I recently sat in front of the film adaptation of the 2004 novel by Karen Joy Fowler, The Jane Austen Book Club. Although it wasn’t the most amazing cinematographic experience of my life, it was enjoyable, enough for me to want to read the book, which I did.
As usual in my experience, the film simplified the book, in this instance by considerably abridging the key characters’ histories and introducing comedy vignettes instead. The structure of the book is simple: it consists in six discussions, each focusing on one of Jane Austen’s six major novels and each hosted by a different book club member.
I wasn’t particularly interested in keeping track of which of Karen Joy Fowler’s characters was meant to match – in either personality and experience – Austen’s characters, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying this tale. (OK, Jocelyn as the matchmaking Emma was pretty obvious.) It’s basically the story of a book club, interspersed with a few sharp observations of people and wry comments about their lives.
When the book club gets to discussing Northanger Abbey, I was mildly amused to see that Grigg, the only man in the club, has read The Mysteries of Udolpho, which is devoured by my least favourite Austen heroine, Catherine Morland. I had a go at that gothic novel too, once upon a time, but I soon gave it up, it was definitely not my thing. I recently heard a radio adaptation of it, which included terrible deeds happening in a red room. Having checked the original, I can confirm that the BBC drama writer was taking liberties here: Ann Radcliffe’s sinister castle contains many rooms, including the master’s cedar chamber, but no red rooms. Still, it set me thinking: did Jane Austen see this gothic story teller in the same light as we might see E. L. James of Fifty Shades of Grey fame? I like to think that Austen had a higher opinion of her female readers than an impressionable young girl mixing fiction and fantasy.
Actually, and some of the dialogue in Karen Joy Fowler’s novel reflects this, Austen doesn’t provide us with a single heroine we can’t fault somewhere. Fanny Price is holier-than-thou, Catherine Morland has no sense, Emma interferes, Eleanor is rather dreary and Marianne rides an exhausting roller-coaster of emotions. I can’t remember what the main feature of Persuasion’s heroine is but she too is bound to have had her defects described fully under Miss Austen’s pen. So that leaves Elizabeth Bennett, surely everyone’s favourite, if only for eventually getting some civil words out of that Darcy man. But even the sparky and witty Lizzie is very thick about Wickham…
I think that’s sort of the point about The Jane Austen Book Club. By detailing the niceties of the book club rituals, as embodied by its members, the author gets to have a little fun with painting a few mostly, but not wholly, sympathetic portraits of five women and one man.