“It must be under cover to you.”: Austen and Epistolary Novels

51cn4fj4t-l-_sx325_bo1204203200_Lady Susan is one of the more complete pieces from Jane Austen’s juvenilia. With that being said, it still has an abrupt ending that one could only wish would have been more thoroughly finished. Even so, it’s not exactly uncharacteristic of Austen to wrap her novels up in nice pretty bows, which is what happens in Lady Susan though much more quickly. I believe the reason for this can be found in the form of the novel itself. It is an epistolary novel, and if you have ever read any, you will know that a story can only be carried so far through correspondence. To that end, she even writes, “This correspondence, by a meeting between some of the parties and a separation between the others, could not, to the great detriment of the Post Office revenue, be continued longer.” (pg. 101). Simply put: she got tired of it. Who can blame her?

It stands to reason that at the age of 20, when Austen was writing this, she decided to dabble in the style of her predecessors. She discovered, to our benefit, that she preferred a more traditional approach to novels. However, I will say that the epistolary novel gives the author a chance to dive into more of the characters since he or she is not restricted to the narrator chosen from the start. This creates an interesting effect in Lady Susan because instead of one narrator, we get something like 6 or 7 narrators. Each has their own personality without an objective observer making comments. I suppose, however, the characters do make their own comments, some more self-aware than others.

If you’ve read any of Austen’s novel, you’ll know that her biggest shtick is social commentary, and of course her wonderful sardonic humor. For example, this is seen in her overt witticisms through Elizabeth Bennet and in a less so obvious manner when you look at her personal preferences that sneak their way into her novels (see: her dislike of Bath and how it translates into the plot for
Northanger Abbey.) With this novel, however, I’m not sure there is so much criticism as there is a range of characters acting their part and remarking on each other. Naturally, that means that each opinion is skewed by that person’s viewpoint, allowing the reader, in a way, to form her own.

This cannot be seen in any better way than with Lady Susan herself. She is often the subject of every letter, including her own. Her person is fair game, whether it be her beauty or her coquetry. Her most vocal opponent is her sister-in-law Mrs. Vernon, who could be interpreted as jealous of Lady Susan’s flirtatious sensibility and sexuality. Then you have Lady Susan. She is not at all averse to touting her capabilities, although couching it in the guise of charm and innocence. Even one of the more logical, rational, characters becomes enamored with her. She, to her delight, masks her true sentiments and gains an admirer. What I find amusing is that her duplicity is all over her letters. To her friend Mrs. Johnson, she speaks nothing but truth (or so you think, who really knows with her), but then she turns around and lies to everyone else. The reader knows she’s lying, but the characters have to make assumptions and determine her character through her own words and the whispers about her. In a way, you could say that there is still a filter like a traditional narrator would give, only this time, the filter is not for the reader; it’s for the other characters.

I would like to point out that with the snarky remarks of Lady Susan to Mrs. Johnson, we’re left to wonder if perhaps Austen’s true personality is just as cutting. Lady Susan appears to be a mixture of Elizabeth Bennet, Mary Crawford, and even some Emma Woodhouse. Elizabeth and Emma both have some of the outspoken elements of Lady Susan, although tampered with their male counterparts. They end up being “hushed,” toned down for the reader. As I read once, this might be because Austen is writing in between the 18th and 19th centuries. The 18th century was far more open about life’s affairs, while the 19th century was reserved. Because of this, Austen is stuck between two worlds—should she be refined or not? Should she openly or obliquely refer to an adulterer? It’s an interesting thought.

If you would like to see Austen at an early stage, a less subdued author, then read Lady Susan. After all, it is only about 60 pages. While I have barely touched on it, I hope it does inspire you to read more than just her novels. Her juvenilia is as worthy as they are in learning about her development as a writer. Lady Susan has also been made into a movie by Whit Stillman. Stay tuned for a review on that! I got to see it a couple of months ago, and must express my opinion.

Warning: Not Suitable for Book Nerds (This does not include e-books.)

A couple of days ago, an unsuspecting, naive, version of myself was sitting at a table reading Burney’s Cecilia while eating lunch. You know how it is. You’re a bit tired and feeling a bit anti-social because it takes way too much energy to converse with people day in and day out, so you decide to read during your lunch break. It’s almost as good of a conversation deterrent as headphones. The best is a book PLUS headphones, but alas, I hadn’t brought mine with me. So there I was with a fork poised between the fingers of my right hand and my left hand holding this 1,000-page book open. A book that size is asking for someone to comment on it. I know what you’re thinking. You think you’re so smart and know where this story is going. You think someone talked to me about it.

Wrong!

My hands were in place, my hair tucked behind my ears so as not to cascade onto the page and obscure those wonderful words. I skillfully stuck my fork into my tomatoes, pulling out one small slice. Bringing the fork to my mouth, I gently extracted the tomato from the prongs. As any genteel lady would, I slid the fork between my lips. Never use your teeth, ladies. I took my time because at that moment Cecilia was making a new acquaintance, but who is she? Why am I being introduced to her in such a mysterious way??! I was absorbed, executing the motions with precision. I’d done this several times before. Nothing could go wrong, could it?

Wrong!

As I approached the middle of the right page, I moved my left hand only to find my worst nightmare–salt and allspice mingling with tomato juice. ON THE PAGE! I shoved that fork in my mouth to reach for my napkin. It happened so fast you’d have thought it was an Olympic sport. I dabbed at the page practically swearing under my breath.

And here I am two days later asking myself, “Why couldn’t it have been a YA novel? Anything but a Burney novel.” The only good thing I can take away from this is that it wasn’t one of my own novels. Then again, it would add character, a real life behind who wrote it. Never mind. There’s nothing good that came from this. All that’s left is a stained and wrinkled part of a once pristine page.

See for yourself.

Cecilia stain

 

“What other name may I claim?”: Being Nobody in Frances Burney’s Evelina

evelinaWhile Jane Austen is endearing and always worth reading time and again, Frances Burney puts a smile on my face because she isn’t as well-known, because her books seem to reflect, to an extent, her emotions while writing them, and because she wrote them despite pressure to stop.

Evelina has been a nine-year love affair, and it shows. There is nothing more satisfying than the worn down corners of a book from being shoved into purses and overstuffed backpacks, or the thumb-print sized grease stain that dots the page because you only had enough time to open a small bag of potato chips for dinner. It’s these little things that mark novels as precious to their owner, the signs of wear and tear. My copies of Evelina and Burney’s other novels have these characteristics, and I hope that one day someone else will find them as enjoyable as I do.

** As I cracked open my copy to write this, the smell of the pages carried me away to memories of cobblestone streets, dim coffee shops, and the clanking of spoons against ceramic mugs. I really miss Scotland. **

In some ways, I would suggest that Burney does more for arguing against women’s oppression than, say, Mary Wollstonecraft. Even though she might not have shouted it on the rooftops nor written scathing essays, she still felt it and spoke against it in her own way. I told you that she burned some of her writing because it was impressed upon her from a young age that this was not a field suitable for women, and that feeling continues in her writing. Her female characters are all oppressed in some way or another by the mere fact that they’re women. Granted, you could read anything through any lens you choose. For the sake of this post, let’s imagine we’re reading Evelina from the perspective of an oppressed woman in the 18th century.

Evelina, our heroine, has no name. Her father refused to acknowledge her when she was born and her mother died shortly after. Without a name, she lives a quiet life with her guardian, a man, who, though he wants what’s best for her, still contributes to her silence. She must remain silent, unmoving, so that no one will find out her sad story. It’s not appropriate while the father still refuses to acknowledge her. By some miracle, Mr. Villars (her guardian) agrees to let her stay with a friend in London, where she meets a multitude of people who question her. Who is she? Who is her family? Why does she not know the proper etiquette for dances and social calls in general? Why doesn’t she speak?

She and Mr. Villars keep up a steady correspondence throughout the book, which is how we track Evelina’s progress in society. In signing off one of her first letters to him, she writes, “I am, with the utmost affection, gratitude and duty, Your Evelina—, I cannot to you sign Anville, and what other name may I claim?”Anville is the name they chose for her to use, but it is not her name. It is almost a rearrangement of the letters in her first name. It is nobody in particular. She cannot claim her rightful name, so who is she?

On her first trip to a ball, she made several mistakes that ended up with her saying she was already engaged to dance with a man she had never actually met. Luckily, Lord Orville was gracious enough to pretend it was true. While they were dancing, Orville attempted to make conversation with her, asking her questions about how she liked the country, how she enjoyed London etc. Evelina remarks to Mr. Villars, “I fancied, he has been inquiring who I was. This again disconcerted me […].” Burney, putting emphasis on “who I was,” brings up the necessity of silence on this subject. Evelina is disconcerted by the questions, becoming quiet once again. He probed too far.

Another character remarks to Lord Orville only two pages later, “[…] but really, for a person who is nobody, to give herself such airs,—I own I could not command my passions. For, my Lord, though I have made diligent enquiry—I cannot learn who she is.” A man she just met is already calling her a nobody. While he is referring to her social status, Burney is hinting at something more. She is more than someone without a social status. She is without a name, effectively nobody. This could also refer to how Burney herself felt. She wrote her early journals to “Nobody.” She said:

“To Nobody, then, will I write my Journal! since to Nobody can I be wholly unreserved —to Nobody can I reveal every confidence, every wish of my Heart, with the most unlimited confidence, the most unremitting sincerity to the end of my Life! No secret can I conceal from No-body…From Nobody I have nothing to fear.”

Burney wrote her journal knowing no one but herself would read it. “To Nobody can I be wholly unreserved,” that “Nobody” is Burney. However, she continues on to say, “No secret can I conceal from No-body.” Notice how “Nobody” is now “No-body.” Could she be referring to other people then? If so, you could argue that she means her secrets are not safe. As a woman, it was hard to be a writer and to keep your life private. Jane Austen left a squeak in a door so she would know if someone was coming in order to hide her work. Frances Burney might have felt that same invasion of privacy. For more on Burney’s use of “Nobody,” I cannot recommend Margaret Anne Doody’s Frances Burney: The Life in the Works enough.

Evelina meets her grandmother, a vulgar woman that embarrasses her to no end. A third of the way through the novel, her grandmother makes a proposal to Evelina—to claim her rightful name. She announces at a dinner party that “she had it in her head to make something of [Evelina], and that they should soon call [her] by another name than that of Anville, and yet that she was not going to have the child married, neither.” Evelina is terrified at this news. Claiming her real name from a man who didn’t want to acknowledge it in the first place causes her “great consternation.” She has to excuse herself. Madame Duval wants to improve Evelina’s status in society, to declare what is rightfully hers, turn her from a Nobody into a Somebody. The only way to do this is to give her her real name.

Evelina’s identity relies on a name. She doesn’t have one, at least not one that’s hers for the taking. It won’t be hers until her father lets her have it. She can claim nothing, so she remains silent about herself and her past. Does she claim her real identity? Does she take another instead? You’ll have to read the book to find out. My lips are sealed. I can’t help it. I firmly believe everyone should read Evelina. I’m a huge advocate for 18th-century British literature, especially women writers, so maybe I’m a little biased.

You’re welcome for finally getting around to posting this review! Too bad it took 10 months.

Frances Burney Revisited

Remember that time, 10 months to the day actually, that I posted a biography about Frances Burney and promised you a review in a week or two of her first novel Evelina? I haven’t forgotten about it. But for today, I’ll give you a mini introduction to my reactions when I first read it.

I read Evelina in my Development of the Novel course at St. Andrews. I was rather smitten with my professor at the time so obviously nothing he suggested could be horrible, right? Something about his intelligence and love of 18th-century literature made me swoon slightly. Anyway, it was one of the few novels that semester I managed to finish reading in the week allotted me with all my other work. He was right. I loved it. As I’ve come to find, Burney’s writing is always witty, and Evelina is no exception. Right then and there, I knew I had found one of the literary loves of my life. The rest is history.

For a biography of Burney, refer to this post. Stay tuned for my review of Evelina, appearing Thursday for real this time. I even have 90% of it written!

Forgotten Texts

Rec 1

In what will come as no shock, I love old books—the smell, the feel, the craftsmanship of the binding, everything. During my master’s, I took a module called “Shakespeare’s Sister: Archival Research and the Politics of the Canon.” Guess what I did? I learned about the “process of recovering lost early modern women’s writing” (taken from the syllabus) and the practice of editing such texts. My semester project consisted of finding a text in either the National Library of Scotland or the National Archives (of Scotland, obviously) and creating my own scholarly edition of it. That means I had a lot of choices to make: Which text? How much of it? Literal transcription or adopt it? How do I view the text? What’s my point for choosing it? And above all else, justifying every decision I made. I couldn’t have been happier.

I was in a module with other master’s students from varying fields, including creative writing, American literature, and Book History and Material Culture. I almost applied for the latter, actually. As it happened, the girl from Book History and Material Culture picked the same text as me. You’re all dying to know what the text was, aren’t you? Well it was a recipe book by Anna Balfour from the 17th century. A recipe, in this case, is for home remedies for afflictions such as, “for ane Continuall head-aik” and “for to tak out ye high collour out of wans face.” My personal favorite, though, was “for ane stinking breath” because bad breath was just as much a societal faux pas then as it is now. While I viewed the recipe book as a glimpse into medicine at the time, the other student looked at it as a means of passing down knowledge from one woman to the next. Toward the end of the book, the handwriting changed, presumably to that of the new owner, the daughter.

It was a fascinating glimpse into early modern women’s writing, and not just those that were published but the unknowns, the ones history and the “literary canon” did not see fit to remember. So why don’t we remember now? I choose to remember them, to continue to study the past because looking only to the future doesn’t give us anything to build on. A house needs a solid foundation, so do people. That’s my two cents worth!

To share my passion, I shall show you a couple of her recipes and some comments I had on the title of her book:

As a wife and mother, Anna Balfour was responsible for “running” the everyday activities of the house, including nursing the ill. With this responsibility, it is no surprise that she took it upon herself to gather the most helpful remedies for illnesses and injuries that might have occurred in her family. These receipts must have been important to her; otherwise, she would not have taken the trouble of copying them into a manuscript and creating a “table of contents” with the words “The Book of Receipts Phisicall” at the top. Interestingly, she does not call it “A Book of Receipts Phisicall” but rather “The Book of Receipts Phisicall.” The use of the word “the” as opposed to “a” might indicate that she wrote other books, perhaps one solely for culinary recipes, although that is purely speculative since other such books have not been located.

                                      For ane stinking breath.[i]                                        

Tak a verie good quantitie of rosemarie                            

leaues, and floures, and boyle them in whyte

wyne with a litle Cinamon[ii] and benjamen

beaten togidder in pouder and put yr in                                         

and let ye patient wash his mouth verie                             

often ywith and this will presentlie helpe                         

him. probatum est      

For ane hott thing or St antones fyre.[iii]

Tak ane pottill of smithes water,[iv] ane

handfull of sadge, tuo handfull of

elder trie leaues, or of the grein barck                                           

of ye elder trie, and tuo pennieworth

of alme, tak thes and seith them

altogidder from ane pottill to ane

pynt then tak it & putt it into ane

earthen pott & lett ye patient anoynt                                  

his face yr with, when he goeth to bed

and ye nixt morning he shall find great

ease yr by, but lett him use it for ye space

of fyue or sex dayis, and this will

helpe him by God’s grace.

[i]      Folio 9

[ii]     A line above a word usually denotes a missing letter; in this case, an “n.”

[iii]    Folio 3; modern name is erysipelas, caused by a bacterial infection in the skin, resulting in fever and inflammation (RLAMT)

[iv]    The exact definition was not found, but it is possibly the liquid after soaking metal in water.

And there you have it. A small portion of little known history. Should you want more information or a translation of the recipes into modern day English, let me know! 

The Problem with Adults

Several years ago when Harry Potter was rearing the publication of its third book and the movies were drawing all sorts of wizard and witch wannabes, I read an article about versions with “adult” covers. Businessmen and women alike could read these middle grade novels in public without shame or fear of insult because naturally everyone’s inclination is to mock others for their choice in literature, like they wore horn-rimmed glasses with a huge piece of white tape over the bridge of the nose, and we call them four-eyes (which doesn’t even make sense because having four eyes would mean epic vision, almost on par with a superhero). We’re not in middle school anymore, and juvenile tactics are tacky.

So I ask: why do we need adult book covers for children’s books? Are we really that shallow/vain, whatever? You want to read a children’s book? Then read it. You want to read a romance novel? Read it. You want to read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? Fine, read it. I don’t read books based on what other people will think. I don’t hide the book behind a newspaper or against a table. I don’t flaunt it either. I may have written a character who likes to troll bookstores for a husband and hopes that holding Proust’s tome In Search of Lost Time so the title is in clear view would be like catnip for the intellectual man, but I don’t do it.

I read what I want, when I want. Sometimes a conversation goes like this:

Judgmental Person: “What are you reading?”

Me: “Twilight Robbery.”

J.P.: “It looks like a children’s book.”

Me: “That’s because it is! Hardy har har. It’s really good.”

J.P.: *stares bemused”

Me: *stares back even more bemused because their eyebrows are judging me strongly*

What is wrong with wanting to be swept up in an imaginary world where faeries and goblins exist, or where squirrels talk and people steal clocks that changes time forever? Nothing. If you want to go biblical, there are several verses that tell us to have “faith like a child.” Now, you may not be religious or believe in God, but I say that if it’s good enough for God, it’s good enough for me. My views on children and the imagination are an entire blog post of their own. I’ll leave you with this: For the love of every author, JUST READ.

I need you!

The big red button is my novel. LIFT IT OFF ME!

Calling all readers, writers, and anyone who likes to give recommendations. Normally, I don’t do this sort of thing because I usually know what I want to read, but I’m stuck. I have plenty of books I want to read, but I’m stuck in my writing. This is where you come in. One of my YA novels involves a mystery. I don’t know how to write it. It’s been bothering me for months. I’ve left it on the wayside for so long, I’ve forgotten what I’ve written and will have to reread the 15,000-some words.

Since mysteries are a mystery to me (haha…?), I’d like to take to the bookshelves and read some novels from this elusive genre. Reading and dissecting are good ways to learn how something is done. If nothing else, it’ll at least make me feel less like a fool when I try to write it. Maybe I’ll even write something! So if you have any suggestions (adult, YA, MG, whatever), please leave them in the comments or email me. If you don’t, that’s fine. I’ll scour the internet instead! I am extremely determined to finish this book by October because it’s been sitting too long, and my ego is now in the pit of despair with Westley.

(My review of Burney’s Evelina is coming. I promise! I’m attempting to make it a pleasurable reading experience and not simply a dissertation on woman as nobody. Unless you’re into that sort of thing, you’ll thank me later.)