Jane Austen, Mother of Dragons: A Lady’s Influence in Modern Speculative Fiction

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If I could only describe my reading taste in two terms, they would be “Jane Austen” and “fantasy.” This is a totally hypothetical and unlikely scenario, but the point is that I love Jane Austen and I love fantasy fiction, almost (well, not really, I’d say about half-way) to the exclusion of any other reading material. I mean, I read other stuff fairly frequently, but I always go back to Jane Austen and fantasy.

And what I find really interesting is that, while at first glance they seem completely unrelated, I often find echoes of Jane Austen in my favorite fantasy stories. It’s undeniable that Austen has had a sizable impact on Western literature in general, but in fantasy in particular, and a specific brand of fantasy, I see her stamp everywhere.

There’s a growing subgenre of fantasy set in magical versions of Regency England, probably most famously exemplified in Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which I admittedly haven’t read-it’s on my TBR, I promise. But a couple of my favorite books of recent years fall into this category, namely V. E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic and Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown. The latter I would say is more “Austen-y” than the former, as it deals more in the comedy of manners and social commentary that Austen perfected. But both owe at least a modicum of credit to the vision of Regency England that’s been perpetuated and popularized by modern readers’ love for the works of Jane Austen.

There’s one more book that falls into this “magical version of Regency England” setting that I absolutely love, that I first read probably around age 15 or 16, which is fitting, as it’s YA: Sorcery and Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. The narrative takes the form of letters exchanged between two cousins in England in 1817, detailing their exploits and confrontations with evil wizards. I’d already read some Austen at this point, so I recognized the influence in the setting. I was also already an avid fantasy fan, with Wrede’s own Enchanted Forest Chronicles one of the key works that had hooked me on the genre. And the authors’ dedication in the book makes clear what their influences were:

The authors wish to dedicate this book to Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Ellen Kushner, all of whom, in their several ways, inspired us to create it.

Austen and Tolkien I knew-this wasn’t too long after the release of the Lord of the Rings films-and Heyer I eventually investigated, and discovered the world of Regency romances, which I still enjoy from time to time. But Kushner is an author that I didn’t really take any notice of until recently, when I dug out my old paperback copy of Sorcery and Cecelia to jog my memory for writing this post. While researching this topic I discovered yet again that you really can find anything on the internet. Combining the Regency setting and/or the comedy of manners of Austen’s fiction with elements of fantasy fiction is something that’s been happening for a long time; Mannerpunk is a thing, as perfectly described in this Daily Dot article by Aja Romano:

Mannerpunk descends from “fantasy of manners,” a term coined by Swordspoint author Ellen Kushner in 1991. The idea describes a play on comedies of manners like Much Ado About Nothing or The Importance of Being Earnest. The emphasis is on etiquette and society-chiefly, but not always, British.

Basically, if you can stick “Jane Austen meets X” in front of your story proposal, it’s got a good chance of being Mannerpunk. We can only assume this is basically how Pride and Prejudice and Zombies came to exist.

How could I have failed to mention Pride and Prejudice and Zombies until now? Of course Seth Graeme-Smith’s work is exemplary of the meeting of Austen and fantasy, in a much more literal way than any aforementioned works. There are a few other books that take this idea of injecting monsters or magical creatures directly into Austen’s stories, like the same publisher’s own Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, or Mr. Darcy, Vampyre by Amanda Grange. Dragons in particular seem to find their way into Austen’s world pretty frequently, such as in Maria Grace’s Jane Austen’s Dragons series, Elle Katharine White’s Heartstone, and Naomi Novik’s short story “Dragons and Decorum,” which is set in her Temeraire universe and features Elizabeth Bennet as a ship captain with a dragon best friend.

Though it may be less common, I can see Mannerpunk and Austenesque elements in some science fiction, too. Jane Austen’s stories have been retold in science fiction settings, like Alexa Donne’s The Stars We Steal and Diana Peterfreund’s For Darkness Shows the Stars, both of which set Persuasion in space-faring future societies. Even science fiction classics like Frank Herbert’s , and some more recent space opera hits like Tamsin Muir’s Gideon the Ninth or John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire, explore the ideas of social commentary found in Austen’s work, but in a science fiction setting.

I’m also reminded of an episode of the tragically short-lived series Firefly titled “Shindig,” written by Jane Espenson. For those unfamiliar, the spaceship Serenity lands on a planet where one crew member, Inara, attends a ball and finds that Mal, Serenity ‘s captain with whom she has a will-they-or-won’t-they romance throughout the show, is there, too. They of course end up dancing together, and have a repartee-laced argument while sashaying across the floor. In Espenson’s commentary for the episode on the DVD, she says that she was excited to write a “Jane Austen scene.” This remains my favorite episode of the series for that very reason.

And I think I have to mention the fandom phenomenon known as “Regency Star Wars,” a collection of fanart, cosplay, and a few fanfics that reimagine Star Wars characters in a Regency, or Austenesque, alternate universe and aesthetic. The Regency Rey piece by TheRealMcGee is probably my favorite piece of fanart ever, and I’m currently working on a cosplay inspired by it. (I’m currently trying to figure out how I’m going to do the lightsaber, and whether or not I should buy a wig. I might post about it here when the project is complete, and you can also follow along on my TikTok.)

But let’s get back to Ellen Kushner, fantasy of manners, and Mannerpunk. As noted, Kushner coined the term “fantasy of manners” to describe her 1991 novel Swordspoint, which I am currently reading. Though I might use the terms interchangeably in general, in their article Romano makes a distinction between the two, though also notes the common overlap:

The biggest dissonance between stories labeled “fantasy of manners” and stories labeled “Mannerpunk” is that, as defined by early writers, fantasies of manners focus on small-scale, localized events rather than world events.

But Mannerpunk is often larger in scope. Many modern works that get dubbed “Mannerpunk” do look at larger world and political events.

A book such as Sorcerer to the Crown, for example, may accurately be termed a fantasy of manners. But it is also, by Romano’s definition, Mannerpunk, because it explores the political and larger societal implications of its main characters’ identities. centers on Zacharias, a Black man, and Prunella, a woman of mixed Indian and English heritage, who both face challenges both magical and political due to their status in English Regency society. There is a clear Austen influence in the setting, the witty dialog, the romance, and the comedy of manners, but this is a world that’s much bigger than the one Austen typically wrote about.

In speculative fiction that is less concerned with the fantastical magic of another world or the technological wonders of the future, and less focused on the wars and grand-scale politics than on HOW the wars, politics, and magic or technology affect the interpersonal relationships between human beings (or dragons, or androids), I find the best of what is so intriguing to me about these genres. When science fiction and fantasy are at their best, they explore the meaning of humanity and questions of human nature in ways in which realistic or contemporary fiction is often unable, at least with the same clarity and nuance.

Jane Austen wrote exclusively about the very small world that she inhabited, and probably would have never imagined that dragons, zombies, and spaceships would be added to her stories in future centuries. War and politics were always offscreen; on the surface her books are about balls and parties and who’s going to marry whom. But at their heart, Jane Austen’s books are about human nature. Like the best speculative fiction authors, and the best fiction authors in general, Austen was concerned with presenting characters that feel real and sympathetic, with telling stories that serve those characters’ desires and motivations, and most of all with writing books

…in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.

That’s all I’ve ever wanted in a book.

Also, Mr. Darcy, Vampyre is just as ridiculous as it sounds, but you should definitely read it.

P.S. Do you know about my Austen-tatious Readathon???

Originally published at http://rhondawithabook.com on November 23, 2020.

I write about life and culture through a literary lens. I co-host the Pop DNA podcast and blog at Rhonda With A Book.

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