Friday, February 26, 2010

Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict by Laurie Viera Rigler

Attention Wary Readers: This review contains a few, minor spoilers, but nothing particularly ruinous to the enjoyment of the book in question. Proceed at your discretion.

I read this book after reading some pretty positive reviews, despite my reservations about the time travel scenario, which I've never really liked, having taken an aversion to books like The Devil's Arithmetic and Playing Beatie Bow when they were forced upon me at a young age. To my surprise, at the end of Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict I found myself wanting more of an explanation from Laurie Viera Rigler regarding the time travel aspect of the book. How does a woman from them modern era suddenly wake up in the body of a Regency lady? I guess that's why she wrote the follow up book, Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict. However, while I liked the first book far better than I thought I would, I'm not ready to rush out a buy a second volume of Ms. Rigler's work. Why? Because I find I do not at all care for her heroine.

Courtney Stone is suppose to, I guess, represent the modern, American woman, with relationship troubles, a boring job, bills to pay, and body image issues. I, however, am very relieved that I know few people suffering from the degree of neurosis that Courtney displays. Yes, it is interesting to view the Regency world from the perspective of a person bordering on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but my amusement in her disgust at the lack of sanitation doesn't make me like her any more. Yes, she feels sorry for the servants who have to lug water by the bucketful up to her room so she can maintain some semblance of her customary bathing habits, but it doesn't stop her from making them do it more often than she should. Yes, her antics in the closet of an older hostess, fueled by a very understandable desire to play dress up in Georgian Era clothing, are entertaining, but they also display a shocking degree of disrespect for other people's property. She is like a teenager and, having been one, I can empathize while still feeling simultaneous repugnance for the adult who continues to behave in such an egocentric manner. I found nothing to like in this woman and bristle at the notion of her being representational of Austenites, as I sincerely believe we are not such a selfish bunch. What I do know is that we are typically not horrified at the notion of going outside without makeup on and tend to have a great penchant for empire waistlines, which, for some reason, Ms. Rigler derides at length (this was particularly painful to me, as I so adore them).

My dislike of the heroine aside, this book (a very fast read) has some absolutely fascinating moments in it, when Regency England comes alive in a way that directly plays to the sensibilities of Austen fans. I want to focus on two scenes that I found particularly affecting. The first highlights some of my complaints from the proceeding paragraph, though in this particular circumstance I feel great sympathy for Courtney's perspective. The setting is the Cross Baths in Bath and, while I find Courtney's longing for hand sanitizer annoying, I too would have great reservations about taking a dip in such salubrious conditions:
As we enter the sweltering pool in preposterous yellow bathing attire that covers us from neck to ankle, my nostrils are assaulted by a potpourri of body odors rising from the boiling flesh around me. Spiced-orange pomanders, which sit in floating bowls tied on ribbons around our necks, lose the battle against the stench rising from the steaming water before it even begins. But even the smell of this human soup is not as revolting as the sight of some of our fellow bathers. Just a few feet away from us, a stout woman grimaces as a younger female helps her unravel soiled bandages from her legs and then submerge those legs, open sores and all, into the water. Her companion isn't in much better physical shape herself. She has a loud, phlegmy cough that she makes no attempt to shield from the breathing passages of anyone within ten yards. The proximity of this pair is enough to make me scramble out of the water and stand shuddering at the edge of the pool.
In this scenario my scruples are even higher than Courtney's as I would never have set a foot in the water to begin with. But then again, I do enjoy water parks and their accompanying (properly chlorinated) wave pools, while I have a feeling Courtney does not. I guess reading the next book might be elucidating regarding exactly how germ-phobic she is. My ramblings aside, moments of historical reenactment like this are what kept the book compelling in spite of its heroine. It becomes easy to ignore her, even in the first person, when Ms. Rigler brings her surroundings alive and allows the reader to experience this unique, unpolished perspective of the era.

My very favorite scene, in which Ms. Rigler brought tears of joy to my eyes, is when Courtney accidentally encounters Jane Austen. Overhearing her name, Courtney tracks our dear lady down in the street and makes a right fool of herself, babbling rather incoherently about works not yet published and future film adaptations. Nevertheless, here is Miss Austen herself! What a wonderful moment! The first person narrative allows readers to feel, for a fleeting moment as Courtney tracks the receding bonnet through the busy town, that we too are about to meet this amazing woman who has bequeathed such a profound source of joy - her novels - to humanity. Then Courtney starts blabbing and the moment is ruined, but it was simply marvelous while the illusion lasted.

I imagine I will, at some point, read Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict. I'd like more of an explanation as to how this body swap took place and am interested in learning how Jane Mansfield (our Regency lady) fares in modern LA. But as it is the glimpses of history that made Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict compelling for me, I feel no rush to sate my curiosity. For those who enjoy Austen but do not know that much about the period in which she wrote, it might be a rather valuable novel. For me, I'm not sure the elucidation was necessary, but I enjoyed nonetheless.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Rainy Days by Lory Lilian

I sit here on the cusp of yet another, multi-day weather event, and what better way to weather snowy days than with Rainy Days, Lory Lilian's first "What If?" novel (the second being Remembrance of the Past, discussed here). When I read books of this sub-genre, especially when they are on the lengthy side (this one is just under 400 pages), I find myself either instantly totally captivated or completely bored, the twist in the Pride and Prejudice plot usually taking place right out of the gate. This book belongs to the former category: utterly charming from page one.

It's two days before the Netherfield ball. Darcy is already deep in battle with his burgeoning feelings for Elizabeth, who is well established in her dislike for our hero. Of these days Austen tells us:

If there had not been a Netherfield ball to prepare for and talk of, the younger Miss Bennets would have been in a pitiable state at this time, for from the day of the invitation to the day of the ball, there was such a succession of rain as prevented their walking to Meryton once. No aunt, no officers, no news could be sought after; -- the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy. Even Elizabeth might have found some trial of her patience in weather which totally suspended the improvement of her acquaintance with Mr. Wickham; and nothing less than a dance on Tuesday, could have made such a Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday endurable to Kitty and Lydia.

Just because the adverse weather keeps Kitty and Lydia from pursuing a walk and Elizabeth from the enjoyment of Wickham's company, does not mean that the young lady who walked three miles in mud to Netherfield would be prevented from making the most of any lulls in the storm to at least enjoy three turns, as Mr. Woodhouse would say, around her family's own grounds. It is also very easy to believe that a restless Darcy, cooped up with Miss Bingley and repressing his feelings for Elizabeth, would likewise head out (on horseback, of course) at anytime the weather permitted, perhaps accidentally straying out of Netherfield's park and onto neighboring lands. Behold our intrepid heroes, caught in the sudden downpour that both should have expected and forced to shelter together until it passes. They do not reach an instant understanding but, nonetheless, the groundwork is laid for the future. Of course, two such characters must create some of their own impediments to happiness, and there are certain relatives that will insist on interfering, so it is not all smooth sailing. Ms. Lilian flushes out her tidy prose with fully developed Gardiners and Matlocks, as well as some rather steamy encounters between the young lovers.

A few characters really stand out as particularly delightful in this text, namely Lady Matlock (who often shines) and little Rebecca Gardiner, a charming little girl who prefers to be called "just Becky" and provides a great deal of the book's comic relief. The former's forceful personality is aptly demonstrated when she declares, "Oh, for heaven's sake, Darcy, take her hand and be done with it. You are acting like a schoolboy!" Becky is also rather direct in her speech, and when the two ladies meet great fun ensues:
"Lady Ellen, allow me to introduce to you my youngest cousin, Rebecca Gardiner."

"Pleased to meet you, Miss Rebecca Gardiner." The girl remained silent, and Lady Ellen turned to Elizabeth. "Does Miss Rebecca Gardiner not know how to speak?"

"Oh, I know how to speak," Becky finally answered, "but you are so beautiful that I forgot the words."

Her little face was so honestly impressed that Lady Matlock smiled in delight.

"Why thank you, dear! That is the most charming compliment I have heard in quite a while."

"Oh," answered Becky, suddenly talkative again as she felt herself on secure ground, "I am very good at compliments; everybody knows that. But you should know my name is Becky, not Miss Rebecca Gardiner."

Elizabeth decided to interrupt, as a talkative Becky could be a dangerously voluble one. "Lady Matlock, please forgive us. My cousin can be very...forward when she likes someone, and she tends to speak about many things that are not entirely proper."

"Is that so, Becky? Well, Elizabeth, you must not apologize for that. I have always liked girls who hold decided opinions and know how to talk about many things."

"Do you let your girls talk about many things?" asked Becky, suddenly ignoring both Elizabeth and Darcy, her interest completely drawn to her new acquaintance.

"Unfortunately, Becky, I have no girls - only two boys."

"Becky, Lady Matlock is Colonel Fitzwilliams's mother," explained Darcy.

The girl looked from him to the lady, and back to him, and then her face brightened in revelation.
"Oh... You are trying to make fun of me like my brothers. She cannot be the colonel's mother!"

"Why do you say so, Becky? Lady Matlock is the colonel's mother," said Elizabeth.

"She cannot be! Because she is beautiful and the colonel is old! He is as old as Mr. Darcy."

A disconcerted expression spread over Darcy's face, trying to follow her logic.
"So I am old now, Becky? A few days ago, you said I was pretty!"

"You are pretty! But you are old, too, and so is the colonel."
Ms. Lilian and I have been engaged in an email conversation about the role of sex in Austen adaptations which I hope to post at a near, if still unknown, date, and so will not dwell on the matter here. All I will say is that while Rainy Days is rather steamy at times, it is mostly due to the very passionate make out scenes between Darcy and Elizabeth, who thankfully do not precede their wedding vows. I hope to be able to announce soon when the post will be up, as the "sex issue" is a question I have been struggling with for a very long time. For those of you who, like me, are uncomfortable with Darcy and Elizabeth's intimacy, I urge you not to allow it to deter you from reading this delightful book. The sex is not nearly as overt as it can sometimes be and the plot remains strong even if you do glimpse over some of the kissy parts.

On the back of the book, Ms. Lilian quotes John Updike: "Rain is grace...without rain, there would be no life." While Updike might seem a world away from Austen, the quote is very appropriate, capturing the early ambiance of the story - the glories and terrors of an intense storm, very like those of love. You know how film adaptations of Austen like to depict our heroines, at moments of emotional intensity, drenched by rain ( i.e. the 1995 Sense and Sensibility and 2005 Pride and Prejudice)? That's because a rain storm so aptly evokes the power and ferocity of our emotions when we succumb to romance. In this tale, Lizzy has little option but to quickly revise her first impression of Mr. Darcy and fall madly in love with him.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Giveaway - Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer

Attentive readers will know that on March 9th Georgette Heyer, courtesy of The Classics Circuit, will be the subject of my post. In preparation, I duly ordered a copy of Black Sheep from Amazon. Per our routine, my husband and I read this very fun novel together. While we have gotten somewhat accustomed to Heyer's abrupt endings, this one threw us into confusion (largely because we wanted more). Convinced that, as the end came at the bottom of a page, there were pages missing, I checked the page count on Amazon. It was listed as 288 pages while the novel had only 279. I wrote to Sourcebooks and received no response. I emailed Amazon and they sent me a second copy of the book, also with only 279 pages. If anyone out there has it in their ability to confirm the length of this novel, I will be very appreciative if you will do so. In the meantime, I have two copies of a potentially damaged publication. Instead of returning the unread copy to Amazon, I intend to use this opportunity to host a giveaway, something I have never done before. I am inclined to believe the copy on offer is complete and the page listing is wrong, but make no guarantees. To make this questionable prize your very own, I invite you to do one of two things:
1) Become a follower and leave a comment including your email address before March 1st.

2) Leave a comment including your email address before March 1st.
I am not as sophisticated as some and will employ the old fashioned, name-pulled-out-of-a-hat technique to choose the winner, who will be announced on March 1st.

Black Sheep product description (courtesy of Amazon):
Abigail Wendover, on the shelf at 28, is kept busy when her niece falls head over heels in love with a handsome fortune hunter and Abbie is forced into a confrontation with his scandalous uncle.

Miles Calvery is the black sheep of his family- enormously rich from a long sojourn in India, disconcertingly blunt and brash. But he turns out to be Abbie's most important ally in keeping her niece out of trouble.

But how can he possibly be considered eligible when she has worked so hard to rebuff his own nephew's suit for her niece? And how can she possibly detach from an ailing sister who needs her? This is a heroine who has to be, literally, swept off her feet . . .
I'm quite anxious to see how this giveaway notion plays out and suspect it will be great fun. Good luck to all who enter!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Northanger Abbey - 1986

I have watched this film 3 times since I received it at Christmas, never having seen it before, and only now can I, with great timidly, attempt to compose a coherent response to it. The 1986 adaptation of Northanger Abbey is unquestionably the most bizarre of the many films depicting Jane Austen's novels (although Patricia Rozema's Mansfield Park comes in a close second). Despite huge prejudices against this movie, I find I actually kind of like it, though there were a medley of obstacles to overcome before I reached such a sanguine perspective. I cannot comment on it without dwelling on its oddities and fear this review, as a result, might come off as rather negative. It is not my intention to dissuaded anyone from seeing it, as I desperately want to discuss it, so please keep an open mind.

Let me begin by recalling that although Northanger Abbey is Austen's shortest novel, at some 77,000 words, shrinking it into 88 minutes is no small feat. Unlike the other films in my BBC Austen Collection box set, this one makes no attempt to present, almost unadulterated, the entire text of the novel. Not wanting to disappoint either Catherine or its mid-80's viewership, the creators of this film make the Abbey perfectly Gothic, saving us all from the disappointment of modernizations and elegant furnishings by providing all the "painted glass, dirt, and cobwebs" that Catherine's imagination could desire. Of course Udolpho is made much of, complete with "quite horrid" dream sequences of Catherine wrapped in a sacrificial sheet, swooning in the arms of a devilish man who happens to look like General Tilney. The most bizarre of these goes beyond the realm of what I can recall from Radcliffe, showing Mrs. Allen calmly sewing her fingers together. I have no idea what this is supposed to signify, but it reminded me of something out of Un Chien Andalou. The film is set in 1803, allowing some elder members of Bath society to add to the film's creepiness by adhering to their powder and patches, and the whole thing is orchestrated to a truly awful 80's score that feels something like a cross between Top Gun, The Neverending Story, and V.

The strangest scene, the like of which had never before and has never since been seen in Austen cinema, is the one in the Roman Baths. As some of you may know, I studied Classical civilization in college, and had first watched this scene a long time ago, when searching for images of the Baths that gave the town immortalized by Austen it's name. Now, this was quite sometime before my Austen fascination reached it's current, dizzying heights, but I had read Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (the latter several times), and had studied the 19th century in depth enough for this scene to shock me. It set me against ever seeing the movie, a resolution I would surely have stuck to if I hadn't acquired the DVD as part of a collection. Instead of strolling around the Pump Room, as they should be, they are taking a dip in the hot baths - and they are all still wearing their bonnets! On the other hand, the trays of aromatics and orange gowns are period, and apparently the King's Baths were a coed environment (though I believe, by this time period, some others were more private?). Vic of Jane Austen's World did a post about it a few years back, entitled Public Bathing in Bath. The scene is just remarkably weird.
View it on YouTube.
That lecherous man at the end? That, of course, is John Thorpe, one of the highlights of the adaptation, played by Jonathan Coy. He's horrifically creepy, as is Isabella, played by Cassie Stuart. Overall, the casting is pretty well done, though Peter Firth is not my ideal Henry Tilney, though a great actor, nor is Katherine Schlesinger my image of Catherine Moreland (in her defense, she looks much better without a bonnet). The script too, while taking a lot of license, is admirable, keeping in tact most of Mr. Tilney witty repartee, though some of his banter is subscribed to the General (Robert Hardy), who isn't portrayed as sinisterly as he could be. The film really is worth watching, though I thank heaven for the 2007 version, which is far superior. As I can never have too much Austen, it is gratifying to have this campy and mystifying version on hand.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

George Knightley, Esquire: Charity Envieth Not by Barbara Cornthwaite

Book One of George Knightley, Esquire is probably the best Emma retelling I have read, my former top runner (not including Joan Austen-Leigh's books about Mrs. Goddard, which stand alone) being Joan Ellen Delman's Lovers' Perjuries: Or, The Clandestine Courtship of Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill. I would have to reread the latter text to be certain which I prefer, but with the prospect of a whole additional novel from Barbara Cornthwaite on the horizon, I fear Ms. Delman has little chance of regaining her standing. Besides, Mr. Knightley is an infinitely more fascinating subject than either Jane Fairfax or Frank Churchill.

Charity Envieth Not recounts Emma from Mr. Knightley's perspective until the point when Frank Chruchill's initial visit to Highbury comes to an end, shortly before the arrival of the new Mrs. Elton. Ms. Cornthwaite has meticulously dissected the original text, creating Mr. Knightley's entire world - much more expansive than Emma's - out of the tiny hints Austen drops here and there. The accuracy with which she adheres to the novel is impressive, resulting in a beutifully fleshed out George Knightley who is everything devotees could wish him to be: the piercingly perceptive, unvaryingly kind, and totally besotted hero.

I love how Emma shines through Mr. Knightley's eyes. Yes, she is the same old Emma, officious and egotistical, but I challenge those who despise her to not be charmed by Ms. Cornthwaite's depiction. Mr. John Knightley also benefits from this treatment. When viewed as an affectionate father and younger brother he is far easier to love. The letters he and Mr. Knightley exchange provide reliable comic relief throughout the course of the book, such as this one (Madam Duval is the long, white-haired cat foisted upon Mr. Knighltey by his niece):
14th January
Wellyn House

Dear George,

I wonder if you might spare us a short visit when the quarter sessions have finished with you. We are not far from Newington, after all, and there is a matter on which I should like your advice.

Bella would like to know who is going to comb Madam Duval while you are away at the quarter sessions. Isabella would like to know if William Larkins' sister and all her children are well. John and Henry would like to know if you ever found the painted horse that they brought to Donwell to show you one day and left behind. I, however, don't want to know anything except whether we may expect you next week.

Your uninquisitive brother,

You will come, won't you?
Most Emma adaptations focus on life in Highbury, Austen's most detailed neighborhood. Ms. Cornthwaite, while also providing those comfortable glimpses of the familiar town, necessarily focuses on the residents of Donwell, with it's own parish, attending rector (Dr. Hughes), a new curate, our old friends the Martins, William Larkins, and an array of colorful tenants. The world she depicts is as alive in my mind as Highbury after reading this book. While incorporating the masculine experience and perspective, Ms. Cornwaithe maintains that microscopic feeling of Austen's "two inches of ivory", a place where humdrum human interactions reveal great truths about mankind. I believe that the best Austen inspired literature provides commentary on those original six, blessed novels, enhancing the joy we experience as we read, reread, and then read them yet again. In that sense, Charity Envieth Not is a triumph.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Pride & Prejudice - 1980

So I spent a good chunk of the week drinking tea, doing needlework, and watching the entire BBC Austen DVD box set I received for Christmas, comprised of the adaptations made in the 70's and 80's. My husband, who actually suggested the marathon - bless his dear heart, commented on how much he enjoyed the Pride and Prejudice adaptation. Of course, he has seen the 1995 version many times, but felt that despite the more acclaimed film's merits, its predecessor better captured the book. He also liked the cast - in particular Charlotte Lucas (Irene Richard), Mrs. Bennet (Priscilla Morgan), Mr. Collins (Malcolm Rennie), Jane (Sabina Franklyn), and Mary (Tessa Peake-Jones). While I do enjoy this adaptation (it is one of my favorites in the collection), it doesn't capture that sparkling quality that defines the novel and that Andrew Davies portrayed so perfectly. Furthermore, I'm not convinced it does adhere to the text so much more precisely. There are several moments that are distinctly based in interpretation, with little evidence for such decisions stemming from the text, but that does not necessarily means that these deviations are unwelcome. For example, after Elizabeth (Elizabeth Garvie) and Jane are introduced to Wickham, they are shown returning to Longbourn and discussing the strange interaction between him and Mr. Darcy:
Jane: Elizabeth, did you think he was pale? I did.

: Mr. Bingley? No, but did you no think what happened was extraordinary?

Jane: What? Mr. Wickham being so very rude to Mr. Darcy? Yes, I suppose it was.

: No, no! It was Mr. Darcy being proud and ill-mannered to poor Mr. Wickham.

Jane: Oh! Was it?
Now does this exchange not change Jane Bennet's character in some fundamental way? Instead of just being overly kind and unwilling to see the faults in others, she suddenly becomes far more perceptive than her usually quick younger sister. I like this interpretation of her character.

I also love the scene in which Elizabeth takes her leave of Rosings. Things are preceding much as they do in the novel: Lady Catherine has just declaring, "You must change horses at Bromley. If you mention my name at the bell you will be well-attended to," and Elizabeth makes a persevering bow in response. But as she turns to leave the room, Anne de Bourgh (Moir Leslie), who has not a line in the film (just like the book), puts an arm out to stop her retreat, taking both of Elizabeth's hands in hers and smiling. It's an odd moment, endowing Anne with a sweetness of character Austen never indicates, but again I enjoy the liberty taken. It certainly does Anne no harm to distinguish herself from her mother.

Probably my only real complaint about this version regards David Rintoul as Darcy. He looks exactly as he should, just how I imagined him long before I had any notion who Colin Firth was, but his portrayal is too stiff. We never see the slightest crack in his public armor, his proud veneer, until the very end, when he betrays an adorable smile. It's very hard to imagine this man struggling with anything, let alone love's torments. Elizabet Garvie is an admirable Lizzy, but the chemistry between their characters is lacking.

There is something comforting and charming about this adaptation. It reminds me of my very warn copy of the novel that I bought at a used book sale for 30 cents, while the '95 version is my Norton Critical Edition. Both have their unique merits and offer distinct, rather incomparable, experiences.

Relations Such As These by Sara O'Brien

In Relations Such As These: A Pride & Prejudice What If Story, Sara O'Brien twists the plot of the original tale by having Darcy nearly trample Elizabeth on his horse before the Meryton Assembly. Understandably, they still get off on a bad foot, but quickly come to understand each other. The difficulties facing the lovers, propelling 417 pages of plot, are summed up in the title. Family members interfere with and attempt to prevent their marriage in increasingly embarrassing and scandalous ways. Of course, nothing can prevent Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy from being the happiest couple on Earth - obstacles are overcome, evil doers punished, and bliss reigns supreme.

Despite its length, this seemed a quick read to me. The fact that I've been convalescing all week might have distorted my perception, but in spite of the - shall we say explicit - nature of the text and either Ms. O'Brien (or her editor's) extreme misuse of quotation marks, I found myself quite anxious to learn what would happen next in the alternative world of the story. Page after page turned swiftly until I was surprised to find myself already nearing the end. It is not one of the books I'm going to immediately turn over and start again, but I was far more satisfied with it than I had initially expected to be.

I'm planning on addressing the "sex issue", as I tend to phrase it, in a not too distant post, so other than mentioning that this book contains far more sexual content than I am comfortable with (which for me, in an Austen context, means any sexual content), I will try to leave the subject behind me. Instead let us focus on what I did enjoy in this "What If?" variation. First of all, I appreciate that all the villainized characters are either those that Austen clearly thought poorly of or Ms. O'Brien's own creations, namely Lady Catherine, Caroline Bingley, George Wickham, and James Fitzwilliam, Viscount of Matlock. I always feel more comfortable with this genre when the characters I love aren't portrayed negatively. Secondly, this is a tale of high action - intrigues and obstacles galore are always entertaining, even when the subject matter is way beyond Austen's two inches of ivory. I was thoroughly pleased with the ending, everyone who mattered ending up prosperous and happy, and very much enjoyed "Lady Fitzwilliam/Lady Matlock" (I am not in the mood to rant about what is wrong with both of these titles, which are used interchangeably), Countess of Matlock's character, though I wish she had been a bit more developed. I love her handling of Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst in this scene, completly dismissing their upstart pretensions. I've deleted the bulk of the encounter to avoid spoilers, leaving only Lady Fitzwilliam's greeting and parting thoughts, with the most glaring grammatical error corrected (I cannot bear to reprint it):
"Mrs. Hurst, Miss Bingley, have a seat." She pointed to the settee across from her. "I will not bandy words, or waste time. I have allowed you time during my busy schedule due to the nature of your note, Miss Bingley. I understand there are alarming developments that have come to light in regards to my nephew?" ...

... Lady Matlock watched Caroline Bingley and Louisa Hurst leave the front window of her parlour. She had never liked those two ladies. To her, they were insignificant social climbers. She knew their mother to be one as well, however, that woman only succeeded in scaring all the men of their set off, and she married a tradesman.
I had a bit of trouble reconciling how some of the more scandalous aspects of Regency society are indulged in the book while simultaneously threatening total social ruin to members of the nobility. I doubt such illicit behavior could not be easily covered up, as it pretty much proves to be, but otherwise I found the book fairly consistent, both historically and to Austen's text. It came my way just when I was wanting a Darcy filled tomb to get lost in, and I can only thank Ms. O'Brien for the happy diversion.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Reflections on Emma: Letters - "Is it too short?"

Note to readers: So my brain has been, for good reason, a bit bewildered lately. I apologize to those who read my bizarre assertions earlier and thank Barbara C for bringing the situation to my attention. Let's call it a blunder, in the spirit of the heroine.

Letters are shared and passed around Highbury with glee and interest (we are even treated to a discourse on the great merits of the postal system), but while the contents of these many missives are happily imparted, it seems so odd that Jane Austen, who began her writing career experimenting with the epistolary form, should so deliberately exclude all but one. This is because Emma, as much as it is focused on the emotional maturation of its heroine, is a detective story whose mystery is premised in misinformation. The truth is cleverly concealed behind assumptions, prattling gossip, and the misguided games of a mischievous, if well-meaning, man-child.

The first letter we hear of is Mr. Frank Churchill's to his new step-mother, Mrs. Weston.
Now, upon his father's marriage, it was very generally proposed, as a most proper attention, that the visit should take place. There was not a dissentient voice on the subject, either when Mrs. Perry drank tea with Mrs. and Miss Bates, or when Mrs. and Miss Bates returned the visit. Now was the time for Mr. Frank Churchill to come among them; and the hope strengthened when it was understood that he had written to his new mother on the occasion. For a few days, every morning visit in Highbury included some mention of the handsome letter Mrs. Weston had received. "I suppose you have heard of the handsome letter Mr. Frank Churchill has written to Mrs. Weston? I understand it was a very handsome letter, indeed. Mr. Woodhouse told me of it. Mr. Woodhouse saw the letter, and he says he never saw such a handsome letter in his life."
Highbury, here represented by the voice of Miss Bates, judges a person based upon the quality of their letters. Frank Churchill's letter to Mrs. Weston causes everyone to think well of him despite the fact, as Mr. Knightley so wisely points out, that a good letter does not necessarily equate good character:
"He can sit down and write a fine flourishing letter, full of professions and falsehoods, and persuade himself that he has hit upon the very best method in the world of preserving peace at home and preventing his father's having any right to complain. His letters disgust me."
However, at other times, preexisting prejudice determines readers against a letter writer despite evidence, in the form of a well-written composition, that their assumptions are wrong. When Harriet receives a written proposal from Robert Martin, she is more concerned that the brevity of the letter should render it not worthy than its substance, but Emma sees past the length to the sentiment expressed:

Emma was not sorry to be pressed. She read, and was surprized. The style of the letter was much above her expectation. There were not merely no grammatical errors, but as a composition it would not have disgraced a gentleman; the language, though plain, was strong and unaffected, and the sentiments it conveyed very much to the credit of the writer. It was short, but expressed good sense, warm attachment, liberality, propriety, even delicacy of feeling. She paused over it, while Harriet stood anxiously watching for her opinion, with a "Well, well," and was at last forced to add, "Is it a good letter? or is it too short?"

"Yes, indeed, a very good letter," replied Emma rather slowly—"so good a letter, Harriet, that every thing considered, I think one of his sisters must have helped him. I can hardly imagine the young man whom I saw talking with you the other day could express himself so well, if left quite to his own powers, and yet it is not the style of a woman; no, certainly, it is too strong and concise; not diffuse enough for a woman. No doubt he is a sensible man, and I suppose may have a natural talent for—thinks strongly and clearly—and when he takes a pen in hand, his thoughts naturally find proper words. It is so with some men. Yes, I understand the sort of mind. Vigorous, decided, with sentiments to a certain point, not coarse. A better written letter, Harriet (returning it,) than I had expected."

Despite her own admission that his letter reveals Robert Martin to be more worthy than she suspected, Emma struggles to undermine his effort, suggesting he is not the originator of the composition, and responding in kind by largely composing Harriet's response herself. One assumes that Mr. Martin, upon reception of the refusal, recognized that it was not his Harriet's words on the paper, though her hand wrote it. I imagine a scene much in sentiment like that enacted by Marianne Dashwood when Willoughby returned her letters and hair, though far less dramatic.

It is Miss Bates who has the honor of spreading the contents of letters throughout the drawing rooms of Highbury. So determined is she to share news, particularly about her beloved niece, that Emma intentionally tries to avoid paying a call on the worthy lady unless she is "just now quite safe from any letter from Jane Fairfax." But alas, Jane writes out of turn and Miss Bates receives the happy epistle that announces her visit just in time to share it with dear Miss Woodhouse. This is one of my favorite chapters in the book, the first of the second volume (as depicted in the C.E. Brock illustration above, borrowed from that excellent resource,, ending in this fabulous line:

She regained the street--happy in this, that though much had been forced on her against her will, though she had in fact heard the whole substance of Jane Fairfax's letter, she had been able to escape the letter itself.

When Miss Bates receives a note from Mrs. Cole, whose husband received a letter from Mr. Elton, sharing the great news of Mr. Elton's engagement, she just manages to share the word with Hartfield before Mr. Knightley can spill the beans. Amusingly, he echoes Harriet Smith's observations regarding length:

"It was short--merely to announce--but cheerful, exulting, of course."--Here was a sly glance at Emma. "He had been so fortunate as to--I forget the precise words--one has no business to remember them. The information was, as you state, that he was going to be married to a Miss Hawkins. By his style, I should imagine it just settled."
Always the voice of reason in the story, Mr. Knightley shines light on the fact that length and flourish are not important, but that the substance of and manner in which a letter is composed do reveal much about the writer.

Were the majority of these communique included for readers to analyze, we, like Mr. Knightley, might see through all the blunders and misconceptions to the truth, thereby destroying the mystery. The only letter which Austen does include (thank you Barbara C) brings us full circle as Frank Churchill acknowledges his wrongdoing and requests the forgiveness of Mrs. Weston. Though he complains that "it seems long", Mr. Knightley is persuaded to carefully pursue it and do justice to the good feelings of the author. The majority of Chapter 51 is taken up by Mr. Knightley's comments as he reads, finding fault where Emma see flattery:

"You do not appear so well satisfied with his letter as I am; but still you must, at least I hope you must, think the better of him for it. I hope it does him some service with you."

"Yes, certainly it does. He has had great faults, faults of inconsideration and thoughtlessness; and I am very much of his opinion in thinking him likely to be happier than he deserves: but still as he is, beyond a doubt, really attached to Miss Fairfax, and will soon, it may be hoped, have the advantage of being constantly with her, I am very ready to believe his character will improve, and acquire from hers the steadiness and delicacy of principle that it wants."
His opinion of Frank Churchill not changed but confirmed by events, Mr. Knightley, while reading the letter, utters the concise line that perfectly summarizes the themes of Emma:
"Mystery; Finesse--how they pervert the understanding! My Emma, does not every thing serve to prove more and more the beauty of truth and sincerity in all our dealings with each other?"
Happy Emma conclusion everybody!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Reflections on Emma: Adverse Weather

We currently have about 14 inches of snow at 8:30 AM and it's not supposed to stop until 4! Poor Mr. Woodhouse must have been petrified with concern for both the horses and his family on the rare occasions when such a storm came his way. Southern England isn't known for massive snow fall, but only last February Surrey did get a whopping 32 cm (just over a foot). The event inspired Jane Odiwe (author of Lydia Bennet's Story, Willoughby's Return, Effusions of Fancy, and painter of this wintry representation of Jane and Cassandra, of which I am the proud owner) to write this post reflecting back on the year 1795 and how Jane Austen might have employed her time. The winter of 1795 is one of the coldest on record and is the same year in which George IV married Caroline of Brunswick and the Pump Room was opened in Bath by the Duchess of York, Frederica Charlotte of Prussia. It wasn't until 1963 that the weather was more adverse than in that notable year. Mr. Woodhouse must have been overcome with anxiety as diminutive versions of Emma, Isabella, John, and George Knightley frolicked in the snow around Hartfield, very much as the gentlemen are portrayed doing as adults in one of my favorite scenes from the new film.

I have a soft spot in my heart for Austen's curmudgeonly gentlemen, like John Knightly and Mr. Palmer. It's not very charitable or feeling of me, but I sympathize with (and enjoy) John's provocation of his overly worrisome father-in-law in this classic scene:

She had not time to know how Mr. Elton took the reproof, so rapidly did another subject succeed; for Mr. John Knightley now came into the room from examining the weather, and opened on them all with the information of the ground being covered with snow, and of its still snowing fast, with a strong drifting wind; concluding with these words to Mr. Woodhouse:

"This will prove a spirited beginning of your winter engagements, sir. Something new for your coachman and horses to be making their way through a storm of snow."

Poor Mr. Woodhouse was silent from consternation; but every body else had something to say; every body was either surprized or not surprized, and had some question to ask, or some comfort to offer. Mrs. Weston and Emma tried earnestly to cheer him and turn his attention from his son-in-law, who was pursuing his triumph rather unfeelingly.

"I admired your resolution very much, sir," said he, "in venturing out in such weather, for of course you saw there would be snow very soon. Every body must have seen the snow coming on. I admired your spirit; and I dare say we shall get home very well. Another hour or two's snow can hardly make the road impassable; and we are two carriages; if one is blown over in the bleak part of the common field there will be the other at hand. I dare say we shall be all safe at Hartfield before midnight."

I'm off to make hot chocolate and curl up by the fire with my husband. I expect it will be a lovely day.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Apologies and Plans

Many of you are aware that I am in the first trimester of pregnancy and those of you who have been here before will perfectly understand what I mean when I say my brain just isn't working right. The image to the left (snagged it from the Early Signs of Pregnancy website) is not me, but aptly demonstrates how I feel right now. I've started several posts this week but just can't finish them - my thoughts are incoherent and rambling. Plus, the doctors have been treating me like a pincushion, taking tons of blood and administering all kinds of injections. I have a lifelong phobia of needles, resulting in my feeling very out of sorts this week. I apologize for my current, totally unproductive state.

I just want to make a few announcements in hope that putting my intentions in writing will force me to act on them. I have several half written posts on Emma that I hope to finish, in particular a two parter on the function of letters in the story. I also have a few books in need of review - I have finished George Knightley, Esquire Volume One: Charity Envieth Not by Barbara Cornthwaite and Rainy Days by Lory Lillian, both of which I greatly enjoyed.

Yesterday I received a shipment from Amazon containing Relations Such as These by Sara O'Brien, A Noteworthy Courtship by Laura Sanchez, and Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict by Laurie Viera Rigler. It would behoove me to get busy reading. Observant followers will notice the accumulation of non-fiction titles in my "I'm Currently Reading" sidebar posting. Honestly, I just don't have the concentration right now to complete these books, so be prepared for them to sit there for a while. Be assured that I will, eventually, finish them.

I also have a few non-Austen reviews to complete. I am very excited to have joined the Classics Circuit's Georgette Heyer Tour, which will be taking place in March. Ms. Heyer will be here on March 9th for my review of Black Sheep. I have not yet read this book but my husband and I have read several of her novels out loud to each other over the past several months, laughing rather hysterically all the way through them, and I look forward to enjoying sharing this one with him as well. Here is the Amazon description:
Abigail Wendover, on the shelf at 28, is kept busy when her niece falls head over heels in love with a handsome fortune hunter and Abbie is forced into a confrontation with his scandalous uncle.

Miles Calvery is the black sheep of his family- enormously rich from a long sojourn in India, disconcertingly blunt and brash. But he turns out to be Abbie's most important ally in keeping her niece out of trouble.

But how can he possibly be considered eligible when she has worked so hard to rebuff his own nephew's suit for her niece? And how can she possibly detach from an ailing sister who needs her? This is a heroine who has to be, literally, swept off her feet . . .
My other non-Austen review will be for the All About the Bronte's Challenge I am participating in, hosted by Laura's Reviews. It has been my intention to complete one book a month and for February I plan to read The Professor by Charlotte Bronte. I first read this book in high school but barely recall it, so look forward to rediscovering Charlotte's least-known work.

Most exciting, from my perspective, is that I should shortly have a release date for my novel First Impressions: A Tale of Less Pride and Prejudice! If you are interested in reading the first three chapters, please refer the the listing in the sidebar.

February is a short month and I feel like I am dreadfully behind on all this. I'll keep praying for a burst of energy that will see me through it all but, in the meantime, I'm off to take a nap.