IF CHRONOLOGY AND history magically got turned on its ear, who would British novelist Jane Austen be in the tweens of the 21st century? And how would she craft and position her characters? While seasoned English academic and magnificently skilled writer Helen Moffett doesn’t quite contemplate this idea in her 2020 novel Charlotte, she takes a thread from Austen’s 18th century classic and weaves the eponymous character into relevance for you, the contemporary reader.
Given her status as one with a passionate and informed leaning towards PreRaphaelite poetry, Moffett achieves her aim in Charlotte without so much as bruising the social patina or language idiosyncrasies used by Austen, and in so doing, she makes the work her own. And from the description of the sage-green flower fronds on her dress, in the prologue set in 1811, some years after Austen gave ‘life’ to the character, to the hairpin bends in the tale’s epilogue, in 1839, this is a perfect book, drawing from Austen’s lead and idiom, but developing it with fulsomeness and raciness.
You may need to revisit Pride and Prejudice before you immerse yourself in Charlotte, however, as it will lend you the context for this mysterious and somewhat open-ended character sketched in scant detail by Austen in 1797. Moffett takes her from that point and gives her flesh and blood and floral dresses and attitudes and opinions which never jar with Austen’s clear lines, her sense of wit and her unique tropes about marriage or the social context in which she was writing.
And in doing so, Moffett gives a rich and exquisite foray into the conventions of marriage and childrearing, love within and outside of society’s rules, and how the privileged class played and what they worried about. But more than all of this, the novel lends a tone of universality to Austen’s premises and while entangling wit with crisp detail, social imperatives that continue to inform our contemporary conventions, it also offers keen and detailed glances into issues such as 19th century anti-Semitism, the burgeoning force of feminism at the time, and an understanding of the secret lives of women, with their hooped skirts and all, even then. It’s about sexuality in ways we think are modern and ours to comment on, but perhaps are not.
In short, like Eugenie Freed’s 2018 historical novel A Several Plot which draws from Shakespearean tropes, history and reflections, Charlotte is a book that, over and above the filmic reflections of Austen’s works, will continue to give her relevance, as a social commentator. It’s a beautiful read that feeds the need for a clear tale, compelling plain language and an unpacking of social values as you go, stimulating every part of you. If there’s one delicious read you have on your bookshelf for the holiday season, but also for always, it should be this one.
- Charlotte by Helen Moffett is published by Manilla Press, an imprint of Bonnier Books UK (2020).