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Thursday, September 2, 2010

Of Manners and Monsters and Mystery Fiction

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any essay with a remote connection to Jane Austen's works must begin with "It is a truth universally acknowleged...". Herewith no exception: a link to the literary icon so remote as to be almost unviewable not only from the beauteous peaks of the Lake District famously visited by Miss Lizzie Bennett in 'Pride and Prejudice', but indeed from the tallest modern manmade construction in any major city in the world. As remote, indeed, as the link between Miss Austen's acclaimed classic work and the more recent novel of which she is listed a co-author. Can the gentle reader be yet in doubt as to the title of the tome in question?

"Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith was the first of the Austen-Monster mashups. After three full seasons of ignoring its existence, I was finally worn down by the mute endurance of a friend's loaner copy gradually losing its colour as it languished, face up, in full sunlight by the picture window. A faded cover seems friendlier, somehow. Anyway, I opened it.

Skim city.

The principal charm of this book is its conceit, taken in one of two senses of the term (its principal failing being applied to the author in the other sense of the word).

The highest of its precepts is not that a well-honed dagger at the ankle is an indispensible part of a young lady's toilette. Rather, the highest precept here is represented by the book's very existence: the vast gulf between the constrained society of Austen's day, in which a young lady's life might be blighted forever by unsuitable reading material, undesirable companions or unthrifty ancestors, and the present day, in which young ladies are as free to read of zombies and violence as they are to read Jane Austen, their life choices enriched by a vast range of freedoms both societal and economic, freedoms never before quite as accessible to quite so many women at the same moment in time.

The freedom that allows women to feel both gently bred and kick-ass in the same moment, or to explore all facets of their personality by turns, is worth preserving. And worth expressing, whether exercised in full or in fiction.

Western women's participation in male literary domains is a relatively new freedom, just slightly more venerable than the right to vote. When Jane Austen was writing in the early 1800's, fiction for women was overwhelmingly ghettoized, its virtuous heroines most threatened by monstrous villains in gothic castles. Jane broke the mold by making her monsters other women - of the ilk of Lady Catherine DeBourgh - who ruthlessly enforced a rigid social code upon the young heroines and punished them for deviations. Women's fiction was never to be taken as literature, its subject matter and style unlikely to appeal to male readers. Mary Shelley had made inroads fifty years earlier with Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, a decidedly masculine novel for a woman of her time. But for all her literary reach she was severely punished by society because she violated the rigid social mores applicable to women.

A hundred years after Austen, Baroness Orczy was encroaching on the male domain of detective novels with 'Lady Molly of Scotland Yard', first published in 1910. Her readers were still mainly women, reading about a woman, but this woman stood up for more than the right to marry or not. She stood up for justice, like any male detective. More daring still, the baroness breached the male preserve of literary derring-do with The Scarlet Pimpernel, in which Lady Blakeney had a voice not limited to screaming for help. Men as well as women began to read these novels of the French Revolution as avidly as they had Dumas' Three Musketeers and other adventure tales written by men. Mary Shelley would have been in awe. Jane Austen would have reveled in that freedom, and written more about her male characters than she had dared do 100 years earlier.

Dorothy L. Sayers, one of the first women to receive a degree from Oxford Univeristy (in 1920), broke another barrier in 1923 when she published a novel featuring a male detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. Partway through his wildly popular series, she gave him in Harriet Vane a female partner in life and in detection. Their relationship, developing over several books, is not only one of the great romances of detective fiction but an early literary example of a relationship remarkable for egalitarian balance. Harriet was intellectually his equal, independent in spirit, financially self-supporting, and although grateful after being saved from certain death by Lord Peter, she did not submerge her own interests merely because he decided to marry her. Did that example contribute to myriad readers of both genders becoming more open to egalitarian tendencies in their own relationships?

Enduring fascination with Lord Peter and Harriet Vane led to the series being revived long after Sayers' death. In time for the 21st century, Jill Paton Walsh finished Sayers' unfinished manuscript, 'Thrones, Dominations', and went on to write two further novels of Harriet and Peter, 2002's 'A Presumption of Death' (set in WW2) and, now on the cusp of release in September 2010, 'The Attenbury Emeralds' which combines Lord Peter's first case - never previously published but set post-WW1 - with further insights into the mature couple's intellectually egalitarian relationship.

Nowadays, it is difficult to find mainstream fiction in which the heroines lack choices. Women buy more fiction than men, and women do not often buy books in which the heroine is passive. Less than a hundred years ago that was not the case, and two hundred years ago our options were even more limited. From Jane Austen's mannered, marriage-minded novels, in which the monsters were apt to be other women, through to 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' in which Lizzie Bennett dispatches monsters by her own skill with weaponry, we've come a long way, baby.

All of which is not to say I'll read every word of that latter title. It is not dazzling in style, wit, characterizations or plot. Not worth my close attention. I do confess, however, that I will be peeking at pages until I discover whether Mr. Collins eventually gets et. Some things a girl's just gotta know.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Where to wander after Austen and Heyer?

Herewith some suggestions from Michelle Kerns of

If those don't max out your Austen-ish addiction, there are handy reviews of Austen take-offs (mostly of 'Pride & Prejudice') on Austenesque

Neither site mentions Stephanie Barron's Jane Austen Mysteries, which I am re-reading now in order after a few random dips over the past decade. The first book, 'Scargrave Manor,' was a bit studied, the writing somewhat stilted. The second book in the series, 'The Man of the Cloth', has a wonderful Austen-esque voice along with a creeping sense of mystery. While I still find the footnotes a distraction - they tempt me all the way down the page and interfere with my immersion in the fictive dream - the language and subtle homages to well-loved Austen characters are more than equal to the challenge of restoring my story-trance.

'Jane and the Man of the Cloth' is set in a lovely seaside village. The inhabitants are as cloistered and their lives as intertwined as any in an Austen novel, with the addition of murder and other crimes implied or actual. For those of us who spent part of childhood in smugglers' tunnels with the adventurous hero of Moonfleet and the children of Enid Blyton's novels, there's even a scene in a dank, dark, seaweedy seashore cavern and tunnel leading to... but that would be telling.

And yes, I did spend another four hours Lost in Austenprose last night. How could you tell?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Lost in Austenprose

Austenprose has been doing Georgette Heyer novel reviews all month. I finally went there last evening when the yearning to participate became stronger than my common sense. I was lost for many hours, reading reviews, commenting on my favourite characters and scenes, commenting on other commenters' comments on same.  Lost... for hours... and going back for more this evening.

Heyer was my favourite author even before I discovered Jane Austen. Her books have been read to tatters multiple times. My oldest daughter shares my conviction that the best possible escape from this irksome workaday world is a retreat to the Regency... but only in the very highest-quality genuine Heyer and Austen varietals. Beware cheap knock-offs!

Discovering Heyer helped me survive more than the usual teen angst. At the start of high school, I was abruptly transplanted from West Germany to a small mill town in Northern Ontario. Even though I shared a common language and heritage (English Canadian) with my high-school peers, my clothing and attitudes and taste in music marked me as definitely different. 'Different' is not a boon in high school.

My family was dissolving around me under the doubled stress of culture shock and over-crowding: 2.5 distressed teenagers and their shaken parents, isolated in a small apartment in a town where 80% had never gone out of 'The North', where teen pregnancy, early marriage, and a life of hockey and beer were the overwhelming and accepted lot of the neighbours. We did not fit in, and knew no-one. And yet I was FROM Canada, supposedly coming 'home'. I have a lot of sympathy for immigrants, who add language difficulties on top of the rest. Moving cultures is HARD.

Finding a fictional world where heroines - bright, intelligent, creative, thoughtful heroines - faced up to such troubles and more, and found ways around them that did not often include being saved by the guy on the white horse - gave me a respite from worldly cares and some ideas for alternate behaviors in the face of scornful peers. In Heyer's world, if you are being whispered about behind the other girls' fans, you hold up your head higher, smile a little brighter, flirt a little stronger, and look as if you are having the best time in the world. Soon enough it becomes, if not completely true, at least not as much of a lie. And you don't go home from the Assembly/school dance to weep into your pillow. You go home with visions of young men coming on the morrow to leave posies (or movie tickets) at your door. And, often enough, they do.

The lesson I took away was "Some people might be mean behind your back and overtly cruel to your face, but you do NOT have to care about them. There are other, nicer people in this world too, and they will like you if given the chance."

Heyer's social lessons and high-quality escapism kept my head high and my confidence propped up through university, job interviews, a divorce, a re-marriage and integration with a new family.... and helped me re-establish my social circle following several subsequent moves. If I had spent those years retreating to 'Twilight' instead, would my takeaway lessons have had the same carryover practicality? (I don't know and can't guess because the writing in that series makes me gag every time I try it)

I have never been back to that town, and probably never will now because, like all mill towns, it was shrinking in the face of globalization even before the current economic slowdown. And the three young women who read Heyer with me all left town around the same time I did. I'm not sure any of them have been back either. When I think of the place now, the boarded-up homes and weed-grown parks are overlaid with the golden afternoons in Shari's grandmother's bedroom, reading our way through a world far removed in time and space from the angry girls and ugly boys who jostled us in the corridors of our over-crowded high school. A world of social order and nice clothes and graceful dancers.... and women who thought for themselves and were not afraid to say so, politely.

Over at Austenprose, that last describes pretty much every woman writing the reviews, and the comment trails. That place, right now, is closer to home than anywhere I've been since before high school.