misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

CindyJones's My Jane Austen Summer: A Season in Mansfield Park

Dear friends and readers,

I finished reading this at times moving novel last night and am writing a review which I hope does justice to its somewhat unusual quality for a type of fiction that is hard to categorize but clearly comes out of, is dependent upon Jane Austen's fiction. I heartily recommend buying (or taking out from your library) this novel and reading it attentively.  It dialogues not only with Austen's novels but a number of the central themes in the film adaptations of Austen's books too.

Unlike most of these that I've read there is a vein of deeply felt genuine emotional hurt and melancholy shown to be a justified reaction to the conditions of modern life for young women; like Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary the novel attempts a consideration of the irresolvable challenges, inadequate choices, and problems and consequent traumas young women face today, including the basic one of how to survive (support yourself) decently if you do not marry. 

My Jane Austen Summer belong to a subgenre of historical fiction.  As a study of history provides the franchise for historical novels, so a study of Austen's novels (and the criticism of some) provides the franchise which allows Jones to comment ironically on the present in which her main action takes place.  My Jane Austen Summer does not continue Austen's stories or fill them out (so it's not fan fiction).  The novel's central plot-design, characters, and story are original to it, so it's not rewritten fiction or a prequel (like Valeri Martin's Mary Reilly's relationship to R. L. Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It rather resembles Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club: like Fowler's five heroines and one hero, Jones's heroine and many of her secondary character are contemporary re-creations or re-seeings of characters or type we recognize as part of the terrain of Austen's novels.

Sylvestre Le Tousel mesmerized by Edmund reading Cowper (1983 BBC Mansfield Park)

To be specific, Jones's heroine, Lily Berry has a nature analogous to that of Fanny Price; a number of her other characters correspond similarly to characters in Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice and, Emma -- as well as Elizabeth Inchbald's translation of Kotzebue's play into Lover's Vows (which is almost performed by Austen's character, and which Jones appears to have studied closely).  There are situations and conversations which allude to and rewrite situations in these three as well as Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion and are linked to partly satiric re-tellings of various critical interpretations of Mansfield Park

Part of the novel's fun includes lots of other allusions and sudden analogies found with a host of familiar romances and novels and childhood books girls especially might read, from the Madeline stories (twelve little girls in two straight lines is the famous line) to The Secret Garden to Anna Karenina, Peter Pan to E.M. Forster's Howards End, to a sort of archetypal gothic novel which includes ghostly places, attics, and vampires. Lily packs her boarding pass as she gets on the plane to leave Texas for England into a (probably well-thumbed) copy of Anne Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho.

Caroline Farina as Audrey, the Fanny Price character in Wilt Stillman's Metropolitan (1990 free adaptation of MP)

Here is the multiple story design:  as the book opens, the heroine, Lily, has lost her job; she is grieving, bereft because her mother recently died and her father has quickly remarried a younger woman than him, one Sue, who is hostile to Lily, so Lily is unwelcome in what was once her home. Lily has been jilted, cruelly by a callous young man whose values are the tough performative ones of some shallow magazine:  no he's not modelled on Frank Churchill but is a form of modern male who sneers at Lily for following him about still.  Bridget Jones's term of emotional fuckwit is too kind for this guy.  Lily escapes by virtue of her friendship with Vera, the owner of a bookstore Lily haunts regularly; Vera is off to join her husband, Nigel (who lives in the UK and turns out to be homosexual) for an annual festival of Jane Austen activities, including this year a dramatization of Mansfield Park, and she invites Lily to solve her problem of providing shelter, food, occupation by taking a role as an actress.  Once there Lily discovers that in fact a very rich girl, Bets, has been given the part Lily thought she could get (the organizers hope Bets's father will donate money). Lily finds herself having to invent roles for herself, which she manages to do, as well as events to raise money, and keep the fans (Janeites is the umbrella term) busy while they stay in and about a grand country mansion owned by Lady Weston.

Jackie-Smith Wood as Mary Crawford worried over Fanny as Henry Crawford outlines his plan to make a "little hole" in Fanny Price's heart -- to entertain himself (1983 BBC Mansfield Park)

What ensues over the summer might be called the education and gradual recovery of Lily from the low ebb at which the novel began, to the point where she returns to Texas to a providentially (by Vera again) provided bookstore of her own, which allows her to live independently in an apartment and watch from afar the resolution of the one romance she experienced that was meaningful over the summer. A melancholy upper class male who belongs to the family which owns the mansion, Willis Somerville is his romantic name, a young man working on his dissertation who has been pressured into becoming engaged to an appropriate cousin, Phillipa Lockwood, whom he does not care for.  The scenes between Lily and Willis, their first encounters in a church, an attic, and growing affinity and talk provide the spine (I'd put it) of the novel, and they are its finest moments; it's the truthful quality of the feeling that makes these come so alive and hit a nerve in an adult mind:

I'm sitting.'" He smiled, joining me on the window seat. "Everyone who reads The Six ... " I went slowly to make sure he was with me.
'Six Jane Austen novels." He nodded.
"Yes. Believes they know Jane Austen personally. In our secret heart of hearts, each of us believes that she speaks to ~ personally in her writings. My Jane Austen just happens to follow me around most of the time," I said very slowly.
"I see." Willis bit his lip. "She's here now."
"Where?" He glanced into the room.
"In the corner." I nodded toward the murky fringes of the room without looking directly. Willis looked directly. "She's like a floater you get in your eye. If you look at her she'll dart \)ff to another periphery."
"Inconvenient," Willis said.
"She's not real." I reached for Willis's arm as if he might be :he one with the mental problem.
"Okay." He looked at the hand touching his arm.
"This is all make-believe, Willis. You'll have to stretch the imagination here a bit."
"No, I'm with you. Go on."
In an expansive rush, I told Willis what I'd never told anyone-couldn't even imagine telling anyone. "She's not beautiful. In my mind, she looks like the sketch Cassandra  made of her, perpetually irritated, a bit of a bully. She died young so sne's eternally forty-one years old, and gray runs through her dark brown hair. Her face is pale with a hint of blue. Sometimes she reminds me of a vampire in a Romantic sense, sucking the experiences out of people to fill her pages."
   Willis leaned toward me as I continued.         ,
But strongest representation for me is Patron Saint of Thoughtful Women." ... I paused, -brushing a strand of hair from my eyes. "She believes that women whose inner lives dominate their personalities, reserved women who take a backseat to the witty, charming Mary Crawfords of the world, should marry for love." I glanced at him. "Secondary types, like. me and Fanny Price, are the protagonists in her stories."
Willis looked at me in a way that made me stop talking. "What?" I said.
He didn't answer, but took my chin in his hand, raised my face to his, and kissed me.
"Sorry," he said. "I was overcome by all that." (pp. 141-42) . 

While he is not witty like Henry Tilney and certainly does not condescend, the talk they have about life and books has a general nature that put Austen's hero in mind. He is tall and dark and thin and tortured too (the young Jeremy Irons could have done the part).  In order not to give away too much, it is however not Somerville who corresponds to the cad Frederick Tilney (or Henry Crawford or John Willoughby), but Randolph Lockwood whose attempts at manipulation of our heroine into bed with him provide her final moment of self-realization and at long last self-possession.

Maria Bertram caught with Henry Crawford in the 1999 MP (Victoria Hamlton and Alessandro Nivola)

Francis O'Connor as Fanny gazing on the scene

Mark Dymond as Frederick Tilney enjoying a post-coital smoke (2007 Northanger Abbey)

Carey Mulligan as Isabella Tilney asking him if they are engaged now or yet (2007 Northanger Abbey). Decidedly not.

The novel teems with characters, some caricatures, some types, like the wronged wife with bratty children who can manage to need to go to the hospital. These are mostly English characters who are running the festival, one a bully of a woman, Magda, who takes a dislike to Lily as a hanger-on, non-professional, provides Jones with an enemy ever trying to drive Lily back to the US where there is until near the end of the book nothing but sorrow and a discouraging modern environment (Texan) waiting for her.  Lily makes male friends, Omar and Sixby, the latter of whom she almost becomes sexually involved with.  Threaded through this is the novel's back story told through emails Lily received regularly from her sister, Karen:  we gradually learn that Sue, the woman who seems so bitter as the novel opens (to the point she is determined to throw out all Lily's things), is her father's long-time mistress and one of her children supposed by another husband, Lily's half-sister. I tell this to make the point that after an initial horror and detestation, Lily comes to feel for Sue, and see her own behavior with men mirroring what Sue went through. 

Lily does enact the parts of Mary Crawford as well as Maria Bertram over the course of the summer's rehearsals and play-acting. And from these she learns too:  A scene where the heroine, Lily, enacts Elizabeth Inchbald's Lovers' Vows with two supporting semi-actors, Omar and Sixby, may show how these rehearsal scenes are woven into the concerns and story of the novel.  Here Lily enacts Miss Wildeman (the Mary Crawford character of Inchbald's play) refusing to marry just to marry:

Sixby walked in and stood at the back of the room, the spot Magda usually occupied during productions. But no Willis.
Omar and I took the stage to perform the scene where Anhalt, the tutor, is sent to instruct Amelia, who is secretly in love with him, on the good and the bad aspects of matrimony. Amelia manages to wrangle a proposal of marriage out of him before the scene ends. Omar looked a bit green. He spoke his first line and I knew we were in trouble. I wished Sixby wasn't watching, nor Nigel and Vera. Omar's eyes never left the floor. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and his fingers fiddled with the side seam of his breeches as he forgot to ask why my character had been crying. "If you please, we will sit down," he said. I feared he would not re­member the next part of his line but it came to him. "Count Cassel is arrived."
"Yes, I know," I said. '
 Omar took a deep breath, looking sideways at nothing.
Then he skipped the next ten lines, proceeding directly to his very long line about matrimony as "the meeting of sympathetic hearts" which I knew he would never finish. I wanted to stop the show. I saw myself interrupting the scene with an apology or tears. I couldn't look at Vera. Magda was right; I should have bought a Eurail pass. As I scrambled to improvise and stop Omar's misery, I saw Sixby walking through the tables with a wild look in his eye. Perhaps he would stop the show for me.
"Miss Wildenhaim," Sixby said, dismissing Omar with a flutter of his hand. "I come from your father with a commis­sion. Count Cassel is arrived."
"Yes, I know," I said.
"And do you know for what reason?" Sixby asked. My hero.
He knew all the lines, of course, and we sailed along, impro­vising where he wasn't familiar with our condensed script.
Willis walked in. My heart jumped as our eyes met and he sat in a vacant chair near the door. The room came to life. ".You may tell my father-I'll marry," I said.
"I must beg you not to forget that there is another picture of matrimony," Sixby said. "When convenience and fair ap­pearance joined to folly and ill humor forge the fetters of mat­rimony' they gall the married pair with their weight," Sixby continued, "till one of them sleeps in death. The other then lifts up his dejected head, and calls out in acclamations of "Oh liberty! Dear liberty!"
"I will not marry," I said.
"You mean to say that you will not fall in love," Sixby said. "Oh no!" I said. "I am in love." We sorted through Sixby's professed confusion until reaching the line where I accept his unintended proposal of marriage. "If you love me as you say, I will marry; and will be happy," I said. "But only with you." I glanced at Willis over Sixby's shoulder. "It will soon be known that I am your bride, the whole village will come to wish me joy, and heaven's blessing will follow."
" The skit succeeded from the moment Sixby joined in. My Jane Austen especially enjoyed the baron, played by a volun­teer's husband, who turned out to be an improv comedian, roasting the guest who played Count Cassel. The rhyming butler closed with his moral:

Then you, who now lead single lives, From this sad tale beware;
And do not act as you were wives, Before you really are.

The audience finally cleared out so the volunteers could pack up the china. As Stephen carried Mrs. Russell's boxes to her car parked behind the Carriage House, I ran to the attic (pp. 162-63).

Jackie Smith-Wood and Nicolas Farrel rehearsing the roles of Inchbald's Lovers Vows with Fanny as prompter (1983 BBC MP)

There is a sort of Victorian (it might be called) vein to the book: we are told when it opens that Lily was at her mother's bedside when her mother died, over the course of the novel Lily has a good deal of trouble holding on to a tiny gold necklace that was her mothers (one of the characters Lily is supposed to control, a ruthless amoral selfish young woman steals it); she is coming to terms with the realities of her childhood and remembering incidents whose full meaning is now only understood by her. Like other characters in the book Lily learns to live in the world without another person she could never imagine being without.  I would call all this and like it as a serious mother-daughter and sister-as-friend theme of this book.

Billie Piper as Fanny scolded by Mrs Norris (2007 ITV Mansfield Park)

The Victorianism of this underlying paradigm, or sentiment, gets me to the novel's central disillusion. Lily not only likes to lose herself and forget the hard world around her by living in older books; she connects to an imagined presence she calls "My Jane Austen" as a way of someone gaining or recreating "the lost possibility" of an "ideal life" she has attached to Austen and her books.  While she does not see this, the use of a the first person narrator in this book allows for the presence of a narrator (free indirect discourse this is called) who shows us gradually that England is far from an ideal place and Austen lived a life far from easy and cosy. This latter inference is developed through the allusions to Inchbald's words in her play as well as incidents in Mansfield Park which while the parallel is to modern events happening at the festival suggest very surely they are rooted in Austen's own life.  Jones makes fun a little of all the criticism which treats the novel as about slavery; yet at the same time she shows it is a serious grave critique of life at the time which does not omit slavery.

Jemima Rooper as Amanda Price, preferring to stay forever in Austenland with Fitzwilliam Darcy with all his intransigences (Elliot Cowan) (2009 Lost in Austen) -- we stay with the rejection of contemporary London  Jones's book is especially a comment on the ironies of this film.

My Jane Austen Summer has some flaws or problems. I found the characterizations of the fans called Janeites unreal or stereotyped to the point it's not convincing, not real.  Ditto on the Austen scholars.  While Jones has read the criticism with care and threads it in cleverly, the actual politics of the Austen groups and critical agendas divide subtly -- as shown by the book itself in part, for those running the festival are seeking to advance their own careers -- and is far more difficult to access than is presented simplistically (in a kind of opposition formula) here.  These political agendas and behaviors are varied, a matter of intense seriously felt (no matter how wrong or misunderstood) identity politics, and of making money, big money (as the film-making industry occasionally does and the heritage industry tries to exploit).   The limitations of what I've called the franchise -- the groundwork of the book in Austen novels and their limited application and characters drawn from a middle to upper middle class world -- misses the harder brutalities of life, especially some directly sexual ones.   Willis, for all that he is so attractive, is a gentle vampire who would be comfortable in the world of the twliight novels.  This book gives us a much softened Austenland in modern England and Texas as well as the festival place.

Fanny and Edmund as children walking in the meadow, Mansfield Park house glimpsed in the distance (1983)

These brutalities are part of fine and good women's books as they are central to women's lives; they are dramatized in some chick-lit as well historical romance, gothics, and women's novel (e.g., Emma Donoghue).

That said, within its own genre, it's a book its readers can dialogue with themselves and other women, have a conversation about women's problems, conflicts, desires, real needs. Don't miss it.

I should like Izzy, my daughter, make a "full disclosure" (as it's called):  Cindy is a friend of mine, and I was one of the people who helped edit the novel. She sent Izzy and I presentation copies. and Izzy has also written a blog review in praise of this novel.

Ellen Moody
Tags: female archetypes, jane austen criticism, jane austen novels, jane austen sequels, women's art, women's novels

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