A Latter-day Bluestocking

For the love of reading

Month: September, 2012

Ask Me About My Book. Part 1

I wore my “Ask me about my book.” t-shirt to run errands the other day and much to my gratification a few folks did ask me about my book.  At first I was bemused wondering if they were seriously asking.  I felt some trepidation in answering as I can really go on and on and I didn’t want to scare people off.  Of course, I was taking their question to mean the book I was “reading”.  I am currently reading two books, The Queen Mother and The Secret History of Georgian London.  I chose to proclaim on the former since it’s pretty much a biography of a person most have heard of, the mother of the present Queen of England.  I felt most would not really be interested in the 18th century English sex trade.

Those who asked me about my book fell into two categories:  those who really wanted to know and those who did not.  The latter’s eyes would instantly glaze over and take on the look of polite attentiveness.  I would quickly wrap up my chattering and instead make a comment on the beauty of the apples we were mulling over.  It was actually really fun to talk to those who did share an interest in reading.  I have been recommended many books like this, some I would never consider picking up on my own.

This t-shirt expressing such a straightforward demand has had the tendency of opening up new worlds of reading for me.  I should wear it more often!

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Fallen Women of the Regency: Mistresses, Courtesans, and Prostitutes

A Harlot’s Progress: The Harlot Deceiving Her Jewish Protector by William Hogarth, 1732

“I could not trace her beyond her first seducer, and there was every reason to fear that she had removed from him only to sink deeper in a life of sin.” (Sense and Sensibility, ch. 31)

As a writer, Jane Austen does not shy away from the topic of sexual indiscretion and its consequences for women.  Three of her six published novels, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park, tell of the risks that befall females who step outside the bounds of social propriety.  Whether they pursued, without thought of consequence, the rousing attentions of men or were unsuspecting impressionable victims of exploitative rakes, a woman’s position was precarious, their sexual purity a commodity in the marriage market, and any stain upon that reputation devastating in its ramifications on inheritance, status, and prospects.  Regency society pardoned and even tacitly condoned licentious behavior in men yet censured “fallen” women, labeling them mistresses, courtesans, and prostitutes.

Colonel Brandon’s description of the tragic story of Eliza Williams in Sense and Sensibility suggests a realm not usually associated with Jane Austen.  A study of Austen’s novels and letters, biographies of courtesans and mistresses of the period, as well as contemporary documents it is possible to illuminate a world that exists upon the periphery of Austen’s writing.  In an era when women had no social authority or control and were susceptible to the power of the men around them, the women of the Regency demi-monde ranged from poverty-stricken to very powerful. Accruing wealth, running their own households, obtaining the trappings of society without ever gaining access to “polite” society, those women at the fortunate end of the spectrum dominated the realm of the “half world” and, despite their scandalous existences, became arbiters of style and fashion.

On October 5, at the 2012 AGM of the Jane Austen Society of North America, I will present my research which investigates the position of mistresses, courtesans, and prostitutes of the Regency.  Any one of Jane Austen’s heroines could have ended up in a career of vice had they succumbed to sexual recklessness.  The unthinking, like Lydia (had Mr. Darcy not intervened) might have ended up a darling of Covent Garden with an entry in Harris’s List .  Others, like Elizabeth, may have used their charms to gain the adoration of powerful men, playing them against one another to gain wealth, power and control.  It is this parallel world to Jane Austen’s well-mannered drawing rooms, existing yet hidden, a very real possibility for any woman, that will form the basis of my lecture.

The Hobbit, or There And Back Again

“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!” J.R.R. Tolkien, 1892-1973

I discovered Tolkien when I was 9 years old.  I had seen the Ralph Bakshi directed Lord of the Rings and it made such an impression on me that it was absolutely imperative I read the book.  And read it, I did.  I still have that worn-out copy of The Fellowship of the Ring; I treasure it as a sacred relic, one that opened up a whole new wonderful world to me.  A special place for a 9-year-old, one populated with magic, kings, elves, dwarves, hobbits, good and evil.  I read The Hobbit soon after and received the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy for Christmas.  Tolkien’s profound realm not only served as escapism for me but had wide-ranging influence that Prof. Tolkien never foresaw.  Dungeons and Dragons, Harry Potter, World of Warcraft, Skyrim were all inspired by Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

My 11-year-old son is enchanted, much to my chagrin, by World of Warcraft, a pale facsimile to the world created by Tolkien.  He does love the LotR films but it always makes me cringe when he says that something was ripped-off from WoW.  My churlish response (complete with eye-roll):  “Listen, kid, if it were not for J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, and “The Lord of the Rings” there would be no World of Warcraft.  This reality baffles him.  I think his introduction to the books is long past due.  The new film, The Hobbit,will be released in December which gives me the perfect excuse and opportunity to re-visit Middle Earth and introduce it to my son.

“There are no safe paths in this part of the world.  Remember you are over the Edge of the Wild now, and in for all sorts of fun wherever you go.”   J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Happy Birthday Samuel Johnson

“Books like friends, should be few and well-chosen.”

Happy Birthday Samuel Johnson (September 18, 1709-December 13, 1784)

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