Monday, November 30, 2009

Mrs. Elton in America by Diana Birchall

Last week I read Mrs. Elton in America, published in 2008 by Sourcebooks, which comprises all three of the Mrs. Elton stories by Diana Birchall. It's a fascinating notion - taking one of the most hated characters in Austen and attempting to redeem her. This began with In Defense of Mrs. Elton, the second story in the volume, which is a fairly straight forward retelling of Emma from Mrs. Elton's perspective. The entire text of this story can be found online at along with a set of quirky illustrations by Juliet McMaster which are sadly absent from the Sourcebooks edition (like this one of Mr. Elton). Mrs. Elton is displayed as a misunderstood woman, aware of her own social awkwardness and inclined to put her foot in her mouth when sincerely attempting to endear herself to her new neighbors. It is a pretty story and the depiction of the relationship between Emma and Mrs. Elton, which is followed many years beyond the end of the original novel, is highly believable.

The first story in the volume (the second one composed by Ms. Birchall) is entitled The Courtship of Mrs. Elton and is available online at I understand that this has been adapted into a short play. It is my favorite of the stories in this collection. Miss Augusta Hawkins is a young lady in Bath for yet another season and is absolutely determined that this year will find her married. She meets Mr. Elton almost immediately upon her (and his) arrival and they are instantly taken with each other:

There was nothing new in this social round to Augusta, with her eight seasons' experience of the place; but it did often occur to her, in the course of her multifarious activities, that, of all the people she had met during them, none had ever been more attractive to her than this Mr. Elton. He was very handsome, and decidedly agreeable; that he liked her was beyond question; and the Miss Milmans had swiftly found out, and swiftly related to her, that he was installed in an excellent and modern vicarage in one of the very finest towns of England, as well as being possessed of a comfortable competence of his own. Augusta had lived enough years in the world to know that she could hardly do better; that this might, indeed, be her last and best chance; and though she did not call herself desperate, she had already made up her mind, before she set eyes upon him for the second time, that, if he were ever to ask her to marry him, she would accept.

Surrounded by company so vulgar that she seems (comparatively) the embodiment of refinement, Miss Hawkins fastidiously encourages Mr. Elton in a manner that must be gratifying, considering his recent rejection. So satisfied are both parties by the success of the courtship that one may honestly remark (without the bitterness that tinges Frank Churchill's words), "Happy couple! How well they suit one another." This story inspires much more sympathy in me for Mrs. Elton than the other two. It is a thoroughly sweet tale and I will certainly reread it many times in the future.

The final (and longest) story in this book is Mrs. Elton in America. I have been puzzling over what to say about it for a week and am still at a loss. The story sees the transformation of Mrs. Elton from the character created by Jane Austen into an entirely new and unrecognizable creature. Roughly picking up where In Defense of Mrs. Elton leaves off, the Eltons, having over spent, retrench to the United States as missionaries. Here they survive horrific hardships as they head West in the ubiquitous covered wagon, where Mr. Elton is sent to convert the Comanches. By the end of the book Mrs. Elton has been fully democratized, turning into a sensible, no nonsense woman. I admit to being transfixed by the story as I read it but cannot actually say I liked it. It is a curious read but one too far outside the scope of Austen for me to feel comfortable with it.

Mrs. Elton in America leaves me wanting more books of redemption for Austen's less likable characters. As far as I know, no one has yet to defend Elizabeth Elliot, Lucy Steele, or Isabella Thorpe, all of whom seem ripe for such treatment. Aunt Norris would also be a challenging but fascinating character to defend.


  1. Hmmm. I don't think I could stomach defenses of Lucy Steele or Aunt Norris - they are two character who evoke blind, violent rage from me.

    But minor characters getting a focus is indeed a very interesting idea - I've mostly found it in the internet side of fandom. Though you can see Marsha Altman's Darcys and Bingleys series as doing something like this for Caroline Bingley (though as the series progresses, I think it starts to do what Mrs. Elton in America does and stop really being connected with Austen - that and her prose style isn't that great to begin with, and only gets worse).

  2. I think Monica Fairview did a better job with Caroline Bingley than Marsha Altman. I really enjoyed Jane Odiwe's treatment of Lydia Bennet, though it was a bit far fetched, and she has indicated that she is writing more novels along that line (though she wont reveal which character is her focus). I was also intrigued (though far from convinced) by Judith Brockelhurst's redemption of Maria Bertram.

    I figure it would be really easy to put Lucy Steele's back story together and in such a way that her actions appear at least somewhat justified. Aunt Norris would be much harder. I have been thinking about her a lot lately and in a much more sympathetic manner than I have be accustomed to, ever since reading "Three Sisters" in Jane Greensmith's Intimations of Austen. Mrs. Elton certainly is an easier character, being comic rather than sinister, to sympathize with.

  3. Excellent review, Alexa! I think I would find the first two more interesting than the third. I need to get my own copy of this!!

    Actually there is a book out there about Elizabeth Elliot and its called Mercy Embrace by Laura Hile. I believe it is a trilogy and she only has the first book out so far.

    I don't think Mrs. Norris could ever be redeemed in my eyes, she is just pure meanness and hatred towards Fanny, however, I can see your point about Lucy Steele and I am curious to see if she will ever get her own book...

  4. I just ordered Mercy's Embrace and consulted your Persuasion list to make sure I haven't missed any gems. Can you tell me anything about Sir Willy?

    Perhaps I should have never brought up Mrs. Norris but now that I have I feel like I must defend the notion. Mrs. Norris makes me cringe in Mansfield Park, but what was she like as a young woman? Obviously she has been forced to make herself valuable to her community by inserting herself into the household at Mansfield. Constantly living in subservience to an insipid sister is sure to pay a toll on anyone. She doesn't even have her own children to occupy her interest. In fact, the more I think of it, Mrs. Norris is remarkably like Mrs. Elton - imagine if the latter was mistress of a rectory near Maple Grove.

  5. See, I understand about both Lucy and Mrs. Norris - they could certainly have motives. But they are bullies - and cruel ones at that - and their preferred targets are the kindest and most defenseless characters they know. My own reaction to them is more than cringing or annoyance - I almost literally see red when I read their parts. I do tend to overreact (in life and literature), but rarely do I have an almost physical hatred of fictional characters (I think the villain of Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers is the only other character that inspires such a feeling of rage at sadistic mental torturing of helpless targets).

    I've not heard of Monica Fairview - and I think Altman's work is much more enjoyably read on than paid for, even considering the gorgeous printing job Sourcebooks did.

  6. You haven't come across The Other Mr. Darcy? It just came out this fall. Here's my review:

    I love people who feel passionately about the characters in the stories they love. Mrs. Norris is certainly warrants red vision. She is certainly a bully, almost a text book example of the play ground tyrant. It just feels like, after strumming up sympathy for Mrs. Elton, anything is possible.