Monday, December 31, 2018

Emma by Jane Austen

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; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.
The narrator - Emma by Jane Austen

It’s easy for a first time reader to file Jane Austen’s well-drawn Emma into a mental file drawer firmly marked “SNOB” and leave her there.

But don’t.

There is a rewarding journey to be made with Emma and it pays to give her character time to develop, to meddle (quite a lot) and then to season with her experiences - especially if you reading Emma for your first time.

"Mr. Knightley, in fact, was one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them...."
Emma - Chapter 1 - Emma by Jane Austen

This masterpiece includes more clear and vivid detail than any other Austen novel and brims with rich Regency detail, period flavor and common manners & customs. And surprisingly enough, Jane Austen’s well-constructed written conversations present an array of human emotions & reactions that will ring true to readers of any time period.

Truly, there is a happy benefit in slowing down, being observant and lending attention to the character development carefully wrought, the clues released by seemingly unimportant characters and the method that Jane Austen used to allow us to follow along with Emma - to see others as she sees them, to judge others as she allows herself to do and to involuntarily wince at the toes that she steps firmly upon while executing her schemes.

Emma was published on the 23rd of December in1815 in three volumes and was dedicated reluctantly by Miss Austen to the Prince Regent, George Augustus Frederick at his request. This uncle to Queen Victoria was Prince Regent from 1811 – 1820 and was not a favorite of Jane Austen.

By Jane Austen

the Prince Regent,
This Work Is,
By His Royal Highness’s Permission,
Most Respectfully Dedicated,
by His Royal Highness’s
And Obedient
Humble Servant,
The Author

This fourth published book was the only Austen novel to be named after its heroine and the last to appear before Jane Austen died in 1817. Jane Austen broke literary ground in writing Emma. Authors before Miss Austen either put their reader directly into the mind of the protagonist by using 1st person narrative or related their actions from a more distant 3rd person view. In Emma - Jane Austen masterfully combined the two - blending the narrator’s thoughts with the feelings and reflections of the character under focus - using a method we now call free indirect speech. This allowed her reader to walk beside Emma and to believe and understand events as she does, but with an added ability to cringe at her mistakes while they are still unknown to her.

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.
Chapter 1: The opening sentence. - Emma by Jane Austen

Before she began Emma, Miss Austen is said to have written, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”
And she was highly successful. For nearly 200 years later, readers are still conflicted over whether to love or hate Emma Woodhouse. Austen has skillfully and lovingly created a central character in this comedy of manners that fearlessly interferes in other people’s lives and prides herself in being an expert and intuitive matchmaker. Admired and adored by both her widowed father and Miss Taylor, her kind-hearted governess, Emma possesses one unfailing and unbiased voice into her life – neighbor to her family home of Hartfield, Mr. Knightley. But will his voice of reason and truth break through her fearless meddling and determined self-deception?

"Mr. Knightley, in fact, was one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them...."
Emma - Chapter 1 - Emma by Jane Austen

We continue reading our beloved Jane Austen with our Winter Book Breakfast choice of Emma. We will be discussing this book on Saturday, January 26th, 2019.

Better be without sense, than misapply it as you do.
Chapter 8: Mr. Knightley to Emma - Emma by Jane Austen

Saturday, September 29, 2018

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

He is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn't specify the point.
Enfield, Chapter 1 - The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde

In the Autumn my thoughts cannot help but turn to mists, quiet mornings and leaves drifting down to crackle underfoot. It’s this beloved time each year that I have a tendency to pick up Dracula by Bram Stoker or Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. But this year - as The Jane Austen Tea Society has chosen the October read to be The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson - I will be delving into a classic novel that I have always had an interest in reading.

By all accounts, Scottish author, Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson was a strange, eccentric and… well… an odd-looking person - plagued by ill health and intensely thin. The historian, Henry Adams literally described Stevenson as “a bundle of sticks in a bag”. He came from a long line of lighthouse engineers on his father’s side and gentry on his mother’s tracing back to the 15th century in Fife. His ill health as a child kept him from often from school and led his learning path through private tutors for long periods of time. But as he entered Edinburgh University to study engineering at 16 years old, he had already most assuredly been bitten by the writing bug. Although he attended classes, he retained a lingering lack of commitment to his studies, became more and more bohemian in dress and manner and made some of Edinburgh’s seedier neighborhoods his regular haunts.

Stevenson’s father opposed his wishes to follow a writing career and encouraged him to study law. Although he was admitted to the Scottish bar in 1875 - he eventually spent more and more time with his expanding group of literary and artistic friends in both the British Isles and on the Continent. In 1876 met an American woman, Fanny Osbourne, who was living and studying art in France. Fanny was 11 years older than Stevenson and had 2 children from a previous marriage but she inspired and encouraged him and they eventually married. They traveled to the US, stayed in an abandoned mining camp and then lived in several places in Britain, Switzerland and the south of France in an attempt to improve Robert’s health. In all of the places that they lived, Robert Louis Stevenson found rich and colorful inspiration for his writing by the locale and the people that they met.

When his father passed away in 1887, the Stevensons traveled again to the US and lived for a couple of years in the Adirondack Mountains but in an ever-present move toward a more beneficial physical atmosphere for Robert, soon left for the South Sea Islands. This final journey proved to be the most conducive to his health and so they settled on the island of Upolu in Samoa and purchased a plantation where they built a house. Robert Louis Stevenson gained a close involvement with the locals - who called him Tusifala (teller of tales) and he passed away there in December of 1894.

His most famous works continue to be Treasure Island, Kidnapped, A Child’s Garden Of Verses and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde.

'If he be Mr. Hyde,' he had thought, 'I shall be Mr. Seek.'
Utterson, Chapter 2 - The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde

First published in 1886, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde has a long and intense history of fascination for readers. This gothic novella has been presented numerous times and in a long succession of variations and adaptations both in films and on stage. And of course, Dr. Jekyll has long been a synonym for someone who is not what they appear to be.

It was first released in paperback for one shilling in the UK/one dollar in the US and was considered a “penny dreadful”. Bookstores showed minimal interest in stocking The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde until the British newspaper, The Times printed a favorable review on January 25, 1886. Sales rapidly increased with over 250,000 copies sold in the US alone by 1901.

Dr. Jekyll is a rich subject for the analysis of themes and meaning and is fertile ground for a great book discussion. Is it an examination of the duality of human nature and the inner struggle between good and evil? Is it representative of Scottish nationalism in conflict with their union with Britain? It is often cited as a clear portrayal of the Victorian era with its struggle between outward respectability and inward passions and separation of the classes - what we show in public and act out in private. Who do we become in unguarded or unobserved moments?

Yes, I had gone to bed Henry Jekyll, I had awakened Edward Hyde. How was this to be explained? I asked myself; and then, with another bound of terror—how was it to be remedied?
Dr. Jekyll, Chapter 10 - The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde

Our Autumn book discussion on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde will take place near the end of October here in Nashville. There is plenty of time to walk the vivid & atmospheric path that this book offers and come up with your own analysis. Don’t pass this famous Robert Louis Stevenson masterpiece by and miss the experience!

Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

“I won't be a slave to the past. I'll love where I choose.”
― Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

I long to visit England…  to one day have the chance to travel through Wessex…  to wander the sweet smelling farm where Bathsheba Everdene walked with Gabriel Oak among the pastures and flocks, where Tess Durbeyfield lived her early simple cottage life and the town of Casterbridge, where a mayor’s past catches up with him….

The problem is… there is actually no such place.  
A fictitious area that featured as a setting in all of Hardy’s major novels, Wessex was named after the medieval Anglo-Saxon kingdom that historically did exist in southwest England prior to the Norman Conquest and it was the area that Hardy himself called home. Using this imagined world gave Hardy a feeling of freedom that enabled him to  translate his social concerns into his fictional works  - whether it related to class inequality issues, the ruination of many rural communities by new industry and technologies or the troubling gender issues that affected all levels of Hardy’s world.

“Happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.”
― Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

Six of Hardy’s Wessex novels were an achievement of great British literature - Far From The Madding Crowd (1874), The Return Of The Native (1878), The Mayor Of Casterbridge (1886), The Woodlanders (1887), Tess Of The d’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude The Obscure (1895). 

These Wessex novels are outstanding works that continue to give us a wealth of unforgettable characters - with one of the strongest and most conflicted being Michael Henchard. We follow this memorable character in our next read for The Jane Austen Tea Society  -  The Mayor Of Casterbridge.

“It was part of his nature to extenuate nothing and live on as one of his own worst accusers.”
― Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

This masterful novel first appeared in a serial form concurrently in Graphic Magazine in England  and Harper’s Weekly in the US from January to May of 1886 and was then published in two volumes in book form the same year. Thomas Hardy’s tenth published novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge related a story that Hardy himself described as having taken place “before the 19th century had reached one-third of its span” yet there are many strong Gothic elements that surface during the storyline lending a dark and ominous edge that subtly influences our perceptions.

“Life is an oasis which is submerged in the swirling waves of sorrows and agonies.”
― Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

Set in a place based on the real-life town Dorchester in Dorset  - it is recognizable enough by description in the book that a well-versed guide of today can show you where all of the major events occurred. Hardy did not attempt at all to hide that fact that it was set in the town where he lived and it was possible that his current day readers knew each house that was described and everything down to roads and farms that were set out in the smallest detail.

As the original title - The Life And Death Of The Mayor Of Casterbridge: A Story Of A Man Of Character - implies, this work is a careful study of character and the effect of a person’s actions against each person close to him.  It is a story of the fatal impact possible in our choices and the wayward direction of heart.  This work is a carefully structured novel - possibly the most minutely structured of any Hardy book.  His characters were not idealized as many authors did during his time period - they were real flesh and blood people with faults and passions.  Critics weren’t always appreciative of where Hardy took his characters, but they approved of the masterpiece that Mayor of Casterbridge proved itself to be.

“Though when at home their countenances varied with the seasons, their market faces all the year round were glowing little fires.”
― Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

Author Thomas Hardy was born June 2, 1840 in a small hamlet called Higher Bockhampton which is located in the southwestern English county of Dorset. His childhood was filled with a wealth of the deep influences of culture and locale. From their two-story brick and thatch cottage, Thomas Hardy naturally absorbed a love for literature from his mother, who although she had only served as a maidservant and cook, loved to read Latin poets and translated French romances.  Hardy had a deep love of poetry and even as a renowned author of novels, primarily thought of himself as a poet.

His father, a self-employed master mason and building contractor, had descended from an old Dorset family tracing back to the Isle of Jersey in the1400s and was an avid violin player who passed along his love of music to young Hardy.

Thomas Hardy’s childhood very much revolved around literature, music, the local church and life in a rustic rural setting – all of which translated into the body of work that the author became renowned for and for which he was much loved by his devoted readers.

"Some folks want their luck buttered.”
― Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

In my own life, when I was finally able to put aside the college textbooks and night times taken up with study and homework after graduation, I set out on a personal journey to read through the classics… Now that my reading choices were my own I delved into Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and with a particular relish… Thomas Hardy.

I didn’t lose my heart to Hardy the way I did to John Keats but the writing style of Thomas Hardy totally captured my mind. His word-crafting is sublime and the wise reader will keep a dictionary handy if your love of words is equal to your love of story.

Our next book discussion will take place near the end of July here in Nashville. There is plenty of time to walk the vivid & atmospheric path that this book offers. Don’t pass this Thomas Hardy masterpiece by and miss the experience!

“She had been too early habituated to anxious reasoning to drop the habit suddenly.”
― Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Pride and Prejudice - Opening sentence of novel, Chapter 1.

There are few classic novels that have had quite the far-reaching impact that Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice has had, and it continues to be a favorite read for every succeeding generation - remaining among the top books included on almost every “Best Loved” and “Books You Should Have Read” list.

Why the continuing popularity?  And more importantly - why exactly do we all love Mr. Darcy?

My good opinion once lost, is lost forever.
Pride and Prejudice - Darcy, Chapter 11.

What other male character in classic literature has had the romantic impact of Mr. Darcy, has been compared to more heroes and, frankly has been found more lacking in our initial perception of him.  He has remained an icon of devotion and love, despite his haughty and inauspicious beginning in the story.

She is tolerable, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me.
Pride and Prejudice - Mr. Darcy to Mr. Bingley about Elizabeth Bennet, Chapter 3.

We are never given any very clear description of Mr. Darcy, other than - tall, handsome features, noble mien, clever, haughty, reserved, fastidious…  But we are given Elizabeth’s close observations and brief glimpses into his heart through the events in the novel that show his developing devotion toward her.  

Is that what pulls us in and makes us love his character?  That his rigid reserve melts?  That it is her character and personality that changes him?

The gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.
Pride and Prejudice - Other characters' reaction to Mr. Darcy, Chapter 3.

It isn’t just Elizabeth’s perception of Darcy that changes as the storyline progresses. Our own understanding of him becomes deeper and more appreciative.  Throughout the novel we learn that the people closest to Darcy - Bingley, Georgiana, his housekeeper - all have the utmost respect for his loyalty, kindness, generosity and affection.  The stable and worthy characters of the book all value Darcy.  Elizabeth’s journey through her first year of knowing Mr. Darcy reveals the same thing in the end.  His proves to be the heart that is worth knowing long and knowing well.

There are so many memorable characters in Pride And Prejudice - ones that stay with you long after you finish reading and that we love to revisit with each rereading.  Elizabeth Bennet is one of these and has proven to be one of the best known and well-beloved characters in literature.  

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her. He really believed, that were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.
Pride and Prejudice - Chapter 10.

Elizabeth’s father described her as being more quick to understand than her sisters. Her mother described her as half as handsome as her older sister and half as good humored as her youngest. But Darcy’s blossoming impression of her draws more fine detail - a face rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes and a figure that was “light and pleasing”. Her manners were “not those of the fashionable world” but nonetheless he was drawn by her “easy playfulness”

Occupied in observing Mr. Bingley's attentions to her sister, Elizabeth was far from suspecting that she was herself becoming an object of some interest in the eyes of his friend. Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she hardly had a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness. Of this she was perfectly unaware; to her he was only the man who made himself agreeable nowhere, and who had not thought her handsome enough to dance with.
Pride and Prejudice - Chapter 6.

Elizabeth’s innate sweetness & cheerful personality make us to want to be her friend.  Although, perhaps a bit too quick to jump to the occasional conclusion, she is steadfast in her desire to be fair and just and her deep-rooted sense of loyalty draws us to trust her.  This trust leads the first time reader of Pride And Prejudice into the same pitfalls and weaknesses that Elizabeth experiences in assessing the character and heart of such characters as Darcy and Wickham.

Mr. Wickham is blessed with such happy manners as may ensure his making friends — whether he may be equally capable of retaining them, is less certain.
Pride and Prejudice - Darcy, Chapter 18.

One of the sweeter sides to Elizabeth’s character & personality  besides her appealing playfulness is her relationship with her sisters - especially her older sister, Jane.  Anyone who has the great treasure of a beloved sister immediately feels a kinship with Jane Austen, who understood the close relationship that can exist between sisters… that mighty link of DNA and a shared history… the fact that you can’t remember what it’s like to have ever been without that person. Elinor and Marianne… Jane and Elizabeth…  how different from each other and yet similar in devotion to each other. 

According to most timelines that you find for Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice, the novel begins in September of 1811 (Mr. Bingley agreed to take possession of Netherfield before Michaelmas or before September 29th) and ends in October of 1812 - a time period just over one year.

When you ponder over such a timeline, it’s amazing to realize that the many vital events of the novel play out within such a short time period. The carefully crafted storyline that takes us from Darcy’s initial indifference to Elizabeth to his desperate proposal in Hunsford, spans only six event-packed months.  Through the framework of a single year -  and the events that lead to the book’s conclusion -  Jane Austen was able to unfold a masterpiece of intricate pacing.

I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine.
Pride and Prejudice - Elizabeth about Darcy, Chapter 5.

It is indeed a striking feature of our current read, Pride And Prejudice, that this single year of profound self-discovery and life-defining events for a young twenty-year old in Regency England continues to be relatable to readers across many cultures.

I cannot fix on the hour, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.
Pride and Prejudice - Darcy to Elizabeth who asked him to to account for having fallen in love with her, Chapter 60.

Jane Austen originally started Pride And Prejudice in 1796 when she was staying with her brother Edward and his wife at Goodnestone Park in Kent and she continued its development through August 1797. It is believed to have first been an epistolary novel, although none of the original manuscript remains to confirm that fact. Before her novel was given the title, Pride And Prejudice, Jane Austen called her work First Impressions, and in truth it was an accurate reflection of the major storylines driving the plot.

The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.
Pride and Prejudice - Elizabeth, Chapter 24.

After revisions in the work were made by Jane Austen between 1811 and 1812, the title was changed to Pride And Prejudice and she sold the copyright for this work to Thomas Egerton from the Military Library, Whitehall for a one-off payment of £110. It was published when Jane Austen was 38 years old and - just as with Sense And Sensibility - did not give authorship to her own name.  Sense And Sensibility was released with the designation “By A Lady” but Pride And Prejudice simply bore the words - “By the Author of Sense And Sensibility”.

I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book! When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.
Pride and Prejudice - Miss Bingley, Chapter 11.

We continue with our beloved Jane Austen with our Spring Book Lunch choice of Pride And Prejudice. Take some time to ponder why the “Darcy Appeal” continues strong through 200 years of readers. We will be discussing this book over a sweet & savory potluck brunch on Saturday, April 21st, 2018.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Sense And Sensibility by Jane Austen

Elinor was to be the comforter of others in her own distresses, no less than in theirs.
Sense and Sensibility - Chapter 37.

When I read Jane Austen’s first published novel Sense And Sensibility - written with her ever carefully-crafted style - it brings many emotions, thoughts and remembrances to mind. It is a common occurrence when reading Jane Austen.  If you are listening closely and reading with careful attention, there are numerous moments that we almost all can identify with… that are familiar even in our day and time.

To name a few: 

  • Beloved sisters who are our friends and confidantes
  • Beloved sisters who distinctly differ from each other but learn through life how to value those differences
  • The loss of a dear parent and the subsequent walk through grief
  • The loss of a home that we knew and loved
  • First love and the joy that can follow
  • First love and the heartache that can follow
  • Learning to control our emotions
  • Learning to control our actions
  • Finding the true value of a strong and Godly character in someone we love
  • Finding the true value of accepting that lack of Godly character will never bring real joy in love

At various stages of my life I have identified more with Elinor and at other times - when lost in youthful dreams and emotions - I have felt myself more like Marianne.  And I have grown in my appreciation of Colonel Brandon over the years. He is criticized for not being “romantic” but his deeply loving heart and strength of integrity leave Willoughby (and in a slight degree Edward) in the dust. To be honest, however, my appreciation of Colonel Brandon became its most sincere after watching Alan Rickman’s sensitive & endearing representation of the role in the 1995 production of the screenplay written by Emma Thompson.  Colonel Brandon is not a character to take for granted as you are reading… he is a reminder of calm good men in the world.

“Colonel Brandon . . . was silent and grave. His appearance however was not unpleasing, in spite of his being in the opinion of Marianne and Margaret an absolute old bachelor, for he was on the wrong side of five and thirty; but though his face was not handsome, his countenance was sensible, and his address was particularly gentlemanlike.”
Sense And Sensibility - Chapter 7.

Jane Austen began writing what would later become Sense And Sensibility in 1795 when she was 19 years old - originally crafting her work in the style of a novel-in-letters with the title Elinor And Marianne.  She later changed the novel’s style to that of a narrative and by giving it the title - Sense And  Sensibility - highlighted what would grow into a story of the differences between two devoted sisters and how their different approaches to life and love affected the course of their lives.

Thomas Egerton of the Military Library publishing house in London published Sense And Sensibility in three volumes in 1811. Jane Austen actually paid to have the book published and also paid Military Library publishing house a commission on the sales.  It was a severe stretch for the Austen annual household income, but a profit was realized when the first edition had sold all of the original 750 copies by 1813 when the second edition was issued.

Jane Austen was born December 16, 1775 in Steventon, Hampshire in England to a rector father from an old and well-respected family of wool merchants who had fallen into poverty and a mother from the prominent and highly-connected Leigh family. George Austen received a modest income from the living to the Steventon parish and depended on assistance and support from relatives along with farming and the tutoring of young boys who boarded in the Austen household. 

Although money was ever an issue, the Austen household was filled with intellectual conversation, amused considerations of social and political interests and easy debate. Their home was frequented with visits from friends and family with news of travels, fashionable life in London and Bath - all of which Jane digested and which ultimately found their way into her works.

On every formal visit a child ought to be of the party, by way of provision for discourse.
Sense and Sensibility - Chapter 6.

In the midst of a very affectionate family, Jane and her sister Cassandra in particular had a deep and devoted relationship and hated to be apart. Other than a few relatively short stays at boarding schools, they were primarily educated by reading at home with some guidance from their father and older brothers.  Her father always gave her unrestricted access to the library and provided both Jane and her sister with drawing materials and paper for writing.

Jane loved to write and experimented with different “voices” and mediums.  She filled bound notebooks with parodies of current historical writing or the wildly romantic fiction of the day (which she disliked).  She wrote poems, short stories, comedic plays and began trying the drafting of novels - all of which is now referred to as her Juvenilia.

It wasn’t until her 30s that Austen began to anonymously publish her works.  She, her mother and her sisters had settled with her brother Edward in the village of Chawton within his Hampshire estate and Jane Austen began her most serious period of readying some existing manuscripts for publication.  She published four well-received novels during her time there.

She was stronger alone; and her own good sense so well supported her, that her firmness was as unshaken, her appearance of cheerfulness as invariable, as, with regrets so poignant and so fresh, it was possible for them to be.
Sense and Sensibility - Describing Elinor, Chapter 23.

Most published writers of her day were men but Jane Austen brought a new voice to her literature of the day.  She presented the everyday and the ordinary life of a woman of her station in Britain.  She didn’t delve into the political or fill her works with the crimes or wars that were a part of her day and time, but wrote about the simple plight of the single female in a world that left her materially dependent on others.

It is the lasting greatness of Jane Austen’s works that - regardless of the century, continent or person - we can each find ourselves in her carefully constructed characters.  We have all most likely had our Willoughbys - but if we are very blessed, we sometimes find our Edwards or our Colonel Brandons to be our companions.

He was not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing. He was too diffident to do justice to himself; but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behaviour gave every indication of an open, affectionate heart.
Sense and Sensibility - About Edward Ferrars, Chapter 3.

We don’t know as much as we would like about Jane Austen - her life, her thoughts, her loves.…  Her sister, Cassandra was a fierce protector of Jane, and is thought to have destroyed over two thirds of Austen’s letters before her own death, leaving only about 160 letters for our study - none of which were written before Jane turned 20.  Some of the redacted letters that remained even had sections cut out and ultimately revealed extremely little about what she thought about her family, her friends, politics and religion.  

It is possible, however to hear Jane Austen’s heart in her published works and not only that, but her satirical nudges at society, her burden of monetary dependence on others and her appreciation of honor and kindness.  She was a ground-breaking writer for her time - yet before she died, none of her works were published in her name.

Sense will always have attractions for me.
Sense and Sensibility - Elinor, Chapter 10.

Jane Austen died at 41 years old is buried in Winchester Cathedral with the inscription:

In Memory of JANE AUSTEN, youngest daughter of the late Revd GEORGE AUSTEN, formerly Rector of Steventon in this County. She departed this Life on the 18th of July 1817, aged 41, after a long illness supported with the patience and the hopes of a Christian. The benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper, and the extraordinary endowments of her mind obtained the regard of all who knew her and the warmest love of her intimate connections. Their grief is in proportion to their affection, they know their loss to be irreparable, but in their deepest affliction they are consoled by a firm though humble hope that her charity, devotion, faith and purity have rendered her soul acceptable in the sight of her REDEEMER.

There is nothing in this original inscription that celebrates her lasting contribution as a profoundly important writer, but simply honors her wealth of value as a beloved daughter, sister and friend.

As we revisit our beloved Jane Austen in our Winter Book Lunch choice of Sense And Sensibility - you might ponder the many ways you see yourself in these finely-drawn characters. Are you Elinor?  Are you Marianne?  Are you Willoughby?  We will be discussing this book over a sweet & savory potluck brunch on Saturday, January 27th, 2018.

She felt the loss of Willoughby's character yet more heavily than she had felt the loss of his heart.
Sense and Sensibility - Marianne, Chapter 32.

Monday, September 4, 2017

A Dickens Detour - The Old Curiosity Shop

It is no small thing, when they, who are so fresh from God, love us.
― Charles Dickens, Master Humphrey’s Clock

The Old Curiosity Shop, the fourth published novel by Charles Dickens was first released in serial form from April 1840 until January 1841 and then all together in a book format in 1841 by Chapman & Hall of London.

It first appeared in the weekly publication, Master Humphrey’s Clock along with various short stories and essays which Dickens wrote and edited. It became evident, however, by the 7th edition that the present day public - all avid Dickens readers - were solely attracted to the publication by the ongoing The Old Curiosity Shop. During the publication life of Master Humphrey’s Clock, two novels originated as short stories that developed into novels — The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge.

For who can wonder that man should feel a vague belief in tales of disembodied spirits wandering through those places which they once dearly affected, when he himself, scarcely less separated from his old world than they, is for ever lingering upon past emotions and bygone times, and hovering, the ghost of his former self, about the places and people that warmed his heart of old?
― Charles Dickens, Master Humphrey’s Clock

The publication Master Humphrey’s Clock opened with an introductory frame story which featured Master Humphrey — a lonely bachelor living in London, who acts as a narrator, describing himself and his close group of friends and their love of telling stories. Master Humphrey wrote and then hid his manuscripts in an old grandfather clock in a chimney corner of his house. He decided one day to start a club with his small circle of friends in which they would each be involved in reading their manuscripts aloud. Some of the stories from the club Master Humphrey’s Clock and the mirror club from Humphrey’s kitchen - Mr. Weller’s Watch - brought back characters from The Pickwick Papers. Two such characters included Mr. Pickwick, the hero of The Pickwick Papers and his much beloved manservant, Sam Weller, along with Master Humphrey’s maid and a barber.

To conceal anything from those to whom I am attached, is not in my nature. I can never close my lips where I have opened my heart.
― Charles Dickens, Master Humphrey’s Clock

The Old Curiosity Shop follows the life of the beautiful young orphan Nell Trent and her maternal grandfather, who live in an old “olds and ends” antique shop in London and is thought to have been set around the time of the mid-1820s.

“Very interesting and cleverly written.…”
― Queen Victoria

In reading any novel by Charles Dickens it is possible to glean an intense and well-drawn glimpse into the life and the times in which he lived. References abound and it is worth stopping to savor and investigate them. There are clear and interesting allusions to foods and drinks of the day, popular songs, literature of the time, scandals of the day, and social and political commentary - primarily regarding the plight of the poor.

Thus violent deeds live after men upon the earth, and traces of war and bloodshed will survive in mournful shapes long after those who worked the desolation are but atoms of earth themselves.
― Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop

As with Oliver Twist, Dickens played with contrasting characters surrounding a lonely & innocent child. In the book preface he said;

“I had it always in my fancy to surround the lonely figure of the child with grotesque and wild, but not impossible companions, and to gather about her innocent face and pure intentions, associates as strange and uncongenial as the grim objects that are about her bed when her history is first foreshadowed.”

Although dearly loved by her grandfather, Nell leads a solitary existence surrounded by very few acquaintances and companions. Her grandfather’s efforts to stave off poverty lead to dire consequences and one of the most evil villains created by Dickens.

Lawyers are shy of meddling with the Law on their own account: knowing it to be an edged tool of uncertain application, very expensive in the working, and rather remarkable for its properties of close shaving than for its always shaving the right person.
― Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop

In typical form, Charles Dickens introduces a wide variety of strongly contrasting characters both good and bad. There is a plotting brother, a malicious moneylender and a simple and true friend to Nell. It has been said that there is a fairy tale quality to The Old Curiosity Shop which sets it apart from all of the other Dickens novels.

If there were no bad people there would be no good lawyers.
― Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop

This novel became so popular on both sides of the Atlantic that avid readers in New York stormed the wharf when the ship arrived in 1841 bearing the final installment. Any Harry Potter fans among us will certainly be reminded of the excitement that accompanied the release of the last Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter And the Deathly Hallows and the highly anticipated conclusion of Harry’s fate in the fight against Voldemort…. the guarded pallets of the books awaiting release and the midnight book release parties.

Time has left many varied and lasting responses to The Old Curiosity Shop — Oscar Wilde ridiculed its sentimentality, Algernon Swinburne soundly condemned Nell, and Irish leader Daniel O’Connell burst into tears at the finale and threw the book out of the window of the train in which he was traveling.

As we read this 3rd installment in our Dickens Detour reading plan, let us know what your conclusions are as you read The Old Curiosity Shop. We will be discussing this book during our 2017 Autumn Book Lunch to take place on Saturday, October 28th, 2017.

“The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists.”
― Charles Dickens


April 2017
The Pickwick Papers 
Published as a Monthly serial
April 1836 to November 1837

July 2017
The Adventures of Oliver Twist
Published as a Monthly serial 
in Bentley’s Miscellany
February 1837 to April 1839

October 2017
The Old Curiosity Shop
Published as a Weekly serial 
in Master Humphrey’s Clock
April 1840 to November 1841

January 2018
Little Dorrit
Published as a Monthly serial
December 1855 to June 1857