An Austen-inspired Weekend in Seattle

Diana Birchall, Laurel Ann Nattress and Syrie James after the play "You are Passionate, Jane" in Seattle (2012

It’s almost been a week since my august guests, authors Diana Birchall and Syrie James, departed from Seattle to their homes in Los Angeles, but the memories of their visit are as sharp and engaging as the moment when they transpired. What a whirlwind of Austen-packed five days we had together. Much talking, eating and laughing ensued! I have never been in such company of clever, well-informed ladies who had such a great deal of conversation in my life! Jane Austen herself would have been highly amused. I, dear reader, was in a constant state of amazement and laughter.

Jane Austen Made Me Do It, edited by Laurel Ann Nattress (2011)How this Austen weekend came to be is a great story in itself that I will of course share with you! I had visited both Diana and Syrie in Los Angeles, not once but twice last year when I was promoting my anthology, Jane Austen Made Me Do It. Both ladies are contributors: Syrie’s “Jane Austen’s Nightmare” and Diana’s “Jane Austen’s Cat” are amazing pieces of Austen-inspired para-literature. After their gracious entertainment, I was selfishly determined to get them up to the Pacific Northwest and show them the wonders of my adopted State. (“What are men to rocks and mountains?”) Fate would present an opportunity through my Puget Sound Chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), who needed a guest speaker for their August meeting. Hmm? My mind started whirling. Didn’t Diana write a playlet about Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen meeting in heaven that she sent me last year? Yes. Would they be interested in performing “You are Passionate, Jane” for my group? Definitely! After playing agent and negotiating with the chapter on their behalf, the wheels were set in motion. It was that easy, sort of. I felt quite pleased with myself for about 10 seconds until I realized the challenge ahead of me. My cottage needed primping and the garden? Oh good gracious, the garden. It was sadly lacking in proper shrubberies to walk in. *gulp*

Authors Diana Birchall and Syrie James (2012)

You may well ask what one does to entertain such witty and well-traveled ladies in a fashion that they were accustomed to? I asked myself the very same question after I dreamt up this scheme. I knew the bar was high. Syrie has traveled to England, Italy, France and Greece in the past few years – and – lived in France and traveled throughout Europe as a young girl with her family. Diana had journeyed to England no less than thirty times, let alone trips to Italy and goodness knows where else. If Mr. Darcy thinks young ladies should improve their minds with extensive reading, then I would argue that extensive travel should be added to his list in the twenty-first century. These two ladies would definitely be among his list of “half a dozen, in the whole range of acquaintance, that are really accomplished.” Ack!

Woodston Cottage garden mixed border summer (2012)

After months of planning and planting a garden at Woodston Cottage, they arrived on Friday, August 10th, a day that will live in infamy (for me). To say that I was all anticipation is an understatement. Mrs. Bennet had loaned me a dose of her nerves and only she knew how I suffered! But from the moment we were reunited at the Alaska Airlines baggage claim carousel number 14, all my fears were assuaged. It was just the lovely Diana and Syrie, and not Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen, the two authors that they were portraying in Diana’s play on Sunday, that had arrived. Now, on to having fun.

Tea at the Queen Mary Tea Room with Shannon Winslow, Laurel Ann Nattress, Syrie James, Diana Birchall and Susan Mason-Milks (2012)

Our first stop was at the famous Queen Mary Tea Room in Seattle. I had planned an author get-together with fellow Seattle area Austenesque authors Shannon Winslow (The Darcys of Pemberley) and Susan Mason-Milks (Mr. Darcy’s Proposal). Five Austen authors and two hours later, we had chatted, ate scones, tea sandwiches and drunk tea until we would pop. Susan gives the blow by blow in more detail on her post at Austen Authors. Stealing among fellow tea drinkers not-with-standing, I lifted her lovely photo that our gracious waitress snapped of the group. To say the least, we had a great get-together. Now, off to my Barnes and Noble in Lynnwood to sign copies of the ladies books and meet the staff, then off to Woodston Cottage for the grand tour of my home and garden. Evening would bring a trip to Redmond for the welcome dinner at the Three Lions Pub with the JASNA – Puget Sound members: Charlene, Marion, Julie, Jeanne, and Ken, the token male who sported a bow tie emblazoned with the British flag! This was just the first day. Phew!

The mad, bad, and dangerous to know Lord Byron (2012)

Since my home (Woodston Cottage in Snohomish) is very snug, Diana was staying in Redmond with JASNA chapter member Julie A. and her cat Lord Byron. He is a British Shorthair and has the attitude befitting his namesake: mad, bad and dangerous to know! Diana is quite a cat lover and Julie the perfect hostess, so it was a great match from the start.

Shopping in Snohomish with Syrie, Laurel Ann, Diana and Julie (2012)

They arrived at Woodston (sadly without Byron) on Saturday morning for our excursion to the city of Snohomish for a day of antiquing and, yes, wait, wait, eating. For the benefit of anyone who has not visited this historic town on the Snohomish River, it is filled with oodles of antique shops. And when I say oodles, I am not exaggerating. One exits ones car and does not know which way to head. Every window reveals enticing delights. It took about five steps and one window before we were waylaid and already buying goodies at DMarie Vintage. The selection of clothing and accessories was amazing. Then, on to refuel at The Cabbage Patch for Dungeness crab Louie salad and more scones. Jane Austen may have written in Mansfield Park that “A large income is the best recipe for happiness”, but I think she forgot to add scones into the mix. After prying Diana away from shopping, we closed down the street and headed to my favorite local fruit stand Stocker Farms to buy fresh blackberries for a pie and local corn for our salmon dinner back at Woodston Cottage.

Syrie James at Woodston Cottage after a day of shopping in Snohomish (2012)

Once home, Syrie collapsed on my sofa!

The table setting for dinner in Woodston Cottage garden (2012)

We dined in the garden at twilight!

Blackberry pie for desert at Woodston Cottage (2012)

Here is the pie. Thanks for taking a photo before we consumed it Diana!

Herman at Woodston Cottage (2012)

Dinner of salad, salmon, fresh corn and sour dough bread was enjoyed by all but my kitty Herman who is not used to so much commotion in the cottage and lived behind the sofa for most of the weekend.

Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte banner

Sunday was all about the playlet, “You are Passionate, Jane”, and it was an amazing day. We all met on Mercer Island where the play would be performed at the Aljoya. Beforehand, I set up the display of the seven gift bags filled with Jane Austen-inspired books, DVD’s, CD’s and jewelry for the raffle. Here is a picture of the lovely Julie and her shocking pink raffle tickets. How apropos.

Julie A. with the raffle tickets for the JASNA Puget Sound raffle (2012)

You can read a full description of “You are Passionate, Jane” here, but in short, Jane Austen is the gatekeeper in heaven for literary souls. When author Charlotte Bronte arrives, they meet and Jane must decide based on their interview if Charlotte will pass into literary heaven. Considering the long standing debate about Bronte’s view of Austen’s writing style, you can only imagine our sharp tongued Jane asking some piercing questions of the passionate Charlotte Bronte. The performance was delightful. Syrie, author of The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, looked fittingly ethereal all in white as Jane Austen, and Diana, the author of Mrs. Darcy Dilemma, was all in black looking passionate and moody as Charlotte Bronte. “You are Passionate, Jane” was a clever imagining of what their conversation was like: Jane pert and perceptive in her evaluation of Charlotte’s life, and Charlotte, defensive and dramatic in her delivery. The chapter members and guests laughed and hissed and had a merry time. Happily, Janeites will be pleased to know that our Jane had a bit of an ego and won the throw down. No contest!

Authors Syrie James and Diana Birchall after play "You are Passionate, Jane" (2012)

Sunday evening found us exhausted, but ready to eat (again) a wonderful light (ha) Chinese meal and then head home to collapse. Whoever said that you are soon hungry after eating Chinese food got it wrong! After day three of eating, and eating, I was stuffed and ready for bed, but no, Syrie and I found our second wind and talked and watched Crazy, Stupid, Love until the wee hours! Too fun.

Monday, our last full day together, would have a Box Hill picnic theme. Both Diana and Syrie love nature and hiking, so I was determined to show them the local scenery. Literally in my backyard (2 miles) is the Bob Heirman Wildlife Preserve with an easy 3 mile hike to the Snohomish River. Even though it is a short drive from my cottage, and it had been highly recommended, I had never visited it before. So, we headed out in my carriage (sending the servants ahead of course) arriving in the hot midday sun, (an unusual event in the Pacific Northwest). It was in the mid 80’s so we applied sunscreen and bonnets and headed out through the pristine alder woods and meadow. Not far into our walk, we encountered a group of handsome young gentlemen bearing fishing poles and entreated them to take our picture which I entitle: a country walk sans sense and servants. Emma Woodhouse, Jane Austen intrepid heroine had the right idea about a country outing to Box Hill. Send the servants ahead with the picnic and pillows. Arrive in your barouche landau driven by coachman James and alight in a delicate frock with a parasol looking the picture of ladylike perfection. Our modern version is, as you can see, in the picture: four Janeites comfortably attired: no makeup, in a state of inelegance, but having a great time. We lost the trail only once. I got us back on track and we made it to a large rocky beach to view the beautiful Snohomish River, but alarmingly, no shady grass for our picnic! Drat! With nowhere comfortably to alight, we rested for a while in the shade of a tree and then headed back to a stretch of verdure by the parking lot that mercifully contained a cool breeze and soft grass. Then, home to Woodston for more talk and eating, of course.

Syrie, Laurel Ann and Diana at the Snohomish River (2012)

Tuesday brought a trip to the airport and sad adieus. How could it be over? So many months of planning – but what memories. Many thanks to the JASNA – Puget Sound Chapter for presenting the premiere of “You are Passionate, Jane”, to member Julie A. and Byron the cat for hosting Diana at their lovely condo, and to my dear friends Diana and Syrie. I am already planning your trip next year!

Cheers,

Laurel Ann

© 2012 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

“You Are Passionate, Jane”, a New Playlet by Diana Birchall to Premiere in Seattle

Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte banner

Seattle area residents are in for a treat next month when the premiere of “You Are Passionate, Jane” is presented on Mercer Island on Sunday, August 12, 2012 at 2:00 pm by the Jane Austen Society of North America Puget Sound chapter.

Written by Austenesque author Diana Birchall, this light, bright and sparkling diversion imagines what it would be like to be privy to an intimate view of two literary legends in tête-à-tête when they meet in heaven for the first time! Staring author Syrie James as Jane Austen and Diana Birchall as Charlotte Bronte, here is a teaser description by the playwright:

“Jane went to Paradise:  That was only fair,” wrote Rudyard Kipling, and generations of readers have agreed with him.  Now, in “You are Passionate, Jane,” we follow Jane Austen right past the Pearly Gates.  She has been given the important job of Gatekeeper in Heaven, deciding which other literary figures will be allowed to ascend.  A position that has been held by dead white male authors for eons, but at last the most deserving woman novelist gets her turn.  So, when she is not writing one of her new heavenly novels, Jane passes Judgement, and in the fullness of time, the newly deceased Charlotte Bronte is brought before her.  The two women are temperamental opposites, and don’t appreciate each other’s viewpoint in the least.  As Charlotte’s passionate life and works come under scrutiny (the title quote refers to Jane Eyre), the literary sparks fly – upward.

The literary feud between these two famous authors has been long debated. Was Bronte truly devoid of any sympathy to Austen’s style? Here is a bit of backstory on how it all began…

In 1847, literary critic G.H. Lewes suggested in his review of Jane Eyre that Charlotte Bronte might benefit from writing less melodramatically, offering up Jane Austen as example and inspiration. Bronte’s strong response to Lewes’ admiration of Miss Austen has raised many eyebrows in literary circles over the centuries.

Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. What induced you to say you would rather have written “Pride and Prejudice” or “Tom Jones’” than any of the Waverly Novels? I had not seen “Pride and Prejudice” till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book and studied it. And what did I find? An accurate daguerrotyped portrait of a common-place face; a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden with near borders and delicate flowers- but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy- no open country- no fresh air- no blue hill- no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses. These observations will probably irritate you, but I shall run the risk. – Charlotte Bronte in a letter to G.H. Lewes, 12 January 1848

As “passionate” as Bronte was about her style in writing Jane Eyre, Austen is in turn, stoic and elegantly understated in her Pride and Prejudice. Two entirely different approaches; but both masterpieces of world literature. Imagine if you will, these two authors meeting and broaching this sensitive ground? It should be a very interesting and entertaining meeting.

Diana Birchall and Syrie James (2012)

Diana Birchall, who wrote “You are Passionate, Jane,” is a story analyst who reads novels for Warner Bros Studios.  She is the author of the Jane Austen-related novels Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma and Mrs. Elton in America, and also a scholarly biography of her grandmother, Onoto Watanna, the first Asian American novelist. Her story “Jane Austen’s Cat” appears in the Random House anthology Jane Austen Made Me Do It, and her Austen-related plays have had readings around the country and in Canada.  She has given many talks on Jane Austen, at such venues as Yale, Oxford, and the Chawton House Library in England.

Syrie James, hailed by Los Angeles Magazine as “the queen of nineteenth century re-imaginings,” is an admitted Anglophile who loves All Things Austen.  She is the bestselling author of five critically acclaimed novels: The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen (Best First Novel, Library Journal); The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë (2011 Audie Romance Award; Great Group Read, Women’s National Book Association); Nocturne (Best Book of 2011, The Romance Reviews, Suspense Magazine, and Austenesque Reviews); Dracula, My Love; and Forbidden, a YA paranormal romance that she co-wrote with her son, Ryan M. James. Syrie’s books have been translated into 16 foreign languages.  Her short story leads the anthology Jane Austen Made Me Do It.  A lifetime member of JASNA, RWA, and WGA, Syrie’s next novel, The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen—the romantic story of a woman who discovers a previously unknown Austen novel—will be published by Berkley/Penguin Books in January 2013.  Visit Syrie on Facebook, Twitter, and at syriejames.com.

Please join the JASNA Puget Sound chapter for this exciting and humorous event. The meeting is free, our guest speakers will kindly sign pre-purchased copies of their books, and participants will have the opportunity to buy raffle tickets for Austen-related merchandise.

RSVP to regional@austenps.com for location in Mercer Island. I will be in attendance with bells on. Hope to see you there!

Cheers,

Laurel Ann

© 2012 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose