Tag Archives: Jane Austen

An Austen-free upbringing

After wondering why I didn’t read the books by Jane Austen or the Brontës in my early teens, I suddenly realised why, and who I could blame for this regrettable shortcoming. (Always important, because it certainly wasn’t my fault.)

My Swedish teacher when I was 15, is who. The last year of secondary school we had free reading once a week. I am – with my mature adult hindsight – guessing it was a way to get the non-readers to read. Anything. At. All.

We were allowed to read whatever we wanted, and could bring our own books or use the school library. I generally sat down with an Alistair MacLean, or similar. Generally in English (which is odd for a Swedish lesson, but never mind). Naturally the teacher would have preferred me not to.

So she suggested books I might try. The only one I remember is Pella. I am sure the Pella books were fantastic, and the teacher had most likely loved them when she was young. But I was 15, and I was reading MacLean. Pella would – possibly – have been right for me about three years earlier.

All these years I’ve remembered the teacher’s badly chosen suggested books and I have understood what she was hoping for. I just haven’t thought of what she ought to have pointed me in the direction of instead, because she was quite right in wanting me to better myself with something other than MacLean.

I already loved all manner of romances; the kind where a young governess meets her new employer who is a brooding and somewhat strange man, and where they eventually fall in love and live happily ever after. The Jane Eyre copycats. Reader, I had no idea there existed the real thing and that it would have been much more satisfying. (Not better than MacLean, obviously, but as good…)

We knew of Pride and Prejudice because it had been on television. At that point I was of an age where understanding there’d be a book as well was too much to expect. We knew about Vanity Fair, because that too had been on television. Also, Heathcliff ran around the moors on television, and I knew there was a book, but it didn’t tempt me at all.

I knew about Dickens because we had children’s abridged versions. And yes, he’d been on television.

Mother-of-witch was many things, and for someone of her background she had an astounding number of proper books and books in English. But she had not been brought up on the classic governesses, and so she could not point me in their direction. Which is fine.

But my well educated mother tongue teacher could have. And should have.

Put off

The Hardened Librarian (she’s really Den luttrade bibliotekarien) was blogging about what put her off reading when she was at school. It’s a relief to hear that others – even librarians – feel like that. I know I was certainly put off some books, and authors, by well-meaning teachers.

To some extent ‘all’ Swedish literature got to me. But as with so many things when you are growing up, you don’t know that what you’re experiencing isn’t normal. I must have assumed that in becoming an almost adult I simply had to read adult and ‘proper’ literature, and by definition it would be, if not boring, then not as riveting as it ought to.

Why should it be natural to move from exciting books at twelve, to adult boredom at 14? We’ve already established that in my day we had none of the YA. Hence the sudden move to adult classics. I wonder if (Swedish) schools today serve up more teen oriented reading material? Or do teachers pick adult books because they have forgotten already? Or because it’s the only ‘right’ thing to do?

John Steinbeck, Pärlan

I believe THL and I must be about the same age. We both read, and liked, Nevil Shute and John Steinbeck. Note that these two authors lack in Swedish-ness. I have never read many adult Swedish books. But I have friends who did, and do. I even have friends in the UK, leading English-speaking lives, but who wouldn’t dream of reading in English. Me, I always felt I was destined to come here, and to read books in my other language.

A few years ago when I interviewed Tim Bowler, he mentioned his favourite Swedish writers, and I didn’t dare admit that I didn’t agree with him. (Sorry!) Maybe I should get Tim and THL in the same room and they could discuss Pär Lagerkvist. Could be interesting.

The stupid thing is that I was so taken by the idea that I had grown up that I continued reading all this adult, but oh-so-boring stuff. I wonder why? Just think what fun I could have had in better company.

What puts English speaking teenagers off? At least many of the classics – albeit long – are reasonably interesting and readable. Though I’m grateful I saved Austen & Co until my twenties. I suspect I was more receptive to lengthy romances by then.

In the UK it seems to be customary to know which football team people, including your teachers, support. I think I can do a literary sort of line through my various teachers, showing the favourite author for each of them. When Heinrich Böll was awarded the Nobel, I read his most recent book. My German teacher adored Böll. I read several of his books. I am fairly sure I didn’t like any of them. Why did I do it?

I suppose it’s a good idea to try new writers, and not be too prejudiced. But to continue the punishment once you’ve established you don’t like someone’s writing, strikes me as madness.

Darcy, death and the literary discussion

Death Comes to Pemberley sparked a literary discussion chez Bookwitch, and doesn’t that make us sound ‘intellectual?’ The Grandmother had read the book by P D James, and didn’t think much of it. She was keen to see what they’d done to it on television, though, and I am under the impression we all liked it.

That’s the thing with quality. A good book can be ruined on the screen and vice versa. You just never know. Daughter objected at first that we weren’t getting the 1995 cast from Pride and Prejudice, but warmed fairly quickly to this new Darcy. I didn’t know what to think of dear Wickham, because I need to dislike him, and I happen to like Matthew Goode…

But anyway, it made us talk books for a while (because we never ever mention the wretched things at any other time!)

Who counts as an author of classics? Jane Austen obviously does. Her books are really old. Victorians count. They too are old. But after that my ‘misguided’ companions wanted to put the classic label on all sorts of books by all sorts of recent writers!

I realise that classic-ness is a moving feast. What wasn’t a classic before, will become one at some point. My own gut measure is somewhere around the 100 years mark. If someone alive today was also alive when a novel was written, it becomes questionable. I know that the 1950s was a long time ago, but I happen to have personal experience of part of that decade and the people who wrote books then are not at all old, thank you very much!

So I’m not ready to consider Astrid Lindgren a writer of classic books, whereas I feel that Selma Lagerlöf might have been too recent fifty years ago, but is now definitely to be considered a writer of classics.

On the other hand, I see the flaws in this. Someone younger than me will share that same 100-year-old, but will also see Astrid Lindgren as dreadfully ancient. Is there a right way?

Mansfield Revisited

I can’t but believe that Jane Austen would wholeheartedly have approved of what her colleague Joan Aiken did to her Mansfield Park characters. This reissued sequel is exactly what the doctor ordered for people who loved Fanny Price. I was one of them, because she was such an ordinary heroine, while also being so very extraordinary in her own way.

Joan removes Fanny and Edmund and sends them on a long journey, because we don’t need more from them. Instead we have Fanny’s younger sister Susan, who is now 18 and doing just fine with Lady Bertram. With the whole of Mansfield, in fact, apart from her cousin Julia who will never be pleased by anything.

Add a few new characters, such as the Rev Wadham and his sister Mrs Osborne, who stay in the vicarage while Edmund and Fanny are away. A serpent is also needed, so please welcome back Mary and Henry Crawford! Stir well, and you have yourself a book worthy of Miss Austen herself.

Joan Aiken, Mansfield Revisited

What I admire so much is the way Joan Aiken has adopted what to my untrained eye looks like the true language of the Austen era. It does not feel like a poor modern cousin. I’m sure Joan and Jane would have got on at least as famously as Susan and Mary Crawford do…

Now, it was hard to guess whether Mary was there to be redeemed, or to take up where she left off four years earlier. Plenty of possible future husbands for Susan. The Rev Wadham? Cousin Tom? Henry Crawford? Or someone else entirely? Or will Julia’s scheming for her horrible sister-in-law thwart any dreams she might  nurture? Perhaps Mary Crawford has her eyes set on one of the available men? There’s an interesting symmetry where things appear to mirror what happened four years ago.

Joan kept me guessing. This was a most enjoyable return to Mansfield, and although short, the book contains more than one romance.

Stamps, Who needs them?

When someone on facebook got disgruntled about his most recent trip to the post office a few weeks ago, I had no idea I would be agreeing with him quite so soon. I mean, I was already gruntling along, and have been for years. But this is getting silly.

I have been concerned that I am single-handedly closing down post office branches. But I can’t be that powerful, can I? Besides, I wouldn’t want to.

The fb friend had been the target of the over-selling they engage in these days, even in the tiniest sub post office. I forget what, but have an inkling he wanted stamps and they wanted to sell him insurance. I generally pop in (although it has to be admitted, with increasingly longer gaps between visits) for stamps, other letter services or cash. So I don’t need to be asked if I require a top-up or if they can do anything else for me today? It makes me so uncomfortable I try and work out ways to avoid going in at all.

And if I avoid too many times, then closure of the branch is sure to follow. We don’t even get a newspaper any longer, although the chap on the ordinary shop counter is much more relaxed and never suggests I need a chocolate along with that copy of the Guardian. (The pick-and-mix sweets went three postmasters ago. Unhygienic.)

What I miss is the staff who would tell their colleague that ‘Mrs Bookwitch likes her cash in tens.’ Staff who sold me the stamps I wanted, and if I had forgotten to order them they would get them in anyway, because they knew roughly what I’d be wanting.

Jane Austen stamps

Anyway, on the day when fb friend wanted no insurance, I went in to buy the new Jane Austen stamps. I’d not double checked the issue date, but fb had been awash with comments on the postal Miss Austen, so I felt I was about right.

‘What?’ said the girl on the counter. ‘I would like to buy the new Jane Austen stamps, please,’ I said again. ‘Uh,’ she said. ‘We don’t have them. We only have the Doctor Who stamps.’ ‘OK, I’ll have some of them then.’ (I didn’t recall the issue date, but had no wish to argue.)

She went behind the scenes to speak to the boss, returning to say that they are such an insignificant post office they don’t get the Jane Austen stamps. ‘And we can’t even sell the Doctor Who stamps yet,’ she finished. I thanked her (for what?) and left, with no sale made. Not even a little top-up.

Once home I looked up the dates. Jane Austen was the day before my visit. Doctor Who is today. So it would have been very surprising to get them five weeks early.

This is precisely why I don’t want to go there. I can’t get what I want, and I can’t want what they can let me have.

Doctor Who stamps

The last literary stamp debacle was a couple of years ago when I rashly decided I’d like the fantasy book ones, featuring Nanny Ogden and Dumbledore and all the rest. So I ordered them from stamp headquarters in Edinburgh. The professionals. OK, so it cost a bit extra to have them sent, but I saw this as saving on the bus fare to the main post office.

These professionals sent me only some of what I ordered. I emailed to demand the rest I’d paid for. The automated reply suggested I should expect to wait five weeks for a reply. I emailed back telling them to get their skates on. They apologised and sent me some stamps.

Not all of them, obviously. I wrote back. Had another offer of a five week wait. I mentioned the skates again. They sent some more. Not all of them, obviously.

And so we went on, until my order had been fulfilled. The lovely thing about stamp headquarters is that they sell to philatelists, so wrap every stamp very nicely and well. That’ll be why they charge extra. This way, I had beautifully presented – albeit in short measure – stamps every time they posted some more out. That must have cost them a lot, in the end.

It was with this in mind that I really didn’t want to bring Jane Austen up at the local PO. Nor did I want to renew my email correspondence with those incompetent professionals up north.

One solution is to send no post. I suspect that far too many of us already do this (don’t do this?), and that’s why they are going under. My old postal heart is bleeding, but what can I do?

Darcy’s puddle

Couldn’t help noticing there’s been a lot of Pride and Prejudice stuff everywhere. I’ll pitch in with the famous puddle, now that we supposedly will be flooded again. This swimming pool is more elegant than the one at the bottom of the Bookwitch garden.

Lyme Park

But strictly speaking I’d say the stretch of water in the photo is a similar distance from this – slightly larger – house, although I daresay it’s not all rain water.

I would like it to be summer again. Or spring. Something with sunshine and a little warmth, and less of the H₂O from above. I won’t absolutely require Colin Firth to make an appearance, but if he did that would be perfectly fine.

Lady Catherine’s Necklace

I can’t say I was ever desperate to know what became of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Good riddance, might more appropriately describe my feelings. She was needed to get Darcy to see sense (or was that Elizabeth Bennet?) and then she could do as she liked. I never felt sorry for her daughter Anne, who didn’t need or deserve Darcy.

Joan Aiken, Lady Catherine's Necklace

But, now that I have read Joan Aiken’s sequel, Lady Catherine’s Necklace, I am much more interested in what happened. Sadly, Mr Bennet has died. That means Mr Collins needs to go away to sort things out with his inheritance. Lady Catherine is not keen to be without him, whereas Mrs Collins doesn’t mind in the least…

Life at Rosings Park becomes more interesting with the arrival of a brother and sister who have had an accident nearby, and who impress Lady Catherine so much that she invites them to stay.

It’s a quiet sort of story, although at times it becomes fairly dramatic. We meet various people in and near Rosings, and we see much more of Anne. There was a reason for her lack of character in Pride and Prejudice. She is now engaged to Colonel Fitzwilliam, who in turn loves someone else.

There is a hilarious adventure awaiting Lady Catherine, and she almost redeems herself. Anne develops plenty of character, and there are two gay lovers, as well as dead and lost offspring.

Lady Catherine’s Necklace is a book for young readers, and I’d like to think that those who don’t know Pride and Prejudice at all, or who have only seen the film or television series, will want to pick up the Jane Austen novel after reading this one. And for anyone who found P & P too difficult to read, it will be a pleasant little story to start with.

Darcy and Elizabeth are only mentioned in passing, and the same goes for Jane and her Bingham. But it’s nice to feel they are almost part of the story. To me, Joan Aiken seems to have captured just the right style, making this book feel almost like the real thing.

AAYA 88

Or Authors & Artists for Young Adults, volume 88, as published by Gale, Cengage Learning. It’s a reference book, and as the more astute of you have worked out, there have been 87 volumes before it, and I suspect (and hope) there will be many more after it as well.

Authors & Artists for Young Adults, vol 88

No, I’ve not taken to reading and reviewing piles of reference material, but this came my way four months ago when someone wanted to use ‘my’ photos of Michael Grant. They were really my Photographer’s pictures, and after thinking about it she gave her consent and they chose the ones they liked best.

It took me a while to even work out the publishers were in the US, and once I’d established what kind of book they were producing, I asked if we could see the finished copy, which they generously said they’d send us. It’s not really the kind of book you’d go out and buy as a private individual. The edition is fairly limited and the price is high, so I’m guessing it’s mainly for libraries and similar.

Michael Grant in Authors & Artists for Young Adults, vol 88

But it’s such a good idea, collecting information on people who write for Young Adults, or illustrators. The selection process seems a little random, since it’s not alphabetical, nor chronological. There is an index listing who has been in all the 88 volumes, and in which one.

It’s not your ordinary list of YA people, either. Adèle Geras sits tantalisingly near Mel Gibson and Paul Gauguin. Staying with the Gs we have Michael Grant as well as El Greco and Graham Greene. There are disproportionately more Americans, but in volume 88 we have Matt Haig, and he and Knut Hamsun and Stephen Hawking are close, index-wise.

Jane Austen is there, and so is Mrs Michael Grant, K A Applegate. Walter Dean Myers gets a lot of room in volume 88, which he also shares with Anna Godbersen and Aprilynne Pike and Kenneth Oppel. As you can see, a varied lot of writers. ‘My’ volume has just over thirty names, and I’m guessing the older volumes are similar. Some names are listed more than once.

Michael Grant in Authors & Artists for Young Adults, vol 88

Michael gets six pages in this edition, and unlike some he doesn’t have either his address or his email listed. I suppose it’s up to each person how easy to find they want to be. Since this isn’t intended for the young readers, I imagine contact details are more for people who might want to book someone for events.

It’s a nice idea. You can – probably – never have too much information about what young people want to read.

Young and hot, or perhaps not

Mary Hoffman went on a book tour to America last week, leaving us – her blog readers – with some exciting men to think about. I bet she did that on purpose.

She writes about some very attractive young men in her own books, and I trust Mary has done a lot of research to make our reading experience the best ever. But I am too old for her boys. I simply cannot lust after a teenager. Even setting propriety aside I find I can’t. I need older men.

Like the ones I was too young for when I was a teenager. Except in those days there wasn’t much in the way of teen books, so a girl had to lust after grown older men, or not lust at all. Lord Peter Wimsey is one such example mentioned by Mary. (And don’t tell anyone, but I did like him.)

That’s life. Nothing is ever right.

So, in those days I liked the Scarlet Pimpernel (even without Leslie Howard), and I adored Steven Howard in MM Kaye’s Death in Cyprus and Richard Byron in Mary Stewart’s Madam Will You Talk. Various Alistair MacLean heroes, and Carl Zlinter from Nevil Shute’s The Far Country. (Go on, ridicule me!)

If there were any boys, I have forgotten them, which means they can’t have been all that special.

More recently I have liked Margery Allingham’s Campion, Mr Knightley, and Robert Stephens’s voice as Aragorn in the radio version of Lord of the Rings. There aren’t all that many attractive men in modern children’s or YA books, but there is Lupin. And from an old classic we have Daddy Longlegs.

If I absolutely have to find young men in current fiction they won’t be vampires. Not even faeries (sorry, Seth McGregor). I liked Wes in Sarah Dessen’s The Truth About Forever, and Sanchez in Ribblestrop by Andy Mulligan is quite a boy. And now that I think about it, the Cathys (Cassidy and Hopkins) do lovely young ones.

Abby and Ducky

Men on the screen, however, have got easier with age. The ten-year-old me knew it was wrong to be in love with Ilya Kuryakin, 23 years my senior. But he was so cute! And this being a lasting kind of passion, it was David McCallum who got me started on NCIS. He is still very good looking for a man approaching 80. And it was at NCIS I found Very Special Agent Gibbs, a man of the right age. At last. I reckon he is a modern Mr Knightley.

Gibbs

So, for me it is No Thanks to ‘hot young men.’ I need them to be grey these days.

(Link here to an older post about pretty boys. I seem to have grown out of them.)

It’s old, but that’s OK

After saying recently that I almost preferred older books as a child, I also had a certain fear of what I perceived as really old. Deep down I suspected that something written a Very Long Time Ago would be so strange as to be unreadable. Now, why I should see other old books as a problem when I felt Alexandre Dumas was just fine, I have no idea. Could it be the difference between old children’s/adventure and old serious/real?

At some point at university I had to read old books. I don’t think I counted the Odyssey, because you’d see it in so many more recent incarnations. And having had to read Austen and Gaskell in English and survived, I saved my reservations for old Swedish literature.

But the point came when I needed to read Carl Jonas Love Almqvist, and as you can see even the name is a mouthful. I had heard of his novel Det går an, but with my prejudice I had no wish for a closer acquaintance. Although when I got there, it was reassuring to find it’s a mere 100 pages or so. Written in 1838 it’s not even that old as classics go.

I was pleasantly surprised both by how readable it was and how good. More than good. I actively loved it. When you’re used to old novels along the line of Jane Eyre, with a governess or other poor female and a romantic but chaste meeting with ‘The Man’, then the ‘free love’ in Det går an is a wee bit unexpected. They are ‘normal’ people, neither aristocracy nor starving slaves. Albert and Sara meet on a journey and fall in love.

It ends with Sara asking if it’s OK to be together without getting married, and Albert saying ‘it’s OK’ (title of the book).

And that’s it.

Very modern, in other words. Nothing to be afraid of.

The other day Son was telling me he’d just read it. As with me it was for a university course, and like me, he too had enjoyed it. ‘Immigrant’ that he is, he could have more cause for wariness.

I went looking for it before writing this, but couldn’t find it. Maybe Son had helped himself to my copy?