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A Portrait of Jane Austen - David Cecil

A Portrait of Jane Austen – David Cecil

A number of Jane Austen related books was donated to my Jane Austen group (mine had a ticket – number 100 – to an ‘At Home’ for the Dean and Chapter of Westminster and the Officers of the Order of the Bath). I had heard of this book, but never came across it, so took the opportunity to snap it up for $2.

Here’s the blurb …

The late 18th century world in which Jane Austen lived was one that combined good sense, elegant manners, intelligence and piety with a liberal dash of spirited fun. Drawing on Jane Austen’s letters, novels, and other people’s memories of her, David Cecil sets out to “reconstruct and depict her living personality and to explore it in relation to her art”. The portrait that emerges is of a clear-sighted, observant, strong-minded woman whose witty and ironic representation of her own society has delighted millions of readers for centuries.

Not much is known about Jane Austen’s life and what little is known is not full of excitement and incident, so a bit of authorial poetic license is to be expected. This biography was first published in 1978 and part of the joy in reading it is to compare it to later biographies – this one definitely falls into the ‘Aunt Jane’ category. David Cecil, in his Foreward, tells us he is trying ‘to reconstruct and depict her living personality and explore its relationship to her art’.  It is split into three parts – Part 1 (five chapters – The Family, Early Years, Steventon Days, Bath and Southampton), Part 2 (two chapters – Life at Chawton and Fulfilment) and Part 3 (two chapters – Growing Fame and The End). In each section he writes what is known about Jane Austen from various sources and then interpolates her behaviour and reasons for her behaviour (whether you agree or not will depend on your own vision of Jane Austen). David Cecil has a lovely writing style – no convoluted academic sentences – I particularly enjoyed the section where he described the 18th century mind as apposed to the 19th century mind and how Jane Austen 18th century ideas and religion influenced her writing.

Although there is nothing new to be learnt about the facts of her life each biographer brings their own interpretation and therefore something new to the field of Austen studies.

 

 

Bitch in a Bonnet - Robert Rodi

Bitch in a Bonnet – Robert Rodi

I have to say this blog is in a decline a bit like Mrs Bennet after Lydia runs off with Wickham. Time, content and motivation are all my problems. Anyway, Bitch in a Bonnet, was recommended by one of the members of my Jane Austen group – I bought the Kindle version.

Here’s the blurb …

Novelist Rodi (Fag Hag, The Sugarman Bootlegs) launches a broadside against the depiction of Jane Austen as a “a woman’s writer…quaint and darling, doe-eyed and demure, parochial if not pastoral, and dizzily, swooningly romantic — the inventor and mother goddess of ‘chick lit.’” Instead he sees her as “a sly subversive, a clear-eyed social Darwinist, and the most unsparing satirist of her century… She takes sharp, swift swipes at the social structure and leaves it, not lethally wounded, but shorn of it prettifying garb, its flabby flesh exposed in all its naked grossness. And then she laughs.” In this volume, which collects and amplifies two-and-a-half years’ worth of blog entries, he combs through the first three novels in Austen’s canon — Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park — with the aim of charting her growth as both a novelist and a humorist, and of shattering the notion that she’s a romantic of any kind (“Weddings bore her, and the unrelenting vulgarity of our modern wedding industry — which strives to turn each marriage ceremony into the kind of blockbuster apotheosis that makes grand opera look like a campfire sing along — would appall her into derisive laughter”).
“Hilarious…Rodi’s title is a tribute. He’s angry that the Austen craze has defanged a novelist who’s ‘wicked, arch, and utterly merciless. She skewers the pompous, the pious, and the libidinous with the animal glee of a natural-born sadist’…Like Rodi, I believe Austen deserves to join the grand pantheon of gadflies: Voltaire and Swift, Twain and Mencken.” Lev Raphael, The Huffington Post.

I loved this book – it was like chatting to a rather acerbic friend about Austen. Although, I do disagree with his take on Fanny Price (I have a soft spot for Miss Price) I thought the rest was excellent – funny, insightful and easy to read. What’s more it made me want to go back and read the books again (surely that is the highest praise for a book on Austen?). I’ve bought the second volume and will get onto it as soon as I’ve cleared some of my (enormous) to be read pile.

If you are an Austen fan, then you will definitely enjoy this book (particularly if like me you think most people who write sequels etc have completely missed the point – they’re not romances people!).

http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/reviews/bitch-in-a-bonnet-by-robert-rodi/

 

 

Sense and Spontaneity

Sense and Spontaneity - Esther Longhurst and Jessica Messenger

Sense and Spontaneity – Esther Longhurst and Jessica Messenger

I saw the last performance of Sense and Spontaneity (I know no good if you then write a review, but now I don’t feel so bad about taking so long to write this review!)

This show was hilarious – the two actors were brilliant (so quick witted).  With a series of hats and bonnets they created various different characters – you know a Miss Bates, a Mr Darcy, a Mr Collins, etc. There was much tea drinking and Austen-like dialogue. I would say the plot and action owes more to Austen film adaptations than the novels, but who doesn’t love an Austen adaptation? This was a fast-paced romp, which the actors seemed to enjoy as much as the audience and I would definitely see it again (well a different version as it is improvisation after all).

Jane Austen's Country Life -

Jane Austen’s Country Life -Deirdre Le Faye

This is a beautiful book – thick pages and stunning illustrations. It is worth owning for the illustrations.

Here is the blurb …

Jane Austen lived for nearly all her life in two Hampshire villages: for 25 years in her birthplace of Steventon, and then for the last 8 years of her life in Chawton, during which she wrote and published her great novels. While there are plenty of books describing her periods of urban life in Bath, Southampton and London, and the summer holidays in Lyme Regis and other West Country seaside resorts, no book has given consideration to the rural background of her life. Her father was not only the rector of Steventon but a farmer there as well, managing a property of some 200 acres. Her brother Edward, in addition, was a large landowner, holding the three estates of Godmersham in Kent, Steventon and Chawton in Hampshire. Agriculture, in all its aspects, was even more important to Jane than clerical life or the naval careers of her younger brothers. This book fills a gap in the Austen family background, discussing the state of agriculture in general in the south of England during the wartime, conditions which lasted for most of Jane Austen’s life, and considering in particular the villages and their inhabitants, the weather conditions, field crops, farm and domestic animals, and the Austens’ household economy and rural way of life. Apart from these obvious sources, there are other Austen family manuscripts, as yet unpublished, which provide particular and unique information. Richly illustrated with contemporary depictions of country folk, landscapes and animals, Jane Austen’s Country Life conjures up a world which has vanished more than the familiar regency townscapes of Bath or London, but which is no less important to an understanding of this most treasured writer’s life and work.

There are seven chapters – Hampshire (as I mentioned in a previous post, I needed a map to understand the relationships between the places), A Year in the Country Side, The Hardships and Pleasures of Rural Life, Crops, Livestock and Pleasure-Grounds, Urban Interlude and Life at Godmersham and Chawton. This isn’t an academic book it is really to help a modern audience understand and appreciate life in Austen’s time. For example, peas at Christmas is quite an extravagance! Not something that I had thought about, but it reveals information about the characters that a contemporary reader would appreciate.

It was a very easy read and makes me want to go back and read Austen’s novels again taking notice of the time of year, the weather and the food.

More reviews …

http://austenprose.com/2014/08/28/jane-austens-country-life-uncovering-the-rural-backdrop-to-her-life-her-letters-and-her-novels-by-deirdre-le-faye-a-review/

http://www.chawtonhouse.org/?library_blog=jane-austens-country-life-book-review-by-mary-besada

2014 in Review

2014 in Review

2014 in Review

It is summer holidays here – which means super hot weather and school holidays – so not a lot of time to get anything done.

For me the highlights of last year were Val McDermid’s remake of Northanger Abbey (much more successful than either Emma or Sense and Sensibilityand Austenland  – I know other people hated this, but I thought it was fun and didn’t take itself too seriously.

Currently I am reading Deidre Le Faye’s Jane Austen’s Country Life – this is a beautiful book, but I wish there was a map rather than a wordy description of where things are in relation to Steventon. For example,

To the west of the lane running from Steventon to Dean was the village of Ashe …

A map, even a very simple one, would make it all so much simpler.

Emma - Alexander McCall Smith

Emma – Alexander McCall Smith

This is the third in the Austen Project. As Emma is my favourite Austen novel, I had high hopes for this adaptation.

Here is the blurb …

Prepare to meet a young woman who thinks she knows everything.
Fresh from university, Emma Woodhouse arrives home in Norfolk ready to embark on adult life with a splash. Not only has her sister, Isabella, been whisked away on amotorbike to London, but her astute governess, Miss Taylor is at a loose end watching as Mr. Woodhouse worries about his girls. Someone is needed to rule the roost and young Emma is more than happy to oblige.
At the helm of her own dinner parties, and often found either rearranging the furniture at the family home of Hartfield, or instructing her new protégée, Harriet Smith, Emma is in
charge. You don’t have to be in London to go to parties, find amusement or make trouble.
Not if you’re Emma, the very big fish in the rather small pond.
But for someone who knows everything, Emma doesn’t know her own heart. And there is only one person who can play with Emma’s indestructible confidence, her friend and inscrutable neighbour George Knightly – this time has Emma finally met her match?
Ever alive to the social comedy of village life, beloved author Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma is the busybody we all know and love, and a true modern delight.

I have to say I was a bit disappointed. As I wrote in a previous post, it is probably quite difficult to update Austen’s work (although Clueless is a fabulous modern re-telling of Emma). I liked the way Mr Woodhouse made his fortune (through an invention). We don’t see much of Mr Knightley and what we do see isn’t very compelling (or sexy) – I think if you didn’t know the original story, you would be surprised they ended up together. And finally, I didn’t like Emma. I thought she was mean-spirited. Austen’s Emma might have been a snob, but she was fundamentally good at heart.

More reviews …

http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/book-review-emma-by-alexander-mccall-smith-20141110-11ih95.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/11228318/Emma-a-Modern-Retelling-by-Alexander-McCall-Smith.html

Northanger Abbey – Val McDermid

This is part of the Austen ProjectI’ve read Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility and the new Emma (review of that to follow later). This one is my favourite so far.

Here is the blurb …

Internationally best-selling crime writer Val McDermid has riveted millions of readers worldwide with her acutely suspenseful, psychologically complex, seamlessly plotted thrillers. In Northanger Abbey, she delivers her own, witty, updated take on Austen’s classic novel about a young woman whose visit to the stately home of a well-to-do acquaintance stirs her most macabre imaginings, with an extra frisson of suspense that only McDermid could provide.

Cat Morland is ready to grow up. A home-schooled minister’s daughter in the quaint, sheltered Piddle Valley in Dorset, she loses herself in novels and is sure there is a glamorous adventure awaiting her beyond the valley’s narrow horizon. So imagine her delight when the Allens, neighbors and friends of her parents, invite her to attend the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh as their guest. With a sunny personality, tickets every night and a few key wardrobe additions courtesy of Susie Allen, Cat quickly begins to take Edinburgh by storm and is taken into the bosom of the Thorpe family, particularly by eldest daughter Bella. And then there’s the handsome Henry Tilney, an up-and-coming lawyer whose family home is the beautiful and forbidding Northanger Abbey. Cat is entranced by Henry and his charming sister Eleanor, but she can’t help wondering if everything about them is as perfect as it seems. Or has she just been reading too many novels? A delectable, note-perfect modern update of the Jane Austen classic, Northanger Abbey tells a timeless story of innocence amid cynicism, the exquisite angst of young love, and the value of friendship.

This update of Northanger Abbey works brilliantly. Cat thinks the Tilneys are vampires (too much Twilight maybe?), rather than discussing the picturesque they talk about cinematography and John Thorpe has a sports car – he is still a bore and a social climber.

I have been trying to work out why this modern version works better than the other books from the Austen project. Is it because the situation the heroine finds herself in is more universal than in Sense and Sensibility and Emma? Let’s face it Sense and Sensibility has important plot points that are hard to modernise – what man now days would stick with an engagement he didn’t like? And Elinor and Marianne could just get a job to generate an income.

Anyway, this is a fun, light-hearted take on an Austen novel. Enjoyable on several levels.

More reviews …

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/26/northanger-abbey-val-mcdermid-review-austen-facebook-age

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/15/books/review/val-mcdermids-northanger-abbey.html?_r=0

Persuasion 1971

Persuasion 1971

Persuasion 1971

I bought this adaptation at the same time as this Sense and SensibilityOnce you get past the 1970s fashion (and hairstyles) it is a great adaptation. It follows the plot of the novel closely – although some bits are left out (like little Charles’s accident and Anne missing the dinner party). There is a lot of ‘projecting to the back row’ acting (particularly by Sir Walter), but I think that is more about direction and the style of acting at the time – it feels like theater rather than a naturalistic film.

Sir Walter Eliot

Sir Walter Eliot

Anne (with Wentworth in the background) - check out the hair!

Anne (with Wentworth in the background) – check out the hair!

Elizabeth and Sir Walter

Elizabeth and Sir Walter

Lady Russell

Lady Russell

Mary, Charles and Anne

Mary, Charles and Anne

MrEliot_Anne

Mr Elliot and Anne

MrsClay

Mrs Clay

This isn’t a beautiful adaptation and it is certainly showing its age, but still worth watching if you love Persuasion and its quiet tone.

Sense and Sensibility 1971

Sense and Sensibility 1971

I didn’t know about the existence of this adaptation until someone mentioned it in passing at one of our meetings. Of course I decided I must see it.

This is very much ‘old school’ BBC adaptation – filmed on a sound stage with theater actors who feel that they have to act to the back row (or maybe that was how they were directed?). Anyway, if you didn’t like this version of Emma or this Mansfield Park then I suspect you won’t like this version of Sense and Sensibility.

What I don’t understand with adaptations is why the screen writer changes the dialogue? This one is quite close to the novel action wise, but rarely uses Austen’s dialogue (although I am pretty sure Elinor wouldn’t visit Edward at his lodgings!).

The best part of this adaptation was Joanna David as Elinor (she was Mrs Gardiner in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice) and Patricia Routledge (Mrs Bucket – in Keeping Up Appearances) as Mrs Jennings.

The hair styles are hilarious (or horrendous) depending on your sensibilities …

 

Elinor (in the foreground), Marianne and Mrs Dashwood

Elinor (in the foreground), Marianne and Mrs Dashwood

Edward Ferras

Edward Ferras

 

Willoughby

Willoughby

Colonel Brandon

Colonel Brandon

Mrs Jennings (on the right) and Mrs Dashwood

Mrs Jennings (on the right) and Mrs Dashwood

I think this one is really only for die-hard Jane Austen fans or people interested in film history.

 

 

Eavesdropping on Jane Austen's England - Roy & Lesley Adkins

Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England – Roy & Lesley Adkins

I was browsing in The Lane Book Store and saw this book (they usually have a good selection of Jane Austen books). I had read about it, but wasn’t sure that I would like it. The Adkins are a husband and wife team who had previously written (amongst other things) Jack Tar Life in Nelson’s Navy. This book is along similar lines in fact I am sure some of the research for the former book was useful to the latter.

Here is the blurb …

Jane Austen, arguably the greatest novelist of the English language, wrote brilliantly about the gentry and aristocracy of two centuries ago in her accounts of young women looking for love. Jane Austen’s England explores the customs and culture of the real England of her everyday existence depicted in her classic novels as well as those by Byron, Keats, and Shelley. Drawing upon a rich array of contemporary sources, including many previously unpublished manuscripts, diaries, and personal letters, Roy and Lesley Adkins vividly portray the daily lives of ordinary people, discussing topics as diverse as birth, marriage,  religion, sexual practices, hygiene, highwaymen, and superstitions.
From chores like fetching water to healing with  medicinal leeches, from selling wives in the marketplace to buying smuggled gin, from the hardships faced by young boys and girls in the mines to the familiar sight of corpses swinging on gibbets, Jane Austen’s England offers an authoritative and gripping account that is sometimes humorous, often shocking, but always entertaining.

I think that I am quite knowledgeable about Jane Austen’s time, but that knowledge is centred on the gentry. I found this book fascinating. It was easy to read (none of that academic jargon) and each chapter covered a significant aspect of a person’s life: Wedding Bells, Breeding, Toddler to Teenager, Home and Hearth, etc.

I learnt about Bastardy Laws – apparently an unwed pregnant woman who was unable to maintain herself was bought before a magistrate and forced to name the father of her child. He then had to marry her (if he was unmarried) or support her financially or he was sent to gaol (can you imagine that marriage?) and  the Black Laws – it was a capital offence to enter a forest in disguise!

I learnt about the hard lives of chimney sweeps who often died of terrible cancers because soot is carcinogenic and they rarely had the opportunity to bathe not to mention getting stuck in a chimney and suffocating.

What this book really makes plain is how hard and depressing the lives of poor people were – work was physically hard and sometimes dangerous, food was costly and not very plentiful, housing was poor and sanitation almost non existent. Life would have been one long grind until you died (although if you were grateful enough in life you could hope for a reward in heaven).

I had to laugh at some of the medical ‘cures’ – one person had a sty and wiped the tail of his black cat across it! But, with the best of intentions, I suspect many patients doctors killed their patients. Blood poisoning (from Blood letting), infections (dirty hands and equipment) and strange drug concoctions.  Dentistry was awful – blacksmiths might remove your teeth! Painful teeth were generally just removed and the best type of dentures were real teeth – either from dead people (stolen by body snatchers) or from poor people willing to sell their teeth.

‘the new teeth should always be perfectly sound, and taken from a mouth which has the appearance of that of a person sound and healthy; not that I believe it possible to transplant an infection’. In order to avoid filing the tooth to the correct shape the ‘best remedy is to have several people ready, whose teeth in appearance are fit; for if the first will not answer, the second may’.

Life would have been miserable for the poor, but even the gentry would have found it uncomfortable; cold and smelly.

I think anyone interested in social history or Jane Austen’s time will find this book interesting.

More reviews …

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/books/article-2349790/Did-Mr-Darcy-bad-breath–EAVESDROPPING-ON-JANE-AUSTENS-ENGLAND-BY-ROY-AND-LESLEY-ADKINS.html

http://writingwomenshistory.blogspot.com.au/2013/08/eavesdropping-on-jane-austens-england.html

 

 

 

 

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