Monday, October 25, 2021

Apologies and Amends, by way of free books and other people's poems

First the apology. There will be no Twisted Austen this year. I am so, so sorry, a largely selfish sentiment, as the entire enterprise is entirely self-indulgent. Is it not our own deprivations we most lament? I had an idea, but simply no time to enact it. What writing time I did have was sucked up in the Mixed-up Mash Up madness, which I had targeted for completion last summer. Now NaNoWriMo looms before me, and I don't know how I'm going to shift my head back to Tales of Less Pride and Prejudice. Again. For the third year in a row. I think I'm going to end up trying to  continue working on both books at the same time, which probably means that I will get no where with either. Sigh.

Anyway, on to the amends. 

In lieu of new Twisted Austen and the attendant hoopla, I'm giving away one complete set of the series for Kindle download. Just leave a comment and make sure to either include an email address or that your contact information is accessible through your blogger account. Giveaway is open through Halloween, and the winner will be announced November 1st. 

In addition, as I increasingly dwell on reading with my ten year-old daughter on this blog, here are some dark and/or spooky 19th century poems that I'm hoping to get her to engage in with me this Halloween. I have no idea if she'll respond to any or all. I sought short poems, to suit her attention span, which is why some obvious options are not included. Regardless of Eliza's interest, it is always fun revisiting favorite authors. Maybe you will enjoy them, too. I hope so.

On a Dream

As Hermes once took to his feathers light,
When lulled Argus, baffled, swoon’d and slept,
So on a Delphic reed, my idle spright
So play’d, so charm’d, so conquer’d, so bereft
The dragon-world of all its hundred eyes;
And seeing it asleep, so fled away,
Not to pure Ida with its snow-cold skies,
Nor unto Tempe where Jove griev’d that day;
But to that second circle of sad Hell,
Where in the gust, the whirlwind, and the flaw
Of rain and hail-stones, lovers need not tell
Their sorrows—pale were the sweet lips I saw,
Pale were the lips I kiss’d, and fair the form
I floated with, about that melancholy storm.

John Keats (1819)


‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought —
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Lewis Carroll (1871)

Here is an excellent guide to the word play that Carroll utilizes:


From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were—I have not seen
As others saw—I could not bring
My passions from a common spring—
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow—I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone—
And all I lov’d—I lov’d alone—
Then—in my childhood—in the dawn
Of a most stormy life—was drawn
From ev’ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still—
From the torrent, or the fountain—
From the red cliff of the mountain—
From the sun that ’round me roll’d
In its autumn tint of gold—
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass’d me flying by—
From the thunder, and the storm—
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view—

Edgar Allan Poe (1829) 

If that goes down well, maybe I'll talk her into reading The Raven, or at least revisiting this beauty:

Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 18, 2021

Autumnal Poetry with Anne Elliot

Watercolor by C.E. Brock
"It was a very fine November day," and the Misses Musgrove were determined upon a walk ...

No longer having a car since moving to Switzerland, I do a great deal of walking these days. The weather here, for the most part, is accommodating, though this year it seems to mirror the times in its unpredictability. Rain or shine, it is a season for inspiration in nature, which brings me back to Persuasion:
Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves, and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn, that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness, that season which had drawn from every poet, worthy of being read, some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.

It seems to be a compulsion of mine each year to try and find the poetry Anne Elliot might have been conjuring in her mind as she tromped silently along behind the Musgroves and Captain Wentworth. In honor of the season, here are a few possibilities. These, admittedly, are not the most uplifting lines, but as Anne was far from happy during the scene in question, I feel they fit well. Enjoy!

Sonnet 73
William Shakespeare
That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Sally Hawkins, 2007.

Elegy IX: The Autumnal
John Donne

No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace
         As I have seen in one autumnal face.
Young beauties force our love, and that’s a rape,
         This doth but counsel, yet you cannot scape.
If ’twere a shame to love, here ’twere no shame;
         Affection here takes reverence’s name.
Were her first years the golden age? That’s true,
         But now she’s gold oft tried and ever new.
That was her torrid and inflaming time,
         This is her tolerable tropic clime.
Fair eyes, who asks more heat than comes from hence,
         He in a fever wishes pestilence.
Call not these wrinkles, graves; if graves they were,
         They were Love’s graves, for else he is no where.
Yet lies not Love dead here, but here doth sit
         Vow’d to this trench, like an anachorit;
And here till hers, which must be his death, come,
         He doth not dig a grave, but build a tomb.
Here dwells he; though he sojourn ev’rywhere
         In progress, yet his standing house is here:
Here where still evening is, not noon nor night,
         Where no voluptuousness, yet all delight.
In all her words, unto all hearers fit,
You may at revels, you at council, sit.
This is Love’s timber, youth his underwood;
There he, as wine in June, enrages blood,
Which then comes seasonabliest when our taste
         And appetite to other things is past.
Xerxes’ strange Lydian love, the platan tree,
         Was lov’d for age, none being so large as she,
Or else because, being young, nature did bless
         Her youth with age’s glory, barrenness.
If we love things long sought, age is a thing
         Which we are fifty years in compassing;
If transitory things, which soon decay,
         Age must be loveliest at the latest day.
But name not winter faces, whose skin’s slack,
         Lank as an unthrift’s purse, but a soul’s sack;
Whose eyes seek light within, for all here’s shade;
         Whose mouths are holes, rather worn out than made;
Whose every tooth to a several place is gone,
         To vex their souls at resurrection:
Name not these living death’s-heads unto me,
         For these, not ancient, but antique be.
I hate extremes, yet I had rather stay
         With tombs than cradles, to wear out a day.
Since such love’s natural lation is, may still
         My love descend, and journey down the hill,
Not panting after growing beauties. So,
         I shall ebb on with them who homeward go.

Ann Fairbanks, 1971.

To Autumn
William Blake

O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stainèd
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou may’st rest,
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe,
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.
`The narrow bud opens her beauties to
The sun, and love runs in her thrilling veins;
Blossoms hang round the brows of Morning, and
Flourish down the bright cheek of modest Eve,
Till clust’ring Summer breaks forth into singing,
And feather’d clouds strew flowers round her head.
`The spirits of the air live on the smells
Of fruit; and Joy, with pinions light, roves round
The gardens, or sits singing in the trees.’
Thus sang the jolly Autumn as he sat;
Then rose, girded himself, and o’er the bleak
Hills fled from our sight; but left his golden load.

Amanda Root, Ciaran Hinds, & Sophie Thompson, 1995.

My last offering would not be known to Austen, let alone Anne, but I have little doubt both would approve. A lovely autumn to you all!

Spring and Fall: to a young child
Gerard Manley Hopkins

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Dakota Johnson, 2022.

Monday, October 11, 2021

A Muse Named Jane

"At this rate, I shall not pity the writers of history any longer. If people like to read their books, it is all very well, but to be at so much trouble in filling great volumes, which, as I used to think, nobody would willingly ever look into, to be labouring only for the torment of little boys and girls, always struck me as a hard fate; and though I know it is all very right and necessary, I have often wondered at the person's courage that could sit down on purpose to do it." - Northanger Abbey
Dance of Apollo with the Muses by Giulio Romano, 1540.
Fresco in Palazzo Pitti.

Classical mythology tells us of nine Muses: the goddesses of inspiration. There’s Thalia, the muse of comedy. Melpomene’s province is tragedy, one of the most important contributions the Ancient Greeks made to world culture (think Oedipus). Terpsichore is the muse of dance. Clio inspires history, so we have her to thank for the laments of Catherine Moreland on this subject. Astronomers warrant a muse: Urania. Calliope is the muse to the epic poets, like that guy Homer. Euterpe is the muse of lyric poets, which were traditionally accompanied by an instrument and sung, while Erato handles the love poetry. Polyhymnia, appropriately, inspires hymns. Anyone missing? To whom can a poor novelist turn?

The novel really is a modern art form. Prose have existed from time immemorial, they just weren’t considered the venue for great literary works (sorry Plato). The novel as we know it was a relatively recent invention in Jane Austen’s time. In Western literature, Don Quixote, Moll Flanders, and Robinson Crusoe vie for the honor of being the “first” novel, and by that point in time, no one was adding new muses to the lineup.

I feel like I bounce around between these ladies. One moment I’m seeking help from Thalia or Melpomene, the next it’s Clio whose assistance I need. Obviously, I’m being ridiculous. Whose spirit do I really invoke when I hit a wall? Jane Austen’s, of course! A muse for the modern age. In fact, I was rather explicit about this at the beginning of my first novel, First Impressions: A Tale of Less Pride & Prejudice. I give you my highly tongue-in-cheek “Apology” (and yes, it’s a socratic reference):
It is well acknowledged that every author determined to continue, elaborate on, or simply meddle with Jane Austen’s novels must be highly tempted to include a pithy universal truth, in the manner of the lady herself, which establishes the theme of the story. It’s almost like a religious ritual, an epic invocation: we call for the great authoress to inspire (and forgive) the games we play with her texts. After all, this is hallowed ground on which we tread. So may I ask you, Miss Austen, to please excuse what I am about to do to your tale of Elizabeth and Darcy? I offer this story in homage to your sense of playfulness, not in some mistaken belief that my pen could ever duplicate yours. You gave each character his or her original essence and to them I will endeavor to be true. I promise to try to not antagonize your delicate sensibilities with the vulgarity of our modern age though I must assume, in spite of my best intentions, that something here will offend. How can it not? The real question is, Jane, do I have your permission to proceed anyway? If only the dead could speak! Perhaps then I would not commit the following atrocity.

And atrocious it was! I irritated MANY people with First Impressions (this low-angst story is my most controversial), but those who got it laughed. It was a good lesson in how you need to write from your heart without worrying about what others say. No one can please everyone at once, and when a muse calls it is best to follow wherever she may lead. And of course, I had Austen’s permission to tamper! She never would have inspired me to do so otherwise, right?

See the conflict of interest?

Currently, my muse is reasonably active. It's time to write that I lack. Normally, at this time of year, I'm deep into Twisted Austen. I do have an idea (and yes, it's Northanger Abbey based), but I have not written a single word. If I get it done this year, t'will be Twisted Austen miracle.

When I have been writing, I've been plugging away at what I continue to call either A Mixed-up Mashup or Walking in Austenland. Currently, I favor the latter (any thoughts or suggestions on this point are most appreciated). The idea for this most recent atrocity came to me many years ago, when I wrote most of a very rough draft on this blog, and now I am now rewriting it and posting at A Happy Assembly

I never thought I'd revisit this abandoned work, and I completely credit the pandemic with making the world feel topsy turvy enough to continue. It is very strange: probably my most conscious venture into magical realism. The story is largely writing itself, as all of mine do. I am not an author to make notes and outlines. I just start writing and follow the inspiration trail, with only a foggy notion of how it all ends.

Maybe the gods will be good to me, and bestow upon me some precious writing time. In the meantime, here is a taste of the madness I'd like to immerse myself in (literally, as I'm in the book. We can thank Salman Rushdie for inspiring such outrageous narcissism). This is still very rough, and there is no way to easily summarize the events that led up to the following scene, but I think it manages to stand alone, albeit a bit wobbly. Enjoy:

“Hello Miss Price,” Miss Bennet greeted her with an easy smile. “You look very elegant.”

“Miss Woodhouse has been very kind.”

“I think we have been most fortunate in our hostess,” Miss Dashwood said, surveying her own attire. “Not so many ladies are both as willing and able to assist in such matters as she has proven herself.”

“Please, say no more,” called the lady in question, now making her own descent arm and arm with Miss Morland, “lest I accidentally overhear something I should not. So far, I have been a most fortunate eavesdropper, only hearing what flatters me.” She looked with pleasure upon the ladies before her. “You do all look very well. What a credit to this new society, to boast so many beautiful young women!”

“We must hope there are enough deserving young men for all of us,” Miss Bennet said, “for nothing is more likely to cause strife than a shortage of gentlemen.” 

“Having spent the day playing hostess to this new little society in which we find ourselves, I assure you there are gentlemen aplenty. The problem is that they are sharing a finite amount of allure betwixt them, and that resource has been far from equitably divided.”

All the ladies had experience with this predicament, and it was in a companionable spirit that they donned their final accoutrements before walking into the night. Miss Marianne, feeling very comfortable with the present company, smiled saucily and asked, “And who are the lucky few so endowed, Miss Woodhouse?”

She laughed and replied, “Mr. Darcy is rather impressive, no one can deny, and have you met Captain Wentworth? Very dashing, indeed. I understand Mr. Bingley has lately been claimed by your sister, Miss Bennet, and I congratulate her on him. They look very handsome together. So too is Miss Morland’s Mr. Tilney quite charming, and Miss Prices’ Mr. Crawford.”

Miss Price shook her head negatingly, while Miss Morland protested, “He is not my Mr. Tilney.”

“Not yet you mean, but certainly cannot say so. You are right to object to my presumption, Miss Morland. Nevertheless, it can do no harm to hint your amiable competition away from him, my dear.”

“Usually it is the unamiable competition one has to fear,” reflected Miss Dashwood.

“Very true,” agreed Miss Woodhouse, “and I am sorry to say that we have a great deal of that, as well. I can extend my earlier assurances regarding the number of gentlemen to encompass a good quantity of ladies, not all of whom were as fortunate as ourselves in securing a sufficient portion of sense, though several possess more than their fair share of material wealth, or at least maintain the appearance of doing so.”  

“I despise such pretense,” replied Miss Marianne, emboldened by such a free manner of discourse, “though one encounters it all too often. It is an unaccustomed pleasure to find myself amongst so many intelligent ladies, even if we must yet put up with the a good deal of the usual ignorance and graspingness of others. I am glad Mrs. Adams has brought us together,” she concluded, spontaneously taking Miss Price’s arm. Receiving a surprised but welcoming smile from that demure lady in response, she confided, “Mr. Collins is of the opinion the Mrs. Adams is not a proper lady. I hope I shall not shock you, Miss Price, but not only do I find that I do not care at all if she is not, but I rather hope we shall discover that she is entirely the reverse.”

The night concealed Miss Price’s blushes, who certainly was shocked. “Whoever she may be,” she cautiously replied, “and from whatever background, we must hope we are in both good and wise hands. It is uncomfortable being so very much in a stranger’s power.”

A sudden burst of laughter from their companions, from whom they had lagged behind, diverted Miss Price and Miss Marianne from their tete-a-tete, inspired them to increase their gaits, and had them regaining the others in time to hear Miss Bennet admonish, “You must not so tease Miss Morland, Miss Woodhouse. Especially when so many of the same observations might be made of you and Mr. Knightley.”

“Mr. Knightley?” Miss Woodhouse exclaimed, halting where she stood. “Whatever gave you such an idea?”

It was Miss Bennet’s turn to be grateful for the dark. “Excuse me, have I presumed too much? You seem so very natural together. Please forgive me, Miss Woodhouse.”

“Oh, I am not in the least affronted, Miss Bennet,” she reassured her. “I am only astonished the idea should even occur to you.” Though the night was deep enough to conceal changes in complexion, it could not hide the looks of inquiry exchanged between the other ladies, all of whom now stood attentively together. “Did you all believe that there was an attachment between myself and Mr. Knightley?”

“I understand he is closely connected with your family,” Miss Dashwood attempted to explain. “In these extraordinary circumstances, given the ease with which you took command of his household, I am afraid it does somewhat appear as if you have come to an understanding.”

“Does it indeed? I must say, I am taken complete aback. I had not considered that our easy friendship might give rise to such speculation. Everyone in Highbury knows us so well, you see, as well as my intention to remain unmarried.”

Any awkwardness initially attending these revelation had now been well vanquished by Miss Woodhouse’s candid reaction, and Miss Bennet, feeling that levity might once more be her ally, replied with a modicum of deliberate impertinence. “Many women profess such an intention, Miss Woodhouse, but few are ever believed. To be called a wife and mother one day, no matter how much those titles might cost us, is presumed to be the dearest wish of us all.”

“I cannot deny that what you say is true, Miss Bennet, but I have none of the usual incentives to marry, as my independence is quite secure. My father needs me, certainly, but mine is no life of drudgery. Few wives are more mistress of their homes than I am of Hartfield.”

“Yet Mr. Knightley is very handsome,” said Miss Morland, teasingly.

“He is, indeed,” agreed Miss Price. “Very distinguished.”
“I should imagine he would make a most comfortable husband,” mentioned Miss Morland.

 “And son-in-law,” appended Miss Bennet.

“Surely, he is far too old for Miss Woodhouse,” protested Miss Marianne.

“There are many successful marriages with even greater age disparities,” countered her sister.

“But it is all nonsense!” laughed Miss Woodhouse. “I assure, I do not think of Mr. Knightley in such a way. You shall make me blush to see him!”

“If you have never thought of Mr. Knightley before, perhaps it would be wise to at least examine the possibility?” asked Miss Bennet. “Few other women would have been so negligent in examining all the options a neighborhood affords. How would you feel if some of our ‘amiable’ competitors were to swoop in upon him?”

“Oh, Mr. Knightley must not marry. It would only disadvantage my nephews!”

“The claims of your nephews cannot weigh so heavily with other women as they do with you.” 

“Has he expressed an intention not to marry?” asked Miss Price

“Not to me, no, but it must be understood. Surely, it is,” Miss Woodhouse said with no great conviction, a spreading unease now filling her breast.

“This is a strange way to repay your kindness, Miss Woodhouse,” said Miss Dashwood. “Let us walk on. Mr. Knightley is clearly relying on you, of that much we can be certain, and we ought not deprive him of your valuable assistance any longer.”

She nodded gratefully, Miss Bennet squeezed her hand comfortingly, and they were soon again on their way, not long in arriving at Donwell. 

Monday, October 4, 2021

Charades as Bawdy as Limericks: Reading Austen with my Daughter

From The History of England by Jane Austen,
illustrated by her sister, Cassandra.
This past Saturday, I spontaneously decided to read Austen's The History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st to my daughter for the first time (you can access the original manuscript at the British Library's online gallery). She has been very interested in Tudors and Stuarts recently, largely thanks to Horrible Histories and the musical Six, and so the time just seemed right. She laughed at it, which pleased me to no end, and I think this might be the first time she has really appreciated an Austen text. But it had been a while since I last read it, and I had sort of forgotten about the short "sharade" towards the end: 

My first is what my second was to King James the 1st, and you tread on my whole.
On the surface, tis no great mystery that the answer is carpet, for Austen provides it before the actual riddle. She further elaborates afterward, explaining it as a reference to Robert Car, 1st Earl of Somerset, a great favorite of James I. But this is a bit weird for Austen, who normally is reluctant to spell such things out for her readers. She only provides an answer to one of the much more frequently referenced and dissected charades in Emma, but that is an original composition and an intentional narrative device, vital to both Emma and Harriet's subsequent misunderstandings. So here I am, reading this aloud to my daughter, caught unawares and suddenly blushing at this seemingly innocent charade, while my mind is running back to a blog post read many years ago at the always provocative Sharp Elves Society, which argues very convincingly that young Miss Austen was making a very bawdy joke, indeed. I have no wish to dissect the theory, which depends on the novel Fanny Hill and is really not my turf (more blushes), but it caused me to reflect on the subversive nature charades play in literature, and how they are often used to disguise pretty overt sexual references and tensions. This is true of the infamous charade scenes in both Jane Eyre and Vanity Fair, and it is also true in Austen.

In Emma, there is a hint of a very famous charade by David Garrick, published in the London Chronicle in 1771. Mr. Woodhouse struggles to recall it, but Austen's contemporary readers would have known it. I am no expert in back alley slang from the 18th century, but many with greater knowledge of this subject have elaborated on the incredibly bawdy nature of the complete poem. Here is one of the complete variations (there are a few):

Kitty, a fair, but frozen maid,
Kindled a flame I still deplore;
The hood-wink'd boy I call'd in aid,
Much of his near approach afraid,
So fatal to my suit before.

At length, propitious to my pray'r,
The little urchin came;
At once he sought the midway air,
And soon he clear'd, with dextrous care,
The bitter relicks of my flame.

To Kitty, Fanny now succeeds,
She kindles slow, but lasting fires:
With care my appetite she feeds;
Each day some willing victim bleeds,
To satisfy my strange desires.

Say, by what title, or what name,
Must I this youth address?
Cupid and he are not the same,
Tho' both can raise, or quench a flame --
I'll kiss you, if you guess.

The answer is, jokingly, chimneysweep, but the charade is about syphilis and the contemporary belief that it could be cured through sex with virgins. Yeah. Think on that for a second. I know it's heavy. Now what does it mean that Mr. Woodhouse, of all people, is the source of this "elegant extract?'

I've read a lot of proposed answers to that question over the years, from Austen not knowing what she was talking about (yeah, right), to syphilis actually being the ailment from which Mr. Woodhouse is himself suffering. A fascinating argument, but I don't subscribe to it. He is presented, after all, as a man of quite delicate sensibilities, and I find it hard to believe that he would in anyway intentionally reference this incredibly ungenteel topic before his unmarried daughter and her friend, let alone make this association: 
"I wish I could recollect more of it. 
    Kitty, a fair but frozen maid. 
The name makes me think of poor Isabella; for she was very near being christened Catherine after her grandmama. I hope we shall have her here next week. Have you thought, my dear, where you shall put her—and what room there will be for the children?"
He cannot be knowingly comparing his daughter to a prostitute. My belief is that Austen is using the charade to both mock Mr. Woodhouse's complete cluelessness and emphasize his inadequacies as a patriarch. The sexual content in intentional. It acts as a warning. He is utterly incapable of guiding Emma through the difficult rituals of courtship, even if he had any mind to do so, yet he is the only one legally authorized to act in such a capacity. Both Mr. Knightley and his brother might take it upon themselves to warn Emma regarding Elton, but she is in no way obligated to act on their opinions. Granted, she's pretty adept at overriding her father's dictates, particularly when it comes to feeding guests at Hartfield, but had Mr. Woodhouse said something about an inappropriate level of intimacy developing between herself and Mr. Elton, Emma must have at least reflected upon his warning. But he sees no danger. He doesn't even know of it when it comes. He is even so deluded as to lament his daughter's eventual union to Mr. Knightley, her most obvious and in every worldly way desirable match. This is a patriarchy turned upside down. Emma is the head of the household in all but name. Contemporary readers would know the literary reference and see the potential danger ahead, even while laughing. You know, like:

It is no accident that Austen uses charades to obscure Emma's romantic miscalculations. She lived in a society adept at deciphering such codes. In so many ways, this is her invitation to the reader to be thinking of the novel like a puzzle, to not take everything at face value, and to begin to solve the mystery at the heart of her narrative. Not all is what it appears. Not these innocent parlour games, nor the respectable Miss Austen, herself.

Anyway, to return briefly to The History of England, I found myself reading the charade and hesitating to explain the meaning. Lazily, I considered just glazing over it, but I thought better of it and explained to Eliza that James I is widely believed to have had a series of longterm male lovers, even while he enacted stringent anti-sodomy laws. I may not be ready to elaborate on the Fanny Hill theory to her quite yet, but no way is my daughter going to grow up under the false impression that Jane Austen was some prim and proper Victorian creation who knew not of such things. The Kitty charade I will explain when she is older. Much older. It's way too dark and disturbing, and I do not think it wise to distress her with such tales of abuse. Fortunately, the novel doesn't suffer greatly from not understanding this reference, though our understanding of who Jane Austen was does. We'll have this conversation. Someday.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Swissing Pride and Prejudice

The following was part of the very first blog post I wrote upon arrival in Switzerland, in August of 2015. I had not reread it until today and was astonished to find it absolutely hilarious! My mind was in such chaos at the time (the post went live the same day our furniture arrived from overseas), and other than remembering writing something of the sort, I had no recollection of the details. I feared I would be embarrassed by my ignorance of the culture, but instead I'm proud of this piece. That's so nice. There is also a good bit of Austen's youthful, absurdist tone incorporated into my vision for three Pride & Prejudice mashups with classic Swiss tales. Perhaps I took inspiration from her own Plan of a Novel. I really don't remember. The first is based on the tale of William Tell, the second on Heidi, and the third on The Swiss Family Robinson. Enjoy! 

Fitzwilliam Darcy-Tell: Folk Hero of Hunsford

In this Austenesque twist on the famous Swiss legend, Darcy forsakes his top boots for a bow, leaving readers all aquiver. When the domineering Lady Catherine insists all residents of her domain bow to her marital arrangements, our hero stands defiant, declaring his love for the comparatively lowly Elizabeth Bennet. He may marry her, his incensed Aunt cruelly declares, if he can shoot an apple off the “obstinate” girl’s strong head, never believing it possible. But Darcy easily splices the offending piece of fruit in two and is forced to flee with Elizabeth on foot, the evil tyrant trailing them all the way. Finally, they reach the free kingdom of Pemberley, and as Darcy crosses the gates, he turns and unleashes a last arrow into Lady Catherine’s wicked heart, felling the villainess. As news of his triumph spreads, subservient relations all over England rise up and overthrow the domination of their most officious kin, bringing forth an age of peace and prosperity.

Lizzy of the Mountain

Overwhelmed with an excessive number of daughters, a young Lizzy Bennet moves with her disillusioned father to live in an isolated cabin upon Oakham Mount. There the two find peace and happiness in their bucolic seclusion until Aunt Philips, having learned of a wealthy young lady in need of youthful companionship, takes Lizzy away to live in London. Overwhelmed by the metropolis and missing her long walks through the wilderness, Lizzy’s own health flounders, even as she finds solace in Georgiana Darcy’s friendship. The heiress was victim of a nefarious plot on her fortune and heart, but Lizzy’s purity begins to restore her faith in humanity. Her loving brother sees the improvement and duly credits Lizzy, whose frank and open manner have also touched his own heart. However, Madame de Bourgh, the Darcy’s rigid housekeeper, blames the rustic girl for a series of mishaps and disruptions to the household, subjecting her accordingly to increasingly severe punishments. When worrisome sightings of a ghostly apparition prove to be Lizzy herself, sleepwalking due to the stress of homesickness, Madame is not slow in packing the girl off to her woodland abode. There Mr. Darcy pursues her and declares his love for the now mature Elizabeth. He moves the entire cabin from Oakham Mount to within the confines of Pemberley’s library, where Mr. Bennet happily spends the remainder of his days.

Swiss Family Gardiner

Traveling north for a pleasure holiday with their niece, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner’s carriage breaks down. Abandoned by their servants and lost in the wild county of Derbyshire, they must learn to survive on what they can scavenge from the wreck and what Mother Nature provides. They build a rustic shelter and begin to cultivate the land. One day, Elizabeth find herself upon the edge of a murky lake. Seating herself upon its shores, she ponders whether she will ever be reunited with her family and the wider world. Imagine her surprise when a half-dressed gentleman emerges from the watery depths! She recognizes him as Fitzwilliam Darcy, the suitor whom she harshly rejected but a few months before. Both stammer in discomfort and embarrassment, but Elizabeth, seeing an opportunity for rescue, manages to express her plight. He follows her back to her family’s encampment, which proves to be on his own estate of Pemberley. Rather than arresting the Gardiners for poaching, he demonstrates his worthiness by welcoming the family warmly, catering to their needs, and gracefully navigating them all through an exceedingly awkward situation. After being ensconced in one of Pemberley’s best guest rooms and luxuriating in a delightful bath, Elizabeth learns she can return his love, after all.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Decoding an "18th century crumb cake" recipe

A streusel coffeecake.
I'm veering off from Jane today. Indulge me.

Twenty some years ago, I served my now in-laws the first meal I had ever prepared for them. It was brunch, and I had called my grandmother to acquire the family's "crumb cake" recipe, that I could serve it to my prospective future family. To my surprise and delight, my now father-on-law walked in the door (the house entered directly into the kitchen), saw the pretty unassuming cake on the table, and said, eyes alight, "Oh! That's a Streuselkuchen. My mother used to make that." 

I don't think I need to explain my delight at this reaction, but my surprise was due to the fact that these two families, from very different cultural background, made this same dessert. The family from whom the recipe derived is actually my step-father's family (everyone to whom I am related to by blood has much more humble roots), and they are of English descent, long settled in the United States, and deeply entrenched in Philadelphia society. My husband's paternal family is very German, immigrated to the US in the late 19th century, and settled in Kentucky. I found it further perplexing because my grandmother claimed the family had been making it since the 18th century.

Sometimes, family lure gets exaggerated. The so-called "crumb cake" (which I almost always refer to as a coffeecake, for that is what it more resembles, the streusel topping not being as heavy as your typical crumb cake) cannot be an authentic 18th century recipe because it uses baking powder as a rising agent, which wasn't invented until the mid-19th century. It also calls for crisco, first marketed by Proctor & Gamble in 1910, but, obviously, this could have been a one to one replacement for lard (I use all butter). The baking powder is the big red flag. Could a very similar cake have been made by the family using different ingredients before this time? Yes, but the history of the coffee cake in the United States suggests otherwise. 

Though my British friends look at me like a lunatic when I explain that "coffeecake" doesn't typically have any coffee in it, like so many other labels (ie soccer), the term originated in England but then fell out of use there, while remaining part of the American lexicon. These early confections, like our modern versions, did not contain any coffee, but, much like tea cakes, were intended to accompany hot beverages. With the advent of chemical leavening agents in the 1840s to 1860s, they became the de facto ingredients in coffeecakes, which were distinguished by the speed of their preparation. The recipes for these early versions are very much like the one passed down from my grandmother.

So from where comes the German connection? Well, at about the same time, an influx of germanic immigrants introduced the yeast-based, Streuselkuchen to the United States, mention of which can first be found in documents produced in Pennsylvania in the 1860s, soon spreading to the Midwest. If you search through modern Steuselkuchen recipes, they are still almost always made with yeast. There are, however, some quick versions that rely on baking powder and fairly closely resemble my family's recipe. I think it quite feasible that my father-in-law's mother made something of the sort. Regardless of the rising agent, the look of a Streuselkuchen is almost identical to my grandmother's version. 

One of the neatest things about having relocated to "the old world" is learning more about the origins of the food we eat in the United States. It's fascinating, the journey food takes, as it is reinvented in the melting pot and influenced by technology. 

Anyway, here is the "Crumb Cake" recipe, supposedly an 18th century Radford family secret. It is so much like a thousand other recipes you can find online, but this one is tried, true, easy, and delectable. My sister and uncle both modify it to make it more akin to a proper crumb cake, doubling the amount of topping and, as a result, reducing the quantity of cake, but I prefer the original proportions, which is why I almost always describe it as a coffeecake. As mentioned, I substitute the crisco for butter, and especially here in Switzerland, where the butter has a higher fat content than in the US, this results in a much longer cooking time (an additional 15-20 minutes). I also sometimes make these as cupcakes, which my daughter loves, and which conveniently reduces the cooking time. If you bake this at home, please let me know how it turns out, and do please call it an 18th century recipe, even if it isn't one, because the heritage, though exaggerated, is part of the fun.

For more information on the history of coffeecake, I highly recommend this article by Gil Marks, upon which I heavily relied in the writing of this post:

Cupcake version of the family recipe.
18th Century Radford Family Crumb Cake Recipe

    • 3 cups flour
    • 2 cups sugar
    • 1/2 cup cold butter
    • 1/2 cup Crisco
    • 1 tablespoon baking powder
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt
    • 2 eggs, beaten
    • 1 cup whole milk
    • ground cinnamon
  1. Preheat oven to 350.
  2. Grease and flour two round cake pans.
  3. Mix all dry ingredients in a large bowl.
  4. Work in butter and crisco with a pastry cutter or fingers until the mixture is lumpy.
  5. Remove one cup of the mixture. Add cinnamon to taste and set aside for topping.
  6. Beat the eggs and milk together in a separate bowl.
  7. Add liquid ingredients to the dry in two stages.
  8. Pour into prepared pans.
  9. Sprinkle crumb topping over the batter.
  10. Bake for 30 minutes or an inserted toothpick comes out clean. The cake will be set and slightly browned.

Monday, September 13, 2021

The Great Wash

My dryer is broken. First of all, let me acknowledge that it is a bit unusual to have a proper clothes dryer in Switzerland. Some apartments come equipped with a tumbler, but not a dryer, while most utilize shared facilities. It ought not feel a hardship to suddenly have to contend with line drying my clothing, but I am spoiled, and I'm finding the experience pretty darn frustrating.

W. H. Pyne. “Welsh Peasant Washers.” From The Costume of
Great Britain
.  London: William Miller, 1808.

Thank goodness the weather has been good! Still, we don't get a full day of direct sunlight on our small patio, and I've had to be pretty creative in claiming new drying spots in windows and stairwells. I have not often had to think of such matters, but as my days have become regulated by shifting and turning items about, trying to help them dry faster, while watching the weather carefully for stray showers, I have inevitably dwelled on how mundane such thoughts and considerations were to Regency women. One of the most tedious and arduous of all household tasks at the time was doing the laundry, and even the most exalted had to have care and concern for the time and manpower involved. 

Jane Austen only really hints at the labor intensity of doing the laundry once in her novels, by my reckoning, in the fragment The Watsons, which I reread for the first time in about a decade this weekend. A recollection that doing the wash was mentioned inspired me. I've always far preferred Sanditon as a fragment and historically found The Watsons almost unbearably depressing. I enjoyed it much more this reading. Maybe the world is more depressing now, so it suits my mood better, or maybe ten years of intense Austen study has allowed me to properly understand the text. I certainly am more familiar with change, upheaval, and loss than I was when last I read it. Nevertheless, or perhaps as a result, the story doesn't seem so hopeless as it used to. I want to read it again and further crystallise my thoughts, so look forward to a proper post on the text.

For my purpose here today, there is just one line I'd like to examine. For those of you unfamiliar with the story (you can read it here), Emma Watson, our heroine, had just returned to her family home after years of privilege and comfort as the ward of her aunt and uncle. When the latter died, the former remarried a fortune hunter, who quickly dismisses Emma back to an already financially strained family. Elizabeth is her eldest sister and manages their meager household. Very early in the story she says to Emma, "Since you have been at home, I have been so busy with my poor father and our great wash that I have had no leisure to tell you anything ...." The modern reader may wonder why Elizabeth would have scheduled the wash for when her sister, unseen for eight years, is finally returning home, but she may have had very little choice. Obviously, the weather was a factor. Especially considering the wet climate in England, housekeepers had to be opportunistic about utilising fair weather. Not only does the sun whiten linens, it also prevented the necessity of having to find a place to dry everything inside the house, further discommoding everyone (particularly, one presumes, the servants). But there was more to it then taking advantage of limited sunshine. Most households would hire washerwomen in advance to come in and manage the process. These were experts in their field, with knowledge of how much soap and chemicals were required on which fabrics, and possessed of the strength to churn, lift, and wring heavy, soaking wet linen and wool. The task was formidable, and the lye soap utilised was disastrous to your hands, so to be avoided at all cost by any woman with pretensions to gentility. 

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Laundress, 1761.
Oil on canvas. Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

The wash would take at least two whole days to complete. It would begin the day before the
washerwomen would arrive, when a servant would be set to guard and tend the fire under the "copper," preparing it for use when the washerwomen arrived. There was then an order of operations to follow regarding what you washed first. A variety of cleansers were used, including urine on some of the more heavily soiled items, and blue dyes to counteract yellowing fabrics. Huge amounts of water were required for boiling and rinsing. It was a project to consume an entire household. Poor Emma must have felt quite out of place and useless to return home to such occupation and disorder. 

Of course, this just refers to table linens, bed clothes, undergarments, and corse garments. Fine fabrics and gowns required specialised care. A valuable gown would be disassembled for washing, all buttons removed, and reassembled with an eye to fixing and stretching that may have occurred to the fabric. All of this labor involved in the simple maintenance of clothing heavily reinforced class divides. It was simply impossible to maintain cleanliness without a small army of assistants. 

There are several excellent descriptions online of all that was entailed in doing the laundry. You'll find links to a few of my favorite below. I just want to reflect on how fortunate we are to have such an easy time with laundry, even as it still consumes a ton of my time and seems a never ending task (and that's when the dryer works). I am always so grateful to climb into a bed made with fresh sheets. That is a luxury that has never been lost on me. But now I will learn to be grateful for towels that are soft and fluffy instead of hard and crunchy. Indeed, I might be on the verge of down and breaking resorting to fabric softener for the first time in decades. Maybe the repair shop will call soon, and it won't have to come to that. Here's hoping!

18th Century Life: Ways to Wash your Linens

Jane Austen's World: Everyday Chores of Laundry and Scullery Maids, and Washerwomen

Pen and Pensions: The Georgian Washing Day