by Alice Chandler
How did I come to write Aunt Jane and the Missing Cherry Pie: A Jane Austen Mystery for Children?
Jane Austen has been part of my life for almost all of my life, ever since my parents took me to see the 1940 movie version of Pride and Prejudice when I was nine. They must have wondered if I was old enough to enjoy the movie. But I loved it—so much so that my mother took me to buy a copy of the book the very next day. I still have that much-worn, much-loved volume. Its thick pre-war paper has not yellowed over time. But the fake-leather, gold-tooled binding is frayed and showing its age.
My favorite chapter as a child–the one that I read, and reread, and read again—was the scene in which Elizabeth rejects Darcy’s first marriage proposal. Was it because I was envisaging the darkly handsome Laurence Olivier of the 1940 movie as Mr. Darcy, or because I subconsciously wanted to be as archly clever as Elizabeth? I know that I tried to model my personality on Elizabeth Bennet—a daunting task for a nine-year-old.
As the years passed, I read and reread all the other Jane Austen novels and even a copy of her letters that had somehow lodged itself on the family bookshelves. With a background like that, is it any wonder that I took a Ph. D. in nineteenth-century literature, or that I became an English professor who taught Jane Austen to undergraduate and graduate students? My scholarly article “A Pair of Fine Eyes: Jane Austen’s Treatment of Sex” was first published in Studies in the Novel in 1975, when such approaches still were new, and reprinted in Jane Austen: Modern Critical Views in 1996.
Fast forward through the years, and I am now a college president. The United States and China have only recently reopened diplomatic relations, and I am fortunate enough to be asked to give a series of lectures at a group of Chinese universities and teachers colleges. It’s exciting to be in China in the early 1980s. Rural life is still almost as pre-industrialized as it was in Jane Austen’s time. Grain is sown broadcast by farmers scattering seed on the ground, and that same grain is cut with scythes and threshed with hand-held flails when it’s ripe. But modernization is clearly on its way—new highways, new skyscrapers, and a whole new attitude toward life. My students are China’s brightest and best. Although they listen attentively and take notes diligently, they ask few questions of me. The one question I do remember (in very good English, indeed) was, “What was Mr. Darcy’s social class?”
Fast forward in time once again, and I am now retired and a grandmother. I am still rereading the novels every year or two, but have added Jane Austen sequels and mystery novels as well. My favorite sequel is still the golden oldie, Old Friends and New Fancies (1914), in which characters from all six of the novels interact with each other. I also enjoy the Stephanie Barron mystery series. The proliferation of Jane Austen movies and television series has excited new popular interest in her works, and I teach Jane Austen courses at our local senior citizens center.
Most importantly, I have six grandchildren—five boys and then finally a girl. The boys like the adventure stories I write for them. Some of them are Harry Potterish adventures in a magic world I’ve invented, and some of them veer toward sci-fi. Dana loves these stories, too. But—forgive the gender stereotyping—I want to write something that will be very special for her.
And so the nine-year-old who watched Pride and Prejudice with awe becomes the grandmother who writes Aunt Jane and the Missing Cherry Pie for her now nine-year-old granddaughter. My story is narrated by Jane Austen’s six-year-old niece Anna Austen, and Aunt Cassandra is in the book, too. I had almost as much fun finding eighteenth- and nineteenth-century illustrations for my little book as I did in writing it. For anyone who would like to read it for themselves, their children, or their grandchildren, the e-book is now available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.
If enough people like the book, Aunt Jane and the Missing Musician is sitting, unpublished, in my drawer!
Alice Chandler holds a doctorate in English Literature from Columbia University and is the recipient of two honorary degrees. An English professor for many years, she was President of the State University of New York College at New Paltz from 1980 to 1996 and was acting president of both Ramapo College of New Jersey (2000-2001) and the City College of the City University of New York (1979-1980). She is a past Chairperson of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Alice Chandler’s published works and articles include studies in nineteenth-century literature, rhetoric and composition, and foreign student policy. Her book, “A Dream of Order: The Medieval Ideal in English Literature” (1970) has been translated into Japanese.