Jane Austen Made Me Do It

Jane Austen made me do it. Made me do what? Mostly made me have a lot of fun reading this collection of short stories inspired by her works!

Jane Austen Made Me Do It, the book, is a collection of short stories inspired by the life and works of Jane Austen. Of course. The collection was edited by Laurel Ann Nattress, and features stories by a host of writers from Stephanie Barron to Lauren Willig.

I read most of the Jane Austen oeuvre during my interminably long commuting days, which means I listened to it on audio. I enjoyed them immensely, but I’m not obsessive. I say this because the stories in JAMMDI fall into two categories, the ones that require detailed knowledge of particular Austen works, and the ones that use Austen’s life and works as jumping-off points.

The stories that used Austen as inspiration were ones I particularly enjoyed. You might even say I found a couple of them, well, inspiring.

In “The Ghostwriter,” by Elizabeth Aston, Jane’s ghost comes to the aid of a 21st century author who has spent much too much time admiring Mr. Darcy and not nearly enough energy on her own love life or on her sagging book sales. Jane’s apparition leads Sara to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, an unpublished manuscript by one of Jane’s contemporaries that will be a shot in the arm for her dying career. While Sara copy-edits the found manuscript, Jane fixes up her love-life for her.

“The Chase,” by Carrie Bebris, is about how Jane’s brother Francis received his commission as Post-Captain, based on Francis own logbooks. This story was as vivid a recreation of a naval battle as any of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin series.

My favorite was the story by Jane Rubino and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway titled “What Would Austen Do?” A high school student whose mother is a Jane Austen aficionado has saddled him with the name James Austen. Mom may even have married Dad just so she could snag the Austen last name! The story starts with poor James getting hauled into the school principal’s office and being accused of becoming a drug user. Why? Because he’s been exhibiting unusual behavior. What unusual behavior? He’s become polite and mannerly to his teachers. He wears khakis and button-down shirts to school. And he has strange paperwork in his locker. With numbers on it, and weird words like “arming” and “inside hand” and “ECD”.

If you want to find out what “ECD” stands for, you have to read the story. It’s worth it.

Escape Rating B: Because this is an anthology, it’s a mixed bag. There were a couple of stories I absolutely adored. “What Would Austen Do?” being at the top of the list. The ones that required really deep knowledge of Jane Austen’s works were not as much fun for me. Collections like this are classic instances of the principle “your mileage may vary”.

The stories that used Jane Austen as a springboard were the best ones. The attempts to out-do or re-do her work fell a little flat. The stories that took flight from her, most of those were terrific.

Jacob T Marley

I love Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I particularly enjoy stories that re-interpret the classic tale just a bit, and Jacob T. Marley by R. William Bennett provides yet another delightful twist.

We all know Ebenezer Scrooge’s tale. His name has become a byword for miserliness due to the genius of Charles Dickens’ storytelling. But A Christmas Carol is the tale of Scrooge’s redemption. Ebenezer becomes a better man because Jacob Marley has spent his afterlife repenting of his sins. Jacob Marley has chosen to give his partner Ebenezer the opportunity to repent in life, while it might still do him, and the world, some good. Why did Jacob Marley send the Spirits to visit Ebenezer Scrooge that Christmas Eve? Just who was Jacob Marley?

Although Scrooge refers to Marley as “a good man of business”, Marley couldn’t have been born in his counting-house! He must have started out in the usual way, whether he had a family, or was an orphan, but he couldn’t have been hatched from an egg. A Christmas Carol isn’t quite that much of a fantasy.

Unlike Ebenezer Scrooge, who was mostly abandoned at boarding school, in this telling of Marley’s story, young Jacob comes from a loving but middle-class home with good parents and several siblings. Marley’s downfall is pride. His pride in his mathematical skill causes him to abandon anything that does not further his ambition and his need to be the best. He leaves his family behind: continuing his relationships with his parents and siblings wastes time he might spend on business.

One afternoon, angry at the delay caused by a funeral procession, he meets a young man who is just like himself. They have common cause in their irritation at the funeral, but different reasons behind that irritation. The deceased is Ebenezer’s sister, Fan. Ebenezer is angry that Fan died because she did not reveal her difficulties to him. He could have prevented her death if she had humbled  herself. It is her fault she is dead. Marley is angry at the delay. While they wait for the traffic to untangle itself, Marley offers Scrooge an interview at his counting-house.

Marley completes Scrooge’s transformation into the miserly man of business that we meet in Dickens’ masterwork. As we all know. Marley did not do Scrooge any favors. By the time Marley dies, there is no humanity left in Scrooge, he might as well be a walking account book. But as Marley lays on his deathbed and watches Scrooge, Marley recovers his humanity, at least enough to realize what he has done. He begins to atone. When he dies, he is given a chance to work towards his own redemption by trying to convince the spirits to give Scrooge a chance at his–before it’s too late.

Escape Rating: A+: I finished this in one sitting. I sat down for lunch and got lost in the book. The language evokes the classic without going over the top about it. And it retells just enough of the original to refresh the memory without seeming repetitious. We know the story. A little familiarity is good. Too much would be boring. This is just right.

I still have very fond memories of the first version of A Christmas Carol I ever saw — the Mr. Magoo cartoon version.  I can still remember him singing, “I’m all alone in the world” at the boarding school. The cartoon encapsulated the story; love, loss, redemption, and does it well.

It was time for Jacob Marley’s redemption. Well done.