My Jane Austen Summer

Where did this story come from?
This story started when I read a review of Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Clubin the New York Times Book Review years ago. The review inspired me to reread all six Austen novels, saving Fowler's book for dessert. But when I came to the end of the last Austen novel and realized Jane Austen was dead and would never write another word, I went into withdrawals. I tried to wean myself with Austen’s novel fragments and juvenilia, read Austen’s contemporaries, picked at the sequels and fan fiction, but nothing satisfied.  I wandered the internet and found many lost readers like myself, struggling with the void.   

 Thank goodness for Fowler's book. She led me to realize that I could bring Jane Austen back to life through my writing. I imagined the book I wanted to read: The Jane Austen Book Club, relocated to Howard’s End, narrated by an American Bridget Jones.  I envisioned Gothic elements and characters immersed in enactments and discussion so immediate it would seem Jane Austen were present.  I found myself inventing a literary festival where Jane Austen’s novels assume relevance in the life of a troubled young woman.  Spending five years writing My Jane Austen Summer thoroughly satisfied my Austen craving. 

What were the fun parts to write?
No one in the real world would hire me to develop a Jane Austen Literary Festival.  But in my imagination, I’m in charge.  From the volunteer check-in desk, to Opening Day enactments, I created every atom of my characters’ world.  And it was fun.  I went house-hunting on the internet, seeking that perfect English manor, not too Palladian but big enough to house a literary festival.  I have no practical interest in houses or decoration, but on a virtual level, I found it fascinating, poring over book after book on Georgian architecture, old house renovations, antique furnishings and floor plans to create the perfect house—in my head.  I used my experience at Squaw Valley Writers Conference, as a reference for people gathered blissfully around the written word.  I drew on memories of growing up in a family of educators where raised voices usually meant my grandfather was making his point.  I chose scenes from Mansfield Park and Lover’s Vows to illuminate the action in My Jane Austen Summer.  I enjoyed creating the flow of activities at the festival and the intellectual texture of a literary conference.

Which part of this book is written from the heart?
 I wanted to write about a woman who breaks her cycle of unhappiness.   This was the one thing that was not negotiable in the many revisions.  We all know people who repeat mistakes over and over, as if they were characters in a book, ink on a page with no second chances.  But people can change if they can imagine themselves differently.  And the first step to imagining a difference is to see oneself truthfully.  Self-knowledge is gained through observation, introspection, and examination of experiences. 

Novels are a shortcut to examined experiences.  Anyone who reads has a head start because the author does all the work, producing a story where complex characters act under pressure and either succeed or fail.  The truth of an accurate portrayal in a novel resonates, as if to say: this is how life is.  Like a cautionary lesson, sometimes I see myself reflected in the characters’ situations, sometimes I see people I know.  But when an author shines a light on a situation, and it resonates, and I can relate the experience to myself, I am saved a lot of time and trouble: disasters from which I learn, without having to experience them for myself.  Jane Austen is expert at portraying human nature.  True life resonates on every page, big scenes and small exchanges.  I admire Jane Austen, agree with her judgment, and can’t think of a better teacher for a young woman struggling with Lily’s issues.  Even though reading on the job got Lily fired, the examined experiences in Jane Austen’s novels help Lily imagine a better way to confront her problems.  Through learning from failures, guidance from Willis, and immersion in Austen’s literature, Lily becomes a more stable person.  Books are good for you.

Discussion Questions to supplement those provided in the back of the book:  

(Warning:  spoiler alert.  Some questions may reveal the story's plot)

  1. Somebody once said, "everyone seems normal until you get to know them".  Do you agree or disagree?  Would the characters of My Jane Austen Summer seem "normal" if you met them on the street?  Choose a character and list their normal vs. unconventional qualities.  Apply this concept to people you know.    
  2. Lily declares that she just wants to be "normal".  What is she really saying? Is Omar really normal?  Imagine what you would learn about Omar if you shared a room at Literature Live.
  3. Several marriages are portrayed in the story:  Lily's parents, Vera and Nigel, Archie and Sheila.  What makes a healthy marriage and how do these three measure up in your opinion.   
  4. Is failure a bad thing?  Lily's father, sister, and friend all suggest she get professional help.  Do you agree?  How might they have responded differently? 
  5. Lily initally measures her self-worth by her relationships with the men in her life.  How does this change?  What skills, talents, assets does she have that she doesn't recognize?  Who helps her see another dimension of herself?        
  6. Lily says, "if I hadn't failed, I'd still be failing."  What does she mean?  How does Lily respond to personal setbacks?  Does she change the way she responds over the course of the story?
  7. Lily says, "plunging into disaster felt so much better than lame suffering." (page 228)  Does this correspond to her later question to herself, "Do you crave love or pain and are they the same thing to you?"  (page 296)  Discuss the implication of these quotes. 
  8. Lily and Bets are both dealing with dysfunctional families, but their coping mechanisms are very different.  Compare and contrast.
  9. Why is Lily drawn to Vera?  Jane Austen?  What do they have in common with Lily's mother? 
  10. Fanny Price has been called an insipid mouse, yet she resists her intimidating uncle's pressure to marry Henry Crawford.  Discuss what it means for a character to be strong.  Do you apply the same standards for men and women?  Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of these chracters:  Lily, Magda, Willis, and Vera.