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A Letter to Jane Austen – Part Three

This is the third and final instalment of a most interesting letter written by Hans van Leeuwen, a lovely Jane Austen fan from the Netherlands. (Part one can be found here, and part two can be read here.)

Hans is hoping to receive remarks and tips for improvements from native speakers of English, preferably Jane Austen devotees, and the purpose of sharing the letter with us is so that some valuable feedback might be gained. 

We hope you might enjoy reading it as much as we did, and that you might share your thoughts in our comments section below.   

Jane austen biography

Being obliged to speak when not wanting to, is just the sort of thing one would give one’s right arm for to be relieved of, but there was no escaping. I dared not look at either of my parents, fixing my eyes instead on the fire or one of the dogs, whichever afforded most comfort. The first words came out hesitantly, but as I progressed my confidence grew and eloquence improved:

” Dear father, dear mother, it is with great sorrow that the books by Jane Austen, one of which you see here in my hands, prove to be a source of such discord between my dear mother and myself. On several occasions I have talked to her about them, extolled their virtues to her, but the mere fact of my always reading them seems to have made her immune to their charms. I do try to bring variety in what I read but will not be bludgeoned into valuing anything against my taste and will not subject myself to the torture of reading recommended books when I can be certain to be entertained by Miss Austen’s. To destroy one’s mind, moreover, with books firmly established in the canon of English literature, I struggle to deem possible. ”

Having finished and looking up to see what my words had occasioned, I found both my parents looking at me in such a way as seemed to invite me to continue if I had anything left to say, which I had not. My father’s reaction to my speech was as predictable as my mother’s was not. If he had not suddenly changed his mind, he could not but agree with me, but there was no knowing what, if anything, my mother would say or do. She had not given any hint as to her state of mind for a while, neither in word nor otherwise, and although the severity about her seemed less than before, I could not be certain of a fresh attack not being in preparation.

” Very well put, “ said my father with pride. ” Such a defence cannot be listened to without exciting the tenderest feelings in a parent’s heart, and even those not agreeing with you, to whom I do not belong, cannot deny its merits. Some books stand the test of re-perusal with flying colours; indeed, only gain in attraction rather than increase disgust when read a second or third time, or even oftener. Change for change’s sake is a modern disease. And to be expected to read what one’s taste would never induce one even to pick up, to have another’s taste forced upon one is a situation too embarrassing to contemplate. Only in exceptional circumstances, where a little incivility might have disastrous consequences, should one allow a book to be recommended to oneself. It is many years since I last made the mistake. The book was claimed to change my life! Nothing of the kind had ever flowed from a pen!, etc. etc. Ha! If I had been so unwise as to continue listening, I am sure I would have heard it being described as capable of ending all conflict and taking away all illness, but it proved to be one of the dullest I ever opened. Not one line in it deserving a moment’s reflection, and not one remark witty enough to be worth attempting to cheer up friends with. And so many commonplaces on every page as one would not believe possible. The experience quite cured me of feeling guilty about disappointing expectations of the kind. “

Continue reading A Letter to Jane Austen – Part Three

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A Letter to Jane Austen – Part Two

Jane austen biography

This is part two of a most interesting letter written by Hans van Leeuwen, a lovely Jane Austen fan from the Netherlands. (Part one can be found here)

Hans is hoping to receive remarks and tips for improvements from native speakers of English, preferably Jane Austen devotees, and the purpose of sharing the letter with us is so that some valuable feedback might be gained. 

We hope you might enjoy reading it as much as we did, and that you might share your thoughts in our comments section below.   

Jane austen biography

The half hour that succeeded this scene brought calm and tranquillity to the room and saw my father and myself settling down to reading and my mother to knitting. The faint sounds naturally attending these activities, the song of the fire and the occasional whining of the dogs when they were dreaming, produced an atmosphere no evilness could find fertile ground in. Since opening your book and immersing myself in it, I had been holding it flat in my lap, for a reason not needing to be explained, but the unnaturalness of having it this way could not fail to create such discomfort as was no longer to be borne. Relief came in a change quickly made, and while the cover was at risk of being seen as a consequence, my eyesight was out of danger of being destroyed. After convincing myself of my parents’ being as perfectly engrossed in their respective employments as before, I felt safe enough to direct my eyes down again, and within the space of two paragraphs your book had me transported back to Northanger Abbey again and the exciting events within its walls.

The next half hour was spent in equal harmony. It was disturbed, however, by my father, who had stirred on perceiving that the fire was dying and needed attending to. This must have caused my mother to look up and about her, to try and discover what or who had had the nerve to rouse her from the delicious reverie the rhythm of her work had helped her slip into, and her eye must have met the cover of the book in the process, for what else could explain what happened next.

” My word! ”, cried she, ” Can it be true? It is almost past belief. Northanger Abbey it says again! Good heaven! What little common sense she had left completely gone! ”

Looking up in fright, I noticed that my father had likewise started at the outburst, but his whole attention being with the fire, only sounds and no purport seemed to have reached him, for he retorted that had the fire been left to her care, some limbs would have grown black from frostbite by now. My mother’s countenance stiffened with indignation, and provoked into retaliation, in an apparent attempt not to allow him to escape his fair share of ill-treatment, she cried:

” As deaf as a doorknob! The head of the house on a certain path to deafness, I was never so sure of anything! The disgrace that will befall us! Suspicions from all quarters will be growing into certainty within a fortnight, probably sooner, and where we once walked through the door amidst bows and civilities we will no longer be admitted entrance to. ” She continued in the same style for while until she seemed to have vented enough of her ire to be tolerably comfortable again in silence.

Continue reading A Letter to Jane Austen – Part Two

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A Letter to Jane Austen – Part One

Jane austen biography

This is part one of a most interesting letter written by Hans van Leeuwen, a lovely Jane Austen fan from the Netherlands.

Hans is hoping to receive remarks and tips for improvements from native speakers of English, preferably Jane Austen devotees, and the purpose of sharing the letter with us is so that some valuable feedback might be gained. 

We hope you might enjoy reading it as much as we did, and that you might share your thoughts in our comments section below.   

 

Jane austen biography

 

Nijmegen, Gelderlandshire

13th of November 1816 2016

Dear Jane

It is no uncommon occurrence for me to be seen opening a book not written by yourself for the sake of propriety, but hardly have I progressed to chapter two of such a book when I find myself growing increasingly uncomfortable from an anxiousness to replace it by one of your works. How exasperating that I should think it wrong sometimes to be always seen reading the same book or a book by the same authoress! I do, in the end, follow my own inclinations rather than bend to the wishes of others, but only after caring too much about other people’s opinions and patiently putting up with their suggestions to read what they themselves probably have not read. Yet even then I feel the shackles of conventionality, as testified by my continually looking about me when, at length, I have mustered courage enough to go to our library upstairs and choose one of your books again, on which, to your credit, dust never has time to settle.

I had gone thither for that very purpose a couple of days ago, and after hurriedly descending the stairs in excited spirits tinged with apprehension, while holding the cover of your book towards me so as to conceal it from view, joined my father and mother in the drawing room, whither they had repaired after dinner. A genial fire in the grate, lit earlier than usual by the housemaid on account of its being a remarkably cool evening for the season, made this the room all living creatures in the house were drawn towards, and when Maria came in with tea, Max and Joe, our two cocker spaniels, who had eagerly but obediently been waiting in the chilly hall for an opportunity to get in, sped past her to lay themselves to rest at our feet and, like ourselves, bask in the warm glow of the flames. After serving us, Maria was about to leave the room when my father addressed her thus:

“ The exemplary foresight shown in lighting the fire as early as has been done, is to be unequivocally commended, and I have been told that the idea proceeded from you, Maria. To have been thus saved from an evening spoilt by a fire lit too late, is a blessing indeed. ”

“ Thank you, Sir, ” was Maria’s humble reply.

Unsure whether she was meant to stay or leave the room, Maria felt all the discomfort of those finding themselves the recipients of commendation when it is neither expected nor felt to be deserved, and a hunching of the shoulders and restlessness of the hands were the surest symptoms of her agony. My father mercilessly continued his tribute, and although he now generously bestowed it on all those employed in his house, she still felt as awkward as if it had been exclusively intended for her.

Continue reading A Letter to Jane Austen – Part One

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Jane Austen’s First Love: A Novel, by Syrie James – A Review

jane austen's first love

jane-austens-first-love-by-syrie-james-2014-x-200Jane Austen’s First Love – A Review

From the desk of Christina Boyd:

Everyone in my world knows of Jane Austen. Alas, I can speculate that there are those who might not recognize the name. If they look her up on Wikipedia they would learn that:
‘Biographical information concerning Jane Austen is “famously scarce”… Only some personal and family letters remain (by one estimate only 160 out of Austen’s 3,000 letters are extant), and her sister Cassandra (to whom most of the letters were originally addressed) burned “the greater part” of the ones she kept and censored those she did not destroy. Other letters were destroyed by the heirs of Admiral Francis Austen, Jane’s brother. Most of the biographical material produced for fifty years after Austen’s death was written by her relatives and reflects the family’s biases in favour of “good quiet Aunt Jane”.’

Further, they would learn that this masterful writer of the social commentary and romance had never married, little is known of her love-life, yet it has been widely speculated upon in some circles. It is not a secret however that in 1802, Miss Austen had accepted the marriage proposal from family friend, Harris Bigg-Wither, but by the morning had withdrawn her acceptance. There are also letters from Jane to Cassandra in 1795 when she was twenty years-old about a brief flirtation with a Mr. Tom Lefroy. Sadly, his family did not approve of the match. Neither had any money and Tom was sent away, later to marry an heiress. And yet for an author who wrote exclusively of what she knew in her own sphere, how could she write of love so well had she never fully experienced it?

“We went by Bifrons and I contemplated with a melancholy pleasure the abode of Him, on whom I once fondly doated.” Jane Austen in a letter to her sister Cassandra, 1796

And with that one line, bestselling author Syrie James again undertakes the great task of expanding upon known facts and giving us her latest historical re-imagining, Jane Austen’s First Love. Who was “Him”, this man who resided at Bifrons, upon whom she fondly doated? And what had he meant to her?

Told in the first person narrative, Jane Austen’s First Love opens with our heroine being reminded of that letter she had written to sister Cassandra in 1796, recalling a person she had not thought about in many years. She was but fifteen in 1791, the same year that her elder brother Edward became engaged to Miss Elizabeth Bridges. The Austens were invited by his fiancé’s family to partake in several summer festivities at their grand country estate of Goodnestone Park in Kent. As they neared their destination, the carriage had an accident—but they found a preserver in the handsome Edward Taylor, heir to the nearby estate Bifrons, and cousin to Edward Austen-Knight’s future in-laws.

I froze; I could not avert my gaze; Mr. Taylor’s handsome countenance was but a foot or two from mine, and his arrival, like a knight in shining armour, had been so unexpected, his eyes were so dark and sparkling, that for the space of a breath, I forgot where I was or that any action was required of me.” p 47

When they reach Goodnestone and meet the family, it becomes readily apparent that their future sisters-in-law are more impressed with themselves than the newly arrived, less than auspicious Austens. As the entertainments commence, Jane plays matchmaker (as well as casting director in a private theatrical the young people indulge in), and not unlike one of her beloved heroines, Emma Woodhouse, we soon learn how inept young Jane is for the role. ‘Were my actors to be properly paired, who could say where it might lead? In enacting their parts, true feelings might be kindled; a very real intimacy might well emerge! This was my hope.’ Still she admits, only to herself, that ‘perhaps indulgent, immodest, even slightly immoral’ she has hopes of playing opposite Edward Taylor.

Daily diversions throw her in the path of the worldly Edward Taylor, and impressionable Jane cannot help but be drawn in by his uncommon intelligence, sound mind and opinions, gusto for life, and his unaffected attentions towards herself – forever dividing her life into two categories: before she met Edward Taylor, and everything thereafter. ‘“They were lovely- but as to meaningful conversation, they had nothing to offer.” The look and smile he gave me indicated, without words, that our present discourse was far preferable to him than had been the other.’ Though as new house guests arrive, a rival for his affections becomes known in the comely, yet reserved Miss Charlotte Watkinson Paylor.

I had never heard of Edward Taylor before. And upon my first reading of Jane Austen’s First Love, I thought it a sweet bit of Austenesque pastiche with clever characters and wonderful smatterings and/or hints of some of Austen’s famous prose. Solid four, maybe 4 ½ stars. Yet, it was not until reading the Author’s Afterword that I learned that Edward Taylor was an actual person! And, from Syrie James’ extensive research, it is not a stretch to surmise that Edward Taylor was a guest at Goodnestone Park when the Austens were also in residence that summer of 1791. In addition, her research detailed what a remarkable young man Edward Taylor was—just the sort of man a young Miss Austen might fall in-love with! ‘That he was a real person, and that I had in my possession so many little-known facts about his life, was very exciting. A picture began to form in my mind as to how and when Edward Taylor and Jane Austen might have met as teenagers, and what their relationship might have been.’ So, of course, I had to read the whole novel again, with this new perspective! And much in the manner of the film, Becoming Jane, this second reading left me so very hopeful that maybe, just maybe, it happened that way, that our beloved Jane did experience a first love (and even heartache), which made me adore this story all the more.

With a manifold of bestsellers behind her, Syrie James is an incomparable storyteller, turning obscure details from personal research into inspired, yet richly embellished, fictional narratives. Jane Austen’s First Love is a lively, romantic “what if” that will make you laugh, as well as tug at your heart. I must recommend you ‘give a loose to your fancy, indulge your imagination in every possible flight,’ and add Syrie James’ latest work, Jane Austen’s First Love, to your Reading List.

Berkley Trade (August 5th, 2014), 400 pages
Trade paperback ISBN: 978-0425271353
Digital eBook ASIN: B00G3L7VES


Christina Boyd wears many hats as editor at Meryton Press, social media specialist, book publicist at hybrid publisher, Booktrope, book reviewer at Austenprose.com, and  as a ceramicist for the Made in Washington stores under her own banner Stir Crazy Mama’s Artworks. She lives in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest (not five miles from the Canadian border) with her dear Mr. B, two busy teenagers and a retriever named Bibi.  After reading The Six major Jane Austen works, her thirst for more could not be slaked, despite discovering on-line fan fiction, purchasing all the movie adaptations, attending Jane Austen Society of North America Annual General Meetings and becoming a life member of JASNA. Visiting Jane Austen’s England remains on Christina’s bucket list.

Follow Christina on Facebook as Christina Angel Boyd and on Twitter as @xtnaboyd.

This review originally appeared on Austenprose.com and is used here with permission.
Cover image courtesy of Berkley Trade © 2014; text Christina Boyd, 2014,Austenprose.com

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The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet, by Bernie Su and Kate Rorick – A Review

The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet

secret-diaries-secret-diaries-of-lizzie-bennet-by-bernie-su-and-kate-rorick-2014-x-200

The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet, by Bernie Su and Kate Rorick

From the desk of Lisa Galek:

In 2012, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries debuted on YouTube. Smart, confident (and only slightly prejudiced) grad student Lizzie Bennet posts videos twice a week all about her life, friends, and family. The Internet promptly fell in love. But, there were some things Lizzie couldn’t share in her videos. Luckily, she kept a diary… and now we finally get to see it.

The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet is a companion book to the excellent LBD web series. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’re definitely missing out. Elizabeth Bennet is transformed into a 24-year-old graduate student from California with her own video blog. She posts all kinds of insightful and hilarious content about her wacky family, which includes her two sisters—sweet Jane and energetic Lydia. Oh, and a certain boring, stuffy, and unbelievably rude guy named William Darcy occasionally pops up (but let’s not talk about him because Lizzie just cannot stand him). The videos are an absolutely amazing update on Pride and Prejudice. Very smart, very funny, and very Jane.

But, if you’re not already pretty familiar with this information, The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet won’t really make much sense to you. The book is very tied into the web series—so much so that it often feels like a retelling of the content from the videos. Lizzie begins and ends her story like her vlogs do. She starts off by explaining the new online project she’s about to embark on and ends with a happily-ever-after that will make any Austen fan smile. She sometimes even transcribes whole scenes directly from the videos. (To be fair, it’s only the really important ones.)

The big draw for this book is the promise of new content (in fact, that seems to be their main marketing message per these new videos from Lizzie and Darcy). I was hoping that the book would really deliver in this area. After all, the web series is based on a 200-year-old story that anyone with access to Cliff’s Notes can figure out the ending of. Yet, every video makes Austen’s original feel fresh, engaging, interesting, and really funny. If anyone could pull off a great tie-in novel, it would be the folks at Pemberley Digital.

Unfortunately, these new tidbits might not be enough to justify a whole book. Sure, it’s neat to see Darcy’s letter to Lizzie in print and to get some more time with Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. There’s even some cool behind the scenes type stuff about making the videos and more frank details about the Bennet sisters and their sexy times that didn’t make it to the air. But, all this stuff sort of existed in the background of the videos as subtext already. Are those small, new details really worth the price of admission?

One of the things I did love about the book is that we’re in Lizzie’ s head the whole time. Sure, she narrates almost all the videos, but those are for public consumption. Sometimes she’s holding back what she really thinks, and here we’re getting more unfiltered access. And, since the book is written by two of the writers from the web series, they really nail Lizzie’s voice. On the page, she’s just as smart, funny, and awesome as she is on video. Honestly, the fact that the writing is really strong and compelling saves this book from getting a little dull at times.

Because I’m such a huge fan of the web series, I was super excited to read The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet. Sadly, the additional content just can’t justify an entire book. If you love her vlog and can’t get enough of every little Lizzie Bennet detail (or just want to support the creators), I’d definitely suggest getting a copy. Otherwise, you might be safe re-watching the series or developing a healthy obsession with Pemberley Digital’s latest Austen update, Emma Approved. I’m already way ahead of you there.

The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet: A Novel, by Kate Rorick and Bernie Su
Touchstone (2014)
Trade paperback (400) pages
ISBN: 978-1476763163


Lisa Galek is a professional writer and editor, student of theology, and an avid reader. She lives in the suburbs of Cleveland with her husband and three wonderful daughters. Visit Lisa at her website, on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.

This review originally appeared on Austenprose.com and is used here with permission. Catch up on the Lizzie Bennet Diaries by reading our closer look at the hit web series in their  LBD archives.

Cover image courtesy of Touchstone © 2014; text Lisa Galek © 2014, Austenprose.com

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Northanger Abbey: The Austen Project, by Val McDermid

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

northanger-abbey-austen-project-val-mcdermid-2014-x-200Northanger Abbey: The Austen Project, by Val McDermid

From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress:

In the second installment of The Austen Project, bestselling Scottish crime writer Val McDermid takes a stab at a contemporary reimagining of Jane Austen’s most under-appreciated novel, Northanger Abbey. Written in the late 1790’s when Austen was a fledgling writer, this Gothic parody about young heroine Catherine Morland’s first experiences in Bath society and her romance with the dishy hero Henry Tilney is one of my favorite Austen novels. Fresh and funny, the writing style is not as accomplished as her later works but no one can dismiss the quality of Austen’s witty dialogue nor her gentle joke at the melodramatic Gothic fiction so popular in her day. I was encouraged by the choice of McDermid as author and intrigued to see how she would transport the story into the 21st century.

Our modern heroine, sixteen-year-old Cat Morland, is a vicar’s daughter living a rather disappointing life in the Piddle Valley of Dorset. Her mother and father seldom argued and never fought, and her siblings were so average she despaired of ever discovering any dark family secrets to add excitement to her life. Homeschooled, she can’t comprehend history or French or algebra, but delights in reading to fuel her vivid imagination, favoring ghost stories, zombie and vampire tales. After years of exploring the narrow confines of her home turf she craves adventure abroad. Rich neighbors Susie and Andrew Allen come to her rescue by inviting her to travel with them and attend the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland where Cat “is in her element, seeing potential for terror and adventure around every twist and turn of the narrow streets.”

Introduced to theater, art and books, and thanks to fashionista Mrs. Allen, Cat soon acquires a new wardrobe and dancing lessons where she partners with a charming and witty young attorney, Henry Tilney. After researching Henry on Facebook and Google she discovers that his father is the much-decorated general who made his name in the Falkland’s war before she was born. Even more interesting to Cat’s Gothic infused imagination, he owns Northanger Abbey, a medieval Borders abbey in Scotland. Cat also meets Mrs. Allen’s long-lost school friend Martha Thorpe and her three daughters, one of which is just Cat’s age. Bella, who recognizes the Morland last name, knows Cat’s elder brother Jamie who is attending Oxford with her brother Johnny. Before long they were “gossiping about the things that entertain young women of a certain age and type,” and becoming bff’s.

Blowhard Johnny Thorpe arrives in his racy red sports car with friend James Morland in tow. He attempts to court Cat but all she can think of is Henry and his sister Ellie. When Cat attends a céilidh, she anticipates dancing the Highland fling and hopes to encounter Henry Tilney again, who will surely save her from the unwanted attentions of crude Johnny Thorpe. As she and Bella scout the room they notice a beautiful, pale young woman dressed all in white:

“Who on earth was that?” Bella asked, “She acts like she’s in Pride and Prejudice.”
“That’s Henry Tilney’s sister Ellie.” Cat stared after the disappearing figure. There was something about Ellie, something out of time and out of style, like there would be if you were a two-hundred-year old vampire, she thought with a mixture of dread and delight.”

The story continues, mirroring the text of Northanger Abbey page for page, and scene for scene. Cat travels to Northanger Abbey as guest of the Tilney’s and the story turns Gothic and mysterious – just as Austen had devised.

McDermid made clever, creative and sensible choices in modernizing Northanger Abbey by moving the action from England to Scotland. The Edinburgh Festival easily replaces eighteenth century Georgian Bath allowing for a social hub similar in context: theater, shopping and country dancing. Later, we are treated to a really creepy medieval setting for a Scottish castle/Northanger Abbey. Cat is appropriately addicted to modern Gothic novels rivaling the famous Northanger Canon: Herbridean Harpies, Ghasts of Ghia and even Pride a Prejudice and Zombies! McDermid builds the vampire theme slowly, allowing Henry and Ellie to be pale in complexion, anachronistic in demeanor and just mysterious enough to trigger Cat’s imagination. Her characterizations are spot on: Henry is droll and swoon-worthy as ever, Cat a bit air-headed and impressionable, Bella a slick piece of work, and General Tilney deceptive and tyrannical.

The plot plays out as one would expect, and if you had not read Northanger Abbey before you would not notice that the author has really created a complete translation, scene for scene, and sometimes word for word—a No Fear Shakespeare version of Northanger Abbey. While I admired McDermid’s creative choices to bring the story into the modern world (cell phones, Facebook, language and culture), I was immediately puzzled by her choice of narrative style. This novel is really a retelling instead of the reimagining that it was advertised as. The downside of a translation is in its creative limitations, resulting in McDermid’s sentences being affected and unnatural. I just wanted her to break out of the stranglehold she had placed on herself and use the plot and characterization as a spring board, and not a noose. Limiting herself in this manner may have been her way of honoring Austen, but I think she has done a great disservice to her own writing. Having not read any of her acclaimed crime novels I have no idea of her real talent. I believe that Austen herself, who honed her craft so precisely, would be baffled at one author lessening their gifts at the expense of another.

Like the reaction to Joanna Trollope’s contemporary reimaging of Sense and Sensibility published last year, whenever you fiddle with the classics there are bound to be those who are open to the concept and those completely closed off. I read this novel in anticipation of enjoying it. In hindsight, I do not think that it was written for an Austen fan familiar with the original, but for the uninitiated who may view it in a completely different light.

RRP: £18.99
Grove Press (2014)
Hardcover (368) pages
ISBN: 978-0802123015


A life-long acolyte of Jane Austen, Laurel Ann Nattress is the editor of the short story anthology Jane Austen Made Me Do It, and Austenprose.com, a blog devoted to the oeuvre of her favorite author and the many books and movies that she has inspired. She is a life member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, a regular contributor to the Jane Austen Centre online magazine. An expatriate of southern California, Laurel Ann lives in a country cottage near Snohomish, Washington where it rains a lot. Visit Laurel Ann at her blog Austenprose – A Jane Austen Blog, on Twitter as @Austenprose, and on Facebook as Laurel Ann Nattress.

This review of Val McDermind’s Northanger Abbey originally appeared on Austenprose.com and is used here with permission.

Cover image courtesy of Grove Press © 2014; text Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose.com

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Dinner with Mr. Darcy: Recipes Inspired by the Novels and Letters of Jane Austen, by Pen Vogler – A Review

dinner with mr darcy

dinner-with-mr-darcy-by-pen-vogler-2013-x-200Dinner with Mr. Darcy: A review by Laurel Ann Nattress

Imagine eating white soup with Mr. Darcy, roast pork with Miss Bates, or scones with Mr. Collins! Just thinking of those dishes transports me back into the scenes in Jane Austen’s novels and makes me smile. In Dinner with Mr. Darcy, food historian Pen Vogler examines Austen’s use of food in her writing, researches ancient Georgian recipes, converting them for the modern cook.

Even though Austen is not known for her descriptive writing, food is an important theme in her stories, speaking for her if you know how to listen. Every time we dine with characters, or food is mentioned, it relays an important fact that Austen wants us to note: wealth and station, poverty and charity, and of course comedy. While poor Mr. Woodhouse frets over wedding cake in Emma, Mr. Bingley offers white soup to his guests at Netherfield Park in Pride and Prejudice, and Aunt Norris lifts the supernumerary jellies after the ball in Mansfield Park, we are offered insights into their characters and their social station.

In Austen’s letter she writes to her sister Cassandra about many domestic matters: clothes, social gatherings and food. When she mentions orange wine, apple pie and sponge cake we know it is of importance to her.

“I hope you had not a disagreeable evening with Miss Austen and her niece. You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me.” – Jane Austen in a letter to her sister Cassandra, 15 June 1808

 

White soup
White soup

Vogler has combed Austen’s novels, letters and juvenilia pulling out dishes and researching them in contemporary cookbooks from the Georgian era. The sections are cleverly arranged: Breakfast with General Tilney; Mrs. Bennet’s Dinner to Impress; Pork and Apples: An Autumn Dinner with the Bateses; Jane’s Family Favorites; The Picnic Parade; Tea and Cake; The Ball at Netherfield; An Old-fashioned Supper for Mr. Woodhouse; Christmas with the Musgroves and Other Celebrations; Gifts, Drinks, and Preserves for Friends and the Sick at Heart. The recipes have been converted for the modern cook and look sumptuous from the numerous full-color pictures. I am dying to try Sally Lunn Cakes, a recipe from the famous bakery and tea shop in Bath, everlasting syllabub, ragout veal, Mrs. Austen’s pudding, rout cakes, white soup, flummery and many others. Several of the recipes have been adapted from Martha Lloyd’s household cookbook, Jane’s dear friend and confidante, who lived with the widowed Mrs. Austen and her daughters from 1807 until her marriage to Jane’s widowed elder brother Sir Francis Austen in 1823 at the age of 62! The bibliography in the back is also a great resource for those interested in Georgian cooking and its history.

Roast pork
Roast pork

While there are other scholarly books devoted to Georgian cooking focusing on Jane Austen such as The Jane Austen Cookbook, by Maggie Black and Deidre Le Faye (1995) and Jane Austen and Food, by Maggie Lane (1995), which we will be reviewing next month, Dinner with Mr. Darcy will appeal to the average cook who wants to experience what Austen and her characters ate and enjoyed, and discover why Austen’s choice of food and dining was so important to the plot development. The recipes are both simple and elaborate and the ingredients are available to most, even in the colonies! So if you are ready for your own picnic at Box Hill or supper at Pemberley, bon appetite!

Bath buns
Bath buns

Dinner with Mr. Darcy: Recipes Inspired by the Novels and Letters of Jane Austen, by Pen Vogler
Cico Books (2013)
Hardcover (160) pages
ISBN: 978-1782490562


A life-long acolyte of Jane Austen, Laurel Ann Nattress is the editor of the short story anthology Jane Austen Made Me Do It, and Austenprose.com, a blog devoted to the oeuvre of her favorite author and the many books and movies that she has inspired. She is a life member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, a regular contributor to the Jane Austen Centre online magazine. An expatriate of southern California, Laurel Ann lives in a country cottage near Snohomish, Washington where it rains a lot. Visit Laurel Ann at her blog Austenprose – A Jane Austen Blog, on Twitter as @Austenprose, and on Facebook as Laurel Ann Nattress.

This review originally appeared on Austeprose.com and is used here with permission.

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Jane Austen and Food, by Maggie Lane – A Review

unnamedJane Austen and Food, by Maggie Lane – A Review by Sarah Emsley:

Is it easier or harder to write if you’re also responsible for feeding and looking after your family? “Composition seems to me impossible, with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb,” Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra in September 1816, after a period in which she managed the household at Chawton Cottage in Cassandra’s absence. Fortunately for Jane – and for us, as readers of her fiction – most of the time it was Cassandra who filled this role, freeing Jane to write. In her writing, she doesn’t mention food very often, yet Maggie Lane’s book Jane Austen and Food shows her references to it are significant because “she uses it to define character and illustrate moral worth.” Jane Austen and Food was first published in 1995 by The Hambledon Press, and it’s newly available as an inexpensive e-book from Endeavour Press. It isn’t a cookbook, but a discussion of food in Austen’s letters and fiction.

I’ve always loved that line from her letters about composition, and reading Jane Austen and Food helped me understand it better. I learned that “mutton” isn’t always just mutton, and that “rhubarb” isn’t what I think of as rhubarb. Mutton, says Lane, “seems to have become the generic word for meat – or for dinner itself.” She cites the example from Mansfield Park of Dr. Grant inviting Edmund Bertram “‘to eat his mutton with him the next day,’ without supposing, for a moment, that ‘the bill of fare’ as he calls it is actually mutton (in fact it’s turkey).” The rhubarb Austen refers to is “not the plant we think of, the stalks of which are eaten as fruit,” but “the medicinal rootstock of the species of rheum grown in China and Tibet,” imported in powdered form to be “used as a purgative by the overfed part of the population.” Lane points out that in Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland eventually realizes poisons are not as readily available as doses of rhubarb.

Jane Austen and Food begins with a discussion of “domestic economy” in Austen’s life and letters, outlining the historical context for subsequent analysis of meals, menus, manners, and morals in her novels. The book is full of entertaining facts, including the Austen family’s choice of turkey at Christmas (they reared their own turkeys at Steventon) while many other families ate beef; Jane Austen’s preference for the term “garden stuff,” instead of “vegetable,” a word she didn’t use in her writing until Sanditon in 1817; the rare appearance of similes in her work (“as White as a Whipt Syllabub” and “as cool as a cream-cheese” are both in Lesley Castle); and the importance of the hour at which a family had dinner.

Lane traces a progression from the “humble” Watsons, who dine at three, to the Dashwoods and the Woodhouses (four), to the Grants (half past four), to the Tilneys (five). Those who are fashionable or aspire to be considered fashionable dine late. At Netherfield, the hour is half past six, a full two hours after the dinner hour at Longbourn. Where characters eat is as important as when they eat and what they eat. Lane talks about why Mr. Knightley objects so strongly to eating outside – it’s thought to be “dangerous because of its tendency to break down those careful rules of behaviour which have been built up over generations to protect men and women from their baser selves.”

Who has control over food is also a key question in the novels, and Lane’s analysis is fascinating. We can learn a great deal, she says, about General Tilney and Dr. Grant from their obsessive focus on the quantity and quality of their food. While the former is “active and officious” and the latter is “idle,” Austen “shows how apparently very different styles of men can use food to manipulate and tyrannise over their immediate family.” Even characters with little or no control over the type of food or the time or place it is served find ways to exert control. Marianne Dashwood, Fanny Price, and Jane Fairfax all reject food at times of intense emotional distress. Lane writes that “the eating disorders of Marianne, Fanny and Jane may thus be said to mirror a degree of social disorder.” In contrast, Austen’s other heroines are indifferent to food. They “eat to keep themselves healthy, to be sociable, to conform. But not one of them ever anticipates or expresses pleasure in a meal, or admits to liking a particular food.” Whether a character is eating or not eating, talking about food or not talking about it, Austen’s choices are always telling.

The book concludes with not one but two interpretations of Emma, a novel “so replete with food that it requires a whole chapter to itself,” and a helpful index of food and drink in the novels, so you can look up references to cherries, chicken, and chocolate, for example, or parsnips, partridges, and pineapples. Food and housekeeping may be considered “mundane” by some, as Lane says in her introduction, but her excellent analysis demonstrates that both are central to the moral world of Austen’s novels. Writers must decide for themselves whether the care and feeding of a family distracts them from writing, or nourishes their creative lives. But food in fiction will continue to fascinate both readers and writers. Maggie Lane’s Jane Austen and Food entertains us with a wealth of information about historical context, and makes a compelling argument for the moral significance of food in art as well as in life.

Jane Austen and Food, by Maggie Lane
£1.99, Kindle Edition
Endeavour Press Ltd. (2013)
Digital eBook (218) pages
ASIN: B00GYJD9CC


Sarah Emsley is the author of Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues and the editor of  Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country. She lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia and is currently working on a novel. She spent two years as a postdoctoral fellow at the Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford, and later taught classes on Jane Austen in the Writing Program at Harvard University. She blogs about Austen and Wharton at www.sarahemsley.com, and to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mansfield Park in 2014, she’s hosting a conversation about the novel on her blog, with guest posts by Juliet McMaster, Laurel Ann Nattress, Syrie James, Lynn Shepherd, Margaret C. Sullivan, Deborah Yaffe, Devoney Looser, and many other wonderful writers. Follow Sarah on Twitter (@Sarah_Emsley), visit her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/sarahlbemsley), and subscribe to the blog to receive updates about this exciting celebration.

This review orginally appeared on Austenprose.com and is used here with permission.