Janice Hadlow on What to Read After Jane Austen
As the author of the wonderful homage to Pride and Prejudice, The Other Bennet Sister, Janice Hadlow has immersed herself in all things Jane Austen. But what to read after you have devoured all of the novels for the fifth or sixth time? In this exclusive blog, Janice recommends a few books and authors that are perfect for those who like their reading with a touch of the great Regency genius.
Books to Turn to When You Have Read All of Jane Austen's Novels (Again)
Before I began to write my novel, The Other Bennet Sister, I read all Jane Austen’s books again, one after the other, in huge, pleasurable succession. My aim was to immerse myself in her language and spend more time in the company of her characters. I loved every minute of it - but when I’d finished, I felt ready for something different. I know I’ll be back reading her novels again very soon - but these are the books that I’ve enjoyed in my previous brief excursions away from her masterpieces. Perhaps you’ll like them too - and if you have your own list of Austen alternatives, it would great to hear them.
These are my favourite Barbara Pym novels, delicate comedies of manners set in the territory she made her own - the humdrum lives of the emotionally-repressed middle classes in the “lost decade” between the end of the War and the explosion of the 1960s. Mildred, the narrator of Excellent Women is a quintessential Pym heroine - unmarried, self-effacing, a regular church goer, stalwart of the parish jumble sale and the tea-urn. Yet beneath her mild exterior, Mildred regards her world with surprisingly tart perception and enjoys puncturing its follies - especially masculine ones. “I had observed that men did bot usually do things unless they liked doing them.” There’s something of Mary Bennet about Mildred - she’s plain, awkward in company, and no-one imagines she will ever find love. Wilmet, the heroine of A Glass of Blessings, is rather more like Emma Wodehouse. She too is handsome and wealthy with too much time on her hands. Her meddling in other people’s love lives ends with equally unforeseen consequences - and a very modern twist. Any Austen fan will find so much to enjoy in Pym’s books - with the added bonus of fantastic period detail - her descriptions of truly awful post war food are horribly entertaining and do much to explain the subsequent success of Elizabeth David. Very much looking forward to Paula Byrne’s biography of Pym, expected in 2020.
Another writer fascinated by the complexities of female affection. Colette’s world is that of fin de siecle Paris and the people who survive on its margins - music hall performers, artists’ models, courtesans. Some of her strongest writing focuses on the lives of gay men and women, and draws on her own passionate affairs with women. Superficially, it couldn’t seem more different from Austenland. Cheri tells the story of a doomed affair between the middle-aged Lea, a grande cocotte in the old, lavish style, and her much younger lover, Cheri. The Last Of Cheri is its painful coda. Both books have all the great Colette hallmarks - the unpredictable nature of desire, the cost it levies on those who succumb to it, the power of physical beauty and the bitterness of watching it ebb away. Colette takes us into places where Austen never ventures and relishes sensations Austen never describes, from the quiet satisfaction of post coital love, to the avid greasy pleasure of eating with one’s hands. But like Austen, it’s women who are the heart of all her work - and she approaches their stories with an unsentimental pitilessness that the creator of Maria Rushworth and Elizabeth Elliot would surely appreciate. The Kepi, one of Colette’s best short tales, captures perfectly both the heartlessness of fate and the almost unbearable pathos that results from a single ill-judged gesture. I would have recommended My Apprenticeships, The Pure and the Impure and My Mother’s House which, in my opinion, are her masterworks - but they seem to be out of print! Please, Penguin Books, can we have them back?
Austen famously described Pride and Prejudice as “light, bright and sparkling” - and if you’re in the mood for some highly-polished glittery pleasure, these could be the books for you. Set between the Wars, these are the two best Mitford novels, unapologetically located amongst the upper classes, in both their landed, tweedy, eccentric incarnation, and brittle, bantering high-society mode. The eventful, controversy-filled lives of the Mitford sisters are well-known, and Nancy Mitford puts her own experiences, and those of her siblings, to great use in creating a highly coloured vision of her family and their exploits. She’s a fantastic creator of larger than life comic grotesques - Uncle Matthew, based loosely on her titled father, resembles Mr Collins in his profoundly unaware indifference to the effect he has on others. His wife, Aunt Sadie is a dreamy, self-absorbed Lady Bertram type, inspired by Nancy Mitford’s mother, of whom she said in a very Austenesque phrase that “though she liked to say she lived for us, she certainly didn’t live much with us.” This is the essence of Mitford’s style - a bright clever observation that conceals beneath it a deep hurt. These are books that will make you laugh and smile - and then catch you unawares with a flash of real pain, made all the more striking because Mitford won’t indulge your sympathy. That would be too silly, darling. Shall we have another cocktail?
If you’re curious about the real lives of Jane Austen and her contemporaries, these books will plunge you right into the heart of their world. Amanda Vickery’s subject is “the middling sort”, the professional classes, landed gentry and minor aristocracy to which Austen and indeed, most of her characters belong. It’s the intimate details of their private lives that fascinate Vickery - how they managed their money, brought up their children, furnished their houses. She is absolute mistress of her sources, having dug deep into historical archives of every sort - even the order books of wallpaper suppliers, which allow us to imagine how Charlotte Collins might have papered the rectory dining room. But it is the experiences she describes of courtship, love and marriage that stay in your thoughts. Every manifestation of 18th century married life is here, from the miserable sufferings of poor Elizabeth Shackleton, abused and insulted by her “drunken hog” of a husband, to the very different experience of Mrs Ramsden, whose devoted husband wrote lovingly about her big bottom and couldn’t bear to be out of her sight. Each of these stories have the power of a novel. And once you’ve read Vickery’s account of the spinster Gertrude Savile, living as a humiliated dependant in her brother’s house, “where I fancied the very walls looked inhospitably upon me and that everything frowned upon me for being an intruder’, you understand why, for all its uncertainties, Austen and most of her contemporaries thought marriage greatly to be preferred to the alternative.
Jane Austen’s Letters edited by Deirdre le Faye
If nothing I’ve suggested yet can quite fill the Austen-shaped gap in your reading, then this book can’t fail to do the trick. There are over 160 letters in this collection, definitively edited by Deirdre Le Faye. Although it’s well known that Cassandra Austen destroyed much of her sister’s correspondence, what remains is still a massive treat for any serious Austen fan. Here you can immerse yourself in all the practical details of Austen family life, as news, observations and gossip fly round the extended letter-writing network of siblings, nieces and nephews, friends and acquaintances. You’ll discover who danced best at the last ball, whether velvet is much to be worn this year, who has a cold and who does not, and whether the China tea chosen by Austen with such care has lived up to everyone’s expectations: “I find it very good - my companions know nothing of the matter - As to Fanny…she may talk till she is black in the face as to her own tea, but I cannot believe her.” Dive into this volume at any page, and you’ll find Austen’s voice, unmistakable, unmediated and utterly impossible to put down. Who wouldn’t want to be in her company? “I will not say your mulberry trees are dead”, she tells Cassandra, “but I am afraid they are not alive.” Wonderful.
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