I usually don't write negative reviews of sequels (or movies) on my blogs because I find there's little point to doing so. This is popular literature and it's a sort of waste of time to evaluate follies, absurdities, and faults so evident they fall into kitsch and pastiche (especially when there are readers who like this sort of thing). But I feel honor-bound to say something of Hazel Holt's My Dear Charlotte as I was sent a copy of the book by the publisher upon my agreeing to write on Austen-l or blog about it. The copy may be a pre-publication or proofing one as I found a couple of paragraphs which were repeated on pages (not caught in proofreading).
Hazel Holt is someone who also writes "cozy" mysteries (an oxymoron in itself), called "The Sheila Malory" series; she has edited a book of letters by Barbara Pym (A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Letters), and written a biography of Pym, A Lot to Ask.. She has a background which shows she belongs to the elite classes of England (she went to Newnham College, Cambridge) and probably through conferences and connections became acquainted with Pym. I have not yet read her biography though I mean to if nothing else but to see the contrast between her writing for audiences of autobiography and editions and this sequel.
Holt's edition of the letters is partly credited to Pym sister, Hilary Pym, so it's an approved one. The introduction appears to have been mostly written by herself. It's written in strong attractive modern English, vibrant enough and leads the reader to think there is much insight and original thought and incidents in the letters. Alas, not so. They are entries of Barbara Pym's daily life, probably never meant to be published, and give a picture of the life of this woman and the kind of unconventional passionate writing that went into her novels is not found here. She is presented as someone with a pleasant life, a good deal of chit-chat: "this dance wasn't so bad, Woolf's A Room of her Own "Most delightful and profound," and if she had time she'd write about it, but she doesn't.
She has written an epistolary novelette, My Dear Charlotte, said to be taken from Austen's letters. First off, she chose the online edition by the great-nephew, Brabourne, These are bowdlerized, re-arranged, turned into sweet spinster stuff insofar as he could. This is our source, not Chapman's early edition or the recent full one by Deirdre LeFaye. Granted LeFaye's is hard to use (it has three different apprendices and they are not cross-referenced), and may be expensive in hard-copy; but it's available in libraries and does contain the harder Austen as well as in many of her moods. If they are a censored remnant, they contain a real personality (as Brabourne's does not). Austen's letters are often acidic, very often, businesslike and sometimes plagent (only towards the end); the gossip is often grotesqueries with a hard physical edge; much spite, and some enthusiasms now and gain. Holt appears to know this for memories or tiny slices of lines from LeFaye's edition are brought into My Dear Charlotte here and there, but, as the publisher on the outside tells her and her website too, this is Austen from Brabourne.
Not that that could be a killer if the text had an inner life of its own. I regret to report the novel is poor or weak because it has no genuine life in the way of Holt's introduction to her edition of Pym's letters. She has altered her tone so that it is a light pastiche. It reminds me of Georgette Heyer except Heyer is a thick impasto carried along by Junior High school level stories of love and romance (circa 1950 or mid-20th century in outlook). My Dear Charlotte is a continual citation of surface details of costume, mild details of martial and dating arrangements Holt has studied and known about, hu hom descriptions of assemblies and balls in which nothing much happens, certainly not to the heroine whose name is Elinor Cowper. The second is an allusion to the poet Cowper (ah had Holt only chosen Crabbe who Austen said was her husband in spirit). Why Charlotte? I don't know. There is a Charlotte Grandison in Sir Charles Grandison, but among the many weaknesses of this book is Charlotte writes no letter. This is a letter novel which is more like a journal divided into entries. There is no back-and-forth perspective at all. Elinor, the book's one real character, then, at book's center never herself seems to have a passion or feeling that is real, only endless compilings of details of fashions, of marriage arrangements, the mildest of feeble social commentary, hardly gets involved or engaged on any level of deep emotion with what happens around and to her.
As a reader of Anothy Trollope I at first thought Holt was alluding to Trollope now and again (there are character's names and placed which remind me of his books, such as the rich man's beautiful estate of Monkton from He Knew He Was Right), but then I realized all the allusions could easily come from Joanna Trollope's pastiche romances written under the name of Caroline Harvey; they have titles like Parson Harding's Daughter, and the covers have line drawings of lightly or colorized of places like the Taj Mahal made picturesque.
The text comes with an introduction by Jan Fergus, a respected Austen scholar; she has a biography of Austen where she depicts Austen as a businesswoman first and foremost in her attitude towards her writing. Perhaps Fergus is being a businesswoman here, as I'm told that Holt is well-known as a writer in England. The cozy mysteries sell; so do Barbara Pyms novels marketed under similar aegise. these characterization is unfair to some of Pym's, e.g., A Few Green Leaves, which I believe was nominated for or won the Booker Prize (albeit not to be that trusted as it too operates like a coterie). Jan Fergus's praise is puzzling (unless she's a friend). If Fergus says the book is in the tone of Austen: not at all. It's true that in Fergus's introduction, Fergus talks of Austen's letters in a way that makes her view of Austen's letters sound like E.M. Forster: Forster called them the letters of a spiteful or nasty spinster-old maid, narrow in purview. Forster was appalled. Fersus talks of Austen as funny in code words which mean amusingly nasty and implies these are jokes not to be taken seriously, and the books are complacent about life. I don't agree, and will leave the write to contemplate a typical remark (in LeFaye not Brabourne):
"Anna has not a chance of escape; her husband called here the other day, & said she was pretty well but not equal to "so long a walk; she must come in her "Donkey Carriage."--Poor Animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty.---I am very sorry for her.--Mrs Clement too is in that way again. I am quite tired of so many Children.--Mrs Benn has a 13th... (Jane Austen's Letters, ed. Le Faye 336, Letter dated Sunday 23- Tuesday 25 March 1817
This is not a jealous spinster; this is a woman who is glad she has escaped endless pregnancies and the destruction of her life's fiber and time through them, and out of this outlook is one of several veins of serious social criticism we can discern or glimpse in the letters. Admittedly not much for these letters were to please Jane's sister, Cassandra, a conventional woman, and they were read aloud in the family circle
Fergus also attributes serious criticism to Austen's books. But then as Fay Weldon says in her letters to her niece about Austen's art, rememember people will say anything. Holt has a reputation, friends and perhaps Fergus knows her. Nowadays too blurbs and introductions to books are increasingly over-the-top unreal praise (exaggerated screams accompanied a recent Austen sequel, a wretched incoherent lifeless putting together of phrases and memories from reading Austen, Donald Measham's Jane Austen out of the Blue. It's one merit is a picturesque glossy cover. The cover to My Dear Charlotte is one in the eminent domaine reprinted on many of these sequels and Austen's novels themselves, "Miss Harriet and Miss Elizabeth Binney" by John Stuart (1741-1811).
So, in the spirit of F. R. Leavis, another sequel to cross off .... Not that all sequels are bad; two excellent ones are Elizabeth Jenkins's Harriet, Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club. Much better -- because alive with an author's individual soul and made up out of a real world they inhabit, are original rewrites and take-off: Anthony Trollope's Small House at Allington (S&S), Dr Thorne (P&P), The Bertrams (MP), Ayala's Angel (NA), E. H. Young's Jenny Wren and E. M. Forster's Howard's End (both S&S). For a voice reminiscent of Austen's, I recommend Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
For my part I think a sequel needs to have the writer produce a style consonant with her own spirit, rather as in a historical novel, and rewrite the original book from a new critical perspective, say as in the case of the brilliant Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin out of Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. A genuine rewriting of Austen's letters from say another invented correspondent who did exist but whose letters have been destroyed (Martha Sharpe), in another real voice, might be of real interest.
I had agreed to take a copy of the book and review it partly because my good friend, Diana Birchall, said she was intrigued and had taken a copy and we could compare. You will find her remarks in the first comment to this blog