Monday, December 6, 2021

NaNoWriMo Update: Week Four, a week late

Even as I feel fairly positive about my improvement over last year's performance, I really checked out that last week. Between the school stuffs, Thanksgiving, and Hanukkah starting so early, I never quite finished those last few scenes I meant to write. I totalled out at 12,649 words, but that does not reflect the huge leaps I made in turning three novels into one, functioning story. The manuscript is in a much more tolerable state now. From the NaNoEditMo perspective, this is something to celebrate, and so I shall.

Today is the last day of Hanukkah (last night was the final candle) , and now my mind is fully engrossed in Christmas. I'm terribly behind on preparations (same tune, new lyrics), but I ought to catch up. Samichlaus visits my children in school today, bringing sacks of tasty treats. The Christmas markets are mostly open and accessible. It's lovely visiting them once more.

It is uncertain how much writing I will continue to accomplish amidst all the upcoming hubbub, but I will try to stick to my mostly regular blogging. I also want to dig back into the Mixed-up Mashup conundrum. It would be wonderful to finish it this year, but I won't hold my breath. 

Here is a very short, very rough excerpt from the beginning of the now nearly finished rough copy of Tales of Pride and Prejudice. I'd love to hear your thoughts:

Pemberley, January 1791

It was a cold-hearted visitor for whom Pemberley, at any time, was an unimpressive sight to behold, but only those so fortunate as to be included in the estate’s annual Twelfth Night celebrations knew the house in all its glory. One wondered how the surrounding woods could remain so lush, when surely a hefty percentage of the foliage had been harvested and moved indoors, there to festoon every window pane, stairwell, and mantelpiece. With all the multitudes of candles alight and the torches lining the drive blazing forth towards the sky, every invitee who traversed that fiery avenue knew that their evening would be one they should not soon forget.

However, that time had not yet come. The day was still young, and though all the greenery was already in place, casting its festive atmosphere, the only sound of merriment currently ringing through those hallowed halls were those emanating from young Mr. Wickham, son of the estate’s steward, who ran through the gallery, laughing all the while, and down the servant’s stair, concealed behind a tapestry. The young master of the house, normally a proper enough gentleman, was in hot pursuit of the imp, who had moments before pilfered his favorite toy soldier. His progress was impeded by a most effective obstacle: the great form of his aunt, Lady Catherine De Bourgh, her dear friend, Augusta Westingham, both of whom were currently guests of the house, and, most formidably, his mother, Lady Anne Darcy, who frowned down at him disapprovingly. “What is this, Fitzwilliam? I expect an explanation for such unruly behavior.”

Young Fitzwilliam Darcy reddened with shame under the glare of his mother’s reproach. He knew he had behaved wrongly, and past experience had already taught him that no explanation he attempted would pacify his mother’s pique, but he was only eight, and he felt all the indignation of being the wronged party, unfaiurly held to account while the true perpetrator got away, and struggle though he might, he could not contain his indignation. 

“George was in my room again, Mother. It is all his fault … ”

“Yes,” she interrupted. “I saw him come careening through before you, but in what way can his uncouth behavior in anyway account your lack of conduct? I expect more from my son.”

“You ought not allow Mr. Darcy to so indulge that young rascal,” Lady Catherine inserted, never one to be left out of a conversation. “T’will come to now good, as I have warned him time and again.”

Lady Anne ignored her sister, an art in which she was well practiced. “Do you think the conduct becoming Mr. Wickham’s son is on par with what is expected from the heir of Pemberley? Is this how the sprig of a noble tree presents himself to the world?”

The boy hung his head. “No, ma’am.”

“Never forget who you are, Fitzwilliam. Now, it is past time you were dressed for the children’s party. It will not do for your guests to begin without you.”

“Yes, Mother,” and without further objection, the young master obeyed, retreating, if not with noble hauteur, than at least at a far more sedate pace than that at which he had charged forth, mere minutes before.

“Try not to be too hard on him, Anne,” commented Augusta, once the young gentleman was gone. “He is just a boy. It is a short lived phase that they grow out of it all too soon.”

“Youth is a dangerous excuse for not knowing one’s place,” retorted Lady Anne. “I will speak to George about young Wickham. He becomes more unruly by the day.”

“You should witness the antics in which my nephew James engages. The young rascal will be the death of my poor brother. He won’t heed a word he says.”

“I have broached this subject with Sir James,” Lady Catherine confided. “I warned him it is far easier to break a colt while he is young, but your brother will spoil the boy so! He shall grow quite impossible as he ages,” she predicted.

“Nonsense!” laughed Augusta, well used to her friend’s interference and not at all intimidated by it. “Never have I known a more charming young scamp.” She sighed longingly. “I begin to fear I shall never have one of my own.”

“You are yet young woman Augusta,” reassured Lady Catherine. “Have you tried that tea I suggested?”

“I assure you that I have tried everything that has been suggested by either the doctor or you, Catherine. I have been pushed and prodded far beyond the bounds of decency. So far, it has all been to little avail.”

“Yes, we have all been inspected and examined. It is most unpleasant.”

Mrs. Westingham sighed. “But at least you both have something to show for such invasions.”

“You assume too much, Augusta,” Lady Anne said. “Fitzwilliam sprang into existence with little enough fuss.  I have been expecting five times since his birth. Nothing has come of it,” she concluded sadly.

Mrs. Westingham eyed her suspiciously. “Not nothing, I should say. That emerald set Mr. Darcy bestowed upon you deserves some attention.”

“The emeralds are inadequate consolation,” she responded seriously, but understanding her friend’s desire to lighten the suddenly sour mood, continued, “but do not take that to imply that I am anything but exceedingly pleased with my Christmas present from George.”

“It was the least he could do after your sufferings!” Lady Catherine continued, not knowing when to let sleeping dogs lay. “I, too, have endured my share of medical intrusions, and I begin to doubt the doctors have the slightest notion as to what they are doing. I, for one, am done with being experimented upon. For all we know, it is the gentlemen whose health is to blame. Why not badger their poor persons for a while, instead of ours? Besides, the future is already secure. Anne shall marry Fitzwilliam, and they will united the two estates.”

“I see you have it all organized, Catherine,” Lady Anne said, inspecting her older sister quizzically. “Shall they have nothing to say about it? What shall you do if he cannot like her, and she elopes with your rector?”

Mrs. Westingham laughed, the argument about the futures of Anne de Bourgh and Fitzwilliam Darcy already being an old source of disagreement between the sisters. “Shall you wear the emeralds this evening, Anne?”

That lady happily assented and began regaling the others with tales of her gown, future speculations and old sorrows forgotten for a moment, as they all set their minds upon the imminent delights before them.







Monday, November 22, 2021

NaNoWriMo Update: Week Three (Going to School)

Thomas Rowlandson, "Dr. Syntax Visits a
Boarding School for Young Ladies," 1821.
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Well! Currently at 10,973 words. I think it is very safe to say I will not be "winning" NaNo this year. That's ok. I am going to have a complete rough draft. Finally! I have one more big scene to fill in.

That being said, I haven't written a word since Thursday, when we attended a parent's night at my daughter's school. This was not routine. It was held in response to an ongoing situation in her class. Unfortunately, I did not hear what I needed to from the principal, who pretty much gave the parents the run around. It was very disappointing, and it raised the stakes for this week, when my daughter is visiting a private bilingual school for three days. It is the only school we've found that both fits our requirements and can take her in January. I so hope she likes it, and that they like her.

So this past weekend was totally focused on shoring up the family and doing my best to encourage good spirits in this week ahead. This amidst rising COVID cases (again) and my annual frantic attempt to recreate Thanksgiving abroad. I will be very well satisfied with a completed rough draft, thank you.

Disease and school: when Austen springs to mind upon the flimsiest of excuses, this one screams to be addressed. The good news is that, no matter how acute my daughter's current situation may feel, it is not fatal. Jane Austen's time at school did prove fatal to her aunt, however, which does a great deal to put my current concerns into perspective.

Mrs. Goddard was the mistress of a School—not of a seminary, or an establishment, or any thing which professed, in long sentences of refined nonsense, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality, upon new principles and new systems—and where young ladies for enormous pay might be screwed out of health and into vanity—but a real, honest, old-fashioned Boarding-school, where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price, and where girls might be sent to be out of the way, and scramble themselves into a little education, without any danger of coming back prodigies. - Emma, Chapter Three

Austen went to two different school in her formative years. The first, Mrs. Crawley's school in Oxford, she was sent to in 1782, when only seven years old. Maybe she refused to be parted from Cassandra, also on her way as a companion to their cousin, Jane Cooper, maybe not. This was the explanation Mrs. Austen used to employ when questioned on the subject.

While the three girls attended, the location of the school was relocated to Southampton, due to a measles outbreak in Oxford. But bad luck followed them and a "putrid fever" soon swept through the school.  Perhaps this was diphtheria. Jane Cooper wrote home (no communication from Mrs. Crawley ūüė°), and Mrs. Cooper and Mrs. Austen went to Southampton to rescue their girls. The girls all recovered, but Mrs. Cooper was dead from the infection within the year. 

Side note: we now routinely provide diphtheria vaccinations to babies. Isn't that wonderful?

This experience didn't totally sour the Austens on female education, and both girls were sent to another school for a year or so, largely remembered by history for its fraudulent French mistress. This experience proved less dramatic, but the adult Austen expressed a negative opinion of girl's schools and the superficiality of the education obtained at such institutions. Proper education, she repeatedly implies, is gained through extensive reading. 

I love it when history puts my own sorry woes into such clear and stark contrast. My daughter will undoubtedly receive an education, a right only recently guaranteed to children, let alone girls, who are still denied this opportunity in too many parts of the world. This is a great blessing, and I never want to take it for granted. My daughter is unlikely to contract a deathly disease while at school, though certainly more likely than she was a few years ago. This is also (mostly) a blessing. Thank goodness for modern medicine! And on that note, I'm going to try and write this last scene. It just so happens to begin in a Regency Era girl's school (it was recommended by Mr. Darcy, so you know it is one of the better examples of this sort of establishment). How perfectly synchronistic! Til next week ...

Monday, November 15, 2021

NaNoWriMo Update: Week Two (In the ballroom)

Hmmm. As of 9:45 AM, Monday morning, I still have no stunning results to share, though I have, at least, passed last year's total. Let's see if I can't make this number slightly less abysmal before this post goes live, shall we? I shall report back. In the meantime, I require inspiration.

Balls, balls, balls. My NaNoWriMo social calendar is excessively full. Most of the scenes needing to be written take place in the ballroom, spanning the 18th and 19th centuries. Maybe I should rename this book Dancing at Pemberley? But no: I want to have the continuity of the Tales of Less Pride and Prejudice name, so it is clear that this is a rewrite. This is, of course, assuming Amazon doesn't give me a hard time about the title. Think it's worth the fight?

But I digress (or procrastinate, take it as you will). I need ballroom inspiration to set the scene through at least three more I'm writing into the book. Most of these are Twelfth Night balls, which I have proclaimed an annual Pemberley tradition. So first things first: what would they be wearing? This is a bit of a mess, for some torturous reason I have set the opening scene in 1791, at a time when fashions were rapidly changing (read more about it here). Just compare these two portraits by George Romney, painted four years apart.

Mrs. Mark Currie, 1791.


Anna Maria Hunt, 1793.

So I am envisioning a mix of styles on this occasion, the older people still in wigs and panniers, while the younger guests have long abandoned powder and voluminous skirts for those styles that are the precursors to the Regency fashions we all love so much. By the time Elizabeth has become Mrs. Darcy and is making her debut in society, her attire might have looked something like this:

La Belle Assemblée, 1811.

Now, what would they have been listening/dancing too? This changed less drastically over the years, though the waltz (which I wrote about here) was becoming fashionable towards the end of my tale. This playlist should keep me in the right mood for a while, at least:


At twenty til noon, I am at 6,936 words. Pretty pathetic, but I did finished the opening ball scene, so I can abandon the 18th century for the far more familiar 19th. That's progress. I really don't think I'll hit the 50,000 word goal. Honestly, if I just walk away with a complete first draft, I will be very well satisfied. But, hypothetically, if I were to write another 43,064 words this month, I would need to clock over 2,800 words every day for the rest of the month. My current average is 455. It's not impossible. I have done it before. Let's see where I am in a week ...

Monday, November 8, 2021

NaNoWriMo Update: Week One

Hello to all, and a special thanks to those of you left messages of support last week. It was very encouraging.

The first week wasn't half bad. I logged a rather unimpressive 3,302 words, but there are mitigating circumstances that make me feel pretty good about what I have accomplished, even as the overall word count fails to inspire:

  • I had not even opened the document since December 2020, a fact I was rather shocked to realize when I retrieved the file in a week ago. I have mostly been rereading the 150,000 words I already wrote. I am about 2/3rds through.
  • I have been coping with a very difficult situation at my daughter's school, which necessarily eats up a healthy chunk of my free time, as well as draining me emotionally. There is no resolution in sight, and the fact that I am able to write at all is, frankly, amazing. Maybe things will look brighter on this front next week (I've got my fingers crossed).
  • I am within 1000 words of beating my abysmal total word count from 2020. The numbers might be small, but this is an important goal. It means I'm on the right track, if nothing else.
This week I will finish reading the document and starting composing the new scenes in my head. If I'm lucky, they'll simply pour forth. I'll let you know how it goes.

Until then, some inspiration:



Monday, November 1, 2021

NaNoWriMo begins today ...

I actually have a pretty awesome NaNoWriMo track record. 2012 was the first year I participated, and it was spontaneous. I created my account November 1st and wrote 50,042 words, just sneaking past the goal line on the last day of the month. 2013 was better. I soared past the official 50,000 word goal logging a total of 82,122 words! How did I do that? Oh, yeah. I nearly lost my mind.

In 2014 I wrote 57,626 words. I took 2015 off to move to Europe. In 2016, I snuck in 50,080 words while 8 months pregnant. In 2017, with an almost one year old at my feet, I wrote an impressive 76,706 words. I held strong in 2018, with 54,125 words logged.

All this is important to remember, because the last three years have been pretty abysmal. Obviously, I can't blame the pandemic for my total lack of participation in 2019 (I think I was studying for a German exam? That sounds good. Let's stick with it), but I can totally blame the pandemic for my poor showing in 2020, when I didn't even log 5,000 words! That is such a disheartening number, especially with my history with this event, and especially with all the other many challenges I was juggling through those years of NaNo success. My path isn't exactly clear and easy for 2021. What is to say it will go any better?

Well, I have been writing this year, unlike last year, even if not as much as I should. With my partner back in the office at least occasionally, and the kids' school schedules usually pretty predicable, my brain has been able to reorganize itself to some degree. Blogging weekly here has been very helpful, and I feel deep gratitude to those of you who stop by regularly and maybe even sometimes comment. It makes me feel more accountable to someone beyond my tiny family circle, where so much of my attention remains fixated. I've been having fun working on the Mixed-Up Mashup piece (I'm still rather amazed to find myself reengaged in this long-abandoned train wreck), though I do not have near enough time to devote to it as I would like. 

From where will this time miraculously materialize? I haven't the foggiest. I've made no special arrangements to write this month, beyond asking the man to go into the office a few extra times. A shake up in my daughter's schooling is consuming a vast deal of time and energy, thoroughly squashing my pipe dream of escaping alone to a cottage for a few days to write. And I haven't picked up my poor Tales of Less Pride and Prejudice manuscript, which will be my project for the third time running, since last year. I plan to reread it this weekend, amidst all the Halloween hoopla. Good luck to me!

But I am supposed to be building myself up, and all this self-defeating talk is throughly contradictory to that goal. How about this? Since this blog is functioning like an accountability buddy anyway, maybe I make that relationship explicit this month? I will report back here each Monday with my progress, however little or much. Perhaps it will serve to keep me motivated. There are NoNoWriMo tools intended to do this, but they feel like procrastination fodder to me. I do like the timed writing sprints, but I'm not even sure they are still featured on the site. 

If any of you (and I have a few suspects in mind) are NaNoWriMoing this year, please make sure we are buddies. My profile name is Alexa Adams. Easy enough. 

Oh. And though it has barely maintained the slightest presence in my thoughts, I did offer a giveaway. And the winner is: Mary Smythe! Congratulations Mary. I'll be in touch soon.

Now it's time to write. Please wish me luck! I'm gonna need it.

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)

Jabberwocky

‘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: https://www.alice-in-wonderland.net/resources/analysis/poem-origins/jabberwocky/.

Alone

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
mollands.net
"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?
Le√°ves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! √°s 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:
S√≥rrow’s spr√≠ngs √°re 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.