Contrary to popular belief, fan-fiction dates back to the genesis of storytelling. Be it oral tradition or even some of Shakespeare’s most enduring works, there is little in the modern lexicon that doesn’t borrow heavily from something else. Still, when it comes to contemporary literature, most fan-fiction is relegated to message-board spinoffs or ham-fisted mashups (here’s looking at you Pride & Prejudice and Zombies). For that reason, the genre is rarely met with sincere accolades. A rare exception to the rule, Alice McVeigh’s HARRIET (the latest installment in her Jane Austen-inspired series) is a shining example of fan-fiction done right.
Billed as a ‘Jane Austen Variation,’ HARRIET is, first and foremost, an impeccably-written example of Regency-era romance. While readers will find all the manners and mannerisms they’ve come to expect, the real selling point of McVeigh’s latest work comes by way of her attempt to paint various characters from Austen’s work in a new light. It may sound simple, but when you consider the near-universal reverence Jane Austen inspires amongst her fans, you quickly realize the inherent risk involved. Luckily, McVeigh clearly knows her subject. HARRIET centers on a pair of secondary characters from Jane Austen’s Emma (the fourth and final novel published before her passing), Harriet Smith and Jane Fairfax. Those acquainted with the novel will instantly recognize the names, but McVeigh offers a unique take on the events of Austen’s melodrama. Mind you, the major bullet points remain—Emma is still rich and headstrong (and unrelentingly self-assured), Harriet is still her ‘pet project,’ and Jane is still an orphan with wild aspirations—but the story that unfolds through the recollections of these two ‘side’ characters feels remarkably fresh.
All of which begs the question, is a working knowledge of Jane Austin’s novels (and more specifically, Emma) a requisite for enjoyment? Surprisingly, the answer is a qualified no. With or without an understanding of the events that transpire in Emma, HARRIET contains a fully-formed narrative that should satisfy even the most choosy of Regency-era fans. From the onset, McVeigh leans heavily on her experience as a professional editor and ghostwriter, channeling Austin’s voice and syntax to a tee. Additionally, McVeigh’s decision to utilize a first-person point-of-view (alternating between Harriet and Jane) pays massive dividends here, resulting in a dialogue-driven story that breezes by. Readers will rarely find the words ‘page-turner’ and ‘Jane Austen’ in the same sentence, but McVeigh’s latest novel certainly fits the bill. For that reason alone, it’s totally conceivable that HARRIET could compel the Austen DNF’ers and reluctant newbies (hey, they’re out there) alike to give the source material a second look.
Obviously, fans of Jane Austen’s work are the intended audience here. And to that point, readers possessing any level of familiarity with Austen’s characters will likely walk away from HARRIET pleased with McVeigh’s adherence to the previously established canon. That’s not to say McVeigh doesn’t take her fair share of liberties because she does, but each and every paragraph exudes a sense of reverence.
In a world where ‘revisiting’ often involves a clever spin, Jane Austen fans can rest easy knowing that Alice McVeigh’s HARRIET side steps any hint of spectacle in favor of a fresh, dynamic take on a revered classic.
~James Weiskittel for IndieReader