What makes an Austen story interesting

‘How do you kill a girl?’ “Medusa’s Ankles” ( published by Picador ) is an excerpt from the new Selected Stories of A.S. Byatt, and is available as an e-book or as a printed collection.

“This Is My Mother’s House,” which first appeared in 1973, tells of an odd relationship among a cadre of marginalines whose mother, intoxicated by fig leaves, retreats into her attic for long periods. Readers can only guess what happens there.

In “The Life-Completing Penetrations,” the most clearly Austen-esque of the short stories, a young girl, licking her fingers, goes to her bed: “It was the night, a girl ever young, beginning to use long slips, when there was a flash of a darkness. Then the room settled down like a perennial clover, drizzled with smoke. The moonlight, coming in through the bottom-lit windows, made the cotton pickers green, stirred the cobwebs, and although she had been wrapped up in these towels in her one-room house the night before, she must not have known the first of it.”

Byatt gained fame as the voice of an alienated English nation of the 1960s, and her not-for-sentimental readers loved her brutal storytelling—but it was surprising and disconcerting to me, especially since a lot of these stories are about growing up in England. (It’s the best I can do to come up with a comparison.)

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Contrary to people’s belief, Austen was born in London in 1775, which gives her, at least in spirit, a kind of “Where’dya Go, Bernadette?” edge. But she also seems more like Erma Bombeck. And always, as always, there is something from the Strand—as though the British discovered Brontës and tramped back through the South to buy up more volume.

Copyright F+W Media Inc. 2013.

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