Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The Pleasures of Persuasion - Jane Austen

                     I had watched Persuasion on Sunday afternoon, the Ciaran Hinds/Anne Root version.

It doesn't matter which of the many versions there are out there, though; every time I finish the screen version,  I immediately reach for the novel.  There is something about how Anne responds to the world around her that just can't be captured on the screen.  It is an interior novel, through Anne's eyes for the most part, and a movie can't capture those interior thoughts and impressions deeply enough.  It can only show the surface.  So I find the movies always lack a depth that I know Persuasion the novel has.  This time though, I thought I would try one of my annotated versions, Persuasion by Jane Austen - An Annotated Edition edited by Robert Morrison.
 I have not read an annotated version of one of my favourite novels before, so I wasn't sure what to expect.  Too much information?  Would it be difficult to read the story and read all the extra information without losing my place, or the pace and flow of the story?  Well, it helped that Persuasion isn't a fast novel.  It's slow and thoughtful.  This means that taking the time to read the annotated notes on each page was easy to do.  Each annotation had something to do with what was on the page, as well, so it was in keeping with that point in the chapter.

Illustrations grace this edition, so many wonderful images and paintings from the time Jane Austen lived, and of the places mentioned in the novel.  Places that could be like Uppercross or Kellynch, and actual paintings, drawings, and reproductions of maps of  Bath and surroundings, Lyme and surroundings, are all shown in detail. The political changes, and the historical especially: the War with Napoleon is the backdrop to Persuasion, with the war just ending as the novel opens.  Admiral Croft who rents Kellynch, when the Elliotts have to decamp to Bath, has just been released on half-pay as the war is over and he needs a place to live with his wife. And of course, Captain Frederick Wentworth, who has made his fortune in the war, and now seeks a wife to settle down with.

I won't go through the details of the plot, since I will assume that most of you gentle readers have read Persuasion already.  I have as it is one of my very favourite novels.  So I was anxious and curious to see if the annotated version would add anything to what I had already gleaned from my readings, and from reading about Jane Austen herself in her biography by Claire Tomalin.

 Well, I learned a lot.  There is much more to this annotated version than I expected.  It brings in texts and books and ideas and criticisms about Persuasion, that have occurred ever since it was published in 1817.  What the annotated version gave me especially, was an understanding of how Persuasion fits into the world Jane Austen was writing in.  Especially, the literature world then.  I did not understand how much she liked the Romantic poets - even though they are brought up by Anne Eliot in the novel, to Captain Benwick - and that Persuasion is the first novel where she tried to use the setting to show her heroine's mind.  The walk from Uppercross to Winthrop, and the scenery around Lyme are the two big examples of nature being used to show Anne's pain.   In the Uppercross scene, one annotated note says:

"Anne's walk to Winthrop is often cite as an example of Austen's new commitment to a darker and more passionate world in which she values feeling over prudence, and in which she explores her own deep sense of personal sorrow through techniques and natural settings that are more commonly associated with her major poetic contemporaries Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Shelley......In their quiet and restrained fashion......Austen's last works are part of the new movement in English literature.  She has learned that the natural setting can convey, more surely than any abstract vocabulary, the movements of an individual imagination." p 127

At Lyme, the annotated notes suggest: " In her description of the 'immediate environs of Lyme," Austen comes "nearer to the Romantic poets than in anything else that she wrote," declares Althea Hayter.......Hayter proposes that Austen's own memories of Lyme, coupled with her reading of Coleridge's hypnotic poem [Kubla Khan], might have cast a 'strange glow' over the landscape, and now it would be the dark cliffs, the rocky fragments, the green chasms, the forest trees, that she felt moved to describe in Persuasion, as the setting for Anne Elliott's 'sorrowing heart', secretly yearning for the the love that she believed she had lost forever." pg 141

Now read the actual text of Persuasion for the first glimpse of Lyme and environs:
    " The scenes in its neighborhood, Charmouth, with its high grounds and extensive sweeps of country, and still more its sweet retired bay, backed by dark cliffs, where fragments of low rock among the sands make it the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide, for sitting in unwearied contemplation; - the woody varieties of the cheerful village of Up Lyme, and above all, Pinny, with its green chasms between romantic rocks, where the scattered forest trees and orchards of luxuriant growth declare that many a generation must have passed away since the first partial falling of the cliff prepared the ground for such a state........."p 140

I stress that neither the annotated notes/author nor myself are suggesting that Jane Austen was becoming a Romantic writer; what jolted me was the understanding that the Romantic poets had moved her , so that she as a writer was trying to use what their poetry was showing her about landscape, and the heart, in her work.

In  Lyme, we the reader are aware that Jane is resigned to having lost Wentworth forever.  She is grieving, she is sorrowful, her heart is broken, yet still she can see the world around her, still respond to nature, and indeed to the grief of Benwick, whom  she is just about to meet. And in that discussion with Benwick, who reads only the Romantics, she suggests that he adds essays and other books to his readings, to give him a sense of morality and resolve to overcome his grief.   It also reveals the true character of Anne Elliott, that in the midst of her own private grief and loss of hope, she can rally - and this is how, by using the guidance of books to show her the way.  I just love how Austen uses books in her novels!

It really bothers me now that in the screen version I have, Anne smiles when she is at Lyme at the beach for the first time. I understand why the actress would show this - the change of scenery, being at the ocean - is renewing, revitalizing - but Anne would be contemplative.  The chasms and luxuriant forest life and rolling ocean would be her outlet to  express the powerful emotions that she is not free to reveal.  She should be shown alone, along the seashore, or gazing out at sea, sadly.  Or smiling ironically, in awareness that the world goes on even when her hopes have ended.  Anne is never bitter, and at the end of her evening with Benwick, she is self-reflective enough to say,
      "When the evening was over, Anne could not but be amused at the idea of her coming to Lyme, to preach patience and resignation to a young man whom she had never seen before; nor could she help fearing, on more serious reflection, that, like many other great moralists and preachers, she had been eloquent on a point in which  her own conduct would ill bear examination."
                                                                                               p 149

I think it's at this point that I know I would love Anne Elliott dearly as a friend.  So while Jane Austen uses nature in a different, modern way, her main character is not Romantic, or tragic.  She is self-aware, reflective, and humourous, and a marvelous creation.  The irony, gentle wit, poking fun - and indeed she might have been poking fun at the tragic Byronic character by making him be Benwick in the novel, who despite his great despair at the loss of his true love, very quickly - too quickly, all agree in the book - falls in love again.  I really enjoyed the Annotated version for giving me a glimpse of Jane Austen the writer at work. 

I love seeing how the books being published in her time affected her writing, and her growth as an author.  I enjoyed reading the bits of criticisms and essays used, although I did not always agree with the ideas, they still gave a deeper meaning to what was happening in the story.

Things I did not know:
- I did not know that Jane loved Scott's poetry, or was a huge fan of Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth.  I will have to look for the novels now!
-I did not know that Austen changed the final chapters of Persuasion: she didn't like the original ending, so she cancelled the final two chapters and replaced them with three final ones of the published novel.
-The two cancelled chapters are the only section of any of her published novels to survive in manuscript.

I really enjoyed reading this annotated version.  I loved the notes about other authors and who she admired as a writer, and who admired her.  I enjoyed reading about all the little ideas, character references, other books, that Jane uses in Persuasion, or refers to, or links with. It makes for rich reading, and plunged me into the world of 1812 to 1816.  I think I was even dreaming of Regency England last night.......I loved reading about the differences in carriages, and why Wentworth's removing little Charles from Anne's back is so significant, and the reason why Elizabeth won't invite anyone to dinner, when the Harvilles invite every body. Regency England comes to life in reading this annotated version.

I think I love Persuasion even more, now.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

home again

                 I am home again.  The surgery went really well on Thursday. I am still very uncomfortable and on medication, but I've been able to finish the mystery I started last week - Blood on the Tongue by Stephen Booth.  It was so lovely to read again!  I am now  deciding betweeen Broken Harbour by Tana French, and Little Girl Lost by Brian McGilloway,  which will be next? Broken Harbour, I think. 

     I am so glad the surgery is done.  I had been sick for a long time with my gallstones without realizing that was what it was.  I'm curious to know what it will be like without my gall bladder, and most of all to not be afraid of another attack. 

          I watched my first on-the-road-to-recovery movie yesterday, IQ with Meg Ryan and Tim Robbins.  I had to hold my stomach because it hurt to laugh, and I forgot how funny this movie is.  Next up: Persuasion.

        A friend of mine dropped by Thursday after the surgery to see how I was doing, and brought me these:   

aren't they lovely?  I love the green growing up the petal, it's such a lovely mix.  This reminds me that spring will be coming, and soon.  It is incredibly healing watching flowers bloom, and these tulips are just opening.  Spring is coming!

  Thank you for all of your wishes and support.  It has helped a lot, knowing so many care.  I still can't sit at the computer for long, and I tire easily, so I will be back when I am more recovered.  I wanted to let you all know I was fine and recovering.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Books to help me recover

             I received a phone call three weeks ago. "Your date for surgery is Feb 14," the secretary said.  Feb 14!  Ever since then, I've been feeling anxiety build. I've been reading much less, and cleaning more.  Cleaning!  The floors are sparkling, the windows are clean (on the one warm weekend day we had since New Year's), and tonight the stove top is shining.  I wish I could settle and read, but I'm not able to.   It's gall bladder surgery, so not super serious, but still - any abdominal surgery is a frightening prospect.

    I haven't bought many books, surprisingly, for my recovery.  I still have a stack of mysteries, biographies, and assorted science fiction and fantasy to read - a huge towering pile, to be honest.  So I didn't want to buy a lot.  However, there was absolutely no way I was facing surgery without something  sparkling and brand new to cheer me up when I get home from the hospital.  With any luck it will be day surgery only, and I will be in and out the same day.  I will be on pain meds for the first several days after, and not able to do much.  What better than to have a stack of dvds ready to hand, and, even better, new books to read that are so new that I am still at the  'picking up and admiring that they are mine ' stage still?


Reading the Pre-Raphaelites by Tim Barringer was a splurge at the National Gallery of Art, the first book bought to cheer me up,  two weeks ago.  It has some lovely paintings by the Pre-Raphaelites that I have never seen before.  Along with that, I found to my wondering gaze that our Art Gallery also had a book on the Tate paintings, Introducing the Pre-Raphaelites by Jason Rosenfeld. 

This has larger pictures of paintings, plus houses, photographs, and a bit on the lives of the Pre-Raphaelites.  I have been hard-pressed to not sneak more than a glance at these books since they came home, but I have promised myself they are for my recovery, so they are mostly unread still.  At the least, if I am very uncomfortable, I can just gaze at the art and forget where I am for a little while.
I also found at the Art Gallery a little book on the life of Charlotte Bronte for $6.99:  The British Library writer's lives: Charlotte Bronte, by Jane Sellars. 

 Again this is mostly a photograph book of places she lived and a brief history of her life. I love Yorkshire and miss it very much, and the pictures in this book will go a long way to soothing me and bring up memories for me.  I went to Haworth when I lived in England in 2000.  I loved seeing the village and the house where Charlotte and her sisters grew up and lived on and off as adults.  Seeing that bleak and wild beauty that Yorkshire is famous for, helped me understand how the sisters could write such wild passionate books. So even though not a big book, I think it will help soothe me over the coming days.
I did buy two other books last Friday, two mysteries.  I was out with one of my friends from work, and she was raving about a new-to-us series by a Canadian writer she had just found out about from another co-worker.           

 So I bought one of Ian Hamilton's books, The Water Rat of Wanchai, the first one in the Ava Lee series.  She is supposed to be a little like Lucy Liu, and is a forensic accountant.  It looks like great fun, and she gets to travel all over the world, so even though I will be house-bound for the first week or more, I can still go places in my books.

The other book I bought was one that I'd been thinking about for a couple of weeks:  Now You See Me, by S.J. Bolton.  I heard that S.J. Bolton's first Lacey Flint mystery features  a copycat killer to Jack the Ripper, and is very good according to Kay at Purple Sage and Scorpions, here.  Since her review of SJ Bolton, I have read Blood Harvest, and been looking and thinking about Now You See Me.

 I broke down and bought it, because so far every book I've read by Bolton has been intriguing, absorbing, a bit thrilling, mysterious, and with good characters.  I'm really looking forward to this in the next couple of weeks.

Jack the Ripper seems to be making a come back in the past few years - Maureen Johnson's The Name of the Star is an eerie take on the history - I first mention it here., still have to do a review. (I feel very badly about this, the book is very good!). 'Ripper Street' on tv is a new show from the UK set in Whitechapel the year after Jack the Ripper killed his victims. I am enjoying it. 

So, there you have it.  I broke the Double Dare Challenge, as the surgery date was so unexpected.  I thought it would be much later in the year.  I do intend to keep to this challenge in the weeks around the surgery/recovery period, but for two weeks while I recover, I think that sparkly new books are just the thing this bookworm needs to recover.  Don't you?

Have you read any of these?  Can you recommend anything for the next few weeks?  I will let you know that all went well as soon as I can after Thursday.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Sylvia Plath - some thoughts when reading how she has influenced other women writers

    Over at The Guardian, they have a wonderful collection of various writers talking about how reading Sylvia Plath affected their writing, and in one marvelous case, what knowing her meant. 

           I forget that Sylvia Plath died the year I was born (1963).  I forget how much her work, her poetry and her one novel, The Bell Jar, opened the way for women to write about what was real for them, especially the real dark emotions that lie under the surface: rage, anger, sadness, hopelessness, anxiety, and despair. 

    Her poems and The Bell Jar don't contain only these emotions, they also have moments of pure beauty, and vivid imagery that pulsates with life and blood and desire.  Her poems aren't polite.  They ripped open the facade of being a woman in the 1950's and 1960's, with that same dissatisfaction that Betty Freidan was about to reveal in The Feminine Mystique.  Plath's work  burns with desire for honesty, for the truth, to say what is obvious to her, that polite society and nice women never, ever speak of.  She tore the roof off of her world, opening herself up to all the feelings in her heart and soul, and she blazed a path for everyone who came after her.

Her poetry came to me when I was 18 and had just left home for the first time.  Alone, it seemed, I was ready to face some of the reasons why I left home that young, and her poetry gave me the door to recognize similar feelings in me of anger, of betrayal, of loss, as well as a way to try to describe these in poems.  I didn't know these could be written as poetry.  That's what Sylvia gave me most of all, the realization that everything can be made into a poem, if you can find the clarity and words to show the ideas and feelings in a way that has harmony and art to it, and even beauty.

 And yet she could be funny - I remember laughing out loud reading The Bell Jar, as well as crying, and wincing at her descriptions of the shock therapy while in the institution.  She was sarcastic, and ironic, and I had the feeling reading her, that if we could have met, we might have spoken the same kind of language.  She felt like a kindred spirit, albeit much cleverer, more passionate and far more open than I could ever be.  

She is still an influence on me today, as I strive to be honest in my poems, to write truthfully about what I really feel and why.  I am afraid of her, too, and Anne Sexton, because I admire their poetry so much, and it wasn't enough to save them from their despair, so it seems bleak and naive for me to think that art can save, and yet I do.  No one ever said that being a poet was easy, and a woman poet with children has to balance motherhood with writing.  Both of these women left their children eventually, both giving up to despair and committing suicide.  For a long time I fought being a poet because I did not want to be like them.  And of course, it's only because that darkness runs in me too, that their poetry is both pleasure and dangerous for me. I have had to find my own strength against that darkness, and I write about that too sometimes.  I have often asked myself what is poetry, if it's about something that isn't beautiful?  Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, are some of the poets that laid the way for women to speak the truth as poets, and as women. Most of all, I eventually realized that not all poets - or writers - are suicidal or unbalanced. Despair was something else about which they could write, but it didn't make them poets.  Both their deaths are a tragic loss, and it's not why they are remembered, thankfully.  It's their wonderful, deep, magical, brutal, fiery poetry that matters.

I owe a debt to Sylvia Plath, and reading the reflections of the writers and poets on The Guardian, I find I am not alone.  I am discovering now that I want to go back and reread her again, to see what she has to teach me now.  That's is something I love about art and poetry and literature.  There are levels upon levels of meaning, depending on where you are as a reader or viewer.  It's what makes  a work of art become lasting in a culture,  even when not recognized at first publication.  The work is revealed over time by people coming to it, again and again.  The song or poem or painting reveals itself over time to have brushed some deep level of meaning that ascends that time and place.

 I don't know if Sylvia Plath will still be read 100 years from now, but I hope so.  I think she is an essential part of a young woman's - any woman's -  growth to being able to fully express herself, including all the ways that each woman feels she doesn't fit the culture around her.  I of course don't know if she is timeless, or only for a certain time, though I do know that she is part of my time and my history.

Here is another Guardian Post about Sylvia, just two weeks ago, about an upcoming book about her before she met Ted Hughes -  Mad Girl's Love Song by Andrew Wilson.  There are links in this article to other ones from Ted Hughes sister Olwyn Hughes and the excecutor of Plath's estate , and Plath's  friend Elizabeth Symonds on The Bell Jar. Apparently The Bell Jar has been re-released with a more chick-lit cover, and some are upset.  While the chicklit cover belies what is in the book, I'm happy to see it is still being published. 

Did you, dear Reader, discover Sylvia Plath at some point in your life?  Do you still read her poems?  Did she influence you in some way? 

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Timescape by Gregory Benford - book review

   Timescape by Gregory Benford is a nebula-award-winning science fiction novel, written in 1979.  When it is set is important, because the novel is split between two different time periods:  1998, when the world environment is in near-collapse after the oceans start dying, and 1963.  1963 is when a message sent by the scientific team in 1998, a team of nuclear physicists, work with tachyons to send back a message in time.  They pick 1963 because scientists then are just beginning to work in the field around tachyons, without knowing they exist. The first experiments with working with nuclear resonance equipment, which allows the messages from the tachyon beams to go back to 1963 to be received - is why 1963 is picked.  Timescape is about the world as Benford foresaw in 1998, and looked back on in 1963, from his position in 1979, when he was writing it.  We, as the reader, now look back on all of it as all in the past, and so this novel should feel dated, but it doesn't.  Even though 1998 is 15 years ago now, I read it from the perspective of Benford, from 1980, and so looking ahead to one possible future of earth in 1998, and back on the past that was in 1963.

This sounds all complicated, like listening to the Doctor try to explain time business in Dr Who -
'Timeywimey"  is a word I like now and hope to see in the dictionary one day.  "A big bowl of wibbly wobbley timey wimey stuff," is  how he describes it to Sally Sparrow in the first weeping angel episode. Of course, she's writing it from the future back to him in the past in an event that hasn't happened yet either, or is happening now and that she has to send back to make sure it happens in that way so they survive.  In Timescape, the 1998 team are trying to get a message back to 1963 earth to not create - or use - a certain type of chemical that when it gets into the food chain, the molecule works as a virus and mutates within the food organisms so they become inedible. 

All this in itself is cool.  It's fascinating to watch the one team sending the message back in time, running the program, beaming it when they know the earth is in that position in the sky in 1963.  Seeing how physics, astronomy, and chemistry are all needed to solve this riddle in 1963, where Gordon Bernstein is running the nuclear resonance experiment, and picking up the coded message that sounds like intereference in his experiment.  He ends up going to chemists for the molecular code sent back, to astronomers for the latitude and longtitude delineations that he realizes gives a star in space - and a time period when the earth is there. The lives of all the scientists are explored, which gives a  human grounding to the messiness that is time travel story.  This also lets us see the inner lives of the scientists, especially Gordon, and John Renfrew from the 1998 team, who has to keep the message going back and wonders how they will know it is received, when the 1963 team can't send any message to the future. He wonders, if the world - the future - is changed by the 1963 team acting on the message received, how will they know in 1998?  How do you experience the world changing?  Will they be able to stop the diodom bloom in the oceans?  Save the environment? 

I won't give all the answers here, as how this is resolved is done in a very interesting manner.  It involves an event everyone knows, so that the reader - you and I - are involved in imagining what if this happened?  it's part of our history too.  Very interesting, and very well done. And, the future is involved too, in a very cool way.

I really liked this book. I loved seeing how the scientists work out their problems - and they really are 'head in their clouds', distant, constantly trying to work it through while going through their daily lives.  Like artists, creators,writers, they are involved in their minds working through data, especially when working through new experiments.  How does a scientist win a prize?  what does it take to be a scientist?  what's it like to run with ideas while in the midst of doing something else?  This is probably the best book on the inner workings of a scientific mind.  It's highly readable.  Trust me.  I am not a scientist, and Benford wrote the physics in such a way that I don't feel like an idiot because I don't understand, but made me feel smart because I could understand the theories behind tachyons, planets in space and time, and how a message might be sent back in time.  Brillliant, clever writing that makes the reader feel smart. 

And it might just be possible to send a message back in time.....though it is still kind of timey-wimey at it's heart, too.  Time travel is that.

Read for Carl's Sci-fi Experience, it is a really well-written, and one of the best books on how at least a message through time could  be done.