Month: March 2015

JANE AUSTEN’S ANSWER TO CRITICS OF THE NOVEL

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Jane AustenOf course it comes as no surprise to anyone even remotely acquainted with me or my scribbling to know that Jane Austen is my all-time favorite writer. I reread her works at regular intervals. In Jane Austen’s day the novel was a relatively new art form—and one not universally held in high regard, for they were seen as appealing primarily to women.

In 1793 (Jane was 18 and already perfecting her command of the new literary form), the Evangelical Magazine described novels as “instruments of abomination. A fond attachment to them is an irrefragable [irrefutable] evidence of a mind contaminated, and totally unfitted for the serious pursuits of study or the delightful exercises and enjoyments of religion.”

Jane’s response to such thinking, appropriately enough appears in the pages of one of her novels, Northanger Abbey. Yes, the language is so-o-o Jane Austen. After all, it was written 200 years ago, but what she says of novels in general—and the contempt with which they were held then—applies, I think, to the attitude in many quarters toward romance novels of our day.

The narrator of Northanger Abbey has just described two young women who “shut themselves up, to read novels together.” I hope you find this excerpt as amusing and thoughtful as I did:

Yes, novels;—for I will not adopt the ungenerous and impolite custom so common with novel writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they themselves are 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 with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel not be 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 the 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 has been so decried. 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, Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Stern, are eulogized by a thousand pens;—there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labor of the novelist, and 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 is the common cant—‘And what are you reading Miss—-?’ ‘Oh! it is only a novel!’ replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame.—‘It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;’ or, in short only some work in which the thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language. . . .’

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EMILY HENDRICKSON, REGENCY MENTOR

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Dee-photoAs has happened with thousands of others, my love of Regencies began with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice when I was a teenager. In my twenties, I stumbled onto the works of Georgette Heyer and I wanted to weep when I had run through all her Regencies.

Then I discovered Emily Hendrickson’s novels set in my favorite historical period. Oh, happy day!

Imagine my delight when I joined the Reno chapter of Romance Writers of America and discovered that Emily—“Dee”—Hendrickson was one of the key members of that group!

When Dee learned that I was trying to write a Regency, she offered her help and even gave me a copy of her Regency Reference Book. That book—and a myriad of phone calls—saved me from a multitude of errors. It continues to do so.

Anyone who really wants to be immersed in the Regency should own Dee’s book—and it is an absolute must for anyone who writes Regencies! (It is also available on CD-ROM.) It presents an eclectic gathering of topics: descriptions of male and female fashions, including types of fabrics used; types of carriages; the mail system; funeral practices; a dictionary of contemporary slang—and much more!

Yes, there are other reference books on the Regency period, but none whose coverage is so complete and readily usable. The Writers’ Digest tome on life in Regency and Victorian England is a good one. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool is nicely organized and insightful. Lawrence Stone’s books on marriage and divorce in England span several centuries and contain fascinating anecdotes. And, of course, there all those straight history books and hundreds of biographies and diaries.

But my “go to” source is always Emily Hendrickson first.

J. K. ROWLING

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When J. K. Rowling was charging through all those barriers of adolescent ignorance and prejudice against the written word, I, too, read the first three Potter books. I enjoyed them immensely. But before the fourth one came out, I got sidetracked and never returned to the series—a fact that I regret, but not enough to reread the first three in order to bring me up to snuff for the others.

However, I still marvel at her ability to get preteens and teens all over the world to put down their video games and read a book. A real BOOK. Books. Books of several hundred pages, yet!

Earlier this month I read what someone told me was her first adult novel, A Casual Vacancy. (Digression: The Potter books seemed aimed at young people though their appeal was ageless.) ACV is, like the Potter books, lengthy—over 600 pages. I thought it could have been shorter—by maybe 200 pages. Still, it was readable. In chapter one a heart attacks fells a well-liked member of a small English town. His death leaves a vacancy on the town council. There is no great mystery or trauma as we see the effects of a rather ordinary event on the lives of various individuals.

Rowling does manage to keep us intrigued through those 600-plus pages–this is, after all, the writer who pried all those kids’ fingers from their video games. She explores family dynamics, small town politics, petty grievances, prejudices, dreams deferred and dreams destroyed. Yet she shows how the human spirit trudges on and even triumphs sometimes in spite of events and circumstances.

Was the book entertaining? Well, yes. But more in the way of something by Willa Cather, rather than Nora Ephron.

I liked it.

(But I still think A Casual Vacancy could have been 200 pages shorter. . . .)

A SOIREE MUSICALE

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I recently attended a performance of a trio of folk singers who bill themselves as Brother Sun. Faintly reminiscent of The Kingston Trio of years gone by, they are, in a word, terrific!

Most of their numbers were original compositions such as “The Lady of the Harbor,” a tribute to the Statue of Liberty, but they also performed Pete Seeger’s musical response to being questioned by the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee. Most amusing was a take-off on Fox News which is available on YouTube or the Brother Sun website. Check it out.

But that is not why I am writing about this most enjoyable evening.

The whole scene was new—to me, at least. A friend of mine invited the group to perform in her home and asked each of her 45-50 guests for a donation for the performers. She provided a delightful evening in an intimate, homey atmosphere and she gave a boost—however slight—to the careers of some deserving musicians. It struck me that this was just the sort of entertainment a Regency hostess might have offered her guests at a soiree musicale.

As I say, the format of the program—a concert in someone’s home—was new to me, but maybe I am just out of the loop entirely and this is a common occurrence???

In any event, I think it is a great idea for local or visiting artists trying to establish themselves. Great for the audience too: a relaxed friendly atmosphere, good entertainment, ample refreshments.

What more could one ask for?