Conventions in Jane Austen Fan Fiction, by Elaine Owen

Conventions in Jane Austen Fan Fiction, by Elaine Owen

When I first started writing Jane Austen fan fiction back in 2014, I was still relatively new to the genre. I had read a fair share of some of the most popular authors, but there were things about JAFF that I didn’t know. Most importantly, I did not know that there are some “facts” that are so established in JAFF that they are nearly accepted as canon. Some are important, some are not. Some are just silly. But the items below are commonly accepted conventions in Jane Austen fan fiction. How many of them do you recognize?

Mr. Collins and the boiled potatoes. 

I’m not sure where this one started (maybe the 2005 movie?), but Collins passing the boiled potatoes is a standard joke in Jane Austen fan fiction. (Let’s face it, anything with Collins is a joke!) Usually he hands them to Kitty in the middle of an awkward dinner scene. I suppose the idea is that if Collins is at the table, even something as mundane as passing the potatoes can become funny. It’s become such a common trope that if Collins is at the table and there is no mention of boiled potatoes, a person has to wonder why the writer left it out.

Mrs. Bennet and the hedgerows.

“Whatever shall become of us? If Mr. Bennet dies before one of you girls gets married, the Collinses will throw us out of Longbourn, and we shall be cast into the hedgerows!” As I mentioned in a previous post, Mrs. Bennet never utters the word hedgerows in Pride and Prejudice. In fact the word hedgerows is only used once in any of Austen’s books, and that one time is not in Pride and Prejudice. (Quick! Go look it up!) It’s a great line because it sounds like something Mrs. Bennet would say, but she doesn’t actually say it. No matter, this line or something like it is found in many JAFF stories.

Mrs. Gardiner’s first name is Madeline.

Again, the source for this is murky. I have no idea who first decided that Madeline was a good first name for Mrs. Gardiner, but I am grateful, because it has saved me a lot of time trying to find her a name on my own! The name Madeline is cultured and refined without being pretentious, exactly like the personality of Mrs. Gardiner herself. It’s hard to imagine a better first name for this beloved secondary character, so well done to whoever came up with it!

Colonel Fitzwilliam is a gallant, dashing soldier (and maybe a womanizer).

We don’t know a lot about Colonel Fitwilliam in Pride and Prejudice. We are shown that he is courteous and congenial and we know that Elizabeth is mildly attracted to him. But In JAFF he tends to be more than this. He is not only courteous and congenial, but he has an eye for the ladies (and they for him). He also makes a terrific soldier; sometimes we are treated to stories of his exploits on the battlefield. He also likes to pour a drink  now and then. And he is always, always gallant! Surprisingly he is also depicted as at least somewhat handsome, which is unexpected because in canon Austen makes a point of saying that he is not. But who cares? This is one JAFF convention I wholeheartedly support (and have used in at least one story!).

 Darcy’s uncle is the Earl of Matlock

This JAFF convention is based on precedent and some research. It has long been surmised that Jane Austen based her description of Pemberley on Chatsworth House, which, like the fictional Pemberley, is in Derbyshire. Chatsworth is located almost on the River Derwent, which passes by the great house on its way to the first town of any size to its south, Matlock. The nobility usually had the names of prominent towns or landmarks as part of their title. (For example, the Earl of Chester or the Duke of Devonshire.) Thus it makes perfect sense that Darcy would a) own an estate somewhere near his uncle and that b) his uncle would take the name of Matlock as part of his title. Looking at the map, we could also choose to make Darcy’s uncle the Earl of Darley Dale, the Earl of Eyam, or even the Earl of Bakewell. But the Earl of Matlock he became and the Earl of Matlock he will remain. Again, this is a terribly convenient device for those of us who would otherwise be forced to come up with some suitable place name on our own.

Finally, we are left with what is possibly the most firmly set and well known JAFF “rule” of them all:

Colonel Fitzwilliam’s first name is Richard.

In my first JAFF story I called Darcy’s cousin Edward. And why not? After all, Austen gave the first name of Edward to several men in her stories, including Edward Ferrars, and it seemed logical that if she had given a first name to Colonel Fitzwilliam, she might have chosen to name him Edward. Plus I just liked the name.

This was a mistake. There is no reason why Colonel Fitzwilliam’s first name has to be Richard. Austen gives no sign of being particularly fond of the name. None of her brothers were named Richard and she assigns it only to minor characters in any of her stories. Nevertheless, if you bestow Colonel Fitzwilliam with any other first name besides Richard, you must be prepared for the backlash. He is Richard, Richard, I tell you!!! Good thing I like that name too. 🙂 Since that time, he has been Richard if I have ever needed to use his first name at all.

Did you recognize any of these conventions? Are there any others you think should be included? Please drop a line and let me know! And may everybody have a happy and blessed New Year!!!!

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Elaine Jeremiah
January 5, 2021 2:32 PM

Thanks for a great post! I have noticed some of these tropes, like the Earl of Matlock and Colonel Fitzwilliam’s first name being Richard. I didn’t realise for some time that Austen never mentions his first name! I agree with you that for the sake of continuity (and not annoying too many people!) it’s good to stick with the names that people usually use for the characters. Also, like you say, it saves time – we don’t have to invent quite so many characters’ names! 🙂

January 3, 2021 4:25 AM

Great post. Very true… these are universal truths whether Jane wanted them or not. I was wondering the other day if Charles Bingley’s parents have accepted JAFF names. Any idea?

Gianna Thomas
January 2, 2021 5:01 PM

Elaine, I have to admit, Colonel Fitzwilliam will always be Richard to me. Also Madeline Gardner and Thomas Bennet probably won’t change in my books either. And Mr. Gardner could be Edwin instead of Edward because the initials on his letter are Edw. Richard will probably continue to be a good guy and Jane in character as well. I can still enjoy books that don’t conform (hehehehe) but they will seem a tad off. Just me. 🙂

December 31, 2020 3:07 PM

I recognized all of these conventions except for the boiled potatoes. It makes me wonder how many stories I’ve read that used this that I hadn’t even realized.

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
December 31, 2020 1:56 PM

Oh, this post was way too cool. I’ve read stories where our dear Colonel was called by many different names. I usually mention it in my review due to the shock of seeing a different name. It is to the point… it will sometimes pull me from the story until I can get used to it. Like Regina said, if it is one of her stories… I know that our Colonel will be Edward. Really, who am I to question a name choice since Austen didn’t choose to bestow one on that character.

I’ve also noticed some authors don’t always use Matlock as the earl’s name as well as the name of his eldest son, the Viscount. Again, author’s choice. Character behavior changes are as frequent as the direction the wind blows. Colonel Fitzwilliam is often depicted as the cousin/brother to Darcy and I love that relationship. However, when he is presented as evil, that just hurts my soul. Mrs. Bennet often hates the ground Lizzy walks on due to not being born the male needed to break the entail. Jane is often childishly sweet until we get to the NSNJ [not-so-nice-Jane] stories. Ooooh, those have been fun. At first I didn’t like them but then… I’ve grown accustomed to them. The first name of M/M Bennet often change per author’s choice.

You have made me think and… I think I need to read this again and look for those things you and the comments have mentioned. Happy New Year, stay safe, and healthy.

Robin G.
Robin G.
December 31, 2020 12:08 PM

Like Regina mentions, a lot of the conventions appear to come from the 1995 adaptation. Here are a few: Mr. Collins refers to Col. Fitzwilliam as the son of the Earl of Matlock, Mrs. Bennet is called Fanny by Mr. Gardiner, and Caroline Bingley is costumed in some orange. (Poor Caroline gets covered in orange fashion a lot in JAFF.)

I have questioned whether Jane Austen based Pemberley on Chatsworth. The Duke of Devonshire had an income of 100,000 pounds/year, obviously a lot more than Mr. Darcy.

Regardless, it is amusing to realize how all of us have fallen into some of these to the point where we swear it was in the original. Then when we re-read the masterpiece, we are amazed that it does not exist. I love reading JAFF, and I love reading all of the authors’ different interpretations and playing with the conventions. There is only one absolute – Elizabeth and Darcy must get together. LOL

December 31, 2020 11:31 AM

I’m all astonishment! Happy New Year!

Amanda Kai
December 31, 2020 10:53 AM

It seems that many readers care a lot about using historically accurate language, rather than just capturing the spirit of the style as best we can. I got a negative review from someone for using the word “saccharine” in a story. They said that word didn’t come into use until later in the 19th century, and I should “take better care to do my research”. Wow!

Gianna Thomas
January 2, 2021 5:09 PM
Reply to  Elaine Owen

Amanda Kai, Google Ingram Viewer has saccharine known as early as 1720. Another reference showed first usage in 1674. I find it interesting how wrong some of the detractors are in their own research and comments.

January 3, 2021 4:59 AM
Reply to  Gianna Thomas

Very true, Gianna. More than once reviewers have taken issue over my word choices even though I’d verified before the book was released that the word in question was in use prior to the period the story was set. It takes a while to get used to such criticism. I’m not saying I never make mistakes (far from it), but reviews are not always right either.

I wish reviewers didn’t make assumptions about the authors, like whether or not an author did research. An author might research fifty things that the reader considers insignificant, but if the reader picks up on one tiny detail they think is inaccurate, some choose to make sweeping statements about the author’s inability to conduct research. Those types of reviews feel personal—like the the reviewer is declaring the writer to be lazy or sloppy. I prefer reviews that focus on the story itself. If the story has an inaccuracy that detracts from the reviewer’s enjoyment, it’s fine to point it out, but in my opinion, to use that single example to make a judgement about the amount of effort or work that the writer has invested into a project feels unfair.

Regina Jeffers
December 31, 2020 9:42 AM

I have been calling Mrs. Gardiner “Madeline” since my first novel, written back in 2008. I chose that name, without knowing much of JAFF at that time, for it belonged to one of my mother’s aunts – the youngest and “coolest” of the 12 children in my grandmother’s family. As to the naming of Colonel Fitzwilliam, although I often am told my those who think they know Austen, but know only fan fiction, that “Richard” is the good colonel’s name, I still call him “Edward.” He was “Edward,” my father’s name in my first Austen book, the one mentioned above, and I prefer consistency in my tales because many of them are dovetailed together. It would seem odd to switch names when incidents happening in one of my stories are referenced in another tale, and I had changed the colonel’s name along the way. Therefore, I suffer the “slings and arrows of outrageous” barbs and simply smile.

October 22, 2021 12:46 PM
Reply to  Regina Jeffers

IMO Edward suites him much better than a name Austen made fun of!!

Riana Everly
December 31, 2020 9:40 AM

Oh yes! All elements of fandom, but deviate at your peril!
I have no issue with keeping to these conventions. After all, as you say, why reinvent the wheel?
Happy New Year.

Mirta Ines Trupp
December 31, 2020 9:07 AM

Excellent post! Giggled all the way through it! Happy New Year and best wishes!

December 31, 2020 8:56 AM

Some authors describe Mary Bennet as wearing glasses, but I can’t find any reference in the book that she does.If there is a reference to this let me know

Regina Jeffers
December 31, 2020 9:44 AM
Reply to  Vesper

It seems many choose what is right and wrong from Andrew Davies’s casting of the mini-series than from Austen herself. I occasionally do the same. LOL!

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
December 31, 2020 8:55 AM

I recognize some. Everyone have a Happy New Year!

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