Reading Material

I am extremely excited about this.  Thanks, AustenBlog, for the reminder! I wish I had time to read the whole issue right now, instead I shall link to it so I can easily find it again.

Persuasions, from what I have see of it before, is a fascinating examination of some of the most arcane Jane Austen topics imaginable (a great article about handwriting and writing materials proved immensely useful). It is intelligent without being academic and pretentious, a rare combination. At least in America.

Right now, in a little metafictional excursion,  I am reading By a Lady, by Amanda Elyot, a novel about time travel and Jane Austen.(!) This was quite harshly criticized by many Amazon readers, too harshly, I think.  I never pass final judgment on any book before finishing it, but I am finding it amusing, though more  Fanny Burney than Jane Austen. Picaresque and wacky, it is more fun to read than a lot of the Austen fan fiction out there.  Miss Elyot has done her research, though her exposition of it is sometimes clunky, not seamlessly integrated as you see, for instance, in the work of Tracy Chevalier.

The biggest problem I see is an unevenness of tone. That is so important, so hard to describe and so easy to get wrong.

Update and spoiler alert: There are two chapters in rapid succession devoted to steamy sex scenes! Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I  have noticed that some readers hate sex scenes when they weren’t expecting them (and if they were expecting them, presumably would not read the book). One reviewer praised “Jane Austen Ruined My Life” precisely because it did not contain sex scenes, which to my mind seems a bit odd. I have nothing against them, per se, but it does seem to push willing suspension of disbelief to the breaking point to suppose that the heroine of the book would have unprotected (as well as mind-blowingly excellent) sex with the earl she had only recently met and become engaged (if somewhat informally) to. It just seems to pose too many practical problems, from birth control to chaperonage to spying servants. Also, she just happens to walk through a door in Bath and find herself in an elaborate sex club out of “Eyes Wide Shut”? Dens of vice were far from unknown in England of the time, but I would expect the door to be better policed.

This makes me realize: a narrative can contain many unrealistic elements but must somehow follow the rules it sets for itself. What those rules actually are becomes obvious only after the fact, when they are broken.  To take an example of a famous and unrealistic story — Alice in Wonderland. Alice falls down a rabbit hole and has a series of strange adventures involving talking animals, changes in her own body size, a baby that changes into a pig, a croquet game involving live animals, etc. What is the constant in all of this is Alice’s own response to: baffled, yet unfailingly polite by her own standards of politeness. She is the glue that holds all this together, along with Lewis Carroll’s deadpan tone.

Along with the sex, Miss Elyot brings Jane Austen onstage. She solves the problem of what Jane Austen was like by putting into her mouth words that she actually wrote: choice epigrams lifted straight from the novels and letters. This is kind of funny; it turns Jane Austen into a sort of Regency-era Oscar Wilde, or a  Groucho Marx, perhaps a better analogy, because part of the charm of  Groucho is that no one ever seems to react as if he were saying anything odd. Similarly, Jane Austen makes one snarky remark after another, sotto voce, to the heroine she has just met, and her wit goes unremarked and unappreciated  (except by her cousin  the earl (!) the one who also happens to be having mind-blowingly excellent sex with the heroine). How handy!

I guess that is the other major weakness with this book, which for all I am criticizing I also am kind of enjoying, if only out of a sense of fellowship. It takes the parts of 1801 that it wants and ignores the parts that don’t suit it. And I see, perhaps more than most readers, just how hard that is not to do.

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