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“Pride and Prejudice” turns 200!

200 years ago today, Jane Austen published “Pride and Prejudice,” and the novel has been going strong ever since.  Entertainment Weekly is one of a multitude of media sources that have pieces on this literary anniversary, with their quick-read story about some of the book’s lasting influence on pop culture as we know it.

NPR, of course, has the best tribute. 🙂

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Spotted at TJMaxx…

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(It took all my willpower not to buy it.)

“Mansfield Park” (1999 film)

I’m not sure if it’s a sign of my growing up, but I do believe Jane Austen’s flawed (and sometimes downright hated) novel, “Mansfield Park,” is replacing the much more fluid “Sense & Sensibility” to become my favorite of her works.

No one is more surprised than me.  I’ve been a die-hard fan of the Dashwood sisters as long as I can remember, but lately I find myself much more drawn to a very different Austen heroine:  Fanny Price.

Recently, I watched the 1999 film adaptation of “Mansfield Park” to see how it fared against my personal favorite version – the Billie Piper/Masterpiece Theatre one.  It’s not bad.  In fact, it’s pretty darn great if you can ignore the serious alterations and changes from the original novel.  (The Masterpiece Theatre one, of course, is much more aligned with Austen’s original.  Duh.)

In this film version, poor but plucky Fanny Price  is sent to live with her wealthy relatives, the Bertrams.  Fanny is accepted by her cousins as a sibling thanks to her charm and intellect, despite their being ordered to never accept her as their equal.    This version of Fanny also writes letters and stories and appears to have a great deal of talent.  She’s best friends with her cousin Edmund, and lets not lie, is in love with him.  The Bertram clan are introduced to the attractive and appealing brother/sister duo of Henry and Mary Crawford, and the crushes begin all around – most notably,  fancy Mary sets her eyes on clergyman-to-be Edmund.  Sir Thomas Bertram is a hard man who doesn’t accept much frivolity.  While he’s away, the young folk decide to stage a raunchy play – but Sir Thomas returns right as they’re about to begin, of course.  It seems the distance and time have made Sir Thomas aware of how much Fanny has grown, so he declares they will throw a ball in her honor.  By now, Henry has grown attracted to Fanny and begun to woo her.  Though he’s charming enough, Fanny realizes he’s a rake and never really trusts him.  When he asks for her hand in marriage, Fanny refuses and Sir Thomas sends her back to her poor family.  Henry, however, doesn’t give up and continues pursuing her.  Thinking Edmund is to marry Mary, Fanny accepts Henry’s proposal – and then wakes the next morning regretting it and takes it back.  Henry throws a hissy fit and leaves.  Soon Edmund arrives to take Fanny back to Mansfield Park, as Tom (the eldest Bertram brother, and a rogue) has fallen ill and may be dying.  Returning home, Fanny discovers Tom’s sketchbook and realizes that Sir Thomas is up to some shady dealings with the slaves he owns in Antigua.  When the scorned Henry runs away with Maria Bertram (who’s unhappily married to a doofus) the family is scandalized.  Mary Crawford explains to them how, if Tom happens to die and she happens to marry Edmund, it’ll all work out just peachy for everyone.  Disgusted by her proposal, Edmund breaks off their engagement.  Long story short, Fanny and Edmund wind up together.  Once again, duh.  The film ends with a series of lovely tableaus of how things worked out, and it’s a sweet cinematic moment.

Frances O’Connor is a positively charming Fanny, and as likable a narrator as one can ask for.  Cleverly, the script has her addressing many of her letters and stories directly to the camera, a move which helps enhance her appeal to the audience.  Jonny Lee Miller doesn’t have a whole lot to do as Edmund, but whatever – he’s cute, he’s sweet, we get it.

The real surprises of this film are Harold Pinter (yep, THE Harold Pinter) as Sir Thomas, and Embeth Davis as Mary Crawford.  You could have knocked me over when I realized that Pinter was in the movie, straight up.  I had never realized that playwright Harold Pinter might actually be a person still around and working.  He’s really great in this – alternately friendly and positively beastly.  The stunning Davis makes Mary incredibly lovely and fun, even though we’re supposed to be rooting against her.  This is made all the more awesome during her big final scene where she lays out her (rather ghastly) proposal.

(Hey, fans of “Doctor Who.”  Remember the episode during the David Tennant reign with the blonde girl in the mirror?  That’s Sophia Myles, and she’s in this, too, as Fanny’s younger sister, Susan.)

The screenplay, by Patricia Rozema (who also directed the film) definitely takes it’s liberties, particularly with Sir Thomas and the slave business.  It’s a nice touch, adding a bit of social and political events to help better frame the piece – and most hits home when Edmund points out that, though they may not agree with slavery, the Bertrams live off the profits of the plantation Sir Thomas runs.   In addition,  this version of Julia does not elope with Mr. Yates, but instead gets a love letter from him at the very end of the film.  Also, the stories Fanny writes are actually earlier works of Jane Austen’s, squeezed into the film as – in my opinion – a love letter to the author.  All these changes actually work, so kudos to Rozema for having the balls to mess with a classic – which doesn’t always work out.

It’s a lively film, with gorgeous scenery and costuming.  Jane Austen fans will appreciate the beautifully shot dance sequence at the ball. (Seriously, there cannot be an Austen film adaptation without a dance sequence.  It’s a law or something.)

I enjoyed it.  If Fanny is your girl, it’s worth your 2 hours.

“The Improvised Jane Austen” at Chemically Imbalanced Theatre

I don’t really like improv.  Sometimes, living in Chicago,  I feel I’m about to be stoned to death for this opinion.  This is perhaps the city with the strongest improv scene in America.  Generally, though, I find improv performance to be full of show-offs who are desperate to stand out as the funniest person onstage with little to no regard to the plot.

All that said, I love Jane Austen.  If you can work her in to anything, I’m probably there.

There’s an improv group in Chicago – “The Improvised Jane Austen” – and when I learned they were doing shows at the Chemically Imbalanced Theatre I knew it was something I needed to check out.  So, accompanied by my sparkling friend and fellow Austen-junkie Annie, I got my half-price tickets and headed to the show.

Clearly, the five ladies who took the stage have done their research into the world and conventions of Ms. Austen.  After a one-word suggestion from the audience – “Temperature” – they opened a dictionary, pulled out a corresponding word, and set out to present a show called “Temperature and Tantalize.”  All the key elements were in place – two sisters (one smart and one beautiful,) a gentleman cad, pushy parents, a ball – heck, there was even a girl with a wooden leg.

I’d love to call out individual cast members, but no program was issued.  However, I will say that the fearless young woman playing “Branson,” the ladies man at the center of events, was a riot and seemingly unshakable.

With an amusing opening act (an improv duo called “Dry Toast”) the show ran about an hour and fifteen minutes – which was just about perfect.  Though the venue is charming, it may not have air conditioning.  At least, it didn’t seem to last night. The ladies of “..Jane Austen” have a few more weeks of Thursday night shows at CIC, and then I’m sure they’ll be performing in other places around town.  (Check out their lively facebook page for details and upcoming dates.)

Annie and I particularly enjoyed the evening, but really I don’t think you need an in-depth knowledge of Jane Austen and her work in order to appreciate the wackiness of the group.

**Side Note:  Completely unrelated to the show, I headed to the theatre from work and arrived about a half-hour early.  I had heard tell of Asado Coffee, supposedly a great little coffee and tea place next to the venue, and thought – perfect! I’ll get a coffee and read until it was showtime.  Outside Asado was a chalkboard sign saying “Try our iced coffee!” and I was able to walk right in the door and up t the register to purchase said coffee.  It wasn’t until after I had paid for my drink and sat down that I was informed they were actually closed for a private event.  Had I seen a sign indicating this was the case (or, you know, had the door been locked or had someone mentioned it to me prior to my sitting down) I would have sought a resting place – and purchased coffee – elsewhere.  So, coffee in hand, I went back outside and basically stood outside the theatre for 20 minutes.  The coffee was good, but I won’t be heading back there.  **

 

A (sorta) comedy of letters – “Lady Susan” by Jane Austen

“Lady Susan” is the first work of length completed by Jane Austen, while she was still a teenager.  That fact alone would make it notable.

Lady Susan is a recent widow trying desperately to gain a husband for both herself and her daughter, Frederica. Strikingly attractive, Lady Susan is downright mean to her young daughter, calling her “stupid” and a barrage of other names. For Frederica’s part, she’s a sweet and pretty enough girl who forms an attachment to a young man named Reginald De Courcy, who happens to be the very man Lady Susan has set her sights on. Of course, this leads to complications and lies.

Told entirely through letters between Lady Susan and her acquaintences, “Lady Susan” absolutely shows the beginnings of Jane Austen’s unique gift and way of looking at her regency-era life of manners and parlours. It’s not a great work, but it’s full of humor and potential.

For serious fans of Ms. Austen who are interested in everything their hero ever wrote, this is definitely one to check out.  For Austen newbies, I’d suggest you look elsewhere – perhaps at the eternally classic “Pride and Prejudice.”  There’s a reason certain books are recognized widely and others aren’t.

On a side note, the Melville House Publishing group has put out a series called “The Art of the Novella,” which attempts to preserve and shine light on shorter, often forgotten works such as “Lady Jane.” Among the other authors who have works preserved in this series are Arthur Conan Doyle, Leo Tolstoy, and Kate Chopin. I’m all for book preservation, so I applaud Melville House loudly.

All in all, leave “Lady Susan” for the Austen nerds. Just my two cents.

Ms. Austen’s Zombies – “Pride & Prejudice & Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After” by Steve Hockensmith

To all the readers who have always felt that Mary and Kitty Bennet didn’t get nearly enough to do in Jane Austen’s classic novel “Pride and Prejudice” — You need to read “Pride & Prejudice & Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After.” Like, NOW.

Seth Grahame-Smith’s mash-up novel, “Pride & Prejudice & Zombies” was a sensation.  As it launched a trend of monster stories mixed with classic fiction, it remained the best, most entertaining, and best written example of the genre.

Having read a great deal of this genre, I feel qualified to say loud and proud that the people at Quirk Books are the best at producing this kind of book.  Mash-up is a special type of beast, and just because it’s a good concept doesn’t mean it’ll actually work out on paper. (“Little Women and Warewolves” is a perfect example of ones that didn’t pull it off, while Quirk’s “Android Karenina” is among the best.)

It was with incredible joy that I received my advance copy of Quirk’s latest installment in the “P & P & Z” trilogy (which also contains the prequel, “Dawn of the Dreadfuls.”) The series, which recasts the lovely Bennett sisters as five highly-trained zombie-battling swords-women taking down England’s zombie outbreak, is charming, funny, and actually one of the best tributes to Jane Austen ever written.

Usually, when I see sequels to Austen novels, I groan.  (“Mr. Darcy Takes A Wife?” Zzzzzz.)

However, I gave this one a shot.  I mean, it has zombies.

Steve Hockensmith’s “Pride & Prejudice & Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After” is one of the most tremendously entertaining books I’ve come across in a long time.  As a fan of Jane Austen, I’ve always felt there were certain characters (like the previously mentioned Kitty and Mary) who didn’t get enough play in the original novel – and this book lets them shine.  Though the story centers around Mr. Darcy’s having been bitten by a dreadful (what zombies are called in this parallel regency world) and lingering in limbo between staying human and becoming a full-fledged dreadful himself, it’s hardly the least interesting plot.  Elizabeth, aided by her sister Kitty and her father, has to obey the always-scheming Lady Catherine to obtain a potential cure for the zombie disease in order to save Darcy before it’s too late.   Along the way, they face ninjas, a creepy hospital, a young dandy with a rabbit, and several familiar faces in new settings.  Will they get the cure to Darcy in time?  Is Lady Catherine on their side after all?  Will Darcy be tricked into thinking Elizabeth has abandoned him in his time of need?

Elizabeth, of course, is the main character.  That said, the book belongs to her two sisters – two characters who’ve often been overlooked by Austen’s readers.  Here, Kitty and Mary are highly trained, dedicated warriors on their respective quests for the truth.  Kitty (who’s always felt herself boring) puts on silly airs to win over the heart of a young man who might prove useful to them, all the while falling for someone who society would never accept her having a relationship with.  For her part, Mary is  headstrong and heads off into the darker side of London’s underworld.

Also! Anne de Bourgh (another character too quickly overlooked in the original novel) gets a full fleshing-out here, and becomes a strangely fascinating character – and not nearly as obvious of a bad guy as she was the first time around.

The above is all I can say without giving something away.  Full of twists and turns and things you don’t expect, this is a really great read.

Like it’s clever predecessor, I loved this book – a lot.  If this is the end of the zombie-fighting Bennett sisters, congratulations to Steve Hockensmith for letting them go out with a bang.

A Coffeetable Book of Manners – “The Jane Austen Handbook” by Margaret C. Sullivan

Have you ever wondered about some of the day-to-day realities of living in Jane Austen’s world?

I have.

Then again, I’m an admitted Jane Austen junkie.

The good people at Quirk Books (who published the untouchable ‘Pride & Prejudice & Zombies”) have had the smarts to release a grand little book that should clear up all your questions.

(Or rather, re-release.  The book was originally published in 2007, but it’s got a brand-new look and the world is eating up Jane Austen once again so, strike while the iron’s hot.)

Margaret C. Sullivan’s “The Jane Austen Handbook” is adorable in every way.  Sullivan, the author of Austenblog, knows her stuff, and shows off her expertise as she walks the reader through such delightful lists as “How to Become an Accomplished Lady,” “How to Spend the Season,” and “How to Elope to Scotland.”  Part rule book and part clever lists collection, the book is is cheery without being fake, funny without being overly silly, and charming as can be.

Of special interest is a discussion of how much money, by today’s terms, those infamous rich folk of Austen’s novels would be worth.  Mr. Darcy, for one, clocks in at over a million pounds a year,  though that shouldn’t come as a big surprise to his admirers.

(Swoon.)

The small, hardcover, book is illustrated with gorgeous drawings and contains tons of interesting tidbits for everyone who might have ever wondered nearly anything about this time period.  Austen fans will find tons to chuckle about in the references many of these lists make to the legendary authors novels, but I don’t really think an intimate knowledge of the Dashwoods and Bingleys are required. Anyone with a sense of humor or the slightest interest in this particular – and specific – time period and class of people should find something interesting in it’s pages.

Miss Austen’s “Emma” gets a musical.

At present, I’m jealous of anyone who lives near enough to London to check our their theater scene.  Not only did the Royal Shakespeare Company do a musical version of one of my all-time favorite books, Roald Dahl’s “Matilda,” but there’s a David Tennant/Catherine Tate “Much Ado About Nothing” getting ready to open.  (Of course I’m a Doctor Who fan. What?)

Both of these aside, I recently learned of a new musical that set my heart twirling with joy.

It seems the Old Globe is running a new production – A musical version of Jane Austen’s “Emma.”  In the past, attempts to make Ms. Austen’s works into musicals have either failed or just stalled out, so to see one actually hit the stage and seem successful is a joy.  With Music, Lyric, and Book by Paul Gordon – the man behind one of my favorite musical adaptations, Jane Eyre – it looks to be one to watch.

Here’s a fun video of the creative team – including director Jeff Calhoun – discussing the show.

This video appears to be from a previous production of the show at the St. Louis Repertory Theatre.  (I’m unable to track down current production footage at present, but this is from a production of “Emma” by Paul Gordon, and how many of those can there really be, right?)

I can’t imagine a better-suited Austen work becoming a musical.  “Emma,” which was the inspiration for the movie “Clueless” is about romantic entanglements and silly people.  What’s not to love about that?

After all, as the book says – “Silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way.”

Jane Austen Fans, Rejoice! – “A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on why we read Jane Austen” by Susannah Carson

First and foremost – If you don’t care about/care for/happen to like Jane Austen, I have to imagine that reading this book would quite likely drive you mental. It’s probably your worst nightmare – a collection of essays that intricately dissect Austen’s work, her genius, and her fame.  You’d hate it.  Leave now.

Now that the haters are gone;  I am a serious Austen fan who holds “Sense & Sensibilty” as a shining example of clever dialogue, plot twists, and pure literary perfection.   The story of the sisters Dashwood and the rogues and gentlemen who proceed to woo them has captured me for years, and was the piece that pulled me headfirst into loving Jane Austen.  I can debate the merits of the Colin Firth film version to the Keira Knightley version, and I can easily tell my Anne from my Fanny and my Churchill from my Bingley, thank you very much.

I am all this – and this book delighted me.

It’s a testament to the greatness of this book of essays that, having concluded it, I want nothing more than to re-read every single text Jane Austen had ever written. The book absolutely is that engrossing – if you’re into the subject matter.

Susannah Carson has gathered a collection of essays (old and new) about the works of Ms. Austen.  They range from deeply scholarly to downright adorable.  Writers such as C.S. Lewis, Somseret Maugham, Virginia Woolf, and Amy Heckerling (who directed the movie Clueless, which was an update of “Emma” if you recall) present a broad array of perspectives on what it is about Austen and her world of characters that has fascinated legions of readers since the early 1800s.

Yes, she’s sometimes grammatically messy.  Yes, sometimes the dialogue seems out of place – even stunted.  In her essay, Eudora Welty even talks about the “noisiness” of Austens work.  There are imperfections that can’t be ignored, true.

However, her fans will argue in favor of her genius despite (and sometimes because of) these quirks until there’s no one left standing. Her humor, love stories, and social commentary continue to engage readers each and every day.  After all, putting the detractors aside, Austen’s success can’t be denied – Her novels have never been out of print.  “Janeites” are a legitimate force to be reckoned with. Film adaptations are still regularly churned out.  There’s a Pride and Prejudice musical that’s been trying to get to Broadway for a while now.  Heck, just visit Etsy and you’ll find scores of Jane-related merchandise. Did I mention there’s an action figure, too?

Not bad for a woman writer at a time when women simply did not write.  (When “Sense & Sensibility” was first published, instead of using her name, all the book said was that it was written “By a Lady.”)

These essays present a closer look at some of the most beloved novels of all time.  “Pride and Prejudice” gets the biggest chunk of space, but “Northanger Abbey,” “Persuasion,” “Emma,” “Mansfield Park”and “Sense & Sensibility” are all given their turn as well. I particularly enjoyed Rebecca Mead’s “Six Reasons To Read Jane Austen” and Benjamin Nugent’s “The Nerds of Pride and Prejudice,” among many others.

As E.M Forster said, “I am a Jane Austenite, and therefore slightly imbecile about Jane Austen.”  This book taught me a lot about Austen in regards to literary theory, and opened my eyes to thinks I’d never pondered in her texts before.  This book made me smile, and will remain one I clutch close to my heart even as I set it among the Austen novels on my bookshelf.

(And on that note, I just realized I don’t own a copy of “Mansfield Park.” Blasphemy!)

Books I’m thankful for

In the spirit of a holiday all about remembering things you’re thankful for, I decided to make a (short)list of books I’m grateful/thankful for.

Some of these are among my all-time favorites, but some are books I’m thankful for for other reasons.

The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant

Otherwise known as “The book my Mom told me to read for years, and I ignored – then, after actually reading it, had to admit it’s genius.”

My Mom is probably my favorite booknerd in the world, she’s always reading something and most of the time her recommendations are fantastic.  This time around, it was probably six or seven years she told me to read this book, and for various reasons I didn’t.  However, when I did, I discovered one of the best-written books I’ve ever encountered in my life.  Diamant is brilliant at detailing female relationships and lives, and it’s a book I will always suggest to other readers.

Matilda, by Roald Dahl

For giving little bitty me the idea that there were other booknerds in the world – and that loving “Dahrls Chickens” was perfectly fine.

(Also for making me wish I could move things with my mind, but thats a whole different list.)

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

Good books, like friendships, last forever.  In college, I met a girl named Aleisha, and we’ll be friends forever.  There are two things that define our friendship – Boybands and Jane Austen.  I’m thankful for Aleisha for also being a big Bronte/Austen nerd, and particularly for getting every Elizabeth Bennett/Darcy/Colonel Brandon/Miss Dashwood reference I have ever made.  She’s a gem, just like this book.

Valley of the Dolls, by Jacqueline Susann

Not only has this book (and it’s fantastic film version) provided more moments of sheer joy with my dear friend Bob than nearly anything else I can think of, but I’ve also been able to dazzle folks with my 60s Hollywood knowledge on more than one occasion.  Loving “Valley of the Dolls” is not a guilty pleasure – it’s one I’m proud of.

A Dirty Job, by Christopher Moore

I’m thankful Christopher Moore exists in this world to write wonderful books, all of which have brought me joy throughout the years I’ve been a fan.  I’ve never encountered a book of his that hasn’t absolutely delighted me.  I’m most thankful for “A Dirty Job” because it’s the book that introduced me to Moore and his wacky world.  Literally, I first picked up the book based on the cover, as I was darting through a train station getting ready to head home for the holidays and needed reading material.  The cover made me laugh, I bought it, and one of the great literary loves of my life was born.

So, readers, what books are y’all thankful for? 🙂

(Happy Thanksgiving!)