Coming up this weekend [Sunday September 23, 2012] is JASNA-Vermont’s “An Afternoon with Jane Austen”: wherein we shall hear about ‘Channeling’, ‘Imagining’, and ‘Dressing’ Jane Austen’. Presentations by authors Elsa Solender (Jane Austen in Love: An Entertainment) and Stuart Bennett (The Perfect Visit) will take us back in time to meet our favorite author! These two sessions will be linked with a talk by our very own Hope Greenberg as she takes us through the stages of “Dressing Jane” in the proper Regency clothing of her day.
I had reviewed Elsa Solender’s book for the JASNA News [it shall be in the next issue] and so cannot post that review here until it is published, so I have asked Diana Birchall, who read and enjoyed the book very much, to share her thoughts on Jane Austen in Love: An Entertainement.
A Light and Lovely Literary Biography
The Austenalia, Austenesque, Austen-related fiction field is now so rich and wide that there is something for every taste, passion, and level of knowledge. Jane Austen’s works have always left the reader wishing for more, and by now all her novels have been continued, extended, squeezed and sequelized, transmuted into every possible genre, and almost loved to death by writers and fans of every conceivable skill set and range of imagination and learning. The subject of Jane Austen’s own life and loves has not been neglected, but it is not as commonly treated as those of her fictional characters. Perhaps it is easier to picture to oneself the future lives of Darcy and Elizabeth than it is to write authoritatively and persuasively about the veritable Austen herself, the mysterious and hidden woman of two hundred odd years ago, whose life was never on display, whose relatives burned selected letters and presented a sweetened version of her to the world. A lifetime of study and scholarship leaves one only more deeply aware of just how enigmatic she was. For this reason most modern re-imaginings of her life cannot satisfy – too often they clash wincingly with our own vision, or try to pump up the almost incredibly scantily known romantic aspects of her life into a sensational love story. Only a precious few come close to presenting a plausible enough version to permit us to think that yes, maybe, just maybe, life was like that for Jane Austen.
Elsa Solender’s Jane Austen in Love accomplishes this, and is one of the most valid and satisfying attempted imaginings of Austen’s emotions and interior life – and that of her sister Cassandra, who serves as a natural, if somewhat somber, narrator. Solender has the advantage of lifelong study of Austen, for as writer, editor, and former President of JASNA, she has clearly never branched far away from the Austen tree of knowledge, but has kept it twining around her mind and heart, evergreen. She is also a felicitous, unobtrusive, graceful writer, who wears her great scholarship lightly and is never prosy or dry, but modest and elegant, just as Austen would surely approve. She keeps her fertile imagination closely reined in to the probable, and therefore the reader who wants to see a little more of “what Jane Austen was like,” is given the gift of a delicate and wholly believable version of reality.
Solender has a light touch and a sensitive ability to catch and recreate a tone, a mood, and she displays this winningly throughout. The sober sadness of the older Cassandra is piquantly contrasted with the bright, high spirited portrait of the young Jane in the bosom of her family, each of her brothers lively and inimitable, especially the clever but unstable Henry. Solender artfully intersperses nuggets of literary biography with her sketches, giving us the pleasure of seeing Jane Austen’s family at home, in the act of being themselves. The cast of characters comes to life and disports itself with almost Austenian variety and vivacity: Eliza, Mrs Lefroy, uncles and aunts, are all impressively yet endearingly recalled to life. The light-yet-probable touch is equally imparted to all the romances that touched Austen: the disappointing flirtation with Tom Lefroy, the deeper love for the Sidmouth gentleman, the abortive Bigg-Wither experiment. They are all smoothly stitched into the sampler.
Jane Austen in Love is a charmingly, effectively dramatized literary biography, a lovely book to add to the Austen collection. The only pity is that thus far it is only available as an e-book, when it so well deserves to be on the best shelves and in the best hands. It is a book that you cannot call a labor of love, for it is not laborious. An entertaining effusion of affection, home brewed honey wine for the reader who loves drinking drafts that are sweet and pure, wholesome and sparkling.
Diana Birchall is a story analyst who reads novels for Warner Bros Studios. She is the author of the Jane Austen-related novels Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma and Mrs. Elton in America, and also a scholarly biography of her grandmother, Onoto Watanna, the first Asian American novelist. Her story “Jane Austen’s Cat” appears in the anthology Jane Austen Made Me Do It, and her several Austen-related plays have had staged readings around the country and in Canada. She has also given many talks on Jane Austen, at such venues as Yale, Oxford, and the Chawton House Library in England.
Thank you Diana! – wish you could be here on Sunday!
You can read more about Elsa’s book here:
Another review at Austenprose by Aia A. Hussein here:
Come prepared on Sunday to hear Elsa “channel Jane Austen” – she would sign books available for purchase but alas! as Diana notes the book is only in ebook format at present – but there will be a door prize, so bring your kindle so you can download it right there and then if you are the lucky winner!
More information on Sunday’s event here:
Up later this week: Stuart Bennett’s The Perfect Visit – Mr. Bennett [no relation to that esteemed gentleman Mr. Bennet] will also be speaking at our Sunday event, on “Imagining Jane Austen”… a full afternoon of Jane Austen indeed!