Wednesday, December 10, 2008
But if I set out to write this book in hopes of answering through fiction a question that is unknowable through more rational methods of inquiry -- namely, what was Jane Austen like? -- it was only at this point that I felt prepared to hazard a guess. I had to spend a lot of time working through other questions: what is it like to be in 1815 London? What is Henry Austen like? How do people eat and use the bathroom and shop for clothing and amuse themselves and think about things?
And more and more as I write I realize that Miss Austen is, after all, only the MacGuffin, the device that propels the plot, which is actually about...well, that would be telling.
What is Jane Austen like? Like other people, only more so. I think of what Virginia Woolf said about her:
Here was a woman about the year 18oo writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That was how Shakespeare wrote, I thought, looking at ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA; and when people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments; and for that reason we do not know Jane Austen and we do not know Shakespeare, and for that reason Jane Austen pervades every word that she wrote, and so does Shakespeare.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Now I am reading another Austen-inspired fiction. Actually it is not entirely fictional: In Cassandra & Jane the author is writing from the perspective of Jane's sister, Cassandra, more than 20 years after Jane's death and nearing her own end, looking back at life with Jane and sorting her letters into two piles: those to be burned and those that can survive.
That destruction, of course, is a major sore point with Austen enthusiasts everywhere, and it's a brilliant idea to attempt to fictionally restore them. As she retells the story of Jane Austen's life, in a clearly well researched way, made-up excerpts from letters, filling in the tantalizing biographical gaps, mingle with excerpts from real ones.
The two major challenges this author poses for herself: to immerse herself in the mind and worldview of Cassandra Austen, a person living nearly 200 years ago, and to write letters (or fragments of letters) that Jane Austen might plausibly have written. Both are hard, but the second is much harder.
I haven't written about Jane Austen's letters here, though I think about them all the time. They are the main source of information about her personal and emotional life, and if you read enough biographies you see the same fragments quoted over and over. The trouble is that Jane Austen, a master of irony in her novels, is an even more ironic and unreliable narrator in her letters, particularly the ones to Cassandra, which are probably the bulk of those that exist. You can vividly see the quicksilver play of her mind at work, riffing on the trivialities of daily life with deadpan humor. But is she actually joking, sometimes?
Monday, September 29, 2008
Good for TJAP: Novels written (in English) before 1820 or dealing accurately with this period. Books somehow pertaining to Regency-era England.
Bad for TJAP: All other reading material.
Reading has, in fact, taken a hit over the past few weeks as I have made the astonishing discovery (at least, it astonished me) that it is actually possible to write in the subway. I used to consider this time useful only for reading. Now I can work on my draft. It's crucial, of course, to get a seat; I also do better if I have enough space to freely move my arm and am far enough away from my fellow passengers that I don't feel they are reading over my shoulder. (And wondering what kind of sad maniac they are sitting next to, who is earnestly writing in neat print in a marble notebook, phrases like "You should have him bled, Miss," she said.) But really, the main thing is getting a seat. I can write standing up on the platform, but not on a moving express train.
All I am really reading these days are the newspapers, fascinated as I am by the continuing slide of the world economy. It's like watching history being made before my eyes. Which has nothing to do with TJAP (therefore, bad for TJAP) I suppose. Though I do find myself thinking about the collapse of Henry Austen's bank in 1816, as well as wondering about the world of 2089 from which Rachel and Liam travel back from. I like to think that 2089 humanity would have solved the pesky problems that beset us now, like climate change, financial panic, war and religious intolerance. Though, from only the most cursory glance at history, I can't imagine why that would be the case. Inventing a time machine, which would involve only a major rewrite of the laws of physics, actually seems likelier than that.
I don't really dwell on the world that Rachel and Liam live in because that isn't what TJAP is about. But one must suppose that only a world in which people have solved most of the big problems would there be the luxury to worry about little ones, like, what was in all those letters Cassandra burned?
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
In the end it does start to verge on self-parody: the relentless perfection of Clarissa begins to grate on one. It happens, in fact, at the point she dies, which is about 200 pages from the end. Once that inimitable voice is silenced, the myth-making takes over. But as long as she is alive, her perfection seems possible -- she is so clearly working on self-mastery, on trying to be the best version of herself within the dreadful situations she is faced with that it somehow seems heroic and fabled rather than melodramatic and absurd.
I seem to have wandered a long way from Jane Austen, though I can make the argument that reading a key work of the century to which Austen was born into is important to understanding what shaped her. (Even though "Sir Charles Grandison" was supposedly actually her favorite work by Richardson; it explores the idea of a perfectly virtuous male character and got terrible reviews from both Wikipedia and Samuel Johnson.)
I feel a bit bereft. I am not sure what to read next.
Monday, September 8, 2008
Can I finish the next 200 pages in two days, in time to avoid library fines? (I think yes, if I am willing to basically not do anything else.)
Who else in Brooklyn could possibly want to read "Clarissa"? It is a borough of 2.8 million people, but still. Come on. (I would like to think they have been reading TJAP blog, but that is even more unrealistic than that I can avoid library fines.)
Sunday, September 7, 2008
(this one I have actually read already, soon after it came out seven or eight years ago, before I became a Jane Austen fanatic and was merely a P.D. James fanatic. Apparently she talks about how "Emma" is like a detective story. I had forgotten that part.)
The British Housewife: or, the Cook, Housekeeper's and Gardener's Companion
By Martha Bradley. Prospect books, 1997.
309 pages. Paperback. $19.
Almost Another Sister: Fanny Knight, Jane Austen's Favourite Niece
By Margaret Wilson.
George Mann of Maidstone, 1998.
x + 175 pages. Illustrations. Paperback, $20.00.
Fanny, Fanny, Fanny. Author of that so-mean letter about Jane in your old age. What happened? I hope this book will explain.
Jane Austen’s “Outlandish Cousin”: The Life and Letters of Eliza de Feuillide
By Deirdre Le Faye.
The British Library, 2002. 192 pages.
10 B/W illustrations. Hardcover. $35.00.
Many biographer see Eliza de Feuillide, whose second husband was none other than Henry Austen, as the fictional inspiration for Mary Crawford.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
It's Captain Jack Aubrey's favorite dish. In one of her letters, Jane Austen describes having just eaten some. But what is it, actually? Obviously there are pigs involved. My initial guess would have been that alcohol was somehow involved in the cooking process, like the 1815 equivalent of drunken chicken, but my limited Internet research, which led me to this fascinating book, suggests this is not the case:
SOUSED PIG’S HEAD AND FEET.
Clean them extremely well, and boil them; take for sauce part of the liquor, and add vinegar, lime or lemon juice, salt, cayenne, black and Jamaica pepper; put in, either cut down or whole, the head and feet; boil all together for an hour, and pour it into a deep dish. It is eaten cold with mustard and vinegar.
In fact, the first definitions listed of souse as a verb are "to pickle, or to plunge or steep in a liquid, or to make wet." The slang sense of "to make or become intoxicated," which is the one I thought of first, is only No. 4.
I've been thinking a lot about food in 1815 lately, having been writing a chapter in which my time-traveling characters go to dinner at Henry Austen's house. In general, they find the food of 1815 hard to get used to, particularly since in their world of 2089 nearly everyone is a vegetarian, and meat-eaters are regarded with the kind of pitying disdain that cigarette smokers face today. (I am imagining the world of 2089 with certain politically correct, eco-friendly trends of today taken to ridiculous extremes.)
In 1815 everyone was a locavore; there was no choice in the matter. My characters probably approve of this, but not so much Mrs. Dalgairns's merciless way with overcooking vegetables, i.e.:
TO BOIL LARGE WHITE CABBAGE.
Wash and clean them thoroughly; if large, cut them into quarters, or divide them; put them on in boiling water, and throw in a little salt; boil them for nearly two hours.
TO BOIL YOUNG GREEN CABBAGES.
Wash and clean them well; put them on in boiling water with a little salt in it, and let them boil quickly from three quarters to nearly an hour; serve with melted butter.
Quickly boil for nearly an hour? How is that quick? More proof of what we already suspected, that the 19th century had a different sense of time. Or maybe it just means a rapid boil?
Another fascinating difference: The Practice of Cookery has, in addition to a chapter about pork, a chapter about pigs: How to care for them and what to feed them, how to handle them after they are killed. (There are no instruction for actually killing the pig, making me wonder whether the potential readers of the cookbook outsourced this job, or it was something so obvious as to need no explaining.)
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
I read them strictly in the interests of market research, you might say. It was work, for it certainly could not be called pleasure. Horrible dictu, there is some really bad writing going on out there under the name of homage to Jane Austen. In part it goes back to the question of Whose Jane Austen? The Harlequin-infused chick-lit writers have claimed her as a kindred spirit, but to write a romance that invokes Jane Austen is to play a very dangerous game, by inviting comparisons that one is sure to lose. The only person I can think of who has really managed it is Helen Fielding in Bridget Jones's Diary, who not coincidentally has a firm grasp of irony, goes light on the Austen allusions and is very, very funny. If Jane Austen were alive today it is not difficult to imagine her writing a book like BJD. It is harder to imagine her writing something like --- no names, never mind. The usual suspects -- you know who they are. Some have even been made into movies. They all have "Jane Austen" somewhere in their titles, which might serve as a lighthouse, warning readers of rocky shoals of bad writing ahead.
But wait, my book has "Jane Austen" in the title! And there is, no doubt, some very bad writing in it, at least in the first draft I am positive there is. And since I haven't even finished the first draft, isn't a wee bit presumptuous to be criticizing writers who not only finished their (however dreadfully written) books, but actually found publishers for them? And so who, exactly, do I think I am?
You might well ask. All right, back to work.
Monday, August 25, 2008
Clarissa has fled the bawdy house where Lovelace had installed her and sought refuge in Hampstead Heath. (Which, according to the London public transport web site, she could have reached in about an hour from Convent Garden (I'm imagining her in CG because the neighborhood was a nest of vice in the mid 18th century) by subway, were she alive today. But I digress. If she were alive today, none of this would be happening, unless she had the misfortune to be born, say, in Afghanistan.) Lovelace, being as diabolical as he is clever as Clarissa is good, promptly finds her. He is intercepting the letters she and her only remaining friend, Anna Howe, are exchanging, substituting his words for theirs. This will not end well.
For all that I cannot seem to get through it, this is an astonishing book, like nothing I have ever read or imagined, both in the way it is told and what it has to say. If Penguin Classics had only published it in two volumes, I think I would be done by now. Frequently in the last month I found myself reluctant to take it on the subway -- if I had any other single thing to carry in addition to the usual essentials, or had to run any errand on the way to work, it just seemed too heavy.
I took a break and read Northanger Abbey -- the one Austen work I had not yet reread in the last year or so, finding it delightfully light, in both senses of the term, by comparison. Though it is definitely the slightest of her novels, and the most amateurish, if one can use a word like that in connection with Jane Austen. The early part in Bath is very funny, showing a mastery of irony astonishing in an author so young. It seems to drag a bit when Catherine gets to Northanger Abbey, with the awkward mix of the disparate elements that refuse to merge (faux-Gothic, more irony). Austen describes things, like rooms, much more than in any later work.
Henry is hilarious, utterly droll, but that he falls in love with Catherine seems unconvincing. He is so funny; she's so naive and prone to taking everything at face value that is hard to imagine that he finds her a particularly interesting companion. Or was this merely Jane Austen's subtle swipe at the preference of even intelligent men for air-headed women? Catherine is a dear creature, but she is no Elizabeth Bennet, no Emma Woodhouse or Anne Elliot.
Now I am back in the dark, relentless, claustrophobic world of Clarissa and Lovelace, there to remain for some time.
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Increasingly (I have read about 20 percent of the book) it seems to me that Clarissa's real tragedy was to be an extremely bright person, perhaps smarter than everyone around her, trapped in the body of a beautiful young woman in a time and a place that had no real use for intelligent women. Her verbal dexterity unsettles everyone; this is essentially why she is locked up. Though forbidden to write letters, of course she keeps doing so; finally pen, ink and paper are taken away from her (though she has hidden some of each, fortunately, since the plot would come to a standstill if not).
She accepts the limits put on women in her world, and yet demands to be accepted as a rational creature with free will, a stance which is outraging nearly everyone, especially her increasingly deranged and creepy brother. And what, I have to wonder, was Samuel Richardson thinking about when he created this character?
Jane Austen's tragedy is also to be brighter than everyone around her, in a time and place that afforded but little outlet for her genius. Yet she took this problem -- at least in the world of her creation, her novels and her letters -- and made it funny.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
I realized why few, if any, ever read "Clarissa" in an English class when I saw it waiting for me on the reserve shelf at the library. It is huge! As in, War and Peace huge, without the excuse of having years, generations, continents, an entire war (and a peace) to cover. As in 1,536 pages huge. What is more amazing, the events described in it take place over only nine months, giving rise to the possibility that a slow reader might take longer to read the action than Clarissa and her fictional friends did to live it. Being an epistolary novel adds to its real-time feeling. It is like watching paint dry, only slightly more suspenseful, I marvel to myself, and yet somehow I keep reading it.
In some ways, I am reminded of a fairy tale. Clarissa Harlowe, beautiful, intelligent and virtuous, is shunned and abused by her relatives for refusing to marry the horrid man they have selected for her. Envy seems to be at the root of the problem: Clarissa's grandfather has left her considerable property, passing over his sons and two other grandchildren, which has sent Clarissa's odious brother and sister, who never liked her anyway, over the edge. Some in Clarissa's family --her mother, and an aunt -- secretly sympathize but are too beaten down to stand up for her. Complicating Clarissa's situation is that the notorious rake Lovelace, whom the sister at one point aspired to marry despite his "faulty morals," has turned his attentions to Clarissa. The family cannot abide Lovelace, because he nearly killed Clarissa's brother in a duel (long story). The obsessive concern that she will run away with Lovelace anyway, thus making them all look like fools, leads to the decision to essentially imprison her in the house.
A key plot point of "Tom Jones" is also the effort to marry a virtuous young woman (Sophia Western) off to a man she loathes, making me wonder how often this problem occurred in real life at the time. Or was it simply a fictional device with a lot of potential? In "Pride and Prejudice," this motif appears, but with a highly comic treatment, when Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth Bennet. More seriously, Fanny Price feels pressure to accept Henry Crawford in "Mansfield Park," but it is of a far more subtle kind. And no Austen parent would think of accepting on behalf of the young women, as Sophia and Clarissa's fathers do without hesitation. Whether the status of women changed so much in 50-60 years, or Austen's novels are simply truer to life, cannnot be determined from the information given.
Saturday, July 19, 2008
Friday, July 18, 2008
In our own time, this could be best described as the split between the people who really, really, really like that scene in the A&E 1995 version of "Pride and Prejudice" in which Colin Firth dives into a pond at Pemberely, perhaps even to the point of not realizing there is no such scene in the book -- perhaps because they never read the book! -- and the people who... well, who think those people are airheads.
Although this divide may have become more acute since the 1990s and the rash of Jane Austen adaptations for TV and film that have followed, it is in fact far older, and relates to a certain duality in how Jane Austen has been perceived ever since the beginning, relates in fact to the very ambiguity at the heart of her work. Was she a sweet, genteel lady who wrote light, romantic novels about young women's husband-hunting? Or was she one of the greatest geniuses ever to write in English, producing subtle work of surpassing irony under the guise of writing light, romantic novels about young women's husband-hunting?
To which I can only reply, yes. One reading need not rule out the other. A reader (or viewer) drawn to Jane Austen for the cozy, romantic aspects of her work may later find there is more to it than immediately meets the eye. Or not, in which case they have still had a lot of fun, and a glancing encounter with something more bracing than Harlequin romances.
It is, of course, the serious people who really can't stand the Pemberley-pond camp, both because they fear being lumped with them, and because they feel that these morons are somehow unworthy of their Jane, and are indeed sullying her with their regard.
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Likewise, Emma Woodhouse, with a fortune of £30,000 (notice how the woman's wealth is expressed in a lump sum, while men's wealth is expressed as annual income, as was the convention of the time) is the wealthiest of Jane Austen's heroines. (While Jane Austen's actual circumstances, as the unmarried daughter of clergyman living with her widowed mother, were closer to the unfortunate Miss Bates.) But what does Emma's £30,000 mean, really? It makes Mr. Elton want to marry her, but as she herself reflects, failing to win Miss Woodhouse with £30,000, he would be just as happy to marry Miss Someone Else with £20,000 or £10,000. A fortune of £10,000, as I recall, is what sparks Mr. Wickham's sudden interest in Mary King ("that nasty little freckled thing," as Lydia calls her).
Small amounts of money are not as important in Jane Austen, but I am sure I am not the only American reader to be baffled by English money. What, exactly, is a quid? A bob? How many shillings in a pound? Where do guineas fit in? This I have finally gotten around to figuring out, with the help of "All Things Austen," an amazing two-volume guide I recommend to everyone with an extra $157.95 they are unsure of how to wisely spend.
Old-style English money consisted of pounds, shillings and pennies (pence). Twelve pence in a shilling, 20 shillings to a pound, thus 120 pence in a pound. They were abbreviated as £, s and d, of which only the £ makes any sense to me. A guinea, which seems a most unnecessary unit of money, was 21 shillings. Confusing the issue were coins like the crown (five shillings) and the half-crown (2s, 5d), the half guinea (10s, 6d), the third guinea (7s) and the half pound. As well as the sixpence, immortalized in the nursery rhyme.
But I think the shilling level is what makes it most confusing for modern readers conditioned to think in the decimal world of dollars and cents. Those stockings Jane mentions in a letter that cost 4s 3d a pair. (4 x12 + 3): Why not just say they cost 51 pence? Who knows, but people did not, as the literature makes clear.
Monday, July 7, 2008
Jane Austen did all right. But she was not famous. Quite the contrary, for, as is well known, during her lifetime the authorship of her books were ascribed to "A Lady" (Sense and Sensibility, her first published work) and later to "The Author of Sense and Sensibility" or "The Author of Pride and Prejudice." She sought to avoid not merely being famous, but being known at all. And this raises two questions. One is, why? And the other is, what are some strange effects this had?
The why is fairly simple. Jane Austen came from a social class and a milieu in which respectable woman did not seek public notice. She was no Mary Wollstonecraft, nor was meant to be; compared to her Fanny Burney was a wild woman.
The effects it had are more complicated to relate, but I think the primary one, at least the one I keep going back to, is this: Everything, really that we know about Jane Austen, in a first-person, I've-met-her sort of way, comes from her family. Not only that, but almost entirely from relatives of the generation that followed hers, nieces and nephews who remembered her from childhood, or young adulthood, as a friendly maiden aunt. People, in late middle age, combing their memories for recollections of their now quite-famous Aunt Jane.
Can you possibly imagine anything more doomed than that? Less certain to provide a one-sided and limited view of a person who had to be, at the very least, pretty complex?
And it gets worse. Jane Austen, b. 1775, came of age in the robust, earthy 18th century intellectual climate of Johnson, Boswell, Fielding et al. A world where respectable people could still joke about subjects like bedbugs, drunkenness and illegitimate births. Her nieces and nephews lived under Queen Victoria, reading Dickens and George Eliot. A nagging sense that Aunt Jane was perhaps not entirely genteel, not altogether The Angel in the House, seems to suffuse their memories. Not in what they say, but what they don't.
Of course, we do know about her from her own letters. But that is a subject for another day.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
Jane Austen fanlit avant la lettre apparently began almost 100 years ago, according a review from The Times of London. In 1913, to be precise, with "Old Friends and New Fancies" by Sybil G. Brinton, whom The Times snidely describes as "an author of towering obscurity" (Hey, that could describe a lot of us). The book
"takes three dozen characters from the original novels, intertwines their lives and ties up the loose ends with three marital knots.
In an ideal literary world, the resulting jamboree would be full of wry irony. (“Isn’t that General Tilney over there? Didn’t we last meet him at Mansfield Park?” “I fear you are mistaken, my dear, we met him at Northanger Abbey.”) Brinton, however, does not do wryness. For all the ingenuity of her game of literary Consequences, the result is bland and, to nonaddicts (who can’t understand all the fuss about Jane) bewildering."But I want to read it anyway. I propose to look for it just as soon as I finish with Tom Jones, Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict and The Truelove. But the book I really want to read is my own, the one I am currently at work on, in which two people from 2089, a doctor (and Jane Austen fan) and a professor (and amateur actor) travel back to 1815 as part of a top-secret mission with a title not unlike the title of the blog that you, dear reader, have before you. Their mission is to recover for posterity and literary historians the lost letters of Jane Austen, the ones Cassandra burned before she died because they were apparently too juicy, too mean, or too something. In addition, they hope to resolve the mystery of what Jane Austen really died of at the relatively tender age of 41.
I blame the genesis for this book on two things: Patrick O'Brian and insomnia. The former has consistently amazed me with his seemingly supernatural ability to immerse himself in the world of the early 19th century, with how his Aubrey-Maturin novels bear what must be such a staggering amount of research as lightly as a feather. The latter was the cause of my lying awake one night about 3 a.m. Having seemingly exhausted all other topics of thought, I found myself thinking about how the world of Jack Aubrey (a sea captain in the Royal British Navy) takes place offstage, as it were, a Jane Austen novel. (Is not his very name a subtle salute to her?)
The same time, the same country, the same social class. Two of her brothers were sea captains and eventually, admirals; they could have met Jack Aubrey, had he actually existed. In "Persuasion," the last completed Austen novel, the heroine marries a sea captain. In one POB book, the fictional Aubrey commands a real ship, the Leopard, that at one point had been under the command of Jane Austen's older brother Frank.
I thought about the contrast between the two worlds, so close but so far apart, one full of storms, cannon fire, shipwrecks, captivity and trips to exotic ports. The other finding its adventures in drawing rooms and conversation, in the chasm between what people say and what they think. Yet the real drama, in both worlds, is human nature.