A Rare & Exclusive Interview with Plague-Writer Daniel Defoe!

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Slowing the Spread with Daniel Defoe (An Interview)

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The year 1665 saw the deadly outbreak of bubonic plague in London, England. Novelist Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) wrote his A Journal of the Plague Year during the 1720s by returning to the diary entries he kept more than a half-century earlier. Defoe’s work is classified as historical fiction due to the fact that he deploys a narrator, whose initials are H.F. (Henry Foe), and appears loosely based on the author’s uncle, a saddler in the parish of Aldgate (named for the gate that once encircled the capital). A year later, in September of 1666, The Great Fire of London would further decimate the city’s population and send shock waves through Restoration England.

We spoke with Mr. Defoe via video-conference call as England’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and the Prince of Wales, entered self-quarantine due to the infection, all while the global rate of casualties continued to rise.

How are you today, Mr. Defoe?

Defoe: Lovin’, Learnin’, Livin’, thank you. My wife Mary and I have just booked a two-week tour on Carnival Cruise lines. Mary found an excellent rate and continental breakfasts are included. We will stop in all of the major port-cities, from Long Beach to San Francisco, then north to Seattle. Our granddaughter Kelsie is in her medical residency, so we’d like to shadow her during her emergency room rounds. We’re life-long learners, truly. Mary suggested we make a quick stopover in New Orleans, too, before we return.

Ah. Do you think that’s wise, Mr. Defoe, given the CO-VID19 global pandemic?

Defoe: Most likely not but I’ve always wanted a proper jazz burial in the French Quarter.

An odd request for a Protestant but let’s continue. So how are you bearing up?

Defoe: Truth be told, with all of this Zooming and texting and hours spent on the Gram, I could use my own IT department. Plus, Twitter said I should clean my face-mask in a rice-cooker but the cooker overheated and I may or may not be the cause behind the Great Fire of London. My lips to God’s ears!

Regardless, after fifty years of matrimony and bearing our eight children, Mrs. Defoe and I are both the pictures of health. Mary found a wonderful YouTube channel that guides us through a Cross-fit challenge. A very fine-looking trainer with a ponytail. Gold lycra shorts! I’ll stop there.

I finally have the time, too, to binge-watch “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” What a fascinating spectacle. Those gals are “fierce,” as the young people like to say! Mary informed me, as I’m sure you are already well aware, but there are gentlemen under all of that makeup and lady’s clothing! Strange days, strange days! It’s funny to spell “work” with an E, right? You betta’ werk! Ha!

How else are you making use of your time? A sequel to Robinson Crusoe? That has series written all over it…

Defoe: Let’s see…hmm. I’ve taken up transcendental meditation and virtual falconry. While Mary does hot yoga in the saddlery, I’ve been able to catch up on all the popular culture that I’ve been missing: Michael Jackson Pollock, Michael J. George, Arnie Winehouse, this promising fellow named Prince…these newcomers are really going places! Of course, Oprah Winfrey’s podcasts keep me on the path to enlightenment and a healthy weight! Samuel Pepys keeps zoom-bombing, by the way.

That’s great to hear. You and Mrs. Defoe are practicing social distancing, then?

Defoe: Intensely so, yes. It’s amazing the things you can do with cellophane. Plus, I practically invented social distancing! Robinson Crusoe, anyone? It’s sometimes called the first novel in English but it’s really an instruction manual. Crusoe is the patron saint of D.I.Y. projects: a wheelbarrow made out of wicker? A lamp made from goat tallow? Wild pigeon recipes, anyone? I mean, you have yours truly to thank for that: you’re welcome.

Again, we are grateful for –

Defoe (interrupting): I mean, the stranded-on-a-desert-island motif is 100% Defoe! “Castaway?” Defoe. “The Martian,” which is basically Robinson Crusoe on Mars! Defoe! Twenty plus years of “Survivor”? Defoe, Defoe, Defoe! Where are my royalty checks? I’ll tell you where: nowhere! [Incoherent yelling here.] Mary, call my lawyer!

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We are deeply grateful, Mr. Defoe, for your ingenuity and your long legacy. But back to why we phoned you: Last night I read your A Journal of the Plague Year before bed, which wasn’t the wisest decision as it contains some nightmarish images. There are half-naked men raving in the streets, prophesizing doom, while bodies go unburied.

Defoe: All true. You can’t even imagine the stench, and this was well before Febreze.

You go on to write that the distempered man was as “well diseased in his brain as in his body” and, left unconfined, would roam the streets like a “mad dog runs on and bites at everyone he meets.” Another man pushed his nurse aside and jumped into the Thames to quell his febrile blood. All of this gave me such a fright; it’s like something out of a Hieronymus Bosch landscape.

Defoe: Really? I was going for more of a Thomas Kinkade aesthetic. Now that’s an artist! Man oh man, if I could paint like Thomas Kinkade. Hashtag Jealous!

You write: “The apprehensions of the people were likewise strangely increased by the error of the time; in which, I think, the people, from what principle I cannot imagine, were more addicted to prophecies and astrological conjurations, dreams, and old wives’ tales than ever they were before or since.” Book, in particular, inflamed what you call “hypochondriac fancies” and visions of a flaming sword in the clouds with its tip directed at London.

Defoe: It was just the tip, to be exact, so there’s no reason to be so alarmed. Want to know what’s worse? The new James Bond installment has been postponed. I knew things were about to get serious with that postponement. I’m such a mad fan of Agent 007, you know. That bloke can always find his way out of a sticky situation! I may be oversharing but I’m nine percent gay (maybe ninety) for Daniel Craig but, Mary, please…it’s been three hundred plus years; I’m not going anywhere!

Indeed. Then, there are what you call “plague pits” and “death-carts.” This imagery really rattled me and kept me awake for hours. I even regressed into bed-wetting.

Defoe: My God, dear boy, get a grip on yourself! Even a literary genius such as myself needs to wind down with a little “People” magazine or some Sudoku. That’s very soothing.

Pardon me, I misspoke earlier: a “bearer” carries corpses to the plague pits at night while the “burier” is a gravedigger. There is a third kind of worker: a bellman who, by ringing a bell, alerts those holed up inside that the carts are approaching to carry away their dead.

Defoe: Goddammit, man! I don’t need the grimmest part of my work read back to me! People are born and people die; in between, there are shovel-ready jobs. Mary and I are happy, head-in-the-sand optimists. How else could I be 360 years old? It’s not a daily multivitamin or a gluten-free biscuit, I can tell you that much!

We were also ordered to execute all domestic cats and dogs because of contagion. I have pet allergies, however, so it was no great loss and those sticky pet-hair-rollers don’t do a damn thing. You know and I know it! Don’t pretend.

I see. I’m sorry to upset you, Mr. Defoe.

Defoe: Dan the Man, please.

Speaking of pretenders, Dan the Man, another question: Throughout your chronicle, you personify the plague as something that “preys upon” people, especially the poor in the more populous parishes. But there’s another threat that you describe in vivid detail. You write that Londoners, due to their fear and confusion, were particularly vulnerable to charlatans, or what you term “all sorts of pretenders, and by every mountebank.”

Defoe: Sad but true, and this is centuries before Trump University, Trump Steaks, and Trump Vodka. The last two were a wonderful pairing. As I always say, Trump shouldn’t be impeached; he should be pulled from the shelves.

While we’re on soulless autocrats, not long into the plague, King Charles II and his court vacated the city. Isn’t this the abandonment of his royal duty as the people’s protector and deliverer?

Defoe: The people’s protector? You must be one of these utopians of the Thomas More ilk. The only thing the royals want to deliver is three, possibly six, meals straight to their fat faces. If that comments lands me in the pillory again, so be it. Call it Providence but, during his flight from London, King Charles hit a bump in the road and returned home.

Meaning, the King felt remorse for his actions?

Defoe: The royals, remorse? Who are you kidding? The king hit an actual bump in the road, somewhere outside of Oxfordshire. Worse, the carriage carrying his Majesty’s most prized possessions, chiefly his wig and scepter, overturned.

One last question, if you have the time…

Defoe: Where am I going?! I have all the time in the world. My Uber driver is immune-compromised, so I’m stuck indoors and on the phone with you. My man Friday and I are planning a Zoom happy hour. My son Willem Defoe may join. Thank God, it’s Friday, as I like to say! Has quite a ring to it, doesn’t it?

Splendid. I wanted to ask you about the experience of being flogged, in public, and in the streets of London. While you were already imprisoned for The Shortest Way with Dissenters, which offended the High Tory establishment, you further defied the Crown by publishing Hymn to the Pillory in 1703. Was that a real humiliation to be pilloried as a public person?

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Defoe: My fellow Londoners threw flowers at me rather than the usual: rocks, dead cats, decayed vegetables, and offal.

That sounds awful.

Defoe: It wasn’t offal. I just said told you that! They pelted me with roses and daisies. “Long Live Defoe, they chanted! Dan the Man for King!” Ha. Good times, good times.

Since you survived an epidemic, I was hoping you might impart some inspiring words for our readers, something Churchillian to keep our spirits up.

Defoe: In the words of your president, “that’s a nasty question.” Rallying the troops isn’t my area of expertise but [a long pause] ah, yes, I do have some words of wisdom, which are “Don’t go chasing waterfalls.” This is from another up-and-coming band called TLC. Just brill, eh? Surely Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes’s genius. They go on, if you’ll allow me: “Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to.”

Could this be a recommendation for social distancing?

Defoe: For that, I would refer you to Dr. Fauci. I’m from the seventeenth century, so my idea of modern-health care involves powderizing the turd-pellets of a goat for nausea and boiling a sheep’s head with hollyhocks to cure a sore tooth. What the hell do I know? I may sound like a thoroughly modern man but I have one foot in the 1600s and one foot in the 2000s.

Last night, I boiled the bile of a rabbit and a hen’s egg to make a soporific. Or maybe it was an aphrodisiac. Either way, Mary and I slept well. The goat did not.

Look, son, history moves slowly and stupidly so, especially with human beings at the wheel. So, my advice would be, to pray your ass off and pray your ass off good. Sorry, well. Is that Churchillian enough for you?

In these frightful times, we’ll take it.

Thank you for your time, Sir. In these desperate times, we will take what we can get. In the coming weeks, I will be speaking with other plague-era writers such as Albert Camus, Danielle Steele and Mary Shelley. 

Stay healthy & stay hopeful!

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What Killed Jane Austen?

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“But the Providence of God has restored me – & may I be more fit to appear before him when I am summoned, than I shd have been now! Sick or Well, believe me ever yr attached friend.”

– Jane Austen, during her final illness, writing to Anne Sharp (22 May 1817)

Austen was a literary lion who took pride in her creative works. She also knew, by the spring of 1817, that her death was imminent. Unmarried, she had lived fairly well in the cottage owned by her older brother, without whom she and her sister would have been forced to work as governesses, or worse, attendants to rich ladies at death’s door. Similarly, Austen’s widowed mother received no pension after her father’s death. As I stated in a previous post, without her novels, the greatest fiction-writer of the nineteenth century in England would have died dead-broke at the age of 41. In one of her final epistles above, Austen was still writing from the village of Chawton, later described by her nephew and the family biographer, James Edward-Austen Leigh in the following: “Chawton may be called the second, as well as the last home of Jane Austen…here she found a real home amongst her own people…Chawton must also be considered the place most closely connected with her career as a writer [though] she began to droop and wither away still in the prime of her life.”

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Speaking of the prime of one’s life, I went to the Gilbert White House Museum in Selborne, Hampshire over the weekend and, as you can see, I was swept up into a dance troupe. On the following day, I went to the car and bus rally in Alton, and I took a few pictures for my brother, Chris, who is a gear-head. “I drive my mini-Cooper and I’m feeling super duper,” rapped Madonna back in 2003. Check out the martini tray in the back of the 1961 Rolls-Roys Silver Cloud II. It’s amazing to think my grandparents would swill martinis and drive their kids home without seat belts or even head-rests. Not so safe or super-duper!

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Austen made her will on the 27thof April and within a month, she bid her mother farewell for the final time and, with her beloved sister, set out for Winchester (once the capital of England) and lodged at 8 College Street. The novel Sanditon – soon to be a BBC miniseries – was left unfinished. You can see the yellow house below, close to the college, and the plague outside this now privately owned home. It’s eerie and fortuitous to write this final post on the day in which Austen was laid to rest inside Winchester Cathedral, one of the largest cathedrals in the world (constructed in 1079, consecrated 14 years later. “Winchester Cathedral, you’re bringing me down.” You can Spotify the Frank Sinatra version of that classic by the New Vaudeville Band in 1966. Not far from the famous cathedral, Benjamin Franklin composed some of his Autobiography and, in earlier times, the sardonic versifier Alexander Pope was expelled from school. That’s the west door to the cathedral in the top left below.

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The sad fact is that her beloved sister Cassandra not only censored her letters but, according to their niece Caroline Austen, burned many of her correspondences. The reason being, as Austen scholar Deirdre Le Faye speculates, that either the author described the physical symptoms of her various illness a bit too graphically, or spoken ill of family members. (We can definitively rule of the possibility of any naked selfies of cheeky text messages.) Of course, we all wish someone had denied Cassandra the matches she needed. In the following century, Franz Kafka asked a friend to do the same and, thankfully, the friend ignored the request. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (considered the most autumnal of her six romances, and composed during her mysterious illness) were published posthumously. After a traditional English breakfast like the one served on the High Street, I was just about ready to crawl into the Austen crypt with her. Shove over, sister! 

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I met with a local historian, Jane Hurst, yesterday at the Curtis Museum in Alton and she added that male members of the family also cleared out the sister’s belongings, adding “And we all know how men clear out things!” Hurst added that the various theories as to what Austen actually died of “helps to sell books,” and she gleefully dismissed the idea that the wallpaper in the cottage was full of arsenic. “She would have had to lick the walls! What rubbish!”

The other theory is that Austen contracted bovine tuberculosis; consumption was a major killer in the Regency period. Just ask John Keats who nursed his brothers, contracted the disease from them, and knew his days were numbered when he coughed up blood. A villager in Chawton, John White, recalls Cassandra’s dog, Link, going to the great house for milk and the dog carrying it back around its neck. Is this the missing link? Austen complained of skin discoloration, headaches but, again, Cassandra may have hurt rather than helped matters if she excised the details of the mysterious illness from Austen’s letters. The reigning theory is still that Austen died of Addison’s disease, which is an adrenal insufficiency. The name of the disease, which occurs when the body doesn’t produce enough hormones, would not be coined until 1848 (by Thomas Addison), and John F. Kennedy was a famous sufferer. What a sad coincidence that Lou Gerrigh died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, right?

Speaking of sisters, here is what Cassandra wrote to their niece, Fanny Knight, from Winchester, just after Jane Austen’s death: “I have lost a treasure, such a Sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed, – She was the sun of my life, the gilder of my pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not thought concealed from her, & it is as if I had lost a part of myself.” But let’s give Austen the final word. According to that same letter, her sister recalls of their last days in Winchester:

“When I asked her if there was anything she wanted, her answer was she wanted nothing but death & some of her words were ‘God grand me patience, Pray for me Oh Pray for me.’”

And, for perhaps once in her short and prodigious life, the great wit spoke without a drop of irony or animadversion. For once, the great Jane Austen was dead serious about something.

Ave Atque Vale, Queen Jane (1775-1817)

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Was Austen a Holy Roller?

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“Miss Austen has the merit (in our judgment most essential) of being evidently a Christian writer…by her religion not at all intrusive” – Reviewer for Quarterly Review (1821)

Before we get started, what in the photo below doesn’t belong?

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What we know for certain is that Austen was a clergyman’s daughter (and brother) and did not wear her faith on her sleeve. Nevertheless, the family attended church not once but twice on Sundays and read from the Book of Common Prayer (with its morning and evening prayers). The great biographer Claire Tomalin notes, in her fine biography (from 1997), that while Austen came from a devoutly Anglican family, there are very few scenes that actually take place in a church in her fiction. Once she realizes the error of her ways, Marianne Dashwood declares the following toward the end of Sense and Sensibility: “But it shall be regulated, it shall be checked by religion, by reason, by constant employment.” Easier said than done, and Austen scholars tend to agree that the line is under-motivated, meaning, not really earned. Marianne is merely paying her more sensible sister Elinor (and the reader) lip-service.

As for Sunday services, the church close to the author’s heart was Saint Nicholas, which was destroyed by fire, in 1871, more than fifty years after she died. The installation of a new heating unit caused a varnished dado to go up in flames. Talk about a backfire. The church that Austen worshipped in probably looked much different pre-restoration; regardless, in her day, she attended the baptisms of the Digweed and Clement children (family friends). Just prior to her death, her brother Henry was made Curate of Chawton. Inside Saint Nicholas (dating to 1270), you will find a three-paneled reredos, in an oak frame, depicting the Crucifixion. I’m of the opinion that the manor-house, Chawton, just up the driveway from St. Nick provided the inspiration for Mansfield Park. Inside there are eleven stained glass windows and a memorial for Lady Bradford whose husband, Major Bradford, lost his arm to a man-eating tiger.

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The novel’s heroine, Fanny, described as “well-principled and religious,” winds up marrying her first cousin Edmund, a chatty clergyman. Students are usually discomforted by the fact that (1) the happily-ever-after ending involves two cousins tying the knot and, more troublingly, that (2) Fanny and Edmund are raised as siblings from the age of ten onward. If you want to go there, cousin-coupling wasn’t unheard of, especially amongst the landed gentry who didn’t leave their own social class, but if it had to happen, families preferred that the bride and groom were not of the same matrilineal line. In other words, uterine incest (or a couple whose mothers are sisters) was best to be avoided. Even nineteenth-century people sensed that inbreeding could result in genetic abnormalities. Ah well, it’s all relative.

Speaking of Henry Austen, below is the memorial plaque for Austen found in Winchester Cathedral. Famously it makes no mention of her authorship and it’s believed that Henry, the most pious of her older brothers, had to amplify her identity as a Christian in order to secure her a spot in the cathedral. I’ll spare you the details but in the summer heat of 1817, a body would not be returned to its original chapel. For this reason, Austen is interred in Winchester while the two Cassandras (her mother and sister) are buried in the St. Nicholas churchyard. Later, in 1923, prayers by Austen were published though, again, the authorship is sometimes questioned. Below is my awkward selfie taken in Winchester. I’m going to delay the details of my pilgrimage to the grave until my final post next week, however.

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Yesterday I walked from South Warnborough to the quiet hamlet of Upton Grey. All of the animals below give you an indication of just how rural this area is. That being said, a few Mercedes zipped by on the country road, so it’s not exactly slumming it.

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“Upton” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon for “homestead upon the hill.” The church, Saint Mary’s, has been there for over a millennium! The Norman arch and knave date back to 1120. Note the “King & Country” dedication. There’s a fine memorial for a nineteenth-year-old lieutenant John Henry Beaufoy who fell, in 1809, at the Battle of Talavera in Spain. Over the past month, I’ve been delighted to find that village parishes are left open. The bigger church here in Alton, St. Lawrence, still has a damaged front door from the Civil War in the 1600s.

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There is no escaping history in England. And, in the countryside, there is no escaping the centrality of the church and the natural world. Having gone to the capital this week, I can safely say that Hampshire smells like manure whereas London smells like s**t. And there’s a big difference!

 

5 Objects of Vivid Interest

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“Won’t You Come See Me, Queen Jane?” – Bob Dylan, “Queen Jane Approximately” (1965)

Chawton Village, encompassing the grand Elizabethan manor (now a library of 15,000 volumes) and the Jane Austen House, is a real l’embarras des richesses; that’s French – real fancy, right? – for an overabundance of something, like a treasure-trove or a costume rack in Sir Elton John’s house. Today I learned that “Chawton” is probably derived from the chalk deposits on which the landscape sits.

I selected just five of these objects for this post as I am in week three of my one-month research trip in Austenland. And I spared you the dying rat I saw on my morning walk even though – rodent-warning – there are guinea pigs in this post and none were hurt in the production.

1. What do you call a donkey with a doctorate degree? Answer: a smart ass. I didn’t warn you against dad jokes: my speciality!Collage_Fotor 4.jpg

And c’est moi, derived from a long line of genuine smart asses. (Yes, they put a bonnet on me but I have a huge cranium. Who wore it better? Kate Winslet or me?) Speaking of asses: below is the donkey carriage that the Austen sisters used to Uber back-and-forth after a hard night of drinking mead in Alton.

Actually, they took the carriage to the country market town of Alton to send and receive mail, and, from The Swan, take a carriage to London to visit more family members. Fun fact: Britons in the age of Austen would sometimes send a gold guinea by post but conceal it under the wax seal. This lead to unarmed postal boys being robbed and the English government’s urging citizens to avoid the practice. You’ve got Mugged!

Fanny Price (the heroine of Mansfield Park) grows very attached to “old grey poney,” and so much so that it’s her “valued friend.” That’s key since, in the nineteenth-century, a horse was a “coach horse” or a “riding horse” but never regarded as a “friend.” My sister had a horse named Carouf and, for all her riding awards, a bedroom with dozens of ribbons pinned to the walls. Austen would call her a “horsewoman” but that doesn’t sound very flattering. My parents were very devoted and allowed us to pursue any and every passion, excluding offshore sports betting and hard drugs.

You’ll recall that when her big brother Edward was made heir to the Knight family, Jane Austen, her sister Cassandra, her mother and friend Martha Lloyd were able to make a former inn into their new home (now the Jane Austen House Museum). From there, she would publish her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, a work so successful that the Prince Regent’s daughter Charlotte told her father excitedly about it. Unless a woman needed to publish to save herself financially, it was a blight upon her character to publish under name, thus “By A Lady.”

2. Below is an image you see quite a bit in Austenland: The Reverend George Austen presenting his son to the Knights (1783). Lucky duck though an unlucky rat. Women’s hair was coming down a bit by the 1780s though it was the fashion to wear your hair vertically and some three times the size of your head. That didn’t include the beehive and by that, I mean an actual working beehive!

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3. Notice Edward’s silk frock coat and breeches, probably worn during his Grand Tour through France and Switzerland in 1786. Some big-assed buttons! Sister Jane Austen never appeared too bitter about all of her brother’s adventures (available, of course, to men only) though all of her novels feature some kind of inequity or discrepancy when it comes to where men and women are placed, and in the latter’s case, displaced. Think of the homeless sisters and mother in Sense and Sensibility or the difference between the grand Mansfield Park and the parsonage occupied by the cranky scold of a widow, Mrs. Norris.

As ever with Austen, it’s subtle but it’s there. Even this line from her letters could be read in different ways: “I went up to the Great House & dawdled away an hour very comfortably.” One implication is the very family member without whom we would not even be discussing the Austen-Knight family was not all that comfortable, or even able to dawdle away, in her relatively lowly digs down the road. Keep an eye on Austen’s usage of the word, the financially-charged “settled” because it’s a way of underscoring the fact that nineteenth-century women, especially the unmarried ones, never feel really settled. It’s unsettling, really.

4. Above, you’ll also see the wood paneling in the Great Hall beside the fireplace. The metal fireplace dates back to 1588 when the English warded off the Spanish Armada. More interesting than the coats of arms (installed by a later descendent, post-Austen, Montagu Knight) are those scratches, probably inscribed there to ward off witches and other demonic spirits. The Anglican Church does not acknowledge the existence of ghosts but that’s doesn’t mean that, out here in the countryside, people weren’t likely to get a bit spooked around the fire on a winter night. Horseshoes were superstitiously nailed above doorways to ward off spirits, or sometimes the finger nail pairings, hair, and urine of those believed to have been bewitched were put in a stone vat and kept beside the bed. Stocking stuffer ideas, y’all!

5. Below is the jewel in Chawton’s librarial crown: the manuscript of “Sir Charles Grandison, or the Happy Man,” an adaptation of the eponymous novel by one of Austen’s favorite writers, Samuel Richardson. Private theatricals were the vogue at the time – think of the bored and housebound Bertram cousins staging “Lovers’ Vows” in Mansfield Park but tearing it all down once the imperious Lord Betram returns home – and demanded that family members build sets, write scripts, and learn their lines. Take a load off, Fanny.

Today, all of that unfolds on Instagram and if your sister Kristen has what it takes, she might wind up on “Hampshire Idol,” “England’s Got Talent,” or if not, “Love Island.”     I was asked not to sneeze or breathe for at least 48-hours before that text was presented to me yesterday at Chawton House. I resisted the urge, like Ralph Fiennes consulting with a Blake drawing in the horror film “Red Dragon,” to render the curator unconscious and devour the work, like a dog (or a guinea pig) that eats your homework.

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5. Finally, the rodent you’ve been waiting for: the guinea pig in a version of Pride and Prejudice featuring nothing but those little pellet-eaters! Ah, Austen: an author, a way-of-life (the subject of my new book) but also a (cottage) industry!

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Austen’s Powers

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“You’ve had good weather. Jane is smiling on you.” – the Secretary for the Jane Austen Society of the UK

IS this a novelist or a cult?

If Austen is a writer, she is, according to one visitor at Chawton House today, the “greatest writer in history.” That’s quite a claim! Frankenstein is my favorite novel – it’s the Swiss Army knife of novels, really: you can do anything with it! – but I wouldn’t go so far as to say Mary Shelley was the greatest writer in the language. Have you read Valperga? Bloody hell! If Austen is a cult, it’s a pretty innocuous one: the followers prefer Earl Grey and cakes over Kool-Aid.

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Yesterday was the annual general meeting, or AGM, for the Jane Austen Society of the UK, and my participation was the one requirement of the research grant that I received. The other was that I don’t use too much American academic jargon around the library: please leave your “Anthropocene” and your “queer performativity” in the coat check, thank you very much.

All in all, I didn’t have to do much as the first “bloke” to serve as the International Visiting Researcher here at Chawton House. Finally, my male privilege is paying off. They incorrectly announced that joining them from overseas was Dr. Colin Carman from Colorado University – it’s actually Colorado Mesa University – but I rolled with it. Apparently, Pakistan has just opened a branch of the Jane Austen Society. Elizabeth Bennet in a burqa. Gotta’ start somewhere!

I packed one J. Crew necktie and navy-and-white seersucker pants for the occasion, so I was doubling as a Southern mayor. I was even able to slip away during the lunch break in order to read The Guardian and eat my egg sandwich in the wilderness. “In these great places,” Mary Crawford declares in Mansfield Park, “the gardeners are the only people who can go where they like.” The same is true of college professors. The association’s president Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles presided. He was Britain’s ambassador to Afghanistan. If you can survive that colonial sand trap, surely you can figure out the alternative ending to Persuasion. Below is a picture of me and the “brill” Clio, a graduate student at Southampton University, which we took after I traveled by a vintage coach from Alton. Dating from the 1960s, the coach could have easily doubled as a greenhouse once the sun came out and it was good we had the wind at our back to reach our destination.

(The other picture is of me playing the lap-dancing stan to Charles Dickens in Portsmouth. Chuck looks grumpy, eh? He preferred the company of underage girls; oh wait, that was Lewis Carroll.)

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The idea that Austen was somehow divorced from reality, and the political events of her time – oh you know, just those minor skirmishes known as the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars and the American war of 1812 – is a myth that stubbornly persists. The fact is that she explored how major historical events affected English people in private. Their reactions to public events always reveal their innermost character. Those who think that Austen toiled away in rural isolation don’t know that her cousin Eliza married a Frenchmen, the Comte de Feuillide, who was later guillotined (outlined in 1794). I hate when that happens. The coquettish life of his widow, Eliza, has been thoroughly researched by Deirdre La Faye (who was missed at this year’s AGM). La Faye made a major and meticulous deposit in Austen studies.

Speaking of the French, the lecture at the AGM was on Austen’s connections to French culture – the “French connection” – and it was an important reminder that Brexit and the premiership of Boris Johnson (or “BoJo” as the tabloids call him) are existential threats to England and globalism more broadly. Austen never crossed the Channel but she did enjoy her many trips (to see her brother) to London, which she described in her letters as the “Regions of Wit, Elegance, fashion, Elephants & Kangaroons” (sic). Did you know that the so-called greatest novelist in the English language had horrendous spelling? There was no auto-correct, of course, and read Love and Friendship to see how she consistently confuses her Is and Es, so “Freindship” over and over again. I before E except after C, June Austin! Here the townie Mary Shelley, whose famous philosopher father, tutored her in their London home, had the country girl beat. Her Monster: “Friend, goooood!”

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At the AGM, the average age of the attendee was 75 and bless their hearts: these devotees train 51 miles SW from London to Alton, bus to Chawton (roughly a mile away), and listen to a guest lecturer carefully selected for his/her lack of jargon. The British approach to literary studies is very different than America’s – they find our research a bit “wacky” and daft – and an Oxbridge professor can get away with an entire essay on the use of dipthongs and assonance in Pride and Prejudice whereas we Americans only take notice when you use “post-structuralist,” “Foucault,” and “Marxian hermeneutics” in a single sentence.

It was in the country village of Chawton that Austen transformed herself into a professional writer. She heavily revised the drafts she had on hand of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility (composed in her birthplace of Steventon), and, over the last eight years of her life, she completed a trio of new works: Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion. By then time, Austen was middle-aged (by Regency-era standards) and therefore past the usual age at which an English woman married. “Being now in her twenty-first year, Maria Bertram was beginning to think matrimony a duty” (Mansfield Park 67).

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Shrewdly, she realized that writing for money could be her ticket to ride. In 1814, she wrote her beloved niece, Fanny Knight, to report that there may or may not be a second edition of Mansfield Park, adding: “People are more ready to borrow & praise, than to buy – which I cannot wonder at; – but tho’ I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too.” Without her novels, Austen would have died penniless.

While we are on the topic of my family, my paternal grandparents were Revolutionary War reenactors. My grandfather would get all dressed up in his three-cornered hat, hunting shirt and matching breeches; my grandmother donned the bonnet and looked like a regular Abigail Adams. I suppose it’s these folks that passed down the DNA for loving history. Austen is synonymous with the Regency period and its frilly fashion. Skip “The Jane Austen Book Club” and watch instead the benignly funny Austenland for a light-hearted romance in which an American girl (Keri Russell) travels to England to immerse herself in her hero’s native countryside and find her very own Mr. Darcy. Along the way, we’re told, she’s excited to meet such Regency-era women as Mrs. Pepper Pot and Mrs. Wigglewam.

Wham, bam, thank you, Ma’am! 

PS: How precious is this quirky English fellow who insists on wearing Regency-period clothing to work?

 

The British Are Coming

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“You haven’t mentioned me in the blog yet. Just sayin!” – Marc (my partner of some 19 years)

Made you look! Jane Austen may have overturned the conventional traditions when it came to how an educated English lady should fall in love and tie the knot (slowly, mindfully, cautiously – never head-over-heels) but when it comes to sexuality, she was silent. Virtually no scenes take place inside a woman’s boudoir: keep out!

Write what you know, as every creative-writing instructor tells her students. Thus, it’s unlikely that Austen had any first-hand knowledge when it came to sexual love of any kind. A student once asked, puzzlingly, “So did she die a virgin?” We have no way of knowing, I replied; ask her yourself on Tinder or OK Cupid!

Queer truth be told, there’s something strange about a spinsterish life, like a virgin, touched for the very first time; if asexual people exist at all – I don’t know any, myself, do you? – they are the conscientious objectors of erotic life. Jane may have been a member of that very small and inscrutable circle. Let’s face it: her major endowment existed north of the neck. This doesn’t mean that she was a total prude; Her “History of England” includes a playful reference to King James I, a man of such “amiable disposition which inclines to Friendship” and “keener penetration” than “other people.” As I explain below, this is a subtle allusion to the the king’s “pet,” a man named Robert Carr.

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Austen’s fiction, then, is no help when it comes to how GLBT+ people lived, and largely suffered, prior to the twentieth century and it was never-ending nightmare until recently…and it remains so in most of the under-developed parts of the world. Donald F. Trump has taken aim at trans people because they’re a minority within a minority and he knows how to throw red meat at his bigoted base.

“Buggery” was declared not just criminal but punishable by death in 1533 and while it’s undeniably gotten better, we still have to fight the bigotry embodied by the aforesaid hypocrite (no paragon of moral virtue) and Margaret Thatcher (her Clause 28 of 1988 sought to stamp out any promotion of “homosexuality” as a “pretended family relationship”). Thatcher was better known as the Iron Lady whereas Trump is America’s Bronze(r) Man. I miss the days when you could actually see the tan lines from his tanning-bed goggles! A cruel pseudo-aristocrat turned populist turned autocrat.

There is no real basis for the claim that Jane Austen, the so-called aunty spinster of British literature, was anything but heterosexual though some rumbling about the matter does exist and you can read the great Devoney Looser on the topic here. My first book was on the Shelleys and while Percy and Mary Shelley were somewhat happily married, there is actual evidence that the two enjoyed the intensity of their same-sex friendships whereas, with Austen, there is zero proof of her Sapphism. Consider, for example, that Percy Shelley tried not once but twice to get his wives (first, Harriet and, later, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) to live in a menagé à trois         (a household of three) with his “bosom friend” and “brother of my soul” Thomas Jefferson Hogg. They weren’t having it but perhaps because Hogg was a hog or a bore or an eye-sore but who knows? It’s the literature that outlasts us all (bloggers included, I’m afraid to say).

Yet we do care because Percy Shelley carried his interest in, and support for, same-sex love into his prose and poetical writing. Importantly, he wrote, safely living abroad in Italy (where he couldn’t be thrown in the Tower) only the second essay in English to defend same-sex love on moral grounds, and though penned in 1818 as an exculpatory preface to his translation of Plato’s Symposium (that perfidious text of the sex-mad Greeks!), it wouldn’t see the light of day until the 1930s. His widow Mary Shelley didn’t even quite know what to do with it since it made a case for “romantic friendship” as a perfectly normal and natural way to live and love.

Poor Mary: living with a mad genius, she always had a lot on her plate. Mad, bad, and exhausting to know. Even more exhausting to call him your husband. Good grief! For instance, here are the ways in which Shelley addresses Hogg in his early letters, just after the two were expelled from Oxford: “Enter into my schemes – love me as I love you; be as inseparable as once I fondly hoped you were” (from Nov. 1811). He also jokes that he wants to keep his “bosom friend” as his prisoner and, in an Essay on Friendship (which Hogg published for him, in 1858), he describes the overwhelming love he felt for a pre-adolescent classmate that he used to kiss before bedtime at Sion House. He reported all of this to his mother to which she gave him the silent treatment. “She thought me out of my wits, for returned no answer to my letter.” Whatever you do, don’t tell Mom!

Today, I traveled to the once-capital of England, Winchester to visit the grave of Jane Austen, and 10 College Street where she died in July of 1817. She died with her little head on her older sister Cassandra’s knee. I’m going to report on that mecca for my last post later this month but, for now, I’d like to take a brief break from Austen and report on the richly queer history of Hampshire, her rural home in southern England. Below, it was a local’s drawing of Freddy Mercury that got my wheelies spinning!

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Portsmouth, after all, was a hotbed for men seeking sex with sailors. In the Navy! In 1957, the Wolfenden Report reported that, after London and Birmingham, Portsmouth was third in terms of “unnatural offenses.” William Williams, a man whose parents named him twice, probably horrified his parents when the 38-year-old was charged with an “assault” on Richard Killin. Contrary to legal opinion, these were consenting adults just doing their thing. In the States, the Supreme Court ruling, Bowers versus Hardwick, would finally protect gays and lesbians from doing just that behind closed doors and in private; before that, in 1986, we were never safe from intrusion and incarceration. This may explain the joke vis-a-vis the Royal Navy and Portsmouth in Mansfield Park, which some reject is a pun on the character Mary Crawford’s part. “Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.”

I was quite impressed that the Hampshire Record Office & Archives, probably in support of June and Pride Month, produced a diorama on the topic and will even sell you a copy called “A Queer A-Z of Hampshire” by Clifford Williams for two quid. Lord Alfred Douglas (the twinky catalyst of Oscar Wilde’s ruination) went to Winchester College between 1884-88. He double-majored in Vanity and Betrayal. The gross indecency belongs soley to Douglas, a true “chancer,” as the British say (or manipulator), and modern-day Judas. If you’re wild about Wilde, you must abhor “Bosie” and his virulent father, The Marquess of Queensberry. An even (red) tie with Don and Don Jr. OK, I’ll stop the political point-scoring because July is my Trump-cleanse.

Here are two sites in Hampshire that may interest you if you wish to travel the yellow brick road of GLBT+ history. Below, you’ll see a marker in Portsmouth for George Villiers, the First Duke of Buckingham. He was King James’s devoted companion and stabbed to death in the Greyhound public house in the old part of the city. In the city’s cathedral, you’ll find a moving memorial to him influenced by his sister, Susanna Countess of Denigh, who subtly acknowledges her brother’s great beauty. His bowels were buried in Portsmouth, beside his sister, but his body buried in Westminster Cathedral. Apparently you can be in two places in once. I don’t mean to make light; another victim of homophobia, King Edward II, died after he had a hot fire-poker stuck up his arse. The intense suffering to which gay people have been subjected is further testament to the angry ambivalence they arouse in their attackers. When victimized, we unleash the animal inside.

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Finally, this is an entry in (the village of) Odiham’s marriage records that show that Charles Hambleton and Mary Seamel were wed in 1748 but only later was Charles proved to be a lady. It may be hard to see but a clerk, belatedly alert, circled the names in red (see the right-hand side and just before “1749”). Odiham was never that easy of a place to live: during the Napoleonic war, British soldiers forced their French prisoners to build the canal, which meant digging out of a chalk landscape. Historians such as John Boswell have shown that same-sex marriage dates back to antiquity.

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This post is dedicated to all of those who lived their lives openly, or secretly,

and died in the red.

And to Marc who is patiently waiting to join me here in the south of England. In terms of Austen’s leading men, he’s closest to Henry Tilney (of Northanger Abbey) because he’s the queerest and chattiest of her six major heroes.

And that’s just fine by me XOXO

It Takes A Village…or Two…or Ten

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“With ships and sailors she felt herself at home.” – James Edward Austen-Leigh (JA’s nephew and the family biographer, 1870)

How much is that Austen in the window? The one with the waggly (six) tales? This is Austen (some of Alton’s bread-and-butter) painted rather inexplicably inside a door frame. Kiss it and you’ll be lead off in handcuffs.

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This childhood image of the author is unauthenticated and like so much of her short life blurry at best. As a result, there are the purist Austenites who quote her letters because that’s the “truth” whereas there are the fiction-lovers, like me, who claim that art outlives all things and matters most. But we are all projecting ourselves onto the blank slate that was Austen, the woman, daughter, sister, and friend…but above all else, a true artist.

All that we know for certain is that, and this may sound slightly daft, I truly feel her presence here in the countryside. Her fiction is a gateway into nineteenth-century rural life. A volunteer at Chawton House explained that the ha-ha (funny term, eh?) is a landscaping technique that keeps the livestock out but doesn’t disrupt the vista from the house. In essence, you create a short, gated drop that animals can’t cross and close to, on the grounds of Chawton, what’s termed the wilderness (a wooded spot deliberately kept uncultivated and wild.) “I made it through the wilderness, somehow I made it through…” (know the lyric? I think you do.)

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After lunch, I walked in the wilderness to the south of Chawton House and was suddenly overcome by something quite inexplicable. It was the genius loci, the extraordinary gift that Austen gave us through her fiction, which, when properly read, can be a kind of secular Bible of rights and wrongs, an outcrop of the rural countryside of Hampshire that grew her creative excellence. What a gift for dialogue, plot, pacing, and overall brilliance! “Brill,” or so says a friend at Chawton, as short for the British go-to: “Brilliant!”

“She’s smiling on you,” said the secretary for the Jane Austen Society on Saturday when she attributed the cool, pleasant weather so far to something far more supernatural. Fanny Price, the heroine of Austen’s Mansfield Park, was “almost over-powered with gratitude” – ah yes, being grateful can be as overpowering as feeling loved. My punchiness could be the finally-fading jet-lag; I get a bit weepy when I’m overtired. Then again, literature-lovers tend to be a squishy sort of people.

I’m on foot here in Austenland – the Disneyland for Brit Lit twits – for one major reason:

My driving is rubbish (see, the English colloquialisms are sinking in) and I know how to turn a page better than I do cross the street, especially when everything is backwards. The most valuable lesson I learned back in 1999, when I spent my junior year of college, at Oxford didn’t take place amongst the derisive dons but in the car of my host parents in Herefordshire. They were your classic Britons, what with their figurines of Princess Diana and Florence Nightingale in her china hutch and the pinkish husband in pleated plants who wanted to talk football with me until he realized my knowledge is limited to the arts, oh and DIY anesthesiology (an innocent but illegal hobby of mine). On our drive into town, I felt instantly uneasy being on the “wrong” side of the road and said so, but my hostess replied: “It’s not wrong, darling. It’s just different.” Man, is there a greater lesson in life than those seven words? Just because you don’t agree with or understand something strange to you does not mean it’s bad or wrong; it’s just different. All morality departs from that simple starting-point. Here’s Austen, my life-coach as of late: “My dear child, there must be a little imagination here…you see but half” (Mansfield Park). Translation? We humans, innately selfish and stupid, rarely grasp the big picture: too stuck in ourselves. But you’re reading a stranger’s words and reading is always an adventure into the mind of the other, so you’re already on your way!

Now that I think of it: everything I learned at Oxford was really self-taught. You write long, well-researched essays that you read aloud, in a tutorial, to a tutor who is half-listening and thinking of his/her own work. Is that teaching, really? Man dreams alone and he learns alone. Yes, I’ve had some superb teachers but, as the old saying goes, only when the pupil is ready does his teacher appear.

The Jane Austen House Museum asked me to help in the garden (see below). I was stung, swatted at by a cat, and severely under-caffeinated but all in a day’s work. The cat’s name is Marmite. He local and a sign warns visitors that he can bite. Why, then, on earth does Marmite hang around the place where over 100+ tourists visit a day?

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This is why I was oh so grateful to take not one but two field trips over the weekend. My first was guided by the insanely knowledgeable secretary of the JAS. I learned that I am the first male recipient of this grant. Breaking the Austen ceiling here in Hampshire, baby: getting’ Janey with it! See below for our sundial of sites: Farringdon (a village close to Chawton) and the redbrick home, privately owned today, of the Lefroy family. Born in Limerick, Ireland, Tom Lefroy briefly courted Jane – she would have walked in and out of that front door, and you don’t need the film “Becoming Jane” (2007) to Hollywoodize the matter – but neither were wealthy and it kind of, well, fizzled. Remember that people didn’t marry because they swiped right and found his/her soul mate but because the match was somehow advantageous for one, or both, party and for his/her family.  It was 1796 and the couple, one year apart in age, were in newly twenty-somethings. There was no Thank You, Next.

Below are retirement homes available only here in Alton, so if you’re going a bit gaga, the time to buy is now! Apparently, the Jane Austen House Museum had to prevent people from spreading their ashes on the grounds without permission. I don’t take sugar and milk and my tea, and I certainly don’t take human cremains. Ha-choo! Looking for a retirement home in Alton? Only six units left, so act fast. When Winston Churchill had the flu, his daughter Sarah read Pride and Prejudice to him, which he quite enjoyed: “What calm people!” he remarked. That could be you at Austen Place someday.

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It’s too bad Lefroy didn’t write the account down and detail the memory. Instead, he told a relative before he died that he had a boyhood crush on the Jane Austen. By the time of Lefroy’s death in 1869, more than fifty years after her death at 41, she had gained posthumous recognition and he had to say something about his puppy-love. (When I wrap up this one-moth research residence, I’ll report on her mysterious death and fatal illness.) We wouldn’t even be saying Lefroy’s name, or watching a film like Becoming Jane, had he not crossed paths with the immemorial ironist. Her only second proposal, as is well known, was accepted but, after she slept on it, rejected the day after. Thank you, Next Novel.

The second guide took to me to Portsmouth, a coastal city entirely defined by defenses. Fortress Portsmouth, really. Both of Austen’s youngest brothers, Francis and Charles, were in the navy. I heard twenty-five ways of saying the same thing: Portsmouth had to defend itself from a French invasion and, thus, forts built up north (if and when a powerful little potentate named Napoleon entered England through its east and west coasts) and a thousand ways that the English wished to slow or full-stop invaders through its ports north of the Isle of Wight. I toured the battleship of Lord Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), the HSM Victory, and saw the very spot where the sea captain fell after taking a shot across the bow from the French. Dying, he asked Cpt. Hardy to kiss him, a tale that made the already awkward English even more uncomfortable, so they made up the idea that Nelson said “Kismet” (Turkish for “fate”). At this death, Lord Nelson was blind in one eye and missing an arm from battle. He gave his body and soul to his native England. So, give the man a kiss, would you?!? Sometimes the truth is queerer than fiction.

Nelson’s body was preserved in a barrel of brandy and returned to London for a ceremonial funeral. That’s how I travel to and fro work. Learned lots of fun naval facts in Portsmouth: the “powder monkeys” were the English boys who supplied the cannon powder; “one square meal” comes from the wooden square plate that every seaman and midshipman had for their meal (in addition to a gallon of beer — safer than water at sea); “cat out-of-the-bag” comes from the flogging whip used on Navy men who broke the rules. Tight ship, indeed.

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Above is the birth and death place of a still underrated and relatively unknown novelist named Charles Dickens (1812-1870). Note (up top) the family name in the red  as his father John (a pay officer on the Portsmouth dockyard) was absolute shit with money and landed the whole fam in debtor’s prison. Charles, meanwhile, went from rags to riches and is now synonymous with the industry that is Christmastime.

Dickens died of stroke at his home Gad’s Hill in Kent and the chaise is so stiff that stroke is the only other option, after a terrible neck-ache. I was surprised to learn that tabacco (prior to Dickens’ stroke) was sniffed rather smoked: put on the back of the hand and snorted like a line of cocaine. Hardcore! But what is literature, after all, but yet another powerful intoxicant and distraction from the dreary routine that is life? (Don’t answer that; it’s rhetorical, so just nod your head.) And on that depressing note, I bid you adieu! Now kiss me, Hardy, or is it hardily? Awww Heck, what’s my password for Netflix?

Green Jane

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“You must make a new garden at what is now the back of the house; which will be giving it the best aspect in the world.” – Mansfield Park

To pick up where we left off, below is a crocodile book cover found in the Knight Collection at Chawton Library. It’s the original jacket for an apocryphal work of Austen’s entitled Crocodile Rock: A Reptilian Romance. That’s not true. What is true is that gardens behind Chawton are secret treasures and in need of volunteer gardeners. I’ve been enlisted to deadhead flowers next week, in fact. I packed a copy of Persuasion but I left my gardening gloves and hand shovel in Colorado, so I’ve created a Go-Fund-Me campaign.

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To dog-ear a page in that book, you will need an actual dog ear. Don’t tell Toby! Here’s me on the upper terrace with the manor house, possibly given to a conqueror’s general after the Battle of Hastings, and the sloping south lawn, to my back. Only in England do overgrown shrubs block the sight of coat-of-arms. In the meantime, they are the ideal breakfast for the deer and pheasants that stroll the grounds when those pesky people aren’t poking about and taking pictures. Thank goodness for a walled garden, or a hortus conclusus. But before you step inside those walls, there are mulberry trees. The mulberry has a fascinating history in England due to James I’s attempt to beat the French in the silk trade. He imported some ten thousand mulberries and even ordered landowners to plant them but the result was an epic backfire: he ordered the black mulberry (or, morus nigra) but it’s the white mulberry that silkworms feed on – those fussy silkworms! – and some speculate whether the French deliberately misled the monarch. King James, rumored to have been gay, really should have known his textiles better.

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Beyond the terrace and the walled garden, you’ll enter the orchard and kitchen garden. Down the road, at the Jane Austen house, you’ll find a proper cottage with a kitchen garden right out the kitchen window but this is an manor house, and real wealth is measured by how great a distance an aristocrat can place between his mouth and all of the labor and produce it takes to fill that fat face of his. In short, the artichokes, fig trees, raspberries, cat mint, and vegetable “growers” were kept out of sight. It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that gardening became a rich man’s hobby. Even more interesting is the array of herbs that were, in Austen’s age, of great medicinal value. Wild strawberry (fragaria vesca), for instance, is still used as a diuretic and, when boiled, used against bladder and kidney problems. Have dry or itchy skin? Just try marigold juice. Remember: possible side effects include headache, nausea, nonsense and insensibility. Ask your doctor if this herb is right for you.

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The four herb beds are marked: head, skin, chest, and digestion. (After all of the meat pies and Peronis at my favorite pub in Alton, The George, I could use the last of those right about now!) There’s a fabulous early feminist connection here as Chawton showcases the work of Elizabeth Blackwell, the eighteenth-century botanist that Linnaeus (the father of taxonomy) nicknamed “Botanica Blackwellia.” He was, after all, the king of name-calling. With his Genera Plantarum, reprinted numerous times between 1740 and 1770, the good profess or of Uppsala named more than 20,000 species on earth. Oh, they were a wild and crazy crew!

Read my book on the Shelleys if you want to know about the ways in which botany supplied erotic writers like Percy Shelley and Erasmus Darwin (Charles’s granddad) an indirect way to explore sex. Plant porn, really. But this is Austen, so get your mind out of the gutter and into the garden. Doctor’s orders!

Gone Girls!

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“Her own thoughts and reflections were habitually her best companions.” – Austen, Mansfield Park

If you’re sticking with me during this one-month research trip in southern England, chances are you like books and this entry is devoted to some pretty fine and rare books. My brother calls physical books – you know, the pre-Kindle ones made from paper and paste and ink – “dust collectors” but he does so only to irritate me, and succeeds every time! Older brothers are especially skilled at such things. Christopher, are you out there? You didn’t even wish me a bon voyage! Ah well, as Austen writes in Mansfield Park, “What strange creatures brothers are!”

Below are some real jewels found only in the Chawton Library. Wait for them: don’t scroll! Here is the statue of the author herself just in front of Saint Nicholas. I purposefully avoided “Authoress” for reasons that will soon become clear. The bonnet is to Jane Austen as the crusty old beard is to Walt Whitman, or the coke nail to William S. Burroughs.

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As I made plain in my original post, my heart really belongs to the radicals of the English Romantic period: Godwin, Paine, Wollstonecraft, Hunt, and the Shelleys. My father would never identify as a hippie – he can’t even whistle a Beatles tune – but he did instill in Meg, Chris, and me a spirited anti-authoritarianism. We weren’t even expected to follow his rules; it was my mum’s job to enforce the rules. (Uh-oh, English colloquialisms creeping in already!) We don’t really know much about Jane Austen’s mum; like most women of the era, she was more pregnant than not and social norms demanded that girls be promptly married. I wonder how much of the marriage-crazed matchmaker existed in Mrs. Cassandra Austen and whether she, in parts, inspired the risible Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. It’s worth noting that when her daughter, Elizabeth, first speaks in the novel, she politely chides her mother for acting the fool. There’s a subtle radicalism in any household where the children know more than their dear ol’ mums and dads. Isn’t Mr. Bennet’s reaction to Elizabeth’s rejection of the man-splaining Mr Collins the best ever? But I digress.

If you are a self-respecting Austenite, you must must must visit and donate generously to Chawton House. You can even sponsor a brick!  What’s wonderful about the librarians and curators at there is that they have created a splendid showcase of women writers from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including an original edition of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (published in 1792). This political manifesto, written hastily in a matter of days, inaugurated the modern feminist movement as we know it, and its central postulate is pretty much a no-brainer (as much as I hate that expression): give girls an education! Reason is the tide that lifts all boats, including husbands who have nothing of substance to talk about with their pretty but empty-headed wives. I use “no-brainer” because, as Wollstonecraft forcefully argues, a brainless woman is also a petty, conniving and coquettish woman. Ridiculed as a “hyena in petticoats” during her day, Wollstonecraft was a true renegade and it’s a tragic irony that she would die in childbirth, leaving this world but leaving behind the motherless child that would go on to pen Frankenstein. (Don’t get me started!) Fun fact: First Lady Melania Trump keeps a copy of A Vindication on her nightstand and longs for her own prison-break. Nah, that’s fake news! The Trumps don’t read! Frederick Douglass is still doing a fantastic job, remember? It’s nice to have a month off from our national nightmare.

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Remember from the last post that the Austen sisters lived down the road in a brick cottage but would walk to the great manor house owned by their richer older brother. Creative types are usually idiotic when it comes to money, so Edward’s very existence must have been a family blessing. He was Lord of the Manor of Alton Eastbrook and had a Grand Tour, as was the custom for English men hoping to get frisky on the Continent. As Madonna liked to advertise, Italians do it better, and by “it,” she meant temper tantrums in satin pajamas from Harrods. Edward Austen/Knight was adopted by the Knight family, which, as a new friend at Chawton reminded me today, is a lot like the adoption of Fanny Price by the Bertrams in Mansfield Park. Movin’ on up! Here’s another allusion: Edward would rent, or let out, Chawton much like the line below in the opening paragraphs of Pride and Prejudice (“Have you heard that Netherfield is let at last?”).

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The peacock is actually on loan from the Oscar Wilde estate. The proud peacock is a bit “overdetermined” – English lit. crit. talk – but it beats a buzzard or a turkey. Another (American) Romantic, Edgar Alan Poe, reportedly, chose the parrot before he finally settled on the raven, which was a smart move. He made that decision after the opium and incest wore off. Imagine the announcer yelling: Please welcome to the field, the Baltimore Parrots! And the crowd went wild.

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Finally, above is the only time that Jane Austen saw her name in print as she published anonymously, as was the custom for authoresses (too many S’s) of the age. Look on the left-hand side and down ten rows. Dating from 1796 – Austen would have been twenty-one – she is listed as a subscriber to Frances Burney’s Camilla: or a Picture of Youth. “Miss J. Austen, Steventon.” Why put your name on something when the book reviewers at Blackwoods would skewer you even worse for being a “woman writer”? Oh yeah, and a woman who earned a living through writing hadn’t yet emerged yet. Some still maintain, erroneously, that Mary Shelley’s poet husband, Percy Bysshe, wrote Frankenstein and, in its day, the gothic classic was damned as the “foulest toad-stool” to ever spring from a dung-heap. Clearly the reviewer hadn’t read the Twilight series.

Overheard, by the way, by noisy Americans in the pub across from the Jane Austen House: “Since I turned fifty, I have to pee every ten minutes. Maybe I need a sleep study.” Then, the wife (returning with a gift bag from the Jane Austen House and Museum): “Is there only beer here? Austen probably only drank cocktails…more feminine!”

Okay, there are a number of things wrong in this exchange: prostates and sleep do not correlate, and while Austen does complain of a hangover in her letters, there were no Cosmos or Palomas in Regency-era England. Immoderation of any kind is a loathsome thing in Austen’s fiction. A major influence over her was Brunton’s Self-Control (1811). It’s not the booze but how it’s used. This is why the “dangerous illness” of Tom Bertram is singled out toward the conclusion of Mansfield Park. His immoderation inevitable catches up with him; hence: “Tom had gone from London with a party of young men to Newmarket, where a neglected fall, and a good deal of drinking, had brought on a fever.” Fever in the evening, fever all through the night…

Somewhere along the line, “Sex and the City” and Jane “RomCom” Austen embedded themselves in the bloodstream of modern female culture.  Yeah, you become a fly on the wall when you’re flying solo in an English village. I’d be even more invisible if I were a lady even though I like to think I’d be a pretty hot chick, bonnet or no bonnet.

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In my next post, we will all head to the gardens at Chawton House, so bring your sunscreen!

 

 

Sign Posts!

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Bidding adieu to Albion, I combined some of my favorite signs from my one-month residence here. Given their preternatural politeness, roadway signs and advertisements reflect the “keep-calm-and-carry-on” sensibility of the British. In America, the sign below would simply declare KEEP OUT! And, of course, “Diversion” is British for “Detour” and slightly more abstract. “Divided by a Common Language,” as the saying goes.

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There’s always a latent anxiety in England about thieves and pickpockets. What kind of “operation” is underway when they knick something from your car? “Sat Nav’s” is British-speak for “GPS.” And, gentlemen, don’t forget to mind the zipper before exiting the loo! I highly recommend The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship between British and American English by Lynne Murphy if you like this sort of linguistic fun.

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Finally, at the Queen’s Arms in Brighton, we were regaled with Cher and Beyoncé covers and it appears as if the drag queens are looking forward to some major renovations. Sing out, LouiseAnd that concludes my entire performance in English!

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