By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 11 2016 01:00PM
Jane Austen fan fiction is a female-dominated field. That’s not surprising: Twenty-first-century Austen fandom is heavily female, and many JAFF works fall squarely into the romance-novel genre, which is mostly written and read by women.
It takes guts for a man to try his hand at this game, which is one reason I added Collins Hemingway’s 2015 novel The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen to the agenda of the Austen Catch-Up Project, my effort to spend 2016 filling holes in my Janeite experience.
The other reason? Hemingway’s memorable decision to promote his self-published novel by raffling off a trip to the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England. No mere book giveaway, this!
Still, I’ll admit to some skepticism going in. Hemingway (no relation to Ernest) is a onetime Microsoft marketer, and his previous publications are business books co-written with the likes of Bill Gates – not the likeliest preparation for writing Regency romance. Did some half-conscious sexism inflect my doubts – some question about whether a person in possession of a Y-chromosome could handle this material? Could be.
Hemingway didn’t help his cause by posting on Goodreads a promo that says his book, “using the Austen oeuvre as a foundation. . . takes the heroine out of her safe country villages and tosses her into a world that is far more complex and exciting” – one that involves the slave trade, the Industrial Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. You know -- “what the Regency era was really all about: great explorations, scientific discovery, industrial advances, labor and political unrest, and an unceasing, bloody war,” as Hemingway explains on his blog.
Spare me yet another round of mansplaining about how safe, simple and dull domestic life is compared to the Very Important Boy Things going in the worlds of politics and economics. Surely one of the lessons of Austen’s work is that daily life is every bit as risky and complex – and every bit as much what the Regency was really about -- as events taking place on a larger canvas.
Given my preliminary reservations, I’m happy to report that The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen is not bad at all. Hemingway’s plot takes elements from Austen’s real life – notably her refusal of Harris Bigg-Wither’s 1802 proposal – and melds them with elements from her fiction to create an enjoyable courtship story with two appealing protagonists.
His hero is Ashton Dennis, who resembles Bigg-Wither in being a rich, gangly stutterer several years Austen’s junior. (His name comes from the jokey pseudonym – “Mrs. Ashton Dennis,” abbreviated as “M.A.D.” – that Austen gave herself in 1809, when she tried unsuccessfully to reclaim the manuscript of Susan, later Northanger Abbey, from the man who had bought but not published it.)
Just as in the real-life Austen’s encounter with Bigg-Wither, Hemingway’s Austen accepts Ashton’s proposal but recants the next day. Just as in Pride and Prejudice, the would-be lovers engage in a verbal smackdown over her refusal and then slowly rebuild their relationship on a new, more mature foundation. And just as in just about every Regency romance, the rebuilding culminates – no spoiler alert necessary, given the book's title – in a successful wedding night, described here with a level of detail that falls toward the reticent end of the spectrum between gauzy indirection and clinical specificity.
Along the way, there is a touching trans-Atlantic correspondence facilitated by Austen’s sailor brothers and a charming episode in which Jane and Ashton end up alone in a runaway hot-air balloon. Although Ashton finds himself tangentially involved in the war with France, there’s not much about the slave trade, the scientific revolution and the rest of it. But this book is intended as the first of a trilogy, so presumably all those Really Important Topics will make their way into future installments.
The book’s biggest failing is the writing, which too often tends toward the stilted, verbose and excessively Latinate. Jane, wondering about her approaching wedding night: “From the whispers of her married friends she had obtained the intimation that she might one day find the function of a mate to be less than disagreeable.” Jane, trying to banish her nervousness about said wedding night: “She had to believe that he would never compel her to undertake any action unsuitable to her ability or antagonistic to her humanity.” Even in Georgian England, I doubt that people in casual conversation spoke of “our parents’ abode” or said things like “I would not merit you with so calculated an action of your behavior.”
A tip for fellow writers: Tempted to use the word “osculation”? Just Say No. (Better yet, just say “kissing.”) And if you’re striving to reproduce nineteenth-century diction, ruthlessly purge anachronisms like “interaction,” “relationship,” “option” and – God help us – “synchronicity.”
Presumably, Hemingway wants to give his prose an Austen-ish patina, but even when he avoids anachronistic synchronicity, the results manifest a common misunderstanding of Austen’s technique.
Too often, her imitators seem to think that it’s Austen’s vocabulary that makes her writing sound to us like the product of an earlier era. Because she uses words like “countenance” and “disposition” that have fallen out of favor in our time, her acolytes think they should stud their pastiches with yet more Latinate terms. Bring on intimation and osculation!
But Austen uses such words sparingly – and thank goodness. Who would want to read a novel that began, “It is a verity commanding universal acquiescence that a matrimonially unattached man of substantial prosperity must require a spouse”? It’s the balance of clause and counter-clause that gives Austen’s prose its distinctive ring -- the rhythm of her sentences, not the contents of her thesaurus. And there’s a reason so many of her imitators don’t manage to reproduce that rhythm: it’s fiendishly hard to get right. Far easier to pull another multisyllabic term out of the linguistic grab-bag.
Usually, stylistic shortcomings like Hemingway’s drive me crazy, draining much of my pleasure in reading. Nevertheless, I rather enjoyed The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen – perhaps because it lingers over the ground I like best in my romance novels, the falling-in-love, hoping-against-hope, tremulous-uncertainty stage. Hey, it’s summer. I guess I’m in a forgiving mood.