Monday, February 28, 2011

Etiquette: "Bread and Butter" Letters

My husband and I find ourselves often consulting the copy of The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette by Nancy Tuckerman and Nancy Dunnan that his mother gave him upon graduation from high school. It is a bit dated, the 1995 edition we own having last been updated in 1978, but we find it an extremely useful guide when we have questions about how to appropriately proceed. I know we are discussing modern manners, not those of Jane Austen's era, but I have decided to start posting when we consult the book, as I just find it so fascinating. Miss Austen, after all, would want us all to be well-mannered, wouldn't she?

Having just returned from my grandparent's house, where I stayed over the weekend, I am confronted with having to write the requisite thank you note in appreciation for their hospitality. Though I have never before consulted an etiquette book regarding this duty, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to consult Amy Vanderbilt and share with you my findings. I learned that this particular kind of thank you note is referred to as a "bread and butter" letter, a term I had not previously heard, but I was gratified to learn that my previous habits in writing these letters has been correct. Vanderbilt has this to say:

Whether you spend a night or a weekend at someone's house, you must always send a thank-you letter to you host and hostess within a week of your return home. Take time to write an enthusiastic and appreciative letter, mentioning something you did that particularly appealed to you or people you met who impressed you. If you did not take a present with you when you visited, now is the time to send one with a gift enclosure card reiterating your thanks.  

Now despite the fact that these are my grandparents I am writing to, I only see them a few times a year (they live in Texas, while I reside in Delaware), so I think a note of appreciation not only highly appropriate, but also very appreciated. However, I will forgo sending a hostess gift. They are my grandparents, after all, and I believe that a gift from me on such an occasion would be regarded as wasteful spending. However, if I were staying with my other grandmother (who I am visiting in Florida in two weeks), I would feel very much the opposite. I will be bringing her a token gift, probably a box of candy (which she always enjoys), along with me. Two weeks latter, when my husband and I are visiting his cousins in New York, we will spend more money and bring them a bottle of wine. It is my thought that when we are dealing with close relatives, knowledge of their tastes and habits should inform our behavior regarding such formalities.

Under the category of letter writing, Vanderbilt gets into more specifics and also includes an example: 

If you're a guest of friends for a night or longer, unless you visit them on a regular basis, when a telephone call is all that's necessary, write them a letter of thanks, known as a "bread and butter" letter. Here are a few helpful points to remember when writing this kind of letter:

- Unless there's a good reason for not doing so, write your thank-you letter no more than three days after the visit.

- The letter may be directed to the wife of the couple or to both. If only to the wife, mention of her husband is made: "Do tell Jim I loved fishing with him," or "Many thanks to you and Jim."

- While only one person writes a bread and butter letter, that person thanks on behalf of his or her spouse and any other members of the family.

- Make a few significant remarks about the visit: the guest bedroom was comfortable; how good the meals were; how much you enjoyed meeting a particular person; what fun a picnic was; or anything that was new or different.

Dear Rachel,
     All the way back on the train, Joe and I did nothing but talk about the weekend and what fun we had. Staying in your cozy apartment is always a treat to say nothing of the gourmet meals you presented with seemingly little effort. Joe particularly enjoyed getting together with the Randolphs and having the chance to see the Matisse exhibition.
     There's no couple we'd rather visit than you and Alex and we send our thanks to both of you for giving us such a wonderful time.

In the section immediately following this, Vanderbilt tells you what to do when you fail to receive a thank you note for a present sent, but as she says nothing about not getting a thank you following the departure of house guests, I assume this is the kind of courtesy to be thankful for when observed but not one to fret about when, as is probably usually the case, it is not. She also says nothing regarding the necessity of writing a thank you for a hostess gift, which makes me assume it is unnecessary. I do, however, frequently write such notes, particularly when the gift is something special.

So now I am off to write my very own "bread and butter" note. I feel thoroughly prepared to do so.  

Jane's Fame by Claire Harman: Review and Giveaway!

The incredible height of my TBR pile prompted me to postpone reading Jane'e Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered The World when it was first released, but when the kind people at Picador (check them out on Facebook at me a free copy for review, I bumped Claire Harman's exploration of the meteoric rise of Austen's reputation to the top of my priority list. Despite my great appreciation for and love of any free book, I really wish I had broken down and bought a copy in order to read this sooner. I found it absolutely fascinating and far more informative than yet another biography, which is what I had been led to largely expect. While the book does offer much information regarding Austen's life, the focus always remains on her notoriety, particularly how an unmarried lady from Hampshire went from a moderately successful novelist who, after her early death, began to fade into obscurity, into the massively popular cultural phenomenon that she is today. While many of us Janeites are highly familiar with the end of this tale (and I found it highly gratifying to read the names of some of my favorite Austen blogs towards the end of the book), the light Harman sheds on the years that really solidified Austen's renown, from about the middle of the 19th century though the early years of the 20th, was a revelation to me. I highly recommend this absorbing account to anyone with a love for the "Devine Jane".

The information included in the book is far too dense to recount in detail here, so I will instead focus on the aspect of it that I found most remarkable: the massive diversity of those who have found in Austen both solace in times of turmoil and political justification of their causes. The most astounding example of the first is probably the fact that Winston Churchill, when planning the-day operation with Roosevelt and Stalin, suffered from a severe fever which he weathered by reading Pride and Prejudice. Overall, this book offers a wonderful new argument for me to leverage against all those who so frequently claim that Austen is strictly chick-lit. Harman recounts her popularity amongst troops in the trenches during World War I, for whom Austen represented the calm and peace that was so absent from their lives. She was also recommended reading to soldiers recovering from wounds, as her novels were considered therapeutic. This is a far cry from the modern image of bonnet-wearing, cat-loving Janeites who swoon over Colin Firth in a wet shirt (not that there is anything wrong with that), and I loved every detail of  Harman's stereotype busting narrative. I was further mesmerized by Harman's highlighting of the ability political opponents have to leverage Austen in the name of the disparate causes. Suffregettes looked to her as an example of the powerful nature of the feminine mind, while their opponents held up her values as ideals of traditional femininity. The latter argument was further complicated by her popularity amongst anarchists, who saw in her wit an execration of the bourgeois lifestyle. Harman proves over and over again that Austen can be all things to all people. Her novels are open to as large a variety of interpretations of the Bible.

And here is your opportunity to be similarly delighted by your very own free copy of this intriguing book. For those of you who might shy away from the notion of reading non-fiction, let me assure you that Harman is highly readable and accessible to all, not just those with an academic bent. If you love Jane, I find it hard to believe you will not be enthralled by Jane's Fame. For your chance to win simply leave a comment, including your email address, by Wednesday, March 16th. For a second opportunity to win, let me know why you think Austen's novels have such a broad and lasting appeal. Good luck to all who enter. The lucky winner will be the owner of a wonderful celebration of Austen's unprecedented popularity.        

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Quest for a Title and More

Becoming Jane -
I haven't been quite on top of blogging these past few weeks. I was posting at an almost frantic pace in January, and the early part of this month was kept very busy between finishing my entry, entitled "Henry and Maria", for the Jane Austen Made Me Do It Short Story Contest and putting together my post for the Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Celebration at My Jane Austen Book Club (read about S&S on film and enter to win a copy of the 1995 DVD here). Now that things have calmed a bit, I am now trying to focus on all that has been recently neglected. Unfortunately, that has kind of puts blogging on the back burner. I have lots of posts in mind, and here is some of what you can look forward. I have a pile of Heyer that I want to review (yes, the hubby and I are still reading and rereading these delightful novels), including one of my very favorites, Friday's Child, and The Convenient Marriage, which we just read for the first time and thoroughly enjoyed. I also need to get rolling on Northanger Abbey Janeicillin, which I hope to start posting at the beginning of March. Furthermore, I am almost finished reading Jane's Fame by Claire Harman, the review for which will include a giveaway of this fascinating book. Unfortunately, I put it aside before finishing it in order to read all the JAMMDI entries (which are fabulous!) so I can vote before the February 28th deadline. As I embark for Texas tomorrow, I hope to finish all this backlog of reading in flight. However, journeying out of town (I am off to see my grandparents before I am too large to travel comfortably) will necessarily postpone any hopes of blogging until I return next week. There is also a partially completed character profile of Edward Ferrars to finish and more of Amy Vanderbilt's etiquette to share.  

As I have now almost made it to the third trimester, my thoughts have necessarily turned towards baby furniture and other necessities, which has proven rather distracting, but I am trying to get as much work completed on my second novel, the continuation of First Impressions, that I can before delivering. This brings me to a request for assistance from you, my lovely readers, as I am rather stumped as to what to call this book. I have been using the working title of Second Chances, which feels rather lackluster, and would love it if some of you would throw out your ideas. I have not yet written a formal blurb for the story (hard to do when the narrative isn't complete) but here is a brief summary of the plot. Any and all suggestions for a title are highly welcome, but if you haven't read the first book, be warned that the following will act as a spoiler:
A year has past since the Darcy were married. Kitty, having made great progress at her school in Bath, has been invited to join Darcy, Elizabeth, and Georgiana in London for the season. It is there that the two young ladies become acquainted with two eligible bachelors, Mr. Simon Brooks and his friend, Sir James Stratton. All seems in order for promising romances to bloom between Kitty and Mr. Brooks and Georgiana and Sir James, much to the Darcys satisfaction, until Mr. and Mrs. Wickham become involved, angered at their failed attempts to leverage the familial connection with the Darcys as a means of furthering their social position. The situation is further complicated when Lydia, who is restless at school, resolves to liberate herself in the manner that comes most natural to her.
Please send me your thoughts, good and bad. I am looking to brainstorm so all notions are helpful. If I really love a few, I think I might post a survey to see which the readers most prefer, and if you suggest the title I end up using, I will credit you in my acknowledgments and send you a free copy of the book when it becomes available! 

Enjoy the remainder of this all too short month!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Sense and Sensibility on Film at My Jane Austen Book Club

The Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Celebration continues at My Jane Austen Book Club with my contribution, "Sense and Sensibility on Film". Please check it out as I indulge my academic urges and analyze the strengths of the four film adaptations that have been made of Austen's first published novel. And if you happen to be in DVD Zone One (this was a bit of an education for me, and I am convinced it's a global scam), you can enter to win a copy of one of my most favorite movies, the 1995 Ang Lee version staring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, and Greg Wise! I hope you all enjoy the post! 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

And the winner of The Three Weissmanns of Westport Giveaway is.....

...the only person who entered! Not much of a rousing competition, but I do sincerely hope that Laura of Laura's Reviews will enjoy the book, and it gives me great pleasure to bestow it upon someone who is sure to appreciate it. Though this giveaway failed to garner enthusiasm, I do want to reiterate what I said in my review of the book (read it here), and that is that the story is an excellent read, even though a somewhat odd Sense and Sensibility modernization. I do have a backlog of further reviews to write, as well as more giveaways to look forward to, but I am afraid that my spare time this week has been dominate by my efforts to read all the stories entered in the Jane Austen Made Me Do It Short Story Contest. Several are simply marvelous (making me feel rather bashful about my own modest entry, entitled "Henry and Maria"), and I urge you all to devour as many as you can, as well as vote for your favorites, before the contest ends on February 28th. I think I will indulge myself right now by reading another before continuing with the work I am supposed to be doing. Congratulations Laura! You'll hear from me shortly.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Cast your vote in the Jane Austen Made Me Do It Short Story Contest!

All the submission are in and voting has commenced in the Jane Austen Made Me Do It Short Story Contest! There are 87 entries, so reading them all will take some time, but what better way to kill your free time than reading Austen inspired stories? There are only two weeks during which voting is open, so please don't dawdle! Relish the pleasure of consuming all these tales (the variety is enormous!) and then cast your vote for your favorite three. I cannot help but to make mention of my own story, entitled "Henry and Maria", which I hope some of you will enjoy enough to vote for. Quite frankly, as I took the risk of writing about the always controversial Mansfield Park, I feel like I can use all the goodwill I can muster! Read the stories at before following the link at the top of the page to the ballot. Enjoy!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Emma Janeicillin: Part Five (Conclusion)

After much delay, I finally have another episode of Emma Janeicillin ready to post. I had not intended this to be the conclusion, having hoped to draw out the story at least one more week, but Emma proved to be a more difficult candidate for the Janeicillin treatment than I had originally imagined. Some of you may remember that I assumed Emma would be fairly easy to extend, events in the final chapter being so neatly laid out, but this instead proved stumbling block. Unlike Austen's other novels, Emma has a very conclusive ending, leaving me with little more than a pilfered poultry coup to elaborate upon. Over the past month, I have struggled to imagine additional familial conflict or neighborhood goings-on, all in vein. There seemed little choice but, to quote myself from below,  to "make haste to the alter". Perhaps when I eventually return to Emma Janeicillin in order to revise it, I will find the inspiration I have been lacking, but for the time being the following will have to suffice. I hope you enjoy it. 

Read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four.

It has been said that when any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverance to carry their point. When the couple in question are both of independent fortune and face no familial obstacles, there is absolutely no reason to delay the consummation of their happiness. Once Mr. Woodhouse threw his rather urgent support behind the notion of Emma's marriage, what remained to be done other than make haste to the alter? In a very few weeks the town of Highbury was gratified by the marriage of two of its most prominent citizens: the lady whose example set the fashions and the gentleman whose counsel and support ensured both their well-being and prosperity. Few were not gratified. Though Mrs. Elton felt some personal chagrin at this consolidation of power, her better judgment (and personal ambition) told her to confine her more adamant criticisms to the parsonage. While in the security of her own home, her irritation was profusely expressed, yet no amount of vexation would have hindered her from accepting an invitation to the ceremony had she been so fortunate as to receive one. Instead she had to watch her friends, the Bateses, set forth to the church without her, leaving her behind to ponder the injustice of her exclusion.

The sun shown warmly upon the attendees that October morning, as if the heavens were determined to share their approbation for the blessed event. The closest friends and family of the bride and groom gathered within the church, while a great deal of the townspeople assembled outside, excitedly awaiting their first glimpse of the married couple. As already stated, Mrs. and Miss Bates were there, the former happily ensconced next to her old friend, Mr. Woodhouse, while on her other the side the latter was happy to tell all who would listen how very pleased she was with the match, as well as share her enthusiasm for her dear Jane's upcoming nuptials, which the occasion could not help but inflame. Mr. and Mrs. Martin sat behind these ladies, Harriet all aglow with contentment. Clearly her former infatuation for the groom was long forgotten. The Weston's were, of course, also in attendance, and while Mrs. Weston had left little Anna in the care of her nurse, she had her hand's full with the young Knightleys, their parents being otherwise occupied in attending the happy couple, all of whom refused to be left out of the festivities, except, of course, the still mute baby, who had not yet found a voice in which to demand her rights. The marriage of an aunt to an uncle was no ordinary occasion, and it took all of Mrs. Westons' notable skills to contain their enthusiasm. The Perrys, invited at Mr. Woodhouse's insistence, and a stern looking William Larkins, intent on displaying his sense of the moment's gravity, completed the party. Overall, it was a convivial gathering, as befit the occasion, and if the Rector did not officiate with as much zeal as might have been desired, no one, least of all the bride and groom, took notice.

Truth be told, Mr. Elton could not be happy about his task that day. He had long since purged his heart of all lingering affection it once harbored towards Miss Woodhouse, wounded pride having served as a useful aid in converting professed ardor into resentment. Yet the same pained dignity that had proven so beneficial now caused chagrin, for he could not see the man whom the lady did indeed deem worthy of her hand without acknowledging that his own person did not quite measure up. As the possessor of a respectable living, an independent property, and no small quantity of personal charm, he had fancied himself the equal of the local heiress, but when compared to the worldly position of Mr. Knightley, owner of Donwell Abbey and all its attending honors, even he had to admit that this was a more appropriate choice of groom for a lady of 30,000 pounds than a mere rector. He did not share his thoughts with his wife, who, perhaps sensing his hidden humiliation, talked at great length about the disadvantages of the marriage, but he did take in all the details of dress and decoration that would surely interest Augusta, knowing that her disdain for the proceedings would help to assuage his troubled sensibilities.

After the ceremony was concluded and Emma had signed the registry, using her maiden name one last time, the guests repaired to Hartfield for the wedding breakfast. In keeping with his sense of hospitality, Mr. Woodhouse had agreed with his daughter that Serle ought to provided all the delicacies the occasion required, including the essential cake, though its presence caused no small amount of anxiety to the host. Yet the overall consensus of the guests was that “nothing could be more complete, everything the best of its kind, the hospitality of Hartfield always surpassing one's expectations.” Despite his best efforts to urge attendees towards more wholesome fare, the cake somehow managed to be largely consumed, perhaps in no small part to Mr. John Knightley's determined effort to keep his brood well supplied with the delicacy.

Soon Mr. and Mrs. George Knightley took their leave, it being their intention to travel as far as Horsham that evening. The couple had enjoyed their day and appreciated the well-wishes of their friends and family, but the luxury of finally being alone, ensconced in the privacy of the new carriage Mr. Knightley had consented to purchase, was temptingly beckoning them both. Mr. Woodhouse showed some agitation upon the leave taking, he not being accustomed to parting with his dear Emma, but the thought that the sooner she left, the sooner she would return, was found efficacious in comforting his distress. Nevertheless, Emma was happy for once to leave the task of alleviating his nerves to Isabella, and only allowed her mind to passingly hope that John would not prove a barrier to his wife's efforts. Waving goodbye as long as Hartfield remained in sight, the married couple finally turned to each other, an unaccustomed sense of shyness pervading the carriage as the reality of their new relationship sunk in. Mr. Knightley cleared his throat and spoke in such a way as to restore their normal banter, “Well Mrs. Knightley, am I not to hear of your approbation for this very proper conveyance? I did not think you would approve of us journeying on horseback.”

“Certainly such a mode of transport would not at all suit a Mrs. Knightley. Is that really now my name? It all seems so odd and unaccustomed.”

“Then I will just have to remind you of it often by using it with the utmost frequency, Mrs. Knightley.”

“Very good, as it gives me an excellent excuse to continue referring to you as Mr. Knightley, George still feeling remarkably foreign to my tongue.”

“Now that will not do at all. I shall have to rely on inn keepers and fellow travelers to enforce your new title. You must remain Emma to me.”

“Just as you say, Mr. Knightley.”

Though the couple had left Highbury, the buzz surrounding the wedding continued for weeks. Mr. Elton returned to the parsonage that afternoon to to regale his wife with all the details she craved. Her verdict was precisely as he predicted: “Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business! Selina would stare when she heard of it.” Such sentiments were quickly conveyed to the mistress of Maple Grove, and yet, as it has been so wisely said, this catalogue of deficiencies proved no barrier to the perfect happiness of the union, as the married couple's true friends hoped and predicted. It should be further noted that, despite Mrs. Elton's disdain, the material used for Emma's wedding gown, proudly displayed to the neighborhood by Mrs. Ford, was declared to be the best selling fabric that the notable shop had ever stocked. 

The End

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Wonderful First Impressions Review at Book Girl of Mur-y-Castell

I would have liked to post this yesterday when I first came across it, but as I was en route to New York City at the time (where I saw a phenomenal production of Driving Miss Daisy staring Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Earl Jones), and had not brought my computer along for the trip, I was unable to act on the desire until today. Blodeuedd of Book Girl of Mur-y-Castell posted a really fabulous review of First Impressions (read it here). Please do check it out. I needed a morale boost this week - how wonderful when the world supplies just what we most require!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Etiquette: Attending a Christening

My husband and I find ourselves often consulting the copy of The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette by Nancy Tuckerman and Nancy Dunnan that his mother gave him upon graduation from high school. It is a bit dated, the 1995 edition we own having last been updated in 1978, but we find an extremely useful guide when we have questions about how to appropriately proceed. I know we are discussing modern manners, not those of Jane Austen's era, but I have decided to start posting when we consult the book, as I just find it so fascinating. Miss Austen, after all, would want us all to be well-mannered, wouldn't she?

I have only attended a baptism, and only one, and as I was in college at the time and was, essentially, the guest of my boyfriend (now husband), I did not trouble myself about gift giving. But now that I have been invited to a christening by a couple with whom we are not only good friends, but also with whom my husband has a former business relationship with, it seemed that we should make sure we are going about the occasion in the correct way. So out came Amy Vanderbilt, who has three full pages on the ceremonial aspects of christenings and baptisms, and she had this to say about gifts:
The godparent gives the baby a christening present which is traditionally something of fine and lasting quality. It may be a sterling silver mug, a porringer, or a napkin ring with the baby's name and the date of the christening engraved on it. Guests at a christening usually give the baby a present, although those who gave one at birth should not feel obligated to give another. Presents are ordinarily opened after the guests have left the lunch or tea. You should keep a list of everyone who gave presents and write a note thanking each person for being a part of such a special day in the baby's life as well as for the present.
If you were wondering, Merriam-Webster defines "porringer" as "a low usually metal bowl with a single and usually flat and pierced handle". You know, like the kind of thing Goldilocks are porridge out of.
My husband and I did give a gift at birth - I worked a cross stitch pattern on two bibs - but we think we will bring something token as an additional memento of the event. I was thinking a book of fairytales, with a personal note to the baby written on the inside cover (of course). I did also look up git giving in the index, and double checked with the section titled  "The Inappropriate Present", just to learn what the boundaries were:
An inappropriate present is one that shows poor judgment or bad taste, or gives the impression you are asking for a favor in return. For instance, it would be thoughtless to surprise a friend with a dog when she may or not have the time or inclination to care for one. In addition, the gift of a secondhand car is of little or no use to someone who won't be able to afford the insurance. You should show discretion about giving expensive jewelry, especially to a young person, and common sense about giving something to someone you're in a business deal with. If you give careful thought to matching the present with the recipient, the chances of giving an inappropriate present are greatly diminished.
So my book idea seems pretty safe. The the inscription will always remind him that we were there for him on this day, yet it isn't overly extravagant and doesn't trespass the bounds of our relationship with the family. Plus, we love books, so it suits the giver as well as the receiver, who will hopefully enjoy it for years to come.

I also though this interesting, on the role older children should play at a christening, although in this case there are none:
The christening is a time for family and friends to be aware of, and sensitive towards, young siblings of the baby. It's only natural for brothers and sisters to feel somewhat jealous of all the attention the new baby is receiving. To help them feel more special they may be given a featured role in the proceedings: carrying flowers or the special missal or prayer book. Guests, too, should make a fuss over young siblings of the guest of honor, perhaps giving each a small present, or it may be a combined present.
I admit I had to look up "missal". Here's the Merriam-Webster definition and orgination, just in case anyone else was wondering:
A book containing all that is said or sung at mass during the entire year. 
Middle English messel, from Anglo-French & Medieval Latin; Anglo-French missal, messel, from Medieval Latin missale, from neuter of missalis of the mass, from Late Latin missa mass — more at mass
First Known Use: 14th century
Just thought I'd share! 

Giveaway! The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine

Picador (whose excellent book club you can follow on Facebook - check it out at was so kind as to not only provide me with a freebie copy of The Three Weissmanns of Westport (read my review here), a Sense and Sensibility modernization by Cathleen Schine, but also to allow me the opportunity to giveaway one copy of the book! Unfortunately, I must limit participation to U.S. residents. If you would like to be the lucky winner, just leave a comment, including your email address, by Wednesday, February 16th. If you would like a second chance to win, please state in your comment what you would like to see in a Sense and Sensibility modernization. And don't forget to check out The Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge 2011, hosted by Austenprose, to celebrate 200 blissful years of Austen in print. Good luck!

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine

This is going to be a difficult review to articulate. To put it bluntly, while I really enjoyed The Three Weissmanns of Westport as a work of fiction, I have great issues with it as a Sense and Sensibility modernization. While certain characters and plot twists are, undoubtedly, based upon Austen's first published novel, thematically it is worlds away. So while I feel the need to critique Cathleen Schine's departure from Austen, I also have to praise her for writing a novel that touched me deeply.

Here's the premise. Joseph Weissmann, successful businessman, falls in love with an employee, Felicity, and decides to divorce his wife of forty-eight years, Betty. Betty has two daughters from a previous marriage, Annie and Miranda, who were raised by Joe as his own. Annie, the elder sister, has two grown sons who she has raised on her own, her husband having long ago disappeared and subsequently died. Miranda has flit from one love affair to the next while relishing her lifestyle as a literary agent, a career which falls apart in conjunction with her parents divorce. In the scene that most resembles Sense and Sensibility, Joe and Felicity (whose relationship is not shared with the Weissmann ladies) have the conversation that leads to Betty abandoning her Central Park West apartment and relocating to Westport, Connecticut, accompanied by her daughters:

"I will be generous to my wife," Joe told Felicity. "After all, I did spend almost fifty years of my life with the woman." When he said the words "my wife", it made Felicity glare at him. But he didn't notice, for when he said the word "fifty" it made him sad and confused. That was more than half his ife. What was he doing? He was too old to be starting out fresh. But when the word "old" passed through his thoughts, that heavy, gloomy syllable, followed so closely by the word "fresh", his doubt passed and he uttered the word "woman" as if Betty were a rude ticket taker at a tollbooth, a stranger with her unmanicured hand out, and Felicity's glare softened.

"Of course you'll be generous," Felicity said. "You are a generous man. Anything you do will be generous, Joe." She took his hand and kissed it. "And I will help you, Joe," she said. "I'll help you be generous."

"Naturally I'll give her the apartment," Joe said. "It seems only right. We've lived in it all our lives. She's put so mch work into it. It's her baby."

Felicity had seen the apartment. In a magazine. It sparkled and gleamed with a comforting Old World charm. Or so the magazine said. To Felicity, it just looked big and luscious, though the various shades of cream could do with a splash of color, and some of the furniture seemed a bit rickety, antique or no antique. She would like to live in such an apartment. But she said, "Naturally." Then she looked thoughtfully at Joe, who sat on her own sofa in her own living room, a perfectly respectable place in Lincoln Towers that had once had a view of the Hudson River. She stood up and peered out the window at the Trump Towers that now blocked that view. "You bought that place for a song, didn't you?" she asked.

Joe smiled. "We did. We never missed a mortgage payment, either."

"You never missed a mortgage payment," Felicity corrected him.

"Yes, of course. That's true."   

"Paid it from your salary?"

"Well, who else's salary would there be?" he asked. "Betty never worked a day in her life. Never had to. You know that."

Felicity did know that. She, on the other hand, had worked many days in her life.

"But it was her money that made the down payment," Joe added. He though of himself as a fair man.

"A mere song," Felicity said. "You said so yourself."

Joe considered this. "Yes. Five thousand dollars down. Can you imagine?"

"And now the apartment is worth - what? Three million?"

"Oh, at least."

Felicity was silent, letting the implication sink in.

"That's quite a return on a five-thousand-dollar investment, isn't it?" he said.

"I suppose the upkeep is very high these days."

Joe nodded.

"It's really a burden, that big old place," Felicity said. "Poor Betty. I don't envy her. At her age."

"She ought to downsize," Joe said. "We should sell the place, and she can take her share and buy something a little more realistic."

"Joe, you really are a generous man," Felicity said. "And self-sacrificing, too."

He looked at her blankly. He knew he was generous and self-sacrificing, but just for a moment he could not quite make out how this act of taking half her proceeds, rather than none, fit that description. Then Felicity said, "But what about the taxes? There will be hardly anything left from the sale after taxes. Poor Betty." She saw it was six o'clock and made him his drink. "It really will be a burden on her, much more than on you. You have so many deductions. She doesn't. Not having a business." 

Joe was not a stupid man; but he loved that big, airy apartment Betty had made so comfortable for him, and he loved Felicity. Obviously the apartment would be too much for Betty to handle, he told himself. How could he have been so thoughtless, so insensitive?

"At her age," Felicity murmured again, as if reading his thoughts.

The apartment was far more suitable for him and Felicity. She was young and energetic. He was neithr, but he was so used to the place. Was it fair that he should be thrown out of his own home just to pay good money to the government? It would be very bad judgement. It would bankrupt Betty with taxes. It would be cruel.

And so it was decided. Joe would be generous and keep the apartment.

This vividly invokes that remarkable second chapter of Sense and Sensibility, in which John and Fanny Dashwood discuss how to (or not to) assist Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters, and, to be fair, Felicity is the character in this novel who most resembles her model, consistently reminding readers of the odious Fanny. But this passage also begins to reveal the stark difference between Ms. Schine's story and Austen's. While Fanny's manipulation of John is highly humorous in its duplicity, Felicity's maneuvers are depressing. I am the daughter of divorcees and know far too well how a man, no matter how good his intentions, can be worked upon to take a perspective detrimental to his former family. Maybe this book holds more comedy in it for a reader who does not relate so well to the situation, as the testimonies on the cover praise its hilarity, wit, and satire. I found nothing humorous in this novel. It was moving, yes, but it made me want to cry, not laugh.

Let's return, for the moment, to the ways in which the story mimics Sense and Sensibility. The male cast is fairly consistent. We have an Edward (Felicty's brother, Frederick Barrow), a Willoughby (Kit Maybank), a pretty accurate Colonel Brandon (who goes by his last name, Roberts, alone), and even a Sir John Middleton (Cousin Lou, who owns the bungalow in Westport that the Weissmanns retreat to). We also, out of necessity, have our Lucy Steele, reincarnated as Amber (I don't think she is ever given a last name). Yet our heroines don't exactly match up. Annie is far less resigned than Elinor. Though unmistakably the pragmatic sister, she resents that role, and is more inclined to bicker with Miranda like a child than to try and actively improve her. Miranda might have all the flightiness of Marianne, but not being a teenager, she comes off as rather shallow instead of the deeply feeling character Austen created. Furthermore, the end is nothing like that of Sense and Sensibility. These characters, in their modern guises, do not follow the same course as their Regency counterparts, and the result is far less happy and conclusive.

What made me read this book almost straight through, staying up until the early morning hours in order to finish it, had little to do with Jane Austen. I must admit that a lot of my fascination with the book has to do with the fact that we are dealing with secular, East Coast Jews, who in so many ways resemble my own relatives. Betty, with her optimistic outlook in the face of impending disaster, and her care taking tendencies, reminds me so much of my maternal grandmother, who I lived with for many years and lost in 2004. Since my pregnancy, I have missed her more than ever. Annie and Miranda, too, could almost be my mother and her older sister: one stoically practical, and the other unpredictably emotional, yet irresistibly charming. This book is so real; for me, it is painfully so. I don't know if all Janeites will find Ms. Schine's novel as relateable as I do. In fact, I rather doubt it. But it is a wonderful piece of fiction, capturing the personalities and attitudes of a particular American experience in heartrending detail. This book provides my forth review for the The Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge, hosted by Austenprose. I was fortunate enough to receive my copy of the book for free, courtesy of the publisher, Picador (follow their book club at, and I will now be passing it along to my mother. I cannot wait to hear her thoughts on it.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Robot Chicken on Sense and Sensibility

I have a huge weakness for cartoons. Perhaps it was all those contented hours watching TV on Saturday mornings as a child, but I never lost my enthusiasm for the medium. Last evening, having spent it quietly at home (I should have been finishing Emma Janeicillin - I still have hopes that it will go up sometime this weekend), I saw a 2006 episode of the highly irreverent, stopgap animated Adult Swim show Robot Chicken, a scene in which I had forgotten all about. At about four minutes into "Rodigitti" (I tried to find a copy of the show to embed, but none worked correctly), two hip-hop paper bag puppets recall the excessive diversion they enjoyed when they went to see Sense and Sensibility, in slightly different words:

Bag One: Yo, yo, yo dog! What was the last movie we saw?

Bag Two: Sense and Sensibility kid!

Bag One: Yeah that joint was hot to death (or maybe he's saying dust?) son!

Bag Two: Yeah, we snuck some forties up in that bitch. Like this! (Both bags lift up to reveal the bottles concealed inside them)

So incredibly random! I just had to share. You can watch the episode here (the highlight of which is actually the last skit, about seven and a half minutes in, showing Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd engaged in a rap battle, a la 8 Mile) :