Literary mysteries abound. I came across this article this morning about the disputed portrait of Jane Austen as a 13-year-old girl. The painting is supposed to have been painted by Ozais Humphry when Jane was visiting relatives in 1789. However,at some point in the 1940’s experts deemed this could not be Jane because the style of dress suggested it was painted after 1800. However, some new technology has revealed not only the name of the painter, Ozias Humphry and the date, 1789, but also the name of the subject … JANE AUSTEN! I am awash in literary mysteries these days and I am loving it!
So, how to explain the style of dress? In 1789, grown women were dressing like this:
But, how were children attired? Yes, children were usually dressed as mini adults, but I did a little research using Marie Antoinette’s, daughter, Marie Therese, who was just a couple of years younger than Jane (born in 1778 to Jane’s 1775) and here is what I came up with:
I am beginning to wonder if maybe this IS Jane. What a lovely little face. I also think there is a resemblance between the face in the portrait and this face:
Look at the eyebrows! The tip of the nose! Remember, the sketch was made by an amateur, Cassandra Austen, Jane’s sister.
I am beginning to think this might be Jane after all! What a wonderful revelation.
I attended a lecture yesterday given by the Jane Austen Society of North America North Carolina Chapter. The speaker was Inger Sigrun Brodey, who teaches comparative literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I am attaching her Curriculum Vitae because it is so impressive. It was a fun lecture focusing on Jane Austen’s impact on pop culture, primarily through film adaptations, both foreign and domestic as well as the recent rise in violent portrayals of the books as exhibited by the Zombie books such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. These zombie adaptations leave me cold, but are fun to leaf through at a book store since 80% of the book is Jane. Altered, but still mostly Jane such as, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”
There was one great point made during the lecture which I keep thinking about. No one KNOWS what any of Austen’s heroines look like. She never describes them, except for the occasional sparkle in the eye (we do know Elizabeth Bennet had dark eyes but dark what? brown? hazel? blue?) Each heroine is a sort of blank canvas. ANYONE, ANYONE can be Elizabeth Bennett or Emma or the Dashwoods. Any type. Any girl can put herself in Elizabeth’s muslin dress and become Mrs. Darcy. We can each insert ourselves into the plot. Facebook has, as was pointed out to me yesterday, 29 ‘quizzes’ that attempt to pinpoint “which Jane Austen Heroine are you?” (I am always Fanny Price, by the way.)
One of the take away messages I received from the lecture was this ‘blank slate’ theory makes it possible for other cultures to identify with and adapt her novels as well. The Japanese, apparently, adore her as do the Indians. In India, Jane Austen was required reading for years. Now, Bollywood is turning out one Jane Austen knock off after another: Bride and Prejudice (Pride and Prejudice) Aisha (Emma) etc.
As part of her program, Inger Brodey showed pictorial collages of all the actresses who have played Elizabeth Bennet and no two are the same. She then showed a similar collage of the Darcy’s and they all look alike! I pointed out they all had a “Heathcliff’ look about them – brooding, tall dark handsome. It was an interesting cultural note – we assume what ‘that sort of man’ must look like – but there is no consensus on ‘that sort of” heroine. Fascinating. Will the real Elizabeth Bennett please stand up?
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.
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…
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.
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.
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
a (large) collection of (small) objects, often the tools etc for a job or hobby
a (large) emotional collection of (small) objectives, often the tools etc to live life as a continual hobby
ex After work each day, Dody likes to paraphernalia.
I named this blog Paraphernalia for a reason. I knew I could not focus on one particular topic and stay engaged. Long ago, I used to make bridal head wreaths and French ribbon rose brooches. I called my little ‘business” Paraphernalia – in keeping with one of the official definitions of the word “A married woman’s personal property exclusive of her dowry, according to common law.” I love the word… I hate that it is associated with drugs … but I choose to ignore that definition…
Lately, it seems I am surrounded by Paraphernalia – the lovely, comforting flotsam and jetsam of my intellectual and creative life. It reminds me of that old, old Cracker Jack commercial; the one where the little boy empties his pockets and reveals a treasure trove of marbles and string and maybe a jack or two… I loved playing jacks… writing about playing jacks could be an entire blog post. The paraphernalia of that little boy’s pockets was very satisfying.
If paraphernalia was a verb, you could say that I paraphernalia throughout each day: I read a little, I craft a little, I write a little – in other words I function within my large collection of small objectives, collections of words, collections of images, collections of thoughts manifested as art and beauty. So, what are these collections? What does it mean? What is paraphernalia-ing?
For one thing, it means I read little bits of many books. I have found that I need to get hopping if I am going to read everything on every topic that interests me. So, I read many at once. I am currently reading five books. The first is The Man Who loved Books Too Much – which is a quirky, true life crime story of a rare book thief. I plan to write a whole post on the book as soon as I am done, which is in fifty five pages.
Since I am a Janeite – I am reading Jane Austen, The World of her Novels by Deirdre LeFaye. This book is delightful. It is a wealth of information about what it was like to live in Jane’s age. I pick it up and learn something everyday…about travel arrangements, currency, the countryside. It is a wonderful book, with beautiful illustrations.
If you read five books at once, at least one has to be a novel. Right now that novel is The Swan Thievesby Elizabeth Kostova. I will review it as well. So far, it is…fine. However, it doesn’t make me want to live in it for days on end, so it must not be amazing. I have 250 more pages. It is getting better. I will let you know.
Finally, I am finishing two biographies – The Mistress of the Monarchy, by Alison Weir which is loosely about Katherine Swynford, mistress and the eventual third wife of John of Gaunt. I say loosely because it mostly reads like the Franklin daily planner of John of Gaunt with shout outs about Katherine. It consists of many, many passages which begin, “we can assume” or “most likely”Katherine was…” and nothing really definitive. Read the novel Katherineby Anya Seton. Except for the fact that Ms.Weir sorts out some misconceptions about who died of what or when, the novel is the way to go. However, I have really enjoyed learning about this period, which includes information about Chaucer. So, read it for the history.
The second biography is also by Alison Weir, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor was one scrappy lady. I would like to say I am like her, but I am not, I am a wimp. I would have stayed with Louis and sunk like goo into the quick sand of history. She kind of proves (fortunately or unfortunately – I make no judgements) that in some cases, taking that risk, divorcing, can move you up in the world. Carpe Diem.
I am feeling very medieval these days. I bought Loreena McKennitt’s The Visit from iTunes to accompany this mood. Listen to The Lady of Shallot to completely immerse yourself in this medieval mood. Every now and then, it is good to just go all out and be medieval.
This covers the reading part of my paraphernalia-ing. I am also working on a project. It feels very fun and very consuming. I will tell all about it soon, maybe even tomorrow…
By the way – if you feel so inclined, comment. A paraphernalia of commentary would be fun.
Mr. Gove does make the safety crew seem a bit draconian. Surely they will move the books downstairs? Or, send special baskets up to professional balcony dwellers to send back down like Emily Dickinson did out of her bedroom window? They DO seem to have a plan. I was so horrified by Mr. Gove’s suggestion that the books were permanently off limits, I had to check – here is a link to the new “scheme” – I love that – scheme. It feels like a plot. Perfect for a library.
Anyway – ultimately, he makes the perfect point,
“One of the joys of reading English Literature is that you need not go to the Bod to commune with Jane Austen. You just need to pop by Oxfam and you can get Pride and Prejudice for less than the price of a jar of instant coffee.”
The BBC is putting together another version of Emma . It will be a four part series. I do hope they get a wonderful Miss Bates. The Miss Bates (Sophie Thompson) in the Gweneth Paltrow version was my absolute favorite!. Did you know Sophie Thompson is Emma Thompson’s sister and Mrs. Bates was played by Emma Thompson’s mother Phyllida Law? An interesting bit of trivia. I often do a fabulous immitation of Miss Bates to entertain people at work.