A Jane Austen Christmas: Regency Christmas Traditions, by Maria Grace – Preview & Exclusive Excerpt

Regeny Christmas by Maria Grace 2014 x 200Austenesque author Maria Grace has written five Regency-era novels inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, notably the Given Good Principles series and Remember the Past: …only as it gives you pleasure. Writing period accurate novels requires extensive research, so it seems only logical that Maria should turn her hand to nonfiction. Her latest book, A Jane Austen Christmas, focuses on Regency-era holiday traditions. Here is a preview and exclusive excerpt for your enjoyment.   

PREVIEW (from the publisher’s description) 

Many Christmas traditions and images of ‘old fashioned’ holidays are based on Victorian celebrations. Going back just a little further, to the beginning of the 19th century, the holiday Jane Austen knew would have looked distinctly odd to modern sensibilities.

How odd? Families rarely decorated Christmas trees. Festivities centered on socializing instead of gift-giving. Festivities focused on adults, with children largely consigned to the nursery.  Holiday events, including balls, parties, dinners, and even weddings celebrations, started a week before Advent and extended all the way through to Twelfth Night in January.

Take a step into history with Maria Grace as she explores the traditions, celebrations, games and foods that made up Christmastide in Jane Austen’s era. Packed with information and rich with detail from period authors, Maria Grace transports the reader to a longed-for old fashioned Christmas.  

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The Jane Austen Rules: A Classic Guide to Modern Love, by Sinead Murphy – A Review

The Jane Austen Rules by Sinead Murphy 2014 x 200From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

When author Sinead Murphy chose to title her guide to modern dating The Jane Austen Rules it was guaranteed to generate a certain amount of controversy. In the mid-1990s, a dating guide titled The Rules became famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for imparting to women “a myriad of tricks and schemes” (14) for finding Mr. Right.

Does Murphy seek to replace one set of arbitrary opinions with another, using Jane Austen’s name as a marketing ploy? Happily Ms. Murphy has not taken this approach. Rather than a narrowly focused “how-to” for dating, she takes readers through the novels of Jane Austen, examining the women and men Austen created and the way their character informs their actions, whether in the pursuit of love or in making other important life decisions.

As such this is not really a dating guide at all; its scope is much wider. In the introduction titled “The Real Thing” Murphy proposes that modern dating guides have a Regency ancestor in the conduct book, full of dos and don’ts for women wishing to succeed in society:

…the Regency conduct book tended to judge a woman by how she conducts herself–that is, by how she acts, by how she seems. The novel, by contrast, was concerned with what women are really like, admitting—perhaps for the very first time—that women too have a fulsome interior life, with thoughts and feelings that are as crucial to get right as the actions that follow from them…And Jane Austen was at the forefront of it all, presenting to the Regency world a host of real women—so determined to do so, indeed, that she invented her very own narrative style, which gives the reader almost unrestricted access to the internal life of her female characters. (4)

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Jane Austen’s Worthing: The Real Sanditon, by Antony Edmonds – A Review

Jane Austen's Worthing, by Antony Edmonds 2014From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

Jane Austen sequels thrive on what ifs. What if Darcy’s first proposal had been delivered in a more gentlemanly manner? What if Willoughby had decided to marry for love instead of money? Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, Sanditon, is a different kind of literary “what if” for her fans. The eleven chapters Austen penned in early 1817 introduce readers to a fictional seaside resort with as promising a set of characters as any of her other novels. As Antony Edmonds notes in the introduction to Jane Austen’s Worthing: The Real Sanditon:

“In spite of the fact that during its composition she was suffering from the painful and debilitating illness that killed her, there is little evidence of any diminution of her powers, and had the book been finished it is likely that it would have been the equal of her six famous novels.” (10)

While other authors have taken up the challenge of completing the unfinished story, Edmonds, a researcher and writer who has published numerous articles about the seaside town of Worthing and its literary associations, reveals the parallels between Jane Austen’s fictional town and the real one on the Sussex coast in England that she visited in 1805. As Edmonds explains, researchers have only recently known for certain that Jane Austen visited Worthing. Her letters mention the possibility of a visit, but no further reference is made of the trip. Confirmation of the visit was found in the diaries and letters of Jane Austen’s niece Fanny Knight. Jane Austen’s Worthing includes excerpts from these documents as well as seventy-five illustrations and maps that provide a detailed view of life in Regency Worthing. 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

Jane Austen, Game Theorist, by Michael Suk-Young Chwe – A Review

Jane Austen Game Theroist Michael Chwe 2013 x 200From the desk of Lisa Galek:

According to Wikipedia, game theory is “the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent, rational decision-makers.” So, what the heck does that have to do with Jane Austen and her novels? A lot, as it turns out. In Jane Austen, Game Theorist, we explore how Austen’s works tie into contemporary theories about strategic decision-making nearly two hundred years before they came into fashion.

The book doesn’t presuppose any familiarity with game theory. This was a very good thing, as I knew next to nothing about this branch of the social sciences before picking up the book. Really, the simplest way to explain game theory is to say that it’s the study of how people make strategic decisions. Most people will make a decision based on what they would like to do. In other words, they make a personal choice. But, a good strategic thinker will also consider what others might do in turn. Basically, when choosing, you also consider how others will act.

Let’s look at an example from Pride and Prejudice to illustrate the point. Mr. Darcy agonizes over whether or not to marry Elizabeth Bennet, a woman who he is slowly falling in love with despite his best efforts to resist her charms and fine eyes. A choice like this can be represented visually through a decision tree. Mr. Darcy’s would look something like this:

Jane Austen Game Theorist image 1 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.

Indeed, if you bought this book for Dame Harriet Walter’s essay “Two Loves, or the Eternal Triangle” alone, you would have spent your money well. Walter, whom Janeites will fondly remember as Fanny Dashwood in Ang Lee’s 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, masterfully writes about her wrestling with Shakespeare’s conflicted presentation of women from the perspective of an actress with modern sensibilities. Shakespeare, she argues, often pits the female leads against the heroes’ male best-friends in competition for the heroes’ love, as in Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, and Merchant of Venice, to name a few. This creates an interesting, semi-homoerotic love triangle and explains the sometimes seemingly irrational actions of the heroes’ friends (390). It was coming to appreciate this male perspective in Much Ado About Nothing that helped Walter to then understand her own role as Beatrice, particularly her harsh, anti-bromantic ultimatum to Benedick to “Kill Claudio” (392).

However, full reconciliation with Shakespeare isn’t quite possible sometimes, according to Walter, especially given that many of the female roles demand women themselves pronounce misogynistic views (396). Eve Best, another English actress who has worked through the “problem spots” to find the soul of the female roles, writes beautifully about her compassion for Lady Macbeth, one of most iconic of Shakespeare’s characters. According Best, Lady Macbeth’s bloody-thirsty drive to make her husband king of Scotland, is all “…about love. And, very possibly…about finding a replacement for their child” (384). Of course, the play’s a tragedy, so the plan goes horribly wrong, dividing Lady Macbeth from her husband forever. The does not change the fact that Lady Macbeth was a woman driven by love.

I admit that I was most fond of the essays written by actors who share an abiding sensitivity for the humanity of their characters, as Rory Kinnear describes with Angelo from Measure for Measure and Hamlet, and F. Murray Abraham with Shylock from Merchant of Venice. Given he’s played the role seven times, James Earl Jones’ depth of understanding and compassion for Othello’s tragic situation is remarkable –but then so is Eamonn Walker’s, who writes “Othello is about many different kinds of love: it’s about the light, beautiful side of love, and it’s about the twisted, darker side of love, and it’s about how, if you flip the emotional coin, love can make you do terrible things” (145).

For those not in the theatre business, the insights from directors may be equally interesting and helpful for appreciating the importance of encountering dramatic works, even those from the sixteenth century, as living, evolving texts to be molded, edited, and re-envisioned. Essays by Karin Coonrod, Julie Taymor, Ralph Fiennes, Jess Winfield, and the Fiasco Theatre all invite the reader to attend a play or to pick up the text and start over–refashioning the story based on time, place, and circumstance, while remaining true to the story’s essence. As Coonrod writes “I’ve always wanted to identify what, for me, is the essential line or scene that distinguishes each [play]” (291). Often, the key to unlocking the story’s secrets lies in a simple image.

Ironically, I found that some of the essays that I least enjoyed were written by career writers, authors whom I respect. Isabel Allende’s tale of encountering Shakespeare in translation was charming, but not very insightful. Jane Smiley, who wrote the powerful King Lear inspired novel A Thousand Acres, talks about her inspiration, but without illuminating the original text or her own much further. Joyce Carol Oates tediously plods through the plot of Antony and Cleopatra. And Maxine Hong Kingston’s essay is a mostly a series of quotes, including a huge passage from a story she herself wrote. Equally disappointing (though well-meaning) were Peter David’s diatribe against modern ignorance about Romeo and Juliet and Sir Ben Kingsley lament about the loss of beautiful speech in contemporary language. It is sad, of course, that people are not reading Shakespeare, and tragic that they they do not speak in elevated syntax and diction, but, alas, tell us something we did not know already.

Fortunately, the bulk of this collection is simply amazing, insightful, and entertaining. I would even argue that a few of the essays are actually important, in terms of their significant contributions to the on-going discernment of Shakespeare’s relevancy to the modern world. Among the best, Brian Cox’s essay “I Say It Is the Moon” about how Shakespeare, through characters like Edgar in King Lear, Rosalind in As You Like It, and Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew, “teaches us how to live between one political paradigm and the next, in the middle of social contradictions, and right at the heart of all the emotional paradoxes of the human condition…The ultimate paradox, of course, [being] that even though we’re all going to die, we’ve all got to live in the meantime” (218).

Do you have to have read or seen all of the plays to understand this book? No; but I bet you will want to after you’ve read so many talented people express their life-changing experiences with Shakespeare’s immortal heroes and heroines, ghosts and witches, gods and monsters, since they all turn out to be so profoundly human like you and me.

5 out of 5 Stars

Living with Shakespeare: Essays by Writers, Actors, and Directors, edited by Susannah Carson
Vintage (2013)
Trade paperback (528) pages
ISBN:  978-0307742919

Cover image courtesy of Vintage © 2013; text Br. Paul Byrd, OP © 2013, Austenprose.com