Writing Jane Austen, by Elizabeth Aston
Reading this book, I found far more similarities between the heroine, one Georgina Jackson, and the author concerning their respective attempts to write within the world of Jane Austen than the author would probably appreciate. One thing is for certain, though, and that is the way that this book has the wrong title. Far from writing Jane Austen, this book spends over two-thirds of its 300 page space showing a protagonist who is desperately trying to avoid writing Jane Austen. I must admit that I found the book both frustrating and also rather illuminating on the lack of insight that the author herself has on the works of Jane Austen. There is an easy awareness that Jane Austen’s novels are popular, as well as a comfort with the surface-level details of Austen’s writings, but the author herself in her novels shows no more insight into the core of Austen’s writing than does Georgina in her attempt to study and include brothels and other aspects of social history that are of interest to contemporary writers but are not really relevant to writing like Jane Austen. Whether or not the author is aware of these ironies is not clear; perhaps she just meant to write an entertaining story about a struggling writer and didn’t want it to be so relevant in understanding her own writings.
The story itself is straightforward enough. Georgina Jackson is an American in England doing some sort of research, and having written a critically beloved but not very popular novel set in the 19th century, only to find herself in serious money problems with her father going through an expensive divorce, her fellowship cut off when someone else has copied her existing research, and her plans for a second novel not progressing anywhere when she is basically dragooned into finishing a supposed Jane Austen fragment of a first chapter. Not being familiar with Jane Austen, she waffles and hems and haws even after signing the contract, being unable to buckle down and write until after she has toured Bath, read the canonical Austen novels in one mad rush, and even toured a village where some filming is going on for an Austen adaptation. Of course, the book ends happily, but in ways that are remarkably threadbare in showing the requisite happy marriage between Georgina and her landlord, or showing how it is that the landlord’s sister Maud is going to be able to find a place where she is not so eccentric.
There are a great many times where the reader will want to slap some sense into its lead character. There are some readers who find that sort of dynamic charming, but I am not among them. For me, this novel was fascinating in demonstrating the author’s own lack of interest in genuinely capturing what was most charming about Austen’s fiction. The author has some of her characters note that Austen was the consummate realist, but in her novels she was a moralist as well, framing her main characters as virtuous and honorable in a world that was frequently anything but, showing at least some of the social evils that existed but showing her characters as being above the cut, something that Aston has failed to show for her protagonists consistently in her novels. While the author may think it funny to have a protagonist who thinks writing about the oppressed servant underclass and houses of ill repute is good preparation for writing like Austen, that is the author’s own approach, and it comes off no better or no more successful at capturing what was most impressive and worthwhile about Austen’s approach to fiction.