Hazel McHaffie

Pride and Prejudice

More Jane Austen … why not!

It’s that time of year again – Festival time. As someone once famously said to all actors/performers/dramatists: ‘If you aren’t in Edinburgh in August you might as well be dead.’ And we are fortunate enough to live here.

Chez nous we have a stack of tickets for a whole range of shows still to come but this week’s star performance goes to a one-woman show featuring the brilliant actor Rebecca Vaughn with Austen’s Women. I loved her faultless eloquence and brilliant stagecraft with Jane Eyre last year, so she was a must-go-to this time.

And she didn’t disappoint. She took on the characters and mannerisms of fourteen different women from nine of Austen’s novels and linked them all with wise statements about life through the all-seeing eyes of the ubiquitous Austen narrator, all without pausing even while she donned her next costume. She segued from twittering Miss Bates, to a petulant Mary Musgrove, to simpering Harriet Smith, to snooty Mrs Elton to vivacious Lizzy Bennet with consummate skill. And the entire 70 minutes was in Jane Austen’s own words, a patchwork of commentary from her whole canon. Put together by Rebecca Vaughn herself. Amazing skill and an enviable memory!

Though I’ve read all the Austen novels and watched several films of these classics, it seemed fitting to prepare for this particular event by reading Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin to understand better the author’s influences and backstory. Sobering to think Jane herself was so little acknowledged in her lifetime, but critical literature about her now ‘runs to thousands of volumes and tens of thousands of articles’  and that ‘between 1952 and 1972 alone there were 551 books, essays and articles published, not to mention 85 doctoral dissertations‘ written about her … although it has to be said, that many of us who love her work would probably prefer to protect this quietly unassuming young woman from this relentless scrutiny and critical dissection and just enjoy her writing.

In telling Austen’s life story Tomalin has done her best to preserve the intimacy and spirit of her subject. I particularly liked her assessment of those now-famous Austen fictional women and how time influenced their development and sometimes contributed to little inconsistencies in the final published versions – time while Jane waited … and waited … and waited for others to appreciate her writing.

When she first drafted Pride and Prejudice she was 20. By the time it was published in 1813 she was 37. Imagine! Seventeen years between composing it and seeing it in print! Sense and Sensibility took sixteen years to achieve the same goal. Northanger Abbey only found a publisher after twenty years by which time the author was dead. How sad is that? A sobering lesson for the rest of us who’re frustrated by a couple of years delay while agents or publishers do their stuff. And her edits and revisions weren’t simple cut-and-paste jobs either!

Two hundred years on, we accept her ‘exquisite touch’ and ‘vitality of voice‘ but even once she was published, Jane had to endure some pretty vitriolic criticism and quite unjust treatment. Only over time and posthumously did she gain the recognition she so richly deserved.

Then there were the periods of writers’ block. Displacement, bereavement and depression in real life stilled her pen for ten years between the ages of 25 and 35. Without familiar and predictable routines – ‘the same views from the same windows; the same household routines and daily walks in the garden or to the church or the village; the same sounds and silences’ – and bogged down with the relentless care of other people’s children and relatives, she was bereft of the secure and peaceful environment in which her imagination could take flight. Adrift without anchors. She had lost father, home, any prospect of marriage, and all hope of getting anything published. Penniless, she was dependent on her brothers, obliged to accept whatever living arrangements were chosen for her, feeling very much like an awkward parcel.

More than enough vicissitudes to make a writer give up for good, you’d think. How much more should we value the resilience and determination that brought her amazing and enduring work to us.

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Celebrating Jane Austen

I promised you a short and easy post this week after the long serious one last week. So relax!

As I’m sure you’re aware, 2017 marks the bicentenary of the death of one of this country’s greatest writers: Jane Austen. You’ve probably seen references to some of the special tributes and events marking this date. A number of papers and magazines have invited celebrities to chose their favourite Austen books or characters, and since the Telegraph didn’t come calling chez nous, I contented myself with revisiting my own collection and rereading Persuasion (not my favourite, but I have a lot of sympathy for Anne Elliott).

What a phenomenally successful author this unassuming daughter of the manse was; wise, humorous, astute, despite a very limited and sheltered 41 years of life. And yet only really revered after her death. What would she have made of her image being used on the forthcoming new polymer £10 note, I wonder? It won’t be in circulation until September but last week it was unveiled to the public in Winchester Cathedral, the very place when Jane was buried precisely 200 years before.

Her words and perspicacity endure; we still love her stories, quote her best aphorisms. She’s still deemed worthy of translation into films and TV series. Who doesn’t know about Mr Darcy’s dip in the lake, or Mrs Bennett’s campaign to marry off her daughters to rich young men, or Emma’s incompetent matchmaking, or … (insert your own favourite excerpts). Long may she be respected and loved.

Can’t wait to get stuck into this little treasure.

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First lines

What is it that makes us pick up a book and then buy/borrow it? The author’s name? Title? Cover? Back cover blurb? A combination, maybe?

What makes us open the book and having started, keep reading? First line? First page? First chapter?

Books 1Well, last week I told you about Ian Rankin releasing the first line of his new novel. I doubt very much if that will ever become an oft-quoted introduction, but it led me to thinking about famous first lines and what it is that makes them memorable. Ones that spring instantly to mind are …

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. (Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.  (L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between)

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (George Orwell, 1984)

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. (Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca)

Marley was dead, to begin with. (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)

But I rather think that some of these have acquired legendary status, not just for their literary merit, but because they evoke fond memories of classic favourites.

There are other first lines, less well known, that instantly grabbed my attention and made me want to read on to see what the book was all about. If this author could write a few words this well, I’d be happy to commit a day or two/a week or two to finding out what he/she has to tell me.Books 2

It was the day my grandmother exploded. (Iain M Banks, The Crow Road)
Not an everyday occurrence, grandmothers exploding, so intriguing. How? Why? Where? When? What happened next?

The scent of slaughter, some believe, can linger in a place for years. (Nicholas Evans, The Loop)
Who’s been slaughtered? Who’s smelling their deaths today? Is it true?

I am a lawyer, and I am in prison. It’s a long story. (John Grisham, The Racketeer)
A story I want to hear. Why? What’s he done? How will he be treated? Is he guilty?

In their sacks they ride as in their mother’s womb: knee to chest, head pressed down, as if to die is merely to return to the flesh from which we were born, and this is a second conception. (James Bradley, The Resurrectionist)
Makes your skin crawl, doesn’t it? Who are these people condemned to such a death?

Books 3When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter. (Harlan Coben, No Second Chance)
Was there a second one? Who was shooting him? Why was it his daughter who sprang to mind?

The clothes of the dead won’t wear long. (Barbara Vine, The Brimstone Wedding)
There is so much wrapped up in this thought that transcends this one story, but I want to know what happened to make it an apposite statement.

My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. (Sarah Waters, Fingersmith)
So, why has it changed? What happened when she was Susan Trinder? What has transpired since?

I’m now thinking hard about my own first line. To date I’ve tended to concentrate more on getting the first page gripping. That introductory bit is so important; if you haven’t hooked your reader from the outset, he/she’s probably not going to bother to read on. I’ve actually often written the beginning last, spent ages refining it, for that very reason. I’ve sometimes even added a prologue to bring all the key intriguing elements to the fore and make the reader want to know how everything was resolved.

But first line? That’s a different level of demand. Fascinating to ponder.

 

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Boosting brain power

What are you reading at the moment? Nothing trashy I hope! As if!

Pride and PrejudiceMaybe it’s a spot of Jane Austen, as this week we’re celebrating 200 years since she published Pride and Prejudice, surely one of the best loved classics of all time. And certainly a great favourite with me.

But hey, did you know that perusing classical writing such as Shakespeare, TS Eliot and Wordsworth (the unabridged genuine article, I mean, none of your noddy versions) can give your grey cells a rocket-boost? Research has shown it’s so. And remember … in these dark days of economic austerity, somebody somewhere forked out good money – lots of it – to fund this study. (No sniffing on the back row.) Anyway, academics at Liverpool University with yards of degrees used up-to-the-minute technology with MRI brain scanners to study this phenomenon, so who am I to argue? The beneficial effect apparently comes when the reader happens upon unusual words, surprising phrases or difficult sentence structures. Bits of the brain light up, and the brain shifts into a higher gear which primes the mind to attend more closely and encourages further reading and self-reflection.

Try reading one of the test passages from King Lear yourself:King Lear

‘A father and a gracious aged man: him have you madded.’  Did you light up?

Now substitute a modern word: ‘A father and a gracious aged man: him have you enraged’. Feel the difference?

Apparently the former is better for you. Roll on enlightenment, huh?

D’you reckon that’s why 7,000 copies of the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey were left behind in Travelodges last year? Not enough brain-buzz?

Has anyone seen my copy of Notes upon some of the obscure Passages in Shakespeare’s Plays; with Remarks upon the Explanations and Amendments of the Commentators in the Editions of 1785, 1790, 1793? If you were the guilty party wot borrowed it, please return it forthwith.

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A dramatic start to 2012

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x91rBzNKvlc

A friend sent me this – beautiful photography, excellent sentiments – and I thought I’d share it with you in this first post of 2012. It says what I’d like to say so much better than I could say it (spelling mistakes excepted). A wish for world peace, wisdom, courage, happiness; what more could we ask for? And the idea of that spotless tract of snow that will show every mark we make, fairly strengthens the resolve to do better, doesn’t it?

As for me, well, it’s back to work with a vengeance this week. One of my tasks has been preparing a resumé of the dramatic appeal of my books ready for an approach to filmmakers. And because my mind has been running along that track I’ve been acutely conscious of the number of films from books shown on TV over the festive period.

Dickens’ Great Expectations made the biggest splash, of course, with its millions of viewers at prime time.

Now, I confess I studied Great Expectations at school for O-level English, but I’m hanged if I remembered much about it decades later. What I do know, though,  is that seeing this adaptation was a hundred times more enjoyable – and I’m a self-confessed book addict. From the moment when Magwitch emerges from the eerie slime, to the point where Miss Havisham dons her bridal veil and sets fire to her lover’s letters and herself, I was gripped. The only jarring bits for me were the good-looking stars. Surely Miss Havisham was more crumbly and wrinkled than Gillian Anderson made her; and Pip was certainly not as prettily perfect a screen idol as Douglas Booth  – eclipsing Estelle, in fact. But I could easily overlook those anomalies, and concede that they together probably brought in far more viewers than ordinary everyday faces would have done.

Also on offer were repeats of the oldies – Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Dorian Gray, Little Women, Heidi, Mansfield Park, Emma, The Chronicles of Narnia … to name but a few on the main channels.

Now, usually I’m averse to watching a film of a book I’ve read. I like to retain the characters of my imagination unsullied by the interpretations of others. But I’m increasingly coming round to thinking that drama can bring these remote tales of bygone times to life for far more people. Some of whom will then go to the book with a headstart in understanding the rather dreary 19th century prose. Why, just today I saw a shelf full of paperback versions of Great Expectations curiously labelled ‘Vintage Dickens’ – with scratchy black and white covers too, not even a photograph of the TV stars in the Christmas version! So there must be a market for the book now amongst the folk of 2012 who buy ready-made cakes and polyester clothes and giant plasma screen TVs. Besides which, you can download the classics on your Kindle absolutely free of charge.

So, all power to the elbow of those who labour to resurrect the classics for the 21st century, say I. Andrew Davies screenplay of Little Dorrit was for me a masterclass in bringing fusty prose to life. Davies, you’ll remember, was the genius who created a Mr Darcy who cooled his ardour in the pond and emerged with his wet shirt and breeches clinging to his manly form in front of his lady love in Pride and Prejudice. A brilliant screenwriter.

One day I’m hoping to persuade some playwright and film director somewhere to do something similar for me! That’s what’s galvanising me this week. I used to worry about my stories being distorted, but Dickens has been dragged into accessibility and modern times by clever adaptation, so why not me?

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