Tag Archives: Jane Austen

Romances or History? A Belle-Esprit and a Marchionesse Debate Novels

As it is my custom to troll through the Lady’s Magazine, looking for tidbits of writing inspiration, I came across a discussion of novels circa 18th century France.  I’ve written previously on how novels were openly scorned in the Georgian era. Even instructive fictions on the deviltry of rogues like Clarissa and Pamela by Samuel Richardson were considered suspect.  History was the only subject worth reading in public spheres, but not everyone, including this open-minded Belle-Espirit, was an opponent of novels.  Rather, like Jane Austen, he advocated that men (and women) of sense would favor a romance* over the ever-popular annals of history.

Visit to a Library, 1760 | Pietro Longhi.
Visit to a Library, 1760 | Pietro Longhi.

A Contrast Between Romance and History

The Belle-Espirit and Marchionesse Debate

A Fine lady in France has generally two toilette; the first is rather reserved, because the cosmetics made use of should be secret; the second is the reign of coquetry.  At the marquise’s second toilet was her confidante madam Lorval, a counsellor and a belle-espirit.

The subject of conversation was novels, and the Marquise [Belle-Espirit] addressed himself to the counsellor on that subject.  His answer was, that there were a great many new ones.  “True,” said the Marchionesse, “but I might soon by satiated at hearing their very names.”

Belle-Espirit:  “Excuse me, my lady, there is no choice–they are all abominable.”

Marchionesse:  “Is it possible? — Why cannot there be a good romance? the subject is easy enough.  Imagination is under no restraint; the field is copious; it may seize on every object that offers, and may gather every flower it meets with in its progress.  A man must really be a —- if he cannot succeed in this line of writing.”

Belle-Espirit:  “My lady, the greatest authors have shown that it is very difficult, a very arduous attempt in this line.   To blend costume and probability; to invent a fable that is simple, fruitful in events, and full of naivete; to please, to rouse, to affect, to surprise, and be able to spin out a long narrative, is an undertaking which few writers are qualified for.  Of all the gifts with which heaven honours mortality, the imagination is the most precious, and the most universally agreeable.  It is a token of our want of reason, not to attribute much esteem to the writer of romances as to the historian.”

Marchionesse:  “Dear Sir, what a paradox!  It is true that history either satiates or shocks me; but the Historian, in the sublimity of his style, is by far superior to the composer of Romances, let him be what he may.”

Belle-Espirit:  “Why, my lady?  The question does not turn upon sublimity, but on sympathy and true.  A Romance is very often more true than a history, without intimating that it is more interesting.  How often does the Historian invent his details; they do not shock the truth, but they are cold, useless and puerile.  What obscurity, with respect to the leading causes!  The writer of Romances gives you a detail of every thing; he assigns a motive for every step which his hero takes.  The thread of events, if he be a skillful writer, is never broken.  He digs deep, he invents, he avoids contradictions, and the improbabilities which about in history, wherein we frequently cannot discover any relation.  The perusal of a romance is not unworthy of a man of sense.   I know nothing more amusing to the most florid undertaking, or to cherish the sensibility of the human heart.   There at least we view men that are good, generous, and full of virtue, and the contemplation of them diverts us from the miseries of humanity.  There is not, perhaps, any thing  of the beautiful, which does not reside in the imagination.  How many persons are there of my acquaintance, who affect to despise romances, and yet do not cease to read them!”

Marchionesse:  “You have then read them passionately, Sir?”

Belle-Espirit:  “Yes, my lady.  This kind of study, I am not ashamed to confess, has formed the most agreeable avocation of my life.”

*Definition of Romanticism in C18/C19 literature

Advertisements

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?

Lord Chesterfield on Giving Compliments, Day 3 REPOST

Originally posted 12/28/10

Dear Lord Chesterfield,

I was recently watching a splendid film called ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (centuries ahead of your time, I’m afraid, old boy) and couldn’t help but cringe upon the following scene involving how to (or how not to) give delicate compliments.

Mr. Collins (the creepy toad): It’s been many years since I had such an exemplary vegetable.

Mr. Bennet: How happy for you, Mr. Collins, to possess a talent for flattering with such . . . delicacy.

Elizabeth Bennet (the serpent-tongued yet lovely chit): Do these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are they the result of previous study?

Mr. Collins: They arise chiefly from what is passing of the time. And though I do sometimes amuse myself with arranging such little elegant compliments, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.

Elizabeth Bennet: Oh, believe me, no one would suspect your manners to be rehearsed.

I trust you can see how I would positively shudder at being considered a Mr. Collins.  Please do advise.

Lost in Austen

Dear Lost in Austen:

You will easily discover every man’s prevailing vanity by observing his favourite topic of conversation; for every man talks most of what he has most a mind to be thought to excel in.  Touch him there, and you touch him to the quick. 

Do not mistake me, and think that I mean to recommend you to abject and criminal flattery: no; flatter nobody’s vices or crimes: on the contrary, abhor and discourage them.  But there is no living in the world without a complaisant indulgence for people’s weaknesses, and innocent, though ridiculous vanities.  If a man has a mind to be thought wiser, and a woman handsomer, than they really are, their error is a comfortable one to themselves, and an innocent one with regard to other people; and I would rather make them my friends by indulging them in it, than my enemies by endeavouring (and that to no purpose) to undeceive them.

There are little attentions, likewise, which are infinitely engaging, and which sensibly affect that degree of pride and self-love, which is inseperable from human nature; as they are unquestionable proofs of the regard and consideration which we have for the persons to whom we pay them.   As for example: to observe the little habits, the likings, the antipathies, and the tastes of those whom we would gain; and then take care to provide them with the one, and to secure them from the other; giving them genteely to understand, that you had ovserved to like such a dish or such a room; for which reason you had prepared it: or, on the contrary having observed they had an aversion to such a dish, dislike to such a person, etc., you had taken care to avoid presenting them.  Such attention to such trifles flatters self-love much more than greater things, as it makes people think themselves almost the only objects of your care and thoughts.

Adieu!

From London, October 16, O.S. 1747

So why did Mr. Collins blunder?  First he asked which cousin to compliment on such a fine meal (An insult.  The Bennet’s were well-off enough to have a cook.  Harrumph!)  Then, he proceeded to compliment them on boiled potatoes, calling such a basic and ordinary food exemplary.  Yikes!  Hopefully none of you endured this sort of exchange over Christmas dinner.

Don’t forget to come back tomorrow for Lord Chesterfield on Domestic Affairs!

Missed the previous day?  Lord Chesterfield on Friendship

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.

An 18th Century Perspective on Elizabeth Bennet

In anticipation of an upcoming review I’ve been reading Susannah Fullerton’s Celebrating Pride and Prejudice: 200 Years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece.  I’ll be posting the full review on December 16th, Jane Austen’s 237th birthday, but in the meantime, I wanted to share with you an 18th century perspective that shows just how incredible the character of Elizabeth Bennet truly was.

Unproven portrait of Jane Austen at Bath, age 15 | Johann Zofanny
Unproven portrait of Jane Austen at Bath, age 15 | Johann Zofanny

Jane Austen started writing Pride and Prejudice in October 1796 at the age of twenty.  She would no doubt have been exposed to the popular publications of the period, including the ever so entertaining Lady’s Magazine: or, Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex.  A few years prior to Austen putting pen to paper for what was then called First Impressions, The Lady’s Magazine published in their 1791 edition “A Letter from a Father to his Daughter on Relative Duties,” part of which is excerpted below.

“Of all the weaknesses the younger part of your sex are most prone to are pride and affectation, and there are none scarce which render more contemptible in the eyes of the thinking and sensible part mankind; therefore as you value the esteem of your friends, crush them in the bud.  The ingenious Mr Addison says “Pride in a woman destroys all symmetry and grace; and affectation is a more terrible enemy to a fine face than the small pox.  

And yet there is no passion so universal or steals into the heart more imperceptibly than pride; at the same time, there is not a single view of human nature, under its present condition, which is not sufficient to extinguish in us all the secret seeds of pride.  As nothing appears more odious and disgusting than pride and affectation, to nothing is more amiable in your sex than humility; it adds a beauty to every feature and a luster to all your action.”*

These epistolary tutelages served as continual nudges against youthful waywardness, advising sons on achievement in politics and education, and daughters on obedience and humility.  Based on works they produced, writers like the young Jane Austen must have felt the thorn in these infuriatingly narrow instructions at one time or another.

From 'Pride and Prejudice' film showing Jane and Elizabeth | 2005
From ‘Pride and Prejudice’ film showing Jane and Elizabeth | 2005

Elizabeth Bennet was a character written from the breed of proud, independently-minded women who were mightily disapproved of by the majority of gentlemen (and a whole lot of gentlewomen) during the 18th century. She is, in many ways, diametrically opposed to the ideal gentlewoman and her genius, of course, is in being appealing nevertheless.  As Fullerton says, “She was a highly unconventional, new sort of heroine, and it is easy for modern readers to underestimate just how astonishing she was for readers of the time.”  What’s interesting is that Austen made Elizabeth THE favorite daughter of her father and despite all obstacles of temperament, she is our heroine.  As Fullerton points out, according to the values of the time Jane Bennet would’ve been the appropriate choice.  I think we can all say thank goodness she wasn’t Austen’s choice, as today only Elizabeth would be ours.

*Find the full letter on page 42 here