Book Review: What Would Jane Austen Do?

by Laurie Brown

This is a dazzling 2009 version of a “Janeite heads to the past” type storyline. Downloaded for free onto my Kindle on Jane Austen’s birthday, while it took me a while to get around reading it… when I did I was gripped. Packed with historical nuances, detailed comments about the fashion of the time and some raunchy Regency sex (pulled off semi-tastefully, although it did surprise me a little when I first stumbled out of “cute dancing in a ball” chapters and before I even noticed I’m reading “certain-dashing-heroes cutting open beautiful-eligible-female’s corset with knife”)  it’s not one to be missed.

It begins with Eleanor Pottinger, a modern-day period costume maker, who is attending the Jane Austen Society conference. She gets her rooms messed about and ends up in an older wing of Twixton Manor Inn where she quickly falls asleep. Only to wake up to two young female ghosts, Mina and Deirdre, determined that Eleanor will help their past selves and change the course of their lives, and history- stopping their brother Teddy from dying in a duel. In repayment, Eleanor is promised to meet Cassandra and Jane Austen, friends of Mina and Deirdre’s. After the usual “this must be a dream”, “I’m going crazy” type responses, Eleanor wakes up in the Regency era and has to quickly adjust and fulfil the ghosts’ wishes. Unfortunately, love and romance, intrigue, betrayal and hiccups with Regency manners (and food, and dancing) all get in the way. Shermont, the potential villain who could kill Teddy, has a much deeper character than suspected and Eleanor finds herself falling hard. Shermont, suspecting that Eleanor could be a spy, struggles with his own conflicting feelings too.

While it’s not fantastic as a historical fiction piece, the little details it offers up are delicious. The imagery of the dining table is adorable, and there are plenty of lessons Eleanor has to learn that most average readers are more than likely unaware of. The language of the characters is not at all Regency sounding and the behaviour even far less so, however I was fairly willing to overlook it throughout… plus, the household stages a play so I was pretty much beyond caring by this point! And there are a lot of butterflies. A lot.

For those of you sitting on the edge of your seat, waiting for the Pride and Prejudice mentions, I can assure you there are plenty. Not including general Jane Austen discussion (which peppers every few pages at least), Pride and Prejudice is mentioned explicitly a handful of times. Eleanor, upon looking through the library while stuck in the Regency era, digs out a copy of Pride and Prejudice for solace. It “was like a surprise visit from an old friend” (and anyone who has ever looked through another’s bookcase and found a copy of P&P knows that lovely rush of familiarity). Eleanor also notes Pride and Prejudice as her favourite, and while she wants to carry it downstairs upon meeting Jane Austen, she is advised not to as her identity as the author is not well known.

There’s a lovely mention of the 1940s black and white version of Pride and Prejudice as, sitting in a moonlight garden with Shermont, she “almost expected Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier to approach along the garden path”. And she eventually admits to Jane Austen that Pride and Prejudice has her gushing, for instance: “I am compelled to tell you how much I enjoy reading the story. I find the characters so filled with life. Every time I read it, I fall in love with the hero Mr. Darcy all over again … I want to have Elizabeth Bennet for a sister or at least for my best friend.” And Jane Austen retorts “… but if you were her friend, then you might wind up marrying Mr. Collins…” Eleanor also explains her love for the book as also coming from the valuable lessons it teaches about relationships (not listening to your brain or your heart exclusively). The last mention is of a first edition copy of Pride and Prejudice Eleanor holds in the later chapters. I shan’t mention any further as I think it would ruin the surprise at the end of the book.

Sad: Not to see more Jane Austen. Happy: To have details of Jane Austen’s appearance compared to the drawing/art that we have access to today.

For a Jane Austen period drama meets mystery bodice-ripper, I found the whole thing flowed nicely. It’s an easy read, although a little long for its genre (certain chapters feel as though they drag on a little). If you’re a fan of Lost In Austen, Prada and Prejudice or Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict then you’ll love this.  I was happy with the conclusion as all the ends were well tied in, however it was extremely close to Prada and Prejudice and a little predictable. Have you read this one? What did you think? Was Shermont the ultimate hero? Shermont or Darcy?

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