Thursday, June 29, 2017

Book Review: Parson Austen's Daughter

Title: Parson Austen's Daughter

(That Amazon system-generated book graphic is showier than the actual book cover--plain dark faded cloth.)

Author: Helen Ashton

Date: 1949

Publisher: Dodd Mead

ISBN: none

Length: 337 pages

Quote: “From...the notes to [R.W. Chapman's] edition of Jane Austen's Letters...most of my minor characters have emerged.”

Which daughter is this biographical novel about? Parson George Austen had two. Ashton's story begins with a flash forward of Cassandra Austen (1773-1845), the elder sister who lived well enough into middle age to be considered “old”; “The End” seems to be the end of Jane Austen's life (1775-1817) , but there's an afterword about the rest of the family, so the book also ends with Cassandra. “Cassy” and Jane Austen were close all through life. This story draws heavily from letters they wrote to each other when they weren't actually living in the same house, which they often were.

Jane Austen became famous for “novels of manners” that often focus on the courtship and marriage customs of the English gentry. Some of the girl characters seem to resemble Jane and Cassy, each of whom had a few suitors, but neither Jane nor Cassandra Austen ever married. Ashton suggests that Cassy was “in love” with a man who died young.

It's harder to convince readers, although Ashton tries, that Jane Austen suffered from a broken heart. Proper young ladies at the turn of the nineteenth century were supposed to be asexual; Austen may really have been. She wasn't rich enough to be pushed into marriage for money and was able to earn a good living with novels whose style is altogether unique. Anyone can try to write novels like Austen's but nobody else has ever done it well enough to get many people to read those novels; Austen launched a real cult of fans, sometimes self-proclaimed “Janeites,” who reread and memorize hers unto this day. Their precision and detachment are so unusual that they can hardly be associated with any common or well understood influence on a writer's voice...they might well come from asexuality. What is known is that Jane Austen flirted with several young men, but reported only one serious proposal of marriage, which she declined.

The spinster sisters were never lonely. They had six brothers, seven sisters-in-law, and the predictable assortment of nieces and nephews to love. One reason why they seem healthier—physically, emotionally, spiritually—than many nineteenth century ladies was that they walked, extensively, often together, in all kinds of weather. Jane began to avoid wet weather only when she became ill. (She was so drily cheerful and detached, even about her own illness, that it's hard to guess the nature of her illness; Ashton doesn't try. Jane Austen became less active for a few months, and then she died.)

Ashton succeeds in convincing us, as Jane Austen succeeds in convincing people, that although they were “poor relations,” oppressed by sexism and elitism and by a long pointless war and by a culture where scientific awareness of the unhealthiness of many beloved customs was developing into a positive fad for illness, the sisters had fun. In a quiet way, of which the Austen sisters would probably have approved, this mellow, picturesque novel celebrates girl power.

And it doesn't take much invention for Ashton to accomplish this. Although Parson Austen's Daughter is admittedly a novel pulled together from letters, memoirs, and history, it reads like a biography. If you want fictional conversations (and a similar plot, in a wholly fictional story), read Joan Aiken's If I Were You. This fact-based novel is more factual than several contemporary works that were marketed to younger children, in the 1950s, as biographies. Ashton's own biography on Wikipedia classifies Parson Austen's Daughter as a biography.

Helen Ashton no longer has any use for a dollar; however, prices for Parson Austen's Daughter are moving toward the collectors' range. Currently, I can still offer it for $5 per copy, $5 per package for shipping (at least one more book of this size would fit into the package for a single $5 shipping charge), and $1 per online payment. Although real payments (U.S. postal money orders) go to "Boxholder, P.O. Box 322" as shown at the bottom of the screen, online payments don't go to Salolianigodagewi, the Message Squirrel who redirects orders to the appropriate member of this web site (and spam to the powers-that-be); Saloli's replies to online orders will explain where to send online payment.