Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Jane Austen: 200th Anniversary - Celia Rees

Portrait of Austen (c. 1810) by her sister,  Cassandra

July has been Jane month on the History Girls and today we are marking the 200th anniversary of her death by posting some of our thoughts and observations, favourite books and film adaptations, characters and quotations. 

It is only right and fitting to begin with our leader and founder, Mary Hoffman:

Favourite novel: Persuasion

Favourite character(s): Mr Knightley and Henry Tilney

Favourite scene(s): Elizabeth Bennet’s rejection of Mr Collins’ proposal and his blithe inability to accept it; Same character’s blissful put-down of Lady Catherine.

Favourite dialogue: “ You have shewn that you can dance, and you know we are not really so much brother and sister as to make it at all improper.”

“Brother and sister! no, indeed.” 

(Emma and Mr Knightley) 

Caroline Lawrence says: As a movie lover, I must share my fave film version. It’s the Joe Wright PRIDE & PREJUDICE with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. I saw it four times in the cinema and it was my best film of 2005. The film-making was superb. Five scenes in particular: 1. When Jane arrives at the Bingley's and the door opens and we just see her sneeze. A whole chapter of exposition captured in a single moment. 2. When Elizabeth is on the swing and we see the passing of seasons as she twirls. SO clever. 3. The scene when Darcy confesses his love for Elizabeth in the rain. Women in the audience almost swooned. 4. The scene where Lizzy sees the sunlight through leaves on her closed eyelids. Unique! 5. The final scene in the summer dawn with Darcy coming through the early morning mist and their declaration of love. Bliss!

Pride and Prejudice  
Karen Maitland recommends: 

'...a brilliant new nonfiction book out called The Secret Sisterhood by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney, exploring the hidden literary friendships between female authors. The first chapter is about the influential friendship between Jane Austen and the playwright, Anne Sharp, all mention of which was excluded from the first biography authorised by the family. As Jane Austin writes in Northanger Abbey - "The men think us incapable of real friendship, you know, and I am determined to show them the difference."

Not all History Girls are Janeites. Elizabeth Chadwick confides:

'I shall always remember the utter relief of the class vote not to read Mansfied Park for 'O' level. We were sent away over the summer holidays to read Austen's novel and Brighton Rock by Graham Greene and decide which of the two we wanted to study. In September, there was a unanimous show of hands for Graham Greene - and especial sighs of relief at the result from the boys in the class. People have told me that Mansfield Park is not the best Austen novel for a beginner, but I have tried others and have yet to get beyond the first couple of chapters. However, I have enjoyed the Austen effect and its inspiration in other ways...'

Elizabeth will explain more in her own post on the 24th. 

As Elizabeth reminds us, likes and dislikes regarding literature often go back to school days - when Catherine Hokin was more a Hardy girl than a Janeite. 

'When I was at school the world was very tribal: Donny Osmond or David Cassidy (the latter, of course); Manchester Utd or Liverpool (the latter of course) and, as the joys of A level English bit, Jane Austen or Thomas Hardy - you've guessed it. I was always a Hardy girl, far preferring his tortured heroines and wild landscapes to heaving bosoms in the parlour. And then I got a little older and did a bit of acting including the hilarious Emma by Doon Mackichan, which involved a fabulous frock (although not enough bosom), pretending to be an 8 year old and singing the Marseillaise very loudly (try and see it). I laughed at Clueless and couldn't avoid Colin and the lake and the pages beckoned again. I'll be honest, I'm still not the greatest fan although I do have a soft spot for Northanger Abbey and I could watch Alan Rickman in Sense and Sensibility on a permanent loop. I'm deeply irritated by Elizabeth Bennet, bored rigid by Darcy and nothing about Mansfield Park has improved since school. But, something about Miss Austen drags you back and I'm a better reader for reading her. And Pride and Prejudice gave us Bride and Prejudice - watch that on a cold rainy day with a bucket of chocolate and you'll be the biggest Austen fan in the world.'

Leslie Wilson's favourite quote is Mr Collins "resignation is never so perfect as when the blessing denied begins to lose some of its value in our estimation." 'We're meant to laugh at him, but I think Austen means us to realise we usually proceed on that basis ourselves...'

Her favourite book: Emma

Favourite adaptation hero: Mr Knightley played by Jeremy Northam. 

Favourite character: Miss Bates.

I'm with Leslie. Emma is my favourite, too. Like Elizabeth and Catherine, I was not massively keen on Jane Austen when I was at school. I went to the kind of school where we were made to read the Classics from the First Year on. I remember reading Northanger Abbey and hating it. It wasn't until I was in the Sixth Form and fostering literary pretensions that I picked up Jane Austen again. I started to read Emma and by the end of the first paragraph, I was a convert. 

"Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her." With the added caveat a few lines later that "The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself..."

The whole novel is right there.

I can't leave Emma without mentioning the fabulous 1995 movie, Clueless. A clever, witty adaptation set in 1990s L.A. full of memorable quotations and one liners and surprisingly true to the book. Kardashians with irony? As if!

As writers, we are all aware of the importance and power of that first sentence, that first paragraph. Jane Austen is the past mistress of the consummate opening. She is a novelists' novelist, a superb technician and we still have much to learn from her. 

Carolyn Hughes offers 'three snippets from a book by my friend, mentor and novelist Rebecca Smith, five-times great niece of Jane Austen and former writer-in-residence at Jane Austen’s House Museum, Chawton. The book is The Jane Austen Writers’ Club (Bloomsbury 2016), a guide for writers in which we discover Jane’s “methods, tips and tricks, from techniques of plotting and characterisation through to dialogue and suspense”.

The extracts, from the chapter ‘Plan of a novel’, draw on letters Jane wrote to her niece, Anna, critiquing her draft novels, and to her sister, Cassandra. As I myself am now in “edit mode” with my current novel, I thought these pieces of advice most pertinent!

Don’t clutter your work with unnecessary detail; cut and edit

[From letter to Anna 9th September 1814]: ‘You describe a sweet place, but your descriptions are often more minute than will be liked. You give too many particulars of right hand & left.’

Beware of overwriting and clichés

… ‘Devereux Forester’s [one of Anna’s characters] being ruined by his vanity is extremely good, but I wish you would not let him plunge into a “vortex of dissipation”. I do not object to the thing, but I cannot bear the expression; it is such thorough novel slang, and so old that I daresay Adam met with it in the first novel he opened.’ [Letter to Anna 28th September 1814]

Edit meticulously

Jane noticed [infelicities and repetitions] in whatever she was reading, joking to Cassandra…in spring 1811, ‘It gives me sincere pleasure to hear of Mrs Knight’s having a tolerable night at last, but upon this occasion I wish she had another name, for the two nights jingle very much.’

I'm off to order my copy right now!

Alison Morton reminds us that Jane Austen is one of those writers who can be read and re-read and whose books resonates differently throughout a lifetime. 

'Jane Austen was one of the first writers to capture me entirely. She made me laugh, think and learn at the same time. And reading Pride and Prejudice at 14, 34 and 54 is an entirely different experience. The first time, as a teenager you love the heroine’s story as she makes her painful way to her ‘happy ever after”, as a young married woman in your thirties, slightly wiser about the world, you find yourself nodding, tutting and able to see viewpoint of each character – a much rounder and more satisfying read. At 54 you rediscover this clever, glorious and hilarious book and devour it.

I took my son, then aged 18, to see the film with Keira Knightly (I know, but he had a crush on her!). It was a Wednesday afternoon. I forbade sweets with crackly wrappers – this was Tunbridge Wells and the audience would be packed with older people who were keen Janeites. He scoffed; the cinema would have a dozen people, maximum twenty. Well, we squeezed into practically the last two seats. He surveyed the sea of grey heads and whispered into the silence, “I must be the youngest person here.”

We watched. The photography was splendid, the adaptation pleasant, and Judi Dench suitably terrifying. I ignored the omissions and continuity gaffes. As we filed out, there was genteel chattering. In the foyer, my son, educated at one of the leading boys’ grammar school in the country, turned to me and said. “Really good. But I think I was the only person in there who didn’t know the ending.”'

I leave the last word to History Girl Àdele Geras. 

'Jane Austen's novels have been part of my life since before I was in my teens. She's my favourite novelist and the fact that she wrote so few novels means it's quite easy to read all of them. There's a famous joke told about Harold McMillan, who, when he was once asked if he read novels, answered: "Oh yes, all six, every year!"

My late husband, (Norm Geras, who died in 2013) had read EMMA for his A-levels and liked it very much. He was a slow reader and most of his life as an academic was taken up with reading other things than novels. He was also not fond of travelling but in 2007, I persuaded him to come to Florence on holiday. He took two books: the one he was reading (TRUE GRIT) which he'd almost finished, and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE on the grounds that it was short. He was also aware that it consistently topped the list of most beloved novel in the language.

Have you ever watched someone fall in love? That was what happened. He was just....knocked out. He took to carrying the book around with him all the time and you could see him mentally stroking it and looking at it and just....LOVING it. Being the sort of man he was, once he'd finished that book, he went on to all the others, in order. Then he read the criticism and the lives. Then he read the letters. He became the most ardent Janeite at the age of 64. 

He wrote about her on his blog, normblog, very often. HERE is an account of an event we went to in Ely which speaks for itself. WotN is me. Wife of the Norm. 

I still love Jane Austen best of all but now she has the additional merit of reminding me so much of Norm.'


Joan Lennon said...

Thank you History Girls for these comments, commendations and memories. Happy Jane Month to us all!

Katherine Langrish said...

What a lovely post - and Adele's comments are so moving! I love the thought of Norm 'mentally stroking' Pride and Prejudice. That, and 'Sense and Sensibility', are my favourites. Both are very funny. I didn't appreciate them at all at school: you need to be grown up I think.

Michele said...

I think I must be a very lucky lover of Jane - I discovered her by myself, age 11, in the library of my grammar school before anyone forced her upon me in English Lit classes - and I fell in love instantly. Emma was my first Austen, and for many years my favourite, but these days my two favourites are Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion.

And my favourite adaptation (much as I LOVE Dame Judi) is definitely the BBC's 1995 adaptation of P&P because the Bennet sisters are all exactly right.

michelle lovric said...

Thank you for putting this together, Celia. I think Jane would approve.

Ann Turnbull said...

I've been away, followed by visitors, and completely missed all the build-up to this - but it's lovely to read it all now and be reminded of favourite passages, characters and books. Thank you, everyone. My own favourite beginning is the first sentence of Emma, which promises so much, and has that wonderful word 'vex' in it.

Sue Purkiss said...

Love Pride and Prejudice best. Never quite sure about Emma - she has her faults, but does she really deserve to be so patronised by Knightly? (Embarrassingly, when I first read it, probably at university, I rather admired him...)

Celia Rees said...

Thank you for your comments. I really enjoyed putting this together. It was purely serendipitous - I didn't know who would send me what - but I marvelled at how well the pieces fitted together and what a varied and interesting post it made.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Yes, Celia, you're a star... And so was Jane Austen!

Leslie Wilson said...

I've just remembered that where I first encountered Jane Austen was in a book of extracts for children. It was Mr Collins proposing to Elizabeth B. I thought it so funny. Then (I guess I was ten or eleven) I found P & P in the library and was thrilled to recognise the scene. So Jane Austen began, for me, with laughter, which is indeed why I so love Emma; for the social comedy..

Mary Hoffman said...

Thanks, Celia! You did a great job pulling all this together.

Penny Dolan said...

Thank you very much for compiling this post today, Celia!

A late anecdote, as I carry my guttering candle up to my bedchamber:

At my convent school, we studied Pride and Prejudice. Our English teacher at the time was a stern and formidably clever unmarried woman whose university gown billowed over her sensible tweed suit.

Before one lesson, some girl bolder than the rest, had scrawled WE LOVE DARCY! in huge, chalk letters across the blackboard.

The lesson proceeded, At no time during the hour did our teacher make any reference to the bold graffiti that stared all of us in the face, likely to bring about a class detention, order marks or worse.

At the end of the lesson, as our teacher swept out, she paused for a second, tossed her head and, with a knowing look, remarked "So do I, Five Alpha. So do I!"

We, the girls, stood there, smiling, not knowing what to say.

Lynne Benton said...

Thank you for this post, Celia. I'm a great fan of Jane Austen (well, living in Bath it's almost compulsory!) but my first encounter with her books was, unfortunately, "Northanger Abbey" at school when I was about 14. I thought the heroine was completely wet and didn't enjoy it at all. However, for A level we were introduced to "Emma", and then everything changed - I just loved it! Since then, of course, I've read all the novels, though I'm still not wowed by "Northanger Abbey" - and if I have a favourite it's probably "Sense and Sensibility". And that also goes for films, of which it is my absolute favourite (the Emma Thompson one, in case there's some other version that I've missed.) Loved the post and the comments - and Penny's story!

Leslie Wilson said...

Oh, but Northanger Abbey is ironic and post-modern. Austen leads us through ll the way, never lets us forget that we're reading a novel right to the moment when she remarks that we must realise the denouement is coming because there are so few pages left in the book. But to fully appreciate it you must read Anne Radcliffe's The Romance of the Forest. Then you realise the source material.

Celia Rees said...

I had the same experience, Lynne, but agree with Leslie. I found I had much greater sympathy with the novel when I was older and could see the satire, but also understand the social pressure Catherine was under to conform as a very young woman after the freedom of her childhood. It is a really good young adult novel, it just needed to be taught in a more informative and sympathetic way.