I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir, but I’d like to point out what can happen in a library that can’t happen anywhere else: discovering old books you never even knew had been written. I’d gone to my college libe to borrow one book for the 2015 Reading Challenge (it’ll get its own post during Banned Books Week in September), and, only because I was on the wrong floor of the stacks, I discovered a couple of bonus books. Here’s one, *written by a woman*:
If you’re a Janeite, the title is all you need. (If you’re not a Janeite, I pity you. But you can start your apprenticeship here.)
I liked how Ashton based Jane’s relatives, friends and acquaintances on characters from her novels. This ploy creates a spot-the-character game for Janeites: a sister-in-law could be the source of Mary Crawford’s sprightly disdain for propriety; a proud great aunt may have been the model for Lady Catherine de Bourgh; two of Jane’s brothers see themselves in Mr. Knightly and Henry Crawford. Even Jane’s visits reminded me of locations and scenes in her novels — for these, Ashton may be hitting close to the truth, for we know much about where Jane spent time, as visitor or inhabitant, and Ashton made excellent use of this knowledge. (Note to self: read this book: Jane Austen: Her Homes and Friends, by Constance Hill.)
Ashton based Parson Austen’s Daughter on family documents and on letters by and about Jane (the few not destroyed after Jane’s death by her sister Cassandra — Cassy’s kindness to her beloved sister was cruelty to the world of her fans). More importantly, Ashton situates Jane in a critical period of English history, when armies led by Nelson and Wellington, not to mention three of Jane’s brothers, battled Napoleon for decades. Those soldiers quartered in Meryton, Captain Wentworth in Persuasion, Fanny Price’s brother — what may seem like plot devices is actually Jane showing the effects of world events on her “little bits of ivory” (Nathan Albright’s thoughtful analysis of Jane’s use of military history can be found here). Having a little more historical context will help me with future readings of these novels.
Jane gave her heroines much happier lives than the one fate had provided her. Although two of her brothers inherited large estates, and two others rose to high ranks in the British Navy, Jane and her family lived lives restricted by lack of money. Ashton shows us Jane, Cassandra and their mother, after Parson Austen dies, struggling for ways and means — where should they live, what can they hope for the future, who will marry either daughter now? It turns out, neither Cassandra nor Jane wanted to marry — the death of Cassandra’s fiancé is well known; Ashton posits a similar experience for Jane. We know about Jane and Tom Lefroy, and we know that some years later Jane accepted another man and then a day later changed her mind (much as Fanny Price does with Henry Crawford). But Ashton provides a third suitor, one who dies mysteriously before the family can learn of an understanding between the two.
Cassy’s and Jane’s disappointments are so like Jane’s temporary loss of Bingley, and Elinor’s temporary loss of Edward Ferrars. Except that Bingley and Ferrars don’t die — they come back, and everyone lives happily ever after. (The joys of being a novelist include being able to right the wrongs of the world.)
It takes a certain nerve to novelize the life of a beloved author. Janeites can be prickly arbiters of fact — see reactions to Becoming Jane (here and here) for instance. Ashton may play with Jane’s inspirations, but she’s true to the flavor of Jane’s life. The genteel poverty, the fears for brothers in the armed services and other relatives facing financial ruin, the reliance on letters for news, the walking, the heat of summer and cold of winter, the pain of illness — these all are in Ashton’s novel and make me admire Jane even more for her ability to create worlds in which behaving well despite adversity is the greatest achievement.
Happy discoveries like this one keep me returning to libraries. May your own library visits be frequent and equally fruitful!