The Widow’s Fire by Paul Butler: Exploring the Shadow Side of Jane Austen’s Persuasion

So you think Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth live happily ever after? Well, Paul Butler wasn’t so sure. He saw a side of Mrs. Smith that the rest of us missed. Is she really the caring, innocent widow that Anne adores, or is she just manipulating us all into thinking she is?

When James at The Miramichi Reader offered to send me this book from Inanna Publications, I jumped at the chance. I was curious to see what Butler had done with such a beloved classic. Plus it gave me an excuse to re-read PersuasionΒ after almost 20 years!

[Favourite line from Persuasion:Β  “Allowances, large allowances, she knew, must be made for the ideas of those who spoke.”]

One thing Butler did not doΒ was change any of what Jane Austen wrote in Persuasion. What he did do was imagine a longer, darker ending to the novel. His story starts as Anne and Frederick become engaged, and from there he brings in characters from the lower classes; those who are all but invisible in Jane Austen’s books. A sinister plot emerges – secrets, blackmail, lies, and murder – and we fear for the happy union of our couple.

Though we will journey into capital crimes and sins of the deepest disgrace known to humankind, love, in all its variations, will remain in our sights. The neatly patterned shell of romance might overturn to reveal the dark underbelly of blackmail and desire, but still love remains. Without love we are no longer living and our story is at an end.

The story is told through the narration of four characters; Mrs. Smith, Nurse Rooke, Captain Wentworth, and Plato (a freed slave who is not seen in Austen’s Persuasion, but was very likely there nonetheless; and who better to see all that goes on than someone who goes unnoticed?).

Each of them dragged around a dungeon of their own choosing. They said that slavery was going out of fashion but it only applied to the kind of slavery recognized by law, the kind that could lead to beatings and manacles. Slavery of the mind and soul was alive and well and would remain so in this country for many years to come.

One thing I like about this book is that it digs deeper into the characters’ lives. In Persuasion we know that Captain Wentworth is friendly with exceptional manners, handsome, and well-liked by all. But what about the years he was at sea? He had gone away from Kellynch disappointed, hurt, angry; what did he do with that? What happened in those years at sea before coming back again to England? Mrs. Smith knows… she knows many things.

I hardly knew what I would say to Mrs. Smith, hardly knew whether she was the most resourceful of friends or the most dangerous of enemies.

And how do Anne and Frederick hold up under pressure? Do they stay strong? Do they cave?

I turned the handle. It rattled and squealed like a thousand-ton anchor chain like I knew it would. Still, foreknowledge of the hazard didn’t prevent a feverish wave of nerves from flooding over me. The contradictions of a man who could outface cannon fire yet quiver within at the curious looks of a friend!

I don’t want to give any more of the plot away – one of the delightful things about the book is not knowing what’s going to happen next. It went places I really didn’t expect it to go. I was biting my nails at one point, I was so worried. It made me wonder – as it did Frances Beer in her blurb on the back of the book – what would Jane Austen think about this version of events? Personally, I think she would approve, and even applaud, this version (as well as Butler’s nerve to write it).

Favourite line:I remember thinking that no battle by land or sea was as unpredictable as human communication.

This is the second Austen spin-off I’ve recently read and loved – the other being The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen Flynn. What ones have you liked (or disliked)?


46 thoughts on “The Widow’s Fire by Paul Butler: Exploring the Shadow Side of Jane Austen’s Persuasion

  1. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    Persuasion is my all-time favorite, and I don’t know if I could bear it if Captain Wentworth were anything other than an upstanding character. I will have to think long and hard about whether I want to give this book a chance. πŸ™‚ I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    It’s been a while since I’ve read Persuasion, so I’d definitely need to reread that before taking on this one. You’ve really intrigued me though, and I’m not normally one to read Jane Austen spin-off books. This one sounds really well done, though.

    • Naomi says:

      I don’t usually read the spin-offs either, but this is a good one. You would want to re-read Persuasion first, but that’s not too much of a hardship, is it? πŸ˜‰

      • Naomi says:

        No, the book assumes that you’ve already read Persuasion. But it’s also written in such a way that it tells its own story if you’ve never read Persuasion. I highly recommend reading Persuasion first, though!

  3. FictionFan says:

    Ah, you’re a braver woman than I am! I can never bring myself to read these for fear they’ll stay in my head next time I read the original. Oddly, I can read Sherlock Holmes pastiches quite happily, but no others of my favourites. It sounds like a good one though – glad you enjoyed it!

  4. Katie Wilkins (@DoingDewey) says:

    This sounds fascinating! I’ve really enjoyed some darker retellings of classics and I think this might be just my thing. I’ve only read Persuasion once and not recently, so I think I’d want to re-read it to pick this up too.

    • Naomi says:

      It sounds like this book is right up your alley! But I do recommend re-reading Persuasion first. You probably don’t have to, but it’s nice to have the details fresh in your mind.

  5. whatmeread says:

    Actually, if I am thinking of the right character, I never thought of Mrs. Smith as kind and innocent. But maybe I’m confused. Is she the invalid or the woman who went after Anne’s father?

  6. lauratfrey says:

    Ooo Persuation is my fav too! The way you describe it does put me in mind of Longbourne. I had several issues with that book – the writing and characterization, not the premise. I’m looking for a vacation read, maybe this is it…

  7. Don Royster says:

    I haven’t read Jane Austen yet. I keep meaning to. And you’re the second blogger I follow who has brought her up recently. So my project for next year is to read Jane Austen.

  8. Liz Dexter says:

    I haven’t read any spin-offs apart from The Jane Austen Book Club, which is only about her, though I’ve seen several films that put a different spin on the novels, or at least their plots. This sounds cleverly done and intelligent.

    • Naomi says:

      It is both. And, although I don’t find myself drawn to the spin-offs, I really liked both this one and the one I read a couple of months ago (The Jane Austen Project). Maybe my good luck with them will continue!

  9. buriedinprint says:

    I just listened to a podcast about the relentlessness of Jane Austen’s appeal (it might have been on the Guardian Books’ podcast – suspect so) and it made me want to revisit something again, but I have never read one of the “carrying on” stories. The idea appeals in some ways, but it also feels like opening a door on a whole new potential reading project, which sounds dangerous, y’know? *grins*

    • Naomi says:

      I can see it being *very* dangerous! But if you were going to revisit one of her books you could just happen to make it Persuasion, and then it would be nothing after that to pick up The Widow’s Fire. πŸ˜‰

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