Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Writing Jane Austen includes discussion questions and a Q&A with author Elizabeth Aston. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
1. When Georgina takes the Jane Austen tour in Bath, she’s startled to learn one tourist’s opinion of the original books and the written word in general: “Never read it, and don’t want to,” said Dot. “Haven’t got time for that, and reading’s passé, no one reads these days, books and all that are finished” (page 77). Do you agree? What do you think of the disparity among the fans on the tour?
2. Early on, Georgina resists Austen’s style and subjects. “That’s why this fascination with Jane Austen is so damaging, people harking back to a time when people were seriously oppressed, and pretending it was some kind of golden age” (page 78). Do you identify with the subject matter of Jane Austen’s novels or do you find them alienating?
3. Were you surprised by Georgina’s first reaction to finishing the chapter of Jane Austen’s novel, Love and Friendship? Why do you think Georgina so fervently resists this job at first, and later is so reluctant to read the original novels? She cites Charlotte Brontë’s opinion: “The Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition” (page 93). Do you agree or disagree with Charlotte Brontë (and Georgina)?
4. What do you think of Livia’s, Yolanda’s, and Dan Vesey’s behavior toward Georgina? How could they have handled the task at hand differently? When she finally does break down and starts reading Jane Austen, she goes on a reading binge that lasts for days, only coming up for the occasional meal. Have you ever been lost in a book like that?
5. Georgina’s friend Bel, an Austen enthusiast, believes Jane Austen was the “ultimate realist”: “Nostalgia, dreams for a past that never existed. Isn’t that what all this is about? Aren’t you selling a dream? . . . So was Jane Austen with her vision of marriage between two equals—how often does that ever happen? Isn’t that what all fiction is? Some good dreams, some nightmares” (page 106). Who do you think is more of a realist—Jane Austen, Bel or Georgina?
6. Once Georgina starts drafting outlines for her narrative, she reminds herself: “Of course the storyline didn’t have to be stunningly original or even complex. The power of Jane Austen’s storytelling lay in a perfect depiction of the characters and the creation of the lives they lived, not in startling events or thrilling about-turns” (page 165). Do you agree with this assessment of Austen’s work?
7. What roles do Henry, Maud and even Anna play in the creation of Love and Friendship? How important is their input to Georgina and why?
8. Why do you think Georgina says of Maud, “She’s more like Jane Austen than I am?”
9. Henry gets frustrated with Georgina’s procrastination and tries to approach it from a scientific point of view. What advice would you have offered her? Writing her first novel, Magdalene Crib, was a very orderly experience. Why do you think she’s struggling with this assignment?
10. Were you surprised by Georgina’s reaction to the news about Rollo Windlesham, her old professor, and Dennis Partridge and their involvement with the original text? What did you think of the ending? Does it feel satisfying?
11. How are the characters in Writing Jane Austen similar to characters one would find in an actual Jane Austen novel? How is the book similar?
A Conversation with Elizabeth Aston
You’ve written many Austen-themed novels, including Mr. Darcy’s Dream and Mr. Darcy’s Daughters. What made you want to write a contemporary story? How is it different from writing a period novel?
The great delight of Jane Austen’s novels is that they’re as fresh today as when they were written, and in some ways, we read her as though she were a contemporary novelist writing historical novels. But of course, she was a contemporary novelist, writing about her times and mores. I’m a twenty-first-century novelist, whether I write historicals or contemporary fiction, and I thought it would be fun to write a novel set in the present day, but with Jane Austen books as a central theme.
The secret of good novels is the same across time and genre: characters that jump off the page, whether they’re likeable or not, and a lively plot which keeps the reader guessing. With historical there has to be a strongly researched background and a linguistic style which echoes the language of the period, whereas contemporaries need to capture life and language of today.
Your previous books about Jane Austen have been very successful. Why do you think Jane Austen has such appeal? How is she relatable in the modern-day world?
Jane Austen’s appeal is the same as that of Mozart—she was a genius, whose writing speaks to the soul while it enchants and delights. Her characters spring from the page, and have an integrity and reality that make them our friends (and foes—think of Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park!). Because of her deep understanding of human nature, and her portrayal of the comédie humaine, she transcends the gap of two centuries between then and now.
You studied Jane Austen at Oxford, including with her biographer Lord David Cecil. How has that helped you in writing your novels?
The rigour of those studies of the novels, the language and the background, have been tremendously useful. As has the study of Jane Austen’s contemporaries and the familiarity with the cultural, intellectual and social milieu of her life.
Could you relate to Georgina’s desperation over attempting such a daunting task? Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Writing any book in that kind of time frame is difficult. It’s possible when it’s the culmination of months or years of brooding over characters and plot, but from scratch? Very hard! And in another writer’s style is even harder.
Like many writers, I procrastinate. I might call it writer’s block to gain sympathy from friends and family, but they don’t believe a word of it!
How long does it take you to complete a novel from start to finish? How much research do you do for each book?
Some books have been rattling round in my head for years, others a few months. At any time I have about six ideas on the go. Getting words down on the page for a first draft is something I like to do at speed, and that takes weeks, not months. Then comes the hard work of revising and rewriting and editing. With a historical set in the early nineteenth century, I have years of general research and knowledge behind me, so I write the book first and then research all the extra facts and details and background I need.
Which Austen novel is your personal favorite?
Whichever one I read most recently! But I have a special affection for Pride and Prejudice.
Would you ever accept the task that Georgina has been charged with, and finish a Jane Austen novel?
Apart from Jane Austen, what other writers do you read and admire?
That’s a very long list indeed, as I’m a voracious reader in all kinds of genres, fiction and non-fiction. As a writer and reader and Jane Austen enthusiast, I’m a huge fan of the historical novelist Patrick O’Brian—and Jane Austen was the author he most admired.