In keeping with my 2013 goal to continue reading regularly, I’m keeping a running list of the books I’ve read this year. I will add to it as the year progresses. The links will take you to the books on Goodreads.
Today marks the bicentennial anniversary of the publication of one of my most favorite novels, Pride and Prejudice. A novel which has outlived its era and proves, by its universal themes that a story, once written, is immortal.
I remember precisely where I was when I first read it. For college, I was assigned to read the novel for one of my many English courses. I knew nothing about Jane Austen or the novel itself. I had no idea of the era from which it came (except that it was categorized in that literary period referred to as “romantic”). I expected to find something lifeless and dry like much of the work I’d sampled from the previous period, which while flawless in its own right, spoke little to me and my 20th century sensibilities.
From the moment I cracked open the book, sitting on the uncomfortable couch in my college apartment, and read that world-famous first line–you know one—I was hooked.
The voice, the cadence, the sardonic wit. The characterizations, both satirical and serious. The themes. And the romance. Ah, yes the romance. I had no idea that Darcy would be Elizabeth’s hero. I was shocked, shocked, when he proposed to her. “You must allow me to tell you…”
And strangely, I felt sorry for him after Elizabeth slapped him down so hard. I mean, yes, I was cheering her on when she dressed him down for his unbelievable arrogance, but then I read his letter. The letter, which must have been so difficult to write, filled with all the ugly truths about that likeable guy, Wickham, and explaining Darcy’s real reasons for separating Bingley from Jane.
My prejudice, as a reader, reversed a bit sooner than Elizabeth’s. But by the time she had run into him at Pemberley, I was hoping they’d get together.
I blew through the book in a few days (I read slow, I know). I savored the language, the tone, the unmistakable voice of Jane Austen speaking to me across nearly two hundred years. And every time I pick up this novel and read it, I have that same feeling.
Jane Austen could not have known that her work would be so well appreciated and venerated two hundred years after she wrote it. Countless reading groups, adaptations, fan-fiction and literary clubs surrounding her are the proof of that.
Her themes are universal, her voice immortal and her stories and characters, just plain addictive. If you haven’t read Pride and Prejudice in a while, I suggest you give it a try. Especially in this, the 200th year of continuous publication (it has never been out of print!). It won’t be hard to see the relevance. I suspect in the year 2213, someone, maybe some descendant of mine, will be writing a post along these same lines. And in 2413, however books will be consumed then, the name of Jane Austen will be known and appreciated.
This holiday season, as we sat in front of the TV during the late night hours wrapping gifts, I slowly and not-so-subtly got my husband hooked on Downton Abbey.
It wasn’t hard, really, but of course this second time around, I was viewing the series through a storyteller’s eyes rather than merely enjoying the story line for myself. For this series does historical fiction–and historical romance–very well. I continually asked myself, what could I learn from this experience?
Attention to detail: No detail is left unattended, from the minutest attention paid to costuming, set dressing and historical accuracy. For example, every time the butler enters a room below stairs, all servants stop whatever they are doing and stand at attention. Life below stairs perfectly mirrors that above stairs with attention to rank and propriety guarded most effectively.
Beautiful landscapes: It is not specified where the location of Downton Abbey is supposed to be, but we are shown breathtaking shots of the castle (which is in reality, Highclere Castle), and its park. Actors move about the scenery and we are reminded that the Abbey, itself, is also an important character in the ongoing drama of the inhabitants, both above and below stairs.
Every character has a history and his/her own motivation: Sometimes these goals and motivations revolve around Downton Abbey itself (as in the case of Lord Grantham) and sometimes they are in response to events tied to Downton, such as the inciting incident for Series 1: The sinking of the Titanic, which claims the lives of Lord Grantham’s two heirs and Lady Mary’s fiance. The entail becomes a desperate matter, as all of the family’s wealth is tied up in the estate… and whoever inherits the title will get the estate.
Culturally relevant: Life at Downton Abbey revolves around the maintenance and future of the estate itself. Lord Grantham contends with his wife over his refusal to smash the entail. Matthew Crawley is summoned away from his happy life in Manchester because he has suddenly become an earl’s heir. But these events do not occur in a vacuum. History revolves around them, from the sinking of the Titanic to the start of World War I, we see how these iconic events of history affect these people. But we see other issues treated as well, as Lady Sybil’s story line deals with emerging women’s rights. She participates in activities related to women’s suffrage and fosters one of the maid’s aspirations to leave service and become a career woman in an office.
There are just a few of the ways in which Downton Abbey hits the mark as far as the historical fiction genre is concerned. In my editing process, I’m going to make certain to hit these marks in my works as well!
If you haven’t seen it and would like to catch up, series 1 is being re-run right now on PBS (here in the U.S.). Series 2 premieres next week! Have you seen Downton Abbey? What do you love about it?
A while back, Laurel Ann sent me some questions for a Q & A for the Jane Austen Made Me Do It anthology. I thought it might be fun to share them with you here:
Laurel Ann: How did Jane Austen make you do it? What inspired you to join this anthology?
Brenna Aubrey: The first thing that attracted me to the contest was the title of the anthology. Jane Austen Made Me Do It. That fabulous title left open many possibilities that my imagination ran quite wild with them. The contest really was an amazing opportunity for an aspiring author. So I sat down with my notebook and a pen and started brainstorming. From the first, I knew that in my story, I would include a phrase from the title of the anthology. From there, I worked backward, asking myself the questions. What did Jane Austen make you do? Why? How? And from there I built the story. Quite literally, I wrote the last line first, and the first line of the story was almost the last thing I wrote.
LA:When were you introduced to Jane Austen? Which novel did you read first, and what was your first impression?
Bren: I was introduced to Jane Austen in college while completing a minor in English. I purchased a copy of Pride and Prejudice per the instructions on the course syllabus for English literature and had no idea what to expect. From the first line, “It is a truth, universally acknowledged…” I was hooked. I devoured the novel, chose to use it for my midterm paper in which I discussed the likeness of Austen’s characterizations to contemporary people I knew and discussed how relatable her themes were.
In addition, I was in awe of the way in which Austen shaped the reader’s prejudice against Darcy to parallel Elizabeth’s. Our feelings and impressions mirror her own until we are utterly, utterly shocked to learn that that nice Wickham fellow is such a scoundrel and that Darcy can actually come down from that high horse of his to help Elizabeth and to love her. But I know that I never felt more animosity towards a main character than I did when I read the scene of the first proposal. And, in turn, my own feelings had so reversed by the end of the novel that I was actually cheering for Darcy during the second proposal. Austen’s ability to shape the reader’s attitude towards the characters shows a masterful hand at story crafting. And on so many levels, her artistry is apparent. From story crafting down and characterization to diction and figurative speech.
LA:Share with us the inspiration for your story. How did you decide on the theme, setting and characters? Which elements of Jane Austen’s style, humor or characterizations influenced you the most?
Bren: My inspiration for the story all started from the thought that so many women have identified with Jane Austen and her works. But even as I enjoyed discussing my favorite characters with like-minded female friends, I couldn’t help but wonder if Austen’s reach extended in any significant way, towards the males. And if so, how would they be affected? I decided to explore one man’s point of view in my story. And this is where it started. And from there, the ideas started to snowball.
Perhaps my most favorite piece of Jane Austen’s work is Frederick Wentworth’s letter to Anne Elliott—and it is a significant portion of prose that exposes us to the mindset of a man, as interpreted by the authoress. I wanted a contemporary man’s point of view so I knew my story would take place in the here and now. I wanted a man who, like Wentworth, was poised on the verge of starting a new and successful life for himself, yet who was haunted by the past. From there, the events seemed to flow. My biggest challenge was point of view, simply because I chose to express Mark’s thoughts from the first person and, being a woman, it was a challenge to make his voice believably male. I tried some unconventional ways to channel my own “inner male” in order to make it sound authentic. It also helps that I have read and loved many great contemporary male authors who write from first person point of view, such as Pat Conroy and Wally Lamb.
LA: Jane Austen’s heroines have been often imitated but never duplicated. From Elizabeth Bennet’s conceited independence to Fanny Price’s prudent convictions, Austen creates characters with real flaws and perfections that readers identify with. Which of her heroines do you connect with personally? Who would you like to offer advice to, and please share what that would be?
Bren: The Austen heroine with whom I most identify is Elizabeth Bennet. I’ve always been a little too outspoken for my own good and guilty of “professing opinions that are not [my] own.” Unlike Elizabeth, however, I tend to put my foot in my mouth all too often. I do envy her ease in social situations and wish I could perform in a likewise manner.
Which heroine would I advise? I think Fanny Price. I always felt badly for her and the way she was treated at the Bertram’s. She sticks up for herself in plucky ways—for example, she is the only one who refuses to take part in the “spectacle”—deeming it questionable on moral grounds. However, at times she feels unsure of herself and unduly influenced by others. I’d advise her to hold firm to her principles and to know her own self worth and not let others dictate to her. True that, as a woman of her time and situation, she did not have much power. But in the end, she gets her true love and her happily ever after.
LA:The range of writing experience in this anthology covers veteran literary bestselling author to debut new voice. How did Jane Austen influence your writing career? If so, what insights could you share with an aspiring writer on Austen’s technique and style?
Bren: Well as the “debut new voice”—I must say that I am thrilled to be here! Jane Austen has long been a muse of mine. She does dialogue and human interaction so well that an in depth study of her technique would yield volumes of writing wisdom. In fact, it can be overwhelming at times on the outset to compare yourself with one of the “greats”—and Jane Austen is most definitely that. There is so much that she does right that trying to imitate her would only lead to frustration and ruin, I think. Her voice is uniquely her own and, in my opinion, the strongest facet of her body of work. I would advise any aspiring author, like myself, to find your own voice and don’t be afraid to use it, and use it often.
LA: Jane Austen’s road to publication was long and arduous before she self-financed the publication of her first novel Sense and Sensibility in 1811. Was your road to publication strewn with rose petals or thorns? What advice can you offer new writers seeking publication today?
Bren: I’m still at the very beginning of my journey to publication. I look to Miss Austen’s struggles for strength and inspiration during my own difficult times. I’ve been writing for over a decade for my own amusement. I penned three fantasy novels in a series just because I wanted to know how the story would end. It has only been very recently that I’ve realized that others might be interested in reading my stories and even, hopefully, enjoy them. So like Jane Austen at the beginning, my stories were penned for my own amusement and that of my closest friends. I often think what of what an immense loss it would have been to the canon of world literature if she had never sought to share her voice. I look to that example and think, of her courage. Now that the potential audience for my writing appears to be widening, I feel as if I’m standing on a precipice and cannot see the bottom. If I swallow my fear and dive in, hopefully the water will be just fine. Believing in oneself is the key to perseverance.
LA: We obviously all admire Jane Austen and have been inspired by her works. Do you see her influence in contemporary authors today? If so, can you recommend any of your favorite author’s books and share their connection?
Bren: Helen Fielding and her Bridget Jones’ Diary books, which she closely based on Pride and Prejudice are on my keeper shelf. I love those books and whenever I’m feeling down and need a laugh, they never fail me. The works of Jane Austen have strongly influenced the genre of romance. Since her novels were the early prototypes of today’s hugely successful genre, there are so many authors I could name. Some of them are Loretta Chase, author of Lord of Scoundrels, this anthology’s own Lauren Willig and her Pink Carnation series, Sherry Thomas, Tessa Dare really capture Jane Austen’s humor and focus on relationships. I must also give a nod to the many authors devoted to Austen-inspired contemporary fiction as well as sequels to Jane Austen’s works. Many of these intrepid authors are publishing them independently and enjoying success.
LA: There are many movie and stage adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels. Do you think her stories transfer well to other mediums? Which of the film adaptations do you think captures the spirit of her stories and the nuances of her characters best, and why?
Bren: I do think Jane Austen’s work transfers well to other mediums and I appreciate adaptations and updates to the storylines and characters when they are done justice. These really help to emphasize the timelessness and universality of Austen’s themes, character development and humor. I especially love the cross-cultural adaptations, like Clueless, the modern version of Emma and Bride & Prejudice, where Jane Austen’s chef d’oeuvre is given a Bollywood treatment, complete with Indian Elizabeth and a big-business but culturally insensitive Darcy. My favorite “true to the work” adaptation is the 1995 BBC/A&E production of Pride and Prejudice. In my opinion, it exemplifies the characters (especially Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy) as they were described in the novel. In addition, the adaptation goes a step further to add some scenes that were not originally in the novel to give us some clues to the characters’ inner feelings and motivations. It showcased the novel so well without smothering it with heavy-handed exaggerations and broad strokes of characterization. It allowed Austen’s subtlety to show through in the finished product.
LA: Because of the rigid social proprieties in the Regency era, Jane Austen published all of her novels by “A Lady” instead of using her full name. Not many outside of her family knew of her private identity. If she were alive today, how do you think she would react to her widespread popularity?
Bren: I’m not quite sure how Jane Austen would react today to her immense popularity and the massive influence she has had on contemporary literature. I’ve always imagined her as a reserved and prepossessing gentlewoman, who, I think would not know how to handle that level of celebrity. So much about the true Jane Austen, her personality and her preferences, has been lost over the centuries. I think one major clue as to how Jane Austen would handle her fame lies in the fact that her sister, Cassandra, burned most of her intimate correspondence after her death. Cassandra was intent on preserving Jane’s privacy, even posthumously. So I imagine Jane Austen to have been a very private person.
LA: Jane Austen is valued for her keen understanding of the irregularities of human nature. Her famous heroine Elizabeth Bennet is a great observer of their “follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies.” Which of Austen’s characters resembles your personality closest? Whom do you admire? Whom are you afraid of becoming?
Bren: Charlotte Lucas was a settler who sought, above all else, security. I see a lot of myself in her reserved rationality. Her decisions are much derided in Pride and Prejudice—and deservedly so—but I think her cool rationality and common sense is admirable in certain lights. She was, above all else, a realist. Though I don’t consider myself a “settler” I do, like Charlotte, crave security. Many of the most important decisions of my life have been made based on the security they would provide. That point of view has its foibles—of that I am keenly aware—and I’m still working on achieving a balance between a thirst for adventure and an instinct for security.
Of all the Austen characters I admire, I think Jane Bennet is the one whom I look up to. She is the epitome of someone who will always look on the bright side of situations and of people. Her father chides her for this tendency throughout the novel but I think there is much to be admired in her outlook on life. A person like that will always be determined to find a way to be happy. It might not be the most realistic of views but it represents much of what is good about human nature.
I am afraid of becoming like Mrs. Bennet, I think. Her nature tends towards the direct opposite of Jane’s, in that she is always looking at the worst possible scenario and reacting hysterically as if it has suddenly become a reality.
LA: Pride and Prejudice is by far Jane Austen’s most famous work. Of her other five major novels and one novella, which one do you gravitate to on a rainy day? Which is her most underrated?
For a long time, my uncontested favorite novel of all was Pride and Prejudice. There is so much to be admired and adored in that novel and, deservedly so, it attracts a lot of attention. But as I have matured, I’ve come to love the restrained gem that is Persuasion. It’s interesting that P&P is a novel of Jane’s youth and Persuasion a product of her more mature years. It’s heartbreaking to think of what she would have produced had she been able to live longer. In any case, the themes, and characters of Persuasion speak to me as a more mature reader. And the prose is so hauntingly beautiful that I could not resist incorporating it into my anthology story. How on earth could I do justice to describing the events of the novel without letting her words speak for themselves?
LA: Austen’s bad boys are so roguishly irresistible. We all have met a rake or two in our dating lives. If you were introduced to Mr. Wickham, Mr. Willoughby, Captain Tilney, Mr. Crawford or Mr. Elliot at a ball and they invited you to dance, whom would you accept, and what penetrating question would you ask him during the course of the set?
Bren: The rakish hero from whom I would accept a dance would be Mr. Wickham and the penetrating question I would ask him is, “I heard you grew up with Mr. Darcy. Do you think you might be able to, er, swing an introduction for me?” Seriously, though, I think it has been either my misfortune or good luck to have only but rarely crossed paths with a true rake. It’s that security thing again. I think if I met one now, I’d admire from afar but stay far away from the potential disaster.
LA: The Austen family were novel readers in an era when fiction was considered lowbrow fare. Jane makes fun of this through her hero Henry Tilney’s remark “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” If you were to introduce a new reader to Jane Austen’s works, which novel would you choose, and what advice would you share?
Bren: I would choose Pride and Prejudice or Emma to introduce someone to Jane Austen just because of their mass appeal, universal themes and well-paced plot developments. The other novels are a little more slow in revealing their beauties, but, when looked for, those gems are well worth the finding. My advice would be to read the novel(s) first before watching any adaptations and getting someone else’s vision of the characters and setting in their head before experiencing the novel on the page.
LA: Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson felt Jane Austen’s novels were “pinched and narrow,” lacking genius, wit and knowledge of the world. She jokingly admitted that her work was “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labour.” As a writer do you agree or disagree with Emerson criticism, and as a reader, do you crave more historical detail in Austen’s novels?
Bren: Of course I disagree with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Whatever his genius, I do not have a high opinion of his taste. Other greats, such as Charlotte Brontë (whose novel I jokingly mention in my story for that very reason) and Mark Twain have also vocalized a negative opinion for Jane Austen. Their minds were closed to the subtlety and understated stroke of the brush with which Austen painted. They were romantics and Jane Austen was from an earlier era. It is human nature to disparage what came immediately before when one is trying to innovate a brand new way of thinking. I think that the three mentioned had a particular agenda to enforce with their criticism. I’ll never understand why they felt the need to do this.
If I were looking for more historical detail in Jane Austen’s novels, it would be like combing a mountain range for seashells. It’s really not the reason to read Austen. She was a contemporary author, not a historical one. She wrote about the people, attitudes and society of her own time without conjecture or supposition.
LA: After close to two hundred years in print, Jane Austen’s stories still touch our twenty-first century sensibilities. Why do you think her appeal is so enduring?
Bren: I think Jane Austen’s appeal is so enduring because of the simple truth of her themes, the verisimilitude of her characters and the universality of her humor. Few can touch Jane Austen in the wit department. It sparkles off the page. I’m thrilled with her current and enduring popularity. And I’m pleased that, in writing my short story and participating in the contest, I have, in some small way, honored her memory and contribution to English literature.
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