Wendy van Camp’s The Curate’s Brother: A Variation on Persuasion (2015) traces its literary ancestry back to fanfic more than the Regency novel. Whereas the Sir Walter Elliot of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1818) reads through centuries of his family’s published lineage, the modern reader of Camp’s novelette skims through just over a decade’s worth of literary internet culture deceptively packaged as a period piece (Persuasion 1). Fanfic may have been coined in the 1930s, but according to Stephanie Burt in “The Promise and Potential of Fan Fiction”, the digitized fanfic that we recognize today began in 2007 (The New Yorker). Notable for its interactive qualities, fanfic allows writers and readers to mold literary worlds to their own lives, and thus to more strongly identify with the characters in the stories.
In keeping with the legacy of fan participation in literary works, the form of Camp’s novelette more closely resembles a play in which readers can envision themselves acting. Instead of taking on the parts of reserved but socially subversive characters seen in Austen’s works, readers find themselves participating in the lives of unreserved, socially conforming male characters in Camp’s work. While the novelette serves as a reminder of the gender hierarchy that subjugated women in the early nineteenth century, it also displays gender double standards and sexual pressures at work today.
Persuasion portrays Anne Elliot’s navigation of family loyalty and personal affections within her contemporary marriage market. Anne comes from a family proud of their upper middle-class lineage, and at least her father, sister, and confidant, Lady Russell, are concerned with preserving it through marriage. When Frederick Wentworth, the man Anne loves but refused to marry—at the persuasion of her family—returns tens years later and in high social standing as a naval captain, she suffers under the weight of her former choice. Austen delves into the facets of Anne’s guilt–her familial and class allegiances, and ultimate willingness to jeopardize them for love over the course of the novel–depicting a psychological portrait of her protagonist.
Two hundred years later, Camp offers an alternative perspective in her self-published novelette, The Curate’s Brother. An author, teacher, and blogger based out of California, Camp makes a distinct shift from her other previously published works (two short memoirs and some science fiction) to write Regency fiction, of which her story is the second. The adaptation acts as a prequel to Austen’s, set ten years before the events of the novel, when Frederick returns to his voter in Monkford. Edward witnesses Frederick and Anne meet and fall in love from a distance, but the main focus on the story follows his own romantic attachment to Sally Marshall, a young woman in his parish. While the sparsely descriptive, dialogue-heavy tendencies of the novelette make it feel like a play script with stage curtains rising and falling every chapter to reveal new plot information, no accompanying metaphorical state curtain ever opens to discover the psychological depth of the young men popularized in Persuasion. As an author-director, Camp does little to advance the interior motivations of her characters. Readers can only engage with Frederick’s, and especially Edward’s, self-centered actions and their props (i.e. their selective use of manners and decorum).
Participation—the means through which a reader identifies with a character through first-person narration—can be fun, but since the reader ultimately has no narrative choice, participation can also be problematic. While readers of Camp’s project will inhabit the comfort of familiar Austen topography, they will also be made privy to male privilege of the Regency era, and how the patriarchal structure it represents is entrenched in our own present-day culture. Considering that women have traditionally comprised the majority of Austen’s readership and feel at ease in her literary worlds, participation in these patriarchal constructs is especially uncomfortable. Readers attend balls with the characters, but they also have to leave the dance floor, following the male characters to the back room where they are “able to pass the rest of the evening away without dealing with women” (47). Austen’s female characters in Persuasion are concerned about the pressures of early nineteenth-century marriage culture, but Camp’s alternative male perspective does not bother with marital concerns. In fact, the male world of Camp’s novelette might be one step removed from present-day men’s “locker-room culture,” in which men objectify the female body, as in the case of Frederick’s “feral appraisal” of Sally; and jeer at women who do not give them exactly what they want, like when Edward calls Sally a “flirtatious school girl” for dancing with him at the ball (7, 49). This is additionally troubling because readers must participate in locker room, or Regency-era back room, conversations.
Frederick and Edward’s behavior displays a core issue of Camp’s work: the inconsistent representation of Regency manners and decorum results in men who come across as disrespectful in the context of their era at best, and villainous at worst. Spoilers ahead: Edward and Sally’s behavior together during the courting process, completely lacks the propriety required during their time. By the end of the novelette they are engaged to each other with both of their public reputations intact, though historically their method of courtship might have ruined them. Compared to the ubiquity of romantic and sexual imagery portrayed in the media, the outdoor touching and kissing the couple engages in would cause few modern readers to bat an eye, and considering the enhanced participatory quality of fanfic, Camp may be accommodating her readership.
But this comes at a cost: Camp’s nonchalant description undermines the threat to Sally’s “good” reputation as a Regency woman. She seems to recognize the anachronism because she writes with an awareness of Regency propriety when a couple kisses later: “Sally moved closer and suddenly [Edward] did not care what was proper” (90). Perhaps this is Camp’s way of commenting on the nineteenth-century’s gender double standard. As a curate, Edward must protect his public image more than his brother and many other men, but as a man he has advantages Sally does not. For Sally, the laboring-class “daughter of the village apothecary,” her good reputation—which in the Regency era is linked not only to chastity, but also to public perception of sexual disinterest—is the means to preserving her family’s reputation and procuring a decent marriage for herself (8-9). If her reputation is considered compromised, as her and Edward’s behavior would imply to her peers, she would face social ostracism, her family’s reputation would suffer, and her marriage prospects would either disappear or become severely limited. Eighteenth-century society excused men’s sexual dalliances with a kind of “boys will be boys” excuse, but harshly treated women as temptresses. If this sounds familiar, it might be because the media today continues to protect the public image of men in ways not often afforded to female binary, non-binary, and trans people. Furthermore, if Edward learned to be dismissive of the social danger women faced from his older brother (whose behavior towards Anne we see very little of in the novelette), then the Elliot’s and Lady Russell’s disapproval of Frederick takes on more than just a monetary or class-based prudence. This would mean that Camp turns the Elliots and Lady Russell into sympathetic characters who are protective of Anne’s reputation, thus transforming Edward and Frederick into the opposite.
However, since Camp has aligned reader sympathy with Edward, she cannot alienate him without alienating readers and reversing the centrality of male narrative in her work. In order to maintain this pivotal relationship with her audience. Camp must portray Sir Walter Elliot and Lady Russell in an unfavorable light and secure Edward as a mediating voice between them and his brother. Moreover, Camp established reader compassion for Edward through his relationship with Frederick. Despite their dubious relationship with other characters—men or women—their own fraternal connection retains positive qualities regardless of eighteenth-and-twenty-first century mores. Shared scenes occasionally undermine the toxic masculinity shown elsewhere in the novelette. Take, for example, the outdoor—and therefore public—hug the brothers share when they are reunited at the beginning of the story, as opposed to the more reserved, but standard, handshake of the time (2). Or the emotionally vulnerable conversation they share after Anne has declined Frederick, which ends with a physical display of how openly addressing their feelings has brought them closer together: “Frederick grasped Edward’s hand and allowed his brother to pull him to his feet. The sailor was unsteady and his brother put an arm around his shoulder to help guide him” (107). Readers might relax as they participate in a familiar display of friendship, but they cannot expect to remain this comfortable.
Camp’s focus on Persuasion’s men may help her actors/readers to better imagine homosocial relationships, but this ultimately is at the expense of their relationships to women. This focus diminishes the role of female perspectives in the novelette, thought it should be noted that this seems more like an overshot than anything resembling a purposeful exclusion. Despite Sally’s prominence in the story, Edward admits “he had always spoken about his work to her, but seldom asked about herself as a person” (77). To his credit, he realizes this is wrong, but Sally never has an opportunity to voice how she feels. Her silences parallel Anne’s inability to reveal her feelings to Frederick in Persuasion—Austen’s commentary on Regency women’s expressive limitations—yet Camp seems to have unintentionally created this juxtaposition. Additionally, besides a brief mention of a Wentworth sister halfway through the novelette, Camp omits her completely, despite the fact that she plays a a noteworthy enough role in Persuasion to have a name: Mrs. Croft (though, to be sure, this name primarily reflects her marital status). The lack of female representation in the story fits in with an overarching omission of family details, despite its significance to the plot of both Persuasion and this variation. The main reason Anne and Frederick cannot marry stems from the Elliot friends and family deeming him “not good enough,” yet the exact reason is never fully explained. While Persuasion clarifies that the Elliot’s disapproval of the Wentworth comes from their social status, Camp contributes an insightful fact about their mother, but then passes over it so quickly she almost undermines its importance. In an instance of historical contextualization, perhaps to make up for her anachronistic courtship portrayals, Camp has Lady Russell object to Frederick because as she tells Edward, she “detect[s] quite an acre of the Irish in him” (Camp 54). Edward’s bristling response confirms what Michael de Nee, reminds us of in his book The Eternal Paddy: Irish Identity and the British Press, 1798-1882, that the socio-political context of early nineteenth-century Britain “stressed Irish inferiority and British superiority” (267). Including information about women leads to valuable insights about her male characters and the identities affecting them.
Although The Curate’s Brother offers the novelty of a male perspective in an Austen world known mostly for its women, it ends up disproportionately outweighing female perspectives. This was troubling enough when the novelette was first published in 2015, but in the context of political changes and cultural movements since then it feels particularly disappointing now. The media has increasingly evidenced how the stories of men—especially those holding historically entitled identities in addition to their gender—are further privileged in comparison to those of women. Fanfic and its digital readers are informed and influenced by the web culture around them, which has been markedly changed following gender and sexuality movements in more recent years, like #MeToo, ignited by Tarana Burke. Camp self-published her story, so it is obvious that she realizes the power and necessity of female expression. But in 2020, fanfic writers, indeed, writers in every genre, need to be more intentional about incorporating multiple perspectives in order for their readers to want to participate in world-building together. Otherwise, unlike Sir Walter Elliot’s baronetage, fanfic will not provide a means for its readers to find a literary heritage that reflects them in its stories, characters, and names.
The Curate’s Brother, A Variation on Persuasion by Wendy van Camp
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (January 28 2015)
Paperback, eBook (124) pages
ISBN: 978-1507763988, $5.99
Austen, Jane. Persuasion. London: John Murray, 1818. Project Gutenberg.
Burt, Stephanie. “The Promise and Potential of Fan Fiction”. The New Yorker. New York: The New Yorker (23 August 2017). https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-prom ise-and-potential-of-fan-fiction.
Camp, Wendy van. The Curate’s Brother, A Variation on Persuasion. San Bernadino: 2015.
Nie, Michael Willem De. The Eternal Paddy: Irish Identity and the British Press. 1798-1882. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebook central.proquest.com/lib/oxford/detail.action?docID=3445178.