2 additions to Austen . . .

December 05, 1993|By James Wilcox | James Wilcox,Los Angeles Times

Title: "Presumption"

Author: Julia Barrett

Publisher: M. Evans & Co.

Length, price: 238 pages, $30

Title: "Pemberley"

Author: Emma Tennant

Publisher: St. Martin's Press

Length, price: 184 pages, $18.95 "I am a Jane Austenite," E. M. Forster wrote in 1924, "and therefore slightly imbecile about Jane Austen. . . . I read and re-read, the mouth open and the mind closed. Shut up in measureless content, I greet her by the name of most kind hostess, while criticism slumbers."

Whether or not the 2,700 members of the Jane Austen Society of North America are amused by Forster's idolatry, they cannot ignore two recent incursions onto sacred ground: Julia Barrett and Emma Tennant have both had the temerity to continue where "Pride and Prejudice" left off.

By calling "Presumption" an "entertainment," Julia Braun Kessler and Gabrielle Donnelly (writing under the pseudonym Julia Barrett) might disarm some of Jane Austen's more militant admirers. Demoting the "Pride and Prejudice" heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, now Mrs. Darcy, to a supporting role, "Presumption" elevates Mrs. Darcy's sister-in-law, 17-year-old Georgiana, to prima donna.

"A series of governesses had taught her," the collective Miss Barrett writes of Georgiana, "and while they had invariably found her tractable, even compliant, this circumstance was maintained largely by none of their ever presuming to make so inconvenient a suggestion as that she do one single thing genuinely against her own wishes."

As this quotation demonstrates, "Presumption's" style not only evokes Jane Austen's dry wit, but also some of the grammatical knots that R. W. Chapman, a 20th-century editor of her complete works, tried to untangle. Tag words dear to "Pride and Prejudice" -- "exceedingly," "complaisance," "delicacy" -- also contribute to the Regency flavor of this sequel.

"Pemberley," a much more compact sequel, returns us to Mr. Darcy's estate in Derbyshire. Emma Tennant's novel focuses on Elizabeth and Darcy's marriage, about which the young bride is beginning to have some "Rebecca"-like doubts. In fact, this Elizabeth seems to have learned few lessons from her experiences with Darcy in "Pride and Prejudice." After a year of marriage, she begins to speculate about her husband in an irrational way that seems more suitable to the overly vivid imagination of Catherine Morland, the heroine of Jane Austen's "Northanger Abbey."

But if this aspect of Ms. Tennant's novel causes some uneasiness, the appearance of Mrs. Bennet, Elizabeth's now-widowed mother, soon distracts us. The widow's Christmas visit to Pemberley occasions mother-in-law irritations that not even the somewhat reformed Darcy can countenance.

Mrs. Bennet's wooden-legged suitor, Col. Kitchiner, is one of the many absurdities that can make one, somewhat indelicately for a Jane Austenite, laugh aloud. With the widow's blithe mention of a douche as a way of assuring male offspring -- an heir to Pemberley is the novel's central concern -- we are reminded that Austen was familiar with Fielding and Sterne. But when a chamber pot is brought out in public to satisfy the colonel's pressing after-dinner needs, not only Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but also the more reverent Austenites, might declare, "I am driven to my bedchamber."

Though neither "Pemberley" nor "Presumption" mirrors the strict confines of Jane Austen's world, their very exuberance, inappropriate as this may seem at times, helps deepen our appreciation of the original novel's artistic achievement. At the same time, these brave sequels might suggest that not even a masterpiece can leave us fully satisfied.

Jane Austen herself had her doubts about "Pride and Prejudice." "The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling," Emma Tennant quotes Austen as an epigraph to "Pemberley," "it wants shade."

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