To write any novel invoking the name or spirit of Jane Austen is to ask for trouble, by inviting unflattering comparisons with one of the greatest novelists of her age (or indeed of any age). Few can stand up to the comparison. The Jane Austen Book Club does. So, I am happy to report, does The Three Weissmanns of Westport, which I started with apprehension and finished with steadily mounting delight.
The apprehension was at the notion of what Cathleen Schine had, according to the reviews, undertaken in this book: a modern retelling of Sense and Sensibility. How many ways are there to screw that up? Too many to count. But my delight grew as I kept reading, because there is a sense of joyful mystery in reading a novelist who is firing on all cylinders, writing at the height of her powers (actually, since this is the first book by Ms. Schine that I have read, I can’t really say that. Maybe her other books are even better, and I hope to determine that soon. The one about dogs looks especially promising. But it’s hard to imagine this particular book being any better than it was, and that is not something I think that often).
Why did it work so well? That was what I kept trying to figure out afterward, and it was kind of hard. Books that don’t work are often more instructive than those that do. With the successful ones, the seams don’t show. Also, novels that work seem to lull one into a happy stupor, putting the critical faculties to sleep, so later it is hard to be analytical.
First, it succeeds on a micro level because the writing, at the sentence and paragraph level, is good. By good, I mean, it does not draw attention itself by being either clumsy or excessively mannered. The prose struck me initially as workmanlike, uncliched, a thing that is rarer than it should be. Then I began to gradually find the writing not just satisfactory, but actually rather lovely, though again in a nonshowy way. Also, funny. The humor sneaks up on the reader, not unlike Jane Austen’s in that that respect, though the jokes are quite different.
The book succeeds on more macro levels, too. The plot works because the author is not afraid to have nothing in particular happen for rather long periods of time; again, the mark of a writer who knows what she’s doing, who recognizes that plot is not just the piling on of incidents, but the reflection on what those incidents mean, the accretion of time changing the characters’ understanding of what is going on. The plot, one might object, is stolen from Jane Austen; but that is not strictly true. What is so delightful about The Three Weissmans is how the author uses the skeleton of Sense and Sensibility but adapts it to her own story’s needs. The characters and situations are recognizable and yet transfigured — cleverly, but never simply to show off the author’s cleverness. They resonate with the spirit of Jane Austen, but they also offer a witty commentary on contemporary life. It is almost as if Sense and Sensibility and The Three Weissmans are nodding to each other across the chasm of the 200 years and the wide ocean that separates them: with understanding and compassion, but also with a smile. Because what it is, first and last, is funny.
Now I am reading Murder at Mansfield Park by Lynn Shepherd. I wanted to like this, but I am finding it hard going. I love Mansfield Park, and I love murder mysteries. Ms. Shepherd has a Ph.D. in English literature from Oxford, and it shows. Her command of the vocabulary of the Austen era is pitch-perfect. She also scatters learned references throughout, lifting entire sentences and paragraphs not just from MP but from the other novels, as well as from the letters and from Austen biography. “The heat keeps me in a continual state of inelegance,” one character remarks in a line straight from a letter. “Indeed, she is quite the vainest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly I have ever had the misfortune to encounter,” Mrs. Norris says of Mary Crawford, a remark in real life supposedly made about Jane Austen as a young woman by the mother of Mary Russell Mitford (though whether she actually knew her, or just later claimed to have, is open to some doubt).
The characters in Ms. Shepherd’s alternative Mansfield Park are jumbled like dice in a box. Most notably, Fanny Price, still a cousin of the Betrams, is now orphaned, fabulously rich, and insufferable. Mary Crawford is poor and worthy. Henry Crawford is a renovator of estates, rather like Repton. Julia Betram is sensitive and romantic and neglected, and vaguely like the two younger Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility. Edmund, for some reason, is now the son and heir of Mrs. Norris, who is much like the original Mrs. Norris, except richer and more obnoxious; he seems to have cross-pollinated with Edward Ferrars from Sense and Sensbility. Everyone expects he and his cousin Fanny to marry and keep the wealth in the family. Maria Betram is rather like herself, and so is Tom Betram. Mr. Rushworth is still rich but no longer stupid.
I fancy I know Mansfield Park as well as the next person, having reread it only two months ago, but I find myself getting confused between the elements that overlap and those that don’t. In the first half of the book (as much as I’ve read so far) many of the same scenes and elements crop up — the trip to Sotherton, Lover’s Vows, the necklace, the ball, the game of Speculation, Sir Thomas Betram’s departure (he merely goes to Yorkshire, not Antigua), the departure of a beloved brother to sea (it’s Julia who pines for him, not Fanny).
Incident rapidly succeeds incident, but I can’t seem to answer the essential questions. Why has the author changed some things so utterly and left others the same? Where is she going with this? In theory it ought to be funny and ironic, winkingly postmodern, but for some reason I am not laughing. I think I am working too hard on figuring out what I am supposed to be paying attention to. It is undoubtedly a sincere homage. But why isn’t it working for me?