Jane Austen's characters find a new home
Mixing and matching beloved Austen creations, Jude Morgan serves up a lively read.
Prison and the moon – I think those are the only places left where "Pride and Prejudice" hasn't yet been set. And while Mr. Darcy would probably be just as dashing in a space suit, clearly, Janeites need some reading material more inspired than the inevitable: " 'Mansfield Park' in a rain forest? Ooh, goody!"
Happily, British writer Tim Wilson, writing under the pseudonym of Jude Morgan, is here to supply an alternative. Rather than just pilfering Jane Austen's plots wholesale (as has become the accepted norm), he draws characters similar to her beloved creations, but then outfits them with their own personalities and lives. Picking up Indiscretion, his latest novel, is like being given a favorite assortment of candy: not many surprises (although Morgan gets off one rather good one near the beginning), but you know you'll love every bite.
There's an imperious matriarch in the mode of Lady Catherine de Bourgh; two sisters, one all sense and one all sensibility, like the Misses Dashwood; a gallant sea captain, a la "Persuasion"; and a Mr. Wickham or two, ready to charm and despoil young girls. There is even a visit to Bath and passing references to Fordyce's Sermons and younger sisters named Georgiana.
Into this mix, Morgan tosses more quips than Oscar Wilde at a dinner party, as well as a heroine whose upbringing probably would have fallen outside the purview of a parson's daughter like Austen. Caroline Fortune was brought up one jump ahead of the debt collector by her wastrel father, a retired soldier and sometime actor. (Morgan seems unable to resist the inevitable puns on his heroine's name. You'll have to forgive him.)
As a result, Miss Fortune's education included the finer points of swearing, "how to play faro, and macao, and hazard, and billiards, and how to judge a good cravat, and how to make rack-punch –..."
The card playing comes in handy when Captain Fortune's speculations finally ruin them. To survive, Caroline takes a job in Brighton as a lady's companion to the fearsome Mrs. Catling, a widow whose hobbies include cards, gossip, and tormenting her impoverished niece and nephew, aptly christened "the danglers." "No coquette ever put her hapless suitors so thoroughly through the mill, or priced her wooing at the cost of so many pets, teazes, and tantrums." Out of sympathy for their capricious treatment, Caroline finds herself trying to help the self-absorbed Matthew and the languid Maria Downey.
Morgan's last novel, "Passion," which was published in the US last year, was a wonderfully evocative look at the Romantic poets through the lives of the women who loved them.
"Indiscretion" has less weighty goals in mind. Its aim is simply to be charming, and it succeeds admirably. Even Mrs. Catling, whose preferred reading material is the gossip pages and who, at "any hint of abstruse thought or, worse, deep feeling ... would snort and demand the book be closed," would likely make it to the end.
A lot of that is due to Caroline's sprightly nature, and her unwillingness to wallow in self-pity, even going so far as to look on the bright side of her job. "She had always taken pleasure in observing people. Indeed nothing could have suited such a habit of mind better than the position of a lady's companion, who was often treated as some insensible object like a hat-stand or dumbwaiter, and in consequence often witnessed the instructive spectacle of how people behaved when they supposed no one was watching them. Which, she found, was seldom well."
Another aspect of the position is having confidences forced on her by people she barely knows – and some of these secrets end up echoing beyond Caroline's stay in Brighton. It's not giving much away to reveal that Caroline's employment is of short duration – after all, Morgan is writing a homage to Austen, not Barbara Pym, and downtrodden companions are more in the latter's line.
After reconciling with her aunt and uncle, a clergyman and his wife, Caroline goes to live with them in the sleepy town of Wythorpe and finds herself smitten with her gentle relations.
"She had moved amongst many circles in her life, some clever, some stupid, some moneyed, some threadbare, but all more or less sophisticated, and not inclined to expect much virtue in others, or to cultivate in themselves. It came as a revelation, not quite commensurate with the proven existence of the fairies, but almost as charming and bewildering, that all the time there had been this other race of beings: kind, gentle, reliable, unworldly."
In Wythorpe, she also makes friends with the wealthy Isabella and Fanny Milner, and spars with their brother, Stephen. Then past events put Caroline in the difficult position of having to both defend her reputation and protect her friends. For readers, the question is less, "Will she succeed?" but rather, "How?" And the answer is: with plenty of style, and wit to spare.
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.