Lily Berry is a needy, desperately unhappy dreamer who after reading “The Six” (Jane Austen’s six major works) has let her affection for dear Jane run wild—reading and re-reading the novels, and chronically sabotaging her personal life by “squeezing herself into undersized romances.” She finds herself at an all-time low when she is actually fired from her job for reading Mansfield Park, when she should have been working. (One wonders out loud if her boss would have been more sympathetic if she had been reading Pride and Prejudice?) Lily then discovers her father has been having an affair for years, and the recent death of her mother seems to free him to marry this Sue person. Not until her ex-boyfriend humiliatingly confronts her while she is stalking him, does she see the urgency in jettisoning from her present miserable life and escape to the past for “one magical summer spent re-enacting Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.” So, she sells off all her possessions, buys a plane ticket to Great Britain, and begs an acting role in a summer literary festival.
Lily is debut author Cindy Jones’ endearingly flawed heroine of My Jane Austen Summer: A Season of Mansfield Park. Once she lands in England, her Jane Austen manifestation (repeatedly referred to as My Jane Austen) becomes more dominant, never speaking out loud (well, except for that one time when Lily performed her one-woman show entitled “The Lost Letters of Jane Austen” and dear Jane hijacks Lily’s person, incensing the entire audience with her tongue– which we all know is sharp as a guillotine!), but always listening, constantly making lists, taking notes and raising an eyebrow to Lily’s antics. Lily explains her imaginary friend by confessing,
“Everyone who has read The Six… believes they know Jane Austen personally. In our secret hearts, each of us believes that she speaks to us personally in her writings. My Jane Austen just happens to follow me around most of the time.” (141)
As Lily struggles to find a place for herself in the amateur tea theatre, she immerses herself in the politico with the diverse personas of society amongst Jane Austen fans, Austen scholars, actors, benefactors, a selfish roommate and even, of course, a fine, albeit engaged, deacon in the Anglican Church.
Even when it appears Lily is doomed to repeat her self-destructive pattern and fall for a roguish actor, she meets the handsome, cerebral, mysterious clergyman Willis Somerford, whose “daily dose of attention” she quickly becomes addicted to. After Willis stops Lily from taking off her shirt in a sexually charged seduction, she conjectures that “Maybe he wanted to look at me in the moonlight. But then he touched the blouse and, starting at the bottom, he buttoned one after the other until all were closed. Then he held my hands again. ‘We don’t know each other, Lily…’” he gifts her with more than any other man has before—offering her to bare more than her bosom, “Tell me why you’re so sad.”p.150. But, as the plot thickens, we question who is the villain after all?
Thrown into this rich mix is The Fanny War, the debate that maybe, just maybe, Jane Austen’s writings were masked with political issues,
“It is quite possible that the trip to Antigua is no more than a literary device to get the father out of the house and further the courtship plot. Put yourself in 1814, Magda.’ ‘I have,” she shot back. ‘And in 1811, the Slave Trade Felony Act was introduced. Austen knew this; her readers knew this. Fanny price was an abolitionist.’” (144)
Amidst the backdrop of serious Austen discussion and festival producers clamoring for financing and lease agreements, Lily mourns that money and status seem almost as important in modern times as it was in Austen’s day.
The themes may seem all too familiar. Contemporary Jane Austen fan, escapes the troubles of her reality and immerses herself in Austen’s England (Austenland by Shannon Hale) after boyfriend/husband has abandoned her for another woman (Jane Austen Ruined My Life by Beth Patillo,) she communes with her very own Jane Austen who serves as a moral compass to stop the pattern of destructive behavior (According to Jane by Marilyn Brant.) And yet, My Jane Austen Summer is entirely fresh! Although Lily might be compared to Mansfield Park’s modern day underdog, Fanny Price, Jones’ does not take the obvious road by contriving similarities or scenarios to simply mirror Austen’s masterpiece. She allows Lily to be weak of the flesh and vulnerable emotionally, and yet give her the opportunity to change.
While I prefer my novels to have conventional, clear-cut happy endings, I was satisfied with the possibilities. And hope. We are introduced to Lily as a clingy, unlikable protagonist, but she emerges a stronger woman who rather than dream of living in a novel might in fact, “write her own happy ending.” Cindy Jones triumphs with My Jane Austen Summer, as she has cleverly shown how Jane Austen’s novels are still relevant in our higgledy-piggledy world today.
Bonus points for the author’s extras entitled “Your Private Austen: Six Steps to a Closer Walk with Jane” that lists things any self-respecting Austen fan really must do; and the Questions & Answers; and the Discussion Questions—perfect for book clubs.
4 out of 5 Stars
My Jane Austen Summer: A Season of Mansfield Park, by Cindy Jones
Trade paperback (352) pages
Cover image courtesy of HarperCollins © 2011; text Christina Boyd © 2011, Austenprose.com