Light-hearted Austen read-alikes

On Thursday the new Jane Austen bank note, which I wrote about earlier, will go into circulation in the UK. This then seems a fitting time for another occasional post suggesting writers for Janeites to check out.

Previous posts looked at Barbara Pym, the author I find most like Austen, and Elizabeth Bowen, Penelope Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Taylor, and Anita Brookner. These were serious novelists who share one or more Austen traits: irony, domestic comedy, a setting in Regency England, or elegant prose. This post will discuss artists who repeated her taste for comedies of manners but not her seriousness of purpose.

Angela Thirkell (1890-1961) borrowed Anthony Trollope's imaginary setting of Barsetshire for her 29 novels concentrating on the country life of the landed British gentry over more than three decades. Thirkell wrote light comedies of manners and didn’t pretend to be a serious novelist. She might have been thinking of herself when she described the novels of mystery writer Laura Morland, the protagonist of series-starting High Rising (1933), as “good bad books.” Morland is a widow who writes to support herself and her four sons.

I read High Rising and Love among the Ruins (1947), whose title refers to the vanishing way of life of the landed gentry in post–World War II Britain. Thirkell's dialogue-heavy books aren't for everyone, but for those who enjoy the gossip of a certain sort of neighborhood, they are charming and entertaining. Thirkell’s novels are being reissued by Virago, testifying to the many fans she still has.

E. F. Benson (1867–1940) wrote six satirical novels starring the snobby Mrs. Emmeline Lucas (“Lucia”), the self-ordained arbiter of society and culture in the small English town of Riseholme between the world wars. I read the first one, Queen Lucia (1920), in which a famous opera singer takes up residence in the village, bringing on competition for social organizing czarina. Later books gave Lucia her most formidable foe, Miss Mapp, queen bee of the town of Tilling. The son of an archbishop of Canterbury, Benson produced many novels as well as scholarly works, but only the Lucia series remains in print.

Georgette Heyer (1902–74) lived in the 20th century but set her most famous novels in Austen’s era, the Regency period of early 19th-century Britain. Her Regency romances share not only Austen's timeframe but also their ending with a marriage or engagement. Heyer doesn’t have Austen’s seriousness, but she is a polished writer who creates charming characters and witty dialogue. She is more interested than Austen in details of Regency fashions in dress, houses, customs, and speech.

I read two of Heyer’s books — Arabella, a takeoff on Pride and Prejudice, and Cotillion, which employs the Regency convention of a false engagement. Both feature spirited heroines, charming heroes, and sparkling dialogue. I’ll be reading more, and there are plenty; Heyer turned out 24 Regency romances and 30 other novels that ranged from historical to mystery.

Miss Read (aka Dora Jessie Saint, 1913–2012) is both author’s pseudonym and character in novels about two English villages, Fairacre and Thrush Green. I read A Peaceful Retirement, the final book of the Fairacre series, set in a stereotypically charming English village. Miss Read has just retired as a schoolmistress, and the book is a bit of a retirement advice manual for people approaching or entering that milestone.

Miss Read makes spot-on comments about human nature, doesn't sugarcoat anything, and has an acerbic wit. For anglophiles Miss Read's books have the added attraction of being like an insider's travelogues about English village life, taking us to tea in sitting rooms and on strolls in blooming gardens and drives in the verdant countryside.

Where do you stop when looking for Austen’s literary heirs? In her book The Heirs of Jane Austen, Rachel Mather analyzes Benson, Thirkell, and E. M. Delafield, the last of whom I haven’t checked out yet. Nancy Mitford wrote about the rural gentry; her dialogue and observations are wonderfully tongue-in-cheek, her characters vivid and amusing. Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Grace Makutsi might be considered an Austen successor in an African setting.

I also haven’t written yet about Anthony Trollope, Marjorie Oliphant, and Elizabeth Gaskell, authors closer to Austen’s day. They would bring us back in time and to more seriousness (yes, Trollope was serious).

It looks like this series about Austen read-alikes will continue on another day.

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