Thoughts on how differently people interpret historical romance novels written by the likes of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, and how they interpret Regency based novels written by modern day authors. Jane wrote lighthearted romantic comedy of manner plots, and the Bronte sisters wrote dark romantic dramas. But today I’m focusing attention on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
There were no rules in writing romance, nor was there a romance genre in olden times!
If you’ve ever read “Romance and Legend of Chivalry” by A. R. Moncrieff you would see how romance tales were a thing of poetic prose, 500 and more years past, which gradually developed into fairy tale romances of Knights and Fair Maidens derived from fact and mingled with fiction. It is easy to visualise the knight riding away to do battle the weeping maid waving from the battlements of a mediaeval castle, and will he return or is this the last time she will see him?
Or, take the white (good) knight jousting with the black knight (baddy), most often the latter is in lustful wont, the former in love with the same woman. The same old romances of legend are still written today in differing romance genres. The fairy tale Snow White and the Wicked Queen (step-mother) a rival in the Beauty Stakes, and no less dramatic in Pride and Prejudice between Elizabeth and Caroline, with Caroline longing to snare Darcy. (a mere snip of characters impressions from Snow White with a touch of Cinderella rags to riches is there in Jane Austen’s Bennet tome) Both are old tropes and each time as exciting as the author cares to make them and expand on them.
We can snatch almost any sequence from a fairy tale as read to us as children and find it in modern authors’ renditions of Regency romances a million times over. There were no rules in the chivalric novels for an HEA. King Arthur’s Guinevere loved Sir Lancelot, but neither could be together, their love was pure and untainted by sex, and shared at a discreet distance according to the chivalric Christian based tales, whereas who knows, they could have been lovers! Later novels depicted them as lovers, so you take your fairy tale characters as did Jane Austen and you play theatre manager with them and have them perform on stage to your script. And yet, around the globe similar if not identical fairy tales were accountable to the Greek classics, Persian classics et al.
Whereas the romance genre of today as developed in the 20th century rapidly acquired pseudo set rules, namely rules set in stone by Mills & Boon of the early years:
The Begin - boy meets girl and—
The Middle – they’ve fallen in love, or deny they have to selves, or something arises to keep them apart – known as Contention. (Contention can range from parental disapproval, circumstances beyond their control re military/other, or to the fact one may not trust the other sufficiently and for numerous reasons. Basically the author chooses a plot structure or writes on a wing and prayer known as Panster or Pantser = by seat of pants).
The End - contention resolved and the HEA – Happy Ever After is guaranteed
All well and good as basic templates for romance, but what of follow-on novels and prequels – before and after a couple are married?
Prequels give huge insight to the main protagonist/s, and provide information relevant to their previous existence.
Sequels depend greatly on excitement and thrills aplenty, but where is such to stem from, if the sequel is a merely a couple who have each other and all is rosy in the ongoing romantic closet. Unless something dramatic happens – an accident, fear of death, tragic consequences for the family, murder, mayhem with a spate of burglaries, kidnap, blackmail, otherwise, what is the author conveying if the plot merely revolves around a happy couple, other than the author has fallen in love with her characters and simply cannot let go of them.
Sequels can and do lend opportunity to explore other characters from a previous book, and again scope is endless in how they progress to an HEA.
Caroline Bingley and Darcy
Fan Fiction is not a new phenomenon. It’s been around for a long while, but Jane Austen Fan Fiction has experienced an explosion of new and old talent authors treading the dangerous corridors of hallowed ground. Ms Austen reigns as far as die-hard fans of her works will tell you, and woe betide anyone who dares to alter her plots.
But Fan Fiction Variations are alternative Jane Austen makeovers. And why not, and books in this sub genre of JAFF (Jane Austen Fan Fiction) ranges from Regency era to modern reflections of her plots, and Time-Travel too.
So what to do when writing a JAFF sequel with Jane Austen’s characters? That is anyone’s guess and authors go in all sorts of directions. But as I said above, writing a book about a married couple when the honeymoon is at end requires a great deal of author imagination, because whilst Jane Austen provided fully-fledged characters and a plot template to work from, authors of sequels and prequels are flying alone with no laid out Austen plot. Imagination is key to creating the former life of a Jane Austen character based on the barest snips of information in the original novel, thus creation of an ongoing life experience of existing characters tests author ability to create a new environment. That is not an easy task, for there will always be those who will expect Jane Austen formal prose before all else, and other readers will prefer more modern less formal text and a more modern character attitude: irrespective of formal etiquette within the given historical era.
Authors know they cannot please all readers, and whilst some will write to established fan base tastes, other authors will write with a broader perspective to wider readership, or write for the pleasure of experimentation in a new genre. We all start somewhere in our writing careers, and whether you’re with a publisher, whether you’re Indie, or whether you’re an old timer as I am and have had conventionally published novels under differing pseudonyms, and now Indie novels under present nom de plume, you will know how tough the industry really is. But always, always, authors who love writing historical romances and love history, they will do their damn best to write an HR with historical input seamlessly interwoven to add that little essence of historical authenticity.
Jane Austen had no need to include historical fact to render her books historical in content simply because she was writing novels contemporary to her time. But when we are writing Regency novels we add aspects of a heroine’s outfit, or other in colourful description, because a book is not a movie, even though authors can make a book read as though rolling on screen with those very descriptions. A carriage is a carriage, yes, not necessarily. It can be any number of horse drawn vehicles, but it is always a conveyance, whether on two or four wheels. Does it have one horse, two, or four abreast, or two in tandem pushing that conveyance, and remember horses don’t pull they push when in harness.
I’ll use my own Pride and Prejudice as an example in stepping out with a mystery element, for when the old routine for the master of a vast country estate kicks in, and Mr Darcy’s Pemberley was in Jane Austen’s novel a sizable estate, how is an author to seek out something to render the novel more than a mere continuing love affair?
P. D. James, the great English crime novelist wrote a P and P sequel as a murder mystery Death Comes to Pemberley. I thoroughly enjoyed it, other readers trashed it, so no there is no accounting for personal tastes, and I did get the feeling from reading Amazon reviews an awful lot of authors who read it had no idea who P. D. James was, or that numerous TV series of her books have graced BBC and ITV for ions, as did Death Comes to Pemberley.
And so, I went out on a limb and depicted Elizabeth’s adjustment to life at Pemberley as a testing time for her. After all Elizabeth would initially be faced with a very different kind of life at Pemberley. Think back to how Jane Austen suddenly gave Elizabeth a vast empty house devoid of chattering siblings and an excitable mother in the last chapter. I thought hard about the experience of being presented with a remote house far from family and friends at a time when telephones didn’t exist, and letters had to be written, sent, and reply waited upon. Similar happened to me when first married, and the telephone was a lifeline! I therefore assumed the silence of Pemberley would be deafening for Elizabeth, and Darcy did have an estate to oversee, and God forbid his harbouring a secret which amounted to a belated wedding present.
Elizabeth is a character of curiosity in the original novel and she’s observant, and questions others motives, judges some worse than others, and can misconstrue things in a contrary manner. And when one pokes one’s nose into another’s private correspondence, well, it may not be good for one. In my novel curiosity gives rise to overt imagination on Elizabeth's part when she reads a letter not meant for her eyes - does Darcy have a mistress? Remember cases of 21st century wives cutting up Saville row suits, keying or paint daubing hubby's swanky car when dejected by discovery her husband had a mistress? Of course you do. But in Regency England a wife was a chattel, her husband's property, and by law he could exact his conjugal rights by force, slap her arse, and any money or property she owned before marriage (Elizabeth Bennet had neither) it automatically became the property of her husband on marriage.
Elizabeth is suddenly in a strange house with no friends immediately to hand, and if she confronts Darcy over a letter she will be subject to accusation of prying into his private correspondence, and the potential for a row that may destroy what is or was a perfectly good marriage. Yes she dwells on her findings, but she is also beholden to her husband for the roof over her head, food on the table, and wifely allowance. Bide her time she must, and bite her tongue rather than admit to poking her nose into Darcy’s affairs, but as the blurb states, nothing is as it seems, “oh what a web of deceit is spun, when authors practice to deceive a heroine and readers alike with a mystery thread!” The novel actually, as someone else said, has a triple happy denouement, and it does.
So why do readers and viewers interpret books and movies differently, and how many are influenced by others opinions? Not surprisingly only one reader has grasped part of the context of my story - which is the underlying French Farce aspect and Comedy of Errors. Most readers could only think in terms of a squabbling married couple, which in the story they are not, but they do spar with words in competitive spirit, and Elizabeth’s prickly edge amuses Darcy. But why would a reader say it has an unhappy ending, when it has three happy endings? What is the purpose of that comment? I’m totally baffled by it.
The one thing Jane Austen told us about Elizabeth & Darcy = they sparked off one another, and despite love blossomed between them Darcy was not a man that would change over much in his set ways. Darcy was meticulous in everything he did, as Jane Austen tells us. Thus I had Darcy retaining copies of letters sent to others. Copies of letters sent was a well known practice in the past in how to keep up with what was said in previous letters and a means to allay repetition of same subject matter in follow-up correspondence to friends and family. And thank God many persons in the past did so, for those letters have proved invaluable to historians and authors alike. And Behold, for, at the beginning of the book Darcy reads through an old letter, an incriminating letter where he declares he suffered a moment of self doubt in proposal of marriage to Elizabeth, and worse, that he had made a second fool of himself. Elizabeth never sets eyes on that letter— else she may have shot him on arrival back at the house. The letter in question was written before he was actually wed to Elizabeth, during a spell of self doubt. But how many couples or individuals suffer pre-wedding fears and ponder their sanity, especially men?
I decided one could either write a mushy extended post wedding love story (and nothing wrong with that) but once married if there's no contention as in the original Pride & Prejudice, and no build up to romance then Jane Austen's characters have lost that very spirit which made them who they were. Darcy was no great romantic, he blundered in his first proposal and insulted Elizabeth for a second time, and yet he as good as sleep walked into a marriage proposal by default of declaring his feelings had not changed. He didn't actually on that wintry walk ask Elizabeth "Will you marry me" but she assumed it was so and he went along with it as any man who is less than able to express himself to best advantage— unlike the smooth talking Wickham!
Sometimes I do wonder if readers actually grasp Jane Austen's wicked sense of mischief! And there is a lot of underlying mischief in Jane Austen's writings. She sometimes sets her characters up for heady heights of passion and then a crashing downfall, and another hero to the rescue, and I’ll wager you know which plot I’m referring to, yes, Sense and Sensibility. Whereas in P/P contention between Elizabeth & Darcy was stretched out with gradual sense of other, equally any nuance of romance was a fragile thread throughout.
In effect Jane Austen created two characters of similar personality, both outspoken; both opinionated; both given to quick and misguided judgement of others (Elizabeth nonetheless duly enchanted by Wickham initially, whilst her opinion of Lady Catherine is later justified). Darcy has Caroline in tow with Bingley, and clearly Caroline is acceptable and part of his small entourage, and Caroline assumes she will become Mrs Fitzwilliam Darcy. Why did Caroline assume Darcy was interested in her? We don’t really know the answer to that question, because we don’t know if Darcy had prior given that impression. After all, he was fairly inept in communication with females, and Caroline was in his company prior to his visit to Hertfordshire?
Lady Catherine de Bourgh
In first impressions of Elizabeth he is rude about her appearance. This is instant “contention” and Caroline enhances Elizabeth’s faults and that of her family thereafter in blind belief it will be to her own benefit. Either way, Elizabeth and Darcy are at odds, and as we know tension builds as physical desires overwhelm Darcy the more he encounters Elizabeth – a natural enough response for any young man, and from physical desire love blossoms but he blunders with his ardent proposal by immediately insulting her. (blundering idiot)
But is it love Darcy feels for Elizabeth or raw physical desire at that point, hence his insult? He has an estate, he requires an heir, and one could assume his attitude to be that of “better a woman who sparked him to a raging furnace of desire than the sniping Caroline.” And yet, when one stops and thinks and compares Elizabeth and Caroline, they do have more in common than at first glance. They not only become rivals from Caroline’s perspective, Elizabeth is not immune to the fact Caroline dislikes her as much as she dislikes Caroline, nor can Elizabeth ignore the fact Caroline has Darcy at her elbow, or seemingly that is so, for wherever Bingley and Darcy are, so is Caroline. Both Elizabeth and Caroline have cutting tongues, as we witnessed in Elizabeth’s retort to Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s insulting remarks. So in some respects one can see why Darcy may have been attracted to Caroline prior to meeting Elizabeth.
Nevertheless, infuriated by Darcy’s blundering and insulting proposal Elizabeth would have liked to tear his hair out and shred him, and yet, when she later sets eyes on Pemberley reality hits her in all that she could have had. Can she in all honesty, have prior forgiven him his insult at that point in time? Pretty damn unlikely in real life, methinks.
But then again, one has to look at the fact she is a product of her time, a time when marriages were not always the result of a love match! He is nonetheless handsome, and a man of substantial property income, which is not to be sniffed at nor snubbed, and she plays her cards to perfection as a markedly demure young lady caught snooping and duly flutters her eyelashes.
Darcy senses all is not lost, that Pemberley has achieved what he could not, and he would still prefer Elizabeth in his bed than Caroline. There you have it, he has to learn to hunt his prey, run it to ground and conquer the day, so he dreams up how, and decides introduction to his sister will show he is a caring man, and you know the rest. Elizabeth looks on him in a new light, but Wickham, dastardly Wickham intervenes by eloping with Lydia, and in turn tears Darcy and Elizabeth apart. Darcy’s ultimate good deed in paying Wickham to wed Lydia, and the purchase of a captaincy in the regular army, renders Darcy worthy of Elizabeth’s hand in marriage. And why not for who else is lining up to court Lizzie? No one. Thus, on that wintry walk Elizabeth swallows a dollop of humble pie in gratitude to Darcy’s purse, and his unstinting kindness to the Bennet household. Darcy in turn conveys for the first time heartfelt feelings, not a proposal of marriage, but could be construed as such if wanted and Elizabeth bites off his hand (metaphorically speaking). Even though her father views it an ill advised alliance, whatever Elizabeth wants her father agrees to, and Darcy did it right and proper by approaching the father in orderly fashion. The end.
Don’t you just love evaluating characters and why the author chose them and set them up for a rough ride to romance? Given the era and the fact war was raging on the Continent in Jane Austen’s time, the scope for JAFF novels is endless.