The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

This book sounded like such a great idea. And I loved the opening (“Each of us has a private Austen”) and the descriptions of each of the character’s Austens. There were also some really funny bits in the book – one of my favourites is:

“You’ve read The Mysteries of Udolpho?” Allegra asked.

“Black veils and Laurentina’s skeleton? You bet. Didn’t you think it sounded good?”

We had not. We’d though it sounded overheated, overdone, old-fashionedly lurid. We’d thought it sounded ridiculous.

Actually it hadn’t occurred to any of us to read it. Some of us hadn’t even realized it was a real book.

“The mother in Pride and Prejudice, on the other hand …”

“Don’t give anything away,” Grigg said. “I haven’t read it yet.”

Grigg had never read Pride and Prejudice.

Grigg had never read Pride and Prejudice.

Grigg had read The Mysteries of Udolpho and God knows how much science fiction – there were books all over the cottage – but he’d never found the time or the inclination to read Pride and Prejudice. We really didn’t know what to say.

Overall, though, the book was basically disappointing. I think the main problem was that I just didn’t like any of the characters, and I didn’t actually care what happened to them. In particular, I was all set up to really like Prudie (anyone whose favourite Austen is Persuasion has me on their side right from the start), and was disappointed when she turned out to be a completely unappealing character.

I’ve heard it described as “chick-lit with pretensions”, and also as “not very good chick-lit”. My experience of chick-lit is not vast – I think the only two proper examples of it I have read are I Don’t Know How She Does It and The Other Side of the Story. For me, both of these books had the same problem as The Jane Austen Book Club – I just didn’t want to spend time with the characters. A lot of the emphasis seemed to be on them wanting to have it all, and messing up in their attempts to do so. It may all be very modern, and empowering, and realistic – but honestly, if I want to read a “girl” book, I’d much rather give my time to someone like Georgette Heyer. Her values may be old fashioned, but at least she creates characters I can enjoy reading about.

Even though I didn’t enjoy the book much, when I heard that Karen Joy Fowler was giving a talk at Stanton Library (10 minutes walk from work) last week, I thought I might as well go along. And I actually enjoyed the talk. She had a lot of interesting and amusing anecdotes – and it was good to learn that she was, in fact, a Jane Austen fan from way back.

I particularly enjoyed the story of how she came to write The Jane Austen Book Club. She was in a book shop, and she saw a sign on the wall for the “Jane Austen Book Club”. Thinking it was an advertisement for a book, she thought it was a wonderful idea, and immediately decided to buy it. When she got a bit closer to the sign, she realised it was an ad for an actual book club. And she was quite disappointed to learn that this book she had been looking forward to reading didn’t actually exist. Then, on the way home, she realised this meant she could write it herself.

It was a nice talk, and she seemed like a nice person. I just wish I liked her book more. Because it is a really good idea, but now that she’s written it there’s no chance for someone else to do it better.

Sorcery and Cecelia* by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

This was such a fun book!

I think I first heard it described as “Jane Austen meets Harry Potter”. Well, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was also described that way, and I found it turgid to the point of unreadability. Sorcery and Cecelia was anything but. It’s a series of letters between Kate, in London, and her cousin Cecelia, in Essex. In both locations, Evil Doings are Afoot, involving a stolen chocolate pot, a beautiful neighbour, a missing brother, a charm bag … and two dashingly handsome (if frustratingly enigmatic) young men.

Coincidentally, just after I finished it, I discovered it was the Galaxy Bookshop Fave Rave in their April 2005 Nexus. Stephanie, who wrote the review, said it was “Jane Austen with magic”, and even considered whether or not you have to be familiar with Austen to appreciate it (which you don’t). I can only assume that Stephanie has never come across Georgette Heyer, since anyone who has will recognise her influence on the writing. I can’t really see any significant Austen connection beyond the time period (and it’s much more Heyer’s Regency than Austen’s), and maybe the epistolary format (which Heyer never used – the only published Austen that uses it is Lady Susan, but the first drafts of both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice were apparently written in this style).

The book is actually dedicated to Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer and J. R. R. Tolkein. I would say that while Austen and Tolkein have given the authors much joy and general influence, the most direct connection is with Heyer. It’s not as good as Heyer – it’s a sort of “Heyer-lite” (with magic). It’s actually being marketed as a Young Adult title, and I think this is the right call, although I can’t put my finger on exactly why it feels YA in a way that Heyer doesn’t.

I have a nasty feeling Heyer wouldn’t have approved of this book. In The Private World of Georgette Heyer (Jane Aiken Hodge, 1984) there is an extract from a letter to her publisher about an imitator:

I feel compelled to protest against the injustice done me by the author in omitting my name from her list of the works to which she declares herself to be indebted. It might well take the place of Jane Austen’s, for while no one would suspect [the author] of owing anything to Jane Austen it must be obvious to many besides my unknown informant that she owes to me plot, incidents, character, several surnames, and such examples of Regency slang as she has used.” (p. 145)

Sorcery and Cecelia does owe a couple of names and a great deal of Regency slang – plus a general Regency world view – to Heyer. On the other hand, the authors do acknowledge her (though I gather this wasn’t the case with the first edition of the book). Also, of course, the magic component means that it’s not actually a Regency Romance.

Another factor is that it wasn’t originally intended for publication. The two authors were simply playing the “letter game” – writing to each other in character, and making up the plots (without consultation) as they went along. It was only after it was finished that they realised it might be publishable. This makes the Heyer pastiche aspects of it more understandable – and it’s such a key part of the writing style, that I honestly don’t see how it could have been excised when they were preparing it for publication.

So maybe Heyer wouldn’t have objected to it. I’d like to think so, anyway.

Having read this book from the library, I have now ordered my own copy of the book, and of its sequel, The Grand Tour, which I’m really looking forward to reading.

* Actually, the full title is Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot: Being the Correspondence of Two Young Ladies of Quality Regarding Various Magical Scandals in London and the Country