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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 She deftly weaves what remains of Austen family letters and other historical documents with extracts, events and characters in the author’s surviving novels and minor works.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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Sanditon – A review from our Jane Austen Book Club

The Jane Austen Book Club reviews Sanditon

A Review of Sanditon by Jane Austen

by Jane Austen Book Club reviewer, Susannah Lawford

Buy this book here!

First impressions of this book were amazing. It is aesthetically pleasing, I’m a huge fan of ‘pretty books’ on my bookshelf, with the cover featuring art taken from the library of Congress. It’s also a nice size so even though it is a hardback there is no wrist fatigue if you sit reading for extended periods.

The book opens with an introductory essay by Jane Austen historian Janet Todd. I will be upfront and say I chose not to read this until after I read Sanditon. Having never read it I wanted to appreciate it with my own thoughts for the first read through. The essay relates history of the period to Austens works and compares characters and themes from her published works to the unfinished Sanditon. She delves into the rise of ‘Health resorts’ at the time using historical knowledge of places such as Lyme, essays and articles from Jane’s contemporaries, and the letters of Jane herself. It is a very interesting read.

 

On to the fragment, as Todd calls it, of Sanditon. The book opens with Gentleman entrepreneur Mr Parker and his wife seeking a Dr for his Health Resort Village. Following an accident the parkers make the acquaintance of the Heywood family and following a brief stay they remove to Sanditon with the Heywoods daughter Charlotte.

 

On arrival in Sanditon Charlotte forms relationships with many of the local inhabitants; Lady Denham, her impoverished niece Clara and other family members, and of course the Parker siblings.

 

The Parkers are all self diagnosed as invalids which is what prompted the eldest to invest in a health retreat and a doctor. However it appears that they are slightly more energetic than their words allow.

 

The entire story that Jane left behind is the establishment of a community at Sanditon, and introduces us to the variety of characters, including an heiress from the West indies, and brings a potential love interest in Sidney Parker.

 

The story is both exciting and sad. Exciting as this is a new plot line for Jane, even though a lot of her characters took to Bath and Lyme for portions of her novels, it looked like Sanditon was going to be completely set in a holiday/seaside resort. And also sad because there was so much potential there left unfinished with Jane’s death.

 

The book closes with a selection of continuations for those of us left feeling unsatisfied with the 12 chapters left to us. These range from one by Anna Lefroy, Jane’s niece, in 1845 all the way to Carrie Bebris Mystery series in 2015.

 

This book is the ideal book to read before seeing the upcoming television adaptation to get a well rounded feel for society at the time and the original work itself. For that reason I highly recommend this version of the book.

Buy this book here!

****

About the reviewer:
Susannah is a 40 year old stay at home mum to four children aged 20, 8, 6, and 1, and a manic Labrador Boxer Cross dog.
Apart from an obsession with Austen (including sequels and variations and film adaptations) she loves to read books in the fantasy genre. Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, and Robert Asprins Myth Inc series are some of her favourites.
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The Jane Austen Book Club

The Jane Austen Book Club is a motley crew of eccentrics such as California specializes in. The five women and one man who comprise the membership of the reading group are a diverse bunch, different ages, backgrounds, marital status, sexual orientations, beginning readers of Jane Austen and those who have been re-reading Austen for decades. Their common bond is that their lives are scattered, fractured and lonely. The 21st century provides them with no set of values to tell them which behaviors are right or wrong, which relationships acceptable or unacceptable. Their highest aim is to please themselves, though they seem to have no idea how to best go about it, and their personal relationships are subject to change. They are fumbling in the dark.

It seems highly improbable that such a reading group would find relevance in nineteenth century, English novels, as the club’s members are light years away from Jane Austen’s proper ladies and gentlemen who repress their emotions, delay their gratifications, maintain their dignity, conform to their society and marry, for better or for worse, till death did them part. How can ultra-modern Americans relate to characters who find divorce shocking but consider dueling with pistols to be a rational response to provocation? The book club might as well be reading about life on another planet, and yet they read Jane Austen. But their interest in Austen’s characters is perhaps no more unlikely than the viewer’s interest in the Californians’ messy lives and the viewer’s hope that the book club members will find love and happiness, and yet that happens as well.

The film begins with a well constructed reminder of the harried lives we lead in the 21st century, constantly harassed by buzzers and beepers, tones and timers, pre-recorded messages and malfunctioning machinery. It’s all so impersonal, frustrating and numbingly lonely, and yet the modern world has links to Jane Austen’s, the irresistible appeal of falling in love (Pride and Prejudice), the comfort of supportive relatives (Sense and Sensibility), the pain of dysfunctional families (Mansfield Park), the freshness of youth (Northanger Abbey), our lifelong ability to surprise ourselves (Emma) and the endurance and regenerative power of love (Persuasion). Each member of the club assumes responsibility for leading the discussion of a different book, a novel whose main character bears an uncanny resemblance to… Well, you get the picture.

With an affinity for science fiction and horror novels, Grigg (Hugh Dancy) is sweet, young and ready to fall in love at first sight. Allegra (Maggie Grace) is a risk taker who sets propriety at nought and throws herself, full throttle, at life. Light, bright and sparkling Bernadette (Kathy Baker) has turned meeting Mr. Darcy into her life’s work. Prudie (Emily Blunt) is an awkward, shy, uptight survivor, carefully maneuvering her way through relationships. Jocelyn (Maria Bello) is independent, self confident and controlling, but she doesn’t know herself as well as she thinks she does. Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) watches helplessly as the love of her life (Jimmy Smits) pursues another woman. Does all of this sound familiar?

The Book Club is a must see for Austen fans who are bound to appreciate the references to well-loved novels and characters, but it is not necessary to have read any of Austen’s books to understand the film. Like Austen’s novels, the film’s emotional turmoil is balanced by a good deal of humour, and the result is a thoroughly enjoyable film that ends too soon. There is an improbable, feel-good conclusion, but then Jane Austen was not entirely opposed to happy endings, even admittedly contrived ones, and, as Austen might have said herself, let other films dwell on guilt and misery.

Additionally, The Jane Austen Book Club is a film with a message. The Book Club reminds us of the power of literature to inspire us, to challenge us, to suggest solutions to our problems, to offer us hope and, yes, to change our lives. Although few of us would dare to recommend Persuasion as a how-to handbook for patching up troubled relationships, we must agree with Bernadette in the film who declares, if you need advice, you could do worse than Jane Austen. And, whatever else one may say about the book club, they have impeccable taste in reading material.

The Jane Austen Book Club is based on the novel by Karen Joy Fowler.

Sheryl Craig is an Instructor at the University of Central Missouri. She is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Kansas.