The original Elizabeth Bennet?

Elizabeth Benet

A repost from 5th May 2013 for Austen in August.

Visiting Bath Abbey in April this year [2013] I chanced on this curious memorial on the east wall of the south transept.

Close inspection revealed the name of one Elizabeth Benet (sic), widow of William Bathurst Pye Benet (died May 4th 1806), who herself died at the age of 80 in 1826. Could Jane Austen, who lived in Bath between 1801 and 1805 (not to mention visits there in the 1790s), have met this real-life Elizabeth Bennet, clearly a grande dame in Bath society?

Continue reading “The original Elizabeth Bennet?”

Irony and Ingenuousness

Blaise Castle
Blaise Castle folly, Henbury, Bristol

Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon
Oxford World’s Classics 2008

“Blaize Castle!” cried Catherine; “what is that?”
“The finest place in England – worth going fifty miles at any time to see.”
“What, is it really a castle, an old castle?”
“The oldest in the kingdom.”
“But is it like what one reads of?”
“Exactly – the very same.”
“But now really – are there towers and long galleries?”
“By dozens.”

The irony of this dialogue between the imaginative young ingénue Catherine and her would-be suitor, the boorish John Thorpe, is that Blaise Castle is neither the oldest castle in the kingdom (it was only built in 1766) nor are there dozens of towers and galleries (the three-cornered folly has only three towers and two floors). To these two themes of irony and ingenuousness are added the twin essences of parody and pastiche to furnish the reader of this Austen novel with gothic contrasts and dualities galore.

Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto: a Gothic story is regarded as the original ‘gothick’ horror tale; first published in 1764, it now seems rather tame and rambling with its over-the-top supernatural happenings (particularly the appearance of a giant flying helmet), its convoluted über-melodramatic plot and its unengaging characters. But it set off a trend for similar novels featuring creepy castles, hidden chambers, darkened passages, villainous father figures, fainting heroines and secrets waiting to be revealed; in fact, precisely the kind of novels that were eventually to be lovingly sent up by Northanger Abbey. Continue reading “Irony and Ingenuousness”

Austen mania

New specimen £10 banknote featuring Jane Austen © Bank of England 2017

Due to come into circulation on 14th September 2017, the Bank of England’s new ten-pound note features, as everybody may know by now, Jane Austen. Previewed back in July 2013 in a Bank of England video, the design was again unveiled to great fanfare two hundred years to the day after the death of the novelist, on 18th July 1817. The brouhaha surrounding the concept of course proves the adage that you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Early version of the design of the £10.00 banknote © Bank of England

Continue reading “Austen mania”

Walk into my parlour

Jane Austen Lady Susan
(in Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon
Oxford World’s Classics 2008)

Will you walk into my parlour?” said the Spider to the Fly,
‘Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy;
… Oh no, no,” said the little Fly, “to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair can ne’er come down again.”

My July 2013 review of Austen’s Lady Susan, reposted just as a film adaptation arrives in cinemas (though now rebranded with a completely different Austen title as Love & Friendship — written when she was in her early teens) Continue reading “Walk into my parlour”

Consciously naïve

"Wingfield Castle, Suffolk," etching, by the British printmaker Henry Davy. 268 mm x 330 mm. Courtesy of the British Museum, London (Wikipedia Commons)
“Wingfield Castle, Suffolk,” etching by the British printmaker Henry Davy (1827), courtesy of the British Museum (Wikipedia Commons)

Dodie Smith: I Capture the Castle
Illustrated by Ruth Steed from sketches by the author
The Reprint Society 1950 (1948)

This is the most perfect novel. I can perfectly understand the esteem it’s held in by those who have fallen in love with its characters, its story and its language. Told as though by the 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, I Capture the Castle catches perfectly the introspection and sensitivity of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood; extraordinary that the author, then in her early fifties, was able to portray such an individual with exquisite insight, deliberately echoing the conscious naivety that Cassandra is accused of with an older woman’s own conscious assumption of naivety.

Dodie Smith in the 1930s, photograph by Pearl Freeman (Wikipedia Commons)
Dodie Smith in the 1930s, photograph by Pearl Freeman (Wikipedia Commons)

The background to the novel’s birth is easily sketched in: successful playwright Dodie and her husband Alec Beesley moved to the US during the war because Alec was a conscientious objector, and she wrote the novel partly out of homesickness, setting it in a ruin based on the real-life Wingfield Castle in Suffolk. Wingfield is here transformed into Godsend Castle, hired by the Mortmain family, and is where father James Mortmain struggles unsuccessfully to commence the “difficult” second novel that plagues many writers. The family gradually descend into genteel poverty until the arrival of new landlords from America, when everything changes utterly.

Continue reading “Consciously naïve”

Half sick of shadows

Georgian door

Jane Austen Sense and Sensibility
Edited with an introduction by Tony Tanner
Penguin English Library 1980 (1811)

Because [Elinor and Marianne] neither flattered herself nor her children [Lady Middleton] could not believe them good-natured; and because they were fond of reading, she fancied them satirical: perhaps without exactly knowing what it was to be satirical; but that did not signify. It was censure in common use, and easily given.

With a title like Sense and Sensibility it’s easy to think this is merely a novel of contrasting dichotomies. Elder sister Elinor is the sensible one (“sense”) while her younger sister Marianne is the sensitive one (“sensibility”);  Continue reading “Half sick of shadows”

A fish out of water

Long Island
Long Island, New York, from an early map

Kathryn L Ramage Maiden in Light Wapshott Press 2011

Jane Austen and H P Lovecraft may once have been strange bedfellows, but the recent trend of re-imagining 19th-century romances as vampire and zombie tales renders this marriage made in hell less surprising. Kathryn Ramage dedicates Maiden in Light to these two authors, though the resulting novel is not the undead romcom that you might otherwise expect. Instead we have here an engaging novel mixing social observation, convincing character development and palpable suspense, all set in an alternate world consistent within its constructed parameters.

Laurel is a fish out of water in the 20th-century yet medieval town that is New York, stuck in a family intent on matching daughters with appropriate suitors while discovering herself a tomboy with burgeoning magical abilities. She is summoned to her uncle’s castle of Wizardes Cliff at the eastern end of Long Island where she quickly comes into her own as a sorcerer’s apprentice, before her curiosity causes her to stumble on the dread secrets that form all wizards’ responsibilities, the stuff of her nightmares. Continue reading “A fish out of water”

Two enthusiasms combined

Blaise Castle House
Blaise Castle House

P D James: Death Comes to Pemberley
Faber and Faber 2012 (2011)

In a piece she wrote for the Daily Telegraph (included in the paperback edition of Death Comes to Pemberley)  P D James explained the genesis of the novel in her desire ‘to combine my two lifelong enthusiasms, namely for writing detective fiction and for the novels of Jane Austen’. In evaluating this sequel to Pride and Prejudice consideration must be given to the degree of success she’s achieved with that combination of enthusiasms as well as all those other touchstones for masterful writing. The imminent screening of a BBC serial based on the novel  proves that the public appetite for such a combination is certainly still there  — though from the trailer clearly a lot of dramatic licence has been taken.

The trigger for the action is easily adumbrated… Continue reading “Two enthusiasms combined”

An unostentatious introduction to Austen

Blaize Castle
Blaize Castle

Charles Jennings
A Brief Guide to Jane Austen

Robinson 2012

For an Austen newbie like me this Brief Guide – though at over two hundred and forty pages not that brief – is an excellent introduction and summary, told intelligently and sympathetically. Four succinct but readable chapters deal first with her life and novels, followed by an overview in ten sections of life in Regency England and a summary of Jane’s afterlife in criticism and the media. Added to this core are a short introduction, a select bibliography and, finally, an indispensable index. While the map of southern Britain helps chart Jane’s travels (despite the central area being obscured by the binding) what would have made this Guide complete would have been a family tree, however simplified, to elucidate sibling and other relationships. Continue reading “An unostentatious introduction to Austen”

A critical yet teasing tone

Jane Austen?
A putative Jane Austen portrait

Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice Everyman 1993

To my deep shame I have never before now read this classic (and I’m not counting skimming pages, nor watching the TV and film versions). I’m not sure whether it was false pride or male prejudice that stopped me (the label ‘romance’ would have been enough to put me off when I was younger) or simply laziness (most probably this), but I now know what I’ve been missing: a witty but perspicacious novel, not as hard to comprehend as parodies suggested, and, though set in a period of history I’m not over-familiar with, a primary social document on manners and presumptions in the Napoleonic era. Continue reading “A critical yet teasing tone”