Friday, April 16, 2010

Jane Austen, Harry Potter, and a Bit of Both

After a college friend, currently an English professor, gave birth to her second child, she lamented to me, “These days, I’m too sleep-deprived to read anything in the evenings but mysteries and regencies.”

Well, I knew about mysteries; I love early 20th-century detective novels, and I consider Dorothy Sayers to be the gold standard. (I read her translation of Dante at Stanford before I knew she wrote mysteries.) I knew about true sleep deprivation, too, since I had a preschooler and an insomniac baby at the time. But what were regencies?

“Regencies,” answered my English professor friend, “are for those of us who are unhappy about running out of Jane Austen novels.”

Delightedly recognizing myself in this intriguing statement, I set off in search of regencies. I mean, how many times can you reread Jane Austen’s six novels? I happily investigated this whole new genre for awhile before realizing that, with few exceptions, Georgette Heyer wrote the only really good ones.

Don’t try Heyer’s serious historical novels – they’re abysmal. But her regencies, written with effervescence and humor in the early part of the 20th century, are like lighthearted, frivolous Jane Austen novels, replete with the kind of airy witticisms I always wish I could produce at will (except that on the rare occasions that I do, I get queer looks, because – let’s face it – nobody talks like that anymore) and vivid, funny character sketches in the bigger context of class-bound Regency England. As romantic social comedies go, these are charming.

Heyer’s 1920s mysteries are well-done, too. The plots do not rival the sophistication and complexity of Dorothy Sayers or Agatha Christie, but Heyer’s holistic product of social mores, social satire, witty repartee, and elegant writing make for satisfying reading. Why Shoot a Butler? is typically ironic from its title to its ending. I love her mysteries, but I laugh out loud reading her regencies.

Elizabeth Aston writes "continuations" of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

Now, what if you combined Jane Austen’s Regency England with Harry Potter? You would get Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Clarke writes of an original, fascinating fictional world, yet it’s her prose that I love. I have rarely read popular prose that is as deeply beautiful as Susanna Clarke’s. Yes, she has some serious plotting issues, but her writing and her characterization and the epic quality of her novel are a joy to read. Even her footnotes are a delight. (How often do footnotes make you laugh out loud in admiration and humor?) This is a jewel of a book; if she had woven her threads better and tightened the denouement, she would have had a masterpiece. It’s enough of a good yarn that the 800-some pages will rush by. But it’s better, by far, to savor them.

When I first explained my bedtime reading criteria in Monday’s blog, I began with Possession as a book that satisfied it all. So it’s only fitting that I finish with another writer who satisfies everything I want from any book. I first read Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle” when I was nineteen years old, and I stayed awake long into the night because I couldn’t put it down, so riveting it was. Henry James never had to resort to cheap tragedy or specious violence to achieve depth. His stories are mesmerizing and wrenchingly profound without ever leaving their commonplace settings. The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Fiction has it all – psychological suspense, a ghost story (or is it?), a love story, and an intensely incisive evaluation of the human psyche, all bound together in some of the most magnificent prose ever written.

My husband always rolls his eyes when I rhapsodize about Henry James. But no blog about my favorite reads – whether fluffy or serious or escapist – would be complete without a mention of him. When I write The Great American Novel, I could do worse than use James for a model.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll consider my current book, The Muslim Next Door, for your nightstand, as well. Admittedly, it’s academically reliable information on what Muslims believe and practice (I have a degree in Islamic law), but it’s also written for the bedside table. I wrote it for those of you intellectually curious people who are somewhat tired by day’s-end and want a bit of learning and a bit of entertainment rolled into one engaging, fun-to-read book about the world's second-largest religion.

Happy bedtime reading!

1 comment:

  1. You might also consider picking up Naomi Novik's series, starting with His Majesty's Dragon. It's an alternate history series that could probably best be described as the Napoleonic Wars meet Master and Commander meet Dragons. The writing is delightfully period-appropriate. I practically mainlined the series. :)


    Sarah L.
    Kepler's Backlist Buyer