Space-cakes in Austenland
Elinor and Marianne by Emma Tennant; Simon & Schuster, pounds 9.99; Byronic communes, fevers on the brain: Victoria Coren just about swallows a salacious sequel to `Sense and Sensibility'
Saturday 16 March 1996
Brett has a point: like all great comic novelists, Austen has an immediately recognisable style which readily lends itself to imitation. In fact, it is infectious to the point of being irritating: watch Sense and Sensibility at the cinema and see if you don't come out saying, "I found it to be a particularly enjoyable amusement", or something very like it. It sticks in the brain like a catchy chorus; the film's success is easily measured by the number of sub-clauses people have started using in conversation.
Emma Tennant has certainly caught the style. This is an impressive pastiche with very few false notes, bar the inclusion of words like "Susquehannah" and "nipple", which might be excused since the girls are married ladies now. She has had to cheat a little to make the plot work. Sense and Sensibility ends with Elinor and Marianne married and settled at Delaford; here it transpires that Elinor never made it to Delaford after all because of trouble with the in-laws. Elinor and Marianne follows her attempts to get there, and Marianne's adulterous dalliance with Willoughby, her old admirer, who carts her off to a commune full of proto-hippies high on Byron.
Elinor and Marianne is, like Austen's first draft of Sense and Sensibility, an epistolary novel - a spectacularly inconvenient form for a sequel, given the amount of background information which has to be shoe-horned in. Tennant's solution is to have the characters remind each other of everything that happened before, which introduces the unfortunate idea that they are all idiots. The coincidence of two secret love-children in the same house (a fault of the original's rather schematic plot) would surely not have been forgotten by close family friends; yet Mrs Jennings writes "Willoughby is the father of the child the Colonel houses with its poor mother, the Colonel's daughter; yes, Charlotte, it all came out, if you recall." Elinor kindly sketches in the family tree for her sister: "Mrs Ferrars, as of course we have been made only too aware since John's marriage, is mother to Fanny, John's wife and our sister-in-law." It's true that Marianne had a bit of a fever in Sense and Sensibility, but the full loss of her mental faculties clearly ran deeper than Austen was prepared to admit.
Much to Tennant's credit, she has written a funny book and done some jolly things with the elderly Mrs Ferrars - Nonsense and Senility in abundance. At times, she gets a bit too frisky, finding room for a farcical sub-plot involving the Prince Regent, and letting Willoughby race about with laudanum and pistols like a Gothic clown from Northanger Abbey. And one has to raise an eyebrow at Lucy Steele's griddle cakes, made with "an ingredient supplied by Meg Cox of this village which promises to provide happiness on ingestion". Space-cakes in Austenland? That must account for the appalling outbreak of memory loss.
The insurmountable problem is that Austen's characters are not supposed to live beyond the last page. Sense and Sensibility is summed up in its final chapter: "Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims." And that's it, she's done it. The theme has been illustrated, the story told, the point made. Pumping up the deflated Marianne, making her un-learn the lessons of her life and launching her through the same hoops again is working against the novelistic principle.
Readers who mourn their loss at the close of a book may well find some comfort here. But be warned: these are only ghosts, summoned by a talented clairvoyant. And authors be warned: if you're planning to write a classic and want it to stand alone, be sure to add a postscript: "And nothing else ever happened to any of them."
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