We know very little of Jane Austen’s life beyond the information in the surviving letters to her sister Cassandra and her family, and their personal recollections of “dear aunt Jane” in the not-so-accurate family biographies. Some historians recall her as a retiring spinster who never wrote intentionally to earn a living; others offer a different view of a woman dedicated to her craft with an eye on the “pewter.” If you piece together older sources and the new biographies, an interesting personality emerges who was much more acerbic and calculating than any of her family would like you to know about.
Many authors have dipped their pen into the Jane Austen inkwell and created pastiches, retelling and sequels based on her characters and novels. Like any book genre, there are the really good, and the really bad, sequels in print. I have read most of them and reviewed many recent releases on my blog, Austenprose. While I enjoy many of the fan fiction renditions of the enchanting Regency world she created, it is the novels and biofics based on her life that I find most interesting.
They seem to fall into two categories: 1) Biographically Accurate Jane, and 2) Creatively Morphed Jane. The more accurate interpretations, such as Stephanie Barron’s excellent Being a Jane Austen Mystery series, use facts from her letters and historical events to craft a clever detective mystery. There are eleven novels in the series and Barron’s most recent, Jane and the Canterbury Tale, is fabulous.
Jill Pitkeathley is another author who draws upon the same source materials to create her biofics of Austen and her relationships with her family. Her first novel, Cassandra and Jane, gives us a fictional view of two very famous siblings, and her Dearest Cousin Jane offers the perspective from Austen’s worldly and outlandish cousin, Eliza de Feuillide. Delving into romantic territory, Syrie James’s The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen reveals a hidden romance that we all wish that spinster Austen had experienced—or did she? Poignant and satisfying, it will make you cry.
Now for the Jane morphed and vamped. You have to have an open mind and playful spirit to accept that Jane Austen is now, not what her family wants us to remember, nor what modern scholars have revealed. The notion of Jane Austen as a vampire is pretty outrageous, but Michael Thomas Ford’s Jane Bites series is hysterical. The first novel, Jane Bites Back, places Jane as an undead book shop owner watching with irritation as others make a killing off her novels and characters with sequels, spin-offs and absurd self-help books. Lord Byron and Charlotte Bronte are her lover and nemesis respectively. The second in series, Jane Goes Batty, continues the lark. Janet Mullany is also one of the authors who do horrible things to Austen in her Jane and the Damned, and recently, Jane Austen: Blood Persuasion. I consider myself pretty conservative in defense of my “dear Jane,” but both of these series are so skillfully and humorously written, that I think Jane would approve of their burlesque, Gothic fiction-like qualities.
Jane Austen as a fictional character? Yep! Who would’a guessed?
Some to check out:
- Just Jane by Nancy Moser
- Jane and the Barque of Frailty by Stephanie Barron
- Jane and His Lordship’s Legacy by Stephanie Barron
- Jane and the Ghost of Netley by Stephanie Barron
- Jane and the Prisoner of Wool House by Stephanie Barron
- Jane and the Stillroom Maid by Stephanie Barron
- Jane and the Genius of the Place by Stephanie Barron
- “Jane and the Spoils of Stoneleigh” by Stephanie Barron (a short story found in Malice Domestic 7)
- Jane and the Wandering Eye by Stephanie Barron
- Jane and the Man of the Cloth by Stephanie Barron
- Jane and the Unpleasantness of Scargrave Manor by Stephanie Barron
- The Novelist: A Romantic Portrait of Jane Austen by Howard Fast
- “Jew of Bath” by Marianne Luban (a short story found in The Samaritan Treasure)
- Our Own Particular Jane by Joan Mason Hurley
- Parson Austen’s Daughter by Helen Ashton
- Jane by Jean Gould
- Dear Jane by Eleanor Holmes Hinkley
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A life-long acolyte of Jane Austen, Laurel Ann Nattress is the author/editor of Austenprose.com, a blog devoted to the oeuvre of her favorite author and the many books and movies that she has inspired. Her new short story anthology Jane Austen Made Me Do It was just released by Ballantine Books.