The Jane Austen Society

This month’s literary salon pick, The Jane Austen Society, by Natalie Jenner, is a novel set in post-WW2 England about a group of villagers determined to maintain the legacy of Jane Austen by opening a museum at Chawton House, the cottage where Jane spent the last eight years of her life and the most productive period of her writing career.  

Who would have predicted that Jane Austen would still be so popular 200 years later, with her face on the ten pound note, dozens of biographies in print, and entire museums devoted to her fame, not to mention the whole tourist trade to places she visited, lived, or described in her novels.  

It’s a further testament to her continuing popularity that An Interview with Jane Austen remains my most read post, at 150 some views, from every country in the world, with several more added weekly.  Yes, some frivolous little piece I dashed off for Valentine’s Day two years ago is more popular than any post I’ve slaved over for days.  But to give credit to Jane, other than the interviewers questions, most of the words are hers, famous quotes from a book I received for Christmas that year, The Wit and Wisdom of Jane Austen.   The post itself was inspired by a question – which dead person you would most like to interview?  I can’t imagine my small blog of 300 readers is high up on any google search list, so I can only surmise that it must have been shared by a Janeite on one of the many Jane Austen websites.

     I would not describe myself as a Janeite, having only ever read Pride and Prejudice and Emma, and watched the movie versions, the dashing Mr. Darcy/Colin Firth, and the petulant Gwyneth Paltrow who forever spoiled Emma for me, and the classic Sense and Sensibility with Kate Winslet, Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant.   Other than Pride and Prejudice I find her life more interesting than her books.  

        JA was born in 1775 and lived most of her young life with her large family of siblings at the rectory in Steventon, where her father was a clergyman.   Upon his retirement, they sold everything (including a thousand books, for hers was a well-read family) and Jane moved to Bath with her parents and sister Cassandra.   Bath was a very social place and it’s widely assumed this change in residence was partially intended to find marriage partners for the daughters, but that was not to be, for despite rumors of several failed romances Jane never married.   After the death of their father and the rental of diminished living quarters, her wealthy brother Edward, who had been adopted by a childless couple in need of an inheritor, eventually offered his widowed mother and sisters the use of the steward’s cottage on his large estate and so they moved to Chawton House in 1809.

The cottage was a large L-shaped building, quite near the street and a busy crossroads, so the thundering of coaches passing by offered little privacy,

but there was a large private garden at the back and they were grateful to finally have a permanent residence of their own.   

Although she had written earlier drafts of her novels, this was the scene of the final revisions and the long hoped for dreams of publication, starting first with Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816). Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously with the seventh and last, Sanditon, left unfinished.  (Although never published, PBS filmed a horrible adaptation of Sanditon last January which was universally condemned. Jane would certainly never have approved of the unhappy ending.)

Jane Austen’s writing desk

She wrote at this small desk, still a fixture of the museum today, placed by the window for maximum lighting as she wore spectacles, and was known to cover up her manuscript if there was an unexpected visitor at the door. From her niece’s recollections we have an image of Jane sitting by the fireplace and laughing, as a sudden thought occurred to her and she leapt up to write it down. Much of her early writing originated as a means to amuse herself, and her family, as there are only so many samplers you can embroider before you die of boredom.    

   After her untimely death in 1817 at the age of 41 (of Addison’s Disease), her mother and sister lived on in the cottage, with Cassandra dying in 1845. Although Jane lived long enough to enjoy some initial publishing success and literary fame, it was after the publication of a biography by her nephew in 1850, that her literary reputation was revived, and it has remained steady to this day.   

      Today Chawton House is the site of the Jane Austen Museum. (link to a virtual tour of the house). As well as original clothing and furnishings of the period, several of her letters are on display, as well as some jewelry (two topaz crosses) given to the sisters by their naval brother. The nearby great house houses a JA library with first editions of all of her books. Jane memorabilia is in such high demand that one of her handwritten letters was recently auctioned off for $200,000, a four page missile to Cassandra, dealing with fashion trends and family news. It saddens me to think of a future with no such memorabilia, only emails and texts which we blithely delete. I’ve never been to England but Chawton House would be high on my list of historical sites to visit. Although thousands of tourists frequent Bath every year in search of Jane, I’d prefer to see where she wrote, not where she went bathroom dancing.

Now back to our book club selection. 

Here’s the publishers blurb: “Just after the Second World War, in the small English village of Chawton, an unusual but like-minded group of people band together to attempt something remarkable. One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England’s finest novelists. Now it’s home to a few distant relatives and their diminishing estate. With the last bit of Austen’s legacy threatened, a group of disparate individuals come together to preserve both Jane Austen’s home and her legacy. These people―a laborer, a young widow, the local doctor, and a movie star, among others―could not be more different and yet they are united in their love for the works and words of Austen. As each of them endures their own quiet struggle with loss and trauma, some from the recent war, others from more distant tragedies, they rally together to create the Jane Austen Society.”

About the author:   “Natalie Jenner was born in England and emigrated to Canada as a young child. She obtained her B.A. and her LL.B. from the University of Toronto, where she was the 1990 Gold Medalist in English Literature at St. Michael’s College, and was Called to the Bar of Ontario in 1995. In addition to a brief career as a corporate lawyer, Natalie has worked as a recruiter, career coach, and consultant to leading law firms in Canada for over two decades. Most recently Natalie founded the independent bookstore Archetype Books in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs. A lifelong devotee of all things Jane Austen, “The Jane Austen Society” is her first published novel.” (Goodreads profile)

Quite a distinguished resume, but what’s so interesting about Natalie Jenner is that in her 30’s she wrote five unpublished books – Five. Unpublished. Books.   There’s a lot of tenacity there.   After her husband developed a serious illness, she turned to re-reading her favorite novels for solace, including the JA novels.  Later, when he had recovered, she was contemplating writing a novel set in a great house similar to Downton Abbey but decided to change it to a fictional novel about how the JA museum came to be.  For research she took a bucket list trip to a Jane Austen Festival in Bath, (yes there are many of these conventions) as well as the village of Chawton, in order to immerse herself in the world of all things Jane.  

Discussion:

This was an enjoyable read, even if you aren’t particularly a JA fan, in much the same genre as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and the Chilbury Ladies Choir.   I’m sure the movie rights have already been sold.   In true Jane Austen style, the author manages to pair off most of the characters, some more successfully than others and some in a politically correct way, although I had difficulty getting a sense of the two characters who were mirrored after Emma and Mr. Knightley.   A minor point, but there’s one graphic scene (me too/movie starlet on the casting couch) which seemed out of place. This was noted in a a Goodreads review, and it’s like when someone points out a flaw, you can’t un-see it.   The reviewer said she quit reading after that, saying that such a jarring scene had no place in a Jane Austen-like book.  I wouldn’t abandon the book over that but subtle allusion might have been more appropriate, or perhaps some gentle editorial guidance.  

This book debuted on the bestseller list, as any book with JA in the title is bound to attract attention due to the sheer number of her fans worldwide.    (I wonder if I changed my website to The Jane Austen Homeplace, if I might attract a few more followers?)

Jane Austen must have had a strong belief in herself, and a premonition that her works would live on, as she left the bulk of her estate (400 pounds, the proceedings from her books), to her sister Cassandra, with the unusual request that 90 pounds, a considerable sum back then, be set aside for a burial at the prestigious Winchester Cathedral, instead of the local churchyard where her family could visit.  Her brothers made no mention of her literary life on the tombstone, perhaps deeming her novels too inconsequential to note, but thousands of tourists flock to her grave-site every year to pay homage to her literary greatness.      

The extraordinary endowments of her mind!

The Literary Salon

I’ve always wanted to own a bookstore and host a literary salon at night for all my witty and talented friends.    A literary salon is different from a book club, as people can just drop in, like a cocktail party.   In Paris in the Roaring Twenties salons were frequented by intellectuals, writers, artists and the celebrities du jour (Hemingway, Picasso, Fitzgerald & Co), with the sole purpose of providing stimulating conversation, amusing repartee and a lively exchanges of ideas…..plus free booze.   With a book club, you can have all of those too, but you are there to focus on the book…..hopefully.  

My experience with book clubs has been poor.  Attempting to infiltrate a library book club proved a disaster as the tightly-knit group had been together for over a decade and there always seemed to one or two members who squashed any opinion which didn’t agree with theirs, or worse monopolized the discussion.  The group was so large (18-25), as to be unwieldy, with some (myself included), being too intimidated to speak up, despite the best efforts of the moderator to make sure everyone had a say.  The structure was rigid, with a list of questions to cover in a set period of time.   Also, there was no food, or even coffee and it was late afternoon, which tended to interfere with my nap time.   I then thought of hosting my own more informal book club evenings with a smaller group of literary friends, perhaps once a season with food, like Southern cooking for The Help….pass the pecan pie please.   A group of local women self-published a book about their book club theme nights, complete with menus and lots of bevies, but they were rich and prone to extravagant weekend getaways, plus the hostess had to buy everyone a copy of the next book.      

What is the difference between a book club and a famous literary salon like the ones Hemingway attended, other than better food and more chic clothing?

Paris salon

Hard to imagine Hemingway at a book club.   Do men do book clubs – possibly in big cities, but not in my neck of the woods.   Only in the movies, like The Jane Austen Book Club, where they may have an ulterior motive ie. a crush on one of the members.   But they might be tempted to drop in on a literary salon if alcohol was provided.   Most afternoon book clubs tend to be female affairs  with tea in china cups and fancy sandwiches and cookies, or evening wine and cheese and gossip….but first we must discuss the book with a list of questions to cover.    Literary salons tend to be more free ranging affairs with small groups of individuals, male and female, congregating and discussions covering any number of topics…..and of course gossip!   It would be nice to combine the best of both worlds, good conversation, good food and drink and a relaxed atmosphere (one where you can hang out in your PJ’s).   Of course, if you are hosting a literary salon, having a Paris address helps, but since WordPress is our blogging home, that will have to suffice.     

So starting in January, I would like to present my new virtual Literary Salon.  We will open with the murder mystery, An Unwanted Guest, by Shari Lapena  (see link).   It’s the perfect book for a blizzard, so button up your overcoat, you don’t want to get chilled.     Please feel free to drop by anytime…..   

Postscript –  Bring Your Own Beverage – a Bloody Mary might be suitable for our first selection. 

Cue some jazzy twenties cocktail music:

 

 

 

 

Bronte Country

Heathcliff is dead……again.    This is the third time I have tried to grow heather, but alas, it was not meant to be.   I have resigned myself to the fact that you can not grow heather in North America, there is a reason it is only to be found in abundance on the windswept moors of the UK.    Here is a photo of  Heathcliff (the-Plant-formerly-known-as-Heather), from last June, all healthy and blooming and alive.  

Heather  And here is a picture of him in September at his funeral.    

Heather

 I arranged a few red maple leaves around his skeletal remains, for a more poetic look, otherwise he might have been mistaken for a stringy birds nest which had fallen to the ground.    I had planted him in the same kind of poor rocky soil I imagined on the moors, and basically neglected him for the rest of the summer.   Heather likes full sun, (see care sheet), but the days were cloudy and melancholy and he took up drinking and drowned his roots in sorrow, (kind of like Branwell).    I must console myself though, that while we were not meant to be, he died young at the end of the rainiest season ever.   It was nothing personal, he just did not like our Canadian soil or climate.     

Heather

While doing some postmortem research, I discovered too late that heather likes well-drained acidic soil, and mine is clay and clumpy, so once again I had been lured in by a pot of pretty flowers.   I had thought they were more hardy souls (like lavender), who would grow anywhere.   Apparently there are many different types, and this  Better Homes and Gardens article says anyone can grow heather and heaths……well perhaps not the truly heartbroken gardener like myself who may never fully recover.         

Heather 

I have occasionally seen heather for sale in nurseries here in early spring, sometimes with pinkish flowers.   One July I bought some half-dead half-price specimens from the bargain bin.   I knew when I bought them they were probably beyond CPR, but they were only a dollar.   I planted them one week and dug them up the next.   My other futile attempt involved a specimen which the nursery clerk told me was the only heather they stocked.   It lived one short season, spread out a bit, produced 2 or 3 purplish blooms, then died off never to be seen again.   I knew it was not real heather because the foliage was too soft.    A friend who used to visit Scotland regularly, brought me back a piece of heather once as a souvenir – lucky for him the plant police did not catch him as smuggling plants is generally against the law.   I was surprised by how coarse it was.    I had expected from the pictures that it would be softer to the touch.

The moors must be beautiful in the summer and early fall, with all that heather blooming and the sky a bright blue, very Wuthering Heightish.  

Bronte Heather

Before Heathcliff, my only exposure to heather was from the window of an  tour bus in a downpour.   I was in Ireland in September where it rained every day – so why did my poor heather not survive?    The Irish heather (which was near a bog where they were cutting turf), was not nearly as stunning as the English heather in Downton Abby, the last episode of Season Five where they pack up the whole household and go grouse hunting at a castle on the moors and Mary and Edith meet their future husbands.    (You see, heather does inspire romance).   That was a beautifully filmed scene and inspired my mother to paint a picture called The Moors, which she included in her last art exhibit, (but then she has been known to paint shipwrecks from Poldark too).

The Moors - AMc

The Moors

 Victoria magazine is one of my favorite sources for inspiration, and in this past September issue they had a feature on Exploring the Bronte Legacy and the village of Haworth where they lived.  (September is always the British issue and there was also a Susan Branch picnic party in the Lake District for any Beatrice Potter fans). 

Victoria Bronte

Here are some of the pages, including the famous heather.

Bronte

We have Emily to thank for the popularity of heather, as we will forever associate it with her descriptions of the moorland in Wuthering Heights, as this quote attests,  “I have fled my country and gone to the heather.”   Although I have never been to England, I hope some day to put those words into action, as a literary tour is definitely on my bucket list. 

No wonder the Bronte sisters wrote such wonderful books, having that lovely vista to gaze at during their daily constitutional on the moors.  (Although no matter the scenery, I find that after a particularly fruitful writing session, a little walk can be beneficial for mulling things over).

Below, the steep cobblestoned streets of the small village of Haworth.

Bronte

Here’s the dining room table where they wrote their works of art and paced and plotted how to find a publisher, and no doubt discussed what to do about Branwell. Bronte

 The magazine article mentioned the 2017 PBS movie, To Walk Invisible, the story of the Bronte’s, which I watched and was somewhat disappointed in, although it is certainly worthwhile for any Bronte fan.   In truth I found the movie as dark and dreary as the moors must be on an overcast winter’s day.  There did not seem to be much joy in that household, but maybe I am confusing their rather bleak existence with that of the moors.     

I thought Charlotte and Anne well-cast, Emily miscast, and Branwell just plain annoying.   The movie ends with them walking on the moors after Branwell’s death, so it is not as depressing as if they had ended it later after they had all died.   But then their story is not a happy one.   I wonder if they would have traded their fame for more happiness and a longer life.   

This year is the bicentenary of Emily’s birth in 1818.   Here is Emily’s small and cozy room with a wonderful window view, as befitting a genius at work.  

Bronte

Emily remains the most puzzling one, so reclusive, yet the creator of such a  stormy and passionate tale.   No doubt she drew inspiration from her beloved moors but perhaps it’s very wildness was a reaction to their isolated existence.   She had a lot of time to think and imagine.   Her novel was considered dark and disturbing and somewhat shocking at the time, while Charlotte’s more conservative Jane Eyre was the more popular.    In the movie there was a scene where Emily was talking about where she got the idea for Wuthering Heights, but she spoke so quickly I could not follow, and I have since tried to research it to no avail.  Although googling did reveal plenty of theories about Asperger’s syndrome, as it seems popular these days to slap anyone the least bit anti-social with that label (think Doc Marten).     There are plenty of books about Charlotte, (see postscript), but not so many about Emily or Anne (who I think of as the forgotten middle child).    After seeing disheveled, weak, whiny immature Branwell it seems unlikely he could have been the muse for such a strong character as Heathcliff.    (But would any sane woman want a Heathcliff in real life?  All that anger and rage and jealousy just creates a whole lot of drama and angst, and wasn’t he a bit too possessive?  Somewhat stalkerish?  Better to marry someone more stable and level-headed if you want a happy home life, but I suppose if a wild passionate affair is your aim, then Heathcliff is your man).    

The movie contained nothing new, if you have already read such bio’s before, including the usual dose of family dynamics.   The ending was well done, three bright suns who were expected to dim their literary lights and walk invisible, in order to prevent embarrassment for the male heir of whom much had been expected, but little produced.   As for the issue of addiction so rampant in our modern world, that too is an age old question.  Their clergyman father could not decide whether to give in and supply his feckless son with drinking/opium money or just say no – the parent’s universal dilemma, to be an enabler or an enforcer of tough love?    In the end, it didn’t matter anyway –  TB won out.   Tuberculosis caused by a drafty old parsonage and those windblown moors.   Unfortunately, he took his two sisters with him.    

I have to admit the part I found most disappointing in the movie was the cinematography of the moors.   They must have filmed the outdoor scenes in  winter for there was no heather to be seen, just a bleak and brown landscape and overcast skies.   Perhaps they didn’t  have a choice, or more likely they wanted that gloomy depressing atmosphere, for it all looked as dull and dreary as a November day.           

Now that we are in late November, the weather has grown chilly and darkness descends early, and tonight the winds are howling and there is sleet against the windowpane.   The perfect night to settle in by the fire with a cup of tea, and re-read Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte’s masterpiece.  Although, I noticed that her name is not even on the cover of my 1984 copy, one of those classic editions with the fancy gold edging that are hard to find anymore.    

Wuthering Heights

I must confess, it has been a long time since that high school book report, and I cannot recall much of the story, other than it was a sad tale with a layered multi-generational plot.   But I do remember the descriptive imagery of those famous windswept moors, and the tragic ending of Cathy and Heathcliff, two star-crossed lovers who were never meant to be, but who remain immortalized forever between a marble and gilt cover.        

Postscript:   Most likely Charlotte, Anne or Emily never dreamt at the time that their books would still be bestsellers over 150 years later.    I wonder how those classics would fit into the Best Seller Code, which I will be blogging about next week. 

Postscript:  A goodreads review of  Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart 

Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery HeartCharlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This latest 2016 biography of Charlotte Bronte is well worth the read, even if I do wonder why Charlotte always gets all the attention. I enjoyed it so much, I bought a bargain bin copy. A good choice for fans, both old and new.

Bronte Country - AMc

Bronte Country