Jane Austen and the Modesty of Genius

I would not let Martha read First Impressions again upon any account, and am very glad that I did not leave it in your power. She is very cunning, but I saw through her design; she means to publish it from memory, and one more perusal must enable her to do it. Letter to Cassandra Austen, 11 June 1799 

Jane Austen’s Biographer Claire Tomalin has a nice article in the Guardian today about how modesty and secrecy fueled Austen’s genius. Tomalin’s bio Jane Austen: A Life was published in 1997 and is one of my favorites. It’s good to see that she is still interested in writing about Austen after the publication of her book over ten years ago. It’s a short piece, but packed full of historical nuggets of Janeisms, and centered around Jane Austen’s now famous small writing table. 

This fragile 12-sided piece of walnut on a single tripod must be the smallest table ever used by a writer, and it is where she established herself as a writer…having no room of her own, she established herself near the little-used front door, and here “she wrote upon small sheets of paper which could easily be put away, or covered with a piece of blotting paper”.  

Reading her insights made me reflect on Jane Austen’s unique writing environment, and the odds of anyone ever producing anything of merit under such restrictions. It is amazing to think that the majority of her writing and re-writing transpired on one small wooden table, and that upon her death it passed to her sister Cassandra, and then out of the family to a servant. How it made its way back to Chawton Cottage intact must be a very interesting tale indeed! 

I have not had the pleasure of seeing Jane Austen’s writing table personally, but for those of you who have made the pilgrimage, I would love to hear your story of your visit to Jane Austen’s last home in Chawton, how it felt to see her personal environment, and gaze upon the biggest little table in literary history. 

Writer Claire Tomalin is an English biographer and journalist who was educated at Cambridge University. She has written several biographies; notably Thomas Hardy (2007), Samuel Pepys (2002), The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (1992) and Shelley and His World (1992). She is married to playwright Michael Frayn and lives in London. Of course, her most important work to date is Jane Austen: A Life!

Should Jane Austen’s Fans Save Mark Twain’s House from Early Demise?

Mark Twain House, Hartford, Conn. 

“The wisest and the best of men — nay, the wisest and best of their actions — may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke.” Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 11  

The news on the internet is that the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut has hit hard times, and is in danger of closing. Jane Austen might find an ironic twist in the rumors of its demise since Twain was so unkind to her writing during his lifetime. In one of his many infamous quotes against his fellow 19th-century author, he claimed that he had no right to criticize books and does so only when he hates them.  

I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Everytime I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” Letter to Joseph Twichell, 13 September 1898

Twain’s three story rambling Victorian home was built in 1874 at the height of his popularity and financial prowess. He penned many of his masterpieces there including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. He also corresponded with his life-long friend William Dean Howells, a fellow author and literary critic, about Howells favorite author Jane Austen. It was an ongoing amusement for Twain to rib his friend about his decidedly poor choice of admiration of Austen. In Howells’ essay My Mark Twain: Reminiscences (1910) he tells us more about Twain’s motivations. 

His prime abhorrence was my dear and honored prime favorite, Jane Austen. He once said to me, I suppose after he had been reading some of my unsparing praise of her-I am always praising her, “You seem to think that woman could write,” and he forbore withering me with his scorn, apparently because we had been friends so long and he more pitied than hated me for my bad taste. 

In Emily Auerback’s excellent book Searching for Jane Austen, she explores Mark Twain’s ongoing banter over Jane Austen’s talent, or lack of it. One of his unfinished writings is entitled Jane Austen. In the last chapter of her book, she includes an insightful investigation of the unfinished work, and Twain’s published letters and quotes about his distaste of Jane Austen’s writing. You can read the entire essay online though The Virginia Quarterly Review. Here is an interesting excerpt. 

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Mr. Darcy’s Diary: Interview with Author Maya Slater

Check out this interesting interview with Austen-esque author Maya Slater about her recently released first novel Mr. Darcy’s Diary.

If you think that the title seems familiar, you are quite right. It is one-in-the-same as author Amanda Grange’s recent release. The difference between the two being that Slater’s version has not yet been published internationally, but is available from Powell Books online and Amazon.uk. My copy arrived about a week ago, and I am about half way through it. I can say, before I give my official review, that Maya Slater has explored the ‘Regency’ man’s perspective, cavorting and all, and my hair is quite a bit curlier because of Mr. Darcy’s escapades.

Icon of Mr. Darcy\'s DiaryMr. Darcy’s Diary, by Maya Slater
Phoenix, Orion Books, Ltd., London, (2007)
Trade paperback (248) pages
ISBN: 978-0753822661

Oxford World’s Classics: Sense and Sensibility – Our Diptych Review

Image of the cover to Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen, Oxford Unversity Press, (2008)“Pray, pray be composed,” cried Elinor,”and do not betray what you feel to every body present. Perhaps he has not observed you yet.” Elinor Dashwood to her sister Marianne, Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 28 

Gentle readers, Please join us for the first in a series of six diptych reviews of the revised editions of Jane Austen’s six major novels and three minor works that were released this summer by Oxford World’s Classics. Austenprose editor Laurel Ann is honored to be joined by Austen scholar Prof. Ellen Moody, who will be adding her professional insights to complement my everyman’s view. 

Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen

Oxford World’s Classics, Rev. Ed. (2008) 

Laurel Ann’s Review 

So you want to read Sense and Sensibility. Great choice! Jane Austen’s first published novel (1811) can get lost in the limelight of her other ‘darling child’, Pride and Prejudice, but is well worth the effort. There are many editions available in print today, and the text can stand on its own, but for those seeking a ‘friendlier’ version with notes and appendixes, the question arises of how much supplemental material do you need, and is it helpful? 

One option is the Oxford World’s Classics new revised edition of Sense and Sensibility that presents an interesting array of additional material that comfortably falls somewhere between just the text, and supplemental overload. This volume offers what I feel a good edition should be, an expansive introduction and detailed notes supporting the text in a clear, concise and friendly manner that the average reader can understand and enjoy. 

The material opens with a one paragraph biography of the life of Jane Austen which seemed rather slim to this Austen enthusiast’s sensibility, and most certainly too short for a neophyte. The introduction quickly made up for it in both size and content at a whopping 33 pages! Wow, author Margaret Anne Doody does not disappoint, and it is easy to understand why after eighteen years publishers continue to use her excellent essay in subsequent editions. 

Illustration by C.E. Brock, Sense and Sensibility, J. M. Dent, (1898)Amazingly, the introduction is not at all dated. The material covered is accessible to any era of reader, touching upon the novels publishing history, plot line, character analysis, and historical context. Doody thoughtfully presents the reader with an analysis of the major themes in the novel such as; the dichotomy of sense and sensibility as it relates to the two heroines Elinor and Marianne, the portrayal of negligent mothers, men represented as the ultimate hunter, secrecy, deceit and concealment, and the crippling impact of the inheritance laws and primogeniture on women during the Regency era. Interlaced with Doody’s interpretations are her astute observations of Austen’s writing style with references to pages in the novel and outside sources. The entire essay is well researched, populated with footnotes, and an enjoyable complement to the text. 

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