A Latter-day Bluestocking

For the love of reading

Category: Jane Austen

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Emma as a Microcosm of English Society and other Matters

emmaMay 4th was a lovely spring day, the air was warm, the sun was shining, and the campus of Columbia University was abuzz with activity. I was there to attend the Spring Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) and hear the lecture “Emma as a Microcosm of English Society”. The speaker was David M. Shapard who has published the annotated versions of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion. His The Annotated Northanger Abbey will be released on September 13, 2013. And can one assume that he is hard at work on the annotated Mansfield Park? Let’s hope so!  [hint, hint Mr. Shapard]

Emma is my least favorite of all of Jane Austen’s books. I can’t stand the title character, she’s annoying, self-righteous, and a meddler. Austen herself wrote, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” to describe her irritating protagonist. I’ve always wanted to throw this book across the room with violent force but now having heard Mr. Shapard speak, and so passionately about, I am desiring to re-read the book and perhaps re-examine the microcosm of society which Austen presents.

JASNA Lecturer, David M. Shapard

JASNA Lecturer, David M. Shapard

Emma is the only Austen novel named for its main character. Shapard suggests this is by design as she is the novel’s primary focus, Emma is the most flawed of all of Austen’s heroines and her failings affect herself as well as lead to detrimental situations for others. Her missteps, of which she is totally oblivious of, is what drives the plot. “This concentration, and the dominance of the action by a flawed heroine, allows for a superb joining of plot, character, and theme” [Shapard: Introduction The Annotated Emma, page xxv]. Each action within the novel evolves the plot revealing her character and her moral irrationality. And all the while as I read the book, I want to punch Emma in the nose because I see that she is being an idiot as we are meant to. Well, perhaps Austen didn’t envisage her readers wanting to do violence to her heroine but she did intend for us to notice her folly as Emma herself does not.

market-day-at-chilhamMr. Shapard then turned his focus to the main idea of his discussion, the book’s depiction of the society in which Emma lives. Highbury boasts a complex society, its nuances properly understood and accepted by  Austen’s contemporary readers:  who was genteel, who was not, who has fallen from the refined life and those who have risen to it, those of questionable birth, those who work the land, those in trade, the nouveau riche and those in need. Austen describes a stable society and one in which the social hierarchy is marked and described in detail. There is limited social change and forms the important backdrop for the action of the novel and gives the reader a real sense of place and the day-to-day of country living.   Mr. Shapard maintains that the novels dual focus of the individual and the social world reinforces each other “the precise delineations of the world around the heroine make her misjudgments of that world more vivid for the reader.” [Shapard: Introduction The Annotated Emma, page xxix].

It was an informative lecture and one that opened my mind about how I should read Emma. Mr. Shapard has convinced me that, perhaps, I have underestimated Emma, my good judgment clouded by my displeasure of Emma’s lack of insight.  I will read it again.

Reginald HillThe rest of the meeting was given over to the discussion of a short story “Poor Emma” written by the late Reginald Hill and published in his book There Are No Ghosts in the Soviet Union.  I do not know much about Reginald Hill except that his genre was crime writing and he was a purported “Janeite” so I was quite eager to read his sequel to Emma.  I have to say I was absolutely horrified by it which my marginalia on the copy I read will greatly attest.  As I was reading I could not help think what a travesty it was.  And that’s saying something because, as I said earlier, Emma is my least preferred book.  My favorite character, Mr. Knightley is now a drunken, obese, slothful, and loutish wretch of a man.  In a few years of marriage Mr. Knightley has turned his back on responsibility and become a truly debauched individual, a complete 180° in temperament and character.  But as I continued to read I began to take the story for what it was, a parody, and one which was written tongue in cheek.  I was even able to laugh at the story and myself for my severe reaction.  I am not a fan of Hill’s Mr. Knightley (or his Emma for that matter) but it is clever how he used his crime writing skills to exploit Emma’s habitual convention of scheming and manipulation and using her machinations, for once successful, for the most diabolical (and amusing) of ends.

The meeting ended with lots of catching up and talking Jane with my fellow enthusiasts, cucumber sandwiches and tea, and having David Shapard sign my copy of The Annotated Emma and being totally awkward as I told him that I bought his annotated P&P for my niece.  It was the perfect spring day with an abundance of delightful diversion.

cucumber-tea-sandwiches-bridge-recipes-mdn

How I learned that sex, indeed, does sell at a JASNA AGM. No, not like that!!

“It’s a very select Society, an’ you’ve got to be a Janeite in your ’eart … You take it from me, there’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight place.”
“The Janeites,” by Rudyard Kipling

The 2012 Jane Austen Society of North America AGM (annual general meeting) is over.  And on a cold and wet Sunday, having changed into my comfy new Jane Austen t-shirt, lying curled up in my bed, I took immense pleasure in my reminiscences of the past weekend, like Cinderella after the ball.

This was my first-ever AGM, an annual gathering of a like-minded mix of academic and non-academic followers of all things Jane.  I sit writing with my “Jane Austen’s Regency World” pen, sifting through the myriad postcards, flyers, refrigerator magnets, and bookmarks, while recollecting the lectures, banquet, Regency Ball, and all the wonderful people who I met.  I can’t help but feel sad that it’s over, the camaraderie, the vast amounts of information, the books for sale (that could possibly put me in a poor house), and the immeasurable satisfaction of being around so many who understand the obsession.  There was no eye-rolling (except perhaps when I chose to read from Fordyce’s Sermons aloud), no bored stares or incredulous looks, just others who wanted to gush about our favorite author, the ubiquitous Jane Austen.

I am still savoring the high of giving my first break-out lecture.  This is one of the highlights of my life.  I had been a bundle of nerves in the weeks leading up to this moment.  I am insecure when it comes to this kind of thing and even more so because I do not have an academic background in English Literature, therefore feel some inferiority and lots of fear that I will make a fool of myself in front of those who can claim extensive credentials.  I am a frustrated wannabe academic and I so yearn for acceptance and praise from those I consider to be “real” scholars.  This, compounded with the fear of suddenly forgetting my material, not being able to answer questions and looking like an idiot, and worrying that the sound of my voice (which I personally loathe) would be grating to others put me in a near state of panic.  It further did not help when I learned that I had one of the biggest groups (132) signed up for my lecture.  But I need not have worried.  My little talk “Fallen Women of the Regency:  Mistresses, Courtesans, and Prostitutes” was very well received (see sex does, indeed, sell even at Jane Austen themed events) , the questions asked were insightful and thought-provoking, and I was told that my presentation and handout were very interesting and that I had a very good speaking manner by no less an author whose books I admire.  High praise, indeed.  This wonderful experience has left me wanting more and I am already thinking of my next paper proposal for next year’s AGM celebrating the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice.

The Banquet and Regency Ball was so much fun!  For five hours I ate, drank, and danced the night away like I was at the Netherfield Ball.  There were so  many beautifully dressed people and the music was lively and fun.  I spent a good deal of the time admiring the general splendor of it all.  I did find myself having to loosen my stays if I wanted to keep up with the highly aerobic Regency-era dancing.  Thanks, mom, for my ballet training!

Another highpoint of the weekend was the author book signing.  Bleary-eyed and exhausted from the previous night’s exertions I lugged the books that I had carefully chosen, by the authors I was desperate to meet.  To speak with those who have written some of the most well-informed and wonderfully written books about Jane Austen was akin to meeting (for me) rock stars!

What a memorable weekend!!  I can’t wait for next year in Minneapolis, MN (and the year after that, Montreal, and the year after that, Louisville, KY).

Clearly the subject matter of my talk went to my head!

Quote of the Day: Jane Austen

“…but for my own part, if a book is well written, I always find it too short.”  Jane Austen, 1775-1817

I am Seriously Considering Bank Robbery…

…So that I can get my hands on first editions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.  These lovely volumes are on offer through AbeBooks.com.  Of course, if anyone wants to donate these to my addiction…

Sense and Sensibility  by A Lady

Published in 3 volumes by T. Egerton, London in 1811

A smart and highly collectible First Edition of Austen’s classic novel, complete in three volumes. Rebound in half-leather with spine labels, gilt lettering and decoration, and marbled paper-covered boards, with a cloth-covered slipcase. Published under the pseudonym, ‘A Lady’. With facsimile half-titles in each volume, and a facsimile title page in volume I. Bears Walter Hore’s signature on the first page of volume I, and dated inscriptions on the title pages of volumes II and III. Condition: Overall a good unmolested copy that has not been cleaned or restored and would come up a treat in the hands of a professional restorer. A pleasure to see a copy of this important work before the attentions of a restorer so that the purchaser can decide on how far to restore and know what has and has not been done. Rebound sympathetically. The bindings are tight and firm. There is very little wear to the extremities or to the slipcase. Internally the pages have light scattered foxing throughout, with occasional marks and mild browning. In volume I there are some closed tears and chips to the lower margins of the first quarter, with the lower corners of a couple of pages missing, not affecting text, a hole to the margin of page seventy-one, and repairs to closed tears on a few pages and to a split across page sixty-five. There are stains to the top corners of pages 292 and 293, and 158 and 159. In volume II there is light ink staining to the margins of pages 114/115, which does not affect the text. The bottom corners of a couple of pages are missing, and there is a small hole to the margin of the last page, none of which affect the text. The lower corner of page ninety-one is missing and has been repaired,with the loss to the text replaced in handwritten ink. The lower section of page 139 has been repaired, with the last four lines handwritten on both sides. In volume III there is very slight evidence of damage to the lower margins of the title page to page forty-four. There is also an ink mark to page sixty-three and smudged early copper-plate notes to the top margin, and a note to the top margin of page fifty-nine. With a small tidemark to the outer margin of 149, chips to the lower margins of pages five to nine, and closed tears to the lower margins of several pages. The lower corner of page nineteen is missing, and there is light staining to the lower corners of pages 102 and 103. There are small holes to the lower margins of pages 159 and 161. A small section of the first page of volume I has been removed, and small sections of the title pages of volumes II and III have been removed and repaired. Overall the condition is very good with a good interior.

Price:  $63,006.62

Pride and Prejudice  by A Lady

Published in 3 volumes by T. Egerton, London in 1813

First edition. Three volumes. 12mo. Bound in a fine early 20th century full brown crushed morocco Riviere binding, gilt titles and decorations to spines. All edges gilt, marbled endpapers, gilt inner dentelles. Binding shows very minor wear, a few light scuffs to corners, and few small spots to volume III. While often lacking, the half titles are present, vol I and III appear to be supplied from a second edition. Volume I: minor chips to pages 143/144 and 157/158; and a few minor creases to gatherings M and N. Volume II: tiny tear to rear flyleaf, small tear to outer margin of page 77. Some very minor scattered spotting. Volume III: small repair to upper corner of page 129, repair to lower corner of page 137/138, tiny pin hole to page 259/260. A beautiful, clean and very attractive set. Gilson A3. Austen’s second work, Pride and Prejudice, is her most famous and one of the most popular books ever written. The unforgettable story of the Bennet sisters quickly sold out of the first printing, and editions of this 1813 original are very scarce. Austen was highly praised by Sir Walter Scott, among others, for her proficiency in describing human emotions and the complexity of relationships. Pride and Prejudice established Austen as one of the most relevant and important female writers of her time, and it’s popularity is a prime example of why she is so highly regarded even today.

Price:  $60,000

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.

Beach Reading Reviews 2012 Part 2

Here’s the second half of my beach reading reviews.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

A simply monstrous story, a young man trades his soul for eternal youth and leads a sordid dual life, indulging every impulse and desire maintaining all the while a gentleman’s facade.  As Dorian Gray’s portrait exhibits the sins of his sinful life he moves on to ever more unspeakably and horrifying transgressions.  A page-turner and frightening.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

A beautiful story of a man’s struggle against nature written in Hemingway’s characteristic style free of superfluous words.  He simply and elegantly the old man’s determination in the face of defeat.  Powerful!

The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After by Elizabeth Kantor

Absolutely awful.  Nonsensical clap-trap about how to achieve happiness in love by following the example of Austen’s heroines.  Preachy, thus annoying.  Not recommended.

A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

Despite being over 1000 pages long, an engaging tale.  This is the fourth book in the Song of Ice and Fire series relating the quest for domination of the Seven Kingdoms.  If you are a fan of the fantasy genre definitely a must-read.

Beach Reading 2012

When the temperature begins to rise the last book I want to read is a serious tome.  With the onset of the care-free days of summer my brain does not want to be taxed.   I want a good story, something I can bring to the beach and enjoy with the ocean breezes and nap if I am so inclined.  In other words, I don’t want a committment, I want a summer romance.  For example the ubiquitous Fifty Shades of Grey is included on this summer’s list.  This doesn’t mean I will only read poorly written crap.   In fact, I have some classics on my list but what all these books have in common is a good story where I do not need to analyze plotlines, hidden agendas, characterization, etc.  Some may be well-written and book club worthy others are included just for the pure joy of reading a story even if poorly written.  So here’s the Beach List for 2012:

1.Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson  (so much fun, pure joy)

2.Miss Timmin’s School for Girls by Nayan Currimbhoy (could not put it down, a good mystery)

3. Summer by Edith Wharton  (the title says it all)

4. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (again, seems summer-appropriate)

5. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James (mostly to see what all the hoopla is about)

6. The Portrait of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (a good story and wonderfully written)

7. A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin (because I need to finish the 4th book before I can borrow mys sister’s 5th book)

8. A Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After by Elizabeth Kantor (because you can always use a little Jane Austen)

Death Comes To Pemberley by P.D. James

P.D. James who is better known for her mystery novels featuring Adam Dalgliesh, a poet policeman, has written a sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. 

I have to say I don’t love this offering.  It did have some high points but despite re-introducing favorite characters it lacks a certain appeal.  The characters never come to life as they do in the original.  Darcy is broadened as an individual but Elizabeth is relegated to a secondary character; no more is she the charming and witty young girl of Jane Austen’s novel.  With every turn of the page I am expecting her former personality to reveal itself and it never does.  It’s almost as if marriage has made her dull.

P.D. James states in an interview that she had been dwelling on combining her two great enthusiasms, the novels of Jane Austen and writing detective fiction, that she longed to write of Elizabeth and Darcy happily married, with children in the nursery, and everything going well and peaceful and to disrupt such orderliness with a ghastly murder.  Sounds like a great premise except the murder is trite, there is unnecessary commentary on the Napoleonic wars, a plot-line with a character which is introduced and ended in a very unsatisfactory manner, and there is a very forced and unimaginative explanation for the murder.

The only parts that were of great interest were the scenes taking place during the inquest and during the trial in the courtroom.  P.D. James is clearly comfortable writing these and it is here that the narrative gains momentum.

Bravo for P.D. James for her attempt but in the end it wasn’t the best “sequel” I’ve ever read.

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)

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