Thursday, June 26, 2008

What, Another Book About Jane Austen?

Yes, even I wonder, could there possibly be anything more to say?

Jane Austen fanlit avant la lettre apparently began almost 100 years ago, according a review from The Times of London. In 1913, to be precise, with "Old Friends and New Fancies" by Sybil G. Brinton, whom The Times snidely describes as "an author of towering obscurity" (Hey, that could describe a lot of us). The book

"takes three dozen characters from the original novels, intertwines their lives and ties up the loose ends with three marital knots.

In an ideal literary world, the resulting jamboree would be full of wry irony. (“Isn’t that General Tilney over there? Didn’t we last meet him at Mansfield Park?” “I fear you are mistaken, my dear, we met him at Northanger Abbey.”) Brinton, however, does not do wryness. For all the ingenuity of her game of literary Consequences, the result is bland and, to nonaddicts (who can’t understand all the fuss about Jane) bewildering."

But I want to read it anyway. I propose to look for it just as soon as I finish with Tom Jones, Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict and The Truelove. But the book I really want to read is my own, the one I am currently at work on, in which two people from 2089, a doctor (and Jane Austen fan) and a professor (and amateur actor) travel back to 1815 as part of a top-secret mission with a title not unlike the title of the blog that you, dear reader, have before you. Their mission is to recover for posterity and literary historians the lost letters of Jane Austen, the ones Cassandra burned before she died because they were apparently too juicy, too mean, or too something. In addition, they hope to resolve the mystery of what Jane Austen really died of at the relatively tender age of 41.

I blame the genesis for this book on two things: Patrick O'Brian and insomnia. The former has consistently amazed me with his seemingly supernatural ability to immerse himself in the world of the early 19th century, with how his Aubrey-Maturin novels bear what must be such a staggering amount of research as lightly as a feather. The latter was the cause of my lying awake one night about 3 a.m. Having seemingly exhausted all other topics of thought, I found myself thinking about how the world of Jack Aubrey (a sea captain in the Royal British Navy) takes place offstage, as it were, a Jane Austen novel. (Is not his very name a subtle salute to her?)

The same time, the same country, the same social class. Two of her brothers were sea captains and eventually, admirals; they could have met Jack Aubrey, had he actually existed. In "Persuasion," the last completed Austen novel, the heroine marries a sea captain. In one POB book, the fictional Aubrey commands a real ship, the Leopard, that at one point had been under the command of Jane Austen's older brother Frank.

I thought about the contrast between the two worlds, so close but so far apart, one full of storms, cannon fire, shipwrecks, captivity and trips to exotic ports. The other finding its adventures in drawing rooms and conversation, in the chasm between what people say and what they think. Yet the real drama, in both worlds, is human nature.