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.

 

 

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Unlikely blogfellows: Jane Austen, Brian Williams (the NBC guy) and love

Because it’s Valentine’s Day, I’m not going to write about romantic love.

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I’m thinking about another kind of love. I’m thinking about the love that comes from celebrity, and what it can do to a person. In the back of my mind is the story of Narcissus, falling in love with his own reflection. I promise this will relate to Jane Austen, eventually.

The story of the NBC journalist Brian Williams who lied about his time in Iraq caught my eye this week. In an article in the New York Times, David Brooks wrote:

There’s something sad in Brian Williams’s need to puff up his Iraq adventures.

The sad part is the reminder that no matter how high you go in life and no matter how many accolades you win, it’s never enough. The desire for even more admiration races ahead. Career success never really satisfies. Public love always leaves you hungry.

I was really struck by this – especially the phrase “public love always leaves you hungry”.

It made me think about the different kinds of love that we need, and the different kinds of love that we crave.

Recently I had a miniscule taste of that celebrity feeling. When I launched my book Becoming Mary on Amazon there was quite a rush on sales, and I got extremely over-excited, casting the film, quitting my day job, lying awake all night with my heart pounding, checking my sales figures every few minutes (that’s actually not an exaggeration).

Inevitably the number of sales tailed off somewhat, and I found myself really missing that excited feeling. I’d been floating high in a fantasy balloon, and reality had punctured it, and the withered balloon was drifting back down to earth with me inside it. Boo hoo.

[On the plus side, I’m now sleeping better and eating less chocolate.]

Despite the smallness of my 15 minutes of fame, what I observed in myself was a hit of this craving for the excitement of being admired, that had got stirred up in me. I wanted more and more of it, and when it went, I felt deflated and a bit gloomy. I wondered how I could get it back.

Something then resonated with me on hearing about Brian Williams and his stupid lie.

I could imagine how he might allow himself to make that lie. I think any of us might recognise that moment of slippage – you’re telling an anecdote, and you embellish it just a little bit, add some hyperbole, make yourself look a tad better, overstate your part in something, add that fabulous one-liner as though you’d actually said it at the time.

Gradually you could forget the true story, because the new one is funnier and more interesting. It’s so tempting to believe the myths we tell about ourselves. In Brian Williams’ case the myth was that he was as courageous and active as the soldiers.

I think it’s hard to let go of celebrity love – this “public love”. The feeling of receiving it is intoxicating. It’s delicious – but unfortunately it’s delicious in the way that junk food is delicious – tasty, fatty, sugary and ultimately unsatisfying. It leaves you full but hungry, and in your heart of hearts (now lined with cholesterol), you know it isn’t nourishing, and you know it won’t last.

That’s the kind of love that any of us might crave – in small ways and not so small ways. It makes us feel good, big and clever and exciting.

But there’s another kind of love that we need. It’s a much more ordinary thing – more sustained and more sustaining. It’s not about worship and adulation, it’s open-eyed, realistic, aware of the good, the bad and the indifferent but reliably there nonetheless. If the narcissistic love is junk food, the other kind of love is the one that comes with hot-dinners and eat-your-greens.

When I thought about Mary Bennet, and why she’s like she is, both in Pride and Prejudice, and in my continuation, it seems to me that she craves her version of that celebrity love – she seeks satisfaction in admiration and praise, which she wants to garner by her musical performances and her displays of erudition. The myth she constructs about herself, is that she is wise, knowledgeable and a seriously good musician – and rather superior to others.

In her case, she turns to this narcissistic love, because there is such a shortage of the other kind of love. She really doesn’t know what else to do to get something. She has nothing that either of her parents value – no wit, no beauty – she’s not even very good at music. Her sisters have paired off, Jane with Lizzy, Kitty with Lydia, and there is nobody in the family for her. She’s lonely, neglected and thoroughly unlikeable.

What I did in my novel was take this Mary, and bring her to the point where she realises that she has been chasing a shadow, that what she was seeking was not the love that she truly needed, and she has to start the painful journey of self-knowledge, which, no doubt like Brian Williams, will include much remorse and heart-searching.

But because it’s Jane Austen fan fiction, she will also find true love and live happily ever after. So that’s romantic after all.

 

 

 

 

Self-improvement the Mary Bennet way

Becoming Mary is all about transformation – it takes a girl who’s a vain and pompous ugly-duckling type and also miserably unhappy, and turns her into a much nicer, more realistic sort of…. duck (can’t say she’s a swan really), who’s – well, more or less happy.

(Here’s a picture of an ugly duckling – you’d be surprised how hard they are to find on the internet. It turns out pretty much all ducklings are cute.)

Dusky Moorhen

Here’s what she grew up to be….

(or not)Ugly bird

Ok, maybe it’s disappointing that she doesn’t morph into a feisty, liberated, proto-feminist sex-kitten, but she does become happier and nicer, and that’s basically a result right?

So how the hell does she do it? We all want to know how to be happy – or happier. Some of us might like to be nicer. I’m naming no names.

What’s her secret?

Do not fret, dear Reader. I am here to reveal to you how to get a bit of a makeover if you’re a plain, affected and conceited fictional character in Jane Austen Fan Fiction. You need never feel anxious again about what to do if you suddenly get transported into a Pride and Prejudice sequel

Mary Bennet’s Top Tips to Improve your Life.

1. Leave home and get away from your critical, neglectful parents.
2. Preferably go to a magnificent country estate.
3. Have nice older sisters who decide to take you in hand.
4. Have an annoying younger sister who also takes you in hand a bit.
5. Meet a couple of guys who take an interest in you and try to help you.
6. Have a hideous public humiliation when you realise you are actually not as clever as you think you are.
7. Fall in love.
8. Have another hideous public humiliation when you realise you are actually an awful person.
9. Be forgiven by everybody and live happily ever after.

Sounds great doesn’t it?
I promise you it really works.

(This started out as a very serious post about what helps people to change, as illustrated in the story of Mary Bennet. I guess the ‘science’ bit is, reading between the lines: in order to change you need help, you need kindness, and you need to go through emotional pain. I can elaborate on this, pretty much endlessly. But I won’t)

Simon Cowell meets Jane Austen! Mary Bennet – does she have the X-Factor?

If you wanted a laugh in the 18th century you could buy a ticket to Bedlam to watch the lunatics.

hogarth lunatics

Nowadays we just watch X-Factor or Britain/America’s Got Talent.

OK sure, partly we’re watching it for the sudden pockets of brilliance, for the hook of seeing ‘ordinary’ people – people like us – randomly achieving stardom, but let’s be honest: mostly it’s for the rather nasty pleasure of those train-wreck auditions. I’m talking about the desperate ones, the ones who’ve been singing in the bathroom, or dancing in the living room, and someone’s told them, or they’ve told themselves, hey you should be on the telly! and it’s clear when you’re watching them, that they have no idea how dreadful they are. Why not remind yourself and have a guilty laugh by clicking here?

It is a kind of madness – like 18th-century Bedlamites, these folk don’t know what they’re doing, and they don’t know what they look like to others. We pity, sneer, and laugh at them simultaneously.

Of course those X-Factor contestants aren’t truly properly mad: what they’re doing is living in a sort of dream world: it’s a bit like when children play – they are the queen, or the sorcerer, they just inhabit the role, and when you watch them, you see how they are turned inwards on themselves as they live their game. In kids, this is fine, most children go in and out of this, it’s creative play which doesn’t affect their ability to be in reality as they grow; but for some people, for whatever reason, this deluded state hangs around, and in a sense, they are still caught up in the pretend game in which they are a hero or a star.

To my mind, the Mary Bennet of Pride and Prejudice is very much like one of these contestants. If she were alive in our times, she might well find herself queuing for an audition on X-Factor, and being stared at in disbelief by the mocking judges as she strutted her stuff. She has no idea how she comes across, she has delusions of grandeur completely at odds with what she’s actually like. And she was created for us to laugh at and despise.

Now Jane Austen was deliberately writing a caricature for comic, satiric purposes – just as the producers and editors of these talent shows are setting up the terrible performers for the same thing. There’s no interest in the inner world of these characters – they are there purely for entertainment.

But I became interested in the possibility of Mary being more than a caricature – what makes somebody behave like that? What makes her spout moralising nonsense that she’s read in books? What makes her continue to play and sing in public when she is so excruciatingly bad? What is she thinking about and feeling? How did she get like this?

These are some of the questions I was seeking to explore as I wrote the novel. And the answer to these questions – well, it’s in the novel, but I will also be writing some more on the topic soon.

Sex! Pride and Prejudice! Mr Darcy! (Did I get your attention yet?)

I asked a friend of a friend to read my novel – I’ve had a lot of love for it from family and friends, as you do, and I thought I’d better bite the bullet and see what people think who don’t care about hurting my feelings, and don’t love me in the first place. She kindly critiqued it for me, and basically enjoyed it, which was great, though I have lost a few teeth in my bullet-biting experience.

One of her reactions intrigued me: it was a rather endearingly old-fashioned discomfort at the sex in the novel. Now just to be clear, as P&P sequels go, Miss Mary Bennet is as pure as the driven snow and other pure things. It’s much closer in tone to Georgette Heyer than to Fifty Shades. There are no explicit sex scenes. There are references to off-stage sex, ranging from Mary’s naive comments on Elizabeth’s state of deshabille, which the reader understands though Mary does not, through Lydia and Wickham’s obviously active sex-life (off-stage) to some kisses, desired and not, via some instructive conversations that Mary has with Lizzy and Jane.

My friendly critic was partly shocked by the non-Jane Austen nature of the – I can’t call it sexual content, let’s say sexual knowingness, or what I think it was – a fairly uncomplicated acknowledgement of the existence of sex as part of life; it felt a bit clunking to her, especially at first, and she also felt intrusive as a reader, as though she had strayed rather impolitely into the master bedroom and caught some respected figures in flagrante.

This got me thinking, mainly about sex and Mr Darcy (as you do). As you all know (massive assumption based on the thought that if you’re reading this post, you already have a keen interest in P&P and are probably familiar with a few of the sequels and may even have read some of them), the vast majority, and I mean vast majority, of P&P fanfiction, spin-offs, sequels etc etc are about sex. Yes, there are zombies and murders and christianity and feminism, but mostly, in the vast majority of the genre, the books are essentially about Darcy and Elizabeth having sex. Occasionally the other characters too.

As I have written before in my post “the whole wet shirt thing”, it is my contention that it is the wet shirt scene in the 1995 BBC adaptation of P&P that spawned the whole P&P sequel industry. The overt sexuality of Darcy and Eliz on the TV got people very excited – as it does – and it set something off in the national and international psyche – basically, it gave all the women of the world permission to fantasize about having sex with Mr Darcy.

It was a slow-burning phenomenon at first, this massive global sexual fantasy – I remember being delighted and astonished and I confess somewhat aroused by discovering my first lot of P&P inserts (sorry can’t think of a better word – there is one, isn’t there?) on the internet, and I have watched in amazement as it has proliferated and shows no sign of stopping.

This has inspired me to create a brief analysis of this global worldwide universal phenomenon of the sexual sequel to P&P. Here’s my 2 cents. I apologise for occasional wild generalisations and over-statements used in order to make my point.

Reasons why there are so many of these damn sexual sequels to P&P

1. Every woman in the world wants to have sex with Mr Darcy. He is your absolute classic blank-sheet hero onto whom everything can be projected. Plus he’s handsome, rich and mean. Luckily he gets nice enough to marry in the end. He is sine qua non the prototype for the romantic hero of Mills and Boon, Harlequin and pretty much all romantic fiction, up and to and including 50 Shades (interesting typo moment there – I accidentally typed 50 Shags…hmm no need to disturb Professor Freud for that one).

2. Next reason: every woman in the world – and I mean every woman, no exceptions, is convinced that she and she alone is the real Elizabeth Bennet (trust me this is true – I have literally come to blows with my sisters about which one of us is Elizabeth – and no, Lizzy, having the same name does not qualify you. Not as much as being the second-born daughter, that’s for sure [sorry everyone, I just can’t let it rest]). Because in our secret hearts we know we are witty, pretty with fine eyes, just as attractive and lovable and beloved of our fathers as Lizzy (or if not, dammit, we should have been). In a word, we are Cinderellas, one and all. (sorry if you’re getting mad now, feisty modern females, but you know I’m right. You don’t have to admit it to anyone, it’s fine.)

Reason no. 3: the costumes. It is  pleasantly pervy to be a sexual modern woman who in her imagination is wearing a high-bodiced dress with little puffed sleeves such as only children wear – i.e. very unsexual – and having sex with a man with big leather boots on. Well, I’m sorry, but it is. Or is it just me? Oh god, embarrassing. Never mind.

Reason 4: a nicer, innocent age where people had lovely manners and wore high-bodiced dresses with little puffed sleeves. The lovely enduring fantasy of the age of innocence – where nobody was bitchy or complicated or neurotic or corrupt – or if they were they were obviously baddies. Somehow it’s just classier to have sex in period costume than in modern clothes. There were actual virgins in those days too.

(Obviously Reason 4 is bollocks. We all know it wasn’t a nicer time – a) there was no internet b) there were no flushing toilets c) dentists were terrible as were teeth d)and what about antibiotics? I’m afraid a mustard plaster just isn’t as effective. also e) no central heating. Come on!)

Reason 5: I may have run out of reasons.

But it’s interesting isn’t it? Well, I think so.

 

The devil is in the detail: the pleasures of research

In my first Mary Bennet novel, I had a ready-created world, kindly provided for me by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice. I had no desire or need to stray from that – the point of the novel was to take an aspect of that world and run with it, to imagine what happened after P&P ended – for all the characters, but particularly for Mary – and to stay true to the universe of the original novel with some broadening out of landscape and particularly of Mary’s inner world.

In the novel I’m working on now, the sequel to the sequel, Mary is no longer in Jane Austen’s world, and although I am hanging on to some of the characters (because I love them too much to let them go), I’m having to imagine my own Regency world.

Of course, there’s Georgette Heyer to steal from, but I have tried very hard to excise all Heyerisms from my writing – which isn’t easy, given the number of times I’ve reread her books. I recently picked up a Regency period historical – ever hopeful to find the equivalent of an unread Heyer – and was horrified at how many direct steals there were in the dialogue in the first chapter (the author kind of gave up after that and went all MA-in-Creative-Writing on my ass but that’s another story). [Ouch. I can’t believe I’ve got ass and Georgette Heyer in the same sentence].

Thing is, Heyer invented her own Regency world, with its own highly researched but also highly stylised language, and its own social parameters, and I don’t think other writers can use her research and keep authentic. Also it’s just so glaringly obvious to any Heyer aficianado that they’ve simply stolen her research and her style.

(Will I ever get to the point???)

The pleasures of research, the pleasures of research. It’s not so much  getting accuracy of facts: facts are great – which kind of carriage, what you call that bit of a frock etc – but far more interesting to me is what would have felt like to live in that world. The noise, the smell, the utilities, how you pay a bill, what’s it like if you’re neither an aristocrat or a pauper, but earning a living somewhere in the middle, what are the pavements made of, who cleans the street, how was that banquet for 1200 people at the Lord Mayor’s organised, who did the catering, how did they get the courses ready on time, what was it like to be on stage having sung a big duet and have the pit and the boxes roaring at each other over whether you were going to do an encore or not?

There is a lot of music, both professional and amateur in my current project, so I’m reading a lovely book about Haydn’s trip to London at the end of the 18th century, to try and get a feel for what it was like to live and work as a musician at the time. Haydn speaks to my heart, not just in his music, but in his curiosity about this country he’s arrived in. He likes figures, he’s interested in how much things cost, he’s interested in the domestic and thinks it worth commenting about.

Here are some bits that I particularly like, and which open up a sense of everyday life at the time and also give a sense of the continuity of ordinary urban experience that it’s still possible to identify with:

“I have nice and comfortable, but expensive, lodgings. My landlord is Italian, and also a cook, and serves me 4 very respectable meals including wine and beer.”

“The noise that the common people make as they sell their wares in the street is intolerable.”

“The City of London keeps 4,000 carts for cleaning the streets, and 2,000 of these work every day.” (Helps you imagine what the streets must have been like)

“Oranges from Portugal arrive in the middle of November, but they are quite pale and not so good as they are later.”

“Lord Barrymore gave a ball that cost 5,000 guineas. He paid 1,000 guineas for 1,000 peaches. 2000 baskets of gusberes [gooseberries], 5 shillings a basket.” (That was in May: how do you get peaches and gooseberries in May in England?)

This is from a flyer for a concert:

“Tickets transferable, as usual, Ladies to Ladies and Gentlemen to Gentlemen only.” (What? Why have gender-based tickets? What was that about?)

“The subscribers are intreated (sic) to give particular orders to their Coachmen to set and take up at the Side Door in the Street, with the Horses’ Heads towards the Square.” (Of course you’d have to have all the carriages facing the same way – these things had to be thought of.) “The Door in the Square is for Chairs only.” (Yes, don’t forget that lots of people would arrive by chair. It was 1791)

But a final caveat. This is what Bernard Cornwell says about research, and he’s generally worth listening to, whether you like his books or not:

Research, how much is needed?  The answer is annoyingly contradictory – both more than you can ever do and only as much as is needed.  By that I mean that you can never know enough about your chosen period, and so your whole life becomes a research project into the 16th or 18th or whatever century it is you are writing about, but when it comes to a specific book there really can be too much research.  Why explore eighteenth century furniture making if the book doesn’t feature furniture?  Do as much research as you feel comfortable doing, write the book and see where the gaps are, then go and research the gaps.  But don’t get hung up on research – some folk do nothing but research and never get round to writing the book.

http://www.bernardcornwell.net/writing-advice/

 

Too much information

Turns out I’m an information lightweight.

I joined twitter, thinking, well, novel’s finished, time to seek out My People and commune with them in the great twitterverse.

There are a lot of My People out there, a lot. Perhaps you, gentle reader, are one of them. People who love Jane Austen, people who write JA fan fiction, people who are obsessed with Pride and Prejudice (both the 2005 and the 1995), general Regency Period nutcases, many, many enthusiastic self-publishers of all kinds.

And then there are the journalists, the historians, the random funny people (I recommend @rhymeswithjen), familiar names that I can follow and feel bizarrely connected with in that bizarre internet way that feels real and yet isn’t – that feels so strangely real that when I actually meet friends of friends who I’ve chatted with on Facebook, I hug them with tears in my eyes. No joke.

So, what you don’t know about me (or care about either, and who can blame you), is that generally I try not to follow the news too much. In my day job (i.e. not writing) I hear lots of terrible things – basically that is what my day job is, listening to terrible things – and I feel that I am pretty much maxed out in the hearing-terrible-things department. I also believe that whether I know about the news or not, isn’t going to make much difference to the poor bastards who are going through whatever terrible thing it is. I read the Saturday paper, and eavesdrop on the odd conversation, just so that I have something pertinent to say when I am called upon.

But oh dear, once you start twittering or whatever it’s called, you’re just doomed. You get sucked in. You start having opinions. Next thing you know, you’ve clicked a link to the Tory Party Conference and are reaching for the nearest mallet to beat the shit out of the computer while you wipe the froth away from your chin.

Yesterday, there was this thing – I call them threads but I don’t think that’s the right word – it was called #mydadhatedbritain – and it was a response to the froth-inducing, mallet-requiring repulsiveness that is the Daily Mail, and their pathetic attack on a politician’s dad. Anyway, it was fab – joke after joke after joke, pouring in at great speed. The power of humour to undermine the twattiest newspaper in the country, even worse than the Sun.

Thing is, it filled my head so much I was actually hallucinating the twitter feed when I went to bed. And now I know so many dreadful things about Tories and what they’re doing, and I feel really angry and powerless and upset.

Today I am fried. I have information overload. I truly believe there are too many opinions in the world. I used to think just journalists had opinions. Journalists and Kesslers (you know who you are). But it turns out everyone has an opinion, and everyone’s kind of angry. Though actually loads of people are very witty, which is nice.

But just one other thing – you know when people say, ewwwww, too much information, like when you tell them something gross about a body part or some sort of excretion. Weirdly I don’t mind that.