Jane of Austin: A Novel of Sweet Tea and Sensibility, by Hillary Manton Lodge

This rewrite of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility enticed me into a genre (romance) that doesn’t usually tempt me. But the skilled rendering of voices by reader Kate Hanford and the calamities visited upon the Woodward sisters in the early chapters kept me listening to the audiobook.

When West Coast transplants Celia, Jane, and Margot found themselves in Texas, whence hail my antecedents, I was hooked. All of the state’s hospitality, goodwill, gusto, and flavorful cooking come through Texas-style, larger-than-life. If the author isn’t from Texas she must at least have spent some time there.

The question of how the author would convey various Sense and Sensibility plot points also intrigued and, for the most part, quite satisfied me. Lodge succeeded in being true to the original while avoiding slavish or predictable adherence. It was fun to say, “Oh, this is when X did X. What a great idea!”

And let me not forget to add that the Texas- and tea-related chapter epigraphs, as well as recipes scattered throughout the book, were a delightful addition. My daughter looked askance at the Texas sheet cake with a black tea twist, but I’m eager to try it.

Compare and Contrast

Maybe it is on account of Emma Thompson’s expert portrayal of the eldest sister, Elinor, in the 1995 Sense and Sensibility, but I have always preferred the reserved and reasonable Elinor to Austen’s passionate middle sister. I initially feared that Lodge’s selection of the latter (“Jane” in Jane of Austin) as first-person narrator would be off-putting. But it’s a logical choice, and ultimately I found myself sympathizing with Jane more than I anticipated. I also appreciated Lodge’s giving agency and redemption to a tragic, victimized female who, in Austen’s account, remains largely invisible and drifts conveniently out of the story line.

A friend to whom I recommended Jane of Austin pointed out that the ease with which the book slips into contemporary romance conventions testifies to Austen’s role in laying the foundations of modern romantic comedy. We agreed, however, that one aspect of Austen’s writing that didn’t translate as powerfully was her social satire and criticism.

The implications of early 19th-century British hierarchy pervade Austen’s novels. Beneath her penetrating portrayals of human nature lies the truth that social stratification reached every tier of society and affected all manner of relationships. While Jane of Austin does feature a war veteran who suffers from PTSD, the overall plot of the novel didn’t engage compellingly with a pervasive 21st-century social issue.

Presenting the Past

Faithfully translating a 19th-century novel into a contemporary setting requires a combination of psychology and creativity. The author has to correctly interpret the characters’ state of mind in their original setting and predict how that might manifest in the modern day. Sometimes the actions and decisions of characters in novels from a previous era perplex me. But Lodge made Elinor and Marianne relevant and credible and convinced me that had they lived in the 21st century, they could have made decisions very similar to those of Celia and Jane.

Over the holidays our family watched several film adaptations of Little Women. I admired the 2019 filmmakers’ creative recast of a familiar story and their efforts to make the characters relatable. But I felt compelled to quibble with them on a point of principle.

Part of the value in reading literature from other times and places is in recognizing differences between their values and our own. Obscuring such differences reinforces the fallacy that everyone thinks–or should think–as we do. We won’t question ourselves if we never give serious consideration to other points of view. It seems counterintuitive, but the wholesale importation of a story into a different era might do less violence to the original.

Austen’s Men (spoiler alert)

My aforementioned reading friend pointed out that Austen was generally more interested in her female characters than the males, judging by the extent to which she fleshed them out. In similar fashion Callum Beckett, Captain Brandon’s counterpart in Jane of Austin, is almost too perfect, with his heroic feats and self-effacing humility. Despite—or maybe because of—this he makes a compelling romantic hero.

By contrast, Celia’s love interest, Teddy, measures up poorly to his predecessor, Edward Ferrars. Edward’s seeming falseness to Elinor ends up strengthening our regard for him, attributable as it is to his noble if misguided loyalty to his youthful pledge to marry another. The modern-day Teddy, however, has little excuse for his ambivalence toward Celia, other than family pressure to pursue a successful career.

That Jane of Austin was published by a Christian press is principally manifest by several references to prayer and Christian music bands and by Celia’s revelation near the end of the book that Teddy intends to go to seminary and become a church planter. This is justified by Edward Ferrars’ preference of the church as a vocation. But it would have been more credible if a precedent had been established by earlier references to faith or even to church going.

Incidentally, shortly after finishing Jane of Austin I stumbled across an announcement that the book is being developed into a TV series. If the TV adaptation is as good as Lodge’s, it should be charming.

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