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The American South: The Perfect Setting for a Jane Austen Novel?

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A lot of readers believe Jane Austen is Regency literature, but I say without the Regency era, there would be no Jane Austen. At least, not as we know her. It follows that any honest effort at a Jane Austen redo demands a Regency-worthy world and so I chose the American South as the setting for my contemporary series.

Mister Collins. Mrs. Bennet. Lady Catherine. Mister Wickham. True Pride and Prejudice fans delight in these characters as much as they adore Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Jane Austen gives us her very best zingers and most cutting social commentary when she has these villains on stage. But to be the perfect "straight man" to Miss Jane's comic genius, the characters must cling to Regency customs and expectation , or flaunt them to the horror of their families. I don't want to get hate mail from JASNA by suggesting there was a limit to Austen's literary talent, but without the Regency backdrop, I think her novels wouldn't be half as enjoyable. These timeless romances would be romantic-- and nothing more. The characters would be shallow and vain, obsessed with money and rank and power. Without the Regency era, the baddies lose their bite.

A lot of Austen's work spins off the tension between what our heroine wants and what is expected of her. For a Regency heroine, the stakes are alarmingly high. The inheritance laws, the rigid social ranking and the fear of dying a poor spinster are all stacked against her goal of a happily ever after. (And there's no greater obstacle to happiness than a mother who wants to marry you off to your odious cousin so she can keep her house.)

There have been successful modern retellings of Austen stories, but they're set in a time or place that mimics the Regency period. The wryly satirical Bridget Jones' Diary by Helen Fielding is a riff on Pride and Prejudice that works because the English have never really been able to shake their social class system. Mark Darcy, the arrogant barrister, comes from old money and nowhere is money older than England. We feel Bridget's middle-class pain when she's snubbed. Add in a mother who is pushing for a wedding, a group of "smug marrieds" and a dead-end job, and we have some classic Austen tension. Bridget is walking a tightrope between her family obligations and society's definition of success as a single working woman. Of course, she's not even close to the feminist role model that Elizabeth Bennet is, but Bridget Jones holds up this modern Pride and Prejudice plot with the sheer force of her self-deprecating humor.

When I decided to write a contemporary series echoing Austen's novels, I knew I needed a particular group to make it believable. The heroine would have genuine familial obligations beyond the usual Thanksgiving dinner or Easter brunch. (Turkey Curry Buffet and reindeer jumpers, anyone?) She would have to politely defer to her elders, enduring the kind social life interference that would make other educated professionals cut all ties. And this group would also need to have really, really long memories. A social snub just isn't the same if no one remembers it 10 years later.

But I also needed the right language. I needed a dialect that would bring the story into the modern world, a way of speaking that would amplify Austen's wit. The Regency language is a large part of the charm of an Austen novel. Even in the films, while the bonnets, gowns and breeches are the eye candy, we wait with baited breath for our favorite lines. "You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you." Without the Regency era language, Jane Austen's world would be a lot less real to us. Bridget Jones' Diary pulls this off with Bridget's particular fondness for British slang, immortalized in a diary full of abbreviations and missing pronouns. "Valentine's Day purely commercial, cynical enterprise, anyway. Matter of supreme indifference to me."

I live in Oregon, at a place where we can see the trail ruts left over from the settlers streaming west. It's a nifty bit of history, to be sure, but most Oregonians are recent transplants (in the last hundred years or so) and we aren't much different than anyone a few states over. The food on my dinner table is what you'd find on the table in Washington or Wyoming or Arizona. Our dialect matches that of the national evening news anchor. We're good people, generous and friendly, but you wouldn't be able to pick any us out of a crowd. An Austen tale set in my home town would be missing half of what makes us love Elizabeth and Darcy so much: a sense of place.

To fill the void of our beloved Regency, my stories needed a group of people with tradition, manners, learning, history and a dialect. I don't believe there's another spot on the planet that fits the bill as perfectly as the American South. In the South, children are taught to address their elders with respect and they never outgrow their obligations. If Mama wants you to come home for the weekend, you come. If you and Daddy always go to the first Braves game of the season, you better plan ahead. If Crazy Aunt Velma likes to tell people that Tom Cruise dumped her for Nicole Kidman, you remember she's your Crazy Aunt Velma and better not roll your eyes.

With my series set in the South, I could create an intelligent, ambitious, successful heroine who would still drive home to serve pink lemonade at her mama's garden party. Or a college professor who would bear up under his grandmother's disastrous matchmaking in patient amusement. And the language? I say there's nothing better than a Deep South dialect for telling a person how you really feel. I think Jane Austen would have appreciated the Southern way of expressing disapproval, wrapped in a compliment and tied up with a big bow of politeness. She probably would have wished she'd come up with a few of the best Southernisms herself.

Regency England and the American South are more alike than most of us might think. (Except the food. Although characters in my books do put on a few Austen-inspired feasts, I think we can all agree that Southern food is the winner, hands-down.) So, come on over and step into an Austen-inspired story set in Thorny Hollow, Mississippi and see just how much these two very unique settings have in common. You might see Jane Austen in a whole new way.