My name is Miss Ball, and I’m a knitter.
(This is the part where you all chorus back, “Hi, Miss Ball.” Because we’re…addicts, I guess? Don’t you love where this is starting?)
It’s a rare day that one’s desire to knit constantly and one’s desire to blog about Jane Austen meet in a convenient location, but apparently that day has come: last fall, Interweave Press released Jane Austen Knits 2011, a collection of Austen-inspired patterns and gabbery, and now here I am, trying to type while considering the usable contents of my yarn stash. Congratulations, universe! You did it! Now: let’s all learn to knit and write simultaneously, because I cannot tell you how many hours of my life that would save.
The meeting of Janeiana and knitting is both natural and, I think, risky. It all comes down to two subsets of the population and one grand, defining question: What are you using this for? It’s one thing if you’re preparing for your local Regency costume ball, or stockpiling a collection of authentically old-fashioned knits, and a completely different thing if you’re just trying to incorporate a little English Country aesthetic into an otherwise modern wardrobe. Jane Austen Knits incorporates patterns for both populations, and does so rather seamlessly (…see what I did there?); there are patterns imitating Regency clothing and patterns merely suggesting Regency clothing and themes, which means most knitters (and knitted-goods recipients) should be able to find something to enjoy. This, by the way, is no mean feat.
One thing we must address right away is the Austen-knitterly obsession with spencers—the long-sleeved, cropped jackets originated by men and soon adopted by Regency women—and shrugs, both of which tend to come up in Austenian knitting with a frequency somewhat in excess of the number of people who actually wear either of them. (No Austenian pattern collection would be complete without one, or eighty-seven, and yet: how many cropped jackets does a modern lady need?) (Answer: One. IF she wears a lot of strapless dresses.) Jane Austen Knits devotes six patterns (out of a total 36) to spencers and shrugs, which a) actually seems fairly reasonable, given the subject matter, and b) means five-sixths of the patterns in the collection are NOT spencers or shrugs. For this, I am grateful.
My favorite patterns are, I think, the ones not exactly meant for me–the stunning yet masculine An Aran for Frederick (worn in the magazine by, uh, an equally stunning yet masculine young man, not that this influences a lady of such fine character as myself) and the also-technically-for-men Fitz, a pair of mini-cabled mitts. For myself, I might choose the Chawton Mittens—the combination of the cameos and the graphic colorwork pattern behind them reminds me of something a hip person on the subway might wear. In a nice way! The colorwork and tailoring on both the Meryton Jacket (for ladies) and Mr. Knightley’s Vest (…and gents) come across as dapper, and possibly a smart challenge for an intermediate knitter. Further props to both the Northanger Abbey Hood and the Scarlet Capelet, which I think land firmly in the Very Regency camp, but which appeal to me anyway by being pretty and simple, if not practical for my life.
One further note: Whether or not you fall in love with any of the patterns, the non-pattern sections of Jane Austen Knits are absolutely worth a read—varied and evidently well-researched, they’re a lovely resource and a fascinating read for Austen fans, history buffs, fashion addicts, and fiberheads alike.
Jane Austen Knits is a smart, accessible collection of patterns both traditional and less so, for knitters who want to look like a Dashwood sister and knitters who just want to look like they’ve read Sense and Sensibility—both of which are fine options. It’s available in print or as a download from Interweave Press.
N.B.: Non-Ravelry links have been provided where possible; the Ravelry link to the entire collection (and all patterns inside) is here.
Happy American Mother’s Day, everyone! (British Mother’s Day, or Mothering Sunday, as it’s endearingly known, was over a month ago.) I suppose love of Austen often goes along with love of word games. At least this is the case with my own Austen-lovin’ mama. And when you have to combine your knowledge of Austen with your word game skillz, that’s the best. So, for the slightly procrastinary, here are some Mother’s Day gift options. For the non-procrastinary, I’m sure dads love Austen too!
Pocket Posh® Jane Austen: The six or so varieties of word games in this pretty little volume range from easy to moderately challenging. If you have any knowledge of Austen, some of the puzzles are so easy as to be pointless. However, some, like the word searches, occupy one’s time pleasantly, and others, like the codewords and criss crosses, do require some thought. There are a few quizzes on Austen’s life and books, and these questions vary in difficulty too. I was disappointed, though, that in the crosswords (which have British-style grids), the clues don’t have anything to do with Jane Austen—the Austen connection is usually a set of shaded squares to fill in. Only a few of the puzzles require you to combine Austen-fu with word game prowess. But I would recommend this book to any Austen lover who, say, can’t usually solve the New York Times Sunday crossword.
I would love to see an all-Austen-clued American crossword somewhere. Does anyone know of one? This online Jane Austen Crossword Puzzle has Austen clues, but a British grid.
Speaking of online word games, the Jane Austen Word Search Game is rather hypnotic.
Back in bookland, there’s also the Jane Austen Quiz and Puzzle Book, though this is from 1982, and I don’t have a copy. It sounds pretty cool though. According to Abson Books, “there is one crossword for each Jane Austen novel, all clues being quotations; similarly with the ‘name games’. In addition there are 3 ‘word search’ puzzles together with 13 quizzes on all aspects of Jane Austen’s world.”
But I think my next Austen/word game purchase might be So You Think You Know Jane Austen, A Literary Quizbook. This seems like a literary scavenger hunt of a book. Speaking of which, I see there’s been at least one Austen Internet Scavenger Hunt, but I’d love to do a real-life Austen scavenger hunt, like the Chinese New Year Treasure Hunt, but in Bath and connected to Jane Austen. Has this happened? It needs to!
Or, you know, you could just play Austen-themed Scrabble with your mom. I think that would be quite hard enough.
I just came back from the mall, yo! That’s what you do when visiting the parental units in New Jersey. (And no, despite having grown up here I most certainly do not say “Joisey,” and I say “mall” not “maaauwl.”) And as I was driving home, I was thinking how appropriate it was that I was contemplating what to say about Michael Thomas Ford’s Jane Bites Back this week. The thing is, it reminded me of reading a Janet Evanovich novel. Evanovich’s main character, Stephanie Plum, is a wise-ass bond hunter in Trenton, New Jersey. While “Jane Fairfax,” the 200-and-something-year-old vampire Jane Austen, doesn’t carry a gun or drop f-bombs, she’s still a wise-ass, as is her sidekick assistant who works at her bookstore in upstate New York.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up Jane Bites Back. It sounded a bit cheesy, and there are so many mish-mash Jane Austen Meets Whatever Monster of the Week available now that I could have easily lumped it into that long list and never looked back. But I love vampire stories—from the original Dracula by Bram Stoker to Anne Rice’s books to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Elizabeth Kostova‘s The Historian. When I was a kid, the next door neighbor would invite us over on a hot summer day, close the curtains, and play old radio broadcasts. The scariest ones always had vampires chasing lost people around abandoned castles. Mesmerizing! And now I’m just a little bit wigged out thinking about it.
What was I talking about? Oh yeah . . . vampire stories. I love them; therefore, I had to read Jane Bites Back. This isn’t a typical vampire story. It’s not scary, nor is it graphic with the blood sucking, and thankfully it’s devoid of Twilight-y teen angst. The characters aren’t particularly deep, and I’m sad to say that Jane Fairfax/Jane Austen is one-dimensional. (Single woman hanging out alone drinks red wine and eats lots of chocolate, is that they best you can do to describe the modern Jane Austen, Mr. Ford? Really?) But I found myself wanting to read more, and I laughed at Ford’s descriptions of the current Jane Austen industry. Actually, that’s probably the best part about the book, as I’m equal parts delighted and mortified with the variety of Austen-related crap, er, odds and ends available these days. The author isn’t taking any of this too seriously. Plus, hey, Jane Austen and other literary figures living among us because Lord Byron can’t keep his fangs to himself—I approve!
My Christmas vacation was mostly about spending time with my nieces and nephews. But my gift to myself was a day in Manhattan to visit with two old friends—college roommate and artist extraordinaire Kelly, and Jane Austen. The exhibit A Woman’s Wit is still up at the Morgan Library.
I loved the letter Jane Austen wrote to her niece: Each word was spelled backward. I had to buy the postcard just to be able to spend quality time deciphering it with my oldest nephew. He looked at me a little suspiciously when I told him to expect all correspondence from me in the future to be written backward.
As with any exhibit of any artist that I am enthralled with, I was amazed to simply be standing there breathing in particles that a great artist touched. With letters, it’s a different sort of experience than paintings. Sure, you’re viewing something behind glass on a wall . . . and I, for one, love to see handwriting. But instead of just viewing and absorbing what we were seeing, we craned our necks and stood around focusing on the words, trying to read Jane’s (sometimes awful) handwriting. There were words scratched out, funky old-school spelling and writing oddities (like the letter “s” looking like an “f”), sentences criss-crossing . . . what a mess! I’ve never given a thought to how much paper costs, but looking at the way Jane scribbled sideways or crammed in corners of the paper, you really do get a different sense of how having paper was something of a luxury. I really wish they had a folded and sealed letter so you could experience the feeling of opening up a letter the way you open a much-anticipated gift!
For me, the highlight of the exhibit was not actually a letter written by Jane Austen, but one written by her sister Cassandra describing Jane’s last days. The letter expressed the raw emotions of someone who lost her closest companion.
I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow; I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself. I loved her only too well—not better than she deserved, but I am conscious that my affection for her made me sometimes unjust to and negligent of others; and I can acknowledge, more than as a general principle, the justice of the Hand which has struck this blow.
—Excerpt from a letter from Cassandra Austen to her niece Fanny
Heartbreaking. It reminded me of my Aunt Helen (my grandmother’s sister) after my grandmother died. The two of them taught in the same school, lived three houses away from each other, and had tea together every afternoon. After my grandmother’s funeral, it hit me that my aunt had buried all of her siblings. Though stoic, she looked a little lost sitting in the church, knowing that she wouldn’t have her sister to talk to and drink tea with every day. I imagine that Cassandra felt the same way—though losing her sister at a much earlier age would be even more devastating.
I was expecting to simply enjoy the humor in Jane’s writing. The humor was there, but I ended up walking away with thoughts of Cassandra’s loss and a new appreciation for the art of correspondence and the depth of feelings conveyed on paper.
Photo credits: ©2009 Christine Osborne. All rights reserved.
What can we learn about Jane Austen from her things, from the physical objects surrounding her and created by her? How much of her is contained in her handwriting, in the straight and even lines of her letters, and how much is contained in her work? If any writer’s soul is in her novels, what is there to be gained in discovering her personal artifacts? If anything calls for a field trip, these questions call for a field trip—and I love a good field trip. Last weekend, I visited New York’s Morgan Library and Museum (the sacrifices I do make!) to check out their new exhibit A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy.
The exhibit is much as Jane might have liked: a clean, well-lighted place for books filled with her letters (mostly to her sister, Cassandra), hand-written manuscripts, and artifacts of other pertinent writers and artists, as well as a darkened corner featuring the short film The Divine Jane. (There’s also one very zealous security guard who does not appreciate back-talk, or, uh, so I hear. What? I don’t know what you’re implying.)
Over a third of Jane’s surviving letters are in the Morgan’s possession and on display in the exhibit. In a sense, it’s frustrating not to be able to handle the letters—in Jane’s scrawl, written horizontally and then vertically and mounted for viewing, they aren’t exactly readable in the way that they might be if we were left to, say, hold them close, squint a bit, and follow the rabbit trail of beginnings and endings. The museum plaques accompanying each letter transcribe bits and pieces, but viewing them is not the same as reading them. My recommendation? For full appreciation, read a published version of Jane’s letters beforehand, bring it along, and pick out your favorites among the collection.
The same goes for the manuscripts—it’s lovely to see them, to read the interpretive plaques, and to admire the straightness of Jane’s writing and think of her pen scritch-scratching away, but the soul of them comes in the reading of them. On the other hand, the Morgan’s description of Lady Susan sold me instantly—a romantic black comedy! A “cruising shark in her social goldfish pond”! Delicious!
One of my favorite parts of the exhibit wasn’t by Jane at all, but by the illustrators willing to take on the challenge of her work over the years. There’s a sense that these are the pre-broadcasting version of the BBC miniseries, visual representations of Jane’s works according to the times, including notions of fashion and beauty—one Victorian illustrator, for example, had transposed the look of Pride and Prejudice into the key of his or her own style sensibilities. I was especially taken by the illustrations of Isabel Bishop (1902 – 1988), who dressed Elizabeth Bennet just as Jane would have, but struck me as particularly beautiful (though, of course, not made in the Regency style at all, if Cassandra Austen’s sketches of her sister are any indication). Lovely.
So where is the person of Jane Austen in all of this? In knowing the lace pattern of her new cloak (which she’s written out in one of her letters) or in finding her penchant for writing backwards to her young niece, do we know her any better than we did before? Can we see any more of her in the things that she called her own than we can simply by reading her works? I think the answer is yes—but only if we have read her works. Alone, they’re objects. Taken in tandem, they’re shading details on a picture we already know—a picture of wit, of humor, and of order. Jane’s spirit isn’t in her things, and her things aren’t the place to get to know her. But they may just be the place to appreciate the woman behind the work.
A Woman’s Wit: The Life and Legacy of Jane Austen appears at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City through March 14, 2010.
Ladies and (theoretical) gentlemen, I have an announcement to make. I have fightin’ words to share. I have a statement that will separate the men from the boys, the wheat from the chaff, and the deeply committed purists from those who just don’t care to hold a grudge. This is a big one.
I am here to defend the 2005 big-screen adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
Is it the most faithful adaptation of Pride and Prejudice the world has ever seen? It is not. But whatever authenticity it loses in the translation, it gains in spirit—in beauty and in motion and in visual style. Have you ever seen a prettier version of the love story of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy?
It seems that a lot of people’s pooh-poohing of the two-hour (one might say Cliff’s Notes) version is right in how it’s called: this movie isn’t “the short Pride and Prejudice.” It isn’t “the Joe Wright Pride and Prejudice.” It’s “the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice,” and that is generally not a term of endearment. And, you know, they’re not totally wrong. Knightley’s a very giggly Lizzie, and sometimes doesn’t come across as the great brain we know Lizzie to be. But even if she did, I’m not sure it matters much—a lot of people seem to despise her simply for the sake of despising her, and for her having the gall to even attempt the role. Similarly, Matthew McFadyen is no Colin Firth, but he’s still Darcy, and heaven help the man for daring to have his own take on the man. What we get from McFadyen is the depth of Darcy’s social awkwardness; look carefully, and you’ll see that he smolders with the best of them, but it’s in between fits of intense shyness. What he gives us is straight from the text—it’s just different.
Casting aside, the real selling point for me—what makes this adaptation one of my favorites—is its visual style, and director Joe Wright‘s (Atonement, The Soloist) uncanny eye for visual storytelling. Wright tells wonderful stories, with words optional; sometimes, he interprets, but that’s his job. One of my favorite moments in the movie has nothing to do with Elizabeth and Darcy at all—in the scene where Lizzie rejects Mr. Collins once and for all, Mrs. Bennet runs full-tilt down the lane to the river, wearing a fluffy white dress and surrounded by a flock of white geese, honking their heads off. It’s a wonderful, hilarious shot, a gentle visual joke that I believe Jane would have appreciated deeply. Then again, the shot where Darcy helps Lizzie into the carriage home from Netherfield is another favorite; Wright does a goosebump-inducing job of showing us the moment, highlighting the physical chemistry between the two of them hours before either of them will have the guts to bring it up for themselves. It’s lovely, and it’s efficient, and it’s beautiful in a way that simply doesn’t seem important the more staid adaptations. I think Jane would appreciate that.
It’s not that the 2005 Pride and Prejudice is my favorite; it’s not that I think it’s the best. I love Colin Firth’s sexual-tension-plagued first proposal as much as the next girl, and I wouldn’t turn up my nose at Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, either. But, you know, sometimes a girl doesn’t have six hours to kill (or six hours of attention span, anyway). Sometimes a girl needs her Bennet/Darcy fix. Remember: “beautiful” doesn’t mean “bad.” Sometimes it just means easy on the eyes.
I’ll admit it. I was sucked in by the cover (the one you see above and not the horrible chick lit version used for the paperback). The dust jacket reads, “Jane Hayes is a seemingly normal young New Yorker, but she has a secret. Her obsession with Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, is ruining her life. No real man can compare.” Hmm, that sounds familiar (minus the ruined life. Miss Osborne thinks she has a fine life despite her spinsterhood). How could I not buy this book?
Sadly, Austenland did not live up to expectations. The first red flag was in Chapter 1, when the main character hides her Pride and Prejudice DVDs in a plant during a visit from her aunt. Sure, there are many people who don’t understand how someone can be content watching the same movie over and over again. I am not ashamed to admit that certain movies, TV shows, and books beckon me repeatedly. So I’m perplexed that a woman who loves the Colin Firth P&P would be embarrassed by anyone seeing her DVDs. (For the record, my DVDs sit comfortably next to the TV, ready at any moment for viewing.)
Another thing that rubbed me the wrong way was the Fantasy Island quality of Jane’s Regency vacation. I have to admit that my aversion to playing dress-up is probably outweighing my ability to go with the flow of the novel. See, if you go to enough Star Trek conventions (as I have been known to do) and you’re not into dressing up (as I am not), you start to worry that people might think everyone who goes to cons either likes to dress up as a Klingon or hang out at Ren Faires in wench attire. While I love the Regency-era dresses, I don’t want to dress up in them every day and prance around reading sonnets and drinking tea. Even more importantly, my aversion to play-acting is a hundred times stronger than not wanting to dress the part. Granted, Jane didn’t choose a Regency vacation, so my problem is less about the character’s choices than about being a little weirded out at the idea that anyone would spend their vacation that way.
Mostly, though, I’m offended by the idea that failed relationships are caused by a woman’s desire to have her Mr. Darcy. It’s bad enough hearing from my family that I’m single because I’m too picky. (Note: They don’t specifically cite my love of Colin-Firth-as-Darcy, but they may as well.) But to have a humorous book about relationships and Jane Austen support the idea, well, that cheeses me off. Clearly, there’s more to relationships than being able to check off the following attributes:
- Tall, dark, and handsome (and looks doubly good when fencing or drenched in pond water)
- Witty and good at letter-writing
- Desirable income
- Reserved in crowds but charming once he opens up
- Dedicated to family
- Pissy at douchebag former childhood friends with tendencies toward bedding minors
But there’s also nothing wrong with having high expectations about a potential mate’s basic moral fiber.
I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this book, but I vaguely recall the main character redeeming herself, and I had some laughs at the little bits that reminded me of myself and my girlfriends. So read, if you must. Or, better yet, rent Lost in Austen if you want to experience the wacky hijinks of a modern-day gal stuck in a Regency environment.