Tag Archives: Jane Austen

Whodunit? Confessions in a Reading Journal

I’ll be honest. I love a good mystery. And lately, I’ve been on a huge (and long-lasting) whodunit kick. That’s part of the reason I haven’t written much lately: I find mysteries really hard to write about without giving too much away.

This particular kick all started with Death Comes to Pemberley, P. D. James’s recent release that imagines Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy’s life at Pemberley, if someone were to complete the pollution of Pemberley’s shades by committing murder therein. I figured that anyone who so expertly captured the tone of Jane Austen, as James does while recapping the whole of Pride and Prejudice in the prologue of Death Comes to Pemberley, was worth reading on her own account:

It was generally agreed by the female residents of Meryton that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet of Longbourn had been fortunate in the disposal in marriage of four of their five daughters…A family of five unmarried daughters is sure of attracting the sympathetic concern of all their neighbours, particularly where other diversions are few, and the situation of the Bennets was especially unfortunate.

In terms of Austen spin-offs, it was the best I’ve yet seen at recapturing Austen’s sardonic tone, and it convinced me to read more. For me, the mystery itself was somewhat forgettable, but, won by her writing from the first, I plunged onward, to Cover Her Face, the first in James’s series about Scotland Yard detective Adam Dalgliesh.

After Cover Her Face, I decided that I quite liked this aloof, intelligent poet-detective, so I read on through A Mind to Murder, Unnatural Causes, and Shroud for a Nightingale. (I’m kind of a stickler for reading books in order.) What I find so compelling about James’s novels is the strong, fine writing and the authentic characterizations. Although most of our time is spent with Dalgliesh, James adeptly moves from one character’s point of view to another’s, and each character’s reactions (as told or perceived) always feel real, and are often sympathetic in their own way. So far, I’ve also found her books to be richly atmospheric, with the place and circumstances of the murder contributing to a unique underlying sense of foreboding. The Black Tower, book number five, is waiting on my Kindle.

Somewhere in the midst of my P. D. James foray, I decided I could no longer put off reading Josephine Tey, who, like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, is considered a queen of the Golden Age of Mystery. I started with Brat Farrar. One of my favorite authors, Mary Stewart, wrote a novel called The Ivy Tree as “fan fiction” for Brat Farrar, so it was high time that I made Tey’s acquaintance. And I loved Brat Farrar. It’s the story of an imposter posing as the returned family heir, a boy who disappeared as a child and was presumed dead.

But Brat Farrar was so much more than that. Josephine Tey had a gift for storytelling, for drawing you along and making characters real and sympathetic. My favorite part of this book – though this could be considered a spoiler – was that Tey never tells us how the murder was done. It’s a singular triumph, because the story still manages to be fully satisfying. I’ll definitely read more of Josephine Tey.

Although I haven’t spoken of my love for Lord Peter Wimsey recently, you may safely assume it abides unabated, and that one weather eye is always open for a suitable costume monocle. And it was because someone told me that Ngaio Marsh’s gentleman detective, Roderick Alleyn, was rather like Lord Peter that I decided to meet him. So somewhere in the middle of my James spree, I read A Man Lay Dead, which was so enjoyable that it was immediately followed by Marsh’s third book, The Nursing Home Murder. (Marsh’s books are out of print, and not yet all available for Kindle, so I was limited to her first and third efforts; although as of this post’s publication date, Amazon has released 2, 4, 5, and 8 in a “collection” – go figure.) And though Lord Peter isn’t presently in any danger of displacement in my affection, I quite liked Roderick Alleyn, and Ngaio Marsh’s writing, such as:

“Sagacious woman, you have stolen my stock bit of thunder.”

Or:

“You can take that inordinately conceited look off your face and compose it into its customary mould of startled incredulity.”

Or even:

It would be tedious to attempt a phonetic reproduction of Mr. Sage’s utterances. Enough to say that they were genteel to a fantastic degree. “Aye thot Aye heard somewon teeking may neem in veen,” may give some idea of his rendering of the above sentence.

Hopefully, you get the (delightful) idea.

So that’s most of what I’ve been reading of late. Have you read any good mysteries lately?

I love presents. And Jane Austen.

With only twenty-three shopping days left until my birthday, I thought I would just make the world aware that the (quite beautiful) turquoise and gold ring which belonged to Jane Austen is going up for auction at Sotheby’s (guide price between 20 and 30 thousand pounds). Upon discovering this last Friday, I did the natural thing: I called my mother to tell her about it.

Seeing this ring and reading about it reminded me of something that Barbara Pym is quoted as saying, after a visit to Jane Austen’s family home.

I put my hand down on Jane’s desk and bring it up covered with dust. Oh that some of her genius might rub off on me! One would have imagined the devoted female custodian going round with her duster at least every other day.

And also Harper Lee:

…in other words, all I want to be is the Jane Austen of South Alabama…

Exactly.

In lieu of the real thing, plagued as I am with inherited ancestral practicality, exact reproductions would be perfectly acceptable to me, just in case anyone was wondering.

Regency Slang is an Acquired Taste

image via Sourcebooks

I am highly suspicious of all works by authors described as “the next best thing to reading Jane Austen” (unless that author is Barbara Pym), so I was a reluctant latecomer to the novels of Georgette Heyer.

My first attempt at reading one of Georgette Heyer’s books was False Colours. I made it about fifty pages in before I gave up; the vapid mother, improbable identical twin plot, and ultimately the extensive use of Regency slang overcame my patience. For me, the language of Heyer will ever be an acquired taste, and I don’t recommend starting with one of her books that really indulges in it until you’ve acquired it. Eventually, you may even embrace it, and find yourself rejoicing at any opportunity to incorporate phrases like “There’s no need to fly up into the boughs!” into your everyday conversation. (So far, I’ve had only one opportunity, but I remain at the ready, should the occasion call.)

A few years after that first attempt, in a readers’ advisory class in library school, one of my classmates recommended The Grand Sophy to me. I pooh-poohed. I thought I knew better. But another classmate urged me very articulately to reconsider, saying that she didn’t know who was responsible for choosing the order or frequency with which Heyer novels are republished, but someone should really take that person in hand. That following summer, when the stress of my sister getting married and moving halfway across the country was rising, I gave The Grand Sophy a try. If ever there was a time for escapist Regency fiction, it was the summer of 2010.

I’ve written elsewhere about The Grand Sophy, Frederica, and Arabella. What I didn’t say there, though, was that I read The Grand Sophy in less than a week while on my sister’s bachelorette trip in San Francisco; I finished it on the flight home, and immediately upon finishing it, still on the plane, downloaded Frederica to my kindle.

Since reading those three, I’ve gone on to read many more, including: The Nonesuch, Lady of QualityThe Reluctant Widow, Talisman Ring, and, best of all, Venetia. Venetia is far and away my favorite Georgette Heyer novel. Featuring the two most well-read and well-spoken of Heyer’s characters, it’s the sparkliest of the sparkly banter – and happily, unlike some of Heyer’s novels, our hero and heroine get to spend a lot of time together.

I like all of Heyer’s older, “on the shelf” heroines, but Venetia is my favorite probably because I identify the most with her character. She’s a prettier, much more fun and witty version of myself, like how I imagine myself to be on my best days, if all my lines were previously scripted and I had met a worthy opponent. And speaking of worthy opponents: Lord Damerel is a shining example of that ever-so-attractive archetype, the rake seeking redemption (even if he isn’t quite aware of it yet).

But this post isn’t just about Venetia as a novel and how I reread my favorite parts at regular, probably embarrassingly frequent, intervals; it’s also about Venetia, the audiobook, read by Richard Armitage. It’s simply excellent, and worth checking out whether or not you’ve read the novel.

If ever they make a movie version of Venetia, which is a marvelously good idea, they really need to have Richard Armitage play Lord Damerel. I consider Mr. Armitage to be the nonpareil portrayer of conflicted emotions, smoldering glances, and eyes that are “smiling yet fierce” (see North and South); he really is the only choice. And obviously, I would play Venetia. I have no acting training, but I believe, in this case alone, the sheer force of my enthusiasm and familiarity with the story would carry the day.

A Defense of Jane Austen

Or, George Eliot versus Jane Austen: By a Partial, Prejudiced, and Ignorant Admirer

George Eliot at 30

Jane Austen

I recently read an article in The New Yorker called “Middlemarch and Me”, by Rebecca Mead, about George Eliot’s life and works and the author’s relationship with them over the years. Near the middle, Ms. Mead contrasts the differing popularity levels of Jane Austen and George Eliot.

This is probably as good a time as any to confess that I am, entirely unnecessarily and ridiculously, hyper-protective of Jane Austen and her novels. No doubt this issue will come up again on this blog, so it’s best that you know this, dear reader, and the sooner, the better.

Most likely because of my nutty protectionist philosophy concerning Jane Austen, I find that whenever people talk about her work in terms of its widespread popularity, it always seems to me as though there is some kind of implied insult. I am sure that wasn’t what Ms. Mead intended by describing Austen’s novels with the phrase “crystalline, comic novels of medium length.”

Mead continues:

“Eliot admired Austen…but George Eliot…went on to surpass her precursor. She is as adept as Austen at the ironic depiction of high and middle-class society…But Eliot’s satire, unlike Austen’s, stops short of cruelty. She is inveterately magnanimous, even when it comes to her most flawed characters; her default authorial position is one of pity…A reader marvels at Jane Austen’s cleverness, but is astonished by George Eliot’s intelligence.”

I sat stupefied. Cruel? My Jane Austen, cruel?

I have to preface the rest with a caveat: I am significantly less acquainted with George Eliot’s work than with Austen’s: my entire exposure is comprised of a class I took in the “later 19th century English novel” in which Daniel Deronda was assigned. A moment of truth: I couldn’t finish it. Gwendolen Harleth, the principal character, was impossible for me to like. She was selfish, stubborn, spoiled. Significantly lacking in wisdom, with one poor choice after another she saddled herself with a life of misery.

I’m wondering at Mead’s assertion related to Eliot’s “pitying” even her most flawed characters; wondering whether authors should stand in positions of pity over their characters. Positions of sympathy, yes: sympathy which expresses understanding for what and how a character feels, the thought of having been in a character’s place, of having felt her sorrows and her joys. Pity seems rather to convey a sense of superiority, of feeling the pain of another’s position without the acknowledgment of sharing in that character’s position.

In Daniel Deronda, Gwendolen ultimately does grow as a character, but the journey is long and arduous; her ending, while just, is not happy in any traditional sense.  One might argue that Austen, by giving her characters both just and happy endings, displayed more magnanimity than Eliot.

But I struggle the most with what Mead describes as Austen’s cruelty. Certainly Austen never flinched from an honest rendering of the ridiculousness residing in any one of us, and one notices her cleverness, reading her novels. But I also admire the intelligence in her observations of the world and the people in it. Jane Austen noticed things; and it is these details, captured with her sense of good humor in sympathy with human nature, which make her work so dear.

In my partial, prejudiced, and ignorant opinion, of course.

Article citation: Mead, Rebecca. “Middlemarch and Me.” The New Yorker 14 and 21 February 2011: 76-83. Print.

Unbirthday for Lord Peter

My heart belongs to Lord Peter Wimsey.  That is, more accurately, it is occupied in approximately equal parts by Messrs. Darcy, Knightley, and Tilney, and Lord Peter Wimsey.  The only ordering of that list, I caution, is alphabetical.

Unlike Jane Austen’s heroes, with perhaps the exception of Henry Tilney, whose conversation equals Lord Peter’s, Lord Peter was entirely pleasing from the first moment that I met him, swearing in a taxi, on his way to a sale of rare manuscripts.  Every inch the gentleman, Lord Peter is all charm and manners, cleverly artificing a great depth of feeling behind urbane inanity, with admirable capacity to maintain a steady stream of circuitous conversational nonsense.

Maybe because I’m finally getting old enough that I feel it’s time I start embracing the things that I love, instead of apologizing for them (or for the fervor with which I hold them dear), I decided that this is the year I will start celebrating Lord Peter Wimsey’s birthday.  I looked through my books, and I scoured the internet, only to discover that Dorothy Sayers never gave Lord Peter a birthday, only a year (1890).  I feel certain, however, that it must have been a merry hour, in which a star danced: perhaps a day in June.

Since the birthdays of other people are considerably more enjoyable than one’s own birthday, why not celebrate Lord Peter’s?  Preferably while clad in period costume, with fine wine, and above all else, while wearing a monocle.