The Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Minneapolis, Minnesota (MN)

It’s been five days since our reentry into the 21st century and everyday lives. For three days, Friday, September 27 – Sunday, September 29, Sarah and I joined 750 other readers to talk about one author, and just one of her books: Jane Austen’s “own darling child” Pride & Prejudice. To sit in a full convention hall to celebrate one woman and her book, 200 years old this year, was a marvel. And yet, after listening to plenary speaker, John Mullan, on “Speechless in Pride & Prejudice,” almost 800 people didn’t seem at all out of bounds for such a subject. I came away loving Jane even more, something I didn’t think was possible.

At home, I’m the trivia nut, and have even been accused of being “obsessed” with Jane Austen. Folks, I was nothing compared to this crowd. Mullan opened up his talk with a trivia question (I instantly felt I had found my people): How many umbrellas are there in Jane Austen’s novels? I’m on the trivia level of “Who is the Bennet’s housekeeper?” (Hill. And Mrs. Reynolds is the housekeeper at Pemberley.) That’s pretty detailed for the average reader, right? So, you can see how the question of how many umbrellas are mentioned in all of Austen’s novels quickly recategorized me as a reader, trivia collector, and fan. The answer: 5, 4 furled and 1 unfurled! And one of my favorite lines from his talk: “What is important in Jane Austen’s novels? EVERYTHING.” I loved Jane Austen before but now I have a much better sense of her utter genius. And if I’m obsessed, l don’t know what to call the rest of that room!

Imagine our delight on the second evening when, for our first dance of the “Netherfield Ball,” we were paired with the Bingley sisters! Over one hundred of us gathered that night to dance until midnight to live musicians and a very skilled (and serious) English Country Dance caller. Let it be known that Sarah is an excellent dance partner and we had the best time in our Regency gowns. We dressed for the evening in dresses that we have been thinking about and planning for months. And it was all worthwhile as we sat at the banquet and listened to a toast given by one of Austen’s descendants (from one of her brother’s lines) in a room colorful with many dresses and hats and feathers. A great moment.

We enjoyed this AGM even more than we hoped we might (and my hopes were pretty high). The speakers were top notch and a joy to listen to. We must have listened to six or seven (eight?) talks on various aspects of Austen and P&P. The breakout sessions were more of a mixed bag (I wasted one session on a man whose talk was on why Wickham was really the victim, and how Georgiana just as likely tried to seduce him as he her. It was mostly a joke, but not that funny. Oh, well.) But there was just enough of a mix of fashion and shopping (think Darcy magnets and notepads), scholarship (they say the mix is about 50% academics, 50% fans), dancing (we covered that) and socializing (it was fun to learn how long people have been coming, and we met more than one mom/daughter pair).

We couldn’t help but wonder what the staff of the Hilton thought as they served tea and watched us come and go, some in costume the whole time, some not. One man, referring to the slideshow of stills from the 1995 BBC version of P&P with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, pointed to Ehle and said, “So settle this for me, is that her, or is that an actress?” So they kept us grounded in reality by reminding us that not everyone has read all of Austen’s novels multiple times, or *gasp* maybe not even heard of her!

So much to talk about, and we weren’t even there for Thursdays festivities! When we first arrived, we were talking to a woman in the elevator (we all wore name tags on ribbon) saying we had just arrived. She said, “Oh, I’ve been here since yesterday, so I’m already deep in.” We know better, now, after coming back home, what she meant. It was an absolute delight to drop into Austen’s world, as much as we could while eating hotel banquet food, and devote days to our appreciation for a master of the pen. I was reminded in one talk that Austen was not mentored; she was not surrounded by a community of contemporary writers; she didn’t keep up a correspondence with other artists of her time. She did what she did on her own, even more remarkable because it was so different than anything that came before. She was singular.

I thank all the lucky stars, my family, Sarah, and everything that made it possible for us to get there, enjoy it, and come back to tell the tale. Sarah took this photo of me at the banquet listening to the toast. A bucket list moment.

IMG_1252

Visiting Orchard House, Concord, MA

A long time ago, way back at the end of July, Michelle and her daughter invited me and my daughter to accompany them on a trip pilgrimage to Orchard House, the home of Louisa May Alcott, in Concord, MA. While she did not live there growing up, it was where she wrote the book Little Women and where she chose to set the events of the story.

Michelle and I have, of course, read Little Women, and both of our daughters were about halfway through the book at the time of our trip pilgrimage. It was one of the books I loved when I was younger, and I hesitate to even take a stab at how many times I’ve read it. It has meant a lot to me, and I think I can even say that it was been a strong influence in my life.

There was, however, a time when I was embarrassed by my love of Little Women and probably wouldn’t have included it in a list of top ten books. Nevertheless, my old and well-worn copy has traveled with me from bedroom to dorm room to apartment to home and sat in prominent display on each of my book shelves. I think my embarrassment might have stemmed from the sincerity of the story and the characters and the values. We live in a more jaded time, and our self-awareness (and maybe our literature) can be more ironic and less genuine. But I still read Little Women now the way I did when I was eleven years old—with complete sincerity—and I think that’s the best and most honest way to approach the book.

There is lot that can be said about Louisa May Alcott, her life, her heroines, and Jo March in particular. I think I’m going to save all of that for another post—or for Michelle. I’m going to end this with a few pictures.

This first one is Michelle and the girls in front of Orchard House. No photos were allowed inside the house, but if you’ve ever seen the film version with Katherine Hepburn as Jo, then you know almost exactly what it looks like. And if you haven’t, you can still get a pretty excellent idea from the book itself. I found it remarkably moving to be in the house because I recognized so much of it from my countless re-reads!

Image

And here are a couple of pictures of Louisa May Alcott:

Image    Image

Women as the Heroes of Their Own Stories

Yet more food for thought in the discussion of modern heroines (i.e. major female characters who don’t die, marry, or go crazy by the end of the book). This article in The Atlantic by Kelsey McKinney. The first half, in any case, since the second describes a book I have not read.

I do take issue with certain examples the author uses, such as her suggestion that Jane Eyre and “all of the Bennett sisters” were blinded by love. That strikes me as a misreading of Jane Eyre’s character—although one that is probably shared by other “readers”— as well as a (deliberate?) misunderstanding of the social forces at work in Jane Austen’s novels that required women to be well married in order to have any status or agency. The very fact that some of the Bennett sisters not only desire love in their marriages but are willing to reject secure but emotionally unsatisfactory relationships can be viewed as a principled and brave choice, given the possibly quite stark alternative—penniless, homeless, dependent spinsterhood.

And of course, there’s the argument to be made (as we have made here previously) that so many great works of literature that focus on men also involve a love story. Her first example of “Nick Carraway’s lurid account of the 1920’s” strikes me as a bit off, since The Great Gatsby revolves around one man’s obsessive love of a particular woman.

On the other hand, I really see her point, although I disagree with some of her specifics. I have most definitely normalized for myself the idea of male heroes that we are all meant to relate to (and I have) because “man” means mankind, both men and women, or so I’ve been told, and the male experience is meant to be understood as the universal experience. I’ve been willing to go along with that, and it’s been to my edification to do so, or so I believe.

But! The very wrongness of this—why should women not be heroes, too, in stories with supposedly universal themes?—was brought home to me in a big way when I recently stumbled across this post (several years old now) that proposes a genderswap version of The Lord of the Rings films in which all the major characters were actually portrayed by actors of the opposite sex: http://october-26.livejournal.com/371384.html?format=light. Just look at it! Some of this “casting” is brilliant, and I can totally see it. But more than that, I want to see it! Or read it. I would watch the hell out of this movie. Or read those books.

As some of you may have heard me claim before, The Lord of the Rings is my bible. It’s my moral text. I read and internalized it for myself at a fairly young and impressionable age, and that is something I am still happy about. But how much more powerful or meaningful might it have been with more women characters? How different might it be with all women? Not so much in substance as in impact? What might that have meant to me? And why is there still no real literary equivalent that I’m aware of?

Anyway, just revisiting the old conversation here because it’s one I don’t have good answers for but don’t get tired of having. Looking forward to your thoughts!

Achilles and other things

Bowling for Jane is on a temporary reading hiatus, and it’s been good! I mean that in the best possible way. Our next meeting at the end of August will feature our first ever joint read/discussion of a Jane Austen novel—Pride and Prejudice, in honor of both the 200th anniversary of its publication and Michelle and Sarah’s pilgrimage to JASNA’s 2013 AGM. I’m going to translate that into English now. Michelle and Sarah will be attending the Jane Austen Society of North America’s 2013 Annual General Meeting in Minneapolis, September 27-29. It will be Pride and Prejudice-themed, and yes, we will be wearing Regency dresses to the ball.

We didn’t get around to discussing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn here on this blog back when we read it in May. I’m not sure I have a lot more to say about it at this time except that I am so glad to have had the opportunity to read it again, as an adult. It has stayed with me this time, and I thought about it quite a lot in the weeks following our meeting. I think it’s a Great Book, for reasons which I find sort of difficult to articulate, but which have something to do with putting the story in the mouth of a child. I loved Huckleberry’s voice from page one, and I soon came to love his sweetness. Even if the story seemed to drag in parts, there were so many wonderful payoffs both in terms of humor and poignancy. Mark Twain walked a very fine line between not being openly judgmental and at the same time not letting anyone off the hook. I suspect I’ll read it again someday.

song of achillesIn the meantime, I tackled one mind-numbing brain-vacation of a book, and then I read The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. It was so, so very good. I cried through the end. Tears are not the measure of good book, of course, but if they are appropriate, I certainly want to be moved to offer them. They were, and I was.

I love Greek mythology, and I love how she told the story of Achilles through the eyes of Patroclus, his friend, closest companion, and lover. At first I wasn’t certain how I would feel about the first person narrative—I sometimes find it limiting—but by the end it was just so deeply intimate. (I don’t entirely understand why the tense sometimes veered back and forth between past and present. Perhaps another read would make that clear?) Miller took everything familiar about the story and more or less left it alone, changing very little. The funny thing being, of course, that the more wild and less believable aspects of the tale are original to it—things like Achilles hiding and dressing as a woman to escape going to war in Troy. (There is no mention of Achilles’ heel being his only weakness, which is kind of interesting considering how prevalent that metaphor is, and yet it doesn’t really seem to be missing.)

Miller immerses us in a strange world where gods, both greater and lesser, observe and intervene in the lives of humans, choosing favorites, choosing sides, sharing prophecies, demanding sacrifices. Kings are heroes, and heroes are larger than life—stronger, louder, more fearless, more gifted than common men. This world of gods and heroes collides with the human one, where concerns like love and friendship, loyalty and honor, fear and pain and death are things that matter across time, and that we as readers can still understand and sympathize with.

She is a beautiful writer. On nearly any page I could pick out a perfectly glorious sentence that I would give anything to be able to write myself. The language feels simple, sparse in places, but it is incredibly evocative. We know Odysseus, we know Deidameia, we know Thetis—even though all of these characters are secondary to Patroclus and Achilles. Thetis, in particular, comes to life. She terrifies Patroclus, and she terrifies me!

The story really isn’t about the Trojan War, although that is the backdrop for a good portion of it. It is about the love between Patroclus and Achilles. Patroclus makes a choice very early on to follow Achilles. He sees and brings out what is best in him. Achilles’ love for Patroclus is his most humanizing quality. There is a threat hanging over them because they know through prophecy that Achilles will never leave Troy alive, but in the ten or more years they spend fighting the war there, they manage to carve out a life and protect their own happiness. Eventually it becomes clear that they do so at the expense of other men’s happiness—others who are separated from their homes and families, who are wounded and killed—but it seems that they do so innocently up until the end.

All men, of course, must die, but few know the time or means of their death or have the power to waylay it. Their love is precious and intense because they know and fear that its dissolution must come with the death of Achilles, and yet it never diminishes for this very reason. It spoils nothing for those who know their mythology to say that neither of them seems to seriously consider that it might be Patroclus who dies first.

I will say that Patroclus, as a character, pales in comparison to Achilles, which is actually pretty natural given that he’s not the child of an immortal! He sells himself short, as do most others, except for Briseis and Chiron. At first, I felt his death most strongly because of the pain it caused Achilles, but in the end it was he himself I cried for. Patroclus, caring and loving and loyal, the best of the Greeks.

I am now very tempted to read other retellings of Greek mythology. Does anyone have any suggestions? I don’t think I can tackle translations of Homer, but versions of the Iliad or the Odyssey that you particularly enjoyed and would recommend?