(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In 1901, Joseph Conrad wrote to friend and fellow novelist H. G. Wells: “What is all this about Jane Austen? What is there in her? What is it all about?” The question was probably asked before and has been asked quite often since. After all, nothing about Austen's life or career suggested the kind of posthumous acclaim she was to receive. She was a retiring spinster who spent her entire life in the English countryside. She wrote for three decades but earned virtually nothing for her work during her lifetime. Her father, who acted as her agent, had difficulty getting publishers even to read her manuscripts, much less accept them. Even when they finally did, they did not acknowledge her as the author until after she died. The six complete novels that make up the Austen canon all deal with the goings-on in country villages and estates where middle-class men and women go about the business of marrying and raising families. It is not surprising that Austen once wrote to her nephew in a somewhat deprecatory tone about “That little bit (two inches wide) of ivory, in which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labor.” In an age that made best-sellers out of long narrative poems featuring knights and outlaws—for which Sir Walter Scott and George Gordon, Lord Byron, became famous—Austen's domestic tales were hardly noticed. Austen was apparently to be an acquired taste—and her contemporaries never acquired it, for her work languished for decades after her death in 1817. There were a few early admirers, Scott among them, but only gradually did English and American readers and critics come to embrace her. By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, she had become a giant among English novelists, as more sophisticated readers came to appreciate the biting wit and subtle irony that she had worked into what seem, on the surface, to be nothing more than simple country romances. By the end of the twentieth century, Austen had become the darling of feminist critics, who saw her heroines struggling in a world that offered women few choices for independence of living or of thought. Many readers were introduced to Austen while in high school, where English teachers were making novels such as Pride and Prejudice (1813) required reading. While not everyone admitted to liking Austen while in high school (especially men), more than one generation of adults (especially women) have found themselves returning to Austen older, wiser, and more appreciative of her talents as a novelist and her insights into the perennial issues arising from relationships between the sexes. Frequently, such people have organized Jane Austen book clubs; throughout England and America, the “Janeites,” as these aficionados are called, have elevated Austen to nearly goddess-like status. The effect of Austen on such people is the subject of Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club. Fowler's six fictional characters—five women and one quite eligible man—meet monthly in a central California town to discuss each of Austen's novels. Their club is the brain-child of Jocelyn, a middle-aged single woman who revels in raising dogs and who makes her friends’ business her own, constantly helping other women become attached to men she feels are suitable for them. The book club is, in part, a plot hatched by Jocelyn so she can introduce her recently divorced friend Sylvia to Grigg, a forty-something bachelor whose life has been dominated by three older sisters. Jocelyn's friend Bernadette, at sixty-seven the oldest club member, is noted principally for her penchant for flirting. Sylvia's daughter Allegra, recently cast off by a lesbian lover who had used her only to develop good plots for her own fiction, and Prudie, a twenty-eight-year-old French teacher, round out the group. Divided neatly into six chapters, each focusing on one of Austen's books, The Jane Austen Book Club provides insights into the trials women face in the twenty-first century by subtly tracing parallels and analogies between their problems and those of Austen's heroines and heroes in the fictional world Austen created. The novel alternates between the present time...

(The entire section is 1685 words.)