As a writer of Jane Austen Fan Fiction, I enjoy participating in various Austen fan groups online. I like listening and exchanging ideas with those who have the same passion for all things Austen as I do.
A week or so ago, a JAFF author wrote on one of these JA fan sites that she was offended and upset by someone who made an allegation she felt was blatantly unfair. That allegation was that we who write JAFF were “unethical” in our use of Jane Austen’s characters, and that we were “making more money off of these characters than Austen did during her lifetime.”
As might be expected, there were many differing opinions on this. Most were very positive about JAFF works, saying things like Jane Austen would be honored her works were revered and celebrated after being around for 200 years, and that Austen would like the fact that her characters were not only still bringing enjoyment to her fans, but were providing income for them as well. Some used the old adage “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
Of course, I agree with these assessments, but the point I wish to make is that fan fiction, in some form or another, is not new, and writers have actually been flattering their favorite authors with imitation for hundreds of years and have become very successful because of that admiration.
Take Geoffrey Chaucer, for instance. When he wrote “The Canterbury Tales” in the 14th century, he changed literature forever. In a time when everything was written in verse, Chaucer wrote some of his tales in prose, which was considered entirely new at the time. The story was also one of the first written about ordinary people in the English vernacular. But the structure for those tales resembles Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” which scholars think Chaucer may have read while working in Italy as a diplomat for King Richard II.
And then there is William Shakespeare. My favorite play by him, “Much Ado About Nothing,” is a perfect example. Some scholars believe Shakespeare imitated the plot line from an Italian play by Ludovico Ariosto called “Orlando Furioso.” The characters in that play, Ariodante and Giverna, mirror Shakespeare’s Benedick and Beatrice; two witty rivals who have to be coaxed by friends to acknowledge their love for each other. Another couple in the play, Claudio and Hero, who are tricked into believing a lie that ends their relationship, is a plot line from another text from the same era; that being Edmund Spenser’s “The Fairie Queen.”
Even one of the most revered authors in the American canon, Edgar Allen Poe, was a writer of fan fiction. Poe’s famous story “The Tell-Tale Heart” is nearly identical to a story written by Charles Dickens called “A Confession Found In a Prison in the time of Charles II.” In a time when American Literature was in its infancy, and most Americans considered only British writers to have literary validity, writers, like Poe, were looking to make their mark with American audiences. With Poe’s unique minimalist writing style and character development, Poe gave Dickens’ story of a murderer’s guilt an entirely different look.
Fun fact: You couldn’t really say Poe was a fan of Dickens. Poe went to England asking for Dickens’ help to publish his stories in British periodicals, and Dickens refused, saying Poe’s literary style would not be accepted by the British reading public. Poe never forgot Dickens’ refusal, and Poe remained bitter and jealous and Dickens’ success. Some scholars think “The Tell-Tale Heart” was written more out of spite than flattery. If so, Poe succeeded; Most people remember “The Tell-Tale Heart” much more than they remember the Dickens’ story.
So, we JAFF writers come from a long line of authors who choose to flatter their favorite (and not so favorite) writers. We know there will always be people who don’t approve of what we do, and while the money is nice, I doubt very much if it’s the reason any of us write JAFF. We do it for the love of Austen. The primary purpose of any literary work is to enlighten and entertain our readers, which I think we all do with great success. And frankly, I think Jane Austen would have loved it!
NOTE: The next segment of my serial “The Wives of Highbury” will be available on my website www.girlwiththebook.com starting September 15!!