Shakespeare Basics for Grown-Ups: Everything You Need to Know About the Bard, by E. Foley and B. Coates – A Review

Shakespear Basics for Gown Ups, by E Foley and B. Coates 2015 x 200From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP:

“We [the authors] don’t claim to be Shakespeare scholars; we are ordinary readers who were curious to learn more about our greatest national poet, and we became passionate about passing on the most interesting facts we discovered. The aim of this book is to give a solid understanding of Shakespeare’s genius and to arm you with the tools you need to enjoy him with confidence and insight” (2).

So begin Foley and Coates, two British book editors and authors of Homework for Grown-Ups (2009). In this new book, the duo takes on the daunting task of presenting a survey course on Shakespeare for adults in just 326 pages. But this is not your typical “For Dummies” book with a blue-million timelines, illustrations, and text boxes interrupting every other line and making it nearly impossible to focus and remember; instead, this book is a well-crafted teaching tool for those wanting a basic, but detailed, education on Shakespeare. This includes what one might expect: reviews of Shakespeare’s life, background information about Renaissance theatres, and summaries of Shakespeare’s major plays; but the book also boasts several unique features, which I will discuss below. Suffice it to say that, as an English teacher, I learned a great deal from this book and intend to use several selections from it in my lessons next school year.

The first chapter is all about Shakespeare’s identity. How well does anyone really know the most famous British writer of all time? The authors’ first order of business is to remind readers that there is actual evidence that a man named William Shakespeare did in fact exist. “There is a record of his baptism at Holy Trinity Church in the market town of Stratford-upon-Avon on April 26, 1564…” (13). We know that he married Anne Hathaway in 1582, and that he was a rather successful businessman by the 1590s (14-15). That’s not to say that Foley and Coates skirt the conspiracy theories; in fact, they conclude the first chapter with a chart of all the major theories of authorship, beginning with those centered on Shakespeare himself, then moving into the other suspected authors: Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere (Earl of Oxford), Christopher Marlowe, and Queen Elizabeth I (36-41). Given its concise formatting, this chart is the perfect tool for group discussion or classroom instruction. Continue reading

The Hidden Jane Austen, by John Wiltshire—A Review

The Hidden Jane Austen, by John Wiltshire (2014 )From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP: 

What is it about Pride and Prejudice or Mansfield Park or any other of Jane Austen’s novels that draws readers in and then keeps them coming back again and again, even though they already know what is going to happen? In The Hidden Jane Austen, Australian Austen scholar John Wiltshire argues that the answer to this question lies in two related features of the novels. Firstly, Austen displays a keen comprehension of human behavior in all its complicated, messy manifestations—in particular, the way that humans misinterpret or misremember events in their efforts to build identities, establish and maintain relationships, and find a place in community. Secondly, Austen crafts her narratives with these human behaviors in mind, making them central elements not only to characterization, but also to plot structure. But she does this in such a way that requires her readers to “keep up”—meaning they have to be attentive not only to what is on the page at hand, but to what was on all the other pages before, and even to what wasn’t on any page at all, the silences that are provoking in their ambiguity. For it is in the unspoken that readers find the “hidden” Elizabeth or Fanny or, indeed, the “hidden Jane Austen” herself, the master writer relying on readers to pay attention.

To illustrate his thesis, Wiltshire conducts a psychoanalytic study for each of the six major novels, which basically means he tries to uncover the underlying motivations for character behavior. His angle for Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice is memory and attentiveness. Why, for example, does Catherine Morland forget John Thorpe’s clumsy marriage proposal hint, but internalize all too thoroughly Henry Tilney’s playful ghost stories? Simple, she was in love with Henry, not John (18). This same principle of memory is explored more deeply in Pride and Prejudice, a novel whose intelligent heroine somehow misinterprets and misremembers all too frequently. But Darcy is guilty of this too, although he is kinder to Elizabeth than she is to him (64). Wiltshire argues that it’s Austen’s memory games that make these two playful novels so pleasing to readers and re-readers—especially to those interested in finding out how they too were so easily mislead. Continue reading

Shamela (Naxos AudioBooks) , by Henry Fielding, read by Clare Corbett  – A Review

Shamela, by Henry Fielding Naxos AudioBooks (2013)From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP:

“In my last [letter] I left off at our sitting down to Supper on our Wedding Night, where I behaved with as much Bashfulness as the purest Virgin in the World could have done. The most difficult Task for me was to blush; however, by holding my Breath, and squeezing my Cheeks with my Handkerchief, I did pretty well” (297).

Reading Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela, Or, Virtue Rewarded, as I recounted in my previous review of it, is not for the faint of heart; but I am happy to say that it was all made worthwhile just this past week as I listened to a Naxos AudioBooks recording of Henry Fielding’s masterful parody fittingly entitled Shamela. Many know Fielding for Tom Jones, but his satirical powers are at full and outrageous height in Shamela. In a quarter of the number of pages found in the original story, Fielding highlights and lampoons all of Richardson’s characteristic tropes, transforming Miss Pamela Andrews from a paragon of female virtue into an archetypical scheming hussy. The great irony is that, as shamefully vicious as Shamela maybe, she is a great deal more fun to listen to than her saintly prototype. Continue reading

Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (Naxos AudioBooks), by Samuel Richardson, read by Clare Corbett – A Review

Pamela, by Samuel Richardson, Naxos AudioBooks (2013)From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP:

Her knowledge of Richardson’s works was such as no one is likely again to acquire, now that the multitude and the merits of our light literature have called off the attention of readers from that great master.” – J.E. Austen-Leigh, Memoir of Jane Austen, ch. 5

Listed among Jane Austen’s most beloved authors is the rebellious printer-turned-novelist Samuel Richardson, creator of such potboilers as Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740). The novel opens at the death of Pamela Andrew’s employer, the woman who has educated her to be as accomplished as any young woman could hope to be, by eighteenth century standards. And from there commences a rather strange and disturbing plot in which Pamela must fend off the unwanted advances of her new male employer—and I’m not simply talking about sexual harassment, which would have been bad enough; I’m talking about outright attempted rape. Indeed, the main dramatic question of the novel is whether Pamela will forfeit her honor (read “her virginity”) for the sake of wealth and safety, or will she display a heroic level of Christian virtue, and risk the possibility of public disgrace. Spoiler Alert: the novel’s subtitle gives the answer away from the start. Continue reading

Living with Shakespeare: Essays by Writers, Actors, and Directors, edited by Susannah Carson – A Review

Living with Shakespeare, edited by Susannah Carson (2013)From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP:

Is there, as an English teacher, anything more intimidating and yet thrilling than teaching Shakespeare? He is, after all, the one author whose works are thought essential to a “good education.” But having just finished a three week unit on Macbeth, I am confident only that I have invited my students to the conversation about Shakespeare’s greatness; I’ve yet to really convert them. In Living with Shakespeare, Susannah Carson–who previously compiled the excellent essay collection in praise of Jane Austen entitled A Truth Universally Acknowledged–brings the conversation about Shakespeare to a whole new level by presenting over forty extraordinary voices in dialogue about their connections to Shakespeare. Carson writes “I’ve attempted to bring together as many perspectives as possible, not in order to be exhaustive–but to celebrate the many different approaches to appreciating Shakespeare that there are possible” (xvii). To that end, there are actors and directors, writers and professors, united in a chorus of myriad accents all acclaiming the undisputed genius of the Bard.

Not surprisingly, some may find reading Living with Shakespeare to be as intimidating as studying the plays themselves. However, although many of the essays are heavyweight academic or professional reflections, there are others that are much more accessible to the general reader, including those readers who are more interested in learning what their favorite graphic novelist (say Matt Sturges) or their favorite film star (say James Franco) has to say about his relationship to Shakespeare than they are about discovering the glories of the dramatic masterpieces themselves. Accordingly, I think this volume equally suitable for the well-stocked library as the classroom or college library. Continue reading

A Fatal Likeness: A Novel, by Lynn Shepherd – A Review

A Fatal Likeness, by Lynn Shepherd 2013 From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP

The Young Romantics have inspired hundreds of books, plays, and films over the last two centuries, and there have been many accounts of that famous summer they spent together on Lake Geneva in 1816, when Frankenstein was conceived. But all the same there remain many inexplicable gaps and strange silences…A Fatal Likeness is an attempt to weave a new story between those gaps, and create a narrative to connect those silences” (from the Author’s Note).

For fans of Jane Austen’s virtue-oriented, Christian novels to appreciate how very odd and outrageous some of her contemporaries really were might be as easy as looking at the bevy of bad boys and girls she features in each of her novels. Think of Henry and Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, George Wickham and Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Captain Tilney and Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey. These wild youths desperate to break free bear a striking (if superficial) resemblance to some of the most liberally minded literary stars of the late Regency Period–philosophers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, their novelist daughter Mary Shelley, her poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his fellow poet and friend Lord Byron. Certainly, it was an exciting age of revolution, but every revolution comes with a heavy price. For this circle of geniuses, the price was one untimely death or devastating heartbreak  after another. But why? Continue reading

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, by Paula Byrne – A Review

Image of the book cover of The Real Jane Austen, by Paula Byrne © 2013 HarperCollins From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP

“This book is something different and more experimental. Rather than rehearsing all the known facts, this biography focuses on a variety of key moments, scenes and objects in both the life and work of Jane Austen…In addition, this biography follows the lead of Frank Austen rather than Henry. It suggests that, like nearly all novelists, Jane Austen created her characters by mixing observation and imagination” (6-7).

I was very excited to be asked to review Paula Byrne’s new biography on Jane Austen. Not only is it the first rigorous biography on Austen to appear in print since Claire Tomalin and David Nokes both published their works in 1997 (both entitled Jane Austen: A Life), but it is also an example of a refreshingly different approach to biographical presentation. Like the famous British hermit and art critic, Sister Wendy, Byrne begins each chapter with an image and a short commentary which then serve as gateways into the central details about Austen’s life that she wishes to highlight. This allows her to avoid the expected plodding pace of a chronology so that she can then linger over the events, relationships, or ideas that she finds most compelling. And, as one might hope, Byrne’s fresh analysis extends to Austen’s oeuvre.

Fine. But were there any surprises, any moments when I felt like I was getting a glimpse into Austen’s life, personality, genius? I am glad to say there were many moments like this. For example, I so enjoyed chapter three in which Byrne contradicts the common opinion that Austen’s major influences were male writers like Richardson and Fielding, positing that, in fact, she more admired female novelists who were taking risks with their novels, like Burney and Edgeworth who “led [her] to see that the novel could be a medium for showing how seven years, or seventeen, were enough to change every pore of one’s skin and every feeling of one’s mind.” (88). Similarly, I enjoyed chapter five, which reexamines the relationship dynamic between Jane and Cassandra. How charming it is to contemplate Austen embracing the role of the younger sister, viewing Cassandra as her primary confidante and someone with whom she could be catty and silly (98). Perhaps more interesting is Byrne’s theory that Cassandra was the greater romantic of the two, meaning the traditions that she passed on about her younger sister, particularly those regarding Austen’s romances, may more reflect her own regrets rather than Jane’s (103). Continue reading

Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity, by Janine Barchas – A Review

Matters of Fact in Jane Austen, by Janine Barchas (2012)From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP

“I aim to resituate her work nearer to the stout historical novels of her contemporary Sir Walter Scott, or even the encyclopedic reach of modernist James Joyce, than to the narrow domestic and biographical readings that still characterize much of Austen studies” (Barchas, 1).

In Matters of Fact in Jane Austen, Janine Barchas sets out to illuminate Austen’s works by performing a type of literary archeological dig on them, sifting through details that often go unremarked to show how rich in facts the novels actually are. In so doing, she hopes to reveal that Austen is an even craftier and more skillful artist than most give her credit for being. The comparison to Scott quoted above, for example, is carefully chosen since Austen weaves much more English history into her novels than is often appreciated. And like Joyce, there is reason to believe that she “mapped” out her stories, taking care not just for accuracy’s sake, but for the sake of the joke she’s setting up for the knowing reader. Since Barchas’ task is a rather grand one, she limits her scope to Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion, with treatment of shorter works like Lady Susan and Evelyn, as well.  This means she all but leaves out three of Austen’s most celebrated works—Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Mansfield Park—but she admits that her goal was to begin a project, not to complete it.

One basic starting point for Matters of Fact is to show that much of Austen’s ideas for character names came from either dramatic skeletons in the closets of noble families connected with her own or the celebrity scandals hitting the front page of the newspapers of her day, be it the Wentworth/Vernon family dispute over ownership of a castle (echoed in Lady Susan), the doomed romances of Lady Mary Anne Dashwood (reimagined in Sense and Sensibility), or the death of the name of the generous Croft family (gently alluded to in Persuasion). Indeed, given Barchas’ wide survey of Austen’s Regency context throughout the book, I suspect there is something here for every Austen fan, whether scholar or simply voracious reader. Those underwhelmed by the tame chapter on the celebrated landscaper, Mr. Evelyn, may be delighted by the shocking chapter on the rather perverse real-life Dashwoods of West Wycombe and the pious Catholic Ferrers family with which they are juxtaposed.

My own two favorite chapters were those that examined Northanger Abbey. In the first, Barchas examines Austen’s use of the surname “Allen” for the guardians of the heroine. For “Ralph Allen, postal entrepreneur, philanthropist, former mayor, stone mogul, and builder of Prior Park, with its renowned landscape garden, had arguably been Bath’s most famous historical personage” (57). While this may seem like a mere bit of trivia, it becomes key to the novel’s irony if one buys into Barchas’ argument that much of General Tilney’s excitement over Catherine and her prospective wealth comes from the association of Mr. and Mrs. Allen of Fullerton with the celebrated Allens of Bath (59). Indeed, Barchas shows that the scene in which Catherine rides out with John Thorpe revolves around the real Mr. Allen, for the change in destination from Landsdown Hill to Claverton Down would have, in real-life, led “them straight to the gates of [Ralph Allen’s] Prior Park”, and believing so “It is in direct sight of the Prior Park gates that Thorpe first speaks about ‘Old Allen’ and his money” (67-68).

In the second chapter on Northanger Abbey, Barchas moves on to explore how Catherine’s  perceived dangers at the Tilney estate are far from being mere farce. After all, there was a real castle the same distance from Bath built from the ruins of a former Catholic abbey that had its history of unhappy marriages and murdered spouses. Indeed, “Given the popularity of Farleigh Hungerford Castle as a tourist site near Bath, Austen likely visited the ruined castle in person” (94). Even Austen’s mention of modern stoves may be a dark reference to the stoves at Farleigh Castle that were used to cover up a murder (101). Thus, while readers may want to scold Catherine right along with Henry for some of her wild conjectures, the joke is actually supposed to be on Henry, for true knowledge of English history makes it very clear that the kind of diabolic behavior Catherine imagines  happened at Northanger Abbey was no more foreign to Protestant  England (as Henry argues it was) than it was to Catholic Spain or France or Italy (103).  These details  serve to support Barchas’ theory that “Rather than a botched fusion of disparate styles, Northanger Abbey, is a one-two punch at the use of history, near and far, in the modern novel” (93-94). In this way, she does much to redeem the novel’s underrated sophistication.

Unfortunately, despite Barchas’ impressive scholarship and excellent writing style, I found myself asking that nagging question at the book’s end: So what? The people and places she mentions, though important in Georgian England and of interest to Austen, have mostly been forgotten by popular history, and for good reason. To argue otherwise would be like our expecting in another two-hundred years that people will care who Honey Boo Boo or Donald Trump were, or that they will be enthralled by the insipid family scandals of the Real Housewives of New Jersey. On the contrary, the best a tabloid tidbit is worth is its five minutes of fame. Accordingly, much of the facts underlying Austen’s works that Barchas brings to light, whether the Wikipedia-worthy items or the “juicier” bits about murders and sex clubs, are doomed to be much less impressive than Austen’s artistic use of them. But then Barchas might not argue with me on that. After all, she only sought to illustrate that there was something tangible beneath what I might otherwise have assumed was pure creative genius. And that she did.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity, by Janine Barchas
Johns Hopkins University Press (2012)
Hardcover (336) pages
ISBN: 978-1421406404

© 2013 Br. Paul Byrd, OP, Austenprose