After two hundred years of being known as a genius, Jane Austen is now a brand, a marketing phenomenon. According to Wikipedia—so this is more universally acknowledged than necessarily true—in 2015, 25 Austen-inspired works were released per month, which suggests that more people are writing such fan fiction than are reading it.
Most of these works are historical, promising a journey into a fantasy past, a world of carriages, long dresses, and Colin Firth either in or out of a well-tied cravat. Their authors are looking backward, whereas Austen herself was looking around and writing about the world that she saw. Capturing Austen’s present-focus can be difficult for those engaged in homage. But Diana Peterfreund’s 2012 novel For Darkness Shows the Stars has managed to make Austen contemporary by moving Persuasion, not to the present, but to the future.
For Darkness Shows the Stars is a big, bold, very readable book, and you can enjoy it without knowing anything about Persuasion. In fact, knowing Persuasion doesn’t add much to the reading experience of For Darkness Shows the Stars, but Peterfreund’s novel has added to my appreciation of Persuasion, something which I would not have thought possible.
The obvious ties to Persuasion were slashed with a light saber: For Darkness Shows the Stars is dystopian, set in a post-apocalyptic world. Several generations before the book opens, humans’ advanced genetic modification resulted in a civilization-wide cognitive meltdown. Most people became the so-called Reduced, capable of only rudimentary language and repetitive tasks. The Luddites, who had disdained technology, became the ruling class, and the Reduced live as virtually enslaved workers on the Luddite estates. In the current generation, however, Reduced are occasionally giving birth to Posts, individuals with the cognitive abilities of Luddites but the legal status of the Reduced. The hero of the book, Kai Wentforth, is a Post, and the heroine, Elliot North, is a Luddite.
As in Persuasion, the heroine’s father is a careless, unfeeling steward of his estate. The book’s backstory shows Kai deciding to escape and asking Elliot to come with him. As the only person on the estate worried about how to feed the Reduced during the winter, she feels obliged to stay. The book itself opens, similarly to Persuasion, with a now successful Kai returning with a group of Posts to rent property from the Norths, providing the Luddite family with much-needed income.
When contemporary writers try to set an Austen novel in today’s world, they lose the class structure that was such a part of early 19th-century society. In Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible (2016), a riff on Pride and Prejudice, the heroine is a country-club-bred, Barnard-educated magazine writer, and the hero is a neurosurgeon. The heroine’s dad is threatened with financial disaster, but that’s an issue of money; the hero and heroine, unlike Darcy and Elizabeth, are both of the same class.
Peterfreund’s novel isn’t just an Austen homage; it’s a piece of Austen criticism.
By setting her book in the future, Peterfreund manages to recreate something that many of Austen’s readers may have believed—that the class system is inevitable and proper. Although Austen herself did have abolitionist sympathies, she and her readers lived in a world where class distinctions were thought to be, in some degree, rooted in nature.
That is true in For Darkness Shows the Stars. With their cognitive limits, the Reduced truly cannot manage for themselves. Readers may like to see them better cared for than Elliot’s father cares for his workers, but the Reduced are not capable of independence. Declaring the underclass to be childlike has long been an excuse for oppression; Peterfreund creates a world where this is not an excuse but the reality as oppressors have always wanted to believe. She needs her futuristic setting to place her readers in the past.
Peterfreund does portray this society as being at the edge of great change. The Posts, as capable as the Luddites and not bound by a fear of innovation, are a class rising to wealth and power. Trade and urban centers will become more important than the agricultural estates. Austen also presents a society in flux; in Persuasion the heroine’s father cannot afford to live on his estate; he has to rent it to “new money” people. Because Austen focuses on the upper elements of the middle class rising to the lower rung of the upper class—something that seems fairly ordinary to the reader of today—it initially seems like Peterfreund is writing about a bigger social upheaval.
But is she? Another possibility is that Peterfreund is inviting us to feel how big Austen and her world might have considered such changes to be. The manners of who can be introduced to whom may seem quaintly intriguing to us, but to Austen’s audience those issues were important in ways that aren’t instantly visible in a contemporary setting. Seeing Austen’s characters in this churning post-apocalyptic world, it becomes clearer how disturbing the characters find the changing manners in Persuasion.
The science fiction genre forces Peterfreund to create a more active heroine. Futuristic worlds are often very unforgiving places; survival is in question. Because Elliot North feels responsible for the well-being of her family’s Reduced, she tries to repair the estate’s farm machinery, and she develops a hybrid wheat. She is assertive, inventive, and, thanks to a surprising inheritance, ultimately possessed of economic resources and power. This is what many romance readers want in their heroines now.
But Peterfreund doesn’t lose sight of Austen. Unlike, say, Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games, Elliot North continually feels that she is not at the center of the story. The narrative is happening to everyone else. She, like Anne Elliot, has to endure. Both heroines are struggling to stand upright in a swirling world.
The love story in Persuasion is beautiful. Readers ache for the two characters’ happiness. The romantic elements in For Darkness Shows the Stars are less compelling, in part because the world-building is so imaginative. But the broader strokes of Peterfreund’s book remind readers to look at the delicate brushwork at the edges of Austen’s love story.
For Darkness Shows the Stars isn’t just an Austen homage; it’s a piece of Austen criticism. It looks backward, but also thinks about what that backward look means now. Good literary criticism makes you look at the original text a little differently. It gives the reader different ways, and different options, for experiencing a book. That’s what Peterfreund has given readers with her reworking of Persuasion. To do so, she had to put solar packs on the carriages.