Emma and the Vampires, by Wayne Josephson – A Review

Austen and vampires. Two powerhouse pop culture juggernauts. Mash them up and they are irresistible to publishers eager to feed on the Twilight & Trueblood craze. Here is a new novel that transforms Emma, Austen’s masterpiece of astute characterization and social reproof into a tale of Undead matchmaking blunders and vampire battles. Will Miss Woodhouse continue to be a nonsensical girl or morph into Buffy the Vampire Slayer?

Once upon a time, long, long ago in Regency times there was a handsome, clever and rich young lady named Emma Woodhouse who had lived close to twenty-one years of her life with very little to vex her. She lived with her kindly old father in a big castle named Hartfield near the village of Highbury. The Woodhouses’ were the first family of consequence in the surrounding neighborhood filled with gentleman vampires. Their particular friend was Mr. Knightley whose pale skin, black eyes and fear of sunlight were attributed to his lack of sleep and dull appetite.

Miss Woodhouse was clueless that anything was amiss though the telltale signs of the Undead were apparent throughout their social sphere. The other ladies of Highbury were also un-mindful accepting the attentions and marriage proposals of the gentleman vampires without concern. Not even their children’s pallid skin and need to hunt for small animals in the nearby forest alarmed them to any measure. However, in the dark forest also lived wild vampires totally lacking in social graces who feasted upon the young ladies in Mrs. Goddard’s school or anyone else careless enough to walk too close to the shrubberies.

Oblivious to the real evils within Highbury, Emma proceeds to match make her friends to unsuitable vampires with disastrous results. Even though she has never had the discipline to apply herself to reading or drawing, or the desire to marry, she discovers quite suddenly that she is a skilled vampire slayer and proceeds to rid the neighborhood of the fiendish Undead while winning the approval and heart of the one gentleman vampire who she discovers she truly loves. And then, with all the evil vampires vanquished and her desire to be a misapplying match maker renounced, they lived happily ever after.

If this synopsis sounds like a charming fairytale of Emma with vampires added in, that was my intention. It was the novel that I wished I had read, but sadly did not. I am exceedingly puzzled by what was attempted. A retelling of Austen’s Emma for young children, or adults that need a dumbed down version laced with vampires to understand the original story?

There is an inherent challenge in retelling a classic; how much to leave in and what to take away. Wayne Josephson has used Austen’s characters and followed the plot faithfully. However, he completely rewrote 99% of the text in his own words. His choice of language is very simple and modern taking away the flavor of Austen’s beautiful prose. Even her famous quotes were axed, removing any grounding to the original text and absolutely all humor.

The vampires have been added for excitement and there were moments of surprise and occasional smiles. This dumbing down of the language and doping up with vampires could have worked beautifully if he had not taken the middle road and either made the story a fractured fairytale parodying Emma and vampires, or gone all out campy and outrageous presenting Emma a la Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Even though this novel has been classified as adult fiction, I think that it appeals more to the young reader in middle school who will be glamoured into reading an Austen retelling by the mention of romance and vampires.

2 out of 5 Regency Stars

Emma and the Vampires, by Wayne Josephson
Sourcebooks (2010)
Trade paperback (304) pages
ISBN: 978-1402241345

© 2007 – 2010 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

Murder at Mansfield Park, by Lynn Shepherd – A Review

Mansfield Park is considered (by some) to be the dark horse of Jane Austen’s oeuvre and her heroine Fanny Price intolerable. Poor Fanny. She really gets the bum’s rush in Austenland. The patron saint of the weak, insipid and downtrodden, she is Jane Austen’s most misunderstood heroine. In fact, many dispute if she is the heroine of Mansfield Park at all, giving that honor to the evil antagonist Mary Crawford.

Much has been debated over why Austen’s dark and moralistic novel has not been embraced as warmly as its sparkling siblings. Personally, I delight in reading Mansfield Park and root for Fanny Price’s principles to prevail. So when I read a book announcement last July that Jane Austen’s classic would be re-imagined as a murder mystery “whereas Fanny is quite a pain in the arse in Austen’s version, Lynn’s [Shepherd] Fanny is an outrageous gold-digger”, my rankles were ired. First it was zombies in my Austen, then vampires and now my gentle Fanny was under attack. What next?

Reading Murder at Mansfield Park with a chip on my shoulder made for a difficult beginning. I was resistant and confused by all the character changes. Shepherd mixes up Austen’s classic story by switching the protagonist and antagonist, morphing other characters and plot points and spotlighting the murder instead of the moralistic undertones that Austen chose to soft shoe her narrative. This was Austen’s setting but in an alternate universe. Meek, poor and principled Fanny Price was egotistical, rich and underhanded. Selfish, coquettish and manipulative Mary Crawford was generous, demure and obliging. Edmund was no longer a Bertram but the son of Rev & Mrs. Norris, now rich gentry. Henry Crawford was no longer an estate owner but a renovator of estates. There were the familiar private theatricals, the gift necklace and ball, the excursion to view a picturesque estate, and the elopement, but all tweaked and scrambled. There are other changes, but you get my drift. If Mansfield Park nay sayers wanted a complete renovation, this was it. The only constant between both novels was the officious and abrasive Mrs. Norris. Obviously Shepherd knew a good/bad thing when she saw it, and let her be.

I was immediately charmed by Shepherd’s command of Regency-era language. Not since Diana Birchall’s Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma have we been treated to such effusions of fanciful Austenesque styling. As the prose eloquently rolled through the first few chapters I set aside my resistance to change and began to appreciate the craft behind the concept of turning everything we knew about Austen’s characters and plot completely asunder. This was a pastiche written with great respect for the original by an author who understood the novel as it was evolving during the early nineteenth-century and had a superior command of the language.

When the insulting and underhanded Fanny Price is finally bumped off half way through the book, few will grieve and many will cheer. She had now become Shepherd’s Fanny and not Austen’s, so it is all forgivable. Enter thief-taker Charles Maddox hired by Tom Bertram to sleuth out the criminal and the novel becomes a murder mystery. Since I have a penchant for handsome and clever gumshoes who swoop in and put the world to right, it was an easy step to acquiescence. Shepherd had achieved the impossible by renovating Jane and totally charming me in the process. Her characterization of Henry Crawford proclaimed that it was his “role is to improve upon nature, to supply her deficiencies, and create the prefect prospect that should have been the imperfect one that is.” I will argue that Lynn Shepherd has accomplished just the same.

5 out 5 Regency Stars

Murder at Mansfield Park, by Lynn Shepherd
St. Martin’s Press (2010)
Trade paperback (384) pages
ISBN: 978-0312638344

© 2007 – 2010 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

Preview & Excerpt from Murder on the Bride’s Side, by Tracy Kiely

As regular readers of this blog well know, Jane Austen and murder mysteries are my genres of choice. Combine the two, and I’m as giddy as Lydia Bennet with an invitation to Brighton.

Last year I discovered a new author who blended both of my favorite flavors into an Austen inspired parfait. Murder at Longbourn introduced us to Elizabeth Parker, a young lady with the intelligence and wit of our favorite heroine Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice and the angst and insecurities of Bridget Jones from Bridget Jones’ Diary. Author Tracy Kiely even supplied us with an arrogant, standoffish hero in Peter McGowan. The results were a witty and intriguing cozy mystery that was surprisingly sophisticated for a debut novel.

Due out August 31st is the next book in the series, Murder on the Bride’s Side. This time the story is inspired by Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Here is the publisher’s description:

Drawing from the classic Sense and Sensibility, Tracy Kiely continues the adventures of Elizabeth Parker, the likable Austen-quoting sleuth, in this witty and charming series.

Elizabeth Parker suspected that fulfilling her duties as maid-of-honor for her best friend, Bridget, was going to be murder. And no sooner is the last grain of rice thrown than she finds herself staring into the dead eyes of Bridget’s Aunt Roni, a woman whose death is almost as universally celebrated as Bridget’s nuptials. The horror only increases when Harry, Bridget’s cousin, becomes the chief suspect. The idea is ludicrous to the family, because Harry is one of the kindest, most compassionate people imaginable. To complicate matters, Elizabeth’s boyfriend, Peter, appears to be falling for an old flame, a gorgeous wedding planner. Determined to clear Harry of the crime, reign in Bridget’s impulsive brand of sleuthing, and figure out where Peter’s heart lies, Elizabeth sets her mind to work.

Tracy Kiely has again brilliantly combined the wit and spunk of Austen’s protagonists with a contemporary, traditional mystery. With a vibrant cast of characters, the lush setting of a Virginia estate, and irresistible humor, she delivers on all counts.

Excerpt from chapter one:

“A death is coming,” Elsie remarked blandly, glancing upwards.

Looking up, I followed her gaze and saw three seagulls gliding on crisp September air. My left temple throbbed slightly at this news. Not, ironically, out of any fear that her prediction would come true, but rather at the explosive effect it might have on the people with me. Elsie is a sophisticated, educated woman, but she has a propensity for fortune telling that would try the most patient of souls. The year I turned twelve, she told me that I would grow up to “marry a rocker and live a life of international travel.”  I had a mad crush on Peter Gabriel at the time and immediately began practicing what I anticipated to be my married name, Elizabeth Gabriel. I even envisioned myself managing his world tours.  Obviously, I wasn’t the most perceptive child. I’m now twenty-seven, have never been married, and work as a fact checker for a local paper in Virginia. As for the international travel, I did once accidentally wander into the duty free shop at the airport, if that counts.

Elsie’s declaration hung in the air, much like the seagulls. Next to me, I was relieved to see that Blythe’s only response was a simple roll of the eyes.  Twenty-eight years as Elsie’s daughter-in-law has inured Blythe to Elsie’s fondness for predictions.  It still irks her, but she has learned to hold her tongue. Bridget, however, Blythe’s daughter and Elsie’s granddaughter, has not yet learned such restraint.

“Elsie!” she burst out. (No one in the family ever calls Elsie anything other than Elsie – the mere idea of calling her “Grandma” or “Nanny” is laughable). “For Christ’s sake! Don’t start this crap now.  The wedding is tomorrow and my nerves are shot as it is!”

Elsie and Blythe, polar opposites in most everything, were united in their response.  “Don’t swear, Bridget,” they said automatically. It was a refrain I had heard directed at Bridget many times over the years.  It had never had any effect, of course, but that didn’t stop her family from trying.

Elsie tilted her black Jackie-O sunglasses down an inch and gazed at Bridget with tranquil blue eyes.  “I am only stating what I see.  And what I see are three seagulls flying overhead — in a city. Which is,” she continued calmly, “a well-known sign that a death is coming.”

“You know what’s another well-known sign?” retorted Bridget with feigned politeness.

I grabbed Bridget’s hand before she could illustrate the gesture, hoping to prevent what would have been the twenty-sixth argument of the day, but Elsie only laughed.

Further reading

The Cookbook Collector, by Allegra Goodman – A “Sense and Sensibility for the digital age.”

Last week a customer presented me with a torn clipping from a newspaper and passionately told me she HAD to read this book! It was a review for The Cookbook Collector, by Allegra Goodman. Ok! I hadn’t read a word about this one yet, but she sure caught my attention. As a bookseller at Barnes & Noble, I love to see readers as excited and determined to read a new book as I am to share my likewise enthusiasm over titles I am downright giddy over. As one book geek to another, it does not get much better.

I handed her a copy from the new fiction release bay. WOW! What a beautiful cover we both exclaimed at the same time. “Jinx,” I said jokingly to her. Smiling in thanks she was off as quickly as she had appeared, the whole encounter took less than three minutes. It is bookselling moments like these that make up for customers who do not know the name of the book, the author, or the subject. Only, that they saw it on a front display table three weeks ago and it has a blue cover. Oy! (Yes I am psychic. It comes with the job.)

As I read the cover flap, I said “WOW” out loud again. Allegra Goodman has been “heralded as ‘a modern-day Jane Austen’ by USA Today.”  Daunting praise indeed. Within inside hollering distance was my assistant manager Andie, fellow Janeite, and Fanny Burney enthusiast. Andie is a discriminate reader who likes to challenge my passion for Jane Austen sequels and had an unhealthy reaction to her first Georgette Heyer novel. (I am slowing winning her over gentle readers after convincing her to read The Grand Sophy. She loved it. Phew. There’s hope.) As I read the cover blurb to her, she said “WOW” too. (Lots of “wow’s” going on here!) She must read it. One convert down.

Next in my mission of hawking the next Jane Austen’s book, I attack Cynthia, fellow bookseller extraordinaire whose excellent taste in reading is only subordinate to my own. I sell her on the two sisters theme; the older “serenely rational” and financially successful dot-com millionairess and the younger, impassioned and impulsive sibling who works as an antiquarian bookseller in Berzerkly. This hits close to home. Bingo. Two converts down.

Today, I find my next victim in my quest to convince all my fellow booksellers to read this book with me. While looking over the new hardcover bestsellers, Amber the amiable but ‘never read a Jane Austen novel in my life’  children’s lead innocently asks me “What should I read next?” Ha! “Where other powers of entertainment are wanting, the true philosopher will derive benefit from such as are given.” P&P. She reads the first chapter and identifies with the sister set-up too. Three down.

At this juncture, if you are in any doubt of my recommendation of this book, please read what the professional reviewers are saying about it.

“The Cookbook Collector” is a romantic comedy, regardless of its serious dot-com, ticker-tape subplot. That enchanting aspect comes from the adventures of Emily’s sister, Jess, the whimsical philosophy student, who eventually reasserts herself as our heroine. Yorick’s, the used-book store where she works, is owned by a single man in possession of a good fortune, so you should have a pretty clear idea of the universal truth we’re pursuing here. George is a retired Microsoft millionaire, a good-looking, 36-year-old curmudgeon who has given up on relationships. He’s “too selfish to marry anyone” anyhow, and he’s constantly complaining about Jess and her granola ideals.

Their prickly banter is a giveaway, but long after we’ve started rooting for them, Jess is still protesting, “We don’t agree on anything.” Can love bloom between a judgmental, uptight bachelor and a dreamy tree-hugger who won’t eat honey from “indentured bees”? Can these opposites finally overcome their pride and prejudice?

Admittedly, too much is going on in this novel. Although a liberal rabbi assures Jess that “there are no coincidences,” that gets harder and harder to believe as they pile up in these pages. And a final revelation of a long-lost family would make Gilbert and Sullivan blush.

Ron Charles, The Washington Post

(Ok. He had me at “a single man in possession of a good fortune,” but throw in a mention of Gilbert and Sullivan and I’m a goner.)

You’ve probably heard this story before: Responsible older sister and flighty, passionate younger sister search for love and fulfillment.

In fact, National Book Award finalist Allegra Goodman has called her new novel, The Cookbook Collector, a “ ‘Sense and Sensibility’ for the digital age.”

Now, one could argue that comparing your own work to Jane Austen’s is like waving a red petticoat in front of a Janeite. But frankly, those estimable souls are probably still too green around the gills from “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” to object strongly.

“The Cookbook Collector” remains a smart, witty treat – ideal for those who like a little intellectual oomph in their summer romances.

Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor

(Waving a red petticoat at a Janeite. *snort*)

If that flighty sister vs. level-headed sister premise sounds familiar, it should. Goodman herself has called her latest novel “A Sense and Sensibility for the Digital Age.” I confess, if anyone other than Allegra Goodman had made that claim, I very likely would have tossed my review copy away. I am very weary of the literary fad of contemporary authors shoplifting plots and characters from the 19th-century fiction warehouse. Poor Jane Austen, in particular, has been plucked clean. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out your local bookstore where you’ll find the latest violations, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Is there no shame?

(We hear you on the sea monster thing sister, but go easy on the plucked clean jabs.)

Goodman’s nimble language, usually displayed in her characters’ sharp readings of one another, is one of the great pleasures of her writing. The other is her ability to integrate serious metaphysical questions into her entertaining comedies of manners. The way in which The Cookbook Collector ultimately veers off from a mere riff on Sense and Sensibility raises crucial doubts about the value of a well-ordered life, as well as the existence of a benevolent God. In Austen’s original, Elinor, the practical one, was rewarded for having two feet on the ground. That was the late Enlightenment talking through Austen. But here, in Goodman, Modernity pulls the rug out from under Emily’s feet.

Maureen Corrigan, NPR

(We have always secretly wanted Marianne’s passions to prevail, so this could be a nice twist.)

You can read an excerpt of The Cookbook Collector on NPR and also listen to the six-minute radio broadcast on Fresh Air.

We shall keep you updated on the body count. You might be next!

Cheers, Laurel Ann

Update! More converts. :-D

Deb Barnum of Jane Austen in Vermont

Claire of The Captive Reader

Meg of Write Meg

Becky of One Literature Nut

Northanger Alibi, by Jenni James – A Review

What qualifies a story as a retelling of a Jane Austen novel? Reverent adherence to Austen’s plot line? Faithful interpretation of characterization?  Emulation of her prose style? I asked myself these questions several times while reading Jenni James’ new novel Northanger Alibi, the first book in her Austen Diaries series of contemporary counterparts to Austen’s six classic novels. At what point does an Austen retelling diverge so far that it is not a retelling at all? And, more importantly, does it really matter? This led me to evaluate my Janeitehood. Am I a Formidable, or an Iconoclastic Austen sequel reader? Honestly, if you can answer these questions immediately, you will know if you want to read this novel or not. I could not decide, so I continued reading.

Claire Hart is a sixteen year old country girl from New Mexico whose never been kissed. Like any teenager she’d like it to be otherwise. She is Twi-hard to the extreme having read the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer numerous times, seen the movies and obsessed over its heroes Edward Cullen and Jacob Black beyond the point of redemption. She is confident that she is now an expert on vampires and werewolves and can spot them on sight. When she and her sister Cassidy are given the chance to travel to Seattle with family friends for a summer holiday she is ecstatic to be near the epicenter of the Twi-world, Forks, Washington. Her trip to the Emerald City takes an interesting turn when she is introduced to Tony Russo, a handsome young man who likes to tease her, is interested in fine fashion, uses the word nice frequently and according to Claire’s first impression is definitely a vampire. Next she meets tall, dark and overbearing Jaden Black who is Quileute, the same local Native American tribe as the Twilight character Jacob and therefore must also be a werewolf. Everything she experiences is seen through the Gothic prism of Twilight characters and she is certain that her deductions are correct. Her sister is skeptical until she too starts reading the addictive novels that Claire has brought along with her. As both of Claire’s new supposedly paranormal male friends vie for her affections, she must learn to distinguish between fiction and reality and to trust her own instincts in matters of the heart.

Northanger Alibi is a charming tale written for a pre-teen audience craving more vampire and werewolf fare after reading the sensationally popular Twilight series. As such, it gently mocks the genre and its obsessive fans while following its heroine in her first experiences with love and romance. The concept of combining Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, a parody of the melodramatic Gothic fiction so popular in Austen’s time, with the hugely successful modern Gothic tale Twilight was intriguing to me. The story had a promising beginning and then wanders away from Austen’s classic tale to the author’s unique plot and characterizations. Her hero and heroine do have similarities to Austen’s Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney: she is impressionable, naive and obsessed with Gothic fiction; he teases, likes fashion and the word nice, but beside a few other plot comparisons and character allusions, that is just about as close as it gets to the original. The ending brings us back to some resemblance of Austen’s story, but by then this reader was baffled.

Why am I picking at this funny and exuberant debut novel written by a promising new author you ask? Because of how it has been marketed. “This modern Gothic remake of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, with a nod to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, will leave you in stitches.” The Formidable in me must warn readers who purchase this book because of the Jane Austen connection that they will find very little Abbey in this Northanger. On the other hand, the Iconoclast in me admires the author’s energy and creativity, and blames her editor and publisher for not pointing out the egregious omissions and addressing them. Promoting this book as a retelling of Austen’s novel is misleading. Promoting this book as a Twilight inspired story for pre-teens pairs the author’s creative choices with her target audience. Northanger Alibi is a great concept novel and a fun read for those interested in Twilight, but not the most rewarding fare for the Janeite who is expecting more than a passing resemblance to the original story.

2 out of 5 Regency Stars

Northanger Alibi: The Austen Diaries, by Jenni James
Valor Publishing Group, Orem, Utah
Hardcover, text (310) pages
ISBN: 978-1935546153

Additional Reviews

The Man Who Loved Pride and Prejudice, by Abigail Reynolds – A Review

Guest review by Christina B.

I was anxious to read The Man Who Loved Pride & Prejudice: A Modern Love Story with a Jane Austen Twist, by Abigail Reynolds as I have been a fan of her Pemberley Variations series for a few years, own all her other commercially published and self-published books and look forward to anything new offered by this author. But I would be quite remiss if I did not warn you, as a friend, that this is a Sourcebooks re-issue of Reynolds’ contemporary romance Pemberley by the Sea, loosely inspired by Austen’s novel Pride & Prejudice. As a reader of many Jane Austen based prequels, sequels and what-ifs, I would have been miffed had I bought this book only to discover I had previously purchased it in 2008 under its original name or even the self-published book from 2007. It is the humble opinion of this reader that Sourcebooks would have done better had they represented this in small text under the new title, “Previously Pemberley by the Sea.”  That said, if you haven’t read it the mass market compact paperback size (and bargain price of $6.99!!) is an ideal companion for your summer vacation. Apparently an entirely new book by Reynolds entitled Mr. Darcy’s Obsession is due out October 2010. Yes, please! In the spirit of Sourcebooks re-issue, here is my re-issue of my original review of this novel:

The story begins on the summer seaside resort of Woods Hole, a research Mecca for marine biologist Dr. Cassie Boulton. As she overhears a conversation between Calder Stephen Westling, III, a rich Republican politician’s son and his friend Scott, Democratic humble inner-city Chicago Cassie casts Calder as pompous and insulting. Sound familiar? As a relationship grows between Cassie’s friend Erin and Scott (paralleling Jane and Bingley), Calder and Cassie are thrown together on various excursions; and like Darcy, Calder finds himself drawn to Cassie. There is a particularly passionate, albeit spontaneous love scene at the beach, and although Calder believes this is only the beginning to their relationship, Cassie dissembles to concentrate on her research. By summer’s end, Calder leaves under a cloud of misunderstanding and heartache, and Cassie returns to her tenure track at a Philadelphia college. Later, she discovers the true identity of one of her favorite romance novelist Stephen R. West is none other than her very own Calder Westing. Like Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth, Calder’s novel (which he has dedicated to her) confesses through his own Pride and Prejudice adaptation, all he was unable to verbalize.

Reynolds does a great job with her characterizations with the exception of Rob Elliott, who is utterly contrived and unconvincing as Cassie’s previous love interest. He is supposed to lend depth to Cassie’s lack of confidence in men; unfortunately, his character seems almost a thin afterthought. Unlike Darcy and Elizabeth, when Calder and Cassie do finally get together, there is quite a bit of coddling and reassuring for each others insecurities. But given their personal histories, can you really blame them?

I own all of Abigail Reynolds’ published works, and as much as I dearly enjoy all her Regency era Pride & Prejudice “what ifs”, this modern romance is a favorite. The first time I read this romance (when Reynolds had self-published it in 2007) I read it from cover to cover in one night as I simply could not put it down. The 2008 Sourcebooks edition had undergone major professional edits – deleting the entire gang connection – which served to make it stronger and more cohesive. And the re-issued The Man Who Loved Pride & Prejudice remains the type of easy read you will want to keep at the top of your ‘to be re-read’ book stack as there is just enough delicious romantic tension to keep you turning the pages. Is it Austen? Well, most assuredly not. But this modern romance can easily stand on its own. For mature eyes only.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

The Man Who Loved Pride and Prejudice: A Modern Love Story with a Jane Austen Twist, by Abigail Reynolds
Sourcebooks Casablanca (2010)
Mass market paperback (448) pages
ISBN: 978-1402237324

Additional Reviews

Jane Austen: Christian Encounters Series, by Peter Leithart – A Review

There are several biographies in print on Jane Austen (1775-1817) revealing her life, family and her inspiration to become a writer. Two very famous books come to mind: Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin (1998) and oddly the same title published in the same year by David Nokes. Both books were extensively researched and are quite lengthy. This new slim volume by Austen scholar Dr. Peter Leithart runs 153 pages and fills an entirely different niche. While the lengthier and exhaustive expositions might appeal to historical researchers, biography enthusiasts and her dedicated fans, the size alone would intimidate the average reader or student seeking the “sparks notes” version so-to-speak of her life. In addition, very few biographies reflect upon the influence of her Anglican faith as a guide to Christian morality in her life and novels. In the introduction Dr. Leithart’s summarizes his motivation for writing the book and its emphasis:

“In the brief compass of this biography, I have tried to capture the varied sides of Austen’s character. Early biographers often turned her into a model of Victorian Christian domestic femininity, and emphasized her Christian faith in an evangelical idiom she never used. In reaction, many more recent biographers all but ignore her faith. Both of those extremes distort Austen’s life and personality. I have tried to depict accurately the depth and sincerity of her Christianity, as well as her Anglican discomfort with religious emotion, but without losing sight of the other sides of her complex character –her playfulness, her satiric gift for ridicule, her ‘waspishness,’ her rigid morality. I have attempted to capture Jane Austen in full.” (pp xvi)

The introduction is entitled Janeia, a term penned by Dr. Leithart to describe “the current obsession with everything Austen” by the media and her fervent fans. If you admit you are one of her disciples, then you are a Janeiac. One fellow reviewer described it as a disease. Leithart describes it as dementia while elaborating on Austen’s pop-culture phenomena and its inaccurate memory of depicting her life and characters. “Austen has become what she never was in life, what she would have been horrified to be: a literary celebrity.” With mild academic disdain, we are taken on a brief tour through her rise in readership through the 19th to 21st centuries and her recent Hollywoodization through movies, books, and spinoffs. In my view, this was not the best way to begin a biography for readers who may not have read about Austen’s life before. That, and I am feigning my own “Austen fandom ridicule fatigue” from being poked at by zombie fans, the media and Austen nay-sayers for the past few years. I am an Austen fan and I do embrace a sense of the ridiculous, but enough already. Go pick on Bronte fans for a while, please.

Besides this eyebrow-raising beginning, this is really an excellent compact biography on an important literary figure and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Leithart includes all the important moments of Austen’s life and also gives us a great background on her family and others in her circle who influenced her education, her social and religious views, and her writing. In seven succinct chapters, we learn of Austen’s wholly English world, her gentry-class family background as a minister’s daughter, home-school education, early manuscripts, disruptions in her writing, final publication, death, and later widespread growth in popularity. There is also a helpful appendix of family, friends, and neighbors and the second appendix of characters in her novels that are mentioned in this biography.

Even though Jane Austen: Christian Encounters has its charms, I must point out a few foibles. Technically it is lacking in an index which I find imperative in biographies no matter how brief or long. Leithart draws from many reputable scholarly sources such as Claire Tomalin, David Cecil, Claudia Johnson, Deirdre Le Faye, Claire Harman and many family letters and recollections citing them in the notes in the back of the book by chapter. I prefer footnotes so you do not have to flip back and forth. Small quibble, I know, but it adds to quicker reference and less disruptive reading. Repeatedly he refers to Jane Austen as “Jenny” but failed to cite the one reference that we know of where she is called this nickname by her father Rev. George Austen when he wrote to his sister on the event of her birth. His reasoning for the repeated use of  “Jenny” was to emphasize the young child-like qualities she retained throughout her life.

Childlikeness might not strike us an apt description of a “serious” novelist like Austen, but this only highlights how pretentious we are about art and artists. Anyone who spends her life making up stories has got to have more than her fair share of whimsy, and nearly all Austen’s virtues, personal and artistic, as well as nearly all of her vices, are those of a woman who, at the center of her soul, remained “Jenny Austen” all her life.

This is debatable, but an interesting opinion.

Pastor, professor and Austen scholar Dr. Peter Leihart has a passion for Austen and her works that permeate throughout this biography. Readers could equate him to a modern-day C.S. Lewis or more accurately the 21st-century version of George Saintsbury who coined the term Janeite in 1894. Even though I had my concerns about how Leithart would present Christianity in Jane Austen’s life and novels, in the long-run it all fit together quite seamlessly. This was not Mr. Collins sermonizing or Edmund Bertram being priggish, but a natural extension of what formed Jane Austen’s character and fueled her brilliant imagination for the enjoyment of millions of readers. Kudos to publisher Thomas Nelson for resurrecting this biography after its first publisher Cumberland House Press folded in 2009 and sold its catalog to Sourcebooks who then passed on publishing it. This was a considerable surprise given that Sourcebooks is the largest publisher of Jane Austen sequels in the world. Like oil and water, do Austen biographies and sequels not mix? I know it is business, but this is the oddest publishing putdown I have heard of in some time and all the more reason to obtain this lovely slim volume for your own edification and enjoyment. Oh, and Dr, Leithart thinks “Real men read Austen.”

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Jane Austen: Christian Encounters, by Peter Leithart
Thomas Nelson, Inc, Nashville Tennessee (2010)
Trade paperback (153) pages
ISBN: 978-1595553027

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Cover image courtesy of Thomas Nelson, Inc. © 2010; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2010, Austenprose.com.

New Jane Austen Short Story Anthology Announced Today

Hot off the presses is an announcement today in Publishers Weekly of a new Jane Austen short story anthology to be published by Random House in 2011. The collection will include approximately twenty stories inspired by Jane Austen, literature’s witty muse of the modern novel and astute observer of human nature and the heart.

Readers familiar with Austen inspired paraliterature will recognize many popular authors among the list of those contributing and a few surprises from best selling authors who greatly admire Austen’s works. Contributing to the line-up are best selling authors Karen Joy Fowler (Jane Austen Book Club), Stephanie Barron (A Jane Austen Mystery Series), Adriana Trigiani (Brava, Valentine), Lauren Willig (The Pink Carnation Series) and the husband and wife writing team of Frank Delaney (Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show) and Diane Meier (The Season of Second Chances). Approximately twenty Austenesque authors and others from related genres have already committed to the project including:

Pamela Aidan (Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman Trilogy)

Elizabeth Aston (Mr. Darcy’s Daughters, & Writing Jane Austen)

Stephanie Barron (A Jane Austen Mystery Series, & The White Garden)

Carrie Bebris (Mr. & Mrs. Darcy Mysteries Series)

Diana Birchall (Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma, & Mrs. Elton in America)

Frank Delaney (Shannon, Tipperary, & Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show)

Monica Fairview (The Darcy Cousins, & The Other Mr. Darcy)

Karen Joy Fowler (Jane Austen Book Club, & Wits End)

Amanda Grange (Mr. Darcy, Vampyre, & Mr. Darcy’s Diary)

Syrie James (The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, & The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte)

Diane Meier (The Season of Second Chances)

Janet Mullany (Bespelling Jane Austen, & Rules of Gentility)

Jane Odiwe (Lydia Bennet’s Story, & Willoughby’s Return)

Beth Pattillo (Jane Austen Ruined My Life, & Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart)

Alexandra Potter (Me & Mr. Darcy, & The Two Lives of Miss Charlotte Merryweather: A Novel)

Jane Rubino and Caitlen Rubino Bradway (Lady Vernon & Her Daughter)

Myretta Robens (Pemberley.com , Just Say Yes, & Once Upon a Sofa)

Maya Slater (The Private Diary of Mr. Darcy)

Margaret C. Sullivan (AustenBlog.com, & The Jane Austen Handbook)

Adriana Trigiani (Brava Valentine, Very Valentine, & Lucia, Lucia)

Laurie Viera Rigler (Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, & Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict)

Lauren Willig (The Pink Carnation Series)

In addition, a short story contest hosted by the venerable The Republic of Pemberley website will be held to fill one slot in the anthology for a new voice in Austenesque fiction. Further details on submission and manuscript deadlines will be posted here and at Pemberley.com.

And if you were wondering how I know so much about the project, I have been secretly working on it for months and will be the editor. I’m the luckiest Janeite in the world!

Cheers, Laurel Ann

© 2007-2010 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

Writing Jane Austen, by Elizabeth Aston – A Review

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
ISBN: 978-1416587873

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