Writing Jane Austen by Elizabeth Aston

Our heroine in this 298-page novel does not actually read Austen until p. 135 after an almost unbelievable amount of stubborn resistance on her part.  

Before that moment occurs, this reader wants to shake Georgina silly. She has written one book, by all appearances a dark and depressing tale of “realism,” and her agent offers her the chance to complete Austen’s fragment “Love and Freindship” (Austen’s spelling, and therefore perfectly acceptable to me). This woman, quite possibly an agent of Satan, argues that “worried, jobless, indebted people want a richer palette of happiness and good fortune,” and Gina seems to concur that there are two types of novels and novelists:  Austen, she says, is “imagination” whereas Gina go[es] for realism” (7, 17). Gina also calls Austen “romantic,” and I wondered if anyone told Austen she’s now in the same genre as the Bronte sisters (17). Henry, Gina’s landlord of sorts and, early on, a Darcy for Gina’s Elizabeth (though she wouldn’t understand the reference), is better educated and says that “Jane Austen is definitely a realist” (18). Later, Gina feels “incredulity” when she hears Austen readers speaking of “characters in the novels . . . as though they were real people” (79). In her friend Bel’s store, Gina is told that she writes “nightmares,” Bel sells “happy dreams” but Austen “was the ultimate realist” (106).

Still Gina refuses. Even when the teenaged sister of Henry (who, like Georgiana in P&P, is under her brother’s care and tries to avoid the watchful gaze of a pushy aunt) asks Gina how she can possibly know the novels are “just not [her] kind” without having read them, she is just defensive. Rationalizing that “there wasn’t a law, you can’t be a decent person, or count yourself as having a brain, unless you’ve read all the works of Jane Austen” Gina takes an advance on the book she can’t possibly write (45-46). (By the way, there obviously doesn’t need to be a law since the basic truths are self-evident.) (Also by the way, you can see from the previous quotation that this text has some comma errors, but most of them are comma splices rather than unnecessary ones as the one I provided; equally irritating by the way, even if they appear in an attempt at stream-of-consciousness, which Austen avoids, and for good reason.) Gina’s friend from college, who views Victorian novels as “historical gloom,” lives in Bath, named her child after Austen, and runs an everything-Austen boutique, but still Gina refuses to reconsider her ridiculous stance that Austen is just escapism (89).

Yet somehow Gina wins us over. She is clever. (Drafted to speak publicly on Austen without having ever read an Austen work, she asks members of the audience why they read her, for example.) She is creative. (She invents a new dating system: BJA, for Before Jane Austen, and AJS, for After.) Though she is seriously flawed (her procrastination made me nervous), Aston shows us that part of Gina’s journey is learning to behave and think like an Austen heroine—without jealousy, self-pity, or arrogant presumption.  While she has written a seriously depressing book, she instinctively withdraws from a man whose speech she finds “glum”; the reader sees that poor Gina wants happiness (read: Austen) but does not seem to think she wants it (or maybe that it’s even possible for her to achieve) (123). She also resists the arcane garbage (“incomprehensible verbiage” is what she calls it) of “the contemporary world,” much in the way any normal person would (32). Who wants to read about “astigmatic bio-cultural structuralism” or “proto-synaptic supratexts versus intercolonial ratios”? (31). Most endearingly, Gina cries with “an irredeemable sadness” when she completes the sixth of the novels (149). She may have begun by thinking Austen books are “about nothing except class and money,” but she is well on her way to redemption with those tears (96).

Aston also provides a plethora of very different people who appreciate Austen, for some of the same reasons we do, and perhaps, for some different ones.  One “beautiful young man in a ski hat” loves “the structured society,” especially when compared to today’s England, “where morality is a dirty word” (42-43). Another fan appreciates Austen’s heroines who, unlike “modern heroines [who] are predictably passive,” never sit by and whine when life gets tough for them (43). In fact, once Gina understands the appeal of Austen, she realizes that her own heroine must be like Austen’s, who have “too much sense and spirit” to become “loser[s]” or “victim[s]” (166). Meanwhile, the text is sprinkled with names from Austen novels and life (Henry’s last name is Lefroy, for instance) and amusing comments on the sequel phenomenon (“Readers want to imagine having sex with Mr. Darcy, or one of his screen incarnations. Very coarse.”) (104). As Gina slowly enters the Austen world, she naively speculates, “Had anyone written a book where Mr. Darcy turned out to be a vampire?” (87).

I wish I could find that funny, but I’m just not there—yet.

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Published in: on May 12, 2010 at 9:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

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