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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Sanditon Summer: Jennifer Petkus

In 1920, reviewing an Austen great-niece's biography of her famous relative, the writer Katherine Mansfield put her finger on something essential about the Janeite experience. “The truth,” she wrote, “is that every true admirer of the novels cherishes the happy thought that he alone – reading between the lines – has become the secret friend of their author.” Nearly a century later, this private sense of exclusive intimacy – Jane Austen would absolutely love me! – sometimes manifests itself as certainty about how Austen would react to the modern world, were she magically teleported from 1817. Some of us are sure she would be pleased with feminism and birth control; others are equally certain she’d be appalled by Facebook and casual sex. Jennifer Petkus’ self-published Austen spinoff, Jane, Actually: or Jane Austen’s Book Tour, the subject of today’s Sanditon Summer blog post, is a novel-length version of these fantasies. In Petkus’ imagined alternate reality, a new technology allows the dead to communicate with the living through a form of email, sometimes channeled through an electronic voice or embodied in a human avatar specially commissioned for the role.

In the spare time she’s had since dying in 1817, Jane Austen has managed to complete Sanditon, the novel left unfinished at her death, and with a literary agent, a publisher, and an avatar named – of all things! – Mary Crawford, she’s on tour, just another hack with a book to sell, a blog to fill, and a tendency to lapse occasionally into text-speak (“ ‘OMG!’ Jane said.” She’s had lots of time to catch up on contemporary mores.) Dueling academics, a muckraking biography, and several star-crossed love affairs complicate matters, en route to Austen’s eagerly anticipated keynote speech -- talk about a Janeite fantasy! -- at the Jane Austen Society of North America’s 2011 Annual General Meeting in Fort Worth, Texas. Petkus (b. 1957), a former newspaper reporter and editor who lives in Denver, is the author of a previous self-published Austen spinoff, a gender-bending Sherlock Holmes/Jane Austen mashup called My Particular Friend. (Full disclosure: I met Petkus at – yes, really – the Jane Austen Society of North America’s 2011 Annual General Meeting in Fort Worth, Texas, and she makes a cameo appearance in my book Among the Janeites.) Jane, Actually contains rather more incident than one novel can manage – a subplot involving a mysterious manuscript that may or may not prove the beyond-the-grave Austen to be an imposter sputters out anti-climactically – and a couple of excerpts from Austen’s finished Sanditon would have been better left to the reader’s imagination. But for Janeites, the book’s pleasures lie in the small in-jokes along the way, the casual references to Austen scholars and Austen blogs and a whole host of matters that we Janeites take for granted in the casual shorthand of our fandom. I laughed out loud when one character, thinking about her own Jane addiction, reflected, “She’d read the six novels so many times – OK, Mansfield Park not so often”: the relative unpopularity of Mansfield Park is a Janeite given. And you can’t beat a chapter title like “White soup for the soul.” Most poignantly, Petkus’ book is full of Janeites musing about whether, after all, they want their cherished fantasy of meeting Jane Austen to become reality. “I cannot help but mourn the loss of her heretofore essential unknowableness that allowed her to be my best friend,” writes an (imagined) online commentator. Just as we Janeites find ourselves in Austen’s pages -- discovering over and over again that Jane Austen shares our preoccupations and anticipates our insights -- the Jane Austen with whom we imagine such intimate friendship is ultimately, inevitably, more subjective creation than objective reality, more a reflection of our responses to feminism and Facebook than hers. We’re better off with the books, really: fictional though they are, they’re the only reality we need. Jennifer Petkus. Jane, Actually: or Jane Austen’s Book Tour. Denver: Mallard Sci-Fi, 2013.

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