I was getting myself organized the other day – no small task – the better to focus my plans for finishing my current writing project and settling on how I want to take my blog forward. And though I have a long list (okay, a scattered stack of post-its) of possible blog topics, I decided today to go “off list” and open up a question for discussion rather on the matter of comeuppances. This notion has been niggling at me for some time, having started with a few reader reviews and then reinforced a couple weeks ago through a comment in a JASNA presentation.
Reader reviews can be a blessing and a curse. I ask for them! I look forward to them and welcome them, both because I’m only human and want feedback on my efforts, and I can become a better writer from the thoughtful comments I get. I am chuffed by the “good” ones, the ones that offer praise or delight. I feel a bit hurt by the negative ones, especially those when someone judges a story is poor without any constructive indication of what its failings were. But just as in a tango, it takes two – someone to write a book, and someone else to read it – for this storytelling thing to work. A connection with readers is rewarding in the end, and a large part of why I write.
That’s actually a whole other discussion, only introduced here by way of explaining that I was checking my author page at Amazon a while back when I saw a few reviews of my early novel publication, Caroline’s Comeuppance, which gave me pause. This Pride and Prejudice sequel of a sort, written and posted serially for an Austen-based website in its original iteration, revolves around the fate of Caroline Bingley after Mr Darcy gets engaged to Elizabeth Bennet. Here is what a few of those reviews had to say:
What ComeUppance? (3 stars) – The book was a good read but I was waiting for Caroline to get what she deserved but instead she got what she didn’t deserve….a great guy who was all the things she ever wanted. There was no repentance on Caroline’s part. I was disappointed.
You Call That A ComeUppance? (4 stars) I didn’t expect the story to be as it was. Caroline hardly got a “comeuppance”, ending up with a guy who was handsome, had a lot of money, and had a great personality. Way, way, way too good for her. Plus the fact that she didn’t really change that much to “earn” him.
Misleading Title. (3 stars) This book was enjoyable. I would have preferred a little more humiliation for Caroline in part one, and a little more humility in part two. Would that all life’s disappointments–our comeuppances–had such a pleasant outcome.
My vanity here demands that I add a disclaimer: these were not my only reviews, which in general offer good comments and with as many five-star ratings as four- and three-star. Even those disappointed with Caroline’s comeuppance seem to like the book overall. But these three reviews are illustrative of my discussion point. They made me wonder about the notion of characters “getting what they deserve.” I had to go further than my initial inclination to defend myself with, “But this is an Austen-based romance, of course it has to have a happy ending!” I had to reflect on these readers’ viewpoints.
Then, two weeks ago I attended my JASNA region’s autumn meeting, where we spent a lovely “day at the movies” – taking a look from several different topic angles at various film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice. Our opening segment was “A Collins Cornucopia” where we viewed scenes of Mr Collins from P&P adaptations from the 1940 Laurence Olivier-Greer Garson version right up through the 2005 Keira Knightley-Matthew Macfadyen film. And as much as we all cringed or laughed at Collins as he bumbled through his introduction to the Bennet family, his “courtship interruptus” dance with Elizabeth and his subsequent proposal to her, at the end we were asked to consider that, absurd as he is, Mr Collins should be considered as a man of his times, expressing widely-held notions of the period, and actually quite right when he tells Lizzy during his proposal that his hand (in marriage) is not an unworthy one by the strictures of convention.
And here is the statement by our presenter (finally coming back to comeuppances) that reminded me of my book reviews and reignited my pondering. After priming us with laughter in the clips, Linda Dennery offered that Mr Collins is described in the novel with exactitude –as Lizzy Bennet opines, without one agreeable quality. “Yet Jane Austen does not punish him for being as he is. He earns a degree with no study, gains a patroness and curacy, marries a knight’s daughter and eventually will inherit Longbourn. He is either a child of good fortune or a genius at self preservation.” We make sport of Mr Collins’s absurdity, she concluded, even as Jane Austen makes sport of us!
I started off-hand to consider other of Miss Austen’s characters whom readers find wicked, evil, stupid, or otherwise absurd and ridiculous .
Wickham, you may offer, ends up “punished” with Lydia, and vice versa. And maybe that’s true to an extent seen through our sensibilities – but in the end, they get a better profession/living than is warranted, they are still supported by people who have good reason to detest them, and I doubt very much they are induced to change their ways much or learn anything. Lucy Steele ends up with Robert Ferrars (okay, so I wouldn’t want him) but also with the place and money she desires, as Mrs Ferrars does not disinherit this son for choosing to marry the little schemer – and in the end, they are probably better suited in temperament than if she had married Edward. And Fanny Dashwood certainly hasn’t suffered for being as she is.
What about Augusta Elton? Frank Churchill? Mrs Norris? William Elliot will still become a baronet and inherit Kellynch. Mary Musgrove still gets indulged in her way if only to stifle her constant whining. I have one acquaintance who asserts that what Marianne Dashwood would most have “deserved” would be to end up with Willoughby after all. But what of him? He may regret Marianne, but do you really think he will suffer long with the former Miss Grey and her £50,000? Was Caroline Bingley a horrible woman deserving of a distasteful fate or, like Collins, was she simply a person of her time and convention?
Do they all, as Linda asked of William Collins, get “punished” by their creator for being as they are? Or do they get “better than they deserve” in the words of one of my reviewers for Caroline? Perhaps they get realistic endings, given the conventions of their society and the whim of fate? We all know people today whose choices we cannot respect, or who are pompous or condescending or just plain ridiculous – but who always seem to land on their feet. Are they all children of good fortune, or geniuses of self preservation?
One other reviewer (5-star) of Caroline’s Comeuppance had this to say:
“That the book has a happy ending doesn’t bother me in the least…Others may repine over the lack of extreme comeuppance the main character receives, but while it would certainly gratify P&P fans to see that happen, it would not be realistic… Society in that time and place just did not work that way. With her money and connections she was going to marry well. Anything less would have come off as wish-fulfillment for the author…and admittedly most readers, myself included.”
I’d love to read some of your comments on the subject! Not of my fate for Caroline, mind you (though you are welcome to address that if you’ve read the story and feel inclined) – but the larger question surrounding Jane Austen’s novels and the fates she dealt to all of her characters based on “just desserts” or not. Were they just? overly kind? realistic? What do you think? Did Miss Austen simply record what she observed and knew, or did she enjoy her own laugh as she made sport of us all?
If you share your thoughts, leave your email address within the comment [using (at) and (dot) so as not to create an actual link] and you will be entered into a drawing for a giveaway! I’m giving away one ebook copy of Caroline’s Comeuppance, one ebook copy of Pride Revisited, and one ebook copy (both volumes) of my latest two-volume novel, A Fitzwilliam Legacy (three separate winners, one book each.) Giveaway entries will end Friday, 15 November, and winners will be announced next weekend. If you have a preference as to which book you’d like, be sure to note it when you leave your email address.
[Caroline’s Comeuppance is available at amazon.com and lulu.com in ebook format. It’s also available in an older edition as a hardback book, but I don’t recommend purchasing it. I was naive in releasing this, my first publication, and ended up with a “set” price distribution package that costs way too much for its value, no matter how much I like my own book!
And while we’re on the subject, please check out my other books at my amazon author page, http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00BQMSJ36. Pride Revisited is a book of short stories that fit into the Pride and Prejudice plot; and my very recent release, A Fitzwilliam Legacy – a two-volume novel where in Volume I: Seasonal Disorder and Volume II: New Year Resolutions, you can consider whether I gave better fates than deserved to Colonel Fitzwilliam, Georgiana Darcy, Kitty Bennet, Anne deBourgh and a host of other characters at a Christmastide house party. And it goes without saying, but I’ll say it: feel free to offer me honest reviews on any of these at Amazon, Goodreads or on my blog. Writers need and want to hear from readers!]