Dancing with Mr Darcy: Stories inspired by Jane Austen and Chawton House Library
Selected and introduced by Sarah Waters
Honno Modern Fiction, 2009
UK £7.99 [paperback]
[I made mention of this book in another post in which Lane Ashfeldt, author of one of the short stories in this anthology [titled Snowmelt ] did an interview for this blog. Ms. Ashfeldt has graciously offered to send a copy of the book to anyone who comments on this or the previous post – please comment by Saturday, November 14, 2009 – I will announce the winner on November 15th – see below for full details.]
My reading over the years has not tended to short stories. But I do remember when my children were little, I spent my scattered reading allowance doing just that – it was the need to finish something, the escape perhaps for a few moments at least to another place that widened my world – a time to re-read the short novels of John Steinbeck, to discover Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, short detective works, etc… anything to keep the mind at work! But short stories never held much interest for me – I wanted a bigger canvas, a longer immersion – but it was perhaps really an understanding of my own inability to appreciate the short story in its best incarnation.
I picked up Dancing with Mr. Darcy at the Chawton House Library table at the JASNA AGM more as the need to add it to my Jane Austen collection with thoughts of at least reading Ms. Ashfeldt’s story… so it is with great delight that I found I could not put this book down! Sarah Waters, in her introduction, outlines the criteria for the competition: it must be well-written, be a self-contained short story that stands on its own, and must have a connection to Jane Austen, her life, her work, her Chawton home, or the Chawton House Library. The author of each of the twenty stories in this anthology appends a paragraph explaining how Jane Austen inspired their writing – these alone are worth the reading!
I read Snowmelt first – and this tribute to reading and libraries and books seems to have come from my very own thoughts, my concerns with the future of same. Miss Campbell, who fears the end of the world is at hand, is a librarian at a library that is closing its old building and reopening in a new space with far more computers than books – she visits Chawton House Library to research an early nineteenth century author*, and realizes that life it too short to not be doing what she truly loves and makes drastic changes to her life as a result.
She rang the bell, signed in, climbed the uneven wooden steps and knocked at the library door. A simple room. Books, wooden desks, lamps. A concentrated silence that she longed to bottle and unleash in her own library.
This is a lovely story – and as I said, it conveyed so many thoughts of my own – the future of libraries, the technological changes that are on the one hand absolutely amazing and on the other frightening – what will the future be for the book in this world of kindles and Google books and the like. I was right there along with Miss Campbell, with the aching longing to be working in a library that houses all the works of human accomplishment that one can touch!
[* the previous post asked the question of who the author might be that Miss Campbell is researching and the book she requests at the library…. If you can guess this, please post it in your comment…I will announce the name of the book and author at the end of the giveaway; see below for a few hints…]
The winner of the competition is the first story in the anthology: Jane Austen Over the Styx by Victoria Owens, where we find Austen in Hades, before the “court of the dead” expecting to address her “faults” in life [think her wicked tongue, her accepting-rejecting Bigg-Wither, etc], and instead facing the likes of Mrs. Bennet, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mrs. Ferrars, Mrs. Churchill, Lady Russell and Mrs. Norris! – her creations all – the crime? “her willful portrayal of female characters of advanced years, as a snob, a scold, or a harpy who selfishly or manipulatively interferes with the happiness of an innocent third party” [p. 11] – and invoking the words of the great Austen critic DW Harding himself with his theories of “regulated hatred”, Jane is brought to task – an inspired story and great fun! [and you must read it to find if Jane is deemed guilty or not, and how she indeed defends herself! – and of course, it is such a delight to see and hear Mrs. Norris again!]]
JASNA’s own Elsa Solender shared runner- up status with her Second Thoughts – which in Austen’s own voice, following her accepting the marriage proposal of Harris Bigg-Wither, tells of the agonizing decision to tell him the next morning “we should not suit” – it is beautifully conveyed and one feels that Ms. Solender captures exactly what happened that night.
Jayne, by Kirsty Mitchell, also a runner-up, tells of a young woman of a literary bent, struggling to survive at all costs, working as a soft-porn nude model, all the while quoting Shakespeare and knowing full well she must “if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, [should] conceal it as well as she can” [p. 39, quoting Northanger Abbey] – conveying the 21st-century version of the economic struggles of single females of a certain class…
The twenty stories offer the gamut – some use Austen’s characters in new situations, as Elinor Dashwood Ferrars as a detective [she does after all in Sense & Sensibility hear everyone else’s secrets!] [The Delaford Ladies’ Detective Agency by Elizabeth Hopkinson]; or in Somewhere by Kelly Brendel, where Mrs. Grant of Mansfield Park is given a voice of her own. There are re-tellings of a particular story in a contemporary setting, as in Second Fruits by Stephanie Tillotson, where, as in Persuasion, her characters “experience separation, maturation and second chance.” [p. 201] And likewise in Eight Years Later by Elaine Grotefeld, where a young man visiting Chawton House with his mother plans to reunite with his teenage crush from eight years before – he is, like Captain Wentworth, “half agony, half hope.” [p. 75]
There are several stories with teenage protagonists where Austen either inspires, as in The Watershed by Stephanie Shields, where a found used copy of Pride & Prejudice alleviates family and school stresses, and the young bookworm in Hilary Spiers’s Cleverclogs, who finds that her grandmother’s favorite book Sense & Sensibility is also hers. Or the story that mirrors Austen as in The Oxfam Dress, by Penelope Randall, where a 21st-century Lydia Bennet goes on a shopping spree. Bina, by Andrea Watsmore, tells of a teenage girl who finds that her true love was right there all along [an Emma of sorts]; and in The School Trip [Jacqui Hazell], a young woman finds on visiting Chawton that all ones needs to write is “a little space, a tiny desk and a creaky door.” [p. 212]
And there are a few stories that resonate but don’t fit a category: An older, lonely spinster in We Need to Talk About Mr. Collins by Mary Howell finds that perhaps she didn’t let romance into her life…; an amateur play group putting on a Pride & Prejudice theatrical during a bombing raid in Miss Austen Victorious [Esther Bellamy]; a bridesmaids’ weekend gone completely awry in The Jane Austen Hen Weekend by Claire Humphries; and one of my favorites, One Character in Search of her Love Story Role by Felicity Cowie, where a fictional character in the making pays a call on Jane Bennet and Jane Eyre for some insightful conversation about love and choices!
We seem of late to be surrounded in Austen sequels and prequels and spin-offs and re-tellings with zombies and vampires and sea monsters and all manner of creatures, and while I have often sounded off on these largely because I just want to read Austen “as she was wrote” I do also admit to liking some of them! – but these stories in Dancing with Mr. Darcy are so much more – they take the Jane Austen that we all love and admire and cannot get enough of, and create something new and lovely in her wake – be it a character, an idea, a storyline, or just a feeling – here is Austen as she inspires 21st century writers and it is a gift to all of us. I very much hope that Chawton House Library will offer such a competition every year – this is the true legacy of Jane Austen and such writing should be heartily encouraged.
[I should also add that along with Miss Campbell, I react strongly to the physical tactile nature of a book – and Dancing with Mr. Darcy does not disappoint – it is just physically lovely, very nicely put together, and just one more reason to add this to your Jane Austen collection!]
5 of 5 full inkwells – Highly recommended!
Book Giveaway: Please post a comment or a question to me or author Lane Ashfeldt by November 14, 2009 and you will be entered in a book giveaway contest. Please also try to guess the title of the book and its author that Ms. Ashfeldt’s character Miss Campbell has requested at the library [HINT: written in the early 19th century, the novel takes as its theme the wiping out of the entire human race by the year 2073.]
I will announce the winner on November 15, 2009. All are welcome to enter. Ms. Ashfeldt will send a copy of the book directly to the winner.
Thank you for all your comments…and many thanks to Ms. Ashfeldt for her offer of the book…!
[Posted by Deb]