Friday, October 5, 2012

Jane, Libby and Me by Anne Holly

Recently, I just got around to watching the 2007 movie, The Jane Austen Book Club. Yes, I know I’m late to the party, but this is what having a small child will do to you. Around here, Bob the Builder tends to shoulder out the more adult fare.

I was of two minds when selecting this film. I am a great Jane Austen fan, and like many romance writers I consider her an icon. Yet, because of that love for Ms. Austen, I am also reluctant about pop cultural retellings and refurbishments. But, when you need a movie, and you’re looking in the bargain bin, sometimes you have to take a chance. And sometimes, you get lucky!

The Jane Austen Book Club, based on the 2004 bestseller by Karen Joy Fowler, features five women and one man who get together to read all six of Austen’s canonical works. The movie spans the six months they spend, with each section of the movie covering the month leading up to their meeting, wherein each finds the truth of Austen in their own lives, each in their own way according to their character and situation.

Aside from being fairly predictable, this movie worked for me as a testament to exactly why I love Austen – she can be all things to all people, and her novels have withstood the tests of time brilliantly.

Most writers, myself included, could never dream of being as universal and portable as Austen.

Yet, as a writer of romance, I flatter myself to say I am of her tradition. The genre of romance is itself rather portable. While many critics might titter about bodices being ripped and alphamale misogyny, of flights of fancy and losing one’s head, the actual books are so much more. For me, they are humanity. The books I love tell of the desire for, and fear of, connections with other humans. At its heights, romance is a genre of the human condition, and I have loved every single one of my characters for the bravery they have shown in taking their chances.

But real people have more at stake than their hearts when they take a chance on love.

The reason this film spoke to me, and the reason why many an Austen homage has not, is because this movie picked up so wonderfully on Austen’s major preoccupation with the function and consequences of her genre. That is, the concern, even dread, that romances can lead to the valuation of foolhardy passionate whims over the long term concerns of loyalty, community, devotion. That they might make us seek handsome faces and charming manners over longer lasting gifts, such as respect, honour and peaceful coexistence. Austen, better than most writers, understood that the true match made in heaven is one that results in a magical combination of all these things – basically, romance wedded with responsibility. Too often, people forget the sanity Austen brings to the table, and paint her books as fancy instead of realism.

For a single gal, Austen had a terrific understanding of the work that goes into love, regardless of the hearts and flowers tacked onto it by others.

I have made romance my focus, not only as a writer of fiction, but academically. One of my interests in cultural studies is the development of the myth of romance, particularly how people talk about passion and freedom in relation to loyalty and fidelity, and how they’ve been portrayed as somehow antithetical in recent “Follow Your Bliss” generations. In my books, I try to follow Austen’s example and bridge the divide between desire and partnership, things that often seem contradictory in pop culture these days.

Not surprisingly, my genre study has made it into my fiction. In my recent novel, Textbook Romance, wherein I explore the meaning of romance, my heroine Libby is a scholar who works to debunk the myths of love. For Libby, chasing after love is a fool’s errand, yet we are convinced by novels and movies that true love is forever violins. Libby’s work is about exposing the things that we think will make us happy, but merely bring heartache. She knows this from personal experience, and she’s determined not to make the same mistake again. Until, of course, she meets Seth, a romantic who is just as determined to change her mind about love. Yet, both have responsibilities that need to be respected.

Libby and I have a lot in common. Not because I have a Seth, sadly, but because she and I both think a lot about this idea of romance, and the impact it has. Also, like me, Libby swings back and forth between her Real Life and her Secret Life. You see, Libby also writes romance novels under a pen name! And, like me, she worries about what messages she sends. Like me, all of her work is about trying to understand this human condition.

For Libby, this is an ongoing quandary until she learns to let go of her fears. For me, combining honest courage with devotion, and, yes, with passion, makes me feel more optimistic about romance. I also make sure that my stories follow the Darcies home, in a manner of speaking. I like to take the couples past their romantic haze into true, human dilemmas that come along with coupling in the real world.

So, while I don’t compare myself to Austen, I love being part of her legacy, not writing romantic fantasies that remain unaware of responsibilities and common sense, but about the human need for a connection that works. Many stories valorize fearless pursuit of attraction, consequences be damned. But, when you think about it, acknowledging the troubles that potential lovers face makes their leaps of faith that much more courageous.

And, for me, at its best a romance is a tale of this courage.

So, what lessons have you learned from Jane?

An Excerpt from Textbook Romance:

Why doesn’t he call? The thought kept creeping into Libby’s thoughts off and on all day since she’d left that awkward voicemail for Seth. Why doesn’t he call me back? Had she been too frazzled? Not clear enough? Or was it just too little, too late? Oh mercy, she thought with a gasp – perhaps he thought she was just drunk!

Why doesn’t he call?

It was a pathetic preoccupation, she told herself sternly. She hadn’t even obsessed over getting calls from boys she liked as a teenager, and she was certainly too old for that now.

This lecture wasn’t strong enough to keep her from practically lunging at her cell phone every time it rang, though. So far, there’d been one call from Debbie, one from her old college roommate Julie, and one drunken wrong number.

Why doesn’t he call?

She was afraid she’d start whining and downing ice cream soon, at the rate she was going.

After Charlie had conked out just a half hour shy of the New Year the night before, Libby had thumbed through her mother’s meager book collection. Passing over the murder mysteries and agony melodramas, she placed a finger on a familiar book spine: Blinded by Love: How Popular Culture has Created and Sold Romance by Liberty Sullivan. She remembered sending the book to her mother out of the box of advance copies from the publisher. She had no idea whether her mother had ever read it, but she was touched to see it displayed on the shelf in such a prominent place. She’d curled up in a ratty recliner to read the words her younger self had so smugly sent out into the universe from her ivory tower:

“The trick of popular culture’s construction of love and romance is that it seems so natural to us that co-habitation should be based on passion rather than on the logical decision to mate for life. So natural that the notion that this hasn’t always been the case, or that there are other equally valid foundations upon which to build a pairbonding relationship, inspires confused stares from those of us educated at the feet of Hollywood and romantic literature.”

The next day, she was still pondering what she’d read. Libby still believed the things she had written in her book. Love at first sight, with all those fluttering hormones, wasn’t always the key to relationship success, and she still believed that books and movies promoting impulsive, selfish romantic decisions were foolhardy. But thinking about what Debbie had told her, she could see now that she hadn’t realized the full message behind what she had written. Wasn’t it possible that love at first sight could become something deeper? Relationships shouldn’t be built on lust alone, certainly, but, when mixed with the more eternal qualities of friendship and partnership, there was no reason why love and desire should be excluded from marriage altogether. One simply had to find all of these things wrapped up in a single person.

And now, perhaps too late, she was realizing that Seth might be that person for her.

Why doesn’t he call?

“Dammit,” she muttered as she checked her empty voicemail for the twelfth time that day. She refused to go so far as to call him again, but the silence of her cell was starting to deafen her.

“He’ll call,” her mother reassured her with a flip of a hand.

“He would’ve by now.”

Just then the chirp of her phone cut off her pessimism, and her mother shot her a smug look of victory. “It’s him!” Libby mouthed and dashed to the nearest bathroom for some privacy, nearly dancing like a schoolgirl.

“Hi!” she gasped into the phone, barely able to catch her breath.

“Hi,” Seth greeted her. “Am I calling at a bad time?”

“No! Not at all!” Libby knew her voice was a bit too loud, and she tried to calm herself down. She was just so relieved that he’d called. As long as they could talk, it wasn’t all over.

“It’s just, you sound out of breath.”

“Yeah, I was just…” Libby shook her head, reminding herself she was a grown woman. “Never mind. I’m not busy.”

To learn more about the book, check out its website at:

Anne Holly is a Canadian writer, mother and teacher, who currently lives in Ontario. She’s the author of two contemporary romance novels and numerous short works, and is working on two historical pieces at the moment. You can find her on Facebook, GoodReads, Twitter, and her blog, or check out her books on Amazon, B&N, and elsewhere.



  1. Hi Anne, thanks for joining us today. I love your understanding of Austen--I really enjoy her books, especially Northanger Abbey. I may have to reread it! Adding Textbook Romance to my TBR pile.

  2. Have you read the novel based o the Brontes life, "Romancing the Brontes?" Wonderful book.

  3. Welcome to HWH, Anne - and many thanks for your fascinating post. I think one of the reasons modern romances had a bad rap (and still has, in some people's minds) is that at one time it did tend to be 'lust at first sight' with nothing more than physical attraction. Now, happily, romance means so much more than that, and delves into the more lasting qualities that keep the romance alive.

  4. It's not just lust on first sight, which I'm sure can be fun at times, that has bothered me in romance, but a false "love conquers all" position. I want (need) to know that the real problems are resolved, and if they aren't, I lose interest. On the other hand, if the problems aren't significant enough, I also lose interest because it lacks conflict. It's a difficult balance, which is why I admire some contemporary novels lavishly, and others disappoint me. A book either has to see it through or stick with HFN instead of HEA (IMHO).

    Thanks for having me, HWH! I'm proctoring some midterms at the moment, so it's a pleasure to have something fun to check! :D

  5. Hi Sandra- I haven't gotten around to that one yet, but I want to. Thanks for the rec!

  6. Hi Anne,

    Sorry I'm so late chiming in. Thanks for joining us at Heroines with Hearts! Loved the excerpt.