The worst thing about Jane Austen dying on 18 July 1817, when she was only 41 and should have had decades of writing ahead of her, is that those of us – and we are legion – who love her work must be content with the few novels and scattered essays she left us. We reread them for comfort, and wallow in what might-have-been had she lived.
Not only do we speculate on the fabulous the novels she never had time to write, but we would give up body parts for the epilogs of the few she was able to produce before the Grim Reaper stole her away. All of Austen’s novels left her loving readers wondering what happened “afterwards”, because we were so incredibly emotionally invested in the characters she created.
We yearn to ask her how many children the Darcy’s had, whether Bingly’s sisters ever got on his wife’s otherwise rock-solid nerves, what further shenanigans Lydia and Wickham pulled, if Mr Bennet outlived Mrs Bennet, who the other Bennet sisters married, and if Mrs Collins ever poisoned Mr Collin’s tea then eloped with strapping man half her age. We want to know if Marianne remarried after being widowed young (considering Col Brandon’s age it was likely), thus learning to love for a third time, or if Elinor and Edward got better pasturage for their cows, or if Lucy ever got busted having an affair with a footman. We wish Austen could tell us when Maria Rushworth was ever freed from Mrs Norris, if Fanny had a long life in spite of her weak constitution, and whatever happened to the Crawfords. We hope Emma became less of a snob, and if she tried to make amends for her sins toward Harriet, but worry she turned on Mrs Martin because she reminded her of her own follies. We need assurance Captain Wentworth survived the wars and retired with Anne in rich comfort, and we’re curious to know if Elizabeth Elliot ever got married. We’d like to hear Jane tell us that Mr Tilney’s profligate elder brother died without an heir, and that Catherine’s eldest son inherited Northanger Abbey. No matter how much closure Austen provided in her story, we want even more of it.
That’s why there is a burgeoning section of literature where authors retell, reimagine, or envisage anew her stories, or continue them onwards past the Happily Ever After (or Hell) where Austen left them. Her fans who are also writers have spent so time thinking about Austen’s works that our storytelling lobes engage and run amok with her characters. With the exception of Conan Doyle’s famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, no other literary creation populates new novels like Austen’s protagonists and supporting characters do.
If Austen didn’t want her works to become the be-all-end-all of fanfic for generations then she should not have made such interesting, wonderful, flawed, and dynamic characters to fill her instantly archetypical and soul-fulfilling stories! This is all her fault, really.
Long before I wrote my own retelling of Mansfield Park (where I crafted my own answers to my questions about the Crawfords), I read other author’s conceptualization of “perhaps” and “maybe” and “what if”. Some storylines I willingly accept as “head canon”, some I file away as ‘okay for an alternate reality’ and some flat-out I reject as ever a possibility for Austen’s characters, but an insatiable need to think about Austen’s novels drove me to see what others had written regarding “my” friends living in Austen’s “little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory” where she had sketched their portraits “with so fine a Brush”.
In honor of Austen’s bicentenary, my publishers have put the kindle version of my novel – Mansfield Parsonage – on special offer. It’s available for a mere $.99 today and tomorrow only.
Below are also links to some of the Austen retellings or variances or sequels that I have enjoyed the most:
Austen may have left us on cruel day in the summer of 1817, but her characters and her tales continue to enliven us and shall endure.