Some Thoughts on Julie & Julia & Jane & Blogging – in No Particular Order

Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell (2009)I saw the new movie Julie & Julia this weekend and loved it. The movie follows the real life story of Julie Powell a young woman working as a drone in a government job in New York by day and cooking adventuress by night. Inspired by her favorite chef Julia Child, she embarks on attempting all 524 recipes from Julia’s cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days. The task seems monumental and that is the hook. The best part, however, was that she wrote about the entire experience daily on her blog The Julie/Julia Project, and later turned her amazing experience into the bestselling book Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. This book evolved into the movie Julie & Julia by writer/director Nora Ephron who brilliantly combined Julia Child’s own struggles becoming a chef from her book My Life in France. Each book reveals the story of two ladies adrift in life, looking for direction and passion, who both turn to cooking and find their true calling. Amy Adams and Meryl Streep portray Julie & Julia respectively with great success. Streep is particularly amazing in capturing the distinctly exuberant personality and trilling voice of one of the most famous early television personalities and cooking icons in the world. 

What touched me most about the story was the parallel lives of Julie and Julia, and how two smart, funny and ambitious ladies find their bliss by doing what they love most. This concept is by no means new to me. Following your bliss has been in the popular lexicon for years, so much so, that I have begun to resent it whenever it pops into a conversation with family and friends who want to give me advice on my life’s direction. I must confess that I have followed my bliss across hill and dale for many years with variable degrees of success and failure. In my own defense, it has been my closest friend and my recipe for happiness, though it has brought little money and no fame. To all nay sayers who do not believe in following your dreams, I will only add “Business, you know, may bring money, but friendship hardly ever does.” 

Blogging about Jane Austen is a joy, but like all great challenges it is the journey and not the end result that is the reward. Julie’s adventure in cooking, blogging and ultimately as a published author is further evidence of this philosophy. She had her daily successes and failures in the kitchen and was at several points ready to quit, but she didn’t. Jane Austen wrote and rewrote for years, submitting manuscripts that were rejected or never published before Sense and Sensibility was accepted in 1811. She chose, in an era of few opportunities for women outside of domestic life, not to marry and to write instead. She too followed her bliss. If it made her truly happy, we will most likely never know. Money was not her prime objective in writing, though it was most welcome. Julie Powell and Julia Child may not have chosen their bliss for pecuniary emolument either, but like Jane Austen it certainly brought them fame, and I hope a little happiness. 

Bon Appetite! 

Further adventures 

Mr. Darcy’s Diary, by Maya Slater – A Review

Image of the cover of Mr. Darcy's Diary, by Maya Slater (2007)

If Jane Austen thought that her novel Pride and Prejudice was too light, bright, and sparkling and wanted shade, then author Maya Slater has made up for any deficit by crossing over to the ‘dark side’ in writing her re-telling of the story entitled Mr. Darcy’s Diary. Not only are we privy to Fitzwilliam Darcy’s most intimate and revealing secrets, we see the story of Pride and Prejudice told wholly from the male perspective, and gentle readers, be prepared. It’s a man’s world in Regency England, and dare I say, Fitzy is no saint! 

The story opens with Mr. Darcy as a house guest of the Bingley’s at Netherfield Park the night of the Meryton Assembly. Caroline Bingley is up to her ususal kow-towing activities and insists upon embroidering slippers for Darcy, even though he inwardly fumes that he has no use for them. He is ruminating over sister Georgiana’s letter, and sees no solution to her predicament, the particulars of which are not yet known to us. The party arrives at the Assembly rooms and there is little of interest for him. Seeing the dance unfold from his perspective is an interesting vantage; the rooms, the music and the “superfluity of raw young ladies eager for dancing partners were all disenchanting to him”. His breeches are too tight so he does not sit down. Beyond the perfunctory dances with his two hostesses, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, he saw nothing in the room to tempt him. No mention is made of his slighting our heroine Elizabeth Bennet, but this is Mr. Darcy’s diary after all, and an event of no consequence to him would surely not be recorded in his diary. 

The diary continues in this first person narrative as Mr. Darcy relays his thoughts, concerns and observations over the timeline of events in Pride and Prejudice. It is not hard to image that Darcy might have written a diary, since he is so eloquent in communication in the original novel as seen in his famous “Be not alarmed madam” letter to Elizabeth Bennet addressing the charges laid before him after her rejection of his first marriage proposal. It might well be one of the most compelling and convincing letters in literary history, so like most young ladies whose imagination is very rapid, I will jump from one well written letter to surmising his ability to write a diary in a moment.  He is after all, Mr. Darcy. He “has no defect. He owns it himself without disguise.” 

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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!