Twitter Shakespeare

Today, being on Twitter finally paid for itself.

This might seem absurd, as being on Twitter has never cost me anything, at least in monetary terms. I could say it’s cost me something in agony, time and effort, but that wouldn’t be true; since I became a part of the Twitter landscape back in 2009, I have been among the lamest Twitterers going. The problem was I never quite understood what I was supposed to be doing on it; in theory I understood, but practice eluded me. Why would strangers be interested in my 140-character effusions on subject like “Clarissa”? And they weren’t. I wasn’t, even. Twitter was like a movie I’d walked into the middle of, a series of disconnected conversations at a party where I did not know anyone; nothing ever seemed to have any resolution.

If Twitter had a cost, it was measured out in bafflement.

Twitter would be completely dead to me if I did not get those e-mails suggesting people I might want to follow (but why?) or those containing the news that people were following me (even more so why?).

When I learn I have a new follower (I can’t count my followers on the fingers of one hand, but if I had a few more fingers I could), I have to wonder what strange creatures they might be. I read their tweets, their little self-descriptions and I check their Web sites. That was how I learned this morning that Pam Mingle, fond of what-ifs and gelato and books, author of a novel called “Kissing Shakespeare”, had become my follower. “Kissing Shakespeare,” I was intrigued to learn, involves time travel, Shakespeare and love.

Pam Mingle’s blog was exactly the sort of writer’s blog I like best: serious without being self-important, full of practical advice and intriguing links. But I could not focus on the blog yet. I had to know more about the book.

Here is someone who had wrestled with exactly the problems I have been facing. Like, how do you send a person into the past in a way that is not annoyingly improbable and doesn’t become all about the science fiction? What would the time traveler notice when they got there? What would they be disgusted by? What would they like? What sort of person would they need to be? How do you solve the existential problems time travel creates without making too little of them or, again, making it too much about the science fiction? What about her decision to make this a YA book? Was that a good idea? What did she gain and what did she give up with that?

I had to know more about this book. It was the work of but a moment to log onto my public library Web site, download “Kissing Shakespeare” onto to my Kindle and start reading. I’ve only read a few chapters, but I am fascinated. She’s nailed it, I think. More on this later.

This is exactly what I needed to have happen this morning. And I owe it all to Twitter.

Time Travel and the Novel

In a sense, we are all time travelers, though it’s generally a one-way trip, and goes way too fast (unless you are stuck in a boring meeting or in traffic or waiting for a subway that doesn’t come, in which case the opposite applies).

One of the most poignant aspects of the novel is its ability, more than the short story, the movie, the opera, is to show change over time. It is an ability perhaps rivaled only by the TV series and miniseries, the novel’s flickery spiritual cousins. I found myself thinking about War and Peace this morning as I washed the breakfast dishes (why? I do not know): how young they all were at the beginning: Pierre with his social awkwardness, Prince Andrei full of ennui and filtering French phrases through his teeth, Natasha and her passionate yearning for meaning. And all the things that happened to them — war and peace, love and death — and how they are changed forever by these things, and most of all by the simple (!) passage through time.  I have always found this passage near the end extremely moving for some reason:

Natasha had married in the early spring of 1813, and in 1820 already had three daughters besides a son for whom she had longed and whom she was now nursing. She had grown stouter and broader, so that it was difficult to recognize in this robust, motherly woman the slim, lively Natasha of former days. Her features were more defined and had a calm, soft, and serene expression. In her face there was none of the ever-glowing animation that had formerly burned there and constituted its charm. Now her face and body were of all that one saw, and her soul was not visible at all.

Yes, I remember thinking when I read this first as a teenager. That’s exactly how it happens, when you get older! I don’t know where I got this conviction, but Tolstoy had me sure he was right. Now, well past the motherly end-of-book Natasha’s age, I am more conscious of his godlike perspective in this novel, the way he moves his characters around like chess pieces and his ability to look, like a merciful god,  into the hearts of each of one and see what is there, judging it kindly, if at all.

And also of the power of time in narrative.

A novel about time travel back to meet Jane Austen is about wish fulfillment, to be certain, but is also — in the way that everything is itself and also, mysteriously, something else — about the possibilities and the abuses of technology; about what we are put on Earth for; about the meaning of time itself. No, that’s not it. I am not explaining it well at all.

The appeal of time travel is that we can triumph over time; we can reverse its direction, we can go back and fix things. That is also the appeal of the novel. When you finish with War and Peace, you can, if you desire, go back to the start and read it again, when they are all young and unformed once more, untouched, like the figures on Keats’s Grecian urn.

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?