“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?

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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.

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Forgotten Texts

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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.)