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.

Happy Birthday, Jane Austen!

Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without preaching. That was how Shakespeare wrote, I thought, looking at ‘Antony and Cleopatra,’ and when people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments; and for that reason we do not know Jane Austen and we do not know Shakespeare, and for that reason Jane Austen pervades every word she wrote, and so does Shakespeare.

                                                                          –Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Early this morning I walked the dog along the waterfront in the windy darkness, looking at the lights of Manhattan and wondering what Jane Austen would have made of the fact that she’s world-famous and still relevant today, nearly two and half centuries after she was born. I like to think she would have been amused — and not entirely surprised. Does genius recognize itself?

Over at Austenblog, there’s a giveaway of a book of essays that looks to  be excellent.  Sarah Emsley has a fascinating post about Jane Austen and grandparents. The BBC has a great article by Rebecca Smith about the daily routine at Chawton. And you can still enter the Goodreads giveaway for The Jane Austen Project right here. It runs until next Tuesday.

Jane Austen and the Author Photo

by Cassandra Austen, pencil and watercolour, circa 1810
by Cassandra Austen, pencil and watercolour, circa 1810

Jane Austen died on this date in, 1817,  not in possession of an author photo. This sketch by Cassandra is the most we know  about  what she looked like. I would say that I am fine with that, except I wrote an entire book in the effort to imagine what Jane Austen was  like, so clearly I am not.

I’ve been thinking about the  notion of the author photo a lot lately, a strange artifice that I had until recently accepted as a given: Continue reading

‘Eligible’ and the Tradeoff of Updates

eligible-by-curtis-sittenfield-2016-x-200 I stayed up too late reading “Eligible”;  I snorted with laughter; I rejoiced in Curtis Sittenfeld’s clever updates  to plot points in the original and in her cool, dry wit.

Sittenfeld, an accomplished creator of her own plots and characters, here  was given the literary counterpart of a paint-by-number kit: Austen’s people, Austen’s plot, Austen’s wit. But make it modern, please.

Some things are obviously funny, like making Lydia and Kitty crass devotees of CrossFit and paleo diets; others more subtly so, Continue reading

‘Longbourn’ and Pig Shit Realism

 

Longbourn

All the time I was reading Jo Baker’s “Longbourn” I had the sensation of not being able to decide if I liked it.  This is unusual;  feckless and tentative as I am in most realms of human activity, I am generally confident in my literary judgments.

The story, in case anyone  missed the large splash it made upon publication in 2014, is “Pride and Prejudice” from the viewpoint of the Bennets’ servants. A brilliant, can’t-miss idea. I like to imagine Ms. Baker, tormented by insomnia and casting around for her next idea for a novel, sitting up in bed.

HOLY SHIT! I’LL CALL IT ‘LONGBOURN!’ Continue reading

Harper Lee and Happenstance

mockingbirdI can’t be the only person to find this business with Harper Lee a little fishy. Just like that, a manuscript turns up? After 50-odd years? As Atticus Finch might ask, cui bono? Certainly not Harper Lee herself, who has shown no hunger for fame or money thus far.

And, really, can one actually misplace a manuscript? I think Hemingway once lost a suitcase containing one — but he was on the move a lot. I’d be thrilled to hear of a lost manuscript by Bruno Schulz found stuffed between floorboards in Drohobycz — but he was shot dead on the street by the Gestapo, a tragic example of someone who left his literary affairs in disarray. Sure it is possible to lose track of a manuscript, but perhaps harder when you live as quiet a life as Harper Lee has.

When we look closer, the story grows more complicated. It wasn’t so much “lost” as set aside and (perhaps) forgotten. The tale of an older Scout and an older Atticus set in the 1950s, it seems to have been an ur-Mockingbird, a thing Harper Lee’s editor told her wasn’t quite working. “Why don’t you write about her as a girl instead? That’d probably be more interesting.” Which turned out to be true. If there had been more to the novel, something Harper Lee wanted to return to and improve, it’s hard to understand why she did not do so sometime between then and now. Hard to avoid thinking she took the best parts for use in “Mockingbird.”

The book is sure to sell, yet I suspect most people who loved “Mockingbird” will be disappointed. To me, its greatest interest will be literary-forensic: How does her writing look unedited? What were the elements of “Mockingbird” that were there from the start, and what came later? What was the story she thought she was trying to tell, until persuaded the real story lay elsewhere?

Literature is full of such false starts, but we rarely get to read them. The speculation among Jane Austen scholars, for instance, is that “Sense and Sensibility,” “Pride and Prejudice,” or maybe both, were originally told in letters. Jane Austen’s own mention in a letter that she was chopping “Pride and Prejudice” to prepare it for publication, some 15 years after she first wrote an earlier version. How the mind reels at this! What did she take out?