Rachel Billington defends her position as the latest in a long line of providers of sequels to Jane Austen novels.
Emma Sequels & Allusions: Perfect Happiness - Mere pastiche or bowderlisation?
By Rachel Billington
Am I a sequeliser? I asked myself this as I pored over the pages of Emma, studying it with as much attention as the college swot on her way to an A triple-starred First, mortar boards off the head, please. If I am a sequeliser, then what is that? By the reaction of some of my good friends, terms like vampire, leech, carrion crow, blood-sucker, money-grubber should rightly accompany its entrance into Roget's Thesaurus.
The sequel may be fashionable and often well received, but it has not yet been confirmed as literature. No reference in The Oxford Companion to English Literature, to join "novel", "sonnet" and "epic". So, what is a sequel? Is it a bowdlerisation, a half-form, a not quite anything, an encrustation, a mollusc or mistletoe? Does it have no status, no rights, no history?
When I accepted the commission to write a sequel to Emma, I interrupted work on my 14th novel. I knew of recent Austen sequels to Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, of a sequel to Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, and of Scarlett, following up Gone with the Wind. All had been bestsellers. The sequel, whether literature or not, was in the marketplace; and, as Samuel Johnson wrote so sensibly: "No man but a blockhead ever writes, except for money."
But, at first, I did not think of any of that, I simply imagined how exciting it would be to leave my own stage for a few months, my 20th-century angst, my divorced women and doubting men, and enter a world which glittered with wit, trembled (within 18th-century reason) with love, and, moreover, had a happy ending.
My sequel, Perfect Happiness, might venture a little further off Jane Austen's "two inches square of ivory" and her "three or four families in a country village", but it was sure to have a happy ending. So, what did I think I was writing? A pastiche? No, I resisted the idea, even though I was certainly planning to follow Jane Austen's language and style. Led, finally, to The Oxford English Dictionary, I was pleased to discover that the word "sequel" does have roots - in 1513 to be exact, and, moreover, in the late-17th century Vanbrugh wrote a sequel to Colley Cibber's play "Love's Last Shift", called "The Relapse".
Much more interesting was the discovery that the Austen industry had started far earlier than I would have guessed. A bibliography (on the Internet, no less) produced 52 sequels, adaptations or completions and, although there has been a sudden rise in the numbers in our own wicked Eighties and Nineties, about a third spread back over 150 years.
In the 19th century Anna Lefroy, Jane Austen's niece, continued the unfinished Sanditon, although she herself failed to complete it. In 1850, another niece, Catherine Anne Hubback, published a novel called The Younger Sister, based on her aunt's early unfinished work, The Watsons. In 1913, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, called Old Friends and New Faces, appeared, which included characters from all the novels. This licence to raid the best of anything Austen wrote became quite a trend and produced results which make a careful sequeliser like myself seem purist indeed.
I found it necessary, to invent two characters - one of whom, the Reverend Dugobair Tidmarsh, came to me in a dream.
Sequels and adaptations came out in the Twenties, Thirties, Forties and Fifties, including three by Edith Charlotte Brown who was Jane Austen's great-great-niece. With Francis Brown she continued The Watsons again in 1928, before turning her attention to Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park. In fact, Pride and Prejudice collects the largest following, including a melodrama, "The Darcys of Rosings" in a collection sublimely entitled, The Ladies! A Shining Constellation of Wit and Beauty. The Pride and Prejudice sequel considered most respectable at Chawton House, Jane Austen's last home, now run by a memorial trust and open to the public, is Pemberley Shades, written by Dorothy Alice Bonavia-Hunt in 1949.
Some more recent authors like Joan Aiken (also held on the shelves of Chawton), Emma Tennant and an American writer, Jane Gillespie, have produced up to five Jane Austen-style offerings each. Another type of invention is the use of Austen's own life to stimulate the imagination. My favourite of these (a candidate for most unlikely title?) is Antipodes Jane: a Novel of Jane Austen in Australia. As part of this scribbling tribe, I can hardly afford to patronise. On the other hand, I have not felt moved to read many after scanning the latest American sequel to Sense and Sensibility, whose author's idea of Austen style is to reverse every sentence. Thus the opening line reads: "Sorry is the portion of a third sister."
The sequel, if well written and entertaining, although unlikely to equal the original, must be allowed a worthy place in the hall of fiction since it arises out of the very acceptable sentiment that we have six published works and we want more. We want more and different insights into both the novelist and the novels. A sequel, judged by this criterion, has as much right to its existence as literary criticism where the academic interprets Austen for the reader, analyses the characters and generally tries to open out what is on the page for a greater understanding. He does not invent plot, certainly, nor, as far as I know invent new characters.
I found it necessary, to invent two characters - one of whom, the Reverend Dugobair Tidmarsh, came to me in a dream. I also give physical shape to two others, Mr and Mrs Suckling, who were only referred to in Emma. Jane Austen herself toyed with ideas of what came after the novels. Her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, wrote in a memoir of 1870: "She would, if asked, tell us many little particulars about the subsequent career of some of her people . . ."
I was glad to discover that Jane Austen intimated that Mr Woodhouse lived on long enough after Emma and Mr Knightley's marriage to make it impossible for them to move out of his house - which would, of course, much increase the strains on their new life together. I was equally pleased to discover that Austen family tradition always held that Jane Fairfax died in childbirth. I had come to both these conclusions before receiving the imprimatur of the master.
After months of working eight hours a day, living in a small English village, foolishly or not I felt I had come very close to the spirit of Jane Austen. It was an exhilarating experience and I certainly hope that she will look down from above and graciously accept my contention that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
- Review of the novel
- See also this article on the Billington-Tennant sequel war of '96.
- Buy Perfect Happiness