Lost in Austin Austen*

Saturday, 6 September 2008

In all things WordPress, I bow to Allyn Gibson. If my own ability to put a site’s design together falls over, I will whimper at him until he helps out. So, given his posts about the joys of upgrading wp, I naturally approached my first live upgrade with some trepidation. It took less than five minutes. So that’s another time-wasting plan foiled. Only a few days left till I submit the novella, so I need some rocket fuel today.

I’m thinking about writing a review of Lost in Austen for shiny shelf, but I suspect my current editor – who also writes for t’shelf – might spot that. My emailed rant, the morning after, runs something like:

Someone suggested that watching Lost in Austen on ITV1 was a Bridget Jonesy thing that would count as research. It was not and does not. It takes the amusing conceit of The Eyre Affair and stamps on it until it becomes that Austen spoof episode of Red Dwarf but with less jokes. It demonstrates the depths Alex Kingston‘s career has reached. It doesn’t cut back to Lizzie Bennent on a binge-drinking session whilst watched a DVD of Colin Firth. And it has a Darcy about whom the only comment [big magpie] could produce was “he needs to brush his hair”.

Sorry, I can’t believe I wasted an hour on such drivel and I’d like to vent. The best thing about it was the advert for Paignton Zoo in the middle.

Naturally, any actual review will be more measured, and point out that, actually, Alex Kingston does a good job on playing this revisionist version of Mrs Bennett, and that Hugh Bonneville was a very good Mr Bennett. It might mention Lost in Austen not only in the context of The Eyre Affair but also the long tradition of Pride and Prejudice professional fanfic such as Pemberley or Pride and Promiscuity.  None the less, the tv series is lazy and presumes the central conceit will carry the viewer over the lack of convincing dialogue or original characters. Unlike Sam in Life on Mars (a series Lost in Austen is drawing much comparison to), there is zero empathy towards the contemporary character stranded in this strange world.

*I’m not the only one to think a comedy of errors in the style of the early Coen brothers and called Lost in Austin would be better, right?

30 Books Meme

Tuesday, 7 March 2006

via various:

The Museum, Libraries and Arts Council’s list of 30 Books Every Adult Should Have Read.
Bold the ones you have read.
Italicize the ones you would like to read.
Strike out the ones you never plan to read, or started but couldn’t finish.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

The Bible
I had enough of it in school, ta very much. A useful resource, more easily navigated via online searching and commentaries. And why is this included but no other sacred texts? No Koran? No Sikh scripture? No Vedas?

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
by JRR Tolkien.
Out of a sense of duty. It was widely known to be The Classic Fantasy/Hippy novel, so I read it because I thought I should. I far prefer the Hobbit which covers the majority of the same themes but without all the waffle. Or the Ents.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.
Just a few times.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
Yes, but not twice. I only like A Tale of Two Cities, a novel which Dickens’s fans always tell me is atypical. I love his work in adaptation, but I simply don’t enjoy reading his prose.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
Reader, I read it a few times.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
See all my previous rambles about Jane Austen.

All Quite on the Western Front by E M Remarque.

His Dark Materials
Trilogy by Phillip Pullman.
I felt the last book dragged rather compared to the first two, and I can see why it provokes lots of discussion about plot flaws, theolgical flaws etc etc but I would rather a child read this and those dubious Narnia books than Harry Potter since at least Pullman and Lewis can write imaginatively and originally.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks.
I recently read Charlotte Grey which is the third in Faulks’s war triptych. Whilst I enjoyed it I was ultimately left rather cold by it, so I doubt I’ll bother with other work by him.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.
I have this memory of doing it at school, despite recalling nothing of it. Then again, given some of my other school texts and how keen I was to forget them, this should not be surprising. One for the reread pile, maybe?

The Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
by Mark Haddon.
Yes. I could have sworn I wrote about it, but apparently not. There’s a short note on my del.icio.us kidlit tag about it, which reveals I read it in December 2004. That’s when I wasn’t blogging here due to writing my own stuff.

Tess of the D’urbevilles by Thomas Hardy
See ‘Hardy, T. Why I Don’t Like His Work’.

Winnie the Pooh
by AA Milne.
And The House at Pooh Corner, which is better on account of having Tigger.

Wuthering Heights
by Emily Bronte.
Read the book, sang the song, sniggered at the semaphore.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham.
There was a subcatagory of children’s fiction I never liked and that was anthropomorphic stuff. I never read Beatrix Potter as a little girl, or this, or anything else. Winnie the Pooh is different because we all know Pooh, Piglet, Tigger and Eeyore were anthropomorphic toys. Animals were…animals. They didn’t wear little blue jackets or drive motor cars.

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
After all, tomorrow is another day in which I could read a long epitaph to a dubious past. I’m always torn about Gone With the Wind: it romances the Deep South, which is something I find rather distasteful, but I’m a sucker for a Beatrix/Benedict romance and Scarlet/Rhett have got it by the wagonload. Even better, in the book she ends up with a whole passel of brats.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
See Christmas Carol.

The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
See my comments.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.
Already on the TBR pile.

The Prophet by Khalil Gibran.
Don’t know it.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.
3 Dickens novels out of 30? Are the compilers of this list sadists? Surely there are more interesting and diverse options than bloody Dickens?

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.
already on the TBR pile.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel.
already on the TBR pile.

Middlemarch by George Eliot.
Tried. Hated.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.
Don’t know it.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.
I was a Freaks & Geeks kinda teen. So as I skulked around the corridors of my school, with my pierced ears, and lace ribbons and liquid eyeliner, one of my badges of freakery geekery was my copy of this, always visible in a pocket or my bag. I love novels with constructed languages like this, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Riddley Walker. Also, the film was illegal in the UK at the time, so having the book was like saying “hey, I’m rebellious and literate!”.

A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzenhitsyn.
already on the TBR pile.


So I’ve read thirteen out of the thirty, plan to read eight more, don’t know two and have no plans to read the other seven. Of those seven, six I’m rejecting due to previous experience of either the book (the Bible, Middlemarch) or the authors (Dickens, Faulks) or both (Great Expectations, Tess). The remaining one is rejected on the grounds that, having avoided it as a child, I’m not convinced I would like it as an adult. Also, frogs don’t drive cars.

Obviously, these lists exist more to bring in some handy publicity to some organisation who wants to get a few chattering heads going in culture vulture circles but that British librarians think Gone With the Wind is a more important book to read before you die than, say, any non-Christian religious text makes me wonder about other choices. When a librarian is picking some books to put in the display racks – the ‘quick reads’, or ‘we recommend’ or ‘classics’ displays designed to make choosing a book in a library faster – what preconceptions are they bringing about their users? The Bible should be read, but not the Vedas? If the books on this shortlist end up being displayed in libraries across the UK as part of the promotion what message do they give about libraries? The classic Dead White Males are there, white chicks write romances, we’re still not over WW1 and we like our Russians (more Dead White Males, you notice) to be repressed.

I’m not sure whether to be pleased or annoyed that I have read over a third of these and intend to have read two-thirds before I die.

book meme

Thursday, 8 September 2005

Annie from Going Underground has tagged me with the book virus currently doing the interweb rounds. So…

1. Number of books I own
1000+. There’s about 500 Doctor Who books alone, but even if you discount them I’d still say over a thousand. If people can actually answer this with a figure then I suspect they need to read more. Or are very good users of the local library.

2. Last book I bought
bookshop: The Palace Tiger by Barbara Clevery and The Silver Pigs by..er…it says over in the left ‘to be read’ column.
charity shop: Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L Sayers and Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Copeland.

3. Last book I completed
Busman’s Honeymoon. I was in the nmood for some light crime. This book did have the unintentional side-effect of reminding me to book my chimney sweep before the month is out. Before that, it was The Palace Tiger – more light crime. I like the idea of a ‘golden era’ pastiche series set in Raj India and it was enjoyable so I may try another to see if the series is worth reading. And I’m about three chapters from the end of The Secrets of the Jin-Shei which is a curious one.

4. Five books that mean a lot to me
Eep. Can I nominate myself? Very well, in no particular order:

  • The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
    Light and subtle, yet heart-capturingly sensual. From the light playing on the icy canals to the brush of vermillion on her apron and the heat rising from the markets, this novel slips into the brain and stays there, hauntingly.
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick
    Really, I should say “almost anything by PKD” but if there is one which captures my favourite elements of his work, it’s this one. A writer in a present-day (i.e. 60s) America – where Japan occupies the West Coast and the Nazis occupy the East Coast – begins to wonder if the reality he lives in is real. Maybe there’s another universe out there? One in which the Allies won the war? It combines the normal reality-shift narrative with the alt-history genre and was written when PKD was going through a more self-disciplined phase.
  • Warring States by Mags L Halliday
    I feel rather daft putting this here, but it is a book which means a lot to me. It’s the first thing I’ve written where I struggled to let go at the end and where the narrative and characters are personal to me. There were also massive personal crisises during the years I was working on it but I just couldn’t let it go. So it does mean a lot. It just looks terribly self-reflective of me to choose it.
  • Persuasion by Jane Austen
    Back when I moved school, aged 13, I had a conversation with my new English teacher. He – and it was an old-fashioned type in a tweed jacket – was dismayed to learn my free time reading was filled with Raymond Chandler and SF. He gave me a copy of Persuasion and told me to read it. I got as far as the end of page 1. It was alien to me: not just the world it contained or the language but the narrative. Many years later, after studying Pride & Prejudice at college – and this was in the pre-Firth P&P era – I found I quite liked Austen after all. Many years after that, I finally dared approach Persuasion again, though old memories of that opening page made me wary. I loved it. I think books that mean something may not be the best literature, or the best work by an author, but the ones that come with personal history wreathed around them. Persuasion is about being given a second chance to love, so it seems appropriate that I gave it a second chance.
  • Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier
    Gods, I’m just picking romances…This is a book in which it is the actual copy I own which means a lot, rather than the story itself. My copy was published in 1947 on the flimsiest of post-war paper and bound with purple cloth-covered card. Over the decades, the cloth has faded with the sun and the spine is worn thin. This is my mother’s copy and has travelled halfway around the world and back. When I left home, she gave it to me.
    Plus it has Cornish wreckers, a villainous vicar and a gypsy hero. What more escapist nonsense could you want?

5. Who shall I tag next?
Ladylark because she is smart, Kalima because she knows sexy prose, Badly Dubbed Boy because I’m curious, Paul From the Orient because he is clever (and because he has a book blog like mine…).

Universally Acknowledged Truths

Tuesday, 10 May 2005

Pemberley: Or Pride And Prejudice Continued
by Emma Tennant

It is a truth universally acknowlegded that all Pride & Prejudice pastishes, spoofs or reviews must be in want of an opening line which mimics the opening line of P&P. Right, that’s that over with.

I’m pro-fanfic. My Microcon talk a couple of years back was on the history of forms of fanfiction and the idea that, once a story is ‘out there’ a sign of its universality is if becomes reworked, rewritten and generally posessed by the audience. You can argue that the myth cycles (Arthur, Norse, Indian) etc are such stories: they capture your imagination to such an extent that you want more about the characters and situation. It is only in the industrial age that the notion of copyright, and the related idea of idea theft, comes into its own (I could disgress here about the commercialisation of the printed word but this isn’t the review for that). There’s notions of ‘canon’ and ‘fanon’ etc etc. It’s a fun world of shifting ownership of ideas.

Pride and Prejudice (1813) is one of the first novels to gain a fan following, way before Dickens was packing them into the theatres or queues were forming outside the Strand magazine for the next Holmes installment[1]. P&P echoes through English culture: Gaskell’s North & South (185?) suggests the Mancunian novelist was utterly smitten by Elizabeth and Darcy’s sparky romance whilst Bridget Jones’ Diary reworks it as a modern chicklit novel. Obviously Lizzy & Darcy are not unsimilar to earlier romances (Beatrix and Benedict spring obviously to mind[2]) but they are the ur-romance of the last two centuries. Women still fall for Darcy.

Which is where Pemberley, Or Pride & Prejudice Continued comes in. Austen herself continued to consider her heroines’ lives but she had no knowledge of the intimacies of marriage. Indeed, there’s an argument that we never see happily married couples in Austen (Mr & Mrs Bennett being the most extreme example but Maria and Mr Collins is clearly only a sanguine relationship due to Maria’s diligence in avoiding her husband’s company). Tennant picks up the story of Lizzy Bennett a year into her marriage to Mr Darcy and, as one might expect, things are not perfect in this ‘happy ever after’.

Tennant, as far as I can tell from having read about half of The Bad Sister, writes about the interior lives of women and Pemberley, naturally, focuses on Elizabeth’s reaction to her new life. Jane is married to Bingley and about to produce a second child. Lydia has a whole passel of brats with Wickham. Mr Bennent has been summarily despatched to the great beyond and Mrs Bennent is concerned to secure a future for her two as-yet unmarried daughters, bookish Mary and impressionable Kitty. Elizabeth has yet to have a child and Lady de Burgh is preparing to ship in a distant cousin to take over should no heir arrive. And it’s going to be a family Christmas at Pemberley.

As with P&P, the differences between exterior and interior life – both mental and physical – are played with: the extended families go on a shooting party to the Yorkshire moors and Lizzy chided for wandering about the countryside. Confusions abound, causing Lizzy and Darcy to seperate. One major element is Lizzy’s belief that Darcy has had a child with “the Frenchwoman” who has now died. Combined with the Yorkshire moors and Lizzy’s running off to become a governess there are moments where this seems to be borrowing as heavily from Jane Eyre as from P&P (I must get around to Wide Sargasso Sea).

This could be a great sequel but for one key element: I didn’t find Tennant’s authorical voice convincing enough. We’ll slide over the fact she gives Mrs Bennent a narrative point-of-view (unlike the almost entirely Lizzy-based narrative of P&P) because really it’s the lack of a wickedly sly authorical voice which meant the novella left me cold. A Lizzy who lacks her spark is not terribly interesting, and Darcy’s absence makes this into a rather lacklustre sequel. Obviously, some of the point is to show the banality and new worries and fears of an older woman who is now married into social and familial responsibilies but it doesn’t put any relish into the authorial commentary on Lizzie’s behaviour.

Having been searching for this book for a while, as it helps me move into a more literary discussion of the story-reclaiming urge, I was pleased to find it in a charity shop. Having read it I’m vaguely disappointed that it does not make me want to believe it is ‘canon’.

[1] Although the Doctor’s “I’m your biggest fan!” scene with Dickens in the new Who made me roar with delight.

[2] “I do love nothing in the world so much as you, is that not strange?” Benedict remarks – a sentiment Darcy shares with his “I have struggled against my reason…” proposal.

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