Stepping into the 21st-century, Elizabeth Aston’s new novel Writing Jane Austen offers a completely different vintage of Austen inspired paraliterature than her previous six books based on Pride and Prejudice characters and their families from the early 19th-century. Set in present-day London, readers will immediately discover that Austen’s influence of three or four families in a country village, social machinations and romantic entanglements are far removed from this author’s intentions – and our heroine Georgina Jackson is no Lizzy Bennet. One wonders out loud if this change is a good thing. Well, this is definitely not your mother’s traditional Austen sequel. With one eyebrow raised, I am reminded of Mr. Knightley’s comment in Austen’s novel Emma, “surprises are foolish things”. We shall see if his advice is warranted.
Georgina Jackson is an American writer living in London with one highly acclaimed but not so best-selling book under her belt. Her specialty is grim late Victorian and her second novel is way over deadline. Her high-powered agent Livia Harkness is about to scratch her off her client list when she offers her a literary chance of a lifetime to complete a recently discovered unfinished manuscript by Jane Austen. Georgina is not impressed. She does not do the early nineteenth-century. She is, however, getting nowhere with her present novel, over-drawn at the bank and terrified to be deported back to America with no money and a dead career. With little choice, she begrudgingly accepts the job, even though she thinks Austen is only about frivolous romance and has never had a desire to read one of her books.
The pressure is on to complete the novel in three months so she sets off on a research expedition to discover everything she can about Austen in the Bodleian Libray in Oxford. Overwhelmed, she heads to Bath to follow in Austen’s footsteps through the beautiful Georgian city. Finding the Jane Austen™ franchise everywhere and seemingly everyone making money off it, Georgina is repulsed and now dislikes Austen and her obsessive fans even more. Next, she travels to Lacock, a Regency-era village to experience life as Jane would have known it. There she finds more trinket shops, tour buses and a film shooting of yet another adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Discouraged, Georgina returns to London to her rented room in a terrace house she shares with her landlord Henry Lefroy an unemployed banker, Maude his precocious teenage sister and Anna Bednarska the indefatigable Polish housekeeper. They all know and admire Austen’s works and are ready and willing to coach her through any snags. Still procrastinating and stymied to write a word, Georgina finally opens Pride and Prejudice. Engrossed, she reads all of Austen’s six major novels nonstop for two days. Her life would never be the same.
This fast passed novel is packed full of Austen lore galore, though you do not have to be a Janeite to enjoy all the in-jokes and jabs at the Austen industry. Anyone who has seen the BBC 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice will get half the humor. Janeites will get all of it and laugh and roll their eyes at how Austen fandom is viewed by the uninitiated. Even though this is a new style for Aston, the framework has been around since Helen Fielding introduced us to her angst-ridden and weight obsessive Bridget Jones in 1995. Is this chick-lit you ask? Definitely. Aston’s heroine Georgina Jackson is as ambitious and insecure as her pink covered compatriots but without the main drive to find a man. Instead, Georgina’s objective is to find Austen and learn to write like her. Aston is a master at research and I found her historical references to Austen, her novels and her family quite impressive. By three-quarters into the book I wished the heroine would accept her plight and just get on with writing, but that was the author’s prolonged point. Readers will be entertained by the quirky humor of Georgina’s dilemma, charmed and annoyed by the well-crafted supporting characters and surprised by the eventual outcome. However, if you are expecting a drawing-room drama punctuated by romance, Writing Jane Austen is exactly what its title implies.
4 out of 5 Regency Stars
Writing Jane Austen: A Novel, by Elizabeth Aston
Touchstone, New York (2010)
Trade paperback (320) pages