Following in the footsteps?

It is a fact universally acknowledged that when discussing the works of Jane Austen, the topic of who is her successor comes around. Who do you think has filled her unfillable shoes? I propose Stella Gibbons, author of Cold Comfort Farm, a classic that has this quote from Mansfield Park in its frontispiece: Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.

It’s the story of Flora Poste, a young woman who likes to have order and sense in her world. When she is orphaned, she goes to live with her distant relatives, the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm. There, Flora, whose mission in life is to collect material for a book she will write three decades later in the style of Jane Austen, finds the Starkadders in dire need of not only sense and sensibility but persuasion too. She sets to work reforming her relatives, channeling their peculiar energies into rewarding occupations. Even though Gibbons is satirizing the earthy, elemental novels of Mary Webb, wildly popular in the 1920s and 1930s, it doesn’t matter if you haven’t read them–the book is still as funny as a rubber crutch. Particularly purple passages are marked with asterisks like a travel guide.

There’s Amos, the preacher who leads the Quivering Brethren; Seth, who goes a-mollocking when the sukebind hangs heavy in the hedgerows, but whose real passion is the movies; Mad Aunt Ada Doom who saw something nasty in the woodshed when she was little; Elphine, who likes to flit around the countryside wearing artsy clothes and reciting poetry; and a rich cast of non-Starkadders like Mr. Mybug, the sex-obsessed intellectual who’s writing a book proving Branwell Bronte wrote all of his sisters’ novels.

The BBC made a film of Cold Comfort Farm (1996) directed by John Schlesinger with a wonderful cast, including the lovely and talented Rufus Sewell as Seth, Kate Beckinsale as Flora Poste, and Ian McKellen as Amos.

Any other contenders for the title of the 21st (or 20th) century Jane Austen?

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9 Responses to Following in the footsteps?

  1. I adored that movie, Janet. Have been meaning to look at the book too. One of my favorite little doobies is how Flora comes to the farm with a smallish suitcase which disgorges another charming little 1930s sweater and skirt getup every day with nary a repeat, Kate Beckinsale always adorably orderly and composed in the midst of all the inbred grime. In a less sly movie it would have seemed like sloppy art direction, here it was clearly and confidently part and parcel of rest of the ditzy miraculousness.

    Then there’s Rufus Sewell to look at.

    As for my vote for the new JA. Zadie Smith of course. ON BEAUTY being funny, smart, loving, and committed to some funny, smart loving sense of the good. Really. Besides the fact that I can’t think of a contemporary novel I’ve enjoyed more.


  2. I can’t even think of a successor (and yes, I have been brain-dead lately, you’re right). I must find this book, though. Sounds like a lot of fun.

    I heard the NYT just released their best of the year, and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty was on it, too, btw.

  3. Cara King says:

    To me, what is distinct about Austen is the verbal wit. So I will have to be rather obvious here, and say that I can think of a quite a few traditional Regency writers who come closer (in my mind) to being Austen’s successor than anyone who writes modern-set fiction…


  4. Todd says:

    Haven’t read COLD COMFORT FARM, though I did like the movie very much. But I’m not sure authors have successors, as such. Surely every author tries, at least to some extent, to have a unique voice?

    In terms of wit, the author that most leaps to mind in comparison to J.A. is P.G. Wodehouse. He wrote some books that are, undeniably, romances, and they are tremendously funny. But his style is unique to him.

    And the different Jane Austen novels are not all like each other, either. So is Jane Austen even the successor to Jane Austen?

    Still, I have often wished that Jane Austen had lived longer and written more. It would give us more examples to talk about. 🙁


  5. The reason I wouldn’t vote for any Regency author as a JA successor, Cara, is because Jane Austen wrote contemporaries.


  6. Cara King says:

    I see your point, Pam, but to me, I don’t see Austen more as a “writer of contemporaries” than I do as a “writer of witty novels.” She also wrote novels that are full of women named Fanny and Jane, and have lots of card playing, but to me, her wit is what makes her stand out.

    Oscar Wilde, Saki, Sheridan, Burney, and PG Wodehouse also wrote plays or fiction set in their own times with lots of wit; but the cult of realism really dominates nowadays, making it much easier for a writer of wit to write period stuff. I think that’s one reason that Stoppard’s most celebrated plays have been historical — modern readers and audiences tend to reject that sort of thing as “unrealistic” unless it’s set in another period….


  7. Hey! Todd! Great minds think alike, re: P.G. Wodehouse.

  8. That’s the difference, Cara. I see JA as, to steal from Lincoln, “the little lady who started the big genre.” And not (only) the romance, but the bigger one. For all the limitations of the world she portrayed, it implied a big complete
    England, of exactly her contemporary time.

    As for witty playwrights — I’m not sure how gamblers say this, but I’ll raise you a Tony Kushner.

    sorry for the sexist overtones of the Lincoln quote but it is how I think of her

  9. My answer to the Jane Austen successor question is, for lack of a better, Nancy Mitford. Specifically, her novels Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate

    And yet, to be fair, she is an original.

    Like JA.

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