Jane Austen’s novels brim with irony, witticism, and in the end, a gentle reprove or two. It is why I love her writing. Few authors can deliver this dry, deft and wickedly funny style. Michael Thomas Ford is one of them.
His latest novel Jane Bites Back is more than a gentle joke, it is a sly wink at the Austen and vampire industry. The clever title alone tells us that Ford has more than a keen sense of humor. The story concept is even better. Nearly two hundred years after her reputed death and burial at Winchester Cathedral in 1817, Jane Austen is actually not dead, but a vampire living in Brakeston, a small university town in upper-state New York. As the owner of Flyleaf Books she watches with irritation and frustration as other less talented writers make a killing off her novels and characters with sequels, spin-offs and absurd self help books. To add insult to injury, Constance, the last novel that she wrote before her turning remains unpublished after two hundred years and 116 rejections.
Jane’s quiet country life is comfortable but unfulfilling. She has retained her anonymity over the centuries ironically adopting the name of Jane Fairfax, one of her characters in her novel Emma who is also orphaned but a highly accomplished young lady hiding secrets. She enjoys her friendship with her young shop assistant Lucy who reminds her of her dear sister Cassandra and is both flattered and annoyed by the attentions of Walter, a local carpenter/contractor who restores vintage homes and would like to do the same with Jane’s heart. Two surprising events change her life dramatically: a legitimate offer to publish her novel, and the return of a former paramour, the mad, bad and dangerous to know poet Lord Byron who seduced and then turned her two hundred years ago. The first she is elated over. The second she reflects upon falling for his entrapment with regret and horror exclaiming in a typical ironic quip…
Men, she thought. The downfall of women since Adam blamed Eve for that stupid apple. She wondered briefly if it was too late to become a lesbian. “I’m sure they have just as difficult a time of it,” she said to the empty room. “Love is dangerous for everyone.”
Our Jane is no namby pamby vegetarian vampire. A proper Regency lady she follows decorum, feeds off human blood only to stay alive, and mind you, in the most discreet fashion. Like the unpropitious characters in her novels who are in need of a dressing down, she chooses victims based on their bad behavior, never taking or turning anyone. She also enjoys a few human indulgences such as drinking wine, eating chocolate ice cream, living with a cat named Tom and an infatuation with actor Richard Mansfield, the pattering comic baritone of the D’Olyly Carte opera company, tra la. When her life gets too challenging, she closes her eyes and thinks of England.
Light, campy and a bit Buffyish, Jane Bites Back is a modern Gothic novel full of Janeite lore and paranormal hijinx that the “sick and wicked” side of Jane Austen would find quite amusing. The literary and historical references really shine. Happily, a certain Bronte scholar gets her cumuppance in a drawing room throw-down which we have been patiently waiting 150 years for and bad boy Byron’s romantic and vampiric dalliances are thwarted by our light, bright and sparkly vampire heroine.
Read with tongue-in-cheek and a full glass of suspended disbelief, you will chortle and guffaw until the last bite. This Janeite was truly “glamoured.”
5 out of 5 Regency Stars
Jane Bites Back, by Michael Thomas Ford
Ballantine Books (2009)
Trade paperback (299) pages