Although Jane Austen has probably never been more popular than today—according to Janet Todd, she’s a “global brand” (xi)—this popularity was built upon and has helped to solidify one very specific image of the author, the writer of romantic novels. At the same time it has helped to erase other “Austens” in the public’s mind, Austens known for social criticism or acute perception of gender roles in her society. There is a paradox intrinsic here: while Austen’s popularity promotes her long-term life, it leads, at the same time, to her death, so to speak, as other themes in her work are silenced.
Over the last two and a half decades, mostly due to the Austenmania encouraged by several TV and movie adaptations of Austen’s novels during the 1990s,1 a vast number of sequels, variations, and modern retellings have been written by fans who were not satisfied with the six novels she published. They have built their own universe, where readers can bring their favorite characters back to life by giving them new stories, new settings, new problems to solve, while never missing the chance to relive all the emotions of the happy ending. Fans have, in effect, established their own “fanon”2 (fan+canon), creating patterns that have become as binding for future fan fiction writers as the original novels. This fanon has also incorporated the author herself, who has become, in her turn, the heroine of fan fiction in which she is looking for love. This paper will analyze this strong desire to give Austen her own love story and its associated idea that she couldn’t have written her novels without having experienced a love story—and that she couldn’t have created a man like Mr. Darcy if she hadn’t met one.
In the universe of Jane Austen Fan Fiction (JAFF) Pride and Prejudice is the most explored novel, the one with the greatest number of sequels and variations.3 The variety of genres, styles and approaches is clearly immense. Fans have taken Elizabeth and Darcy from adventures with pirates to modern New York City. The constant, however, is that Elizabeth and Darcy’s love conquers all. Although the happy ending is indeed the destiny of all of Austen’s heroines, however, it’s not the main purpose of their journey. At least since the 1940s, many critics have argued that there are much more complex issues present in Austen’s texts. For example, feminist criticism since the 1970s has questioned interpretations in which “the marriage plot becomes the novel’s fundamental meaning, the telos towards which the narrative has moved since the first page” (Johnson 221). Such insights are forgotten when the focus of current readers is only on the love story. Even so, the love story is exactly what the vast majority of JAFF builds upon.
Because Pride and Prejudice is so “light & bright & sparkling” (4 February 1813), and because its hero is handsome, rich, and changes for love (in other words, the perfect man), it’s not difficult to understand why the ongoing Austenmania could be more accurately described as Darcymania. The adaptations of the 1990s, especially the 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice with Andrew Davies’s “pro-Darcy” script (Cartmell and Whelehan 244), including the famous lake scene, are strong contributors to this current obsession with both the romantic plot and Mr. Darcy—with an impact on the fictional retellings of Austen’s own life story.
It’s not, however, a new vision of her. Rudyard Kipling’s description of Jane Austen’s being received in Paradise is curious, to say the least:
Then the Three Archangels
Offered out of hand,
Anything in Heaven’s gift
That she might command.
. . .
Jane said: “Love.” (139)
Why is it that Kipling imagined that, when offered one wish only, Jane Austen would choose love? It could be related to the image, created by her brother Henry but strongly enforced by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir, that “of events her life was singularly barren” (Memoir 9)—in other words, a life that was peaceful and domestic and lacked the main event of a woman’s journey, her marriage. In such a life, it would be obvious that what was really missing was love. And so began the idea that her novels were written as a form of projection of the love she would have liked to experience, her own fantasy of a happy ending.
Almost one hundred years after Kipling’s poem, the same idea has reappeared within fan fiction and has been the main theme for some novels that take Austen as their heroine. Caroline Austen’s revelation that her aunt Cassandra destroyed and censored most of Jane Austen’s letters encourages the feeling shared by many fans nowadays that something more exciting than an uneventful life must have happened, and, if that is the case, then why should not that something be falling in love? Some readers, consequently, will rewrite Austen’s biography following their own wish of granting her, as Kipling’s Three Archangels do, her deepest wish: love.
One very clear example is the plot of Sally O’Rourke’s The Man Who Loved Jane Austen (2006): a man from the twenty-first century named Fitzwilliam Darcy is transported back to Austen’s time and falls in love with her. When he returns to the present, he dedicates himself to finding documents that could prove that he didn’t just imagine the whole thing. In the process he meets Eliza Knight, a young artist who has by chance found two new letters from Austen that mention her encounters with Darcy. The academic world is also important in this story. When Eliza hands over her letters to be analyzed and authenticated by a specialist, Professor Thelma Klein, the scholar explains why she is so sure that Darcy’s character in Pride and Prejudice must have been based upon a real person:
“Of course, Darcy’s identity is one of the great unknowns of Austen’s work. But every schoolgirl who’s ever gotten hooked on P&P secretly suspects that the character must have been drawn from the author’s personal experience.” Thelma shrugged theatrically and held out upturned palms in a no-brainer gesture. “I mean, how else could Austen have so perfectly described that unforgettable and passionate relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, right?” (63)
Professor Klein’s argument, of course, has no academic standing, but her speculation posits this kind of conjecture as a valid object of study. It also rejects the creative power of an author, allowing the fantasy of Darcymania to supersede Austen’s art.
The destruction of Jane Austen’s letters by Cassandra is presented as another argument supporting Professor Klein’s theory:
“But I’m talking Fitzwilliam Darcy here, a young, handsome and fantastically wealthy man with a vast estate. Now if such a person had been a force in Jane Austen’s life, don’t you think there’d be at least one reference to him somewhere in all her papers or in the volumes that have been written about her? . . . But there’s nothing at all in the official Jane Austen record. . . . Did you know, for instance, that after Jane’s death her sister, Cassandra . . . destroyed virtually all of the letters she had written? . . . It’s a recorded fact,” Thelma said. . . . “[S]o why do you suppose her family started destroying their most precious reminders of her?”
“To hide something?” Eliza speculated.
. . . “Bingo! Maybe to hide something potentially scandalous!” (O’Rourke 63–64)
In this novel, Eliza Knight’s letters would be the documentary proof of Klein’s hypothesis, indulging fans’ imagination that Cassandra destroyed those letters to hide some important love story about Austen and rewarding their wish that maybe, one day, new documents will come up to shed some light in this “essential” question regarding the author.
The same argument lies behind The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen (2007) by Syrie James. As the title indicates, the text is the written memories of the author, which had been hidden in a chest lost in one of her brother Edward Knight’s estates. The prologue consists of an introduction, written by a researcher graduated from Oxford and president of a certain “Jane Austen Literary Foundation”—again a rendering of academic authority to this fantasy—that explains circumstances of the discovery of the manuscript and the choices of the editor:
The memoir you have before you, although it covers an earlier period in Jane Austen’s life, was apparently written sometime between 1815 and 1817, when the author began to suffer from the illness that resulted in her death. Although it seems to be the final volume of her memoirs, it was selected for publication first, partly because of the immaculate physical state of the document itself and partly because of its surprising and revealing subject matter. (3)
The surprising content revealed is the romantic story of Austen with a man named Frederick Ashford, heir to an estate called Pembroke Hall in Derbyshire. It’s clearly stated by the editor that, among the many said volumes of Austen’s memoirs, this one was selected for publication first because it depicts this love story, which, we later learn, would inspire Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. Since it was a choice made by an Austen scholar, we can only wonder why this volume would seem more important than other memories related to her writing—as, for example, how she began in the first place.
That question “how could she have written such a love story?” is also answered here. In this case it’s answered by Jane Austen herself to justify her decision to write this memoir as a response to possible speculations from readers of her novels:
People may read what I have written, and wonder: how could this spinster, this woman who, to all appearances, never even courted— . . . how could she have had the temerity to write about the revered institutions of love and courtship, having never experienced them herself? . . .
I did attempt to write of love—first, in jest, as a girl; then in a more serious vein, in my early twenties, though I had known only young love then; in consequence, those early works were of only passing merit. It was only years later that I met the man who would come to inspire the true depth of that emotion, and who would reawaken my voice, which had long lain dormant. (James 7–8)
Besides the repetition of the issue of the source for Austen’s knowledge of love, there are two significant implications of this passage. First, it suggests not only that Austen’s “mature” phase of writing is superior to her Juvenilia, but that the latter are considered of only “passing merit.” It’s a statement difficult to credit as recent scholarly criticism of her Juvenilia defends it as intelligent and sharp, “critically and parodically engaged with a particular form of the novel—sentiment and sensibility—which came to signify the form of the novel” (Tuite 27). Second, the passage suggests that this “mature” phase was not the result of her own genius but of love and of an interaction with a man who “awakened” her voice. If it had not been for him, Austen would not have been the Jane Austen.
This idea is also present in O’Rourke’s The Man Who Loved Jane Austen. When time-travelling Darcy says, “Knowing you has been the most wonderful experience of my life,” Jane returns, “And of mine. . . .For now I know at least a little of those tender passions and emotions which I have so often and yet so poorly attempted to describe in prose” (244). In other words, Jane Austen’s previous attempts to write about emotions and feelings were poor in comparison to the real experience: from now on (from having met him) she will be able to write better.
Sally O’Rourke’s novel goes further, representing Austen craving love, as if she couldn’t be happy or fulfilled without it. She writes to Darcy, “Do you not know that I of all women would gladly trade a single moment of love for a lifetime of wondering what such a moment might have been?” (290). We need to question the image created here of a Jane Austen who would trade everything—even her writing—for one single moment of love. This woman, says O’Rourke, envies her sister for having had the experience of love, despite the tragic death of her fiancé. In comparison, Jane Austen’s own life has been empty:
She who had long since abandoned all hope of ever finding love. . . . [H]e had reawakened her girlhood dreams of love and romance, all the lovely dreams she had so carefully preserved on countless sheets of neatly inscribed vellum that she kept hidden away in the deepest recesses of her closet. . . . For, in her mind, the risks she was taking to meet with her new-found lover tonight were as nothing compared to the dread she felt, of slipping into her old age without ever having tasted love. (2)
Here we learn first that Austen wrote many stories, neatly inscribed in vellum, as records of her dreams of “love and romance.” And secondly, the danger of social scandal associated with this single opportunity to experience that dream is nothing compared to her fear of “slipping into old age without ever having tasted love.”
The reward for this Darcy’s having given something so precious to Austen is to be transformed into one of the most iconic romantic characters of all times. After all, she has considered herself “an unremarkable spinster who lived an unremarkable life” (O’Rourke 2)—a view similar to Henry Austen’s and James Edward Austen-Leigh’s accounts. With the arrival of Darcy, however, she is changed forever. Her novel becomes an homage to him and an attempt to eternalize their feelings, and, at the same time, it recovers her self-esteem: once published, Austen does not consider herself an ordinary person with an ordinary life.
This insecure Austen is not a recent creation. She existed already in Howard Fast’s 1991 play, The Novelist: A Romantic Portrait of Jane Austen. Emily Auerbach notes that, despite the title, this novelist also would trade all her novels for even a brief experience of love (276). In the play, Austen says to the man she has fallen in love with: “I constructed a life, my dear Thomas, that was filled with sensible and reasonable explanations for who I was and what I was. Jane Austen, a middle-aged spinster, who whiled her time away writing entertainments that were a substitute for life. But at least I have this good fortune, that . . . in my love for you I found a quality that was all I had ever dreamed of” (qtd. in Auerbach 276). It is disquieting that these “Austens” don’t hesitate to diminish the value of their own literary work in comparison to the importance of experiencing love.
Since Jane Austen never married, despite all the efforts to grant her a fictional love, modern authors must respect this biographical information: her courtships can never lead to a wedding. As I have noted above, this absence of a biographical “happy ending” is reinterpreted as the reason why all her novels do have them. In The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, Austen can’t finish writing Pride and Prejudice (or “First Impressions” as it was then) because she has let Mr. Ashford go for financial reasons and can’t envision any more happy endings for her stories. At his request, however, the novel is granted a different ending than their own. Jane Austen says that her novel “needs alteration and contraction, and—I have not the heart for it. . . . Because I now know how it must end.” Ashford urges her: “Do not accept that end. Play God. Give us another witty, romantic novel by Jane Austen, with the ending you choose” (294). At least in the fictional world, Ashford says, they won’t have to part.
The parallel between real life and fiction is even stronger in Carolyn Murray’s 2015 Jane by the Sea. This story, a first-person narrative by Austen herself, is based on Cassandra’s account, reported by their niece Caroline Austen, that her sister had met an interesting man in a little seaside town who died soon after (Memoir 29). In Murray’s version, this man is Lieutenant Frederick Barnes, who proposes to Austen, only to die a couple of months later away on a Navy mission. Although this novel shares similarities with Persuasion, Austen, after Barnes’s death, represents her own desire in the marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy, and she even grants the same joy to her sister, Cassandra, as Jane Bennet marries Mr. Bingley. Her original ending for Elizabeth and Jane was akin to her and Cassandra’s reality: "Neither of us had reached our wedding day, but we were widows all the same” (187). But when she has a vision of the two fictional sisters begging her for a different ending, she decides to change it:
“Well . . . nothing is set in stone,” I conceded.
. . . I reached behind myself and opened the chapel door. In strolled Darcy and Bingley in formal attire. They joined Elizabeth and Jane Bennet at the altar, now both in wedding gowns. . . .
The pastor’s eyes fixed on mine, and in an instant, I found myself right in front of him. I turned to face my handsome bridegroom, Lieutenant Frederick Barnes, who looked as proud and happy as I could ever imagine him. Beside us stood Cassie and her Thomas Fowle, both glowing with anticipation. How fitting that Cassie and I should share this day of joy. (197)
Again the ending of Pride and Prejudice represents what Jane Austen wanted for herself and her sister.
It also supports another very popular myth in other novels, movies, and even documentaries, that Elizabeth Bennet is a sort of an embodiment of Jane Austen, and Cassandra is endowed with Jane Bennet’s characteristics. As Rachel Brownstein notes, Austen fans today have such a personal admiration for her that it demands a “real” person as its object: “the disappointing dearth of biographical data about Jane Austen and the sparkle of the novel itself have led people—long before the movies—to read Elizabeth Bennet, who scorns conventional admiration . . . and refuses prudential marriage—as a self-portrait of the author” (42). Elizabeth’s strength and unconventionality allow fans to see her as a projection of Austen because, according to Juliette Wells, “present-day audiences conceive of [Austen] as a woman ahead of her time” (158). If the first wave of Austenmania was centered in the cult of “Saint Jane,” taking everything James Edward Austen-Leigh wrote literally, the second wave, in a society altered by feminism, doesn’t accept the “Saint Jane” anymore. Instead, it replaces her with a modern Austen, who rebels against the rules and risks everything in order to follow her dream of writing. The irony is that, despite this image of an audacious Austen, readers enjoy those novels that rewrite her life centering it in love and not in literature.
If Jane Austen is Elizabeth Bennet, it hasn’t taken long for Elizabeth Bennet to become Jane Austen. In a Pride and Prejudice variation How to Mend a Broken Heart (2016), by L. S. Parsons, the happy ending has a curious twist:
Her husband had opened the world to her by offering Elizabeth the gift of travel and the vast library at Pemberley. . . . Later in life, she began to write novels based on her experiences with her family, friends, and the people she had met through her travels. When she presented one of her efforts to her husband, he was so proud of her talent that he asked whether he could submit it to a book publisher. Reluctantly, she agreed, making him promise that the author remain anonymous. . . . On their next trip to London, the Darcys found everyone in society excited about a celebrated new author, and speculation was great as to the identity of that person. And thus, Elizabeth became one of the most admired authoresses of her time, even if it was with anonymity. (318–19)
Elizabeth here shares traits with that “Saint Jane” created by Austen-Leigh’s Memoir, such as her wish of being anonymous and her reluctance to be published. It also repeats the common notion that Austen must have written from her own experiences, and, even more important, it makes clear that Elizabeth/Austen only started to write thanks to the love and support of her husband, who had expanded her horizons through travel and books. Because of Darcy, Elizabeth has become Jane Austen, “one of the most admired authoresses of her time.”
The ending of The Man Who Loved Jane Austen is even more complex. In spite of being advertised as an “unknown” story about Jane Austen, the main couple is present-day Darcy and Eliza Knight. Obviously they will fall in love with each other while trying to solve the mystery surrounding those letters, and their happy ending is encouraged by Austen herself, who writes in one of them: “somewhere in that faraway world of yours, I know there awaits your one true love. Find her, dearest! Find her whatever else you may do. . . . And when she is found, you must tell her she is your dearest and loveliest desire. Be happy, my love. Yours forever, Jane” (290–91). The words “dearest and loveliest” are, of course, used by Darcy in his second declaration of love in Pride and Prejudice, and since Elizabeth Bennet is sometimes called “Eliza” in the novel, both characters are combined here. In a way, then, Jane Austen blesses their union as if she were the author of their story. But there is more. The novel also indicates that Darcy’s feelings for Eliza are the same he has had for Jane Austen: “as with Jane he seemed to have little or no control over his roiling emotions with Eliza and it scared him” (266). Given the tradition of associating the author with her heroine, since Jane Austen becomes Elizabeth Bennet, and Elizabeth becomes Eliza Knight, then Eliza also becomes Austen. All this association makes sure that Jane Austen can live her happy ending vicariously through Elizabeth/Eliza with the most beloved hero, Darcy himself.
1Claire Harman locates two great waves of Austenmania: the first after the publication of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870, responsible for the rise of the first Janeites; and the second and current wave after the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 1995 (Harman xx).
3For example, on September 25, 2017, using the keyword “variation” in a quick search of the Amazon website, where many fan-authors self-publish their fanfics, we see the following results: “pride and prejudice variation” with 1,441 stories; “persuasion variation” with 7; “sense and sensibility variation” with 3; “emma variation” and “mansfield park variation” with only 1 each, and 0 for “northanger abbey variation.” The results are similar when we use the keyword “sequel”: 1 story each for Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park, 4 for Sense and Sensibility, 5 for Emma, 0 for Persuasion, and 329 for Pride and Prejudice.