Dancing with Mr Darcy

Dancing with Mr Darcy

Cover (Courtesy: Chawton House)

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?


3 Responses to Dancing with Mr Darcy

  1. jessiet1 says:

    Although we don’t hear much about Mrs Morland, I think we can assume she was old (well, by Regency standards), virtuous, and wise (if not terribly perceptive of a possible cause of Catherine’s mopiness on her return from her holiday.) She and the Revd Mr Morland were virtuous and wise enough not to allow the engagement without the General’s consent. And she was wise in her restrained reaction to his discourteous treatment of Catherine thus preventing the impressionable lassie from imagining herself a tragic heroine. Yes, I think Mrs M fills the bill.

  2. Good suggestion … I guess the problem is that we see too little of her. Anyhow, what about Aunt Gardiner in Pride and Prejudice? She plays a somewhat wise role too doesn’t she (albeit sometimes unaware of the history) and appears to be a sensible mother, but again she is not seen much in the novel.

  3. juliae1 says:

    That’s very true about Mrs M and Mrs G but neither of those ladies gets a look-in in this short story. The ones who are lined up for the prosecution are Mesdames Bennet, Ferrars, Churchill and Norris, plus Miladies de Bourgh and Russell. In her defence, Jane can produce only Mrs Jennnings and Lady Russell soon disposes of her as an admirable older woman.
    This is one of the reasons I was ambivalent the winning entry. The author could posit a definition of ‘older,’ but why would Mrs Bennet be older than Mrs Morland, for example? Or even Mrs Gardiner … although she is presented as having quite young children.
    Other examples that made me uneasy: named as JA’s favourite brother is Francis, and his daughter Fanny is presented as burning her letters to him after her death.
    We are used to thinking of Henry as the favourite brother and of Fanny as being Edward’s daughter. Certainly Francis did have a daughter called Fanny but she was not born until after JA’s death.
    Now the author can claim all the poetic license she likes but such points disrupt and disturb the flow of the story and would have stopped me awarding this one first place.
    Why am I writing so much about this? Well, some of you might like to borrow the book eventually. Also … I have a feeling that JASACT might be asked to judge the JASA Writing competition in 2010! No real reason I should think this but it is ‘our year’ and the judging is going round the states.
    I also mean to offer to write a review of the book so I am practising on you.

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