I went from a Jane Austen “sequel” to a contemporary novel about someone trying to write like Jane Austen. I was hopeful, but the snob in me noted that Elizabeth Aston has written six Austen “sequels” and I have to admit that I started out with a little negative bias.
Georgina, the American protagonist, starts with a similar negative bias. She’s a celebrated author of one realistic and depressing novel set in the grim industrial world of the nineteenth century. Good reviews, few readers, no satisfied readers. Her agent tells her that, if she wishes to stay in Great Britain and to have a roof over her head and food in her belly, she WILL finish a Jane Austen novel, of which one chapter exists, that has been found by her publisher. And she will do it within months so the discovery doesn’t leak and someone else doesn’t scoop the novel. Georgina has never even read Jane Austen and sees her as a pampered and deluded middle-class bore, particularly in comparison with the working-class women Georgina has studied in her history doctorate and about which she wrote her first novel. She signs the contract in order to maintain her standard of living and her residency, but she flees the near-stalker attentions of her agent and publisher and the robotically intellectual scholar-sister of her publisher. She flees to an old friend in Bath where she takes in the feel of the city in which this discovered Austen chapter is set and bristles at every turn. Aston has great fun making fun of Austen-esque writers and Austen fans in these chapters and then showing all of their complaints to be ignorant bunk as Georgina begins to fall for Austen.
She begins, after great delay, reading Pride and Prejudice, and is so carried away that she does not sleep for two days and then races through the remaining five novels, only to finish exhausted and depressed that there are only six.
The plot is weak here. Georgina’s aversion to Austen is thinly explained through her scholarly bigotry, but, in my experience, most historians, while fans of their own time period, are interested in history generally and would welcome the chance to explore a period with such a well-defined project at hand and the ability to see the places and read the words of their subject. The result is that Georgina comes off spoiled and ridiculous.
Much more interesting is the household of characters in which Georgina lives. Her landlord, Henry, is an ex financial wizard studying physics. His housekeeper, Anna, is a Polish dance and music student and fantastic cook. His younger sister, Maud, is a rebel teenager who is kicked out of boarding school and who acts as Georgina’s Austen mentor while she’s home searching for a new school. None of these characters are fully developed, but are interesting premises. The reader’s guide at the end of the book asks how the characters are like Austen characters, and I can see the shades, but the best comparison is that, like many of Austen’s interesting secondary characters, we just don’t hear enough about them.
I almost envision the setting like this: Aston has written six Austen “sequels” and her agent says, what’s next? Aston says she’s tired of writing about the Darcy family, that she’s exhausted that line for the moment, and her agent says, well, it’s time for another book, so choose something. Aston cranks out writing jane austen fairly quickly using the formula for Austen novels, which she discusses as part of Georgina’s writing process within the story, and without having to think about period language and with comfort in the knowledge that having Jane Austen in the title will sell the book. It worked on me.
One aspect of the book that was particularly annoying was Georgina’s habit of having visitations from the world of Austen, complete with conversing with characters and smelling the streets. This happens repeatedly, but goes nowhere. Aston explains it with, well, now Georgina knew she was fully immersed in the world of JA. Really?
Perhaps this book is best read as a parody of Aston’s own writing career and those of her fellow Austen-esque writers. Rather than loving JA and being one of the fans she despises, Georgina has JA thrust upon her and, even though she works hard to avoid her, JA wins her over in the end and even invades her psyche. All while an Austen-esque hero, Henry, supports quietly and firmly from the sidelines and a rebellious young girl who wants to improve the situation for others humorously interferes. I can go with that and respect it, except for the nagging doubts I have that Aston may have taken herself seriously in writing this book. Maybe I’ll try one of her Austen “sequels” before I make my final judgement. Or maybe not.