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Archive for the ‘Jane Austen’s World’ Category

Inquiring readers: I saw Emma. 2020 last March with my friend and neighbor, Jane, who was delighted with her first exposure to Austen’s favorite heroine. I began to write about the film, but laid the post aside when COVID-19 began to spread rapidly. I recently re-watched the DVD multiple times. The more I viewed the movie, the more I appreciated director Autumn de Wilde’s choices for retelling Emma’s story.

Many admirable reviews have already been written about this film and Autumn de Wilde’s directing, acting, fashion, sets and locations. The comedic and more absurd scenes were those that stayed longest with me. They, and the sumptuousness of the film’s photography, set it apart from other Emma adaptations. Here, in no particular order, are my thoughts.

Emma. 2020 begins with a contraction of Austen’s opening line:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

The first scene demonstrates much of Austen’s opening statement. At dawn, just before sunrise, we see Emma walking across a lawn with a female servant and a footman, who holds a lantern to light the way. Inside a greenhouse, our heroine points to flowers, which the servant snips. While the scene is not in the book, Autumn de Wilde economically sets the stage for the viewer. Only a high born lady behaves in this manner, for Emma could have cut the blooms herself. I laughed silently in the theater; in private viewings I laughed out loud.

This sequence demonstrates that Emma is beautiful and rich, and that a rare life event has come to distress her—the loss of a beloved governess and mother figure. Miss Taylor is to wed Mr. Weston and move to his house, hence Emma’s reason for choosing the flowers for the wedding bouquet. The scene also demonstrates de Wilde’s eye for art and beauty. The colors and setting of this scene, and its quiet calm remind me of one of my favorite paintings by John Singer Sargent, although its subject matter is different.

Painting of Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885-6 John Singer Sargent. The Tate Gallery. Public domain image.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885-6 John Singer Sargent. The Tate Gallery. Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons

Inside the wedding chapel, we see the citizens of Highbury and their reverential attitude towards the Woodhouses as they take their seats in the front row pew. We also meet Mr. Elton (Josh O’Conor), whose exaggerated gestures and hand movements are a sight to behold, and Miss Bates, played to perfection by comedian Miranda Hart. More about both later.

But, But, Butt!

We first see Mr George Knightley (Johnny Flynn) astride his fine steed heading towards his magnificent house (Wilton House). He walks to his chambers through an exquisite interior filled with furniture draped in Holland covers, and enters his personal rooms. His valet awaits him as he undresses. My heart flutters, females around me gasp, and male viewers wonder what all the fuss is about, as we feast our eyes on Mr Knightley’s sculpted backside. He casually shaves in the nude and washes himself from a basin, then is dressed by his manservant. His attitude in this intimate setting is as casual as Emma’s when she directed someone else to cut flowers for her.

In another scene, a lady’s maid, who has just finished dressing Emma, leaves her alone. As she warms herself in front of the fire, we see that Regency ladies did not wear underpants. These items were considered shocking, for ladies wore stockings and a chemise under their gowns, while knickers and drawers were worn only by lower and working class women. This is the most flesh that any Emma in any film adaptation has shown, albeit in profile. I wonder if de Wilde drew inspiration from this 1796 caricature entitled “Comfort” by Matthew G. Lewis?

print cartoon of a lady warming her bare backside near a fire.

Comfort, 1796, M.G. Lewis. New York Public Library digital collection, Public domain print.

The heroine and hero, Emma Woodhouse and Mr George Knightley

Anya Taylor-Joy (Emma), possesses the fine acting skills necessary to play this complex young woman. After seeing her in The Queen’s Gambit, I (we all) predict a stellar career for this young actress, who was 23 when she was cast. Her expressive face changes like a chameleon’s, and her unusual features–beautiful at times, but not so pretty when she’s being haughty, argumentative, angry, or devious–sets her apart from the other blander-faced actresses who have portrayed Emma.

Taylor-Joy, as well as 36-year-old Johnny Flynn (Mr Knightley) are well cast for their roles and each other. George Knightley, the hero of the piece, is 16 years older than Emma, a not unrealistic age difference given that it was common for a young woman to marry an older man in Austen’s day. In this film, the actors are physically well matched. Both are unusually handsome people who share an undeniable chemistry on screen. This attractive combination overcomes any distaste the viewer might have towards Mr Knightley’s tendency to preach at Emma like a stuffy old uncle, or to her misguided and almost ruinous interference in Harriet Smith’s life.

Screenshot of the actors in the film

Screenshot of thumbnail images for Emma. 2020

Mr. Woodhouse transformed

Mr. Woodhouse, played by Bill Nighy, is still the fearful hypochondriac Austen created, but in this film the man is broadly comical, which audiences acquainted with Nighy’s acting roles would naturally expect. Austen readers will not quite recognize Nighy’s Mr. Woodhouse, whose first entrance as a vigorous man, bounding down the stairway and landing with a jump, is a surprise and good for a chuckle. Emma caters to him as usual, but more as a fussy daughter than as someone caring for an infirm man old before his time. Nighy’s facial ticks and physical mannerisms are priceless, but his outer awareness of Emma’s needs and emotions, while touching in the film, are not in Austen’s book (unless I missed something). The actor’s interpretation is of a pampered man who spends his cozy, privileged life in fear of germs, drafts, and rich foods, and losing the last of his family (an adoring daughter) to marriage. He wants his comforts to stay exactly the same.

Bartholomew and James, the draft dodgers

Nighy and the two footmen, Batholomew and James, form a Regency version of the Marx brothers, and provide a series of comedic interludes. While the two footmen never speak, viewers know from their expressions and physical mannerism exactly what they’re thinking. Aside from their usual footmen duties, which are onerous, they are in charge of anticipating Mr Woodhouse’s every need and defending him from drafts—whether from a window or cold air entering an insufficiently heated room, or to hide their master behind a series of screens to provide privacy for Emma and George Knightley at the end of the film. (Austen’s Mr Woodhouse would not have been so observant.) 

Mr Woodhouse surrounded by screens to protect him from drafts

Publicity still of Mr Woodhouse protected from drafts

B & J’s crowning moment comes when they unveil Emma’s simple watercolor portrait of Harriet in a too ornate frame selected by Mr Elton. As they reveal the portrait within the awful frame, their eyebrows twitch, their eyes brighten with excitement, and their mouths and cheeks emanate humorous contempt. A tight-lipped Mr Knightley, knowing what Mr Elton intends, remains sternly quiet.

James and Bartholomew flank the frame as Mr Elton is about to reveal its contents.

The moment before James and Bartholomew reveal the portrait in Mr Elton’s frame. Detail of publicity still.

Food, food, glorious food

Regency tables were indeed laden with an outrageous variety and quantity of foods during special occasions, such as a wedding breakfast, private ball, or holiday dinner. In this film, the food served during tea service was over the top insane. During Austen’s era, afternoon tea was meant to be a small stopgap meal between breakfast and a dinner that was served quite late by the upper classes. Emma would have offered visitors, such as Harriet and the Eltons, simple sandwiches, biscuits, and small cakes with a cuppa.

Still, it gave me a chuckle to see Harriet Smith’s eyes bug out at the sight of all the goodies on the tables in front of her and behind her, and look to Emma for direction on when to start eating, which never came. Better yet, in a later scene in honor of Mr Elton’s new bride, both tables groaned with even more sponge and tea cakes, cucumber sandwiches, strawberries, cookies, crumpets, chocolate truffles, and more. When Mr. Elton reaches for a cookie, Mrs Elton instantly slaps her caro sposo’s hand away, telling us in no uncertain terms who wears the knickers in that family!

Image of Mr and Mrs Elton taking tea

Mr and Mrs Elton at Emma’s tea. Publicity still, cropped

The most memorable table scene is reserved for Miss Bates, who shouts at a dinner in honor of Miss Fairfax, “MOTHER, YOU MUST SAMPLE THE TART!” Whereupon Mr Woodhouse persuades the always silent, nearly deaf Mrs Bates to sample something less rich so as not to upset the digestion. (Miss Hart’s unforgettable delivery earned a place in the film’s promotional ads.) 

He loves me, he loves me not. Oh, no! I love another man! Oh, drat. I was wrong.

Harriet Smith is Emma’s naive victim and putty her hands. Played by Mia Goth, she is, in my opinion, the best Harriet of all the actresses who have portrayed her. After Miss Taylor wed Mr. Weston (whose successful union Emma credits herself for achieving), she casts around for another match making opportunity and settles on Harriet, the natural daughter of an unknown somebody. Despite Mr Knightey’s warnings, Emma convinces herself of Harriet’s noble connections and takes the gullible young girl under her wing.

Mia Goth’s interpretation of this naive and fickle young woman, so easily persuaded by her betters, is priceless—from her wide-eyed expressions, innocent reactions, cute duck-ish gait, to her puppy-ish adoration of Emma. More importantly, this Harriet’s inconstancy is believable, for she craves Emma’s approval. In short order, she falls for Mr. Martin, rejects his sincere proposal of marriage (in the hope of pleasing Emma); is persuaded to fall for Mr. Elton, only to soulfully mourn his rejection; then falls for Mr Knightley when he asks her to dance after Mr Elton cuts her to the quick at the Weston’s ball. When she realizes she was wrong in her perception about Mr Knightley returning her affection, she is easily persuaded to fall for Mr Martin again after he renews his pledge of love and offer of wedded bliss. (Whew, gentle reader, that was a mouthful!)

Pretty maids in a row

The one visual that instantly brings Emma. 2020 to our minds is of the long line of young ladies in Mrs Goddard’s boarding school walking around Highbury (Lower Slaughter) and the countryside in bright red robes, which were actually popular during this period, and dutifully following Mrs Goddard, with Harriet Smith among them. Their frequent appearances puts a smile on my face, but they also eerily remind me of A Handmaid’s Tale.

Image of a line of girls in red robes

screenshot of girls following Mrs Goddard two by two through Highbury

Miss Bates and her jabbering

Miss Bates in both book and film regurgitates inane reams of monopolizing blather. Miranda Hart plays the spinster to perfection. Despite her character’s deficiencies as a sensible communicator, Miranda projects Miss Bates’s tenderheartedness and vulnerability at the same time. When Emma is corralled by Miss Bates in the haberdashery shop, her face barely disguises her chagrin and she does all but turns somersaults to get away. Miss Bates, not deterred, follows Emma around the shop, babbling all the while.

Miss Bates plays a crucial role in the pivotal Box Hill scene (Leith Hill in the film), where Emma cruelly points out the spinster’s talent in making more than three dull statements. Almost instantly Emma realizes how callous she sounded. As Miss Bates fights off tears, the silence in the group is so awkward that even Augusta Elton holds her tongue. No one spares Emma any sympathy. After Mr Knightley tells her angrily, “It was badly done, indeed!” he reminds her of Miss Bates’s humble situation and lower status. Sitting alone in her carriage, she finally begins to understand how others see her and the picture isn’t pretty.

The Eltons

We now come to the Eltons, a comically awful couple written for the film much as Jane Austen envisioned them–ridiculous and puffed up with their own consequence. I recall reading somewhere that Augusta Elton (Tanya Reynolds) mirrors Emma’s worst traits stretched to the nth degree. It is fitting that this nouveau riche upstart, whose father made his fortune in trade, has a brother-in-law named Mr Suckling. Autumn de Wilde chose to dress Augusta in an exaggerated way. She wears too much jewelry and chooses gowns with too many ribbons and ruffles and too bright colors. Her hairstyle did not exist until at least 7-12 years after Emma was published, but it suits the character to a tee.

Mr Elton leaves Highbury in a huff after Emma forcefully rejects his proposal. This comedy of misunderstandings resulted from Emma believing he was wooing Harriet, when in fact he was wooing her. Alone in a carriage with his love, and away from Harriet or any other interference, Mr Elton declares his undying devotion. Emma is horrified, and reminds him of Harriet. Mr Elton, still dewy-eyed, says unctuously, “Who can think of Miss Smith when Miss Woodhouse is near?” Taylor-Joy is outraged and disgusted at the same time, and all but blurts out “Ewww!” before decisively rejecting him. The true Mr Elton appears instantly—a nasty, mean, and spiteful man. Pounding the carriage roof he shouts, “Stop the carriage!” When it doesn’t stop soon enough, he screams, “STOP THE CARRIAGE!” Before he knows it, he’s left out in the snow, leaving Emma clueless as to how she read the tea leaves wrong. The constancy of his love becomes clear when he is engaged to the very rich Augusta within four weeks of meeting her!

A dance, and a proposal in the nosebleed section

Mr Knightley and Emma fall in love dancing in a scene at the Weston’s ball that is exactly right and, oh, so romantic. She witnesses him rescuing Harriet from Mr Elton’s cruel rejection of the young girl as a dance partner, and dances with her himself. Emma turns all mushy inside thinking of Mr Knightley as, well, a knight. They dance. They fall in love…but, wait. How can this be? It is not the end of the film!

A few more misunderstandings ensue, causing our hero and heroine to pull away, despite their burning desire for each other. Mr Knightley believes that Emma harbors real feelings for Frank Churchill. Meanwhile, she has discovered that Harriet has fallen in love with her knight. Then Mr Knightley learns of Frank’s engagement to Jane Fairfax, and rushes to Hartfield to console Emma. Emma feels guilty about Harriet and… well, see for yourself:

I learned one new medical fact in a google search: Nosebleeds can indeed result from stress or anxiety. Rumor has it that Anya Taylor-Joy had a nosebleed on cue. What an actress!

A tisket, a tasket, humble pie in my basket

Emma’s visits with baskets for her victims mark turning points in her self-awareness. After the disastrous picnic at Box Hill, she visits Miss Bates in her small rooms. The spinster is gracious and grateful for the food, which makes Emma feel even worse. This is a true humble pie moment.

Her next basket visit is to Mr Martin’s farm to apologize. It is just as cringe worthy. She carries a freshly killed goose, some jams or jellies, and her rolled up watercolor of Harriet. Her arrival in person with kind words and a gift signify strong hints meant to encourage the farmer to try his suit with Harriet again. Thankfully, he takes the hint.

All’s well that ends well

Mr Knighley and Emma marry in a lovely wedding. Mr Woodhouse is not unhappy, knowing that Mr Knightley will come to live at Hartfield so that Emma won’t move away. The Westons have a baby, and Harriet Smith will meet her papa (finally), who turns out to be a tradesman. She and Mr Martin are seen as a couple at church. The ending is fittingly romantic, and my heart flutters once again.

In conclusion and in all seriousness

Emma. 2020 is director Autumn de Wilde’s first full length feature film. Before this project, she’d directed music videos and published several books. She is also well-known for her work as a portrait photographer. In this film, she told Emma’s story in a little over 2 hours. Many plot lines from Austen’s second longest book were cut, and a number, such as the opening sequence and bullet pudding game, deviate completely from the novel. The divisions into the four seasons is a smart way to show the passage of time, and the film’s fashions, locations, and sets are breathtaking. Historians caution viewers in general that the houses in Austen films, especially Wilton House, are too grand for her characters, who are often country gentry. Wilton House is the seat of the Earls of Pembroke, a peerage title first created in the 12th century. While Mr. Knightley is quite wealthy, it beggars belief that he could afford a house as grand as this, but this story is filmed as a fairy tale after all.

Additional Resources:

View ten short clips of movie scenes from Focus Features https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Emma+2020+focus+features

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By Brenda S. Cox

“I would rather do anything than be teacher at a school” — Elizabeth Watson in The Watsons

No doubt you’ve heard how restrictive Austen’s world was for women. When a woman got married, all her wealth became the property of her husband (unless she had a good lawyer who arranged things differently). A lady without money or a husband might end up a governess (Jane Fairfax compares that to slavery) or a teacher at a girl’s school (Elizabeth Watson would “rather do anything than be a teacher at a school”). A man could divorce his wife by accusing her of adultery (even if there wasn’t what we would consider clear proof), but a woman was almost never able to divorce her husband.

Despite all that, there were outstanding women of the Georgian era who broke through those barriers. Some were widows, some were single, some were married.

Two fascinating books tell us about some of these boundary-breaking women. Mike Rendell’s Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era (Pen & Sword 2018) brings us seventeen women from the eighteenth-century who made outstanding contributions in Arts & Literature; The Scientific World; Business & Commerce; and Reform and Education. Rendell explains the legal position of women in Austen’s world, and after each short biography gives a wider picture. For example, at the end of the chapter on Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who promoted smallpox inoculation in England, we learn more about smallpox, “the most dreadful scourge of the human species” (according to Edward Jenner, who developed vaccinations). At the end of Trailblazing Women, Rendell continues the saga of women’s achievements in England, into the present.

Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era, by Mike Rendell, tells the story of 17 boundary-breaking women.

In a complementary book, What Regency Women Did For Us (Pen & Sword 2017), Rachel Knowles shares the lives of twelve Regency women who made an impact on their communities and on our world today. Knowles does not give such wide coverage as Rendell, but tells the fascinating story of each woman in more depth. She is more focused on the Regency period, while Rendell adds earlier women from the 18th century.

What Regency Women Did For Us, by Rachel Knowles, tells the stories of a dozen Regency women who impacted our world today.

Rendell and Knowles chose some of the same women and some different ones. Both introduce actress Sarah Siddons, scientific book writer Jane Marcet, engineer/inventor Sarah Guppy, artificial stone manufacturer Eleanor Coade, and prison reformer Elizabeth Fry. Rendell adds businesswomen, writers, an anti-slavery campaigner (Lady Middleton), and others, while Knowles adds mountaineer Mary Parminter, fossilist Mary Anning, astronomer Caroline Herschel, our own Jane Austen, and more.

Let’s look at a few of my favorites, out of all these fascinating women.

Jane Marcet: Author of Science Books for Women

Rendell identifies Jane Marcet as a “scientific book writer,” while Knowles calls her “Faraday’s teacher.” I love that Marcet wrote science books for girls and women in an age when many thought that reading and arithmetic, embroidery and music, were all that women needed to know. I can imagine Fanny Price reading Marcet’s books and developing her love for the natural world.

Like Jane Marcet, I love chemistry, and I love to write about complex issues, making them clear and understandable. So Marcet seems like a kindred spirit to me. Her husband was a doctor who enjoyed chemistry. They attended lectures together at the Royal Institution in London to hear Humphry Davy explain the latest chemical discoveries. Jane Marcet had been given a basic grounding in science at home and even learned some Latin, which Regency girls rarely studied.  However, she still needed her husband’s help in understanding the scientific vocabulary that Davy and other lecturers used.

A page from Jane Marcet’s Conversations in Chemistry, which taught science to young women and many young men, using discussions, pictures, and everyday examples.

Marcet wrote a book, Conversations on Chemistry, to help other women understand those lectures. In dialogues between a woman teacher and two female students, Marcet explains basic chemical concepts in clear language with everyday illustrations. Practical experiments, questions and answers, and Jane Marcet’s own illustrations make the book even easier to understand. She published it anonymously in 1805 (as Jane Austen published her books anonymously), but her name was later added to it. The book was very popular in both England and America.

Conversations on Chemistry became a standard school textbook for teaching science to girls, as well as for teaching at home. But Marcet’s book didn’t just benefit girls. Boys without access to much schooling also learned from it. Marcet’s book introduced Michael Faraday, who had little formal education, to chemistry. Faraday went on to make major discoveries in chemistry and electricity and also lectured to the public at the Royal Institution.

Jane Marcet went on to write popular books teaching economics, natural philosophy (science), and botany, as well as Conversations on the Evidences of Christianity. She helped revolutionize education, particularly for women, making these subjects accessible to all.

Hester Bateman: Silversmith and Business Owner

When I visited colonial Williamsburg during the 2019 JASNA AGM, I was surprised to learn that most eighteenth-century trades included women. In England, Hester Bateman was a well-known silversmith, with her own company. Like many Georgian women who made names for themselves, her career began when her husband died. He was a silver worker who taught his wife to assist him. She was illiterate herself, but he bequeathed his tools to her, rather than to their sons, and she immediately took over the business, calling it “Hester Bateman and Company.” She registered her own mark, “HB,” which still identifies her work today.

Hester Bateman developed beautiful, simple, classical designs for the dining rooms and tea tables of the upwardly-mobile middle classes. Her family business expanded into  a workshop across the backs of three houses. She and her company produced many thousands of silver objects. Her sons, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren eventually took over the prosperous business. But Hester herself ran the company until she died at age 82.

This mustard-pot is lined with blue glass so the mustard does not react with the silver. It was made in 1774 by Hester Bateman, a lady silversmith with her own mark. Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, gift of Thomas M. and Harriet S. Gibbons, used by permission.

In Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era, Rendell tells us about other Georgian businesswomen who made lace, sold stocks, manufactured artificial stone (used for anything from tiny ornaments to giant statues), owned a print shop, wrote and sold cookbooks, and manufactured chocolates. He even includes a “bigamist, litigant and courtesan,” Teresia ‘Con’ Phillips, as a businesswoman, to show the limited avenues available for women. He wonders why there were not more Georgian businesswomen. However, I’m impressed that, despite the restrictions on women owning property and having their own money, there were so many Georgian businesswomen that we still know about today.

Madame Tussaud: Artist and Businesswoman

Rachel Knowles calls Marie Tussaud “Entrepreneur Extraordinaire.” Madame Tussaud was a talented artist and craftswoman as well as a smart and creative businesswoman.The wax museums she developed are still popular today.

Waxwork of Marie Tussaud, at Madame Tussaud’s in London

Marie’s mother was housekeeper to a Swiss doctor, Philippe Curtius, who adopted Marie as his daughter. Curtius made wax models to show the anatomy of the human body. His models were so successful that he left medicine and set up a waxworks in Paris. He taught Marie how to make wax models and how to run a business. During the French Revolution, Marie and Curtius made wax models of the royal family, of people who had been guillotined, and of prisoners and revolutionaries. Marie took impressions of people’s heads shortly after they were cut off—quite a gruesome job.

When Curtius died, he left his waxworks and other property to Marie. She married François Tussaud, but her marriage settlement ensured that she kept control of her own property—that was unusual in France, as in England. It was a good move, since her husband turned out to be irresponsible with money. In 1802 she moved her exhibition to England. Her husband stayed in France, and she eventually gave him her French property, but she kept the waxworks and her income from it.

After some difficult years and an unprofitable partnership with an English businessman, Madame Tussaud developed her exhibition into a popular traveling show. In 1833 she set up a permanent exhibit in London. Her sons took it over—she transferred it into their names to keep her husband from getting it.  The waxworks survived the centuries and Madame Tussaud’s is still one of the most popular attractions in London, with related wax museums around the world.

In What Regency Women Did for Us, Knowles includes other women with unusual stories, such as Harriet Mellon, the penniless Irish peasant who became a wealthy banker and left a fortune to a Victorian woman philanthropist. Mary Parminter, another unusual Regency woman, took the Grand Tour of Europe (usually a men’s activity) with her cousins while they were unmarried, and climbed mountains. Mary stayed single, keeping control of her extensive fortune and using it to build a lovely chapel and provide homes for independent single women.

If you have been thinking that teaching and writing were the only occupations open to Georgian and Regency women, these two books will open your eyes. Many women pushed outside the boundaries of societal expectations and left lasting legacies. In both Mike Rendell’s Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era and Rachel Knowles’ What Regency Women Did For Us you will meet many such women and enjoy their exciting stories.

You can find Mike Rendell at Georgian Gentleman. Rendell has written books on other aspects of Georgian society, including Journal of a Georgian Gentleman.

You can find Rachel Knowles at Regency History. For an additional review of What Regency Women Did For Us, see “Women of Science, Women of Faith.” Rachel has also written a fun Regency novel, A Perfect Matchand is about to release a second book in the series, A Reason for Romance.

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When I visited Bath in the U.K., I made a point of seeing No. 1 Royal Crescent, a fascinating museum whose interior was decorated in the Georgian style of the late 18th century/early 19th century. One had the feeling when entering the house that it may have been inhabited by people Jane Austen might have met in the Pump Room or the Upper Assembly Rooms. 

Completion of the Royal Crescent, Thomas Malton, 1769. No. 1 Royal Crescent sits towards the front.

Completion of the Royal Crescent, Thomas Malton, 1769. No. 1 Royal Crescent sits towards the front. Image in the public domain. Wikimedia.

My one lasting memory is of the kitchen and a contraption near the ceiling. It hung in the far corner near a fire place and looked like a torture instrument. Inside the wooden wheel was a stuffed dog, popularly known in its time as a turnspit dog, which represented a breed that no longer exists. They were small, long-bodied, and sturdy; had short crooked legs; and were trained to run inside a wheel that turned a roasting spit. These long-suffering, hard-working canines, resembled curs not purebreds, and saved cooks (or menial boys of the lowest servant order) the task of turning roasting spits by hand for hours. 

Turnspitdog-1862

Turnspit dog, 1862. H Weir – Illustrated Natural History, Rev JG Wood.  Image in the public domain. Wikipedia 

The dogs were first mentioned in 1576 under the name “Turnespete”(Wikipedia). Their lives were hot, tedious, strenuous, and short. They were considered more kitchen utensils than pets, this during the centuries when animal cruelty was casual and baiting animals was a sport. 

1024px-Turnspit_Dog_Working

A dog at work inside a wheel near the ceiling; from Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales (1800). Wikipedia, public domain image

“To train the dog to run faster, a glowing coal was thrown into the wheel”- Turnspit Dogs: The Rise and Fall of the Vernepator Cur, NPR

Their breed was considered so common that its origins are unknown, although some experts think the turnspit dog was related to a terrier or perhaps the Welsh Corgi. Imagine the life of this dog–confined to a wheel for hours, forced to run near a fireplace while smelling the roasting meat of an animal that was out of their reach, tired, aching, and thirsting for water. 

“The wheels were put up quite high on the wall, far from the fire in order for the dogs not to overheat and faint.”- NPR

As we all know, heat rises, so one wonders how well that placement worked! Turnspit dogs worked in alternating teams of two and were regularly relieved by an equally hardworking companion dog. They often were given Sundays off, not because their owners cared about their well being, but because they acted as foot warmers in cold church pews (Kitchensisters). One must imagine their relief for these few hours of rest.

turnspit-2-e1453334578380-Whiskey-Barkpost

Whiskey, the last known turnspit dog, now on view in the Abergavenny Museum in Wales.

These tiny unloved dogs were prevalent in the mid 18th century, but by 1900 mechanical spit turning machines replaced them. Since they were considered ugly and lowly, their breed became extinct. Whiskey, the last known surviving turnspit dog, lives on as a taxidermied specimen in the Abergavenny Museum in Wales. 

As an interesting footnote, in the United States the plight of the turnspit dog inspired the founding of the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals).

“In 1850, founder of the ASPCA, Henry Bergh, was so moved by the appalling conditions in which the Turnspits were found in Manhattan hotels, that its horrific living conditions contributed to the birth of the organization in 1866. Coincidentally, this was around the time the dogs had become scarce, and 50 years later, they completely disappeared.”- Barkpost

Note: Before COVID-19, Vic volunteered with the local SPCA, which is a no-kill shelter. She’s also been privileged to live with two rescue dogs, both of whom were (aside from friends and family) the loves of her life. Neither dog revealed their living conditions before she adopted them.

More References:

Spit Roast Doggie, Richard Wyatt, September 21, 2014, Day by Day. Bath News Museum

A Breed You’ve Never Heard Of Is The Reason We Fight Animal Cruelty Today, Bark Post

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Inquiring readers: While our world travels have been curtailed during the COVID-19 pandemic, we can think of no better a way to take a tour than with Tony Grant, who has served as a guide in Jane Austen country for many years.

Map of Surrey

Map of Surrey

Map of Surrey

Jane Austen criss crossed the county of Surrey many, many times in her lifetime. Surrey is the county north of Hampshire. All the direct routes from Basingstoke, Steventon and Chawton to London pass through Surrey. She mentions Surrey places in her letters, providing a sense of what it was like to travel the roads of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Emma, her completed Surrey novel, is set in the fictitious Highbury and Hartfield located right in the middle of the county, surrounded by the real Surrey, Dorking, Mickleham, Box Hill, Cobham and with Kingston upon Thames and Richmond upon Thames to the north. Jane’s earlier attempt at another Surrey novel, The Watsons, begun while living in Bath in 1804 was never completed. The few pages of The Watsons that were completed set the action mostly in Dorking but also some outlying places.  Croydon, a large town, is repeatedly referred to and,” a village about three miles distant,” from Dorking, Westhumble, is a template for Stanton. Jane stayed at Great Bookham just north of Dorking with her relations, the Cookes. It is a short carriage ride away from Box Hill. Just north of Great Bookham is Leatherhead which has a debatable role in this account and to the north west of Great Bookham is Cobham, another place of interest mentioned in Emma. Interestingly a well-known, famous town in Surrey–Epsom– also gets a passing mention in Pride and Prejudice. It is amazing to see how the places and locations in Surrey came together in Jane’s imagination and how she used them in her novels. It’s like pieces of a jigsaw fitting together neatly. 

Great Bookham

Photo of St. Nicholas, Great Bookham

St. Nicholas, Great Bookham. Photo by Tony Grant

I am going to introduce Great Bookham first, because although Jane knew many places in Surrey well and visited most of them many times she actually spent lengthy periods of time in Great Bookham, staying with her aunt and uncle and cousins, the Cookes. Cassandra Cooke, her mother’s cousin, was Jane ‘s aunt. You might notice, the name Cassandra seems popular within the extended family as well as her immediate family. It is the same name as both Jane’s sister and mother. Cassandra Cooke was a budding writer. A forgotten novel called, Battleridge, is her contribution to posterity. Jane’s uncle Samuel Cooke was the vicar of St Nicholas Church in Great Bookham. The Cookes were well acquainted with Fanny Burney, who lived in the village with her husband, General D’Arblay, and their young son. The Reverend Cooke asked Fanny Burney‘s father for advice about church music. Burneys father, Charles Burney, was a reputed musician and composer. It is from Great Bookham that Jane first visited Box Hill a few miles away. Great Bookham, like Highbury and Hartfield, is at the centre of the geographical world of both The Watsons and Emma.

Box Hill

Image Mickleham to the right of Box Hill

Mickleham to the right of Box Hill. Photo by Tony Grant

So, to Box Hill, a mere few miles east of Great Bookham.

“They had a very fine day for Box Hill……. Seven miles were travelled in expectation of enjoyment, and everybody had a burst of admiration on first arriving.” Emma

Later, Frank Churchill, as though proclaiming from a vast church pulpit, (which indeed, if you stand on the top of Box Hill and look out over the surrounding countryside, does feel like that,) announces grandly and perhaps grandiosely

“Let everybody on the hill hear me if they can. Let my accents swell to Mickleham on one side and Dorking on the other.”

Box Hill is part of the chalk incline that forms the North Downs in Surrey. It was a beauty spot, where visitors loved to look out on the beautiful surrounding countryside in Jane’s time and that is the situation still today. A National Trust shop and café is at the top. A 19th century fort built as part of a line of forts to help repulse a French invasion is there too. Throughout the 18th and most of the 19th century, France was always a threat to Britain real and imaginary. Pre Raphaelite artists painted there, poets wrote poetry about the countryside and John Logie Baird, the inventor of the television, carried out experiments from his cottage at the top of the hill. It is a nature reserve, the site of a very strange burial, and is still a great picnic site, as Emma was anticipating.

Mickleham

Mickleham

Mickleham, photo by Tony Grant

If you do as Frank Churchill informs us, look out from Box Hill with Mickleham to one side and Dorking to the other you will be facing west straight towards Great Bookham. Mickleham is located at the foot of Box Hill on its north west side. It is home to a  junior school called Box Hill School. St Michael’s Church in the village is where Fanny Burney and General D’Arblay were married. General D’Arblay was a French exile, who fled France for England after the rise of Maximillian Robespierre. He and other emigres were living at Juniper Hall on the edge of Mickleham. The house was leased from 1792 to 1793 by David Jenkinson, a wealthy landowner, to a group of French emigres which included Anne Louise Germaine de Staël, a writer who Jane Austen admired, although de Stael was dismissive of Jane Austen’s writing. Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-PérigordLouis, comte de Narbonne-Lara grandson of King Louis XV of France, and General Alexandre D’Arblay were among the key emigres staying at Juniper Hall. D’Arblay met Fanny Burney in the Templeton Room here. 

Dorking

Image Dorking, the Red Lion Hotel, 1904 Postcard

Dorking, the Red Lion Hotel, 1904 Postcard

Dorking is located south west of Box Hill. From Stanton ( Mickleham) the two Watson sisters  travelled by the turnpike road which led to the east end of the town. As they entered the town they could see the White Hart Inn on their right, where the ball they were so anticipating was to take place, and the church steeple of St Martins just behind the inn. In the Penguin Classic version of The Watsons the editor, Claire Lamoy suggests that The White Hart was in reality The Red Lion Inn, located in Dorking High Street which Jane visited while staying at Great Bookham. The Red Lion backed on to the churchyard of St Martins Church. The inn does not exist nowadays. A modern row of shops stands in its place. Many buildings in Dorking do originate from the 18th century and some earlier. It is an ancient market town. Dorking has links to The Pilgrim fathers. William Mullins a shoe maker from Dorking was on that first voyage of The Mayflower. His shop still stands in the High Street and is now a coffee shop. There are also connections to Dickens and Vaughn Williams, the 20th century composer.

Croydon

Image of Croydon Town Hall and Art Gallery, by Tony Grant

Croydon Town Hall and Art Gallery. Photo by Tony Grant.

In The Watsons the town of Croydon, about 17 miles from Dorking, is mentioned a number of times. Rich relations of the Watsons live there. It is where Emma Watson has been living with an aunt. When the story starts her aunt has died and Emma has recently returned to her family in Stanton.

Cobham

Image of Cobham churchyard

Cobham churchyard photo by Tony Grant

Cobham, north west of Great Bookham, has a cameo appearance in Emma. John Knightley’s wife Isabella, in praise of Mr Weston, states,

“and ever since his kindness last September twelvemonth in writing that note, at twelve o’clock at night, on purpose to assure me that there was no scarlet fever at Cobham, I have been convinced there could not be a more feeling heart nor a better man in existence.”

I have always thought that Cobham fits a description of Highbury and Hartfield. Many of the features of Cobham are the same. But you can find similar features in most country towns and large villages. There are the church, a mill, a local school, old coaching inns, houses for the local gentry and a large estate such as Mr Knightley’s a mile from the centre of town. Cobham has Painshill Park on its outskirts and Jane herself mentions it in a letter to Cassandra when travelling through leafy Surrey on one of her many visits to London. 

Kingston upon Thames

Image of O Druids head coaching inn Kingston

O Druids head coaching inn, Kingston. Photo by Tony Grant.

Kingston upon Thames is an important location in Emma. Mr Martin and also Mr Knightley go to Kingston regularly.

Harriet after meeting Robert Martin in the street reports to Emma

“He has not been able to get, “The Romance of the Forest,” yet. He was so busy the last time he was in Kingston that he quite forgot it, but he goes again tomorrow.”

Kingston used to have a large cattle market on the edge of town The area where it was located is still called The Cattle Market to this day. The municipal swimming baths and sports centre is on the site. It had an apple market, and that spot is still called The Apple Market, and also a large central market in the middle of the town where fishmongers, butchers, and fruit and vegetables from market gardens were sold. Fresh meat, fish, fruit and vegetables are sold from market stalls in the same location today. A few of the 18th century coaching inns still exist, The Griffin and The Druids Head are still pubs and inns, and the site of The Crown Inn that Jane Austen knew well is a department store that still retains a magnificent 18th century carved oak staircase. She often mentioned her visits to Kingston in letters to Cassandra as she travelled on the way to London. Kingston was an important place for carriages to change horses.

To Cassandra. Wednesday 15-Thursday 16 September 1813 from Henrietta Street

“… We had a very good journey-Weather and roads excellent-the three stages for 1s-6d & our only misadventure the being delayed about a quarter of an hour at Kingston for Horse, & being obliged to put up with a pair belonging to a Hackney Coach & their Coachman which left no room on the Barouche box for Lizzy.”

Jerry Abershaw

Black and white etching of Louis Jeremiah or Jerry Abershaw, 1773-1795. Highwayman, National Gallery of Scotland

Louis Jeremiah or Jerry Abershaw, 1773-1795. Highwayman, National Gallery of Scotland

Kingston has a more chilling aspect to i,t which has a relevance to Northanger Abbey. On the main road from Kingston into the centre of London the route passed through a remote wild area of heath and woodland. In 1795, at Tibbets Corner (the Putney, Wandsworth and Wimbledon Village junction) beside Wimbledon Common, a young highwayman called Jerry Abershawe was detained and executed. His body hung at Tibbets Corner inside a gibbet to rot and be picked to pieces by carrion crows as a warning to all highwaymen. In Northangar Abbey General Tilney sends the teenage Catherine Moreland away from the Abbey by herself in a public coach. Highwaymen were a danger. Even Jane’s brothers would not let her travel independently. Perhaps Jane and Cassandra witnessed Abershawe’s body in the gibbet. His body would have been left there until nothing was left. It would take a year or two to disappear.

Richmond upon Thames

Photo of Richmond Green The Churchills lived here.

Richmond Green. The Churchills lived here. Photo by Tony Grant.

Richmond upon Thames further north along The Thames from Kingston also has an importance in Emma. The Churchill’s removed from London to Richmond because of Mrs Churchill’s health.  

“It soon appeared that London was not the place for her. She could not endure its noise. Her nerves were under continual irritation and suffering; and by the ten days’ end, her nephew’s letter to Randalls communicated a change of plan. They were going to remove to Richmond. Mrs Churchill had been recommended to the medical skill of an eminent person there.”

I know Richmond well. It is just seven miles north of Richmond Park from where I live. It has an amazing history with connections to the nobility and the Monarchy. A Tudor palace was located at Richmond and also just outside of Richmond is Kew Gardens and Kew Palace where George III and his family spent a lot of time. Richmond was a very well connected town. Jane used this in Emma as an underlying comment about Frank Churchill.

Epsom

Image of Epsom Centre, by Tony Grant

Epsom Centre photo by Tony Grant

Epsom, at the foot of the north downs and famous for the Derby Racecourse, the forerunner of all Derbys around the world, gets a mention in Pride and Prejudice. When Wickham and Lydia elope from Brighton, where Wickham’s regiment is stationed, they of course have to pass through the county of Surrey to reach London. They change horses at Epsom. 

Lydia had disappeared with Wickham and Mr Bennet had turned into a man of action. Elizabeth enquired.

“She then proceeded to enquire into the measures which her father had intended to pursue, while in town, for the recovery of his daughter.”

“He meant,” I believe, “replied Jane, to go to Epsom, the place where they last changed horses, see the postilions and try if anything could be made out … His principal object must be to discover the number of the hackney coach which took them …”

Epsom, is a lovely market town and has an amazing central clock tower and wide thoroughfare for the market stalls set up there. There is also a well preserved 18th century Assembly Rooms called, “The Assembly Rooms,” which is now a Weatherspoon’s pub and restaurant. I have indeed imbibed a pint or two in there. There are many 18th century buildings still in the town.

Leatherhead

Image of leatherhead museum

Leatherhead Museum. Photo by Tony Grant

I must mention Leatherhead, very close to Great Bookham and Box Hill. It is a town Jane would have visited and probably knew well. It has become somewhat a cause celebre in the world of Jane Austen and generally causes arguments.  Highbury and Hartfield are fictitious places set within the real world of Surrey. There are those, however, who are  convinced that Leatherhead is indeed Highbury and Hartfield. They point out all the places that are in and around Leatherhead which they think fit Jane’s descriptions in Emma. It cannot be forgotten that Emma is a fiction, all said and done. Highbury and Hartfield are the quintessential 18th century English villages. Jane is concerned about the lives and relationships of people within a community.  That is what really counts.

There are many places in Surrey that Jane knew. I have included an overall map to show some of the key places I mention in this article and here are a few more places she mentions either in her novels or in her letters.

Guildford, Streatham, The Hogsback (A long hill outside of Guildford) Ripley, Painshill, Clapham, Battersea, Barnes and Egham.

To Cassandra Austen Thursday 20th May 1813

“We left Guildford at 20 minutes before 12- (I hope somebody cares for these minutes) & were at Esher in about 2 hours more.- I was very much pleased with the country in general-;- between Guildford and Ripley I thought it particularly pretty, also about Painshill & everywhere else; & from a Mr Spicer’s Grounds at Esher which we Walked into before dinner, the views were beautiful. I cannot say what we did not see but I should think there could not be a wood or a meadow or a palace or a remarkable spot in England that was not spread out us on one side or another.-“

Streatham is interesting, located  in South London at Tooting. It is where Dr Johnson lived for a while with Esther Thrale and her husband in their grand house next to the common and where many of the artistic glitterati of the 18th century met.

REFERENCES:

  • Austen J. Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon Penguin Classics (first published 1974) Revised edition published 2015
  • Austen J. Emma, Penguin Classics (Published in Penguin Classics 1996) reissued 2003.
  • Austen J. Pride and Prejudice, (published by Penguin Classics 1996) reissued 2003.
  • Austen J. Northanger Abbey, (published by Penguin Classics 1996) reissued 2003.
  • Le Faye D. Jane Austen’s Letters, (Third Edition) Oxford University Press 1995.

TONY’S OTHER BLOG POSTS: Below are some of the blog posts I have written connected with places I have mentioned in this article located in Surrey and South London where I live.

London Calling, Tony’s blog

Jane Austen in Vermont, Tony’s guest posts

Jane Austen’s World, Tony’s posts

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Inquiring readers: The lists in this blog post describe us (Vic, Rachel, Brenda, and Tony) and our interests to a tee. If we were to remove our names heralding our choices, you could probably guess who chose which list. The books mentioned are those that we read in 2020 and that have influenced our interests, thoughts, and research. Enjoy! Feel free to leave your own book suggestions in the comment section!

Vic Sanborn

1. Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era: The Eighteenth-Century Struggle for Female Success in a Man’s World, Mike Rendell, Pen & Sword History, Pen & Sword Books LTD, 2018.

This useful reference details the contributions of 18th century women (despite their lack of legal standing) in the arts, literature, sciences, business, commerce, reform, and education. Some women, like Frances Burney and Mary Wollstonecraft, are well known to us today. How many of us know about Mary Darly, Jane Marcet, Elizabeth Fry, or Ann Damer? This is a beautiful book well worth owning.

2. What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved, John Mullan. 2003, Bloomsbury Press

John Mullan’s book was highly recommended to me. In it he discusses diverse topics in 20 chapters, such as: “How Much Does Age Matter?,” “Which Important Characters Never Speak in the Novels?,” “How Do Jane Austen’s Characters Look?,” “When Does Jane Austen Speak Directly to the Reader?,” and more. Mr. Mullan’s analysis prompts me to reread crucial passages in Austen’s novels; he helps me understand how much I still need to explore in her novels after all these years.

3. Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice, Paula Byrne, 2014, Harper Perennial.

I decided to purchase this book after watching “Bridgerton.” I did not see “Belle,” the movie, but have read short descriptions of the remarkable life of this illegitimate daughter of a captain in the Royal Navy and an enslaved African American woman.

4. The Housekeeping Book of Susanna Whatman: 1776-1800, National Trust, a primary source.

This extremely short book (62 pages) was not noticed until it was printed in 1952. Whatman’s observations on household management was for personal use only. It provides a snapshot of how an 18th century housewife managed a household, and describes her expectations and relationship with her servants. This primary source is extremely useful for anyone interested in the servant/mistress relationship during that time.

5. Hamnet, kindle edition, by Maggie O’Farrell, Deckle Edge, July 2020, mentioned as one of the 10 best books of 2020. Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

This is my only entry that was recently published. My Janeite friend, Deb Barnum, could not praise the book enough and urged me to read it. O’Farrell’s tale about the death of William Shakespeare’s son is told in prose so beautiful, lyrical, poignant and magical that one enters another world entirely. The tale is sad, for Hamnet died of the plague, but the topic speaks to the grief that so many families in this world are feeling as they mourn lost ones due to the pandemic.

Brenda Cox

1. Jane Austen and Religion, by William Jarvis. ISBN: 095271261X

This fascinating little book gives more insight into the role of religion in Austen’s life and novels. Quite easy to read, unlike some of the other books on this topic.

2. Paupers & Pig Killers: The Diary of William Holland, A Somerset Parson, 1799-1818, edited by Jack Ayres. ISBN-10 : 0750932015

These selections from a parson’s diary give you an idea of what the daily lives of Austen’s family might have been like (since her father and two of her brothers were country parsons).

3. Untold Histories: Black People in England and Wales during the period of the British Slave Trade, c. 1660-1807, by Kathleen Chater. 2011. ISBN-10 : 0719085977

If you’d like to know about black people in Jane Austen’s England and their lives, this book is based on extensive research from primary sources. See the History tab above, the section Black History, for more resources.

4. The Woman of Colour, anonymous, edited by Lyndon Dominique. ISBN-10 : 0719085977

This novel of 1808, possibly written by a woman of color, gives you a more personal view of the situation for black people in Austen’s England. It includes contemporary accounts from the slave-holding colonies.

5. Jane Austen & Crime, by Susannah Fullerton. ISBN-10 : 0976353954

This novel is full of great insights into law and crime in Austen’s England and in her life and her novels.

6. Unmarriageable, by Soniah Kamal. ISBN-10 : 0525486488

This book is a parallel retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in Pakistan. Lots of fun. See my review.

Rachel Dodge

1. Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis by Patti Callahan. ISBN-10: 0785224505

“In this masterful exploration of one of the greatest love stories of modern times, we meet a brilliant writer, a fiercely independent mother, and a passionate woman who changed the life of this respected author and inspired books that still enchant us and change us. Joy lived at a time when women weren’t meant to have a voice—and yet her love for Jack gave them both voices they didn’t know they had.”

This book is perfect for fans of C.S. Lewis who want to know more about his wife, Joy Davidman. This novelized version of Joy’s life is hard to put down! I loved getting to know more about the brilliant mind and life of the woman Lewis called “my whole world.”

2. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo: ISBN-10 : 1846140498

This novel is one of my best memories of 2020 and one of my greatest achievements as a reader. I read this with an online read-along group for six months and fell in love with the novel and with Hugo’s writing. I could have never finished it without the group to help me stay on track. We had weekly online discussions that were incredibly invigorating. I highly recommend Les Mis to anyone who hasn’t read it — but if you can, read it with a buddy or a group. There’s nothing like it!

3. Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller: ISBN-10 : 006268535X

“In this novel authorized by the Little House Heritage Trust, Sarah Miller vividly recreates the beauty, hardship, and joys of the frontier in a dazzling work of historical fiction, a captivating story that illuminates one courageous, resilient, and loving pioneer woman as never before—Caroline Ingalls, “Ma” in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s beloved Little House books.”

This book gives a detailed view of the Little House books as told from Caroline “Ma” Ingalls’ perspective. It is meticulously researched and written, and I was mesmerized by the story of this incredibly strong woman. I have always wondered about the “real Ma” and how she handled even the worst situations with such grit and grace.

4. The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery:mISBN-10 : 1402289367

“Valancy Stirling is 29 and has never been in love. She’s spent her entire life on a quiet little street in an ugly little house and never dared to contradict her domineering mother and her unforgiving aunt. But one day she receives a shocking, life-altering letter―and decides then and there that everything needs to change. For the first time in her life, she does exactly what she wants to and says exactly what she feels.”

I’m including this on my list because it’s one of L.M. Montgomery’s best books–and many people have never read it. It is one of only two books Montgomery wrote for an adult audience, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who didn’t enjoy it. If you need a fun, quick, and invigorating read, this is a great one to pick up. You will love Valancy and Barney.

Tony Grant

1. A Portrait of the Artist by James Joyce. Published by the Penguin Group 1992 (First published 1914-15.)

Published in 1916, the book plots the course of the early life of Stephen Daedalus, his struggles with religion, education and relationships. All the things that matter in life. At that time the way people lived in Ireland was strongly controlled by the Catholic Church. We all know how that has turned out. As a lapsed catholic, even I shuddered and felt troubled by the four page description of hell.

2. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens. Published by the Penguin Group1999 (First published 1839)

I like a good dose of Dickens every now and then. I read Nicholas Nickleby recently. If you want a roller coaster of emotions, good, bad and ugly this is for you. The evil Ralph Nickleby and the Yorkshire headmaster, Squeers of Do The Boys Hall, are counterbalanced by the angelic Brothers Cheeryble and a few ,”Madonna,” like young women.It wouldn’t be Dickens without an angelic, perfect, beautiful young woman, defenceless waiting to be saved. Its Dickens at his best, mining the depths of humanity, sending your emotions in all directions like a firework display.

3. The Neopolitan Novels by Ellena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein, and published by Europa Editions (2012-2015). Four novels entitled:

  • My Brilliant Friend.

  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.

  • The Story of a New Name.

  • The Story of the Lost Child.

Even if you read just one of these amazing novels it is worth it. The quartet is a powerful evocation of humanity. Like all of us, the characters in these novels make awful mistakes and some terrible things happen to them but nevertheless their lives move forward. Lina and Ellena, two friends who have known each other from birth, brought up in the back streets of Naples live off their innate animal intelligence. Ferrante plots their lives. If you think in terms of soul mates these two are each one half of the same organism. Both brilliant in different ways, their lives diverge but the link between them always remains. Their power and strength is derived from their connection. Together they are a force of nature. It is tough reading at times . There is not much humour but you feel that you have gone through a cathartic experience. This is Joyce and Dickens combined. Ferrante is a genius.

4. Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney. Published by Faber and Faber, 2017

This is the book Rooney wrote before, “Normal People.” Set in Ireland in the present time, it plots the love lives of young people. Rooney writes about her own age group. She is a great writer, plotting human relations through many hard, confusing, elating and passionate moments. Her characters are on a journey. The novel feels real, honest and gritty, with tenderness mixed in. Even at my advanced age I can empathise with the way their relationships pan out. This is the book James Joyce wanted to write, tried to write and for which he was virtually kicked out of Ireland.

5. The Rio Tape/Slide Show (Radical Community Photography in Hackney in the 1980s)

Published by Isola Press London (IsolaPress.com) October 2020.

Ok, this is not a novel but it engaged and absorbed me completely. I felt so inspired I wrote a long review for my blog, London Calling. Hackney is a London Borough in the east end of London. In the 1980s, there was a lot of unemployment and poverty. It was a whole melting pot of different cultures and ethnic minorities. People were bullied by the police and government policies made life even harder. The Rio Tape Slide project based at The Rio Cinema in Kingsland Road began community initiatives. They educated the local people in ideas, photography, art workshops, news reporting, writing and community action. News reals, shown at the cinema, were made by local people who went out with cameras to record and write about their community. The project brought people together to form very effective action groups. This is Gandhi’s peaceful action alongside Martin Luther King’s ideas about community . As well as the photographs illustrating much of what went on, there are essays written by some of the original organisers of the campaigns that occurred. They explain their philosophy and thinking behind their actions. This should be read by everybody. It is a template for grass roots social action. I kept thinking,” this is how it’s done!!” Politics can be beneficial.

__________________

And, so, gentle readers. Which books have you read? Which of them would you recommend? Which new books would you add to our list in the comments?  Curious minds want to know. Thank you for participating!

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