Sunday, December 18, 2011

Merry Christmas To All...And To All A Good Night!

A Scene From A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

"Again the Ghost sped on, above the black and heaving sea--on, on--until, being far away, as he told Scrooge, from any shore, they lighted on a ship. They stood beside the helmsman at the wheel, the look-out in the bow, the officers who had the watch; dark, ghostly figures in their several stations; but every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it. And every man on board, waking or sleeping, good or bad, had had a kinder word for another on that day than on any day in the year; and had shared to some extent in its festivities; and had remembered those he cared for at a distance, and had known that they delighted to remember him." ~ Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

My memories of Christmas have a lot to do with my grandparents and spending it with them in their apartment in Manhattan along with three cats! Happy times filled with a fake green plastic Christmas tree with silver tinsel that all the cats usually tried to nibble at and then threw up hairballs all over the place! My grandma's RUM FILLED fruitcake that she made and gave to our neighbors as gifts! The tree covered in those blinking lights, twirled all around it top to bottom as I would sit in the dark in the cosiest recliner I could find and just watch the lights twinkle and cast red and green shadows against brown panelling; it was the seventies, after all!
I remember making Christmas decorations in school and my family hanging them around the tree proudly but they were so hideous! Singing Christmas carols in my church choir, performing in the Christmas play usually narrating it and visiting nursing homes with my school choir to sing to them and hopefully cheer them up! There was always lots of love in the home which never usually came in the form of a Christmas tree towering with presents underneath, mostly for me but a feeling of love and the smell of homecooking and Christmas music coming out of the radio in the kitchen that always played while my grandma cooked and I watched or sometimes helped out! We had stockings with our names on it, even for the cats and watching those disney television specials that were on late at night like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and baby Happy New Year with those ears that stuck out every time he was asked to take off his top hat which he wore to hide his ears because children and adults always teased him mercilessly, making him cry. I just always wanted to scoop him up and give him big hugs!

Where does Dickens fit in? Well, lets see, it all goes back to a favorite childhood memory with a little girl who became my first friend when we met in kindergarten. Her mother had an oversized coloring book of A Christmas Carol that we would color in on playdates sometimes and then I can remember some nights on sleepovers, her mom would cuddle up with both of us and read it to us doing all the voices after dinner before bedtime!
Later as a young teen, I read it and saw the play every time it came around to Broadway or Off Broadway theatre. Who doesn't enjoy Ebenezer Scrooge's gruffness and cheapness! Everyone knows a Scrooge don't they? Or who doesn't fall in love with tiny tim and his family.
For me it was the ghostly visits to Scrooge and the London atmoshphere; those soapy shop windows that lined the London streets! I never seemed to find those in Manhattan except during Christmas week when my grandpa, every single year of my entire life, would take me to Lord & Taylor department store on Fifth Avenue to see their annual window displays! Every window a different theme. I highly recommend walking around Fifth Avenue at Christmas with the smell of roasting chestnuts eminating from vendor carts and men dressed in Santa Claus outfits ringing a bell standing on a corner asking for money for a local charity!

Well, those are some of my memories that stand out during this wonderful holiday season.


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Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Life of Lady A (1775-1817)

"It is very much what someone settling down to write does, getting up, pacing, thinking, returning to the page she is working on"

Jane Austen wrote six novels in her lifetime. She passed away in the year 1817; leaving no diaries that we know of. The Austen Family destroyed her letters. Jane's brother Henry asserts, "my dear sister's life was not a life of events"... (We shall see Henry, we shall see)...

On 16 December 1775 in the Hampshire village of Selborne, Jane Austen was born in the evening at home without the presence of a doctor. A doctor was seldom called for "something as routine as childbirth". Her christening would be held at home and viewed as something of a matter of routine. Just one week later, The Austen Family celebrated Christmas with the gift of baby "Jenny" as she was called by her sisters. On Christmas Eve the Austen children laid out the traditional holly branches on the window ledges. On Christmas morning, their father, Rev. George Austen, walked to his local parish church, St Nicholas to read the lessons and administer the sacrament to the local families and neighbors. Mrs. Cassandra Austen was a dutiful wife and mother of seven children as was expected of an eighteenth century woman. Perhaps, Jane Austen received the gift of writing from her mother. It seems that Mrs. Austen wrote poetry and read it to the children she helped teach in the schoolhouse where Mr. Austen taught as well.

One of the earliest exmaples of Jane Austen's writing to survive is a poem from 1809 entitled, 'Bet, my be not come to bide'. It was written on the occasion of the birth of her nephew when Jane was thirty-four years old:

My dreams Frank, I wish you joy

Of Mary's safety with a Boy...

In him, in all his ways, may we
Another Francis William see!
Thy infant days may he inherit,
They warmth, nay insolence of spirit...
May he revive thy Nursery sin,
Peeping as daringly within,
His curley locks but just described,
With "Bet, my be not come to bide."

Even before Jane Austen turned twenty-four she wrote three major novels in only four years:
In October 1796 she wrote 'First Impressions' (Pride and Prejudice) completed in nine months. In November 1797 she wrote 'Elinor and Marianne' that she renamed 'Sense and Sensibility' in the Spring of 1798. Between 1798 and 99 she wrote the first draft of a book that would become Northanger Abbey (my favorite); originally entitled, 'Susan'!

So what was Jane Austen's writing process like? After completing the first draft while sitting in her upstairs bedroom she would read it aloud to herself testing the dialogue before cutting and amending whatever embarrassed her or struck a false note in the dialogue. She would mark her text in the neat hand she developed because paper was expensive. Afterwards, she would then read her work aloud to family members.

Jane Austen wrote the first draft of Pride and Prejudice at the age of twenty, the same age as Elizabeth Bennet. By the time of publication in 1813, she was thirty-seven. Seventeen years must be the longest delay ever between composition and publication.

Northanger Abbey took twenty years to find a publisher and did not appear in print until the author was dead. It frightens me to think how easily any of Jane Austen's novel's might have been lost! Unfortunately, there are not manuscripts of either drafts or final versions of any of her published works. Although she made copies; neither the copies nor any of her good care help us to know how the earlier versions differed from the later.

By 7 July 1809 Jane Austen and family settled into the cottage at Chawton. The effect on Jane of this move to a permanent home in which she was able to re-establish her own rhythm of work was dramatic. It was as though she was restored to herself, to her imagination, to all her powers: a black cloud had finally lifted! Almost at once she began to work again. Sense and Sensibility was taken out and revisions began! Encouragement and practical helpo came from her brother Henry. In the last months of 1810 the publisher Thomas Egerton of the Military Library, Whitehall, agreed to publish Sense and Sensibility. It was agreed that Sense and Sensibility would be published on commission, which meant the author paid for the printing, plus advertising and distribution but kept the copyright. First edition of Sense and Sensibility states, "Printed for the Author". In a letter to her sister Cassandra Jane gushes, "No indeed, I am never too busy to think of Sense and Sensibility, I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child." Sense and Sensibility was advertised on 31 October 1811 in the Morning Chronicle as "A new Novel by a Lady". A week later another advertisement called it an 'Extraordinary Novel!" and at the end of November it had become, "Interesting Novel by Lady A". Who could the mysterious Lady A be? She was good for publicity purposes at any rate. The number of copies printed is not known but it is not likely to be more than 1,000; the three volume edition sold for fifteen shillings. It sold out by the Summer of 1813 and Jane made a profit of 140 British pounds. This meant freedom for Jane as she was now able to give presents and plan journeys without having to rely on her parents and siblings. Jane Austen preserved her anonymity at Chawton and with her mother alone when Pride and Prejudice appeared. She had sets sent to her brothers and celebrated publication by taking turns with her mother to read the first chapters aloud as they sat beside the fire on a damp January evening.

In 1813 Jane was working on Mansfield Park. The secret of Jane's authorship was beginning to be more generally known. Jane complained "of becoming an exhibit in the parade of London society if she were to be found out". Mansfield Park was finished by summer.

For Mansfield Park she did something she had not done before. She collected and wrote down the opinions of her readers delivered in private letters or conversations which she set down in her own hand. These "opinions" only exist for Mansfield Park and Emma. They prove how much it meant to Jane Austen to have reactions to her work. Although she feared it, the breaking down of anonymity was a good thing. Furthermore, they demonstrate that she was detached enough to write down rude remarks as well as praise and without adding commentary of her own.

By July 1813 Sense and Sensibility had sold out, bringing a profit; Pride and Prejudice was a hit, Mansfield Park was completed and ideas for her next book which was to be Emma, were taking shape. She was only thirty seven.

At Chawton, Jane Austen began to write Emma on my birthday 21 January 1814 and finished on March 29th 1815. She writes to Mr. Clarke, "my greatest anxiety at present is that this 4th work should not disgrace what was good in others...I am very strongly haunted by the idea that to those readers who have preferred Pride and Prejudice it will appear inferior in Wit & to those who have preferred Pride and Prejudice very inferior in Good Sense".

In January 1816 Jane began feeling unwell but no one really payed her any mind, blaming it on turning forty! She kept busy working on 'The Elliots' - her working title for 'Persuasion'. She also recovered the manuscript of Susan (Northanger Abbey) going through it, changing the heroine's name to Catherine and writing a note explaining that it dated back many years, having been finished in 1803.

Jane suffered from back pains but despite family visits and the cold, rainy summer it seems 1816 she suffered the worst in decades. Still, in true form, she finished writing Persuasion on 18 July. She wrote "Finis" then becoming dissatisfied with its two concluding chapters. These are the only pieces of manuscript from her finished novels to survive (now in the British Library). Deciding to rewrite the two final chapters entirely in three weeks, she then put the manuscript aside and did nothing for six months. Found written in the margins of Cassandra's copy of Persuasion is written, "Dear, dear Jane! This deserves to be written in letters of gold".

In between bouts of ill health, between January and March 1817, Jane Austen wrote twelve chapters of a most surprising book entitled, 'Sandition' that Cassandra knew by the name 'The Brothers' while the rest of the family called it 'The Last Work'. On 18 March she abandoned the manuscript attacked by a fever and bilious attack that made her too unwell to write anything that was not strictly necessary. In mid April she took to her bed, too weak to struggle on with night fevers and an unspecified discharge alarming enough for her to visit a surgeon. She wrote her will unwitnessed, on 27 April 1817 addressed to "Miss Austen". She wrote out an account of the profits of her novels equaling 84 British Pounds.

At Chawton with Cassandra and Mary, Jane dictated twenty-four lines of comic verse to Cassandra. She wrote "gone" at the end of the second line, where the rhyme clearly calls for "dead", but either Jane couldn't say the word or her sister couldn't bring herself to write it down. Jane was in and out of sleep most of the evening into the early morning of 17 July 1817 with Cassandra at her bedside. Cassandra settled herself with a pillow on her lap supporting Jane's head, the last half of her body off the bed. Cassandra was unwilling to move her at all sitting with her like this for six hours. At 4 a.m. on 18 July 1817 Jane Austen was dead.

Cassandra said of her sister Jane Austen, "She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow. I had not a thought concealed from her and it is as if I had lost a part of myself".

By Kimberly Eve

Jane Austen A Life by Claire Tomalin, Vintage Books, New York, 1997

Please feel free to leave any comments or questions,

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Review Of The Life of Charlotte Bronte By Elizabeth Gaskell

Photo of Charlotte Bronte in 1854 a year before her death

“As to the Mrs--, who, you say, is like me. I somehow feel no leaning to her at all. I never do to people who are said to be like me, because I have always a notion that they are only like me in the disagreeable, outside, first-acquaintance part of my character; in those points which are obvious to the ordinary run of people, and which I know are not pleasing. You say she is “clever” – “a clever person.” How I dislike the term! It means rather a shrewd, very ugly, meddling, talking woman…Charlotte Bronte, April 2, 1845

Charlotte Brontë died on March 31, 1855, and when Elizabeth Gaskell learned of her death, she resolved to write a memoir of her friend and fellow-novelist. On May 31, 1855, she wrote to Bronte's publisher, George Smith of Smith, Elder: ''if I live long enough, and no one is living whom such a publication would hurt, I will publish what I know of her, and make the world (if I am but strong enough in expression,) honour the woman as much as they have admired the writer''. The opportunity came sooner than Gaskell expected. On June 16, 1855, the Reverend Patrick Brontë, Charlotte's father, addressed a letter to Gaskell, with a request for her ''to write a brief account of her life and to make some remarks on her works''; he added: ''You seem to me to be the best qualified for doing what I wish should be done.'' When Gaskell agreed to write a biography of Brontë, the models for a woman author's life were few, and none distinguished. At this time Elizabeth Gaskell had already published ‘Cranford (1853) and North and South (1854) and was a well established authoress in her own right!

The Life of Charlotte Brontë is written as much by Charlotte as it is by Gaskell. Much of her life is told in her own words through her letters to friends. It actually relies quite heavily on letters. I had to take breaks periodically since I found it was difficult to read letter after letter. Still, reading Charlotte Bronte’s own words, descriptions of ‘her’ Yorkshire, and various thoughts is one aspect of the biography that I shall always cherish. For it brought Ms. Bronte to life: the woman and the authoress. As a writer, that feeling is incomprehensible!
Gaskell had plenty of source material to work from for the biography. To Ellen Nussey alone, Charlotte wrote over 500 letters. Gaskell could pick and choose what to or what not to include. While I found she covered much of her life, I couldn't help feeling that much was left out. For example, her marriage to Arthur Nicholls mystifies me. She turned down three marriage proposals and says many times that she is content to be single. Yet, in her late 30's she agrees to marry her father's curate. None of her letters about him are glowing with love. She's very quiet about the whole thing. Gaskell herself is the one who says they were happy. I felt there was much missing from this part of her life.

When it comes to the downfall of Charlotte’s brother, Branwell, Gaskell gets carried away and writes his sections of the biography with too much editorializing for my taste! You see, Branwell, was an opium addict who nearly ruined the family with his debts before he died. Gaskell lays much of the blame at the feet of his married lover. She demonizes the woman when it's obvious that he was no angel to begin with.

Gaskell paints such a vivid picture of Charlotte; highlighting her strong points: she's fiercely loyal to her family and friends. Even after the deaths of her two elder sisters as children, she takes the place of eldest sister to her motherless siblings. Perhaps a bit too overprotective of them, though. Still, she never separates from them for long until their passings. The most difficult letters to read were the ones during and after the deaths of her sisters, Emily and Anne. What heartbreaking letters. Within a year, Charlotte lost all her remaining 3 siblings.

After their deaths, Charlotte took on the responsibility of caring for her father alone. This presented quite a challenge due to his gruff exterior and failing eyesight. Even success as a writer didn't free her from this task, as Gaskell points out, “a woman's principle work in life is hardly left to her own choice; nor can she drop the domestic charges devolving on her as an individual, for the exercise of the most splendid talents ever bestowed.

In June 1854, Charlotte married Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father's curate. Perhaps he was the model for several of her literary characters such as Jane Eyre's Rochester and St. John. She became pregnant soon after the marriage. Her health declined rapidly during this time, and according to Gaskell, she was attacked by "sensations of perpetual nausea and ever-recurring faintness." Charlotte died, along with her unborn child, on 31 March 1855, at the young age of 38.

Although Elizabeth Gaskell has written a loving and realistic portrait of her friend Charlotte Bronte, there are still ever present tinges of sadness echoed throughout the pages for the loss of a true friend one whom she admired as a writer.

The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell, Penguin Books, London, England, 1975

Please feel free to leave any questions or comments,

A book review of The Ghost Ship by Kate Mosse

New York Times  bestselling author Kate Mosse returns with  The Ghost Ship , a sweeping historical epic of adventure on the high seas. The B...