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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

The unwritten manuscript

The untimely death last year of the acclaimed historical novelist Hilary Mantel was immediately recognized as a tragic loss for the world of literature. But only last month did we learn that her passing also represented a tragic loss for the world of Jane Austen fanfiction.

Mantel’s longtime literary agent, Bill Hamilton, told the mourners at her April 20 memorial service that before her death at age seventy, Mantel had been hard at work on her next novel, a Pride and Prejudice spinoff told from the point of view of Mary Bennet and incorporating appearances by characters from other Austen novels.

After completing her long and magisterial trilogy about Henry VIII’s wily counselor Thomas Cromwell, Mantel had opted for a change of pace, Hamilton said. She had drafted twenty thousand words of the new book, Provocation, and “was having the greatest fun dissecting a literary icon,” he said.

Well-regarded writers do not always burnish their reputations when they venture into the world of Jane Austen fanfic. (Exhibit A: Death Comes to Pemberley, the lackluster final novel by the much-loved mystery writer P.D. James. Exhibit B: the ill-fated Austen Project.)

The first mashup of multiple Austen novels was published over a century ago, and Mary Bennet fanfic, in particular, is hardly an unknown subgenre—Colleen McCullough, of Thorn Birds fame, may have kicked off the trend in 2008, but plenty of other writers have followed (for instance, here, here, and here).

It’s not hard to understand why this minor character exerts such a magnetic pull: Austen readers, so many of whom remember their own bookish girlhoods, have a tough time taking Austen’s ridicule of bookish, teenage Mary at face value. Surely, we think hopefully, Austen must have intended us to glimpse in Mary hidden reserves of sensitivity and perceptiveness?

How Mantel would have risen to this challenge remains an open question: After hyping its “exclusive extract” from Provocation, the Guardian printed just two paragraphs totaling 350 words—the only bits her husband “felt were finished enough to share with the world,” the paper reported. The rest is contained in notebooks that won’t be made available to scholars until after his death.

To me, the extract, which gives us Mary’s unflattering opinion of her new brother-in-law, Mr. Darcy, seems unremarkable, but it’s unfair to judge any writer by her unpolished draft. Alas, we’ll never know what hidden reserves of sensitivity and perceptiveness the great Hilary Mantel might have found in poor Mary.

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