Thursday, March 31, 2011

Rifts and Restorations: Margaret Dashwood's Story by Sister M. Eucharista Ward

I came across Rifts and Restorations: Margaret Dashwood's Story by Sister M. Eucharista Ward accidentally on Amazon when searching for a different novel, and immediately purchased it to read for the Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge hosted by Austenprose. I really loved A Match for Mary Bennet and was ecstatic to find another Austen continuation by this author. Unfortunately, while entertaining, this book did not live up to its predecessor. It begins several years after the conclusion of Sense and Sensibility, when Margaret Dashwood is still unmarried at age twenty-seven. Much of it is told in flashbacks, retelling the events of Margaret's romantic life, interspersed with the details of her sisters' lives, particularly Elinor's. So much happens in less than 300 pages that it is almost impossibly to summarize succinctly, but here are the major points: Lucy Ferrars is a Machiavellian nuisance, Mrs. Ferrars a fickle tyrant, and Margaret must learn to cope with her disgust for both with grace, a lesson that corresponds to her finding true love.

While the multitude of events that make up this story contribute to the difficulty in reviewing it, the biggest impediment is the lack of coherence in the character development. While this is a problem across the board, I think I can best illustrate it by examining the very first line, "A young lady of meager dowry deemed in her youth to be 'not promising,' shows great indiscretion in refusing a suitor of substantial means." Nothing at all about the depiction of Margaret Dashwood conforms to this notion of her being "not promising". From a young age she stops eligible gentlemen in their tracks with her beauty, and while she does reject at least one proposal from a man of "substantial means", the gentleman who is referred to in this opening sentence may have means, but they are in no way substantial. In fact, his status as an agent of Willoughby's, caring for the house at Allenham (which the charming rogue did indeed, after all, inherit) in the owner's absence, is one of dependence, though it is depicted in a highly glorified manner. His eventual marriage to the daughter of a shopkeeper is far more appropriate than a union with a gentleman's daughter. Stranger still is the fact that the lady he does marry is somehow accepted without question by society, though she too is without the benefit of a dowry. The entire book is filled with these confusing discrepancies, requiring the reader to suspend thoughtful analysis in order not to become frustrated.

My other issue with the book is the religious content. I suppose I should not be surprised by it, considering the author is a nun, as well as the fact that A Match for Mary Bennet was highly religious, but I was more easily able to over look it in the case of that novel due to the main character's established spirituality. The problem here is that not only is religion presented far more overtly than it is in Austen, but also it is of a decidedly Catholic nature, which feels very much out of sync with an early 19th century English setting. Now I'm married to a Catholic, and I have absolutely no issue with Catholic literature, but it just doesn't work with Austen. The book would have been vastly improved if Ms. Ward had suppressed the urge to inject her own religious beliefs into the story and kept such references within the scope of Austen's purview. The fact that the novel also covers content of a decidedly unsavory nature makes the injection of religion all the more jarring.

All this being said, I did find the book enjoyable. I like the notion of exploring Margaret's story and found her depiction compelling. I just think that the book would have been far more effective if significantly cut and cropped and edited for historical accuracy. Perhaps if I had never read and adored A Match for Mary Bennet, freeing myself from having to contend with disappointed expectations in Rifts and Restorations, I would have found the novel more satisfying.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

" proportion to their family and income": Jane Austen's Houses in Life and Fiction - presentation by Iris Lutz to JASNA of Eastern Pennsylvania

Steventon Rectory as portrayed by Anna Lefroy
Last Saturday I attended the spring meeting of JASNA of Eastern Pennsylvania with my husband (one of the benefits of pregnancy - he's my constant companion!). It is only the second meeting I have been able to attend since I joined, and, unfortunately, it looks likely to be the last one I will make it to this year. I have regretted not being able to take advantage of more of the lectures and house tours planned, but my schedule has refused to accommodate them. The enjoyment of Saturday's meeting only makes me regret my poor attendance all the more. We gathered at the Joseph Ambler Inn, just a bit North of where I grew up, and enjoyed an excellent meal before the presentation by Iris Lutz, our new JASNA president. Ms. Lutz informed us we were her guinea pigs - the first to view the presentation before she takes it to several JASNA branches across North America - and those who will enjoy her discussion after this fall will have the added benefit of all the new images she intends to bring home from the Jane Austen tour of England she is taking this summer. Nevertheless, I found the whole very informative and thought provoking. The slide show began with a very useful chart, breaking down the houses in Austen's stories into two categories by age: those that were the oldest (Northanger, Norland, Allenham, Southerton, Donwell, Highbury Vicarage, Uppercross, and Winthop) and those that were contemporary (Barton Cottage, Rosings, Mansfield, Hartfield, Kellynch Lodge, and Mr. Parker's house in Sanditon, Trafalger House). Obviously, the list isn't all inclusive (where oh where is Pemberley?), but I just had to jot it down as a handy reference for keeping architectural styles straight in my mind. Ms. Lutz then proceeded to discuss the houses Austen both knew and imagined, beginning with the smallest and working her way to the grandest. I want to provide you with a brief synopsis of her points, as much of the information was not only informative, but it also had the effect of triggering my ever-present wanderlust, which I have absolutely no hope of indulging anytime in the near future.
Ashe House

She began with rectories, sharing the famous image Anna Lefroy drew of the Austen home at Steventon (pictured above). Speaking of Austen's tomboyish childhood games, which always conjures up images, for me at least, from the beginning of Northanger Abbey and Catherine Morland's similar activities, it was a touching tribute to this lost monument to our favorite authoress. Pictures of the still standing medieval church, where Mr. Austen preached for so may years, were reassuring in this context. I was particularly excited by Ms. Lutz's attention to a nearly thousand year old yew tree that grows in front of the church, in which the rectory key was hidden by the Austens, and where Jane certainly enjoyed the shade. In order to give us a concrete vision of a rectory, Ms. Lutz then turned to the nearby Ashe House, where the Lefroy family lived. Regarding this mid-sized, Georgian home, she cited one scholar's (missed the name!) notion that it could have resembled Austen's vision of Longbourn or Hartfield, a notion I have grave doubts about, particularly regarding the latter, but perhaps the style of home can give us a image upon which to base our ideas of these domains. I like to think it is more along the lines of Henry Tilney's home at Woodston.

Chawton Cottage
Ms. Lutz proceeded to discuss to cottages, a part of the presentation I found particularly compelling. She began, logically, with Chawton, which was built in the 1600's and, as it was originally an inn, presents a hodgepodge of architectural styles. Those of us who have never been so fortunate to visit this sacred place can at least take solace in the notion that it is well protected until the time when we can make the pilgrimage. She showed us a variety of images from her visit there, but what I found most interesting were the references to Sense and Sensibility that abounded in this part of Ms. Lutz's presentation. Including a picture of the cottage next door to Chawton as a starting point, which, complete with thatched roof, far more conforms to our modern notions of cottages, she turned to Austen's depiction of Barton Cottage: "As a house, Barton Cottage, though small, was comfortable and compact; but as a cottage it was defective, for the building was regular, the roof was tiled, the window shutters were not painted green, nor were the walls covered with honeysuckles." Making the point that the house used for Barton in the 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility better conforms to this description than the one used in the 2008 production, which is far more picturesque, I could not help but wish she had also included a recitation of the passage in which Robert Ferrars describes his notion of a cottage:
Barton Cottage in the 2008 version of Sense and Sensibility
"Some people imagine that there can be no accommodations, no space in a cottage; but this is all a mistake. I was last month at my friend Elliott's, near Dartford. Lady Elliott wished to give a dance. 'But how can it be done?' said she; 'my dear Ferrars, do tell me how it is to be managed. There is not a room in this cottage that will hold ten couple, and where can the supper be?' I immediately saw that there could be no difficulty in it, so I said, 'My dear Lady Elliott, do not be uneasy. The dining parlour will admit eighteen couple with ease; card-tables may be placed in the drawing-room; the library may be open for tea and other refreshments; and let the supper be set out in the saloon.' Lady Elliott was delighted with the thought. We measured the dining-room, and found it would hold exactly eighteen couple, and the affair was arranged precisely after my plan. So that, in fact, you see, if people do but know how to set about it, every comfort may be as well enjoyed in a cottage as in the most spacious dwelling."
Ibthorpe House

This even far grander notion of a cottage, which the ever practical Elinor dismisses as not deserving "the compliment of rational opposition", might be ridiculous, but it does emphasis how our modern perceptions of such structures are entirely influenced by the picturesque rather than reality.

Ms. Lutz next turned to small manor homes, particularly Ibthorpe House, where Mary and Martha Lloyd grew up. Though not large, it is a handsome Georgian property. This house was also suggested as a model for either Longbourn and Hartfield, and while I still maintain that Hartfield would be on a grander scale, I can envision it as a Longbourn, or possibly even a Delaford.

Chawton House
We then moved on to stately homes, commencing with images of Chawton Manor House, which is an old structure, built in the late 1500's. It is an example of Jacobian architecture, and I found it interesting when Ms. Lutz revealed that it had been covered in white stucco during Austen's life, giving it a very different appearance than as pictured to the left. Austen would, of course, have been intimately familiar with this structure, and I can see it being used as a model for the houses in many of her later novels, particularly Sotherton Court or Dowell Abbey. Ms. Lutz made a great argument for the former residence being modeled off of Stoneleigh Abbey, which Jane visited in 1806, upon leaving Bath, as her mother's cousin, Thomas Leigh, had just inherited it. The timing is certainly provocative, and many of this Elizabethan structure's features conform to the description of Sotherton. Landscaped by Repton, who left a previously standing wilderness (!) untouched, the quantities of gilding and mahogany make a compelling case (we listened to the passage containing the "shining floors, solid mahogany, rich damask, marble, gilding, and carving" description). The crux of the case for this being the home that Austen had in mind when she described Sotherton is the chapel which, though not by any means lacking in grandeur (just Gothic influences), does in many ways fit Austen's depiction:
Stoneleigh Abbey
Having visited many more rooms than could be supposed to be of any other use than to contribute to the window-tax, and find employment for housemaids, "Now," said Mrs. Rushworth, "we are coming to the chapel, which properly we ought to enter from above, and look down upon; but as we are quite among friends, I will take you in this way, if you will excuse me."

They entered. Fanny's imagination had prepared her for something grander than a mere spacious, oblong room, fitted up for the purpose of devotion: with nothing more striking or more solemn than the profusion of mahogany, and the crimson velvet cushions appearing over the ledge of the family gallery above.
The Chapel in Stoneleigh Abbey
This is a point that the guides at Stoneleigh apparently dwell on at length, and while the family pews do contain crimson velvet cushion and are accessible from above (unfortunately you can't see that in the image to the right), the room certainly does not appear oblong, but rectangular, and I question whether the pews being mahogany qualifies as a "profusion". Still, it is an exciting theory, and the building undoubtedly has a huge number of windows. Overall, I found this to be one of the most powerful parts of the presentation. I would love to visit this place, for all of the above mentioned reasons but also, more particularly, to view the phenomenally gorgeous library, which houses the Leigh family history.

Goodnestone Park

Next Ms. Lutz quickly discussed Goodnestone Park, family home of Elizabeth Austen Knight nee Bridges, which far more confirms to my notion of Hartfield, or perhaps even Rosings, as the location in Kent and the presence of a church right beyond the park tempts me to believe (it certainly appeared lavish enough). We then turned to the all important Godmersham Park, Edward Austen Knight's main residence, to which Jane was a frequent visitor. Ms. Lutz proposes this as the model for Pemberley, though I, despite never having been there, always thought of it more like Mansfield Park. It's a Palladian style home built in 1782, and the best argument for it being Pemberley is premised upon the approach, the improvement of which Edward oversaw, which concurs with Austen's depiction:
Godmersham Park
They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road, with some abruptness, wound. It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; -- and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted.
While I agree that the approach could be a viable argument for this being Pemberley, I cannot help but question the theory. I think I just consider Pemberley a fairytale place and cavil at any attempt to tie it to reality. I certainly agree with Ms. Lutz that it is highly unlikely Austen premised the house on Chatsworth, no matter how tempting the grandiose dimensions of that place. She put forth the often argued point that the Duke of Devonshire had an income of 100,000 pounds a year, placing his home well beyond the range of what Mr. Darcy could reasonably afford.

Winchester Cathedral
Ms. Lutz then presented an overview of Bath and where in that town Austen and her characters lived. It was an interesting summary but difficult to represent here. She ended with images of the West College Street residence in Winchester where Austen died and the cathedral where she is buried. I found the entire afternoon perfectly lovely. Often I wander through my neighborhood, imagining this or that house as a model for the homes depicted in Austen's novels, and Ms. Lutz's exploration of this subject added fuel to my musings. Perhaps someday I will do a post displaying pictures of these homes which have so captivated my imagination. Better yet, maybe I will eventually have my own snapshots of the homes Austen knew so well to share! I know I'll manage an Austen tour eventually, and I can only hope it happens sooner rather than later.

Steventon -
Ashe House -
Chawton -
Barton - 
Ibthorpe House -
Chawton House -
Stoneleigh Abbey -
Chapel at Stoneleigh -
Goodnestone Park -
Godmersham Park -
Winchester Cathedral -

Friday, March 25, 2011

Gestational Diabetes and Jane Austen

So today should be a Janeicillin day, and while I am anxious to explore all the ins and outs of Eleanor's romance, my head just isn't in it. I found out this morning that I have gestational diabetes, in spite of the fact that I have always been a healthy weight, exercise regularly (obsessively some would say), and eat precisely the way I am supposed to. Frankly, I am in shock, on top of being terrified of all the possible repercussions. While I have every intention of doing precisely as the doctor directs, and the knowledge that I know several people who were similarly diagnosed and have perfectly healthy children is reassuring, the notion of glucose testing is causing me to panic. I have always been terrible about any kind of blood letting, no matter how minute, ever since I accidentally got into my Dad's lithium when I was three and had to have my blood monitored for two days (they can't pump your stomach in such a case as lithium goes directly to your blood stream). I never had a blood test since that I wasn't sedated for, until pregnancy prevented me from relying on such methods. I do feel like I've gotten pretty good at keeping myself calm through the myriads of tests that they give you when pregnant, but having to do the testing myself is a whole different story. I need to find a way to brace myself for this, so that I can prick my finger multiple times a day without fainting, and of course I turn to Jane Austen for assistance.

Quite frankly, any medical treatment, no matter how irrationally afraid I might be of it, pales in comparison to what Jane Austen had to endure at the end of her life. It is not my intention today to recount the many different posthumous diagnoses out there, but just to focus on the spirit and bravery that allowed Miss Austen to face her painful decline and eventual death. I should be rejoicing in the blessings of modern medicine, a science that can pinpoint the amount of insulin my body is producing and compensate for it, rather than sitting here crying over a silly little pin prick. It is my hope that by putting my situation in this perspective, I can scold myself into rationality.

Several of my recent readings have been stark reminders of the blessings of modern medicine. Last week I reviewed Dearest Cousin Jane by Jill Pitkeathley (read the post here), a book that emphasizes the astounding serenity with which both Jane's cousin Eliza and her mother, Philly, faced breast cancer, suggesting that their behavior inspired Austen when she too was confronted with illness. And just yesterday I reviewed David M. Shapard's The Annotated Persuasion (read that post here), focusing in on the character of Nurse Rooke and the lack of resources available to those in pain and medical need at the time. All this makes me reflect upon Sanditon and the remarkable humor which or dear authoress was able to display regarding medicine while on her death bed, in particular her depiction of the hypochondriac Parker sisters, Diana and Susan. A line in a letter from Diana, describing Susan's recent treatments, particularly comes to mind:
She has been suffering much from the headache, and six leeches a day for ten days together relieved her so little that we thought it right to change our measures, - and being convinced on examination that much of the evil lay in her gum, I persuaded her to attack the disorder there. She has accordingly had three teeth drawn, and is decidedly better, but her nerves are a good deal deranged.
And the notion of glucose testing sends me into a panic! What I weakling I am! Instead of succumbing to all this fear, I will do my best to count my blessings. I will give birth in a sanitary environment, with no concerns for the "childbed fever" that used to kill so many (including Edward Austen-Knight's wife, Elizabeth). If the gestational diabetes does cause the baby to grow too big and a cesarean proves necessary, there is virtually no risk of complication (during the Regency is was basically a death sentence). I have great doctors who thoroughly understand this complication and will treat it accordingly, minimizing the risks it poses. So much to be thankful for! If dear Jane were here, she certainly would mock my worries. Keeping her in mind will hopefully keep me rational. Perhaps Janeicillin (the name of which itself feels taunting at the moment) will help!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Annotated Persuasion, Edited by David M. Shapard

I absolutely adored David M. Shapard's annotated Pride and Prejudice, and so when I learned that he had come out with an annotated Persuasion, I was quick to purchase a copy. Unfortunately, in order to devote to it the time I wanted to, it took me a while to get around to reading it, let alone, once I commenced, finishing it. Reading an annotated edition is not like sitting down with a novel and consuming it, cover to cover, in my normal manner. It is more like studying a text in a class, with all the supplementary information that accompanies such a setting. Mr. Shapard's books are laid out so that Austen's text is on the left side of a page, with all his notes and observations listed on the right. This makes the information easily accessible, but as it also lends itself to skipping ahead to examine an illustration of a carriage, or consult a map, as well as flipping back to reread a prior note that touches on the same subject, the speed at which you read is extraordinarily slow. The effort is worth it, as even for someone like me, who has read these novels countless times, new and different ways of perceiving and thinking about the text emerge. The only downside is that, unlike in a class, when I disagree with something Mr. Shapard asserts, there is no one on hand to debate the point with me.

Mr. Shapard beautifully illuminates certain points in the text that I had not previously considered in such a light, furthering my understanding of the manners and customs of the Regency Era. For example, regarding the character of Nurse Rooke, he provides information that I did not formerly have about the role nurses played in this society. When she is first introduced into the narrative ("[Mrs. Smith] had been particularly fortunate in her nurse, as a siter of her landlady, a nurse by profession") he notes:
The term "profession" applied to nurses at the time only in a very loose sense, for there was no regular training or certification for nurses, let alone any kind of organization. Most nursing was done at home, by family members and servants, as seen earlier in the cases of little Charles Musgrove and Louisa. Among those who earned a living as nurses, some worked in the small number of hospitals existing at the time; a much larger number worked as private nurses like the person mentioned here. In either case, a nurse had a status similar to that of a servant and performed cleaning as well as strictly nursing tasks. This nurse's periodic unemployment and need to live with her sister indicate the precarious nature of her position.

While neither the lack of an organized nursing profession, nor the status held by nurses, was surprising to me (having read the works of Florence Nightingale), I had not previously thought about Nurse Rooke's dependence on her sister for a home before. This becomes more interesting later, when Mrs. Smith makes the following comments about Nurse Rooke's perspective during her revelations about Mr. Elliot:
... I do not think nurse in her heart is a very strenuous opposer of Sir Walter's making a second match. She must be allowed to be a favourer of matrimony, you know, and (since self will intrude) who can say that she may not have some flying vision of sttending the next Lady Elliot, through Mrs. Wallis's recommendation?
On this occasion Mr. Shapard notes:
Nurse Rooke would naturally favor matrimony - which at that time almost always involved at least the attempt to have children - from a wish for more opportunities to work as a monthly nurse for women giving birth. She would be especially likely to find such employment from affluent women, as any wife of Sir Walter would be. In a letter Jane Austen shows the importance of recommendations when she writes of someone getting a nurse who, though with "no particular charm either of person or manner," is pronounced by local people "to be the best nurse that ever was" (NO. 17, 1798).
Now here is an "ah ha" moment. I had never before paused to consider the above words of Mrs. Smith's in any detail, considering that they are slipped in amidst such dramatic and pivotal disclosures as those she makes in this scene. Suddenly Nurse Rooke's motivations have meaning beyond idle gossip, and the additional information regarding Austen's letters not only provides an excellent example of the kind of supplementary information Mr. Shapard incorporates, but also sheds light on an earlier note regarding Nurse Rooke, gossip, and recommendations. Returning to the scene in which we first meet Mrs. Smith and, subsequently, Nurse Rooke is introduced, Mr. Shapard writes:
Nurse Rooke's frequent sharing of interesting gossip may be another sign of her shrewdness and intelligence. It would be a useful service for a nurse to perform for a confined patient, one that might raise the patient's spirit - at a time when physical means of curing ailments were very limited - and that would enhance the value of the nurse's services, making te patient more likely to retain her and recommend her to others.
All together, the reader forms a far more in depth picture of this very minor character than would otherwise be attained. I offer up this very minor example of how Mr. Shapard's notes enhance the reading experience as it so well illustrated how easy it becomes to flip forward and back through the book, turning 500 pages into a far lengthier read. I can also use it to attest to what I believe is the failing of any endeavor of this sort, which I admit is not one I can reasonably hold Mr. Shapard responsible for, and that is my unquenchable desire for yet more information than can be reasonably provided. In this same scene, Anne makes a long statement regarding the unique opportunities "woman of that class ... if they be intelligent" have for making observations about humanity. This passage has long struck me as unique in Austen, providing the most detailed commentary she ever makes upon the serving class (and perhaps even expressing a bit of envy for it?), and Mr. Shapard lets it pass by without any relevant commentary. My complaints about this edition almost all center around similar moments when I just want more than Mr. Shapard, in all his exhaustiveness, supplies.

While I do not consider these annotated editions appropriate for a first time reader of Austen's novels, as the notes often reference events to come and episodes from her other novels, they are perfect for those of us who read and reread her books year after year. Furthermore, if you are a writer of JAFF, they are nearly invaluable resources, as the maps provided and, especially, the detailed chronologies of events are excellent sources of reference. When I wrote First Impressions, I kept a copy of Mr. Shapard's Pride and Prejudice with me all the time, and the ragged condition of this tomb attests to how often I turned to it. While reading his edition of Persuasion, I found inspiration for a "What if?" rewrite based upon this, my favorite Austen novel, a notion I have often considered but never found a satisfying way of pursuing. Unfortunately, this effort will have to wait until I complete my current projects, but I look forward to ravaging this book to the same degree that I did its predecessor. In the meantime, I am all anticipation for the release of his annotated Sense and Sensibility, due out on May 3rd, in perfect time to celebrate the book's bicentenary.  

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Rice Portrait Mystery

Jane Odiwe, artist and author of Lydia Bennet's Story, Willoughby's Return, and Mr. Darcy's Secret, has been at the forefront of unraveling a real life Austenesque mystery. The subject is the controversial "Rice Portrait" of Jane Austen, long believed by some to be the best (by far) portrait of the writer ever painted. The authenticity of the painting's subject has been a matter of dispute for generations. If it is Jane, it is the answer to many a fan's dreams, portraying her in all the youthful beauty we would like to attribute to the beloved author, but verification has never occurred. The argument for the portrait is compelling: the Rice family are direct descendants of Edward Austen Knight, Jane's wealthy brother, and the painting has been in the family since shortly after its execution. Despite familial testimonials, which have long held it to be an image of Jane, doubts about the painting have centered upon the lack of written mention of it from contemporary sources and questions about the period appropriateness of the sitter's dress. However, Ms. Odiwe has been presenting new and exciting evidence that makes the case that the portrait is indeed Jane and, perhaps even more thrilling to me, revealing a new painting that might very well be an even earlier image of the writer, portrayed with her family as a very young girl. I was ecstatic to be asked to share this information with you, and I urge everyone to follow Ms. Odiwe's blog ( as she reveals more and more pieces to this fascinating puzzle.

The first aspect in this new argument for authenticity is premised upon identifying Ozias Humphrey, portrait painter and miniaturist, as an established painter of the Austen family. Ms. Odiwe provides a brief biography of the artist in her first post in this series, which you can read here. Humphrey most certainly painted a portrait of Austen's great-uncle, Francis Austen of Sevenoaks, the man who paid for George Austen's (Jane's father) education and presented him with his second living at Deane, and Henry Austen is recorded commenting upon the painting. Furthermore, it is believed that Jane and Casandra were visiting Francis at the time when the Rice Portrait was commissioned. Humphrey's work can be identified by an unusual insignia he included in his paintings: an O with an H crossed through its middle. Ms. Odiwe's second post (read it here) focuses on identifying this mark in a series of Austen family portraits, starting with the verified image of Edward Austen Knight upon the occasion of his Grand Tour in 1788. First establishing a compelling argument that this portrait was not painted in Rome, as has been asserted, but in England, she goes on to identify Humphrey's signature hidden in the texture of the tree upon which Edward leans (an English oak). This brings us to the contentious portrait of Jane, also believed to be executed in 1788, in which she identifies not just one, but three potential monograms: in the tree, by her shoe, and in the locket around her neck.

Humphrey's establishment as a painter of the Austens becomes even more important in Ms. Odiwe's third post (read it here), in which she presents what she call a "Conversation Piece" and argues it is, in fact, an image of the Austens upon the occasion of Edward's adoption by the Knights. As intrigued as I was by the notion that new evidence has emerged confirming the identity of the young lady in the Rice Portrait, this painting sends cascades of chills down my spine. It is of a family, of a socioeconomic situation in keeping with the Austens', celebrating the eldest boy portrayed holding a bunch of grapes in triumph as his family looks on approvingly. If this is the Austens, then Jane is the young girl to Edward's left, flanked by Cassandra, and the boy on Edward's other side is either Henry or Francis (the latter is favored). James would be at school at the time, and Charles would still be with his wet nurse. The painting was part of a Godmersham Park (the Knight family home) estate sale in 1983 and is described in the accompanying Christie's catalogue, but its current whereabouts are unknown. Unfortunately, ths leaves us without a great image of the painting, or the ability for experts to examine it first hand, but Humphrey's signature OH can be spotted in many spots, (unfortunately, none of these are identifiable online). Even more exciting is the fact that Jane seems to be holding a horseshoe nail in her hand and pointing it at Edward. To return to his portrait, a similar (very small) horseshoe nail can be identified pointing towards him at his feet. Family lore has it that this symbol was significant to Edward, and Jane herself makes reference to it in one of her letters from 1813. I hope Ms. Odiwe will be revealing more information about the relevance of this symbol, but a bit of light research I have indulged in on my own reveals that horseshoe nails have long been used, like horseshoes themselves, to bring good luck and provide protection. There is also a religious affiliation, made in reference to the crucifixion.

While I feel like more information is still required (and most anxiously desired!) there is no doubt that Ms. Odiwe's recent posts are amongst the most fascinating it has ever been my pleasure to read. Let us all hope that we can, with brazen confidence, someday declare that the pretty young lady in the Rice Portrait is none other than a gorgeous Jane Austen. If we can add to the pleasure that of identifying an even younger Jane in the Conversation Piece, we will be happy Janeites indeed. Keep following this story on Ms. Odiwe's blog, and I will follow up as more details are revealed. Most importantly, if anyone has any information that helps authenticate either painting or regarding the current whereabouts of the family portrait, please get in contact with Ms. Odiwe via her blog, as the Rices are (understandably) very anxious to get to the bottom of these mysteries.        

Monday, March 21, 2011

Jane's Fame by Claire Harman Giveaway Winner

My humblest apologies for my complete failure to post a winner for the Jane's Fame giveaway last week. I plead sun and sand as my excuse, which had the pleasant (if irresponsible) effect of completely wiping all responsibility from my brain. So with no further ado, the lucky winner is:

Ms. Dawn

Congratulations! I will be in touch via email to learn your mailing address. Thanks to all who entered, especially for sharing the many ways in which you think Austen's appeal has been so lasting and pervasive. Again, I am so sorry it took me so long to announce a winner. A lovely day to all!

The Watsons by Jane Austen and Another Lady by Helen Baker

It is in my long term plans to read all of Helen Baker's Austen continuations, and this relatively unknown writer has been prolific in the genre, ever since I was charmed by her continuation of Sanditon, entitled The Brothers by Jane Austen and Another Lady (read my review here). It seemed logical to proceed next to her continuation of The Watsons, especially as the only other attempt at finishing it that I have read, by Joan Aiken, I found rather unsatisfying (read my thoughts on that work here). The Watsons is a troubling fragment, the only work we have from Austen dating from her time in residence at Bath, as it is far more melancholy than her other novels. While retaining the author's distinctive tone, her usual sparkling wit is extremely muted. Unlike a later Emma, Miss Woodhouse, the circumstances in which Emma Watson finds herself are thoroughly melancholy, and in Ms. Aiken's version, they only become more intensely so. Perhaps my favorite aspect of this completion by Ms. Baker is the fact that she finds a way to rescue Emma, as well as the rest of the family, from her extreme difficulties, providing a satisfyingly happy ending to Austen's starkly dire beginning. The means by which this is accomplished is a bit sordid, relying on the controversial topic of bigamy, but as this is the only aspect in which the text strays from what I would consider appropriately Austeninian topics, I found it did not hinder my overall enjoyment of the piece.

Ms. Baker begins her story before Austen commenced, detailing the circumstances in which Emma's Aunt and longtime guardian, Mrs. Turner, looses her husband and then falls in love with the problematic Captain O'Brien, the event that results in Emma being thrust back into the bosom of her struggling family, whom she has not seen since a very young age. This is where she turns to Austen's fragment, complete and unaltered, before continuing on to finish the tale. The insertion is done very seamlessly, and I had to refer back to my copy of The Watsons to confirm where Austen ended and Ms. Baker began. She must be commended not only for capturing Austen's tone so well, but also for remaining true to the original characterizations. My one complaint in this matter is that the gentleman set up at the rogue of the piece, one Tom Musgrave, while remaining meddlesome and an overall bother, does not live up to his potential as a heart breaker. I would have liked to see him more thoroughly discredited. However, perhaps the fact that the scenario in which our heroine is placed in is already so fraught with dramatic tension made Ms. Baker decide that a thorough rogue was unneeded.

There are two choices which Austen presented as potential heroes: Lord Osborne and his former tutor and local clergy man, Mr. Howard. I very much approve of the choice between the two that Ms. Baker made. On the other hand, the manner in which she directs Elizabeth, the eldest Watson sister's, heart I felt was not supported by Austen's beginning. I would, in general, have liked to have seen more done with Elizabeth, by far the most pleasant and companionable of Emma's sisters. She deserves a more decided and prosperous fate. Also, while the fates of the characters decidedly improve in Ms. Baker's hands, the tone of the story retains the melancholia with which Austen commenced. I would love to see someone finish this story in a manner that brings it in line with Austen's other works, allowing it to not only entertain and instruct, but also amuse. Perhaps one day I will take a stab at it myself.

I very much look forward to reading the rest of Ms. Baker's books, which include The Book of Ruth (a Pride and Prejudice sequel), Connivance (a Persuasion sequel focused on Mrs. Clay), Precipitation: A Continuation of Miss Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (this one focuses on Miss Bingley), Playfulness (a Mansfield Park sequel focused on Miss Crawford), and Miss Jane Austen's Lady Susan: Revived. She has also written a variety of other books, all of which can be purchased in both paperback and pdf format from her storefront. Ms. Baker has agreed to do an interview with me, though I am waiting to read more of her novels before composing my questions. I urge everyone to read Ms. Baker's sadly overlooked books. They deserve far more attention than they have yet received.    

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Dearest Cousin Jane by Jill Pitkeathley

I ordered a copy of Dearest Cousin Jane book, despite the ire that Jill Pitkeathley's earlier book, Cassandra and Jane (read my review here), roused in me, because I could not resist the notion of a novel primarily focused upon that infinitely fascinating actor in all Austen biographies, Eliza Hancock de Feuillide Austen. This glamorous cousin and later sister-in-law of Jane's must intrigue any who read her biographies. As Lady Pitkeathkey (as in my previous review of her work, I cannot deny myself the pleasure of using her formal title) succinctly summarizes in the Afterward, which begins with emphasizing the limited scope of Austen's life experiences:
[Jane's] first cousin Eliza, by contrast, led a most eventful life. Born in India , quite possibly the illegitimate daughter of the great Warren Hastings, who stood trial for treason, she frequented the Frech court of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette before the Revolution, married a French Comte wo was executed in the Reign of Terror, escaped capture herself by the mob on two occasions, mixed with the cream of London society, was a brilliant hostess, and eventually married Jane's favorite brother before dying of breast cancer before she was fifty.
Such a story cannot but fascinate, and I am pleased to say that I found this latest novel far more satisfying than its predecessor. It is told largely in a diary-esque format, switching from one teller's perspective to the next, and supplemented by both fictional letters and excerpt from real correspondence. The most prominent voices represented are those of Eliza, Jane, their cousin Philly Walter, Mary Lloyd Austen, and Henry Austen, though many members of the family are given the opportunity to express their perspectives. I was particularly amused by Lady Pitkeathley's projecting upon Philly a temperament akin to Aunt Norris', a similarity she has Jane herself acknowledge (in speaking of the planned cast of Mansfield Park, she says, "one is so crotchety as to put us all in mind of cousin Philly"), and casting Mary as a cross between Mary Musgrove ("It is always my luck to miss out whenever anything pleasant is occurring") and Fanny Dashwood. These likenesses are a bit bizarre in light of the fact that, throughout the novel, Jane denies drawing characters from real life, but I find I can be lenient with this inconsistency.

Just like Lady Pitkeathley's previous book, this book cannot be taken as strict biography, but I found its fictionalizing of historical fact far less troubling than I did in the that earlier attempt, even though Jane and Cassandra's characters are clearly premised upon the former representation. I believe this is due to the fact that the story stays within the confines of Eliza's lifespan and remains largely focused upon her. There is just far less personal attachment and preconceived notions to be offended in regards to this character than there was with Cassandra, from whose perspective Cassandra and Jane was written. Furthermore, Lady Pitkeathley's focus on Eliza as a major influence upon Jane is not only believable, but also an idea easily supported by the biographical information that exists. She paints an endearing and sympathetic portrait of this fascinating character, and I am happy to be able to warmly recommend it to all Janeites.

One last thought. In my review of Cassandra and Jane I expounded upon my frustration that Lady Pitkeathley seemed to express in that book opinions disparaging to writers of JAFF. While nothing in the text of Dearest Cousin Jane similarly offended me, there was one statement in the Afterward that hinted at a similarly dismissive attitude. It is, in fact, the sentence immediately preceeding the one I quoted at the beginning of this post:
Yet from that limited experience [Austen] wrote six almost perfect novels that are world famous, constantly analysed, always at the top of any favourite novel list, and that provide endless material not only for academic study but for popular films and television adaptation.
I only mention it because of the noticeable absence, in this list of "endless material", of fiction writers, amongst whom I would readily rank Lady Pitkeathley. Clearly she continues to consider her pursuits academic rather than this apparently sad thing we lesser writers engage in called fan fiction. Such sentiments make me feel like the recipient of one of Lady Catherine's sincere and frank set downs, and having declared so much, like Elizabeth Bennet, I have nothing further to say.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Pemberley Ranch by Jack Caldwell

Pemberley Ranch by Jack Caldwell, a revised version of Pride and Prejudice set in post-Civil War Era Texas, deals directly with the cultural divisions and misunderstandings, many that persist into the present day, between the North and South in the US. Now while I am a thorough Yankee, I am the only person in my father's entire family to be born, raised, and permanently residing outside of the state of Texas. Not only does my family's heritage put me in a position to understand (and be utterly bewildered by) the unique characteristics of Texans, but, having lived in other southern states, I have also had ample opportunity to observe the ongoing confusion that exist between the northern and southern perspectives. So before I discuss the compelling and exciting manner in which Mr. Caldwell reimagined Pride and Prejudice, I think it essential to address what appears to me to have been the other agenda of this book: correcting many of the persistent myths about why this country went to war with itself.

American History text books tend to rap up their discussion of this bloody episode in a clean and precise manner. The Southern economy was premised upon slave labor, something about states rights, Abraham Lincoln elected, the South succeeded, Gettysburg, Lee surrenders, yada yada yada. The overall message is that the moral North triumphed over a sinful South. Gone With the Wind brings Sherman and romance into the picture, and sometimes teachers dwell on the technological improvements born out of the necessity of war. Mr. Caldwell presents a more complex picture of the conflict, reminding us of the economic complexities that really drove this country to the brink, the horrors perpetuated by both sides, and the crippling costs of war. This book has so much to offer the Civil War history buff, particularly if that buff happens to be from Texas and feels that unquenchable, native pride for the Lone Star State. Texans are a unique breed, perfectly assured of the superiority of their state, still throwing the idea of succession about, and seeing Darcy and Elizabeth recast in this guise is shocking, in a stunning manner, to the senses.

The book follows the plot of Pride and Prejudice relatively closely considering the cultural changes enacted upon it, except that Jane and Bingley, now doctor for the small central Texas town of Rosings, are married right off the bat, and the Wickham and Lady Catherine characters are elevated to a level of such malevolence that their original counterparts seem like perfectly charming companions in comparison. The class divide that separates Darcy and Elizabeth in Austen's tale, while it still does exist, is largely replaced by their regional identities. The Bennet family moves to Rosings from Ohio, and Elizabeth, simply Beth in this tale, holds a particular grudge against the South on behalf of a brother who died in the conflict, while Darcy is healing from the traumatic wounds inflicted by his time in Northern POW camps. The scenario translates surprisingly well, the drama of the original story amplified by the frontier setting, complete with cowboys, outlaws, saloon girls, and, of course, gun fights. I admit to being revited from beginning to end.

A warning for the weary - there are a couple of sexy scenes, but they are suitable to the plot and setting and did not cause me the usual discomfort I feel when reading such details, Mr. Caldwell having painted a world so very alien to that of Austen's. The book is also decided masculine in feel, and I am always enthused by undertakings of this sort by men. Frankly, while I do feel that some of the female emotions were less believable than is usual in the genre, the men burst to life in this text in a beautifully developed manner. It's fascinating to see Darcy's perspective so sympathetically portrayed, while Elizabeth is elevated into the the role of idealized fantasy that he usually occupies. I highly recommend the book and can particularly give it my endorsement as excellent beach reading. If I keep up with my book per day consumption for the remainder of this vacation, it will indeed have proven a most satisfying holiday.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

1932 by Karen M. Cox

So here I am in gorgeous Naples, Florida, soaking up the sun, enjoying some rest and relaxation before baby arrives, and making some headway on my TBR pile. I started 1932 by Karen M. Cox last night and finished it poolside this afternoon. It's a setting that makes any book better, but this one would have been enjoyable anywhere. Ms. Cox takes Pride and Prejudice and relocates the characters to Depression Era Kentucky, a period in time which has particular resonance with our contemporary economic situation, while simultaneously asking a very similar question to that Abigail Reynolds posed in her novel Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy: The Last Man in the World - what would have happened if Elizabeth had not refused Mr. Darcy's initial proposal? Mr. Bennet (now Dr. Bennet) having lost his position as a college professor, and, subsequently, his home in Chicago, is forced to relocate his family to the small Kentucky town of Meryton where they try to make a living at the farm (Longbourn) where Mrs. Bennet grew up. Elizabeth quickly catches the eye of Mr. Darcy, whose farm at Pemberley is the most prosperous in the district. Thinking his interest in her is based in disapproval, Elizabeth is taken aback when she receives his unexpected proposal but agrees to marry him anyway due to the dire straits of the Bennet family's finances.

This is not the only way in which our original tale has been turned upon it's head. George Wickham does not rear his ugly head until well after the Darcys marry, proving a complication to the couple as they struggle to build a loving relationship. Also, since Darcy has never learned to check his pride, Elizabeth attempts to hide many aspects of her family's struggle from him, creating a further source of distrust in their fragile relationship. I found these aspects, as well as others, provided an effective and compelling perspective on this beloved story. Ms. Cox stays true to the essence of the characters while casting them in an entirely new scenario, keeping me interested and engaged from beginning to end.

I must express my discomfort with the sex scenes, rather inevitable in JAFF that focuses on the Darcys' post-marital relationship, but I give Ms. Cox credit for seeing the couple safely married before exploring the more private aspects of their relationship (an issue still paramount in 1930s society), as well as for doing so in a non-gratuitous fashion. If we must have sex, at least in this novel it is relevant to the plot. Having provided this caveat, I have no qualms with giving this novel an enthusiastic recommendation. It is both well written and entertainingly original.

I apologize for the brief nature of this review, but I am on vacation. I will begin another resetting of Pride and Prejudice, Pemberley Ranch, this evening, and will provide a review of it when done. I am interested in comparing these historical reimaginings - a decidedly new take on Austenesque - side by side. They have been sitting on my desk beckoning to me for too long, and I am thrilled to finally have the leisure to devour both.  

Friday, March 11, 2011

Northanger Abbey Janeicillin: Part Two

Read Part One.

After allowing her daughter what Mrs. Morland considered to be an excessive amount of emotional indulgence, Catherine was called upon to leave the false comfort of her now tear sodden pillow and take back up her normal activities around the parsonage. Her work was resumed to a degree, for while her mother's gentle reminders of the importance of cultivating good housekeeping skills kept her diligent in trying to complete Richard's cravats, she did not make much more progress than she had before Mr. Tilney's visit. A fanciful mind, under the influence of the joys and heartbreaks that her near engagement had simultaneously bestowed, will understandably wander. Catherine could not decide what held greater sway: the felicity of knowing that her love was returned, or the disappointments attendant upon the need for indefinite delay. No matter how she pondered, no scheme revealed itself with which to sway General Tilney's opinion of her. Mrs. Morland remained insistent that he would, inevitably, allow his son to marry where he chose, but Catherine, with her better knowledge of the General's character, could not bring herself to such an optimistic perspective.

It was with great relief that Mrs. Morland welcomed a letter, not many days later, addressed from Glocestershire. A brief consul with her husband proving that both were of like minds in that no harm could come from the correspondence, particularly if they did not inquire too closely into the matter, she passed the missive onto her daughter, and was notably relieved to see Catherine's aspect cheered by its sight. While we can honor the good sense that drove the Morlands to respect their daughter's privacy on this matter, I feel no such scruples or need to behave in a similarly pragmatic fashion, and therefore happily transcribe the content of the communication:

My Dear Catherine,

Though only a few days have passed since I was last in your company, I find that life at Woodston has become nonsensically dull. Though you were only ever here once, I see you wherever I look. The parlor you so admired will be furnished posthaste, so that it is ready to welcome you on that happy day when I can bring you to your new home. In the meantime, there are several improvements I think might be enacted on the grounds, and though I have no notion if you should approve of my taste, I find I care little as the occupation is a welcome distraction from our unhappy separation. Once you are installed as mistress, replacing the phantom that currently haunts the parsonage in your place, you may make any alterations you so choose. See what you have done to me, dear Catherine? I, who have always fancied myself a sensible man, have adopted the same sort of fantastic notions usually reserved for the heroines you so admire. At least my ghost is a happy one. If I cannot have the real Miss Morland, I shall have to make do, for the time being, with her shade.

And how do you pass your time, my love? Please write to me with all the little details of your daily life. I promise not to take the Allens in dislike just because they enjoy your happy visits while I languish in deprivation. Indeed, I must ever be thankful for their bringing you to Bath and into my life. You must commend Mrs. Allen on the extraordinary value derived from that particular muslin she wore to the Lower Rooms on the evening of our introduction, for I am sure it was my extensive understanding of ladies' fashions that first made you look favorably upon me, as it certainly could not have been the trivial conversation that I insisted on imposing upon you. Perhaps I should not inquire, but did the gown you wore on that particular night – the sprigged muslin with blue trimmings – fray as I then predicted? I do recall seeing you in it again, and though I noticed no unusual wear at that time, you must understand the great joy I would derive from having my prediction proved accurate. Not that I wish such a fetching garment be lost to you, my dear, but if I may prove my expertise in the one area, I will feel more assured of my triumph in the theater of home decorating which I currently explore. Tell me, do you favor blue or green damask for a sofa? I shall not inquire if you prefer yellow, for I know such a violation of taste to be inconceivable on your part. My estrangement from Northanger means that I cannot call upon Eleanor's good judgment on such matters. I do worry for my sister at this time, as she must be fearfully lonely. I must see if I cannot smuggle her some new books to enjoy. As I already know your very strong feelings regarding History, may I inquire which novels you would recommend? Has that something shocking you predicted yet been released upon unsuspecting London town? I am sure it would perfectly suit my present purpose.

Until we meet again, which I pray will be at no distant time, I am faithfully yours,


P.S. If you truly prefer yellow, I suppose I can learn to tolerate it.

Such a letter could only bring smiles to Catherine's face. References to their past happiness and future felicity combined to make her quite cheerful for the remainder of the day, a welcome sight to her parents. Between writing her response, walking to the post office to mail it, and visiting with Mrs. Allen to discuss Mr. Tilney's surprising knowledge of fabric, Catherine even found motivation to finish one of Richard's cravats! The morrow might bring about a renewal melancholy, but with more letters to look forward to, Catherine began to feel she might bear the separation tolerably well.

If Catherine had time to dwell upon the plight of others, she might very well be thankful for her present happy state. The schism that Henry Tilney's insistent pursuit of the unacceptable Miss Morland enacted between himself and his father caused no greater suffering than that endured by their sister and daughter, Eleanor. These were indeed sad and lonely times for Miss Tilney, abandoned at Northanger Abbey with little company other than that of the servants. Following Catherine's eviction from the house, General Tilney was not long in returning to London, thereby depriving his daughter of even his rather dictatorial companionship. Eleanor was no stranger to hardship, and in these trying times she turned to those same occupations and diversions which had helped her to weather all the disappointments of her life, though the loss of Henry was no small disadvantage to her circumstances. Upon both her mother's death and her forced separation from one young Captain Johnson, a companion in arms of Captain Tilney's, it was the presence of this most sympathetic brother that lifted her spirits. Now that his comforting attention was denied her, Eleanor found her lot hard indeed. It was not easy for her, in her forced isolation, to make convivial friends, and the entrance of Miss Morland into her life had been nearly as great of a boon to her as it had been to Henry. She was proud of her brother's defiance of their father, as asking Catherine to leave Northanger Abbey had been one of the most difficult tasks she had ever been called upon to perform, but she could not help feeling jealousy of the circumstances that allowed him to pursue his own path while she remained under the total command of her father. The future appeared bleak, the only possible means of escape marriage to a gentleman of the General's choosing, selected for his wealth and position rather than the likelihood that he would make her happy. This prospect seemed to only be the substitution of one form of tyranny for that of another, and Eleanor could not take comfort in it. Yet she diligently applied herself to the demands of the household, plied her needle, and studied her books, all in attempt to drive sadness from her soul, and all the time unaware of the events currently unfolding that would act to decidedly improve her fortunes.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ta-Nehesi Coates of The Atlantic and Jane Austen

A decidedly non-Janeite friend of mine recently brought to my attention the fact that Ta-Nehesi Coates, a senior editor of The Atlantic and blogger at, has recently been on an self-described "Jane Austen binge". Of course, I had to investigate this phenomenon. The first blog post I found referencing Miss Austen dates from the 1st of February and is entitled "The Vocab", in which he morns the loss of elegance in modern English, quoting Pride and Prejudice as an example:
Continuing my efforts to understand "ladyhood," I've taken to listening to Pride and Prejudice:

Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develope. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

This has nothing to do with "ladyhood," but one of the things I've loved about my current pursuit is seeing all the forgotten ways English can be used. You just don't hear people described as being of "mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper" anymore. A few chapters later Austen describes a character who's reading--"With a book, he was regardless of time." There's something beautiful in that which I'm struggling to name.
Well! I certainly can appreciate Mr. Coates sense of aesthetics, and so pressed on through his blog posts. Three days later, in a post entitled "He Was All Attention to Everyone", he continues to express a keen appreciation for Austen's prose:
Jane Austen again:

Within a short walk of Longbourn lived a family with whom the Bennets were particularly intimate. Sir William Lucas had been formerly in trade in Meryton, where he had made a tolerable fortune, and risen to the honour of knighthood by an address to the King, during his mayoralty. The distinction had perhaps been felt too strongly. 

It had given him a disgust to his business, and to his residence in a small market town; and, quitting them both, he had removed with his family to an house about a mile from Meryton, denominated from that period Lucas Lodge, where he could think with pleasure of his own importance, and, unshackled by business, occupy himself solely in being civil to all the world. For, though elated by his rank, it did not render him supercilious; on the contrary, he was all attention to everybody. By nature inoffensive, friendly, and obliging, his presentation at St. James's had made him courteous.

I think "The distinction had perhaps been felt too strongly," might be my new favorite sentence.
Wow! At this point, I'm stating to adore this man. Must read on - on February 18th, a post called "How Do You Teach Beauty?" begins like this:
Monica Potts chimes in on Jane Austen:

It's always been hard to be an Austen acolyte in America. I think, in college, many people discover that Austen was a feminist social satirist. Before that, most people probably dismiss her as a romance writer who is obsessed with women, their beaus, and so, so many walks. There's always an undercurrent of misogyny in dismissing her books as lady fare. But there aren't many people who know what a fantastic stylist she was, and I'm not sure forcing high school students to read Pride and Prejudice will ever solve that problem.
Mr. Coates proceeds to describe his own lack of interest in literature while in college, concluding with he statement, "But I do wonder what might have happened if, instead of droning on and on about recognizing foreshadowing and allegory, someone had said, this is the work of a fantastic stylist. I do wonder what might have happened if Jane Austen had been more than just another name on a 'need to know' list."

And the homage not only continues but increases. On February 18th, in an awesome post with an even more awesome title, "Jane Austen Just Dissed You", Mr. Coates expresses the awe and love for Jane that only a newly converted Janeite can, as we who have long adored her come to take for granted (it's inevitable - might as well admit it!) the greatness that Mr. Coates marvels at. I can only do justice to the post by quoting it in its entirety:
Mr. Collins offers his proposal to Charlotte Lucas. Jane Austen sets the scene:

In as short a time as Mr. Collins' long speeches would allow, everything was settled between them to the satisfaction of both; and as they entered the house he earnestly entreated her to name the day that was to make him the happiest of men; and though such a solicitation must be waived for the present, the lady felt no inclination to trifle with his happiness. The stupidity with which he was favored by nature must guard his courtship from any charm that could make a woman wish for its continuance; and Miss Lucas, who accepted him solely from a pure and disinterested desire of an establishment, cared not how soon that establishment were gained.

The stupidity with which he was favored by nature... 

I think Austen erects the most gorgeous and intricate sentences. They move with force in one direction, and with an incredible suddenness turn back on themselves. You think you're reading one thing, when in fact, you're reading something else. So often I've found myself confused by an irony poking out from the understructure of her sentences. There are no signs that say, "Hey I'm being ironic." It's so much more natural, and so absent of pretense.

And then, so as not to fall into the kind of blank-minded nihilism all around us today, she's capable of these moments of great romance. Here is Mr. Darcy proclaiming his feelings:

In an hurried manner he immediately began an enquiry after her health, imputing his visit to a wish of hearing that she were better. She answered him with cold civility. He sat down for a few moments, and then getting up, walked about the room. Elizabeth was surprised, but said not a word. 

After a silence of several minutes, he came towards her in an agitated manner, and thus began,``In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.''

This comes after paragraphs and paragraphs of violent language, of Austen carving up her characters and then serving them to the reader. But then in the middle of it all you get a scene like this. Again the language is built of irony--demanding that someone allow you to profess your love for them.

This is a really fun book.

Yes it certainly is, Mr. Coates, and it just gets better, as do his posts! Ten days later, in a February 28th post entitled, "To Make Sport For our Neighbors", he keeps it simple:
Jane Austen on the secret of life:

For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors and laugh at them in our turn?
Go Mr. Bennet! And in a March 1st post entitled "Snobbery", he tests the waters of Austen on film:
I tried watching a few scenes from the BBC's Pride and Prejudice. But as Awesome Jane would say, I quit the thing directly. I like the pictures in my head, and would not see them overthrown. Through their observation, I have garnered a first printing accessible to no one but me. My Pride and Prejudice, is truly mine, and I have no real interest in replacing it with a collective portrait. I don't want a literal picture of Mr. Darcy. The fog of my mind is clear enough.

Now, as we well know, once Mr. Coates has read everything Austen wrote he will have to embrace the films, because once you've had a taste you cannot get enough. Nevertheless, I find his current perspective extremely touching. He expresses the personal relationship Austen forges with her readers perfectly, continuing thusly:
I would go so far as to argue that the text, itself, forms a picture. For you approval, I present Mr. Darcy in love: 

I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.'

That is a truly muscular set of sentences, so understated, and yet brimming with passion. No ornamentation, just the elegant, simple work--I was in the middle before I knew I had begun.

Here is our champion, much earlier, in denial:

...Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her. He really believed, that were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.

I talked last week about how Austen's sentences turn back on themselves, almost as if they're fighting each other, and out of the conflict you get some sense of the character. Here is a man overrun by emotion, and yet of the erroneous belief that the strictures of his world, the rules of aristocracy will save him from himself. I will say that many of us know what it is to try to talk ourselves out of love. Darcy actually believes that no talking is necessary--society is the armor about him. It's all about the hubris of man, and our seductive sense that the institutions we erect are impregnable to nature, most especially, our own.
Of course I approve! The reason why Austen transfers so well onto film is precisely because of her ability, with almost no physical descriptions, to paint such precise portraits of her characters. Whether Darcy appears in our head as Laurence Olivier, Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen, or as an image of our own invention, he is always, indisputably, Mr. Darcy, just as Austen wrote him.

In a March 3rd post entitled, "I was In The Middle, Before I knew I Had Begin", when, just like anyone who has caught the Jane bug, Mr. Coates has moved on to Sense and Sensibility, he expresses himself gorgeously on the subject of Austen addiction, reflecting sentiments that every Janeite understands all to well:
I'm supposed to be reading about the history of antebellum Virginia. I decided to split that time with a bit more Austen. This is about learning how to write from a master. It's also about how classic works bestow a kind of immortality. Awesome Jane has been dead for centuries, and there is something so intimate about her style. I feel like she's talking to me, and strangely enough, only to me. It really is kind of sick to say this, but I think I'm in love.
"Awesome Jane"! I love it ! I suppose it's a modernization of "Devine Jane", an expression with which I must wonder if Mr. Coates is familiar. 

And the fun continued this week. On March 7th, in a post entitled, "Talk To Me Like I'm Stupid", which actually includes an image of a Victorian fashion plate (you heard me right!), Mr. Coates questions how fashions changed so dramatically from the Regency to the Victorian period. The man certainly is in the middle before he knew he had begun. I see promising signs of full blown obsession. And on the same day, in a post entitled "She Eats Writers Like Part of a Complete Breakfast", he compares Austen's use of language to hip-hop. I urge everyone to pay attention to Mr. Coates burgeoning Janiteism. Seeing her discussed side by side with modern politics and race relations is cold water in the face of all who claim she is irrelevant to contemporary society. Furthermore, Mr. Coates championing provides us with a modern negation of those ridiculous claims that her writing is strictly chick-lit, and let's face it, we need a living man to hold up as an example of her masculine appeal. You can follow Mr. Coates at We Janeites are a diverse group, and I am sure many of you will not agree with his politics, but I think we can all agree on "Awesome Jane".  

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Friday's Child by Geogette Heyer

I recently reread Friday's Child for the third time, and I still enjoy it just as much as I did the first time around. It is definitely one of my favorite Heyer novels, a remarkable fact when I consider that the main characters are some of the most vapid, shallow, and ridiculous I have ever encountered. Somehow, and I have not yet quite put my finger on why, I adore them anyway. Perhaps it is just that Hero Wantage and Lord Anthony Sheringham (Sherry to his friends) are so childish that they trigger a sense of affection in me? I'm not sure. What I can say for certain is that I feel an almost parental indulgence for their antics. No matter what scrapes they find themselves in, even when they pose danger to the feelings, and sometimes well-being, of others, my perfect humor and sympathy with them never waivers.

Our story begins with a failed proposal. Sherry fancies himself in love with his neighbor and current toast of the town, Isabella Milborne, and offers for her hand, more with the intention of freeing up his inheritance, held in trust until he marries or turns twenty-five, than settling down. Though he has convinced himself of his passion, debt is his true motivation, the inevitable result of a rakish lifestyle, and when Isabella rejects him, he vows to marry the next woman he sees. This just happens to be Hero, his childhood companion and longtime worshiper, who is in rather a predicament herself. The cousins who have long housed her have presented her with an ultimatum: accept the curate's offer of marriage or be sent to Bath to train as a governess. Sherry proposes the solution to both their troubles, and in a bizarre take on the marriage of convenience the two run off to London together, Hero hiding on the floor of Sherry's curricle to escape local notice.

Thus does Hero, the dependent cousin, become a viscountess. She and Sherry are married by private license the day after they arrive in London, and this is when the real fun begins. Initiated into Sherry's band of boon companions - his cousin, the scatterbrained Honorable Ferdinand Fakenham, the romantic and volatile Lord Wrotham, and the brains of the group (no difficult or notable feat), Mr. Gilbert Ringwood - Hero is introduced into a world to which few ladies of quality are ever exposed. She and Sherry rack up endless amounts of staggering expenses (Sherry buys no less than nine horses in a single afternoon) and engage in the kind of adventures that would cause proper ladies to faint. However, the inappropriateness of the situation he himself has created eventually works upon Sherry's notion of respectability (this is, after all, his very own wife who is spouting phrases like "bits of muslins" and frequenting gaming hells), driving the couple towards a more unexceptional mode of life. Fortunately for the reader, before we find ourselves at this happy conclusion, the laughs derived from this most unusual couple's lack of propriety are nonstop.

This book is one of both my and my husband's favorite novels to read aloud because the dialogue is so ridiculously amusing. I have no wish to deprive any potential reader of the outrageous joys the story contains and so must be very selective about what passages I choose to quote, but I think you get a sense of the atmosphere Heyer creates in this phenomenal book in the following scene during which, on the evening of their wedding, the newlywed couple dine with some of Sherry's friends:

The Honorable Ferdy, who had been pondering at intervals all day how his cousin's wife came by such a peculiar name, now introduced a new note into the conversation by saying suddenly: "Can't make it out at all! You're sure you've got that right, Sherry?"

"Got what right?"

"Hero," said Ferdy, frowning. "Look at it which way you like, it don't make sense. For one thing, a hero ain't a female, and for another it ain't a name. At least," he said cautiously, "it ain't one I've ever heard of. Ten to one you've made one of your muffs, Sherry!"

"Oh no, I am truly called Hero!" the lady assured him. "It's out of Shakespeare."

"Oh, out of Shakespeare, is it?" said Ferdy. "That accounts for my not having heard it before!"

"You're out of Shakespeare too," said Hero, helping herself liberally from a dish of green peas.

"I am?" Ferdy exclaimed, much struck.

"Yes, in the Tempest, I think."

"Well, if that don't beat all!" Ferdy said, looking around at his friends. "She says I'm out of Shakespeare! Must tell my father that. Shouldn't think he knows."

"Yes, and now I come to think of it, Sherry's out of Shakespeare too," said Hero, smiling warmly upon her spouse.

"No, I'm not," replied the Viscount, refusing to be dragged into these deep waters. "Named after my grandfather!"

"Well, perhaps he was out of Shakespeare, and that would account for it."

"He might have been," said Ferdy fair-mindedly, "but I shouldn't think he was. Mind you, I never knew the old gentleman myself, but from what I've heard about him I don't think he ever had anything to do with Shakespeare."

"Very bad ton, my grandfather," remarked the Viscount dispassionately. "Regular loose-screw. None of the Verelsts ever had anything to do with Shakespeare."

"Well, I dare say you must know best, Sherry, but only think of Anthony and Cleopatra!" argued Hero.

"Anthony and who?" asked Ferdy anxiously.

"Cleopatra. You must know Cleopatra! She was a Queen of Egypt. At least, I think it was Egypt."

"Never been to Egypt," said Ferdy. "Accounts for it. But I know a fellow who was in Egypt once. Said it was a sad, rubbishing sort of place. Wouldn't suit me at all."

Hero giggled. "Silly! Cleopatra is hundreds and hundreds of years old!"

"Hundreds of years old?" said Ferdy, astonished.

"Good God, you know what she means!" interpolated the Viscount.

Mr. Ringwood nodded. "She's a mummy," he said. "They have 'em in Egypt." He felt that this piece of erudition called for some explanation, and added: "Read about 'em somewhere."

"Yes, but the one I mean is in Shakespeare," said Hero. "I expect it's the same one, because he was forever writing plays about real people."

A horrible suspicion crossed Ferdy's mind. He stared fixedly at her, and said: "You ain't a blue-stocking, are you?"

"Of course she's not a blue-stocking!" cried the Viscount, bristling in defence of his bride. "The thing is she's only just out of the schoolroom. She can't help but have her head crammed with all that stuff!"

"Anyone can see she's not a blue-stocking," said Mr. Ringwood severely. "Besides, you oughtn't say things like that, Ferdy. Very bad ton!"

Mr. Fakenham begged pardon in some confusion, and said he was devilish glad. A fresh bogey at once raised its head, and he demanded, in accents of extreme foreboding, whether the evening's entertainment was to consist of Shakespeare. Upon being reassured, he was able to relax again and to continue eating his dinner in tolerable composure.

Such is the style of anti-intellectualism that pervades this story, a thing I would typically deplore, yet incongruously I love every moment of it. For all those who compare Heyer to Austen, I offer this novel up as a demonstration of the absurdity of the notion. Austen could never (would never) create these characters, who are more caricature than anything remotely based in reality. I continue to be amazed at Heyer's ability to entrance me with those who I must deplore, in a manner most antithetical to Austen, and perhaps none more so than Hero and Sherry. I cannot recommend this book enough and plan to have my husband read it to me, once again, while I am in labor, for nothing else could provide such a perfect distraction. I only fear that my laughter will prove an impediment to my ability to follow the doctors instructions, but that, I fear, simply cannot be helped.