Reflection on the Chawton House Reading Group, women in history and Mary Eleanor Bowes…

When Covid started and my in-person book clubs and groups started canceling, I went looking for something inspiring.  What I found was the Chawton House Reading Group.  For the uninitiated, Chawton House is the home of not only Jane Austen’s brother and in the same village as Jane Austen’s House Museum, but it is also the home of a special collection of early women’s writing, a collection that started with some of the books owned by the Austen family and read by Jane herself!

Chawton House used to host monthly book group meetings in person, but because of Covid, they moved to Zoom and invited anyone who was interested to attend, so I signed up.  The group reads titles written by women from the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries.  It has been a fabulous experience for many reasons.  I have read a bunch of books I might not otherwise have read, and isn’t that the reason we like book clubs? 

One theme that has recurred over the course of our discussions is how many of the female writers and their characters are “outliers” or who don’t behave as many people assume they would, given the time period.  For a variety of reasons having to do with what gets saved, how the cannon is assembled, what kinds of texts are privileged, these women writers and their characters have largely been forgotten, except by a few academics.  Reading these books, and studying history a little more deeply, has opened my eyes to some problems with the historical accuracy debate among historical fiction writers and readers. Readers sometimes claim that a woman would never have acted in a certain way. But whose data are they relying on to make that assertion?  The stories of real women are full of examples of women who bucked the system or tried to, and early women’s novels are full of aspirational characters who do things that women dreamed of doing, or who got caught and suffered the consequences of a male dominated world, while the author gives some side eye to her readers.

Clifford Siskin has written of the “Great Forgetting” and he is correct that when writing became professionalized, as with so many other occupations, it became gendered as male and largely unavailable to women. However, there were ways, and many women found them. 

This is not a license to give 17th Century women the sensibilities of 21st Century women, but it is a call to reconsider what we mean when we say historically accurate.  Historically accurate according to whom? The male writers of history who left women out? The men who sent their wives to insane asylums because they weren’t submissive enough? The literati with a vested interest in keeping themselves as the center of the academic world and for whom any competition, especially from women, could not be tolerated?

I encourage you to read about a few of these women and make up your own mind about what a woman would have done in year XXXX. Yes, they are outliers, mostly because we know their stories—somehow, they survived the Great Forgetting. But aren’t most books, history books included, about outliers? They wouldn’t be half as interesting otherwise…

Here are some of my favorites from last year’s reading list:

Isabelle de Charriere (trans. Caroline Warman), The Nobleman (1762)

Sarah Burney, Tales of Fancy (1816)

Eliza Haywood, Love in Excess (1719-20)

Maria Edgeworth, Letters for Literary Ladies (1795)

Hester Piozzi, Observations and Reflections Made in the Course of a Journey through France, Italy, and Germany (1789) 

Hannah Cowley, The Belle’s Stratagem (1780)

Moderata Fonte (trans. Virginia Cox), The Worth of Women: Wherein Is Clearly Revealed Their Nobility and Their Superiority to Men (1600)

May I also recommend this title based on the life of a real woman from Georgian times who was basically kept prisoner by her vile husband.  It was through the help of her maids and other household staff, that she was able to escape.  I would love to see a novel based on the maids’ stories.  They were especially brave, given they had less protection under the law, due to their class.

Wendy Moore, Wedlock: The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore.

Books about Writing that I enjoyed in 2021…

Are you looking for something to inspire you to write?  Here is a list of favorite books and web pages about writing that I read in 2021.  I am also including one about women’s history, since there were a bunch of inspiring women in it.  Not least, Eleanor Roosevelt.

Alberts, Laurie. Showing & Telling: Learn How to Show & When to Tell for Powerful & Balanced Writing. Cincinnati, Writer’s Digest Books, 2010.

Brody, Jessica. Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing That You’ll Ever Need. Berkeley CA, Ten Speed Press, 2018.

Buehler, Emily. “Book Mapping.” Emily Buehler: Author, Editor, Lover of Words, WordPress, Accessed 22 Dec. 2021.

Collins, Gail. America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines. Paperback ed., New York City, Harper Perennial, 2009.

Cron, Lisa. Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere). Berkeley, Ten Speed Press, 2016.

Benjamin Dreyer. Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. New York City, Random House USA, 2019.

Carriger, Gail. The Heroine’s Journey: For Writers, Readers, and Fans of Pop Culture. GAIL CARRIGER, 2020.

“How to Write. Novel with Multiple Points of View.” NY Book Editors, NYBE, Series Eight, Accessed 22 Dec. 2021.

Klein, Cheryl B. The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults. New York City, W.W. Norton & Company, 2016.

Smith, Rebecca. The Jane Austen Writers Club: Inspiration and Advice from the World S Best-Loved Novelist. Bloomsbury USA, 2016.

Tobias, Ron. 20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them. Cincinnati, Writer’s Digest, 2012.

Happy Reading and Writing!

Throwback Thursday AND Austenalia…First Impressions by Charlie Lovett

This review was originally written in 2014

Jane Austen fans are in for a treat in this literary mystery cum romance modeled on the beloved novels of Jane Austen. One nice twist is the addition of the parallel storyline about Jane Austen’s fictitious relationship with an older clergyman who helps encourage her writing aspirations.  Many of the questions raised in the accompanying modern day literary mystery and hunt for a rare edition are answered for the reader in flashbacks to the year 1796 and following.  This device allows the reader to guess more than Sophie, the bibliophilic protagonist, is aware of, which guessing is of course half the fun of a mystery in the first place.  There are plenty of clues hidden in various archives and dusty bookshelves to enthrall the readers, most of whom will be of Sophie’s ilk.  When her beloved Uncle Bertram dies under questionable circumstances and his book collection is liquidated by her father to pay Bertram’s debts, Sophie is justifiably outraged.  She begins working in a rare book shop and is approached by two collectors with very different methods (one charming, the other not so much) who are both after the same obscure book.  What she discovers about this book is where the stories of Jane and Sophie meet.  Throw in a romantic American academic who also loves Jane Austen, and we have a single marriage plot that is to die for.  The ending is a little abrupt and a little too easy perhaps, but this too, follows the pattern set by Austen.  Once everyone is in their assigned places, the ending follows quickly, with a little wrap up, in this case not by the narrator, but by the protagonist.  Good fun for all.  

Revising is hard!

Revising is a difficult process, for many reasons.  We are frequently so close to the topic/material, that it is hard to see it fresh.  That is why a lot of advice is to let things sit for a while after you finish a draft, so you can look at it with new eyes.  You should also consider letting other people read it, people you trust to be both kind and helpful.

In my work as a book coach, I help writers with revisions by providing professional feedback, sometimes suggestions of choices they might make, help with structure, etc.  I understand that sometimes the feedback we get is not what we were hoping for.  Rarely does it begin, “this is perfect just as it is…”  

I recently had a revision experience of my own as a writer, and I understand how difficult it can be to hear things like, “you need to move this”, or “this doesn’t make sense.” I wrote an article for the Jane Austen Society of North America’s online journal Persuasions based on a presentation I gave at the Annual General Meeting.  I worked hard on it and I thought it was pretty good.  But there were notes, suggestions, tweaks, corrections (!) sent to me as part of the editorial process. Nevertheless, I persisted, and you should, too.  The result is a better, tighter, cleaner piece.  

Here are some examples of what great writers have said about revising:

“Books aren’t written- they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.” 

Michael Crichton

“It is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery. This is common in all writing and among the best of writers.”

E.B. White

If a teacher told me to revise, I thought that meant my writing was a broken-down car that needed to go to the repair shop. I felt insulted. I didn’t realize the teacher was saying, ‘Make it shine. It’s worth it.’ Now I see revision as a beautiful word of hope. It’s a new vision of something. It means you don’t have to be perfect the first time. What a relief! 

Naomi Shihab Nye

“Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”

Colette, Casual Chance, 1964

“Read over your compositions and, when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”

Samuel Johnson

Go forth and Revise! Need support in the Revision Process?

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

This is the second book I have read by Kate Quinn and I am going to be in the minority here when I say I found it mediocre at best. I read The Alice Network a couple of years ago for a book club and didn’t really like it, either . The spying plots in both books are too simplistic and as one other GR reviewer noted about The Rose Code, the bad guy basically shows up about 100 pages from the end and announces himself. Color me disappointed.  

The first page of the novel, set in England, has a character wearing a robe, which should have been called a dressing gown and I just couldn’t get past it.  This detail bothered me because it makes me ask the question, if you couldn’t be bothered to get this right, what else is not right? Weirdly, later in the book the term dressing gown is used, so continuity?

The characters are individually interesting, but the relationships are underdeveloped, especially the main female friendship. The conflict is contrived and feels forced. Though I appreciate the attempt to include slang from the time, it was more than a trifle overdone.  I think if I see “chuff,” “topping,” or “talk slush” again in the near future, I will “crock up.”

The book is too long and should have been edited for pacing and fluff.  It clocks in at just under 600 pages, and could easily have been reduced to 400 without sacrificing story.  Since this is my second disappointment with Ms. Quinn, I will plan on leaving her tomes to other readers in the future.

Spoilers to follow… the ending, in which the Bletchley Park gang reunites to unmask the traitor, or more accurately, decode a message that would provide the proof they needed, borders on the ridiculous. The message wouldn’t have named him, it would have used a code name, so it wouldn’t have been proof unless they had some corroborating evidence.  

Bottom line, this novel is more for Romance fans who want a little historical flavor than for Historical Fiction fans.  If you want to read about WWII and Cold War female spies, stick with (nonfiction) Agent Sonya by Ben MacIntyre.

Throwback Thursday: Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

In honor of the Netflix series, which by the way is just as dreadful as the book, I pulled out this old chestnut from 2017. Roasted…

This was billed as psychological suspense, so I got sucked in.  Though it has moments of brilliance, in the end, it falls flat, partially because the main character is so disappointingly dumb and predictable.  She is presented with plenty of evidence about someone and yet refuses to believe her own senses.  Then there is the ending, which is just crazy. I am willing to suspend my disbelief, but I need something to hang that suspension on other than wild fancy.  I knew what was going to happen WAY before I got to the end, since the writer telegraphed it, and I was still disappointed, because I was hoping I was wrong.  Sadly, I wasn’t.  I wouldn’t recommend this unless you are a huge fan of paranormal romance, and when I say huge, I mean you still like Twilight

The Storm by Arif Anwar

The Storm is a beautifully woven tale that skips across time and geography to bring the reader into the life of Shar, a Ph.D student and policy wonk who has overstayed his student visa in the United States.  Things are complicated.  He has a daughter, but he is not married to her mother.  If he leaves and cannot return, he risks never being able to see Anna again.  But Shar’s story does not start and end with him.  There are layers of character, the passage of time, the vagaries of culture and a pinch of the supernatural.  Before Shar, there was the partition of India and Pakistan. There was a sailor with black sails;  there was a storm.

The storm is more than an event of nature, it is the swirl of events which bring people into each other’s lives.  The storm is the government, the storm is human desire, the storm is fate. Told from multiple points of view over decades, The Storm shows us real humans at their best and at their worst.  Those who want to make the world better and those who care only for themselves at this  moment.  The plotting is tight, the characters are fully developed, and even though some only have walk-on roles, there are no extra characters—every single one does something important to move the story forward. There is a lot of grief in The Storm, but there is beauty to balance it. Read it, and I promise you won’t be sorry.

This month’s tea treat recipe combines bananas and pineapple, two crops grown in Bangladesh, the setting for parts of The Storm. Be sure to serve it with Black Tea, also grown there.

Murder at Mansfield Park by Lynn Shepherd

Well, Janeites, it is with a heavy heart that I report to you: this book is not very good.  I had high hopes, since it was a murder mystery, but alas those hopes were dashed upon the rocks of mediocrity. As may be surmised from the title, this is a retelling of Mansfield Park in mystery form.  I don’t think it will spoil anything to tell you that Fanny is the victim. It’s on the flap copy.  What the flap copy doesn’t tell you is that this plodding narrative, which remakes Fanny into a bratty heiress whom readers will be glad to see bludgeoned on the grounds of Mansfield, is a complete departure from Austen. All the characters are recast, mostly not for the better.  Edmund is now Mrs. Norris’s stepson, and not bound for the clergy, Fanny is rich, the Bertrams are middling.  The reader gets the story mostly from Mary Cawford’s point of view, and she and Henry are probably the best characters in the novel as well as the most sympathetic.  

What doesn’ make sense is why the author chose to use the characters from Mansfield Park, and the setting, and then proceeded to change them all;  she may as well have just written her own book with totally new characters, leading this reader to believe that the only reason to use MP as the jumping off point was to lure unsuspecting Janeites who are also mystery lovers into purchasing this twaddle.  The best thing about it is the detective, Maddox, and he doesn’t appear until more than halfway through.  Speaking of, this purported murder mystery is without a victim for 140 pages. If I hadn’t been committed to reviewing this, I would have cast it aside in frustration after about 25 pages, truth be told, but I took one for the team.  Caveat Emptor, you’ve been warned.  

May I recommend any of the several wonderful Austen themed mysteries by Carrie Bebris instead….

PS—I have not forgotten my promise to post the Bibliography from my JASNA presentation about Jane Austen and Embroidery. That is coming up this weekend! Stay tuned…