Saturday, January 30, 2010

Bit of a Rant Regarding Mark Twain and Jane Austen

Earlier this week, Vic of Jane Austen Today quoted a Times Online review of Emma 2009 from last October by A.A. Gill, in which this gentleman (not sure that is the correct term) says some rather scathing things about our dear, beloved Jane:
Last week in this newspaper, I read that Mark Twain had said if he knew where Jane Austen was buried, he’d dig her up and beat in her skull with her own femur. My sentiments entirely. The world can be, and indeed should be, split between those for Jane and those for Twain.
Upon reading this, my first thought was, "Who is to say that fans of Mark Twain cannot be fans of Jane Austen?" I greatly enjoy Twain, though I am certainly not obsessed with his work to the degree I am with Austen's. Why must admirers of an author agree with all that said author had to say? Just because Twain, or Charlotte Bronte for that matter, didn't care for Austen, are their tastes to dictate what others enjoy? Certainly not. What would possess a writer to record such an inane proposal?

I am house/dog sitting for my parents this week, providing me with the novel and dubious luxury of not just a television, but digital cable. I woke up this morning to a TMC broadcast of The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944), a film I had never seen before but really enjoyed (once I overcame the extremely dated and offensive characterizations of African-Americans). An extremely moving portrayal of the great humorist, the movie reminded me of the great joy his work imparts to the reader. Known for his wit, cynicism, and hyperbole, I must ask if Twain really despised Austen as much as he professed. He is known, after all, to have read her books repeatedly and, based upon his character, it seems quite believable that he derided Austen in hopes of wrangling his audience.

Let's examine some of what the man had to say about Austen, beginning with this quote Mr. Gill refers to:
I haven't any right to criticise books, and I don't do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can't conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Everytime I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.

- Letter to Joseph Twichell, 13 September 1898
So he wants to criticize Austen, but somehow just can't manage to? I take this as an admission of not actually hating her. Could this mad frenzy be the result of an internal conflict - did he want to hate her but just couldn't quite manage it? Some ten years ago, The Virginia Quarterly Review published a fascinating essay entitled "A Barkeeper Entering the Kingdom of Heaven": Did Mark Twain Really Hate Jane Austen? in which Emily Auerbach makes the argument that Twain was really closeted Austenite by exploring one of these unfinished criticisms of Austen. She says:
Twain obviously enjoyed taking verbal pot shots at "classic" authors. In his famous essay "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," Twain lambasted Cooper for scoring "114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115" and committing "a crime against the language" through his stilted diction and sentimentalized characterizations. Perhaps Twain planned a similar essay to pillory the much-praised Jane Austen: an incomplete and unpublished fragment called "Jane Austen" is now housed in the Mark Twain papers at the University of California-Berkeley Library. Why might Twain have become uncomfortable with a vitriolic attack on the "impossible Jane Austin"? Could it be that he found too much common ground?
It is very hard to imagine that Twain would not agree wholeheartedly with Austen's famous statement, from a letter to her niece, Fanny Knight, "Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked ...", but as her letters were not published until well after his death, it is doubtful he had the benefit of wholehearted agreement on this point. Still, is it possible that someone with his wry sense of humor could not see through the morality of Austen, which he professed to despise, and perceive the satire behind it? In fact this seems to be exactly what he is hinting at in this fragment of an essay analyzed by Auerbach:
Whenever I take up "Pride and Prejudice" or "Sense and Sensibility," I feel like a barkeeper entering the Kingdom of Heaven. I mean, I feel as he would probably feel, would almost certainly feel. I am quite sure I know what his sensations would be -- and his private comments. He would be certain to curl his lip, as those ultra-good Presbyterians went filing self-complacently along. ...

- from "Jane Austen", 1909
It is the images of perfection that irritate him and, as all careful reader's of Austen know, her characters are never so perfect as they might, on the surface, appear.

This is exactly what Gill doesn't get. It pains me to print this, but let's look at what he goes on to say about Emma:
There is nobody to like. There is nobody you could even bear. The eponymous heroine is the most worthlessly loathsome in all fiction. She is manipulative, vain, selfish, arch, shallow, insensitive, capricious and a bully. Her only mitigating feature is a vaunting snobbery so absurd and overweening, so hopelessly eugenic, that it could only be a medical condition. It’s not even that she can claim to be naive or misunderstood or well meaning. She’s a knowing, arrogant little bitch, and we’re supposed to watch and care about her until she reaches a wholly undeserved happy ending and marries that wet bloke who argues with her all the time, as if you hadn’t already guessed. If you hadn’t already guessed, then I’ve just given you a reason to go and do something useful instead. Nobody in this confection of simpering is likeable or forgivable, because none of them has the guts to hack Emma’s leg off and beat her brains out with the bloody stump.
Like the most seasoned Washington politicians, Mr. Gill takes a quote out of context, spins it in an outrageous direction, and produces something completely inconsistent with the original intent. I have to imagine that his description of Emma would have left Mr. Twain aching to read the book.

Twain also said:
Jane Austen? Why I go so far as to say that any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book.

- quoted in Remembered Yesterdays, Robert Underwood Johnson
Jane Austen's books, too, are absent from this library. Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn't a book in it.

- Following the Equator
Yet he obviously read and reread at least Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, making it hard to believe these novels were not a part of his personal library. It seems there is far more common ground between the two authors than haters of Austen would like to admit. Like Elizabeth Bennet, it Twain was apt to "find great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact [were] not [his] own."

Twain also said:

Friday, January 29, 2010

Reflections on Emma: "Poor Little Miss Smith"

I have always found it fascinating that Austen doesn't provide anything but the vaguest physical descriptions of her heroines, allowing us the freedom to engage in this fascinating debate over whether Emma should be depicted as a blonde or a brunette. Actually, we know a lot more about Emma's appearance than any of the other heroines, thanks to Mrs. Weston's description:
"Such an eye!—the true hazle eye—and so brilliant! regular features, open countenance, with a complexion! oh! what a bloom of full health, and such a pretty height and size; such a firm and upright figure! There is health, not merely in her bloom, but in her air, her head, her glance. One hears sometimes of a child being 'the picture of health;' now, Emma always gives me the idea of being the complete picture of grown-up health. She is loveliness itself. Mr. Knightley, is not she?"
Still, this only gives us an idea of her appearance; other than her eye color, we are free to imagine Emma as we will. This is why it is so striking that Harriet Smith's appearance is described in rather precise detail:
She was a very pretty girl, and her beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma particularly admired. She was short, plump, and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features, and a look of great sweetness, and, before the end of the evening, Emma was as much pleased with her manners as her person, and quite determined to continue the acquaintance.
Of course, as Harriet has little to recommend her other than her appearance (unlike Austen's heroines who are defined by their personalities), her physicality takes on a heightened importance.

Louise Dylan cannot exactly be described as plump, but other than her figure she fits the description fairly well. Unfortunately, her portrayal of Harriet is that of an even bigger dimwit than she appears in the text. The scene in which she first dines at Hartfield is, frankly, embarrassing. The following exchange takes place when Mr. Elton enters the dinning room after all the other guest are already seated:
Mr. Elton: "Excuse me Miss Woodhouse. I have been delayed in the village on the errand of one whose business I hold in only just higher regard than yours."

Harriet: "On whose business?"

Mrs. Goddard (sotto voce): "The Almighty's."

Harriet: "God's? Oh, of course. God's business. Just a little more regard than Miss Woodhouse. Yes I see. How very civil.
And then Emma has to demonstrative for Harriet how to correctly use her spoon. Certainly table manners would have been included in Mrs. Goddard's curriculum, safely taught without any danger of turning her pupils into "prodigies". This would also have included instruction on not speaking out of turn, especially without an introduction, across the dinner table, as Harriet is here depicted doing. Also recall that Emma was "as much pleased with her manners as her person." Once again, the amount of license the directors took with the text stands as my biggest impediment to fully enjoying this adaptation.

Harriet Smith is one of the most victimized characters in all of Austen: Emma toys with her emotions like she is a doll, the Eltons go out of their way to snub her, and she is even besieged by Gypsys. In the new film, she is forced into even greater suffering by the extreme ridiculousness of the pose she is forced to hold while Emma takes her likeness (Ms. Dylan should be given credit for the incredible dexterity she displays when secreting away Mr. Elton's abandoned pencil while holding that impossible vase above her head). My point is that there is absolutely nothing threatening about Harriet Smith - she is all innocent complaisance - which is what makes Emma's insecurities so dramatic when she begins to perceive her as a menace. That the haughty Miss Woodhouse, safely ensconced at the pinnacle of Highbury society, should consider Miss Smith, grasping at the rungs of gentility, a rival perfectly demonstrates how effectively humbled Emma has become by the end of the book. Earlier she unthinkingly swats Mr. Knightly with the words: "Were you, yourself, ever to marry, she is the very woman for you." When forced to consider the realities of such an arrangement, it becomes clear just how hasty Emma had spoken:
Mr. Knightley and Harriet Smith!--It was a union to distance every wonder of the kind.--The attachment of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax became commonplace, threadbare, stale in the comparison, exciting no surprize, presenting no disparity, affording nothing to be said or thought.--Mr. Knightley and Harriet Smith!--Such an elevation on her side! Such a debasement on his! It was horrible to Emma to think how it must sink him in the general opinion, to foresee the smiles, the sneers, the merriment it would prompt at his expense; the mortification and disdain of his brother, the thousand inconveniences to himself.--Could it be?--No; it was impossible. And yet it was far, very far, from impossible.
Wrapping up these meandering thoughts, my mind turns to the cinematic depiction of Harriet that most emphasizes her heightened sense of her own worth, that makes the most of the lines:
How Harriet could ever have had the presumption to raise her thoughts to Mr. Knightley!--How she could dare to fancy herself the chosen of such a man till actually assured of it!--But Harriet was less humble, had fewer scruples than formerly.--Her inferiority, whether of mind or situation, seemed little felt.
This distinction belongs to the recently deceased Brittany Murphy, who played Tai in the modern adaptation of Emma from 1995, Clueless. Regardless of your feelings for this film (some people think it's the best Emma ever while others consider it a travesty), Brittany Murphy was a talented actress who met a tragic death, the result of her own capitulation to the outrageous physical expectations our society has for women. Like Harriet, she would have been happiest being who she was born to be - the "short, plump" brunette with "a great look of sweetness" that I first became entranced with in films like The Devil's Arithmetic and Drop Dead Gorgeous. She was only a year older than I am, on the cusp of what is proving to be the most exciting phase of life. She will be sorely missed.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Mercy's Embrace: So Lively A Chase by Laura Hile

Oh when will The Lady Must Decide be available?!? I never dreamed I would be so desperate to learn Elizabeth Elliot's fate, but as Book Two of the Mercy's Embrace series by Laura Hile ended on a total cliffhanger, it's highly likely that this question will dominate my mind until I finally have the satisfaction of holding the book in my anxious little hands.

As mentioned in my review of Book One, So Rough A Course, I was concerned that Book Two, So Lively A Chase, wouldn't live up to my expectations. While I wasn't quite as entranced with this book as I was with the first, I think that can mostly be attributed to my very high expectations. I certainly was not disappointed. My only complaint is that as I read both of these books in less than an afternoon, it seems rather unfair to have split the story into three volumes (especially as they only number about 200 pages each and sport the outrageous price tag $14.50 a pop). While such a scheme undoubtedly will generate more money for Ms. Hile, it has left me in the rather uncomfortable position of forking out nearly $45 (plus shipping) for a single days worth of reading material. Oh well. As she has me hooked, I have little choice but to submit to this outrageous cost.

In this book Elizabeth Elliot is no longer the frivolous, carefree creature Austen created but a lady facing the most difficult trials of her life - her independence infringed upon, her debts overwhelming, and her self-identity under severe strain. While she suffers and Admiral McGillvary, the hero of our tale, works to assist her while maintaining a false identity (contrived in Book One), Sir Walter and Lady Russell, in an attempt to extricate the gentleman from his increasingly impecunious situation, embark on an outrageous adventure. Mr. Elliot continues to connive, Charles and Mary Musgrove approach a dangerous dilemma in their relationship, and poor Anne and Wentworth seem destined to be caught in the middle of all this Elliot family drama.

The funniest moment in this volume is supplied by Sir Walter. When I first read this passage I was rather disturbed by the implications, but upon reading the footnote (transcribed below) I laughed as hard as I have at any book in quite sometime, possibly years:
Sir Walter continued to talk. "The face is the first to show the effects of age-it grows lank and wrinkled. The neck succumbs next and then the breast and arms. You might not realize this, but I have read extensively on the subject," he explained. "It is known as the Deficiency of the Fluids. It appears first in the highest parts. But the lowest part," he said more brightly, "that is to say, those below the waist, continue as plump and fresh as ever! Indeed, in those areas it is quite impossible to tell a young woman from an old one!"

Note: Sir Walter is indebted to Benjamin Franklin for his theory regarding the Deficiency of the Fluids (Advise on the Choice of a Mistress, 1745).
From everything I have heard about Benjamin Franklin, he would have known! This is about as raunchy as I ever intend to be on this blog and I apologize if I have offended anyone's sensibilities. Be assured that the topic of the above quote is not demonstrative of the content in the rest of these books, thus far. However, it is hilarious, is it not?

If a kind reader out there has any information regarding the release of Book Three, I would be very grateful if you would share it. In the meantime, I'm tempted to reread the first two volumes again. Well done Ms. Hile!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Reflections on Emma: Frank Chruchill

Just a quick post. Episode one is behind us and I have spent the morning reading feedback. I am sorry to learn that Rupert Evans as Frank Churchill is not to the majority's liking. The most consistent criticism I've read regards his appearance - short, pug-nosed, not dashing enough. I must come to the man's defense.

I think Mr. Evans is absolutely adorable. As Frank Churchill he is playful and charming, in my opinion. In fact, I find him far more handsome then Johnny Lee Miller (I imagine I'll get some feedback on that comment). The problem with the role in this new adaptation isn't the actor but the screenplay. In particular, this completely contrived scene in which he first meets Emma and Harriet. In this one moment, Frank Churchill becomes a far more despicable character than he ever appears in Austen, for the implication is that he has been to Highbury in order to see Jane Fairfax without paying the long overdue visit to the newly married Mr. and Mrs. Weston.

Frank Churchill is often classified amongst the rogues in Austen, a characterization I totally disagree with. He's immature and foolish, like Emma herself, but he doesn't set out to hurt anyone and certainly doesn't have the sinister nature of Wickham, Willoughby, or Henry Crawford. He may disseminate (and even enjoy it) but he is not a scoundrel. Emma forgives him and so must we all. If Austen did not like Frank Churchill, she never would have provided him with such a felicitous ending. Like Emma, he acknowledges his faults, is pardoned, and moves on. It would behoove readers to do the same.

"I have to thank you, Miss Woodhouse, for a very kind forgiving message in one of Mrs. Weston's letters. I hope time has not made you less willing to pardon. I hope you do not retract what you then said."

"No, indeed," cried Emma, most happy to begin, "not in the least. I am particularly glad to see and shake hands with you--and to give you joy in person."

He thanked her with all his heart, and continued some time to speak with serious feeling of his gratitude and happiness.

"Is not she looking well?" said he, turning his eyes towards Jane. "Better than she ever used to do?--You see how my father and Mrs. Weston doat upon her."

But his spirits were soon rising again, and with laughing eyes, after mentioning the expected return of the Campbells, he named the name of Dixon.--Emma blushed, and forbade its being pronounced in her hearing.

"I can never think of it," she cried, "without extreme shame."

"The shame," he answered, "is all mine, or ought to be. But is it possible that you had no suspicion?--I mean of late. Early, I know, you had none."

"I never had the smallest, I assure you."

"That appears quite wonderful. I was once very near--and I wish I had--it would have been better. But though I was always doing wrong things, they were very bad wrong things, and such as did me no service.--It would have been a much better transgression had I broken the bond of secrecy and told you every thing."

"It is not now worth a regret," said Emma.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Longbourn's Unexpected Matchmaker by Emma Hox

Longbourn's Unexpected Matchmaker is a "What If?" tale whose premise is remarkably like my own, in that Darcy and Elizabeth get off to a much more promising start, dancing together at the Meryton Assembly. Here is where the similarity ends (other than the fact that both stories, of course, end in the couple finding happiness together). Emma Hox uses two characters to help facilitate their understanding: Colonel Fitzwilliam, who accompanies Darcy and Bingley to Netherfield, and Mr. Bennet, the "unexpected matchmaker" of the tale.

The story is really one of redemption for Mr. Bennet who, in Pride and Prejudice, though a loving father, neglects his family as a means of securing his own, rather selfish, comfort. Some "What If?" stories (Chance Encounters by Linda Wells most notably) expand on his shortcomings almost to the point of villanizing the man, something I always perceived as a bit unjust. There is nothing in the original text to suggest that Mr. Bennet is malicious, just indolent. Ms. Hox makes clear her intentions for the novel on the back cover of the book, "Emma has for a long time been disappointed in Mr. Bennet. Longbourn's Unexpected Matchmaker gives Mr. Bennet the personality Emma always envisioned the witty father of Elizabeth Bennet should truly have."

The concept is fun and the book is a fast, entertaining read, but I must admit to being rather frustrated with this story. There is a lack of adherence to the details of the original text that I find aggravating. Some of this might be editing mistakes, of which there are a multitude, like calling Mrs. Hurst Louise instead of Louisa, but they nonetheless interfered with my enjoyment of the story. Also, while Ms. Hox goes to great lengths to redeem Mr. Bennet, through rather far fetched means, she punishes Lady Catherine in a manner I find completely unbelievable and rather outrageous. And I ask you, fellow Austenites, would Mr. Darcy ever use the expression "amen to that, brother"? He does so twice in the course of this text.

Despite my qualms, I must say I highly approve of Ms. Hox's tasteful handling of Darcy and Lizzy's relationship, by which I mean there are no invasions of their privacy: no explicit depictions of amorous encounters. I also found her characterization of Elizabeth as a tree climber rather fascinating - certainly an unorthodox pastime for a lady of the time but rather charming nonetheless. Georgiana is far more daring and adventurous than usually portrayed, which is fun, and Anne De Bourgh is given the opportunity to shine in a manner usually denied her. If you are, like me, addicted to the "What If?" concept, then this book is an appropriate addition to your JAFF library. On the other hand, if you are an Austen purist, I think this novel will likely be the source of more spleen than joy.

Reflections on Emma: Mr. Elton

Tonight's the night that the fun begins and one of the things I am most anticipating is the joy of watching the very handsome Blake Ritson (who we remember in the role of Edmund Bertram, a very different clergyman, in the 2007 ITV production of Mansfield Park) play Mr. Elton. In my opinion, his is the outstanding performance of the cast, capturing Mr. Elton in a manner no one else yet has. He's a tricky character to portray, much more difficult than his Pride and Prejudice counterpart, Mr. Collins, who only has to be a buffoon. Mr. Elton is far more complex. At his core, he and Mr. Collins are very much alike: both are clergyman, both think rather too highly of themselves, and both are overly gallant to the ladies. They share the status of rejected suitor and respond with resentment, rushing off to sooth their indignation through marriage to the next available female. But Mr. Elton must first appear perfectly amiable, only slowly revealing his absurdities until, upon marriage, he fully exposes his lack of gentility and ill-nature. Blake Ritson does this phenomenally.

When Emma first describes Mr. Elton, it is in terms that he would heartily agree with ("There is nobody in Highbury who deserves him"), and she goes on to endow him with a multitude of characteristics that later prove almost entirely imaginary:
Mr. Elton's situation was most suitable, quite the gentleman himself, and without low connexions; at the same time, not of any family that could fairly object to the doubtful birth of Harriet. He had a comfortable home for her, and Emma imagined a very sufficient income; for though the vicarage of Highbury was not large, he was known to have some independent property; and she thought very highly of him as a good-humoured, well-meaning, respectable young man, without any deficiency of useful understanding or knowledge of the world.
Very soon, however, the careful reader will observe the inanity of Mr. Elton's compliments, as even Emma begins to notice his shortcomings, though she is still inclined to indulge him for Harriet's sake and is totally blinded to his real purpose:
"This man is almost too gallant to be in love," thought Emma. "I should say so, but that I suppose there may be a hundred different ways of being in love. He is an excellent young man, and will suit Harriet exactly; it will be an 'Exactly so,' as he says himself; but he does sigh and languish, and study for compliments rather more than I could endure as a principal. I come in for a pretty good share as a second. But it is his gratitude on Harriet's account."
It is Mr. John Knightley who first exposes the man for who he really is: a flatterer of the worst kind, as imbecilic as Mr. Collins, "suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions" with the aim of ingratiating himself with the "fairer" sex:
"I never in my life saw a man more intent on being agreeable than Mr. Elton. It is downright labour to him where ladies are concerned. With men he can be rational and unaffected, but when he has ladies to please, every feature works."
Not long after this assessment, Emma is forced to acknowledge the justice of this assessment. Following Mr. Elton's ill-fated proposal, she becomes fully cognizant of his true character, though the depths of his depravity have yet to be revealed:

Certainly she had often, especially of late, thought his manners to herself unnecessarily gallant; but it had passed as his way, as a mere error of judgment, of knowledge, of taste, as one proof among others that he had not always lived in the best society, that with all the gentleness of his address, true elegance was sometimes wanting; but, till this very day, she had never, for an instant, suspected it to mean any thing but grateful respect to her as Harriet's friend.

To Mr. John Knightley was she indebted for her first idea on the subject, for the first start of its possibility. There was no denying that those brothers had penetration. She remembered what Mr. Knightley had once said to her about Mr. Elton, the caution he had given, the conviction he had professed that Mr. Elton would never marry indiscreetly; and blushed to think how much truer a knowledge of his character had been there shewn than any she had reached herself. It was dreadfully mortifying; but Mr. Elton was proving himself, in many respects, the very reverse of what she had meant and believed him; proud, assuming, conceited; very full of his own claims, and little concerned about the feelings of others.

But it is not until he marries his lovely wife (and she really is lovely in this version, to look at I mean, portrayed by Christina Cole, the sexual ambiguous Miss Bingley of Lost in Austen) that Mr. Elton fully exposes his ungentlemanly qualities, establishing the couple as one of the most hateful in all of Austen. The great authoress revels in exposing character through action and it is Mr. Elton's intentional snub of Harriet - indeed, a snub almost as studied as his former compliments - that allows the people of Highbury, as well as the reader, to truly understand him:

"Escape, however, was not his plan. He came to the part of the room where the sitters-by were collected, spoke to some, and walked about in front of them, as if to shew his liberty, and his resolution of maintaining it. He did not omit being sometimes directly before Miss Smith, or speaking to those who were close to her.--Emma saw it. She was not yet dancing; she was working her way up from the bottom, and had therefore leisure to look around, and by only turning her head a little she saw it all. When she was half-way up the set, the whole group were exactly behind her, and she would no longer allow her eyes to watch; but Mr. Elton was so near, that she heard every syllable of a dialogue which just then took place between him and Mrs. Weston; and she perceived that his wife, who was standing immediately above her, was not only listening also, but even encouraging him by significant glances.--The kind-hearted, gentle Mrs. Weston had left her seat to join him and say, "Do not you dance, Mr. Elton?" to which his prompt reply was, "Most readily, Mrs. Weston, if you will dance with me."

"Me!--oh! no--I would get you a better partner than myself. I am no dancer."

"If Mrs. Gilbert wishes to dance," said he, "I shall have great pleasure, I am sure--for, though beginning to feel myself rather an old married man, and that my dancing days are over, it would give me very great pleasure at any time to stand up with an old friend like Mrs. Gilbert."

"Mrs. Gilbert does not mean to dance, but there is a young lady disengaged whom I should be very glad to see dancing--Miss Smith."

"Miss Smith!--oh!--I had not observed.--You are extremely obliging--and if I were not an old married man.--But my dancing days are over, Mrs. Weston. You will excuse me. Any thing else I should be most happy to do, at your command--but my dancing days are over."

Mrs. Weston said no more; and Emma could imagine with what surprize and mortification she must be returning to her seat. This was Mr. Elton! the amiable, obliging, gentle Mr. Elton.--She looked round for a moment; he had joined Mr. Knightley at a little distance, and was arranging himself for settled conversation, while smiles of high glee passed between him and his wife."

Yes that was Mr. Elton, his colors flying high for all to see - completely devoid of good-nature and composed of nothing but the pettiness of those who delight in tormenting easy targets. This is the transformation, or perhaps it is more appropriate to say slide, that Blake Ritson so accurately portrays.

My favorite scene with him will air tonight, 9:00 on PBS. Emma and Harriet are improving themselves by painting landscapes on the grounds at Hartfield when Mr. Elton arrives. He studies Harriet's work over her shoulder before declaring, with great solemnity and an out stretched finger, "That is a very good tree." Just thinking of the absurdity of the moment (increased by the very deficient nature of said tree) leaves me chuckling. Enjoy it everyone!

Friday, January 22, 2010

"The finest child in the world"

So I planned to write another post about Emma today - either about the role of blunders in the story, Mr. Elton, or Harriet Smith - but instead I have some news that I am most anxious to share with all my Janeite friends. I am pregnant with my first child, due in September. Since I found out I have absolutely no concentration for anything other than babies (even Austen is on the back burner) so you'll have to forgive my flightiness until I finally settle back down into a semi-normal routine. Between the book, the house, and now a baby, my cup is truly running over. What can I do but ransack Austen in search of baby references?

My thoughts turn immediately to Mr. and Mrs. Palmer of Sense and Sensibility and that gentleman's unreasonable attitude to his first-born offspring:

"Mr. Palmer maintained the common, but unfatherly opinion among his sex, of all infants being alike; and though she could plainly perceive, at different times, the most striking resemblance between this baby and every one of his relations on both sides, there was no convincing his father of it; no persuading him to believe that it was not exactly like every other baby of the same age; nor could he even be brought to acknowledge the simple proposition of its being the finest child in the world."

I have great hopes that my husband, who is actually more excited than I am, will be far more natural in his praise of our child as the most perfect amongst its kind. He has had some rather troubling opinions of infants in the past, likening them to little, pink ... best not quote him. As I dare not pollute this forum with such an ugly word, let's just say it's thoroughly uncharitable. I hold to my belief, nonetheless, that once he gazes upon his own child his opinion will forever alter. Besides, I always thought Mr. Palmer said such things just to be provoking and really did delight in his baby (an impression enhanced by Hugh Laurie's portrayal of the character in 1995).

A bit back on the topic of the week, Emma provides far more gratifying images of parenthood. The Westons are equally pleased with their child, and I simple adore this depiction of the lady:
Mrs. Weston, with her baby on her knee, indulging in such reflections as these, was one of the happiest women in the world. If any thing could increase her delight, it was perceiving that the baby would soon have outgrown its first set of caps.
Now this is how it should be. I hope to find in motherhood a kind of joy far surpassing all I have previously experienced. In my own home, with my own child (having also long been in the field of taking care of other people's children), I intend to at least equate, if not surpass, her contentment.

Another lovely picture, certainly one more in keeping with my present circumstances, is that of Emma and Knightley as they dote on their little niece. I love this exchange:

"Tell your aunt, little Emma, that she ought to set you a better example than to be renewing old grievances, and that if she were not wrong before, she is now."

"That's true," she cried—"very true. Little Emma, grow up a better woman than your aunt. Be infinitely cleverer and not half so conceited."

Yes little baby, heed Auntie Emma's words and be better than both she and your mother. This is my earnest hope for the future and I will do my best to make it so.

One last thing - I have no idea what the child will be named if it's a boy, but we long ago decided that we have a girl she will be Eliza, named in honor of two of my favorite characters, Eliza Doolittle and Elizabeth Bennet. And yes, we will call her Lizzy.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Reflections on Emma: Miss Bates

In honor of the US premier of the new Emma mini-series, I have been rereading the book (for what must be the fiftieth time). The great thing about Austen is that there is always something new to discover in her books, even once they become so familiar you can practically recite them. What I noticed as I commenced reading this time is how skillfully Austen introduces Miss Bates - who I consider the most lovable of her comic caricatures. She is first mentioned in the second chapter, although she isn't properly introduced until the third, in this phenomenal passage:
Now, upon his father's marriage, it was very generally proposed, as a most proper attention, that the visit should take place. There was not a dissentient voice on the subject, either when Mrs. Perry drank tea with Mrs. and Miss Bates, or when Mrs. and Miss Bates returned the visit. Now was the time for Mr. Frank Churchill to come among them; and the hope strengthened when it was understood that he had written to his new mother on the occasion. For a few days, every morning visit in Highbury included some mention of the handsome letter Mrs. Weston had received. "I suppose you have heard of the handsome letter Mr. Frank Churchill has written to Mrs. Weston? I understand it was a very handsome letter, indeed. Mr. Woodhouse told me of it. Mr. Woodhouse saw the letter, and he says he never saw such a handsome letter in his life."
Clearly, the speaker is Miss Bates (her style of speech is unmistakable, isn't it?), but here Austen has made her the representative voice of Highbury. It is our introduction to the small confines of Highbury society. The implication is that "every morning visit" includes Miss Bates and indeed, most of what we learn about the other members of Highbury's small society (outside of the Hartfield intimates) is through Miss Bates. She is as essential to the plot of the story as she is to the town - the bringer of news and the voice of the people. Emma may be at the pinnacle of Highbury's social order ("The Woodhouses were first in consequence there.") but it is Miss Bates who is at its core. This is emphasized when she is properly introduced in chapter three:
Miss Bates stood in the very worst predicament in the world for having much of the public favour; and she had no intellectual superiority to make atonement to herself, or frighten those who might hate her into outward respect. She had never boasted either beauty or cleverness. Her youth had passed without distinction, and her middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible. And yet she was a happy woman, and a woman whom no one named without good-will. It was her own universal good-will and contented temper which worked such wonders. She loved every body, was interested in every body's happiness, quicksighted to every body's merits; thought herself a most fortunate creature, and surrounded with blessings in such an excellent mother, and so many good neighbours and friends, and a home that wanted for nothing. The simplicity and cheerfulness of her nature, her contented and grateful spirit, were a recommendation to every body, and a mine of felicity to herself. She was a great talker upon little matters, which exactly suited Mr. Woodhouse, full of trivial communications and harmless gossip.
Everyone likes Miss Bates (except, perhaps, Emma) despite her social position. As our heroine rather callously puts it: "A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls ...." But this is not the life Miss Bates leads. The only one who sees fit to make sport of her is Emma herself during the disastrous trip to Box Hill, and quickly she learns how wrong is her estimation of how that lady should be treated. It could be argued that she is still just such a girl making sport of an old maid, endowed with the cruelty children so innocently inflict. After Box Hill she becomes an adult, sensitive to the needs and cares of others.

I do not share the common hatred of Emma that so many express. Her faults are far too much like my own for me to hold them against her and she learns from her mistakes, the hallmark of an Austenian heroine. But I think this hatred so many feel has a lot to do with Miss Bates. Readers are infuriated with Emma, just like Mr. Knightly, for her cruelty at Box Hill. But Mr. Knightly forgives her, as does Miss Bates, so why can't readers? I'm looking forward to hearing the responses to the new film and seeing if Romola Garai's portrayal doesn't soften this animosity. She feels much more youthful and less self-assured than either Gwyneth Paltrow or Kate Bekinsale did in their performances. Also, Tamsin Greig's Miss Bates is very different than the previous portrayals of this character: less happy-go-lucky and far more pathetic. I'm not sure if this will increase or decrease audience sympathy for Miss Bates. I can see it going either way.

I'm going to leave off with a snippet from one of my favorite scenes with Miss Bates (she gives so many fabulously ridiculous speeches that it is hard to choose the best - for those interested in gaining more sympathy for Emma, try listening to someone read the longer ones out loud). The back and forth between Miss Bates and Mr. Woodhouse is absolutely hilarious, while the moment emphasizes my point about Miss Bates being the voice of Highbury:

"Oh! my dear sir, how are you this morning? My dear Miss Woodhouse--I come quite over-powered. Such a beautiful hind-quarter of pork! You are too bountiful! Have you heard the news? Mr. Elton is going to be married."

Emma had not had time even to think of Mr. Elton, and she was so completely surprized that she could not avoid a little start, and a little blush, at the sound.

"There is my news:--I thought it would interest you," said Mr. Knightley, with a smile which implied a conviction of some part of what had passed between them.

"But where could you hear it?" cried Miss Bates. "Where could you possibly hear it, Mr. Knightley? For it is not five minutes since I received Mrs. Cole's note--no, it cannot be more than five--or at least ten--for I had got my bonnet and spencer on, just ready to come out--I was only gone down to speak to Patty again about the pork--Jane was standing in the passage--were not you, Jane?--for my mother was so afraid that we had not any salting-pan large enough. So I said I would go down and see, and Jane said, 'Shall I go down instead? for I think you have a little cold, and Patty has been washing the kitchen.'--'Oh! my dear,' said I--well, and just then came the note. A Miss Hawkins--that's all I know. A Miss Hawkins of Bath. But, Mr. Knightley, how could you possibly have heard it? for the very moment Mr. Cole told Mrs. Cole of it, she sat down and wrote to me. A Miss Hawkins--"

"I was with Mr. Cole on business an hour and a half ago. He had just read Elton's letter as I was shewn in, and handed it to me directly."

"Well! that is quite--I suppose there never was a piece of news more generally interesting. My dear sir, you really are too bountiful. My mother desires her very best compliments and regards, and a thousand thanks, and says you really quite oppress her."

"We consider our Hartfield pork," replied Mr. Woodhouse--"indeed it certainly is, so very superior to all other pork ..."

Happy Emma watching everybody!

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

I open the musty book and turn the yellowed pages to chapter one. As I commence to read, I experience a simultaneous emergence and decent. Slowly the happy, cloudy layers of Austen that typically clog my brain lift, allowing me a clear view of my fall into a the dark, twisted world of the Brontes. So here I am - wide awake to the cruelty of the world and honestly wanting to crawl back into my Austen dreamland.

So why am I speaking of Anne Bronte on what is clearly an Austen blog anyway? Because I talked myself into to joining the All About the Brontes Challenge on Laura's Reviews, rationalizing the decision by announcing that I will relate all Bronte postings back to Austen (read it here).

I absolutely adored the Bronte's when I first read all of their books in a high school English class devoted to the three ladies. The more tragic and horrifying, the more I gloried in their work. I feel rather differently as an adult: knowing first hand how cruel humans can be to each other, I no longer find anything thrilling about wallowing in such misery. I now have absolutely no patience for a characters like Cathy or Heathcliffe - who, the last time I read Wuthering Heights, seriously tempted me to jump into the novel's pages in order to deliver swift kick in the rear both thoroughly deserve - and fully believe that Mr. Rochester is totally unworthy of Jane's love. So why is that works that enthralled me as a sixteen year old fill me with impatience now? Because like Marianne Dashwood and Katherine Moreland, I have learned the value of regulating my emotions and the dangers of indulging in an excess of sensibility. This is why I have avoided beginning this challenge with Charlotte, in all her blustering passion, instead turning to the far more practical (and sadly overlooked) Anne.

Much has been made of Charlotte's criticism of Austen. In a letter from 1850, she made this famous assessment of her predecessor:
"I have likewise read one of Miss Austen's works, Emma -- read it with interest and with just the degree of admiration which Miss Austen herself would have thought sensible and suitable -- anything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, or heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstrations the authoress would have met with a well bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outré and extravagant. She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well; there is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting: she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress."

For more Charlotte Bronte quotes on Jane Austen, visit
This passage makes the blood of Janeites boil, but I am not here to defend our favorite authoress. Instead I'd like to highlight the fact that Charlotte was equally deprecating of her sister's book, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which she banished to near death by refusing to order a second edition after Anne's death. Here are her words on the subject, also from 1850: "... it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistakeit was too little consonant with the charactertastes and ideas of the gentle, retiring inexperienced writer" (visit A Celebration of Women Writers to read more). Just like Cassandra Austen, Charlotte tried to manipulate her sister's image postmortem. Obviously, she did not feel that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was an appropriate work for her young, unmarried sister to have produced, presumably due to the horrific image of married life there portrayed.

Jane Austen tells stories of courtship, ending with marriage. Anne Bronte takes us past courtship into the harsh realities of the married state in the 19th century, when women were considered the property of their husbands and had little legal recourse to address any wrongs done to them by their "lord and masters", as Mrs. Elton might put it. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall tells the tale of a marriage gone horrifically wrong, a result of the young lady disregarding her own better judgment and the advice of her guardians in order to marry the rake who has secured her affections. In the marriage between Helen Lawrence and Arthur Huntingdon, we see the probable results of the marriage between Lydia and Wickham, or what Marianne might have looked forward to had she married Willoughby. Before leaving for London for her first season, Helen's Aunt tells her what to look for in a proper suitor, anticipating the disaster to come:
"Remember Peter, Helen! Don't boast, but watch. Keep a guard over your eyes and ears as the inlets of your heart, and over your lips as the outlet, lest they betray you in a moment of unwariness. Receive, coldly and dispassionately, every attention, till you have ascertained and duly considered the worth of the aspirant; and let your affections be consequent upon approbation alone. First study; then approve; then love. let your eyes be blind to all external attractions, your ears deaf to all the fascinations of flattery and light discourse. - These are nothing - and worse than nothing - snares and wiles of the tempter, to lure the thoughtless to their own destruction. Principle is the first thing, after all; and next to that, good sense, respectability, and moderate wealth. If you should marry the handsomest, and most accomplished and superficially agreeable man in the world, you little know the misery that would overwhelm you, if, after all, you should find him to be a worthless reprobate, or even an impracticable fool."
This scene reminds me so much of Austen's story Catharine, from her Juvenilia, in which a similarly loving aunt also frets about her niece's fate amongst men:
"Her aunt was most excessively fond of her, and miserable if she saw her a moment out of spirits; Yet she lived in such constant apprehension of her marrying imprudently if she were allowed the opportunity of choosing, and was so dissatisfied with her behavior when she saw her with Young Men, for it was, from her natural disposition remarkably open and unreserved, that though she frequently wished for her Neice's sake, that the Neighborhood were larger, and that She had used herself to mix more with it, yet the recollection of there being young Men in almost every Family in it, always conquered the Wish."
It is highly unlikely that Anne Bronte ever read this unfinished story, but the plot is remarkably similar to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: a young woman is raised by her aunt who warns her of the inconsistencies of men, nonetheless she falls for the first reprobate who seeks to seduce her. We only have the forebodings of this fate in Catharine. Anne Bronte explores this common failing of women to its unhappy conclusion, although she does provide her heroine (eventually) with the appropriate happy ending of finding her true love, the reward for her sufferings.

It seems obvious that Anne, like her sister, had read Austen's published works and in all probability enjoyed them a great deal more. There are several instances in the text in which she seems to echo Austen, at one point even touching on the sedate language of her style of novel, which Charlotte had so little use for: "...I saw too, or rather I felt, that, in spite of herself, 'I was not indifferent to her,' as the novel heroes modestly express it...."This is precisely the kind of language Austen uses. It may not be a direct reference to her work and the sarcastic tone of the line is not exactly flattering to such understated expressions of love, but I feel confident stating that Anne had far more respect for the kind of writing Austen did than her elder sister. Indeed, without Austen as a predecessor, it seems highly unlikely that such a book as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall could have been written.

Much has been made of this story's structure and feminism - very interesting topics, but not what particularly interests me. I enjoyed The Tenant of Wildfell Hall much more than I anticipated and look forward to rereading Agnes Gray. I will search for similar underpinnings of Austen in that book (based on the authoress' experience as a governess) of which Charlotte was far more approving. It is when I take on the works of that formidable lady that I fear this attempt to view the Bronte's through the lens of Austen will prove much more difficult. Next month I think I might jump right into that muddle with The Professor, her earliest adult work but the last published.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Mercy's Embrace: So Rough A Course by Laura Hile

I was very excited when I first learned that there was a series out based on Elizabeth Elliot and immediately procured a copy of Book One. The holidays kept me from immediately devouring it and, forgetting to bring it on vacation, I was unfortunately immersed in another book when we returned. It wasn't until this weekend that I finally plunged through Mercy's Embrace: So Rough a Course by Laura Hile. The verdict? Let me put it this way: it took me a few chapters to get into the story, being initially chagrined by a few plot discrepancies (the kind of things only complete sticklers like myself would notice), but when I realized there were only ten pages remaining, I rushed off to order Book Two, So Lively a Chase, before I finished the first, horrified that it was over already. I was further mortified to learn that I could not yet get Book Three, The Lady Must Decide, which is due out at some unknown point, later this year. How shall I bear the wait?

I find I greatly enjoy stories of redemption for Austen's less likable characters. The authors of these works have a lot of leeway to do as they see fit, not being the prime targets for outraged Austenites (including myself), the great lady's villains not inspiring many advocates. Some of my favorite novels in this style are Lydia Bennet's Story by Jane Odiwe and A Match for Mary Bennet by Eucharista Ward. I have great hopes that Mercy's Embrace, once I have completed the trilogy, will join these ranks.

Elizabeth Elliot is still selfish, snobby, and disdainful in Ms. Hile's hands, but the presence of a great hero transforms her into a playful free spirit. This is Admiral McGillvary - a roguish naval man of perfect pedigree who has met his match in Miss Elliot. He is a positively delightful figure but both his and Miss Elliot's characters' render this book very little like one by Jane Austen and much more like one by Georgette Heyer. Both hero and heroine are bold and audacious, and if their behavior in one scene resembles that of an actress named Sally Hawkins in a certain disastrous 2007 adaptation, it is far more believable in two such characters than in Anne Elliot. I greatly enjoyed their first verbal confrontation:
"You disapprove of the Navy, Miss Elliot?" He sounded amused. "You will find yourself alone in that opinion."

Elizabeth set her teeth. There was no reason to be polite to a vain, impertinent sailor, no matter how handsome he might be. "Oh, no. I admire the Navy prodigiously," she said. "Such an industrious group of men! Bath is filled with officers who have been-how do you say?-thrown ashore? Low-born, dull-witted, podgy, self-important admirals and captains like my sister's husband, who have nothing better to do than loll about, disfiguring the landscape!"

"Disfiguring don't say." He gave a rich chuckle. "And what should be done with the unfortunate freaks, Miss Elliot?"

"How should I know?... Put them on a ship together," she suggested. "Send them back to sea. Let them..." She paused, thinking. What useful thing might such bumbling men accomplish? "Let them catch fish," she said.
So you see, Elizabeth is her own, fully-recognizable self, "still the same handsome Miss Elliot," but upon being thrown into the company of a man most suited to her, depths of her character heretofore unnoticed begin to emerge. By the end of this first volume, she is proven far more than just "the handsome Miss Elliot".

Another fun feature of this book is the inclusion of characters from other Austen novels. Again, Ms. Hile chooses to work with some of the less favored personages at her disposal. Both Caroline Bingley and Mr. Rushworth (accompanied by his mother, of course) are on the scene, the former determined to know all of Elizabeth's secrets and the latter, with an eye for the pretty daughters of Baronets, hoping for much more. They add an edgy dimension to the already rather hectic plot - events in this story race ahead at a furious pace. I should emphasize that while this is a fun book, it is not one that imparts the peaceful atmosphere of an Austen novel. Here intrigue, ambition, and worldliness dominate over integrity and moral rectitude. There is, nonetheless, a lesson to be learned and a heroine to be improved. I predict that Elizabeth's "Elliot pride" will be much diminished by the end of the series, or at least greatly checked, rendering her a far more lovable figure than Jane ever intended.

I highly recommend this book and fervently hope that I will feel similarly after Book Two (having been disappointed before by the second volumes of works published by Wytherngate Press). I will give brief feedback, in the manner of this post, following my readings of the remaining volumes in the series. Once I have read it as a whole, I will review it as such (at least that is my plan at this point). I would love to hear what others thought of this book. Have you read it? If so, what did you think?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Interview with Mary Lydon Simonsen, author of Searching for Pemberley

Before the holidays, I reviewed Searching for Pemberley by Mary Simonsen and announced this, my first author interview, which will now come to fruition with great fanfare (read the review here). I have greatly enjoyed getting to know Ms. Simonsen since I started blogging and following; it is an honor to present this interview with her. Thank you, Mary, for your participation.

1. How did you discover your love of Jane Austen and what inspired you to write a book premised on Pride and Prejudice?

Jane Austen and I just had our 40th Anniversary. We met in my high school English class in 1969 when I was assigned Pride and Prejudice, and I loved it so much that I read all of her other books, one after the other. I chose to write about P&P in Searching for Pemberley because it is one of those stories where a young girl (e.g., me or my main character, Maggie Joyce) wants to be Elizabeth Bennet and meet her Prince Charming. It really is a Cinderella story, and Mrs. Hurst and Caroline Bingley are the stepsisters.

2. Happy Anniversary! Searching for Pemberley, published last year by Sourcebooks, is an expansion of Pemberley Remembered, the book you self-published in 2007. Please tell us more about the development of your relationship with Sourcebooks. Did they contact you or did you submit your work to them?

After seven months of trying to promote Pemberley Remembered, I e-mailed Sourcebooks and asked if I could submit my manuscript. That same day, Deb Werksman, the editor for Sourcebooks for all the Austen tie-ins, called me at home to say that they had read my book, that they had already had an acquisitions meeting on it, and that they wanted to buy the publishing rights. They were looking for my contact information when my e-mail came in. I saw it as a sign that we were supposed to work together.
3. Was the expansion of Pemberley Remembered into Searching for Pemberley suggested by Sourcebooks or were you already planning to expand on the relationship between Maggie Joyce, the heroine of the story, and Michael Crowell? How did you approach this process?

By the time Sourcebooks contacted me, I had already written a sequel, but my editor encouraged me to combine the two stories. The first book ended with Maggie’s love life up in the air, and Deb wanted to “wrap it up.” At first I balked, but she was right, and I’m pleased with the finished product.

Editing two books of about 210,000 words down to 130,000 is basically slash and burn, but Deb wanted me to make all the decisions in the first edit. I did have help in deciding what had to go. Between professional reviews and readers comments, I knew what had worked and what hadn’t. Unfortunately, at least from my point of view, a lot of the history had to go to get the word count down.

4. In Searching for Pemberley, Maggie becomes intimate with the descendants of the Lacey family, your historical counterparts to the Darcys. You create more than 140 years of history for the family: what research influenced the decisions you made concerning the Lacey's fate?

The only reason Austen’s Darcy and the elite of England could live the way they did was because they paid very little in taxes. The burden fell squarely on the shoulders of the poor and middle class, so something had to give. Once the rich had to pay taxes on the true value of their properties, these privileged few were forced to sell off houses, property, artwork, antiques, etc. to pay the tax man. The changes started in the mid 19th Century, but accelerated after World War I because Britain was basically broke after four years of war. The Lacey family would have confronted the same realities.

5. I was particularly struck by the stark juxtaposition between the stately beauty of the world portrayed by Austen, embodied in the image of Pemberley, and your depiction of post-war Britain in Searching for Pemberley. What inspired the choice of this particular time period as the setting for the book?

Because I am a baby boomer, I grew up hearing stories from my parents and all my aunts and uncles about World War II because just about everyone was somehow involved in either fighting the war or working for government agencies that supported the war effort. Because I found their stories so compelling, I became interested in the war and post-war periods. After the French surrender in 1940, Britain truly stood alone against Nazi Germany. In reading about that time, I came to know of the conditions under which the British lived during the war and in the years immediately after the war, and this is my way of honoring their sacrifices.

7. I was enthralled with your description of Montclair, the Pemberley of the story. Please tell us a bit about the process of creating the home in your mind. What influenced your decisions regarding the size and condition of the home?

I wanted Montclair to be a Georgian mansion in the Palladian style, but since Austen intimated that the Darcys were an ancient family, they would have had a manor house on the estate for many generations. So I had to tear down any earlier structure and replace it with one of my own design. Palladio’s creations are exquisite works of symmetry and so is Montclair. As for the interiors, I had a very clear picture in my mind of what they would look like because I am an admirer of Robert Adam’s work, especially the rooms I had seen at Culzean, a manor house in Ayrshire, Scotland.
8. Maggie is from a small, coal mining, Pennsylvania town called Minooka, where I understand your family has roots. How much of the book and which characters have autobiographical aspects?

Maggie is based on my mother and my father’s sisters, all of whom went to work for the government in Washington, D.C. during the war. My father’s sister, Miriam, worked for the State Department in Berlin immediately after the war, and I used some of her story as part of Maggie’s story when she went to work in Frankfurt before going to England. Like Rob, my mother’s brother was a bombardier on a B-17, and one of the waist gunners was killed on a mission over Germany. That was the basis for the loss of Rob’s friend, Pat Monaghan. Minooka is a tiny town (since the mid 1940s, a part of Scranton), and it lost so many of its young men, including my father’s first cousin, Patrick Faherty, who died when his ship was sunk by a U-Boat off the coast of Georgia. He is also mentioned in the book. The priest in the story, Father Flynn, is based on the real Father Flynn who supposedly breathed fire, and nosy Mamie Lenehan is based on my father’s Aunt Mamie. The story of Irish Bobby Lenehan falling in love with Italian Teresa Mateo is completely true. Their real counterparts are Bobby McLane, who owned an Esso gas station, and Anna Paffi, whose parents owned a bar on the Scranton city line.

9. You have been writing a serialized story on your website Austen Inspired Fan Fiction by Mary Simonsen entitled Mr. Darcy on the Eve on All Saints Day. Please tell us a bit about writing in this manner and your plans for the story.

I accidentally fell into writing fan fiction when someone I had met as a result of publishing Pemberley Remembered told me about I posted three vignettes, which were well received, and so I expanded on them. Because I received so much encouragement, I kept writing, and ended up with a full-length novel, From Longbourn to Pemberley, which will be published by Sourcebooks in December. The same thing happened on a second story, More Than Tolerable, which Sourcebooks will publish in the spring of 2011. Because of all the comments I get from my readers, writing a work-in-progress is a lot of fun, but there are drawbacks. For example, I may want the story to go in a different direction, which might necessitate changing something in the earlier chapters. Major changes don’t work in a work-in-progress. However, if I am merely tweaking, I just put a note at the top of my story explaining the changes, and everyone goes along with it.

What are my plans for The Eve of All Saints’ Day? This was supposed to be a short story for Halloween, but I didn’t finish it until the second week in January, and it ended up being 39 chapters with an epilogue. As I said, there are problems with a WIP, and there are several inconsistencies that need to be corrected, and I want to add a prologue to explain what happened to Darcy. After that, who knows.

10. Are you working on or planning to write more Austen inspired fiction? If so, can you tell us a bit about it?

I have two stories in my head. In one, Mr. Darcy travels to America following Wickham’s attempted elopement with Georgiana Darcy, where he meets Elizabeth Bennet, an American. Because she is an American, my Lizzy is even more independent than she was in P&P, and since Darcy is not on his home turf, he is kept off balance. Another is a time travel story in which an American goes back to Regency England.

Thank you for having me.

It was my pleasure!

Both Searching for Pemberley and Ms. Simonsen's second book, The Second Date, have links to the region where I grew up, in and around Philadelphia, which makes them particularly interesting to me. I have yet to read The Second Date but Ms. Simonsen assures me that, though there is no direct Austen tie in, the heroine is an Austen fan. Here is the book description from Amazon, where it has received excellent reviews:
"Sonia Amundsen looks like a Nordic goddess on the outside, but her heart, soul, and stomach are all Italian. She is also a successful professional who is about to celebrate her 30th birthday. Although friends have been setting her up on blind dates for two years, she never goes out on a second date with any of them because she is still looking for that perfect guy. The problem is that she has very specific criteria as to who Mr. Right is. Sonia is beginning to think that such a man is not out there until.... Set in the late 1980s, Sonia is surrounded by an extended Italian family, a caring, but over-bearing mother, warring aunts who use family funerals to stage full-blow tragedies, and a close friend, whose main goals in life are to get pregnant and to help Sonia find true love. The Second Date explores friendship and love in the heart of the Italian-American community where food is second importance only to love."

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Pemberley Chronicles: Part Two - Postscript from Pemberley

Spoiler alert, explained in the first paragraph before being revealed.

Read Part One here.

Book Seven of The Pemberley Chronicles, entitled Postscript from Pemberley, chronicles the romantic lives of Jessica Courtney and Darcy Gardiner. Now before proceeding, let us stop a moment and figure out who these people are in this world that Rebecca Ann Collins has created. Jessica is the daughter of Emily Gardiner, daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Gardiner, and James Courtney, Rector of Kympton. Darcy Gardiner is the son of Cassandra Darcy, daughter of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, and Dr. Richard Gardiner, son of Mr. & Mrs. Gardiner, brother to Emily. That makes Jessica and Darcy both first cousins and some other kind of cousin, rather far removed, Jessica being his grandmother's second cousin. In a moment I intend to reveal who they fall for, as the back of the book reveals Darcy's amore and the prologue reveals Jessica's (I really can't feel overly guilty about this, though I do usually try not to give away a story - be assured there are much more intriguing aspects of the book that I do not spoil).

Something I liked particularly about Postscript from Pemberley is the strong presence of our original Lizzy and Darcy, who sometimes get lost in these stories, the romances of Jessica and young Darcy bringing more happiness to Pemberley than it has seen in a long time. Over the years many tragedies have darkened the Darcys' lives, but the events of this book bring new love and stability to those they care for most. For sometime they have been exceedingly anxious for their son Julian Darcy, who lost his wife under very tragic circumstances and abdicated his inheritance in favor of his son from that marriage, Anthony Darcy. The burden of Pemberley has fallen on Darcy Gardiner, now manager of the estate and mentor to the young heir. Darcy amiably fulfills his duties - he is a thoroughly capable man - but his political interests threaten to call him away to a life in London. Though it is never explicitly mentioned, his first name indicates that he belongs to his heritage - it designates him keeper of the traditions and way of life Pemberley represents. This is where he belongs and it is in Kathryn O'Hare, the new school teacher, that he finds the self-recognition to remain close to his ancestral lands.

While Darcy and Kathryn are securing Pemberley's prosperity, Julian Darcy finds the woman most truly suited for him in Jessica Courtney, who resides at Pemberley while running the local school. We particularly see Mrs. Darcy's pleasure in her son's second love, which Julian and Jessica keep secret until he returns from a scientific exploration of Africa. Elizabeth sees them embrace upon Julian's return, just in time for Christmas:
Looking down from her favorite window, Mrs Darcy saw them too and smiled. Clearly she had not been mistaken in thinking that the regular correspondence she had noticed between her son and Jessica was a sign of something more than a mutual interest in his research into tropical disease! How much she had guessed, she would not immediately reveal, but she was certainly not displeased with what she saw.
Later that evening, on the topic of Julian and Jessica's secret engagement:
Kathryn, noting Mrs Darcy's smile, realised that they had probably not been entirely successful after all, but it did not signify, since Elizabeth was so obviously delighted with the outcome. Indeed, Mrs Grantham confided to Kathryn that she had not seen her mistress look so happy in a long while.
It pleases me greatly to see Lizzy so content. Though life's little troubles will intrude - rude cousins, political unrest, a judgmental world, and a horrid sister named Lydia (who finds herself rather comically thwarted - how mischievous of you Lizzy!) - the Darcys have risen above such pettiness. They have been transformed from the young lovers of Pride & Prejudice into idealized Victorian monarchs: the benevolent and prosperous rulers of their little slice of England. Mr. Darcy is most dazzling in his period rectitude, as demonstrated in his thoughts regarding Julian and Jessica's desire for a small wedding:
Mr Darcy put down his glass and declared that it seemed a very sensible decision.

"I am very glad to hear it, Lizzie; it shows both personal modesty and good sense. I cannot see the point of extravagant wedding parties in these straightened times, not unless one is determined to demonstrate that not only has one more money than one's neighbors, one is also more inclined to fritter it away!"

Elizabeth, who could recall the lavish celebrations of Georgiana Darcy's wedding and their own daughter Cassandra's marriage to Richard Gardiner, wondered at the way Mr Darcy's perception of such matters had altered over the years. Time was when Pemberley set the standard of magnificence on such occasions; it would have been considered a betrayal of the family traditions and its standing in the community to have done less. Clearly, her husband no longer saw it in the same light.

He no longer regarded Pemberley as a symbol of his family's status in the county, and though devoted as ever to the maintenance and preservation of the great estate, it had become more a matter of his responsibility to the entire community, than of pride in himself and his inheritance. It was a change that had come about gradually, over the many years of their marriage and the influence of his partnership with Mr Gardiner.
Here is the force that keeps this saga going - Mr. Darcy is the backbone upon which Ms. Collins' entire world stands. By the end of Postscript from Pemberley, he is strong, the line is assured, and those the Darcys love are flourishing. This is a very happy place to be. I can't help but fear what the future will bring, as mortality is a constant element in this story and Lizzy and Darcy cannot live forever, but as we have three books until the end of the series, I give myself leave to hope that more happiness is in store for these beloved characters.

The next book, Recollections from Rosings, promises to be about Charlotte Collin's oldest daughter, Catherine Harrison, who is married to the Rector of Hunsford, and her daughter Lilly. This might be another backwards looking story, like My Cousin Caroline, filling in blanks instead of providing forward momentum. It also may have less Lizzy and Darcy content, if the action is relegated to Kent. We shall have to wait until March to find out. I will certainly read it. Though this series sometimes drags, it is throughly pleasant to know that nothing untoward will happen. I shall read all of it and, when I am done, read them again back to back, though probably not with any great speed. The Pemberley Chronicles have a soothing effect on me, depicting as they do a world to which I am always happy to return, Ms. Collins' Pemberley being such a thoroughly pleasant place.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Pemberley Chronicles: Part One

I am going to do a two part post in response to Postscript from Pemberley, Book Seven in The Pemberley Chronicles series by Rebecca Ann Collins, mostly because I haven't been blogging long enough to have commented on her work before. In my next post I will review her latest book, Postscript from Pemberley, while in this one I will reflect on her previous six books as a body, without revealing any spoilers for those who have not read them.

The series follows the characters of Pride and Prejudice from the time of Elizabeth and Jane Bennet's weddings through the Victorian period. The Darcys, Bingleys, Gardners, and Fitzwilliams all live in close proximity to each other and share values which permanently bind them, namely honor, community service, and a strong bent towards reformist politics. Several characters serve in parliament, resulting in the inclusion of lots of politics, almost undetectable in Austen. It is a bit of a modern leap that Ms. Collins takes, aligning her cast so closely to "radical" reform, but it seems to work as an extrapolation on the virtues of charity and coexistence which Austen promotes.

The books are extremely tasteful - nothing here to make Jane blush. I greatly appreciating the tact with which Ms. Collins handles Austen's beloved characters (her account of their lives is thoroughly sweet) but frankly I sometimes find these books boring. This was particularly true for the first two, The Pemberley Chronicles and The Women of Pemberley. It is very nice and pleasant to follow the characters through their daily lives, as they work to improve their communities and endure both the joys and heartbreaks of parenthood, but it is not always gripping material. Ms. Collins can be a bit repetitious in her prose while much of her dialog is expository and, consequently, sometimes rather dry. Nevertheless, there is comfort to be found in such humdrum activity, especially when the characters at its center are Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Darcy. As the books progress and the next generation matures, the business of falling in love becomes the focus of the plot and things get more exciting.

I much preferred the third, forth, and fifth books in the series - Netherfield Park Revisted, The Ladies of Longbourn, and Mr. Darcy's Daughter - to the first two. The pace moves faster in these books, the story is more intricate, and the joys and sorrows of life are handle with better balance, making the entire reading experience more pleasant. Perhaps this is why I was so disappointed in Book Six, My Cousin Caroline, which while useful as a recap of the entire series thus far, provides very little in the way of new material. Reading this book put me right back back into the doldrums of the first two books, leaving me rather reluctant to read Book Seven. However, after a slow start, Ms. Collins succeeded in fully engaging my attention in Postscript from Pemberley. I look forward to reflecting on the story tomorrow.

Just one last, random observation. Last night I nervously watched the '86 Northanger Abbey - a throughly bizarre movie on which I have yet to really reflect. In the course of writing this post today, I happened to notice that the woman gracing the cover of My Cousin Caroline kind of looks an awful lot like Katharine Schlesinger as Catherine Morland. What do you think? Is this serendipity or have I finally lost my mind?