Karen Joy Fowler Comments on The Jane Austen Book Club with SN Books

The Author Joins SN Bookies for Tea (Photos)

I was alerted to your discussion by a message to by website. I'm so pleased by your attention and always, always ready to talk about Austen.

Narrators and Knightley
The narrator in my book is supposed to be the book club itself. if you imagine the club as a seventh characters, telling the collective story and knowing everything any one of the characters know, that's the way I imagined the narrative voice.

Emma is one of my favorite Austen novels, but other people often make criticisms about it for which I have no answer. It does seem to be the story of the humbling of a pretty girl and Austen is pretty hard on Emma. But I also feel that she loves Emma, so I don't mind it as much as I might in another writer's hands.

In Knightley's case there is something about the way Austen has made him always right and Emma always wrong, that makes me sympathize with Emma and ever so slightly resent Knightley. I think in general I prefer characters who try hard to do the right thing even when they fail, to those who seem to effortlessly always do the right thing. And Knightley often feels more like a father to Emma, which, of course, her own father does not.
Mansfield Park - Sylvia and Allegra
(Mr. Woodhouse is a character I thoroughly enjoy, but didn't manage to work into my own book.) .

Although I've not come to like Mansfield Park best (my favorites remain Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Emma) I do think it's the most interesting of her books. It's certainly the most controversial. Virginia Woolf says it's her best book; Kingsley Amis says it's immoral and Austen, through her apparent approval of its judgmental, intolerant hero and heroine, is immoral during it, too.

Sylvia and Allegra are indeed supposed to be Elinor and Marianne. (But just because I think so, doesn't mean I'm right! Feel free to argue.) Allegra is closer to her dad than her mom, just because Sylvia is a circumspect, restrained sort of person and Daniel is warmer. But Allegra is angry at her dad just now and is trying in her way to support her mom. Her way does turn out to involve a lot of Sylvia supporting her. The whiteness is another metaphor for Allegra's need to always have a lot of color, stimulation, drama, powerful feeling in her life. Sylvia likes things quiet, but Allegra does not.

Sanditon & Jane Austen's "strange" world
The club doesn't read Sanditon, but I have. In fact, the epilogue is based (very, very, very slightly) on it and there is also a tiny section of email exchanges inspired by Lady Susan. They come later. I wrote an essay on my attractions to Austen, which was published in The Believer in March. Two things I tried to talk about were the sense of Austen's world being strange, and something you'd read like a science fiction novel, but also about the opposite -- her world being familiar and comfortable in some middle-class way for me. For me, both things go on at once. I grew up reading Seventeen magazine and some of the dating guidelines came right out of Austen -- don't chase boys; it's up to them to come to you. The importance of attracting men, and how sometimes it was necessary to suppress parts of your personality to do so. The importance of reputation and the dangers of a bad, fast reputation. So all these aspects of Austen were utterly familiar to me.

Northanger Abbey and Grigg
I'm glad so many of you liked Grigg. I like him a ton. Northanger Abbey is one of those Austen novels that's growing on me as I get older. I think Tilney is a little insufferable and his love for Catherine feels a little random, but I also enjoy his dialogue. He's one of Austen's wittiest heroes. The plot is slight, but the villain is a father and not a young rake, which makes it different from Austen's usual. And I love all the talk about reading and books. I tried to read Udolpho as I was writing, but ended up skimming about a lot. Really appreciated the list of gothic fiction signifiers one of you posted. I wonder if the natural heir to the gothic pulp tradition is the mystery novel or the romance? About science fiction -- my two favorite Le Guin's are The Lathe of Heaven and The Lefthand of Darkness, probably my most favorite is the latter. I think there is a lot to discuss in a book club setting. And my own local book club recently did Mary Doria Russell's very popular novel The Sparrow. Also a really good discussion book.

remember reading that Dorothy Sayers fell so in love with her own Peter Wimsey that she never found a real-life man to compare. I don't know that that's true, just that I read it once. My friend Carol Emshwiller has said that she dealt with her grief at the loss of her husband, in part, by writing a western -- Ledoyt -- in which she made up a man she could love. Maryal -- I've heard from several men who believe they are total Griggs. Maybe I should start collecting names?

I know we're supposed to have moved on to Pride and Prejudice, but I do want to say one last thing in defense of Grigg's father. I don't see him as a player or a slimeball. I don't think he meant to end up at a party in Bel Air and I think he loves his children. I see him as someone who felt increasingly trapped in a conventional 9 to 5 life and, in the early 70's, reading Heinlein, watching the counterculture, thought the world was going to change -- that different lives and different arrangements were now possible, only he was too old to take advantage of this. I think he had a breakdown at the party. And I don't entirely blame him. I have always thought the 40 hour working week was way too much to ask of people.

Pride and Prejudice and First Impressions
Moving on to Pride and Prejudice then. Or at least to first impressions. My first impressions of people are so often wrong I've learned not to put much stock in them. And now so often we meet people over email. Have you all noticed that in email people can sometimes present quite different personas? I met a woman online in a group discussion that went on for years. I found her pretty insufferable. When I finally met her person and got a fix on her tone of voice and the humility that came through body language and the like, I found her completely charming. She's become a good and trusted friend.

The library event is a real one and I've attended it for the last two years. In the real event, authors move from table to table -- salad with one group, dessert with another, but that seemed too complicated for my chapter since Bernadette's story is also so complicated. It's the dressiest thing I do all year, so it seemed instantly like an Austen ball to me. (Though the dancing of the first year was cancelled for the second.) Very sad. I rarely go anywhere when I dance anymore.

I did mean Grigg's dad to be naked, not dead. But you are not the only person to read the section that way; I've been asked about it a few times. Nor was it a girly magazine that Grigg's dad gave him. It was a science fiction pulp. They often had those very sexualized covers, but the stories inside were innocence itself, back in the day.

Yikes! I didn't know (and didn't google) of a real book called A Murder of Crows, though it's a pretty obvious title for a mystery. I just made Mo up. I couldn't compete with the fabulous Reverend Collins, but I needed some sort of blowhard. As with most of my characters I softened toward him at the end. He was very kind to Prudie when she needed him to be. I think Dean was happy to see Prudie up and dancing again.

The charming keynote speaker, the very successful mystery writer though, who appears briefly in the chapter is based on John Lescroat, a local writer here who did do the keynote my first year at the fundraiser. It's a lovely, very elegant event. The food is excellent and no, the people at the tables are warm and welcoming. I never faced the hostile group poor Mo faces. Of course, I never told people Austen couldn't plot! Who knows how they might have reacted.

I love our crows. They watch from the trees when I walk my dog and express deep disappointment in and suspicion with us both.

It's been my own experience that in some odd ways the death of a parent with whom you had a problematic relationship is harder on you than the death of a parent you adored. There's so much regret in the former, so many ways things could have gone better. I don't think Prudie ever felt her mother didn't love her. There were other things wrong with the relationship, but not that one. The dream sort of represents that to me -- the rooms of the house representing aspects of the relationship and other ways to have done things. It's a comforting dream in the end, a letting go dream. I read once that after a loss of this sort, you always have a dream in which you say good-bye. I had that dream with my father. I'm still waiting to have it with my mother, and she's been dead nine years now. My mother grew up in Torrance so I just felt comfortable that I knew the area a little. Yes, it was not at all Hollywoody.

I spent a lot of time in libraries when I was growing up. I was in summer reading programs and my family probably went as a family once a week. I do love them. Now I'm mostly in them when I'm doing research; I tend to buy the books I want to read. But librarians are still my heroes.

I had forgotten all about Austen's no cat rule when I gave Grigg a cat. But if it seemed good to you, then yes! Of course that's what I meant!

Persuasion and Sylvia
I watched the Persuasion movie last night starring Amanda Root. I like this movie quite a lot. But seeing it again I was struck with it's unAustenish moments. Anne makes quite a spectacle of herself at the Bath concert. And there's an annoying exchange when Wentworth asks, on behalf of his in-laws, if she's marrying her cousin. She's been trying and trying to find a way to tell him she's not and then, given this unexpected opportunity, we're asked to believe she's too flustered to open her mouth. But there are lots of parts I love, too. I love the quick cuts when Anne has arrived at the Musgroves and everyone is confiding in her in turn.

I'm interested in the suggestion that Austen was not entirely pleased with the character of Anne. If anyone knows more about that, I'd love to hear it.

The problem, of course, in styling any of my characters after Austen characters is that in the next chapter we've moved on to another Austen book. So, yes, Sylvia starts out as Elinor and then in the Persuasion chapter she finds herself in a situation with some similarities to Anne's so she functions in the Anne role in that chapter, but she can't suddenly be a different person in every chapter. In the end, I hope she is simply herself.

In general, in books, I don't warm to people who are too good. I like faults. I like characters who struggle to be good better than characters who are naturally good. Anne Elliot is the exception. I don't enjoy her as much as Emma or Lizzie, but I love her as much.

I think Austen clearly admired people who could keep their emotions in check. And yet, in Persuasion, one of Anne's objections to her cousin, Mr. Elliot, is that everything he says is so proper, she never hears any passion (meaning strong opinion, not romance) from him. (I hope I'm right in remembering that this is in the book as well as in the movie. I will go check later today when time permits.)

Jane Austen's Men
There is an interesting article in the most recent Persuasions (comes from JASNA) about Austen's men. According to the article in the years before 1800 (I'm not going to remember the exact dates) men dressed in colorful, ostentatious displays of wealth and were admired for equally generous displays of feeling, weeping, etc. Then fashions changed. Colors and fancy clothing were seen as feminine and so were displays of feelings. The admirable man became the Byronic model -- complex, dark, closed off. The template for today's romance novel was created, partly by Austen -- a taciturn, yet strong-feeling man falls in love. The climax of the story comes when the man confesses to the woman that he needs her in order to be emotionally complete or sound. The way Darcy tells Elizabeth that she properly humbled him. I'm not sure where I'm going with this. It seemed interesting and apropos to the discussion of the types of men and women Austen seems to admire.

May also be why Tilney never seems to quite fit the mold of the other heroes. He was her first and maybe fell in the period when fashions were changing? Of course, Edmund seems quite able to express his emotions, too. But the article suggested that Austen seems suspicious of men who express themselves easily, like Wickham, and cousin Elliot, and Willoughby. Personally, I like a fast-talking man. But I wasn't silly enough to marry one.
Karen Fowler's Characters
Most of my characters began with Austen's characters, but then went their own ways. I think that Sylvia has Anne's willingness to sacrifice her own interests to those of the family and her ability to endure in an unhappy situation.. But one of her primary characteristics, to me, is her expectation of imminent catastrophe -- she has trouble enjoying the good times, because she always expects them to end. I don't see that in Anne.

I just got a lovely email from a friend who said his favorite part of my book was the email exchanges between Grigg's sisters. He said that they reminded him of ancient Greek plays, where the gods decide to come down from Olympus to fix things. I would never have thought of that myself, but I was pretty tickled by it.

Prudie is already well married, so she doesn't need a happy ending. What she needs is a happy beginning. When her mother dies, she loses the only person who could have told her what really happened to her as a child and what was only fiction. I think Dean is a good husband to her and I gauge her chances of happiness as about equal to anybody's. I guess, more than the others, she represents some writerly quandries to me. There is a confusion of fiction and reality in her past and a preference for fiction in her present. I, too, can (easily) imagine a better world than the one we've got. It's a source of sorrow, anger, and also inspiration to me.

The appendixes were my editor's idea and a real treat to do. I'm still reading masses of Austen criticism when I should be moving on to my next book. I will have to tear myself away.

A couple of the questions posed by my characters in the reader's guide are of real interest to me. One of them has also been posed here, but no one has answered -- what do you do when someone insists on pressing on you a book you have no intention of reading? We need Ms. Manners on this one.

Final note - We have nothing but black cats in our house. Two of them.