Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Janespotting: Brightsea by Jane Gillespie

This novel from 1987 is one of the earliest "sequels" I found to Austen's Sense and Sensibility. (The earliest actually dates to 1929, but it was only published in Britain and is looong out of print.) It's by British novelist Jane Gillespie, about whom I can find little information besides she wrote over 20 novels between 1971 and 1998, most of which were romances or historicals. Five of them are Austen sequels, including this one.

Brightsea takes a minor character and builds a story around her, rather than following the main characters into the future. So the Dashwood sisters are only mentioned in passing; instead, we follow Miss Nancy Steele, the older sister of Lucy Steele, who so tormented Elinor by sharing her secret engagement to Edward Ferrars. In the original, Nancy provided a bit of humor by being continually obsessed with "beaux"—although as Lucy's elder, less attractive sister, she often seemed deluded when it came to her own so-called suitors. Nancy is such a minor character that she was omitted from the 1995 film version; in Brightsea she is at the center of the story, although not really the heroine. It is at least 10 years after S&S and Nancy is *gasp* 40 years old, still going on and on about her beaux, still somewhat delusional, and still being passed around from relative to relative. Having had a spat with her sister Lucy, she is at the home of Charlotte Palmer and her dour husband when she is provided the opportunity to become a companion to a young girl just out of finishing school.

Of course, Nancy believes she is above taking a position for pay ... but then, it would be at the coastal resort city of Brightsea (likely a stand-in for Brighton), living with a wealthy family who would give her entree into all the best society. Before long she is living with Louisa Retford, a bookish girl who cares nothing for dancing or shopping and would rather be reading or studying Latin. So we get several enjoyable chapters where the foolish Nancy's efforts to decorate herself for her beaux are contrasted to Louisa's sensible and kind behavior.

This being a Regency romance, there are many complications. Louisa falls in love with her Latin tutor, but is simultaneously being courted by Mr. Forgan, a handsome, courtly widower. (Amusingly, Nancy believes herself to be the object of his attentions.) When Lucy Ferrars comes for a visit, she attempts to complete the match between Louisa and Mr. Forgan, whom Louisa has discovered to be a gold-digger. After some misunderstandings with a locket, a daring rescue from caves at high tide, and an encounter with a suave Italian singing teacher, everything all comes right. Louisa (our real heroine) finds happiness with her Latin teacher, and Nancy ... well, Nancy is still vain and silly, but in an innocent, eternally hopeful kind of way. It's too much to ask that she learn anything from her experiences (why start now after 40 years?), so she is left much as we found her: traveling from relative to relative, talking about her beaux.

This was a relatively short read, only 160 pages, but very enjoyable. The characters seemed very Austenish—a sensible heroine, a pleasant gentleman who turns out to be a villain, some amusing secondary characters—and the plot followed the template as well. I thought the setting was most interesting; a resort town like the Bath of Persuasion or Northanger Abbey, but with the seaside aspects from Lyme in Persuasion. Best of all, the use of Nancy Steele's character seems totally believable, and the other characters from S&S who make brief appearances are similarly true to the original.

So while this novel may not have been as philosophical as Sense and Sensibility, it had plenty of wit and character and Austenish details to make it a fun read, and one of the better sequels I've read so far.

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