Altered States: Challenges of Time Shifted Canonical Characters

Altered States: Challenges of Time Shifted Canonical Characters

Austenesque authors have, in recent years, begun to explore taking the classic characters and extracting them from their Regency worlds to insert them into (usually) modern environments. T’is neither my place nor my inclination to assess whether these variations from tradition are appropriate or not. Of course, considering that I am in the midst of shooting my protagonists and antagonists all over the timelines of the 19th and 20th Centuries, an astute reader might question if I were somehow responding to my own inner struggles.

I am. The current volume of the Bennet Wardrobe, The Avenger: Thomas Bennet and A Father’s Lament, is set in the period between 1945 and 1952. I have had to address the core questions of how two refugees from the Regency, Thomas and Frances Bennet, will behave and evolve in Post-World War II Europe. I do believe I have successfully navigated these shoals. However, I have the advantage as I am working with Canonical characters who tend to stand at the edges of the action in the original.

In this particular forum, I will address the core difficulty facing any writer seeking to position (usually) Darcy, Elizabeth, Fitzwilliam, Georgiana, and Wickham (with the Bingleys added, especially to serve as the touchstone for Jane) in any time frame other than the Regency. The moment authors step beyond the Regency, they must face an additional double task…

  • An accurate and logical historical world needs must be created to provide an environment within which the characters must live to express their truth
  • The characters themselves, in the process of expressing their truths, must interact convincingly within their surroundings.

While we are intimately familiar with all of Miss Austen’s leading characters in the Canon, we ultimately only understand them within the semiotic framework created by the Mistress: the discursive debate between power and powerlessness, wealth and poverty, city and country, gentry and trade. The interaction of men and women was necessarily governed by individual’s position within the larger social scheme. Propriety and sexual probity was limited by the questions of disease and inheritance. Greater sexual freedom was accorded to men of the upper classes as well as men and women of the lower classes who had no property to pass along to succeeding generations.

A deep understanding of these memes is unnecessary to appreciate the set-pieces through which the Canonical characters move. What was is in Austenland, because it could be no other way. The Regency shapes these characters as surely as the Marines mold their recruits. Austen, since she was writing for a Regency audience of the upper classes, did not need to explain the world within which her personages existed.

Darcy is a man proud of his heritage and position. He has found security in his armor of propriety. He never questions that he is powerful. That condition is simply his due because of his birth. Others are lesser than he, but not because of defect, but rather that is simply the nature of early 19th Century Britain.

If anything, Darcy is a caricature, the exception painted to act as a mirror within which the true nature of the ton was reflected. The decadence of the 10,000—and implicitly the Prince Regent—explodes into giant gouts of color when it encounters the moral certainty of Darcy, so convinced he is in his correctness.

Elizabeth is the antithesis of everything a Regency woman was expected to be. She is neither meek nor submissive. Her Regency accomplishments are few while her post-Germaine Greer achievements—well-read, curious about the natural world as well as politics, opinionated, athletic, and so on—offer her up as a “new” woman much more so than Charles Bingley was a “new” man, determined as he was to go backwards in time from the Industrial Revolution.

Obviously, we could go on forever exploring the nature of ODC and others as they stood in the Regency.

However, taking the characters and translating them directly to the modern era has its dangers.

With the elimination of coverture, the advent of women’s voting rights, removal of racial and gender barriers in education and employment, and the removal of paternity questions in the face of modern science (leaving penicillin’s utility in the modern era to the attentions of another writer), dropping Darcy and Elizabeth into 20th Century Times Square can be a hazardous undertaking.

Would a Darcy born into Post-World War II privilege be the same sort of man as one born shortly after the American Revolution? Would he have enlisted to serve in Vietnam or sought ways to evade the war? Would he act with a social conscience or would he have he held in disdain those who did not win the birth-parent lottery as being deficient in character and capability?

While a Napoleonic-era Elizabeth Bennet seems refreshingly radical to a 21st Century reader used to limpid Regency Romance heroines, would that same woman embrace the Equal Rights Amendment movement in the 1970s? Would she have sought a career, or would she have been satisfied remain at home to raise her family, to battle loads of laundry, school projects, and broken adolescent hearts? Would she have found Darcy’s efforts to redeem himself compelling enough to earn a second chance at her heart or would she have cut him loose in favor of Fitzwilliam, now no longer (in the 21st Century) bound to marry for wealth?

Thus, authors seeking to insert the eternal relationship story into modern times must evolve these characters to make them consonant and, thus, recognizable to readers. They must be able to clearly inhabit the world into which they were birthed or they will never be convincing. Two wonderful Austenesque Authors have successfully done just this: Beth Auron in her remarkable Longbourn’s Songbird and Barbara Silkstone in her lighthearted mysteries involving canine psychologist Lizzie Bennet and a modern property magnate/knight Fitzwilliam Darcy.

That requires certain amounts of relevant information about the times into which the characters have been placed. The social, economic, political/geopolitical, and geographic factors that create the ground of history upon which the characters must stand need to be offered up for readers not thoroughly aware of the time window. Only then may the characters be allowed to step onto the stage.

An example of this would be the window within which the readers view the last portion of Part II of the “Kitty Book” in the Bennet Wardrobe Series. This final book within the volume is set at the Beach House in Deauville in 1944 in the weeks immediately following D-Day. In order to set the stage for the final crisis, some history must be laid down. Please consider the following excerpt from The Exile: The Countess Visits Longbourn.

&&&&&&

This excerpt from “The Exile: The Countess Visits Longbourn” is ©2018 by Donald P. Jacobson. All rights reserved. Reproduction in any form, either print or electronic, without the expressed written consent of the creator is prohibited. Published in the United States of America.

Chapter XXXV

The Beach House at Deauville, August 19, 1944

….

In the twelve years since that remarkable month spent at Madras House, Lady Fitzwilliam had lived her dowager’s life in Deauville, London, Paris, New York, and Selkirk. That meant she had stood as nana to her grandchildren as they tumbled across the yards and later strode across the stages at Oxbridge and the Sorbonne—even the young ladies. She had readily sponsored Liam Wilson’s boys: one to earn his doctorate in physics from the University of Chicago under Professor Fermi and the other matriculating at the University of Edinburgh before moving on to medical training at The London. She imagined both were employed in the war effort, however, isolated as she was in Occupied France, she had no idea what either was doing to bring the conflict to its conclusion.[i]

What little communication she had had with her relations passed through various neutral countries. Mail would arrive hand delivered by Portuguese, Swiss, Spaniards, or Swedes. The reach of the Five Families was blocked by Hitler’s armies, but the Trust’s factors in Lisbon, Berne, Madrid, and Stockholm controlled items desperately needed by Berlin’s thugs: tungsten, hard currency, access to South America, and iron ore. While neutrality had its uses, these more pragmatic reasons conferred an aura of invulnerability upon those serving the Families and granted protection in the invisible, but deadly game, being played between British Intelligence, the Abwehr, and the OSS.

She had long recognized that her own immediate security in Occupied France depended upon the strength of her friends in the power centers behind Hitler’s regime. The relationships forged in the heady days before World War I and, later, in the Twenties, transcended politics and national borders. Lady Fitzwilliam was unabashed in leaning on Krupps and Thyssens to keep from being deported from her home to a detention camp. Her continued independence to this point of the war had depended on the fact that the little man and his coterie of sycophants were still in awe of the Kaiserreich’s elites—the old military officer corps of vons and unds as well as the industrialists—who had helped the Nazis in the 1930s when they seemed to be the only answer to the aristocracy’s fear of a Communist revolution.

Sadly, they had believed they could control Hitler’s excesses, the verbalization of which had endeared him to German masses frightened by the Depression and feeling displaced by change in a modern world. Once he had eliminated all of his competitors—and several of those upon whom the elites had depended to keep him in check—t’was too late.[ii] However, ten years later, she knew that the level of disdain with which the remaining betters still held the grasping criminality of the regime was only increasing as the cities were reduced to rubble and the Allies tore gaping chunks out of the flanks of Festung Europa .

Thus, Kitty put up with the inconvenience of infrequent letters passed through multiple mail drops between London and Deauville. Any deeper attempt to communicate with Fitzwilliams, Gardiners, Bingleys, Darcys, or Bennets could expose the House to the Gestapo’s undesirable curiosity. The Germans had become especially sensitive after the June 6th landings.

And even more so after the bungled attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20th: that marked the first day of the Nazis’ war upon Old Germany.

As Hitler recovered from his injuries, Himmler had unleashed the SS upon any threats to the regime—real or perceived. The black-shirted, jackbooted wearers of the death’s head had, over the past four weeks, expanded their murderous excesses from the wealthy suburbs of Berlin and Munich into the occupied territories. Most of those arrested had not been involved in the actual plot, but with the Allied forces streaking out of their Normandy beachhead, the SS and the Gestapo were in a fever trying to settle old scores as quickly as they could before their targets slipped through their fingers behind the olive drab protection of dozens of enemy divisions.

Her lifeline…and perhaps more…was now in danger. Roving SS execution squads had harassed even Herr von Steiger as he traveled from his Alpine fastness across France to the Channel town. Only his Swiss passport and his strategic use of Reichsführer Himmler’s guarantee of safe conduct saved him from internment in a concentration camp or worse. What he had carried in his briefcase was valuable beyond comprehension.

Kitty had been undisturbed to this point, as she had been since the spring of 1940. She had continued on in Deauville; cut off from the rest of the Families. Well, not totally isolated.

Maggie and Jacques’ son…and Eloise’s husband…periodically checked-in on her and his aged father to make sure that the two old friends were safe. Maxie took every precaution because nobody wished to tempt the weaker of the neighborhood’s residents to try to collect the FRF 100,000 bounty placed on Commandant Maxim’s head by the frustrated Gestapo. To his credit, Maxie had tried everything short of kidnapping his beloved Aunt Kate—and mother-by-proxy—to encourage her to leave Deauville before the French government capitulated. Her demurral was both realistic and personal.

“Maxie: you are my most loved friend’s son. Would you have me abandon your father? You know he will never leave Maggie. Monsieur Jacques’ greatest wish is to rest next to her in the dunes by the beach. Besides, if I leave, who will act as your alternate method of communications with SOE?”[iii]

And, thus, Kitty stayed. As Deauville was of no particular strategic importance, the town was spared the worst efforts of both the Axis and the Allies. The urgency to move the Wardrobe, for years perforce an impossible fantasy, reduced over time since June, especially as the Allied forces had finally achieved the long-awaited breakout through the boccage surrounding their beachhead along the Channel. The rumormongers had held that it was just a matter of days before the last of les Bosches would pack up their kübelwagons and scurry back toward the Rhine.

Kitty believed this to be a pipedream as Hauptman Hans Richter, the Kommandant’s adjutant and her official minder, had kept her abreast of the latest military scuttlebutt. He advised that the Allies were much more intent on pushing toward Paris in order to liberate the greatest symbol of the French Republic. She trusted his word because of another reason: the woman with whom he had fallen in love.

Lydia Georgiana Wickham.

….

[i] The elder was stationed in Alamogordo, New Mexico working on the Manhattan Project under Professor Oppenheimer. His younger brother was an infectious diseases specialist attached to SACSEAC…Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia Command (Lord Louis Mountbatten).

[ii] See The Night of the Long Knives, June 30, 1934.

[iii] Special Operations Executive. British secret organization that coordinated with Resistance Groups in WWII.

10 Responses to Altered States: Challenges of Time Shifted Canonical Characters

  1. I enjoy seeing P&P in different settings, although my favorite is Regency. That being said, when I write moderns, they are short comedies. Even so, I’ve enjoyed several settings in WWI and WWII. Seems we can never get enough no matter what era.

    • JR…you are correct. I will stress that whether comedy or drama, the characters must speak their truth and that is rooted in an author’s willingness to accuratly place them in context.

  2. Weaving the Bennet Wardrobe through all these eras cannot be easy, especially with all the historical events and shifts in morality/equality to make them plausible, but you have done it and then some! As you know, I am eagerly looking forward to the next book in the saga!

    • I keep on returning to the inner truth expressed by the characters. As you know, “The Avenger” takes place in the post-WWII era, setting a tone for espionage and intrigue…yet also the discovery of both old and new love. Just rolled past 90,000 words. The climax is next!

  3. Interesting issues raised, Don. I had foolishly assumed that relocating the characters into other times would open up new possibilities and thus make life easier as a writer. Which it does, but at the cost of also making life harder through the challenges you mention (and as Regina says, certain key plot points in the original simply don’t apply in certain other time periods). I’m going to stick to Regency for now!

    • Hi Mark, The challenge I have discovered is to make the characters believable in their timeline context while remining linked into certain overarching themes. For instance, Thomas Bennet will discover that his wife is a sensible and intuitive woman who had become distracted by fear. Remove the fear and, irrespective of the timeframe, she will become less foolish and more lovable. However, do not expect her to compete fr the Nobel…but rather her strengths will lie in the social sphere…an arena in which Mr B is notoriously weak.

  4. Indeed. The common theme for Wickham seems to have turned him into an abuser of women, seeking to counter his weakened self-image by exerting his power over those more impressionable, but possibly all, women. Likewise, drug abuse seems to have become the “problem du jour” for some characters (Lydia?) who are acting out. Finally, I do find the lowering of the Bennet family’s status from lower upper to middle or lower middle forcing Jane and Elizabeth to seek employment. Yet, even in its most modest inflationary sense, Longbourn’s 2,000 a year would equate to about $165,000 today. That, though, is only the annual income and not accounting for the value of the land or any investments. Likewise, the other assets of the family (jewels, paintings, silver and so on) are not included. Therefore I have always been somewhat dubious about efforts to lower the Bennet’s status to maintain the social distance between Elizabeth and Darcy.

  5. I only have one modern P&P variation, but historical views, such as Lydia eloping with Wickham, no longer apply in a modern world, especially when Las Vegas looms for those wishing to rush an engagement. Even then, the stigma of an elopement has disappeared.

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