It is a fact universally acknowledged, that a single novel in possession of a good following must be in want of a sequel.
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was a landmark book. It inspired the Regency Romance novel genre, has been adapted into six different films (more, if you count ones that slyly reference it) and has spawned an absurd number of sequels, prequels, mashups, and alternate tellings. A small selection of these can be found in Jody Wurl’s booklist, Jane Austen Spinning in her Grave. The last time I counted (about ten years ago) I noted there were over sixty sequels to Pride and Prejudice. In these books, you can find Fitzwilliam Darcy recast as a detective, zombie hunter, time traveler, or even a vampire. Other than their illustrious progenitor all these books have one other thing in common: they suck.
Okay, maybe this is unfair. I have not read all the sequels to Pride and Prejudice out there, though I will admit to having read a depressingly large percentage of them. I am one of those people who discovered Jane Austen in high school, and have reread Pride and Prejudice every year since. I can understand why people write continuations of Pride and Prejudice, and why people like me read them. Furthermore, because of people like me, I understand why publishers persist in publishing sequels. Given that the work is public domain and still incredibly popular, the story of P&P is a vein that can be mined again and again for material.
Pride and Prejudice offers a view into a rich and fascinating world. Jane Austen makes you care not only for Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, but also for the well being of the whole rest of her extensive cast of characters. As a reader, I wanted to know not only how Elizabeth fared after her marriage, but also how all the side characters made out. Did Lydia ever regret running off with Wickham? Did Georgiana grow out of her brother’s shadow? Did Colonel Fitzwilliam ever find true love?
Unfortunately, the sequels kept letting me down. Too many of them I believe to be inspired by Colin Firth’s famous wet shirt scene in the 1995 BBC miniseries. (One of the better ones in this genre was the very spicy and truly amusing Mr. Darcy Takes a Bride, in which Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam indulge in many steamy sex scenes.) We get sequels that gush endlessly about Darcy’s tall and dark good looks, or ones where Elizabeth has suddenly become a very sweet non-entity. We get too little follow up of the minor characters in Pride and Prejudice, choosing to focus instead on the two couples that Austen said lived happily ever after. But that is not the worst part. For me, one of the key missing ingredients to many Pride and Prejudice sequels is humor and wit.
Jane Austen was masterful in writing entertaining accounts of boring, rude and awful people. From a craft viewpoint, I am in continual awe at how enjoyable it is to read the dialogue of Mr. Collins, an intolerable sycophant and a bore. Equally pleasurable is the more elevated dialogue of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, particularly when they are being disagreeable to one another. Elizabeth Bennet has a lively mind and an acid tongue. Pride and Prejudice abounds with her subtle sarcasm and irony.
What would an ideal P&P sequel include?
- No heavy rehashing of the events of P&P. I don’t mind works that revisit P&P from an alternate viewpoint, but I hate it when a sequel spends pages telling you all about what happened in the book. This happened in P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley, which spent an absurd amount of time rehashing the original work. P&P is one of the best read books of all time. Chances are that if a reader has picked up your sequel in the bookstore, they know the core events of the original. It’s okay to drop hints or give a light reminder, but more than that is completely unneeded.
- Faithfulness to the Austen’s creation. No, I don’t mean that you cannot change characters, or show them from another viewpoint. I actually thoroughly enjoyed a couple retellings that show a different side to Wickham: one a short story found in The Road to Pemberley anthology, and the other the silly time travel film called Lost in Austen. It’s okay to mess with the plot and mix up the characters in new and entertaining ways, but do it thoughtfully. However, I don’t think that you can make Elizabeth Bennet into a simpering ninny without a very good explanation.
- Humor. Why are there so many serious sequels to P&P, a downright funny book? I have to admit that I kind of enjoyed Seth Grahame’s Pride and Predjudice and Zombies, though it is technically a mashup rather than a sequel. It had the good sense to keep the best 70% of the original book, and then added in the zombies with surprising cleverness. It also explains many things that might have been unclear in the original. Why did Charlotte Lucas marry Mr. Collins? Zombies. Why was the militia at Meryton? Zombies. Why did it take so long to find Lydia Bennet and George Wickham? Zombies.
- Excellent Dialogue. Give us zingers. Give us cruel cuts. Give us charming and apt turns of phrase with multiple layers to them.
- Attention to Minor Characters. Fitzwilliam Darcy is not the sole reason that readers read P&P. Let’s see the rest of the cast, and get introduced to new ones! Especially notable in this regard was the anthology, The Road to Pemberley, where most of the stories gave voice and thought to otherwise neglected side characters.