Folly over passion: what Jane Austen really wrote about

by Beth Andrews

Jane Austen

Like her immortal heroine, Fanny Price, Jane Austen was a spectator of the foibles of ordinary human existence, rather than a participant. Despite the efforts of modern mythmakers, there seems little evidence that she ever fell deeply in love with anyone. This is reflected in her generally cool, detached tone, which both fascinates and repels readers, who often forget that her novels are satires – arguably the greatest of the nineteenth century.

Contemporary reinterpretations of her work seem inspired by a desire to inject something many readers feel is missing from the original: romance. This completely overturns Jane’s intention of deflating romantic pretensions. She took marriage seriously, but romantic love she considered a comic mixture of self-indulgence and delusion. She advised her niece not to marry “without affection,” for the very sensible reason that affection tends to last, while passion – which is now almost universally accepted as the only legitimate foundation for marriage – rarely does. One early critic commented on her ideal of “intelligent love,” and Jane’s six novels consistently warn that, without the guidance of the head, the heart is bound to go astray. Some may call her modified Christian Platonism outmoded, but after Victorian excess and postmodern posturing, I find it refreshing, exhilarating, and eminently sane.

When rewriting Love and Freindship, I chose to celebrate and expand upon Jane’s joyful anti-romanticism, even making fun of the iconic BBC production of Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth. Having written both regency romance and cozy mysteries, I think Jane would find the latter healthier and more respectable. After all, there are many “crimes of passion,” but whoever heard of a murder, for instance, being committed in a “frenzy of reason”?

Women discussing potential matches at a ball in Pride and Prejudice (BBC, 1995)

Curiously, I think that the lack of sex in her books is one of Jane’s greatest strengths, and one reason for her continuing appeal. Whether a result of ignorance or deliberate choice, the fact that she eschews any explicit physical details – even so much as a kiss – is both unusual and intriguing. By contrast, writers like D. H. Lawrence now seem dated and somewhat facetious, along with their pseudo-Freudian philosophy; and Lady Chatterley’s exploits are about as exciting as a Sunday school picnic, compared with the graphic sexual content of the average Harlequin romance novel. This kind of writing is often more concerned with envelope-pushing than with getting to the real meat of plot and character development. Jane Austen’s work, on the other hand, is like a “lean, mean, narrative machine,” in which extraneous fatty tissue (sexual details, minute physical descriptions) are cut to the bone. The resulting creation is so polished in its presentation that it is easy to miss the wisdom beneath the wit.

Whatever one’s views, Jane Austen provides enough “follies and nonsense” to amuse readers, infuriate critics, and inspire writers for generations to come. The struggle between heart and head will remain relevant as long as humans possess both, and the choices made by Jane’s characters are of universal interest. The ironic zest with which she handles her subject matter will always appeal to writers who prefer to “jest at scars” rather than to weep over wounds.

New fiction: Love and Freindship (sic): And Other Delusions by Beth Andrews

9780719813856Love and Freindship was written when Jane Austen was just 14, and foreshadows the conflict between moral obligation and individual desire which animates Austen’s mature comedic efforts such as Sense and Sensibility. Now updated in this sparkling satire by Beth Andrews, the story follows Isabel and her daughter Marianne when they attend the theatre in Bury St Edmunds and encounter Isabel’s old friend, Laura Lindsay, who gives her journal to Marianne to read. It is a revelation to the younger woman as she reads of one hilarious madcap romantic escapade after another.

There is love at first sight, marriage the same day, the befriending of another young woman as romantic as Laura herself, exaggerated sentiment and complete disregard for the feelings of others. Havoc inevitably ensues. This is Jane Austen retold but retaining her huge capacity for laughter and enjoyment of the absurd. The book includes the Jane Austen’s version of Love and Freindship
– complete with uncorrected spelling.

Love and Freindship is published on October 31st. Author Beth Andrews discusses how she updated Austen’s original text:

“Re-writing Jane Austen seems a bit like attempting ‘to gild refined gold, to paint the lily, to throw a perfume on the violet.’  Still, fools and writers (surely members of the same species) tend to rush in where angels would hesitate to set foot.  The variations on Pride and Prejudice, and Austen’s five other adult novels, are Legion.  Nobody seemed to think that Love and Freindship was worthy of similar mistreatment, but I was determined to rectify this glaring omission.

Although the heroine of this novella is unique in the Austen canon, in that she has learned absolutely nothing at the end of her story, I felt that even a third-rate novelist like myself could improve things by introducing a sub-plot in which a minor character does actually learn a thing or two.  I also recklessly abandoned the creaky epistolary style of the original, threw in references to other Austen works and even a mild joke borrowed from one of my own books, added a host of anachronisms, and committed various other atrocities such as inventing a very different ending.   The kitchen sink may be missing, but not much else.

At this point, I considered my work accomplished.  It may lack the classic melodrama of Jane Eyrehead, with its delectable madwoman in the attic (though Laura might well have evolved into such a character); nor is it explicit enough to be mistaken for a more modern masterpiece like 500 Shades of Puce.  However, in its own small way, I feel it has made a considerable contribution to the moral and intellectual decline of the present generation, and may well serve as a prime example of the nadir of artistic achievement at which Western Civilization has finally arrived.  This may seem like an idle boast to many, but the current trend in self-promotion makes outrageous hyperbole a virtual necessity (please note that I have deliberately changed the names of the last two novels mentioned above, for the simple reason that I felt like it.).”