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. 

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