By Jude Morgan
St. Martin's. 378 pp. $24.95
Halfway through Jude Morgan's Indiscretion comes a litmus test for your sensitivity to Jane Austenism: A young woman in an exquisitely appointed manor in the English countryside complains, "There is nothing very grand, or exciting, or even terrible, to be met with in a district like this: it is all just narrow provincial dullness."
If that line inspires an ironic little grin, you have the good sense and sensibility to keep reading. But if, instead, you think, "She's absolutely right," you will already have dropped off into a deep sleep hundreds of pages earlier. This is, after all, a story that counts among its exciting moments a crisis involving who will escort whom into the dining room. (Relax, I won't give it away.) And don't be misled by that suggestive title: The naughty bits (there are two: one early, one late) are described in language so refined and elevated that the bodice is not so much ripped as tipped -- and even that only slightly.
Our heroine is Caroline Fortune, the delightfully spirited daughter of a lovable old soldier who has run through a series of disastrous get-rich schemes in London. "Captain Fortune," Morgan tells us, is "the type of man who would jump gaily off a cliff and then experience second thoughts when he neared the bottom." While her father hopes to revive his acting career, Caroline -- always the practical one -- accepts employment as the companion to a fastidious widow. This old crocodile, Mrs. Catling, amuses herself by threatening to disinherit her niece and nephew. Everyone attends her "with a sort of stiff-jointed promptness that looks very much like smothered terror," but she appreciates Caroline's indomitable nature and enjoys letting her nervous heirs imagine that a new, young competitor has entered the arena. When a long-lost relative rescues Caroline from this battleground, she finds herself comfortably and securely situated among people who love her in the village of Huntingdonshire, where, you may have heard, "it is all just narrow provincial dullness."
In fact, it's actually rather amusing, and soon "the placid surface of her new life" is stirred by moral and romantic disruptions. Living nearby are the Milner siblings: Isabella, who's engaged to a man who only Caroline knows is a scoundrel; Fanny, who will run off with a man Caroline suspects is a scoundrel; and Stephen, who vexes Caroline so much that you may as well start shopping for a wedding present now. "Every time I am deluded into thinking you human," she tells him, "you come out and say something to confirm my earlier opinion."
Morgan carries this off with unfailing charm, and if we rarely get a real downpour of comedy, the air is at least always humid with his wit. Even when a character fails to be funny, the narrator saves the day: "His delivery of this joke was almost obstetric in its effort." But there is also a good deal of arid dialogue along these lines:
"You are very forgiving."
"Am I? I must be, for I cannot even think where the offense lies."
"Oh, but you must know -- that remark I made, at the Rectory. So very unthinking. I can only ask you to believe I truly did not mean it."
"Now I feel as if my head is on back to front. Miss Milner, what do you mean?"
An accurate depiction of life among a certain class of English society in the early 19th century? Indubitably. Always gripping? Dubitably.
What's worse is Morgan's tendency to impress upon us the tediousness of some hilariously boorish characters by making us live through their dull speeches in real time. There is, for instance, Mrs. Leabrook, who "would have talked on if you had fallen at her feet in a dead faint," which I can confirm from personal experience. The comic value of that technique drains away paragraph by paragraph, until we're left thinking, "No -- please -- tell, don't show!"
Fortunately, Caroline's pride and prejudice are impossible to resist, particularly as she finds herself drawn deeper and deeper into her friends' romantic complications, all the while imagining that she can hold herself aloof from matters of the heart. You've read this before, of course, or at least seen the movie (Keira Knightley, I'd sell my soul for you), but it's played out here with enough elegance and humor to make it worth another round. After all, Austen left just six novels, and anyone of the persuasion that half a dozen masterpieces are insufficient will enjoy Indiscretion as a handy substitute, a sort of literary margarine -- I Can't Believe It's Not Austen.® That Morgan comes so close to the creamy taste of the original is a testament to his talent, but it still leaves us pining for the real thing. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.