Tuesday, July 27, 2010
In Which Trai Reviews 'Writing Jane Austen'
The Book: Writing Jane Austen: A Novel
The Author: Elizabeth Aston
How I Found It: As an avid Janeite, I keep my eye on Jane-related releases, and this one sounded interesting. Given that Aston writes Austen sequels, I was curious to read her take on the Austen paraliterature industry through the eyes of a fictional character who hasn't read any Austen.
The Review: If ever there were a person unlikely to write like Jane Austen, it would be Georgina Jackson, an American woman living in England. They write the same century, but in completely different places--Austen wrote early eighteenth century, whereas Georgina's sole book, critically acclaimed but nowhere near bestselling, was set in the late eighteenth century. Austen wrote characters with life, sparkle, and romance; Georgina writes about the miseries of industrial life in that era. Georgina has miseries of her own, including an exceedingly unpleasant agent who has just given her the worst possible job for Georgina: completing a newly discovered Jane Austen manuscript.
Georgina is convinced she's the worst person for the job: not only do she and Austen have different styles, she's never read any Austen at all! She's determined to turn down the job, until she's informed that her bank account is overdrawn and her fellowship money from her university is being revoked. Georgina cannot bear the thought of leaving England, which she would have to do without more money, and she finds herself with no choice but to accept the daunting job. Her housemates--her landlord, Henry, a banker turned science student; his 14-year-old sister Maud, a passionate Janeite; and the maid, Anna--are all Austen fans who are more than willing to help. The problem? Georgina's exposure to the industry Austen has caused and its passionate fans has made her even more unwilling to write the novel, and procrastination is quickly becoming her friend.
I was at first wary of this novel, given that I'd tried the first of Aston's six Pride and Prejudice sequels two years ago and gave up a bit of the way in when it didn't enthrall me. I'm quite pleased to report that it far surpassed my expectations and has quickly become one of my favorite Austen-related books.
I just loved Aston's wry commentary on the Austen paraliterature craze and the hoopla surrounding Austen's novels and their adaptations, her sly nods to Jane Austen, and the utter freshness of the story. I have read a number of Austen-related books since I finished the six novels in 2007 and 2008, and nearly every contemporary paraliterature heroine has romantic woes. Not so here! Instead of relating her modern heroine's struggles to Austen romantically, Aston chose to put financial pressure on her heroine, a common situation in Austen and one that's certainly believable today. It was such a relief to read about a witty heroine who honestly has no regard for her romantic life until very late in the book (an ex-boyfriend is mentioned but not dwelled upon). This is opposed to the many paraliterature heroines I've read who simply complain about their boyfriends or exes, all of whom are quite evidently jerks (miraculously not noticed by said heroine until late in the book, without fail). Given that Aston has written Austen sequels herself, she had an interesting insider's perspective that certainly must have contributed to this book.
I give Aston much credit for making Georgina such a convincing character, one who is so far from Aston's love for Austen. Georgina has the attitude of many who have not read, and have no desire to become acquainted with, Jane Austen. She is convinced the novels are about nothing but romance, and cannot fathom why so many people fall all over them. One of the most amusing and revealing segments of the novel occurs in Bath, a place I was lucky enough to visit when I was in England and one that is indeed an Austen tourist mecca. Georgina finds herself assailed by an Austen tour bus that brings with it a cast of diverse Austen fans--a Russian man whose allegiance lies with Jane rather than Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, two middle-aged American women (the common image of a Janeite; at 19, I'm quite a rarity), and two teenagers who merely moon over the movie adaptations. I liked the way the book touched on the broadness of Austen's appeal and showed the many forms her fans can come in. It also accurately captures the bewilderment a person unacquainted with Austen must surely feel when confronted with the immense amount of merchandising that has come out of the books and their adaptations. Many of Georgina's musings on the industry had me laughing out loud. As a younger Jane fan, I buy into the sequel/mashup craze more easily than most, but even if you don't actually read the sequels, I think you'd be able to get a good laugh out of the sly jokes made at their expense.
I also enjoyed the other characters in the story, mainly Henry and Maud, Georgina's primary allies. They are an example of one of Aston's many slight nods to Austen's work--their fourteen-year age difference and Henry's responsibility for her education is a clear reference to the relationship of Darcy and Georgiana in P&P. Maud was a particular favorite of mine; at 14, she is quirky but a serious lover of Austen, and I was reminded of how my friends have come to treat me as the Austen authority. I was pleased to see acknowledgment of the fact that Jane Austen can attract young fans; I started reading her work at 16 and many are often surprised that I'm a passionate fan this young. Both Henry and Maud are enjoyable characters who make valiant efforts to force Georgina into writing, and Henry sweetly attempts to study the science behind writer's block. The book had many elements in common with an Austen novel--a family in a small house; a gossipy relative (Maud); a maid (Anna); dinners, a ball, and some very dry acquaintances one is glad not to have met in real life. The list of Austen references (to the books and to Austen's own family) is innumerable and I loved the "aha!" moment I got on seeing each one.
There were some minor flaws in the novel; I did find myself wishing Georgina would get on with the actual writing of it sooner or later, though Aston's point did lie in the procrastination (which I am no stranger to myself, as a college student). There was also a very small error, but the context made it seem egregious--in a paragraph about Georgina carefully checking over her punctuation, we get the misspelling of Austen's name as "Austin." Some plots that could have been more fully developed with another fifty pages or so are skimmed over--such as Henry's girlfriend, who is actively lying to him about her whereabouts and such, which Georgina discovers... and then does not relate this to Henry. That baffled me and I was surprised that every character but Henry seemed to know it. I feel as though some pages could have been taken from Georgina's procrastination methods and instead lent to exploring that minor plot hole more fully.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed the novel and would recommend it without hesitation to any Janeite who's tired of the sequel craze or someone like me who enjoys a good laugh about it. It's from a unique perspective and has a great deal of Austen humor. I'd recommend some sort of familiarity with Austen, even just through the movies, before diving in; it will make the experience so much more fun! I will have to try some of Aston's sequels now and will be on the lookout to see if any more contemporaries come from her; if they are anything like this one, I will feel as though I'm in for a treat.