‘Longbourn’ and Pig Shit Realism



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.



New Beginnings, Old Problems

I’ve been away from this blog for so long I feel almost obliged to fashion some adroit explanation — picnic, lightning — but the truth is, I was doing other things. Reading, writing, rethinking, rewriting. (When does rewriting have an end? I can only say, not yet.)

After “The Golem and the Jinni” I proceeded to read a string of amazing books I wish I had stopped to write about, for now I cannot do justice to them: Continue reading

Reading and Writing

That New York is a city of writers goes without saying. But sometimes the words are unexpected: brief and witty as a haiku. From an outing in Lower Manhattan yesterday:

On a wall on Jersey Street, which is merely two blocks running from Crosby to Mulberry just south of Houston.
On a wall on Jersey Street, a nearly imperceptible street of merely two blocks running from Crosby to Mulberry just south of Houston.

Duly noted on the platform subway map at the F train at Second Avenue.
Duly noted on the platform subway map at the Second Avenue F stop.

What Jane Austen would have made of either of these, no one alive can say. But I am sure she would have enjoyed observing the Sunday-morning bagel-sandwich-buying scrum at Russ & Daughters, in its own way better than the Assembly Rooms at Bath.

Charles Dickens and the Rejection Pile

Inexplicably, I find myself reading “A Tale of Two Cities.” In tandem with “The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile,” which I can’t help wishing Charles Dickens could have read, too. While he had no trouble staying out of the rejection pile, it still could have helped him. For I feel, once again, that the things that make Dickens so annoying are also what make him so unforgettable. Continue reading

Living in the Past

I got the idea for  my novel, The Jane Austen Project,  in October 2007. I know this because in February 2006 I started keeping a Book Log. This happened after a friend gave a small but thick, unlined, red-suede notebook I thought was lovely but had no idea what to do with, and after a tragic experience involving a wonderful book of short stories I that borrowed from the library, read with pleasure and then, after a short interval, forgot  both the author and the title of. This never happens anymore. An unexpected benefit is that the Book Log is a like a little red time capsule.

I knew I would have to do a lot of research to make The Jane Austen Project not stink, and I resolved  to read exclusively — or as exclusively as seemed practicable — writing on the topic at hand. Which I defined as:  work by Jane Austen herself or novelists of her era;  nonfiction about Jane Austen or her age; historical fiction or pastiche that effectively captured the tone and spirit of the age (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the sea stories of Patrick O’ Brian,  two of the most shining examples).

October 2007 marks the spot. What I read that month:

Treason’s Harbour by Patrick O’Brian (POB is really what inspired the Jane Austen Project)

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (I know! I know! My excuses are: I found it on the street, she was much in the news at the time , and I wondered if it would seem as trashy and yet full of ideas as when I read it in high school. It did.)

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth

The Far Side of the World by POB

That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx

then, suddenly:

Jane Austen, edited by Robert P. Irvine (Routledge Guides to Literature)

Jane Austen and Food by Maggie Lane

The Reverse of the Medal by POB

Jane Austen by Carol Shields

That is the last month, until quite recently, that there is any sort of balance between books written in the 20th or 21st century and having no connection and the other kind — the Jane Austeny kind.

In 2008 I read: (on the JA side)

The Thirteen-Gun Salute by POB

Jane Austen and Crime by Susannah Fullerton (fascinating)

Lady Susan, the Watsons and Sanditon by JA

Jane Austen in Context by Jane Todd

A Jane Austen Companion by F.B. Pinon

Jane Austen by Tony Tanner

Jane Austen, a Collection of Critical Essays edited by Ian Watt

Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence

The Annotated Pride and Prejudice edited by David M. Shepard

Life in Regency England by R.J. White

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (not quite of the era, but very well done)

English Society in the 18th Century by Roy Porter

Jane Austen and 18th Century Courtesy Books by Penelope Joan Frizter

Blood and Guts: A Short History of Medicine by Roy Porter (the medical stuff is important)

Wits, Wenches and Wantons: London’s Low Life, Convent Garden in the 18th Century by E.J. Buford

Emma, reread

The Nutmeg of Consolation by POB

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding

The Truelove by POB

Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict by Laurie Viera Rigler

How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman

The Wine-Dark Sea by POB

Northanger Abbey, reread

What Jane Austen Ate and What Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool

Clarissa by Samuel Richardson

Jane Austen, the Parson’s Daughter by Irene Collins

Jane Austen and Food by Maggie Lane (again)

Jane Austen in Context by Jane Todd (again)

Possession by A.S. Byatt  (another inspiration, though not strictly to topic)

Cassandra and Jane by Jill Pitkeathley

Sense and Sensibility, reread

The Language of Jane Austen by Myra Stokes

Some Words of Jane Austen by Stuart M. Tave

Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels by Deirdre Le Faye

Jane Austen and the Theatre by Paula Byrne

Mansfield Park, reread

The Commodore by POB

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Persuasion, reread….

I continued on in 2009 in much the same way. I pretty much stopped going to movies, because they seemed too modern and flickery. Even movies set in the Regency era, which ought to have been helpful, did not seem that way. I don’t own a TV.

At some point, I started to notice I was having trouble carrying on normal conversations. I had not seen a single episode of “Project Runway.” I had not read the latest important book: I was reading books like “Clarissa” that I would have been happy to talk about, if I could find someone else who had read them. I read the paper because I had to for my work (I am a newspaper copy editor) but even current events I was seeing through a prism of Regency England.

How long is it possible to live, mentally, in another century? How long is it practical?