Category Archives: Entertain Me

The London Mermaid, 1822

This must be the ugliest mermaid I have ever seen.

The London Mermaid, 1822

 It debuted in London as a “very dry and mummy like [creature], enclosed in a glass case.”  The man responsible for the hoax?  The Bostonian sea captain Samuel Barret Eades.  Eades had purchased his mermaid from a Dutch fisherman by way of North China.  The price?  5000 Spanish dollars, a value of about 1000l. 1

The enterprising Eades acquired the funds by selling his and his partners share in the ship the Pickering–without informing the co-owner, of course.  He then conspired to fool his neighbors across the pond and make some serious bank.* When the fish with simian parts first appeared at Turf Coffeehouse in St. James’ Street in 1822, 300 to 400 persons visited daily at the price of one shilling per entry. 1  It was an immediate London sensation.  The papers of the time, including the Gentleman’s Magazine, are filled with proofs of the mermaid’s veracity.  A thorough examination was done Reverend Dr. Philip in April, 1822 and published in The London Medical and Physical Journal.  I have pulled out a few highlights for your enjoyment:

“The head is almost the size of that of a baboon.   It is thinly covered with black hair, handing down, and not inclined to frizzle…The countenance has an expression of terror which gives it an appearance of a caricature of a human face; but I am disposed to think that both these circumstances are accidental, and have arisen from the manner in which the creature met its death.  It bears the appearance of having died in agony.

“The length of the animal is three feet; but, not having been well preserved, it has shrunk considerably, and must have been both longer and thicker when alive than it is now…The canine teeth resemble those of a full grown dog; all the others resemble those of a human subject.”

Fiji Mermaid, 1822

Attribution: Fiji Mermaid by George Cruikshank [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the mermaid’s success, Eades would eventually run into a road block: the furious co-owner of the Pickering, Mr. Ellery.  When Mr. Ellery demanded repayment of his portion, Eades threatened to flee with his mermaid.  What followed was an amusing account described in The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History by Jan Bondeson:

“In the early 1800s, it was of frequent occurrent that adventurers abducted wealthy heiresses, whom they had previously seduced, to marry without the consent of their parents.  To stop these immoral practices, the parents could appeal to the lord chancellor’s court, since the lord chancellor had the authority to make an eloped young lady his ward (a ward in Chancery); she was then not allowed to marry without his permission.  On November 20, 1822, Mr. Ellery appeared before the court of Chancery to restrain Captain Eades from moving or selling the mermaid…It is recorded that Lord Eldon, the lord chancellor, listened to his harangues with some mirth.”

In the end, the mermaid was seized by customs officials and determined a fake by anatomist and zoologist William Clift.  He deduced that the mermaid was part orangutan/baboon/fish (possibly salmon).  Eventually it was decided to be of Japanese origin.  Eades vehemently fought the decision by hiring naturalists who declared it a newly discovered species. Debates ensued, but by January of 1823 the exhibition was taken down and London was officially over Eades’s mashup creature.  This, however, was not the end of the hoax mermaid’s travels.  You can read all about it in Bordenson’s book, including where the mermaid is today and where it journeyed after Eades’s death.

*Some accounts say Eades believed the mermaid was real.  The mermaid was credited as authentic for a time, but really?  Who believes in scary ugly mermaids?

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Birth Order Theory & The Georgian Family Portrait

I haven’t posted many Georgian family portraits, mostly because they tend to show domestic affairs in a retiring light, but I do enjoy John Lee and His Family by John Russell. Unlike many portraits of listless heads, John Lee’s Family appears bursting with personality.  This is despite the fact that a) the children are dressed in today’s equivalent of white t-shirts in group photos, and b) they share outgrown bowl style haircuts.  Kinda cute, actually.

Although there aren’t any definite indicators of sex like we would use today, I’m inclined to say the three central children are male while the remaining three are female.  The two golden haired children around the mother also look like twins, but again, reckless speculation.  You, readers, will simply have to give me your take as I have thrown research out the window and had my fun labeling the children with their respective (and imaginary roles).

John Lee and His Family by John Russell (1809)

click to enlarge

What do you think?  Have I got it all wrong and maligned the children?  Is birth order theory a sham?  And what about Dad?  Do you have a read on him or another interpretation of the family?  Leave me your comments. I’d love to hear them!

Poking Fun at Georgie

In the words of JT on your birthday…

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George Washington by Valentine Green after Charles Willson Peale (1785)

This portrait just makes me laugh.  There are lots of problems I could point out, but I think you guys can discover them on your own.  Unfortunate aspects aside though, our oldest president almost pulls off dashing, especially when compared with “I’ve lost me teeth” portrait we all know and probably don’t love.

Today’s historical trivia

Is today George Washington’s birthday?  My ICal says it is but sadly, it’s wrong. Georgie’s birthday actually falls on February 22nd.  So why do calendars (and many people) still think it’s George Washington’s birthday today?  Read here.

A Review of A River in Time

A River in Time by Deborah Courville

One of the things I like about reading novels by history enthusiasts is the energy they channel into their writing. Deborah Courville, a docent a The Oldest House, and author of A River in Time, is no exception. Right off, I could tell she enjoyed exploring The Oldest House’s history, and as a charitable novella*, this absolutely works because the target audience is those who’ve visited. But I haven’t stepped foot into the ‘living museum’ in Laceyville, Pennsylvania, and prior to reading purposely didn’t Google a darned thing because I wanted to test out whether or not the story would quell my interest. I’m pleased to say it did, for whether or not you pick up this book in Pennsylvania or on Amazon, the story is sweet and charming.

A River in Time is essentially an American time travel novella circa present day and 1795. Like Courville, Izzy, the heroine, is a volunteer at The Oldest House, except she has the misfortune (or perhaps fortune) to travel back to 1795. With the ability to think quickly on her feet, Izzy assumes the identity of Countess Isabeau de Villehardouin, an actual relative of hers who lived in the 18th century, but unlike the real countess, Izzy is pretty clueless on how to deal with 18th century life. Luckily, Izzy time traveled under an oak tree at The Oldest House and into the hospitality of the Sturdevants, possibly the nicest family in Laceyville. Without family back in the 21st century, it’s not long before Izzy begins to find a place within the gentle Sturdevants. Joshua, a law student mentored by a colleague of Thomas Jefferson’s and brother to the friendly couple living at the house, takes a fancy to Izzy. Their romance is rather sweet. Guided by a balance of his forward-thinking and Izzy’s modern sensibilities, their unintended courtship presents the main conflict in the tale beyond the time traveling snafu.

Since A River in Time is a 148 pages, which straddles the lines between novel and novella, I expected a fast pace of events, but once Izzy realizes her conflict–return to her time or possibly stay in 1795–her whole thought process felt whirlwind.  In the author’s defense, love is kinda like that, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a little bit missing.  Joshua’s turnabout acceptance of his time traveling lady also seemed a bit sudden, but I honestly think this about 99% of time traveling novels and I did enjoy Courville’s explanation of how Joshua came to understand what would have been a mind blowing notion before television and Google.  Given his character, it made sense, and I like sense.  By the novella’s end, much like Izzy I got hooked on the family and found my interest in The Oldest House sufficiently fanned. I imagine a visit, with the perspective from the novella, would make it an absolute historical delight.

Recommended to lovers of small town 18th century American history, fans of sweet family romances, and anybody who thinks time travel to 1795 America might just be awesome.  Book benefactors take note: *Proceeds from A River in Time are donated to The Oldest House in Laceyville, PA for its upkeep and repair.

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A Review of ‘How to Create the Perfect Wife’

How to Create the Perfect Wife by Wendy Moore

Thomas Day is the ultimate 18th century misogynist.  He was also an abolitionist, philanthropist, Rousseau obsessive, and a famous children’s writer, but let’s get one thing straight: he was a complete tool.  He expected in a wife more than the average Georgian male desired in every paragon of womanhood he could possibly meet.  Instead of virtue and social poise, he wanted a precise definition of perfection, and despite chancing on the only woman in the world who could give it to him, he was never satisfied with her.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  As Wendy Moore recounts in her delightful book, ‘How to Create The Perfect Wife,’ Thomas Day’s adventure begins with a harebrained idea, borne of dejection after a disastrous betrothal, to mold a child into his future wife.  He wanted his Sophie, the virtuous, frugal, and faithfully abiding wife to Rousseau’s Emile, and like Moore suggests, set about recreating Pygmalion’s Galatea.

Pygmalion and Galatea

Pygmalion and Galatea by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy Trioson (1819)

To accomplish his task, Day and a friend travel to a foundling hospital, select two sprightly candidates, Sabrina and Lucretia, and inform them of a future apprenticeship, kindly leaving out the true facts of the matter.  Day then concocts an educational program and, after a year, chooses Sabrina, the superior-minded and better behaved of the two girls, to be his future wife.  What follows is a hardening process in order to prepare Sabrina for asceticism which, in Day’s estimation, means a departure from fashionable society in order to live a life of scarcity.  His process is nothing short of psychological torture, freezing Sabrina, shooting at her, and generally wobbling the poor girl’s wits until she cracks.

Eventually, perhaps recognizing her imminent peril, Sabrina commits a willful indiscretion.  However minor, it signals a connubial death knell to Thomas Day and he casts her aside.   Most amazing about Sabrina’s ordeal is that the experiment wasn’t exactly commenced in secret.  A number of well-to-do Georgians witnessed Day’s attempt to carve an ideal from flesh and never made a peep.  So much for the Age of Enlightenment.  If there is a major pitfall among Georgian intellectuals in this story, it is the emotional detritus created by a strict adherence to logic and thus, the entire abandonment of heart for mind.

Thomas Day by Joseph Wright 1770

Thomas Day by Joseph Wright (1770)

Sabrina was just one casualty of the movement, though Day would argue any future with him was an improvement upon what the foundling hospital could provide.  ‘How to Create the Perfect Wife’ leaves readers to agree or disagree on that point, but Moore’s dry wit in portraying Day is undeniable.  For all that Day is exasperating in his treatment of women, he’s a fascinating fellow.  Through Day’s misadventures, Moore captures a philosophical culture that even its father, Rousseau, found lacking beyond theoretical bounds.  ‘How to Create the Perfect Wife’ is as compelling a social history as it is an arousing biography of an unusual man and for Georgian enthusiasts, it’s a must read.

Review of ‘Vicious’, Plus an Interview with the Author Patricia Beykrat

Vicious by Patricia Beykrat

I’d like to introduce you guys to the author of this gorgeous looking novella, ‘Vicious’.  Her name’s Patricia Beykrat, whom you may know as the blogger Madame de Pique.  Her novella is being released today (congratulations, Patricia!) and she was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the book.  So here, for your delectation, is the interview, followed by my review of ‘Vicious: A Confession’, and lastly, the official book description.

Interview with the author

1. The setting for Vicious is the decadent Rome of nightclubs, 5 star hotels, upscale cars and country villas.  Which atmospheric qualities prompted you to choose this setting over other playgrounds of the rich?  Have you been to Rome yourself?
For a moribund character like Dante, Rome’s climate of eternity makes an irrefutable oxymoron to give prominence to his eventual death and actually reflect the inherent longing for immortality that more or less provoked it. Though I’ve never even set foot on Italian land, the idea of such a setting came natural to me after a period dedicated to musings which had my thoughts coagulate into coherent plans. There’s just something about Roman lifestyle as I encountered it in novels and memoirs, something so brisk and pensive, so full of vivid contrasts, that I was irrevocably convinced Dante would not gain verity in any other background. Call it a mere conjecture, but despite the city being scarcely depicted throughout ‘Vicious’, I felt mentions of it added a lot to the overall atmosphere. So Rome became a necessary presence.
2. Antiheroes are one of my favorite types of heroes and I think they can be harder to write than a moralistic, if flawed, hero.  Likeability factor is an issue, though I’m not sure Dante’s concerned with perception: he fully expects to be worshiped.  As the author, were you concerned readers wouldn’t like him in the conventional sense?  Or is he above this petty need because he considers himself superior?  
Dante’s what I see as the potential of all humankind for a plethora of reasons. He’s, to say, exponential for most men in the given circumstances, though his confessions are not meant to reassemble any ordinary ones while still succeeding to sound familiar. I projected him to incorporate a concept-being readers could abhor, hate or misunderstand at their own will but who could nonetheless exert some fascination. To what extent I fulfilled my goal only the audience can decide.
3. At his essence, Dante is an hedonic egoist.  Although he has no supernatural abilities, he reminded me of a Lestat or a Lucifer, a fallen angel who likens himself to a golden god. Except, unlike those characters, he has to deal with the trappings of mortality. What inspired you to write his story?
At the time ‘Vicious’ emerged as a distinct project, I had long been flirting with the idea of creating a character who can incorporate wealth, brilliance, beauty and tragedy in a less common manner. It was merely a matter of proper words to set it in a visible form and my ideal voice of a smart histrionic hero with an incurable penchant for drama developed a tone.

My Review of ‘Vicious’

The bucket list, the words pride or ignorance never allowed you to say, the cliched desiderata preceding THE END—these are a comfort to the dying.  But for Dante Serafino, a self-described “paradigm of the mythological narcissist,” comfort lies elsewhere.

As an hedonic ideal, he is a Byronic antihero, as primitive as he is urbane.  He is also infinitely superior to the lambs who smugly abide by social order; lambs, he later points out, who experience the chemical high of watching the modern day sinners of Gomorrah fall down.  And who, Dante begins to suggest, is immoral ?

The thing is though, Dante’s journey has very little to do with immorality because at the heart of ‘Vicious’ is deeper tangle: immortality in immorality versus mortality in morality.  Put simply: if you’re alive, you must dare to live in whichever manner ameliorates your inevitability.  Or at least that’s integral to Dante’s argument.  The account proffered is his alone, intimate and self-satisfied.  From his taunting introduction, the reader is invited to follow the exploits, past and present, leading to his last hurrah.  It is a story of spiraling, the bisexual playboy and young financial wunderkind forced to contemplate his existence when I suspect he’d rather be partying.  It’s Dante’s in memorium of the self.

By the end of his tale, you might not like him, you might even loathe him, but his uncommonness transfixes.  And liking him would be beside the point.  It’s the singularity of voice that makes ‘Vicious’ a riveting morsel of novella.  After journeying with him, I was eager to see how he’d bow out, and Ms. Beykrat did not disappoint. ‘Vicious’ has a raw quality about it; imbued within is an ability to both attract and repel a reader. As a psychological thriller, it focuses on the age-old theme of man against self. And perhaps man for himself. I definitely recommend it for readers who enjoy antiheroes, intimate narratives predominated by self-reflection, and dark themes.  If that sounds like your kind of thing . . .

Vicious is available at the following retailers:

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Book Description

Dante blames his qualities for his flaws, envisions himself as a child of vice and plunges into a spiral of sex and alcohol (because humans are “so predictably clichéd”) only to forget he was willing to sacrifice everything for them. Young, rich and a prodigious genius, with a penchant for luxury… he ultimately dies, not before delivering his swan-song, a story of decay, sensuality and self-destruction meant to conquer immortality.

Review: Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell

Back in college when I was getting my BA in English Literature I took a linguistics class on Old English.  Among being taught to translate OE and finding that it was lovely to articulate guttural sounds of “wergild” and “wyrd”, we also learned about Ӕthelred the Unready.  Nice fellow, but first some background.

Ӕthelred was king of England from 978 to 1016.  He produced an abundance of male issue and fought ferociously with the Danes in a time when the chill air of the British Isles was misted with English and Danish blood.  He also had an elder brother, King Edward, who was murdered when he was 10.

In Patricia Bracewell’s book, he has issues.

Emma of Normandy, the sister of Richard II, Duke of Normandy, is his third wife.  Young, beautiful, and, at 15 years old, unprepared for the trials that await her, Emma is Ӕthelred’s latest “wyrd” or fate.  (*History geek squee* You will learn some OE words reading Bracewell’s novel.  If this is your thing, read on.)

As the protagonist in a tale rife with villains, Emma is a likable character, but she’s no Mary Sue.  She marries pluck with poise, intellect with equanimity, and she’s a challenge for her king, who behaves like a spoiled man-child whenever he faces fear or opposition.  It’s been ages since I wanted to skewer a character beneath the nearest portcullis, but Ӕthelred is an irredeemable beast.

Fortunately, another villain waits in the shadows, one that has the potential to fascinate.  Elgiva is Emma’s constant foe, the femme-fatale who tries to outwit and out-seduce her queen.  I warmed up to Elgiva first before gradually thinking the proper punishment for her might be an oubliette.   She is a vain, opportunistic witch.  This is also her charm.  I couldn’t help thinking of Anne Boleyn minus the sympathy factor.  Elgiva’s brother and father use her to their advantage, but Elgiva is more than willing to pay any price to ascend to her rightful place to the throne.  (This is the problem of believing you will be queen, Elgiva: those thoughts get stuck in your head.)

Ultimately, even though Elgiva is strong-willed, the ethos of the age is against her.  This is the hardship every woman in the novel must bear.   Athelstan, Ӕthelred’s eldest son and Emma’s love interest, sums it up best when he reflects on his late mother: “Her impact upon her sons and daughters had been of no greater weight than that made by a single snowflake when it touches the earth.  She had been but a shadow in their lives, almost invisible in the far larger shadow cast by their father, the king.”

If you’re blissfully unaware of early English history, you’ll wonder if Emma’s fate as potential mother to the crown and queen will be the same.  This theme of making one’s mark despite disadvantages is integral to every major character, and Emma gives her best effort.  Whether or not she will triumph is the subject of later books, as Shadow on theCrown is a trilogy.

Verdict

The only real difficulty I had with the novel was the amount of events covered in short frames of time, the effect being the story sometimes had a fast-forward feel.  Shadow on the Crown is based on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the author incorporates periods in Emma’s life which must be largely imagined due to lack of period sources directly related to the queen.  The history is vast, and the cast list comprises a big party, to say the least.

Conversely, one of my favorite aspects to Shadow on the Crown is how I frequently recollected other stories:  Macbeth (when Ӕthelred is ridden with fraternal guilt) and Le Morte d’Arthur (with Elgiva – Morgan le Fay, Athelstan – Lancelot, Emma – Guinevere, and Ӕthelred – decidely not King Arthur).  Whether this was intentional or not, novels that refer to previous literary works have a richness and depth to them and Shadow on the Crown satisfies in this regard.

Bottom line is, if you’ve a soft spot for historicals, particularly about medieval queens and periods seldom explored in fiction, Bracewell’s debut novel is a pleasurable read.

Goodreads Book Description:

A rich tale of power and forbidden love revolving around a young medieval queen

In 1002, fifteen­-year-old Emma of Normandy crosses the Narrow Sea to wed the much older King Athelred of England, whom she meets for the first time at the church door. Thrust into an unfamiliar and treacherous court, with a husband who mistrusts her, stepsons who resent her and a bewitching rival who covets her crown, Emma must defend herself against her enemies and secure her status as queen by bearing a son.

Determined to outmaneuver her adversaries, Emma forges alliances with influential men at court and wins the affection of the English people. But her growing love for a man who is not her husband and the imminent threat of a Viking invasion jeopardize both her crown and her life.

Interview with Susannah Fullerton, Author of ‘Celebrating Pride and Prejudice’

I’m delighted to welcome Susannah Fullerton, author of the lovely new book Celebrating Pride and Prejudice: 200 Years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece to the blog.  As it just so happens, today is EXACTLY  the 200th anniversary for P&P (Pop the champagne, Mr. Darcy and the rest of Meryton’s residents are officially one-fifth of a milllennium old!)  To celebrate I’m hosting a bonafide Austen expert and true enthusiast of the great authoress.  As my regular readers know, I found Susannah’s book incredibly enjoyable (read review here) and Susannah was gracious enough to answer a few of my questions regarding the project.

You’ve been the President of JASA (Jane Austen Society of Australia) for 15 years. How did you first get hooked on Jane Austen and, more specifically, Pride and Prejudice?

It is actually now 18 years since I became President of JASA and it has been a real labour of love. It’s a wonderful, vibrant society and I’ve made so many great friends through JASA and have loved being its President.

My mother read me ‘Pride and Prejudice’ when I was about 12, and I was instantly hooked, though I’m sure I understood very little of its irony or subtlety at that age. My mother adored JA’s novels and so did her mother and grandmother, so I’m from a long line of women who have gained huge pleasure from reading her works.

Your previous book A Dance with Jane Austen: How a Novelist and her Characters Went to a Ball was published in October of 2012, three months prior to when Celebrating Pride and Prejudice hit shelves this month. What was it like researching two historically rich writing projects back to back?

Never again will I do two books so close together!! I was asked quite some time ago to write the book on ‘Dance’ for Frances Lincoln. Just as I was close to finishing it, they contacted me about a proposal I’d put to them many months before for a book about 200 years of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, and gave me a deadline, so it was all quite tight. However, I adored every minute of writing ‘Celebrating Pride and Prejudice’ – I was for months immersed in the world of the Bennets, Darcys, Bingleys etc, and was just so happy! The tough part was the images, as both books are very beautifully illustrated. Getting permissions and good quality images was the hardest part of the whole project, especially with a deadline to meet.

People kept saying to me that after 2 books about Jane Austen I must be tired of her and need a change, but quite the contrary! I’m so excited about the big ‘Pride and Prejudice’ 200th anniversary year and am looking forward to giving a huge number of talks about my new book and ‘P & P’ in Australia, the USA and the UK. I feel very proud of both my books, but will try in future to make sure that I have a bit of a break in between writing projects.

I enjoyed your commentary in the chapter ‘Did They All Live Happily Ever After?: Sequels and Adaptations.’ It’s indicative of Pride and Prejudice’s everlasting appeal that a great number of writers wish to tell their version of the characters’ happily ever afters. As an expert on Jane Austen, were you ever tempted to have a go at it, even simply for your own amusement?

Those of us who love the novels of Jane Austen want more!!! She only wrote 6 completed books and it is just not enough. And as her characters are so real to us, we naturally think about their lives after the novel ends, wonder who single characters might end up marrying, ponder the happiness of the various marriages etc. So it’s not surprising that so many people have tried their hand at sequels. However, I am so in awe of Jane Austen’s brilliance as a writer that I would not dare to even attempt to imitate her, and for me no sequel is ever really satisfying because it is not written by Jane Austen.

Pride and Prejudice is rarely, if ever, interpreted on screen as a Georgian period piece. Given that it was first begun in 1796, then later revised and eventually published in 1813, do you think there is anything quintessentially Georgian about the text?

I think Jane Austen was hugely influenced by the Georgian era, rather than the Regency (which was technically Georgian too, though we often tend to think of it as a separate era). Dr Johnson was the quintessential Georgian writer, and quite often Mr Darcy sounds like Dr Johnson. I think the first sentence of the novel (and I write a chapter about that sentence in my book) is strongly influenced by Georgian moralists and essayists. I think the wonderful balance of her prose is typically Georgian, as is the way in which she weighs up various qualities and characteristics, her rationality and good sense.

The fun question comes last. You have a chapter devoted to ‘Selling Pride and Prejudice’ that discusses the merchandizing and tourism worlds associated with the novel. Do you own any memorabilia that you absolutely had to buy, or have you visited any must-see places related to Pride and Prejudice?

I have a car number plate holder with words from the novel, I have notepads and other stationery with quotes, I have a cake of Mr Darcy soap (yet to be used!) and fridge magnets, a nighty, a mug, a trivia game, a jigsaw puzzle, postage stamp, and confetti (I’m waiting for the right bride to throw it at!) so, as you can tell, I’m as addicted as most fans to buying ‘P & P’ related merchandise.

And as I lead literary tours to the UK every year, I have visited the places connected with Jane Austen and her novel. When I cross into Derbyshire and see the sign for it, I immediately think of Mr Darcy. When I enter Hertfordshire I think of the Bennets, and of course Hampshire is Jane Austen country for me.

However, my most treasured ‘things’ are my copies of the novel – I have about 12 different versions, with different illustrations (there is a chapter in my book about the very varied illustrators of the novel), different scholarly notes and introductions, different designs for their covers. No matter which copy I pick up, it somehow always falls open at the right place and is always guaranteed to bring me joy. This 200th anniversary year is so special! For 200 years ‘Pride and Prejudice’ has been delighting the world – long may it continue to do so!

Thank you, Susannah, for allowing me to host you on Life Takes Lemons!  For more information about Susannah and her work, please visit her home on the web.

In Defense of Novels: Jane Austen’s Perspective

In December 1817 Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey was published posthumously.  She’d been a novelist in print since 1811, and presumably, like all novelists, had occasioned to meet with derisive, if not outright patronizing, commentary when she’d discussed that activity which had brought her the most joy and possibly the most angst: writing novels.

The New Novel, 1877 | WInslow Homer
The New Novel, 1877 | WInslow Homer

In the 18th century, as well as throughout the 19th century, reading fiction was a questionable avocation.  It led the mind toward fancies and illusions; for weak-minded females, reading romances could turn the potentially perfect wife into an Elizabeth Bennet, a bluestocking, a virago with irrepressible opinions.  Gentlemen cautioned against these idle amusements, but Jane Austen and erudite intellectuals like herself offered their vehement replies.  Her sentiments on the matter appear within Northanger Abbey.  Couched within is a soliloquy in defense of novels, and I can put her argument in no cleverer words than she already has.  The passage of interest appears shortly after a description of Catherine’s and Isabella’s progressing friendship and informs how novels allow for invaluable ingress into the human condition:

” . . . and if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together.  Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding–joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages in disgust.  Alas!  If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?  I cannot approve of it.  Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans.  Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition have been so much decried.

Lady Reading in a Wooded Park, 1770 | George Stubbs
Lady Reading in a Wooded Park, 1770 | George Stubbs

From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers.  And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens–there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.  ‘I am no novel reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.’  Such a common cant.  ‘And what are you reading, Miss –?’ ‘Oh! It is only a novel!’ replies the young lady, while she lays down her books with affected indifference, or momentary shame.  ‘It is only Cecelia, or Camilla, or Belinda’; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.

Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbably circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.”

Hurrah for Jane!  The above is a total smack-down, and I can’t say I blame her for the rebuke, but I do adore history. Of course today’s society is much more approving of novels, but I, too, have heard many an opinion on the uselessness of fiction–from people who have obviously never read Austen! The bottom line is: can we not applaud both pursuits and be all the more finely tuned by what the two subjects have to offer each other? I like to think so, but I also can’t help but wonder that if Austen were alive today, would she be writing incisive commentary on modern day life, something along the lines of (don’t smack me) Lena Dunham’s Girls? Or even Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary?

A Review of ‘Celebrating Pride and Prejudice’

Publication Date: January 1, 2013
Publication Date: January 1, 2013

There’s magic in reading a book that’s destined to stay with you through the years.  The act of discovery is reactive.  It ripples into perspective, tearing off rose-colored glasses or placing them back on.  As with the best books, this alchemy alters everything.  The world is suddenly different.  And this is wonderful.

The terrible part comes next.  There’s that twinge of sadness when the first impression is over because there is only one first time, one exhilarating intake of those perfect moments of pleasurable reading.  Pride and Prejudice evokes these feelings in the happy souls who experience love at first read, and the loss is enough to make readers inclined, if only for a heartbeat, to go about wailing like Mrs. Bennet.

The good news is that Janeites can save themselves the trouble.

Much like rereading P&P, spending a few hours with Susannah Fullerton’s Celebrating Pride and Prejudice: 200 Years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece is a balm to the dismal fact that there is but one P&P among myriad imitations.  It’s a bonus that Fullerton’s enjoyment in writing the commemoration is palpable; what the book tries to accomplish and indeed does is evoke the delight of what Austen called “my own darling child” by exploring what makes the novel unforgettable.

The table of contents is enough to get this reader excited.  My favorite chapter is ‘Did They all Live Happily Ever After?: Sequels and Adaptations’ as it is an amusing summary of what happens when a novel enters the public imagination.  Visually, Celebrating also has much to recommend itself.  The pages offer illustrations adorning various editions, covers on translations and teen imprints, and historical depictions of place and person.  Fullerton’s character analyses of Elizabeth as a luminously unique heroine in her time and Darcy as the mold from which many beloved romance heroes now spring are likewise irresistible.

Underscoring all is a history of the novel’s journey, from its inception in 1796, to its underwhelming public reception before it eventually reached epic literary status.  By the book’s end, Celebrating presents an engrossing study of why P&P is so appealing.  For Janeites, it is a thoughtful guide to everything P&P.  For writers, it invites us to consider the forest for the trees.  History buffs and literary enthusiasts will also enjoy a look inside the evolution of a masterpiece, from publication to metamorphosis through films, literary sequels and adaptations, and yes, merchandising.

Verdict

I believe Fullerton has celebrated P&P in a way Jane Austen would appreciate.  The tone of Celebrating Pride and Prejudice possesses nothing of the sparkly fandom that Lydia Bennet might exhibit, nor the dry pedagogical airs of Mary Bennet.  It achieves something akin to the sisterhood between Elizabeth and Jane: best enjoyed with a warm cup of tea in a room shared with an old friend. I loved it and would highly recommend giving it a read.

~ Book Description ~

“Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure,” Elizabeth Bennet tells Fitzwilliam Darcy in one of countless exhilarating scenes in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. The remembrance of Austen’s brilliant work has given its readers pleasure for 200 years and is certain to do so for centuries to come. The book is incomparable for its wit, humor, and insights into how we think and act—and how our “first impressions” (the book’s initial title) can often be remarkably off-base. All of these facets are explored and commemorated in Celebrating Pride and Prejudice, written by preeminent Austen scholar Susannah Fullerton. Fullerton delves into what makes Pride and Prejudice such a groundbreaking masterpiece, including the story behind its creation (the first version may have been an epistolary novel written when Austen was only twenty), its reception upon publication, and its tremendous legacy, from the many films and miniseries inspired by the book (such as the 1995 BBC miniseries starring Colin Firth) to the even more numerous “sequels,” adaptations, mash-ups (zombies and vampires and the like), and pieces of merchandise, many of them very bizarre.
 
Interspersed throughout are fascinating stories about Austen’s brief engagement (perhaps to the man who inspired the ridiculous Mr. Collins), the “Darcin” pheromone, the ways in which Pride and Prejudice served as bibliotherapy in the World War I trenches, why it caused one famous author to be tempted into thievery, and much more. Celebrating Pride and Prejudice is a wonderful celebration of a book that has had an immeasurable influence on literature and on anyone who has had the good fortune to discover it.
 
~ About Susannah Fullerton ~
 
Susannah Fullerton is president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia (the largest literary society in the country), a post she has held for the past fifteen years.  She is a popular literary lecturer, the author of Jane Austen and Crime and many articles about Austen, and the co-editor of Jane Austen: Antipodean Views.
 
For more about Ms. Fullerton and her work, please visit her website.