This catchily-titled book is the anthology of 20 short stories chosen from the recent competition run by The Chawton House Library. It was meant to celebrate the 200 years since the Austen family moved into Chawton Cottage, but it sounds as if it might be an annual competition. With ‘hundreds of entries,’ that might be quite feasible.
I knew the name of only one of the five judges: British novelist Sarah Waters. I don’t personally care for what she writes about but the books translate well to TV and I’ve seen at least two: Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet. One other judge is Rebecca Smith, a descendant of JA through a daughter of her brother Francis. She teaches Creative Writing at Southampton University so the mantle has obviously descended to the descendant!
All the winning authors are women. Again, I knew only one name: Elsa Solender, one-time President of JASNA. She was awarded second prize. Another entrant comes from Vancouver but otherwise they are all Brits of one persuasion or another … there’s quite a heavy Welsh influence.
I haven’t read all the stories yet; I always read the introduction, preface, biographies and so on first. I liked Elsa’s story, Second Thoughts, which was about JA’s reflections after accepting and then refusing the proposal of Harris Bigg-Wither. I was more ambivalent about the 1st prize winner: Jane Austen Across the Styx, by Victoria Owens — also from a Creative Writing course, this time from Bath Spa University. Incidentally, I wonder whether the competition was in these courses or whether students of such are just always looking for outlets.
Anyway, this story had an interesting premise. (All the stories had to be inspired in some way by JA’s life and works or by Chawton House Library … sometimes it was hard to see the connection!) The premise was that after death Jane was ferried across the Styx to the judgement that awaits us in The Court of the Dead, when people from our lives will be there to accuse us. She expects to find her mother with charges of being a less-than-dutiful daughter, or the afore-mentioned Harris with his hurt feelings. Instead, she finds characters from her novels. In particular, these are the older women, led by Mrs Norris (who else??) bringing the charge of dealing unkindly and unfairly with them all. Mrs Norris wants the books suppressed for all eternity (she would!) so that they will be forgotten. She charges JA to produce even one female character who is ‘at once old, virtuous and wise.’
An intriguing idea … have we ever discussed this angle? Is there anyone?