Jane Austen for the 21st century

By Margot Bertelsmann

Charlotte

Author:  Helen Moffett

“You don’t have to be crazy to work here – but it helps.”  Remember the stickers you could buy at Cardies, for gifting on a colleague’s birthday or sticking up on the microwave in the communal kitchen, back in a time when we had joke stickers, and offices in which to display them?

In a similar vein, and similarly going back to another era, you don’t have to have read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to enjoy Helen Moffett’s Charlotte, but it helps.

The fact that there’s a whole genre of Jane Austen fanfic illustrates our appetite for more domestic wit from the queen of Regency romance, and many authors have tried to deliver it, though few as convincingly and charmingly as Moffett.

Moffett’s Charlotte also delivers so much more: feminism, friendship, marriage, sex, love, parenting and house-husbandry in the first decades of the 1800s come to life from the point of view of Charlotte Collins, née Lucas, the plain friend of the richer, prettier and more glamorous Bennet girls from across the village. To Mother Bennet’s horror, Charlotte marries the Bennets’ distant relative, the reverend Mr Collins, right out from under the noses of his five waiting cousins – imperilling their home and inheritance due to the sexist laws of the Great British Empire.

It’s no spoiler to say Charlotte is aware of the compromises her choice of husband involves – though hers is a rather reduced choice when the alternative is poverty. Despite her occasional railing against societal injustices, Charlotte finds that her verbose and intellectually limited new husband makes a good and kind partner; and that she is able to live a meaningful and even happy life alongside him.

A visit to her best friend Elizabeth Bennet (who has by now married the dashing Mr Darcy), where she strikes up a new friendship, provides the opportunity for Charlotte to tell her own story in her own words. It is in this part of the novel that the reader is able to relive familiar events from Austen’s novel (or if you haven’t read it, to experience them for the first time).

Seasoned Austenites will pick up Easter eggs the author promises she’s left in the pages of her novel. I am sure most went over my head, and am glad that mention of them was left to the notes at the end of the novel, as I would perhaps otherwise have experienced an anxiety about discovering them rather than being able to enjoy immersing myself in the story as wholeheartedly as I did.

So far, so good: rewriting what Chimamanga Ngozi Adichie might call the single-story narrative narratives is the work of feminists, decolonialists, and others who write from the margins, and it’s delicious and enjoyable to read for its own sake.

But it is when untethered from the limits set by Austen’s narrative, roughly in the second half of the novel, that Charlotte’s own story can soar. (Metaphor used intentionally, as those who have read Charlotte will recognise). Moffett’s pleasure in providing Charlotte and her cast of loved ones with unexpected, satisfying lives and endings is palpable, and in turn brings delight to her reader.

Charlotte is South African author, activist, environmentalist, and editor Helen Moffett’s first novel, though she has written several other books of non-fiction. This is probably the reason Charlotte doesn’t read like a debut novel at all, but rather the confident and deftly assembled result of a practised hand. I’ve been waiting impatiently for this lockdown-delayed book to arrive from loot.co.za and jumped on it as soon as it did last week. A full five-star, read-it-in-a-weekend rating for this one.

In short, you don’t have to be crazy to love Jane Austen, but if you do, you’d be crazy to miss out on Charlotte.

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