We None of Us Expect to be in Smooth Water All Our Days; Elopement, Kidnapping and What Austen Wrote About

This week has seen the media full of articles, even podcasts on Jane Austen as the world acknowledges the bicentenary of her death. Accordingly we were sent an article about charting data points in her novels by someone who knows us well. If we’re understanding it right, the writer and her collaborator took a sample of popular vocabulary of the time and then somehow charted its usage in Austen. The conclusion was that Austen focuses on the mundane and ordinary in life, instead of on, and here we quote, ‘Big dramatic things; war, elopement, murder, highwaymen, kidnapping, ghosts, gambling, shipwrecks, pirates.’

Now, we tend to think that any reader worth their salt would have reached the mundane and ordinary conclusion on their own time. It’s that more than anything else that causes scholars to compare Austen and Pym, but that’s a different essay.

About those big dramatic things though. We’re going to gracefully sidestep the issue of war. It’s tacitly in the background of both Mansfield Park and Persuasion, but that’s sort of the writer’s point. We’ll even grant the point about murders, highwaymen, kidnapping, etc. Forget Harriet and the roadside gypsies, Mr. Elton in that carriage bound for Hartfield. Elopement though? Either we’re reading a very different Austen or something about the data sample fundamentally misunderstood Jane Austen.


The famous example is, of course, Lydia Bennet, who runs off with Wickham. But she’s far from the only one. Even within the bounds of Pride and Prejudice she is preceded by Georgiana Darcy, whose elopement with Wickham only falls short because Darcy gets wind of the plan in time.

Similarly in Sense and Sensibility Colonel Brandon’s ward Eliza attempts an elopement, and while that doesn’t succeed either, she does become pregnant. Lucy Steele, on the other hand, avoids pregnancy but does run off with Robert Ferrars, thus throwing the Dashwood household (both of them) into emotional chaos prior to Edward Ferrars’s arrival at Barton Cottage in time to set everything right.

In Mansfield Park not only does Maria Rushworth elope with Henry Crawford, she’s committing adultery in the process. Readers will recall she was Maria Bertram in her first iteration.

And we would be remiss if we forgot Isabella Thorpe, whose marriage to the elder Tilney brother almost certainly counts as elopement by General Tilney’s standards. In fact, she’s something of a precursor to Miss Bertram, since at the time of the marriage she’s meant to be engaged to James Morland.

Now linguistically it seems unlikely that any of these examples would be caught by the data set in use because Austen’s prose while beautifully balanced is not always explicit. As one scholar memorably said, ‘a duel isn’t a duel…and many readers miss the fact of Fanny Price’s pregnancy at the end of Mansfield Park.’ We’re paraphrasing, but simply put, Austen hardly ever calls a thing by its rightful name. Colonel Brandon and Willoughby don’t duel, they ‘me[et] by appointment, [Willoughby] to defend, [Brandon] to punish his conduct.’ And while Austen doesn’t write a kidnapping in the sense the writer means, she does have the Thorpes abduct Catherine in their carriage. Later, Anne Eliot is reluctantly escorted back to Upper Cross by the Crofts, not forgetting Mr. Elton’s holding Emma hostage in that carriage. In all of these scenes, the heroine is reluctantly coerced, and every one of them feels transgressive in its way.

Austen’s great skill isn’t that she neglects worldly affairs for the drawing room, but that she brings them into it. She domesticizes the Gothic with laundry lists, makes violent the fashionable barouche, and turns ha-has –great stalwart of pastoral artwork that they are – into signs of impending ruin.

Does Austen call an elopement an elopement? Probably not. Do they feature? Certainly. It’s all there, if one only goes looking. It turns out though that it might take the more mundane, human eye to spot  –and what could be more Austen-esque than that?

*For those of you with a wish to read the article in question, this is it. We'd love to hear your thoughts!



Reading Experience

We want to begin by stressing we are book-lovers. We love the smell of them, and the feel of them, and weight of them. We go to great lengths to preserve their spines out of a deep-rooted belief that to do anything less is Abuse of Book and on par with High Treason. We say all this because what follows is a defence of the kindle.

Every now and again someone will see us with ours and say, ‘I still like books.’

Or, ‘Don’t you think you remember less reading on a screen? Doesn’t it irritate you that it needs charging?’

There’s any number of arguments against the kindle, as there is against anything. But there’s a value too that we don’t think is lauded enough; it’s a godsend to the partially sighted. We’re just sighted enough that growing up, no one offered us large-print as an option until university. Preferably we read at size 16. But the number of books printed size 16? Our local library has perhaps ten large-print books together and they’re always Jilly Cooper. That’s not a condemnation, because we’ve never read her and know nothing about her books. There have got to be partially-sighted people in my town with less vision than us, who have read those ten books to death out of a lack of choice.

There are things like Daisy Machine, but we could write a whole other post on the evils of the Daisy Machine. Suffice it to say we could never make ours work, and like any 13 year old, refused to lose a Saturday afternoon to a class on how to use one. That’s why years later our Daisy is stuck at the beginning of Jane Austen’s Emma,  though we’re sure we bookmarked wherever it was we got to on first listen. It’s also why any reading we did, we did in print.

Vision acuity notwithstanding though, we only read with half of one eye, which makes things slow, and with dense or close-typed prose we read even slower. The way our eyes work we have to keep stopping to relocate the beginning of the next line. If the print’s too small, we’re liable to read the same line two or three times before we get to the next one. We read Caleb Williams with a line-guide, because we kept losing our place, Virginia Woolfe too. The first time we read Vindications of the Rights of Women it was a library copy designed for people who could read the last row on the eye-chart accurately. But we read Maria or the Wrongs of Womenirritating, didactic thing though it was -on a kindle. We read it in the largest font-size on offer, and we couldn’t believe the difference. We even took notes, a thing we would never do in a book proper, because we’re fastidious about our books.

We wouldn’t say we never went back, but we can’t say enough about the difference our kindle has made. Suddenly, as long as the book’s on Amazon, we can read it with font as large as we like, and it won’t cost us more.There’s no need to bookmark, but we could, because unlike Daisy, we can intuit the workings of the kindle. We don’t need the line-guide, and we don’t lose our place. We never catch ourselves rereading a line we’ve read already and we never have to stop because our eyes are swimming from over-reading. No, it’s not a book. Yes, it needs charging. It has definite merit though, and we’d hate for people to lose sight of that.




I Write This…

…Sitting on a startlingly orange sofa, as it happens, and balancing a lap-desk, not being possessed of a proper one. There’s the kitchen table, but we’ve an aversion to putting the computer at the same table where we take our tea. What we really sat down to do though wasn’t catch the atmosphere and character of Kinness Place, but collect together some of our favourite openings to books.

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. Is there a better beginning than Dodie Smith’s opening gambit to I capture the Castle? We have spent years trying to equal this one in our own writing, and likely won’t ever succeed. True at once to Cassandra’s voice, the tone of the story and our sense of the castle, this makes the promise that the story more than lives up to.

‘Take my camel, dear,’ said Aunt Dot as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. On the strength of that sentence, an Oxford friend sent us Rose McCauley’s The Towers of Trebizond.  The Oxford friend was right; we did love it. The story of Aunt Dot, Laurie, Fr Chantrey-Pigg and their journey to Turkey is full not only of evocative landscapes but also of some of the most nuanced treatment of religion we’ve read. We still go shivery thinking of Laurie’s first introduction to Jerusalem. We won’t spoil it. Read it. We want another person to help unravel the symbolism of the camel. Unconvinced?  The symbolic camel in question, and the High Mass both transpire in Oxford. Aunt Dot’s just that eccentric.

Long ago in London, in 1945, all the nice people were poor. It sounds like a fairytale, and Muriel Spark does have an ear for modern fairytales. This one is the beginning to The Girls of Slender Means. There is nothing you need to know about it except that the martyr is not a martyr and there is an unexploded bomb in the back garden of the May of Tech Club.

They’re all dead now. So begins Ann-Marie MacDonald’s gothic novel Fall on Your Knees. This was the sentence that set us collecting sentences. The fact that we fell in love with the novel was purely an afterthought.

I suppose it must have ben the shock of hearing the telephone ring, apparently in the church, that made me turn my head and see Piers Longridge in one of the side-aisles behind me. It wouldn’t be us without at least one Pym. She’s best read in well-worn cream paperbacks that smell of book. This is the opening of A Glass of Blessings, our second favourite after Excellent Women. Somehow she cuts right to the inciting  incident while still leaving us with the fuzzy impression that we’re not reading a carefully crafted novel, only a slice of someone’s life.

My father had a face that could stop a clock. This was the sentence that set us on our love of Jasper Fforde and Thursday Next. We don’t read much fantasy or sic-fi. This manages to be both at once, as well as a consummate exercise in spot-the-literary-allusion. We’ve never looked back but have gone on to read this man’s work compulsively. Wherever academic coach Stephen Bloom is now, we owe him a tremendous debt for the recommendation.

Finally, what must be our favourite opening to a novel ever. High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles an hour. This owes to David Lodge, specifically Changing Places. No one has ever made us laugh quite so much.

There are others of course; this is by no means a comprehensive list. We’ve tried to dodge our more obvious favourites, but we also can’t believe we’ve omitted so many; Lipman, Hardy, Monica Dickens are but a few. Some day we’ll draw up a list of favourite books and perhaps get around to doing her justice. In the meantime, go read!

In Defence of Said

Ever since we took to actively writing on the internet -about three years ago now -we’ve stumbled from time to time across advise written by writers for writers. Sometimes it’s writers’ forums, sometimes memes, and lots of it has been insightful and interesting. The  piece of advice that routinely flummoxes us is the one that suggests overuse of the verb ‘said’ in dialogue is monotonous.

Here’s the thing about ‘said;’ we don’t read it. It’s an invisible word. The brain is programmed to see ‘said’ and absorb it for what it is, a dialogue tag. In other words, the reader glosses over it and registers not the verb only who has spoken. The minute a writer substitutes ‘said’ for another word it needs to be purposeful, and more importantly, it needs to make sense, because the writer is now calling attention to the speaker. It might be that there’s a narrative reason for this; the scene-level conflict might be escalating, or s/he might be striving to convey a particular emotion. Even then though, we’re not sure its necessary to swap ‘said’ for another verb because  appending an adverb to it should be sufficient to convey feeling. We as readers absorb that along with the speech marker.

Speaking from experience, we know we stumble over characters who grumble, speak through gritted teeth, while smiling or laughing. (Try that last one; one or the other is possible but not both at once.) We confess too, that list is only the beginning of the tip of a massive iceberg.

It  might feel monotonous to write, but we are great defenders of ‘said.’ We will, therefore, go on using it, be there ever so many memes that list potential synonyms. We don’t notice it when we read, it doesn’t clutter the conversation or pull us out of the narrative, and more importantly, it makes sense.

Playing Catch-Up, Spark, and Lyric Opera

We’re behindhand updating this week. Holidays have done terrible things to our understanding of where we are in the week. We took yesterday as Thursday, for instance, feeling sure we flew back from Chicago on Wednesday and had lost a day that way. (In fact it was Tuesday we lost.)

Confusion about days aside, it’s been a good holiday so far. Presently we are delving into Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent  and are thereby reaffirming our belief she is a writer who can do no wrong. In true Spark fashion it is proving weird and wonderful, but we love the sheer strangeness of her stories. We long ago decided their oddness was one of their most compelling qualities.

In other news, Christmas really has come early in the shape of an excursion to Chicago’s Lyric Opera to see Bel Canto, a world premier, and the ever-beloved The Merry Widow.

Bel Canto, we suspect, is the book that made us fall in love with opera. Of course we had to see it when we realised Chicago Lyric had turned it into an opera. We were longing to find out how fictional soprano Roxanne Coss’s music (she’s held in regard for her ‘Song to the Moon’) was realised. No composer would want to clutter his opera with parodies, and even if he did, who could do justice to Dvorjak? We’ve said before his music leaves us weeping, and Song to the Moon’ is the most beautiful aria in opera as far as we’re concerned. Parodying that was going to be no small feet. We went, consequently, keyed up with anticipation. Our mother had reservations, we suspect.

‘I hope it isn’t too modern,’ she said before we set out.

Was it modern, yes. Always lyrical, no.  Why would it be? The story -loosely based on a terrorist incident in Peru back in 1997 -is not a lyrical story. It’s dramatic, striking, memorable and compelling, even ugly in places. Lopéz’s music isn’t always the lyric and melodious music we associate with opera, but always it is suitable, and we could say nothing better of it. It personifies the story we loved at 15, we can ask no more.

As for the music of Roxanne Coss (here sung by Danielle de Niese), it is written for her, a gift from Lopéz, and it grows and expands in melodiousness as her character changes. It is raw in spots, achingly sweet in others, and like ‘Song to the Moon’, it leaves us wanting to weep. Stylistically, Lopéz might be different to Dvorjak but the feeling  behind the music, the colours and the feelings he evokes, recall Dvorjak to us in spades.

Now we are home, being lovingly persecuted by Dachshunds, muddling days of the week and better than that, drinking Red Rose Tea. You can’t get it in Scotland and we’ve missed it.

On Reading Well

Today has been a very long sort of day. It began with forgetting to put the tea in the pot before the hot water (we appear at six in the morning to have harboured the delusion that we did not need tea to make tea), and went on to involve narrowly dodging a lorry as we went to work. We have made a mental note that the symbol cane ought to come to work with us; the lorry in question made no noise and was on the side we couldn’t see. We stopped purely because the cyclist (who we also couldn’t hear but could see) stopped. As the rector stressed anxiously at Mass afterwards, the first disaster was correctable, the latter was not.

That rather set the tone for the rest of the day. It ended with a carol concert in which we sang perhaps six carols but which inexplicably lasted 2 ½ hours. We blame the half hour on the interval, which was itself that long. The rest we blame on the conductor, and we like to think we have the manners not to berate the conductor –not our usual one –here. We shan’t bother you about tonight’s concert then.

But we did want to mention a rather good book we’ve stumbled across. In fact, having ended it has perhaps added to the flatness of today. Never mind that, while we were reading it, we quite literally could not put it down, and there are very few books we’ve been able to say that about. In fact, I venture I can count them on one hand beginning with Persuasion, going on to Gaudy Night. We would now add Magic Most Deadly to that list.

It’s a murder mystery, a genre in which we are thoroughly at home, but as the title suggests, with magic thrown in for good measure. We think we put off reading it because we don’t usually go in for fantasy novels, but this is a mystery first and foremost, and before even that it’s about characters. They are characters we loved at once.

We suspect this is because we find much to relate to in Maia, her self-sufficiency, the ease with which she seems to be overlooked, her ability to go on quietly doing what needs doing exactly because it needs doing. We confess, we rather envy her deadly sharp wit, and we would most certainly like to sit down and have a cup of tea with her. Would that we could.

Len, who made up the other half of this detective partnership, won us at once too; he would be at home we feel in Piccadilly, at 110A or perhaps 17 Bottle Street. There are any number of comparisons we could make of Len, and none of them would be quite fair, because he is so completely himself. But he does put us in mind of Campion and Lord Peter, and as far as we’re concerned, there is no better way to be.

As a book it sparkled. We were once told while studying crime fiction that the trick to a successful murder mystery was to try something as yet undone, usually by finding a place where no-one had written of a murder and setting one there. The combination of Golden Age style with magic can only be called a triumph. It swept over us as a warm cup of tea, a nice touch of lightness in an otherwise dreich month, and we are glad. Also, we are now rather eagerly watching for the next instalment. Maia and Len were very much alive to us –we’re not ready to give their company up just yet.