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Only a Novel – A review from our Jane Austen Book Club

Only A Novel a review - Jane Austen Book Club Review

A Review of Only A Novel: The Double Life of Jane Austen by Jane Aiken Hodge

by Jane Austen Book Club reviewer, Eliza Shearer

Click here to buy Only a Novel from our online gift shop.

Jane Austen was one of the literary geniuses of her age, a classic author whose work is recognised worldwide and who has become a household name. She was also an unmarried woman with a fierce sense of privacy and an often precarious financial situation. Jane Aiken Hodge’s latest book, Only a Novel: The Double Life of Jane Austen, investigates Austen’s fascinating double life to answer the eternal question: who, exactly, was Jane Austen?

 

All biographies of Jane Austen have to meet the challenge posed by the destruction of much of the author’s correspondence. Aiken Hodge’s is no exception, but she makes excellent use of the documentation available. She deftly weaves what remains of Austen family letters and other historical documents with extracts, events and characters in the author’s surviving novels and minor works. The result is engrossing, even for those already familiar with Jane Austen’s letters and other books about her life.

 

Aiken Hodge paints a rich picture of the turbulent and rapidly changing times of the Regency. She succinctly but effectively provides context on politics, society, religion, leisure, education, social customs, fashion and many other topics, and links them back to Austen’s work. She makes Austen’s idyllic childhood in Steventon Rectory come to life, detailing the Austens’ family dynamics and their silly sense of humour. What Aiken Hodge calls “Austen-nonsense” would prove to be a fertile ground to Austen’s signature balancing act of irony and romance. The book also dissects Austen’s Juvenilia and highlights the first buds of what we find in her more mature works.

 

The book does an excellent job of covering Jane Austen’s creative process and her evolution as a writer, with the ups and downs that come with any creative endeavour. It also looks at how Austen’s work reflects the events the author experienced at the time of writing. It is not always a straightforward exercise, but Aiken Hodge manages it convincingly.

 

It takes until the last third of the book for Aiken Hodge to begin to address the question of who Jane Austen really was. After the publication of Pride and Prejudice, when word of her authorship began to circulate, Austen had to face the dilemma of fame versus anonymity. As much as she was proud of her status as published author of some success, she had an evident desire to lead a quiet existence. Aiken Hodge provides a vivid portrait of the author’s struggle to reconcile both.

 

A particularly enjoyable theme in Aiken Hodge’s book is the source of Jane Austen’s inspiration for her stories. It is a fact that Austen’s beloved sailor brothers influenced her naval characters, such as Captain Wentworth. Those familiar with the writer’s life will also know that her charming and flirtatious cousin Eliza Hauton, married to a French count first and Austen’s brother Henry later, would inspire Mary Crawford, and to a lesser extent, Lady Susan.

 

However, Aiken Hodge goes well beyond the customary facts and excels at providing Easter eggs for Janeites. The connections she draws between fact and fiction are many. A scandalous story about a Mrs Powlett who elopes with a viscount inspires Mansfield Park; an impoverished widow of her acquaintance provides the raw material for Emma’s Miss Bates; a pompous man of the cloth may well be the spark that lit Pride and Prejudice’s Mr Collins. But beyond anecdotal encounters, the book looks at how Jane Austen “took the painful grit of experience and transmuted it into her pearl.” Aiken Hodge masters the art of pinpointing the difficulties, the humiliations, the sadness and the disappointments in the author’s life that her work would inevitably reflect.

 

Aiken Hodge’s book is a delightful read. She has an evident love for her subject and is not afraid to go beyond what is generally known about Austen. She also does not shy away from controversies, such as a suspected spiritual crisis when Austen was in her thirties and the interpretation of the writer’s will as a “text for feminists.” One may agree or disagree with some of her conclusions, but they are impeccably researched, admiringly exposed and beautifully written.

 

At the same time, this is no light read. Aiken Hodge has rightly opted for contemporary spellings for the historical sources and has kept away from footnotes and additional referencing, but the book is dense in facts and names. It would be superb if future editions included an Austen family tree, because it is easy to get lost after the first dozen nephews and nieces, not to mention the second marriages. Having said that, the effort in following the comings and goings of the many members of the Austen clan is amply rewarded. Aiken Hodge has written a remarkable biography that is likely to become a work of reference those who admire Jane Austen’s work and are intrigued by her genius.

****

Click here to buy Only a Novel from our online gift shop.

About the reviewer:
Eliza Shearer has been an admirer of Jane Austen’s work since she picked up a battered copy of Sense & Sensibility in the local library when she was a thirteen. A member of Austen Authors and the Scottish branch of the Jane Austen Society, Eliza enjoys long walks in the countryside near Edinburgh (that sometimes result in muddy petticoats). Eliza’s first novel in her Austeniana series is Miss Darcy’s Beaux, and her second, Miss Price’s Decision, is due to come out in Autumn.
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Coming Soon: There’s Something About Darcy

There's Something About Darcy

There’s Something About Darcy

You heard it here first! We’re delighted to announce that this November will see the publication of a new non-fiction book all about Austen’s most famous hero, Mr Darcy, and just why he is so adored.

There's Something About Darcy

The new book by Gabrielle Malcolm will be called There’s Something About Darcy – and indeed there is, something very special. He is enigmatic, difficult, and gallant. He is passionate, ardent, and gentlemanly.

For a character invented by the unmarried daughter of a Hampshire clergyman in the early 19th century, his longevity, popularity, and his global appeal, are staggering. From an unpromising start at the Meryton Assembly he now lives on in the hearts and imaginations of millions.

The foundation of the book ‘There’s Something About Darcy’ was the popularity of the ‘I <3 Darcy’ merchandising at the Jane Austen Centre. When I witnessed the enthusiasm with which tourists and fans snapped up the bags and badges, visible around the city, I knew that here was a topic and a history worth investigating. Follow the story with me, for some surprising twists and turns, and some unexpected companions along the way.

I want us to share in what makes Darcy so exciting and enchanting, and discover how the story of the character can bring us closer to the imagination and creativity of our beloved Jane Austen.

Gabrielle Malcolm

You can join the conversation and share what you love (or hate!) about Darcy on social media with the hashtag #Darcymania ahead of the book’s release. A release which, incidentally, will see the Jane Austen Online Gift Shop able to offer signed copies of Malcolm’s great new read.

If you can’t wait until November to find out more about the book, then we hope that you’ll enjoy reading the extract below from There’s Something About Darcy.

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INTRODUCTION

In the autumn of 1995, a quiet cultural revolution took place, first in the UK and then around the world. It was quiet because it mostly concerned the emotions generated from private reading habits. It was quiet because it arose from Sunday evening television viewing. And it was quiet because it was almost exclusively driven by the reading and viewing habits of women.

Writer and journalist Helen Fielding was one of the first to pick up on this at the time. Through the lens of her column in The Independent newspaper, ‘The Diary of Bridget Jones’, she scrutinised the week-by-week run of a six-part BBC TV period drama series awaiting the moment the two leading characters would ‘get off’ with each other. Bridget Jones started life as a caricature of a thirty-something single woman steeped in self-absorption, self-criticism and self-scrutiny – from the number of calories consumed to the size of knickers required in any given social situation. She evolved over the weeks, months and subsequent years into a character that came to lead the vanguard in modern reinterpretations of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813).

The trigger for this revolution in popular culture, and the object of Fielding’s scrutiny, was of course the broadcast of the new BBC TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which unexpectedly sent reverberations around the world that still echo today. It was the product of the dovetailing of a specific group of talents: the genius of Jane Austen, the inventiveness of scriptwriter Andrew Davies and the vision of television director Simon Langton, together with a sterling cast headed by Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth.

One particular scene became etched on the popular consciousness: when Mr Darcy (played by Firth), strides across a field, a wet shirt clinging to his body. Awkward, yet utterly masculine, he strode right into the hearts and dreams of millions.

The result was a television event that has had no serious rivals since, and the birth of an epoch of unprecedented Austen fandom, for the author and her hero. Austen is now unique amongst period novelists in that she occupies a place in contemporary twenty-first century fan culture that very few modern writers can rival. Austen’s creations, particularly Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, are as much a focus of today’s online fan culture as, for example, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter characters and the Star Wars or Dr Who universes.

The idea for this book came to me when I was waiting at a bus stop in Bath. Next to me stood a young woman carrying an ‘I <3 Darcy’ tote bag. I tracked this item down to the Jane Austen Centre shop, just off Queen’s Square. That was my introduction to the notion that there was a demand for Austen and Darcy related things that went beyond the novels and their adaptations. When I heard that Chatsworth House in Derbyshire had to put away the bust of Matthew Macfadyen as Darcy (from the 2005 film version) because visitors kept kissing it, I decided that this urge ought to be investigated.

The fascination with Darcy has grown into a mania, and this book will examine why that is. Darcy now appears in innumerable guises: in fist-fights on screen, slamming his Ferrari into gear in the pages of a romance novel, running a digital media company in San Francisco, as a vampire, a heart surgeon, a neurosurgeon, and even slaying zombies in films and graphic novels. He is especially favoured in the now classic trope of a man emerging – dripping wet – from a lake or pond, wet shirt clinging to his body. Even actors who have never played Darcy use this as a kind of shorthand for masculine gorgeousness. Benedict Cumberbatch, star of Sherlock for the BBC and Dr Strange in the Marvel Universe, appeared in a charity photoshoot in 2014 as a ‘sexy wet ’n’ wild’ tribute to Firth as Darcy.

Time travel fantasies undertaken to meet Darcy, updated sequels to Pride and Prejudice, modern adaptations and even dragon-taming versions of Darcy (as in Pemberley: Mr Darcy’s Dragon, Longbourn: Dragon Entail, Netherfield: Rogue Dragon, a three-book series by Maria Grace, White Soup Press, 2016–2018) populate the thriving genre of Jane Austen fan fiction. This is probably one of the most telling and revealing aspects of Austen’s modern-day popularity – the huge, ever-increasing, concentrated output of fan fiction. These are stories – mostly circulated online, but many published in print through independent channels – that are based on Austen’s original narratives and characters. They explore alternative plotlines, are told from an individual character’s perspective or explore ‘what if?’ scenarios that test the much-loved characters in new and dramatic ways. The figure of Darcy dominates these alternative re-tellings of Pride and Prejudice, demonstrating how vivid, personal and meaningful are the relationships between readers and writers of Jane Austen fan fiction, the author and her creation.

The Darcy we know today has a 200-year history behind him. And beyond that history are the influences that might have operated on Austen to create him. He has moved from being the secondary character to Elizabeth, her love interest, to influence later heroic creations. He is now an archetype that defines a whole strand of characters in fiction, drama, media and popular culture. These are identified by a single name – Darcy.

So, what is it that Austen delivers for readers and viewers that turn them into such fans, and superfans, of her novels, her characters and of Darcy in particular? This book will search for some answers to this, and in doing so explore the origins of the character, the depiction of him in the novel and the legacy of his influence.

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Live Next Door To Pemberley for £3m 

Jane Austen News

Live Next Door To Pemberley for £3m

33DB5A6300000578-0-image-a-6_1462447285165Lymewater Hall: a six-bedroom detached home in Stockport, Greater Manchester. It’s a six-bedroom detached home which boasts a statement staircase, home gym, cinema room, wine cellar and games room. But more importantly, it backs onto Lyme Hall – a beautiful National Trust property, famous for being the setting of Mr Darcy’s plush Pemberley pad in the 1995 BBC series (and home to the infamous lake). So if you want to be Mr Darcy’s neighbour now is your chance. Lymewater Hall is up for sale, for the low low price of…£3million!

Continue reading Live Next Door To Pemberley for £3m 

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Reasons Why Regency Fashion Rocks!

Jane Austen News

Reasons Why Regency Fashion Rocks!
Continue reading Reasons Why Regency Fashion Rocks!

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‘The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen’s London’

Jane Austen news

‘The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen’s London’

Continue reading ‘The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen’s London’

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Rachel Dodge on Writing “Praying with Jane”

The inspiration behind "Praying With Jane"

Author Rachel Dodge details the inspirations and process behind her new book Praying with Jane.

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“Prayers Composed by my ever dear Sister Jane”

 

My first introduction to Jane Austen’s prayers, over a decade ago, happened by chance. I was in graduate school, working on my master’s thesis on Pride and Prejudice, when I found them at the back of the Chapman edition of Austen’s novels (in the Minor Works volume). At the time, I thought the prayers were beautifully written and wondered why I had heard so little about them.

Continue reading Rachel Dodge on Writing “Praying with Jane”

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“Praying with Jane” – a Review by Laura Boyle

praying with jane

In Praying with Jane, Rachel Dodge has managed to present Jane Austen’s life “in a style entirely new”, taking a closer look at the heart behind the one of the most beloved authors of all time. Much of what is known of Jane’s life comes in the form of her (censored) letters and the reminiscences of family members. While these details paint a cheerful and amusing picture, that which made Jane, Jane, lies at the heart of the three existing prayers we have that she wrote for use during evening prayers. We do not know why she wrote them- whether out of an overflow of devotion or at the bequest of some family member, but the serious, heartfelt tone, when examined, adds a deeper shade to our understanding of the writer.  These are no “vain repetitions”, but rather intimate, whole life lessons, summing up the core values of a woman once noted for her desire for anonymity.

In this book, Rachel Dodge closely examines each line of each prayer, in a day by day format, allowing for a 31 day devotional, to be used either in succession, or occasionally. Using Jane’s own historical background as well as Ms. Dodge’s extensive knowledge of Austen’s fictional works, the prayers are placed into context in Jane’s life, along with insightful ways to apply them to our own, often busy, lives. Each day includes related scripture as well as a call to prayer and worship as the reader seeks to apply Jane’s prayers to her own life. This breaking down works amazingly well to draw out the depth of Austen’s own writing and brings the reader a greater appreciation of Austen’s already acknowledged genius with language and the human heart.

Continue reading “Praying with Jane” – a Review by Laura Boyle

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Jane Austen News – Issue 108 – Janeites and Shelley

Go-to books for a Janeite

Janeites! What’s the Jane Austen News this week? 


Mary Bennet and Frankenstein’s Monster

This is an important year for fans of Mary Shelley, it being the 200th anniversary of the publication of her most famous novel, Frankenstein. There will be plenty of books published this year which centre on the book and on the author herself, but one that’s caught our eye is Pride and Prometheus by John Kessel.

In the original novel, Victor Frankenstein and his friend Henry Clerval run away to England and Scotland when the creature they have made demands that they make a mate for him. In Pride and Prometheus, Kessel has the pair meet Mary Bennet, the bookish and often slighted Bennet sister, who is portrayed in the novel as a keen amateur scientist who is fascinated by Frankenstein’s ideas. (Mr Darcy and Lizzy Bennet also make an appearance but it is fleeting).

Naturally the creature has followed Frankenstein and Clerval on their escape, and it’s not too long before the Bennet family is mixed up in the melodrama of the Frankenstein saga.

As book fusions go, this one is done exceedingly well, and has much that will delight fans of Austen and Shelley alike, especially if the tongue-in-cheek mockery of gothic novels in Northanger Abbey was something you enjoyed.

When she was nineteen, Miss Mary Bennet had believed three things that were not true. She believed that, despite her awkwardness, she might become interesting through her accomplishments. She believed that, because she paid strict attention to all she had been taught about right and wrong, she was wise in the ways of the world. And she believed that God, who took note of every moment of one’s life, would answer prayers, even foolish ones.

Continue reading Jane Austen News – Issue 108 – Janeites and Shelley

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