David Mitchell wrote a piece for The Observer recently , declaring that “less is more” when it comes to authors filling in the details of their fictional worlds. He was particularly thinking of J.K. Rowling and the “Pottermore” website, but it’s a question which a lot of people have bumped their heads against whilst working through the nth chapter of The Silmarillion, or writing an essay on Falstaff. Internet fan fiction provides a way to dodge this problem, since it openly advertises its own contingent status: fan fic has a license to explore odd possibilities with well-known characters, because everyone recognises its lack of authority. Unlike, say, the Star Wars films, reading a lousy piece of fan fiction won’t ruin your feelings about the original works. But what about the “continuations” of Enid Blyton’s books by Anne Digby, herself a successful author in the same vein? Or the Peter Wimsey novels in which Jill Paton Walsh “collaborated” with the dead Dorothy L. Sayers via her notes?
The Jane Austen industry seems to have given rise to a whole new set of variants on this fraught issue. What literary category, for example, do dating guides supposedly based on the wisdom of Jane Austen occupy? Are “splice” books like Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to be read as a form of midrash? And how can literary criticism make it clear that Bridget Jones’ Diary is a work of magnificence, whilst utterly disowning the movie of Bridge Jones II: The Edge of Reason?
Luckily, in the case of Jane Austen: Blood Persuasion, there is very little dilemma. Mainly because this is not pastiche, adaptation or even Jane Austen fan fiction. It’s more like True Blood fan fiction. There are references to the Gothic novels of Mrs. Radcliffe, which Austen addressed in Northanger Abbey, but Blood Persuasion doesn’t construct the same kind of shifting uncertainty to be found in The Mysteries of Udolpho or The Italian, instead it spells out the rules of a fictional world in which vampires live in Regency society. Better critics than me have pointed out that the best Gothic fiction from Austen’s time thrives on the reader never actually being sure what they’re are afraid of. In this novel, we’re made very well aware that we’re supposed to be afraid of the graystone knives, which are one of the only ways to kill an Immortal, and have fallen into the hands of an unscrupulous group of vampires, who control a group of lesser creatures called Les Sales…and so on.
More seriously, when Blood Persuasion does try to engage with the Austen canon, it swings at exactly the wrong targets. In becoming a vampire, Jane acquires psychic powers, allowing her to read the thoughts of those around her. A potent metaphor for an artistic personality? Actually it’s just a good way to ruin a romance novel. Surely romantic fiction is partly driven by the need to guess and wonder about what other people are thinking: as soon as you can read someone’s mind, the tension holding the form together goes slack. The same applies to the notions of “propriety” and “decorum”, which Marianne strains against in Sense and Sensibility. For Austen’s audience, this is a genuine issue, a dilemma about the bounds of acceptable behaviour and the way in which passion temporarily distorts our world-view. This is not an issue that went out when ladies stopped “withdrawing” after dinner – it’s still being explored in a lot of good fiction. But Blood Persuasion invites us to join the author in a smirking alliance on the other side of the historical divide, enjoying the struggles of these characters against their out-moded ideas about society. “We” know what “we” feel about courtship and sex, so there’s no risk to “our” feelings or beliefs. Likewise when the vampires transgress, it’s fairly clear that “we” know they’ve done wrong. Despite the constant assurances that Jane is morally torn, there’s no real tension in these scenes.
At root, the novel seems to rest on a misapprehension: that the world of Jane Austen would be more exciting if it had vampires in it. During it, we discover that in the first draft of Mansfield Park, Fanny was, in fact, one of said bloodthirsty beasties. Did anyone ever read Mansfield Park and think “Not bad, but it could do with more of the undead”? The humour of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies comes from the outrageous nature of the game, the extent to which you can see the joints and feel the jolts as it slips between the well-known text and the comedy interjections. Never mind the writing, the whole world of Blood Persuasion is duller than that of Emma or Pride and Prejudice. Which is quite an achievement, considering that those novels took place in a historical period which doesn’t need to be invented, because it’s still accessible to any writer who wants to do some research. A friend told me recently that the constant catching of colds by gentlewomen in the period was partially caused by the fact that many of them would rouge their nipples and then splash water on their dresses so they would cling more tightly to get male attention. I like vampires just fine, my bookshelves will attest to it, but that little anecdote has more bite than a whole book of blood-drinking jargon about “Creators” and “the Damned”. There surely are stories to be told about the dark side of Jane Austen’s England, but Blood Persuasion spends a whole novel looking resolutely away from them, rehashing TV tropes we’re all fed up to the canines with.
This article originally appeared in California Literary Review, June 2011.