The Real Jane Austen???

“In the popular imagination, Jane Austen spent nearly all of her life sitting in a parsonage, working on her embroidery, gossiping about the neighbours and writing novels confined to ‘three or four families in a country village’.”
From The Real Jane Austen, by Paula Byrne

A popular imagination is an interesting source – for who can deny that there are millions of people that have heard about Jane Austen, but never read her books, nor watched the movies based on them. If they know that writers usually read a lot, they might expect the lady to be well-read. And if they happen to hear that Austen described many balls and naval officers, the streets of Bath and grand houses like Pemberley, they can expect her to also travel a bit. But what if someone is suddenly interested to find out the “real” Jane Austen? After reading the Wikidepia article, s/he might want to learn more about Austen’s daily life and the sources she drew her information from. Can The Real Jane Austen, by Paula Byrne, live up to the task?

My impression is that Ms. Byrne had focused on details rather than draw a cohesive image of the legendary Jane Austen. Her agenda, it seems, was composed of two goals:
One was to dispel the portrait of Jane Austen fostered by her family, a portrait of a woman who lived a life of “of usefulness, literature, and religion” in an enclosed, sequestered world. Since this is not the first Austen biography that I have read, I know that this task has been achieved previously.

Byrne’s second goal was way more ambitious. Throughout the book she tries to convince the reader that Austen was a free-spirited career woman. Or, in Ms. Byrne’s own words “… the consummate professional, the woman prepared to devote her life, and to sacrifice her prospects of marriage, to her art as a novelist.”

In my opinion, the evidence that Ms. Byrne has brought to argue for her image of Jane Austen is highly speculative. Some of it is based on recollections of family members who barely knew Austen. Even more troubling is the “evidence” drawn from a modern interpretation of Austen’s novels. An example of the latter is the biographer’s statement that Eliza (Jane Austen’s cousin and later also her sister-in-law) “was a muse for Jane Austen”. This speculative assertion, however, does not rely on anything Austen herself communicated about Eliza; it was deduced just from the fact that Austen dedicated her youthful story Love and Friendship to Eliza and maybe used details about Eliza to bring to life a secondary character like Mary Crawford. Yet, if Ms. Byrne is right and Eliza was indeed “Austen’s muse”, why did Eliza’s influence not extend to the more prominent characters like Elizabeth Bennet and Anne Elliot?

Another assertion that I found puzzling is that Austen had a very modern openness about sex. The biographer wrote that “Jane Austen was certainly not prudish about sex”, but how does she know that? We can hypothesize whether Austen spoke freely about sex in her private correspondence, but both “yes” and “no” are just guesses. Maybe such letters existed, but none of them survived. In the absence of supporting evidence, either letters or recollections from those who knew Jane Austen, the biographer supports her conjecture using a very speculative interpretation of Austen novels:

“Jane Austen also wrote about woman’s sexual pleasure. In the character of Lydia Bennet she presents us with a lusty teenage girl who enjoys sex before marriage with Wickham with very little concern for the consequences…
The image of the torn dress as a symbol of sexual disgrace is also used in Pride and Prejudice. Lydia sends a request to her maid that she should ‘mend a great slit in my worked muslin gown’. We do not have to be Freudians to recognize a shocking image of her sexual transgression. Lydia’s “slit” can’t be mended, except by forced marriage, which is exactly what happens, though no one is fooled by the ‘patched-up business’.”

Okay, I’m not Freudian, nor do I belong to any other school of psychology. For me a passage about a careless teenager who wants her torn dress to be mended is not a proof that Austen wrote about sex. I’d like to see some solid evidence for that hypothesis, which is peddled as if it were a fact.

The last point I want to question is the assertion that Austen made a conscious choice to promote her writing career at the expense of matrimony. The biographer tells us that Austen “did not want her voice to be stifled by marriage. She was, I believe, happy to remain single.” Again, this claim is not grounded in Austen’s correspondence. Apparently, Austen “did not envy the women of her acquaintance who were married and exhausted by husband and children”. Let’s stop and think for a moment: is there a man or a woman who wants to be in the shoes of those exhausted women? It is quite plausible that Austen dreaded the reality of giving birth year after year, or that she feared the possibility of dying in childbirth. Do such natural feelings imply that a woman does not want to have a family? The biographer names men that Jane Austen rejected. But did Austen love (or at least liked enough to tie herself with) any of them? There is no indication that she refused a man she loved in order not to have children. There is no evidence to support the claim that she was a happy spinster, who did not regret Tom Lefroy or whoever had inspired the immortal Mr. Darcy.

I was not convinced by Byrne’s conclusion that Austen was happy not to have children. The biographer argues that Austen’s letters reveal her great love of children’s company, even those who were not related to her. We can only speculate whether she pined for her own kid or was one of those people who prefer to play with the children of others. I think that Austen wanted a family but only with the right man.
Byrne writes: “Love of children is often a guide to characters in the novels. Mr Knightly forgives Emma’s wrongdoing against Mr Martin when he sees her holding her baby niece in her arms…”. Captain Wentworth watches Anne Elliot when she kneels before injured Charles Musgrove, but when Charles’ stout two-years-old brother comes in and fastens himself upon Anne, Wentworth silently removes the troublesome toddler from her back.
Can a writer who did not care about having a man and children describe with such tenderness both Knightly’s and Wentworth’s response to a woman tending to a little child? For me, this is Austen’s cry for a real partner, a man whose understanding and emotions would be similar to those of Knightly and Wentworth.

Reading The Real Jane Austen, I found a plethora of details about Jane Austen and her family, their attitude toward slave trade, her love of shopping, what different nieces thought about the famous aunt and much more. The biographer depicted a witty and talented woman who “revised and improved and honed” her craft until she became a self-assured professional writer. She showed that Austen wanted both money and approbation, and that she was a dedicated follower of fashion. However, the portrayal of Jane Austen as a modern woman was as unconvincing as the claim that in her novels Austen wrote about sex.

To sum up, the biography tackled various facets of Jane Austen. Some of them were interesting to explore, but in all, they did not combine to form a portrait of the genius that Austen was.

Those interested in speculations about possible causes of Jane Austen’s premature death will be better served with the CNN article, “Jane Austen poisoned with arsenic? Not so fast, experts say”.
Those who prefer a more sentimental and visual approach (and don’t mind Jane Austen speaking with an American accent), might enjoy the movie Becoming Jane.

Image at the top – from the movie Becoming Jane
Jane Austen’s writing box – image from The British Library Board

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Forward and backward

“It was possible to read the story two ways: Front to back, the heron returned to his heron wife and the world of the sky. Back to front, he stayed with his one true love on earth.”
From The Third Angel, by Alice Hoffman

Despite the citation from The Third Angel, this post is about another book (which will remain anonymous), or rather about how my perception has changed while reading it. A friend of mine, slightly surprised that I never heard about the author, lent me a copy. The dull, grayish cover did not scream “literary fiction”, it hissed the words like a snake coiling around its dazzled pray. I mumbled something about being quite busy, but we both knew it was a lame excuse for not reading the less than two-hundred pages.

One of the characters is theoretical physicist from CERN, the book owner told me. Keeping to myself what I thought about literary fiction tackling the “deep meaning” of high-energy physics and cosmology, I reluctantly agreed to give it a try.

If the cover were a dish, unappetizing would be an understatement. And the blurb at the back suggested a torture worse than Vogon poetry. Its first paragraph started with a date. That morning, the author had yet a few editorial questions to answer before the book went to print; he passed away in the night. The paragraph ended with a pendulum (I guess a metaphorical one), that never goes back. The following two paragraphs extolled the author’s swansong. Unlike the insipid front cover, the text was sprinkled with vivid superlatives with no apparent restrain. The fourth paragraph was short and quite chilling. It was the author’s seventh book, which he wrote during a year he was battling to keep expressing things he still wished to write, before dying at age of 52.
Any wonder that the book lay unopened until I got a gentle nudge?

I started to read it yesterday and finished today. I’m not going to discuss the story, but how I felt before and after reading it. At the beginning I was weary, ready for self-pity entwined with plethora of metaphors, gore mixed with philosophizing about the meaning of this all. The first few pages evoked the ridiculous rather than the ominous, and, thankfully, without foreshadowing death. I kept-reading not because the story was fast-paced, but because the fluidity of the writing, the places the book took me, the characters that survived without becoming washed-out automatons. Reading on, I was mesmerized by the evolving drama, by the author’s ability to introduce funny (and not-so-funny) characters, without BS or bitterness, without overt references to what was happening in his life. Closing the book, I regretted that it was so short.

A question that still lingers in my mind is whether I would have read the book differently if I knew nothing about the author. My expectations would have been different. The unwillingness to read the book was based on the cover, the blurb, and an assumption that a literary work by a dying author must revolve around the ugliness and the futility of the situation (even if the setting is entirely fictional). I was wrong. The story did not read like a swansong, a farewell studded with wisdom and replete with masterly articulated gore. Closing that book, there was a sense of catharsis even though there was no climax, and the story ended without heroics, love did not triumph, nor was it ruled out. How the author achieved that mental cleaning-up without evoking any “great feeling”? Maybe because the story felt distilled and honest, without brouhaha and unnecessarily frills. People remained who they were, and life went on for the survivors. And despite the physicists’ experiments at CERN, the world did not end.

Stained-glass window image from Wikipedia. Pendulum image from Wikipedia.

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The Return


The Return“Concha and her friends flippantly called the new freedoms for women “liberation and lingerie” because of the exciting new undergarments that they now sometimes saw advertised in the newspapers. Having moved out of rural poverty herself when she married Pablo, she wanted to see Mercedes improve her life, too, and had been pleased at the prospect of her daughter growing up in a society full of opportunity. With women now in professions such as law and medicine and reaching positions of power and influence, Concha hoped that life for Mercedes would have more to it than polishing glasses and lining them up neatly along the bar. Though Mercedes seemed to think of nothing but dance, her mother regarded it as something of a childish pastime.”
From The Return by Victoria Hislop

What can be more normal than a mother fretting about her teenage daughter obsession with dancing when she should be thinking about her future? Or the mother having premonitions that her son, a rising matador, would be “gored to death” in a bullfighting ring? Barring incurable diseases and natural disasters, such fears are often a parent’s worst worries. Unfortunately for the Ramirez family, in 1930s Granada, they were the least Concha had to cope with.

In a country torn between “protesting workers who felt their interests were not being represented” and conservatives “who yearned for a return to rule by the wealthy and privileged,” Concha’s two eldest sons drifted to the opposite sides of the conflict. Antonio, the teacher, was a moderate liberal. Ignacio, the matador, adopted the attitudes of landowners and other wealthy patrons of bullfighting who “loathed the new liberalism, blaming it for a wave of permissive behavior that they found hard to stomach.”

The rift between Antonio and Ignacio grew along with the hostilities between the Republicans’ and Nationalists’ forces, but it was Concha’s youngest son, who became the Civil War’s first causality in Ramirez family. Emilio was a shy musician who spent his time working in his parents’ bar and admiring the poet and playwright Lorca. While his parents “turned a blind eye to Emilio’s homosexuality,” in Granada ruled by the Nationalists, a man reported to be a homosexual was in a dire danger. Emilio was arrested without legal warrant few weeks after Lorca was shot. He was sentenced to thirty years.

For a while life went on. Antonio did not belong to any party, Ignacio, supported the winners, and the rest of the family shied away from politics. But, air raids did not distinguish between supporters and foes and “Though Granada was in Nationalist hands, there remained a strong undercurrent of support for the legal Republic government, and there were many people prepared to resist the tyranny under which they were now forced to live. This meant that the atrocities of war were not only perpetrated by supporters of Franco. Murders of people suspected on collaboration with Franco’s troops were commonplace, and there were frequently signs of torture to be found on their corpses.”

I won’t tell how Antonio and Ignacio fared, whether Mercedes followed her passion and became a flamenco dancer, what happened to Concha and her husband. It took me several weeks between starting and completing Victoria Hislop’s novel. The Return unfolds slowly as it meanders between the stories of the various members of Ramirez family, especially Mercedes’ quest to find the gitano (Roma) guitarist, she fell in love with. While Granada is the focal point of the novel, Mercedes’ journey stretches from Almeria in the south to Bilbao in the north. Without seeing a battlefield, she faces repeated bombing of civilians, the rampant hunger, the arbitrariness of death. Amid all the horror, she also encounters small glimmers of kindness.

I recommend the The Return, although it was a very slow read.
A caveat: the beginning and the end of the book are taking place in modern Granada. I don’t know why the author started the story with two boring Englishwomen. I understand their fascination with flamenco, but their problematic relations with their men felt superfluous to the rest of the story.


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A new message of hope

Starwars: Princess Leia and R2D2

“Help Me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re My Only Hope”
Princess Leia, Star Wars: A New Hope.

It is customary to begin a new year with new resolutions, and even make them public to add a little bit more pressure to follow them through. What follows are not resolutions, writing advice or reflections about scholarly achievements. This post is about two great stories which will celebrate this year, respectively, their fortieth and the twentieth anniversaries.

Since Star Wars and Harry Potter have been studied, analyzed and imitated ad nauseam, I’ll mention only a couple of similarities between the stories:

  • A fantastic world that appeals to millions of kids and to the kid in everybody. The “world” can be as large as a galaxy far, far away, with its thousands of inhabited worlds, or the Diagon Alley in London and the Hogwarts Castle in Scotland.
  • Young storytellers, who still remembered what was it like being a child. George Lucas and J.K. Rowling started to work on their stories in their twenties. The first installment in each series was released when the creator was in his/her early thirties.

    “It’s the flotsam and jetsam from the period when I was twelve years old,” says Director George Lucas, 33. “All the books and films and comics that I liked when I was a child. The plot is simple —good against evil—and the film is designed to be all the fun things and fantasy things I remember. The word for this movie is fun.” For once, a director is right about his own work. Star Wars has brought fun back to the movies and glowingly demonstrated they still can make ’em like they used to…
    Says Lucas: “It’s not a film about the future. Star Wars is a fantasy, much closer to the Brothers Grimm than it is to 2001. My main reason for making it was to give young people an honest, wholesome fantasy life, the kind my generation had. We had westerns, pirate movies, all kinds of great things. Now they have The Six Million Dollar Man and Kojak. Where are the romance, the adventure, and the fun that used to be in practically every movie made?”
    From Time magazine, May 30, 1977.

    “In an age of Nintendo and Teletubbies (of which Jessica is a fan), Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone reads like a children’s book written 20 years ago. Aimed at the 9-13 age group, it is essentially a boarding school novel, a setting which has become unfashionable. “It had to be a boarding school to sustain the fantasy,” Rowling says. “He had to go somewhere that’s an enclosed world to have his adventures. Kids are incredibly powerless because everything is determined for them, so a rich fantasy life in which they do have power is almost inevitable. And a middle-class boarding school is a world where they are free of their parents. Being an orphan is very liberating in a book. I think it’s a common fantasy of children that somehow these parents aren’t their parents.”
    From “Tales from a single mother”, The Sunday Times, 29 June 1997.

    Both Lucas and Rowling stressed the fun aspect of their stories. Looking back from the vantage point of 2017, I think that the lasting influence of Star Wars and Harry Potter is not just a matter of being fun and offering escapism. Not even the triumph of good over evil. I’ve seen many movies and read even more books with all the “right” elements. Some of them I enjoyed (like the hilarious Back to the Future movies and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series), but none made a similar impact.
    I think that the difference is that Star Wars succeeded to make its message of hope believable. As The Times article had said almost forty years ago:

    “That innocence and that feeling for romance are what make Star Wars so fresh, so much fun and, finally, so fantastic. Lucas believed everything he put on film, and somewhere under the celluloid, he is Luke Skywalker — out to slay the dragon, rescue the princess and find the Holy Grail…
    Despite the talent and the money arrayed against it, Star Wars has one clear advantage: it is simple, elemental, and therefore unique. It has a happy ending, a rarity these days…
    But wait! Darth Vader has escaped, cloaked in evil and eager for revenge, and the Galactic Empire still holds, in chains 1,000 solar systems. What hope have our gallant adventurers against forces so vast and so dark? Another richly imagined universe of hope, obviously, and Lucas is already planning to bring them back in the sequel to Star Wars…”

    Forty years later, I’m tired of sequels to the original Star Wars, and I’m grateful to J.K. Rowling that she saved Harry and his friends from a similar fate.

    What I wish for 2017 is a new message of hope.

    Star Wars: Medal Ceremony

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Stars, Leaves, and speculations about Dark Matter

“Topmost branches stretched in all directions, arched over the road, merging into a lush green canopy, dappled with yellow, saffron and vermillion. Bright-blue patches of sky peeked through the dome. A kingdom to itself, Danielle thought. Each tree was a fief, a world, or a galaxy, separated yet connected. The yellow and red leaves were stars, the green foliage encasing them was invisible dark matter.
“Could anyone guess the existence of green leaves, by looking at the bright leaves, stems and twigs?” she asked a nearby trunk.
It did not respond, but Danielle took the silence as “yes.”
“If stems and sticks connecting the leaves act like gravity, then counting their number in each tree will be like weighting a galaxy.”
From Initial Conditions

Danielle’s attempt to “visualize” dark matter is hardly scientific, but this is the problem with dark matter – it’s invisible. As the NASA site explains: Continue reading

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Love between the covers

“The noise was huge.

Wherever they stood, sat, or wandered, they talked. Primarily women, he observed, some of them dressed for business, other drooping from travel. And all, he thought, studying the heaped luggage carts, with enough suitcases for a six-month stay.

As he maneuvered out of the way, two women streaked toward each other over the shining tile and met with squeals and embraces. Several others were eyeing him. Not that he particularly minded being ogled, but being so completely outnumbered, he chose discretion as the better part of valor and contemplated retreat.”

from Finding the dream by Nora Roberts

This is how a romance writers’ convention looks like from the point of view of a man who stumbled into a hotel’s lobby while the romance writers were checking-in. Or actually, this is how the predominantly-female readership of romantic novels would like a very masculine, self-assured man to respond. Wishful thinking? Maybe, but as the female protagonist of Finding the dream explains,

“Romance novels are an enormous industry that accounts for more than forty percent of the paperback market and provides enjoyment and entertainment for millions while focusing on love, commitment, and hope.”

Or, updated to 2016,

Source: 2016 Romance Writers of America RWA PAN Presentation

I’ve been intrigued by the wide appeal of romance novels, and occasionally wondered what is common to its readers aside from gender? Why does the HEA (happily ever after) appeal to so many women and to so few men? What makes voracious readers devour seemingly similar stories one after another?
The documentary “Love between the covers”, directed by Laurie Kahn-Leavitt, promises “a funny and inspiring look into the billion-dollar romance fiction industry and its powerhouse of female writers and readers, a sisterhood that’s pioneering the digital revolution while finding fortune, fulfillment, and a global community.” The description seemed promising, so I watched the movie. It answered some of the questions and raised others.

As the couple of words “funny” and “inspiring” suggest, Love between the covers is a feel-good documentary. As such, it does not show graphs nor rely on statistics. Instead, it presents a collage of interviews with mega stars, inspiring and aspiring writers, glimpses into romance writers’ workshops, an editorial meeting, snippets of conversation between romance readers, and a peek into a reading in front of a rapt audience…

In all, the movie portrays romance readers and writers as a huge and diverse group in terms of education, ethnicity, background, and interests. It does not back up personal, anecdotal stories with numbers. Lack of data continues throughout the movie. For example, differences between romance sub-genres are illustrated with book covers, but what about their respective readership? The writers involved?

Most of the writers’ interviews are very short. While it’s nice to attach faces and voices to names familiar from book-covers, watching the movie, my inner cynic kept observing that no large community can be as overwhelmingly positive, inclusive, and meritocratic as it was suggested. Even if romance writers are generally a warm, open-minded, and hard-working set of women, it’s hard to believe that cliques, backscratching, and bad-mouthing are not part of this highly-competitive industry.

The most interesting part of the movie is its attempt to explain how the same genre could be considered as fun, inspiring escapism by its readers, and as simplistic, formulaic trash by the non-readers. From what I gathered, a major attraction of the genre (and a reason it is stigmatized and shunned by others) is that romance novels show femininity and sexuality in a way that women want to perceive themselves and be seen by others. Romance readers get an emotional thrill and validation when their needs are understood, respected, and satisfied before they reach “The End.” Those who don’t feel this emotional ride, usually don’t “get” romance.

The movie is recommended for those who are curious about the genre and probably also to its avid readers.

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The proof is in the pudding

“al freír de los huevos lo verá”
literally ‎“you will see it when you fry the eggs”,
was translated as

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating”

A proverb from Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.

Miguel de Cervantes was born in 1547, probably on September 29 (the day of San Miguel). His major work, Don Quixote, is considered to be the first modern novel. It is a classic of Western literature and is regarded among the best works of fiction ever written.

Little is known of Cervantes’s early education. He moved from Spain to Rome in 1569. By 1570, he enlisted as a soldier in a Spanish infantry regiment stationed in Naples, then one of the kingdoms of the Spanish Empire. In mid-September 1571, Cervantes sailed on board the Marquesa, a part of a large fleet formed of the combined naval forces of Venice, the papacy and Spain, to fight the Ottoman Empire. A fierce battle ensued. It ended in a crushing defeat for the Turks that ultimately broke their control of the Mediterranean. During the action, Cervantes, though stricken with a fever, refused to stay below and joined the thick of the fighting. He received two gunshot wounds in the chest, and a third rendered his left hand useless for the rest of his life. He always looked back on his conduct in the battle with pride.

Cervantes continued his soldier’s life until 1575. Armed with letters of commendation to the king, he set sail for Spain. Barbary pirates attacked and captured the ship, and Cervantes, together with his brother Rodrigo, were sold into slavery in Algiers. The letters Cervantes carried magnified his importance in the eyes of his captors. They raised his ransom price, thus prolonging his captivity. The letters probably protected Cervantes from punishment by death, mutilation, or torture when his four daring bids to escape were frustrated.

After five years spent as a slave in Algiers, Cervantes was ransomed and returned to his family in Madrid. He made a name for himself for courage and leadership among the captive community, but neither that nor his war record brought the recompense Cervantes expected. His applications for administrative posts in Spain’s American colonies failed. He became a commissary of provisions for the great Armada, traveling all over Andalusia, requisitioning corn and oil from grudging rural communities. It was a thankless, yet steady job, with a certain status. Failure to balance his books, however, landed Cervantes in prolonged and repeated trouble with his superiors. In 1594 he received an appointment to collect overdue taxes, a job no more rewarding than the previous one and similarly fraught with financial difficulties and confrontations. This appointment was terminated in 1596. In the summer of 1597 discrepancies in Cervantes’s accounts of three previous years landed him in the Royal Jail of Seville. He was confined until the end of April 1598. Apparently, he conceived the idea of Don Quixote while incarcerated there.

In summer 1604 Cervantes sold the rights of El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha (“The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha,” known as Don Quixote, Part I) to the publisher/bookseller for an unknown sum. The license to publish it was granted in September and the book came out in January 1605. The novel was an immediate success. The sale of the publishing rights, however, meant that Cervantes did not profit from the success of his novel.

In 1607, Cervantes settled in Madrid, where he lived and worked until his death. During the last nine years of his life, he solidified his reputation as a writer. He published a collection of tales, the Novelas ejemplares (Exemplary Novels) in 1613, the Journey to Parnassus in 1614, and Don Quixote II late in 1615. Cervantes died in April 1616.

Summarized from Britannica and Wikipedia

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