The Times of London
Old Friends and New Fancies
By Sybil G. Brinton
Jane Austen fans take to the streets of Bath
Reviewed by Stephen McClarence
ALERT THE PAPARAZZI: Jane Austen has hit the celebrity circuit. “Plain Jane is suddenly a babe,” USA Today proclaims. “The brilliant early-19th century spinster novelist is Paris Hilton-hot, circa 2007.”
Films, television adaptations, societies, tours, conferences, tea towels and now Paris Hilton . . . the “Austen brand” is so broad and self-sustaining that it is easy to forget that it is built on just six-and-a-bit novels.
That branding started in 1913, when Sybil G. Brinton, an author of towering obscurity, wrote and published what is thought to be the first example of “fan-fiction”. Her Old Friends and New Fancies, which has just been republished in Britain, blazed the trail for an estimated 700 novels and stories that now owe their existence to Jane Austen’s books.
These “fan-fics” take many forms. Some are pastiche-like sequels, on the lines of What Darcy Did Next or Emma: The Omen 2. As Regency romances, they sometimes spice things up with an explicitness (“His torch of love was difficult to disregard . . .”) that is more Sex and Sexuality than Sense and Sensibility.
Some recast the plots in modern settings. Kara Louise’s Drive and Determination, for instance, charts the adventures of an interior designer who clashes with the president of the Pemberleo Coffee company.
Some take a more detached view, with Shannon Hale’s Austenland neatly imagining a theme park where fans live like the books’ heroines. There are interactive novels urging readers to “create your own Jane Austen adventure”, and there’s even the occasional hint of subversive humour. Laurie Viera Rigler’s Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict leads the field here. It centres on a Los Angeles fan “who wakes up in a four-poster bed in Regency England and discovers . . . rampant body odour, sexual and class repression and bloodletting”.
Now, after many years out of print, there’s the return of Old Friends and New Fancies, which takes three dozen characters from the original novels, intertwines their lives and ties up the loose ends with three marital knots.
In an ideal literary world, the resulting jamboree would be full of wry irony. (“Isn’t that General Tilney over there? Didn’t we last meet him at Mansfield Park?” “I fear you are mistaken, my dear, we met him at Northanger Abbey.”) Brinton, however, does not do wryness. For all the ingenuity of her game of literary Consequences, the result is bland and, to nonaddicts (who can’t understand all the fuss about Jane) bewildering.
Addicts, of course, will want the book, for reasons well understood by Deb Werksman, editorial manager at the US-based Sourcebooks, its new publisher. “After 15 years of reading and rereading the six Austen novels, you realise there aren’t enough of them,” she says from her office in Connecticut. “That’s what has inspired all these adaptations, emulations, continuations and sequels.”
Werksman had published 20 other “fan-fics”, targeting “the Georgette Heyer type of market”, when she came across a reference to Old Friends. She tracked down a first edition for $3,000 (£1,500), read it (“very carefully; I didn’t take it in the bathtub”), found it delightful and confidently nominates it as the first example of fan-fiction.
“The authenticity of Brinton’s English voice is very appealing. She had the advantage of writing when language was more precise and education was better, because there was no television. She wasn’t writing a literary masterpiece but she was at least aspiring to competence.”
So did Werksman reprint it for its merit or its historical interest? “Given that it was the first one, it would have had to be pretty weak for me to eschew it all together, but I don’t think I could have published it if it hadn’t been worth reading. It helps to know the books, but you don’t need to know all the characters.”
Little is known about Sybil Grace Brinton herself. The daughter of a wealthy Kidderminster carpet manufacturer, she was born in 1874 at Stourport-on-Severn, Worcestershire, married in 1908, had no children, suffered from poor health all her life, and died in 1928, without writing another book.
John Adey, a genealogist who runs the Stourport-based Family History Research Ltd, could find out little more about her, despite weeks of searching. “There’s no known photograph of her,” he says. “And it’s odd that even now, the family can’t tell you much about her.”
Back with Deb Werksman in Connecticut, what’s the appeal of Jane Austen to so many American women? “Well, in the adaptation of Pride and Prejudice by your magnificent BBC, Colin Firth dives into a lake and comes out with a wet shirt. A large number of sequels were published after that.”
Werksman has also compiled the George W. Bush Out-of-Office Countdown Calendar, which has sold 250,000 copies. “It’s my small contribution to political satire,” she says. “We can only try to laugh.”<< Back