Friday, December 18, 2009

Love and Friendship

Quote of the day:

"Isabel had seen the world. She had passed two years at one of the first boarding-schools in London, had spent a fortnight in Bath, and had supped one night in Southampton."
- Love and Friendship

From time to time I like to set myself literary challenges. I have, for example, re-read all existing books of Harry Potter before seeing each new movie as it came out (I'll leave you to work out how many times I've read The Philosopher's Stone!). I also challenge myself, quite regularly, to re-read all six Jane Austen novels (that's an easy one).

Some of my challenges to myself have been less successful. I set out once to read or re-read every major work that charted the rise of the English novel from the eighteenth century. I got as far as Defoe's Moll Flanders before getting seriously side-tracked.

I also once decided to read all the works of Charles Dickens, since at that time I'd actually read nothing by him and was feeling quite ashamed of this fact. I got as far as going to the bookshop, picking up Little Dorrit, opening a page at random.... and putting it down again. Dickens is a pompous, condescending git. I base that judgement on my extensive reading experience of his works. Ahem.

But I digress. My latest challenge to myself - to coincide with the research I'm doing currently into Jane Austen's life, particularly her years in Bath - is to read or re-read all of her existing works, complete and incomplete, in chronological order as she wrote them.

I started last night with Love and Friendship, which I've never read before. Austen wrote this before the age of eighteen - it forms part of her surviving juvenilia.

I have to say, I was rather dreading reading this one. I figured that if Jane Austen as an adolescent was anything like I was (black-clad, depressed and with delusions of omniscience), it would make for very dull, pompous reading indeed.

Instead, Love and Friendship is light, enjoyably silly and ridiculously well written for someone so young. I'm torn between loving Jane Austen even more and hating her for her early erudition. I am more than twice the age she was when she wrote the following passage:

"...we were of a sudden greatly astonished by hearing a violent knocking on the outward door of our rustic cottage.
My father started - 'What noise is that?' said he.
'It sounds like a loud rapping at the door,' replied my mother.
'It does indeed,' cried I.
'I am of your opinion,' said my father. 'It certainly does appear to proceed from some uncommon violence exerted against our unoffending door.'
'Yes,' exclaimed I. 'I cannot help thinking it must be somebody who knocks for admittance.'
'That is another point,' replied he. 'We must not pretend to determine on what motive the person may knock - though that someone does rap at the door, I am partly convinced.' "

I'm only fifteen pages into this book, but I'm ridiculously excited by it already. It all augurs well for this particular challenge!

I'll blog again when I've read more.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tweeting on Jane Austen's birthday

Today, 16th December, is Jane Austen's birthday. She would have been 234, a fine age.

My fascination with Jane Austen fuels a lot of my more idle hours. I'm probably not alone in having regular daydreams about conversing with that lady in person. I frequently drift off into scenarios whereby she somehow time travels into the present day, and I get to be her own personal tour guide to the 21st century. What would she make of the clothing, the food, the furnishings of our homes? How would she cope with travelling in a car at 120kph, would she be afraid of addling her brains?

And what, I wonder, would an inveterate Regency letter-writer make of our communications technology?

This morning so far, I have read and posted several tweets, sent and received text messages, made a phone call, received some emails, checked the weather online and am now blogging. Jane Austen did all of her communicating - at a much slower pace - from a small wooden table in a dining room with a squeaky door.

Jane Austen wrote in a vacuum. She knew no other writers, was not a member of a writer's group, didn't even attend seminars on publishing. No-one tweeted her helpful hints on finding the crucible in her work, no fellow bloggers gave her tips on overcoming writer's block, she was not a member of a forum who would help keep her from being down during nine unhappy, unproductive years in the middle of her life. She didn't even have a copy of the Writers' and Artists' yearbook to thumb through when she was tired.

Lovely husband is buying me a shiny new netbook for Christmas, to add to a household of two desktop computers, two laptops and two iphones. A netbook is not necessary to my life, I can manage perfectly well without it; but during darling daughter's most recent illness, when she was out of school for nearly two weeks straight, I got precious little work done. Why? Because I felt too guilty to leave her on the sofa in the sitting room watching telly and go into the office (the next room!) to work. So for the future, whenever I have a sick child snuggled up against me I can have my netbook on my knee, my own version of a convenient little wooden table. Did Jane Austen ever even dream of such luxury?!

But as I sit here writing this, my mind is in several other places at once. I can't help wondering what tweets I'm missing, and what the quote of the day is; whether there is any good stuff new on eBay today, or about updates on; and if I check the weather again, will it tell me this time that it's going to snow? Then there are blog posts I've marked and not yet read, free book downloads that people are plugging that I feel obliged to look at, my own research to read, and I still haven't even started writing....

Sometimes I feel like disconnecting it all and dragging out a little wooden table to just sit and write at. No wonder Jane Austen achieved so much in her short life.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Things that make you go Grrr!

I'm still re-reading Jane Austen by Carol Shields, having gotten well and truly side-tracked over the weekend. (Christmas getting in the way again.)

Anyway, I came across one of those comments/references that just makes my blood boil. On page 70 Shields reminds us that

'Ralph Waldo Emerson remained puzzled by Jane Austen's novels, unable to grasp their value, complaining that they were, in the end, about nothing more than the making of marriages.'

I know, I know, readers and critics have been discussing the domestic nature of Jane Austen's work for many decades now, and I know we've all read and re-read the many arguments in defence of / criticising the small world of her books.

What really galls me, however, is that so few people seem to recognise that the mundane subject matter of her books, her lack of reference to the social upheaval and political unrest of her time, is entirely irrelevant. I mean honestly, what do we expect?

Should Darcy propose to Eliza Bennett by saying,

'In vain have I struggled, as did the Prince of Wales this year in his feelings for Caroline of Brunswick despite his earlier secret marriage to Maria Fitzherbert. It will not do. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.'

Should Mr Woodhouse advise Emma against travelling to Box Hill because Napoleon has just escaped from Elba, and might decide to detour in that direction?

How many works of fiction has anyone read in the last ten years that clearly reference the historical goings-on of the modern day? If I ever read a book that says 'Please sit down, Imelda. I have grave news for you about Assumpta and Concepta, but before I tell you, might I just remind you that the first African-American president is in the White House?' I will chuck it straight on the fire.

Ok, ok, I'm being a little facetious. However, it occurs to me that I myself have recently finished writing a book of a decidedly domestic bent. It is set in contemporary Ireland, an Ireland of NAMA, recession, and public calls for the resignation of bishops over child sex abuse scandals, but - you guessed it - there is no mention of that anywhere in my book.


Because it's not bloody relevant, that's why. My book - like the works of Jane Austen - deals with the microcosm of one woman's life when it goes to hell in a handcart. The recession that we're experiencing might flavour the book a bit like a delicate herb, but I certainly wasn't going to drown the book in it, like chilli sauce, so that everything else is smothered.

Although I'm going to finish by flogging the dead horse again. For a woman of Jane Austen's social standing in the early nineteenth century, marriage was not just marriage; it was the one and only chance for escape and a small, small measure of control over her own life.

And wow, did she ever create some memorable, marvellous characters in pursuance of it.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Planning Jane Austen Tour

So myself and my annoying - I mean lovely and helpful - husband are planning a tour of Jane Austen country for the first week of January. I am very very excited about this and am going all nerdy. I found myself searching for "empire line dresses" on eBay just a couple of hours ago....

I'm having difficulty, though, in explaining to hubbie why I want to spend most of our short time (three days) in Bath. He can't quite grasp the point that I intend to set my next book in Bath, and need to have some bloody idea of the geography of the place - plus, I intend to spend half a day in the Jane Austen museum alone!

And also, is it really too much to want to stay in a Georgian townhouse while I'm there?

Apparently, yes.

Himself has a business account with Travelodge, so it is to this illustrious establishment that we shall repair. Poof go my fantasies of elegant cream teas in a formal drawing room by a roaring fire. Tea-and-coffee-making facilities a lá Bill Bailey await me instead. I shall just have to fantasize that I am in the town of ---, changing the horses at a substandard inn.

Off I go to pack a couple of walking dresses and my best pelisse.
So I've just started re-reading Jane Austen by Carol Shields (2001, Phoenix).

It's an okay-ish biography, but probably not the best. It's written by an enthusiastic amateur rather than by a scholar, and it's all a little bit sketchy, not to mention that the details and chronology jump all over the place.

I'm plowing through it again pretty quickly, but I don't think I'm going to find anything particularly insightful or useful in it. I've ordered a few more books and can't wait till they get here. Deirdre Le Faye's biography seems to be the must-have text, so that's the next thing on my purchase list. I also really want a copy of Jane Austen's letters, those that still exist.

I'm grateful for any suggestions about must-reads. I'm interested in getting a clearer picture not just of Jane Austen's life, but also of the world she inhabited, customs, etiquette, fashion, the lot.

My (occasionally very nice) hubby has also suggested that now might be the time for us to take a Jane Austen tour, something I've wanted to do for years! If anyone has followed in the footsteps of Jane Austen, I'd love to hear from you.

More when I've actually read something interesting,


Thursday, December 10, 2009


Hi all,

I've recently finished writing my first novel and sent it out into the big, bad world in the hopes that some lovely publisher will like it.

I've finally decided on the subject of my second book - or what will be a tangential subject within the book, at least. The main character is going to be a Austen scholar, because I've decided to fight it no more and just own up to my absolute adoration of everything Jane Austen. And what better excuse to spend large amounts of money on the dozens of books I've been denying myself for years, than that of research?!

The thing is, the explosion of books and films about, adapting, or based on Jane Austen's life or works have been proliferating at such a rate since the latter half of the twentieth century that love of Jane Austen has become somewhat hackneyed in recent years. As an English student in University it was considered utterly passe and positively pubescent to confess to an ongoing love of Jane Austen or the Bronte's. We were supposed to have left such pedestrian authors behind at the end of secondary school. It was considerably more fashionable to profess an addiction to obscure writers of the early twentieth century, or to take up a position arguing that Shakespeare had done more harm than good to the English language. I did my duty and latched on to Chaucer and his contemporaries of the early modern period, and there I stayed for several years.

The awful irony is that it was precisely because of such writers as Austen and the Bronte's that I wound up studying English in UCD in the first place. My love affair with Jane Austen's world began when I was twelve, and had just begun secondary school. All of my close friends and neighbours were a year or more older than me, and relished the pastime of terrifying me about the forthcoming ordeals of secondary school. One of their favourite topics was the turgid, brain-bleeding awfulness of the Jane Austen texts which were on the curriculum every year, on a revolving basis. As my best friend 'suffered' under the weight of Persuasion in the year ahead of me, I dreaded what awaited me.

The text for my year was Pride and Prejudice. I opened the fairly weighty tome on the first day in class, fascinated in spite of myself, and read the first line. I won't repeat it here, you all know it. ;) I read it once, then, disbelieving, read it again - and guffawed out loud in the middle of the class, much to the disapproval of the presiding nun.

I was hooked.

We were supposed to, very slowly, read our way through the book during the course of the entire school year, a few pages at a time. Instead I brought the book home and devoured it whole, then began again at the beginning. I argued heatedly with the horrible nun teacher over plot points, irony and sarcasm in the text (she didn't like me much, for some reason).

Then one day I was in a bookshop and there before me was a cheap paperback edition of the complete works of Jane Austen. It was five pounds - enough for a night out with my mates, or a new top at the time, and all the money I had in the world - but I had to have it. I bought it and read it cover to cover, then read it again, and again. Throughout my life since it has been my greatest inanimate source of comfort, and something I still turn to if life is unpleasant or complicated. I'm about to start reading it again, although this time I intend to read the novels in chronological order, rather than order of publication.

Anyway, to help me with my broader research on Jane Austen while I write this next book I thought I would turn my thoughts on the subject into a blog, both to help condense my thoughts and to share any interesting facts or insights with other Austen devotees.

I'd also love to hear of other people's love affairs with Austen.

Till next time,