Review: Brightsea, by Jane Gillespie

Nancy Steele (or Anne as her sister sometimes calls her) is perhaps not the most interesting, nor the most memorable character in Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility. She is a silly, dull-witted young woman whose manners are managed only by her sister Lucy’s criticism, and at nearly thirty years of age she seems to be ever on the look out for a beau of any shape or size.

She derives her best pleasures from being teased about relationships that are more real in her mind and more important to her vanity than any true relationship she has ever had. And it is she whose discretion falters, and who accidentally reveals the secret engagement that Lucy and Edward have been contriving to hide for four years.

Miss Steele is an oft-forgotten character, loved by none and pitied by few. When Lucy runs off with Edward’s brother Robert, she “borrows” the last of Nancy’s money (one assumes, for wedding clothes) and leaves Nancy without a means of returning home. Mrs. Jennings pities her and gives her five guineas so that she can return to Exeter to be with friends after her sister’s abandonment.

Jane Gillespie’s Brightsea, which picks up about ten years after the events of Sense & Sensibility, finds Nancy under her sister’s roof, but as-ever-trying to her sister’s patience and pocket-book. She is pawned off onto the Palmers for a short time (Charlotte Palmer’s character is perhaps the most accurately duplicated of the stock characters) and, while there, is made aware of a situation that would get her not only out of her sister’s hair, but into some cash. She removes to Brightsea, a fictional resort town of the glittering persuasion, where she installs herself as companion to a young, fashionless and prospectless orphan heiress, fresh from school and with little to no interest in society – the complete opposite of Nancy in every way (at least, in Nancy’s mind).

The disparity in their personalities provides a certain amount of entertainment, but Nancy’s forwardness and her need to compete with Lucy (who arrives for a visit later in the novel) overpower even young Louisa and her eventual romantic dramatics. There’s a devious plot on-hand to help the story along, but it’s hard to get past Nancy who (I believe it can be assumed, so close is the resemblance) was modeled after Austen’s titular Lady Susan. At only 160 pages, Gillespie’s novel is neither very long nor very fulfilling but, since Nancy (in this incarnation) is so modeled after another Austen character, there is at least a significant level of amusing Austenesque banter and style to get the reader through. 

Daisy Haggard as Nancy Steele in the 2008
BBC TV mini-series. 
Gillespie's novel (published in 1987) is out of print. No doubt its focus on what is originally a fairly obscure, fairly uninteresting character (and one who is erased completely from the most famous adaptation of the novel - Ang Lee's direction of Emma Thompson's adapted screenplay from 1995 - though she did make an appearance in the BBC mini-series 13 years later) has, I'm sure, contributed to the book's lack of popularity. 

And these days, with so many Austenesque novels based in sex or the supernatural, it's easy to see how a novel so rooted in true Austen fashion might be overlooked - especially one that is so short! But truth be told, it is (much like Lady Susan) enjoyable enough even given the main character's stupidity, and I think a true Janeite would at the very least appreciate it for its silent tributes and not so silent ridiculousness. 


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