This is what happens when you run out of new Jane Austen to read

I’ve been dipping back into Jane Austen the last week or so. I stumbled on a ‘sequel’ to Sense & Sensibility by Joan Aiken — a favorite author from my childhood — so I jumped on it. And of course, reading Eliza’s Daughter, made me question my memory of events in S&S, so I had to re-read that. Then I was deep in, so I wanted to read Persuasion (mostly because it’s the one I don’t own of the Austen books I like best — those being Emma, S&S, P&P and Persuasion. Northanger Abbey is okay but lighter, and Mansfield Park I don’t like much at all).

So anyway, I went to pick up Persuasion at the library (no need to put this on hold, every location has multiple copies of all things Austen, and Persuasion being less popular, it was indeed there on the shelf waiting for me). And… right next to it was something called A Visit to Highbury, a ‘different perspective’ of the events in Emma by the great great grand-niece of Ms. Austen. There’s another one after it, Later Days at Highbury.

Sequels done by someone other than the original author are always iffy. And sequels written 200 years after the original, even iffier. Sequels of fantastically popular, iconic, still-in-print works — well, that’s taking a risk of a whole other magnitude. Purists will despise you, fans might mock you, and haters will crush you. These two novels took very different attitudes toward their source material, and the results are very different indeed.

Joan Aiken is a pretty popular author. She wrote Nightbirds on Nantucket, Black Hearts in Battersea, and dozens of other children’s books. I own those two plus The Wolves of Willoughby Chase — three related books (and there are many more, apparently, that were not in my local library as a child). She wrote more than 100 books in her 79 years on the planet.  This is no upstart trying to get a bump from the Austen obsessions of the rest of us. I was excited to read this one.

sense and sensibility eliza's daughter jane austen joan aikenAiken’s book is a first-person novel from the perspective of Eliza’s daughter, Eliza’s daughter, also named Eliza. That would be Eliza — first love of Colonel Brandon — her daughter, Eliza — child of the unknown father who seduced Eliza in her marital misery – and her daughter, Eliza — daughter of scapegrace Willoughby, first love of Marianne.  Got that? It was a bit of a struggle, I kept losing track of which generation we were on. For instance, when this Eliza (and we never see the others) says she’d never seen Colonel Brandon, I had to go to S&S and check the story, because I was sure he said he’d seen her often — but that was her mother, not her.

Aiken has no qualms writing a very different future for the principal characters of S&S — we see Elinor, Edward Ferrars, Marianne, and Mrs. Dashwood, as well as brief glimpses of Lucy Steele Ferrars and her husband, Robert. Edward is bitter and stoic, Marianne is unfeeling and selfish, Mrs. Dashwood has lost her mind, and only Elinor comes off as a decent person — but she’s miserable. This is NOT the future we wished for them! And the Interwebs is quite full of people telling Austen fans to avoid this book at all costs. I saw none of that chatter before I picked it up, and I was sorry to see Aiken’s complete lack of faith in these characters’ futures. I wonder why she even wrote a book that dealt with them, since she seemed to dislike them excessively? Maybe she wanted us all to know how she felt about them.

Eliza’s story is compellingly readable and rings true as a real person and a real life in almost every instance. Actually, it all rings true (because who actually reveals everything about themselves?), but a few choices made by the author rendered the whole book less satisfying.

First the good: Eliza is scrappy and no-nonsense, kind and generous to a fault. She rescues a baby from her wet nurse’s neglect, refuses to gossip to make her school life easier, overcomes the negligence of her guardian (Brandon does not come off well, and the blame is placed on Marianne), escapes from would-be rapists, and rescues Elinor from starvation and fever. The plot is one damned thing after another for this poor girl from the wrong side of the sheets. But she never gives up, and rarely complains.

The bad: this ‘never complains’ part is part of the problem. Her sexual abuse as a child (by her tutor) isn’t even mentioned until she’s an adult — not even hinted at properly. And the book ends (seriously, the last paragraph) with her revealing that she’s PREGNANT, when there has been no hint of any kind of sexual encounter occurring in the previous decade or more. WHAT?! This is what sent me to the internet, wondering if there was a sequel/interview/close reading somewhere that could tell me what the heck was going on here. I found nothing but vitriol aimed at Aiken for her treatment of beloved Austen heroines and heroes.

This is not to say that the book is poorly written, exactly. If that sentence had been left out, I would have closed it happy — even with the character assassination. I can ignore Aiken’s opinion of the future Dashwoods, et. al., this book would have been a fine book unaffiliated with any Austen characters at all. But why make a poor attempt to dress up the ending by 1) revealing a pregnancy we have no investment in, and 2) making every reader doubt their reading of the whole book? Seems a poor choice for an otherwise accomplished text.

joan austen-leigh Emma A visit to highbury Mrs. Goddard
The original title was Mrs. Goddard, Mistress of a School. I bet they changed it for us American Austen noobs.

A Visit to Highbury is a VERY DIFFERENT voyage into the world of Austen. Joan Austen-Leigh (hey, both authors are named Joan… just noticed that) makes a point of saying in the introduction that she puts not a single word in the mouths of Austen’s speaking characters in Emma, adheres strictly to the timeline and details of that novel, and only makes up things about the silent characters in Emma (notably Mrs. Goddard, mistress of the school where Harriet Smith lives). The story is told in a series of letters between Mrs. Goddard and her sister in London. Mrs. Pinkney is newly widowed, remarried and lonely for people, so her sister sends her gossipy letters (almost wrote ‘emails’ right there) about the fine folks in Highbury. Mrs. Goddard’s opinions and descriptions of Emma and her friends and family mirror exactly what Austen wrote in Emma, so purists can read it with no qualms.

The book is thoroughly enjoyable. I read it in one go, not putting it down until it was done (it is only 180 small pages). The events taking place in letters written and then received and responded to create a kind of constant cliffhanger situation as we wait for the other to respond, answer questions and clear up confusion. Of course, there is more going on in their lives than what happens in Emma — will Mrs. Pinkney ever be happy with her husband. Are those poor girls at the school in London really being mistreated? Lots of new plot that in no way alters what we know and love about Highbury and its residents, but it adds some background and a new list of events and characters to love (some quite similar to other Austen creations, including the obligatory visit to Bath, Naval officers, illegitimate children and apothecaries for everyone). I look forward to the sequel.

I think there is room for some middle ground between the two approaches to (what amounts to) Austen fan fiction.  Aiken makes you despair of every picking up another one, and Austen-Leigh treats the characters as demigods not be to besmirched by her unworthy hands.

jane austen P D James Death comes to pemberely Pride and prejudice
BBC is making a mini-series out of this right now.

I think the best Austen fan-fic I read was Death Comes to Pemberley, what could properly be called a sequel to Pride and Prejudice by P.D. James, a popular author of crime fiction.* The events take place a few years after the end of P&P, when Lizzie’s wild sister, Lydia and her ne’er-do-well husband, Wickham, arrive at Pemberley. The book is a murder mystery totally in keeping with the characters of P&P, and a great read. James clearly loved those characters, but wasn’t afraid to shake things up a bit.

I can’t imagine taking on the challenge of writing in Austen’s world — I’d be more likely to take the ‘inspired by but no way I’m actually calling my character Elizabeth Bennet’ route, done by tons of writers (my most recent favorite, the speculative fiction books of Mary Robinette Kowal). You get points for bravery, but be prepared for the firing squad.

*I also read a collection of short fiction ‘inspired’ by Austen’s work (Jane Austen Made Me Do It), an uneven collection that none-the-less contained some real gems.

Extremely Sad & Incredibly Wonderful

I read Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer again this week and fell in love with it all over again.

I heard about the book from a fellow student in my Studies in Fiction class.  I never did thank her for that, or tell her how much I loved the book.  We were reading Pattern Recognition by William Gibson and Falling Man by Don DeLillo in class – two books that deal with the aftermath of 9/11 in New York.  Emily did not like either of them (both of which I loved) and recommended EL&IC.

EL&IC is probably the most powerful, stunning, achingly sad book I’ve ever read – and I’m a fan of beautifully sad books.  Some are more lyrical (The God of Small Things by Arundhati  Roy comes to mind), and some more profound (such as The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje)  but this book allows you to experience the sadness of an 9-year-old boy who’s lost his father in the Twin Towers.   It also touches on the losses his family experienced in WWII that are not so far removed from the present as you’d imagine.  It is a map of heartbreak and guilt and loss that seemed abundantly human and intimately personal. I cried hard, more than once, and it helps me believe that personal redemption is possible and I can survive almost anything if this young boy can find a way to survive what happened to him.  Everyone in the world should read it.

Just Can’t Find the Love

Did you ever read a book that you didn’t like – and you didn’t know why?  It doesn’t happen to me very often (I can usually tell you exactly why I didn’t like it), but this is the story of one of those books.

Chatterton by Peter Ackroyd is a book I read in my graduate Contemporary Fiction class.  The book follows several writers in a few different eras, all connected to each other.  Sounds good so far, right?   Thomas Chatterton ( a real person) was a young poet in the mid-1700s that invented a medieval poet monk and published poems he himself had written, claiming that he’d found them in a church.  The poems were very popular and critically acclaimed.  Chatteron died before his 18th birthday – apparently a suicide – so we’ll never know if his talent would have grown.  He is known as a forger, but of course he wasn’t really a forger.  He just lied about being the ghost writer for a non-existent person.

We also meet George Meredith, a real poet who posed for a ‘portrait’ of Chatterton fifty years later, painted by Henry Wallis (the portrait image is on the cover of the book).  In modern-day England , we have Charles the poet (fictional) and his family as well as Harriet the novelist (also fictional).  Harriet is getting old and still ruled by her guilt and shame for plagiarizing the plots of a few of her novels, and Charles is ill and thinks he’s discovered new information about Thomas Chatterton – like the fact that he faked his death and wrote some of the most famous works of the late 1700s pretending to be famous poets.

The whole book is an exploration of art: What makes art great?  Do we read/see art differently based on biographical information about the artist?  Where is the line between inspiration and plagiarism?  Is any work of art ever truly original?  And how can you really know, even if you are the one who ‘created’ it?  I don’t think there are any simple answers to these questions, and the book does not try to answer them, it merely gives the reader plenty of food for thought.

I can’t explain why Chatterton does nothing for me.  It’s not a bad book. It’s not a boring book.  It has interesting themes and characters, and my favorite professor loves it.   I reread it to see if I could figure out what I missed the first time around.  I did like it better this time around.  But in the end, it just didn’t excite me.  No light bulb in my head.  Maybe because I didn’t feel like Ackroyd really added anything to the conversation on art he was so interested in.  Maybe because all the writers in the book are sad creatures that come to sad endings (not poetically sad or lyrically sad, just sad).  I don’t know.  Still.

A Master of Illusion

Paul Auster sticks in my mind as one of the most challenging authors I read while working towards my B.A. in English.  We read The New York Trilogy and I liked him mostly because he was really difficult, yet I could understand him. Not to say it wasn’t a great book – it was – just a very complicated, multi-layered text full of obscure references and stylistic flourishes not always easy to understand.  When I had to write my first ten-page paper ever, I chose his book because I knew there was more to write about in that book (all 384 pages) than any two other novels we read that semester.  I got an A, and my professor (thank you, Patty) suggested I present it in a Student Showcase, which I did.  Maybe that was more information that you really needed to explain my positive associations with Auster, but I have a bit more.  I picked up The Brooklyn Follies early this year and thoroughly enjoyed it – another great book by Auster, but much less challenging (though no less interesting).

The Book of Illusions I picked up on that fabulous sale rack at Powell’s.  Now looking at it, the eyeball shot on the cover brings hints of Lost (which I’ve recently become addicted to and watched voraciously for weeks on end).  I must have bought it before I started watching that show, because it never occurred to me before.  I suppose at some point you’d like me to actually tell you about the book I read?  If you insist.

I really enjoyed The Book of Illusions.  It is the story of a man who loses his wife and children when their plane (which he was not on) crashes.  He drinks and drifts for almost a year until he sees a clip from an old silent film on TV that actually makes him chuckle for the first time since their deaths.  He becomes a bit obsessed with the comedian in the film and decides to find and watch all the films he made.  In the process, he discovers the actor is alive and is invited to meet him.  It is a sad, powerful story about grief and guilt and the strange things it makes us do.

I liked the book for several reasons.  It is written almost completely in the first-person (as many of Auster’s books are) and the internal monologue rings true,  painting a vivid picture of David’s internal life.  The narrative is convincingly erratic (like the thought processes of a human being) without being inconsistent or difficult to follow. I love a story that takes the scenic road to get to the point and doesn’t always give you clear directions.  His descriptions of the movies he ‘sees’ are so rich, you feel as if you are watching the films with him.

Some of the themes embedded in this narrative are also favorites of mine – the mechanics of how and why stories work, and why they are important.  The conviction that we all write our own lives (stories), and therefore we can change our lives if we work hard enough.  Affirmation that – regardless of the present moment – the future always offers hope.  So it’s not surprising that I devoured the book and closed it feeling happy, uplifted and wishing I could write half as well.  He is never boring, never predictable, yet entirely convincing.

Song of the Turtle – edited by Paula Gunn Allen

I was exposed to some wonderful Native American literature in my undergrad literature courses.  Louise Erdrich is a favorite (I own all of her novels) and I have enjoyed Sherman Alexie (the film Smoke Signals was based on one of his short stories), Leslie Marmon Silko and others whose names escape me at the moment (this is a blog, not a research paper!).  So the short story collection Song of the Turtle was a shoe-in as soon as I laid eyes on it (at the Gresham library).  The fact that it was edited by Paula Gunn Allen meant that I was sure to notice it.

I heard Ms. Allen speak at UAA in 1999 or 2000.  I was taking Feminist Theory (a fabulous class, again taught by Genie) and immersed in the critical theory coming from the feminist movement.  Allen was brought to UAA as a part of Women’s History Month by the Women’s Studies Program (I believe) and I may have gotten class credit for attending – but if I had known how her talk was going to affect me, I would have paid admission. At the time, we were reading some of Catherine Mackinnon’s work in class, and it focused on a lot of negative things – powerful stuff, but not exactly uplifting.  Allen was a completely different kettle of fish. She had a way of describing the world that turned my personal worldview on its head.  This was a well-respected, professional woman who believed in magic and spoke of it like sewing or cooking – a regular part of life that could be practiced by those willing to put in the effort.  And that was exactly what I needed to hear.  There are many different paradigms for understanding the world – and Mackinnon’s is no more or less valid than Allen’s.  And both had something to offer me.

I think it is that different world view that draws me to the stories like those in Song of the Turtle.  The basic assumptions conveyed are not those of the mainstream American culture I find myself living in – and I agree with much of what’s being assumed.  Gratitude for life in all its forms.  A responsibility to others as well as to ourselves.  A quiet appreciation for the ironies of life.  It reminds me to be grateful for all that I have, and to laugh along with the universe at the ridiculous events in my life.

This collection is the cream of the crop of American Indian Literature for the last quarter of the twentieth century, so there’s not a dud in the bunch.   The settings vary from – historical to modern, rural to urban, and some that have no ‘indians’ in them at all – but all are told with that certain flavor that keeps many of us coming back for more.  Some stand-out stories are: Pilgrims by Roxy Gordon, Siobhan La Rue in Color by D. Renville, Compatriots by Emma Lee Warrior and Christianity Comes to the Sioux by Susan Power.