Books I Read in February

Like last month, I only read two full books in February, although I’m a good portion of the way through two other books which I’m reading at the moment. The pace of my reading has slowed, and I usually only fit a few chapters in during an evening. We’ll see if this ‘two books a month’ average continues through the year. I hope not, as there is so much that I want to read and I’ll fall behind!

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Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks was my first February read. It’s a slim novel which looks at the past of a retired doctor, Robert Hendricks. The book moves between his present-day life as a retired doctor in the 1980s, his experiences in the trenches of World War II and, later, his work as a psychiatrist in the 1960s.

The plot is hinged on a letter that our protagonist receives from a mysterious stranger, retired neurosurgeon Alexander Pereira, who invites him to a small island on the south coast of France. There, Hendricks confronts aspects of his past, and his father’s suffering in the First World War. The traumas of the twentieth century are never far from the surface. Continue reading

Travels in Madrid: Part 3 – art galleries, Egyptian temples and more

After the busy sight-seeing in Toledo on the second day of my trip to Spain, my friend had to work on the third day, so I ventured out into Madrid on my own. I decided to go to El Museo Nacional del Prado — one of the most magnificent art galleries in the world.

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Before you can enter the museum, you have to go through a more basic version of airport-style security: bags through the scanner as you walk through a metal detector. As I only had a small backpack, I was allowed to carry it with me but people with any larger bags had to leave them in a room behind the security desk. Continue reading

A Very Literary Christmas – Part III

Happy

Public domain image by Pavan Trikutam

This is the final post in my “Very Literary Christmas” series, for this year at least. We began in Jane Austen’s England, exploring how Christmas was celebrated, and then we took a trip to the wild landscapes of Russia – a land of tundra, wolves, mountains and forests.

Last, but not least, we’ll drop by the March sisters in 19th century America. Little Women has to be one of the quintessential Christmas books. It opens with that well-known line, “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug“, and Christmas scenes play a large part in the novel.

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A Very Literary Christmas – Part I

This week marked the 240th anniversary of Jane Austen’s birth. She was born on December 16 1775, on a snowy day in the southern English county of Hampshire.

Her birthday isn’t the only Austen-related anniversary this month — JA’s novel Emma was published in December 200 years ago. As Christmas is fast approaching, I thought it would be fun to explore how Jane Austen would have celebrated the festive season.

Jane Austen lived during the Georgian era of British history, which I wrote about here during my Between the Pages series. A Georgian Christmas would have some recognizable similarities with popular Christmas traditions today, but equally there were aspects that are different to modern eyes.

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The “Suffragette” Controversy

Suffragette is not an easy movie to watch, and nor would you expect it to be: scenes of police brutality amidst peaceful protests, the gruelling life of London’s East End factory workers, force-feedings of imprisoned women…

The movie opens with a few lines of text, informing us that women have campaigned peacefully for the vote for decades, but they had been ignored and ridiculed. We see the suffrage movement through the eyes of one fictional woman, Maud Watts. She is reluctant to join the cause at first but is encouraged to take part by one of the women who works with her.

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Between the Pages: Thomas Hardy’s Times

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Between the Pages is a new, weekly blog series which explores the life, times and creative works of well-known authors. I plan to run the blog series until the end of 2015, focusing on one author per month. New posts every Tuesday, plus occasional bonus posts.

The first post in the series is a brief biography of the author, the second looks at the historical period of the author, and the third post discusses their creative works. Finally, the last post includes selected quotations and short excerpts by the author.


In Tuesday’s post (Thomas Hardy’s Life (part II), we discussed his difficult personal life. This post moves on to explore his historical era and the context for his writing, using examples from one of his novels.

The Victorian era was characterised by a stark divide between the social classes — the haves and the have-nots. It was the age of the Industrial Revolution, with thick smog, factories belching smoke and workers who toiled long hours from a young age. One of Hardy’s contemporaries, Charles Dickens, is well-known for his portrayal of the dismal lives of the urban poor.

While Hardy’s novels are mostly set in small country towns and villages, there were hardships nonetheless. In an essay, ‘The Dorsetshire Labourer‘, which Hardy published in 1883, he wrote about the plight of rural dwellers:

Drudgery in the slums and alleys of a city, too long pursued, and accompanied as it too often is by indifferent health, may induce a mood of despondency which is well-nigh permanent; but the same degree of drudgery in the fields results at worst in a mood of painless passivity.

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Between the Pages — Jane Austen’s Era

TITLE HER

Between the Pages is a new, weekly blog series which explores the life, times and creative works of well-known authors. I plan to run the blog series until the end of 2015, focusing on one author per month. New posts every Tuesday.

The first post in the series is a brief biography of the author, the second looks at the historical period of the author, and the third post discusses their creative works. Finally, the last post includes selected quotations and short excerpts by the author.

Jane Austen lived from 1775 – 1817, a period in British history which is known as the Georgian era. The Georgian period lasted from 1714 – 1837 and it includes the Regency period from 1792 – 1837, after which the Victorian era began. In this post, I am curious about exploring this era and the impact of Jane Austen’s times on her writing.

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“Belle” — class and racial politics in the Georgian era

The recently released movie, Belle, is based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, who was raised by her great-uncle in the privileged setting of upper-class Georgian society. It is a costume drama and there are stately homes, pretty dresses and carefully landscaped gardens aplenty. However, it is an unusual costume drama because Dido was a wealthy mixed-race woman at a time when black or mixed-race aristocrats were almost non-existent.

Photo credit: Wikipedia (public domain image)

Photo credit: Wikipedia (public domain image)

The director of Belle, Amma Asante, was inspired by this portrait, which shows Dido and her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, painted in 1779. The painting is extraordinary for its time because black or mixed-race subjects in Georgian paintings were rarely portrayed as equal to white subjects. Asante says that “Everything you see in the film, the vision I have created, comes from the painting” (quote source: Ham & High).

I saw the film last week and while I am always a fan of costume dramas, unlike many period drama films this isn’t a typical love story. There is a romance but that is mostly eclipsed by the focus on issues of class, gender and racial politics of the time in which Dido lived. Slavery wasn’t abolished in Britain until 1807 and the film is set in the 1780s, a time of great legal significance in the battle between those who opposed slavery and those who supported it. Belle is a costume drama with a difference!

Saturday Shelfie

It has been three weeks since I last blogged. I guess that hiatus has effectively broken my “one post per week” goal! But now I have five weeks of spring break (five whole weeks!) in which I hope to find more time to blog, as well as writing all of the essays and tackling the mountain of coursework I need to catch up on. And of course, more free time equals more time to read! My current read and this week’s Saturday Shelfie is an intriguing re-imagining of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

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Saturday Shelfie is a fortnightly feature and blogging event here at Cultural Life. If you’re a blogger and would like to take part, the guidelines are simple: grab the Saturday Shelfie badge for your post (right click on the badge and “save as…”) and publish a photo of your current read, along with a brief synopsis and/or your thoughts on it. Don’t forget to link back to this post so that your Saturday Shelfie post will appear as a “pingback” link below this post!

Longbourn

Longbourn by Jo Baker is a re-imagining of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice from the perspectives of the servants who live and work in the Bennet household. Although I have written before about my objections to the retelling of classic novels in my posts Do Modern Retellings of Classic Novels Actually Work? and Classic Novels, Retold, I was mostly focusing on modern re-imaginings of Jane Austen’s novels. Those irk me because I see no need to update classic novels for contemporary readers.

However, Longbourn is different. It uniquely complements Pride and Prejudice because it provides an insight into the world of the people who worked behind the scenes. Although beloved characters such as Elizabeth and Darcy are, of course, present in the book, they are always viewed through the eyes of the household staff. For example, those of you who have read P&P may remember the scene when Elizabeth enjoys a walk across the fields to visit her sister Jane.

“Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise” (P&P, chapter 7)

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In Longbourn, Jo Baker gives a new perspective to this scene and presents a very different view of P&P: the ‘other side’ of genteel Georgian England:

“If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah thought, she would be more careful not to trudge through muddy fields” (Longbourn, page 11).

What are you reading this weekend?

Jane Austen and the importance of reputation

For Day 16 of Zero to Hero, the challenge is to write a personalized interpretation from today’s Daily Prompt. Technically speaking, it is now yesterday’s prompt because this post is a day late. But better late than never, right?

The prompt: Do you have a reputation? What is it, and where did it come from? Is it accurate? What do you think about it?

Because we can do anything we like with this prompt, essentially anything about the theme of reputation, I’m not going to talk about me. Instead, we’re going to time-travel a couple of hundred years to nineteenth century England. In a little village named Steventon nestled in the rolling hills of the southern county of Hampshire, one of the world’s best-loved authors lived and wrote. At that time, she wasn’t well-known and published her books under the pseudonym of “A Lady”. Today, millions have read her works. Her name is Jane Austen.

As readers, our own personal experiences influence our interpretations of what we read. Although that holds true whatever we read, when we read books set in other times and places I think it is very advantageous to have an idea of the context of time/place. Things which seem anachronistic or outlandish in the twenty-first century did not in the nineteenth, especially the rigid societal rules which governed a woman’s choices and reputation during the time in which Austen wrote.

Jane Austen, in a watercolor painted by her sister in 1804. (Photo credit: Wikipedia. This image is in the public domain).

Jane Austen, in a watercolor painted by her sister in 1804. (Photo credit: Wikipedia. This image is in the public domain).

For me, as a fan of Austen’s novels, one of the delights of reading classic literature is being able to look through a window into another era. Social etiquette was much more complex in Austen’s time than it is now and women were constrained by the expectations of a patriarchal society. As Anne Elliot succinctly says in Persuasion: “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands” (ch. 23).

Strict standards of decorum applied and if a woman seriously transgressed the boundaries, it was bad news for her reputation. Austen does not shy away from depicting improper behavior according to the standards of the age. In Sense and Sensibility, the spirited Marianne rebels against the social customs of the time. She “pointedly refuses to conform to false modesty in courtship” (Todd, 2007: 301) by traveling alone with her suitor and corresponding with him via letter. But in doing so, her reputation is put at risk.

Why does it matter? A good reputation was everything, especially in the close-knit social circles of the Georgian middle and upper classes. A woman would provoke gossip if she danced more than two consecutive dances with the same partner, unless she was engaged or married to him. Young unmarried women were not allowed to be alone with male company: they had to be chaperoned. Society placed so many restrictions on women during this time, in terms of manners, conduct, education, professions, clothing and pretty much everything else.

Costumes from Jane Austen film and television adaptations

Costumes from Jane Austen film and television adaptations – photo copyright Grace @ Cultural Life (2013)

Women were effectively competing in a marriage market and if they did not marry (Austen herself remained unmarried), the choices were limited and poverty was never far away. As Austen said in one of her letters, “Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor. Which is one very strong argument in favor of matrimony.

I enjoy Austen’s sparkling prose and her well-written characters and I love watching adaptations of her novels. It is very easy to look at her world through a rose-tinted view. The film and TV adaptations of Austen novels are always lovely to look at; everything is very pretty and perfect and there is always a happy ending. But realistically I wouldn’t want to live in her era and be compelled to follow the regulations of society with hardly any freedom to choose my own future.

Bibliography

Todd, J (Ed). (2007). Jane Austen in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.