Friday, February 6, 2009

Janespotting: Pride and Prejudice (Austen's original)

Of course I have to start my Janespotting feature with Austen's Pride and Prejudice, first published in 1813. Although it wasn't her first novel written or published, it is first in the hearts of most Austen fans I've met. Austen sets the stage with her opening sentence: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." After this wry observation, we are introduced to the Bennet family, who have five daughters and no sons; with the estate legally obligated to pass to a male heir, this means marriage is the only means for the Bennet girls to maintain, let alone improve, their lot in life. So when the aforementioned rich, single Mr. Bingley comes to their neighborhood, Mrs. Bennet is determined one of her daughters should snag him. It is likely to be Jane, the eldest, who is so beautiful and virtuous we should hate her, but her kind heart and sensible nature make it impossible to inspire anything but fondness. (And when she finally does snag Mr. Bingley, we rejoice for her.)

Jane is the favorite sister of the second Bennet daughter, Elizabeth, aka Lizzy. Lizzy Bennet is one of Austen's most beloved heroines, and for good reason: she has all the good qualities we ourselves would like to have. She is pretty but modest about her talents, similar to Jane. She is witty and can take a joke, unlike middle sister Mary. She is also sensible when it comes to romance: she is determined she will only marry for love, but she is not obsessed with men, unlike youngest sisters Kitty and Lydia. Although she is introduced to our romantic hero, Mr. Darcy, in the third chapter of the book, she is unmoved by his wealth and status or even his avowed love for her until the last third of the book. Lizzy does make mistakes—it is her prejudice that leads her to overlook Mr. Darcy's good qualities—but she triumphs over them at the end. Who wouldn't want to be Lizzy: intelligent, independent, humorous, pretty, and lucky in love?

Some people will admit to preferring other Austen heroines, especially Emma, but I've rarely heard someone choose anyone other than Mr. Darcy as their favorite Austen hero. Now, that might have something to do with Colin Firth's swoonworthy portrayal in the 1995 BBC miniseries, but somehow I don't think so. It isn't just that Mr. Darcy is handsome, rich, and has excellent taste in women—how could we not love him when he is so head-over-heels with our beloved Lizzy? No, I think Darcy's appeal boils down to the journey his character takes during the course of the novel.

Think about it. We see Darcy through Lizzy's eyes, and he begins the novel by overlooking her and demonstrating his arrogance. When he first proposes to her, he expects to be accepted and is surprised at Lizzy's refusal. She tells him, "From the first moment ... of my acquaintance with you, your manners impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form that groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable dislike."

Wow. That's pretty harsh. But does Darcy turn ugly, become a stalker, or refuse to think of her again? No: he listens to what Elizabeth has to say, and then he changes his behavior in order to win her. (And she didn't even have to ask, let alone nag!! You didn't know Austen wrote fantasy, did you?*) After Lizzy gratefully accepts his second proposal, he tells her, "What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased." So in Mr. Darcy we have a man of mostly good qualities who is inspired by love to reform his few bad ones. No wonder we find him so appealing, and why Pride and Prejudice has been a favorite with generations of readers.

Oh, and also popular with generations of filmmakers; I'm going to check out film adaptations of P&P next. First up: the 1940 MGM production with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier.

*I'm kidding, of course. I generally have a good opinion of the male gender. And who knows, after they got married Darcy might have annoyed Lizzy by constantly ruining his clothes taking dips in Pemberley's pond.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Quilt Files, Episode 7

... Baby edition! It just happened that my general circle of family and friends experienced a baby boom shortly after we returned from England. Although I had made my first full-sized quilt and a couple of wall hangings, I was still struggling to finish the hand-quilting on my queen-sized. When I discovered my cousin was expecting, making a baby-sized quilt seemed just the thing for a little fun. Of course, Linda's baby required a special theme; it didn't matter whether it was going to be a boy or a girl, it was going to be a Deere. (If you were at her wedding, where she danced with the groom to "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy," it would be obvious to you, too.)

I spend more time than I ought in Jo-Ann Fabrics, so I knew that among their licensed fabrics they had a rather large selection of John Deere fabrics. I picked out three or four, found some greens and yellows to coordinate, and came up with this pattern, a combination of four-patches, large solid squares, and large half-triangle squares. It required some thin posts between the squares, as well a a little border, because I found the perfect backing: a whole panel featuring a John Deere tractor.

I spent a few weeks measuring and cutting and sewing and playing with how to arrange the pieces, another weekend doing some easy machine quilting, and ended up with this as the result. The cats were pretty interested (they always like to add their own contributions to my quilting projects, usually in the form of multitudinous cat hairs), and I couldn't keep them out of the photo. The quilt was a hit at the baby shower, and was especially well-received by the future father, who was glad to see something to make it easier for his new son to dream about Deeres.

Monday, February 2, 2009

What is Janespotting?

So I mentioned the other day that I was going to start a new feature in my blog, with the strange title of "Janespotting." It's no secret to anyone who knows me that I'm a big fan of Jane Austen, author of such classics as Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and several shorter and/or unfinished pieces. Many people are devotees of Austen—especially many of us literary types, it seems. Not only do many editors profess their love for Jane, but many authors admire Austen so much they create new novels (and series!) inspired by her work. Filmmakers can't stop making adaptations; last year PBS devoted a whole Masterpiece season to her work, and there have even been films based on her life. I'm a sucker for all things Jane, so "Janespotting" is going to be my excuse for revisiting her novels and exploring the myriad adaptations and reworkings she has inspired.

First, I have to make a confession: I did not always love Jane so well as I do now. But in such cases as these, a good memory is unpardonable.* That's right, I wasn't one of the girls who had a dogeared copy of Pride and Prejudice that she had read ten times by the time she was sixteen. I wasn't a very girly girl, and during my teenage years my reading consisted almost entirely of fantasy and science fiction, leavened by the occasional YA classic by authors like Paul Zindel. And look at my copy of P&P, which I probably acquired during college: it looks like the box for a feminine hygiene product from the '70s. I didn't want to read something prettified and girly, all simpering and dances with no fun to it.

Now, if I had known that Jane Austen heroines had nothing to do with simpering and that her narrators were dripping with wit, I probably would have got around to reading all her books before I reached my 30s. But it took a couple of really excellent movie adaptations (especially Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility) for me to delve more deeply into her oeuvre. (Of course I had read Austen in college, Emma being the professors' favorite, but I hadn't been inspired to go further.) And now, like many latecoming fans, I tend to be more rabid than some who may have been lifelong devotees. But perhaps that's why I'm not a purist, and can enjoy an adaptation even if it cuts a few characters or scenes that might be my favorites. I guess we'll see—and I do hope you'll join me for some fun discussions.

Coming up first (and soon): Pride and Prejudice, the original book.

*Pride and Prejudice, vol. 3, chap. 17

Crazy lady in NY, part II: Attack of the Numb Butt

So a full day at the SCBWI NY conference left me revved up. After writing my first post, I started adding to the latest chapter in my current project. I got caught up and kept writing past 10 pm, finishing around a page and half of new material. Since that's a good output for a regular day, I was quite pleased. Then it was up by 7:30, check out of the hotel early, check the bags and coats, and back up for more programs at 8:30.

We saw some great illustrations as they announced the winners of their portfolio showcase. Then we had a very amusing talk from Bruce Hale, author of the "Chet Gecko Mysteries," who started out by regaling us with a song! His speech was very specific on how to appeal to middle graders, and since that's an age group I'm starting to experiment with, I found it very helpful.

Next there was a panel of agents discussing the state of the industry. With the economy tanking, there have been layoffs and cutbacks in the publishing industry, but all four agents were hopeful that the children's market will stay strong. (After all, people may cut back on their lattes and dinners out, but who can deny a child a book?) They revealed some interesting insights into how agencies work with editors, and I remain convinced it would be a nice thing to have an agent to advocate for my work. (Now I just have to find an agent who loves my writing.)

Next, the SCBWI introduced their new DVD master classes, one on the picture book with Tomie DePaola, one on the novel with Richard Peck. Tomie (as everyone calls him) couldn't be there in person, but did call in via speaker phone so we could hear his joyful voice. Richard Peck did appear, and although his talk was brief, it was super inspiring. If you're my age, you may remember Peck for suspense novels like Are You in the House Alone?, but nowadays he mainly writes wonderful historical novels, like the Newbery Award-winning A Year Down Yonder. While I was at the conference, I picked up two of his books, and read the Civil War story The River Between Us on the plane ride home. It was a wonderful story, beautifully written, and I highly recommend it to readers of all ages.

It was almost lunchtime, I was getting peckish, and my butt was totally numb, but we had one last speaker: writer Jack Gantos, who's known for the "Rotten Ralph" and "Joey Pigza" series, among others. He was a last-minute substitute, but his speech was very funny and reminded us all about why we become writers: because we love to read.

I made it back without any travel interruptions, feeling tired and inspired. Now I have to get back to work and turn that inspiration into something great.

Photo of the Week--1/26/09

The onion domes, the red brick, the colorful tiles: we knew we were in Russia. Our Baltic cruise had a stop in St. Petersburg, which was full of beautiful buildings and interesting sights. This was one of the most beautiful: the Church of the Resurrection of Christ. It's also known as the Church of the Spilled Blood, as it’s built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was blown up by terrorists in 1881. We didn't get to enter the building, but with such a beautiful sky outside, we couldn't really mind.