History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

24 September 2010

Jane Austen In Boca, Maryland, New Jersey... and Coming Soon to Media, Pennsylvania

I wrote at some length in my last hoyden post about Ann Herendeen's smart and original take on Pride and Prejudice, by way of summarizing my recent presentation at the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Conference.

So enough with the Jane Austen, you'd think -- at least for a while.

And yet here she is again, refusing to let me out of the clutches of her genius.

Because I'm going to be speaking about her next month -- three times, as it happens, but most directly in the talk I'm giving at the assisted living community where my mother lives, in Media, Pennsylvania.

With its population of energetic culture vultures (my mom runs the community's excellent lending library, so I know it'll be a readerly audience), community residents can choose from an ongoing festival of films and lectures, discussion groups and classes. Lifetimes of love and work deepen the quality of attention brought to the table, especially now that this (perforce largely female) audience has the time a go-round of self-education.

The location in the greater Philadelphia area permits access to a wealth of local intellectual talent. But what -- especially for this group -- could be better than a son or daughter strutting his or her area of expertise? My Brother the Cardiologist and My Sister the Acupuncturist have both given lively presentations to appreciative audiences. And since I visit pretty regularly (and will be doing so after the two erotic writing workshops I'll be giving this October for romance writers -- more about that later), my mom kept wondering if there mightn't be something I could get up and spritz about.

Just not "that sexy stuff you write about, please."

Not that my mom isn't a huge fan of my writing -- or hasn't tossed back a chaser or two of Amanda Quick herself, along with her favorite Ann Perry. But mostly we share a more sedate set of literary pleasures, qvelling over Cranford (I introduced her to Mrs. Gaskell) or delighting in Geraldine Brooks's wonderful March. It was Mom, of course, who gave my writing caree its first and biggest boost when she introduced me to Louisa May Alcott when I was seven. And she still helps me, even unknowingly, as when, a few years ago when I was with her for an extended visit while she was recovering from back surgery, I ran across a taped-from-TV copy of the Andrew Davies version of Emma on her shelves (the one with Kate Beckinsale). So late one night when I couldn't sleep I put it on the VHS player she still has, and knew that I'd found the feel of Regency English village life I needed for The Slightest Provocation.

Which I was gratefully remembering when... Hey, wait a minute, I thought. "How about," I said, "I give a talk about Jane Austen and why everybody is still making such a fuss about her?"

And that's what I'll be doing. With this particular audience in mind, I'll be trying to explicate Austen's themes and why we still care so deeply about them. And also (being me) I'll endeavor to explain how, in her effort to represent love, family, and community from a woman's point of view, this spinster daughter of a Georgian county vicar pretty much invented the novel as we know it (and hardly broke a sweat defining the parameters of popular romance fiction along the way).

I'll mention modern adaptations and usages, of course -- from Bridget Jones's Diary to Clueless to Bespelling Jane Austen (a lively recent paranormal novella collection by popular romance writers including our own Janet Mullany, whose contribution, according to Publisher's Weekly, "sparkles with genuine wit").

And of course I'll include the book that many audience members have doubtless already read -- and that you should read as well: Paula Marantz Cohen's Jane Austen in Boca, which brings Pride and Prejudice to a Jewish retirement community in Boca Raton, Florida, in the stories of three widows, sweet May, acerbic Flo, and hungry-for-love, pressed-for-cash Lila. The Austen parallels are executed as lovingly as they are deftly, with a fine clear eye for what's most important in life when life grows short. I won't give away any of the plot, except to say that the situations of Charlotte Lucas and even Mrs. Bennet are viewed with rare understanding and compassion -- from a contemporary feminist point of view but still, you'd have to say, as the story of "two or three families in a country village."

But also, because I can't resist, to indulge myself here in one quote -- from the end of the novel after May, Flo, and Lila have all actually read Pride and Prejudice:

"Once you get used to the Old English," noted Lila, "it reads very fast."

May said... that the tone of the book put her in mind of Flo. "I didn't know they were sarcastic back then," she commented, "but I guess being sarcastic isn't necessarily modern."
And isn't that how some of the best classic fiction always strikes us? A voice from far away and long ago brings us back to the ways of being we've somehow convinced ourselves that we've invented. I do hope I'm able to communicate some of that.

While as for the other ways I'm thinking about Jane Austen -- well, here (sorry, Mom) I do have to get back to that sexy stuff I always write about, because I just might be the only erotic writer on the planet who uses Austen as a muse for the naughty bits, for her clear-eyed, meticulous use of voice and p.o.v. -- as I'll be explaining both at a Maryland Romance writers meeting and at the New Jersey Romance Writers Put You Heart in a Book Conference next month, when I give erotic writing workshops at both venues.

Check the events listing on my web page for more details and hope to see you there.

But meanwhile, do you share reading with your loved ones?

What do each of you bring to the discussion and what do you learn from it?

And what's your favorite Austen updating and why?

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Blogger Isobel Carr said...

But meanwhile, do you share reading with your loved ones?

Oh, god yes! I swap books with my friends, mother, and grandmother (though Grandma also looks askance at the “naughty” ones, LOL!).

What do each of you bring to the discussion and what do you learn from it?

I always find it most interesting when we have totally opposite reactions to a book. For example, Hamlet is my favorite of Shakespeare’s works. I even used in my undergraduate thesis. My best friend loathes that play, and has a very articulate argument for her reaction. I just don’t see the play and characters in the same way though. It’s fascinating that we can have such contrary responses to the same work.

And what's your favorite Austen updating and why?

Hmmmm. That’s a hard one, as there have been so many. There was a great Brit Lit one a few years back, but I can’t remember the title and I can’t find it on Amazon among the sea of sequels and erotic retellings. *sigh* I know for damn sure it isn’t the one with zombies though. That dreck was unreadable.

I think I’ll go with Clueless, which I’ve always thought was brilliantly done.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

My mom and I used to share books constantly. She was the one who let me read Sweet Savage Love by Rosemary Rogers when I was a tender 13. And she had no qualms about my reading Harold Robbins or John Jakes, and didn't raise an eyebrow when I spent my allowance on Irwin Shaw's Rich Man, Poor Man when I was 11. I now share books with my friends that I think they will like, including Jilly Cooper and Marian Keyes.

I love so many Jane Austen adaptations. Isobel mentioned Clueless which is a flawless adaptation. I also liked Paula Marantz Cohen's Jane Austen in Scarsdale. Of course there is Bridget Jone's Diary. I even enjoyed Lost in Austen.

10:12 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Those are all such great conversations, Isobel. And sometimes those disagreements can be so REAL, like about people we actually know.

And we're all sort of lost in Austen these days, Elizabeth, because we're all still trying to rewrite the "rules of engagement" -- of love and sex, family, companionship and commitment, in a way that makes egalitarian, feminist sense AND sensibility.

1:57 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

I'm forever recommending books both to my mother and sister. My sister never seems to have time for much beyond the scope of her reading group ("and I would never recommend one of your books to the group because I don't want to sit there while those women tear you apart") [of course, they might actually like one of the books]; and my mother doesn't take recommendations "because you know I don't like to read novels -- except yours."

My favorite Austen adaptations are cinematic: Emma Thompson's pitch-perfect screenplay for SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, along with a perfect cast and Ang Lee's sensitive direction; and BRIDE AND PREJUDICE, the Bollywood version of P&P, which is utterly delicious and one of the few updatings or transplants of an Austen story that still works within the social context of Jane's original.

2:00 PM  
Anonymous Kathrynn Dennis said...

Oh man, Pam. I wish I could be at your talk!

Last good book I shared (with my 9 year old son)---THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING.

AWSOME (as he put it!)

5:49 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fabulous post, Pam! My dad used to like to ask, in the late 90s with all the Austen film and tv adaptations, about "why now in particular?" for the latest wave of Austen-mania. Which led to a lot of interesting, fun discussions. In addition to the excellent points you raise, I think the issues of money, status, and social mobility that Austen deals with perhaps resonated particularly strongly in the last couple of decades.

As I've talked about before, my mom and I read and discussed books all the time. My dad didn't read much fiction, but we'd have family discussions of plays, movies, and tv shows--from Twin Peaks to Mystery! to Shakespeare plays. Now I talk about books and plays and movies and tv shows with writer friends, particularly my friend Penny Williamson. Tonight we saw a great production of Alice Childress's "Trouble in Mind" at the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley. Penny and I both analyze stories from a writer's pov. Some of our best discussions come after movies with plot holes--which we usually can find solutions to (at least solutions that work for us) over drinks and dinner.

My favorite Austen update is Clueless for being so clever and fun and amazingly true to the original while being its own story (and for the clothes :-). And my favorite non-updated Austen adaptation is the Emma Thompson/Ang Lee "Sense and Sensibility", which I think is all-around brilliant.

12:47 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Ooh thanks, Tracy, for the reminder about the Alice Childress play. I also adore Clueless, and am with you, Leslie, and Kathrynn about the joy of sharing books with family. Our son wound up as a professor of literature: after all those years of family dinner table conversations, the poor kid never stood a chance of being much else. ;-)

8:43 AM  

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