Saturday, December 19, 2009

Good vs. Good Enough

I don't know. All this long, horrifying time that I have been writing, or failing to write, Chapter 20, I kept thinking, what an astonishing piece of shit this chapter is! How did it come to this? How have I sunk so far?

But when I finally came to the end, turned the corner and saw it was done, I printed it out, sat down and read it and felt that, well, maybe it wasn't all that bad. It held my attention, even though I knew how it ends.

And to this moment, I do not know which impression is the correct one. They both seemed so vivid.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Both Funny and True

Fran Lebowitz on why people like Jane Austen for the wrong reasons.
Great but not developed sufficiently. She could write 20 pages on this subject and I would be so happy to read it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Dusting Off the Desk

Lots of chatter in the blogosphere of what Jane Austen actually died of!

And many interesting people pursuing JA in their own special ways.

November was terrible for writing. Ghastly, forgettable. Today, staring down the barrel of the year-end, I finally emptied my mind of other things and sat down to concentrate on Chapter 20. The result was not amazing, but it was encouraging.


Monday, November 16, 2009

@the Morgan Library

I went to the exhibit.

Actually, I joined the Morgan Library, so I could go repeatedly, the chance to see Jane Austen's actual letters being something that does not happen every day, even in New York. So I plan to go back.

Here, then, are my very first impressions: The exhibit is confined in too small a space. The Gillrays, however, are great. I had seen them reproduced in many books, and digitized in various British museums, but there is nothing like seeing an actual print, life-size, in front of you.

The letters of Jane Austen! Oh, what can I say? She has wonderful handwriting, tiny, perfectly even and perfectly spaced, with never a blot, matching to her what her younger relatives remembered of her being dexterous and clever in every handy undertaking: needlework, spillikins and cup-and-ball. Her handwriting is in fact so perfect you might be tempted to think this is something innate to people from the 18th century, were it not that Morgan had happened to also collect one of the letters to JA from James Stanier Clarke, the librarian to the Prince Regent, who wrote to JA after her visit to Carlton House, the Prince Regent's London home, in the fall of 1815. His handwriting is a sloppy, random disaster, something I might produce if you gave me a quill and ink. And he had been using a quill and ink all his life, unlike me. So perfectly spaced, perfectly composed handwriting, such as you see in the letters of Jane Austen or facsimiles of the Declaration of Independence are not ordinary, but examples of unusually orderly minds, and unusually dexterous hands.

@ the exhibit: numerous letters are on display, as well as other rare examples of words actually written by Jane Austen: manuscript pages of "Lady Susan," "The Watsons," the "Plan for a Novel, According to Suggestions From Various Quarters." And yet no transcriptions are provided, and I cannot help wondering why. It's not like we don't know what they say: they have all been transcribed. I have read them all. Despite the perfect evenness of JA's handwriting, they are not so easy to read that you can read them standing there over a glass case.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

File Under Yes!

Oh, good Lord, Ms. Gold, I could not agree more.

Do you remember Becoming Jane (2007)? "Society expected her to marry," said the unforgettable trailer, "but Jane Austen had ideas of her own." You think? Austen was played by Anne Hathaway, a skeletal actress with a big smug grin. If Austen had looked like her, she would never have written a word – she would have been staring in a mirror, saying, "I am hot, I am smoking, I am babelicious." I remember the anger still. I remember thinking, Hollywood has raped Jane Austen. They have turned the patron saint of celibates into a hottie. Austen's writing was incidental, a stuck-on accident that unfortunately had to be mentioned. "What is Jane doing?" asks a character. "Writing," was the reply.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Chapter 19

First, the Wordle.

It's funny what, you know and what you don't know. I was startled when I wrote a sentence yesterday and suddenly realized, but hey, that's the end of that chapter! I was thinking it would go on for longer, but then I knew it had to end exactly where it did. And not just because I had written 17 pages, at least 10 of which will turn out to be superfluous (If only I knew which 10).

What am I doing? I wish I knew. Events are running away with me. And yet... I would not trade this experience for anything else, right now.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Oh, the Glory of It All

It's hard to write a good novel. It is even hard to write a bad one, though probably a little easier. Right now I find myself saddled with a new character who seems to have wandered in from Daniel Deronda, and not at all sure this is a good idea. When is a tangent just a tangent, and when is it a powerful message from your unconscious? I'll be damned if I know. Liam and Rachel stuck in St. Giles, breathing bad air and wondering how to get out. It's all a long way from Jane Austen.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Jack Aubrey Saves the Day, Again

More than a year ago, I wrote about the mysteries of 1815 food in this post. I was, however, an idiot, and I stand corrected, for there is actually a wonderful book from 1997 with descriptions, recipes and a dash of brio much beyond anything I can ever hope to achieve. And it was written by people who are practically my neighbors: a mother-and-daughter team out on Long Island.

What is this wonderful book, you might ask? It is Lobscouse and Spotted Dog (Which It's a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels). It answers many of the questions I have long had -- what is Soused Hog's Face exactly? (Exactly what you feared. And I now know how to make it, not that I ever will.) What is toasted cheese? And some I never thought to ask, such as how one might cook a rat, and what the result would taste like (surprisingly delicious, the authors contend).

These are the foods that Jack and Stephen ate. We do not recommend them to the unimaginative or faint of heart: some of them call for exotic, revolting, or fearfully expensive ingredients; many take upwards of a week to make; most of them cheerfully violate all the nutritional tenets of the health-conscious '90s. They are all, however, practical and authentic recipes, tested to our satisfaction (and to the detriment of our waistlines) in our own kitchens.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Time Passages

The premise of my novel, such as it is, is that Rachel Falk and Liam Ó Fionnmhacháin, respectively an M.D. and an English professor, travel back in time from 2089 to meet Jane Austen.

But I haven't spent a huge amount of time thinking about the physics problems posed by time travel or why does it have to be 2089, exactly, as opposed to 2809?

Hmm. Because you begin where you are. One has to start somewhere. Right now I am stranded in Chapter 19, which I have started at least six times. I keep writing more of it, as I commute, waiting underground trapped in the 1/ 2/3 IRT lines like someone in Dante's Inferno, but it is not adding up. I know where I need to go, but not how to get there.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Politically Incorrect Thought for the Day

Elizabeth Jenkins in 1938 (and subsequent later editions) wrote about how different the world of Jane Austen's was from our own. It was on the one hand much more beautiful ("plain elegance, uncompromising good taste, surrounded them with almost monotonous completeness") and on the other much more cruel ("But if we are in danger of breaking our hearts over this spirit of beauty which has vanished from the earth, it is also our duty to recall there existed with it, ignored or tolerated, a state of squalor and wretchedness which, to this relatively humane and hygienic age, is nearly as difficult to visualize as its heavenly obverse.")

And then she considers the implications of this:

That there was no cheap, sophisticated entertainment for the masses was part of a state of things in which thousands and thousands of people were less comfortable, less well dressed, less entertained, less informed than they are today; but it also meant that there was not a vast majority which by its very numbers imposed its ideas, its prepossessions and tastes on the world in which the educated person must now exist; the lower middle class, as it is the most considerable among consumers, dictates the canons of a taste which, by its preponderating bulk, has corrupted and destroyed the standards of language, of architecture, of entertainment and literature which once prevailed. This development has brought in its train a great increase in human happiness , and it has annihilated something so precious that its very absence has taken away from us the power to estimate its value. One may find an illustration of our gain and loss in the bear-ward who was Tony Lumpkin's companion at The Three Pigeons; he led a dancing bear, something of which we hate to think; but the tunes to which it danced were Dr. Arne's "Water Parted" and Handel's minuet from "Ariadne."

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Unpersuasive

Yesterday I watched the 2007 film version of "Persuasion" on my computer, unexpectedly finding it available and never having seen it before. Being a mild fan of the 1995 version I was curious as to how this one compared.

There is something to be said for seeing things enacted on film that so far have been viewed only inside one's head. Especially if you are interested in details of costume, setting and certain aspects of daily life that Jane Austen never stops to explain, like just how a bow is done, or want a good look at a carriage in motion. But there are certain aspects of this novel that are apparently simply not able to be expressed in film, and both versions, in the end, prove it.

The fingerprints of the characteristic preoccupations of the late 20th/early 21st century are all over these films. Historians in 100 years will watch them and see this clearly, but I don't have to wait; I have spent too much time mentally in 1815 not to be struck by it.

The 1995 version was notable for its emphasis on establishing shots of farm animals and workers, a subtle reminder of the economic basis of the good lives led by the main characters. Also for a general lack of glamour: characters (the gentry, not only the common people) often look as though they could use a shampoo, something that cannot be said of many movies. The actors, rather than being movie-star handsome, have faces that seem to belong in 1814, and they act up a storm.

The 2007 version, by contrast, is more glamorous, all smooth surfaces and lovely interiors. Yet they both start out promisingly enough, capturing the autumnal mood of the work, Anne Elliot's quietly brave despair. 2007 solves part of the exposition problem by giving Anne a diary and allowing her to make many of the author's less astringent observations; other authorial comments are put into the mouths of characters, to sometimes startlingly frank effect.

It is the last part of the book, when the action moves to Bath, that gives both filmmakers the most trouble. Jane Austen herself seems to have struggled with the ending, for an alternate chapter that she wrote and then decided did not work has survived, offering a rare glimpse into her working methods. (Both 1995 and 2007 choose to use an adapted version of this canceled chapter, evidently finding it more dramatic.)

The problem that both Jane Austen and her two film adapters seem to have struggled with is this: Anne is restricted by the codes and manners of the world she lives in. She can never see or speak to Wentworth alone except by chance, and then only in public, where she is subject to interruption by other people. She cannot call on him, but only hope he might call where she is. She cannot, even if her pride permitted, write to him, for unrelated people of the opposite sex never exchanged letters unless they were engaged. His letter to her, left on the table for her to pick up (in the ending Jane Austen chose to use) is therefore a dazzling example of his audacity and problem-solving abilities, even before it is read.

Anne Elliot's triumph, in Jane Austen's terms, is that she gets her heart's desire without violating any of her principles, without behaving improperly or appearing rude or foolish. (An Anne Elliot who did any of those things would not be Anne Elliot.) The real drama in this story is of the passionate and heartbroken spirit that rages beneath the calm, polite exterior.

That is apparently a hard thing to show in a movie. Both film versions, after starting with a well-crafted and exquisitely correct Anne Elliot, choose to dramatize her growing confidence toward the end of the story that Wentworth still loves her by having her go completely off the rails. Or to express herself, as the modern idiom would have it. Expressing oneself is so completely accepted as a virtue in modern life that it is hard to notice how pervasive this assumption is. Until you start having a proper and perfectly polite baronet's daughter of 1814 start expressing herself, and then its absurdity hits you like a slap of cold water on the Cobb at Lyme Regis.

In the 2007 version we have a lovely, dreamlike, but completely nonsensical scene near the end where Anne Elliot runs out into the street hatless (!) and runs (!) after Wentworth from the Royal Crescent (where the movie places her, though the Elliots lived in the less grand Camden Place) to the Pump Room, and back. Running all the way, like some scene that had wandered in from the cutting-room floor of Chariots of Fire. It might have worked better as a dream sequence, come to think of it, and could not have more comically trampled on the spirit of the book's ending. And let us not even mention the kiss, on the street, (!) once they have finally found each other and exchanged the look that tells all. That kiss! Why not just strip off their clothes and have sex right there in the Royal Crescent, which would have been just as historically accurate and probably more fun to watch?

In the 1995 version there is also a street kiss. Supposedly the kiss was included for American audiences and left out for British ones, something I cannot verify firsthand, though if true is certainly a point for the English. I thought the shot of the circus passing by as the happy couple finally connects was a nice touch, hinting in a possibly plausible way how magic and enchantment had finally come into Anne Elliot's life after 27 mostly arid and dreary years.

If only they could have left it at the circus. Instead, not content with the painfully ahistorical kiss, the 1995 filmmaker felt compelled to have Anne Elliot chase (!) after Wentworth as he leaves the concert. To hiss insulting remarks (!) about Mrs. Clay to her father that in the book she only thinks. To add a completely unneeded scene in which Wentworth, in front of everyone (!), at an evening-party (!) asks Sir Elliot for Anne's hand. (And the defeated William Elliot sneers and slinks away.) In short, to assume that the viewers are idiots and will not understand what has just happened unless they have just been given CliffsNotes.

Unfortunately, that might be true.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

It's not over until there is a Wordle

And here it is.

I struggled with this Chapter. I still don't know if I really like it.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Jane Austen vs. Samuel Richardson

Damn. It is Sept 18.

It has been a busy month so far. Chapter 18 has not written itself, and no one else has appeared to write it, so I suppose I have to. I got several thousand words into it and then was unavoidably detained.

I have been slowly reading Pamela, though, in my spare time, and what a piece of work it is! First published in 1740, more than 30 years before Jane Austen was born, and a literary sensation in its day, it inspired Henry Fielding to write at least two parodies of it, Shamela and Joseph Andrews. (Tom Jones is in some sense also an answer to Pamela, though also much more, so that might be considered a third one.)

At the outset, I have to agree with Samuel Johnson, who said that you would hang yourself if you read Richardson for story. Clarissa keeps the suspense alive through hundreds of pages with its shifting points of view and deepening sense of foreboding and doom, but the reader has no such luck with Pamela. Once she comes back to Mr. B and agrees to marry him, her former would-be rapist, she spends many pages rejoicing in how happy she is and praying that she will be worthy enough for him. Great for her, but tedious reading, except as a reminder of the important lesson that conflict is the engine of plot. Once you have a happy ending, it is time to stop telling the story.

On the other hand, there are many interesting elements scattered like bread crumbs along the way. I am struck by how in both Pamela and Clarissa so much discussion and energy is expended on writing itself:

On paper and ink and quills and wafers hidden in various locations so they will not be found and confiscated, on letters concealed under stones and in walls and sewn in clothing against discovery. On letters stolen and forged. On the notion of writing as an act of self-assertion and even defiance by women, highly intelligent women in a society that seemed to place little value on intelligent women. What can he mean by it, I wonder as I read. What sort of person was he, really, to be so interested in such questions?

Richardson is also clearly obsessed with confinement, power (including the power of beauty) and rape. Here again, I cannot help wondering what sort of person he was. His personal demons seem to be left like smeary fingerprints all over his works.

And that is the big difference between him and Jane Austen, never mind all the other differences, because as many times as I read her, I can't really seem to find her. The challenge of being a clever woman surrounded by dolts; yes, it is reasonable to suppose she must have faced that problem, and it is one experienced by Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse and Anne Elliot in their different ways.

But to suppose that Jane Austen felt she was smarter than many people around her is not really a brilliant piece of literary detective work. What else? You search and come up empty. And you return wistfully, to the words of Virginia Woolf:

Here was a woman about the year 1800 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.

Monday, August 31, 2009


I haven't made a Wordle to commemorate it (though maybe I should), but I finished Chapter 17 yesterday.

It did not write itself.

It would not, as Admiral Croft said of Sir Walter Elliot, set the Thames on fire, yet potentially it contains some important elements that will prove useful later.

A larger point, though, is that this is the third time (in a row) that I finished a chapter in about two weeks. The sense of forward momentum seems more important right now than highly polished writing, at least I hope forward is the direction I am going. As opposed to say, sideways.

One thing I struggled with a lot in my first attempt to write a novel, a few years back, was keeping the whole thing in mind at one time. It seemed impossible. Actually, it is impossible, but some things I am doing differently this time around make it seem slightly less so.

Having chapter breaks is important. It provides a sense of accomplishment, however illusory (in many cases my chapter breaks are most arbitrary), to conclude a chapter, type it up and leave that half-page of white space at the bottom of the last page.

Writing fairly fast is also important, because the novel is kind of a living thing. It doesn't like to be left alone too long. It loses its urgency.

Having an outline is important. This was the single most valuable thing I took away from my time at the Sackett Street Writers' Workshop (which is not to say I did not take away many other valuable things, because I did). It's not that I have followed the plan, precisely, because the story has turned out to be more interesting than the plan -- there was a key plot element that I did not even anticipate until it drove up. It's not even that I consult the plan very often. I don't really seem to need to. But it's there. I can go back and look at it whenever I want to. It, too, provides a sense of accomplishment that is illusory and yet important.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Jane Austen, Secret Revolutionary

To readers in 2009 coming to her for the first time, Jane Austen's style of telling a story seems old-fashioned and quaint, lacking many elements that we expect in modern fiction, featuring characters whose situations seem strikingly unlike situations we would ever find ourselves in. But we need only read a few of Austen's contemporaries to see how innovative she actually was, how consistently she rejected many of the cliches of fiction in her own era, and even of some eras to follow. It's probably because I have just finished reading The Italian, with a plot as creaky and sputtery as an old Fiat, but I feel compelled to take a brief survey of what is conspicuous by its absence:

Coincidence as a plot element. True, chance encounters sometimes advance the action, but, as in Anne Elliot running into Wentworth at a pastry shop in Bath, they are never incidents that seem particularly unlikely.

Orphans of unknown parentage who turn out to be the children of someone significant to the plot. There is Harriet Smith, but wonderfully, we never learn whose child she is.

Garrulous, comic servants who slow the action down by telling long tales. Though I associate this with Cervantes, you will also find them in Fielding, Radcliffe and Edgeworth. Not to mention Dickens. The closest we get to a garrulous servant in Austen is the manservant of the Dashwoods, who shares with his employers his news of encountering Mr. Ferrars and his new wife, Lucy. It's worth reviewing what a masterpiece of economy that scene is, and admiring how effectively it keeps the suspense alive in a way that is tricky without actually being deceptive.

Fainting. "Run mad, if you chuse, but do not faint!" is the advice one heroine of the Juvenilia gives to another, and it is advice the authoress seems to have followed. Marianne Dashwood comes close to swooning, in her dreadful encounter with Willoughby in London. But doesn't. No one else I can think of ever faints, despite much provocation.

Bondage. Not a single character, with the exception of the unfortunate Eliza, lost love of Colonel Brandon's youth, is ever forced into an unwanted marriage, or forced into a carriage and carried off to a convent or a brothel. No one is ever even urged into an unwanted marriage, except perhaps Elizabeth Bennet, to Mr. Collins, by her mother, and that is played for laughs.

Supernatural elements. There really aren't any, except in Catharine Morland's imagination. No ghosts. No ominous portents, no shadows, no sinister monks, haunted houses or groans in the night.

Lost and found. No one loses a fortune and regains it, unless we count the widowed Mrs. Smith, who with Wentworth's help manages to regain control of her previously encumbered West Indian properties and thus raise herself from penury to a modest condition of self-sufficiency. No one's child or parent, thought to be dead, re-emerges at the end of the book, to great dramatic effect.

Her readers in 1813 might be just as baffled by Jane Austen as her readers in 2009, but in a different way. To them, perhaps, all these missing elements might make the novels seem strangely stark, passionless and dry. Certainly their lack annoyed the heck out of Charlotte Bronte.

Thus, although Jane Austen was in her personal conduct, and apparently in her political views, to the extent that we know them, conservative with a small c, it is fair to say she was wild at heart where literary conventions were concerned. I cannot help wondering how she would have turned out if she had been born into Fanny Burney's family. Or Mary Wollestonecraft's.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Reading 'The Italian'

Ann Radcliffe's masterpiece and the inspiration for Northanger Abbey. So far, just as silly as promised.

Why Northanger Abbey was accepted for publication in 1803 and not published for another 15 years (Henry Austen finally bought the rights back and had it published elsewhere) has long been a source of mystery in the world of things Austen. The introduction to the edition I am reading (which combines The Italian and Northanger Abbey into one gloriously compact, 688-page Signet edition) suggests that the publisher, having invested in the success of a highly profitable work, The Italian, did not want to risk publishing a parody of it, to possibly offend the author or damage the brand, as we would say today.

Indeed, though the introduction does not suggest this, if you subscribe to this theory, it seems possible Crosby bought the manuscript expressly to prevent it from being published. Sinister indeed!

But it also true, as the introduction points out, that Northanger Abbey is less a parody of Gothic novels than a mockery of their too-credulous readers, personified by Catherine Morland. It is, indeed, a novel about novel-reading, and as such sometimes strikes an astonishingly metafictional note:

"I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their  contemptuous censure  the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding -- joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest  epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read  by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is   sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust.  Alas! If the  heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?"

Friday, August 14, 2009

Yay! Another Chapter!

Another Wordle!

Never mind that in my haste I mispelled "Project." Everyone needs an editor, another thing we like to say in the newspaper business.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Wordle Knows

Sometime when I finish a chapter I like to reward myself by making a Worldle.
Here it is.
I like the font, too; I believe that was Powell Antique.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Thinking About T.S. Eliot Today

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late
What's not believed in, or if still believed,
In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon
Into weak hands, what's thought can be dispensed with
Till the refusal propagates a fear. Think
Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Typing Chapter 14

I am quite excited, excessively diverted, about Chapter 14. It wrote itself, as we like to say in the newspaper business (a strange phrase, if you really think about it). Chapters 1 through 13 were produced with varying degrees of pain and suffering, while Chapter 14 ...well, it wrote itself. I seem to have just sat back and watched the words emerging from the end of the pen.

I would like to think this will continue to be the case, but it seems unlikely. I also wonder if my infatuation with Chapter 14, which seems amazingly exciting and full of energy at this moment, will survive the cold light of revision.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Whistling in the Dark

If reading fiction involves a willing suspension of disbelief, how much more writing it? I am in theory somewhere more or or less halfway through the rough draft of my novel, yet I still don't really feel like I know what I am doing. 

Usually afraid (because it might turn out to be so god-awful) to go back and reread what I have written so far, today I did, with the aim of putting it all in a giant file (giantfile.doc), which is how I learned I am up to 66,609 words.


 Never mind the faintly satanic whiff of that word count. And never mind that I estimate one-half to one-third of those words are not needed (if only I know which ones.) It's a lot!  That's through Chapter 13! And the thing is, it is mostly  kind of interesting, even if I repeat myself at times (one sign that I wasn't looking back as I went along) and well,  if I don't find it interesting, how can I expect anyone else will?

Writing a novel, more than anything else I have ever done in life, is about making something from  pretty much nothing, as opposed to merely assembling something from constituent elements, the way lumber and concrete and pipes and nails come together to be  a house (not that I have ever built a house) or eggs and flour and sugar and a leavening agent, properly combined, can result in a cake. (I have made cakes, though not well, and not recently. Hey, I am busy here.)

But this is the thing. If you were halfway through a house, it would start to seem like a fait more or less accompli. People would drive by and see it, and ask, how's your house coming? Or the smell of the baking would fill your  kitchen and maybe waft down the corridor, if you lived in an apartment house, and you would notice it as you walked up from walking the dog or checking the mail. I'm not really having that feeling with The Jane Austen Project (though the support of my readers has been exemplary and more than I deserve: thank you, Carol, Bill and Czesia). It still seems like such a bubble, like a fragile thing that could disappear at any moment.

And that is why writing is like whistling in the dark, holding your breath past the graveyard, pretending everything is cool, because if you don't believe in it, who will?

Friday, May 1, 2009

England My England

It is mortifying to consider that I have been writing a novel set in England and had not actually been there for more than a decade, long before I had contemplated this project. Of course I am also writing a novel set in 1815, and I have not been there either, but there is less one can do about that. Last week I attempted to correct this oversight within the limits of my finances by flying to London. JA highlights:

A trip to the British Library, where Jane Austen's actual writing-desk, the one her father gave her when she was 19, is displayed under glass, along with part of the manuscript of "Persuasion,"and a bound version of "The History of England" with illustrations by Cassandra. (Wonderfully, the gallery has digitized this volume, and you can flip through it, magnify, and read a typed version of the handwritten work.

Chawton, home of the Jane Austen House Museum where JA lived from 1809 until shortly before her death in 1817. The graves of the two Cassandra Austens (sister and mother) are a short walk away in the yard of a beautiful old stone church, and the great house, still owned by descendants of Edward Knight, Jane's rich brother, can be glimpsed but not visited.

Winchester, where she sought medical care (in vain) and is buried in the cathedral.

Bath, setting of two novels and her home for about five years from 1800 to 1805. Also home to a Jane Austen museum, useful as an introduction if you don't actually know anything about Jane Austen, but not so much if you do. A visit to a museum of fashion history turned up a couple of circa-1815 dresses, but I was thwarted in my quest to learn more about Georgian underwear.

Bristol, not strictly JA-related, but home to a fascinating Georgian House Museum.

Hatchard's, booksellers since 1797, where I bought an interesting volume titled "The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England."

And, sort of on the topic, a very unusual museum about medical history.

I also took lots of pictures of Georgian houses, trying to imagine Rachel and Liam living in one, with sheep being driven through the streets instead of black taxicabs.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Vicar of Wakefield and Jane Austen Ruined My Life

What can I say? I am stuck in Chapter 12, stuck like a whining Ford Fiesta at the bottom of a snowy, winding driveway. So I started reading "The Vicar of Wakefield," an ancient, musty paperback edition that has been sitting on the shelf of my childhood bedroom since sometime in the Reagan years.

Jane Austen read it for sure: according to Wikipedia, this work, by Oliver Goldsmith, was one of the most popular and successful novels of the 18th century. Which makes me wonder what the unsuccessful ones were like. As I read it, I kept asking myself, all the way to the end, what sort of novel it was trying to be. It is by turns satirical and sentimental, preachy and picaresque. What it never succeeds in causing, even briefly, is the willing suspension of disbelief. The amazing series of random events, coincidental meetings and set-pieces ensure that. It never attains either the pathos and immediacy of "Clarissa" or the wit of "Tom Jones." What it reminded me of most was "Don Quixote," though the similarity might not at first seem obvious and DQ is, to be sure, a more layered, meta, sophisticated piece of writing.

The engaging central character who is overtaken by disaster after disaster yet retains his fundamental faith in the world and in his God: yes, we have seen him before. The ramshackle plot, the colorful figures who come onstage for a chapter, speak their piece and disappear; we have seen them too, along with the improbable meetings, the disguises, the fortunes lost and found.

About a third of the way into "The Vicar," a book arrived in the mail from Amazon. "Jane Austen Ruined My Life" seemed worth risking $10 and a couple of hours of my life on. It came highly recommended by reviewers in the blogosphere, and is relevant to my own project in a number of ways, since the plot hinges, as mine does, on that Holy Grail of English majors, the quest for the lost letters of Jane Austen. It also features a heroine traveling around Southern England, hitting key Austen spots: Steventon, Chawton, Lyme Regis, Bath. It sounded a little like "Possession," from the reviews, except involving Jane Austen.

What it was, instead, was another lesson into one more of the multitude of ways a novel can fall short. A lovely volume: nice cover art and typography. Grammatical. Competently written. And yet seeming more like the plan for a novel, a rough draft or an outline, rather than an actual novel. It seemed to skitter along the surface of its themes like a water bug on a creek. It was oddly generic, everywhere lacking in specifics. Not for an instant could I believe that the narrator of the novel held a doctorate in English, for example. She did not speak that language.

Yet it was interesting, too, for in falling short one sees more clearly what it is necessary for success. "Possession," for example, takes you places you probably have not been: into the old reading room of the British Library, inside the mind of a doomed dogsbody literature graduate student in the late 20th century, to the old, old house of English country gentry, into the minds and letters of poets in the 19th century. However improbable these places might seem, how unlike one's ordinary life, they are utterly believable in the moment you are reading them. It is that old willing suspension of disbelief again. A.S. Byatt gives the wealth of carefully chosen detail that makes the highly unlikely seem possible.

Though they are both bibliophile mystery stories and each offer an homage to literary masters real or imagined, it might seem cruel or unfair to compare a Booker Prize winner with what BookPage damns with faint praise as "smart chick lit that is an absolute pleasure to read. " Indeed, I am wondering if it is not something of an insult to "Possession" as well as unfair to "Ruined." But doesn't a book that promise wit and lit have some kind of debt to the reader? Doesn't invoking the name of Jane Austen invoke certain expectations?

After this disappointing excursion it was something of a relief to return to "The Vicar of Wakefield" and its 18th-century problems.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


I finished Frances Burney's Evelina today. I read it long ago, in an 18th-century literature class, and I remember liking it very much, though I had forgotten everything but the premise: a young and beautiful girl of murky origins makes her entrance into the world, where her artlessness and apparent lack of proper adult supervision and fortune leads her into a variety of scrapes, from which she is usually rescued by the exquisitely polite Lord Orville, who finally marries her.

I remember what I liked about it: That, the cardboardy Lord Orville aside, it was all so bracingly astringent compared with Jane Austen (who I had read, of course, but was not yet a huge fan of). It was as if we had turned from the always-proper world of Jane Austen (and I believe people who don't like Jane Austen often suffer from the same misapprehension that I did at 21, that everything in Jane Austen is always excessively proper) and gone through the looking glass, into a rough-and-tumble world where sexual assault in a carriage, say, or in a dark lane at Vauxhall Gardens were very real risks to a young girl with beauty and no apparent social connections. Where people play rude practical jokes, behave with shocking rudeness to their presumed inferiors, drink too much, steal letters. If I had read Tom Jones or Clarissa first, this work probably would not have seemed so astonishing.

Alas, it does not improve on rereading. It is entertaining enough, but the comedy of the coarse Captain Mirvan and his attempts to torment Madame Duval and Mr. Lovel seems poorly integrated with Evelina's bildungsroman. The good characters are far too perfect, the bad ones very one-dimensional, and the whole thing gives off a moldy whiff of Regency farce. I could imagine it as play, in fact: It is very playlike, despite being a novel in letters.

But reading it does sharpen the sense of what Jane Austen achieved a generation later. Evelina was a sensation in its day, and led to the young author's becoming friends with people like Hester Thrale and Dr. Johnson. She was among the first avowed female novelists. And yet -- comparing her to Jane Austen, one cannot help being struck by how much subtler Austen's humor is, how much more successfully the illusion of realism is created.

Frances Burney was born in 1752 and lived to 1840, or about 50 years longer than Jane Austen. In addition to being friends with Dr. Johnson and many other prominent people of the age, she worked for Queen Charlotte as "Second Keeper of the Robes," married a French emigre at 41, gave birth in her 42nd year, underwent a mastectomy without anesthetic at 59 after she got breast cancer, which made medical history because she wrote about it in her diary, like nearly everything else in her long and eventful life -- she was a tireless diarist. All in all, a woman to be reckoned with, and a repudiation of the common notions of the circumscribed nature of women's lives before the 20th century. I just wish I could like her writing more!

Debating requesting Cecilia or Camilla. Will it reward the effort?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Secret of the Castle Rackrent

Daisy: Are you in love with me? [...] Or why did I have to come alone?"

Nick: "That's the secret of Castle Rackrent. Tell your chauffeur to go far away and spend an hour."

Daisy: "Come back in an hour, Ferdie." Then in a grave murmur, "His name is Ferdie."

Why does F. Scott Fitzgerald reference Maria Edgeworth's c.1800 work at the point when Nick invites his cousin to meet her long-lost love, Jay Gatsby? Had F.S.F. ever, in fact, read "Castle Rackrent," or did he just like the way it sounded? Not being an F.S.F. scholar, I have no idea.

I think I was riffing on F. Scott Fitzgerald, or just grasping at straws, at one point early in "The Jane Austen Project" when I needed Rachel and Liam to have something to read and I gave them "Castle Rackrent," as being of the era. I knew should go back and read it, since they had, but it took me a while to do so, probably because I was so busy with "Clarissa." Finally, I have.

It is, not to put too fine a point on it, God-awful. Trying to be funny (I guess) but failing. I don't think Liam would have tolerated it, since it is packed with insulting and stereotypical observations about the Irish, and we know he is sensitive about these things. For good measure, there is also an insulting, stereotypical portrait of a Jew (or a "Jewish," as the narrator refers to her) -- truly there is something to offend everyone in this brief work!

Being no stranger to literary irony, and informed by the introduction that Maria Edgeworth, though born British, lived much of her life in Ireland and apparently liked it. I have struggled to overcome my initial reaction to this work, but without success.

It is also, I learn from a cursory Google survey, one of the first works of fiction to feature an unreliable narrator, a device I am partial to and which ought to win me over, except it doesn't. A theme of the work that has struck some modern scholars is that of female imprisonment. A more prominent theme, though less academically fashionable, is the feckless nature of the Ango-Irish landowners, who squander their fortunes in drink, gambling, frivolous lawsuits and excessive entertainment, sucking their tenants dry while their estates fall into hopeless disrepair. Being in every way horribly un-British, in other words: The antithesis of restraint, order, duty, Empire, self-effacement and what Mr. Knightley would do.

Thinking about it this way, I find myself returning to "The Great Gatsby." Perhaps the reference is not so random. F. Scott Fitzgerald, of Irish descent himself and heir to the stereotypical Irish vices of drink and extravagance, is reminiscent of many characters in "Castle Rackrent." His eponymous Gatsby gives wild parties, much like Sir Patrick O'Shaughlin, the first of the doomed inhabitants of Castle Rackrent. A stereotypical Jew even wanders through the novel, too, in the person of Meyer Wolfsheim (whose human-molar cuff links have always stuck in my memory when so many more useful facts have been forgotten). Gatsby's mansion, like the Castle Rackrent, stands as a monument to hubris and excess even after its living residents have departed.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Chapter 11, such as it is, is done. After writing the previous blog entry I went back and immediately understood what wasn't working. The first try had had too much reflection (pages of Rachel lying in bed thinking about things) and the second not enough (I had been trying to cram too much action in too short a space of narrative time, like an overstuffed piece of carry-on luggage). It was, it appears, a problem of pacing.

That "it appears," while it might seem like a pretentious bit of throat-clearing, may actually have been the truest statement in the previous paragraph. For what is to say how all of this might seem later? Writing a novel is one of the strangest experiences I have ever had, (not that I am complaining, for I have wanted to write a novel my entire adult life) and one of the many curiosities is how one's view of it changes over time, gradually yet definitely, like a view of a distant object, a mountain range, say, as you approach it. Everything about it: Whether you think you can do it, what you think has to happen, who the characters are and what they want.It is an unfolding over time, just as a novel is for the reader.

I have changed too, and maybe not for the better. There is a constant pull between writing and everything else. "Everything else" includes human contact, walks in the sun, museum visits. Today I am filled with guilt because I went to see a movie unrelated to Jane Austen instead of spending the afternoon on Chapter 12. The conflict between living in the world and living in the world of your own imagination, and imagination has to win.

And yet. A while back I wrote about writing on the subway, impressed by this new accomplishment. Now it seems routine, like tying my shoes. I take a seat, open my notebook, and the world falls away, the words flow out like water. Good or bad, they come like some place in my mind has turned on the tap, from distant spot in my brain. And that is kind of astonishing, how these words seem to march out of my brain and onto the page. Like I am dreaming, but I am awake.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

In the Weeds

I have started Chapter 11 two times. Today, I realized I have to start it again. Maybe the third time will be the charm.

Despite starting it twice, and producing quite a lot of words, especially the second time, I realize I have been avoiding Chapter 11 like a friend I have have wronged in some obscure way and am afraid to apologize to, for fear of making it worse. I keep slinking away from Chapter 11 and finding other important things to do, like cleaning the kitchen countertops. This sense of avoidance, dull resentment and boredom regarding TJAP is something I have not faced in months, not since I was first trying to imagine Rachel and Liam's first days in 1815 and finding it very uphill work.

What's going on? It's not just that the writing is bad, is just pointing to where I want to instead of actually going there, because that has been true the whole time and I have not allowed to stop me. First drafts are about getting there, not getting there in style.

Chapter 11 is some way is the gate, the hinge that has to open into the rest of the story. Chapter 11 is where Rachel and Liam meet a bunch of other Austens: James, Cassandra, Edward and Fanny (they are actually surnamed Knight, but never mind). Compared to Henry (who likes everyone) and Jane (who is at least interested in everyone) they are a tough crowd. They have each other, they have strength in numbers, and they find something a little not-quite-the-thing about our time travelers.

Yes. There needs to be more conflict; I think this is the problem with Chapter 11 as currently written. But what is the heart of the conflict?