“O Day of days when we can read! The reader and the book, either without the other is naught.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803–1882
Today was a great day. I presented at a book discussion Catharine, or the Bower, an unfinished story written by Jane Austen when she was 16 years old. It is one of only two stories contained in Volume the Third of her youthful and ebullient writings, called the Juvenilia. Her father wrote of them “Effusions of Fancy by a Young Lady Consisting of Tales in a Style entirely new.” Austen’s earlier Juvenilia stories are literary parody consisting of coincidences, lurid horrors, and comic situations. They are boisterous and youthful and border the ridiculous and satirical towards the sentimental. Despite being written by such a young person (beginning at the age of 12) the stories are chock full of theft, drunkenness, sexual indiscretion, and lewdness, found to be most shocking by the Victorians. Her family refrained from publishing the volumes of the Juvenilia wanting to keep the reputation of the demure and devout maiden aunt pure. They were not published until 1933 (Volume the First), 1922 (Volume the Second), and 1951 (Volume the Third).
Catharine is considered important because, albeit raw, it intimates the maturity of her later published novels. Austen is beginning to direct her wit towards her interests of courtship, romance, and family relationships; the range and depth of her characterization, clarity of dialogue and action is emerging. Discernible are familiar character types that will be more fleshed out in the novels: self-centered, selfish, and empty-headed young ladies; thoughtless, idle, and seductive young gentlemen; vivacious, witty, and bright heroines, and conservative, over-protective and hypochondriac elders. Catharine also hints at acceptable principles of behavior and class distinction characteristic of her fully developed novels.
So, yes, today was a good day. I got to express my own “effusions of fancy” about my favorite author and am still allowed to join in next month when we will discuss A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft. I already have this and a biography of the early feminist in my To Read list!
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.
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.
“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
This weekend is again shaping up to be perfectly literary. Today I meet with my book club, The Petty Rebuttals where we will be discussing Room by Emma Donoghue and tomorrow is the Brooklyn Book Festival where I will be manning the Jane Austen Society of North America’s table for an hour in full Regency dress!! But more about that later because I want to tell you about last weekend that proved to be very literary as well.
Saturday began quite bookish. Its scope spanned the centuries beginning with Jane Austen and ending with what was promised to be a sordid foray into international erotic writing.
My day began with the New York Regional meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA). A group of like-minded admirers of the works of Jane Austen who come together at regional meetings throughout the year, an annual national general meeting, and at splinter group meetings such as a monthly discussion group, book reading groups and the Juvenilia (a group for the young and the young at heart). This meeting was especially enticing for me as it would be a lecture on fashion of the Regency era and how best to outfit yourself at any budget entitled, Dressing the Miss Bennets. The speaker was Lisa Brown who led the informative lecture with modeling (which I happily participated in).
I had such a wonderful time, catching up with friends, volunteering, and talking about an upcoming general meeting which our chapter is hosting in Brooklyn next autumn. It was exciting to discuss Jane Austen with other enthusiastic readers. It is a wonderful place to socialize with the scholarly as well as those who have newly discovered our favorite author. I was able to discuss with fellow members of the Juvenilia the possibility of a lending library amongst our members of our personal Jane material and the possibility of leading a group discussion in November of Catherine, or the Bower an unfinished fragment written in August 1792. This is an important fragment as it is believed to be a segue between Austen’s youthful juvenilia to her mature published works.
After tea and cucumber sandwiches with the group-at-large, myself and members of the Juvenilia group headed to Manhattan’s lower east side to participate in the 4th Annual Lit Crawl NYC. This event is sponsored by the Litquake Foundation, founded in San Francisco, to give readers more against the back-drop of technology by promoting readings, classroom visits, youth projects all “to foster interest in literature for people of all ages and perpetuate a sense of literary community.” The Crawl was broken up into three 45 minute phases in which you chose from several topics and venues (coffeehouses, bars and lounges). The first venue we decided to attend was sponsored by The Center for Fiction in which authors came up with he first line of books based only on the title and a blurb. Audience participation involved trying to guess what the correct first line was. It was very fun and sometimes raucously hilarious!! The second venue we chose was Nerd Jeopardy presented by publishers Farrar, Straus, Giroux. This one is pretty self-explanatory and one would be led to believe a fun choice but because of the lack of organization and slim audience participation it proved a bit boring and pretentious. The best part of this venue was the Heineken Dark Lager.
Next venue, in the hopes of more than just intellectual stimulation we chose to attend Down and Dirty Round the World the blurb read as follows:
“…an evening of hardboiled, pulpy, and erotic international literature read by some of our favorite authors and translators…”
It proved less than exciting. None of the selections even came close to being pulpy or erotic. Halfway into the first reading my friends and I were wondering if we should just bail. One author/translator read so poorly that if she were to read hard-core porn her monotone voice would fail to titillate. At last it was over! It had one thing going for it, it gave us something to talk about. The only thing about that evening to arouse my desire was the to-die-for pastrami Reuben at Katz’s Deli! That succulent pastrami, its juicy goodness tantalizing my tongue, the tender flesh melting in my mouth… See what I mean?
“The love of learning, the sequestered nooks, And all the sweet serenity of books.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1807–1882
I started reading Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand on Friday and because I’ve been so busy with, well… life, I have been unable to read like I normally do. Despite not having enough time over the weekend to curl up with this book, it has grabbed me right from the start and I have been reading voraciously on the subway and even, clandestinely, at work. I absolutely love the character of Major Ernest Pettigrew. Helen Simonson has wonderfully evoked an old-fashioned British military gentleman in the most traditional sense. I imagine him with mutton-chop sideburns, chest pumped up, walking with a swagger, using his cane just so, a man used to a vast Empire, unchanging and staid. But he is devoid of annoying pomposity exhibiting, instead, charm and gallantry. He is a widower and is coping with the loss of his brother and an ingrate of a son. He is lonely.
He begins an unlikely friendship with a Pakistani widow, Jasmina Ali, who runs the local grocery. She is independent, clever, and well-read. She is quietly struggling to find her own place within a culture that expects certain behaviors from women, especially widowed women without children, and get by in a Britain that does not easily accept her as one of them.
The Major and Mrs. Ali come together and bond through their common loss of a spouse and a love of literature. They meet for the first time at his home for afternoon tea to discuss, of all things, Rudyard Kipling!
Their story is attractive and sweet but not mawkish and I look forward to finishing the journey with them.