Posts Tagged ‘Jane Austen’

Shocking! Auden on Austen. (And why is Darcy such a jerk, anyway?)

Sunday, January 20th, 2013
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“…everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together…”

You could not shock her more than she shocks me,
Beside her, Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

 

Shocked, shocked I tell you.

That’s W.H. Auden writing about Jane Austen, the poet one small consonant away from sharing her surname.  The poem is his 1937 “Letter to Lord Byron.”

In this weekend’s Independent, John Walsh explores the eternal question:  “Why is Mr. Darcy such an asshole?”  Actually, I’d never thought of it quite that way before, but Walsh points out that the character who is seen as noble and heroic acts like a complete jerk for the most of the novel:

“Has a supposedly romantic hero ever seemed less agreeable, less attractive or less charming? At a dance, he tells Bingley, in everyone’s hearing, that it would be a punishment for him to dance with any of the ladies present. What, Bingham asks, about Lizzie Bennet? Darcy regards our lively, clever, witty heroine and says, “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.”

This is not ‘pride’. It’s rudeness, bad manners, the words of (let us not mince words here) a stuck-up fool. We know he is ‘well-bred’ – can breeding make one so socially maladroit? He is hopeless at conversation. He is rude to Miss Bingley. He is awkwardly icy with Lizzie. Even when he finally proposes to her, he’s unforgiveably rude about her mother’s vulgarity, her own ‘inferiority’ and how degrading it would be for him to marry her. He admits, without apology, trying to derail the romance between Lizzie’s sister Jane and Bingley. The reader may be forgiven for wondering when any recognisably heroic virtues will appear.”

On the shelf…

Yet, in the second half of the book: “He’s discovered at his mansion, Pemberley, being charming, attentive and kind. We hear about his man-of-action heroics in persuading Wickham to marry Lydia. What has brought about this transformation?”  May I suggest that Lizzie is a mere 20 years old, and Darcy 28?  Who is not a jerk at such ages?  Who does not have scores of memories of behaving poorly at such an age?

Walsh theorizes instead that Darcy reconsiders Lizzie after he three-mile walk through the mud to visit her sister who has taken ill at Bingley’s home.  According to Andrew Davies, who adapted the book for the BBC, “She happens to bump into Mr Darcy just as he’s coming out of the house, and he finds that he responds very well to her looks. So I wrote in a stage direction: ‘Darcy is surprised to find that he has an instant erection’. I felt obliged to add, ‘I don’t mean we need to focus on his trousers, just that it’s what should be going through the actor’s mind’. Darcy’s obviously turned on by this heart-throbbing, muddy, warm girl.”

Well, that’s one interpretation. May I suggest a less obvious one in our modern times?  Lizzie, up to that point in the novel, has appeared to Mr. Darcy as little more than a smart-ass who excels at pertness.  In this incident, she displays loyalty, tenacity, and character – and it evokes the same in response.  Not as sexy, admittedly, but a more enduring reaction.

Worthy.

Walsh explores Jane Austen’s brief Christmas romance with the charming Tom Lefroy in 1795.  “I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together,” she teased her sister in a letter.  The gentleman’s family was alarmed, and whisked him back to the bar (no, not that kind of a bar – the legal profession).  He was expected to become a barrister and pull the family’s economic sled, otherwise others might have to get off their duffs and work.

Austen did not rebound from the Christmas romance quickly.

But Walsh doesn’t say what happens next.  Austen’s romantic hero was worthy of her: he became as MP for the constituency of Dublin University, Privy Councillor of Ireland, and eventually Lord Chief Justice of Ireland.  When Austen died in 1817, he traveled from Ireland to England to pay his respects.  A “Tom Lefroy” even bought at auction one of the early rejection letters she received for her novel, already a valuable record of poor literary judgment.

At the end of his life, he admitted to having loved Austen. His nephew wrote: ” My late venerable uncle … said in so many words that he was in love with her, although he qualified his confession by saying it was a boyish love. As this occurred in a friendly & private conversation, I feel some doubt whether I ought to make it public.” Probably a wise move.  Lafroy’s eldest daughter, born June 24, 1802, was named  Jane Christmas Lefroy.

About the time of Lefroy’s visit, Jane was penning the novel that would become Pride and Prejudice.  Some speculate that Lefroy is the model for Darcy.  Others claim that the author herself is the reserved Mr. Darcy, and that Lefroy is the teasing, lively Lizzie.  I’ll make a third suggestion.  Lefroy is the model for the lively, amiable Bingley, who appears casual in his affections even when he is deeply engaged.  And perhaps Jane saw herself in Lizzie’s sister, also named Jane, whose quiet love persisted long after the romance was over.

Postscript: Jane Austen’s best marriage proposals are the ones that end up in a fistfight. In fact, the successful proposals happen offstage or through paraphrase, anyway. This one is much better on the page than onscreen, but still…

Postscript on 1/28:  And we got some nice pick-up on this from our old friend Andrew Sullivan over at the Daily Beast.  His piece, “The Cost of Love,”  is here. What fun!

An evening of bad sex…but is it bad enough?

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012
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She’s honored. (Photo: Elena Torre)

Some time ago, we announced the Literary Review‘s finalists for the one of the world’s most dreaded competitions – a prize for the most embarrassing passage of sexual description in a novel.  The awards ceremony for the 20th annual award finally took place last week at the In & Out (Naval & Military) Club in St James’s Square, where 400 guests raised a toast to the winner.

And the winner is … Canadian writer Nancy Huston, with her novel Infrared.  I know, I know … you want me to deliver the goods.  Well, here’s the Literary Review‘s version of why they bestowed the award on Huston:

“Sentences from the novel such as ‘Kamal and I are totally immersed in flesh, that archaic kingdom that brings forth tears and terrors, nightmares, babies and bedazzlements’ caught the judges’ attention. One long passage in particular stood out:

‘He runs his tongue and lips over my breasts, the back of my neck, my toes, my stomach, the countless treasures between my legs, oh the sheer ecstasy of lips and tongues on genitals, either simultaneously or in alternation, never will I tire of that silvery fluidity, my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water, my self freed of both self and other, the quivering sensation, the carnal pink palpitation that detaches you from all colour and all flesh, making you see only stars, constellations, milky ways, propelling you bodiless and soulless into undulating space where the undulating skies make your non-body undulate…”

My goodness, I don’t think it’s all that bad.  Is that the worst they could do?  I think the other finalists were daffier – go here and see if you agree.  (By the by, John Updike received the lifetime achievement award in 2008.)

A friend recently protested against the Literary Review‘s anti-award, saying it inhibited writers from trying to describe sex at all.  I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing.  Gone are the days when a writer like Henry James could describe the sexual fever of a hand brushing across the back of another.  Gone are the days when Jane Austen could convey more passion with a blush more than most of today’s writers can express with an orgy.  We’ve lost the ability to describe the range of nuances in affection, love, devotion, rejection in our haste to describe the relentless interlocking of body parts.

According to Literary Review editor Jonathan Beckman, that’s exactly the reason why former editor Auberon Waugh founded the prize in the first place:  “He was genuinely convinced that publishers were encouraging novelists to include sex scenes solely in order to increase sales. The award’s remit was ‘to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it’.”  I couldn’t agree more.

The Paris-based Huston has received more conventional awards, such as the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens and Prix Femina, but she seems to hold a special place in her heart for her newest distinction.  In a statement read at the ceremony, she announced, “I hope this prize will incite thousands of British women to take close-up photos of their lovers’ bodies in all states of array and disarray.”

To which we can only add:  Please no.  Not that.  Anything but that.

Huston is married to the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov.  On Twitter, Elif Batuman responded: “I just learned that the winner of this year’s Bad Sex Award is married to Tzvetan Todorov and it is ROCKING MY WORLD.”  No further explanation offered. After all, it was only a tweet.

 

Bodleian’s treasures on display: paradise as a library

Saturday, November 26th, 2011
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"Marco Polo's Travels," 14th century. Copyright Bodleian Libraries,University of Oxford

As you enter the darkened room,  a 1623 Shakespeare First Folio is to your right.  Enigmatic scraps of a poem by Sappho, circa 2nd century A.D., are to your left.  And all around you the wonders of the world: weighted with heavy seals, a 1217 “engrossment” of the Magna Carta is nearby (it was reissued under Henry III); so is a 1455 Gutenberg Bible.  In the corner of one glass case –  an exquisite 18th-century miniature scroll of the Bhagavad Gita, which shines like a cache of jewels, somehow pressed and rolled into paper.

William Shakespeare, First Folio,1632. Copyright Bodleian Libraries,University of Oxford

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,” Jorge Luis Borges famously said. And here, in the Bodleian Library’s current exhibition, “Treasures of the Bodleian,” 30 Sept. – 23 Dec. 2011, everyone could see that, well, he had a point.  The exhibition anticipates a permanent gallery in the Weston Library in 2015.  The exhibition shows some of the Bodleian’s rarest, most important, and most evocative rarities.

To wit:  In a corner, a single page of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley‘s Frankenstein describes the ominous night of the creature’s creation. Her scrawled text is corrected and amended by her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.  Other handwritten manuscripts are the work of Jane Austen, John Donne, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Others are the work of a brush rather than a nib: an exquisite 17th-century picture scroll of the sad Tale of Urashima, a classic Japanese fairy tale which I had read as a child.

For Sir Thomas Bodley, who basically created the museum that opened its doors in 1602, the Shakespeare first folio did not seem like the greatest find. According to the exhibition guide, he “would likely have dismissed this as one of the ‘idle books, and rife raffes’ that had not place among the Library’s predominantly theological collections.”

The volume left the library under mysterious conditions in 1674, and resurfaced only in 1905.  By that time, “the Bodleian was prepared to pay the unheard-of sum of £3,000 to buy back ‘its original long-lost copy of the First Folio of Shakespeare.’”

William Shakespeare,First Folio,1632. Copyright Bodleian Libraries,University of Oxford

I visited the exhibition in the company of my friend, Oxford’s Eliza Tudor, and we gravitated towards our favorites.  Hers seemed to be J.R.R. Tolkien‘s brilliant golden watercolor of Bilbo Baggins, rendered invisible by a magic ring, as he converses with a dragon.  She also took a liking to the Selden map of China, from the Ming era – the earliest Chinese map to show not only shipping routes, but also to depict China as part of a greater East and Southeast Asia. And for me … well, what a choice!  Perhaps I’ll plump for one of the earliest editions of Dante‘s Divine Comedy, fully illustrated, made within decades of his death (see video below).

But there are littler treasures, too – Mohandas Gandhi wrote to his friend, the Anglican missionary Charles Andrews, in a 1932 prison letter exhibited in the collection: “I can therefore never say beforehand what will occupy my attention exclusively or for the most part at a given moment and since a civil resister bargains for the punishment he receives for his resistance, he must not fret over it. Therefore and to that extent I am content with my lot.”

Letter from an Egyptian boy to his father, 2nd or 3rd century A.D. Copyright Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Eliza arrived with her young son Fabian, who was mildly ill and did not attend school that day. His own choice was no surprise.  The exhibit that intrigued him the most was one of the earliest – about the same era, perhaps a little later, as the Sappho fragments: on a sheet of papyrus, an Egyptian schoolboy Theon complains to his father:

Theon to his father Theon, greetings. A nice thing to do, not taking me with you to the city. If you refuse to take me with you to Alexandria, I shall not write you a letter or speak to you or wish you good health. So: if you go to Alexandria I shall not take your hand or greet you ever again. If you refuse to take me, this is what happens. And my mother said to Archelaos, “He’s upsetting me, take him away!” A nice thing to do, sending me these grand presents, a hill of beans. They put us off the track that day, the 12th, when you sailed. Well then, send for me, I beg you. If you don’t send for me, I shan’t eat, I shan’t drink. There! I pray for your health.

No more billets-doux, no more epistolary novels, no more Collected Letters

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011
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Write a letter lately?  I haven’t either.

According to a story in the Associated Press, nobody else is, either:

For the typical American household these days, nearly two months will pass before a personal letter shows up.

The avalanche of advertising still arrives, of course, along with magazines and catalogs. But personal letters — as well as the majority of bill payments — have largely been replaced by email, Twitter, Facebook and the like.

“In the future old ‘love letters’ may not be found in boxes in the attic but rather circulating through the Internet, if people care to look for them,” said Webster Newbold, a professor of English at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.

Well, not so.  We’re not likely to be able to retrieve them.  Such missives are likely to be harbored in defunct email systems on old computers.  I save a bunch seven-inch floppies with interviews on them, in hopes I’ll find a computer that can decode them.  Nothing like hard copies, even if I can’t lay my hands on them readily.

Voltaire wrote about 15,000 letters during his 83-year life.  In more recent times, C.S. Lewis is the patron saint of pen pals. His Collected Letters amount to thousands and thousands of pages. I reviewed the 1,800+ page third volume for the Washington Post here.

Lewis wrote everyone, including T.S. Eliot, the sci-fi maestro Arthur C. Clarke, and the American writer Robert Penn Warren.  “Other letters were from cranks, whiners and down-and-out charity cases; he answered them all,” I wrote.

"...the oar to a galley slave..."

“The pen has become to me what the oar is to a galley slave,” he wrote of the disciplined torture of writing letters for hours every day. He complained about the deterioration of his handwriting, the rheumatism in his right hand and the winter cold numbing his fingers. In the era of the ballpoint, he used a nib pen dipped in ink every four or five words.

Who, in the future, will have volumes of Collected that will be thicker than a slim paperback?

Beyond the prospect of no Collecteds, whole novels have been held together by letters – Laclos‘s Liaisons Dangereuses, for example, or, since we’ve mentioned Lewis, his  Screwtape Letters, or his Letters to Malcolm.  Or his friend Dorothy L. Sayers‘ mystery novel-in-letters Documents in the Case.  Or  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe‘s Sorrows of Young Werther and Friedrich Hölderlin‘s Hyperion.

Beyond even that, letters provide pivotal revelations in Jane Austen‘s Pride and Prejudice.  Or in almost anything by Henry James.  The sudden realization, the catharsis, the flushed cheek…

Vladimir Nabokov‘s Lolita begins with a letter – the letter that tells of the death, in childbirth, of the title character at age 16.  If people read it more carefully, they would have a different view of the “sexy” novel.  (Also if they read between the lines of Humbert Humbert’s self-serving pronouncements.  But without early training on all those day-after-Christmas letters and learning to write the evasive “thank yous,” how would we learn the most subtle nuances of writing at all?)

The very act of letter-writing consumed hours and hours of people’s time.  At Stanford, a whole project, Mapping the Republic of Letters, has evolved from the effort to track the to-and-fro correspondence during the time of the Enlightenment.  It turns out that we can map coteries, friendships, cultural epicenters, and famous journeys through letters.

AP again:

The loss to what people in the future know about us today may be incalculable.

In earlier times the “art” of letter writing was formally taught, explained Newbold.

“Letters were the prime medium of communication among individuals and even important in communities as letters were shared, read aloud and published,” he said. “Letters did the cultural work that academic journals, book reviews, magazines, legal documents, business memos, diplomatic cables, etc. do now. They were also obviously important in more intimate senses, among family, close friends, lovers, and suitors in initiating and preserving personal relationships and holding things together when distance was a real and unsurmountable obstacle.” …

But Aaron Sachs, a professor of American Studies and History at Cornell University, said, “One of the ironies for me is that everyone talks about electronic media bringing people closer together, and I think this is a way we wind up more separate. We don’t have the intimacy that we have when we go to the attic and read grandma’s letters.”

“Part of the reason I like being a historian is the sensory experience we have when dealing with old documents” and letters, he said. “Sometimes, when people ask me what I do, I say I read other people’s mail.”

What about all those books that describes when a pile of a love letters are ceremoniously burned?  Or returned to the beloved in a ribbon-tied packet after a break-up?  Not quite the same as pressing a “delete” button, is it?  However, that sort of rite-of-passage has been on the downswing since the invention of the xerox machine.

“Letters mingle souls,” as John Donne wrote, but in a wholly different way than what is commonplace on the worldwide web.  Despite my sentimentality, however, I, for one, am not sure I’d trade pages on cream-colored vellum for the zip and brevity and immediacy of quickly typed “Sure. Will do.” on my Mac.

 

No love lost: “authors are some mean mofos”

Saturday, July 2nd, 2011
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Hank James, zat you?

A few weeks ago, we wrote a few words on famous feuds between authors.

What better way to follow up than with nasty letters authors wrote on each others’ work?  I read flavorwire’s post on the topic some time ago, which excerpted a longer column from The Examiner here, with a Part 2 here.  It seems like as a good a way as any to begin the holiday weekend.

Take this one:

Wyndham Lewis on Gertrude Stein: “Gertrude Stein’s prose-song is a cold black suet-pudding. We can represent it as a cold suet-roll of fabulously reptilian length. Cut it at any point, it is the same thing: the same heavy, sticky, opaque mass all through and all along.”

As one commenter, Dave, concluded:  “Authors are some mean mofos.”

Instead of resnipping the earlier lists, however, I decided to raid the suggestions from readers.

No eraser

Ben Jonson on Shakespeare:  “I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare that in his writing, whatever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, ‘Would he had blotted a thousand.”

Baudelaire on Voltaire: “I grow bored in France – and the main reason is that everybody here resembles Voltaire … the king of nincompoops, the prince of the superficial, the anti-artist, the spokesman of janitresses, the Father Gigone of the editors of Siècle.”

H.G. Wells on Henry James: “A hippopotamus trying to pick up a pea.”

Ahem...

Louis-Ferdinand Céline on D.H.Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover: “600 hundred pages for a gamekeeper’s dick, it’s way too long.”

As far as potty-mouth goes, try this one:  Stephen Fry on Dan Brown‘s The DaVinci Code: “Complete loose stool water. Arse gravy of the very worst kind.”

William Hazlitt about his good friend Coleridge: “Everlasting inconsequentiality marks all he does.”

Then there’s a Jane Austen pile-on:

Mark Twain:  “Just the omission of Jane Austen’s books alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it.”

Charlotte Bronte‘s criticism is less snarky, more an excellent Romantic era critique of the preceding era’s Classicism:

"A Chinese fidelity..."

“. . . anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works; all such demonstration the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer . . . She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well; there is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting: she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress. Her business is not half so much with the human heart as with the human eyes, mouth, hands, and feet; what sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study, but what throbs is the unseen seat of Life and the sentient target of death–this Miss Austen ignores, she no more, with her mind’s eye, beholds the heart of her race than each man with bodily vision, sees the heart in his heaving breast. Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete, and rather insensible (not senseless) woman . . .”

Ceallaig‘s perceptive comment from an intelligent heart:  “My question is: if Mark Twain hated Jane Austen why does he say ‘every time I read it?’ Wouldn’t once have been enough? Ditto Noel Coward‘s slam on Oscar Wilde: ‘Am reading more of …’? as if the first dose wasn’t sufficient? I’m sure most of these slams were meant to be witty, and I agree with a number of them, but … wit used for the sake of nasty doesn’t work for me.”

Ellis: "a mean shallow stupid novel"

Then I found this interesting post, from bibliokept. David Foster Wallace on Bret Easton Ellis.  I leafed through Ellis’ Less Than Zero in the Stanford Bookstore a couple decades ago, and found it ugly and depraved.  I haven’t read Wallace at all, and have been put-off by his super-celebrity status, which, morbidly, seemed to accelerate with his 2008 suicide – until I read this excerpt from an interview:

“I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other.

Wallace: "In dark times..."

‘If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s clichéd and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?

“In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend Psycho as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.”

I’d say it’s considerably less.

Bibliokept‘s thoughtful consideration of Ellis versus Wallace definitely worth a thoughtful read.