Writing Jane Austen — Elizabeth Aston

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Georgina Jackson is the author of a critically acclaimed, award-winning, dismally selling, dismal novel set in her favorite grim era of British history. The acclaim was spectacular, two years ago, but the writer’s block she now has is equally spectacular and her bank account is teetering on the edge of empty when her rude, bitchy, intimidating agent calls with a deal.

Writing Jane Austen tracks the tortuous passage of a novelist through the wilds of plotting and writing a book she doesn’t believe she can pull off. What Gina’s awful but brilliant agent has negotiated for her is a contract to finish a recently discovered first chapter of a lost Jane Austen novel. The work will make Gina a household name and, more importantly, fill up that disastrous bank account. One problem—she hasn’t read a word of Austen doesn’t want to and can’t imagine how to pull off such a feat on a killer deadline with 3,000 handwritten Austen words as her point of departure.

This is a “Perils of Georgina” book as our heroine encounters evidence of Austen everywhere, writes nothing, dodges the incessant phone calls and demands of the horrible agent, a horrible publisher and his horrible researcher sister. She leases the garret of a London townhouse owned by an academic who needs the rent. His movie star girlfriend is on location in Ireland so he has a lot of time to commiserate with Gina as she thrashes on the hook of the contract. His oboe-playing kid sister runs away from her boarding school and shows up at the front door, ready to dye her hair purple, argue Austen’s case with Gina and refuse to attend any school because the discipline bores her.

Gina visits a few locations that Jane Austen inhabited or used for her novels, keeps resisting the assignment, drinks a lot of coffee and goes for long walks, trying to discover some method to call forth a book channeled from an author she knows almost nothing about. Gradually, her life begins to resemble an Austen novel and one day she finally picks up Pride and Prejudice, gets hooked and reads all six of Jane Austen’s books in a sleepless marathon. Which doesn’t solve her writer’s block. At least she now likes Austen.

Elizabeth Aston sprinkles her adventure with country estates, costume parties, kidnappings, phantasms from the pages of Jane Austen’s books that visit Gina in odd moments, lots of chat about writers, not writing, novel ways to write a novel, failed attempts to write a novel. The procrastination is so tangible in the book it nearly becomes a character. It made me downright uncomfortable, being an accomplished procrastinator myself. Complications straight out of an Austen plot pop up everywhere, the dialog slips in and out of Austen scenes, the landed gentry share the same intrigues, piques and obsessions as Austen’s characters. The love stories are no surprise and end in happily ever afters with well-matched couples triumphing over minor adversities to wed.

Gina eventually writes a book, after Jane Austen turns her life and her writing upside down. But what happens to it and to Gina is not precisely what you expected, dear reader. It’s fine and funny, though, and Writing Jane Austen is purely entertaining and well done. You might want to settle down with Emma or Mansfield Park at the end of it and lose yourself in genuine Austen territory, not a bad way to be inspired by a book.       

Writing Jane Austen: A Novel   Elizabeth Aston |  Touchstone  2010


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