I saw this book for the first time in the window of a local bookshop, went straight in for a closer look and handed over my money straight away.
Something special? Definitely!
First there was the title – Dancing With Mr Darcy: stories inspired by Jane Austen and Chawton House, It sounded charming, and definitely a better class of Jane Austen spin-off.
And then a little further down the page – Introduced by Sarah Waters. Her involvement had to be a positive sign.
And on the back cover – 20 original stories. Wonderful! And I discovered that the book was published by Honno – a small press I have come to love this year.
More than enough for me to know that this was a book that I had to bring home.
Sarah Waters, I learned from her introduction, was asked by Chawton House Library to judge the final stages of its short story competition. She had reservations – fearful that she would meet a “cartoon Austen” – but she went ahead, and writes that she was impressed by the quality and diversity of the stories.
Certainly, every type of Austen related story that you might want is here.
Jane herself, in familiar and unfamiliar settings.
Victoria Owens’ winning story, “Jane Austen Over The Styx”, had Jane in the afterlife brought to task by certain of her own characters.
In the wrong hands this could have been awful, but this story was quite brilliantly executed. The narrative voice is wonderful, and it balanced a love of the original texts with a willingness to question them and maybe look from a new point of view.
New stories for well-loved characters.
“We Need To Talk About Mr Collins” suggested Mary Howell. Her story suggested other possibilities for Charlotte Lucas. and was very nicely done.
Or modern visitors into familiar stories.
I wondered about Felicity Cowie’s “One Character in Search of Her Love Story.” Dispatching an agent into a book made me wonder if I was going to get a reworking of Thursday Next, but actually what I got was something rather different and very interesting. A modern heroine seeking answers in old books:
“But Mr Darcy is every woman’s ideal man, Jane. Aren’t you secretly disappointed that you don’t end up with him?”
Miss Bennett shook her head firmly.
“Mr Bingley singles me out from the start of our acquaintance and, as soon as he is sensible of my returned feelings , he proposes marriage to me. But I am not sure that Mr Darcy is such a good man until Lizzy speaks to him of his improper pride.”
Quite wonderful. And in her afterword Felicity Cowrie explains that this story started as an exercise to help her to get to know the heroine of her new. I definitely want that novel! Now!
Jane’s character’s in new settings.
“The Delaford Ladies Detective Agency” by Elizabeth Hopkinson saw the new Mrs Ferrars, at a loose end, investigating a mystery. Miss Austen meets Mr McCall Smith. In the wrong hands it could have been awful but as a short story in this particular author’s hands it was rather fun.
Or modern-day equivalents of those characters.
Beth Cordingly’s “Ellie and Marianne” saw Ellie hide her own broken heart while she tended to her sister’s. Sounds familiar? A lovely and moving story, simply and beautifully told.
And maybe best of all stories of those who love Jane Austen.
“Tears Fall on Orkney” by Nancy Saunders found a young woman whose love was unrequited looking to the works of Jane Austen for guidance and support. A simple story, beautifully written and quite heartbreaking.
But if I had to pick a favourite I think it would have to be “Cleverclogs” by Hilary Spiers. A schoolgirl becomes a bibliophile after her grandmother introduces her to the works of Jane Austen. The joys of loving books are so wonderfully conveyed.
“Sometimes when I’m lying in bed at night, all of the characters in all of the books I’ve read swim around my head in a mad dance. My head feels like it might burst with words sometimes and then I think that I’ve got years and years of reading still to come and where do all the words go?”
It’s story that will make you nod with recognition, and make you both laugh and cry.
I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point – this is a quite wonderful collection of stories.