Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Books for Jane Austen Fans

Unlike so many school-assigned authors, Jane Austen has broken free of the "have to read it" mode into the world of movies, T.V. adaptations, and readers who truly love and appreciate her work. As has been so often noted by critics, the Austen oeuvre is only too short and readers quickly exhaust her novels, leaving a vast hole that very few can fill. Finding read-a-likes for a writer as gifted and individual as Austen is a challenge. Austen's writing style was unique. She was able to create vivid characters, convey a great sense of place, craft phrases that have become part of our lexicon, and tightly control the pace of the unfolding plot; all while maintaining an air of detachment that allowed for stunningly subtle observations within her world.

Combining what have become classic descriptions of domestic English country life with humor, irony, and wit, Austen painted a world where truth, honesty, kindness, moderation, and humility defined individuals of principle. The novels are essentially domestic, revolving around manners, male-female relationships, and questions of honor and obligation, set against the backdrop of societal rules (or the effects of those rules). At the core, her novels are love stories, but they transcend the common notion that phrase evokes by their study of the serious and sometimes damaging effects of that emotion. Throughout Austen's novels are characters who are punished (or justly pay for) their immoderation, their lack of principle, and their senseless ambition. Defined in Austen's world, honor wins, the wicked do not gain what they wish (even if they gain what they were after), and as with all good Cinderella stories, the deserving end up happy.

Every reader of Austen has their favorite novel. Pride and Prejudice is perhaps her most famous, and along with Sense and Sensibility and Emma, is well known from various film adaptations, but Persuasion, a work which has also been adapted on film, is perhaps the novel that most embodies the reasons readers love her work. The story of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, it is a novel of lost opportunity, family pressure, and ultimately trust and understanding. Persuasion contains characters of deep appeal, both strongly defined and well crafted, an involving and tightly constructed plot, a true, perhaps even defining, sense of the just, and great dialog, humor, and cleverness. These aspects define all of Austen's complicated and richly nuanced novels and create a strong basis for selecting other books that will provide similar enjoyment to the reader.

While no one can fully emulate Jane Austen, there are readers who appreciate a good effort. After all, sometimes the best read-alike of all is just plain more. For readers that cannot bear to leave the world of Austen, there are many sequel/prequel/spin-off writers that take characters from Austen's novels and venture forth with new stories. Joan Aiken is most likely the best of these writers, managing to capture much of the language, wit, irony, and humor of Austen in well crafted and interesting novels. While Aiken has written a sequel to almost every Austen novel, Jane Fairfax: The Secret Story of the Second Heroine in Jane Austen's Emma is a good starting choice. It successfully evokes the world of Austen in both manner and style and keeps true to the spirit of Austen in terms of plot. Jane Fairfax, so enigmatic and somewhat sly in Emma, is brought into focus as the main character of this sequel. What makes this novel particularly appealing is that readers get to screen much of the action of Emma through a different light as Jane's life and motivations are explained without the bias of Emma to interpret them.

Perhaps second only to more Austen is to find another classic novelist writing in the same tradition and with the same aesthetic as Austen herself. While Austen's style is unique, her view of the world was shared by other women writers. Charlotte Brontë was born one year before Austen died and wrote firmly in the Victorian age rather than in the much more joyful Regency era. However, Brontë's Jane Eyre is a direct descendant of Anne Elliot and many other Austen heroines. And if Rochester is a bit more brooding and dark than Mr. Darcy, they both have the arrogance of pride that costs them dearly. Like Austen's Persuasion, Jane Eyre is a stunningly romantic story. It shares elements of social observation, tightly controlled dialogue, and a twisted Cinderella plot (Jane saves Rochester). Readers who enjoy the romantic, thoughtful, and strong natures of Austen's heroines should find a kindred sprit in Jane and contemporary romance readers today will recognize the seeds of snappy dialogue in the exchanges between Jane and Rochester.

Georgette Heyer must have read and loved Austen, for along with her many other types of novels is a body of regency romances that are pure Austen distilled. Over a hundred years after Austen's death, Heyer took the world Austen actually lived in and crafted detailed romances set in the Regency and Georgian eras. While Heyer is not as subtle a writer as Austen, nor as interested in the social commentary or irony inherent in Austen, she was interested in the age and the manners of the times. For readers who share those interests, Heyer's regency novels should be deeply appealing. Her stories are charming, extracting the most light and romantic elements of an Austen novel and heightening them into the basis of a plot. Her dialog, while not as controlled as Austen's, is very witty and charming. Teenage girls of Austen's time probably had daydreams very similar to a Heyer novel. A good introduction to Heyer is Bath Tangle, the story of Fanny Carlow, a widow, and her step-daughter, Serena, who move to Bath during their bereavement only to discover that the Marquis of Rotherham, whom Serena has recently jilted, controls their inheritance and is not yet done with Serena.

As romantic as the plots of Austen's novels are, they also are strongly founded in the concepts of honor, duty, and correct behavior. Woven into the societal fabric of an Austen novel is a strong moral sense, a sense Patrick O'Brian also expresses in his novels of the Napoleonic Wars. O'Brian's novels may be appealing to readers who enjoy the writing style of Austen, the sharply defined traits of good character and a well crafted story. Many of Austen's novels involve references, if not plot structures, connected to the Napoleonic Wars, and soldiers pepper her stories. O'Brian's novels of that same war share many characteristics with Austen's. First is the understanding that there is a set of behaviors that is proper, expected, and that restrains the actions of all the characters. Second is a well developed plot that uses those expected behaviors to further the movement of the novel. Finally, O'Brian writes in a style that is not so far removed from Austen. Capturing her language in a male world is quite a feat, and should offer Austen fans another set of books to appreciate. O'Brian's books are sequential and thus readers should begin with Master and Commander. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin (sometime intelligence agent and soon to be ship's surgeon) meet as Aubrey receives his first command -- of the Sophie; great battles and intricate plotting follow as Aubrey sets forth to capture the Cacafuego, a Spanish frigate.

The experience of reading Austen can not be matched to any other writer, but the tone, intent, and much of the social observation can. Many contemporary writers are commenting about society, its rules, habits, and judgments. Many of these writers are too dark to compare to Austen, whose serious social commentary was hidden behind the lightness of repartee and the subtle determination of heroines whose honor outweighed their burdens. Finding contemporary novelists with as deft a hand at social interaction and as light a touch as Austen is difficult, but if Jane Austen were living and writing today, she might produce novels much like those of Elinor Lipman. Lipman's stories are quirkier, funnier, less romantic, less instructive, and of course much more modern than Austen, yet Lipman well captures the wit, humor, and sly observations of society that so typify an Austen novel. Lipman has written a slew of novels, some less overtly romantic than others. Of her true romances, a good place to start is with The Pursuit of Alice Thrift. Alice is a maladroit intern in a Boston hospital. Her roommate is Leo Frawley, a nurse in neonatal intensive care. The story of how the two come together, and what they have to overcome to do so, is full of funny, wry, and charming moments, woven together with great dialog and wit.

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