“It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is still alive today… as a vampire.” – Cover text on Jane Bites Back
I opened this book and thought I was going to hate everything about it. But despite not being a twihard, nor the biggest Pride and Prejudice and Zombies fan… this was surprisingly good. If you’re looking for something that will accurately portray a modern Jane Austen, or that is close sticking to vampire mythology, don’t look here. But, on the other hand, if you’re looking for a book with a half-decent plot, some literary name dropping (Byron, Bronte etc) and a heavy dose of romanticism, then this is for you.
From Ballantine Books in 2010, ISBN: 978-0-345-51365-6 (trade paperback) I picked this 300-page book up for (AU)$24.95 from Better Read than Dead (Sydney’s Newtown – King Street), although you can get it for (US)$14 on the Random House website. My gut was expecting it to be a mix of Mr Darcy, Vampyre and Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict. In fact, I was thoroughly expecting to hate it. Mr Ford, however, has other plans for his readers.
Jane Austen is alive in the 21st Century, in a small American town, as a bookstore owner under the name ‘Jane Fairfax’ (a nice head-nod to Emma). She is also a blood-sucking vampire. However, it seems this book is less about vampirism and mashing the Jane Austen trend with the vampire trend than it is the publishing industry and, largely, romantic interests. Jane is struggling to get her new book, Constance, published. It seems she hasn’t had a single new thing published in the 200-odd years she has been dead. When she finally gets a book offer, everything starts to get full-on. It’s going to be a bestseller. But will people recognise her Jane Austen style?
The romantic plots continue at the same time. We quickly learn that Walter, a builder/heritage-house restorer, is deeply in love with her. We also see Lord Byron, as a vampire but posing as ‘Brian’, back to seduce Jane. Similarly, her new book publisher breaks into her mind on several occasions. Sadly, all three men miss the mark for me. Lucy, Jane’s bookshop assistant, makes many claims about Mr Darcy only being in books, and it seems that in this book it is true. Byron is a Wickham-type character and serial seducer. Walter just falls short – there’s no flame between Jane and himself, and we spend the entire book wondering whether or not she is going to ‘settle’ and be with him. Jane is better single. She’s also better not mentioning the missed royalties from her books every five minutes.
We follow the twists and turns, and while it seems that there are several far too unbelievable moments in the plot (just wait until you get to an author conference, and the burning down of a house, and anything to do with Charlotte Bronte), it’s a decent read. Mr Ford pokes fun at Janeites the world over, and Austen fanfiction, from the get-go. Lines such as: “You put her name on anything and it will sell. Hell, my publisher is coming out with a Jane Austen massage book in the spring. You know what it’s called? Sense and Sensuality.” And “Do you really think there are any Mr Darcys left in the world? No, there aren’t. I don’t think there ever were. But these girls want to think there are, so I give them what they want.” As well as “… those of you who purchase her book as well as the set of Jane Austen novels will be eligible to also purchase one of the lockets with Mr Darcy’s portrait inside of it.” are in heavy abundance. There are obsessed women stampeding the bookstore for signed copies of fanfiction, books called Waiting for Mr. Darcy that cause hundred of women to pledge chastity until they find ‘the one’. The fanfiction author, who Jane has her bloodsucking ways with (no joke, and it came as a much needed relief), says “We’re all here tonight because we believe – as Elizabeth Bennet believed, and as Jane believed – that true love is life’s most precious gift.” I’m so glad that Mr Ford wrote Jane as disagreeing with this, as if I’d ever imagined that was all the book was about… I would have put it down long ago.
So far as the vampirism goes, especially for those of you who are heavily into vampire-lore and vampire fiction, you may be let down. Sunlight doesn’t affect her, she can be killed by most of the same factors that humans can (but can survive ‘provided the vital organs remain in tact’), she can eat and drink (including Merlot) although it doesn’t make her put on weight, doesn’t turn into a bat and not much else. She is slightly stronger, can live forever, doesn’t age, can see better in the dark, has slightly sensitive skin, has retractable fangs, can use ‘glamour’ (but rarely does) and regenerates quite quickly. There isn’t much gothic about it, and the best vampire-related moments are her post-sex where she is reflecting on vampire relations and where she remembers being turned. Otherwise, there are only a few mentions of blood drinking and a bit of threatening to turn people, from Byron, but that’s it. Similarly, the lack of a reaction from certain characters that discover the fact is a bit of a letdown – I wanted some fighting, disbelief and book-throwing at the bare minimum. Instead, I got this irritating acceptance.
There are some great classic moments parodying ‘real life’ elements. For instance, Gossip Girl gets given an amusing and bitchy comparison, and The View is re-packaged crudely, but humorously, as Comfort & Joy. Unfortunately, this book seems to get weaker as it goes on with the plot. While initially it starts as quite insightful and funny, it becomes more ludicrous and the plot twists are jammed in without much thought. Bodies go missing and issues arise, but they are each solved within the nine to ten page chapter within which they were raised. It also ends far too abruptly with many things still incomplete. I’ve yet to read Jane Goes Batty (the sequel) and, the third installment, Jane Vows Vengeance (which was released in February this year), so I assume these tie in some of the missing ends.
I must give a bit of an honorable mention to the cover imagery, adapted from Sir William Beechey’s Portrait of Maria B Fox (detail) by Alan Ayers, who is a prolific artist in the historical romance genre. I also really liked how each chapter began with a little quote from the ‘Constance’ manuscript, and a page number. I sort of feel Ford could have done a good job just by writing Constance!
Have you read any in the trilogy? Are you a fan? And do you think Jane should be blended with vampires?