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Archive for May, 2010

Here is a mystery: is the woman depicted in these fashion plates the same model? I have been trying to determine if models were used by the artists who created fashion plate engravings or if they drew them from imagination. Both date from 1820. Both appeared in Ackermann’s Repository of Arts.

Here is the face: Whoever she was, she was certainly lovely.

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Anne Bronte could have been a literary force

Janeites beware. The Brontes are coming to town. After a solid decade of all things Jane, it seems Hollywood and the publishing industry are running out of ways to hook themselves to Jane’s genius and they are going to attempt to launch the same sort of love affair with the Bronte sisters.

Apparently, according to Flavorwire and California Chronicle – several movies are in the works. And just yesterday while strolling the aisles at Barnes and Nobel – I noticed several Bronte knock off offerings on the paperback table. One, By Jude Morgan , is a fictional account of the Bronte’s lives. I have read Juliet Barker’s huge and absorbing biography The Brontes and don’t feel the need to read a fictional account. Although, I may have to read it to see where the general path seems to be leading.

Yet, all this ramping up to all things Bronte leaves me cold just as all the Jane knock-offs did. As a life long lover of both Jane Austen and the Brontes, I have mixed emotions about this. I appreciate the fact that these attempts to blend Jane into the 21st century might expose her to a wider audience and for that reason alone, I say well, hurrah. But, I was not one who of those who enjoyed the immensely popular Lost in Austen series. I thought it was, to put it simply, stupid. So, I stopped watching. As for the Jane Austen sequels, while I admire the authors who can carefully mimic the writing style of Jane Austen ( it obviously can’t be done by a dummy) I have never been able to finish even one.

My interest in Jane lies more in the area of her letters,the  biographies written about her  (I have read at least five and made a list) and the investigative scholarship which abounds concerning her novels. (My favorite Jane bio is Claire Tomalin’s.) The movies and BBC series have all been equally delightful. As an ex-costumer I was entranced. Again, hurrah.

So, it won’t seem odd if I say I like all the same sorts of things about the Brontes, the movies and the biographies etc. As for the novels themselves, I prefer Charlotte and Anne’s fiction to Wuthering Heights. Emily’s poetry is glorious, wrenching and lovely.

Over the years, I have come to love Anne Bronte perhaps the best of the three. She is the most mysterious of the three sisters. Only five of her letters remain extant – why? And trust me, they are really nothing letters. More like finding a thank you note from my wedding. What was contained in the ‘gone forever’ letters of this innocent, obedient sister and daughter that required they all be destroyed?

The Branwell Bronte factor is not to be over looked either, he was a force to be reckoned with in their lives. I try to put myself in their shoes and realize how enervating he must have been, the toll HIS presence in their life took on all of them. Anne was closely aligned with Branwell’s fortunes, working in the same household as the Robinson children’s governess while Branwell was a tutor. Goodness, where did The Tenant of Wildfell Hall COME FROM? I am one of those readers who thinks large swaths of Agnes Grey is semi-autobiographical.

Anne at 13

Of the three sisters, Anne was the most self sacrificing and the most responsible. Had she lived, she would have been a Bronte force. Charlotte was, as it happened, the last one standing and yes, Jane Eyre is eminently readable and wonderful and goodness knows, I love it as much as the next girl. Charlotte, however,  crafted Anne’s image and down played her success as a writer. Survival of the fittest. What was wrong? Was it subconscious jealousy? Now, that would make a great mystery book, a great knock off. The missing letters. Maybe I will write it.

And so, while Hollywood and the publishing industry will blandly focus on the ubiquitous Jane Eyre (don’t get me wrong, I love it, but really, enough is enough) and the never done quite right Wuthering Heights, I think they are all missing the boat.

Anne is the jewel in the rough, the uncharted waters, the hook…


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Here is a list of good Jane Austen Biographies:

Obstinate Heart – Very good. I had forgotten about this one. I think I will re-read it.

Jane Austen – A Life – My favorite Jane Austen bio. I put it on my Kindle so that I could read it while sitting around in doctor’s offices

Jane Austen – A Life – The first bio I ever read about Jane. At the time it was released, the reviews all teased that it contained shocking assertions about Jane’s father being connected to the slave trade. It was very sketchy at best – the slave trade info, that is. Otherwise it was a good book.

Jane Austen – A Life (Penquin Lives) A good, short quicky.

(hmmmm … Jane Austen – A Life seems to be the title of choice)

Jane’s Fame – A different kind of bio. Very Interesting.

Becoming Jane Austen - Another favorite – but for a different reason. This book focuses on the literature intermingled with the life. It also has some new info that was not contained in the other books about her ancestors. Very well written.

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Missing my mom on Mother's Day

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In the drawing room after dinner

I attended a wonderful lecture sponsored by the JASNA NC Chapter. The lecture focused on Jane Austen’s works, with a particular emphasis on Emma and was titled “Jane Austen and the Labor of Leisure.”  The lecture held at the wonderful Fly Leaf Bookstore in Chapel Hill and was given by the delightful Peter Graham, Clifford Professor of English at Virginia Tech University and author of Jane Austen and Charles Darwin: Naturalists and Novelists. This is an extremely expensive book, which is shame, because I would really like to buy it. But, I digress.

Emma reading Jane Fairfax's letter to the Bates

Jane’s novels take place in a world where no one seems to be doing anything important. They visit, they dance, they walk long distances, they have tea, they read Cowper and Fielding, they have dinner parties, they go up to London, over to Bath, and occasionally travel to Lime Regis, then, they visit some more. Her characters appear to have ample time on their hands and to some of Jane’s detractors, the novels seem frivolous. Yet, there has to be more to the charachters than what  is portrayed in the novels.

Jane Austen’s books seem to pin point those “necessary, still moments  for transcendence. As Peter Graham pointed out, this literary technique is necessary to bring the characters and the plots (girl meets boy, girl loses boy through misunderstanding, girl gets boy)  together. In the world that Emma, Elizabeth Bennett, the Dashwood Sisters and Fannie Price occupy, interaction with the opposite sex had to happen during those leisure moments. Yet, there is plenty of subtle evidence of the labor the characters must employ to keep their seemingly laconic lives functioning.

Fannie Price doing Mrs. Norris' bidding

Emma, for instance is the lady of a moderate sized manor. Her duties include the running of a not inconsequential household, care of an aging father, charitable visits to the poor as well as maintaining her societal duties as a good neighbor and companion. Emma rubs many people the wrong way, but a closer examination of her ‘offstage’ duties reveal her to be loving, caring, responsible young lady. Her regular, tender visits to the poor in her neighborhood are in and of themselves evidence of a noble character.

There are vast swaths of time that do not figure in the books, activities and important clues to the characters’ psyches which are spent offstage. As Dr Graham suggested, Austen’s novels dwell in the small slice of life that is the interlude of daily life called leisure.

Front piece to an early 20th century edition of Emma


Naturally, Austen’s characters appear to have more opportunity for leisure than the average, lower class citizen would have, but Austen seems to support the old adage “write what you know” and she was only fictionalizing what was familiar to her. Whether you agree with her or not, like her or consider her books to be fluff, she provides a valuable look at the leisure culture of her time.

*all illustrations come from my personal collection

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