Lost Austens; or, Beyond Pride and Prejudice

Cover of Lady Susan; The Watsons; SanditonNo, 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.

Suicide:

Cover of Love and Freindship and other storiesIt 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.

EPITAPH
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.

Hooliganism:

Cover of The Beautifull CassandraThe 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.

Gold diggers:

“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.

Further reading

 

“Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery”

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?

Like all timeless authors, Austen means so many things to so many people. There is the‘Andrew Davies Austen’ of Colin Firth in a wet shirt, the Bollywood Austen of ‘Bride and Prejudice’, the zombie Austen of ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies‘ – and even a children/poultry-friendly version of Pride and Prejudice entitled ‘Mr Darcy the Duck’ (get em started young, that’s what I say).

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.

Cover of Mr Darcy and the dancing duck

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.”

As ever, she was right.

More Jane Austen

Helen
Central Library Peterborough

An invitation to celebrate Jane Austen

Jane Austen coloured version
Portrait of Jane Austen, 1873.

Be not alarmed ladies and gentlemen on receiving this invitation to celebrate 200 years of Jane Austen with Central Library Peterborough’s most dedicated Jane-ites. Come in your prettiest bonnet (or top hat if preferred) to discuss Austen’s novels over cups of tea and the most accomplished array of finger food there is.

A pleasing display celebrating all things Austen from the perfect novels by the lady herself to the weird and wonderful crime, zombie and even poultry tributes will also be present for your diversion.

Places for our charming book group and afternoon tea may fill quickly and it would not do to miss your invitation. So what are you waiting for? Come over to Central Library Peterborough to talk Lizzie Bennett, Mr Darcy, Emma Woodhouse, Anne Eliott, and all of Austen’s beloved creations on 18 July, the 200th anniversary of the death of one of the world’s most adored literary giants.

Phone us on 941-7923 or come in person to our handsome estate to register your interest in this free event. For when will you ever be able to attend a more agreeable gathering with such engaging conversation?

Need some Austen inspiration? Take a look at Helen’s Guide to Jane Austen which will advise you on Austen’s works from best to not quite as good (because lets face it, there’s no such thing as bad Austen).

More Jane Austen

Twenty years of Darcy’s wet shirt

Believe it or not, Pride and Prejudice, the BBC television series that introduced us to the charms of Colin Firth, first hit TV screens 20 years ago.

Cover of The complete novels of Jane AustenOriginally airing in the UK between 24 September – 29 October 1995, it’s difficult to overstate just how phenomenally succesful it was. In just six episodes Pride and Prejudice turned Firth into a heart throb and reignited the public’s interest in both Jane Austen’s novels and their adaptations (films of Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion and Emma all came out within a year or so). Austen-mania was at its height.

And let’s not forget that without this television series and it’s massive popularity we would have no Bridget Jones books and movies.

Why was it so ridiculously popular? Much credit must go to the casting. While Firth is considered by many as “the perfect Darcy” – so much so he essentially played the role again in the Bridget Jones films – there are several other performances in the series that come together to make it a stand out.

And so, I humbly offer to you the following list.

The 5 best characters in Pride and Prejudice

  • Darcy. Colin Firth as Fitzwilliam Darcy fairly glowers up the place for the first few episodes before revealing his “vulnerability” by diving into a lake and emerging in a clingy linen shirt. Pedants everywhere scoffed that this was “not in the book” but they were rather drowned out by the sound of ladies everywhere squealing and fanning themselves.
  • Elizabeth Bennet. The perfect foil to Darcy’s dark looks and mono-syllables, Jennifer Ehle is all winsome grins, intelligence behind the eyes, and wry amusement while also pulling off the scenes where haughtiness is required with equal skill. Lizzie is a sympathetic character even as you’re desperate to grab her by the shoulders and yell at her to be a bit less stroppy with Darcy. He’s just misunderstood, okay?
  • Mrs Bennet. Alison Steadman’s performance as the mother of the five Bennet sisters is perhaps not a pleasant one but it’s masterful all the same. With a voice that could strip paint from a Regency chaise her plaintive cries of “Mr Bennet!” whenever perceived disaster struck are on a par with Bianca’s screams of “RICKY!” on Eastenders, or that noise that polystyrene makes when you rub it together.
  • Mr Bennet. Dimpled and jocular but mostly in his study reading. When Mr Bennet rolls his eyes, usually after Mrs Bennet has said something ludicrous, you know he really means it. If his wit were any drier it would be a fire risk.
  • Mr Collins. Played by David Bamber, Mr Collins is probably the most pompous, creepy, boorish clergyman in literature. If you don’t feel icky after every scene he’s in you must be made of sterner stuff than I.
  • Lydia Bennet. She’s irritating in that way that teenage girls specialise in. Flirty, flighty and self-obsessed, Lydia is the polar opposite of the other role that Julia Sawalha is famous for, that of bookish, put-upon Saffy from Absolutely Fabulous. With all her declarations of “Oh LORD” and begging to be allowed to go to dances, Lydia is basically the worst. But the best worst.

If all this talk of Pride and Prejudice has got you itching to revisit “Austen-mania” you can rewatch the original or you try one of the many versions, unofficial sequels, reimaginings and books based on the novel –

Cover of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice - An annotated editionCover of Pride, Prejudice and popcornCover of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice graphic novelCover of Flirting With Pride & Prejudice Fresh Perspectives on the Original Chick-lit Masterpiece

What are your Pride and Prejudice memories? Are you similarly shocked that 20 years has passed since it came out?

Happy Birthday Amiable Jane

Pride and Prejudice coverIt is a truth universally acknowledged… that readers of Jane Austen must be in want of more!

 

I can still remember it so clearly – my first encounter with Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. I was in my pink-walled, sloping-ceilinged, shoe-box bedroom, staying up way past bedtime reading Pride and Prejudice for 7th Form English. I was just as captivated by Austen as Mr Darcy was by Elizabeth’s fine eyes and lively, playful disposition. Till then, the books my teachers had made me read were nothing short of torture (Lord of the Flies, anyone?) But with Austen, I was in heaven!

I laughed. I cried. I held my breath when Mr Darcy told Elizabeth how ardently he loved and admired her. And when Elizabeth told him he was the last man in the world she could ever marry. Would they ever get their happy ending? I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough!

I couldn’t wait for the end – and I wished it never would end. Isn’t that the paradox of a great book?

If a book is well written, I always find it too short.

~ Jane Austen

Of course I didn’t stop with Pride and Prejudice. Without a next chapter, the next book is the next best thing. But sadly, the list of “Next Books” is tragically short. Austen only wrote six novels. Six! Die hard fans can also read the half-finished-only-just-begun novels Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon, and there’s her teenage writings, but after that there really is no more.

Pride and Prejudice and ZombiesUn-less, that is, you make a foray into the weird and wonder-ful world of Austenesque and fan-girl novels. Our catalogue is just bulging at the seams with sequels and sidequels, spinoffs and knockoffs, re-writes and re-hashes. These spin-offs take Austen in every literary direction imaginable. Of course there are your regular, romantic, chick-lit books. Then there are zombie-monster-vampire stories, murder mysteries, modern retellings – even duckish picture books!

And, I was surprised to find, this is not a new phenomenon.  Joan Aiken revisited Mansfield Park back in 1984. “Another Lady” (aka Marie Dobbs) completed Sanditon in 1975. And in 1926, Rudyard Kipling (I know! Kipling!?) wrote The Janeites.

You might think that I, being an Austen fan and all, would have read some of these books. But no. With some trepidation, I decided it was time to change that. I wasn’t sure what to expect…could anything be as good as Austen?? Would they be…well –crappy??

Well, you won’t know till you try, will you? So here is what I’ve been reading lately:

  • A Weekend With Mr. DarcyA Weekend with Mr Darcy was an amusing, lightweight read. I thought the hero was more of a Mr Rochester than a Mr Darcy, though, and I couldn’t help feeling a little bit sorry for the soon-to-be-cast-off almost-ex-fiancé.
  • I really enjoyed Whatever Love Is by Rosy Rushton. It reminded me a bit of Clueless – I guess that’s not surprising since they are both modern retellings featuring rich, and somewhat silly teenagers. Not Frankie, though. I think I liked her better than Austen’s Fanny Price – is that a sacrilege? The best thing was that it made me want to read Mansfield Park again, because I hardly remember it!
  • Now, I admit that I haven’t actually read Bridget Jones’s Diary, I’ve only seen the movies. I didn’t even realise it was based on Pride and Prejudice till I clicked that Colin Firth is Mr Darcy in this movie too! And now I discover that The Edge of Reason is based on Persuasion. Do I not know my Austen as well as I thought I did? Or did Helen Fielding miss the mark?
  • The Darcys Give A BallThe Darcys Give a Ball is my favourite so far. It was originally subtitled “Whatever became of Charlotte Lucas?” and it’s set 25 years after Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage. I thought that Elizabeth Newark did a really good job capturing Charlotte and Mr Collins, though perhaps not quite such a good job with Elizabeth Bennet. It was great that Newark stuck to the futures that Austen herself had imagined for the Bennet sisters. I laughed out loud at her pairing of the Collins’ boy with the Elton’s daughter. But I got a bit annoyed with the name dropping. I mean, come on, did she have to use every single one of Austen’s characters? It was a bit, well, Austen-tatious. Apart from that, it was a great read!
  • I found Joanna Trollope‘s Sense and Sensibility a little, well…dull. All the nonsense about heirs and primogeniture seemed rather silly in this day and age, and the general patheticness of all the Dashwood women (including Elinor, who should have had more sense) rather annoyed me. It started to pick up a bit somewhere in the middle, but unless you’re intent on reading your way through all The Austen Project books, I don’t think I’d bother with it. I’ve got Alexander McCall Smith‘s Emma on hold. Will it be better, I wonder?
  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is sitting on the hall table waiting for me to read. I’m not at all sure what I’m expecting! Ultraviolent, zombie mayhem isn’t generally my cup of tea, but I have heard it’s quite good, actually. We’ll see!

So I’ve rather enjoyed my trip into Austenland, after all!

It’s Jane’s 239th birthday today – she was born on 16 December 1775, so why not celebrate with an Austen-inspired read yourself? I’ve put together a list of some likely looking titles, and I’d love to know how you enjoy them!

Jane Austen – the musical

cover of Sense and sensibilityJane Austen has certainly spawned a huge industry – including many movie and television adaptations,  Zombified JA and modern rewrites of her novels by well known writers. I enjoy the films (most) but don’t usually go in for any of the books (Janeite purist?) although I did recently read Jo Baker’s Longbourn with some enjoyment.

Last year we celebrated 200 years since the publication of Pride and Prejudice.  Now Kiwi comedienne Penny Ashton has launched Promise and Promiscuity – a Jane Austen inspired musical – upon the unsuspecting public. Christchurch audiences can see it for two nights – April 11 and 12 – at her old school, Rangi Ruru, which is celebrating 125 years this year. Penny claims to have safely negotiated a tour of Canada and parts of New Zealand without being beaten up by zealous Janeites. More details on Penny’s website  or iticket.

Happy birthday Pride and Prejudice!

book cover28 January 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice. In those 200 years it has earned all kinds of tags – greatest novel in the English language, most loved, most popular. On my first reading of it I loved it but thought how much it had provided a template for many romance novels. You know – haughty bloke and stroppy gal go head to head before realising the error of their ways and falling into each other’s arms at the end.

This is certainly played out in the many film and television adaptations. When you read the book you can go beyond the romance novel machinations. Jane Austen actually says a lot about the condition of  women in her society – a future secured only by marriage, power only through titled status, intelligent women like Elizabeth and her friend Charlotte Lucas trapped in their situations with marriage the only way out, the risk of predatory men like George Wickham, and how easily a woman (and her sisters) can be ruined.

I think it is her humour, her portrayal of society in the country and places like London, Bath and Portsmouth, of families, of women helping women, of women undermining women and the sharp eyed detail for character make her books so attractive to us and the film makers. The quality of her writing is such that you can read her again and again and not be disappointed.

Some frivolous bits:

And finally thanks to the magic of Wikipedia, here is W.H. Auden (from his poem Letter to Lord Byron):

You could not shock her more than she shocks me,
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety,
The economic basis of society.

Austen fans spoilt for choice

Jane Austen has experienced great popularity in recent years. Since the 1990s there have been numerous takes on favourites such as Emma, Sense & Sensibility and of course Pride and Prejudice. But perhaps we should dub 2007 (the 190th anniversary of her death) the Year of Jane Austen’s Triumph:

The TV series Lost in Austen (2008) deftly captures the fascination the modern world has with Austen’s work; our genteel and romantic sensibilities are alive and well!

And what better way to spend an evening than in the delightfully diverting company of Austen’s heroines? We can cringe appreciatively when Lizzie encounters Mr Collins, tut over Catherine’s wild fancies at Northanger Abbey, and feel suitably embarrassed as Emma’s matchmaking goes awry!

As to version, there’s plenty of choice. Emma can be blond or dark-haired, if we watch the 1995 or 1996 versions respectively. And if we really want to, we can watch Jane & Lizzy in black and white (wearing large hoop skirts) in the 1940s classic. Enter Laurence Olivier as Darcy (woah!).

But there is soon to be a new twist coming to the screen. 

Continue reading

McNulty calls Jane Austen muscular

Sort of.  Dominic West who plays Jimmy McNulty in The Wire (The. Best. TV. Series. Ever) is undertaking a new project reading from classic books including Pride and Prejudice.

He loves the writing of Jane Austen, especially the scene in Pride and Prejudice where Fitzwilliam Darcy declares his most ardent love:

I thought it was such incredible writing. So muscular, so layered … the sophistication of the language … the psychological insights into the characters … Elizabeth Bennet is just so clever and brave and witty and funny and great.

Just when you think McNulty couldn’t be cooler (apparently he was at Glastonbury recently eating a giant cornish pastie and getting ‘big ups’ all over the show) … he takes it to the supercool wall!

And he’s not alone – actors Greg Wise and Dan Stevens also feature in Carte Noire Readers – “For a more seductive coffee break, watch The Carte Noire Readers read your favourite literary love scenes”. Why ever not!