Jane Austen, the Banker’s Sister

Reading this fantastic book was a little like one of those dreams where you discover an extra room in your apartment. An entire book focused on Henry Austen, a man I’ve spent years thinking about and trying to imagine! Continue reading

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Reading While Human

This week I read a wonderful essay titled “Reading Jane Eyre While Black”  that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. Not only does it compare two of 19th -century England’s most fascinating writers — Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen — but it hits on many of the issues I’ve been thinking about lately. About authorial intent, and how there will always  be something a little mysterious about it, even to the author. Also how as both readers and writers we bring our own biases, both the known and unknown, to the page.

Tyrese L. Coleman makes many interesting points along the way, but one key theme is how “Jane Eyre” has been ruined for her by Bronte’s depiction of Bertha Mason, whose craziness and evil is inextricably linked to her West Indian origins and implicit blackness. Continue reading

Jane Austen at 60


Virginia Woolf photograph by Gisèle Freund, 1939 Photograph: National Portrait Gallery

I’ve read this before, what Virginia Woolf wrote in 1924, but I just came across it accidentally in search of something else. It still makes me cry, because she was right, as Woolf generally is; or if not right, at the very least, wonderfully persuasive.

“She would have stayed in London, dined out, lunched out, met famous people, made new friends, read, travelled, and carried back to the quiet country cottage a hoard of observations to feast upon at leisure. And what effect would all this have had upon the six novels that Jane Austen did not write? She would not have written of crime, of passion, or of adventure. She would not have been rushed by the importunity of publishers or the Battery of friends into slovenliness or insincerity. But she would have known more. Her sense of security would have been shaken. Her comedy would have suffered. She would have trusted less (this is already perceptible in Persuasion) to dialogue and more to reflection to give us a knowledge of her characters. Those marvelous little speeches which sum up in a few minutes’ chatter all that we need in order to know an Admiral Croft or a Mrs. Musgrove forever, that shorthand, hit-or-miss method which contains chapters of analysis and psychology, would have become too crude to hold all that she now perceived of the complexity of human nature. She would have devised a method, clear and composed as ever, but deeper and more suggestive, for conveying not only what people say, but what they leave unsaid; not only what they are, but (if we may be pardoned the vagueness of the expression) what life is.”

Controversy Brews in the Jane Austen World

Like many people, I am a huge fan of Lucy Worsley and could watch clips of her on YouTube for hours. She has a genius for bringing history to life with her stunts, her costumes, and her general way of being in the world, which one writer has memorably compared to  “a possessed Christopher Robin.” So I was a little surprised to wake up and learn from my Jane Austen Google news alerts that she has been accused of plagiarism.

An article in Private Eye cites numerous examples of similarity in phrasing and content between Ms. Worsley’s new book,  “Jane Austen at Home” and Paula Byrne’s  2014 work, “The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things.”

One does not know what to think about this. Continue reading

When Ideas Acquire Solidity, Part II

Almost five years ago now, I wrote about the strange feeling of going to the a local copy shop to print out copies of my novel in preparation for a manuscript workshop. More specifically, about the strange feeling of walking out of the store with them, that something existing only in my mind had now taken a physical form, had become a thing that existed in the world, like a rock or a highway or a batch of cookies cooling on the counter. Continue reading

What Did Mr. Darcy Actually Look Like?

 

imgresThe internet has been all over this, a “dramatic re-appraisal,” as the headline breathlessly puts it.  But we never knew just what Darcy looked like in the first place —  about all Jane Austen gives us is “fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien, and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance of his having ten thousand pounds a year.”  The piece by John Sutherland and Amanda Vickery is great, a  thorough exploration of early 19th-century ideas about male desirability,  ticking through things like the importance of cravats, of knowing how to move gracefully, and of having a well-turned leg. None of this was news to me, so I personally can’t be too surprised to learn that  the first readers of Pride and Prejudice probably did not imagine him as looking like a certain late 20th-century English actor.

darcy firth

What surprises me, instead, is that seems to be seen as surprising. Continue reading

Get Obsessed, Stay Obssessed

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When the idea first seized me of writing a book about time travel and Jane Austen, I realized that despite being a fan of her work, I knew  little about her life or her England. There was no way around it: I had to do some research. I joined the Jane Austen Society of North America, impressed that there actually was such a group, and started attending meetings of my local chapter. I got an alumni library card and read my way through the Jane Austen shelves at Barnard. My need for more obscure and specialized knowledge about things like the history of housekeeping and slavery-era Jamaica  led me to the New York Public Library reading room and online collection. To great websites  like  Two  Nerdy History GirlsJane Austen’s WorldJane Austen’s London, and many others. In search of atmosphere, I went to  London, Bath, Winchester and Chawton. Also, oddly, Dublin,  better than London for trying to imagine 1815 London, with its streets and streets of Georgian terraced houses and the excellent Number 29 house museum.  I set up Google alerts so as not to miss any Jane Austen news.

When I look back on all this,  I think of a line from John Irving’s weird masterpiece The Hotel New Hampshire: “You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.” And when I look back on all this, there seems a kind of innocence, an undergraduate assurance that if one could only learn enough about a subject, the rest would fall into place.

Still. Did I over-prepare? Probably.  Did I need to read that many biographies? Probably not. There are all kinds of ways of not writing, and research is a great one, because it’s so respectable. There is no possible world in which this amount of time spent on one entertaining but slight novel could make any sense, economically or artistically. Not unless love or its mysterious twin, obsession, enters the picture.

For in the end, it boils down to time. Given varying lifespans — but we don’t know that part ahead of time — we are all equal in our allotment of 24 hours to a day, seven days to a week, 365 days to a year. We are crying babies, curious toddlers, restless teenagers and so on, until we look in the mirror one day, surprised to find ourselves trapped in the body of an old person.

You cannot conquer time. Unless, maybe, to lose yourself in something to such an extent that time ceases to have its usual dominion.  It’s passing as always, but you don’t notice. The world just goes on without you, people dying and being born and seeking public office. And that, I see now, was the real gift of my multiyear obsession with Jane Austen.  Not the novel I ended up with, but the experience of writing it.  Not in the finding, but in the seeking.