Jane Austen Book Club: A Novel
What is it that brings each generation back to Jane Austen? Not only do individual readers return over and over to her books, but as a culture we also seem unable to resist something in her writing, her observances, her characters. Witness over the past decade or so the number of successful movies that have been made of her novels: Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice (plus a 1995 A&E miniseries) and Mansfield Park. One suspects that Northanger Abbey has not been made (apart from the 1986 Giles Foster British TV film) because it is the least interesting and successful of the complete novels.
In addition to the movies, AUSTEN-L, an online discussion list that allows “Janeites” the world over to talk about their favorite author, her books and films, and varied spin-offs and “sequels.” In some of the best of these books, a series of mystery novels featuring Austen as the central character, Stephanie Barron captures the time and language of the Austen novels rather well. In this series, a resourceful, acerbic Jane solves murders much to her mother’s (a Mrs. Bennett double) dismay. This Jane also has a love object, although she loses him in the most recent volume. Additionally, her brothers and sister appear in the books, situating Austen as a person/character in a way that is not discernable from her novels.
The following partial list of “sequels” written by modern authors indicates the variety of response Austen’s novels have generated over the years. In the case of Emma Tennant, the “Janeites” view such undertaking as less than successful. The dates show that the urge to connect to Austen in a literary way has existed from the beginning:
One interesting fact of the American literary scene is the book club. No doubt Oprah has served reading and publishing well with her club and the thousands that have spun off from it. Book clubs are not new, of course, and are easy to satirize. In a socially fluid culture, the need to be told what to read reflects American cultural insecurity. And at first one comes to The Jane Austen Book Club expecting satire. What else could it be? First the group of friends decides to read Austen, not the contemporary novelists made popular by arbiters of taste such as Oprah. Fowler includes the currently popular apparatus of questions and plot summaries, adding to the impression of humor. Assuming that most readers of this novel will have read Austen’s novels, the addition of the summaries strikes the reader as sly, perhaps like Austen at her most critical.
These inclusions reinforce the satirical trick of the first person plural narrator who is never clearly identified. The novel opens with this line: “Each of us has a private Austen” [p. 1]. The prologue goes on to introduce the various characters, which leads the reader to believe that the narrator is a part of the group. That voice purports to know and not know motives and secrets of the several members of the group, but never reveals a thing about the speaker her/himself. Austen does, of course, have this kind of intimate knowledge of her characters. She narrates in the detached third-person voice that was the style of her day. In this book, however, the “we” is troubling since it is never identified and distracts the reader with its intimate knowledge of the characters.
Jocelyn and Sylvia and, perhaps, Allegra become distinct creations of this voice, but the three other main characters stay shadowy and unformed, distinguishable only because one of them is male and one speaks French as a characterization tic. Except for Jocelyn and her dogs, of whom I wanted more, the characters occupy some kind of literary limbo. They echo some of the Austen characters: Allegra is clearly related to Marianne Dashwood, and Jocelyn herself reminds one of Elizabeth Bennett. But none of them evolve into flesh and blood heroines who stay with the reader outside the book.
The book itself, while daring in concept, remains distant and unaffecting. While the author has cleverly avoided making each chapter a kind of modern update of the book under discussion, she mixes the plots of each character’s story with the discussions of the Austen novels. To this reader the superficial discussions distracted from the ongoing story. The characters say shallow, obvious things about the books. These characterizations perhaps satirize the quality of book club discussions, but fail us when it comes to the actual story. The book club meetings disrupt the narrative drive of the novel, keep calling the reader back to the Austen novels, reintroducing us to the idea that Fowler’s story might be intertwined with the narratives of those novels, and then disappointing or at least distracting the reader again with its lack of parallel.
The main plot of the book, however, does a nice Austenian trajectory of romance, deception, reconciliation and finally a new marriage, and in reflection of modern times, a reconciliation of a faltering one. Other nods to contemporary life include a lesbian affair and an older woman and younger man romance, a nice switch on all those older men and young girls in the Austen canon.
In all, the book is a mixed experience. The language seems less tart and spot-on than Austen’s. Describing a big dinner that all the characters go to, Fowler comments: “Even without music the room was noisy enough, the table big enough to make conversation across it difficult” [pp. 180-81]. A common enough observation, expressed in nice parallel clauses that echo Austen’s style, but it lacks the telling detail that Austen would have got to, that would have stuck in the reader’s mind as the perfect word. The story is a pleasant read, though nothing special. For a devout “Janeite,” reading about the novels and even fictional characters' impressions of them contains a kind of pleasure, not easily forgone.