I thought about entitling this blog offering “Leaning Into the Buzzsaw” as I am playing skittles on sacred ground. Every reader of the Canon is firmly committed to the love stories—both successful and failed—sketched in remarkably perceptive detail by ODA (Our Dear Author!). Any deviation may be excoriated with the zeal of a Stalinist purge!
As a relatively new writer in the JAFF world (publishing since 2015), I do wholeheartedly agree that our collective efforts to extend Ms Austen’s wonderful creations reach beyond the “tribute band” mentality of slavish faithfulness to the words she finally published. We are enriched with new twists on the inner discourse of every character in P&P: Darcy as a rake, Wickham as a saint, Lady Catherine as a cunning matchmaker, to name a few. How well these new variations on the great love story succeed are entirely contingent upon the story-telling and character-building skill of my comrades in digital ink.
But, exploring the craft of those daring enough to push forward their work is not the purpose of this blog.
Rather, I would like to examine my belief that Pride and Prejudice Variations have entered into the realm of Speculative Fiction.
Growing up in the 1960s was to mature in the midst of the great paperback boom. My mother had her Jacqueline Susann potboilers. My older friends clutched copies of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Salinger. Younger cousins lived in the world of local literary giants (Western Massachusetts) Thornton Burgess (The Old Mother West Wind stories) and Theodore Geisel (Dr. Suess!).
It was left to my father to slowly feed me the most powerful fuel that could lift my adolescent imagination: science fiction.
Now, to be fair, just as the world of JAFF has been populated mostly by women writers and readers, so too did the world of science fiction revolve around a nearly exclusive male center (Ursula K. McGuin and D.C. Fontana excepted). As a result, many young male readers and writers (older ones, too) scorned Austen as “chick lit.” Yet, if JAFF is that today, cannot one suggest that classic Science Fiction novels are nothing more than pulpy “testosterone teasers?”
I wonder if the young men with whom I traded Larry Niven’s Ringworld novels knew that the first true science fiction story incorporating technology as yet uninvented into a story making a strong social commentary was written by a woman: Mary Shelley (Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus)?
There is much to be said for arguments on both sides as they articulate the hidden discourse of the social construction driving the tropes of gender in modern society. Yet, what we may be observing in the 21st Century is nothing particularly new, rather rising from roots as ancient as the Greeks. (Which is why the stunning poetry of Sappho exists.)
As the proponents of the Cult of Domesticity would argue throughout the 19th Century, women were sensitive and emotional, perfectly formed for childrearing and maintaining a balanced home life. This meant they were far too delicate for the rough-and-tumble of the public sphere and should not be expected to burden themselves with the management of money or such pesky things as deciding government policy and the electoral franchise. Thus, for these ladies, forced to be stay-at-home mothers up to their armpits in children and soapsuds (be it in the 1850s or 1950s), “chick lit” offered an escape to a glamorous world of teas, balls, and tall dark-haired emotionally powerful men willing to “save” them.
Science fiction told the same story…just from the other side. Here we see the male hero controlling the situation…dominating other men—villains all—or creatures that are monstrously dangerous (see Niven’s kzin; bipedal tigers) or unbelievably devious (Niven’s two-headed puppeteers). Heroes mastered the situation through cleverness and strength. There was no small amount of mysterious weapons dispatching swarming hordes. Oh, and the female was saved in the end by a dark, brooding, hyper-mature hero (Peter Parker in Spiderman not withstanding).
As the “science” in Science Fiction has now become “fact,” we refer to that genre as “speculative fiction.” This arena is now called “speculative fiction.” Less emphasis is placed upon the technology and more on the human emotions being displayed or tested.
While P&P variations set in the Regency may be difficult to place into a speculative fiction model, there are, none-the-less, clear examples which are less variations and more alternatives to the original Austen storylines. Don Miller, Melanie Shertz, Jann Rowland, and Renatta McMann/Summer Hanford (and please forgive me for not listing 50 of my friends) all offer utterly original plots while staying within the Regency spectrum. They do, however, meet the essential criteria of a speculation/variation: the original characters are considered in ways that are thoroughly different from that envisioned by Austen.
There may devices that shift the plot…there may not. One of the most amusing was Cassandra Leigh’s Darcy’s Big Wish which brilliantly combined “traditional” story with the Tom Hank’s movie Big. There was magic, although not an inanimate magical machine.
But, if you want magical events that take our characters to different realms, the work of Ney Mitch in the two volume series—Moments of Moments Past and Moments of Moments Present—is an excellent example. Like Jules Verne, Mitch sends characters both into the future or the past, depending upon their particular perspective, in this case using a magical stream as the portal. Again, the speculation revolves around how the characters increase their understanding of themselves and their surroundings through the stress of being immersed in unfamiliar circumstances.
What is also at work here is that these authors have transcended the tropish “chick or lad” lit pigeonhole. Here we find balls where the women duel as if they are having ‘grass before breakfast.’ And the men, while noble, demonstrate a particular level of sensitivity to the situation of others. Gender is pushed to the side. Perhaps Mr. Bennet would be more comfortable in these speculative worlds where lace is less important than sturdy boots. Yet, there is more…children rise to the forefront…not as miniature adults, but rather as growing, discerning, but still youthful actors.
So, perhaps the realm in which we write is less “Pride and Prejudice Variations” and more “Pride and Prejudice Speculations.” But, given the fun I have been having with Amazon search terms, please do not look too forward to that one!
I am in the midst of working on a new project that fits into the Bennet Wardrobe universe. “The Darcys Meet Frankenstein” is a speculation growing out of Lizzy’s 1816 letter to Mary in Chapter XLII of “The Keeper.” I thought it would be interesting to consider the impact Elizabeth Darcy had upon Mary Godwin (later Shelley). In order to do that, Lizzy had to have seen the future. For her, that meant a trip in the Bennet Wardrobe to a time where this future becomes crystalline. And that, dear friends, is mid-summer 1907…in the gap between “The Exile: Kitty Bennet and the Belle Époque” and “The Exile: The Countess Visits Longbourn.”
Please enjoy this excerpt from this work-in-progress:
(((Elizabeth Rose Bennet has just accidentally activated the Wardrobe and has travelled from Longbourn in 1801 to Matlock House in London in 1907.))) All rights reserved. “The Darcys Meet Frankenstein” ©2017 by Don Jacobson.
Jacques’ shock passed quickly as his lifelong paysan reserve in the face of life’s circumstances—both remarkable as well as mundane—regained the upper hand. The child seemingly posed no particular threat to the family, but her sudden appearance in Matlock House’s inner sanctum without the benefit of passing through the chamber’s firmly latched door had engaged Robard’s long-standing protectiveness for the Fitzwilliam household.
Clamping his lips firmly together until they resembled a knife-cut beneath the grizzled toothbrush moustache, the Lorrainer gazed at the girl who stood resolutely before him, her shoulders shaking slightly. Then he relaxed and assayed a small smile before completing the introduction.
“Ah, mam’selle, forgive me my surprise. I had not expected any visitors today. My name is Jacques Robard. I am of St. Denis near Paris, Deauville and, I imagine, Londres.”
Lizzy’s eyes grew round as she took in his coarsely colored English, clearly unrefined by a lifetime of familiarity with its idiomatic and idiosyncratic constructions. She swiftly began sorting through the implications of his presence in her ken. She seized upon the only others she knew who managed their second tongue as Mr. Robard did; Madame and Monsieur Rochet of Meryton’s Maison au Chocolat! Her nimble imagination filled in most of the blanks.
Leaning toward the adult whose blocky figure towered over her, she replied in an excited voice, delivered scarcely above a whisper, “Oh, Monsieur Robard, did you flee from your home because the Tyrant was trying to kill you, too? Were you mere steps ahead of Napoleon’s secret police who wanted to drag you to the arms of Madame Guillotine?
“How did you escape across the Channel? Was it in a small fishing smack? Were you saved by one of His Majesty’s frigates?”
Jacques began to guffaw as he held his hands up to protect himself from the onslaught of little Miss Bennet’s feverish fancies. While he may have been laughing, he was taking in her archaic references about the Emperor Napoleon—as opposed to his life’s Louis Napoleon Bonaparte—the guillotine, reserved now for only the worst criminals, and frigates, a remnant of the glorious days when sails ruled. He realized that the girl must be handled carefully. Something about her reminded him of another Miss Bennet, a lady he had vowed to guard fifteen years ago on a frigid night deep in the precincts behind the Madeleine.
T’is her eyes. Not china blue, but I have seen pairs of fine eyes cast like that every time the Five Families gather. But, only one set as dark as hers—vielle Madame Johnson. Lady Kate said Aunt Maddie’s eyes were the image of her elder sister and Maddie’s mother…Elizabeth Darcy! Non…c’est incroyable! Impossible!
However, Robard recalled the family’s friend and occasional consultant Mr. Holmes’ comment about the impossible. Jacques took a deep breath and nodded to himself; time for reinforcements. Not wishing to frighten the mite, he moved toward a pair of leather wingbacks facing the cold fireplace. Gesturing to one, he softly suggested some refreshments as he pressed a button mounted adjacent to the carved mantelpiece.
Mr. Anderton entered the room as the girl hopped up onto the seat and began to undo the ribbons holding her bonnet in place. Yet another pair of eyes widened in surprise as the butler took in the tableau of the Fitzwilliam factotum and the young girl dressed as if she had stepped from an illustration in the Brocks’ collection of Miss Austen’s works.[i] Anderton stepped toward the girl to take her headgear, solemnly raising his eyebrows at Jacques as he did.
Robard understood and broke the silence to answer the unasked, “Miss Bennet: Mr. Anderton is our butler. He, along with our housekeeper, Mrs. Hastings, will be on hand to help you.
“Mr. Anderton, might there be some limonade in the kitchen? Perhaps some of Cook’s raspberry bars? Oh, and could you find Mrs. Robard and ask her to join us?”
As the older man turned to leave, Jacques moved to his side and, in a lowered voice added, “I think this is one of those situations about which his Lordship advised us. As such, I have not told her where or when she is. I think we have to get her to Deauville so they can deal with her.”
Returning to sit in the empty armchair, Robard scanned the child from head-to-toe. What he saw was an alert young girl, perhaps no more than ten years old, diminutive in stature, but her lack of height was not the result of any privation or defect. Rather, this Miss Bennet, clearly the product of a caring home, was well nourished. Of course, Robard mused, while she may be deprived of physical stature, I imagine that the Good Lord has blessed her in other ways—perhaps with that sharpness of mind that she displayed earlier.
For her part, Lizzy assessed the Frenchman. Unlike Papa, Monsieur Robard was built like a man who had lived a life of manual labor. His jacket stretched across his shoulders like a drum skin, straining at every seam. His gnarled fingers absently tapping the brass-headed tacks decorating the hide-covered chair arms, were marred by knuckles swollen—although of this Lizzy was unaware—with arthritis aggravated by years of holding onto reins, hauling on ropes, or grasping tool handles in freezing cold. His wiry black hair, liberally powdered with grey, was closely cropped against his head.
However, it was Monsieur Robard’s eyes that captured the girl’s attention. They were unlike any she had ever seen. Glinting silver like a newly minted shilling, they were deep-set above ruddy cheeks that made him appear as if he had just tramped into Longbourn’s kitchens after a brisk walk down Oakham Mount.
She had known him only five minutes, but something stirred deep inside her.
Monsieur Robard was a man she could trust.
With that conviction firmly planted in her mind, Lizzy began to tell her story.
About half way through the girl’s tale, Maggie Robard slipped through the door and settled into the chair quickly vacated by her husband. The statuesque redhead interrupted Elizabeth only long enough to introduce herself. Lizzy looked at Madame and discovered the same warmth that had captivated all who knew her. Instantly sketching Maggie’s character based upon this observation, Lizzy continued her report. As Maggie listened intently, her bright green eyes drank in the vision of what could have easily been a youthful, albeit brunette, version of her beloved Kate.
Few would have recognized the elegant Countess of Matlock, a fixture in Edwardian drawing rooms, in the slip of a girl sitting erect on the front edge of an armchair that threatened to devour her. However, Maggie had known Kate for fifteen years…from those first moments in the garret room in the Madeleine through the dark Parisian winter’s night and into the bright spring dawn behind the house gracing the heights of Montmartre. She had held Kate’s hand through the despair of miscarriage, the excitement of love’s bloom, and the glory of new life coming into this world. And, being as close to Kate as anyone but her mother—no, closer than that woman—she could call this youngster a womb-mate of her best friend.
Beyond the same pair of fine eyes, the lass enjoyed the remarkable bone structure that could be found in many of the portraits gracing the hallways of the Bennet Family Trust, Pemberley, Thornhill, and Selkirk. Maggie smiled to herself as she noted that, while diminutive, this Miss Bennet, like Lady Kate, once she achieved her full growth, would be able to wear country and Parisian fashions with equal distinction and, in the process, drive other less fortunate women to distraction.
“…and then I was here,” Lizzy finished.
A gentle knock on the study’s door brought all conversation momentarily to a halt. Mr. Anderton entered closely followed by one of the Wilson twins who carried a tray laden with refreshments. Lizzy stared intently at the blue-eyed man who towered over even the well-proportioned Anderton.
When he had set the salver on the table between the chairs, Liam Wilson straightened up and looked at the adults. He did not notice that the child had slipped from her seat and was standing next to him…until he heard her soft voice addressing him.
“Excuse me, sir,” Lizzy said, “Please forgive me for being impertinent, but I must tell you that I have never seen anyone as tall as you.”
Wilson had been teased his entire life for being one half of “The Twin Towers” along with his younger (by nine minutes) brother, Sean. He was used to the silent stares of children gathered in by their mamas as he passed by and the quiet deference accorded him as other men would sidle out of his path. But, when he looked down at the nearly black eyes underneath rich chocolate locks, all he saw was healthy curiosity, and he instinctively knew that this was another his family had been sworn to protect for nearly a century.
With a chuckle, Liam replied, “Oh, Miss, t’is not impertinent to find wonder in the world around you. Would it surprise you to know that there is another just like me lurking out in the hall? That would be my little brother, Sean. If you have any fears and Mr. Robard or Mr. Anderton is not at hand, you just call out for either Liam or Sean Wilson.
“And, if you think we are large, our Great Grand-dad, the Sergeant, topped us by at least two inches. From what we were told by our folks, he had hands the size of hams. When he’d go riding with the Old General, he had to use one of those big dray-horses like Sir Percivale.”[ii]
Lizzy’s eyes sparkled at the mention of her favorite Knight of the Round Table.[iii]
She exclaimed, “Oh, when Sir Percivale was at the court of the Fisher King and did not ask about the Grail procession, I was so sad. The King was deathly ill and just asking would have cured him!”[iv]
Wilson engaged her, “But, if he had asked, we would not have enjoyed Herr Wagner’s solution…allowing Percivale to heal the Fisher King himself and then joining him as Keeper.”[v]
A look of confusion briefly crossed Lizzy’s face at the mention of a German composer who would not be born for another 12 years in her home timeframe. Then, with the agility of a child’s flexible mind, she dismissed it and looked up at the white blond head looming above.
“I believe that we have the sound basis for a friendship, Mr. Wilson. From this point forward, you will be my Sir Percivale.”
Strangely moved, by what currents flowing in the study he knew not, Liam Wilson dipped to one knee in front of Miss Bennet, and, bowing his head, addressed her in a voice thickened by the deepest emotion.
“And, my Lady, ‘pon my honor, I pledge my loyalty to you. I will be your good knight. I will protect you, and, if my heart is pure enough like the sainted Percivale’s, I will heal you. This I pledge for myself and all my descendants.”
[i] Jane Austen, R. Brimley Johnson, ed., Jane Austen’s Novels in Ten Volumes, illustrated by C.E. and H.M. Brock, (London, J.M. Dent & Co.), 1898.
[ii] For the story of Sergeant Henry Wilson, see “The Maid and The Footman.”
[iii] Percivale is also known as The Grail Knight. In Arthurian legend he, along with Galahad, seek the Holy Grail. In some tales, Percivale achieves the Grail. He is characterized as pure enough in spirit to heal the wounder Keeper and himself become a Keeper of the Grail. See http://www.kingarthursknights.com/knights/percivale.asp accessed 7/11/17 (a palindrome!).
[iv] As portrayed in Wolfram ven Eschenbach’s Parzival c 1200-1210). http://www.kingarthursknights.com/knights/percivale.asp
[v] Parsifal (1882), an opera by Richard Wagner. http://www.kingarthursknights.com/knights/percivale.asp