Austen-ography - Interesting books to consider reading.

May Lou and Cass - Jane Austen's Nieces in Ireland ~by Sophia Hillan

Sophia Hillan will be presenting a lecture based on her research into Jane Austen and her nieces in Ireland, October 3rd, at Farmliegh, Dublin, in association with the OPW and The Jane Austen Society of Ireland.  Perhaps this review might whet your appetite...

'May, Lou and Cass - Jane Austen's Nieces in Ireland', by Sopha Hillan, is an extraordinary book about one of the world's favourite authors and her connection with Ireland, generally, and Donegal, specifically.   This book charts the life of Jane Austen and her association with the Knight family, her brother's children.  Of course, these children should have inherited the famous 'Austen' surname, were it not for the fact that Jane's elder brother, Edward, was adopted by wealthy cousins who had no child of their own to inherit their fortune and large estate at Godmersham in Hampshire.   A stipulation of the inheritance agreement required that Edward take the name of Knight for his own, which he duly did.  

This book follows the lives of the Knight children, some of whom were very close to their spinster aunt who lived near their large house at Chawton.  Jane was often called upon to help care for the large number of Knight nieces and nephews, when their mother was expecting a child, for example, but especially when Mrs Knight died suddenly and unexpectedly,  just weeks after having given birth to her last baby.
Jane's letters to her relatives reveal a great deal to us about her, her letters to her eldest niece Fanny especially.  However, what I found most interesting about this book was the uncanny way that the plot lines of Jane Austen's novels mirrored, so exactly, the future lives of her relatives, particularly those of her nieces, Marianne, Cassandra and Louisa Knight.  Indeed, because their aunt was long dead when some of these events occurred, one might be forgiven for surmising that Austen was some kind of clairvoyant.  But I think not; it is just a case of life imitating art and uncannily so.  Like Anne Elliot, one niece falls in love and becomes engaged, only to face serious censure from  her family and that of her beloved. The engagement is terminated, then unexpectedly rekindled, eight years later, just as she is preparing to marry another man.  The similarity to her Austen's novel,  'Persuasion',  is unmistakable.
Then there is the secret elopement, in the style of Lydia Bennet, but this time the marriage does indeed take place in Gretna Green.  The similarities are considerable, and are cleverly detailed by Sophia Hillan.  Again and again, she finds parallels between Austen's novels and the lives of her extended family, much to the delight of her readers.
Hillan also tells the story in chapters, each one beginning with a scene from an Austen novel, which perfectly reflects the theme of the chapter.  In this way, the text is very focused, yet feels not like a work of non-fiction at all, but something akin to a novel itself.  Character after character is shown to have lead a life stranger than fiction, making this book very difficult to put down.  Anyone who I have spoken to about this book has said that they read the book in only a couple of days, and I found that I too read it continuously.
For me, the sections that dealt with Donegal were particularly interesting, especially since I was visiting in that part of Ireland at the time, which really brought the book to life in my imagination.  As an Irish woman, I was very surprised to learn that three of Austen's nieces came to live and be buried in County Donegal, with a grand-niece being born there in fact, who was fluent in Irish and was very much involved with the local community.
This text is full of historical references and facts, and must be applauded for its attention to detail.  However, one need not have an knowledge of Irish history to understand the cultural context of the book, as Hillan expertly fills in much of the necessary background information on the period for her readers.  Jane Austen herself famously fell in love with a young Irish man who later left England, to settle in Ireland and became Lord Chief Justice of Ireland.  Whether or not he left her with a good impression of the Irish, we will never know, but she did once famously warn her niece, who was writing a novel of her own, to beware of writing about life in Ireland,especially when one did not know what style of manners they had there.  Regardless, it is clear that her nieces adapted to their lives in Donegal and brought something of the Austen refinement and sensitivity with them when they came.
If you like Jane Austen, and are interested in the strange lives of those long gone, I urge you to read this book.  It will have you amazed and bemused at the strangeness and sometimes cruelty of life, and more than anything, it will make you realise how grateful we, as women, should be to live in this century, with the power to determine how and where we live, whom we love and marry, and how we earn our own living.  Times have certainly changed since Jane Austen and her nieces were alive, and I believe all would be glad to learn of how life has changed for many women in today's world, and thankfully much for the better.  

By Michelle Burrowes.  (First published on


Death Comes to Pemberley ~ by P.D. James - Analysis

Reading Jane Austen sequels is a tricky thing for a fan of the great author, but if there is anyone capable of pulling it off, it is P.D. James.  Here is a blog post that I wrote last year, but which I think the JASI might be interested in...

It is a truth, universally acknowledged that 'Pride and Prejudice' sequels are usually best avoided at all cost, but not so with P.D. James's 'Death Comes To Pemberley'. It is a rare thing to finish a novel with such a sense of contentment as I feel on finishing this delicious book.  Using the obligatory chocolate analogy, one would have to say that this book has all the feel of Galaxy chocolate, but with a slightly different flavour to it.  Mint or perhaps cinnamon? 
The true wonder of this book is how well ninety-two year old novelist P.D. James captures the nuances and sensibility of Jane Austen's writing-style. Her diction is almost an exact match, with her pages of dialogue being the most impressive.  There is not a syllable said by either Darcy or Elizabeth, now somewhat jarringly referred to as Mrs Darcy, that Austen herself could not have written.  It is clear that James researched her subject meticulously, indeed she is herself a self-confessed Janeite and an Austen aficionado of the highest order.
For me, P.D. James is to Jane Austen documentaries what Dame Judi Dench is to period drama: you really can't have one without the other.  So to learn that James had decided to write the one definitive 'Pride and Prejudice' sequel seemed too good to be true. The result was an overwhelming success and from here on in, a line can be drawn under the whole Jane Austen prequel/sequel phenomenon.  Quills down ladies - we have a winner!
Let us consider the plot of James's novel.  Without giving anything away, there is a murder at Pemberley some six years after Darcy and Elizabeth have set up home together.  There is an inquest and a trial and that is it.  In some ways the book begins and ends in the same way as 'Pride and Prejudice', with the arrival of a gallant stranger into the neighbourhood, with questions of the suitability of a possible suitor, and an ending very much in keeping with the Austen conventions that we are familiar with.
Yes,the plot is indeed that simple, but as with Austen, the real delight for the reader is the interplay of characters and the sparkling dialogue.  In this especially, James has kept true to the original style of the 'mother' novel.  It is simply delightful to hear Elizabeth and Darcy re-visit moments from their past and take up where they left off from 'Pride and Prejudice',as if the intervening two hundred years, were as unimportant to the reader as an ad-break to modern television audiences.  Similarly, characters like Jane and Mr Bennet wander into the story, using the phrases and idioms that we have long associated with these characters, and one cannot help but smile to hear them chime together in a worthy novel once more.  
And the resurrection of such familiar characters is not limited to the pages of 'Pride and Prejudice'.  No indeed! We hear mention of Emma and Mr Knightley, Harriet and Robert Martin, from 'Emma' and Sir Walter, Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth from the posthumous novel 'Persuasion', which serves only to enhance the pleasure for the more avid Austen fans.  Indeed, aspects of the story reflect other novels too, such as 'Sense and Sensibility' and even 'Mansfield Park', but to mention them here might impinge on the enjoyment of others.  
One aspect of the novel which is entirely James's own, is her knowledge of the legal system during the Regency period,and an in-depth knowledge of the the physicality of murder and the damage that a blunt weapon can inflict on the human body.  But fear not, this is not such a gruesome tale as all that, and the 'death' of the title, it seems to me, reflects more about the death of Darcy's pride than of anything else.  He is forced to face the flaw that almost cost him his happiness with Elizabeth in the original text and to put old grievances finally to rest. 
Similarly, the atmosphere of the novel is also true to Austen's style.  It glides along at a slow, elegant pace, with the quiet ease of satin-soled slippers on a marble floor.  And it is this aspect of the novel that separates this sequel from all others.  Being a novelist of such a high standing herself, P. D. James has, perhaps, not the pressures that less well-known, younger writers might have, believing that their novels must be rip-roaring page-turners if the reader is to remain engaged.  Here James shows her master card; being of a generation that was born between the World Wars, where life did move at a slower pace than today, James can easily slip into the more authentic Austen style of writing, where life moves to a more leisurely rhythm, which is something to be relished and enjoyed in such a novel.
The resulting effect of all this mimicry and mirroring, is to create a sense that the shadow of Jane Austen lurks amid the pages of this fine book.  It is as if the long dead Jane is standing just behind the shoulder of the author, guiding her hand and smiling.  There is nothing here to offend the staunch J. A. fan, so feel free to dispense with the guilt that Austen fans often feel as their hands reach out for the latest 'Pride and Prejudice' sequel.  I often worry that I should not be wasting my time with some second rate sequel when I could be re-reading an Austen original.  Yet here, we can have all of the enjoyment and none of the regret:  we can return to Darcy and Elizabeth, while savouring the joys of a highly crafted novel by one of the great living writers in the English language.  It's chocolate, but without the guilt?  Now there's a novel thought.  

by Michelle Burrowes originally posted on 2012


Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility: Screenplay and Diaries ~by Emma Thompson

In 1995, Emma Thompson did a very good thing.  Not only did she devise, write and act in a film adaptation of Jane Austen's wonderful romance novel, 'Sense and Sensibility', but she also published the diaries that she kept during that time.  And what a delightful collection of anecdotes and  observations they are.

As you might expect from Emma Thompson, this is a hilarious book, full of witty, self-deprecating remarks that we have come to expect from this clever, entertaining and funny woman.  A taste: 'Bed with the script, Austen's letters, a sore back and wind.  Inside and out.'  This book is awash with wonderful one-liners.   
 She describes the first rehearsal with Kate Winslet and Gemma Jones (Mrs Dashwood), and director, Ang Lee: 'Rehearsals with Gemma and Kate.  Both surprised to find that Ang begins with meditaion and exercises - this is not usual. We sit on cushions and breath... Loud screams, particularly from Winslet.'

It strikes me that Thompson is very much like Elizabeth Bennet who is described by Mr Darcy as taking great enjoyment 'in professing opinions that are not (her) own'.  In fact, Ms Thompson's tongue is firmly stuck in her check most of the time.  And, in this regard, she is the sister that Jane Austen should have had.  Her style of writing mimics Austen's own gentle ironic style, as she forces the reader to focus on what is notsaid and what is communicated only between the lines.  Thompson seems to have an innate understanding of Austen's feelings and brilliantly captures the vulnerability of these women in reduced circumstances and also the passion and depth of feeling that the sisters embodied.  And after all that she still manages to demonstrate their lively intelligence and that of the author.

Thompson tells us in the book that she edited and re-wrote certain scenes of the film with the voices of the actors ringing in her ears, once the roles had been cast.  You can easily imagine this with such distinctive actors as Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, Harriet Walter (Fanny Dashwood) and Imogen Stubbs (Lucy Steele). But it is Kate Winslet who, rightly, steals the show.  After the first day of shooting Thompson says of her:
'Kate looks a bit white.  The bravest of the brave, that girl.  I can't imagine what sort of a state I would have been in at nineteen with the prospect of such a huge role in front of me.  She is energised and open, realistic, intelligent and tremendous fun.'

As for her old friend, Hugh Grant, Thompson is forever teasing and flatteringly unkind.  Consider her remarks of him:
 'Hugh Grant arrives tomorrow but I've nicked the prettiest room'. Or, 'Hugh grant walks in... repellently goregeous, why did we cast him? He's much prettier than I am.' 
In truth, she loves him dearly and often comments on his fine acting performance.  The more astute  of you may notice the anomaly in the photograph opposite, which shows a kiss that never took place in the edited film version.  But it does happen in the screenplay.  As Edward and Elinor finally come together and reveal their mutual feelings of love, there occurs a tiny, beautifully written scene, complete with a kiss.  If you want the tantalising details, you must go to the book!  
For Emma Thompson walks the oddly uncomfortable yet fine line between the grown-ups and the children, the production team and the acting talent.  She has a foot in each camp and it is very enjoyable to observe  her lady-like efforts to maintain the balance between the two.  Here is just one example.  Director Ang has gathered the cast together at the end of the day's shoot.
'We're asked to do written homework for Ang. This is also unusual, he wants character studies and sets a list of questions, mostly addressing..."inner life... imogen Stubbs (Lucy Steele) wins prize for best effort..". '  
 You can just about hear the suppressed laughter bubbling to the surface in this sentence.  Like a school girl, trying to be good really, but succumbing to the infections giggles of her classmates, Thompson remains serene but at any moment you just know she is about to explode in uncontrollable fits of laughter. And this light-hearted giddiness is the overall tone of this most beautiful of books.

The diary is also interesting in that it recounts Thompson's burgeoning relationship with actor Greg Wise,
 the man who Thompson would later marry and have a child with.  His first mention in the diary is particularly worth a closer look:

'Sunday 30 April 8:20 a.m..... Greg Wise (Willoughby) turned up to ride, full of beans and looking goregeous.  Ruffled all our feathers a bit'.  

How wonderfully inderstated. (They fell in love on the set apparently.)  Gone are the comments about the freezing cold weather and the miserable outdoor shots.  Her next notes says:
 'Sunday 30 April 7:30 p.m. ... 'fantastic outing, sunny drives, five courses at ... hotel and skinny dipping in the river.'  Sounds like love to me.  Go Emma! 
'Sense and Sensibility, the Screenplay and Diaries' by Emma Thompson, is one book that just would not work on a Kindle.  The stills alone, some of which you can see here, are to die for.  They are taken by gifted photographer Clive Coote who succeeds in creating little portraits that look just like paintings; framed moments of beauty, that are quite breath-taking and very much in-keeping with director Ang Lee's artistic sensibilities.
 I do not keep this book shut-up tight on my bookshelf, but have it sat upon a book stand, open at various pages during the year, depending on my mood.  It is a work of art, made for dispaly, so display it I do.

And here I will leave you, with a very Austenesque line taken from the Thompson diary, as parting gift.  Emma writes:
 'Ang wants sheep in every exterior shot and dogs in every interior shot.  I've suggested we have sheep in some of the interiors as well.'  
by Michelle Burrowes, originally posted on 2012


The Private Diary of Mr. Darcy by Maya Slater

The Private Diary of Mr. Darcy: A NovelI enjoyed reading this version of the Lizzy - Darcy affair from Darcy’s point of view, being such a big Austen fan. However, I took umbridge at a few creative detours that the author took regarding Darcy’s flagrant behaviour with kitchen maids etc and his friendship with Lord Byron... but I suspect the reason for that was to finally get Darcy undressed and to fulfill some kind of fantasy. 
However, I cannot allow the idea that Darcy was 'tinkering' with the girl from below stairs in his bedroom, while Lizzy and Jane slept a few bedrooms away in theirs, during their stay in Netherfield.  But, as I say - the temptation to write a few passionate,  period 'love scenes' for the Darcy character was obviously too great to resist. 
Yet, perhaps in some way, Darcy would have been a man of the world, although I think his distaste for Wickham's wild behaviour while at college, would seem to suggest that he was above such clandestine activity. ~
 Still, it was interesting to revisit Austen's story from a different angle, especially noting when first Darcy began to fall for Lizzy and how he was wonderfully clueless to Caroline Bennet's obvious (and desperate) attempts to flirt with him.  This was particularly clever, as it was somewhat reminiscent of Austen's tongue in cheek style.
This is not a serious book, but rather a bit of fun between books, and for that I would recommend it to all Darcy fans and deserving friends!

The Private Diary of Mr. Darcy: A Novel