One for Georgette Heyer fans/nerds mostly. Of which there can never be too many.

“Our appreciation of much-loved books changes as we age.” Discuss with reference to a favourite novel.

Don’t shoot me pleeeeez, but I’ve gone right off Annis Wychwood in Lady of Quality. I still enjoy the romance and the banter, but on a recent re-read I just felt, well,  Annis, get over yourself. (Disclaimer: this post written from a place of deep Heyer-love.)

lady of qu betterThe biggest sadness/trauma in Annis’s life was the restriction felt by a rich, independent woman forced to live a best-supporting-actor life in her brother’s house. Then guess what, she can afford to get her own place. Yes, it’s still boring, but for the times, my, did she have it easy. Her greatest anxiety in the book is that her protégée, Lucilla, might be thought ‘fast’ by the Bath Quizzes, thus damaging her prospects on the marriage-mart. First-world problems, Annis, first-world problems.

I’m not judging Annis by the standards of different historical times or fiction genres – even within the context of the historical period, and within the wonderfully integrated fantasy world that Heyer created, I think she is, as she might say herself, a poor creature – selfish, contemptuous and espousing values of extraordinary triviality. She can be kind to her sister, true, and she’s intelligent and beautiful – which helps: imagine if she wasn’t beautiful – she could never get away with being so snarky.

Compare and contrast your chosen novel with an earlier work by the same author.

sylvester-or-the-wicked-uncle-georgette-heyer

I couldn’t help comparing her to Phoebe in Sylvester. Phoebe has a proper Cinderella story – dead mother, weak father, cruel stepmother. Her response is to write a book – a creative response from within herself. Phoebe cares passionately about justice, about the underdog: she is more concerned with Sylvester’s moral character than with propriety or his status, but she is also capable of compassionate understanding of how the death of his brother affected him.

Phoebe’s behaviour is driven by her sense of justice, by remorse and self-criticism, by her care for others, whereas Annis’s behaviour is all aimed at her own comfort within a particularly limited palette.

All fiction is disguised autobiography. Discuss.

When I read Jennifer Kloester’s biography recently, I felt that the difference between these two heroines may well have been a reflection of Georgette’s own state at the time of writing. She was at her happiest and most productive when she wrote Sylvester; but Lady of Quality was her last book, and she was pretty unwell and tired. Stylistically, romantically, I think it is as good as any of her books, despite being very much a rehash of Black Sheep, but I think the narrowness and grumpiness of Annis’s inner (and outer) world, reflect the exhaustion, and dare I say it, rather self-righteous bitterness of a woman who had lived a life of both unthinking privilege and extremely hard work. I think there’s an autobiographical element in Annis, in Georgette’s idealising of Annis’s crossness, in the privileging of appearances over values and heart, but Annis lacks the saving grace of Georgette herself, whose achievements were hard won by her own graft. Annis was a daddy’s girl like Georgette, but Annis simply inherited money which gave her freedom. GH worked incredibly hard, and was the main breadwinner for much of her marriage, as well as supporting her mother and at times, her brothers. In a sense, she had earned the right to be a curmudgeon: Annis certainly didn’t.

I welcome comments and further discussion. It’s possible that you may not agree with the above!

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Stupidest criticism of Jane Austen ever

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Huh. Jane Austen is fed up with irrelevant criticism of her work.

You’ve probably heard someone say this – Jane Austen isn’t a great writer because she somehow managed to ignore the great events of her day like Waterloo and only wrote about domestic matters – little local problems, first-world problems, women’s stuff. Turns out she wasn’t Thackeray, and she wasn’t Dickens. Weirdly, she’s not Martin Amis, Virginia Woolf, Raymond Chandler or E L James either.

This is such a dumb criticism and here are a few reasons why people say this dumb thing :

Sexism

Clearly this is basically a sexist criticism, because it implies that a woman writing about her own concerns – the concerns of her class, of the people around of her, of her gender – is not important, not valuable, not what life’s really about.

Bad news-ist

It privileges a view of the world in which what matters are the sort of things that get reported on the news – even though by simple statistics, only a very few of these events actually affect the daily lives of any of us at one time (please don’t flame me about climate change etc -you know what I’m trying to say here). Most of us are kind of just getting on with incredibly mundane, yet to us, important activities. [NB this doesn’t ignore the great suffering of many people in the world – but this criticism of Jane Austen doesn’t usually come from a Syrian refugee or a London homeless person; it usually comes from a smart ass college student]

Historically narrow

The idea that history is (only) the history of kings, generals and wars, mass movements etc. rather than, you know, people. People including categories like poor people, or shopkeepers, or children, or musicians, people trying to live in the circumstances they’re in, people like…erm…women?

Lack of understanding of the artistic process

Artists create art (perhaps we’ll stick with literature for the moment) for all sorts of reasons, but usually it is not to present a balanced, historically accurate view of the time they’re living in. I don’t go for the whole ‘write what you know’ scenario –  Tolstoy didn’t know Napoleon’s attack on Russia from personal experience for example, but War and Peace ain’t a bad book. Likewise, if you read Austen’s biographies and letters, in fact the people she was writing about led a very different life to hers – mostly up a class or two. People create art because something matters to them – it may or may not matter to you, in which case, read something else.

[on an aside, as a writer, do you get people coming up to you and saying, I’ve got this great idea, you should write it? I find that so weird. a) Why would I want to write someone else’s idea? It’s hard enough getting on with my own ideas, and I’m not in school any more; and b) why don’t they write it themselves if it’s such a great idea?]

Lack of understanding of what art is

Again, better stick with literature. People, straw men who I’m arguing with, literature is not history. Nor is it sociology, or science. An artistic object – a work of fiction – is a thing in itself, and it sets its own terms of reference. To criticise something for being itself, for not being something else, is to start from a belief that every book should somehow be all things to all men. Which is just nonsense. If you criticise Jane Austen for not including the wars etc that were going on at the time, then you’d have to criticise Dickens for mostly creating caricatures rather than flesh and blood people, you’d have to criticise Lee Child for writing about the same protagonist over and and over again. Etc etc.

 

 

Why the film and TV adaptations of Pride and Prejudice get Mr Bennet so wrong

In both the 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, and Joe Wright’s 2005 film, Mr Bennet is cast and played as essentially a lovable and cuddly fellow, with a twinkle in his eye, and a winning sense of humour. Yes, he has a few foibles and weaknesses but basically both Benjamin Whitrow (BBC, 1995) and Donald Sutherland (Joe Wright 2005) are quirky teddy bears. Just look at them:Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 12.07.31

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Even today a Mr Bennet would probably be good company – if you like drily witty verging on sarcastic (which I kind of do). But though I might enjoy a conversation with him, I wouldn’t like to be his friend. And I certainly wouldn’t want to be intimate or dependent on him.

But it’s not just that he’s “so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice”; he has more serious faults and Jane Austen cares very much about those failings. We’ve seen how he treats his wife – yes she’s annoying, but he’s really not nice to her and continues to punish her for not being who he thought she was. And his neglect of his children is highlighted in this scene, in which Lizzy begs him not to allow Lydia to go to Brighton. This is not just about whether he’s a nice person or not ( – not). What is demonstrated here is how his laissez-faire attitude is simply a rationalisation for his indolence. Lizzy adds more pressure to try and get him to act:

“Oh! my dear father, can you suppose it possible that they will not be censured and despised wherever they are known, and that their sisters will not be often involved in the disgrace?”

Mr Bennet saw that her whole heart was in the subject; and affectionately taking her hand, said in reply,

“Do not make yourself uneasy, my love. Wherever you and Jane are known, you must be respected and valued; and you will not appear to less advantage for having a couple of — or I may say, three — very silly sisters.”

He seems to understand Lizzy’s distress and is warm for a moment, but his response is to appeal to Lizzy’s vanity by simply comparing her favourably to her sisters. He is fobbing her off with flattery. This is now a more serious failing. It’s not just about whether he’s a nice person or not: what he avoids is the principle – the fact (of the time) – that reputation mattered to the respectability of the family, and that he was responsible for the moral character of his daughter. The overriding principle of his role as father at the time was to uphold the mores of society. He slithers out of his responsibility by turning a matter of principle into a personal matter.

Jane Austen sums him up through Elizabeth’s thinking:

Elizabeth however, had never been blind to the impropriety of her father’s behaviour as a husband. She had always seen it with pain; but respecting his abilities, and grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself, she endeavoured to forget what she could not overlook, and to banish from her thoughts that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible.

But she had never felt so strongly as now the disadvantages which must attend the children of so unsuitable a marriage, nor ever been so fully aware of the evils arising from so ill-judged a direction of talents; talents which rightly used, might at least have preserved the respectability of his daughters, even if incapable of enlarging the mind of his wife.

Austen’s disapproval couldn’t be clearer.

So why is it that the adaptations let Mr Bennet off the hook by both the casting and the script-writing?

I think partly they prioritise the humour of making him a foil for Mrs Bennet – polarising her silliness and his rationality. But Austen doesn’t do that in the same way – yes, her Mrs Bennet is silly and hysterical, but her Mr Bennet is a much more nuanced, ambivalent character than the film people convey. Austen allows and encourages us to disapprove of him, whereas both adaptations make him the good guy, the emotional heart of the house; more of a lovable rogue than a weak, selfish and indolent man who has not looked after his family as he should.

But I think there may also be a historical problem: Jane Austen’s values are not today’s values. A man of that time who did not uphold the moral principles of society, a man who did not do his duty by his family was a reprehensible character. The values of Jane Austen’s time are not romantic values – they are moral and they are pragmatic. Love does not conquer everything, principles matter, character matters. The principles of Jane Austen’s time are not the principles of our time – and for the filmmakers to be upholding 19th-century morality would make them look like disapproving fuddy-duddies of perhaps their own fathers’ generation. We are nowadays generally much more ambivalent about authority, and have a lot more freedom and variety in our definitions of morality.

In some ways, the adaptations say more about the problems of today in being a man and a father than they do about the original text. What is a father today? How does a basically decent man aspire to be as a father? If you uphold principles, act as the representative of the wider world, does that still allow you to show kindness, affection, understanding? Is a father’s job discipline? Is it a father’s job to come between a mother such as Mrs Bennet and her children?

Certainly Mr Bennet has opted out of all these responsibilities, and Jane Austen is fully aware of both his attractiveness as a wit, and his failures of principle, and of duty of care to his family.

I think the adaptations slide away from confronting the moral and emotional problems that Mr Bennet poses to a modern audience, and they go for the easy option, of making him cute and lovable. In this day and age, we really don’t know how to think about Mr Bennet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why I hate short stories

I’ll tell you why I hate short stories.

I hate short stories because:

  1. You’re just getting involved with the people and it’s over.Screen Shot 2015-04-03 at 15.07.16
  2. You can’t go on and on reading a book of short stories – when one story finishes, you can’t just cut off from that world and leap to another world, so you have to stop reading,  and that interferes with the whole getting-engrossed-and-reading-and-reading-into-the-night-and-not-getting-enough-sleep-and-regretting-it-in-the-morning thing.Screen Shot 2015-04-03 at 15.08.47
  3.  Short stories require frequent, repeated surges of brain energy to connect you with new people and situations. This releases dangerous chemicals into your bloodstream and shortens your life.
  4.  Also because they are short and usually sharp, they have a quicker emotional impact, thus raising your blood pressure and causing strokes and eventually heart attacks and again shortening your life.
  5.  Everyone time a short story ends, you have to go through the whole 5 Stages of Grief and Loss thing:

DENIAL – “nooooooo, it’s not over, it can’t be!” and ISOLATION – “gaaaaad, I miss those guys so much, now I’m alone again” (sobs)denial

ANGER – “I hate you Raymond Carver, how could you do this to me?” (throws book across room)

anger

BARGAINING – “if I wrote to the author, maybe they would turn it into a novel?” (PLEASE!)

bargaining

DEPRESSION – “what is the point of reading anything? there’s no point, it’s too painful” depression

ACCEPTANCE – yeh right, sure, that’s not happening. (kills everybody)

acceptance

      6. Ultimately short stories make you aware of your own mortality. You too will pass away into the void and be no more. Your life will end up as a brief thought in someone else’s head until they too pass away into the void. Can this possibly be a good thing to be reminded of? Specially last thing at night?

So in summary:

    Curse you Raymond Carver, curse you Alice Munro, curse you Tessa Hadley, curse you Katherine Mansfield, curse you Lorrie Moore, and curse all of you amazing and brilliant short story writers out there. You have ruined my life.

    Just saying.

This is about the UK TV programme Stella. Warning: no mention of Jane Austen

Stella is brilliant.

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Even though I’ve only watched the first two episodes, I’m going to tell you why. It’s all about impossible contradictions, and that is what makes it such a stonking artistic achievement.

  1. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and tear-jerkingly poignant.
  2. It’s populated by people who don’t often make it onto the screen and yet are highly attractive and/or hilarious, yet never contemptible. Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 15.55.35
  3. The character of Stella is such that you both want to be her, and are grateful that you are not her.
  4. It seems real and believable, while at the same time managing to be utterly romanticised.
  5. It makes living in a downbeat Welsh country town seem both like a great idea and a terrible idea.Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 15.55.08
  6. It shows us how petty and awful and imperfect everyone can be – everyone, even the main lovable characters – and yet that the essential goodness of humanity will win out.
  7. It takes complex social issues – racism, teenage pregnancy, poverty, marriage break-up – looks them in the face and makes them into human and universal stories. With a happy outcome.
  8. The sets are so believably unstylish, that you have to think they filmed in people’s actual homes. They feel like homes, not sets.
  9. Ruth JonesScreen Shot 2015-02-22 at 16.05.08
  10. There is a pony that lives in a house across the road.
  11. Did I mention Ruth Jones?

That will do for now. I may say more when I’ve watched a few more episodes.