Adventures in Thrifting

Literature Appreciation Fiction: Contemporary Nineteenth-Century Novels

I was thrilled to see so many people call for more book reviews when asked about what content they wanted to see on Hello Giggles, so I decided to take a one-week break from thrifting  to talk about books.

I’ve always been a lover of nineteenth-century fiction, particularly those Brits, from Jane Austen to George Elliot to Henry James (technically an American but…).

Still, with their love-plots and melodrama, such books became a bit of a guilty pleasure as I got older and went to graduate school in Creative Writing, where everyone read understated short stories about sad contemporary people.  I also started to feel guilty for not supporting living authors in favor of re-reading Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice yet again.

But I’ve discovered a way to have my cake and eat it, too: the contemporary nineteenth-century novel.

For instance: I’m currently reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot.

It’s about a young woman, Madeline, a college English major in the 1980s who loves nineteenth-century books–at a time when such subject matter couldn’t have been less fashionable in academia.

The novel discusses the difficulties of writing a nineteenth-century-style book–often about courtship and marriage–in contemporary times. Here’s Madeline’s uncool English professor explaining:

In Saunder’s opinion, the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance…The great epics sang about war, the novel about marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel…What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later? How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? As far as Saunders was concerned, marriage didn’t mean much anymore, and neither did the novel. Where could you find the marriage plot nowadays? You couldn’t.

But of course Eugenides is doing exactly that: he’s writing a novel all about Madeline and her various suitors, resting the plot of the book on whom Madeline ends up with. The book’s style–limited third person, a focus on social and romantic life, realistic narration sprinkled with humorous social observation–is that of a nineteenth-century novel. A contemporary nineteenth-century novel.

As you might expect, I’m really enjoying it.

Another solution is to write a novel about a nineteenth-century author. There’s practically an entire sub-genre of novels about the life Henry James: David Lodge’s Author, Author, Colm Toíbín’s The Master, and Emma Tenant’s Felony.

These novels fictionalize James’ life, producing in the process contemporary Jamesian novels (actually, all these novels are much more enjoyable to read than much of James’s actual fiction. Sorry, Henry: I love you but your late stuff is really hard going). David Lodge just did the same thing with H.G. Wells in his new novel, A Man of Parts.

Or, instead of fictionalizing a real person’s life, you can just make up your own nineteenth-century writer, loosely based on real people. There’s A.S. Byatt, who invented two nineteenth-century authors falling in forbidden love in her romance Possession (this book is amazing–run, don’t walk to go get it) and invented a whole crew of Edwardian artists in The Children’s Book.

And there’s a whole host of Jane-Austen-homage, from sequels to Pride and Prejudice to novels with Austen as the heroine.  I’m too much of a purist to read Austen sequels, but I did a read of series of mystery novels by Stephanie Barron, starring Austen as the detective. Yes, Jane Austen detective novels. You know you want to read them.

In fact, maybe there’s a swelling sub-genre of Jane Austen mystery fiction. One of my favorite mystery writers, P.D. James, just wrote a mystery-novel sequel to Pride and Prejudice called Death Comes to Pemberley, which may mean that I’ll have to break my no-Austen-sequels rule.

Speaking of mystery-novel-sequels, there’s tons of sequels to the Sherlock Holmes stories, from Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Percent Solution, in which Holmes goes to Freud for therapy (no, really), to Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice series. These books feature a female sidekick  to Sherlock Holmes and are basically really, really, really well and intelligently written fan-fiction (run, don’t walk).

And finally, there’s always homage, like Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, which is structured and styled like E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End–the same basic outline and concept in a contemporary setting.

One of The Marriage Plot‘s Library of Congress categories is Literature–Appreciation–Fiction. I think this is just right, and perhaps a good term of the whole genre. It’s fiction about the appreciation of literature. Specifically, nineteenth-century literature. And it means that at parties you can say, “Oh, I love  contemporary fiction. Jeffrey Eugenides and Zadie Smith and A.S. Byatt are my absolute faves.”

Secretly, though, you never have to leave the nineteenth century.

Image from drewbookclub.

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