'She would, if asked, tell us many little particulars about the subsequent career of her people,' Jane Austen's nephew wrote in his Memoir of his aunt.
In this traditionary way we learned that Miss Steele never succeeded in catching the Doctor; that Kitty Bennet was satisfactorily married to a clergyman near Pemberley, while Mary obtained nothing higher than one of her uncle Philips' clerks, and was content to be considered a star in the society of Meriton; that the 'considerable sum' Mrs Norris gave William Price was one pound; that Mr Woodhouse survived his daughter's marriage, and kept her and Mr Knightley from settling at Donwell, about two years; and that the letters placed by Frank Churchill before Jane Fairfax, which she swept away unread, contained the word 'pardon'. Of the good people in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion we know nothing more than what is written; for before those works were published their author had been taken away from us, and all such amusing communications had ceased for ever.
In the days before Hollywood sequels Jane Austen enthralled her young relations by telling them what every reader wants to know: what happens after the book's last page, or play's last scene? It's unusual to have so close a glimpse of the offstage author spinning consequences (and since Austen was only entertaining her family, it's far from sure that she would have written up the story in quite this way; she was not at all averse to teasing the earnest young nephew who wrote up this account). But the desire for a sequel is part of the impulse to hear stories and to tell them, the desire that they never come to a definitive end. Shakespeare gratifies this curiosity to a certain extent in his history plays, both English and Roman, but he, like Austen and any other talented portrayer of character, leaves much unresolved and open to speculation. Do Beatrice and Benedick make a go of it after their marriage, or will their talent for mutual truth-telling do them in? Does Iago hold by his vow of silence, or will the magnificos 'induce' him to speak and put him on trial? What's the fate of Caliban?
LRB 19 August 1999 | PDF Download