From the desk of Tracy Hickman:
Janet Todd’s latest novel is described as “a (light) meditation on age, mortality, friendship, the tensions and attractions between generations, hope, and the excitement of change” on the back cover. Turning over the attractive green paperback with its decorative motif of foliage and Jane Austen silhouettes, I noticed the subtitle: “A Novel with Pictures.” Thumbing through the pages I glimpsed a sketch of a hedgehog, dozens of nature snapshots, a Welsh flag, a Jane Austen ten-pound note, and the Mona Lisa with sunglasses and a mustache. Jane Austen and Shelley in the Garden begins with the famous line from Pride and Prejudice, revealing a streak of irreverence:
“It is a truth universally, begins Jane Austen…
Shhh, says Fran, finger on lips. Not subtle. Money and sex. How many versions before you settled on that flirtatious opening?” (3)
Fran, retired from teaching at university, lives in a Norfolk cottage. She spends her days reading, gardening, and conversing with her Author (Jane Austen), who is often her severest critic. When Fran’s friend Annie visits the cottage, she’s concerned by Fran’s frequent mutterings to herself and odd conversations with strangers in pubs. She tells Fran:
‘Dr Johnson thought solitude and idleness roads to madness.’
‘Can’t do idleness,’ grins Fran, fingering the screwdriver in the drooping pocket of her jumpsuit. She stares at the drizzle making pointillism on the small-paned windows, then swivels her eyes toward thin cracks in the bulging plaster round the wood frames.
Mice scamper along private alleyways.
To prevent Annie noticing, she speaks loudly, ‘I’m planning to write now I’ve time. Something oblique, a little personal.’
‘Writing in solitude’s as mad as talking to yourself. Virginia Woolf’s room of her own was in a big family house. You’ll never have a writing group out here. You haven’t even joined a book club.’ (5)
A few months later, Fran visits Annie in Cambridge and meets several of her friends and colleagues: Rachel, a middle-aged American author and creative writing teacher; Thomas, an ex-student of Annie’s; and Tamsin, a rising academic star. During Fran’s visit, the diverse group meets several times over drinks and dinner. During one conversation, several members suggest a trip to Wales to visit a site where Percy Shelley lived. Fran, Rachel, and Thomas arrange to spend a few days touring the rainy Welsh countryside. Fran, who grew up in the area, is on a trip informed by nostalgia and family remembrance. This irritates Rachel and Thomas, who prefer to keep the focus on Shelley so that they can take turns displaying their knowledge of the poet. Thomas may be Annie’s protégé, but he has decided that making a favorable impression with the visiting American may be advantageous for his career prospects. At the conclusion of the trip, Rachel suggests further exploration of Shelley’s life—in Venice. With a warm, sunny destination on the research itinerary, Annie and Tamsin join in this time, as everyone looks forward to “nice hotels, prosecco, baccalà.” (125) Each person has their reasons for wanting to travel to Venice: curiosity, ambition, restlessness, desire. But what will they find when they arrive? And how will the trip change them?
Jane Austen and Shelley in the Garden blends literary allusion with sharp-witted dialogue. The perceptions and misunderstandings across the generational divide are rendered with wit and insight. What I most enjoyed were Fran’s observations of her fellow academics and her conversations with her Author. These are peppered with ideas and references from Jane Austen’s novels and letters.
“Jane Austen usually avoids commenting on other shadows, but can’t resist nimbly descending the stairs to whisper to Fran, Your Shelley’s a hypochondriac. Had I known this, I might have lodged him in Sanditon and dosed him with asses’ milk.
I do agree, Fran whispers back. He could have been mates with Sir Edward Denham and talked high poetry. They both giggle.
Thomas assumes his allusion to butter biscuits has provoked this response. ‘But seriously, it was the world’s slow stain that affected him. A poet of his calibre is indeed more delicate, more sensitive than others.’
I fancy, Jane Austen continues, I’d have had little time for him in life.” (84)
Fran, Annie, and Rachel discover that whether they choose to accept or rebel against age, gender, and class stereotypes, their safely cocooned lives will increase rather than diminish their suffering. Taking a different path becomes an act of self-determination and hope that unites them while affirming each woman’s unique identity. As much as I enjoyed spending time with these women, I sometimes struggled to follow the discussions of Shelley’s life and work. If I had attempted to look up every unfamiliar reference, I would have become hopelessly bogged down. While this was a minor difficulty for me as I read, it barely registered when I looked back at the novel overall. What remained were the stories of the living, not the shadowy trails of the dead.
In the acknowledgements, Ms. Todd notes that the novel was written during last year’s lockdown, using only “memories, photos and leftover bits from earlier projects.” (289) The photos (many of them taken by the author) and illustrations add to the eclectic, playful tone as does as Fran’s lively conversations with her Author and her friends. The engaging characters and relational dynamics kept me turning pages as I journeyed to Norfolk, Cambridge, Wales, and Venice. Anyone who agrees that “Jane Austen novels live in the head” (289) will find Janet Todd’s Jane Austen and Shelley in the Garden a thoughtful, humorous, and life-affirming read.
5 out of 5 Stars
- Jane Austen and Shelley in the Garden: A Novel with Pictures, by Janet Todd
- Fentum Press (September 7, 2021)
- Trade paperback & eBook (304) pages
- ISBN: 978-1909572270
- Genre: Austenesque, Contemporary Fiction
We received a review copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Austenprose is an Amazon affiliate. Cover image courtesy of Fentum Press © 2021; text Tracy Hickman © 2021, austenprose.com.