Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Epistolary Fan Fiction: Letters From Pemberley and More Letters From Pemberley by Jane Dawkins

So I am currently reading My Dear Charlotte by Hazel Holt, an epistolary mystery that makes free use of quotes from Jane Austen's letters, and it has gotten me thinking about Austen's use of the epistolary form and the temptation it poses for writers of JAFF. We know one of Austen's biggest influences, Samuel Richardson, was something of the king of the epistolary novel, and that she frequently experimented with it, both in her juvenalia (like recently reviewed The Three Sisters) and early novels. Lady Susan remains intact as an example of Austen's prowess with letters, giving ample food for our fantasies about what Elinor and Marianne (Sense and Sensibility) and First Impressions (Pride and Prejudice) might have been like. For unknown reasons, Austen decided to abandon the format (not that I am complaining), but it seems to be a favorite of her fans, especially those who have opted to pick up the pen and elaborate on her work. I have read two short series written in epistolary form: Letters From Pemberley and More Letters From Pemberley by Jane Dawkins and A Visit to Highbury and Later Days at Highbury (both of which are in desperate need of reprinting as copies are getting scarce and expensive) by Joan Austen-Leigh. As I have commented on the books by Ms. Austen-Leigh previously (you may read my glowing reviews here and here), today I'd like to focus on Ms. Dawkins' work.

Letters From Pemberley was one of the earliest pieces of Austen fan fiction I read, and I continue to return to it to pursue its peaceful pages again and again. Ms. Dawkins' books are my favorite Pride and Prejudice continuations available, as they provide those desperately wanted glimpses of Darcy and Elizabeth's lives at Pemberley (it chronicles the first year of their marriage) without including anything untoward like over the top drama and gushy sex scenes. The epistolary form works very well towards this end. As Elizabeth is our letter writer (Jane is the recipient), Ms. Dawkins is freed from the burden of trying to capture Austen's voice, saving her energy for creating a years worth of activity upon nothing more than those few teasing words at the end of Pride and Prejudice, indicating what the future holds in store for our happily married couples.

More Letters from Pemberley is also excellent, though perhaps not quite as fulfilling as it's predecessor. Here we learn about the next five years of married life, rendering this book more speculative than the first, and the picture is broadened by including Elizabeth's correspondence with several parties: Jane, Aunt Gardiner, Georgianna, Mrs. Bennet, Kitty, Charlotte, Darcy himself, several new acquaintances (some bearing a striking resemblance to characters from Austen's other novels), and even Mr. Humphrey Repton! In one carefully worded letter to Lady Catherine, Ms. Dawkins demonstrates her excellent grasp of Elizabeth's voice and character while playing with some of the advantages the epistolary form allows:
I am also deeply obliged to you for your words of advice; it was most kind of you to take so much of your valuable time to impart your own experience , and I intend to make careful study of your words, particularly since you mention that my dear friend, Mrs. Collins (whose good sense I value highly) has benefited so greatly from the. Your Ladyship may rest assured that I am resolved to be a good Mother to my Children, to pray for the, to set them good examples, to give them good advice, to be careful of their souls and bodies, and to watch over their tender minds. Since (as you say) my Children will have all the advantage of wealth and position, I am sure you will agree that as their Parents, Mr. Darcy and I will be obliged to remind them how priviledged they are, and instill in them the qualities of good character, modesty, integrity and compassion for others, without which wealth and position are meaningless.
Now, we never read the letter to which this was written in response, just as we never hear Lady Catherine's reply, but the epistolary format allows us to infer what both might have looked like. Knowing Lady Catherine as we do, the high handed condescension (or is it honesty and frankness?) doled out in the former is easy to envision, as is her vocal response (perhaps "Obstinate, headstrong girl!") upon reading the above. And isn't it just like Lizzy to choose her words so carefully, so as to claim agreement while simultaneously undermining the sentiment expressed? Lady Catherine's outrage, though never witnessed, is palpable: therein lies the beauty of an epistolatory narrative.

As I consider the novels of both Ms. Dawkins and Ms. Austen-Leigh some of the very best JAFF available, I hope that more sincere Janeites will follow their example by adopting this somewhat archaic format. Its use both honors Austen's literary foundations and encourages her style of witticism, all while providing an excellent vehicle for capturing her tone without besmirching her subject matter with our modernism.


  1. Very interesting post about episotlary novels. I read the first of Jane Dawkin's books long ago, but for some reason I didn't really like it, I can't even remember the reason! Maybe I should try again... I do love Jane Austen-Leighs books as you know and yes they definitely deserved to be reprinted! Wouldn't it be great if someone wrote and epistolary novel/sequel for S&S between Marianne Brandon and Elinor Ferrars?

  2. Wow Meredith - between the movie adaptation of Sanditon and now this notion for an epistolary sequel between Elinor and Marianne, you have all the great ideas this week! The only problem with the book is you would need one of the ladies to be traveling or something - no need to write when they live so close to each other! You know who I think would be an awesome subject for an epistolary sequel? Mary Musgrove. We know she is a tolerable correspondent and her one letter in Persuasion is full of the quirk and foibles that make for great comedy.

    Jane Dawkins books grew on me as I reread them and increased the amount of fan fiction I consumed. They are well written and true to Austen, and therefore just really pleasant to read. I derive very similar satisfaction from them as I do from Austen-Leigh's books, like a visit with an old friend.

  3. Yes, letters from Mary Musgrove sound very entertaining!