Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Vicar of Wakefield and Jane Austen Ruined My Life

What can I say? I am stuck in Chapter 12, stuck like a whining Ford Fiesta at the bottom of a snowy, winding driveway. So I started reading "The Vicar of Wakefield," an ancient, musty paperback edition that has been sitting on the shelf of my childhood bedroom since sometime in the Reagan years.

Jane Austen read it for sure: according to Wikipedia, this work, by Oliver Goldsmith, was one of the most popular and successful novels of the 18th century. Which makes me wonder what the unsuccessful ones were like. As I read it, I kept asking myself, all the way to the end, what sort of novel it was trying to be. It is by turns satirical and sentimental, preachy and picaresque. What it never succeeds in causing, even briefly, is the willing suspension of disbelief. The amazing series of random events, coincidental meetings and set-pieces ensure that. It never attains either the pathos and immediacy of "Clarissa" or the wit of "Tom Jones." What it reminded me of most was "Don Quixote," though the similarity might not at first seem obvious and DQ is, to be sure, a more layered, meta, sophisticated piece of writing.

The engaging central character who is overtaken by disaster after disaster yet retains his fundamental faith in the world and in his God: yes, we have seen him before. The ramshackle plot, the colorful figures who come onstage for a chapter, speak their piece and disappear; we have seen them too, along with the improbable meetings, the disguises, the fortunes lost and found.

About a third of the way into "The Vicar," a book arrived in the mail from Amazon. "Jane Austen Ruined My Life" seemed worth risking $10 and a couple of hours of my life on. It came highly recommended by reviewers in the blogosphere, and is relevant to my own project in a number of ways, since the plot hinges, as mine does, on that Holy Grail of English majors, the quest for the lost letters of Jane Austen. It also features a heroine traveling around Southern England, hitting key Austen spots: Steventon, Chawton, Lyme Regis, Bath. It sounded a little like "Possession," from the reviews, except involving Jane Austen.

What it was, instead, was another lesson into one more of the multitude of ways a novel can fall short. A lovely volume: nice cover art and typography. Grammatical. Competently written. And yet seeming more like the plan for a novel, a rough draft or an outline, rather than an actual novel. It seemed to skitter along the surface of its themes like a water bug on a creek. It was oddly generic, everywhere lacking in specifics. Not for an instant could I believe that the narrator of the novel held a doctorate in English, for example. She did not speak that language.

Yet it was interesting, too, for in falling short one sees more clearly what it is necessary for success. "Possession," for example, takes you places you probably have not been: into the old reading room of the British Library, inside the mind of a doomed dogsbody literature graduate student in the late 20th century, to the old, old house of English country gentry, into the minds and letters of poets in the 19th century. However improbable these places might seem, how unlike one's ordinary life, they are utterly believable in the moment you are reading them. It is that old willing suspension of disbelief again. A.S. Byatt gives the wealth of carefully chosen detail that makes the highly unlikely seem possible.

Though they are both bibliophile mystery stories and each offer an homage to literary masters real or imagined, it might seem cruel or unfair to compare a Booker Prize winner with what BookPage damns with faint praise as "smart chick lit that is an absolute pleasure to read. " Indeed, I am wondering if it is not something of an insult to "Possession" as well as unfair to "Ruined." But doesn't a book that promise wit and lit have some kind of debt to the reader? Doesn't invoking the name of Jane Austen invoke certain expectations?

After this disappointing excursion it was something of a relief to return to "The Vicar of Wakefield" and its 18th-century problems.