More Austen literary heirs: back to the 19th century

Note: This continues an occasional series about Jane Austen’s literary heirs.

Where do you stop when looking for Jane Austen’s literary heirs?

In previous posts I wrote about Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Bowen, Penelope Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Taylor, Anita Brookner, Angela Thirkell, E. F. Benson, Georgette Heyer, and Miss Read. In her book The Heirs of Jane Austen, Rachel Mather considers early 20th-century writers Benson, Thirkell, and E. M. Delafield, the last of whom I haven’t checked out yet.

Today I recommend novels by Anthony Trollope, Marjorie Oliphant, and Elizabeth Gaskell, 19th-century authors closer to Austen’s day (she died in 1817). They take us back not only in time but also to more seriousness (yes, Trollope was serious).

Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-65) isn’t as funny as Austen, nor is her writing as elegant, but they are similar in focusing on English small-town society. The genteel elderly ladies who are at the center of Cranford (1853) do not leave or desire to leave the village, which seems frozen in time. Never married, they visit one another and drink tea, play cards, and unmaliciously gossip. Gaskell’s last book, Wives and Daughters (1866), is set in a village that is self-contained yet starting to feel the intrusion of the industrializing world. In that book Molly Gibson’s widowed father marries to provide Molly a mother, but the self-deceptive, silly new Mrs. Gibson is incapable of the role.

Although the fiction of Anthony Trollope (1815–82) ranged over a wider variety of plots and characters than Austen’s, he is like her in closely and humorously observing behavior in everyday, small-town life. Trollope manages to be satirical without being cynical. Of the Trollope books I’ve read, my favorite is Barchester Towers (1857), perhaps the best known of his 47 novels. This second novel in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series satirizes the infighting between Church of England clergy in the fictional cathedral town of Barchester. It contains two of Trollope’s most memorable characters, the hypocritical Obadiah Slope and the insufferable Mrs. Proudie, wife of the bishop. His characters may not face moral dilemmas as serious as those of his Victorian contemporaries, but Trollope is their equal in what he knows about human nature. Each book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series is self-contained, but since the first, The Warden, introduces characters who reappear in Barchester Towers, you might want to begin with it.

Miss Marjoribanks (1866) by Margaret Oliphant (1828-97) features a character who starts out seeming much like Austen’s Emma Woodhouse, committed to staying with her widowed father and convinced that she knows what’s best for everyone in her small community. As the plot progresses, however, Lucilla Marjoribank’s story diverges from that of Austen’s Emma. Lucilla’s judgment is proven sound, and she doesn’t end up looking foolish for meddling. The satire is directed at the rest of the community. Lucilla emerges as an admirable figure cleverly doing what she can to have influence despite women’s confined spheres.

My reading list of Austen heirs also includes these novelists whom I haven’t written about yet: Nancy Mitford, Alexander McCall Smith, E. M. Forster, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Rose Macaulay. We’ll save them for another day.

*****

DISAPPOINTED IN THE AUSTEN PROJECT

There are writers who resemble Austen because of their wit, their settings in small towns, or their focus on domestic affairs. Those are the ones I’m calling her literary heirs. Then there are writers who attempt to recreate Austen, either with her characters or with plots that spin off from hers. I usually avoid any of them, figuring no one does Austen better than Austen. But HarperCollins’ Austen Project suggested quality, since it enlisted respected modern writers to update Austen’s novels. I started with Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld’s contemporary take on Pride and Prejudice, because it was reputedly the best.

I was disappointed. Liz bears only a weak resemblance to Austen’s strong, self-respecting, witty character, and her “hate sex” with Darcy is an unconvincing prelude to falling in love. Wickham is split between two characters, neither of whom is villainous. Rather than foolish, the younger Bennet sisters are vulgar and Mrs. Bennet awful.

I’m back to thinking that when I want Austen, I’ll read Austen.

*****

ANTI-TRUMP QUOTATIONS: 17TH IN AN ONGOING SERIES

“‘Gosh, we might poke the bear’ is the language I’ve been hearing in the hallways. . . . if the president gets upset with us, we might not be in the majority. So let’s not do anything to upset the president.”

— Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, on his Republican colleagues’ fear of voting against Trump

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