an unwanted suitor while putting on a play, titled “Virtue Rewarded” — works well enough and mimics Austen’s “Mansfield Park.” But the backstory Hornby makes up for Anne, featuring a dastardly lawyer, a wise old retainer and a fallen woman, owes more to Charles Dickens than to Austen, and sticklers may find this incongruity detracts from an otherwise sprightly story. Nor is Hornby’s hold on her semi-fictional heroine always sure: Sharp is not sharp enough to figure out her father’s profession, yet is depicted as more intelligent than those who employ her?
Of course, much of Austen fan fiction exists entirely in the realm of make-believe. “Death Comes to Pemberley,” P.D. James’s 2011 mystery, unfolds on the grand estate owned by Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet’s love interest in “Pride and Prejudice,” and borrows little besides setting. In “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” a 2009 sci-fi/horror novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, there are still five Bennet daughters and balls attended by eligible men. But zombies roam Regency England; young ladies of means are trained in the martial arts, and Mr. Darcy eventually stabs the villainous Wickham in the chest to prove he’s been undead all along.
The best Austen tributes forgo Austen’s locales and time period to lean on her brilliant characterizations and sturdy plots. “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” by Helen Fielding, about a contemporary London singleton looking for love, is the urtext here. More recent is “Unmarriageable,” an entertaining 2019 novel by the Pakistani American novelist Soniah Kamal, which knowingly reworks Austen while skewering modern Pakistani obsession with class. But the task of recasting is not easy. Best-selling author Joanna Trollope’s modern update of “Sense and Sensibility” fell flat in 2013. As of yet, no Austen retelling in print demonstrates the sparkling humor and admirable audacity of “Clueless,” a movie that time-travels “Emma,” dropping the story down in the Clinton era, at a Beverly Hills high school.
Other Austen-inspired fictions feature minor figures from the Austen novels. For a 2020 novel, Janice Hadlow was brave enough to take on plain, disgruntled Mary in “The Other Bennet Sister.” The events of “Pride and Prejudice” are deftly retold from Mary’s perspective, after which the socially awkward young woman comes into her own, quite plausibly. But the standout in the side character subgenre is “Longbourn,” by Jo Baker, a “below-stairs” view of the Bennets told by Sarah, their orphaned housemaid, whose chilblained hands are raw from scrubbing and starching laundry; who is up before 5 a.m. to lay fires; who acts as a silent witness while waiting at table. The familiar characters, seen from Sarah’s perspective, take on fresh dimension, and the Regency world, with all its inequities, is brought vividly to life.
A sweet confection called “The Jane Austen Society,” by Natalie Jenner, has sold briskly since publication in 2020. Set in Chawton, the Hampshire village where Austen resided for the last eight years of her life, it imagines a group of residents there having endured the hardships of World War II, coming together to save artifacts of her life and discuss her books. As in Karen Joy Fowler’s 2004 “The Jane Austen Book Club,” later made into a movie, the characters find their own lives paralleling the plots of the novels.
Austen’s books wouldn’t enchant if the absorbing stories weren’t undergirded with a strong foundation of moral principle. The latter doesn’t come naturally to modern writers, which explains in part why no temptingly titled new offering can rival the originals. Read, or reread, “Mansfield Park” and witness Fanny Price resist all temptation to compromise her beliefs. Or look to “Persuasion,” Austen’s glorious final novel, autumnal in tone, perfect for November. Austen biographer Claire Tomalin speculated that the patient, long-suffering protagonist, Anne Elliot, past the bloom of youth, may have been inspired by Austen’s friend Anne Sharp. We’ll never know. But it hardly matters.
Clare McHugh is the author of the historical novel “A Most English Princess.”
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