THE WASHINGTON POST – As the season changes, here’s one more title for your reading list, especially if you prefer your novels literary but light: Jane Austen and Shelley in the Garden.
In this delightful – and very British – novel, Virginia Woolf, William Wordsworth, Elizabeth Bishop, Dr Samuel Johnson and Lord Byron all make cameos, along with, of course, Jane Austen.
The book, set in contemporary England, focusses on three older women facing retirement and the regrets that age often brings. The central character, Fran, already at the fringe of university life, lives in a cottage in the countryside, where the main companion in her garden is the author of Pride & Prejudice, who makes a ghostly appearance.
Fran is coaxed to Cambridge by another older woman facing the same dilemma, and as she mixes with academics there, both older and younger, the five of them form an oddly matched group that bonds over a common project: to trace Percy Shelley’s life. When they set off for Wales and Venice, “Jane Austen” comes along.
Heard only by Fran and us readers, Austen offers wry comments on the lifestyles, decisions and hypocrisies of not just her fellow travellers, but the 21st Century itself. Of the modern take on Mr Darcy, Austen quips: “You made him the heartthrob with your films. My business is with girls.”
Yet it’s not just pithy quotations, real or imagined, that Todd is borrowing here; she is also using Austen’s famous “free indirect discourse.” This means we are not bogged down in Fran’s point of view only. The narrative “goes behind” all five principal characters (to use a Henry James term – yes, his novels make an appearance, too). Todd uses this to give us secret glimpses into the preoccupations, sorrows and joys of each of these very different people.
Rachel, for instance, the American in the group – she’s the one who stays at a fancy hotel in Venice, of course, and sports a different pair of flashy sneakers for every occasion – sees “my boy” in the choir when she and Fran visit King’s Chapel in Cambridge. When we’re no longer in her point of view, we learn whom she means, and we witness her grief on the sand in the Lido, echoing the death of Percy and Mary Shelley’s daughter in Venice.
Todd, a biographer and literary critic, also plays with making this a meta-novel. As she reaches what a filmmaker might call the inciting incident, Todd pauses to tell us: “Here it is: that moment when the stranger enters the slumbering place and the plot begins.” The book also include images, mainly photographs taken by Todd herself, of the real places that she is writing about. It’s a lovely touch that gives the book an intimate, scrapbook feel.
The novel pokes fun at creative writing as an academic discipline, yet Jane Austen and Shelley in the Garden might have borrowed a few more tricks from that trade. Although the novel follows loosely the life of Shelley, the book begins to feel a tad directionless. Just when it seems that a mystery around Fran’s missing husband might provide a dramatic turn, he disappears down a garden path, never to return.
And a tragedy at the novel’s end doesn’t hold the power it needs to bring the novel to a more satisfying close.
But what great company these characters and the many writers who inhabit this novel make. It’s as if we readers are taking a trip to Cambridge, Wales and Venice, too, and encounter in the local cafes a few witty, quirky locals who just happen to be literary scholars. They regale us with their favorite lines from poems while they share a coffee as if we are all friends just enjoying each other’s company in a summer that – in our imagination anyway – can go on as long as we’d like.