Sunday, June 15, 2008

Happy Father's Day and a review for Lydia Bennet's Story from Jane Austen in Vermont

Happy Father's Day! It's a beautiful day here in the UK for Father's Day and I hope all fathers everywhere have a lovely day. Jane Austen's father always encouraged her writing, buying her a writing desk and a special notebook in which to write early compositions. He inscribed one of them with the following words - "Effusions of Fancy by a very Young Lady Consisting of Tales in a Style entirely new". Mr Austen admired Pride and Prejudice when Jane first wrote the novel, offering it to Mr Cadell, a publisher, in November 1797, describing the book as a "manuscript novel comprising three volumes, about the length of Miss Burney's 'Evelina'" and asked if Mr Cadell would like to see the work with a view to arranging its publication, "either at the author's risk or otherwise." The novel was declined by return of post and it was another fifteen years before Jane revised the novel and saw its eventual publication. Can you imagine, if Jane had decided to leave her book in her desk we would never know about Elizabeth Bennet, Mr Darcy, Jane, Bingley, Lydia or Wickham !

A review from Jane Austen in Vermont

LYDIA BENNET’S STORY opens strongly, with a giddy Lydia chatting to her journal (and also to the reader, who peers over her shoulder) about the fatigues of dancing - and the officers who make ‘excellent partner[s]’. One is reminded of Lydia’s ‘birth mother’ and Jane Austen’s enthusiasm for balls and assemblies (with which she imbued her favorite heroines, according to her nephew). This also nicely plays alongside the Catherine Morland scenes set at the Bath Assemblies, should the reader be familiar with Northanger Abbey. After all, doesn’t Henry Tilney state that a young lady rushes home to confide to her diary everything an evening offered - from what she wore to the men she danced with!

Lydia’s journal entries, interspersed within narrative chapters, are convincing, and nicely propel the storyline forward. It is a device Jane Odiwe uses to her advantage; as well, it provides that bow to Northanger Abbey (written about 1803 and maybe one reason for the timeline move?).

Odiwe displays her strongest writing skills in sections that oh-so-subtly convey a character’s manners or foibles. A delightful for instance, Lydia’s asides concerning her mother. Here Lydia has burned an unwanted gift (a lock of hair enclosed in a sheet of poetry) from a potential lover and she comments, ‘Unfortunately I had not taken into consideration the stench a lock of hair like that can make… It caught the attention of my mother who is generally not so observant but she has a suspicious nature’ (8). When Lydia and her friend Harriet discuss Lydia’s desire to marry before all her sisters and hopefully before she leaves Brighton, Lydia replies, ‘“I would love to tell mama [about a conquest], but you know as well as I, that any hint of a romance will have her down here before I have written the letter.”’ (65) Once married, Lydia mirrors her marriage to the one husband-wife relationship she knows intimately; ‘I have inherited my mother’s ability to disregard a husband’s complaints, for which, I am very grateful!’ (168). Mama Bennet is really only seen through Lydia’s eyes; and this manner of characterization is Odiwe’s asset, especially when dealing with the better known populace of Pride and Prejudice.

Compare these little moments with the presentation of Miss Armstrong (165), whose character is fed to the reader on a plate. ‘Lydia did not like Evelina Armstrong at all. She was … always ready to be vindictive, or spread some malicious falsehood. She enjoyed sniffing out any hint of gossip, and was forever telling tales about errant husbands…’ Expedient shorthand for later deeds, but Miss Armstrong’s personality would pop if her nature were shown from the start; actions speak louder than words.

For Lydia herself, the diary device allows her to reveal her more-secreted traits. ‘What I would really like is a house on the higher slopes of town [Lydia and Wickham have moved to Newcastle, following Darcy’s intervention] where the wealthy are settling, not timbered lodgings in the old part of town.’ (167) Kindred sister Kitty is treated (in a double-entendre?) when a vexed Lydia bemoans that her bonnet was crushed by Kitty sitting upon it: ‘She clearly has no feeling in her nether parts, for the abundantly large cherries adorning it would have alerted a more sensible person…’ (27)

And how rich that Austen’s flighty Lydia becomes Odiwe’s ‘fish out of water’ in the very first sentence of the first narrative chapter (13): ‘The true misfortune, which besets any young lady who believes herself destined for fortune and favour, is to find that she has been born into an unsuitable family.’ A stronger opening has seldom been set down on paper. Lydia’s self-contention of being a child snatched from noble parents at birth nicely sets up the story to come, positioning the reader firmly on Lydia’s side.

At the Brighton dance (52), Lydia comes across as quite the opposite of Catherine Morland, and even possesses a bit of the flash of sister Lizzy Bennet. And a taste of the gothic creeps into the narrative when, as couples walk through wooded grounds, the ladies tease each other about footpads not all being ‘murderers and some are quite handsome.’ (85) The grotto they then come to proves a turning point for Wickham - who is handed marching orders by his own love-of-the-moment.

This is one character I wish had been developed differently. Wickham is never really presented as someone the reader could sympathize with. Unlike Austen’s Wickham, who for a time enjoys the good opinion of Elizabeth Bennet, Odiwe’s George Wickham rarely shows a romantic or ‘heartrending’ side (his laments for the living that went ungifted tugged at Lizzy‘s heartstrings, remember). He is pretty constantly seen as the grasping ne’er-do-well he turns out to be after Darcy’s reveal. If he can’t have this girl; any girl will do. Once he marries Lydia, she seems the only one on their honeymoon; Wickham is already out chasing new conquests. Given such a beginning, readers already surmise the couple will not end up together, but a blissful period of some sort (in courtship or the early weeks of their living together) would have rounded out his character.

Odiwe paints in the Bingleys and Darcys very lightly; no bad thing given the reverence they generate in Austen fans. And this is a bonus Odiwe hands herself: her story can well stand on its own, though she utilizes the action and characters from Pride and Prejudice as needed, usually with a few deft references to goings-on in that other novel. Odiwe’s own inventiveness comes up with a worthy hero in the form of the Rev. Alexander Fitzalan, brother of Lydia’s friend Isabella. Readers realize straightaway that he and Lydia are the lovers at the center of Lydia’s story; but Odiwe sets up the denouement in a most surprising manner. So while the end result is never in question, the ride there is unexpectedly satisfying.

LYDIA BENNET’S STORY: A SEQUEL TO JANE AUSTEN’S PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (to give its full title), will have its readers staying up late in order to finish fairly quickly. It may seem like a Chinese meal - enjoyed while devouring it, yet later you’re hungry again - but you part with pleasant memories of the novel’s inhabitants. And it does leave you wanting some more.

I would like to send lots of love to my own father who I know reads my blog - he gave me my love of books and has always encouraged my own creative efforts. Happy Father's Day!
This painting shows Jane Austen with her father. I think the affection she held for him comes across very strongly in her letters and I hope I've shown this in my watercolour of them.

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