The Trouble with Knocking off Jane

Jane Austen inspires love like almost no other author. We re-read her books regularly and we are not alone if the market in knock-offs is anything to go by. The most recent of these may be THE THREE WEISSMANNS OF WESTPORT by Cathleen Schine. This update of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY got a great review in the New York Times Book so we read it – and enjoyed it a lot. But is it the incomparable Jane? No.

One reason we think is that it is set in the late nineties, which to us seems a pretty mundane era, unlike early 19th-century England when social mores were stifling, women had almost no alternatives but marriage, men had limited choices of profession and playing cards was everybody’s idea of fun. But, hey, it was a long time ago and the clothes were great and romance could happen then.

That romance is not what it once could be made to seem is apparent in Schine’s book when one of the two heroines falls for another woman. The other pretty much fails to notice her swain. This is modern romance – and it’s very funny, but it doesn’t do what an Austen novel does when the heroine finally falls into the arms of the hero and the reader’s eyes well up. (Or not, in the case of our clear-eyed millennial daughter who will have nothing to do with Austen. Take note of that, those of you who are writing updated versions of NORTHANGER ABBEY or PERSAUSION.)

Jane also had a much tighter framework to work with. Her world was small and rigid, a solid framework on which she could improvise. She had little to do but observe. Even if one could take the time to do all that observing today, it would be harder to get society into a nice, satiric box. Schine succeeds with this in many ways but she always bumps up against the reader’s own view of the nineties.

Maybe the THREE WEISSMANNS OF WESTPORT just has to age so that we can read it with the same rosy glasses we read Austen. Maybe we will get to see the end of the last millennium as a quirky time and not just an era of excess before the recession. It would be fun to pick this book up again in 20 years to see if its bouquet is still fruity and fun but has more than a hint of Austen.

Speaking of Jane knock-offs, Jane is now blogging: