Friday 13 December 2013

The Compleat Mrs. Elton - Diana Birchall

I wouldn't normally count a book from the author as a Reading Presently candidate, but in the case of The Compleat Mrs. Elton (2004) by Diana Birchall (consisting of The Courtship of Mrs. Elton, A Defence of Mrs. Elton, and Mrs. Elton in America) things are different - because Diana is a friend of mine, and you may know her blog.  We first met online - through a book discussion email list - but have now met at least three times in person, and Diana gave me a present of this book (and the biography she wrote of her grandmother Onoto Wantana) at a lovely riverside tearoom in Oxfordshire.  Photographic evidence...

I suspect most of you will already have worked out what the book is about, if you do not know already, for - yes- it is Mrs. Elton from Emma, once Augusta Hawkins, the fairly ghastly woman who ends up marrying the vicar.  If any of Austen's characters ever needed a defence, it is she, with her 'caro sposo' and 'Mr. K' and vulgarities here and there.

At least, that is the generally agreed line.  Diana disagrees.  Of the three, I found the Defence of Mrs. Elton both the most intriguing and the most controversial - but I will come to that in time, starting at the beginning with Augusta's courtship.

Firstly, I should say that Diana writes Austen beautifully.  A long time ago I wrote about Diana's sequel to Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma (which is brilliant) and there is no doubt in my mind that Diana is among Jane's most faithful imitators - and it is a joy to read her taking on Austen's mantle.  The courtship between Mr. Elton and Augusta Hawkins shows the future Mrs. Elton to be as aware of her age and singleness as Austen's better-loved heroines... it's a nice tale, and starts the defence:
If our lovers were in fact a venial pair, marrying only in a spirit of self-seeking, how much worse were they than half the world?  It was such a perfect case of like marrying like, that the most elevated love between two pure souls could be no more perfectly matched.  With a strong mutual wish for matrimony, and for each finding a partner who could bring benefits to the other, and a determination and resolve to be bettering themselves, Mr. Elton and Miss Hakwins stood a great chance of finding as lasting a happiness as exists in this mutable world.
Which leads me onto In Defence of Mrs. Elton.  Scenes from Emma, from Mrs. Elton's arrival onwards, are shown again from that lady's perspective, away from the satirical and subjective slant of the narrator.  In my opinion (and I would love to enter into a debate), Diana doesn't so much defend Mrs. Elton's character as give her a different one...
Augusta knew, even as she was speaking, that everything she was saying was wrong [...]
Did she?  Hmm... of course, people often say one thing and mean another, or don't come across in the way they intend, but it is perhaps too easy a defence to take a character's objectionable qualities and say they were not really there.  Diana does, however, is more convincing and does a very good job when attacking the other characters - I hadn't really noticed quite how awful Emma et al are to the newcomer, and Augusta's plea swayed me...
They were all her enemies, yet what had she done to any of them?  Her ways, her manners, were not like theirs; she knew that well enough.  She was not capable of their sort of superior insolence, the exquisite politeness that only pointed up the disdain beneath: when she thought a thing, she said it.  If they were so pretty and exacting as to mind such a difference in her, and disapprove of the manner when the heart was right, what hope had she of ever living in harmony with any of them.
Onto the next and final story - whizzing through these, but hard to write about three novellas in one post!  Well, it's the one where things go a bit mad, and it's great fun.  Not only does Mrs. Elton go - with husband and children - to America, they travel among the Native Americans.  There is scalping...  From anybody who loved Austen less, I might not have forgiven the narrative world Diana takes her characters to, away from the English village life they call home, but I know that Diana would fall down dead rather than be disrespectful to Jane Austen.  The writing is good enough to support the scenario.  There is even much discussion of slavery - a wry comment on those who see slavery hidden behind Mansfield Park, I wonder?
"Yes - it is very painful," agreed her husband, shaking his head.  "We cannot be glad enough that there is not such an evil institution in England as slavery; and hope that it can be removed from this country in the natural operations of time, so that America may one day be as fair and untainted a land as ours."
From an English writer, this might come across as snobbery - but Diana is an American gal born and bred, which makes her tour of early America through the Eltons' eyes particularly intriguing.  It's a crazy idea, but it somehow works - and is a darn sight more entertaining than the next Lizzie-and-Darcy bonkfest penned by every author fixated with the 2005 film...

So, there you have it!  For those of us who adore Austen's novels and are on the look-out for intelligent, sensitive, and adventurous explorations of her characters - look no further.  Now, in the comments... thoughts on Mrs. Elton?


  1. Mrs. Elton is pleased by this little attention. She is sure that Mr. Simon Thomas is a person of superior understanding, and decidedly *not* a puppy. You must visit her when next you are in Surrey, and she is sure she can help you to a delightful situation. Mrs. Birchall is also pleased, with hopefully more of real gratitude and less conceit; and feels that this encouragement will help her very much in her next effort, which is to be a gathering of her stories about Lady Catherine de Bourgh, called "Lady Catherine Condescends." (I do love me a good Jane Austen villain!) What Jane Austen would have thought of all this, we are mercifully not to know, though I am sure she would have heartily laughed at the work of her newest Producer of Pastiche, Simon, who has rapidly surpassed everyone but Jane herself!
    Diana Birchall


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