Whose Jane Austen?
It’s a question I’ve often asked myself while researching and writing The Jane Austen Project, but never more insistently than when considering the works that make up the short story anthology “Jane Austen Made Me Do It, Original Stories Inspired by Literature’s Most Astute Observer of the Human Heart.” I use the subtitle advisedly, for this is one way of viewing Jane Austen, and perhaps a message from its editor, Laurel Ann Nattress of Austenprose, of how she, at least, does.
JAMMDI is on one hand a brilliant marketing idea, combining the brand recognition of Jane Austen with some of the biggest names in Austen and Austenesque fan fiction. But ideally it is more than that, being also an effort to wrestle with the question of what Jane Austen means to people living today, nearly 200 years after her death.
The collection consists of 22 short stories, half of them set in Jane Austen’s time and half in our own, broadly defined. (One is actually set in 1964; another in a sort of alternate universe something like our own time.) By bringing modern life and Jane Austen together in one setting, the authors of those 11 works most directly confront this question of what Jane Austen means to them, or what they imagine she might mean to readers.
If Jane Austen were to confront a living person today, it would have to be as a ghost. Two stories – “A Night at Northanger” by Lauren Willig of Pink Carnation fame, and “The Ghostwriter” by Elizabeth Aston — take this direct approach. In “A Night,” a disaffected employee of a TV series that goes around hunting for ghosts finds herself talking to a transparent Jane Austen while visiting, yes, Northanger Abbey. In “Ghostwriter,” Jane Austen, magically summoned by a lock of her own hair, appears in the apartment of the main character, a struggling writer who’s just been left by her boyfriend. Willig’s ghostly Jane is kind and sympathetic, while Aston’s is more bossy and acerbic, but the setup is strikingly similar: both modern women face challenges with love and work, and Jane Austen appears to provide a sympathetic ear, pointed advice and, in the case of “Ghostwriter,” an actual solution to her work problem, in the form of a racy forgotten novel from the 18th century.
I can’t help being reminded in these stories of older stories: those from the lives of saints, for example, when miraculous interventions take place to resolve impossible situation, or classical myths, or children’s tales with fairy godmothers. It’s as though Jane Austen has become a modern, secular saint: the patron of frustrated writers, and of women with romantic problems and work problems. She is kind and infinitely wise, and through her seemingly hopeless problems are magically solved.
Sometimes the Austen magic works at a remove, through her fictional creations. In “The Mysterious Closet: A Tale” by Myretta Robens, a 29-year-old woman with a string of failed romances behind her takes a vacation in a converted English abbey and finds herself repeatedly visited by what seems to be the ghost of Henry Tilney, but eventually proves to be a corporal, contemporary man. In “When Only a Darcy Will Do” by Beth Patillo, an American graduate student in London trying to make some money by giving Austen-themed walking tours in Regency dress gets only one taker: a handsome man in Regency dress who introduces himself as Fitzwilliam Darcy. He charms her, then disappears, but turns out to be the cute guy at the coffee bar, hitherto overlooked, though she has been going there for weeks. In “Me and Mr. Darcy, Again,” by Alexandra Potter (the italics are the author’s, though I, too, felt a little Darcied-out by page 306 of this 445-page book) a woman who’s just quarreled with her boyfriend jets off to London with her compulsively shopping pregnant friend (whose raison d’etre seems to be as a checklist of chicklit cliché) to find herself mysteriously encountering … Mr. Darcy, who engineers her successful reunion with her boyfriend, culminating in a scene in which he (the boyfriend, not Mr. Darcy) climbs out of a lake, drops to one knee, and proposes.
Sometimes the magic operates through the text itself. In “The Love Letter” by Brenna Aubrey, one of the few in this collection to feature a male protagonist, part of a page torn out from “Persuasion” and anonymously mailed prompts the recipient to seek out the whole book and then to revive a dead romance, essentially reprising the plotline of “Persuasion” in modern dress. That a medical student in the middle of studying for important finals and with a confessed complete lack of interest in literature would be riveted by “Persuasion” must also be attributed to the magical powers of Jane Austen’s prose.
Other times the Austen magic operates a little less supernaturally. “Faux Jane,” which I found unreadably arch at first and later, as the joke dawned on me, improbably amusing, features two urbane New Yorkers, an homage to Nick and Nora of “Thin Man” fame, finding themselves involved with a movie star, her handsome new aristocratic English boyfriend, a signed first edition of “Pride and Prejudice” and –since such a thing by definition cannot exist – the underworld of literary fakes. Where does “The Thin Man” intersect with Jane Austen, except in the febrile imagination of “F.J. Meier”? I don’t know “The Thin Man”well enough to say for certain – there may be more jokes here I’ve missed – but the role of Jane Austen is clear enough. She represents class, first of all, which the movie star lacks but is chasing in the person of her English boyfriend: the book is supposed to be an offering to him. She stands for romance, of course, and the romance of the unattainable object: the signed first edition of “Pride and Prejudice” had for me a faint whiff of Maltese Falcon, that other Hammett creation. Jane Austen occupies the point where high culture and mass culture collide; an actress who made her name starring in some kind of Jane Austen-related movie but who knows so little about the writer that she would fail to spot such an obvious deception is just close enough to reality to work beautifully as satire, a comment on the general Cult of Jane.
Two stories feature realistic main characters being transformed by their encounter with the work of Jane Austen, no ghosts or other supernatural elements required. “Jane Austen, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” by Janet Mullany, set in 1964 England and improbably looping in the Beatles, features a young teacher and three teenage students she has been assigned to supervise in detention discussing “Sense and Sensibility.” The girls are lovesick over the Beatles but manage to conduct a reasoned analysis of the novel all the same; the teacher, smarting over a disappointment with her boyfriend, eventually concludes she’s better off without him and would find more inspiration in teaching girls to care about the life of the mind. This story is unlike nearly all of the others in the collection in that it actually meets Jane Austen as Jane Austen – the encounter is not with Saint Jane, patron saint of romance, or her dishy fictional avatars, swooping in to save women in romantic distress. Rather, it’s about reading, which I found refreshing, and also kind of sad, for it made me realize how many of the other stories here really aren’t.
“What Would Austen Do?” by Jane Rubio and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway has an audacious title, with the implied comparison of Jesus and Jane Austen, and an equally audacious premise: It is narrated by a teenage boy, who, obliged to sign up for a summer session in English country dancing, makes a series of surprising discoveries: that Jane Austen is a good writer, than line dancing is more fun than it might seem, and that people are full of surprises. The unique voice of the narrator, compelling, slangy and funny, like a nicer Holden Caulfield updated to contemporary life, is what makes this one sing. Like “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” it is really about reading, and how Jane Austen can transform the attentive reader. Here is the narrator on “Sense and Sensibility,” which I think as trenchant a three-sentence analysis of the work as anything out there:
The girls and their mother lose their house and don’t have much money, almost like when the economy takes a dive, and these two sisters, Elinor and Marianne, both fall in love with guys who can’t marry them, but Elinor sucks it up while Marianne goes all emo princess and almost dies. And I think the point is, stuff happens, so do you deal or do you get all ‘Poor me’? Are you Team Elinor or Team Marianne?
If I were magically given the opportunity to converse with any writer, living or dead, I would not pick Jane Austen; something tells me she would not listen to my tales of romantic and professional woe with that kind patience she used to exhibit in letters to her nieces. Writers in general are probably a conversational disappointment, since they tend to save their best selves for the printed page; Samuel Johnson being the exception, but I am for sure not smart enough to hold up my end of a conversation with him. Maybe if I could just sit in the room while he talked to other people? Fanny Burney would have better stories to tell; George Eliot I suspect would be kinder; E.M. Forster would probably be a legendary gossip. Anything Shakespeare could tell me would be interesting. But nobody publishes short-story anthologies centered on these people.
How did “Jane” get so domesticated that people presume to call her by her first name? We don’t do that to Virginia, Vladimir, Leo, Gustav or Charles. What made her the patron saint of romance novelists? JAMMDI, though it may not have set out with this goal, goes quite a long way to answering this question.