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Posts Tagged ‘Sense and Sensibility’

impressionsIt’s a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is a cottage industry, her life and six books spawning numerous prequels, sequels, mash-ups, mysteries, reimaginings, movies, mini-series and more. I recently received a lovely set of of Jane Austen postcards as a birthday gift, and at this very moment, I am leaning back on my little Jane Austen pillow, another gift. I do not yet possess a Jane Austen action figure, but Christmas is coming and a girl can dream . . .

The Austen-inspired books range from serious to silly, and some are very good, indeed, such as Jo Baker’s Longbourn, which I wrote about a year ago this month, and P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley, now adapted for PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre. I’m also happy to recommend Charlie Lovett’s First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen (Viking Penguin, review copy). The “novel” is important because Lovett’s book effectively blurs the lines between fact and fiction so that his parallel plots seem plausible enough, especially the historical one involving Austen. The contemporary story benefits from bibliophile Lovett’s knowledge of the antique book trade, as did his first novel, The Bookman’s Tale, about a bookseller’s obsession with an old volume annotated by William Shakespeare.

In First Impressions, recent Oxford grad Sophie Collingwood is stunned by the sudden, accidental death of her favorite uncle, who leaves her his book-filled London flat. She is even more dismayed to discover that Uncle Bertram’s collection of rare book has been sold to covers his debts, so she takes a job with an antiquarian bookseller, determined to track down and buy back as many volumes as possible. Two competing customers ask her help in tracking down an obscure old book by the Rev. Richard Mansfield.

You were wondering where Jane Austen figures in this tale? Lovett neatly alternates short chapters about Sophie with those about Jane Austen, who in 1796 Hampshire finds a kindred spirit in an elderly vicar visiting her neighbors. At the time, Jane is working on an epistolary novel tentatively titled Elinor and Marianne, while the Rev. Richard Mansfield is revising and expanding his little book of moral stories. The two offer each other advice and encouragement — the words “sense and sensibility” come up — and Jane even agrees to contribute a story to Mansfield’s book.

Back in London, Sophie is growing increasingly suspicious of the circumstances of Uncle Bertram’s death, as well as one of the customers seeking Mansfield’s books. Her sleuthing, which takes her to Oxford, Hampshire and her own family’s library, is complicated by two suitors: one an arrogant American academic who writes her wonderful letters, the other a handsome London publisher who takes her to dinner and bed. Both, it turns out, have an interest in the Mansfield book, which Sophie discovers casts in doubt the authorship of Pride and Prejudice.

Meanwhile, Jane’s writing life in Hampshire and her friendship with Mansfield is interrupted by her trip to Bath and his departure  for his Yorkshire home.

I don’t think I’m going to tell you anymore. I may already have told you too much. Suffice to say, Lovett is a clever writer and First Impressions is good sport.

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longbournDo you remember the footman in Pride and Prejudice? Me neither, and I’ve read Jane Austen’s classic umpteen times. So I’m going to take author Jo Baker’s word that he appears in the novel just once, an invisible man delivering a letter to the drawing room.

But in Baker’s spirited re-imagining, Longbourn (Knopf, digital galley), the hiring of young James Smith as the Bennet family’s new manservant is as newsmaking below stairs as Mr. Bingley’s arrival is upstairs. For aging Mr. Hill, it means gratefully handing over the coach reins on cold nights. For orphaned housemaids Sarah and Polly, it’s a new face and some help with the heavy-duty chores, although Sarah wonders why the housekeeper Mrs. Hill is having a closed-door conversation with Mr. Bennet. Surely, there’s nothing to object to about the strong, leanly attractive James?

“This is what Sarah had always wanted: something — anything — to disturb the quiet. . .the prospect of another spiritless season, and the monotony of reading three-decker novels and three-day old news.”

Sarah is both pragmatic and aspiring as she washes the Bennet girls’ muddy petticoats and totes their chamber pots. She saves one of Elizabeth’s hand-me-down gowns for her best. She keeps a small wooden hope chest under her bed. She borrows books from Mr. Bennet. She flirts with Ptolemy, Mr. Bingley’s attentive manservant, but it’s really secretive James she has her eye on. Sent on a miserable, rainy errand to shop for rosettes for dancing slippers, she finds a limited selection and figures the Bennet sisters can like her choice or lump it. She rather hopes they lump it.

Baker does a splendid job of intermingling the familiar storylines of Austen’s novel with the lives of the servants. They are sympathetic to the socially inept Mr. Collins, and Mrs. Hill approves of his marrying Charlotte Lucas because there will be little upset downstairs when the day comes. Sarah is quick to warn pre-teen Polly that Mr. Wickham is up to no good.

Baker imagines some events before and after those in Pride and Prejudice, thus amplifying her own tale and Austen’s, creating a story that can stand on its own. Sarah’s romance with James is thwarted when he suddenly disappears, and this dramatic turn allows for his backstory as a foot soldier in the Napoleonic Wars. A long-held secret illuminates another side to Mr. Bennet. The ending is real and lovely.

Perhaps best of all is Baker’s sensitivity to her characters’ inner lives and her evocative writing. One vignette depicts several servants abed after a long day, heads still turning on pillows. “Mrs. Hill was not asleep either. She lay looking up at the cold stars through the skylight. . .She thought, Wherever you are in this world, the sky is still above you. Wherever you are, God still watches over you; He sees into your heart.”

senseOf rewriting Austen there seems to be no end.  In this year of Pride and Prejudice’s 200th anniversary, HarperCollins’ The Austen Project is commissioning six well-known contemporary writers for updates of Austen’s novels. Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility (HarperCollins, digital galley) is first out of the gate the end of the month, and Alexander McCall Smith has just been tapped for Emma.  Oh, dear. I generally like Trollope’s novels but was disconcerted by her faux Austen. It begins with the Dashwood sisters and their mother understandably upset at the prospect of losing their Norland Park home, but  there’s  little to suggest that this is a 21st-century tale until Margaret suddenly begins fiddling with her iPod. I rather wish Trollope had just used Austen’s story as inspiration to write her own novel, as Cathleen Schine did in the playful The Three Weissmans of Westport.

janeitesI was much more entertained by journalist Deborah Yaffe’s Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, digital galley). Austen fans, of course, are legion, obsessive and yet surprisingly diverse in their passions. Some are enamoured of Regency culture and clothes; academics concentrate on scholarly details and scorn fan fiction; amateur psychologists read between the lines and wonder where Darcy fits on the autism spectrum. As someone who loved Jane Austen before Colin Firth wore a wet shirt, I admit to being a Janeite, but I’m minor league compared to these folks. On the other hand, I like a good ramble around the Republic of Pemberley website.

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