Monday, May 3, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'Dearest Cousin Jane'

The Book: Dearest Cousin Jane: A Jane Austen Novel

The Author: Jill Pitkeathley

How I Found It: I'm sure it came up as I was searching Amazon for something Jane-related.

The Review: This is historical fiction, and the events of the book all occurred in real life. Thus, there will be some spoilers, although I'm not sure they can exactly be called spoilers if this was written based on true events. (It's like not telling someone the Titanic sinks because it would ruin the ending.)

Jane Austen had a cousin, the enchanting Countess Eliza de Feuillide. She was born in questionable circumstances--there are whispers that Eliza is the natural (i.e., illegitimate) child of her mother, Philadelphia Austen Hancock, and Warren Hastings of the East India Company. In Paris, at the age of 19, Eliza marries the Comte de Feuillide, Jean Capot, though Mrs. Austen is convinced he is a no-good adventurer.

Eliza defies convention, as she is free-spirited and often talks of improper matters in front of the impressionable Austen sisters, Jane and Cassandra, her cousins. Eliza particularly likes Jane, who she feels needs instruction in the ways of flirting and "husband hunting". Though Eliza herself is fun-loving, her life is marked by tragedy. Her mother dies of breast cancer. Her husband is guillotined in the French Revolution. Eliza has two miscarriages and her only son is epileptic and dies fairly young. Through all this tragedy, Eliza never loses her indomitable spirit, and eventually finds contentment as the wife of Henry Austen, Jane's favorite brother, who watches with the rest of the family as Jane begins to grow into her talents as a writer. Eliza lives almost to the publication of Mansfield Park, and when we leave Jane and Henry in one of the final scenes, Jane is just beginning to formulate her ideas for Emma.

I didn't know all that much about Eliza before I read this book; I knew only that she was Henry's wife and that she could have been the model for Lady Susan in the eponymous novella or for Mary Crawford in my second-favorite Austen, Mansfield Park (of which my opinion is not popular among Janeites). I am pleased to say that her life was fascinating enough to keep me turning pages throughout the whole novel. It is told from multiple viewpoints, all of which are related to the Austen family. Jane herself even narrates a few times. We get the story through direct narration, almost gossipy reports from relatives, and letters from one member of the family to another. (Pitkeathley apparently used some real letters and wrote some of her own. I haven't read all that many letters of Austen's, so I'm not sure which were real and which were imagined, but I suppose that's a testament to the novel's period authenticity.)

I liked reading about the story of Eliza and how she eventually came to be a full member of the Austen family, after rejecting both James and Henry once apiece. The story did a decent job of compressing many years of history into a fairly short novel--Eliza died when she was 50 and that's just about how many years are covered in the novel. The ending chapters are poignant, as Eliza succumbs to the breast cancer that claimed her mother, and Jane, with only five or six years left to live herself, gets the premonitory feeling that she should write as much as she can just in case. I will admit that I was somewhat teary-eyed as I read Eliza's assurances to Jane that she would live to write twenty more novels, and as Henry and Jane stand at Eliza's grave. Pitkeathley did a fine job capturing those emotions, and I suspect the story has personal importance for her, as she is a survivor of breast cancer.

I will admit that the novel was not perfect; it had its advantages and its drawbacks. The characters were all very well-defined and it was easy to tell them apart, a considerable feat since Austen had a very large family. It does sometimes get confusing to remember which brother and which wife is being referred to, but there is a character list in the beginning to help sort that out. The multiple narrators, while certainly a very interesting device (I've expressed my love for it before), sometimes dragged the book down. We would hear about a circumstance in one chapter and then the next chapter get another narrator's opinion on it--while repeating the same information we already received in the last chapter. This happened at least three or four times and I was most seriously displeased, as Lady Catherine would say. This repetition sometimes made the multiple narrators redundant and boring.

Also, though Jane asserts many times in the novel that she "does not write from life," many characters are made to strongly resemble those in her novels and suggest from where in her family she could have drawn those portraits. Mary Austen is very, very similar to Fanny Dashwood; Philly Walter to Mary Bennet or Mrs. Norris, etc. That did get a little distracting when all I could think was, "Well, she doesn't write from life, so why is [so and so] similar to...?" Many paraliterature writers have the tendency to do this, though, having characters resemble the ones in the Austen novels so that we think, "Oh! That's where she got it from!" Sometimes I like to think Jane could have thought of it on her own, but I guess it's perfectly reasonable for Pitkeathley to reflect the personalities onto Austen's family rather than just making up new characters for this sole purpose.

My other quibble is that the editing leaves much to be desired, which I understand was a frequent complaint about Pitkeathley's other novel, Cassandra and Jane. There are not commas where there probably should be, or there are entirely too many commas, or the quotation marks are badly displaced, among other errors. Since this book is published by Harper, a fairly large publishing outfit, I find that I cannot forgive it as easily as I would if it were self-published. (Self-published books are normally atrociously edited, or at least the ones I have come across are. Seriously, one of them did not correctly spell Aaron Eckhart's last name. It is not that hard to spell, and even if it is, it takes two seconds to pull up IMDb and check. Geez.)

So while the book was not the most perfect thing in the world, it is a perfectly acceptable tale of Jane Austen and one in which I believe many Janeites could find something to like. I would not recommend this to non-Jane fans, however--it might be difficult for them to keep track of Jane's family, and I imagine it wouldn't be as fun without background knowledge of the novels.

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