“Walk With Me” Said A Thousand Poets

 “Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn–that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness–that season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.”

― Jane Austen, Persuasion

IMG_8113

The first tempestuous storm of autumn is over. We ventured out last night to talk a walk in our immediate neighborhood to survey the damage and get a breath of that freshly scoured air. It was more of an early evening, really, when the air had grown calm and a bit of sun began to peek out to give us a spot of cheer before dusk.

IMG_8074

‘Listen! the wind is rising,
and the air is wild with leaves.
We have had our summer evenings,
now for October eves.’

~Humbert Wolfe, 1936

IMG_7279

I was afraid of what we would see—of what we know is inevitable. Part of the ambiguity we feel during this time of year comes from the startling changes to the landscape, when the winds strip the trees of color, and our lovely, leafy neighborhoods become a wasteland of soggy leaves and twisted limbs. The view that greets our eyes might resemble the ‘Aged warriors’ of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s tone poem, ‘thinned of half their tribe’:

‘When reeds are dead and straw to thatch the marshes,
And feathered pampas-grass rides into the wind 
Like Agèd warriors westward, tragic, thinned 
Of half their tribe; an over the flattened rushes, 
Stripped of its secret, open, stark and bleak…’

IMG_7721

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used a warrior imagery, as well, in the awesome beauty of a piece simply titled ‘Autumn’:

‘Magnificent Autumn! He comes not like a pilgrim, clad in russet weeds. He comes not like a hermit, clad in gray. But he comes like a warrior, with the stain of blood upon his brazen mail. His crimson scarf is rent…. 
The wind…. wafts to us the odor of forest leaves, that hang wilted on the dripping branches, or drop into the stream. Their gorgeous tints are gone, as if the autumnal rains had washed them out. Orange, yellow, and scarlet, all are changed to one melancholy russet hue…. 
There is a melancholy and continual roar in the tops of the tall pines…. 
It is the funeral anthem of the dying year.’  

Then again, our altered landscape might be more George Meredith in poetic scope with all his grim, Victorian melodrama, of which the following is just the merest snippet:

‘Behold, in yon stripped Autumn, shivering grey,
Earth knows no desolation.
She smells regeneration
In the moist breath of decay.’

Thus we ventured out after the storm, expecting all of the above. How pleasantly surprised we were to find, no gothic drama, no melancholy Millay, no stain of blood, no shivering gray, but vistas of a curious, tousled charm at every turn.

There was color around every corner.

Tiny vignettes of moist, sparkling abundance.

IMG_8117

The squirrels were busier than ever in their new windfall of riches; they scarce had time for even a disapproving glance in our direction, and I missed their usual scold.

Perhaps the poet of our current landscape was a bit more William Blake in tone?

‘Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.’

~William Blake (1757-1827), “To Autumn”

I could even see the ‘delicate textures’ of John Burroughs, who was apparently more of an early riser for his autumn walks…:

‘Once more in our morning walk we tread upon carpets of gold and crimson, of brown and bronze, woven by the winds or the rains out of these delicate textures while we slept….’ ~John Burroughs, “The Falling Leaves,” Under the Maples

IMG_8053

Since Austen wrote the above quote in the header, in her novel Persuasion, over 200 years ago, there have been many anthologies of poetry—spun from the ‘minds of taste and tenderness’— that showcase the poet’s love for autumn days. We need not rely on memory alone, though the whispered cadence of poets past murmuring along our steps is not unpleasant.

Some of these gems are sprinkled in and around the scenes from our walk after the storm.

IMG_8025

‘Songs of continued years I sing.’ ––Walt Whitman, Autumn Rivulets (note the river view through the iron circle; courtesy of a thoughtful neighbor whose garden borders our narrow path)

‘Wild is the music of autumnal winds;
Amongst the faded woods.’ ~William Wordsworth
IMG_8073

“That country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay…That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain.” ― Ray Bradbury

IMG_7207

“At no other time (than autumn) does the earth let itself be inhaled in one smell, the ripe earth; in a smell that is in no way inferior to the smell of the sea, bitter where it borders on taste, and more honeysweet where you feel it touching the first sounds.” Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters on Cézanne

I hope you enjoyed your walk with the poets!

The Stupefying Ways of Bees: Reading August Folly

IMG_6375

“It was going to be a real sweltering day, a day for laziness and books, and noble, melancholy thoughts. He took his books into the garden, and read there steadily till lunch-time, when he walked over to the Woolpack and ate bread and cheese and drank beer. After lunch he worked again in the garden for some time. The sun was benignantly hot, the newly mown grass smelt sweet, bees were humming in a stupefying way, Gunnar was purring beside him, and Richard could hardly keep awake. He fetched a few cushions from the drawing room and lay down on the grass for a short refreshing nap…’

Today our garden tour takes us to an island. The book we are bringing along takes us to a literary island, of sorts—the ‘cloud cuckoo land’ of the Barsetshire stories. This fictional island still exudes a bemused air of charming unchangeableness, that rarely disappointed even during the days of British wartime and rationing.

IMG_6179

What better book than August Folly, by Angela Thirkell, could accompany these August days, this haze of heat and the sound of bees ‘humming in a stupefying way’…?

It was Jane at Fleur In Her World, a delightful blog for readers, who reminded me that I want to get back to my Angela Thirkell collection of novels and rediscover the delights of Barsetshire. Actually, it was back in June that I wanted to start again with her seminal work, Wild Strawberries. Well, of course in June I was all caught up with reading Louise, and before I could open my eyes to July possibilities, it was August.

‘So many books, so little time’ is actually a good problem. The solution is always the same, and pleasurable. Read more.

August Folly is one of my favorites of the Barsetshire series, and it can be read quite satisfyingly as a stand-alone novel if you have no intention of pursuing the rest of the Barsetshire goings-ons. It is where we first meet the Tebben and Dean families, who crop up in the later books.

August Folly, as with most of Thirkell’s novels, has already been exhaustively reviewed and discussed. Before the days of the internet, and quite popular in the 1950’s, there were ‘Thirkell Circles’. Now, via the web, there are some marvelous discussions of Thirkell’s work. The best resource is the official Angela Thirkell website.

Specific to August Folly, I have included links to excellent, well-written reviews below.

I love this blurb from my old copy: (Knopf Borzoi edition, fourth printing, 1947)

“Long after [the reader] has finished the book he will chuckle over its richly comic situations and the author’s kindly but sardonic asides on the peculiarities of human nature.”

This, in a neat summation, is the key to Angela Thirkell’s charm as a writer. It is also suggestive of why Thirkell was compared so often to Jane Austen. As August Folly, in particular, contains a few outright, admiring references to Jane Austen, we can assume that Angela Thirkell did not mind the comparison.

IMG_6362

A folly, of sorts–an artistic giant chicken at the fabulous Cistus Gardens Nursery on Sauvie’s Island

The two hundred year anniversary of Austen’s Mansfield Park is being celebrated around the blogosphere so therefore I have Jane Austen, Mansfield Park and its various characters more fresh in mind. Particularly here, at Sarah Emsley’s blog, there have been some fascinating insights given by some worthy authors.

While Thirkell makes many Austen allusions in this novel, when it comes to Mrs. Tebben, Thirkell leaves no doubt for the reader. She clearly points the arrow and connects the dots.

Poor Mrs. Tebben is the only character, by the author’s own admission in the narrative, modeled after a specific Austen character. The comparison is made by her daughter, Margaret. And while it’s not a good one, it’s a link that hints at the true dysfunction behind the Tebben household.

“Your respected Mamma,” said Laurence to Margaret, who was just finishing her omelette, “is telling my Aunt Palmer exactly where she gets off at about the veils for the chorus.”

“Just warm the rum, will you,” said Margaret, pushing a saucepan towards him. “Yes, mother is a little like Mrs. Norris sometimes.”

Ugh. Mrs. Norris, of Mansfield Park, is of Jane Austen’s most hated characters. (She is discussed in depth here.)

“I am of some use I hope in preventing waste and making the most of things.” [Mrs. Norris, Mansfield Park]

Add an Oxford degree to this description, along with a bit of intellectual obtuseness, and you have a fair sketch of Mrs. Tebben’s character.

While most readers would not put Mrs. Tebben in nearly the same category of manipulative hatefulness that they would Mrs. Norris, this comment did highlight why Mrs. Tebben is not popular. She is landlocked in her small, often petty world of grasping economies and inept domesticity. Her mothering skills leave her children more exasperated than fond. She has respectable intellect but is short on common sense and comfort.

Yet her sweet daughter Margaret, being Margaret, softens the comparison by saying,

a little like Mrs. Norris sometimes.”

As to the other Austen comparisons, they are implied, rather than stated.

Rachel Dean, for example, is languid, lovely, and adored. She blows dreamy kisses from her lounging chair, and is something of a miracle, for she has had nine children, and still looks stunning draped in a clingy white silk gown. Her many children—‘the impossibly glamorous Deans’— become fodder for the gristmill of future romances in Barsetshire. If elements of her description remind you of Lady Bertram, sans pug, it is likely Thirkell had that in mind.

There are the amateur theatricals, the subject of so much comment in Austen’s Mansfield Park.

In August Folly (the name of the novel obviously being a multi-meaning play on words), the busy enterprises of Mrs. Palmer in this regard—so aptly described as ‘indefatigable’—are quite entertaining. She is determined to put on a Greek tragedy by Euripides; a lumbering Behemoth of a scheme that is alternately exhausting and hilarious as the plans and disagreements proceed.

Mrs. Palmer—as the figurehead at the top of the social ladder in the county, as well as the wealthiest resident— has installed herself as something of a ‘summer activities commando/troop leader’, and everyone is expected to tow her line and know their cues. Doris Phipps, housemaid with a rash, with a tendency to dissolve into giggles or hysterics, sounds particularly promising in her Aphrodite role. (not)

It goes without saying that no housemaid would have been invited to perform at the Mansfield Park theatricals. And, for the Greek play in August Folly, this is a community-wide event. Even the ancient, deaf rector of the parish—a respected Greek scholar— is an enthusiastic supporter.

There are some brief but memorable appearances of a Mr. Moxon, the incurably optimistic curate whom no one likes. He is terribly impressed with himself, and peppers his self-approbations with effusive descriptions like ‘ripping’. Here is another example of Thirkell’s brilliant turns of phrase, telling, but simple:

‘Lunch at the Dower House fell alive into the hands of Mr. Moxon.’

Mr. Moxon has Mr. Collins written all over him.

In another Pride and Prejudice tie-in, there is the prideful response (initial rejection followed by effusive acceptance) of Margaret Tebben to the proposal of marriage from the ‘catch’ of the neighborhood—wealthy and handsome Laurence Dean.

“Of course she didn’t really love Laurence, in fact she hated him, and would like to see him and tell him so.”

Margaret is my favorite character in the book, although I see her as more of a Jane than a Lizzie. The elder Tebben, Margaret’s father Gilbert, could bear a resemblance to Mr. Bennett; kindly but obtuse, scholarly, buried in his study and hoping to keep it that way. (see below for a description of Angela Thirkell’s father; obviously he provided much of the model for Mr. Tebben.)

But I believe the food references in August Folly are entirely Thirkell’s own! Surely, in their authentic rendering, they must spring from the inspiration of actual experience.

I knew full well, in re-reading this novel, that I would be returning to the repugnant dinner table at the Tebben house. August Folly has the distinction of being the only novel where I actually became nauseated while reading it. As a ‘foodie’, I would call the experience traumatizing, as a writer I am in awe of Thirkell’s ability with descriptions. I have always prided myself on having a strong stomach, but the Tebben’s cook, Mrs. Phipps, almost did me in.

The Tebben family resides at Lamb’s Piece, and though not well off, are considered part of the gentry of the country. Their formidable cook, Mrs. Phipps, (mother to the above mentioned giggling Doris) dishes up meals of culinary deplorability and expects no back talk.

‘Mrs. Phipps, a born cook only in the sense that she had brought up a large family chiefly on tinned foods. She had a natural gift for making meat appear gray….’

Mrs. Phipps’s salads from the garden consists of undressed tough lettuce leaves served lying in a pool of gritty water. Honestly, Mrs. Phipps almost put me off of salads for life.

“When I eat green stuff,” said Mr. Tebben, chewing away at a well-grown lettuce, “I understand why cows have four stomachs.”

Everything served at the Tebben dinner or tea table is tasteless, tough, tepid, flaccid, limp, lifeless, overstewed, underdone, quivering, slightly revived, and generally revolting.

It is not completely Mrs. Phipps’s fault. Mrs. Tebben (aka Mrs. Norris) prides herself on her domestic economies, which means scrimping on everything, and where comfort is equated with dispensable luxury. She pretends to be serving the needs of her family, when really it is her own obsessive need to save a penny that dominates her thinking.

But Mrs. Phipps’ meals did give rise to some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Are there any pickles?” asked Mr. Tebben, though without hope.’

I don’t know why that is so funny. It just is. In the pathos sense of funny. Poor long suffering Mr. Tebbens, wistfully wishing for something at his table that might be crunchy, tasty and delicious. But no, there are never any pickles.

Or this musing from Richard Tebben:

‘As the parents were away he could do what he liked all morning and needn’t stay in for Mrs. Phipps’s horrid lunch, whose composition he could, from his memory of last night’s dinner, accurately guess.’

I do love August Folly. It is delightfully funny and engaging. Professional reviewers always describe it as ‘light entertainment’, ‘frothy’, and so on. All true.

But it is a gold mine of hilarious human interaction, cultural curiosities, and humor both intelligent and twee. Just prepare yourself—after reading it, you are going to want to take a reactionary dive into a big dish of your favorite comfort food.

How about raspberry lemon cupcakes with plenty of extra big helpings of luscious lemon cream?

Raspberry lemon cupcakes with lemon cream; something that Mrs. Phipps was constitutionally incapable of making.

Raspberry lemon cupcakes with lemon cream; something that Mrs. Phipps was constitutionally incapable of making.

*********************************

Additional notes:

Editions….Anna Zinkeisen illustrated the cover for the first British edition. It is very rare, and I want one.

The incredible wealth of literary allusions in Angela Thirkell’s books have fascinated readers for decades. Thirkell’s father, J.W. Mackail was an Oxford Professor of Poetry, Virgil scholar and translator of Virgil’s works into English, authority on the Icelandic Sagas (surely the model for Mr. Tebben) prominent socialist, friend and biographer of William Morris, and married to the only daughter of Edward Burne-Jones. Those are just the high points.

One can only imagine the fascinating dinner table conversations that must have flowed around young Angela’s ears. (and yes, I do wonder what sort of food was served, and were they tyrannized by an atrocious cook that they couldn’t afford to replace?!) For a wonderful resource that explains many of these literary allusions specific to August Folly, read here.

Links to reviews of August Folly:

http://thecaptivereader.com/2012/02/17/august-folly-angela-thirkell/

http://shinynewbooks.co.uk/reprints02/august-folly-summer-half-and-the-brandons-by-angela-thirkell/

http://theliterarysisters.wordpress.com/2014/05/01/summer-half-and-august-folly-by-angela-thirkell/

https://www.littlebrown.co.uk/books/detail.page?isbn=9781844089680

http://www.librarything.com/topic/163123

Curious Word: My reading of August Folly yielded another Curious word: Scrobbling.

“Aunt Palmer is really the outer limit,” [Laurence] said, “scrobbling your cook and then coming for dinner.”

 

Jane Walked On

Painting by Edmund Blair Leighton

Painting by Edmund Blair Leighton

When did shy Fanny Price first spring to life in Jane Austen’s mind? This unlikely heroine has captured imaginations for the two hundred years since Austen first crafted her story and fortunes within the pages of the novel Mansfield Park.

In An Invitation to Mansfield Park, and the post by guest blogger Jennie Duke, mention was made of the unflattering description of Fanny Price, and how we first meet her as a child of ten.

Clearly with this introduction, Jane Austen was setting the scene for a powerful novel of character, with a frail but indomitable heroine at its core:

‘Fanny Price was at this time just ten years old, and though there might not be much in her first appearance to captivate, there was, at least, nothing to disgust her relations. She was small of her age, with no glow of complexion, nor any other striking beauty; exceedingly timid and shy, and shrinking from notice; but her air, though awkward, was not vulgar, her voice was sweet, and when she spoke her countenance was pretty.’

An unprepossessing beginning, we could say. Yet, the most compelling evidence we have that Fanny Price is about to become more than the sum of her parts is given us in Jane Austen’s own expressed feelings about Fanny Price. From the available material on the subject it is apparent that Jane was very emotionally invested in this character of Fanny—a la Pygmalion–she was a child of her own creating.

How could Jane Austen be so attached to a character who lacks the wit, sparkle and brilliance that she herself loved to be in company with?

As an example of this, in a letter to her sister Cassandra, she writes:

‘The orange wine will want our care soon. But in the meantime, for elegance and ease and luxury, the Hattons and Milles’ dine here to-day, and I shall eat ice and drink French wine, and be above vulgar economy. Luckily the pleasures of friendship, of unreserved conversation, of similarity of taste and opinions, will make good amends for orange wine.’

As though phrased by Mary Crawford, herself. Where would Fanny Price have fit in at such a table ‘of unreserved conversation’, of ‘elegance and ease’? What part of Jane’s heart did Fanny Price occupy?

Permit me to hypothesize.

It is of interest to note the timing of the writing of Fanny’s story in Mansfield Park. Jane had just moved from Southampton—a busy seaside town with close ties to Portsmouth. Portsmouth, as we know, figures large within the story of Mansfield Park, and is one of the few geographical locations Austen actually used by name.

The pungent scenes, sounds and aromas of these bustling ports would have lingered in Jane’s mind, perhaps to be re-played often in the quiet days to come at Chawton. Perhaps some of those arresting visuals that would become lasting memories could have come from long walks with her sister, brother, or other companions.

One can imagine the smell of fish being cleaned, old nets or rigging being repaired and lying strewn about along a crowded quay….the cacophony of rough voices from a fishing and naval industry mingling with the incessant shriek of gulls.

In this atmosphere Jane and her companions would have passed many cottage doorways, opened out onto the grime of the street. At the entrance to one of these homes, stands a young girl of about ten—lingering on the doorstep, half in, half out, half in shadow, half in full sun. She gazes upon the elegant passers-by with shy curiosity.

Perhaps there, in that doorway, is where Jane Austen first saw ‘Fanny’. Likely Jane saw many such young girls, but this one was different.

No one could capture a wistful young girl as beautifully as Bougereau

No one could capture a wistful young girl as beautifully as Bougereau

She is grave in expression, a bit careworn… It is true there is no ‘glow about her’, no carefree easy spirit reflected from her steady gaze… the younger children, being more boisterous, are pushing past her, fighting amongst each other over trifles. They provide stark contrast to the quietly attentive child.

She is curious about the pretty ladies; she offers a hesitant smile, perhaps a word or two is spoken:

‘her voice was sweet, and when she spoke her countenance was pretty…’

Jane smiles, too, and the little face came alive. A connection, deep and lasting was made, look for look with Jane, reserved but somehow knowing….something flashed between them…both the possessors of a quick mind and a tender heart, they instantly, strangely, knew each other.

For a moment Jane saw, what but for the slightest change in circumstance, could have been her.

painting by William Adolphe Bougereau

painting by William Adolphe Bougereau

A plaintive voice comes from within the shabby house, a tired mother appears with a baby on her hip, and the girl quickly withdraws to the darkness inside.

Jane walked on. She couldn’t stop thinking about the little girl in the cottage doorway. That steady, serious regard in a face so young…What strange threads of fate are woven and intertwined for us before we are even born….An improvident marriage, a careless parent, a lack of resolve, the choices we make in our companions….the same winds of chance that might guide a ship into safe harbor will even so ruin another against rocky shoals.

‘..[the] poor mother….’ Jane was already writing in her mind… ‘It often grieved her to the heart to think of the contrast between them; to think that where nature had made so little difference, circumstances should have made so much, and that her mother, as handsome as Lady Bertram, and some years her junior, should have an appearance so much more worn and faded, so comfortless, so slatternly, so shabby….’

What circumstances will befall the ten year old girl with the shy smile? The same as her ‘poor mother’? How will her gracious demeanor fare amidst the constance friction of chaos in her surroundings? What opportunities could come her way, to save her from obscurity and drudgery?

‘The living in incessant noise was, to a frame and temper delicate and nervous… an evil which no superadded elegance or harmony could have entirely atoned for. It was the greatest misery of all….’

Jane walked on…she knew something of that misery…her thoughts running ahead as page after page wrote itself in her mind….

Her companions exchanged knowing and amused glances at each other. They recognized this absent-mindedness of their dear friend and sister….her mind always occupied…

Was there anything that could be done for this girl…? she mused. What sort of life would she give her, if she could? What sort of life would she, Jane, want, if she could have it?

‘At Mansfield, no sounds of contention, no raised voice, no abrupt bursts, no tread of violence, was ever heard; all proceeded in a regular course of cheerful orderliness; everybody had their due importance; everybody’s feelings were consulted. If tenderness could be ever supposed wanting, good sense and good breeding supplied its place; and as to the little irritations sometimes introduced…, they were short, they were trifling, they were as a drop of water to the ocean…’

Jane walked on, staring sightlessly at the ocean. And as to happiness? she thought…what will give happiness to ‘such a heart’?

She already knew.

‘….the….happiness which no description can reach. Let no one presume to give the feelings of a young woman on receiving the assurance of that affection of which she has scarcely allowed herself to entertain a hope.’

Perhaps at that moment, Fanny Price was born, and Jane Austen vowed, that no matter how many difficulties would have to be overcome, how unlikely the outcome might appear, she would wield the power of her pen in a way she could not do in real life. She would bestow unspeakable happiness on so tender and devoted a heart.

Jane walked on.

‘Laughter, light, and beauty’; still thinking of Jane

vintage painting

William Henry Margetson (1861-1940)

Are you coming?

In anticipation of the ‘Invitation to Mansfield Park‘ celebration happening at the blog hosted by writer Sarah Emsley, and as I wrote about here and here; it seemed a good time to refresh my library of Jane Austen choices. If you could see my library, you would probably ask the same question my husband regularly asks: “Do I really need more books?”

This is not actually my library but more how my husband envisions it.

This is not actually my library but more how my husband envisions it.

Apparently so….I am ever so grateful to Vic of Jane Austen’s World for her lovely article describing the new Harvard University Press editions of Jane Austen’s works. While waiting anxiously for the Mansfield Park edition to be released, I did give myself a running start on eventually acquiring the complete collection.

Here you see Emma….these books are beautifully done, and well worth the modest cost.

The beautiful annotated edition from Harvard University Press

I can’t wait to sit at the fireside with old Mr. Woodhouse and go strawberry picking with Mrs. ‘E’ and her caro sposa in these lovely pages.

While waiting for the Harvard UP edition of Mansfield Park, one can read the brilliant article on other, older editions and the publishing history here. Deb at Jane Austen In Vermont hosts a wonderful blog on all topics related to Jane Austen, even spin-offs and adaptations, such as here:

A spin-off from the novel Mansfield Park

Another blog I’ve been enjoying recently is the Mansfield Park blog dedicated exclusively to the Austen novel of the same name. Recent posts have featured some exquisite examples of dialogue from favorite characters of the novel, including this gem from the selfish Mrs. Norris:

‘Mrs. Norris … consoled herself for the loss of her husband by considering that she could do very well without him.’ 

One of the things we love about Jane is her ability to sum up the essence of personality in a neat, concise statement. This quality is praised by Frank Swinnerton, in his review of her work:

‘But not alone are these novels memorable as works of art, as Henry James defined such things to be. They have other and more endearing characteristics which we should do ill to neglect. They have that beautiful whimsical irony which relates the author to Cervantes and to Shakespeare, and which makes “Don Quixote” and the Shakespearean comedies still so freshly charming—that detached and loving nonsense that gives them intimacy, and allow us to see deeper into the author’s heart than any other quality has ever done.

Her books, from “Northanger Abbey” to “Persuasion”, are full of friends, whom we judge as friends—some of whom, perhaps, as Mrs. Norris, or Mary Musgrove, or Mr. Woodhouse, we are inclined to judge as relatives—and the wiser we grow in the estimation of character the more we find that Jane Austen knew about character, so that she could actually, without caricature, present it as idiosyncrasy.

Like her own Nurse Rooke, “she is a shrewd, intelligent, sensible woman. Hers is a line for seeing human nature”; but she was also like her own charming Elizabeth, who said: “I hope I never ridicule what is wise and good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.”

That laughter is what brings light and beauty into the novels, and what makes them so agreeable at this time. Her books seem as natural as our own happy memories, as dry and convinced as our own private judgments, and as wise as oracles and unpretentious as simplicity itself. ‘

Well said, Mr. Swinnerton…even back in 1920 the reading public was sorely in need of ‘laughter, light, and beauty‘ …and it continues to be the reason why we love Jane Austen’s novels in 2014.

So…are you coming to Mansfield Park?

Love and Toast

Jane Austen's Sanditon

One cannot sensibly discuss toast without mentioning Arthur Parker.

You may recall his brief but memorable appearance in Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, Sanditon. We’ll get back to Arthur in a moment, but today’s post from Persephone Press (here)  is the vehicle that moved me to think along these lines of toast and its literary connections.

Persephone featured a toasting fork that is from the Monk’s House collection; a homely little item that would likely have been used by Virginia or Leonard Woolf on a cold night toasting crumpets by the fire.

toasting crumpets

As an American, there is nothing that divulges my British roots as much as my love for toast. If for no other reason I would know that my ancestors were English.

Why? The British have long had a love affair with toast. They take it as seriously as the French take their escargot. They ponder it with poignancy, and even wax rhapsodic when they reminisce about it in their literature. Even the beloved crumpet is nothing else but Toast given a new persona of round, cute and plump.

Elizabeth David, in her classic English Bread and Yeast Cookery  devotes an entire chapter to ‘Toast’, in an attempt to explain this curious English addiction.

‘Buttered toast’, she writes, ‘is…so peculiarly English a delicacy–and I use the term delicacy because that is what in our collective national memory it still is.’

In case you are looking for the best type of toast to absorb the maximum amount of butter, the enterprising English have had that base covered since at least as far back as the early seventeenth century. Look no further than Receipts in Modern Cookery; with a Medical Commentary, (1805), and a recipe for Potato Bread, given with this encouragement:

‘Lovers of toast will be much pleased with this kind of bread. The potato is not added here with a view to economy, but to increase the lightness of the bread, in which state it will imbibe the butter with more freedom’.

Oh my, yes.

Consider this excerpt from the beautiful novel How Green Was My Valley (by Richard Llewellyn), in which the author reminisces of his childhood in a Welsh mining town:

‘I had toasted four rounds of bread which my mother put on the end of the fork as piece after piece was browned….There is good dripping toast by the fire in the evening….good jelly dripping and crusty, home-baked bread, with the mealy savour of ripe wheat roundly in your mouth and under your teeth, roasted sweet and crisp and deep brown, and covered with little pockets where the dripping will hide and melt and shine in the light, deep down inside, ready to run when your teeth bit in.’

toast

Roddy McDowall, How Green Was My Valley

Flora Thompson, in her memoir Lark Rise to Candleford, writes about the homely comforts of toast as well:

‘In winter, salt butter would be sent for and toast would be made and eaten with celery. Toast was a favorite dish for family consumption. “I’ve made ‘em a stack o’ toast as high as up to their knees”, a mother would say on a winter Sunday afternoon before her hungry brood came in.’

On this side of the pond, we have Ambrose Bierce. In the chapter from his Collected Works entitled ‘La Boulangere’, (1911) he suggests, in satire, that the mothers of the new American Republic had no need of cannon balls or bayonets to wage their war against the British. They just made ‘treasonably bad bread’, and thus played a key role in driving off the redcoats. But this was now 1911, and Bierce’s plaintive cry against what he perceived as ‘American dyspepsia’ was that the granddaughters of the Revolutionary Dames might at long last put down their weapons.

Lewis Carroll, in order to make the curious bottle labeled ‘Drink Me’ more tempting to Alice, wrote that it tasted, among other things, of ‘hot buttered toast’. Naturally, the cautious Alice did wonder if the bottle contained poison, but after her first sip, Alice ‘very soon finished it off’.

A well toasted slice of bread does take a An Inordinately Long Time to achieve, which could be one reason Lewis Carroll had the March Hare slathering butter all over his pocket watch and dunking it in tea at that peculiar tea party we all love to analyze and deconstruct.

So look closely, and you’ll see our favorite English classics are full of toast racks, toasting forks, a miscellany of other toasting contraptions, as well as political upheaval with toast, domestic moments with toast, romantic moments with toast, and not a few lascivious toast references.

This is where Arthur Parker comes in.

As I can’t think of a tea party without conjuring up the familiar image of the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, I cannot write of toast without thinking of Arthur Parker. That amazingly robust yet invalidish young man…

“My sisters think me Bilious but I doubt it”,

…is one of Jane Austen’s finest comic creations. And the scene where he is crooning over his toast and cocoa is one of the funniest she has written.

Arthur Parker was surely as passionate about his toast as Marianne and Willoughby were for each other, and he hoped to impress the charming young heroine Charlotte with his expertise in handling a toasting fork:

… “and turning completely to the Fire, sat coddling and cooking it to his own satisfaction and toasting some Slices of Bread, brought up ready prepared in the Toast rack–and till it was all done, she heard nothing of his voice but the murmuring of a few broken sentences of self-approbation and success.— When his toils were over however, he moved back his Chair into as gallant a line as ever.’

Alas, that love-and-toast making session in front of the fire is all the time we get to spend with Arthur, as Jane Austen died before she could finish this amusing novel.

The Austen heroine of Sanditon, Charlotte (who showed great promise to be as likeable as Lizzie of Pride and Prejudice) is certainly intrigued by Arthur’s ‘self-approbation and success’ with the toast endeavors, yet by no means as delighted with Arthur as Arthur is with himself:

“I hope you will eat some of this toast,” said he. “I reckon myself a very good toaster. I never burn my toasts, I never put them too near the fire at first. And yet, you see, there is not a corner but what is well browned. I hope you like dry toast.”

“With a reasonable quantity of butter spread over it, very much,” said Charlotte, “but not otherwise.

“No more do I,” said he, exceedingly pleased. “We think quite alike there.”

As does Jane, apparently. And perhaps Virginia Woolf, as well.

sanditon

*************

Notes: for more on Jane Austen and the 200 year celebration of her work featuring her novel Mansfield Park, join the discussion ‘An Invitation to Mansfield Park’ here at Sarah Emsley’s blog.
Also, for more on Sanditon, there are some delightful articles here and here and here. Enjoy!

 

 

Mansfield Park– ‘All the pleasures of spring’

April

‘…that season, which cannot, in spite of its capriciousness,  be unlovely…’ Mansfield Park

In Spring it is easy to love things anew. Forgiveness comes more generously, hope ‘springs’ eternal, and happy, fresh plans come bursting up like crocus tips through frozen ground.

“To sit in the shade on a fine day, and look upon verdure, is the most perfect refreshment.” Fanny Price

In the literary world, spring is a good time to re-visit a classic novel and find ‘perfect refreshment’. In my recent and very  enjoyable re-read of Mansfield Park, I found many more opportunities to relate to Fanny Price. This strangely distant, awkwardly shy little heroine of Jane Austen’s masterpiece is not so beloved as the likes of Lizzie Bennet of Pride and Prejudice. (for more on this discussion and links to the bicentenary Mansfield Park discussion visit here and there are lovely articles about Fanny Price here and here)

mansfield+park

I find her love of nature is endearing. In the narrative, it is rare for Fanny to ‘burst out’ as it were, in several animated sentences of spoken dialogue. When she does though, it is most often a ‘paean of praise’ to the natural world. Indeed, her ardent expressions in this regard really must equal her tender passion for Edward Bertram.

In the past, when I speedily read through some of Fanny’s expressions (feeling them somewhat prosy and preferring the wit of Mary Crawford’s choice dialogue) I noted even the authoress was a bit impatient, albeit lovingly, with her heroine’s preoccupations.

‘…in the midst of some tender ejaculation of Fanny’s on the sweets of so protracted an autumn, they were forced, by the sudden swell of a cold gust shaking down the last few yellow leaves about them, to jump up and walk for warmth.’

Poor Fanny. Hardly anyone ever paid serious attention to her. She, however, was capable of seeing herself as others saw her. A rare trait, indeed, and for that alone she deserves our admiration.

In this passage of gentle self-mockery, as spoken to Mary Crawford, we get a glimpse of her own intellectual isolation:

“You will think me rhapsodising; but when I am out of doors, especially when I am sitting out of doors, I am very apt to get into this sort of wondering strain. One cannot fix one’s eyes on the commonest natural production without finding food for a rambling fancy.”

Yes, we are made aware that Fanny is aware…her thoughts and musings on nature are actually quite profound, when we really listen to what she is saying. Yet she, knowing she is alone in these intellectual pursuits (except for Edward, of course) lightly mocks her thoughts as a ‘sort of wondering strain’ and ‘a rambling fancy’.

‘Miss Crawford, untouched and inattentive, had nothing to say.’

As much as I was drawn to Mary Crawford for her magnetism and liveliness, in this particularly shallow aspect of her personality we have little to admire.

This brings to mind Rachel Carson. She is one of my favorite non-fiction writers, known and beloved for her seminal work Silent Spring. So often, in the spring, when I hear the cheerful sound of robins bustling about their domestic, even Austen-like preoccupations of nest building, mate-acquiring, and territory structuring, I think of Carson with appreciation. Perhaps she didn’t single-handedly save the bird population, but she played a critically important role.

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature–the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
Rachel Carson

To these things let us never be ‘untouched and inattentive.’ There is too much at stake.

In the end we are much more responsive to Fanny’s sense of loss in her lovely, tree-lined vistas, and much happier to see her restored to those joys.

‘It was sad to Fanny to lose all the pleasures of spring. She had not known before what pleasures she had to lose in passing March and April in a town. She had not known before how much the beginnings and progress of vegetation had delighted her. What animation, both of body and mind, she had derived from watching the advance of that season which cannot, in spite of its capriciousness, be unlovely, and seeing its increasing beauties from the earliest flowers in the warmest divisions of her aunt’s garden, to the opening of leaves of her uncle’s plantations, and the glory of his woods. To be losing such pleasures was no trifle; to be losing them, because she was in the midst of closeness and noise, to have confinement, bad air, bad smells, substituted for liberty, freshness, fragrance, and verdure, was infinitely worse: but even these incitements to regret were feeble, compared with what arose from the conviction of being missed by her best friends, and the longing to be useful to those who were wanting her!’ Mansfield Park

The modern Fanny Price would no doubt still be studious, shy, and timid. But let’s not underestimate her surprising reserves of ‘inner strength’. Can we picture her today (waif-like, utterly determined, morally entrenched) being arrested for tree-sitting, or any other acts of environmentalist civil disobedience?

Perhaps not. But one thing would still be readily apparent, or, shall we say, would be a truth universally acknowledged–Fanny Price on any sort of high ground would still not be loved or admired by all.

If we compare the preoccupations of Mary Crawford with the inner world of Fanny Price–one of marriage, title, houses, ballrooms and good parties, with the latter’s dreams of saving the natural world and leaving trees to grow as naturally as possible–which of these fine ladies would be considered more relevant for the needs of today?

Is Fanny Price an ‘important’ heroine? Apparently so.

‘Ye fallen avenues; once more I mourn your fate unmerited.’ William Cowper