Thursday, May 14, 2015

Story Feature: "Merely Meredith: A Modern Persuasion"

The "original" Elliot family: (l to r) Anne, Elizabeth, Sir Walter, Mary

In the spring of 2011, I began my final course of my college studies: "The Life and Works of Jane Austen." I'd grown up watching the movies and BBC miniseries (always a better option) as well as at least two adaptations of one of the novels (Bride and Prejudice and Pride and Prejudice: A Latter Day Comedy; both very nicely done) but not much outside of that.
Of course, during the college class, we studied three novels: Emma, Pride & Prejudice, and Persuasion. Coming out of that, I discovered two things:

1) My favorite Jane Austen novel has to be Persuasion, in every respect;
2) I very much wanted to write a modernized adaptation of the novel, since, out of the three, it was the only one that hadn't been attempted (that I knew of)

Turns out there are a few romance novels "inspired by" Persuasion, but the reviews generally weren't favorable, and, in reading them, I would have to agree they didn't quite have the careful regard for the original author that I would have liked.

Those who have been following my blog know that I take any kind of fanfiction very seriously. Hence, I knew that an adaptation of someone else's published work would have to be approached with that same gravitas and respect. It wasn't just "update the story" for me; I wanted to think like Jane Austen would if she was a twentysomething American in the twenty-first century. The college course had assisted me greatly with that, and brought up some good points. It was time to put those ideas to profitable use!

Dramatis Personae

It is my opinion that all good stories start with establishing the characters. Since this would be an adaptation, I wouldn't need to start completely fresh, but just tweak the characters I already had.
The first thing to deal with was how I was going to replicate the British baronetcy in modern-day America. The starkest difference is that the British aristocracy could encompass and swallow the age of American history many times over; there wasn't much in the way of "old money" around here. The nearest I could figure was the concept of "oil barons", turning the Elliot family into the heirs to a sizeable fortune in Texas oil fields. Kellynch Hall became the Elliot Estate in Beaumont.

Sir Walter Elliot became George Spencer Herbert Elliot III, not only giving his line a nice big fluffy name to pass through the generations, but George Sr. may have also received the name "Gusher", a pun on both his initials (GSHE) and the fact that he could have been one of the first people to discover oil in Texas, thus netting a bunch of cheap, empty land for a relatively small sum at the very start of the Boom. (Bonus: also, because "George Elliot".... get it?) George is of course an arrogant man, very free with his funds when he feels his reputation is at stake. He carries an archaic abhorrence of any kind of modern technology: anything more current than cordless phones is a nuisance and unnecessary, the very idea of a "personal computer" used for anything besides business is unthinkable, and he prides himself in keeping the Estate as free of these "social pollutants" as the day it was built, two centuries prior. He views anything with the "environmental" label as an enemy of the family, because of the number of legal complaints and lawsuits filed against their family from various activist groups over the years.

Elizabeth Elliot became Elaine, the eldest sister and the "lady of the house" at the demise of Mrs. Elliot. Selfish, vain, superficial, and obsessed with shopping, Ellie was very likely a large source of the drain on the fortunes of the family. She cares more about appearances and comfort than practicality and function. At one time, Ellie sought to obtain the attentions of George "Georgie" Spencer Herbert Elliot IV (Sir William Elliot) as the heir presumptive to the Elliot Estate, but he declined far too many invitations before word came out of a scandalous "civil partnership" that essentially estranged him from the family for many years.

Anne Elliot became Meredith, the middle daughter and our "heroine." After graduating from the super-elite Upton Academy (as did all her family except her younger sister), Meredith took the initiative to pursue employment, netting a part-time job that came with a small apartment at a bookstore in Houston. Meredith, during her Academy years, met and started a relationship with Fred Winston (Fredrick Wentworth), a "scholarship student" at the academy--but his interest in environmental studies and modern technology quickly put him on the wrong side of her father. Hence, when he graduated and prepared to travel east to complete a Master's in Environmental Technologies at MIT, Meredith acted on advice from her mother's dear friend, Phoebe Russell (Lady Russell) and broke off the relationship. Fred went on to graduate and receive an offer to develop the project he introduced as a thesis in conjunction with NASA: the ability to grow plants in space with the minimum necessary substances. Meredith assumed this meant he would be traveling to the International Space Station, or at least be working in Florida and she reassures herself that she need not think about him any longer--but when he shows up at an Air Force base in Texas, Meredith is forced to realize that perhaps her feelings weren't as "dead" as she thought.

The final Elliot sister, Mary Musgrove, I tweaked only slightly to the name Cassandra Mangrove. She is the only Elliot who ended up not graduating from Upton, first of all because she was too "chronically ill" to complete the requirements, and second because she happened to meet the eligible young rancher Charles Mangrove and marry first among her sisters. She now lives on Mangrove Row, Charlie's family's ranch in Austin.

Charlie has two sisters, Lily and Helena Mangrove (Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove). Lily is the more free-spirited of the two, and thus has been through several boyfriends without any real attachment, while Helena has harbored a liking for Chuck Braunmann (Charles Hayter) the son of a farmer who lives down the road from Mangrove Row. This is somewhat frowned upon by her parents, Walter and Dierdre Mangrove (Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove), and particularly her status-driven sister-in-law, who hates the very idea of being attached to someone so plain, even by mere association.

Renting the Elliot Estate when the family is forced to "retire" to a penthouse in Hollywood in the face of crippling debt is computer magnate Adoniram Croft (Admiral Croft), inventor and owner of the MyCroft operating system. (Another shameless literary reference.... not even sorry...) His wife, Sofia Croft (Sophia Croft) is Fred Winston's sister. (There is also a second Winston brother, by the name of Ned, who attended MIT with his brother and became an accountant, which fact Mr. Sharpe (Mr. Shepherd), Mr. Elliot's lawyer, uses to soften the blow to George's pride when the time comes to rent the Estate)

Also in play is Penelope Sharpe (Mrs. Clay), the divorced daughter of Mr. Sharpe. She sees Ellie's acceptance of her as a "devoted follower" as an opportunity to flatter Mr. Elliot into marrying her--and Ellie is too busy basking in her adulation and trying to seek the attention of Georgie herself to notice this subversion happening.

James Harrington (Captain Harville) and his wife Wendy, and Ben Wyck (Captain Benwick) are friends of Fred from MIT who are also working on the NASA project.

At this point, I have probably only ever made it halfway through the story... eventually I might return to it (possibly, after I finish The Last Inkweaver) but for now, there is a lot still to be written... and rewritten...

Suggestions/inspirational ideas for this title are welcome! Check out "The Shelf" for excerpts from "Merely Meredith" that I have posted before. Also, if you enjoyed this, stay tuned for an upcoming post about a second "Persuasion" adaptation I have planned: "Persuasion and Pixies", a dark fantasy mash-up version!