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Saturday, July 07, 2007

 

In the Footsteps of Jane Austin

A Review of Conviction by Skyler Hamilton Burris
a sequel of
Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice
Double Edge Press, paperback, 299 pages

Burris’ novel Conviction is a clever and well written “sequel” of Jane Austen’s classic romance Pride and Prejudice. All of Austen’s original characters either make an appearance or a brief mention in Burris’ book, but as in most sequels, even those by the original author, the characters lack the believability they have in the original work because in a sequel the arc of their personalities are not developed in the course of the story. For example Elizabeth (Bennet) Darcy lacks the sharp tongue and the intellect of the original. And we are not convinced that her husband Fitzwilliam Darcy has the same majesty of high social status he has in Pride and Prejudice. Instead he comes across as merely snappish and aloof in Conviction. The same sense of acute portrayal is lacking in Elizabeth’s Bennet sisters. Elizabeth’s youngest sister, Kitty, however rises to greater importance in Conviction, and Mr. Darcy’s sister, Georgiana, is the "star" of Conviction and has a pivotal role in the book.The character in the book closest to the original is the snobbish Miss Caroline Bingley, who in Conviction matches her social climbing and husband-chasing self as portrayed in Pride and Prejudice. In Conviction Burris introduces some especially well-drawn characters in the vicar, Jacob Markman, his brother Aaron Markman–who is revealed to be a staunch abolitionist–their father, Sir Robert Markman, and Major Arthur Talbot, an army officer.

Burris includes in Conviction a sly reflection of Jane Austen’s biography in the character of Sir Robert Markman, who lives for a time, makes a fortune, and raises his sons in the West Indies, as did Jane Austin’s youngest brother Charles John Austen, who was stationed in the West Indies in the navy where he remained for seven years returning at the end of that time with a wife and child.

It is often noted in discussioning Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that although her father and three brothers were members of the clergy, and as a clergyman’s daughter, she would have been well aware of the duties of a country pastor, especially among the poor, she did not write about her father’s or brothers’ work. In Pride and Prejudice, she mentions none of the religious aspects of a calling to the ministry. Of her characters, only Mr. Collins is a cleric and he is not portrayed favorably, but rather as an example of snobbery to the point of caricature. Burris remedies this “oversight." In the character of Jacob Markman she gives a believable portrayal of a man truly “called” by God to minister to all his parishioners, especially the lower classes, and to forsake wealth and social prominence to serve in the Church. Burris even provides an example of Markman’s “Evangelical” preaching with a skill that reveals that the author has more than a casual knowledge of the 18th, 19th, and even 20th-century tensions of Anglican theology. She also shows a solid knowledge of the structure and inner workings of the Church of England at the time, which are still present in many provinces of today’s Anglican Communion. In addition to Markman, Burris provides us with another cleric, Markman's curate, Peter Bailee, who is a competent shepherd of his flock but who lacks any special religious calling. For him "it's just a job."

Another interesting omission in Austen’s work is her lack of interest in the military, except in the case of the wastrel George Wickham: this in spite of the fact that both her brothers Francis and Charles joined the Royal Navy and ultimately attained the rank of Admiral; Francis even earned a knighthood. Her fourth brother, Henry, was first a soldier in the Oxfordshire militia, and finally a clergyman. Burris remedies Austin's lack of interest in the military in her portrayal of Arthur Talbot’s commitment to his military career and the difficulties it presents in his engagement to Georgiana Darcy and his suitability to wed at all.

Although Austen does explore the failings of society to some degree in looking with a critical eye at the class structure of her world, she does not explore any other substantive social or political issues of her day. Again Burris remedies this lack in exploring Aaron Markman's commitment to the cause of abolition, a major social issue of the time.

The major theme of Conviction, like Pride and Prejudice is about love and its many obstacles. Also like Pride and Prejudice, these obstacles include the complications of wealth (or the lack of it) social class, professional conviction, and the personalities of the characters. In the end, the complications are overcome in a satisfying way, even if at the end of the book, Burris employs a bit of Deus ex machina to resolve the rivalry between Major Talbot and the reverend Jacob Markman in winning Georgiana’s hand. This problem could have been overcome by some rewriting that better foreshadowed the complications of Talbot’s dedication to his military calling and Georgiana’s rejection of it.

Conviction is in most respects an excellent work. It is well-written and compares very favorably to its original inspiration. Incidentally, the book itself is remarkably free of printing errors especially for a self-published or small press book. Double Edge Press and/or the author has a fine proof-reader's eye. The cover illustration looks amateurish however and suggests that what's inside is amateurish. It should be replaced with something else that matches the quality of the writing.

Conviction would undoubtedly have won my award for the best 2006 book that I reviewed if it were not for he cover illustration and my prejudice against “sequels” of the work of another writer. I believe that the responsibility of creating original characters in an original story and in an original setting is a major task for a writer and it is "cheating" somehow to start with the characters and world of another writer. It is a great shame because with a small amount of tweaking, Burris could have written Conviction as an original story. Its success as a story depends very little on Austen’s work, except some small debt to the atmosphere of the late 18th and early 19th century world of Pride and Prejudice. Her main characters (including Georgiana Darcy) owe little or nothing to Austen's book. Austen's characters who appear in Conviction could have been easily altered from the originals with only minor changes or omitted entirely. By all means, buy Conviction and read it. It’s well written and a good story. Order it from Amazon.com by clicking the link below:


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