Why We Can’t Stop Reading — and Writing — Jane Austen Sequels

Death Comes to Pemberley comes to American TV screens this Sunday night (be not alarmed, dear sirs and madams, for Flavorwire will provide recaps of each installment). For those who don’t know, it’s a mini-series based on a book by P.D. James which is itself a mystery novel based on the characters and locations from Pride and Prejudice. This unauthorized sequel places the married Elizabeth and Darcy and their estate in the middle of a British murder mystery with clues hidden on the grounds, ancestral secrets and frowning magistrates galore. So desperately did readers want to return to Pemberley under competent authorial guidance that the book ruled the bestseller charts for quite some time — even if many readers felt it was neither particularly true to Austen nor gripping of its own merit: “A hideous, plodding, ungraceful piece of mawkish fanfiction that succeeds neither as a mystery or as a pastiche of Austen’s most beloved novel,” reads my favorite nasty Goodreads review.

But P.D. James’ flaws as an interpreter of Austen were almost beside the point. Readers have had a burning desire to return to Pemberley and peek in on Darcy and Elizabeth since the beginning of Austen’s career. Austen herself, according to her nephews’ memoirs, “if asked, [would] tell us many little particulars about the subsequent career of some of her people. In this traditionary way we learned… that Kitty Bennet was satisfactorily married to a clergyman near Pemberley, while Mary obtained nothing higher than one of her uncle Philips’ clerks, and was content to be considered a star in the society of Meriton.”

It’s amazing to think that even Austen’s own family was begging her for sequels. They felt, as readers of Death Comes to Pemberley did, a simple desire to spend more time with characters who feel, by the trick of their author’s pen, incredibly real.

In the 19th century, several of Austen’s  descendants and relatives took up the sequel game, writing new endings for Aunt Jane’s unfinished work. But unauthorized sequels only trickled into print for centuries: in the early 20th century, a book called Old Friends and New Families mashed up characters from all six Austen novels into one narrative, while the Pemberley Shades was the first Pride and Prejudice sequel.

But then in the last 20 or 30 years, the floodgates opened. I did a cursory search of Jane Austen sequels to see how many had been penned. One website counted over 70 sequels, while another went up to 180. If you add in out-of-print titles and fan-fiction written online, the number explodes. Titles include Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma, A Wife for Mr. Darcy (not to be confused with Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife, Pemberley, the Fitzwilliam Darcy: Gentleman series, and sequels to all five other Austen novels, as well as many mash-ups, pastiches, and re-imaginings with or without zombies and vampires). There are several authors who have made their entire careers just writing sequels for one Austen novel after another.

When I was younger, I used to find this fascinating. I’d browse the bookshelves in Barnes and Noble and try to count the number of Pride and Prejudice sequels on the shelves, wedged in between classics and contemporary fictions. I once opened one, Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife, and discovered immediately a sex scene between the Darcys that featured Mr. Darcy pleasuring his wife and used the word “tumescence.” To quote Goodreads again: “This book should be called, ‘Mr. Darcy Gets It On.’ If you’ve been reading Jane Austen all these years and been thinking, ‘wow, what these books really need is more humping’ then this is the book for you.”

But any book can invite sexy or mysterious sequels, as we’ve seen with the explosion of fan-fiction for YA and fantasy lit. So why, among classic novels, is there this persistent obsession with Austen fan-fiction, and Pride and Prejudice in particular?

For one, Darcy and Lizzy have so much arch, combative chemistry when they’re not-yet married, it’s hard to not want to imagine how things would go for them as man and wife whether under the sheets or just managing life together. But Austen’s writing style also simply invites our entry.

As E.M. Forster once wrote, praising her characterization,“All the Jane Austen characters are ready for an extended life, for a life which the scheme of her books seldom requires them to lead.” Because Austen doesn’t overload us with sensory details about her characters, but merely depicts them walking around in the world, talking, judging, and making mistakes, we project a lot of our own experience and imagination into our reading, and this makes us feel personally acquainted with them. This is, in part, the “extended” life Forster speaks of, a “roundness” of character. Thanks to the Internet and a reliable readership of Janeites, her characters’ extended life goes on and on in sequels both abysmal and amusing — not to mention her influence on so many writers whose characters are not named Mr. Darcy.