We are approaching that time of year when I insist on overtaxing myself by writing a story that few will read and might prove detrimental to my career. Yes, it’s Twisted Austen, my annual event conceived in the spirit of Halloween but which really just serves to infuriate and confuse my fellow Janeites. That’s not being totally fair to myself. Some readers do actually seem to really like these stories, but I write them for my own amusement. It’s a space where I can explore ideas that really aren’t marketable.
The idea first came to me in the wake of the monster mash-up craze that overtook this genre after the publication of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. Could Austen’s beautiful stories be rendered “horrid” even without imposing monster-filled dystopian realities on her stories? If nothing else, I think I’ve proven the answer to be an emphatic yes. Why would I want to attempt such a thing? I guess I am, myself, a little twisted. I actually treasure some of the worst reviews this series has received, in a way I never could for any of my other works, because the entire point was to be a bit appalling.
I launched Twisted Austen in 2012 with Emma and Elton: Something Truly Horrid. The subtitle was meant as a warning but many readers, nevertheless, expressed their dismay with the story. It is the most disturbing of these stories, exploring what could have happened had Mr. Knightley warned Emma not to be overly attentive to Mr. Elton. Still, I really don’t understand how anyone could expect a happy ending with such a title. My very favorite review for it on Amazon is one sentence long and only two stars: “It was well-written, but the plot itself is so cringe-worthy and horrifying that there’s really no reason to re-read it.” I know it’s probably against my better interests to further publicize such sentiments, but I just can’t help myself. For this story, cringe-worthy is a compliment. I did, however, listen to the reviews and tone it down a little bit the following year. Jane and Bingley: Something Slightly Unsettling is not nearly as devastating as Emma and Elton in its outcome. In fact, it adheres strictly to canon, which possibly angered readers even more. The most consistent complaint about the book is its abrupt ending, which I’m glad people found unsettling. I took a story my readers know like the back of their hands and offered a different perspective – not necessarily a probable one, just a possible one – and supported it with evidence from Austen’s original text. Readers, equipped with their perfect knowledge of forthcoming events, are then left to their own imaginings. In this manner, Jane and Bingley is the Twisted Austen story that most resembles your typical Halloween tales (ghost story and horror film makers have long exploited the fact that what goes unseen is often what frightens most). At the same time, the concept is quintessentially Austenesque, dependent as it is on intimate knowledge of Jane’s novel.
In 2014 I wrote Becoming Mrs. Norris, a prequel to Mansfield Park. It attempts to evoke sympathy for a despised character by endowing her with a tragic backstory. I published this story convinced no one would read it. Mansfield Park is notoriously hard to sell to JAFF readers. Little surprise then that it has proved my worst selling publication ever. When a few reviews finally did trickle in, however, they were far more positive than expected. I guess having the name “Mrs. Norris” in the title is a better deterrent for the feint-hearted than my more expository attempts to ward them off. Those of us who read Mansfield Park fan-fiction are a rare breed, and I think I self-selected an appreciative audience.
For two years I had to abandonTwisted Austen. We relocated to Switzerland in late summer 2015, and it was a long struggle afterward to reestablish regular writing habits. The fact that Halloween is not widely celebrated here was of little assistance. When I finally resurrected the event in 2017, I was in a decidedly more playful mood than in previous years, even as I continued to try and redeem the unredeemable. Part prequel and part perspective-shift, I am Lady Catherine envisions that lady’s life from the time of her marriage through the end of Pride & Prejudice. The reception of this story was, by far, the most positive of the entire series and a firm reminder to me that no matter how tempting it might be to push people’s buttons, it is way more fun to earn their praise than their censure. This year, I hope I can again challenge readers’ assumptions regarding Austen’s novels without making the story unbearably painful to read, though I am delving into a delicate subject. I’m still scrambling to complete Young Wickham, a sequel to Pride & Prejudice that relies heavily on the plot of Mansfield Park. Instead of the Bertrams taking in a niece, we find the Darcys inviting Lydia and Wickham’s oldest son to live at Pemberley. I am having a lot of fun writing it, but whether or not it will be finished by my self-imposed deadline of October 23rd, when Twisted Austen begins, I do not know. I haven’t even finished the cover yet, but it might end up looking something like this, sans watermarks:
I do have a history of being super productive in a crunch, so presuming all goes well this year’s story will be released, as always, in eight parts, one per day, culminating on Halloween. As part of the “celebration”, I have gifts and free copies of all the stories plus my latest novel, Being Mrs. Bennet, to give away. I also have these fall-themed clothespins up for grabs. They sell them in the market here and are just too cute. The fun takes place on my poor, neglected blog, which I seem to morbidly resurrect from the dead every October to host this event (zombie blog). Come by, read along, gasp in shock if you must, and enter often. Happy Twisted Austen to all!