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The Novel

Reviews and information pertaining to various sequels and literary allusions to Emma.

Emma Sequels & Allusions: Perfect Happiness - How Jane Austen's Emma Became a Lesbian

By Nigel Reynolds
The Telegraph

Jane Austen mania is about to reach new heights - or plumb new depths - with a bitter battle between two sequel novels to Emma, one of which casts Austen's heroine as a bisexual who falls in love with another woman.

Rival London publishers are rushing out the two sequels this month to cash in on the Austen boom, which is about to be recharged by the opening in Britain next Friday of the Hollywood film version of Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. In November, ITV is to screen another version with Kate Beckinsale in the title role.

The lesbian sequel - Emma in Love, by Emma Tennant - was due out next January. But publication has been brought forward to Sept 19 in an attempt to steal the thunder of Perfect Happiness, by Lady Rachel Billington, a more studied follow-up, which appears on the same day.

Traditional Austen fans are likely to be outraged by Miss Tennant's portrait of Emma. Her marriage to Mr Knightley - at the end of Emma - is unconsummated and is not a success. In search of affection, she falls passionately in love with a glamorous French baroness. Ms. Tennant's publishers, Fourth Estate, boasted yesterday that they intend "to stymie" Lady Billington's book by bringing forward their publication date.

Joanna Prior, Fourth Estate's publicity director, said: "We have got a serious war on." And she said of Lady Billington's sequel: "From what I've heard, it sounds boring beyond belief."

Lady Billington retaliated by calling the idea of Emma becoming a lesbian "silly" and accused her rival of sensationalism. To add spice to the feud, both authors, who are friends, are more than qualified to have appeared as characters themselves in one of Miss Austen's books. Lady Billington, the author of 14 novels, is the daughter of the late Lord Longford and sister of Lady Antonia Fraser.

'I have stayed in the style of Jane Austen and it would be quite wrong to write overtly about sex'

Emma Tennant is half-sister to Princess Margaret's friend Lord Gleconner. She has become a high-earning novelist and sequel specialist, writing follow-ups to Gone with the Wind (so far unpublished), Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice.

Pemberley, Miss Tennant's sequel to P&P, was heavily panned by British critics for, inter alia, unseemly modern references to pregnancy, but it sold 150,000 copies. It is unclear, however, just how spicy Miss Tennant's sequel to Emma is. She delivered her manuscript only 10 days ago, and refused to say yesterday whether it contains scenes of lesbian love-making.

The publishers brazenly call it "a lesbian Emma" and say it contains much "heart-fluttering innuendo". But Miss Tennant will only reveal that Emma falls in love with two non-Austen visitors to Highbury, the fictional village in Surrey where Emma is set. They are a Baroness Elisa d'Almane and a cavalry officer, Captain Brocklehurst.

"Elise is the most glamorous person Emma has ever met. She falls in love with her and I describe her very strong passionate feelings for her," said Miss Tennant. "Did they have an affair? I won't say. I don't want to give it away. I have stayed in the style of Jane Austen and it would be quite wrong to write overtly about sex. But there is one very passionate scene towards the end.

"I am not taking any liberties. Emma is known as the lesbian book in Jane Austen's oeuvre. It has strong lesbian overtones and undertones. In the original, Emma absolutely adores Harriet Smith, her protege and spends a lot of time with her. There's a passage where she describes how Harriet's soft blue eyes are just the type of eyes that Emma loves. I am not the first to draw out her lesbianism. Serious academics have found many clues to it in Emma."

'Suggesting that Emma was lesbian is silly really. It's all that post-Freudian analysis'

In all six completed novels, Austen was more concerned with a woman's rite of passage before marriage than its success. The suitability of Emma's slightly improbable marriage to Mr Knightley is left sufficiently questionable to excite any would-be sequel-writer. Lady Billington is equally shy about revealing of her plot but she said yesterday that it also charts an unsatisfactory marriage but there is no question of an affair and it has a happy ending.

"My book is an exploration of the marriage, but frankly I haven't played it for shock value. I hope that my book is psychologically truthful. It sounds as though Emma [Tennant] has written a new novel. It sounds quite fun and that's fine but I think that I have been rather more faithful. Suggesting that Emma was lesbian is silly really. You can't take it that seriously. It's all that post-Freudian analysis where you can read anything you like into anything. I couldn't do this book in such a light-hearted way."

Lady Billington denied she was cross that her rival had rushed forward her publication date. "Yes, I do wish that they weren't so close together because it will mean that they will be compared, and that's boring," she said. "But that's the way life is."

But her publishers, Sceptre, admitted that Miss Tennant might steal sales from Lady Billington. "We're not worried, though. We have a better book."