Beginning the Year with Austen and Tea

2016 was a lot of ups and downs for me. But on the whole, it was not one of my better years. So, 2017 is going to be about small steps and silver linings (it is; I have as my theme in my new planner). And honestly, 2016 needed one helluva chaser so it was time for some Austen. And tea.

Luckily, Austen fit in well with one of my reading goals. I need to empty my to-read drawer and two books are fit my need for an Austen chaser. I started with the annotated version of Pride & Prejudice that I picked up in the coolest bookstore I have even seen in an airport during my work trip to Milwaukee in November (a trip I’d otherwise happily never think of again as it was over election). It was too good a deal for the copy that I happily hauled the substantial volume back to Tallahassee. This annotated version is edited by David M. Shapard and I’ve seen added his other Austen annotated versions to my reading list. P&P of course can always stand on its own but add in lots of footnotes, explaining language, social customs, Austen’s own experiences as well as literary criticism and this Janeite is in a particularly fabulous nerdy heaven. I savored both re-visiting my second favorite Austen and learning more about all the world it inhabits historically and along the author’s timeline.

Which brought me neatly to a biography on Austen. I’ve read quite a few and honestly, unless someone stumbles across a hitherto unknown cache of Austen letters (swoon at the thought! Can you imagine?!), her story isn’t changing much these days. So finding a new take on her life story was a pleasant surprise. Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things is delightful. It looks at Jane through the window of different objects, big and small, that she either owned or would have interacted with often throughout the course of her life and then frames that chapter around the item and its significance. These range from her writing desk to a bobbin of lace. I have read Byrne’s excellent biography on the actress Mary Robinson so I knew she would do Jane justice and she does (and refrains from too much poetry this time around so gold star for that!). I particularly loved the chapters on her writing desk and her first check from her publisher John Murray. Jane is often presented through the framework of her family but she is at her best in my opinion when she is being presented on her own and shown as the genius she was, even if she deviates them from the usual Austen family memoir line.

These books were just what I needed. I have moved onto Phryne Fisher now (who could not let me down if she tried – she’s too fabulous) and I have a retelling of Beauty and the Beast in the wings so happy reading times ahead!

A Little Austen over the weekend

I think my love of Jane Austen is well known. I came to her late but I certainly made up for lost time. Sadly, she only left six novels. That said, I have a shelf on Goodreads titled “austen-inspired.” It holds 93 books currently and those are simply the ones I’ve stumbled across so far. The modest miss has certainly inspired hundreds if not thousands to take up pen and paper and write their own versions of her stories. They’ve written what happened the day after “the end,” what happened years after. They’ve written alternate endings and alternate beginnings. They’ve given endings to the secondary characters that we always wondered about and then taken us on adventures with the many children of the various heroines. It seems Jane’s inspiration will never wane. Thank goodness.

Persuading Annie has been on my list for a long time. Persuasion is my favorite of Austen’s novels, Anne Elliot my favorite of her heroines. Sadly, it’s probably the novel with the fewest “austen-inspired” books on my shelf. Well, Northanger Abbey might be the last in the list (I should look for some for that one though, can you imagine what sort of offspring Henry and Catherine cooked up?!). The few I have found on Persuasion though have been good. This one also doesn’t disappoint.

Annie Markham walked away from the love of her life back in University seven years ago. Jake Mead was not her family’s idea of Prince Charming. So, Annie finished school and started working in an art gallery, volunteering, and helping out in the family business when summoned. Her father is an idiot, her elder sister a bitter party girl and her middle sister an unhappy mother of two boys and a husband who prefers to play golf. However, the family company is in trouble and the only person who can save them? Jake Mead. So, with her family going more insane by the moment, a potential boyfriend who she really doesn’t have time for, a best friend in family drama of her own and an old flame who’d like nothing better than a little revenge on the girl who broke his heart, Annie really doesn’t think it could get much worse. And then Jake Mead moves in downstairs…

Those who’ve read Persuasion will appreciate Melissa Nathan’s modernization of the story. It’s fresh and fun. Annie and Jake are a fun hero and heroine who have a lot of baggage with their relationship and have to work through that in full view of Annie’s (certifiably) insane relatives. I liked the replacement of Bath with New York City and I also appreciated Annie’s growing love affair with her new city. It always made me sad that Anne Elliot didn’t get to know Bath and come to like it (but Austen never did either so we’ll agree to disagree on that one). I also have to say kudos to Nathan for how she replaced the Lyme scene in her novel. It was still weird but I think worked better than Austen’s odd tragic scene that really makes no sense (seriously, watch one of the movie versions and tell me if you understand how that woman ends up in a coma).

In general, some Austen over the weekend is always a good idea but I have to say this is one of the better “austen-inspired” books I’ve tracked down so if you enjoy those books that keep her stories going, and also if you are an Anne Elliot fan, check this one out!

Influential Books

Not sure how I started thinking about this but I suspect it came from reading Lies My Teachers Told Me. It looks at textbooks used in high school history classes and all the ways they are inadequate to the task of teaching students history in the correct way. It made me reflect on my high school experience (and perhaps the fact this year is my 10 year reunion has me thinking about it too) and that moved me more towards the books I read in English class (overall, I don’t remember my history texts being the end all be all of my history classes). However, I soon realized limiting myself to books I read in class would leave out perhaps some of the most important. Books I stumbled into on library shelves, books given to me by relatives and friends and books that I, truth, can’t remember how I found them anymore. All I know is these books have permanent spots on my bookshelf where real estate is at a premium and I revisit them often. They have influenced me in some fashion – be it they introduced me to a genre of books that greatly influence me or the book itself I met at just the right point in my life. So, here in no particular order:

Anthem, Ayn Rand

Of all my classes over the years, 9th grade English stands on its own. It was a unique group of people with a teacher who pushed us further than anyone had up to that point. He expected more from us and while we moaned and groaned over it, I remember “By The Waters of Babylon” being particularly painful, we enjoyed it. It’s a class we still reference to this day and was the place I was first introduces to Anthem. This was, upon reflection, both a good and bad thing. Good because Anthem was pretty defining at the time. Think about, a bunch of freshman reading a book that is about creating individual identity, forging one’s way outside of the safety of one’s family and community, discovering how you are going to define yourself? It was also good because it introduced me to the dystopian genre, a genre I went on to devour over the following summer. This was before Hunger Games, Matched, Divergent. I had only the classics of the genre: 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World. It’s a genre I still love today and kind of love that it’s mainstream now. Bad? Well, Ayn Rand comes with her own set of problems. Anthem is a novella and about as likable as Rand gets. It’s because of Anthem I worked to read Atlas Shrugged so hard. I succeeded but I definitely did not like Rand as much when I was finished. What had been such a celebration of individuality and exploration in Anthem just became the story of selfish, insufferable, unlikable people in Atlas Shrugged. But, I still take a summer afternoon and read Anthem, if only to remember my 15 year old self.

Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery

I sadly have no idea how I found Anne. Was it a gift? Did I buy it myself? Did I, horrors!, watch the movie and Road to Avonlea long before I read the first book? Anything is possible. I just remember begging my mother to drive me out to Waldenbooks in 6th grade because I HAD TO HAVE THE NEXT BOOK. I even recall buying the last three books at the same time as I just knew I was going to read them in record time. What would my life had been like if no precocious redhead hadn’t assured me there were no mistakes in tomorrow yet? Anne was the first fictional best friend I wanted, Gilbert definitely my first fictional boyfriend and Marilla the best aunt a girl could ask for. I wanted to live in these books so bad it wasn’t even funny. And hey, they were educational as well. Thank you Walter for where you fought in WWI as I distinctly remember it helping me on a test in school. Anne also introduced me to more of L.M. Montgomery’s books and short stories which I still pull out for comfort reads whenever I have the chance.

The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank

My aunt gave me this book in 4th grade. I have no idea why to be honest. Maybe she’d liked it as a kid and wanted to share it with me, her bookworm niece? For whatever reason, I am forever grateful. I didn’t get this book at first. WWII was just a vague concept in my head, the Holocaust a word that I knew was bad but didn’t really get why. Anne explained that to me. She also though was infallibly honest. I think we heroize her a bit too much. She was a teenager; she fought with her mother and her sister, she had a crush on the only boy she could, she was a brat at times, a saint at others. Her flaws were amplified by the situation she found herself in, as were her great moments. I appreciated her more when I was older and I marvel now. This girl, in hiding for persecution based only on her beliefs, wrote that, in spite of everything, she still believed that people were good at heart. One of my favorite moments of my semester abroad was visiting the Secret Annex and paying my respects to the dreamer who hid there. It brought into my world something I had only imagined in a book.

Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen

I came very late to Austen. Shocking I know and one of my best friend was the one who properly introduced me to her finally in high school. Once I’d had my first introductions, there was no going back. Austen’s brand of romance, humor and tone hits such a perfect cord with me, I read a lot of literature simply because it is marketed as “Austenesque.” I even read all the continuations, moderizations; I watch all the movies, no matter that I’ve seen five other versions. Hell, I own three versions of Pride & Prejudice on DVD. Well this isn’t my favorite of Austen’s work (Persuasion holds that honor), it was the first I read and therefore the one I owe for making me a Janeite.

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Gregory Maguire

I think I found this wandering the aisles of Borders. I had read Wicked and enjoyed it though it was a dense read and Confessions sounded as if it were along the same lines. Not so. Confessions was a much more approachable book, a book with a much clearer plot and the lines of the story, while still grey, a bit easier to follow. It was not the first time I had read a revisionist novel (clearly since I had read Wicked), but it was the first time I grasped how cool the concept could be. Iris was my kind of girl; a brilliant, plain Jane, someone who is just trying to do the right thing and who, in a moment of weakness, thinks about doing the selfish thing. Many years later, Confessions would inspire my senior thesis ensuring that fairy tale retellings will always fascinate me and also remind me that nothing is as black and white as we would like.

The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I think perhaps I saved the best for last. The Little Prince is a book you have to grow into. I had a copy on my shelves from an early age though I’ve no idea where it came from. I had read it, enjoyed it and then forgotten about it. Then it was handed to me in 11th grade French class and suddenly it was a book of wisdom, of life lessons, a book I could always turn to for comfort, for hope, for a touch of whimsy when I needed it. It teaches you that there is always more than one way to look at something, that you must always tend your baobabs, and that sometimes, those things staring you in the face are the very things you were looking for in the first place. It is a story of trying to find one’s way home and the things you discover along the way. While high school French class touched me in many ways, The Little Prince is the gift I treasure most and I’ll pull out my copies (one in English and in black and white, one in French with the color illustrations) and remind myself of its lessons whenever I have a bad day.

Excellent Women – So They Say

I was prepared to adore Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women. It came highly recommended for Jane Austen fans. So, and I’m sorry to say that this is going to sound irrational, I was really quite mad at the book when I didn’t much care for it. It made me laugh a few times but for the most part I kept reading it hoping something would eventually happen and wondering if I would even care when it did.

From Goodreads

Excellent Women is told from the point of view of Mildred Lathbury, a spinster (read a 30-something single woman – horrors!) living in post-World War II London who is very involved with her local parish. Her life is quiet and uncomplicated until a young couple moves into the apartment below hers and the vicar gets himself engaged to a new widow living in the apartment above the vicarage. Cue misunderstandings and what I think was supposed to be a sort of dignified madcap comedy of manners. Which you think should have been awesome but was…well…dull.

Now, I mentioned I was mad at this book so I’ve thought a lot about why since I finished it last week. On paper, the plot is gold really – it should have worked and I should have loved every word of it. I’ve decided a few key issues worked against it in the end.  One, the characters are just unlikable – even the likable ones. This could be the result of the first person narrative in that you don’t get to know some of the key characters all that well because Mildred just doesn’t know them well enough to let the reader get any insight into them. However, I think they were just not well written – they all fall flat on the page for me. Two, the ending. Full stop. I may have tossed the book across the room after I finished it (or I would have if it hadn’t been a library book). I don’t care how typical this sort of ending was for the time period, there is a reason Lizzy doesn’t end up with Mr. Collins. And while Mildred is no Lizzy, she didn’t deserve who she ended up with in my opinion.

I also think this book may have hit a little too close to home with the character of Mildred and so her ending was quite disheartening. The book spends a lot of time harping on Mildred’s spinsterhood when my impression of Mildred is that she is happy as a single woman and the book’s sole goal seemed to be to make her ashamed of that fact. Every once in a while, you catch Mildred out though – she doesn’t want to move into the new apartment above the vicarage, she’s happy where she is, on her own. Later, she is against the vicar’s sister moving in with her. She’s someone who has come to enjoy her solitude on many levels. She is, in essence, someone who has made a fulfilling life for herself without a man involved.

When the vicar becomes engaged, everyone in the parish is worried about how Mildred will take the news. What I loved was Mildred herself was confused – was she supposed to be upset about it in some way? Apparently, as a single woman of a certain age, the parish had always assumed that Mildred would get married to the vicar eventually. Mildred didn’t get that memo and relunctantly takes on the rejected woman role because it’s expected of her. It’s at that moment I realized that Mildred is delightful but her silly author was determined to get her attached to someone by the end of the book because that was apparently how the book HAD to end. And man, was I mad when I read the ending Pym gave to Mildred. OK, I get it, you were bound and determined to marry the poor spinster off but you couldn’t have written a better man for her? Come on, Anne Elliot got Captain Wentworth in the end people! And Mildred was definitely more Anne than Charlotte Lucas yet she got the equivalent of Mr. Collins handed to her. I have decided Midred rebelled at the last minute and returned to her life of church teas and working with impoverished gentlewomen rather than marry the drip Pym saddled her with in the end.

On an odd note, I think I would have liked, and accepted better, this story if I had watched it rather than read it. As a play or as a film with a decent screenplay and the right cast to add some life to these characters, I think this would be a lot more fun – sort of a 1940s era romantic comedy. Someone should get to work on that ASAP.

Always nice to visit with Jane

From Austenprose, excellent Austen site!

I came to Jane Austen very late. It wasn’t until high school that I sat myself down to read Pride & Prejudice once a friend gave me a lovely collected works of hers. And while I enjoyed it, I wasn’t quite caught yet. It wasn’t until my semester in Bath, taking a class on Jane Austen, that I become a Janeite for good. Something about her snarkiness, her brilliant observation of the small world she lived in, finally captivated me and I’ve been hooked ever since. I don’t often wonder why if I’m being honest. I simply found a kindred spirit in her books, a familiarity that just makes her a favorite author. I have my favorite book, my favorite character, and my favorite hero (All from Persuasion if you’re interested in knowing). But mostly, I adore her tone, her style, her complete knowledge of herself that let her explore in such a narrow field of topics some of the most interesting characters we have the luck to read about still today.

Reading Austen in the spring just seems to fit. Pride & Prejudice is nothing if not spring-like, full of possibility and hope, the belief that everything will work out in the end, even for Lydia and Wickham. In fact, her books all fit into seasons for me. Early spring is Northhanger Abbey with its creepy early spring gothic tone, Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility fit the spring renewal theme, the sense that the stories are only just beginning as we say goodbye. Mansfield Park and Emma have the sophistication of summer, the heat and oppression of the sun seem to lurk in the heroine’s journeys of those books. Persuasion, my favorite, is universally acknowledged as an “autumnal” book, a book of second chances and of people later in life, who have the knowledge of spring and summer to guide them to their conclusion. Fascinating isn’t it? No matter how often I read her works or read essays on her work or even watch a film adapted from a book I am struck by another facet to her writing that seems to change the game yet again.

Austen’s gravestone at Winchester Cathedral. Photo by me!

This spring I got around to reading the collection of essays aptly named A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen and the English geek in me thoroughly enjoyed it. Not only is it fun to read Austen, it is fun to read people talking about Austen, people who are far smarter and more observant readers than I am. As writers, they marvel at what a spinster from the country could do with limited experiences and knowledge. They puzzle over what makes her books last and finally conclude she was a genius, of the sort that come around once in a lifetime. On paper, she shouldn’t have succeeded and the fact that she did and still does hundreds of years after her death truly seems to astonish the essay writers in this collection which I enjoyed. You like to think that some people, however unlikely, can thwart the experts. In fact, I am sure Jane is still having a laugh about that somewhere. Some of the essays are definitely more of a scholarly bent, others more on a personal level, but all are trying to get at that mysterious ingredient of Austen’s that keeps us reading and none really succeed but I commend them for trying. And I commend Jane for avoiding detection once more.

My friend went to ALA Midwinter and all I got…

…were three delightful ARCs and a Mickey bag! Does Julie know me well or what? While I was busy drooling over the lists of ARCs and activities people were enjoying in sunny San Diego, Julie mailed me a small care package with three books she hoped I’d enjoy. Did I ever! I am borrowing liberally from my Goodreads reviews of these books but I wanted to to share here as well. Stick with me here, this could be awhile. PS, Julie is starting up her own blog soon! Here is the link so go check it out!

From Goodreads

Dark Mirror is one of those delightfully frustrated books that refuses to be categorized. Is it fantasy? Historical fiction? Romance? Adventure? All of the above? In this case, all of the above is the easiest way to go. Lady Victoria Mansfield is exiled from her family when it is discovered she is a mage (AKA she can do magic. In this case, she can “float” which resembles flying. How cool is that?!). At Lackland, the school nobles send their mageling children for the “cure,” Tory learns that her magic just might not be a curse but a tool given to her to help save Britain for invading forces, both in her time and beyond. Tory is spunky and likable; she both loathes the fact that she has magic, since it makes her an outcast in society, and is curious about the powers she is discovering. She is definitely a character you root for through out the book. The book also has strong supporting characters that allow a reader to learn more about Tory and add to her adventures. The required love story is sweet but predictable. I was more interested in the ideas of magic the book was building on throughout the story.Putney has obviously put a lot of thought into how magic would work especially in a group setting.

One jarring note for me is the time travel element. When it first happens, I was bewildered by the author’s decision to include it. It had seemed to me she had a strong story and conflicts already, there was no need to add time traveling into the mix but it turned out that was where her story was always going. In that case, I would have wanted her to get to it faster. The first time travel moment seemed rushed and odd to me; it was just an awkward transition I feel. Still, have to love a novel which manages to take place both in the Regency and during World War II.

From Goodreads

My next read was Haunting Violet. Setting aside the highly inappropriate cover (what is that girl wearing? Whatever it is, it is not period correct I feel), I think this was my favorite of the three. Violet Willoughby doesn’t believe in ghosts. She’s sat through one two many of her mothers fake séances to believe in the spirits. But, on a trip to great country house where her mother is trying to pull off her greatest con, ghosts all of the sudden start appearing to Violet. One ghost in particular is quite insistent that Violet help her catch her murderer before he has a chance to kill her sister. Violet reluctantly starts to investigate the death along with her eager friend and childhood partner in crime but the closer she gets to the killer, the more Violet’s life is in danger as well.

I adored Violet! Smart, independent, realistic with just a touch of whimsy and romance thanks to her love of novels. She wants out of her mother’s business but in the late 1800s, the only way to escape is marriage, something Violet is unsure about. I also loved that Violet is so honest in an inherently dishonest situation which makes for great conflict between her and her mother. The story is well-paced and fascinating. I have never been much for the Spiritualist craze of the late 1800s but its atmosphere made for a great setting in this book. In particular, the juxtaposition of the fake readings with the real ghosts was very well done.

Also, bonus besides an awesome heroine and great story? A handsome and charming Irish pickpocket. Enough said.

From Goodreads

Lastly, a biography of the one and only Jane, Jane Austen: A Life Revealed. Though I am about 10 years or so older than the real audience for this bio, I still enjoyed it for its simplicity. Jane is a sticky figure to get a handle on (seriously Cassandra, you had to burn her letters…sigh) but I felt Reef did an excellent job of giving the reader the information we have and using the novels Jane wrote to show how she grew and learned throughout her lifetime. I particularly enjoyed the use of pictures and illustrations in this book. It gave Jane’s life the past and present context she needs for a reader to understand how her influence has only seemed to grow over the years instead of wane. 

I recommend all three reads obviously. Thanks to Julie for thinking of me while she was on the West Coast!

Perhaps I am not as much of a Janeite as I thought

From Madison Public Library

I came late to Jane Austen. One of my best friends in high school gifted me The Collected Works of Jane Austen but it was still a year before I cracked it open. I think I hesitated because I had tried years before to read Sense and Sensibility and had been confused. Jane’s biting wit and social commentary was a bit above my head at that point. So, the second time I tried to read Austen, I went with her best-known work, Pride and Prejudice. I was not disappointed. Not only did I fall in love with the spirited and sassy Lizzie and her brooding yet secretly thoughtful love Mr. Darcy, I fell in love with witty and biting tone of Miss Austen. Her grasp of her society and the world she had to navigate to this day never fails to impress me…and make me want to smack upside the head anyone who thinks Jane was simply a romance writer.

It wasn’t until Bath, my semester abroad when I took a class on Jane Austen, that I finally fell head over hills with Jane’s work. I lived in a city she lived in, walked the streets she did, visited Chawton and saw the very room and table where she composed all the books I fell in love with that semester. While Persuasion is my favorite Austen novel (and her most romantic, seriously Captain Wentworth, SWOON), I have always had a soft spot of Pride and Prejudice, my first Austen novel. And first Austen movie. And first Austen fan-fiction novel. As you can see, I am almost a Janeite.

I say almost because Shannon Hale’s Austenland just illustrated where I draw the line. Austenland introduces us to Jane Hayes, a woman who has idolized Mr. Darcy to the detriment of any men she meets in real life. When her great aunt notices this, she calls Jane out on living in a fantasy and to prove her point, leaves Jane a month stay at a fancy “Austenland” resort in England in her will. So, Jane goes back to 1816 and finds her own Mr. Knightley and Mr. Wickham cum Frank Churchill. Jane is a fun character to watch grow throughout the novel and watching her struggle with reality versus the fantasy she finds herself in was entertaining and also enlightening. One thing I definitely learned was there is no way I would ever go on a vacation like this. A literary tour of England where I visit lots of country manors? Yes, sign me up (why I think I adored Me and Mr. Darcy, I basically wanted to go on that vacation of hers) but making me wear 1816 clothing, keep to their timetable and give up my cell phone? I think that is going too far for even me. I am a thoroughly 21st century girl when it comes to things like that.

That said, Austenland is one of the better Austen-inspired novels I’ve read put in the modern day. The characters are engaging and the plot believable enough for me to buy the ending. I do have better luck with the modern takes on Austen that some of the continuations of her novels. See, basically a Janeite and proud of it people! But seriously, at least read Persuasion for me. You won’t be disappointed.