JASNA-NJ just had its annual discussion of recently published Jane Austen fan fiction, in all of its many incarnations. Molly Greeley’s The Heiress emerged as a clear winner. Greeley’s book comes from a long tradition, not just in Jane Austen Fan Fiction (JAFF) but fan fiction in general, of imagining the story from marginalized, despised characters in the original work.
Fan fiction has many definitions, but in its broadest sense an author doesn’t even need to be a “fan” of the original “fiction.” Perhaps the most famous example is Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, which examines the events which brought Mr. Rochester and Bertha (Antionette, in Rhys’s work) Mason together with a critical postcolonial lens.
Greeley is an Austen fan, but her work gives voice to Anne de Bourgh, less of a character in the original work than a limp, voiceless, sickly embodiment of the hereditary aristocracy who doesn’t even have the energy to speak, much less be received at court or be a feasible bride for Mr. Darcy. Greeley’s work speculates about Anne’s possible laudanum addiction (common at the time) as well as Anne’s sexuality. She uses an interior, modernist style very different from Austen’s to give life to this quiet character who has so many opportunities, but who lacks the psychological will to use them.
Of course, writing from the perspective of secondary characters is only one of many types of JAFF and fan fiction. There are:
- So-called variations, in which the author rearranges one of the JENGA-like puzzle pieces holding up Austen’s narrative, such as having Elizabeth and Darcy marry after the first proposal. Abigail Reynolds has written a ten-book series of Pride & Prejudice variations. And there are many others! So many others!
- Sequels and prequels, such as Rose Servitova’s The Longbourn Letters, which is an imaginary epistolary exchange between Mr. Collins and Mr. Bennet after Jane and Elizabeth are married off. In other genres of fan fiction (most notably Sherlock Holmes), in which authors attempt to write in the actual style (as closely as possible) to the original without actually parodying it, this is called a pastiche.
- Contemporary reboots, transposing Austen’s narrative into a modern day environment or different cultures, like Emma is transposed in to a 90s upscale California high school in Clueless.
- Works about Jane Austen fans themselves, a la Austenland.
- Mashups, like Pride and Prometheus, in which Mary Bennet and Victor Frankenstein cross paths.
- Books which pay homage to the themes and structure of the original, with or without directly referencing it. I’d argue Rebecca and Jane Eyre are perhaps the most obvious examples of this sort of relationship. Arabella by Georgette Heyer, is about the child of an overstuffed, impoverished household who wins over the heart of a cold, proud jaded aristocrat. I Capture the Castle about Austen and Brontë-reading girls who must marry well (or starve) given their impecunious father’s inability to make a living could likewise be said to be of this tradition.
And, of course, there are many ways to combine these different approaches, such as Being Mary Bennet, a contemporary reboot of Pride & Prejudice, from the perspective of the secondary character Mary Bennet.
Given even Austen herself speculated upon the fates of the other Bennet girls and fantasy-cast paintings she saw in a gallery as Mrs. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, perhaps the impulse to imagine alternative universes in which literary (and other) characters live on is here to stay. Some people love fan fiction, others hate it, others enjoy reading it and hating it and screaming “why don’t authors write original characters” and then read it some more. On one hand, there’s a built-in audience for the work. On the other hand, all but the very best fan fiction often lacks a certain charm, unless you’re familiar with the source, which can limit its audience. Yet it’s hard to avoid comparison between the original and the derivative work, and very few contemporary authors delight in being compared to a great classical writer whose works have stood the test of time.
Yet publishing houses are snapping up fan fictions about works that aren’t in the public domain (unlike Jane Austen) and turning them into traditionally published books like the Star Wars-inspired The Love Hypothesis, so it’s clearly here to stay.
So what’s your favorite type of fan fiction? What should we read next?