Lady Susan: Jane Austen’s Comedic Seductress

Once upon a time (in this particular case the 18th century) quite a few novels were written entirely as series of fictional letters. These were called epistolary novels. Evelina by Frances Burney is one example, but far more well known was Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa. Jane Austen had probably read both Burney and Richardson when she penned her own epistolary work, Lady Susan.

In [Richardson’s] fiction, resourceful young women record their efforts to resist the advances of scheming libertines. The young Austen signals her audacity by turning the figure of the predatory male seducer into a highly unconventional (and middle-aged) seductress. — John Mullan in “Does Love & Friendship improve Jane Austen’s ending?

Don’t ever let anyone tell you Jane Austen was “just a romance novelist.” By the age of 19 or 20 she was perfecting her signature satiric style, turning Richardson’s well-respected style up-side-down, and inverting gender stereotypes for contemporary fiction. Predatory, aggressive, and manipulative women weren’t unheard of in fiction at the time, but making them the most engaging character in a story wasn’t encouraged. Perhaps that’s why she set the manuscript aside, choosing neither to destroy nor publish it (Lady Susan was first published 54 years after Austen’s death).Lady Susan: Austen's Comedic Seductress #theclassicsclub | marissabaker.wordpress.com

The story follows recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon. We enter the narrative as she announces her intention to visit her brother- and sister-in-law, Charles and Catherine Vernon, at their country residence. Though not happy to host the woman who tried to prevent her marriage, Mrs. Vernon welcomes her sister-in-law as cordially as possible. She becomes less cordial after her brother Reginald De Courcy arrives to meet “the most accomplished coquette in England” and falls head-over-heels for Lady Susan. And that’s after he’d heard from a reliable source that she’d left her previous residence after seducing the married Mr. Manwaring and stealing Miss Manwaring’s suitor, Sir James Martin, for her own daughter.

The first screen adaptation of this novella came out just last year. Titled Love & Friendship for some inexplicable reason (it’s the title of an unrelated work Austen wrote at age 14), I’m still not quite sure what to make of this film. While it preserves the witty, irreverent comedy of Austen’s novella, I still felt something was off about the adaptation. Transferring letters to dialogue made for some character meetings that didn’t make sense (Lady Susan and Mrs. Johnson wouldn’t have been able to meet in person so often; the companion who arrives with Lady Susan in the film isn’t in the book and only exists here to be talked at). And while several female characters were fleshed out more to help them hold their own on screen with Lady Susan, the male characters became even more buffoonish than in the novella (SPOILER WARNING: Reginald in the film is helplessly manipulated throughout the film, while in the novella, he’s the one to break things off with Lady Susan).

Also, why does every single character introduction stop the action with an out-of-context shot of them overlaid with a description of how they fit in the story? The costuming is beautiful, though, and Kate Beckinsale turns in a fantastic performance as Lady Susan. As in the novella, she’s by far the most interesting character.Lady Susan: Austen's Comedic Seductress #theclassicsclub | marissabaker.wordpress.com

I enjoyed reading Lady Susan. I’m a big fan of Jane Austen’s work and this is the first of her writings outside the six major novels that I’ve read. It makes me want to track down more of her juvenilia. It’s fun reading your favorite authors’ early works, especially ones they didn’t necessarily mean for other people to read. I’ve heard that the other stories she wrote as a teenager were even less “proper” than Lady Susan; certainly much less refined than the novels she polished up for publication.

It was also nice to read a short book from my Classics Club list. I love long books as a general rule, but honestly I’m starting to feel intimidated by the number of enormous books I chose. Three Dickens novels? what was I thinking! At least I had the good sense not to put Clarissa on the list (word count for first edition: 969,000).

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Romance and Outlaws

I listed Lorna Doone as a re-read on my Classics Club book list, but suspect I hadn’t actually read an unabridged version before. I didn’t remember whole pages worth of conversation written in dialect or so much time spent building John and Lorna’s childhood relationship in the first half of the book. Pretty sure I read a copy that modernized the dialogue and skipped straight to the most exciting action. That’s probably why the book felt so long this time through, though I was thoroughly enjoying it by around the half-way point.Lorna Doone: Romance and Outlaws #theclassicsclub | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Grounded In History

Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor by R.D. Blackmore is a historical novel published in 1869 and set in the late 1600s. I hadn’t realized before re-reading it how much the novel borrows from real events. My falling apart ex-library copy (published in 1943) even includes pictures of the locations Blackmore references. The brief introduction written by Basil Davenport states, “Blackmore made good use of his schoolboy memories of Devon; the outlaw Doones, the De Whichehalse family, the highwayman Tom Fagus and his mare, and even the mighty John Ridd, have at least some foundation in fact, while the book is full of local historical allusions, like the bales of wool that were used to repel bullets at the siege of Exeter Castle.”

The historical grounding is perhaps the most interesting aspect of this classic novel. It soaks through every page in tiny details, sweeping historical allusions, and our narrator’s word choice. Though I had a little trouble getting really “into” the first half of the story, it’s not because Blackmore isn’t painting an immersive world. Since this is a first-person narrative, we get to see the world through John Ridd’s eyes. And John isn’t shy about sharing his opinions on everything from farming to women to outlawry. It really feels like we’re there listening to John tell the story as he lived it.

Lorna Doone: Romance and Outlaws #theclassicsclub | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Carl Benton Reid as Sir Ensor Doone and Barbara Hale as Lorna Doone (1951)

Outlaws As Villains

We’ve all read stories where the outlaws are romanticized. Stories with dashing rogues, defensible pirates, and code-following outlaws fill our collective imagination. Not so in Lorna Doone. Even beloved highwayman Tom Fagus must mend his ways and conform to law and order before securing his happy ending. The more prominent outlaws in the story, the Doones, are decidedly cast in the role of the villain. Rather than seeking to romanticize and excuse the outlaws à la Robin Hood, the story focuses on rescuing Lorna (and by extension the romance plot) from them.

Several times, John talks about the Doones as a fixture in the neighborhood. The surrounding people have gotten used to them and they’re willing to put up with certain things. Since the Doones are a noble family, their neighbors consider it their right to steal sheep, run off with a few unmarried women, and even kill people who get in their way. The Ridds and their neighbors even resent external efforts to bring the Doones to justice, partly because they fear pay-back if/when the Doones win and partly because the Doones just seem to belong. But that doesn’t mean they’re happy about having a nest of outlaws in their backyards.

Lorna Doone: Romance and Outlaws #theclassicsclub | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Polly Walker as Lorna Doone and Sean Bean as Carver Doone (1990)

But What Does It Mean?

Though tolerated and occasionally defended, the Doones are viewed as a local plague, not as tragic heroes or admirable figures. They eventually cross a line and are wiped out by the very people who put up with them for so long. Interestingly, all this happens at a time of political unrest in Britain as a whole and there are numerous tongue-in-cheek references to political corruption and the failures of the nobility. I suspect that on some level at least, we’re meant to identify the overtly lawless Doones with the more subtle legalized injustice running through the British government. And we’re to root for the common man of good sense rising up to put an end to his “betters” ruining the country.

On a more obvious level, Lorna Doone really is a simple romance novel. And while there are plenty of romantic novels I enjoy more, I do love the story. John and Lorna aren’t my favorite literary characters, but even the fact that I didn’t like them 100% is in a way a testament to Blackmore’s writing. Though John is telling the story and he worships Lorna, Blackmore manages not to present either as unrealistically idealized “perfect heroes.” It reads like the honest account of two real people navigating romance in a world of outlaws. And that makes for a good story.

Lorna Doone: Romance and Outlaws #theclassicsclub | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Amelia Warner as Lorna Doone and Richard Coyle  as John Ridd (2000)

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5 Things A Graduated English Major Doesn’t Want To Hear

Even five years after graduating with my English degree, I still describe myself as an “English major.” Do non-English majors do that? or do they all switch from “art major,” “accounting major,” or “biology major” to artist, accountant, and biologist? Maybe it’s because the English major can go so many different directions. Writer, teacher, editor, lawyer, journalist … the list goes on. So if you want to connect with other former English majors, you need to describe yourself as an English major.

Whatever the reason, I still think of myself as an English major. And apparently, people I meet do as well. New acquaintances, and even people I’ve known for a while, make certain assumptions when they hear I’m a writer and my degree is in English. With those assumptions comes a few predictable questions and comments that I’m sure other graduated English majors are all too familiar with as well.

“Can you edit my __?”

I need to preface this section by telling all the friends who I have edited things for, “No, I’m not mad at you.” I’m perfectly happy to look over the new about page for your blog or proof-read your extremely important email. What I’m talking about is the larger editing projects.

I am a professional writer. That’s how I make money. Just because I like writing doesn’t mean I can do it for free all the time. If someone wants me to read every post on their blog before it goes live, or proof-read their new e-book, or edit a story or novel, we need to talk about compensating my time. Maybe we trade critiques, or you use your website to market my e-book, or maybe it’s a per-post editing fee.

You wouldn’t ask your friend who’s a dentist to clean your teeth for free, or your friend who runs a farm to give away their produce because you’re buddies, or an accountant to do your taxes in their spare time. Ask us for an occasional favor, but don’t put your English major friend in the uncomfortable position of explaining they don’t work for free.

“I’ll probably write a book one day”

Yes, tell me how you’ll just pop out a book some day when you have a little extra time. Go ahead and imply writing is easy or something anyone can do if they cared to bother. I dare you. Because the next person who catches me in a bad mood when they say this is going to get a lecture on how much work it actually involves to draft, edit and re-edit a manuscript, then find good beta readers, edit again, and finally decide it’s ready to publish. And then if they haven’t run off yet they’ll get to hear about how the publishing industry actually works.

“I know you’re judging my grammar”

In-person, on Facebook, here in the comments section …. people are constantly apologizing for their grammar, spelling, or sentence structure. (Strangely enough, it’s not usually the people whose comments are actually hard to read.)

I do think people should make an effort to use good grammar, especially in something they publish, and I am a word nerd. But I don’t just sit around judging and resenting my friends for not proof-reading their Facebook message dozens of times before having the audacity to send it. Am I really such a scary grammar Nazi that you feel the need to make jokes about your terrible writing before communicating with me? That just seems weird.

“How do you spell __/What does __ mean?”

I love words. But I’m not a walking dictionary. This question feels good when I know the answer, but when I don’t it’s usually followed up by some variation of, “So what’s your English degree good for?” *facepalm* Apparently I have failed in my life calling. Here, why don’t I Google  the answer for you using a mobile device like the one you’re currently holding in your hand?

“I hate writing/English/reading”

… and we have nothing in common. I spent four years of my life reading and writing things in the English language, and most graduated English majors are still doing that at least to a certain extent. But the main reason I don’t like hearing this comment is because it instantly shuts-down avenues of connection. I don’t care so much about the fact that you don’t enjoy these things. What I care about is that you’re basically telling me not to talk about my career because you didn’t like that subject in school.

Nobody likes to be told their passions have no value. Regardless of what your conversation partner majored in or does for a living, it’s generally not a good idea to tell them you hate it. Much better to say something like, “Wow, that’s cool. I have no talent for it. Can you tell me more about why you enjoy it so much?” Now we’re having a conversation.

Bonus: “Are you making any money?”

Or any related questions including “Do you still live with your parents?” or “Do you have a real yet job?” That’s just not any of your business, especially from new acquaintances. I’ll tell you about my living situation and finances if and when I want.

My fellow English majors, what are your other pre- or post-graduation pet peeves? Any questions or comments you’re tired of hearing?

A Visit To Middlemarch

My main goal before the end of 2016 was to finish George Elliot’s Middlemarch. I’d resolved to read at least one huge book from my Classics Club book list each year and this was my second after Frances Burney’s The Wanderer. Alas, I didn’t finish until January 1st, but we’ll still say it was close enough to count as part of the #ccwomensclassics event.

Though I’m an avid reader of British classic literature this is only the second George Elliot book I’ve read. I’ll admit I wasn’t a huge fan at first. I felt like the story spent far too much time on trivial details while skipping over scenes I would have expected more focus on (like weddings). But even when I was tempted to skim some sections I realized I would loose the plot thread if I missed even a few paragraphs and by the last 100 pages I felt everything coming together. It’s a much tighter story than I’d first given it credit for.click to read article, "A Visit To Middlemarch" | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Middlemarch chronicles the lives of a quite a large cast of characters, but Dorothea Brooks and Tertius Lydgate are the main characters. Interestingly, they are not love interests for each other. Rather, their stories parallel each other and intertwine in unexpected ways that you really don’t start to appreciate until close to the end.

Thematically, Middlemarch explores the nuances of marriage (among other things. It is, after all, 800 pages long). This aspect of the novel brings to mind the Tolstoy quote from Anna Karenina that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The main characters’ marriages happen for various reasons and become unhappy in different ways. Dorothea’s was made because she wanted to marry, and support, a man whose mind she could admire. Her husband wasn’t actively trying to deceive her, but he wasn’t at all the person she expected and turned out to be far more small-minded than she. Lydgate married because he fell in love with Rosamund, who married him because she expected him to rise socially. When he didn’t become her mental image of who he should be, she stopped loving him and Lydgate discovered he was trapped trying to make her happy while struggling to not completely abandon his dreams.

There are also three happy marriages made in this novel. And that gets us to the first part of Tolstoy’s quote: “Happy families are all alike.” Middlemarch’s happy marriages have one thing in common — they start from a place of honesty. The man and woman have known each other for years, neither is trying to deceive the other, and their expectations of their spouse are (at least mostly) realistic. It’s kind of sweet to see how the two marriages that take place near the end of the story develop throughout the novel. The two unhappy marriages are made quickly and soon deteriorate, but the ones that we see grow and develop over several years end up thriving.

After reading the first 700 pages or so with a fairly low level of engagement, those last hundred pages made me not want to put the book down. My two month investment with this book (I started it at the beginning of November and took a couple breaks to read shorter books like Heartless) was more than paid-off with the conclusion. This might seem weird to say for a book that’s 145 years old, but I don’t want to say too much more and spoil it for you. Sufficient to say everything really does go together and there’s a satisfying ending in store if you keep going through all 800 pages.

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Meeting Marissa Meyer

Meeting Marissa Meyer | marissabaker.wordpress.com

blame my phone for the blurry photo

I went to my first author talk and book signing yesterday! It was so enjoyable. Can’t believe I haven’t tried something like this before, considering how much of a book nerd I am (of course, many of my favorite authors died 100+ years ago, so that might explain something …).

She talked for a while about her new book, Heartless, and invited six people up for a talent show styled after a Mad Hatter’s tea party scene in the book. I didn’t even think of volunteering (as you’ve likely guessed) since standing up in front of people terrifies me, but I really liked how she led the mini talent show. Even with the volunteers drawing random talents to show the crowd (things like spontaneously coming up with a character description or singing an operatic version of I’m A Little Tea Pot), Marissa kept things encouraging and light enough to dispel any anxiety her volunteers had. That’s the sort of talent you notice and appreciate in people when you’re a bit socially anxious yourself.

It’s always fascinating to hear other writers talk about how they create characters and what their writing process looks like. The question-and-answer part of her talk was fun and informative — definitely the part of her presentation that I enjoyed most.

Marissa signed all my Lunar Chronicles books (which are fantastic. You simply must  read them if you enjoy fairy tales and/or science fiction), including personalizing Cinder. And the ticket to the author talk included a copy of Heartless, which she also signed. I really, really want to read Heartless right now but I don’t dare start it until I finish writing my NaNoWriMo novel. I know it will be too distracting. And so I’m off to finish my work writing so I can get on to my novel writing so I can start Heartless as soon as possible. Have a lovely day, dear readers.

Meeting Marissa Meyer | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Reading Henry IV

Warning: English nerd content ahead.

I’ve been quite fond of Shakespeare since high school. Freshman year I watched Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and then read the play for extra credit. I loved it so much I choose to read it again the year we studied British literature, along with Taming of the Shrew (my mother’s choice) and As You Like It (recommended by a teacher).

Since homeschoolers can pick their own curriculum and my mom hated reading Shakespeare’s tragedies when she was in school, I didn’t get a hold of those until college. There, I discovered Hamlet was almost as good as Henry. Almost, but not quite. When I took a Shakespeare class where the professor included Henry V on his syllabus I was in literature nerd heaven.henriad

The only strange thing (to me at least) about this whole Henry obsession is that it took me so long to read Henry IV, Part One and Henry IV, Part Two. In these plays, the character I knew as noble King Henry V is the riotous Prince Hal. I did put them on my Classics Club book list, but I probably wouldn’t have read these plays for another year or so if I hadn’t decided on a futuristic/sci-fie re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Henriad for my NaNoWriMo novel (click here to learn more). I’d seen them, though, in BBC’s The Hollow Crown.

This brilliant adaptation is remarkably faithful to both Part One and Part Two (it leaves out more scenes and changes a few parts of Henry V, but that play’s not the topic of our post today). I enjoyed reading the Henry IV plays, in part because of associating the on-paper scenes with what I’d seen in The Hollow Crown. Here’s a small clip of Tom Hiddleston as Henry, but you should really check out the series and watch it for yourself.

For reading Part One, I picked up a copy without annotations or notes. I was rather pleased with myself that I didn’t feel like I needed them. This is also the play I enjoyed most. It feature a more straight-forward and active story line, and more scenes with Prince Hal. I tend to prefer Shakespeare’s main plots and noble characters to the sub-plots and more comedic characters, and that held true for these history plays.

Part Two follows the Henrys less and I’m glad I had a Folger edition to read for that. There were whole sections of Falstaff’s speeches that left me puzzled (the notes made me feel better, though — apparently scholars can’t figure out some of his lines either). You need this play to get from Part 1 to Henry V, but it’s my least favorite of the three.

Whether or not you already love Shakespeare, I’d recommend starting with The Hollow Crown if you’re interested in these plays. They’re really meant to be seen and heard more than read. I suspect the man who begged pardon of his 17th century audience for daring “On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth / So great an object” as Henry’s life would approve of the scope film provides for storytelling (Henry V, 1.1.11-12).

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