The company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation

Learning Latin with Jane Austen October 4, 2012

Filed under: Jane,Pride and Prejudice — lizzyandjane @ 9:54 pm
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This semester, I have the special treat to be learning Latin! Often, it brings me warm, fuzzy thoughts of sitting down with a young Christopher Marlowe, slaving away at Latin verse to craft a translation to fit his perfect iambic pentameter, but today’s homework actually reminded me of everyone’s favourite embarrassing cousin, Mr. Collins!

Perhaps tonight I can read to you from Fordyce’s Sermons?

Translating “The Tragic Story of Phaëton,” I think of the Bennet family supper where the most delicious dish is awkwardness, served up by Mr. Collins as he continues to name drop his esteemed patroness Lady Catherine:

But she is perfectly amiable, and often condescends to drive by my humble abode in her little phaeton and ponies.

Learning Latin has been beneficial for learning the etymologies of words (and knowing the English words, I have the perfect mneomic device for future quizzes!). So where does the word “phaeton” come from? According to my [likely shoddy] reading, Phaëton est filius Phoebi, Phaëton is the son of Phoebus. His friends don’t believe that he’s the son of a god, so he cries to the heavens for proof. Just like Jane Bennet hopes to make it to her dinner engagement with the Bingley sisters in high style, so Phaëton wants to borrow Daddy’s horse…that’s attached to the chariot of the sun! While Jane nearly perished by water, Phaëton almost perished by fire, nearly setting the whole world ablaze (although according to my exercise, De caelo cadit Phaëton, he falls from the sky! O mala fortuna!). But I digress.

Pimp my phaeton

Back to Phaëton and his currus (meaning chariot, also where we get the word for Mr. Darcy’s preferred mode of transportation, the “curricle”). Just as Phaëton raises himself up to the sun, so does Lady Catherine like her “smallfolk” to know how above them she is; Mr. Collins feels that if he can attach himself to Lady C. just right, maybe he can hitch that ride all the way up to the sun. Mr. Collins has had his nose stuck in Fordyce’s Sermons, so maybe he does not know the lamentable end of the Greek myth (spoiler alert: he dies), but I hope that that Lizzy’s verbose cousin takes a breath long enough to heed Mr. Bennet’s sound advice:

…if I were you, I would stand by the nephew. He has more to give.


Persuasion and Social Media August 21, 2012

Filed under: Jane,Persuasion — lizzyandjane @ 6:47 pm
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Do you ever catch yourself internally narrating your life in 140-character doses? I’m not proud to say that I definitely do. In Jane Austen’s time, of course, they lacked the time-stealers called Facebook and Twitter, but they certainly didn’t lack social media.

Persuasion begins with an introduction to Kellynch Hall’s patriarch, Sir Walter Elliot, who “for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one.” His favorite page, it will come as no surprise, is his own, as it contains his own family’s history couched comfortably around other high-born men of his ilk. What’s interesting is that while Sir Walter reveres the book’s role as a reminder of the past, he actually revises it to function as an ongoing narrative about his family’s present, “improv[ing]” the text to include his daughter’s decently advantageous marriage and the precise date of his wife’s death. Like the social media that has become ubiquitous in our daily, even hourly, lives, Sir Walter keeps a record of the good times and bad that make up the circle of his life.

During the Napoleonic Wars during which Persuasion was set, social media was more important than ever, as it allowed those on the home front to keep tabs on those they loved. Lady Russell persuaded Anne to break off her engagement with the Wentworth, but she nonetheless read the “navy lists and newspapers” in order to keep track of her lost love. Like so many of us who resort to facestalking our exes, it is through this media that Anne learns that Wentworth had “distinguished himself, and early gained the other step in rank, and must now, by successive captures, have made a handsome fortune.”

When the now-Captain Wentworth arrives on the scene, charming the proverbial pants off of women and men alike, the Musgrove party takes to communally exploring social media. Showing that a caption is worth a thousand words, Wentworth elaborates in order to contextualize his professional history. Interesting in this case is that Wentworth’s statuses are dictated for him. He tells his captive audience:

We had not been six hours in the Sound, when a gale came on, which lasted four days and nights, and which would have done for poor old Asp in half the time; our touch with the Great Nation not having much improved our condition. Four-and-twenty hours later, and I should only have been a gallant Captain Wentworth, in a small paragraph at one corner of the newspapers; and being lost in only a sloop, nobody would have thought about me.

Anne and Captain Wentworth going from “It’s Complicated” to “In a Relationship”

As opposed to today’s democracy of 140-characters or less, Wentworth’s fame relies more upon the Warhollian philosophy of one’s social worth being measured in inches.

In this way, social media is a far older phenomenon than we often think. Using it to fill in the contextual gaps that  necessarily reside in a plot that confines itself to the 100 days between Napoleon’s return from exile and his defeat by the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo, Austen shows that one’s personal and professional business was just as on display two hundred years ago as it is today.


Lost in Austen and Fanfiction May 24, 2012

Filed under: Fanfiction,Lizzy,Pride and Prejudice — lizzyandjane @ 3:56 am
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Amanda Price getting Lost in Austen.

…we all long to escape. I escape always to my favourite book, Pride & Prejudice. I’ve read it so many times now, the words just say themselves in my head…it’s like a window opening, it’s like I’m actually there; it’s become a place I know so intimately, I can see that world, I can touch it, I can see Darcy...” – Lost In Austen

Stating that the TV mini-series Lost in Austen is glorified, or legitimized, fanfiction would not to be a controversial claim. In fact, I would suspect that many faithful janites would be frustrated that they did not think of it first, or at least were not given the same opportunity to realize their Austenian musings and fantasies on the small screen.

At the end of the day, the plot of this series is probably not a new one. In fact, inserting a normal every day female character into a fictional universe and letting the hijinks ensue is a staple of many a fandom, and could even be considered a bit juvenile. Yet here we are (and here I am!), being highly entertained and intrigued by this female fan’s fantasy played out to its satisfyingly romantic conclusion.

For those of you who have yet to catch this BBC series, the plot is as follows, more or less: Amanda Price is our modern-day heroine and Austen devotee, evidenced in the beginning quotation. She comes home one day to discover Elizabeth Bennett in her shower (how she recognizes her is a bit unclear – it’s not even Jennifer Ehle!) and uncovers a door between her London flat and the Bennetts’ Longbourne. She obviously enters it and immediately becomes trapped in turn-of-the-18th century England, while Lizzy stays behind in modern-day London. As one can expect, chaos unfolds, all with Amanda Price at the centre of it. She is unwittingly rewriting her favourite story of all time and is appalled by it.

Jennifer Ehle – the seminal Elizabeth Bennet.

Right off the bat, the suggestion that the arrival of the “modern” Amanda Price and the removal of Lizzy Bennet would fundamentally change the course of these characters’ lives is suspect. There is an element of wish-fulfillment in the way Amanda arrives and is immediately a big deal and causes havoc. Wouldn’t it be the worst if you showed up in the world you had been romanticizing your whole life and were just as inconsequential there as you were in your real life? I guess there would be no story there, no lesson besides maybe the message of Midnight In Paris, that addresses a similar issue…but anyway, I digress.

The point is, Lost in Austen and wish-fulfillment, whether it be the author’s or the viewers’, and I find it both interesting and uncomfortable how Ms. Price falls into this world and quickly gains a firm hold of it by developing a fast bond with Jane and attracting the attention of not only Mr. Darcy, but of Mr. Wickham and Mr. Bingley.

This young, female, girl-next-door character reminds me of the “Mary Sue” concept used to describe certain types of characters employed in mostly fanfiction writing that seem to be products of wish-fulfillment rather than involved character development. They are most often injected into an existing world and are unrealistically attractive, smart, competent, and successful in a variety of ways that deny the character any dimension. That’s not to say that I think our Ms. Amanda Price has no realism or dimension, because she does. But what really defines her is that she is an amalgam of all of us – smart, romantic, pretty but maybe not gorgeous, articulate, strong, but also lost, confused, and caught between different worlds – now and then, real and fictive, upper and lower class.

Elliot Cowan as Mr. Darcy. Because clearly the Mr. Darcy wet t-shirt contest never gets old.

Amanda Price suggests to all of us that if we were to cross over into the world we have idealized, we would create the same fuss she does and win over the man we’ve fantasized about since we were tweens. (Well, not all of us – Team Knightley, right Jane?) Isn’t that the basis of the unattainable crush? The belief that if only the object of our affection could meet us and know who were, they would love us. We could all be the Elizabeth Bennet of our own lives.

But alas, we probably cannot. Not because we’re not awesome – we are. But because the suggestion that a simple time travel is the answer to our mallaise or our quarter-life crisis is a glorification of the past and a rejection of a present that has just as much to offer (seriously, go watch Midnight in Paris). Amanda Price, after some struggle and heartbreak, it is true, gets her man, and finds her place in the world, albeit it’s over 200 years ago. But maybe the real lesson is in this latest consideration of our beloved Elizabeth Bennet, our perennial hero and aspiration. Despite protestations from both her family and Amanda herself who is desperate to hang on to the story she knows, Lizzy quickly adapts to the 21st century and throws off the romantic fatalism offered her by Amanda Price in order to live a new life in the present, which she sees as much more thrilling and promising than any happy ending in a book. To a world-weary 21st century girl like myself, that seems like a safer bet – and besides, if all else fails, there will always be a copy of P&P at arm’s length.


Points of tension: “It is a truth universally acknowledged” April 29, 2012


“Have you no compassion for my nerves?!” – Mrs. Bennet actually has plenty to be nervous about.

In any work of literature, there is a negotiation between what goes said and unsaid. For example, when we hear “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife“ (the first lines of Pride and Prejudice), we know that this particular “universe” must be solely inhabited by the likes of Mrs. Bennet, but we lightheartedly laugh at this generalization. The generalization itself, we find, becomes less lighthearted the older the unmarried Miss Bennets’ father gets, prompting a fear of their future financial welfare. If Mr. Bennet dies before the girls are married, Mr. Collins will inherit their house and they will be left destitute. So in this way, those first lines offer a point of tension in Pride and Prejudice. It is a moment that could be glossed over, but if we take a chance to consider what goes unsaid, we would be able to find the socially fraught circumstances behind it. I plan to continue using this blog as a place to identify and consider points of tension in all of Austen’s writing. Where do they come from? Who is responsible for them? What is their purpose? Stay tuned to find out!


A defense of the widow in Persuasion April 18, 2012

Filed under: Jane,Persuasion — lizzyandjane @ 5:12 pm
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It was 1994 when I learned about the circle of life, or, to quote The Lion King’s predecessor, Hamlet, “all that lives must die, / Passing through nature to eternity.” In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, such an egalitarian vision is pulled apart by all the strings attached.

In this novel, Austen shows just how harsh her society could be on the women who had no choice in the fact that they outlived their husbands; it’s the circle of life, someone’s gotta go first. Seven years before the novel took place, Lady Russell persuaded Anne Elliot to break off her engagement with the young, handsome Captain Wentworth, who would necessarily ship out to war again, and did Anne really want to become a naval widow at nineteen? Last season in Downton Abbey, William showed us the virtue of marrying before dying at war – he left his sweetheart taken care of. But not all the widows in Persuasion have this privilege, one that should actually be a right.

Take Mrs. Clay, for instance. A widow of a man of no great means, two children, and whether it’s Anne’s, Austen’s, or some amalgam of that in a narrator’s point-of-view, the book tells us to be suspicious of Mrs. Clay’s intentions toward Sir Walter. “Nothing was as good for her constitution as a ride to Kellynch”, the narrator says in her most sarcastic voice. But is this fair? Speaking of air, Anne only begins to regain her “bloom” at the points where she is at liberty to take long walks with her sister and the Miss Musgroves. How differently would she have acted in Mrs. Clay’s in the same situation?

The worst-case scenario of widowhood is Mrs. Smith. She is locked away in Westgate Buildings, with her social status reduced to “widow and cripple.” Anne is compelled to renew this acquaintance but Sir Walter nonetheless feels at liberty to make a particularly snide comment at her expense:

A widow Mrs. Smith lodging in Westgate Buildings! A poor widow barely able to live, between thirty and forty; a mere Mrs. Smith, an every-day Mrs. Smith, of all people and all names in the world, to be the chosen friend of Miss Anne Elliot, and to be preferred by her to her own family connections among the nobility of England and Ireland! Mrs. Smith! Such a name!

Good from far, but far from good!

What Sir Walter forgets is that Mrs. Smith is not the only person to lose a spouse; he has, and enjoys the choice of “remaining single for his dear daughters’ sake.” Sir Walter sneers at the first that Mrs. Smith is a widow and an invalid before reaching the age of “one-and-thirty”, yet Sir Walter fawns over Mr. William Elliot, who was the same age as Mrs. Smith upon losing his own spouse.

But let’s look into the differences in the aftermath. Mrs. Smith’s husband died after a series of indiscretions, leaving her with debt as crippling as her ailments. After a series of indiscretions on Mr. Elliot’s part, his own wife died, leaving him her fortune. How convenient. While Mrs. Smith went to Bath for the benefit of the curing waters, William Elliot used her account of Anne to get to know her in advance of officially meeting Anne in bath, all the better to ensnare her with the oh-so-creepy proposal of “The name of Anne Elliot has long had an interesting sound to me. Very long has it possessed a charm over my fancy; and, if I dared, I would breathe my wishes that the name might never change.” Eeeew! As a friend of mine best put it, he’s just smarmy. Yet, William Elliot fully gets away with so obviously “beginning to calculate the number of weeks which would free him from all the remaining restraints of widowhood, and leave him at liberty to exert his most open powers of pleasing.” No thank you. But that’s Mr. Elliot’s right, as a man in that culture. Instead of being a fraction of his former self, it’s his prerogative as a man to leave his wife’s death behind him, proposing to his cousin so he can grow into the man he wants to be, the future Sir William Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall.

Captain Benwick, while less obviously creepy, is no better. He was so distressed about his fiancé Fanny Harville’s death that Captain Wentworth couldn’t leave his side for a whole week. Benwick had even got a portrait of himself commissioned for Fanny, but when he fell in love with Louisa Musgrove, he tactlessly asked his former-future-brother-in-law, Captain Harville, to get it reframed for his new belle. Harville has his time to lament of it to Anne, but who can remember that, when it’s so quickly followed by the whole “you pierce my soul” bit?

Worth the wait!

So, returning to Lady Russell and Anne Elliot. Lady R is also a widow, but she is a widow who has been provided for, has subscriptions to all the important publications, has varied enough acquaintance to be gone for the second and third quarters of the story, and has the luxury of traveling in her carriage between Kellynch Lodge and Bath. She’s even less encumbered than Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park, although sometimes I hate her as much. But Anne doesn’t – she’s at peace with Lady Russell. Why is that? Because Anne ultimately gets her man, a man who has returned home in tact, a man who she can marry, confident that he has both the respect of his title and chests full of prize-money. So I guess it comes down to the advice that my own father gave to me years ago: don’t marry rich, marry very rich.

Thanks for stopping by! – Jane


Welcome to the conversation! March 12, 2012

Filed under: LizzyandJane,Manifesto — lizzyandjane @ 1:41 am

I cannot fix on the hour, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that after 200 years, Jane Austen and her novels have not weakened their grasp on our imaginations or our minds. In fact, we can’t get enough of them. Whether we read, watch, or listen to them, Austen’s works continue to give us, lizzyandjane, something to laugh, cry, argue about or sigh over. She gives us a way to experience our world, And we want to share that with you.
By “that” we mean a number of things, from academic close-readings of delicious passages from Austen’s works, to classic arguments about divine or offensive casting choices, to our favourite pieces of fanfic, and everything in between.
Welcome to the conversation!