As depicted in a watercolor portrait by her amateur artist sister, Cassandra, Jane Austen was not especially lovely. However, it is still possible that the real Jane was a beauty: Those who knew the family disagreed about the faithfulness of her sister’s rendition, and Janeites seeking a reliable image of their patron are therefore frustrated, rather than satisfied, by Cassandra’s attempt to provide one.
The details of Austen’s personal life are equally inconclusive, but that has not prevented readers from laboring for two centuries to sketch her intellectual portrait. The marvel is that so many of these accounts, whether adoring or scornful, can find plausible support in Austen’s texts. Was she naive or cynical? Traditional or radical? Gay or straight? Such puzzles have survived many a dissertation, while the real Jane Austen retreats ever farther into her work.
Karen Joy Fowler invokes this phenomenon in the opening line of The Jane Austen Book Club, her immensely entertaining new novel, declaring, “Each of us has a private Austen.” By the time they join forces, the six readers who make up the eponymous club have already formed their individual portraits of Jane (comic genius, devoted daughter, social critic)—none completely fair, but all valid. They present them through a narrator who speaks from an appropriately ambiguous perspective that shifts, unannounced, from character to character. Although always “we,” never “I,” the narrator is privy to everyone’s thoughts (even describing what one woman felt as a newborn). In lesser hands such a trick would be disorienting, but Fowler’s fluid first-person plural voice ultimately achieves the same effect as Austen’s steady, omniscient third-person narration, allowing us to regard her characters with equal parts sympathy and irony.
The only exception is Grigg, a single man with luxurious lashes who crashes the club. Naturally suspicious of any man who proclaims himself a Janeite, the women bristle when he jokes that Austen could write for television: “What a waste those eyelashes were on a man who watched sitcoms.” Their hostility wanes, but Grigg is never permitted to hijack the narrative voice: “None of us knew who Grigg’s Austen was,” the narrator sniffs in the prologue, and none of us ever truly find out. Even the driest of Austen’s enigmatic leading men had some romantic intrigue, but Grigg remains a disappointing blank.
The other clubbers are far more engaging, if lacking in close-reading skills. During their discussions, the women spew awkwardly expository sentences (“I’ve been thinking about Charlotte. . . . In Pride and Prejudice. Lizzie’s friend who marries the tedious Mr. Collins”) and offer ill-informed reflections (when one observes, “Austen says that Emma and Mr. Knightley make an unexceptional marriage . . . I expect the word ‘unexceptional’ meant something different in Austen’s day,” no one bothers to point out that the word Austen uses is actually “unexceptionable”).
Much more artful are the characters’ personal histories, sprinkled with Austen-esque elements (misguided matchmaking, a puppy named “Pridey”) that the characters themselves don’t seem to notice. Tracing such in-jokes back to their source is fun, provided it’s optional—the book’s greatest flaw is Fowler’s insistence on showing readers her hand. Rather than offering insight, the clumsy mid-chapter epigraphs pull the reader out of the story and distract from the novel’s sharpest (and least Austen-esque) details: a nervous teenager’s mangled rendition of a Donovan lyric; a character who amuses herself by making tiny newspapers for ants.
Likewise, the pedantic “Reader’s Guide” that follows the epilogue feels out of step with the novel itself. The Austen plot summaries have a patronizing feel, and while Fowler’s catalog of the “private Austens” of writers from Charlotte Brontë to J.K. Rowling is entertaining, it doesn’t belong here. Austen knew better than to bog down Northanger Abbey with scholarly appendices—such a misstep would have turned it into The Ann Radcliffe Book Club—and confronted with Fowler’s overzealous research, she might have quoted her own immortal Sense and Sensibility put-down: “It is not everyone who has your passion for dead leaves.”
Hidden at the back of the book is a triumphant final stroke—a list of “Questions for Discussion” compiled by the characters themselves, returning the focus to Fowler’s inventions and adding a metafictional spin. One Janeite observes, “It’s hard to read Austen and know what her opinions really were about much of anything. Can the same be said of Karen Joy Fowler?” Another, obviously familiar with the Cassandra portrait, asks, “Do you assume the author looks nothing like her photo anyway?”
The final line of the first volume of Pride and Prejudice is Mr. Bennet’s dry retort, “I leave it to yourself to determine.” Austen extended the same prerogative to her readers; Fowler could have done so here. Like Austen’s novels, Fowler’s work is more intricately rewarding than initially meets the eye—especially if that eye is seeking a Jane Austen study guide. To find your private Austen, form a book club of your own; in the meantime, read Fowler’s novel for its own sake.