Austenacious
Jane will keep us together.
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. . . as the sign for Hampshire County proclaimed! Action Jane and I have been having a jolly time here, with her showing me all the sights. In London, we stopped at the British Library. My dear friends, I cannot even describe to you the treasures in their little gallery. Even the sight of one of Jane Austen’s handwritten volumes of juvenalia was overwhelmed by the sheer physical presence of so many manuscripts handwritten by her, by Wordsworth, by Chaucer, and, yes, by Charlotte Brontë (and that was just part of one display case). In the spirit of Brontë/Austen relations, I’ll admit that seeing “Reader, I married him.” in Charlotte’s own hand was simply stunning. And that her writing was more legible than Miss Austen’s. We’ve talked before about how indescribable it is to see handwritten copies of Jane’s work. I think, more than anything, the proof that she and these other were all real people, is overwhelming.

Jane frowned on my friend Mr. Coles’ suggestion that I sit on her tomb and sing New Age chants, so we headed on to her last house, where she lived from 1809 to 1817.

Chawton is a lovely little village, and Jane Austen’s House Museum quite worthy of pilgrimage. Really ridiculously so, given the number of things that were hers and that clearly inspired something in one of the books. I found the lock of her hair another shocking proof that she really lived. Some other highlights:

The sacred writing table. It is, as mentioned, very small! In fact, I can’t see how Jane’s writing desk, which was at the British Library, actually fit on it. I’ve heard people say that everything in Austen’s life was small: her paper, her table, the rooms in her house. Paper and table, yes, but to this apartment dweller, the rooms in her house seemed plenty commodious! Not huge, but nothing I’d turn my nose up at.

The actual dress worn by Kate Winslet as she fell down the hill in Sense and Sensibility! Really! Squee!!

Miss Osborne and other aspiring Regency chefs: Here is the recipe book Jane’s friend Martha Lloyd kept when she lived with them. I couldn’t read it, unfortunately, but I have no doubt it’s for jugged hare or some other delight.

And here is Action Jane in the kitchen. To the left of the fireplace is the safe that Miss Austen had the keys of, where the sugar and tea were kept.

In reward for our pilgrimage, we had an amazing cream tea at Cassandra’s Cup across the street. Cream tea consists of tea, plus one or two scones with jam and clotted cream to spread on. Clotted cream! Heavenly. Then, because I am a thorough pilgrimess, we headed down to Lyme Regis.

Lyme is the seaside resort on the south coast where Louisa Musgrove falls down the Cobb steps in Persuasion. (Falling down things is a favorite among Austen girls, isn’t it?)

We arrived in Lyme at sunset, and went to the sea first, as Jane says “lingering, as all must linger and gaze on a first return to the sea, who ever deserve to look on it at all.” Believe it or not, we actually stayed at the Cobb Arms, and next morning, we walked along the lower Cobb.

Jane wanted to walk along the upper Cobb, but I wouldn’t let her. Indeed, considering that it’s a sloping stone walkway, with no handrails, 8 feet above the lower Cobb and probably 20 feet above the harbor, and very windy, I’m surprised the ladies were walking there at all.

I liked Lyme Regis, but then I do have a weakness for seaside resort towns. And Lyme has some commercialism, but not too much. I don’t think Jane would be displeased, were she to return. However, as far as I know, I didn’t see any unknown cousins who will later be charmed by my beauty. One can always hope.

Next up: Bath!

Photo credits: ©2011 by Heather Dever. All rights reserved.
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the Austen haters

My fellow Austenites, you may have seen that there’s a new Jane Eyre movie out. I can’t honestly say I’ve seen the movie, though at least, unlike some reviewers, I’ve read the book. What I did see was this article from the Washington Post, which neatly pits the title “Jane Eyre Movies Rekindles Austen vs Bronte, the Battle of the Bonnets” against the plaintive cry of “can’t we all just get along?!” Way to play both sides against the middle, Monica Hesse!

It’s been noted that Ms. Hesse’s pacifistic tendencies sound a little ironic after 1 1/2 pages of warmongering, but I do think she has a point. We can like more than one female author at a time. Even more than one English 19th century female author. Just because Charlotte Brontë talked smack about Jane Austen doesn’t mean we have to pit Team Brontë against Team Austen for all eternity. Mark Twain talked smack about Miss Austen too, but you don’t hold a grudge against him, do you? (at least until now . . . ;-) ) Partly, I think, it’s that Austenites SO WISH Jane had had a chance to return fire. What would she have said about Charlotte? Minds can be devoured by this thought! We want to say it for her, something, anything!, but none of us are Jane Austen, alas, so we really can’t.

I’m really of many different minds on this topic.

  1. Of course we can like both Austen and Brontë if we want, and George Eliot too! It’s probably less weird than liking both Oscar Wilde and J.R.R. Tolkien (which I do).
  2. But it’s fun to get into literary fisticuffs with the ladies and gentlemen of Team Brontë. People caring passionately about literature, especially without killing each other, how cool is that?! (Just ask Jasper Fforde.)
  3. On the other hand, if the moichendisers want to make Brontë consumerism the new thing and give us a break, it would be a relief. (Jane Eyre party games! Burnination for all!)
  4. Clearly, this means that in addition to taking Action Jane to Chawton and Bath in my upcoming England trip, I’ll have to take her to Haworth as well. To DOMINATE . . . er, see how the other half lives. Yeah, that’s right.

By the way, the moratorium on Jane on Jane mud wrestling in the title of this post does not refer to Jane Austen clones. We reserve all rights to the Jane Austen clone wars. Just so you know.

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Lately, it seems lately like we all want to get inside of literature: to have our own holodeck or other scifi virtual reality device. It’s the promise of escape.

So I think the most interesting takes on the Jane Austen novels are the ones where people from our world, the “real world,” enter the world of the books. And what ensues? In Jasper Fforde‘s books, Jurisfiction agent Thursday Next works in a kind of meta-book world (lord, I said “meta”—just shoot me now), where she devotes herself to keeping literature the way we know it. In First Among Sequels, Thursday has to prevent Pride and Prejudice being turned into a reality book, where the characters have to perform tasks and will be voted out by chapter. She succeeds of course; Fforde is not attempting realism here, though his wry look at the silliness of the world around us is well worth getting into.

Have you seen Such Tweet Sorrow? It’s a real-time tweeting of Romeo and Juliet, a collaboration between Mudlark and the Royal Shakespeare Company. So it’s almost like Romeo and Juliet: The Reality Show, and given the plot of Romeo and Juliet, no, they don’t encourage the actors to turn up the drama! It’s as authentic to the play as possible. I think it’s the next step in bringing literature into a virtual world setting.

Then I had a vision: Could we find volunteers to live out Pride and Prejudice and tweet about it in real time? Or live it as a reality show? I feel dizzy—can I really have made this up myself? Someone tell me people have already done this! Readers, I know you would sign up! Wouldn’t you?

Why, even now, you can take tours of filming locations for the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice and have supper at Longbourn. If you’re Sandy Lerner, co-founder of Cisco Systems and Urban Decay, you can even put on a ball at Chawton House and have Mr. and Mrs. Darcy come host it. As Ms. Lerner says, “Life is short. Why watch other people doing stuff?” She would sign up for a virtual Regency machine, I’m sure.

I’ll admit to mixed feeling about pretending to live in the Regency in general or inside a Jane Austen novel in particular.

For one thing, I like to dress up and drink tea and all, but in the end, how much does that have to do with Jane Austen and why you read her? Maybe I would get a romantic thrill from being trotted around the dance floor by a tall, silent man, all while displaying wit and cleavage. Maybe I just wouldn’t want to admit that part of that thrill was based on a scene from a novel, i.e., from someone else’s head. I am a snob about my fantasy worlds. (I like them to be my own.) And I read Jane Austen because she’s funny, not because she wore Empire dresses.

For another thing, if I was actually living in a novel, I think my adventures would go a lot like Amanda Price’s. Lost in Austen has, dare I say it?, a realistic take on living your fantasy: Pride and Prejudice addict Amanda Price finds herself inside the book, which Lizzie has vacated for modern life, and she wreaks havoc on the plot, all while trying to restore it to what she knows it should be. Kind of like a baby with a birthday cake. Kind of like an Austen fan’s nightmare. Not the same thing at all as reading the book, and having it be in your own head.

So, what do you say? Meet me in Holodeck 3 for the ball at Netherfield? Or will we apply the lessons of Jane Austen to this life? I must admit the holodeck does sound more fun. But then, doesn’t it always?

Photo credit:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/obenson/ / CC BY-NC 2.0