Mr Darcy's Diary and Captain Wentworth's Diary by Amanda Grange

The number of Jane Austen spinoff books seems to be growing exponentially.

I have read a couple of Austen sequels – ages ago, before the recent fad for them – but they didn’t really do a lot for me. I think my main problem is that the original books end on an unquestionably positive note – at least for the main characters – but sequels need to have conflict of some kind, or there is no story. So they often introduce problems in the main characters’ marriage, or with their children. Which I don’t like, because I’d rather have them just living happily ever after. Also, of course, by making up new events, the authors often have the characters behaving in ways that I don’t agree that they would.

An alternative to sequels, though, is the stories retold from another point of view. Often these can be quite fun. Ages and ages ago, I read Jane Fairfax by Naomi Royde Smith – I remember very little about it, except that I enjoyed it more than the one or two Austen sequels I read at about the same time. More recently, I read Diana Birchall’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek In Defense of Mrs Elton with great pleasure. Of course, both of these are retellings of Emma, which is not my favourite Austen.

Amanda Grange appears to be planning a full set of retellings. She has already published Mr Darcy’s Diary, Mr Knightley’s Diary, Captain Wentworth’s Diary and Edmund Bertram’s Diary, and I believe the next to come is Colonel Brandon’s Diary. She has also written a couple of fairly generic looking romances. I’m not entirely sure whether they are self/vanity published, or whether it is just a small independent publishing house. However, the physical books seem to have perfectly adequate production values, and they aren’t full of typos, which suggests at least some level of editing and commitment on the part of the publishers.

So far, I have read Mr Darcy’s Diary (which was originally published simply as Darcy’s Diary) and Captain Wentworth’s Diary, and I am just about to start Edmund Bertram’s Diary. One could perhaps argue that the writing style is a little bland, though I would prefer a term like “unobtrusive”. She certainly makes no attempt to imitate Austen’s ironic turns of phrase – and a good thing too, since most of the Austen pastiches I have seen fail miserably (IMHO). I found a couple of jarring moments – Darcy used the word “saucy” to describe Elizabeth rather too often, and I also wasn’t 100% sure of whether he should have been referring to “Caroline” rather than “Miss Bingley” (though I could be wrong about that) – but in general I found the unobtrusive/bland style worked well. The only real downside of it is that the “voice” of the two diarists is virtually the same. But I can live with this.

I think one Amanda Grange’s great strengths is her familiarity with the source novels. So in the opening part of Captain Wentworth’s Diary (which covers the events of the year six) I think she does a very nice job of showing a young man who is “spending freely what had come freely”, and who “knows” that he will soon have a ship. Furthermore, she doesn’t feel the need to make any explicit reference to Austen’s words – she lets the reader make the connection for her/himself, and if that connection isn’t made, well it doesn’t really matter to the story.

She also appears to have a genuine interest in exploring the emotional journeys of the two heroes: whether she will sustain this through six or more books is open to question. It seems likely she has started with the ones that interest her most (and it probably helps that Darcy and Wentworth are my own two favourites – I haven’t yet read her Knightley, which she wrote in between these two), but she may struggle more if she doesn’t find as much to interest her in Henry Tilney. And it may say something about her interests that she has chosen to do Colonel Brandon’s Diary over Edward Ferrars’ Diary.

But she does seem to be trying to give an internalised presentation of the heroes’ changing thought processes and emotions that we only see externally in the original novels, and in both books I enjoyed the journey. I think she is at her best when she is only one degree removed from the originals. So I found her picture of Anne in the year six harder to reconcile with the novel than her picture of Wentworth – probably because Austen gives us a clearer picture of her hero at that time than she does of the heroine. We know Anne has changed a great deal in the time since, but we don’t really know from what, so Amanda Grange has to do a lot more character creation with the young Anne than with the young Wentworth.

Similarly, her development of Anne de Burgh (and to a lesser extent, Colonel Fitzwilliam) was definitely not consistent with the original. But then it was a very small part of Grange’s book – and maybe it’s just that she felt sorry for Miss de Burgh. I also thought the slight glimpse we got through Darcy and Elizabeth’s bedroom door was a bit unnecessary, though I guess it’s not that much of an issue.

So I think she is at her best when giving the “other side of the story” for events that actually occurred in the original books. I found I really could believe in the Darcy and the Wentworth she created. They weren’t Austen’s characters – but they were sufficiently consistent with them that I didn’t keep going “no, that’s wrong”. I don’t know how well the books would stand on their own merits alone – as I said, the writing style is arguably on the bland side, and maybe the character presentation is as well. But then, it is highly unlikely that anyone will by trying to read them on their own merits alone. They are designed as … I was going to say “companion pieces” to the originals, but maybe that elevates them to a level of equality that I don’t think any spin-off deserves. Perhaps “adjuncts” or “appendices” – completely and utterly unnecessary, but for some who love the originals (and by no means everyone) they offer an enjoyable diversion. (I am not the only one to enjoy them – AustenBlog has positive reviews of both Darcy’s Diary and Captain Wentworth’s Diary – as well as Mr Knightley’s Diary.)

One thing to note – Amanda Grange is not the only author to have written a Mr Darcy’s Diary. There is another book of the same title by Maya Slater, which I will not be reading, as it sounds completely awful. AustenBlog has a commentary on a Daily Mail review of this book.

Riflemind (Andrew Upton): Sydney Theatre Company at the Wharf Theatre

This was a very depressing play. But it was also probably one of the most powerful productions I have seen this year.

The gist of it is that “Riflemind” was an incredibly popular rock band that broke up when John (Hugo Weaving) quit some years previously. They are now getting together for a few days to talk about the possibility of reforming for a tour.

All the performances were very strong, but I was particularly impressed by Susan Prior, who played John’s wife, Lynn. She was so tightly wound, so desperate for everything to work out, and her slide back into alcohol and drugs was both sad and inevitable. And the final scene, between her and John, was incredibly poignant.

There were times when the play seemed to be concentrating too much on being clever – all surface and no substance – but this was more than made up for by the moments of raw emotion. I don’t think I actually liked any of the characters. But at different times, I did feel sorry for all of them.

I found it interesting that in the end, the character you knew least well was the central one – John. In terms of the plot, everything relied on his decision, and yet you never really, completely saw inside his head. With all the others you absolutely knew what they wanted and what was driving them. And you did sort of know that with John, but even when everyone else was stripping bare their emotions, you felt that he was still holding something inside. I don’t mean that there was a vital piece of information about his motivations or anything – just that, unlike the others, he never completely let go. Not even in the scene towards the end when he was explaining to his brother what had happened with him (and, BTW, I really liked this scene – the sense that in spite of everything that had gone wrong between them, they still had a shared childhood, and a shared love of music.)

I saw this with Mark, as Michael is still overseas. He mentioned afterwards that he had read an article about the Sex Pistols (I think) which said that they were great when they were making music together, but a complete disaster the rest of the time. This seemed like the same sort of dynamic. When they were jamming – and presumably when on the stage – they were fine. So the challenge for the manager was to stop them from self-destructing before they got on the stage.