THE FRIENDLY JANE AUSTEN
By Natalie Tyler
299 pages, $26.95
As a famous headline in Rolling Stone magazine once said about rock singer Jim Morrison: "He's hot, he's sexy . . . and he's dead."
So, too, Jane Austen -- she of the prim bonnets, the mild drawing-room repartee, the tiny collection of six novels.
The 18th century British spinster is an unlikely pop-culture icon in the age of Limp Bizkit and Jennifer Lopez, but an icon she surely is.
Some say her popularity is due to our postmodern craving for order and civility in the age of chaos. Some think it's because her characters -- from the devastating Mr. Darcy to the irksome Mrs. Bates -- have a universal appeal. I'm inclined to credit her distinctive literary voice: that wry, knowing tone that pervades Austen's every sentence. That was her genius; and, when it comes to transcending time, a little genius goes a long way.
Just how popular is Jane Austen at the turn of the millennium? Consider:
Five of her six novels have been made into major films in recent years, starring high-class, high-octane actors such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Emma Thompson. (The newest Austen movie, "Mansfield Park," opened in Buffalo on Christmas Day.) All that remains for Hollywood of Austen's regrettably small oeuvre is "Northanger Abbey," the slightest of her novels; but in this era of Austen mania, anything is possible.
Austen is a star not only of the silver screen, but also of the computer screen. Even the most cursory Internet search turns up more than 3,000 Austen articles and 58 Austen web sites.
The Jane Austen Society of North America -- an organization that should never be confused with the likes of the Nine Inch Nails fan club -- has seen its membership double in the past five years.
In short, as we enter the 21st century, Jane Austen is an industry.
Now, just when it's needed most, comes the industry handbook.
"The Friendly Jane Austen" is a breezily written, amusing and informative stroll through Austen's life and work. It's about one part biography to five parts what might loosely be called literary criticism -- but not the kind of heavy-duty stuff that keeps graduate students up all night in the library.
No, this is a light-hearted mixture of quotations, interviews with Austen experts, quizzes, filmography, correspondence and sundry digressions.
Typical is a quiz called "Who Said That? Great Lines From Jane Austen's Novels."
For example: "A woman of seven and twenty can never hope to inspire affection again." The bona fide member of the Austen cult will know instantly that was the opinion of teen-aged romantic, Marianne Dashwood, in "Sense and Sensibility." And the cult member will recognize the prissy hypochondriac, Mr. Woodhouse, in "Emma," as the one who reluctantly allowed that, "An egg boiled very soft is not unwholesome."
But even the most careful reader may not know, for example, that the famous "white soup" served at balls in the Austen novels was a concoction nothing like New England clam chowder. It was, we learn, a artery-clogging blend of cream, egg yolks, meat stock, almonds -- and plenty of sweetened liquor.
And we learn, too, that Austen, though she never married, had a respectable number of suitors. The last one -- perhaps the only man the author ever loved -- died suddenly and mysteriously before the romance progressed to an engagement.
In all, "The Friendly Jane Austen" is just the thing for, say, a former English major who doesn't take the idea of literature too seriously -- someone who reads as much Scott Turow as Anthony Trollope. It may even lead the appreciative reader to other books in the series: "The Friendly Charles Dickens" and "The Friendly Shakespeare."
For the true fan, "The Friendly Jane Austen" is a blissful wallow in the joys of Austen trivia. For the neophyte, it's a way to start discovering what all the fuss is about.