Masterpieces and mysteries

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  January 14, 2008

As for the new Sense and Sensibility, the “not-final” copy I saw opens with an orange-lit (hellfire?) seduction scene that few will recognize as that of Willoughby (Dominic Cooper) and Colonel Brandon’s ward Eliza. (The Daily Telegraph, reviewing the production’s New Year’s Day debut on the BBC, called this prologue “horribly misconceived.”) Hattie Morahan is an Austen-like Elinor, generous and patient; Charity Wakefield has the right look for Marianne but is feminist forward, with lines like “I think you don’t understand how I feel”; Margaret (Lucy Boynton) is Hollywood-cute, and far more prominent than she is in the novel; Mrs. Dashwood (Janet McTeer) suffers from Perfect Mother Syndrome. The men — Dan Stevens as Edward, David Morrissey as Colonel Brandon, Dominic Cooper as Willoughby — are acceptable if not manly. The duel Colonel Brandon fights with Willoughby is now over Marianne rather than Eliza, and it’s a swashbuckling affair with swords rather than pistols. And I haven’t seen so many passionate waves crashing on Britain’s south coast since Poldark. The idea behind most recent Austen adaptations (including the 2005 Prideand Prejudice) seems to be that Jane’s old-fashioned sensibility needs to be updated to suit modern tastes. The irony is that it’s her old-fashioned sensibility that made her popular in the first place.

SENSE AND SENSIBILITY: As Elinor Dashwood, Hattie Morahan can hold her own with distinguished predecessors Irene Richard and Emma Thompson.

The Austen Mystery Novels
Stephanie Barron

Jane And The Unpleasantness At Scargrave Manor | 1996 | Bantam Books | 318 pages | $6.99
Jane And The Man Of The Cloth | 1997 | Bantam Books | 335 pages | $6.99
Jane And The Wandering Eye | 1998 | Bantam Books | 320 pages | $6.99
Jane And The Genius Of The Place | 1999 | Bantam Books | 361 pages | $6.99
Jane And The Stillroom Maid | 2000 | Bantam Books | 318 pages | $6.99
Jane And The Prisoner Of Wool House | 2001 | Bantam Books | 347 pages | $6.99
Jane And The Ghosts Of Netley | 2003 | Bantam Books | 316 pages | $6.99
Jane And His Lordship’s Legacy | 2005 | Bantam Books | 346 pages | $6.99
Jane And The Barque Of Frailty | 2007 | Bantam Books | 330 pages | $6.99

Carrie Bebris
Pride And Prescience [Or, A Truth Universally Acknowledged] | 2004 | Tor | 287 pages | $6.99
Suspense And Sensibility [Or, First Impressions Revisited] | 2005 | Tor | 297 pages | $6.99
North By Northanger [Or, The Shades Of Pemberley] | 2006 | Tor | 321 pages | $6.99

It is a truth almost as universally acknowledged, that, given the paltry half-dozen Jane Austen novels we possess, there cannot be too many contemporary continuations of them. These in the main focus on Mr. and Mrs. Darcy and the couple’s life at Pemberley, and though they may aspire to the closely observed sensibility of Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels, few achieve more than a passing acquaintance. Stephanie Barron and Carrie Bebris have, however, taken a different footpath, the Jane Austen mystery. It’s a well-judged choice: Austen’s heroines comport themselves like detectives, save that they ferret out the truth of the human heart rather than the identity of thieves and murderers.

In these novels, there’s a little of both. In Carrie Bebris’s “Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mystery” series, which she began in 2004, we get everybody’s favorite Austen couple as Nick and Nora Charles without Asta or the cocktail shaker. In Pride and Prescience, Caroline Bingley trumps the dual weddings of Elizabeth and Jane Bennet by getting herself engaged to Mr. Frederick Parrish, a rich American. That’s when the incidents start up: Caroline is found prowling the London streets at night, her horse bolts in Rotten Row, she’s discovered on her kitchen floor with two knife wounds. In Suspense and Sensibility, the Darcys take Kitty Bennet to London for the Season and she becomes engaged to Henry Dashwood, whom you may remember from the opening of Sense and Sensibility as the four-year-old son of John and Fanny Dashwood. (In Bebris’s Austen world, Sense and Sensibility is set in the mid 1790s and Pride and Prejudice some 15 years later.) But then Henry begins to re-enact The Rake’s Progress and Elizabeth — these are really “Mrs. Darcy” mysteries — must discover why. In North by Northanger, the Darcys journey to Bath, and when Captain Frederick Tilney espies their names in the Pump Room book, he invites them to Northanger Abbey, where a storm fit to delight the imagination of Catherine Morland rages and there are echoes of Hitchcock’s film.

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