The book, set in contemporary England, focuses on three older women facing retirement and the regrets that age often brings. The central character, Fran, already at the fringe of university life, lives in a cottage in the countryside, where the main companion in her garden is the author of “Pride and Prejudice,” who makes a ghostly appearance.
Fran is coaxed to Cambridge by another older woman facing the same problem, and as she mixes with academics there, both older and younger, the five of them form an oddly matched group that bonds over a common project: to trace Percy Shelley’s life. When they set off for Wales and Venice, “Jane Austen” comes along.
Heard only by Fran and us readers, Austen offers wry comments on the lifestyles, decisions and hypocrisies of not just her fellow travelers, but also the 21st century itself. Of the modern take on Mr. Darcy, Austen quips: “You made him the heartthrob with your films. My business is with girls.”
Yet it’s not just pithy quotations, real or imagined, that Todd is borrowing here; she is also using Austen’s famous “free indirect discourse.” This means we are not bogged down in Fran’s point of view only. The narrative “goes behind” all five principal characters (to use a Henry James term — yes, his novels make an appearance, too). Todd gives us secret glimpses into the preoccupations, sorrows and joys of each of these very different people.
Rachel, for instance, the American in the group — the one who stays at a fancy hotel in Venice, of course, and sports a different pair of flashy sneakers for every occasion — sees “my boy” in the choir when she and Fran visit King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. When we’re no longer in her point of view, we learn whom she means, and we witness her grief on the sand at the Lido, echoing the death of Percy and Mary Shelley’s daughter in Venice.
Todd, a biographer and literary critic, also plays with making this a meta-novel. As she reaches what a filmmaker might call the inciting incident, Todd pauses to tell us: “Here it is: that moment when the stranger enters the slumbering place and the plot begins.” The book also includes images, mainly photographs taken by Todd herself, of the real places that she is writing about. It’s a lovely touch that gives the book an intimate, scrapbook feel.
The novel pokes fun at creative writing as an academic discipline, yet “Jane Austen and Shelley in the Garden” might have borrowed a few more tricks from that trade. Although the novel follows loosely the life of Shelley, the book begins to feel a tad directionless. Just when it seems that a mystery around Fran’s long-lost husband might provide a dramatic turn, that subplot disappears, never to return. And a tragedy at the novel’s end doesn’t hold the power it needs to bring the novel to a more satisfying close.
But what great company these characters and the many writers who inhabit this novel make. It’s as if we readers are taking a trip to Cambridge, Wales and Venice, too, and encounter in the local pubs a few witty, quirky locals who just happen to be literary scholars. They regale us with their favorite lines from poems, while they share a glass of wine or a pint of ale, as if we are all friends just enjoying each other’s company in a summer that — in our imagination anyway — can go on as long as we’d like.
Carole Burns, head of creative writing at the University of Southampton in England, is author of “The Missing Woman and Other Stories,” which won the Ploughshares’ John C. Zacharis First Book Award.
Jane Austen and Shelley in the Garden: A Novel With Pictures
By Janet Todd.
Fentum Press. 304 pp. Paperback, $16.95