Monday, July 26, 2010

Dancing with Jane Austen - well, almost!

Recently, P and P Tours celebrated the start of one of their fabulous holidays with an evening party in Bath to be held at the beautiful house that was used in the filming of Persuasion. I was invited to my great delight, but I must admit when I was told there would be dancing I felt a little nervous at the prospect!
However, I needn't have worried. I wasn't the only one who hadn't been initiated before, and the fact that most of us were beginners only made the evening more fun. Two beautiful and very patient young ladies from the Jane Austen Dancers of Bath came along to show us how to perform the steps. There was a lot to remember! We learnt individual steps, and then the patterns of the dances, not to mention interacting with our partners. Helen Wilkinson who runs the tour ended up with a very poor partner (yours truly) who would keep going in the wrong direction - talk about 'Wrong way, Mr Collins!' I expect the fact that I'd imbibed several glasses of wine at Helen's insistence (well, I have to blame someone) was the cause.
We had supper and then I read an extract about a ball scene from Willoughby's Return before we all danced again.
I don't think I've laughed so much for ages - 'I could have died laughing'. It's very difficult to laugh and dance at the same time, I can tell you. It was such fun, and if I'm ever invited to another, I should love to go. It made me think how much we've lost in this style of formal dancing, and what a pity it is that country dancing doesn't seem to be taught in schools any more, as it was when I was young. Click here to see the Jane Austen Dancers of Bath in this entertaining clip.
Bottom photo shows our lovely hosts Helen Wilkinson and her daughter Maddy of P and P tours.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Pride and Prejudice Without Zombies - Elizabeth & Darcy: The Iconic Romantic Couple

Laurel Ann from the fabulous Austenprose blog has very kindly invited me to guest blog as part of her Pride and Prejudice without Zombies Group Read. If you've not been keeping up with all the fascinating posts do head on over there - there's something of interest for all fans of Pride and Prejudice. I was thrilled when Laurel Ann asked me if I'd write about the main hero and heroine of the novel especially as I've just finished a continuation of Pride and Prejudice.

Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy are perhaps Jane Austen’s most beloved characters. Pride and Prejudice was written more than two hundred years ago, yet these characters remain as fresh and irresistibly fascinating to us as they were for the first generations that read their tale, and remain the standard by which all other characters in a love story are judged.
So, why do we love them so much? Jane Austen tells their story through Elizabeth’s eyes so it’s easy to identify with this heroine who is lively, witty, and loveable as much for her faults as for her charms. We identify with her because we feel she is like us. She is capable of making mistakes, but having realised her errors, she changes and grows as a result. We see her character develop as the story enfolds.
The first time we really meet Elizabeth it is at the Meryton Assembly where the proud Mr Darcy is also in attendance with his affable friend Mr Bingley. There is a lack of gentlemen at the ball, and Lizzy has to sit out for two dances. Mr Darcy is seen to be behaving in a particularly disagreeable manner. He only dances with Mr Bingley’s sisters and ignores everyone else in the room. Everyone has heard that he is a rich landowner, but his wealth and power coupled with his anti-social manners only serve to make him appear arrogant. He doesn’t seem to care that his words may be overheard or that his speech is insulting. In fact, he is almost goading Elizabeth whom he has heard described as a pretty girl. He actually makes sure that Lizzy is looking at him before he speaks. It’s almost as if he wants her to hear, and make her aware that he can attract, and have any woman in the room.
“She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.”
It’s a real put down, and as an unsurprising consequence, she dislikes him instantly!
At this stage, we also think he’s horrid, and I doubt there are many people who stop and wonder at the psychology behind his behaviour. It’s only when their relationship starts to develop that we think about the undeniable ‘chemistry’ between them, and question their attraction to one another from what seems such an unpromising start.
To our utter delight, Mr Darcy finds himself attracted to her even though he is determined to find fault with her, and when she refuses to stand up with him for a dance we rejoice at her opportunity for revenge. The lively banter that ensues between them is what makes their relationship so satisfying. In every respect, Elizabeth proves herself equal in intelligence. She is no simpering female. When they are thrown together at the Netherfield Ball, Darcy begins to enjoy Lizzy’s lively conversation and pert manners. Although she is determined to continue her dislike of him, she agrees to dance with him before she can help herself. The conversation that flies between them is an exercise in brilliant dialogue as each of them tries to better the other with a witty retort. Elizabeth is beginning to realize that however fixed her first impressions of Darcy seemed initially, her opinion of him is changing. She recognizes that they have similarities in their characters; they both like to think that they can use their intellect coupled with a wry sense of humour to win an argument or to make a point all meted out in an economy of language.
“It is your turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy - I talked about the dance, and you ought to make some kind of remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples.”
He smiled, and assured her that whatever she wished him to say should be said. Very well. That reply will do for the present. Perhaps by and by I may observe that private balls are much pleasanter than public ones. But now we may be silent.”
“Do you talk by rule, then, while you are dancing?”
“Sometimes. One must speak a little, you know. It would look odd to be entirely silent for half an hour together; and yet for the advantage of some, conversation ought to be so arranged, as that they may have the trouble of saying as little as possible.”
“Are you consulting your own feelings in the present case, or do you imagine that you are gratifying mine?”
“Both,” replied Elizabeth archly; “for I have always seen a great similarity in the turn of our minds. We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the éclat of a proverb.”
“This is no very striking resemblance of your own character, I am sure,” said he. “How near it may be to mine, I cannot pretend to say. You think it a faithful portrait undoubtedly.

They behave for the most part as opposing forces that cannot help being attracted to the other. Elizabeth prides herself on reading the psychology of people – she likes to know what makes them tick. The infuriating thing is that she cannot make Darcy out, when she thinks she has the upper hand, he then seizes power to have the whip hand over Elizabeth.
Just as we imagine that the couple is warming toward one another, something happens to make Lizzy despise Mr Darcy even more. She witnesses his snubbing of Mr Wickham and when the latter claims that Darcy has mistreated him she dislikes him even more. Elizabeth is swayed by Mr Wickham’s charming manner and has no reason to doubt his word. Darcy’s general behaviour has prejudiced her view of him, and so she takes Wickham’s part.
One of the reasons we love Elizabeth is because she is fiercely independent and knows her own mind. When Mr Collins proposes, we know she should accept him, but she refuses to compromise on her principles being prepared to go against the wishes of her mother. Elizabeth knows her prospects to marry well are bleak due to her lack of a good dowry, and even though the likely outcome is that she will remain a spinster, she remains true to her beliefs unlike her friend Charlotte Lucas who ultimately marries Mr Collins. Elizabeth is determined to marry for love. We admire her because she is rebellious, but also because she recognizes her own faults.
Elizabeth is not impressed by Darcy’s wealth and position alone, his character is what interests her, and initially she thinks he is rather shallow when he judges women by their accomplishments alone. He obviously thinks no woman is worthy of his consideration unless she is ‘accomplished’ and when he says he knows of only a half dozen women like this Elizabeth retaliates.
“I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.”
It is the continual sparring between Elizabeth and Darcy that we especially enjoy. One of them says something designed to provoke the other, and we wait with bated breath to hear their reaction. Darcy responds to Miss Bingley playing a Scotch air on the pianoforte by suggesting that Elizabeth might feel the impulse to dance a reel. Lizzy knows this is a veiled insult – he’s already mentioned that ‘every savage can dance’, and reels are generally danced by the lower orders.
Elizabeth replies, “…You wanted me, I know, to say ‘Yes,’ that you might have the pleasure of despising my taste; but I always delight in overthrowing those kind of schemes, and cheating a person of their premeditated contempt. I have, therefore, made up my mind to tell you, that I do not want to dance a reel at all - and now despise me if you dare.”
Of course, Mr Darcy does not dare.
In order to fully understand Elizabeth’s character we must know something of the expected manners and customs of the time. Young women led sheltered lives amongst family members and had little freedom. Lizzy loves walking around Meryton and the surrounding area unchaperoned which at the time would have been seen as most inappropriate behaviour for a young lady. Walking through mud and jumping over stiles to visit her sister at Netherfield would not have been deemed as the correct way to conduct herself.
Darcy’s character is a composition in contrasts. On the one hand he exhibits reservations about the behaviour of certain Bennet family members, but Elizabeth’s own individual quirkiness and her efforts to go against convention only intrigue him. He likes what he sees as her athleticism, and when Miss Bingley tries to make Elizabeth appear less worthy in his eyes by pointing out her muddy petticoat, and the fact that he would not let his sister tramp about alone in the countryside, his increasing attraction to Elizabeth is observed when he remarks that ‘her eyes were brightened by the exercise.’
Mr Darcy famously refers to Elizabeth’s ‘fine eyes’, and indeed, Jane Austen uses eyes in many instances to show the growing attraction between the couple. Here are a few instances:
Their eyes instantly met, and the cheeks of each were overspread with the deepest blush.

Elizabeth could not help observing, as she turned over some music books that lay on the instrument, how frequently Mr. Darcy’s eyes were fixed on her.

They were confined for the evening at different tables, and she had nothing to hope, but that his eyes were so often turned towards her side of the room, as to make him play as unsuccessfully as herself.
When Darcy realizes he is so in love with Elizabeth that there’s no turning back, he asks her to marry him. His proposal is ungracious; he declares he is going against his own sense in asking her to be his wife. Lizzy, in true fashion throws his words and proposal back at him saying she cannot return his feelings, and declares her anger at the way he treated Wickham.
“…from the first moment, I may almost say - of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form that groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immoveable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”
We know that Elizabeth would be set up for life if she marries him but her principles are admirable. She is not going to marry a man simply because he is rich. She is prejudiced against him for the characteristics she deplores – his haughtiness, his pride, and because he has assumed that she will jump at the chance to be his wife. At this point Darcy is outraged. As far as he is concerned he thinks he is offering what any woman could possibly want to make their dreams come true – his estate at Pemberley, and his fortune. He also wants to put the record straight about Wickham. Darcy writes Elizabeth a letter, and this is an interesting illustration of his character. Why doesn’t he go and see her, to explain in person? Perhaps his pride prevents it. After all, she has rejected him. He may be good at a quick comeback, but he seems more reserved when it comes to expressing his feelings and thoughts. I think we begin to question whether his haughtiness is simply masking a real insecurity; perhaps he is reserved and a little shy in company. It maybe that his discomfort in society and his inability to be at ease in social situations makes him appear to be arrogant when this is not the case. We learn from Mrs Reynolds, his housekeeper, who has known him since he was a small boy that he is far from being an intimidating tyrant. She describes him as being good-natured, sweet-tempered and generous-hearted. Praise indeed!
In her turn, when Lizzy reads the letter with the explanation that Wickham tried to elope with Georgiana Darcy, her first impressions are questioned.
We see another side of Darcy when he and Elizabeth meet again at Pemberley. Mrs Reynolds’s warm appraisal, his changed manner, plus his beautiful house and grounds make Lizzy see him through new eyes. She is beginning to fall in love with him. He is pulling out all the stops to impress her. It’s clear he’s been thinking about what she said to him, and he is trying to change for the better. He is kind to her uncle and aunt, and does not display his former snobbishness toward them. Darcy goes out of his way to be sociable inviting them all to an evening party and introducing his sister.
After learning the truth about Wickham, Elizabeth realizes that there is always more than one way of looking at things. She comes to know the real Mr Darcy as he lets his guard down and when she discovers the quiet way in which he saves her sister Lydia from ruin hence making it possible for their eventual alliance, Elizabeth knows she has been wrong to judge him. Darcy falls in love eventually for all the right reasons – Elizabeth’s intelligence and lively ways have captivated him, and he enjoys the fact that she is not afraid of him or sycophantic toward him. They both change to suit the other because they really love one another unreservedly. Mr Darcy and Elizabeth both make mistakes, but try to put them right and because they admit to their shortcomings, we love them all the more!

Laurel Ann contributed this wonderful passage which shows so perfectly how Mr Darcy has changed for the better by the end of the novel. “Such I was, from eight to eight-and-twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You shewed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.” Mr. Darcy, Chapter 58

My novel, Mr Darcy's Secret will be published by Sourcebooks in February, 2011. My editor just sent me the cover today which is beautiful - I'm so excited, and can't wait to hold it in my hands!

After capturing the heart of the richest man in England, Elizabeth Darcy believes her happiness is complete until mysterious affairs involving Mr Darcy’s past, and concerns over his sister Georgiana’s own troubled path to happiness present Elizabeth with fresh challenges to test her integrity, honour, and sweet nature as she fights her old fears and feelings of pride and prejudice. However, nothing can daunt our sparkling and witty heroine or dim her sense of fun as Elizabeth and the powerful, compelling figure of Mr Darcy take centre stage in this romantic tale set against the dramatic backdrops of Regency Derbyshire and the Lakes amongst the characters we love so well.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Cassandra Austen, Thomas Fowle, and Kintbury

Sometimes life hands out a little happiness and surprise from most unexpected and unsuspected sources. Yesterday I went to a particularly pretty part of Berkshire with my husband to meet a client of his for lunch. I hadn't really asked where we were going, I was very happy to be going out into the countryside with the thought of spending a lovely afternoon out in the sunshine. We were a little early, and as the surrounding scenery was so gorgeous we decided to have a little tour down the lanes and chose a route at random to explore. There were so many pretty Georgian houses in the area and such quaint cottages, I began to think I'd stepped back in time and wondered if I should meet with one of Jane's characters or even Jane herself. Just as I was admiring everything around we came across a signpost marked with four directions. One of the posts pointed to the direction of Kintbury, which immediately struck a chord with me. Could this possibly be the same Kintbury where the Fowle family had lived and where Jane and Cassandra had spent much time in their youth? If you remember, Cassandra was engaged to Thomas Fowle after he graduated from Oxford University. Jane and Cassandra's father, George Austen, took in Tom and his brother Fulwar to prepare them for university so Cassandra and Tom would most likely have met for the first time at Steventon Rectory. Jane's brother James was a particular friend to all four Fowle brothers whose home was the vicarage in Kintbury. Eventually, Cassandra and Tom fell in love and were to be married, but they were forced to wait because of a lack of money. He sailed as a military chaplain with a relative, Lord Craven, to the West Indies, in an attempt to increase his fortunes, but very sadly died of yellow fever in San Domingo in 1796. Cassandra, it seemed, never recovered completely as she didn't consider marriage again. Jane's references to 'long engagements' in Persuasion were surely inspired by Cassandra and Tom's predicament.
It was with a mixture of emotions that I had a quick look round the village as I thought of both happy and sad times that Jane and Cassandra must have spent there. I am so glad to have been to take a look. Coming across Kintbury like that out of the blue was a wonderful serendipitous moment!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside - Lydia Bennet in Brighton


The lovely weather we've been having here in England always makes me think of Lydia Bennet's adventures in Brighton! Here's a little taster of the fun and scrapes she experiences with her friend Harriet Forster.

Lydia and Harriet were dressed and downstairs by seven o’clock next morning to go bathing. They left the Colonel snoring away, as he was not due to inspect his troops till one o’clock, and hastened down to the beach to be dipped by Martha Gunn and her ladies. The girls decided to share a bathing machine for changing, but as there was hardly any room to manoeuvre, they kept falling over, partly because of the necessity of standing on one leg to undress and partly because they were laughing so much. Once they had on their flannel gowns and caps, it was time to face Martha Gunn, chief dipper and a woman not to be opposed. She stood in the water whilst her servant and helper led them hand in hand down the steps, but as soon as they hesitated with a first toe in the freezing water, she stepped up and very firmly took charge. She was a strong woman, and before they realised what was happening, they were submerged. Lydia would never forget that first occasion. She declared the horror of it would stay with her forever. Such was her surprise at being forcibly plunged into the icy brine, she forgot to hold her nose as instructed and as she emerged, coughing, feeling half drowned, she was convinced she had drunk several day’s dosage of the recommended amount.
“I cannot imagine any circumstance where I would be induced to try this heinous activity again, unless I was desirous of drowning myself and anxious to have done with my life,” she spluttered.
“I cannot agree, Lydia,” Harriet declared, splashing her friend till she shrieked for mercy. “I find it most refreshing and invigorating, and I profess that the water is exactly the temperature I prefer.”
“You are clearly most insensible, my friend. I always knew that, of the two of us, I was the most sound of mind and feeling,” shouted Lydia, as she escaped another assault and ascended the steps, dripping and cold.
Getting dried, dressed, and changed into one’s clothes, not to mention trying to dress one’s hair so as not to appear a complete fright, was a skill which they had not yet mastered after sea bathing. They almost ran back to the inn, which fortunately was opposite the steps they had descended, but as they reached the summit and were stepping out to cross the thoroughfare, they were intercepted by a curricle which swerved, making the horse rear, forcing Harriet to fall backwards, sending Lydia reeling to the ground. As she recovered herself, she saw that the driver had at least had the courtesy to stop, but she could have died as she slowly recognised the buff and blue livery of his servant, the buff and blue paint of his carriage, and, finally, the blue cloth of his coat, his buff breeches, and cockaded hat, a picture of perfection and in great contrast to the one which the girls presented.
Lydia scrambled to her feet, aware not only of her unkempt hair poking under her bonnet but of her general appearance of dishevelment, now that her white muslin was covered in grime and dust. She bit her lower lip, tasting the salt encrusted there, and cast her eyes down to the floor in the vain hope that he would not recognise them.
“Dear ladies,” Captain Trayton-Camfield declared, leaping to the floor and bowing before them, “forgive me, I did not see you. I hope you are well. Please tell me that you are not injured at all, for I shall never forgive myself if you are harmed in any way.”
“Please, sir, do not be alarmed, and thank you for your concern,” said Harriet, “but we are just returned from a little sea bathing, and I am afraid that in our haste to return to our inn, we did not see you.”
“Would you allow me to insist that you rest awhile in my chariot or may I escort you to a safe haven? Are you staying near? Please let me take you to your home,” the Captain entreated.
“Sir,” replied Harriet, “we are entirely at fault. It is we who should be apologising to you, sir. Pray, do be easy; we are not harmed in any way, though a touch shaken, to be sure, but nothing that a little rest in our rooms over the way will not cure.” Harriet brushed at Lydia’s gown and thrust her forward.
Captain Trayton-Camfield looked across to the Ship Inn. “I should have known that two such genteel ladies would be accommodated in refined surroundings. Please, may I beg your permission to introduce myself. I insist that it is quite the thing in Brighton to dispense with the formality of waiting for Mr Wade to perform the introductions! Indeed, I feel I know you already as I never forget a pretty face; haven’t we already met on the Brighton Road?”
Lydia was inclined to giggle at his forthrightness. I must admit, I like his open manner, she thought. But Harriet had suddenly become more than a little reticent in her replies. She clearly thought the Captain was overstepping the bounds of propriety and was keen to make her escape. She dismissed him as politely as she could; he took his leave, jumped onto his seat, and with a wave of his hat, cantered off in the direction of the Marine Parade.

Extract from Lydia Bennet's Story published by Sourcebooks Copyright Jane Odiwe

From the My Brighton and Hove website
As the popularity of sea-bathing grew so a new profession developed, with some of the town's fishermen and their families turning to bathing visitors for a living. Ladies were bathed by so-called 'dippers' and gentlemen by 'bathers'; in both cases the subject was plunged vigorously into and out of the water by the bather or dipper.

By 1790 there were about twenty dippers and bathers at Brighton and they continued in business until about the 1850s. The 'queen' of the Brighton dippers was the famous Martha Gunn. Born in 1726, she was a large, rotund woman and dipped from around 1750 until she was forced to retire through ill health in about 1814.

She was a great favourite of the Prince of Wales who granted her free access to his kitchens; an amusing story relates how she was given some butter on one of her visits, but was cornered by the Prince who continued talking to her while edging her nearer the fire until the butter was running out of the poor lady's clothes.

Martha died on 2 May 1815 and is buried by the south-eastern corner of St Nicholas Church.

The portrait above was donated by one of her descendants to the Brighton and Hove Museum.