Jane Austen and her World

Sir Gareth Ludlow, is one of Heyer’s quiet heroes; he’s tall, good-looking, rich and has impeccable manners; but he is, perhaps, a touch dull when the story opens. Being an excellent uncle to his lively nephews and nieces is all very well, but that’s not, in itself,  going to make any female reader’s heart beat faster. He needs a problem which the reader longs for him to sort out. His presenting problem is that his beautiful and adored (but spoilt and wilful) betrothed, Clarissa, was killed in a carriage accident seven years previously, leaving him broken-hearted. His only brother was killed at the battle of Salamanca, and, if the baronetcy is not to die out, then Gareth must marry and father an heir. Thinking he’s past the age of falling in love, Gareth decides to offer for the dowdy Lady Hester Theale who has been on the shelf for years.

Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer, 1956

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In 2013, Joanna Trollope published Sense & Sensibility, one of the Austen Project books which aimed to re-write Jane Austen’s novels, scene by scene, but in a modern setting. I have only just read it, and I can’t understand how I came to miss it – perhaps because 2013 wasn’t a good year for me. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and she has an interesting take on Margaret Dashwood.

Jane Austen after Cassandra Austen, stipple engraving, published 1870, National Portrait Gallery

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This post is in two parts. This week I shall look at the role of Margaret Dashwood, firstly, in Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility and then I’ll contrast it with Emma Thompson’s depiction of Margaret Dashwood in her Screenplay of Sense & Sensibility which won the 1996 Academy Award for Best Screenplay, as well as earning Emma Thompson an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. The differences are interesting.

19th century glass inkwell

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In the early 19th century, every house of consequence had a shrubbery. Sometimes it was a simple grassy area with shrubs and a few trees; sometimes there was an attractive bench beside a winding gravel path where a young lady could sit and enjoy nature; and it could be as large or small as the owner wanted. In essence, it was the antithesis of the more formal parterres, geometrical shapes and clipped box hedges at the front of the house which proclaimed the owner’s status and control over Nature.

Formal gardens proclaimed the owner’s status

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Georgette Heyer’s Venetia was first published in 1958 and it is one of the books I turn to when things are difficult. It was one of Georgette Heyer’s own favourites, she called it (and The Unknown Ajax) ‘the best of my later works’. Lord Damerel’s journey from a cynical rake, gambler, drinker and profligate to a man who is worthy of the heroine, Venetia, is a long, thorny path with many twists and turns. He had had a difficult childhood with cold, censorious, unloving parents which turned him into dissolute libertine and a man who allows himself to be cast as a villain by others. It takes him much of the book to realize that its a role he’s outgrown.

Cover by Arthur Barbosa for ‘Venetia’ by Georgette Heyer, 1958

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My late 19th century copy of Manners and Rules of Good Society by ‘A Member of the Aristocracy’ deals with everything a novelist or reader could possibly want to know about how Society operated and, as far as I can tell, the same rules applied in the Regency period. This week, I want to look at the knotty question of how one introduces somebody to someone else with regard to Jane Austen’s novels, or, indeed, any Historical novel set before the First World War.

‘Manners and Rules of Good Society’ by a Member of the Aristocracy. My copy is an 18th edition which dates from 1892

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This week, I’ve been reading up on late 18th to early 19th century’s ladies’ underwear. What, I found myself wondering, was the difference – if any – between stays and corsets; or smocks, shifts and chemises?

I discovered that the Radical essayist and poet Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), had something to say about it.

The 19th century corset – constraining or revealing?

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I have long loved the stylish and witty novels of Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) and I know that I am not alone. The actor, playwright and composer, Noël Coward, also enjoyed her novels and admired her technique – especially her clever use of irony. The novelist A.S. Byatt itemized why Heyer’s Regency novels were so successful: ‘Paradise of ideal solutions, knowing it for what it is, comforted by its temporary actuality, nostalgically refreshed for coping with the quite different tangle of preconceptions, conventions and social emphases we have to live with. Which is what good escape literature is about.’  Heyer did her research properly; her Regency world may be limited in its social range but she undoubtedly had the gift of drawing her readers in, holding them spellbound, and making them laugh and feel better.

The Quiet Gentleman by Georgette Heyer 1951

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At first glance, Mrs Bennet seems to have nothing whatsoever to recommend her as a mother. Jane Austen, who had a sharp tongue when she’d a mind to, tells us that, ‘She was a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper.’ This harsh judgement is corroborated by Mr Darcy, in his letter to Lizzy, where he doesn’t hesitate to point out  Mrs Bennet’s ‘total want of propriety’. And poor Lizzy herself, ‘blushed and blushed again with shame and vexation’ when her mother showed up her ill-breeding when she came to Netherfield when Jane was ill.

after Cassandra Austen, stipple engraving, published 1870. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

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Re-reading Emma recently, it struck me that, far more than Jane Austen’s other novels, it is permeated by a sort of unease about class. On the surface, it’s a socially stable society with the Woodhouses at Hartfield and Mr Knightley at Donwell Abbey at the apex. Their wealth and status has obviously been established for many generations – that socially damning word ‘trade’ is no part of their financial inheritance. It is the heroine, Emma Woodhouse, who is the most conscious of social class and she believes that she knows to a T where everyone fits into the class structure. It is Emma who is the most unforgiving about people wanting to climb above their ‘proper’  – as she sees it – place.

after Cassandra Austen, stipple engraving, published 1870 courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

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