Jane Austen’s Ghost
Jane Austen’s Ghost is a ghost story and a mystery of sorts, with romantic and historical elements. There is a satisfying romance in the middle, and there is a lot of humour, but, as befits a ghost story, there will be parts that make you cry, too. It’s quite a gentle, comforting sort of story to read and comes together in a very satisfying way at the end. I enjoyed it a lot.
The story begins with a prologue in which Jane Austen refuses a proposal from a suitor who frankly makes Mr Collins look like a bit of a catch. The Reverend James Stainier Clarke, however, is disinclined to take no for an answer, and when Jane finally manages to persuade him that she is serious, he turns to magic to get his way. He places a curse on Jane that will somehow bind her to him. It is not clear precisely whether this succeeds, but she certainly is bound to the Phantasmal Realm (which exists between the Terrestrial and Celestial Realms) as a ghost.
The story now enters the modern era, where we meet Cassie Austin, who has lost her boyfriend, her job, her apartment and her money, and has fled to her Great-Aunt Butters for comfort. But Great-Aunt Butters is busy assisting the Bishop of Winchester with his ghost problem. When a spell goes wrong, Cassie finds herself bound to the ghost of Jane Austen, with her Great Aunt in a coma from which she will never wake unless Cassie can find a way to break the curse and release Jane Austen to the Celestial Realm.
This story really is hug-yourself delightful. Cassie’s interactions with Miss Austen, as she initially prefers to be addressed (she later permits Cassie to call her Jane) are completely charming, as she introduces Jane to the modern world and to the concept of her own fame, in between trying to figure out the nature of the curse and how to break it.
Jane is wonderfully well-drawn, and her reactions to the modern world are mixed; it seems that she had no sense of time passing at all until she was bound to Cassie, so much of what is modern comes as a shock to her. To her, the loss of her family is very recent. She is distressed to find that Steventon is no more, and both curious and slightly dismayed to see a portrait of her younger brother, Charlie, as an old man with white whiskers and to visit her old house at Chawton, which is now a museum. But she is surprised and delighted to find that her books are still being read, and she is absolutely thrilled to discover the BBC Pride and Prejudice. She is fascinated by the idea of feminism, and when introduced to the concept of birth control wishes rather grimly that this had been available to her sisters in law. And I love that she is amused by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and compares it to the parodies she wrote with and for her younger siblings and nieces and nephews as a girl.
I love that we see Jane the person, not Jane the great writer – yes, of course she is brilliant, and her writing was important to her, but she had feelings and opinions well beyond that. At one point, the other characters are trying to track down her letters:
‘It is a very great pity that not more of her letters survived, but sadly her sister Cassandra burned most of them and censored the rest.’
‘Did she do so, indeed? Miss Austen nodded approvingly. ‘I cannot say I am surprised, for Cassandra was always prudent, and if she thought it wisest to dispose of my letters in such a way, then you may depend upon her being right.’
I’ve seen Cassandra’s actions described as ‘one of the greatest acts of literary vandalism in history’, and for the historian or the student of literature, perhaps they are. Of course we want to know what went through the minds of our favourite writers when they were not writing novels! But we are reminded here that these were the letters of real people to other real people, and that they had every right to decide what they want to keep private, no matter how distressing this might be for our intellectual curiosity!
Jane quotes herself a lot, seemingly unconsciously (though Cassie is very conscious of it and wonders if it’s ‘a ghost thing’), but even when she doesn’t, her language and attitudes felt very right. She is an incisive thinker, and very observant, particularly of people. The friendship she eventually forms with Cassie is really the heart of the book. It’s very affectionate and supportive – not quite sisterly, given the age difference (though of course, Cass shares a name with Jane’s beloved sister), but perhaps more aunt-like, if your aunt is invisible to other people and has the kind of sharp wit and intellectual curiosity that will lead you to laugh out loud at inappropriate moments. Family is clearly important to Jane, and, consciously or unconsciously, she makes Cass part of hers.
But what of romance? Well, for that, we have Oliver, a young Oxford scholar who is doing a D Phil on Jane Austen. He is handsome and charming, but Cassie has been burned quite a few times by handsome and charming men, and she isn’t sure whether he is a Darcy or a Wickham. Jane isn’t too sure, either.
‘Unfortunately, the most engaging suitor may hide the sorts of serious faults with which Wickham’s character was tainted.
‘Then how can we tell if we can trust Oliver?
She shrugged. ‘I believe time and experience are the best measure.’
‘But we don’t have time to wait to see what Oliver’s really like’, I objected…
‘Yes, I see the problem.’ She pondered a moment. ‘Then I am inclined to take a chance on his being Mr Darcy – or at the very least, Edward Ferrers.’
‘Oh.’ I wrinkled my nose. ‘Edward’s okay, but he’s not a favourite. It took him ages to stand up to his awful mother.’
‘It is true that it took Edward time to find his courage.’ Miss Austen nodded. ‘And yet, though led astray in his youth by an unprincipled young woman, he always clung to his honour – although a greater degree of honesty would have served him better.’ She pondered for a moment. ‘There is always a chance that Oliver may be William Elliot, which would only exacerbate our predicament.’
I shall not tell you whether Oliver is Darcy or Ferrers (or perhaps Henry Tilney or Charles Bingley or even Edmund Bertram – this is the sort of book that wants to be kind to its readers, so he was never going to be Wickham), but the bit about the awful mother was certainly spot on.
There are, in fact, quite a few really terrible parents in this book, and not all of them see the error of their ways. Both Oliver and Cassie are keeping secrets from each other, which is not something to be recommended in relationships. Cassie is also carrying a huge load of insecurity courtesy of her terrible father and grandmother, not to mention the parade of terrible exes, so she is disinclined to trust Oliver on the grounds that while she’s attracted to him, all the men she has ever been attracted to have turned out to be bastards, ergo he must be a bastard. It’s probably a good thing that she has Jane there to help sort things out.
For the first half of the book, the modern day chapters alternate with correspondence and other documents from the past, beginning just before Jane’s death, with a letter to Rev Clarke warning him against the use of the grimoire he has found. The subsequent letter writers include friends of the Austen family, several Bishops, a handful of scholars and Cassandra Austen herself, and trace the attempts to discover whether Clarke was in fact successful in casting his spell, and if so, how to break it. Every time it looks like being resolved, someone dies inconveniently, and it is left to the next correspondent to try to figure out where the book went, or where other important items or letters went. I really liked this aspect of the book – watching the slowly unfolding failures to break the curse in the past heightened the tension of the modern-day story nicely, and gave the story as nice anchor in history. One thing I especially enjoyed about these sections is that while the letters were fictitious, the people were real, and in many cases so were their obituaries. (Though poor old Clarke was rather slandered in that case.)
Perhaps for this reason, the world of this story feels very dense, as though it extends well beyond the edge of the page. There is clearly more to how the Phantasmal Realm, the ghosts, the history of the story, and the various blessings and curses work than the bits that actually make it into the book, and one also gets the sense that the minor characters have a life outside the story. This is something I always enjoy, because it makes the story feel more real – not all of their arcs are resolved because this isn’t their story, they are just passing through it.
Similarly, there are minor plot elements that are not fully resolved on the page (why did all those people who were trying to break the curse die at such inconvenient moments? And why do the ghosts all quote themselves?). But I think there are enough hints in the text that one can draw conclusions about what happened. Or possibly I have an overactive imagination. The point is, though, that I always feel that a really good ghost story should resolve the main story but leave you still wondering about a few things, and Jane Austen’s Ghost does this nicely.
The downside, however, is that there were a few aspects of the worldbuilding which perhaps should have made it into the story, but didn’t, quite. Clearly all the characters understood and agreed on why one must never, ever, reveal anything about ghosts to anyone, but I honestly didn’t find the reasoning very compelling. It felt like that was another of these things that was floating around in the atmosphere of the book but didn’t quite make it onto the page. A missing scene, perhaps, whether written and removed or not written at all. Unfortunately, in this particular example, it served as an excuse for Big Misunderstandings and lack of communication, which was annoying – the relationship between Cassie and Oliver is tricky enough without adding a Secret That Cannot Be Revealed to it. So that was a bit of a pity.
If we are talking flaws, there were two other very minor things that bothered me; the medieval saint who speaks in middle English and doesn’t know the proper conjugation for does/dost/doth and a few other words along those lines was irritating, but he also appeared only briefly. In addition, the defeat of the great villain was, after so much effort and angst and tribulation, almost too easy. Again, this is a small thing, and it’s sometimes nice when people don’t have to make the hardest possible choices. But it felt ever so slightly off-balance compared to the rest of the plot.
Overall, though, this is a really charming, impeccably-researched, cleverly-thought out story. The ghostly aspects are moving and occasionally frightening; the plot is laced with humour and suspense; and the resolution is highly satisfying. And at centre of the book we have a very affectionate, well-drawn portrait of Jane Austen herself. If you are an Austen fan, this book is going to make you very happy.
I loved this book. While I don’t think it was perfect, I will definitely be reading it again – it has ‘comfort read’ written all over it. It’s basically the book where Jane Austen comes into the heroine’s life and makes everything better, and while this was not a feel-good fantasy I previously had, it’s one I’m going to be running with from now on. Jane Austen’s Ghost gets a very happy B plus from me.