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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Sanditon Summer: Julia Barrett

Jane Austen’s Charlotte, the Sanditon completion I’m reviewing today as part of my Sanditon Summer blog series, is not a labor of love self-published by a well-meaning amateur Janeite. It's a collaboration between a mainstream – albeit small -- publishing house and a professional writer with years of journalism experience and two earlier Austen sequels under her belt. It is also absolutely awful – tediously, unremittingly, unreadably awful. The characters are cardboard, the pacing glacial, the prose impenetrable. Put the book down and back away slowly. Julia Barrett, the name on Charlotte's title page, is a pseudonym for Julia Braun Kessler (1926-2012), an American journalist who co-wrote her first Austen sequel, Presumption, with the British novelist Gabrielle Donnelly. Donnelly bowed out after Presumption, leaving Kessler to continue her Austenesque career -- she wrote a total of four Austen spinoffs -- on her own. In an interview now available on YouTube, Kessler has some intelligent things to say about Austen’s Sanditon, and to Kessler's credit, Charlotte attempts to engage with the themes of speculation, property development and economic growth that Austen herself might well have been planning to take further.

Alas, that’s about all that can be said in Charlotte’s favor. The book’s signal mood is a deadly tedium, as conversations drag on interminably without either deepening character or advancing plot. After many pages in which nothing happens, a rush of melodramatic incident involving a shady horse-breeder and a false accusation of smuggling suddenly ensues, only to be rapidly and perfunctorily resolved in time for the obligatory happy ending. But uneven pacing and over-reliance on melodrama are failings common to much Jane Austen fanfiction. What makes Charlotte so unusual – so unusually terrible – is its prose. I’ve always wondered how some writers who profess to know and love Austen’s work can fail so utterly at Austen pastiche. It’s not just that they don’t write as well as Austen – who does? It’s that they seem so tone-deaf to the lucidity, economy and balance that characterize her sentences. These are the people who seem to feel that “writing like Jane Austen” means constructing convoluted sentences studded with long, obscure words, preferably Latinate in origin – even though Austen herself does no such thing. The prose of Charlotte perfectly epitomizes these failings. In places, Kessler/Barrett is verbose and roundabout: “The handsome aspect of his person rendered Sidney Parker a man whose presence in any room would not long go unnoticed.” Compare the tortured syntax and reliance on the passive voice with Jane Austen’s vigorous directness on a similar topic: “Mr. Bingley was good-looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners.” (Pride and Prejudice, chapter 3) Elsewhere, Kessler/Barrett is bizarrely archaic: “Reluctant though he was to leave London, he knew at once that even to entertain hope to stave off the inevitable, he must away to Sussex. And that, instanter.” “Must away”? “Instanter”? These turns of phrase occur nowhere in Jane Austen’s novels. (And don't even get me started on "even to entertain hope to stave off"!) Sometimes, Kessler/Barrett is confusingly elaborate: “Young Parker’s was an arch expression; his amusement would, however, conceal a perplexity at the nicety of her distinctions.” And sometimes she's just plain weird: “Her capricious hero had effected conspicuous turnabout.” I could go on, but I won't. For anyone who loves the English language – indeed, for anyone who’s even distantly acquainted with the English language – wading through more than two hundred pages of this stuff is an exquisite form of psychological torture. It’s too late for me, but you can still save yourself. Julia Barrett. Jane Austen’s Charlotte: Her Fragment of a Last Novel, Completed. New York: M. Evans and Co., Inc., 2000.

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