The battle for the soul of Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice II: A story of Passion], Recrimination], Book sales]: Starring Emma Tennant, British author of 'Pemberley' and Julia Barrett, American author of 'Presumption'

Currently gripping the literary world is this question: would Mrs Bennet, of Pride and Prejudice, ever discuss vinegar douches as a means of determining the sex of one's child at the dining table? 'Of course she would,' says Emma Tennant, author of Pemberley, the 'sequel' to Pride and Prejudice, published by Hodder and Stoughton this week. 'At the end of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen says that Mrs Bennet went on being very vulgar and silly. If the subject being discussed at the table was childbirth, and whether or not an heir would be produced, this is exactly what Mrs Bennet would do.'

'Jane Austen would never write about people discussing douches at the dinner table, that's certain,' says Gabrielle Donnelly, co-author of Presumption, another sequel to Pride and Prejudice, published in America this month. 'That sort of nonsense would never have entered Jane's mind,' agrees the Austen scholar Deirdre le Faye, author of the latest Austen biography. 'It's like the proposed film of Pride and Prejudice with nude scenes - a silly idea.'

Readers can now pick and choose about what happens to Mrs Bennet, with or without douches. In Pride and Prejudice II (UK), she is widowed, happy to be a grandmother and vulgar; in Pride and Prejudice II (USA), she is married, unsure about being a grandmother, and still vulgar. Tennant's Pemberley, subtitled 'A Sequel to Pride and Prejudice', deals with the trials of Elizabeth Darcy (nee Bennet) as she attempts to produce an heir. Presumption is written jointly under the pseudonym of Julia Barrett by Donnelly and Julia Kessler. Subtitled 'An Entertainment', it focuses on the trials of Elizabeth's sister-in-law, Georgiana Darcy, in her attempts to get a husband.

It's all very confusing. The book jackets of both seem to represent artist's impressions of Chatsworth House. Jane Austen's key figures roam through both novels: apart from the fact that Emma Tennent has killed off Mr Bennet before her version starts, most of the old favourites are in, and have the same recognisable traits. Mary Bennet is still nauseatingly bookish; Lady Catherine de Bourgh a repellent snob; Mr and Mrs Gardiner kind and thoughtful, Mrs Bennet ghastly, and so on.

The neat tying up of ends by Austen at the end of the original has been quite unravelled. The Bennett / Darcy mob go through both new books falling down stairs, giving birth, going to gambling houses in Mayfair, ending up in prison, and so on. The results have had a somewhat dubious reception. The American edition of The Publisher's Weekly calls Tennant's version 'a soap opera'; Barrett's simply has 'little to commend it'.

So why do it? 'Jane Austen's novels cry out for sequels,' argues Tennant. 'Elizabeth and Mr Darcy are inspired creations; we want to know what happens to them after marriage. I believe these great romantic figures really belong in the public domain; indeed, we know from her letters that they lived on in Jane Austen's mind.'

The Barrett duo, who are based in Los Angeles, simply wanted to 'create Jane Austen in the same spirit as we enjoyed her'. Julia Kessler has been longing to re-do Jane Austen 'all my life. But I knew I could never do it without working with an English novelist.' Four years ago, she was introduced to Gabrielle Donnelly, an English writer living in California and the two of them got to work.

To achieve the true P'n'P touch, the pair read and re-read all Austen's novels, letters, and the previous attempts at sequels (a popular pursuit in the 19th century). They pored over 18th- and 19th-century diaries, spent hours in the libraries of UCLA researching period housekeeping, and went on fact-finding missions to England. As the jacket attests, this was all in the name of giving 'a delightful revel for any reader who has ever longed to spend just a few more hours in the company of Jane Austen's engaging people . . .'

At least the American camp has kept near the blueprint. But, as far as some Janeites are concerned, Tennant's portrayal of Elizabeth and Darcy in the midst of a difficult marriage is something approaching heresy. 'It's absolutely appalling,' says Jean Bowden, caretaker of Jane Austen's house at Chawton. 'Humourless, coarse and vulgar. The worst thing is that she alters the character of Elizabeth from being cheerful, to miserable and depressed. The whole thing gives the impression that she read the original book years ago and has never picked it up since.'

Tennant admits quite freely that she only read Pride and Prejudice a couple of times before creating her sequel. 'I based Pemberley on my own childhood. In thinking how Elizabeth Bennet would deal with being married to Mr Darcy, I remembered how we used to live for months and months in an isolated house in Scotland. My mother's parents would come to stay, and be snubbed by my father's relations, meal after meal. Then my elder brother would come in and break old 78 records over people's heads. And my mother would just sit there, having to cope with it all. My parents were devoted to one another, but they had to deal with how to live happily ever after; it's the same for Elizabeth and Darcy.'

The strange occurence of both sequels, however different, arriving in practically the same week is not easily explained. 'We took four years to write ours,' says Kessler, on a conference call with Donnelly from Los Angeles. 'How long did Emma Tennant take to write hers? Three months, I think. The timing is certainly surprising. And I don't think her subject matter is correct. Jane Austen would never have dealt with unhappiness in marriage.' Tennant, who says she has been working on Pemberley for more than two years, is equally dismissive. 'I don't mind that they've written a version. They haven't found a publisher over here, and I have no particular plans to go to America; so it doesn't matter. I won't say the more the merrier, but these characters are public property. Maybe it's great; I doubt it. I'm probably a bit prejudiced against it]'

'The Jane Austen Society has no stand against either book,' says Brian Southam, President. 'It's a good idea - let people have a try. I've read the Emma Tennant one, and l think it is a good story, and quite funny. The American version? I've seen it being waved in the air. Would I ever consider writing one? Good heavens, no.'

Meanwhile, in Chawton, where Jane Austen sat and 'lopped and crossed' Pride and Prejudice before sending it off for publication in 1813, Jean Bowden remains stalwart. 'I refuse to stock Emma Tennant's book in the bookshop. I shall exert my own censorship. The other day, I listened to the unabridged cassette version of Pride and Prejudice. I felt Jane was sitting there with me, and I felt that she enjoyed it.'

AFTER AUSTEN: TWO WAYS TO OPEN A CAN OF WORMS

'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

'My dear Mr Bennet,' said his lady to him one day, 'have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?' '

Opening paragraphs of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

'If, as the prevailing wisdom has had it these many years, a young man in possession of a good fortune is always in want of a wife, then surely the reverse may prove true as well: any well-favored lady of means must incline, indeed yearn, to improve her situation by seeking a husband.

Yet our heroine found herself in the singular position of contesting this complacent assurance. Miss Georgina Darcy of Pemberley in Derbyshire, although beautiful, accomplished, and, moreover, an heiress of a considerable fortune, remained nevertheless, at the age of 17 years, markedly disinclined to secure her fortune upon any one. Georgina had reason.'

Opening paragraphs of Presumption, by Julia Barrett

'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a married man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a son and heir.

So at least are the sentiments of all those related on both sides of the family; and there are others, besides, who might do better to keep their tongues from wagging on the fecundity or otherwise of a match.

'My dear Mrs Bennet,' said Mrs Long one day to her friend, who was newly removed from Longbourn since the death of her husband, 'do not you have a happy event to look forward to? I expect daily to hear news of your daughter Elizabeth and the charming Mr Darcy. I am most surprised to have heard nothing yet.'

Mrs Bennet replied that she was not accustomed to hear from her daughter every day of the week.'

Opening paragraphs of Pemberley by Emma Tennant

(Photographs omitted)

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