Further Reading: Second Impressions
February 15, 2012
Knowing little of the person but what I read in The New York Times, Sandy Lerner, as an idea, has long fascinated me, to the extent that she inspired a minor character in The Jane Austen Project, an ancient Ph.D. mathematician and tech billionaire with an obsession with literature, thought to be bankrolling the Jane Austen Project. When it turned out that Ms. Lerner (who for the record is neither ancient nor a Ph.D.) was giving a talk at my own local Jane Austen Society chapter, on a night that I already had off, no less, that I would be going to hear her was obvious.
I don’t know what I expected, except that it was certain to be interesting. It was that, and much more. Ms. Lerner, it turns out, has written a novel, having spent 26 years researching a historically accurate sequel to Pride and Prejudice. The first part of her talk was a brief account of the primary sources she consulted in these 26 years, and while this was completely fascinating to someone who’s been trying to do kind of the same thing, only not for 26 years, and with much less money, it did make my heart sink a bit. For one thing, no ordinary person can fail to envy a Cisco founder’s fortune in how it helps gaining access to primary sources. If you need a rare book, you buy it. It’s almost as simple as that. You establish your own library of circa-1800 English books on every topic that might possibly be of use or interest, and when you want to consult them, you stroll down the hallway to your library! How can the rest of us possibly compete with that? We can’t. But this is a minor point, and any envy I might want to feel is tempered by deep respect; if I had lots of money, that’s how I’d use it, too. This is a person making good use of money! A more worrying point that began to trouble me midway through the lecture: this all seemed at risk of being obsessively pedantic. Could you possibly produce a living work of fiction by this method, or would it be more like regurgitated chunks of knowledge, the way mother wolves eat something they kill and come home and throw it up for their cubs?
In the second portion of the lecture, a reading from the book put this fear to rest, and expelled all images of vomiting mother wolves from my mind. This is the first Jane Austen sequel I’ve ever read that really gets it right. And I can say only, wow. Well done.
I’ve written a little, and thought a lot, about the importance of tone. When you notice it, it’s nearly always for the wrong reasons. Writing a novel is like casting a spell, putting the reader in a voluntary trance, a kind of waking dream. It’s not real, but as the reader you make believe it’s real, and you want to believe it’s real, for as long as the dream lasts. The reader and the writer are actively working in the service of the same illusion — for there are no books without readers, just as a theatrical performance requires not only actors, but an audience.
The reader/audience wants to suspend disbelief. If a story is compelling enough, the critical faculties can be stilled, though never entirely silenced. What’s weird, though, is now even a minor error — a single wrong word, an ill-chosen metaphor — can jar the reader awake again, leaving them incredulous and annoyed. This is particularly a risk with a story set in another time or an exotic place. There are always going to be readers or watchers who know more about the subject than the writer. And I am not the only one who thinks about these things; Ben Zimmer has recently written an entire article about verbal anachronisms in Downton Abbey.
Ms. Lerner understands this as almost no one else writing sequels or making film adaptations of Jane Austen does. Characters living in 1819 cannot use language from nearly 200 years later. More important, they cannot think or act like people from 2010. They cannot suddenly exchange kisses with their new fiances in public, for instance. Most people in the sequel/adaption line either don’t seem to understand these simple facts or just don’t care, because they are pandering to modern tastes. The modern world never bleeds through in Second Impressions; Ms. Lerner is writing as though it doesn’t exist, just as Patrick O’Brian wrote as if it didn’t exist. That is no easy feat. She never, never, never breaks tone by choosing a wrong word or phrase. Two things only can explain it: relentless research and obsessive attention to detail.
But perhaps I am giving a false impression by praising the book first for what isn’t there. What about what is? Wit, for one. A tender regard and healthy respect for its characters, for another. With one exception (Mary Crawford) the characters created by Jane Austen act in completely believable ways, and exist in a completely believable world. There are some from Pride and Prejudice, but people from other works amusingly crop up too: from Persuasion, Emma, Mansfield Park and even Sanditon. The story is amusing, plausible and well-told, and the deserving people end up engaged to each other, while the undeserving people get their just deserts.
If there is a potential flaw in this brilliant, amazing and funny work, it is that it is not afraid to be old-fashioned in the sense of being sometimes completely boring, in a way that did briefly revive for me the vomiting wolf image. Just as Fielding can fill pages with stuff, like extended classical metaphors, that one can deal with only by skimming and skipping, or Patrick O’Brian can give us excessively detailed sea battles when we really just want to be back in the cabin with Aubrey and Maturin as they eat toasted cheese and tune up their string instruments, so Ms. Lerner can regale us with more about Mr. and Mrs. Darcy’s sight-seeing trips through England than we ever possibly could have wanted to know, bringing all forward action of the plot to a halt.
But. This a minor complaint. And the reason we have hands is so we can use them to turn the page. If you really love Jane Austen, read this book! You won’t be sorry. It’s great. Sandy Lerner, I salute you.
Forgot to add in my initial review: Ms. Lerner jokingly mentioned in her lecture that she put two “sex scenes” in Second Impressions, and that no one had found them yet. Her initial readers must have been humoring her by pretending not to notice them, for they were completely obvious to me, and I am certainly not any more discerning than the average Janiac. Comments, anyone who’s read SI?