A Latter-day Bluestocking

For the love of reading

Category: Biography

Killing Time…in a bookstore

I found myself with a couple of hours to kill before picking my son up from Chess Team, and not enough time to go home, so I decided to haunt my local (Park Slope, Brooklyn) Barnes and Noble.  This can be a very dangerous thing to do but with no spare cash I decided it would be harmless to peruse the books and snap them on my mobile phone; an easy illustrated want list.

1) I love to eat; therefore I love to cook.  So how can I resist The Great American Cookbook?  It has regional recipes from all 50 states and a must have even if it includes a recipe for “Long Island” Clam Chowder.*

*Most New Englanders (myself included) refuse to believe there is any such thing; to add tomatoes is unholy.  There is only one kind of “chowdah” and the sobriquet “New England Clam Chowder” is superfluous.

2) Since its publication I’ve been dying to read this tome,  The Autobiography of Mark Twain:  Volume 1.   He is the quintessential American humorist and this book demands to be read despite its daunting size.

Now I’ve moved to the History shelves…

3 & 4) 2012 is the Bicentennial of the War of 1812, so both, Mr. and Mrs, Madison’s War:  America’s First Couple and the Second War of Independence and Knights of the Sea:  The True Story of The Boxer and The Enterprise and the War of 1812 are probably necessary reading (at least for me and one other person, Dad).  The War of 1812 is usually glossed over in history classes and needs to be re-examined.  My understanding of this war is weak but it seems to me that this war ended in a stalemate because both the US and Britain were not fully prepared for this conflict; the US being a fledgling nation and Britain’s preoccupation by the shadow of Napoleon’s greater threat to the British Isles.

5, 6, & 7) Of course, this led me right to the section of English history.  Explorers of the Nile:  The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure intrigues me because of the very “English” ideal of exploration and empire.  The romance of Mr. Henry Morton Stanley finding Dr. David Livingstone in their quest to discover the source of the Nile is still potent and one defined by folly, courage, heroism, and endurance.  Ghosts of Empire:  Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World shows the rise and fall of Britain’s once mighty empire and how its policies and its inconsistencies shaped the problems of the modern world from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Hong Kong (to name a few).  And combining American and British history, Tories:  Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War.  This is particularly interesting to me because as a child touring all those [American] historical places (Philadelphia, Williamsburg, Boston) I was intrigued by the loyalists and always felt an affinity for them, so much so that Dad believed I would have been tarred and feathered.

8) Partially because of my Downton Abbey obsession, The Beauty and the Sorrow:  An Intimate History of the First World War.

9) My son’s dentist has been trying to get me to read this for years so I’ve added it to the list:  A Thousand Splendid Suns by the author of the Kite Runner.

10) Any book by Isabel Allende is a treat and a joy to read so Island Beneath the Sea is included.

11 & 12) And full circle back to food again because one cannot live on books alone:  Feeding the Dragon:  A Travelogue Through China with Recipes (I am half Chinese and love Chinese cuisine) and The Vegetable Dishes I Can’t Live Without by Mollie Katzen (of Moosewood fame) because how does one cook fennel and braising greens?  A dilemma I’ve brought home because of the vegetables acquired from my farm share.  Although, disappointingly, does not discuss kohlrabi.

I must have realized time was up...time to go.

Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World

Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World is Claire Harman’s straightforward and satisfying contemplation of Jane Austen’s larger than life appeal nearly 200 years after her death. Ms. Harman does not delve into the oft-repeated litany of biographical references but rather focuses on Jane Austen as writer. She focuses on the woman who wrote of “three or four families in a Country Village” and how she became a figure of such immense impact in the 21st century.

By a Lady

Ms. Harman contends that “part of the reason [Jane Austen] pleases us so much now is that she was, for years, pleasing only herself.” Jane’s early writings were for her and her family’s amusement; private musings that were carefully kept and returned to. But this is not to say she wasn’t ambitious and motivated for more than her family’s praise. She was disappointed when in 1797 the publisher Thomas Cadell declined an early version of Pride and Prejudice. And further rejections of her work did mortify her.

But she maintained her determination and the rejections allowed her to re-write, describing to her sister, Cassandra, the editing of Pride and Prejudice “I have lop’t and crop’t so successfully, however, that I imagine it must be rather shorter than Sense and Sensibility altogether.” The delay in publication allowed her to be bolder and more experimental and the end result are the novels that are so popular to this day.

But finally she did publish, albeit anonymously, and in letters she expressed a sense of accomplishment and pride. Not only was she in print but she was earning money. But “her children” Sense and Sensibility followed by Pride and Prejudice were gaining quite a following and her brother Henry could not help but divulge her name to those who remarked on the books. The publication of her next books, Mansfield Park and Emma were looked forward to with anticipation. Despite this she only had moderate success in her lifetime and gained very little personal fame or fortune.

Mouldering in the Grave

After her death, the Austen family preferred to focus on Jane Austen’s sisterly fidelity and domestic pursuits. Although her death notice acknowledges her writing and mentions all four published novels, her tombstone in Winchester Cathedral fails to mention her writing. A glaring wrong and one that led to bewilderment to the hapless verger when inquired of by Austenite pilgrims in the mid-nineteenth century.

In 1818 the posthumous publication of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey as a set accompanied by Henry Austen’s Biographical Note sold well. Sales declined and the remaining copies were pulped in 1820. She remained out of print for 12 years. Then in 1832 all six novels were published in a handsome illustrated edition. Jane has never since been out of print.

Divine Jane to Jane Austen ™

Her fame steadily grew. As the members of the Austen family who intimately knew her died off, letters and manuscripts became available and were highly sought, especially by Americans. Her popularity grew more so after the publication of the biography by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, entitled A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870.

In the early 20th century Jane Austen’s books were read and admired as a chronicle of what life was like in a less turbulent time. Her books were soothing and were recommended as appropriate reading material for shell-shocked soldiers from the trenches of WWI. Despite having been written during the Napoleonic Wars, Jane’s books never broach the subject.

Her fame has grown exponentially. Now nearly 200 years later, one can peruse the book shelves of any bookstore to find a variety of Jane Austen books; biographies, the novels in various editions, scholarly analyses, and graphic novels. She has even inspired a whole industry of sequels, spin-offs, soft-porn literature, and even film. She is translated into every conceivable language. Her appeal seems endless and with internet sites devoted to her Jane-ites can have all Jane, all the time.

Ms. Harman has written a biography sure to satisfy the cravings of Jane Austen’s devoted fan base. She writes truthfully that “the further Jane Austen recedes from our time the closer she feels to us”. This seems a truth that can be universally acknowledged judging by current state of mass intimacy the world has with Jane Austen.

Harman, Claire. Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009)

Winter Is Coming

Cover of "A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ic...

I recently finished reading the first book in the A Song of Fire and Ice series,  A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin.  I enjoyed it immensely and have just started the second book, A Clash of Kings.

I felt it appropriate, in honor  of George R.R. Martin’s epic to offer, for your perusal, my winter reading list.  Winter is coming.

  1. The Cranford Chronicles  Elizabeth Gaskell
  2. The Children’s Book   A.S. Byatt
  3. The Queen of Fashion:  What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution  Caroline Weber
  4. You Can’t Go Home Again  Thomas Wolfe
  5. Jane Eyre  Charlotte Bronte
  6. Jane Austen’s Christmas  Maria Hubert
  7. Elizabeth’s Women  Tracy Borman
  8. Divergent  Veronica Roth
  9. Birthright:  The True Story That Inspired “Kidnapped”  A. Roger Ekirch
  10. Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion:  1795–1815  Christina Beneto and Martin Lancaster

‘with ships and sailors she felt herself at home’

Detail from a modern reproduction of an 1805 p...

Image via Wikipedia

It is, perhaps, not known Jane Austen’s personal connection to the Battle of Trafalgar.

Those at home always await patiently for word from their loved ones at sea and this was especially true 206 years ago when Jane Austen eagerly awaited the letters of her brother Capt. Francis W. Austen on board Canopus in the Mediterranean.  Canopus was a prize ship (formerly L’Admiral) captured by Lord Nelson at the Battle of the Nile; Nelson subsequently was responsible for Frank taking command of this ship.

“You may rely upon all attention in my power to Capt. Austin [sic].  I hope to see him alongside a French 80 gun ship and he cannot be better placed than in the Canopus, who was once a French adl.’s ship and struck to me.  Capt. A. I knew a little of before; he is an excellent young man.
I am, &c
Nelson and Bronte”

The French fleet had been alluding the British for months and the situation had become precarious.  On board was Admiral Louis, Nelson’s second in command.  Frank and the Admiral would be shocked when on September 28 Nelson arrived off Cadiz and gave orders for Canopus to sail to Gibraltar to fetch urgently needed water and stores.  Louis complained of being sent away with hostilities promising to escalate.  Nelson, assuring Canopus of its role as his right hand, promised that they would be back before the French dared to come out.  Frank wrote home of his disappointment.

“Having borne our share in a tedious chase and anxious blockade, it would be mortifying indeed to find ourselves at last thrown out of any credit and emolument which would result from such an action.  Such, I hope will not be our lot.  ….if there has been an action with the combined fleets I shall ever consider the day on which I sailed from the squadron as the most inauspicious of my life.”

On October 19 the French and Spanish fleets left Cadiz, led by Admiral Villeneuve, making their way along the coast to Cape Trafalgar.  On the morning of October 21 Nelson, glorious in his military honors hoisted the signal, “England expects every man to do his duty”.  By the end of the day the British were victorious and Nelson was dead.

Frank could not help but lament his regret at having missed the battle which was only intensified by the news of Nelson’s death.

“To lose all share in the glory of a day which surpasses all which ever went before, is what I cannot think of with any degree of patience.  ….A melancholy situation, great and important as must be the victory, it is alas! dearly purchased at the price paid for it.”

And as the female members of his family enhanced their needlework with the ‘Trafalgar stitch’ Frank Austen wrote of Nelson:  “His memory will long be embalmed in the hearts of a grateful Nation, May those he left behind in the service strive to imitate so bright an example.”

HUZZAH!!!!

Lost in Austen

I have recently picked up a book that I can’t seem to embrace.  Not because of the subject matter, March, an historical fiction by Geraldine Brooks, would normally be something I would be all over.  It is the story of the absent father, Mr. March, of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and documents his experiences during the Civil War while his “little women” tend to the home fires.  I will go back to it certainly but right now I have many on-going  literary projects focusing on Jane Austen and I find myself preoccupied by her and repeatedly drawn into her world.

This month my book club, The Petty Rebuttals, are reading Pride and Prejudice.  It is my turn in the line-up, and since we collectively decided to read classics this cycle, I chose to introduce the group to Jane Austen.  We are a mixed bag,  evenly divided of those who have read P&P and those who have never had the pleasure.  I am excited to give my insight to the group and share my love and enthusiasm for this novel (and of Jane) and only hope that I don’t overwhelm the group with my zeal.  P&P is universally acknowledged (yes, that was intended) to be one of Austen’s best novels and I am currently trying to decide what of the novel I want to focus upon.   Do I focus on character, storyline, class?  My latest re-reading I specifically examined the characters of Elizabeth and Darcy, their imperfections and their strengths.  I am intrigued how they evolve through the story and am struck by their capacity for self-awareness.  Both come to terms with their pride and prejudice and become mindful of helping one another to overcome their shortcomings and give prominence to their assets.  In other words, form a true partnership of  like mind and heart.  I think I will allow the group to take initiative though, regardless of where the discussion leads it, no doubt, will be stimulating.

I am also preparing to lead a discussion next month for the Jane Austen Reading Society.  I am thrilled to be presenting Catharine, or the Bower.  A work of Jane Austen’s Volume, The Third of her Juvenilia.  A charming piece, written in 1792 when she was only 16 years old.  It is an unfinished story,  predominately for the gratification of her family but has enticing elements present in her more mature works.  The diversity in characterization and domestic realism is already evident in this short piece; it exhibits her wit and seemingly light and playful prose but also emerging is her perceptive understanding of class, gender, social decorum, and wealth.  It is an important piece still raw in its youthful vivacity but intimates a more developed novelistic approach as she attempts to move away from her earlier mocking works.  Catharine highlights the potential of the young Jane Austen’s scrutinizing eye and sardonic humor that fans know and love and appreciate.

A lamentable picture of an insipid Victorian-friendly Jane Austen. She's wearing a wedding band for crying out loud!!!!

In anticipation of all of this, or perhaps in consequence of, I have undertaken a biography I have not read before.  My favorite has always been that by Claire Tomalin but I decided to give David Nokes’s biography, Jane Austen:  A Life, a go.  Both biographers diverge from the generally accepted portrayal of Jane Austen as the staid and dour spinster, happy and accepting in her quiet life of little event.  This myth of Jane Austen was perpetuated by her family soon after her death, in fact, her tombstone at Winchester Cathedral doesn’t even mention that she was an author and became more pronounced as Georgian England became Victorian England.  In the Victorian era, a woman’s place was the domestic sphere; home life and motherhood were considered all that was necessary for a woman’s emotional fulfillment.  Reading the little that is left of Jane Austen’s letters, her Juvenilia, and her novels it is clear that Austen was not willing to place her well-being in a virtuous ideal of femininity.  She was feisty, opinionated, mirthful, and cutting.  She wasn’t one to not cut to the chase and often described things the way they were, albeit with a derisive wit.  Comments to her sister in letters emphasize her dry humor: 

 “I give you joy of our new nephew, and hope if he ever comes to be hanged it will not be till we are too old to care about it.” [upon the birth of a nephew]

“Here I am once more in this scene of dissipation and vice, and I begin already to find my morals corrupted.”  [upon arrival in London]

“How horrible it is to have so many people killed! And what a blessing that one cares for none of them!”  [commenting on the Peninsular War]

“You express so little anxiety about my being murdered under Ash Park Copse by Mrs. Hulbert’s servant, that I have a great mind not to tell you whether I was or not.”

I love the “rebellious, satirical, and wild” Austen!  This Jane and I could be great friends unlike the virtuous, devoted, and retiring maiden Aunt popularly portrayed for nearly 200 years.

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