No, I’m not talking about Pride and Prejudice and Kittens. Jane Austen’s novels are justifiably well known, but her shorter works are equally amusing. If you’ve seen the film Love and Friendship then you may be aware that it’s based on a short epistolary novel entitled Lady Susan. I highly recommend seeking it out. It’s often bundled together with unfinished works The Watsons and Sanditon.
Some of my favourites, however, are the ridiculously silly short stories composed when she was a teenager. They run the gamut from murder:
I murdered my father at a very early period of my Life, I have since murdered my Mother, and I am now going to murder my Sister.
It was not till the next morning that Charlotte recollected the double engagement she had entered into; but when she did, the reflection of her past folly, operated so strongly on her mind, that she resolved to be guilty of a greater, & to that end threw herself into a deep stream which ran thro’ her Aunt’s pleasure Grounds in Portland Place. She floated to Crankhumdunberry where she was picked up & buried; the following epitaph, composed by Frederic, Elfrida & Rebecca, was placed on her tomb.
Here lies our friend who having promis-ed
That unto two she would be marri-ed
Threw her sweet Body & her lovely face
Into the Stream that runs thro’ Portland Place.
The beautifull Cassandra then proceeded to a Pastry-cooks where she devoured six ices, refused to pay for them, knocked down the Pastry Cook & walked away.
“Oh! when there is so much Love on one side there is no occasion for it on the other. However I do not much dislike him tho’ he is very plain to be sure.”
And, of, course, cannibalism:
She began to find herself rather hungry, & had reason to think, by their biting off two of her fingers, that her Children were much in the same situation.
I also highly recommend Austen’s History of England, by “a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian”. Really any Austen will do, just read the lot and tell me what you think.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that most articles celebrating the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen this year will begin their tribute by incorporating this celebrated opening sentence from ‘Pride and Prejudice’.
And, what better way to start a conversation about Jane Austen? These are the words which introduced many readers to her world – an ideal world where the terrible Mr Wickhams and Mrs Eltons of life get the endings they fully deserve, and the worthy Elizabeth Bennets’, and Anne Elliotts are awarded the endings that invariably cause readers to whoop and swing from the chandeliers in undignified and un-Jane Austen-like fashions for hours on end.
This year, the world of Austen is being celebrated with many events and exhibitions such as a trail of Jane Austen book-benches, a nine day regency festival in East Hampshire, and even Jane Austen banknotes.Hampshire have promised to celebrate her bicentenary with a yearlong commemoration of walks, performances, competitions and much more. The tourism these events will attract is predicted to run into tens of thousands, bearing in mind that ‘Pride and Prejudice’ on its own has sold over twenty million copies over the past two hundred years and has never been out of print.
So why, you may ask, the continuing devotion to Jane Austen?
It’s as if each generation are reinventing Austen and making her into want they want (and, in some cases,) believe her to be. While this may sadden some devotees, it is a wonderful tribute to Jane herself. Like all enduring authors, we are comfortable with making her books very much our own. She has created a timeless world, and two hundred years on, the voice in her novels remains approachable, like a fun and faithful friend.
And contrary to popular opinion, Austen is so much more than regency Mills and Boon. Yes, men, I am looking at you – whether you are a closet Janeite or just too embarrassed to pick up one of her books, I am here to say rest assured, pick one up, you will be in good company. As I have painstakingly told many men who argue that there are no scenes of hand to hand combat in Jane Austen and all the men do is dance for crying out loud, there are actually many things about Austen which have historically appealed to men.
CS Lewis and Rudyard Kipling were proud fans, and wordy historian Paul Johnson has unabashedly admitted that he prays to Jane Austen each night. There are more reasons for this devotion than you may suspect. For a start, there are few authors more insightful when it comes to studying human nature. One only has to look at Lizzy Bennett’s journey to self-discovery, and her recognition of human frailties and deceptiveness – or to the sharply drawn, all too vivid characters like the dreaded Mr Collins and the awful Caroline Bingley. Somewhere along the way, we have all known people like this.
There is also timeless humour in Austen’s novels that any reader can appreciate. Take the classic Mr Bennett line –
“That will do extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough”;
or Fanny Dashwood’s sharp observation that,
“People always live forever if there is an annuity to be paid to them”.
And of course, Jane Austen is a fine writer (this isn’t a news flash). Concise, witty, and sharp, her novels just couldn’t be bettered. Take the scene in Emma just after Knightley gallantly rescues Emma’s socially inferior friend by asking her to dance. Austen captures Emma’s growing appreciation of Knightley in just one concise conversation:
“Whom are you going to dance with?” asked Mr Knightley.
She hesitated a moment, and then replied, “With you, if you will ask me”
In just a few words, Austen has said everything.
Admittedly, she doesn’t tell epic stories on the scale of some of her peers (e.g. Walter Scott) but then, would we still be reading her so voraciously two hundred years on if she had? Readers will always be able to relate to the themes of love and friendship and part of Austen’s timelessness lies in this. Austen’s novels are the ultimate comfort read- we know that things will end happily and our favourite characters will marry the right man but we can also feel good, intellectually, about reading her novels. There is wisdom and perceptiveness in her work and unlike many novelists of her time, it is not injected preachily but with a sharpness and humour that make her a sheer delight to read.
So how to commemorate Jane Austen’s 200th death anniversary on July the 18th? I personally plan to get out my ‘Marrying Mr Darcy’ board game, drink from my favourite ‘searching for Mr Darcy’ mug and watch back to back adaptations of her novels clad in my prettiest gown and bonnet. My sister, currently studying in the states, is attending a Jane Austen ball on campus this year so maybe I can even borrow her beautiful regency dress and do my grocery shopping in style. If you are favouring a slightly more conservative approach, (understandable, I concede) then why not commemorate the day by sitting down with one of her books or television/movie adaptations and discover her for yourself. In her own words
“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”
Miss Manners would probably be spinning in her grave*, but seriously, I don’t know when I’ve laughed so hard as when I read Old MacDonald Heard a Fart! I took it home the other night, to read it to the Beecrafty family, but it seems not everyone enjoys a fart book as much as I do! Maybe I shouldn’t have read it at the dinner table, because of course it prompted a raucous fart-noise competition between myself and the Young Lad, and Mr K left the room in disgust. But if you’ve got kids who appreciate a bit of scatological humour, this picture book is a must!
There’s just so much to love about this book. As you probably already guessed from the title, it’s an irreverent, noisy version of the farmyard classic. It has lovely, vibrant, and expressive illustrations, with lots of little details and things to spy. I had to giggle at the Elvis rooster and the Jurassic Pork poster on the stable wall. The Ziggy Stardust unicorn in a Dalí landscape is really something, too.
But best of all has to be the instructions on how to create (verbally, I promise!) each fart sound. The Young Lad and I had great fun contorting our lips into the correct formations to make all the gross noises. Although he was quick to demonstrate his own favourite technique – I didn’t know what an accomplished fart noise creator he was. The next night, he was most indignant when I said I couldn’t read it again as I had taken the book back to work!
The story of this story is also quite something. Debut author Olaf Falafel tweeted that he needed a publisher for his new book, and before two weeks were up, he had a book deal! Isn’t that twitterising a whole lot better than covfefe?
If you’d told me when I was ten years old that I’d still enjoy a Famous Five tale 30 years later I’d have been thrilled. If you’d told me that at 15 I’d have been mortified. Such is the inextricable (and uncool) bond that Enid Blyton’s youthful sleuths have with childhood, innocence, and jolly good fun.
But things have changed and so have George, Dick, Anne, Julian and Timmy. Get ready for “Enid Blyton for Grown-ups”.
The former Dorset-based cousins now flat together in London, have office jobs, mobile phones, and drinking problems (Julian). It’s now less “lashings of ginger beer” and more “out on the lash at the local”. Author Bruno Vincent’s reworking of Blyton’s much beloved characters incorporates humorous observations on modern life, knowing nods, and is positively soaked in irony.
Take, for example, George’s response to Anne’s suggestion that they all chip in for a Mother’s Day gift for Aunt Fanny, since she was practically a second mother to them all during their summers in Kirrin.
…My memory is that we were nearly killed about two dozen times. I think Mummy should count herself lucky to have escaped a custodial sentence for neglect…
Five Forget Mother’s Day sees the now young professionals grappling with mysteries of the “what do we get Aunt Fanny for Mother’s Day?” variety.
It’s a fun, quick read that somehow manages to be witty and modern whilst still retaining that “don’t worry, old bean, we’ll all muck in together and get through this sticky wicket” attitude that typified the original Famous Five.
An unexpected benefit of this particular title in the series (others on my “to read” list include “Five Go Parenting” and “Five on Brexit Island“), is that if you leave it lying around, your co-parent might take this as a passive-aggressive hint that Mother’s Day is Not To Be Forgotten. In my case this effect was unintentional, but it could perhaps be strategically deployed in families where forgetfulness is rife?
Five Forget Mother’s Day; conspicuously visible on a couch arm near you?
Yet another Kiwi icon passes. But his legend will live on.
John Clarke is someone many of us remember. For me it was as Fred Dagg, singing the immortal song “If it weren’t for your gumboots” played on National Radio storytime. For others it was his incredible skits on farming life and economics.
In later life in Australia, Clarke tried to shed the Fred Dagg persona. He made an indelible mark there with his scathing and incredibly intelligent political satire.
Before Boss Baby the movie there was … Boss Baby the book!
The film Boss Baby (2017) is loosely based on the 2010 book by author and illustrator Marla Frazee. Many a parent has thought that their little ones seem to rule the roost … sometimes they are downright tyrannical with a temper tantrum or two. Boss Baby is a delightful metaphor. Here, parents are the overworked staff of Boss Baby, put upon by his demands. Coincidentally topical, Boss Baby may remind you of a certain world leader making headlines for similar behaviour.
The Boss Baby (2010) From the moment he arrives, it is obvious that the new baby is boss and he gets whatever he wants, from drinks made-to-order around the clock to his executive (play) gym. He makes demands. Many, many demands. And he was quite particular. If things weren’t to his immediate satisfaction, he had a fit. He didn’t say a single word that made any sense at all but that didn’t stop him. He was born leader.
The Bossier Baby (2016) Boss Baby used to be in charge of his family, but that was before he got an even bossier baby sister. She demoted him and made herself CEO and set about restructuring the organisation (aka the family). She had a full-time social media team and a private limo (cue pram envy). Boss Baby was sidelined until they started working cooperatively to rule their workers (aka parents).
It is with great sadness that I write a tribute to one of New Zealand’s best cartoonists.
Murray Ball (26 January 1939 – 12 March 2017) was from my home town, Feilding. Stanway I’m pretty sure, or at least Halcombe. Proud as punch they are – because he also made the All Blacks.
Murray Ball was someone who made us laugh, love, dream, and curse the Nor’ Wester. He brought great characters to life in Wal, The Dog, Horse, Cooch, Cheeky Hobson, and many others besides.
I’ve always been into comics. Footrot Flats is a love I share with my Dad. I remember collecting the annuals to add to our collection. We all went to the movie. A friend of mine walked down the aisle to “Slice of Heaven.” Lol.
Murray’s cartoons and characters addressed pivotal moments and issues in our history – the Springbok Tour coming to mind – rugby being very close to Ball’s heart. I still have the clipping from the Manawatu Evening Standard, when the Dog wrote in to say he was hanging up his All Black Jersey.
Emily Writes is a Wellington-based writer whose blog posts have a habit of going viral. She is mother to two year-old Ronnie and four year-old Eddie and over the last couple of years I have chatted with her online quite a bit.
With a three year-old myself our online conversations have covered the full range of parental indignities from pregnancy and childbirth to toddler tantrums and terrible things that have happened to our soft furnishings. But also moments of delight… and Alexander Skarsgård gifs.
Emily’s new book, Rants in the dark, is proving a hit with parents across the country. Ahead of the Christchurch launch event at Scorpio Books next week, Emily chatted to me about her book, how she writes, and shared some favourite reads of her own.
So you started out blogging about parenting stuff, segued into somewhat tipsy movie reviews, have become the parenting editor at The Spinoff and now you have a book out. The next inevitable step is the biopic of your life, so the real question is… who will play you?
Oh my gosh, that is so hilarious. Alexander Skarsgård would need to be my husband in a movie and we would need to have many off-camera dress rehearsals and practice runs.
I would really like it if Beyoncé could be me… I love her… My inspiration is Beyoncé so I would like to meet her. Because if she played me in a movie I could meet her and then maybe we would become best friends.
I’m now thinking about this a lot. Because it would probably be like a Shortland Street actor, right? Or someone who could do a believeable Kiwi accent, so maybe it could be… Nicole Kidman in a fat suit or something? Or… Cate Blanchett’s very good at accents.
What were you aiming for in writing “Rants in the dark”?
I hope that it is kind of a friend in the night to mums and new mums. If they’re awake at 3am or something like that – I wrote it at 3am. So I hope that it feels like somewhere they can turn in the night when they’re feeling a bit overwhelmed. Or during the day, or any time. I hope that it’s a different kind of parenting book.
It’s not a place for advice, or judgment or “I know what I’m doing” because I definitely don’t know what I’m doing. I hope that it just makes mums feel good about themselves but not in a “yoga” way.
Do you feel like there is a niche that parenting books weren’t quite hitting and that that’s where “Rants in the dark” sits?
I guess, yeah. I got What to expect when you’re expecting when I was pregnant and it kind of terrified me, and it’s also a bit like reading a dictionary. It’s quite a full-on book and I looked but I couldn’t find anything that properly prepared me – and I know that you can’t properly be prepared [for parenthood] – but I guess I wanted something like “hey, this might not be every single second of incredible delight. It will be amazing and the best thing ever but there will also be some really hard times”. That’s a really hard message to get across and maybe that’s why there aren’t books like that.
I just really felt like because we had tried so hard [to have a baby] that I would be ecstatic every second. And it’s that whole thing where, any parent talking about the hard times, you feel like you have to justify straight away – I am really happy… And that’s why it’s such a difficult thing to talk about but I think we really do need to talk about… the realness of parenting, I guess.
I felt, with Eddie’s illness… how did this ever happen? And that’s a really hard thing when you start motherhood with something that you never expected that turns your whole life upside down. So I wanted to write something that maybe resonated with those mums that didn’t have this super smooth run into motherhood.
Sometimes I felt, when Eddie was really sick, that all these mums around me just had these perfect lives, and I know that that’s not true… but I felt very weird, alone and kind of “othered”… And I know that a lot of mums who have babies that have health conditions or are prem or that type of thing, they feel that too. So I hope that in that way it serves the community.
Emily Writes is not your real name, is it? Why did you feel the need to work under a pseudonym?
I guess the pseudonym is about the fact that I want to protect the privacy of my children. Every step of the way I’ve had boundaries and wanted to respect their privacy, and not only privacy but for me it’s about respecting them as people. …We talk a lot about what I’m writing, in terms of respecting the boys, but there’s a lot of trust there that I’m never going to do something that hurts them.
But I guess I don’t want them to spend their lives with people saying things like “oh, is your mum blah, blah, blah”. And I don’t want them to be Google-able, if that’s a word. I don’t want them to feel like they are characters or anything like that and I want to respect my husband’s privacy. He’s a really shy person.
… It also allows me a little bit of separation… I want to be able to come home and I walk through the door and I’m with my kids. …I find this is sort of a way to remind myself that I am a mum first to my kids and a wife and that is really important to me that I prioritise that and this allows me to not get too far up my own a*** or something.
With two small kids, it must be a struggle to write sometimes.
It’s hard to get it good. I write heaps. My drafts folder is like a phonebook… but it’s all s***. It’s easy to write lots but trying to find something good enough to publish is hard.
What I did was all at 3am, 4am because my kid is just intense. Every time he woke up, if I had an idea, I would note it down during the night and the book is like lots of little blog posts in a book. So I didn’t have to change my way of writing or anything [from blogging]. So I feel like I was pretty lucky. I think writers who write actual books are amazing.
[I remind Emily that she has written an actual book]
Oh yeah, I have written an actual book. I forgot.
You just feel so lucky to have a book that you just feel very weird, and lucky and how did this happen? And it just doesn’t feel like it was hard because it’s so exciting. And also I didn’t do the grind like other writers did. I feel like I’ve been shot up the a*** with a rainbow, basically. I’ve just been very lucky.
What authors or writers do you yourself enjoy reading?
That’s a great question. I love Bunmi Laditan. I discovered her after I had started writing because someone said “you remind me of Bunmi” and then I went on her Facebook page and she’s just amazing in the way she talks about anxiety and mental health – just so powerful. I love Bunmi.
I love Clementine Ford. I just read Fight like a girl. I think that was really brave. It’s kind of like Feminism 101, a really nice sort of entry into intersectional feminism…
I really love Emma Neale whose book Billy Bird – I just cried the whole way through it – it was such a powerful metaphor for parenting.
I love Sarah Laing’s Katherine Mansfield book, Mansfield and Me. I love that book. It’s amazing. I wanted to read it because I really like her as a person. She seems super nice and lovely. I don’t know her but that’s how she seems. So I thought “I’ll just buy it because she seems really nice and I want to support New Zealand authors” and then I loved it. You know when you just don’t know if you’re going to like a book or not, and then it’s everything? And I never thought I’d be into a Katherine Mansfield book but I loved it.
You’re coming down to Christchurch and doing a book launch event at Scorpio Books soon.
Yes, I’m so excited to come to Christchurch and that Scorpio Books wants to host me. And I think someone is running around trying to organise a day event so that we don’t exclude mums who can’t go out during the “witching hour” because their children are tyrants. Which is my children. I don’t mean that to insult anybody’s children.
I’m quite nervous about the Unity launch in Wellington because my kids will be there but I feel like if they absolutely crack it, I’ll just be like “See? I told you. Everything in the book is true”.
The New Zealand Book Council are giving away one copy of Rants in the dark. To enter the draw, email email@example.com with “Rants” in the subject line by Thurs 16 March. (Remember to include your postal address!)