Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Edward's Dilemma: Part III

Lucy's Steele's Sense--and Jane Austen's Sensibility

Wednesday, 24th April, 1811
No. 64 Sloane Street, London

The mail coach was incommodious and distressingly full; she was quite crushed against Anne, her ugly ill-favoured and elderly sister, as the poorly-sprung equipage lurched over the ruts in an attempt to gain Exeter; but such misfortunes must be immaterial to Miss Lucy Steele, in her eagerness to attack her zealous regard for duty.  Intelligence of the Miss Dashwoods’ removal from Norland to the environs of Barton Park having lately reached her ears, by the extraordinary good luck simple expedient of Mr. Edward Ferrars’  most recent letter missive—alarmingly replete with phrases of unconcealed admiration for the eldest Miss Dashwood—she was determined to scrape an acquaintance with such appalling delightful young ladies by any means possible.  A moment only was required, to seize upon consider of her relation Mrs. Jennings, an intimate of the Park—and so desirous, too, of being of use, to every young lady of passable merit!  To use, Lucy Steele should certainly put her; for Lucy detected a danger in Mr. Ferrars’ flowing periods of praise; and having endured with agonies admirable patience the spectre of his formidable mother’s nastiness displeasure these four years at least, she was most unwilling to allow any harpy to sink her claws give pride of place to a girl who could claim a mere cottage as domicile, and so paltry a sum as a third-share of three thousand pounds, as inducement to marriage.

I started, and set down my pen.  
My sister Eliza stood in the bedchamber doorway, almost entirely obscured by a quantity of linen freshly supplied by her housekeeper, Madame Bigeon—who is so burdened in years, that she may no longer ascend the stairs without grasping the handrail, rendering such tasks as the disposition of linen, entirely beyond her powers.
“Only say that you are not writing, dear one!”
The expression of horror suffusing Eliza’s countenance might well have been ridiculous, did not a healthy respect for pounds and pence inspire it.  I glanced away, conscious of the debt I owed my brother—who has franked the publication of my dearest child, my romantickal romp of Elinor and Marianne, my cautionary fable of gentlemen’s wiles—my Sense and Sensibility.  I am come to London in the spring of 1811 on purpose to proof Mr. Thomas Egerton’s type-set pages—and having seen my plaintive words in print, cannot restrain myself from constantly amending them.
“It is only a very little writing,” I offered hurriedly.  “A scene, perhaps, to elucidate the terms under which poor Edward committed his lamentable folly, of engaging the affections of Miss Lucy Steele.”
“Conniving little beast,” Eliza replied dispassionately.  “She ought to be whipped.  Perhaps Colonel Brandon might supply the office.  But Jane, you are aware that Mr. Egerton has expressly forbidden you to change another word, without you incur the severest charges on Henry’s purse!  Dearest, do not say that you have struck out the type!
I had.  The evidence was visible to every eye, in my firm blue scrawl.  I did the only thing possible—I seized the laundress’s bill from Eliza’s grasp.
“The charges on linen are extortionate in London,” I mourned.  “We cannot contrive to spend a quarter of this sum in Chawton village.” 
“--Which is why I am forever bringing my own sheets, dearest, when I chuse to visit your mother.”
I slipped the laundress’s bill over my errant pages, but not swiftly enough for Eliza’s eagle eye.  In high dudgeon, she deposited her pile of linen on my writing table.
“How am I to tell Henry that you have altered the text again?  He shall be wild with disapproval!”
“Henry is never wild.”
“That is an utter falsehood, Jane.  He is by far the most whimsical and intemperate of your brothers.  He should never have granted the Prince a loan, else--for you know we cannot hope to see a farthing of that silver back again; it is all gone in gambling and waistcoats.  And I have set my heart on the most charming jockey bonnet of leghorn straw, with eglantine ribbons-- and it must be impossible if you are to break Henry’s bank with paying Mr. Egerton for fresh type!”
“Eliza,” I said with remorse, “I assure you that I shall endeavour to mend my vicious habits.  Not a penny more shall Mr. Egerton have, to repair my misshapen prose; and you may have a score of jockey bonnets…provided I may save Edward from Lucy Steele’s toils.”
“I am excessively tired of Edward,” Eliza declared.  “He lacks all charm, address, and common sense, too—for how else should such a man be taken in by a vulgar chit with the name of Lucy?  I am out of all patience with him and his love.  Let Willoughby seduce Miss Steele--and there is an end to it!”
All speech was suspended by the appearance of Manon, Eliza’s personal maid; she frowned her disapproval, for Eliza’s hair had not yet been dressed and she was looking most unwell, from the effects of a persistent cold and exasperation with my spendthrift ways.  Manon seized the clean linen, and with a muttered imprecation of disapproval, departed for Eliza’s bedchamber.
“Willoughby cannot always be seducing everybody,” I retorted crossly. 
 “You know so little of the World, Jane.”
“Surely you must apprehend that Edward’s actions are...entirely honourable,” I attempted.  “That he must pursue the only course of action open to a gentleman, and pursue it in stoical silence.  That every reader of sense must admire his steadfast scruples, and his breaking heart--”
“—But every reader of sensibility would wish him to throw Lucy Steele in the Serpentine, and clutch Elinor to his bosom!”  Eliza threw up her hands.  “It is as I declared—you know so little of the World!”
“Hence the altered text,” I said flatly.  “It is intended to provide some verisimilitude to Edward’s motives.  A greater appreciation of his sorry dilemma.”
“His sorry backbone, you would mean,” Eliza muttered.  “Very well—let me see what you have set down.”
I turned to my writing table.
But the type-set pages were gone.
“Manon,” Eliza whispered.   Her countenance was all apprehension.
I moved swiftly to the door, to be met by the French maid.
“You have need of me, mademoiselle?
“Of the pages you secured,” I said, “on the writing table.  They were obscured by the linen.”
“Ah,” she said wisely.  “The laundress’s bill.  But madame is never to be oppressed by such trifles.  They make her ill.  She is forever thinking of all the bonnets she could buy, did she content herself with soiled sheets.  It is as well to cast such things on the fire.”
“And that is what you have done,” I observed.
Mais, oui, mademoiselle--What else would you?  She is not to be oppressed, madame.  On the fire it goes. ”
She made her curtsey and moved away along the passage, serene in the happy performance of duty. 
“Poor Jane,” Eliza murmured.  Already she had an idea of her leghorn straw, and how becomingly she should appear in it.
“Poor Edward,” I replied.  “Yet another scene lost.” 
And returned to my lamentable prose.

*   *   *

I hope you enjoyed Part Three of Austenesque Extravaganza's Touring Thursday!  Readers familiar with my Jane Austen Mysteries probably found themselves on familiar ground in the fantasia printed above--from the timing, Jane was in the thick of events recounted in Jane and the Barque of Frailty, not to mention her Sense and Sensibility page proofs from Mr. Egerton.

If you've missed the earlier parts of this "lost scene," by all means stop by these talented authors' websites:
Part One - Edward Visits Barton Cottage - Susan Mason-Milks
Part Two - Flashback! Edward and Lucy Reach an Understanding - Amanda Grange

Thanks for reading!


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

And Suddenly, Autumn

I opened the French doors to the terrace this morning and a wave of cold air gusted in off the lawn.
That suddenly, it's September in Colorado.
Naturally, the temperature will climb into the 90s in a few hours, but as the dogs step tentatively into the seven a.m. dew, it's all of 55, and the promise of snow and woodsmoke are on the air.

I spent most of the summer traveling and talking about my latest Francine Mathews spy novel, JACK 1939, a World War II-era adventure featuring Jack Kennedy as a 22 year-old Harvard junior researching his senior thesis all over Europe--while Hitler mobilizes to invade Poland.  It was quite a shift from discussing all things Austen, but with the change of seasons I'm thinking like a Barron again.

At the moment, I'm putting the finishing touches on my segment of a lost vignette from one of Austen's novels--as imagined by Susan Mason-Milks, Amanda Grange, and me, in that order--which will be up on the website here in a week's time (check back Thursday, September 13th, for our contribution to the AUSTENESQUE EXTRAVAGANZA--something we're calling "Edward's Dilemma.")  Susan kicks it off on her website; Mandy follows with the all-too-vital middle; and I attempt to match their greatness with the final few paragraphs.  I hope you'll enjoy.

And then: what next?

The original publisher of the Jane Austen Mysteries appears unenthused with continuing the series.  It's possible Jane will find a new home; but at the moment, I'm researching something I've tentatively titled THE WATERLOO ARCHIVE.  The bicentenary of the Great Battle in 2015 fast approaches, and I want to be there with a story.  It's a great excuse to refresh my understanding of Napoleon's invasion of Russia, Wellington's life, the nature of the Prussian army.  All good subjects as the weather turns cool, and I stack the wood by the library fire.

Happy Autumn!


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Reading For a Too-Sudden Spring: The Enchanted April

It's May as I write this, and the dust of this drought-stricken state is already rising in little puffs about my feet as I walk my dog along the parched canal.  When breaking out the shorts and the sunblock, it seems wise to cherish what has already been: The most beautiful April in recent memory.  Everything came into flower at once at my house--the crab apple trees shown in the picture at left, the plum trees out back, the lilac and the tiny white stars of red-twig dogwood.  Unusually for Colorado, no sudden fall of snow struck spring dumb.  The kindness of the season has an ominous undertone--we all know that it's not normal, but as my younger son observed just last night, "It's hard to view sunny days as a natural disaster."  His tone seemed to imply that if anybody could do so, however, it would be his mother.

He reminded me, in those few words, of a character straight out of Elizabeth Von Arnim.  Just so did she  skewer her most lovable people--with a comment that revealed far too much of their souls.

She's an author most people no longer recognize, although some would recall the 1992 movie made from her best-known book, The Enchanted April.  I sat through it in a dream of sun-kissed scent, but I'm not going to talk about the movie here--the book is so much more rewarding in its acute celebration of human foibles, human hope, and the terribly human need to be loved.  The time is the early 1920s; the subject is the dreariness of post-war England and the compulsion to escape; and the alternative is a remote and lovely castle on the Italian coast.  Von Arnim sends four women of varying ages and degrees of personal desperation there for a month.  Having got them under her writer's eye, she turns each of them inside-out, with a delicacy and finesse unequaled since Jane Austen.

If summer arrived too soon in your town, too, this year--try The Enchanted April.  Short of buying a ticket on impulse for Portofino, it's the most delicious escape I know.


Friday's Child: The REACH Literacy Conference

So as my sons head off for their final exams this week, I'm thinking about the teachers I'll be talking to on Friday at the 2012 REACH Literacy Conference here in Denver.  The conference is intended for "educators, administrators, parents, middle and high school students, and literacy advocates who want to explore and understand the value of early reading readiness; embrace culturally relevant literature; and gain knowledge, insight and access to useful curriculum resources to create a richer learning experience."  It's being held over two days--May 31 and June 1--at the Kenneth King Academics & Performing Arts Center, on the Auraria Campus.

I'm a bit terrified.  I'm not a trained teacher.  I write novels for adults, not kids.  I know next to nothing about the challenges of literacy in the United States.  All I can do, therefore, is talk about how writers become writers--by starting life as readers.  We're all the sum of our stories, both the ones we read as kids and the ones we write every day.  And we're the end result of a lifetime of teachers, too--both bad and good.  I watch my own boys grow, and know how critical stories are in their lives.  Stories are maps discarded on the road by those who've walked ahead, clues to the terrain, routes for navigating existence.  We'd be lost without them.

Think of me Friday morning.  Introduce yourself, if you're there.  We'll swap a few tales.


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

My Personal Note From Charles (Dickens, that is)

Yesterday, as various folks around the world gave a nod to the creator of Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and Little Nell--who presumably celebrated his 200th birthday with a glass of Port on some convenient celestial perch--I paused a moment in my guest room to offer Many Happy Returns to Charles Dickens myself.

Framed on the wall is one of the man's letters.  It wasn't written to me, of course--but I shamelessly read it anyway.  It's a small note written on blue-gray paper, with its original envelope, addressed and sealed with Dickens's wax, the color of dried blood.

The framer, sadly, couldn't show both sides of the envelope at once, so the wax seal is hidden from view, a treasure for some future generation to find when they reframe the thing in 2312.  The visible side is some compensation--Dickens signed the envelope as well as the note, and there's a great old penny postage stamp with Queen Victoria pretending to be Caesar's wife in the upper corner.  The ink is faded to a sepia brown.

Here's what the letter says:

Devonshire Terrace
Thirtieth November 1842
My Dear Count D'Orsay

We shall all three be delighted to dine at Gore House on Friday; and, (as you do not mention the hour) we shall take it for granted that you dine at Half past Seven, unless we hear to the contrary.

Always believe me 
faithfully yours
Charles Dickens

He scrawled his signature emphatically across the bottom of the page, and underscored it with a scrolling motion at least ten times.  And yes, that's a comma you see before the parenthesis.  Perhaps our habit of placing it after is hopelessly twenty-first century.  

It's a commonplace note enough.  The Comte D'Orsay was a flamboyant figure in Dickens's day, an artist, a dandy, a wealthy man who loved to entertain.  But who are "we three?"  And what exactly did they dine on?  Did D'Orsay keep the note for decades, or did his valet pilfer it?  And how did it end up in my mother's closet, a hundred and fifty years later?  The devil of it is, nobody in my family really knows.  It's our own little Mystery of Edwin Drood.

There's an import duty receipt for one hundred and forty-five pounds from a dealer named Maggs Brothers, located at 50, Berkeley Square, London, to a dealer in Bethesda, Maryland, dated 1977.  We lived in Potomac at the time; and that was the year my father died.  The story of how he came by Dickens's careless acceptance of a dinner invitation, died with him.  It was only in the last years of my mother's life that the letter was discovered at all--and my sisters kindly passed it on to me.  They figured that as a writer, I'd cherish it.

I do.  I thought about hanging it opposite my desk, where I can see it every day; and maybe at some point I will.  For now, though, it hangs in the guest room, so that anybody transiting through Denver can glance at that sprawling, flamboyant, dramatic fist--and hear an entire world of fantastic characters whispering from the faded ink.

Happy birthday, Charles.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Toast to January's Quiet

It has been snowing in Colorado, and I'm off tomorrow to ski over the long weekend.  January--a month so many view as bleak and cheerless--is one of my favorite months in the year.  The hustle of the holidays is over; no huge obligations loom; and it's time to hunker down by the fire with good books and snoozing dogs.   I've been dutifully reading Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot, and finding it disappointing, perhaps because I lived through college in the '80s and my memories of it are much better than his characters'.  (It was brought home to me recently just how long ago that was when a chance acquaintance commented: "You look really good for somebody who graduated in 1985."  We call that a backhanded comment, folks: Nice to know you look OK, given that you've got one foot in the grave.)  So last night I put down the Plot and picked up a Golden Age mystery.  And naturally, I mixed up a Sidecar to drink with it.

The Sidecar surfaces in Agatha Christie novels and only rarely in trendy bars these days.  It takes its name from the little passenger capsule so many motorcycles sported in England in the 1930s, the kind that Lady Mary Wimsey and her pet Communist meant to elope in, during the first chapters of  Dorothy Sayers' Clouds of Witness.  It's a brandy cocktail, which nobody drinks anymore, but it's absolutely delicious.  Here, after much experimentation, is how to make one:

The Wimsey Sidecar

1.5 oz Courvoisier
3/4 oz Grand Marnier
3/4 oz Cointreau
3/4 oz fresh lemon juice

Shake all in a cocktail shaker filled with ice and pour into a martini glass--preferably one whose rim has been wiped with a lemon and coated with sugar.  Grab a good dog and a good mystery and settle in while the blizzards howl.

After you drink this, you'll want to be poured into one of those cute little passenger capsules and elope.

Happy New Year from Nessa and Mycroft