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Archive for the ‘Elizabeth Aston’ Category

I mentioned when I first brought Writing Jane Austen by Elizabeth Aston back from the library that I was nervous.  I always am when faced with a new Austen sequel or Austen-esque novel – there is so much potential for disaster.  But Aston is a favourite of mine when it comes to her Pride and Prejudice-based novels.  She is clever enough to use original characters, relegating Austen’s main characters to the background from where they very rarely appear.  But, I worried, Writing Jane Austen isn’t a historical novel, it’s contemporary and the concept is terrifying in its potential for disaster: a young American writer is tasked with completing a newly discover Jane Austen manuscript.  Worse, the writer, Georgina, knows nothing about Austen, has never read any of her books (and has no interest in doing so) and specializes in gritty, Victorian tales with unlikable, hard-bitten characters – hardly the stuff of Austen.

How could I have ever doubted Aston?  She took a plot that was giving me anxiety headaches even before I started reading and created a wonderful, funny, sweet novel not about writing Jane Austen but about discovering her genius and the joy of her novels.  The gentle humour, pointed at both Janeites and the Austen Industry and, less gently, the publishing world is exactly right in tone.  And like all good Austen novels, it has not one wedding but two.  I am suitably ashamed that I ever doubted Aston.

After the critical, but not commercial, success of her first novel, Georgina is having trouble with her second novel.  She’s written an endless number of first chapters but can never seem to move past that.  Running out of money and with the remaining days on her visa slipping by, she’s desperate enough to be coerced by her publisher into writing a novel in the style of Jane Austen, based on an abandoned manuscript that has just come to light.  But Georgina knows nothing about Jane Austen and it’s her encounters with Janeites and the entire Austen-based industry that provide much of the humour of the first half of the book.  Georgina has nothing but distain for Austen and her followers, with (hilariously) sneering opinions of her most famous hero:

“Mr. Darcy.  Even Georgina knew who Mr. Darcy was, the Ur romantic hero, tall, dark and handsome, the archetype for generations of curling-lipped heroes sweeping girls off their feet with their arrogance and hard sexiness.  Another unreal figure, and sure to be a bloodless figure in comparison to a Heathcliff or a Mr Rochester.  How depressing that such a figure could still arouse teenage enthusiasm.” P. 86-87

Georgina considers Austen a romantic fantasist – a fan of the Brontës, she is familiar with Charlotte’s critique of Austen and ready to use it (oh, the eternal Brontë versus Austen debate).  Georgina is comfortable with tragedies and drama, unimaginable hardships and shocking depravity.  For her, Austen’s novels represent a world that never was, that glossed over the poverty and inequalities of the day, who believes “that’s why this fascination with Jane Austen is so damaging, people harking back to a time when people were seriously oppressed and pretending it was some kind of golden age” (p.78).  Aston sparks a lively dialogue through her many minor characters about the value of Jane Austen, unafraid to bring up the negative arguments as well as the positive.     

But then Georgina reads Austen’s novels and, like most readers, falls in love.  What a perfect portion of the book this is!  You can’t help but feel excited and proud but, at the same time, sad and rather jealous of her.  You can only ‘discover’ Austen once.  Every reread is a delight, but the excitement of the story the first time, the shock of Darcy’s first proposal, the agony of Anne watching Captain Wentworth with Louisa Musgrove, Emma’s shame at the Box Hill picnic…and the joy of all those happy endings!  To experience that again for the first time!  Georgina reads them straight through, almost in a trace, one after the other, pausing only to bathe or take quick naps.  How could I not love a book where the heroine is pulled into such a trace by some of my favourite novels?  And how suiting that Georgina’s first impression after finishing her marathon read is how sad and unfair it is that Austen only lived long enough to write six novels.  Who among us has not had that reaction, whether on the first reading or the twentieth?

For those of us who enjoy literary references within our reading, there are more than enough to keep us satisfied.  When Georgina is stalling and avoiding working, her young friend Maud remarks “we’re going to have to lock her into her room with her computer, like Cassandra did to her father in I Capture the Castle” (p.98).  And the names of the characters!  The aforementioned Maud and her older brother Henry (Georgina’s landlord – yes, it is convenient to have a live-in love interest) are the Lefroys.  Their cousin is Charles Grandison, son of Lady Pamela.  The dour MP Mr. Palmer appears several times, flighty wife in tow.  All these illusions, littered throughout the text, waiting there as private jokes, a wink or nudge, a reminder that we’re laughing together even as we’re laughing at ourselves. 

The second half, as Georgina struggles to write, now understanding the genius of the writer she must emulate, doesn’t quite live up to the humour and energy of the first half.  Georgina comes across as weaker, less decisive, and, frankly, a little useless as she moans how unworthy and unprepared she is to write this novel, rather than getting down to the work or facing up to her publisher.  Happily, there’s a secondary love story blooming during this period to distract the reader somewhat.  By the end, everything works out just as it should, as though there were any doubt. 

On an aesthetic note, I was irrationally pleased by the cover: it features a young woman with dark curly hair wearing a red beret.  It just so happens that our heroine is a young woman with dark curly hair who, with some frequency, dons a red beret.  This never happens!  Covers all too often seem to be designed (and approved) by people who have never read the book, so exceptions should be noted and commended.

Writing Jane Austen is a delightful distraction and another worthy addition from Aston to the ever-growing stack of Austen-esque novels.

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