Friday, March 31, 2017

The Particular Charm of Miss Jane Austen by Ada Bright and Cass Grafton

My deeper relationship with Austen began when I was in college. We were reading Persuasion in a Romantic Literature class (the first and only time I encountered Austen on a syllabus), and I began to imagine Anne Elliot walking beside me across campus or sitting in a lecture hall, and what she might have to say about our modern world. This was long before I knew anything of fan fiction, other than that it existed. These memories came back to me with sharp clarity when I read this scene:

They continued in silence for some distance, though both of them cast a meaningful stare at No 4 Sydney Place as they passed, but as they reached the Beckford Road and began the ascent, Rose turned to Jane again. 

"Does the noise bother you? The road? This is a main route to Warminster and beyond and has such heavy traffic." 

Jane smiled. "Much is altered." She looked around and gestured with her arm. "Naught but open fields bordered the Gardens." Her expression sobered. "My disinclination for our removal to Bath was much compensated for by our pleasing situation in Sydney Place. One does not feel - did not - feel so confined be the city on its outer edges." 

"Then shall we walk along the canal?" Rose pointed to the gap through which the towpath could be seen, winding its way towards Bathampton. It was a route she had often trod in the summer months when still living at home. 

"As you wish." 

They fell into step again, continuing to walk side by side at first for the width of the path permitted it. 

"I did not answer your question." Jane glanced at her, and Rose frowned. "Noise emanating from these modern conveyances does not trouble me, for it is merely different. The constant rumble of wheels over cobbles, the clatter of hooves is not so much lower in volume than your modern conveyances. 'Tis why I prefer the country; the disturbance of silence has a more natural source: birdsong, flowing water over stones, the bray of a lamb... these things I miss more than any other." 

Rose glances around. It was peaceful by modern-day standards on the towpath, with a few ducks swimming in the canal and very few people about, but just then a light aircraft came overhead, it's engine chugging away, and she glanced at Jane as they walked. 
"And what do you make of our 'modern conveyances'? You must have seen the trains passing through Sydney Gardens, too, if you've been here a while, and noticed the planes flying overhead?" 

Jane looked up as the small plane sailed out of view. "If I may fly through time, why should man not have discovered how to fly though the air?"

A few months later, I myself was wandering over the streets and paths so meticulously detailed in The Particular Charm of Miss Jane Austen by Ada Bright and Cass Grafton (visit them at TabbyCow.com), at the 2016 Jane Austen Festival in Bath. I sighed just now as I wrote those words. They are a vivid reminder of how much blogging I have neglected. I never got passed the National Portrait Gallery (got a bit bogged down there, I know, but it was so awesome!), and failed to share anything of my fabulous stay in Bath here. Nor did I ever write this book review. I am a big believer in better late than never. Good thing, too.

Anyway, when I was in Bath last fall, this book was like a mental guidebook: its scenes reenacting themselves before my mind's eye. It was my first time in Bath, and when I got lost a few times, this ability was quite useful! If you have long yearned to make the pilgrimage to the Festival, as I did, than this book is honestly the next best thing. It takes place during the festival. The main character, Rose, walks in the promenade. How eerie was it for me, following in her footsteps, and knowing that one of the authors, Cass Grafton, was somewhere in the crowd! I have had the pleasure of getting to know Ms. Grafton over the past two years, as she lives not far from me in Switzerland. Her presence was just another layer adding to my glee in being where I was, when I was. The only thing missing was the fair weather Rose and her friend Morgan enjoyed during their promenade (fortunately, like Captain Wentworth, I had "equipped myself for Bath" and purchased an umbrella).

The story is one of time travel, friendship, and not taking anything for granted. Thematically, it reminds me in many ways of my own Being Mrs. Bennet, the second draft of which I was completing when reading this novel, though on the surface they are wildly different stories. Rose Wallace has always lived in Bath or its environs. Her future is there, even if a few demons from her past still haunt the ancient city. Her encounter with a time traveling Jane Austen, in whose adventure she becomes totally enmeshed, teaches her many of the same lessons hard-learned by an Austen heroine (or two).

The Particular Charm of Miss Jane Austen is such a great title for this particularly charming novel. It has such a mix of things going on: an homage not just to Jane Austen, but also to the fantasy genre. Other reviews I have read of this book compare it to a wild variety of other stories, and that's because there are so many influences informing the action. It's apparently clear that, just like Jane Austen, Ms. Bright and Ms. Grafton share a passionate love for books of all sorts. This novel is not fan fiction, but I think it is no less a book for fans. The enthusiasm of fan culture permeates it. To me it felt like the authoresses had taken Hermione Granger's time turner and transmuted it into an amber cross (there is an awesome moment in the book when Rose gives Jane a copy of The Philosopher's Stone to read). Such fun! I do hope there will be a sequel. The end leaves an opening for one. I feel like the adventure has only just begun, and I definitely want to be on board when it continues. Highly recommended!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

First Impressions Birthday Giveaway


Yay! Today is my first baby's birthday! Seven years ago, I published my first book, First Impressions: A Tale of Less Pride and Prejudice. I wrote it very quickly, with no idea I would ever publish. It was really, in conception, more of a reaction to the world of JAFF than a new story. I had only recently found and immersed myself in the world of Austenesque literature, and it was only when I started running out of new books to read (a thing that could still happen back then), that I was driven to write something myself. I had no idea it would turn into a trilogy, let alone a major life's passion. Jane Austen was always important to me, but since I published that first book, her influence has penetrated my entire world. Now I think, breathe, and live Austen. I used to only read her.


To thank all who have purchased, loved, and supported both First Impressions and my other scribblings, I want to offer one winner the complete set of books in the Tales of Less Pride and Prejudice series (either paperback or Kindle, winner's choice), along with these absolutely adorable, wooden Easter ornaments, which I fell in love with at my local supermarket here in Switzerland (I bought two sets: one for me, and one to share). Simply leave your email address in the comments by April 7th. Double entry if you share the giveaway on social media, but you must let me know you did so in your comment. This giveaway is open worldwide. Thank you all, for so much.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Rise and Fall of an Empire (Waist), today at Austen Authors

I'm up this month at Austen Authors today (3/24/17) - boy, I sure need to provide this blog with some original material, and not just keep crossposting, as I have so far all year. It's on the to do list, but first comes processing the beta comments on Darcy in Wonderland, which have been coming in all week. I hope to have the book out this summer. More info in the post below. Enjoy!


Dancing dress featuring Grecian elements, 1809.
My newest book, Darcy in Wonderland (look for it this summer), is both a Pride and Prejudice sequel and mashup with Alice in Wonderland. The action takes place at some unspecified point during the early Victorian Era. Honestly, the timing is very sketchy, as Darcy and Elizabeth are supposed to be married for over twenty years, putting the year in the early 1830's, but Carroll didn't publish his masterpiece of children's literature until 1865. In my head I split the difference, dating the book somewhere around the late 1840s, but this ambiguity is causing my illustrator no little strife (Katy Wiedemann is an amazing artist! See her work in scientific illustration here: http://www.wiedemannillustrations.com/index.html). We have spent a great deal of time discussing the transition between Regency and Victorian fashions, and it has caused me to reflect upon why the fashions of the Regency Era are so drastically different from those that proceeded and followed. An answer can be found in the name of the silhouette that dominated the period: the Empire waist.
Left: Full dress (Spring, 1799) in the Grecian style. Right: Day dress (1802) leaving very little to the imagination.
The Empire waist gown, the most defining element of women's fashion during the Regency Era, has far more political implications than most Austen fans and period reenactors realize. In truth, it was revolutionary: a sartorial celebration of the times. "Empire" refers to the one built by Napoleon, and is the name given in France to this period of history. High-waisted, loose gowns inspired by the peasantry began to be worn in elite French fashion circles prior to the Revolution, largely in response to the philosophies put forth by Jean-Jaques Rousseau, an advocate for society's return to more a natural state (often using peasants as an example), and whose ideas permeate Romantic thought. Yet this uncorseted look that shocked so many was not de rigueur until after the Revolution, when it became a reflection of the values of the new French state: simple fabrics and lines were far more egalitarian than complex court dress, their unrestrictive shapes were literally liberating, and the overall look was evocative of ancient Athens, where Democracy was born. Structured gowns became as passé as the wigs that went with them.
1807 gowns display the continued popularity of Grecian and Roman styling. Left: Full dress and walking dress. Right: Full dress
The earliest examples of this look from the late 18th century still featured trains, but as the 19th century began the gowns became straighter, emphasizing a woman's true shape. Thin fabrics left little to the imagination. The English took their initial cues on this new look from the French, but as contact between the two countries diminished over decades of war, the Empire look began to take on a distinctly English flare. Tight fitted spencers and redingotes, while marvels of tailoring, acted to bring the liberated look a bit more in control, as well as providing some much-needed warmth. Many ladies also found that to achieve the desired silhouette, they still required a great deal of confining undergarments. Tudor and military embellishments further increased the structure of the gowns. Notions of simplicity in women's clothing were soon abandoned, and ornamentation became just as ostentatious as ever. The death of Napoleon in 1821 coincides nicely with the beginning of the waistline's gradual journey back to, well, the waist (it took less time in France). It wasn't until the early 1830's that women's fashion began to take on truly Victorian dimensions in England, returning to the tight corsets and voluminous skirts of the previous century.
Evening dresses from 1816 (left) and 1819 (right) feature helmet like-headdresses reminiscent of Athena's, the Greek goddess of war.
One need not be an historian to know the Victorian Era was a period of rigid social conservatism. It is easy to read the fall of the waistline as a rejection of revolution, but feminist historians are quick to point out that Rousseau's philosophies and the fashions they inspired were far from liberating. Boys and girls of the era dressed in miniature versions of the gowns grown ladies wore. Boys were "breached" and allowed to grow into men, but girls were kept in a perpetual state of infancy. In Emile, Rousseau's treatise on education, he describes a vision of womanhood rather chilling to the modern reader. The vast bulk of the book describes the education of Emile, his fictitious pupil, and only contemplates the education of girls in Book Five: Marriage. Here he describes the ideal mate for Emile, one Sophie, and the education she ought to receive to keep her as natural a woman as possible:
Morning and evening dress (1818) showing military influences.
As I see it, the special functions of women, their inclinations and their duties, combine to suggest the kind of education they require. Men and women are made for each other but they differ in their measure of dependence on each other. We could get on better without women than women could get on without us. To play their part in life they must have our willing help, and for that they must earn our esteem. By the very law of nature women are at the mercy of men's judgments both for themselves and for their children. It is not enough that they should be estimable: they must be esteemed. It is not enough that they should be wise: their wisdom must be recognized. Their honor does not rest on their conduct but on their reputation. Hence the kind of education they get should by the very opposite of men's in this respect. Public opinion is the tomb of a man's virtue but the throne of a woman's. 
Walking dress demonstrating both Tudor and military influence, 1821 (left) and 1822 (right).
His words, though rather infuriating, perfectly describe the reality in which Jane Austen lived and wrote. Recall what Mary Bennet has to say on the subject:
"Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable -- that one false step involves her in endless ruin -- that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful, -- and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex."
Elizabeth might find such a statement annoying under the circumstances, but Mary is undoubtedly correct about life in the Regency. If Wickham did not marry Lydia, the entire Bennet family would have been tarnished by her actions, throwing their very survival into doubt. All this from a lack of active patriarchal protection. Women were entirely at the mercy of public opinion, yet at the same time fashion exposed their bodies in ways unheard of in Europe for centuries past. They were taught to court and relish masculine attention, just like Lydia Bennet, but then were punished for indulging in it. What a double edged sword!
The falling waistline. Left: Walking and dinner dress (1822). Right: Evening dress (Winter, 1826).
Even if Rousseau was not an advocate for any real form of female liberation, his notions undoubtedly influenced philosophers who were, like Mary Wollstonecraft. The ideals of freedom and liberty that marked the period would gradually spread their wings and encompass more and more of the globe, a process that is ongoing. One truth that can be universally acknowledged is that after a few decades of Victorian austerity, corsets again fell out of fashion, hemlines raised, and a new era of women's fashion was born. With it came suffrage, women in the work place, and birth control. Pretty revolutionary, wouldn't you say?
Boy and girls fashions, 1834. The younger boys, like the three on the far left, are still wearing skirts resembling those of the girl the same age (second figure from the right). The older boy standing behind her has been breached.
This post owes a great debt to Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen by Sarah Jane Downing, an excellent overview of the subject from Shire Library that I highly recommend.
The images featured are from the Claremont Colleges Digital Library: http://ccdl.libraries.claremont.edu/cdm/.

Join the conversation at Austen Authors: http://austenauthors.net/the-rise-and-fall-of-an-empire-waist/.