Review by Allison T.
The time is perhaps ripe for a gay/lesbian take on one of Austen’s novels. One could imagine, for instance, a young Edmund or Edward Woodhouse—handsome, rich and opinionated—who finds himself after various misadventures drawn to the excellent Mr. Knightley. Whether dealing with a hero or a heroine, one could in such a novel explore some aspects of Georgian and Regency sexuality: the secretive, but not yet illegal world of gay men; the more anxiety-provoking ideas of incest, as expressed both in the popular novel The Monk and in the public’s attitudes towards Lord Byron’s alleged affair with his half-sister; the Ladies of Llangollen; the Hell-Fire Club and so on. A novel such as this would require research, reflection and creativity.
To produce a “gay romance” it is not, however, sufficient to take an e-text of Emma and use the global “search and replace” function to change “Jane Fairfax” to “James Fairfax,” transform “Mr. Weston” into “Mrs. Weston” and have that wealthy and genial widow woo and win Miss Taylor, who upon her marriage to Mrs. Weston rather confusingly becomes Mrs. Taylor, turn all the “she saids” to “he saids,” and then dust off one’s hands and call it a day.
No, Mr. Adam Campan, who along with Jane Austen is listed as the co-author of James Fairfax, no, sir, there is a word for what this “palimpsest,” as you call it, is, and that word also begins with a “P” but has other letters in it.
Austen is long beyond the purview of copyright laws, but people who buy this book are basically buying Emma. There is so little that is original in James Fairfax that when an interpolation does appear, it stands out like a sore thumb: Emma and Miss Taylor enjoying seven years of “exploratory passion”; Emma and Harriet petting and kissing; and the actually rather funny idea of marriage à la mode (i.e., same-sex marriage), as evidenced by the Prince Regent’s “union with le comte d’Artois of France.” (The idea of the legendary womanizer Prinny marrying a mere count—a nobleman of a country with which England was at war—is indeed something to ponder.) There is another funny bit later on when we hear of Mr. Elton’s success at Bath at the popular “bal nouveau,” in which one could ask a partner of the same sex to dance. And the one original scene longer than a sentence or two that I spotted was a description of Mr. Elton’s hopeless passion for James Fairfax—and his jealous and correct suspicion that James and Frank Churchill are in love.
In his introduction, Campan writes: “Of all Jane Austen’s heroines, we experience the inward working of Jane Fairfax’s mind the least.” My dear sir, the reason for that is that Jane is not the heroine of Emma. But if you thought that she—or he—was, then why didn’t you write about his adventures from his point of view? Your idea was not a bad one, but you didn’t actually do any work to make it happen.
It was badly done, badly done indeed.