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Something Special…

Cover Jane Austen 'My Dear Cassandra' 001

A very special package came to me from England the other day. A dear friend sent me a copy of The Illustrated letters Jane Austen ‘My Dear Cassandra’. She sent it because she knows my love of all things Austen, and knew I would enjoy it. And I do…

I never liked reading letters written by famous people before. Somehow, I felt like it was an intrusion on the writer’s privacy, even when the writer was long gone. It’s hard to really “get” letters sometimes-you weren’t there for the inside jokes. When it’s an historical figure, there is so much background information that you don’t have. Context can be difficult. As I got older, however, I acquired a taste for reading them. One gains so much insight about the writer and his or her time. It is amazing, sometimes, how contemporary an individual from long ago can seem when one is reading her private thoughts. I have found Jane Austen’s letters to be fascinating, because of her wry, and frequently caustic, wit and the emotions which show through. Having read the Oxford edition of her letters, and used them for research purposes on more than one occasion, I am familiar with some of her letters and enjoy dipping into them.

This little books, however, is something special. Penelope Hughes-Hallett selected some of Jane Austen’s letters to her sister Cassandra, and others, and compiled them with illustrations-portraits, landscapes, drawings, paintings- carefully selected to illustrate the people, places and activities that Austen discussed in each letter. They are extremely well chosen, and give an additional dimension to the letters. The reader can actually “see” more of the context of each letter. This is a delightful book, and I would recommend it to any Jane Austen fan. I would especially recommend it to anyone who has shied away from reading her letters for any reason.

Although this is not a new book (originally published in 1990, with subsequent reprints), it seems to be readily available through AbeBooks, the Tattered Covered, and other book outlets. I highly recommend it, whether you want to read it yourself or desire it as a gift for your favorite Janeite!

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What Matters In Jane Austen?

Any fan of Jane Austen’s novels has become accustomed to seeing new books about her, her novels and her writing skills almost on a daily basis. I recently purchased and read WHAT MATTERS IN JANE AUSTEN? Twenty Crucial Problems Solved by John Mullan (Bloomsbury Press, 2013). I found this to be an enjoyable read, and a useful work. Mr. Mullan has presented a collection of essays dealing with certain concepts that appear in Jane Austen’s novel, and explaining their significance. Questions of age, the importance of the weather, who speaks or (just as importantly) who never speaks, illness, blushing and other topics all are examined. In each of these chapters, Mr. Mullan’s insights gave me additional perspective on each novel. These new perspectives have made me more aware of points of view, mores of the time, Austen’s subtlety, and other things that have deepened my appreciation and enjoyment of Austen’s writing.

For example, in the chapter about weather, Mr. Mullan indicates that Jane Austen is the first novelist to point out weather shifts that might occur during any normal day, and to use them to highlight and to move her plots. While I cannot address his contention that Austen is the first to use weather in this way, I can say that, after reading this chapter, I have a much keener awareness of and appreciation for the significance of the weather throughout her novels. It isn’t that the reader is unaware of the impact of the weather on the various stories; Mr. Mullan’s discussion has a way of highlighting the significance of the weather and its changes in context. Many modern readers live in a climate-controlled situation. Going to visit a friend on a rainy day means going from one’s door to one’s car, barely dampened by the rain. The real effect of walking three miles on a rainy day in a muddy lane doesn’t have the immediacy for us that it would have had for Jane Austen’s contemporaries. After reading Mr. Mullan’s essay, I am much more aware of the significance of the mentions of the weather in the novels, and have found that this increased awareness has brought even more life to the stories. Sometimes he addressed things that I felt, but had not consciously thought about in reading the novels. The other chapters have had a similar effect for me. It was interesting to find that some topics that seemed obvious had depths I had not previously considered sufficiently.

Mr. Mullan’s writing style is very easy to read, with a conversational tone. It is rather like reading letters from a friend who explains why he liked something or found an idea important. He is obviously well versed, citing Austen’s letters and the novels in support of his ideas very convincingly. The chapters are titled, and each reads well. He provides notes and a bibliography, so the reader can study further. I enjoyed reading it, and especially enjoy the fact that my appreciation for Austen’s writing has only increased.

Here is a link to this book on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/What-Matters-Jane-Austen-Crucial/dp/1620400413/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1369686970&sr=1-1&keywords=what+matters+in+jane+austen

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Jane Austen and Modern America

     As a reader and admirer of Jane Austen’s works, I have been told on occasion that her works, as delightful as they may be, are not really relevant to today’s world, and are escapist or elitist, or basically “chick lit”.  As pleasurable as I have found them, it must be said that the movie adaptations do little to counter this judgement.  I was browsing through my library’s on-line catalogue, and ran across two books whose titles caught my attention:

A JANE AUSTEN EDUCATION How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter by William Deresiewicz, and

A WALK WITH JANE AUSTEN A Journey into Adventure, Love & Faith by Lori Smith

     Both authors wrote memoirs that discuss their personal lives in relation to insights from Jane Austen’s life and novels.  That said, it would be hard to find two more different people and life experiences.  It is intriguing to note just how much each author was inspired by Jane Austen, and how they applied the insights they gained to their personal lives.

     Mr. Deresiewicz studied Austen’s novels, and by extension, her life as part of a graduate program, ultimately including his findings in his dissertations.  Facing emotional and physical problems, Ms. Smith took a walking tour in England, following Jane Austen’s life, seeking answers to questions of faith and personal fulfillment.  Both found more than they bargained for.    Both authors learned life lessons, internalized values and ideas, and acquired a knowledge of themselves that they had not had not previously had.

     These books are, of necessity, very different.  The authors are two completely different human beings, of completely different backgrounds.  They approach Austen from different places in their lives, for completely different reasons.  Mr. Deresiewicz was totally uninterested in reading Jane Austen, and Ms. Smith was an ardent fan.  Both travel with Austen (Mr. Deresiewicz on an intellectual  journey of maturation, and Ms. Smith on a literal journey of faith) and come away with unexpected knowledge of themselves.

     After reading them and thinking about them, I went back and read some reviews of each.  Interestingly, some reviewers commented on both authors’ self-indulgence and whining.  Since these are memoirs of the authors’ experiences and emotions, I think one must expect to share some of their angst and less positive issues; it is unrealistic to expect all sweetness, light, and moments of ecstatic recognition.  There were aspects of both authors that made me want to smack each, for completely different reasons.  However, I found both books to be enjoyable and thought-provoking.  Reading their experiences and viewpoints of one of my favorite authors has helped me to understand and clarify much of what I find appealing and relevant to my own life.  The universal truths that Jane Austen addresses so subtly in her novels, and the way she lived her life, still have much to do with our lives today.  Mr. Deresiewicz and Ms. Smith have demonstrated that in their respective memoirs.  I recommend them both.

Deresiewicz, William.  A JANE AUSTEN EDUCATION How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship and the Things that Really Matter.  2011: Penguin Press, New York, NY.

Smith, Lori.  A WALK WITH JANE AUSTEN A Journey into Adventure, Love & Faith.  2007: WaterBrook Press, Colorado Springs, CO.

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It’s A Scandal….

In the 18th and 19th centuries, women were extremely limited in their options, and one false step could literally ruin them. In MY LADY SCANDALOUS The Amazing Life and Outrageous Times of Grace Dalrymple Elliott, Royal Courtesan, by Jo Manning, we read of a woman whose choices were frequently (to say the least) unconventional. There is no doubt that Grace Dalrymple’s life story is extremely colorful, ranging from her love life to her time in France where she may have obtained useful information for her country. However, what made this book fascinating to me were the many notes, sidebars, quotes, illustrations and comments that illuminate Mrs. Dalrymple’s story. This book is full of historical snippets, anecdotes and explanations that bring many of the personalities, and the era itself, to life. It also highlights just how limited the choices were that women had, and how devastating the wrong choices could be. Grace’s life was frequently not a particularly comfortable life, and she died alone, in obscurity. Her story certainly provides some insight to the difficulties that someone like Eliza or Young Eliza in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY would face as a result of their poor decisions. (Very few rose to the heights (?) that Grace did in her hey-day, after all.) It is very well-written, and is an excellent source of period information for any one interested in the Georgian period.

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