Dancing With
Mr Darcy
  Edited by Sarah waters

Honno Welsh Women's Press
2009, Paperback

"'Kindly address your replies to the bench, ma’am. Well, these ladies,' he nodded to the prosecution, 'have summoned you here to answer a serious charge: namely, that you, Jane Austen between the the years 1775 and 1817 did maliciously undercut the respect due from youth to age, in that when you created female characters of advanced years you willfully portrayed every one of them as a snob, a scold or a harpy who selfishly or manipulatively interferes with the happiness of an innocent third party. Do you plead guilty or not guilty?'"

Reviewed by Sheila Cornelius

In a foreword to these submissions to the 2009 Chawton House Library Competition, judge Sarah Walters (author of Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith) says she was relieved. Instead of the feared "fussy bonnets and silly manners" she found "an impressive array of settings and styles." The excellent stories in the collection reflect a variety of approaches.

The winner, Jane Austen over the Styx by Victoria Owens has a feminist theme: the deceased Jane is "tried" in the afterlife by a jury of her elderly female characters, who accuse her of giving them a bad press in her novels. Finding her guilty, the sentence they impose is intended to damage her own legacy. Based on a true-life event, the burning of letters sent by Jane to her favourite brother, it conveys a sense of justice that the author herself might approve: "With them will vanish a fair part of yourself, Miss Austen – perhaps the pithiest, most compassionate part; the part that speaks through Mr Knightley rather than Mrs Norris."

Imposing a modern slant on the stories proved a successful and entertaining strategy. In Jayne by Kirsty Mitchell a contemporary "heroine" works as a Page 3 model to ensure a "comfortable" future. By contrast, Elaine Grotefeld’s Eight Years Later echoes the elegaic tone and themes of Persuasion, set in modern-day Chawton where a nostalgic young man hopes for a reunion.

Two stories comment on Austen’s obsession with love and marriage. In Marianne and Ellie by Beth Cordingly, sisters with very different expectations conclude that, "love is something that we should immerse ourselves in… that consumes us." Somewhere by Kelly Brendel cleverly provides contrasting portraits of marriage at rehearsals for Lovers’ Vows, the play in Mansfield Park. Disappointed by her own marriage of expediency, a governess looks forward to motherhood.

In the gritty The Jane Austen Hen Weekend, Clair Humphries sends three friends on a Jane Austen themed weekend. A plumber called in to unblock the toilet is a Colin Firth lookalike and a Jane Austen-style happy ending is assured. In Second Fruits, by Stephanie Tillotson, the hero is dismissed by a father prejudiced against his Welsh background, a re-imagined version of Persuasion. In Bina, by Andrea Watsmore, two girls visit their teacher in an art studio. Based, like Emma, on the concept of a controlling heroine, there’s a surprisingly contemporary twist.

An incident from Austen’s life inspired Second Thoughts by Elsa A. Solender. When a heroine considers a "compromise" match: "Harris Bigg-Wither, a young man in a puce-and-purple striped silk waistcoat", it comes as no surprise that she has second thoughts.

Two stories are imaginary extensions of the novels. In the excellent, The Delaford Ladies’ Detective Agency by Elizabeth Hopkinson, Elinor of Sense and Sensibility, now Mrs Ferrars, takes on a similar  role to Ma Ramotswe of The Ladies No 1 Detective Agency to solve the mystery of a ghostly embroiderer: "Mysteries, I find, are rather like knots in one’s embroidery thread. They may look impossible, but they always unravel in the end."

My personal favourite is One Character in Search of her Love Story Role by Felicity Cowie. A character in the writer’s own novel, "shadows" two iconic heroines of classical literature – Jane Bennet and Jane Eyre. Operating under the auspices of "CAST (the Characters’ Affiliation for Shadowing and Training)" her forthright attitude contrast with that of her uptight role-models. "You might even be a size zero," is her reply, when Jane Eyre complains of being too "slight". The story features comic footnotes.

Tributes to the influence of Austen’s elegant prose inform two stories. Cleverclogs by Hilary Spiers   captures perfectly the ‘voice’ of a word-obsessed ten-year-old for whom fiction is a haven: "I yearn to get back to Elinor and Marianne. Yearn is my word for the day. It means to long or ache or hanker for." In Miss Austen Victorious, by Esther Bellamy, a wartime rehearsal of a dramatized Pride and Prejudice is interrupted by a V2 bomb. In one of many touchés of irony, Lady Baverstoke, bent on avoiding wartime requisitioning, muses that "Putting on a play had struck her as a means of putting her drawing room to use that was both patriotic and elegant",

The wish-fulfilment appeal of Austen’s novels is underlined in Broken Words by Suzy Ceulan Hughes. In a pastoral story with an embedded folk tale the endurance of the protagonist is finally repaid. As the author comments, "in fiction we might hope for redemption in a prince or a Mr Darcy."

Chawton House Library as inspiration is shown in the charming Snowmelt by Lane Ashfeldt. A conservative-minded librarian feeling threatened by computers changes direction as a result of researching the life of Mary Shelley.

The collection reflects the wit and elegance of Austen’s language while displaying an awe-inspiring knowledge of the life and works of England’s favourite novelist.

Sheila Cornelius is a retired Lecturer in English Literature  and the author of a book on Chinese film. Having  reviewed films, plays and short stories for websites, she is currently writing fiction.
Sheila's other Short Reviews: The Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology 2008

Anne Enright "Taking Pictures"

Courttia Newland "Music for the Off-Key"

Loud Sparrows: Contemporary Chinese Short-shorts

Liz Niven and Brian Whittingham (eds)  "Bucket of Frogs"

Zoë S. Roy "Butterfly Tears"

Various Authors "Written in Blood"
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Editor: Sarah Waters was born in Wales in 1966 and lives in S. London. Her  novels Tipping the Velvet,  Fingersmith, The Night Watch  and The Little Stranger have been shortlisted for and awarded  top literary prizes. Several  have been adapted for television.