Reviewed by Ian Lipke
People remain fascinated by a spinster with no apparent redeeming qualities who failed to fit in with her society’s Number One requirement of any woman of the time viz that she find herself a husband. She compounded her objectionability with her preference for reading and walking, and became the cynosure of all eyes by her preference for writing over the empty-headed chit-chat that was customary among her fellows. Of course I am referring to Jane Austen who, living out her life on her own terms, died without an inkling that she would one day become one of the most famous novelists on several continents.
People, who read reviews, will certainly be aware that the real Jane Austen has become famous over the centuries for six novels that held the landed gentry of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries up to scrutiny. Topics such as the dependence of women on marriage if any sort of favourable social regard or even economic security were to be had, are grist for Austen’s biting irony. The place of women was held subservient to the superiority of men in the world of the time, and the froth that was literature is deprecated in savage, but always genteel, commentary. Austen played a leading part in the transition from the novels of sensibility of the eighteenth century to the literary realism that came to be characteristic of nineteenth century fiction.
Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816) were published during the novelist’s lifetime while Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, (both 1818) came to the literary world after her death in 1817. They have rarely been out of print, but brought Austen no public acclaim while she was alive. They were widely read but published anonymously. Attribution to Austen as author came in 1823.
So much for the real Jane Austen. Rachel Givney has turned this rather lonely existence into a delightfully modern, witty and very readable romantic comedy. Givney’s book will never reap acclaim for the originality of her plot. That was not what she set out to write anyway. Her delivery of the well-worn story is what makes this book stand above others of a similar kind. Whether the setting is eighteenth century England or modern day’s busy urban life, the descriptions are visually attractive and real, and the dialogue scintillating. Following Jane through her introduction to twenty-first century living, where horseless carriages are noted for their absence and speech versions and patterns are so completely foreign, is an experience that most readers would most likely enjoy.
An attempt to sketch the characters of one particular period and parallel them with the other is remarkably successful. The cruel behaviour of Charles Withers is reflected in the offhandedness of the modern day character of Fred (no cad here), the forthrightness and insensitivity of Lady Johnstone is viewed in Sofia but presented in an original way, and there is an ironic, even naughty twist in the presentation of Austen’s character, Darcy who, in the original was a dark, brooding but noble person whom nobody dared to cross, is now a squalling baby with incessant and immediate wants.
The character Jane commands attention always. She is always ‘on stage’. The awkward girl who knows intimately the bogs of southern England (as she’s fallen into most of them), the dutiful daughter interacting with her family and the gentry, with whom she feels she must marry, the ingénue thrown into the unsettling lifestyle of the new century, are all portrayed with sophisticated precision. Just as her leading women characters in her novels are sweet-centred and kind, Jane is presented in like fashion in Givney’s wonderful book, a publication rich in visual interaction, explained no doubt by the present author’s experience as a film maker. This is one novel that cries out to movie producers.
The weakest part of this book is unavoidable. This is the transition through the medium of spells from one century to the other. Modern day audiences, grounded as they are in the wonders of an education that is available for all but received at differing levels of toleration, know that time travel is just not possible in the way Givney employs it. She is not ignorant of this. However, she sends off her protagonist into the present century with a merry insertion of the old crone of multi-centuried fiction who always knows how these things are done. The return journey…well, maybe there wasn’t one.
With her first novel, Rebecca Givney has begun a path that must lead on to a successful career in romantic fiction. She has a light, but deft hand worthy of the master herself, a style that is a delightful addition to the world’s collection of Austenology.
This is a romp with distinction and is recommended for all reading audiences. I was completely enchanted.
By Rachel Givney
Penguin (Michael Joseph)