Two hundred years after her death, vampire/incognito-author, Jane Fairfax (a.k.a Jane Austen), runs a bookstore in quiet Upstate New York. Such is the setting in Michael Thomas Ford’s delightful read, Jane Bites Back.
Early on in the story, we see Jane’s assistant, Lucy (unaware of her boss’ true identity), delighted with the new inventory of literary finger puppets; an assortment that includes Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare, Tennyson and Jane Austen. She casually mentions it to Jane:
I just wanted to let you know that we’re officially out of Mark Twain finger puppets. Should I order some more?
Jane rolled her eyes. “I think not,” she said.
That line alone was worth the price of Jane Bites Back. Mr. Ford is obviously aware of Mark Twain’s rather low opinion of our dear Jane.
What was it that Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) said when asked about Austen’s work? Oh yes…
I haven’t any right to criticize books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.
Nice. Really nice.
But Janeites perceive the irony in the words “Every time I read…”
Why read a book over and over again if you hate it? Does one purposely inflict literary pain upon themselves?
At a JASNA meeting last year, I remember when the name Mark Twain came up. A soft ripple of hisses moved through the room. Why did he dislike her so much?
After a couple of astute members offered high praises for Twain and the genius of Tom Sawyer, he was fair game.
What was his problem?
He was just jealous!
He didn’t like a woman interfering in a man’s trade!
Huck him (that one came from me, but I kept it under my breath).
The authoritative hand of a librarian was raised. She told us of the time she and a friend visited Mark Twain’s birthplace in New Haven, Connecticut (as I noticed a couple of heads nodding in agreement with a “Yep, I know where you’re going with this one” look).
Apparently, in his personal library, what do you suppose sat on the bookshelf?
All of Jane Austen’s novels.
Hater? Perhaps. But it’s generally thought that he may have enjoyed playing the role of bad boy, Austen hater.
But, enough about what’s his name. There are plenty of other writers that love and admire the works of Jane Austen. Here are the words of just a few:
J. K. Rowling – I have never set up a surprise ending in a Harry Potter book without knowing I can never, and will never, do it anywhere near as well as Austen did in “Emma.”
G.K. Chesterton – I fancy that Jane Austen was stronger, sharper and shrewder than Charlotte Bronte; I am quite sure that she was stronger, sharper and shrewder than George Eliot. She could do one thing neither of them could do: she could coolly and sensibly describe a man. …“
Sir Walter Scott – Read again, for the third time at least, Miss Austen’s finely written novel of ‘Pride And Prejudice’. That young Lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The big Bow-Wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary common-place things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!
I’m looking forward to finishing Jane Bites Back, enjoying the words of a fellow-Jane lover…not hater.
What are your thoughts on Jane Austen as described by other writers? Planning on joining us for our June read of Jane Bites Back by Micheal Thomas Ford?
*Photo: 20091204_Hermitage_library_002 by Friar’s Balsam, obtained through Flickr.