Why write fiction? Why read it?
People enjoy stories because they are both like and not like real life. Fiction holds up a mirror to real life, but it’s a magic mirror: ideally it is shapely in a way that life generally isn’t, with a clear arc: of rising action, a sense of change, of forward motion. It leaves out the boring and irrelevant bits.
The successful distillation of life situations to their essence requires — what? Increasingly I think the whole goal of fiction is to make the implausible seem, by a series of subtle, almost imperceptible steps, vividly possible.
I’ve been thinking about this in the context of what did and did not work in Pam Mingle’s “Kissing Shakespeare” and Shannon Hale’s “Austenland” and two novels that would seem to have little in common, other than that I’ve recently read them, and that they involve the effort to assume the manners and customs of another time. In one, because the heroine has actually traveled in time, the other because she has been given a stay at a strange, immersive role-playing resort, where rich women live out their Jane Austen fantasies, with actors playing the role of Darcy, Wentworth, etc. types. (Apparently the idea that men could be found who would want to pay, as opposed to be paid, to impersonate Austen characters was too improbable even for fiction).
In “Kissing Shakespeare,” a YA work, a teenage girl is transported to 1581 England by a meddling time traveler from that era, who orders her to seduce the young Will Shakespeare, because he’s afraid that otherwise Shakespeare won’t become “Shakespeare,” but will instead be persuaded to become a Jesuit priest, depriving the world forever of the sonnets, “Hamlet,” etc. How someone in 1581, before Shakespeare has actually had the chance to become “Shakespeare,” figures this out, how he decides seduction will solve the problem (might not Shakespeare, disgusted by his own sinful nature, then turn back to the Jesuits with a vengeance?), why he concludes he needs a women of modern times for the job… well, it’s complicated, and completely improbable, but amusing all the same. There are lots of things about this book I liked, and not simply because I sympathized with the challenges Pam Mingle faced, having faced many of them myself.
Ultimately it is a love story between the girl, Miranda, and the time traveler, Stephen. It is a doomed love story, of course; they live in different times. Stephen is a tragic, sexy figure in the Byronic mode, and I found the portrait of a young girl being completely, yet conflictedly, attracted to a hot older guy deeply convincing on some emotional level, and I say this as someone who generally hates romances. I haven’t found a truly convincing love story, in a book, since Lyra and Will of the “Dark Materials” trilogy, and that was many books ago. Miranda and Stephen aren’t quite Lyra and Will (who among us is?), but their connection is real and kind of steamy, in a YA way.
Because fiction is also usually about giving something up, the strength of this part of the story leads to some weaknesses elsewhere. In particular, Shakespeare, in theory the star of this book, its raison d’etre, gets short shrift. I don’t know how I would have handled this exactly, but I can’t help feeling that Shakespeare, if you really got the opportunity to travel back in time and meet him, would be unforgettable. Even as a 17-year-old, which he is in this book, he would be incandescent, he would burn up the page. But here he is presented as a largely ordinary, if clever and attractive, teenager, notable chiefly for his horniness. Maybe that was the idea: genius walks among us, invisible because we lack the genius to see it? If so, it’s a comical idea whose comic potential is never fully exploited.
On the other hand, the grounding of Shakespeare in the historical context of the religious tensions of the era — secret Catholics, conspiracy fears, gruesome public executions — is smoothly done and painlessly educational, a trait I admire in historical fiction.
The plot must be described as creaky. To some extent, choosing to make the story so much about Miranda’s longing for Stephen might render this inevitable, because that’s exactly the reality of a teenage crush: lots of yearning, lots of ogling and uncertainty, the odd opportunity to trade a confidence or a kiss, and not much forward motion. There is more talk than action, and even action tends to be resolved in talk, as when entire mysteries are resolved in a brief conversation.
Nonetheless I liked it; I liked the idea, and the writing did not make me want to tear my hair out, as certain books I have also read recently, which shall remain unnamed, have. It was more than the sum of its parts, despite never completely shedding its fundamental implausibility.
Shannon Hale, in “Austenland,” also puts her character into a ridiculous role-playing setting, and she doesn’t have to break quite as much of a sweat doing so. Here we need merely a romantically disappointed, yet eternally hopeful, woman of 33 longing for her Mr. Darcy, and an aged, eccentric and wealthy relative who calls her on it, leaving her the Regency-immersion vacation in her will.
Maybe stories about first love, like Lyra and Miranda and even Katniss Everdeen, work better because these teenage heroines are not dragging around the chains of their disillusionment, like the ghost of Jacob Marley, through the entire narrative. Though intelligent and aware, Jane Hayes is kind of a bummer, and the recounting of her doomed connections to previous boyfriends can only be filed under Should Be Funny, but Isn’t.
Nonetheless, I found this book strangely gripping, more so than the vast majority of Jane Austen-inspired fiction, even as it disappointed me in the end. This is also a book where this not a great deal of forward motion in the plot. The women in Austenland sit around in their corsets pretending to be from the Regency era, playing cards, waiting for the men to come home from hunting or wherever they’ve gone, having conversations… and this is nearly as boring in the telling as it would be in real life. It could almost be seen as a form of Regency aversion therapy. The tension in the story springs not from what happens, which is not very much, but from how Jane Hayes, aka Jane Erstwhile, thinks about what is happening, about the relationship between reality and playacting, in Austenland and in the world in general. She knows that what is happening is not real, that these are actors playing a role, that everyone is pretending, yet her designated wooer (the Mr. Darcy type) shows signs of breaking the fourth wall and having real feelings for her. But isn’t that what he is supposed to do? Create the illusion of reality, the more convincingly the better? The atmosphere of dreamlike uncertainty is maintained throughout, and then…
I don’t want to ruin the ending for anyone who hasn’t read it and means to, and in this case I truly think if you know where it’s going, it would be much less fun to read. I will say only that the ending was not faithful to the premise of the book. Which to me was that romantic illusions are dangerous and can ruin your life. (Whether this is a worthy fictional premise is another issue, but I won’t start down that road.) While in the end, we seem to be told that romantic fantasies can, at times, come true (if you badly enough want them to, apparently), and the book ends on a wish-fulfilling note that seemed entirely unjustified by what had come before.
Yes. I would rather have had Jane end up alone and all right with it, even if that breaks the prime directive of romantic novels. Now despise me if you dare.