Friday, October 7, 2011

Author Abigail Reynolds Discusses Jane Austen’s Longevity

This month marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of SenseAbigailReynolds and Sensibility by Jane Austen, and the start of a literary sensation that continues to this day in so many varied ways.

It’s my pleasure today to welcome author Abigail Reynolds, pioneer of the daring, sexy Jane Austen “What if?” romance. Re-imagining a pivotal scene from Pride and Prejudice and the intrigue that follows, Abigail penned her latest offering, MR. DARCY’S UNDOING. This is a fresh retelling of Pride and Prejudice that asks: What if Mr. Darcy had a serious rival for Elizabeth Bennet?
Here’s a brief synopsis: A passionate new Pride and Prejudice variation explores the unthinkable—Elizabeth accepts the proposal of a childhood friend before she meets Darcy again. When their paths cross, the devastated Mr. Darcy must decide how far he'll go to win the woman he loves. How can a man who prides himself on his honor ask the woman he loves to do something scandalous? And how can Elizabeth accept a loveless marriage when Mr. Darcy holds the key to her heart? As they confront family opposition and the ill-will of scandal-mongers, will Elizabeth prove to be Mr. Darcy's undoing? 

Abigail joins us today to answer a question for me.

Mason - If Jane Austen had lived 50 or 60 years later do you think her work would have endured as well as it has and why?

Jane Austen’s characters and wit are timeless, but I suspect she wouldn’t have the same following today if she had written during the Victorian era rather than the Regency, not because of any deficiency in her writing, but because one reason Austen’s books are so popular today is the escape they provide from the realities of modern industrialized life. If she had written half a century later, her bucolic settings would include factories belching steel, and modern readers would know that many of the wealthy characters had made their money by child labor and horrific working conditions for their employees. A Victorian Gracechurch Street would be covered in soot. 

It’s much harder to romanticize the Victorian period. Elizabeth Gaskell’s book North and South, published in 1855, has a romance image003similar in many ways to Elizabeth and Darcy’s, yet it hasn’t produced the same degree of affection as Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. True, Gaskell can’t match Jane Austen’s wit, but also the background of North and South is much grittier and seemingly less innocent. Would Pride & Prejudice be as beloved if Darcy were a wealthy mill owner instead of a country gentleman and trains were belching steam in the background? I doubt it.  

The interesting thing is that some of the difference in how we perceive the Regency era versus the Victorian era arises from Victorian sentimentality. Feeling oppressed by the “modern” industrial age, Victorian artists and novelists often portrayed the pre-industrial Regency as a fairy tale time of innocence and beauty, and in some ways Jane Austen’s books and their adaptations have helped perpetuate this myth. There was plenty of grittiness in the Regency as well, but Jane Austen chose not to portray the tenant farmer’s daughter dying of consumption, the vast number of women in London reduced to prostitution as the only way to feed themselves, or even the decadence of the ton and their oblivion to the sufferings of their “inferiors.” Mr. Bennet may amuse himself at his wife’s expense and treat her without respect, but the marriages Austen portrays don’t include the wife-beating that was prevalent in the period. Would modern audiences love Pride & Prejudice as much if those had been included? It certainly wouldn’t be the same escape from reality.  

As a writer of Austen-inspired novels, I often run into readers who are shocked by my portrayal of Regency society. They also see the Regency as an age of innocence when it fact it was a hotbed of decadence and sexual immorality. Part of this is because modern readers of Pride & Prejudice miss some of the implications hidden in Austen’s language. Very few, if any, of my shocked readers understand what Mr. Bennet is telling Elizabeth when he says, “I know your disposition, Lizzy. I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband; unless you looked up to him as a superior. Your lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage. You could scarcely escape discredit and misery.” He isn’t expressing concern that Elizabeth will be bored in her marriage; he’s saying flat out to his favorite daughter that he thinks if she marries Darcy, she’ll end up having affairs. That hardly betokens an age of innocence!

Regardless of the reality of daily life in the Regency, most modern Austen readers will continue to see it as a simpler and more elegant time, in part because of what Austen herself chooses to portray and in part because of Victorian sentimentality. It’s a time that feels more distant from the present-day evils than the industrial Victorian era, and regardless of the brilliance of Austen’s writing, that will continue to add to her appeal for generations to come.  

Thanks for inviting me!

Abigail, thanks so much for guest blogging today. You make an excellent point about how we readers view Regency society compared to what it was truly like. Austen’s writing does give one the opportunity to escape into a world of innocence for a time.

Now for a bit of background on Abigail. She is a lifelong Jane Austen enthusiast and one of the few authors to take Pride and Prejudice in a sexy direction. She began writing the Pemberley Variations series in 2001 to spend more time with her favorite characters from Pride and Prejudice. Encouragement from fellow Austen fans convinced her to continue asking “What if…?” 

So what are your thoughts on the reason Austen’s work continues to be so popular?


  1. Abigail, thanks again for guest blogging. Wishing you much success with your writing.

  2. Mason - Thanks for hosting Abigail.

    Abigail - You bring up one of the most interesting aspects of writing historical novels. Just how realistic do we want them to be? As you say, most people don't really think about what the Regency era was really like (and I think you could say that about most historical eras). So does the author sweep the reader away in the myth of an era, or provide the gritty details? I think there's a balance...

  3. I'll confess - I've never read one of Austen's books.

  4. Thanks for hosting me, Mason!

    Margot, I agree it's a tricky balance. I like learning about the nitty gritty details of everyday life in the Regency, but would I want to read a novel that incorporated them all? Not really, but then again I'm also annoyed by the "wallpaper Regencies" where there's no historical detail at all. Karen Doornebos' new book Definitely Not Mr. Darcy attacks this question with humor through the adventures of a modern woman forced to put up with the discomforts of Regency life.

  5. I'm a Jane Austen's fan, she is (was) a great storyteller. Reading her, I feel has if a friend was telling me what happened to this one and the other. More than an era,she speaks about relationships(family, friends, strangers, social differences).When in Bath, I visited Jane's museum,it was interesting.
    I'm curious about your way of turning the story around Abigail.


I'd love to hear your thoughts on today's post. Thanks for dropping by.