Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Augusta in August: An Interview with Mrs. Elton

"Mrs. Elton was neither handsome, clever, nor rich" - from In Defense of Mrs. Elton by Diana Birchall, illustrations by Juliet McMaster

Mrs. Birchall (notebook in hand): Hello, Mrs. Elton. Thank you for agreeing to see me on such short notice. I have come to Highbury to solicit your opinion.

Mrs. Elton: My opinion? Well! Only fancy. Few people, I think, can be less forward in giving their opinion than me. You will not find me eager to say what I think; far from it. If there is any thing I cannot endure it is a woman who gives her opinion too decidedly.

Mrs. Birchall: Well, if you are reluctant, I can go away and interview Miss Bates. I'm sure she'll have plenty to say.

Mrs. Elton: Stay. If I really must give my opinion, of course I will do so. I would not disappoint a visitor for the world. That would be extremely rude.

Mrs. Birchall: Very well, then. Here goes. My readers are interested in finding out how things are getting
along in Highbury. You seem to be just the person to tell us.

Mr. and Mrs. Elton, played by Alan Cummings and Juliet Stevenson in the 1996 Emma

Mrs. Elton (flattered):  Do I? I do not pretend to be the patroness of the place. It would not be proper for a vicar's wife to take a leading part in society, and I do not at all aspire to such a state.

Mrs. Birchall: Certainly not. And we all know, don’t we, that Mrs. Knightley is the great lady of Highbury.

Mrs. Elton (bridling): Mrs. Knightley! Well, that is - Yes, she gives herself such airs, that any stranger to the place might be taken in, and believe she is the fine lady of title and quality she fancies herself to be! But I assure you, that is not the case. The truly genteel people of Highbury, the most select, consider her quite an upstart, I can assure you. We are not taken in by her presuming ways.

Mrs. Birchall: Oh! But I thought that she was from a very ancient family. Doesn't it say so, right there in Emma? Yes, I thought is what Jane Austen says herself:

"He must know that the Woodhouses had been settled for several generations at Hartfield, the younger branch of a very ancient family -- and that the Eltons were nobody."

(Mrs. Elton ruffles like a partridge and starts to puff.)

The first sight of Mrs. Elton at church

Mrs. Elton: Nobody! Well, I like that! Miss Austen has an editorial way that is positively - That woman will say anything! She knew nothing of my husband's antecedents when she wrote that scurrilous book, not to mention my own connections. Emma, indeed! I do assure you that we are related to some very fine folks and move in quite another sphere. Why, my brother, Mr. Suckling, owns a great deal of property, and drives a barouche-landau, which Mrs. Knightley, who seldom stirs beyond her own park-paling, never does.

Mrs. Birchall: (Tactfully) Perhaps we ought to change this subject. I only meant to inquire about the various townspeople. We were speaking of Miss Bates. I always did like her. How is she?

Mrs. Elton: Upon my word! You are commencing at the bottom, are you not? Why, she is scarcely genteel. If she were not a vicar's daughter, she never would have been received in polite company. A sad, poor old maid, and with such manners!

Mrs. Birchall: I believe she is very kind hearted, and very well liked in general.

Mrs. Elton (disdainfully): Oh! Well, if you care for that sort of thing. Any way, since her old mother died, she has done very well for herself. You must know, she cast herself quite upon the charity of the Churchills, and you will hardly credit it, but Jane and Mr. Frank Churchill have actually taken her into their home, at Enscombe, in Yorkshire. When she was practically a beggar, too. Quite shameless.

Mrs. Birchall: Well, but that is very nice of them, and very nice for Miss Bates, too. I am glad to hear it. And Harriet - how is she, and all the good Martins?

Mrs. Elton:  (swivels around to stare at her interviewer incredulously) I thought that you were to ask me about the ladies and gentlemen of Highbury.

The Eltons with Harriet
(illustration by Juliet McMaster)

Mrs. Birchall: Why, yes.

Mrs. Elton (pityingly): If you cannot tell gentry from common farmers…

Mrs. Birchall: (gently) I only want to know how they are.

Mrs. Elton: Oh, very well I suppose. Mrs. Martin has got another child, I’ve lately heard. Six or seven of them now. Quite shocking the way they breed, but I will say that at least they are not upon the parish.

Mrs. Birchall: My readers will be glad to hear it. And of course we know that the Knightleys are all doing well, since the sad passing of Mr. Woodhouse, and the Westons are prospering…

Mrs. Elton: Oh, certainly; good creatures they are, though hardly people of elegance or fashion. The Westons are well enough to associate with in a little country place such as Highbury. They would be nobody in Bath.

Mrs. Birchall: Now I come to a more modern question. What do you think of all the sequels to Miss Austen’s stories, that have lately appeared?

Mrs. Elton: Why, to say the truth, I am sadly affronted.

Mrs. Birchall: And why is that? Do you disapprove of them?

Mrs. Elton: To be sure I do. Most of them are finishings of Pride and Prejudice, which I consider quite unfitting. Such a coarse novel, with that young girl running off before her marriage. Dreadful. We do not have such happenings in Highbury. And there are worse things, I know (nodding wisely) in Sense and Sensibility.

Mrs. Birchall: Do you think that is why there are so few sequels to Emma?

Mrs. Elton: Perhaps. You know how the vulgar mind doats upon scandal.

Mrs. Elton and her housekeeper

Mrs. Birchall: Then you would like to see more sequels to Emma?

Mrs. Elton:  I? I should say not. Why should that arrogant upstart of a woman receive even more fame and attention than has already fallen to her lot, quite undeservedly? She always gets more than her due, and has from a girl.

Mrs. Birchall: Do you mean Jane Austen?

Mrs. Elton: No! I mean Emma! Why should I want to see her get more glory than ever, films and all that sort of thing, when sterling characters are passed by?

Very few pearls like Mrs. Elton's.

Mrs. Birchall: (slyly) Such as yourself?                                          

Mrs. Elton: If you must speak of me, why, yes, as a matter of fact.

Mrs. Birchall: But don’t you know that I have written a sequel, a novel, that is all about you?

Mrs. Elton: No, I didn’t know. (Tosses head disdainfully) It cannot be much of a best-seller. Mr. E. and I read all the reviews in the London Times, and we have never heard of it.

Mrs. Birchall: Yes, well you see, I am an American.

Mrs. Elton: Exactly so! Then how could you presume to take it upon yourself to write about an English person – especially one of good breeding?

Mrs. Birchall: Perhaps I have as much fortitude as you have yourself. Be that as it may, my first “Mrs. Elton” story, In Defense of Mrs. Elton, was published by the Jane Austen Society of North America, as well as in Australia, and sold in your own England as well. It is now collected into a volume with other stories, called Mrs. Elton in America. Sourcebooks publishes it. Would you like to read a copy? I believe you would like it. Here.

Mrs. Elton: A book? All about me? Is that so?

(she grabs the volume and starts devouring it greedily)

Mrs. Birchall: Well, it looks like I have made one sale, at least. 

I had to bring Mrs. Elton in America to its eponymous heroine via imagination only; but you can order the book on Amazon.  Which is almost as miraculous!

From an advice column Mrs. Elton wrote for the Jane Austen Today blog a couple of years (or centuries) ago!

If you wish to ask Mrs. Elton a question yourself, you may send it to, and I will certainly see that she gets it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Chawton Then and Now

Flowers at Chawton, 1985

It was as long ago as 1984 that I first attempted to write in imitation of Jane Austen's "voice" (which I hasten to fervently and categorically state is not a possible thing to do), and in that first attempt, won a writing contest in Persuasions, the journal of JASNA (the Jane Austen Society of North America). I channeled Miss Bates, and though I wince at a youthful effort, I'll attach it at the end.

Husband Peter at Chawton Great House, long before it became the Chawton House Library

Faulty and feeble though the effort might have been, I was encouraged by its success, and it was the beginning of my attempts in that direction, which culminated in my writing full blown Jane Austen sequels, Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma and Mrs. Elton in America. The following year, 1985, was not the first time I attended the annual general meeting of the English Jane Austen Society at Chawton, but it was the first time I took pictures.

Peter walking toward the Great House...much quieter place then!

 At that time, I believe Lord David Cecil was still Hon. Chairman, and Tony Trollope and the Countess of Huntington were much in evidence; it was very much the old guard. These long-ago meetings were perhaps the most quintessentially English occasions I'd ever intruded upon; my husband and I were, I believe, the only Americans present, and it was a smaller and more low key affair than the meetings are today.

The tents, as they were then.  Smaller.

Maggie Lane, Lyndall Gordan and her husband, and Brian Southam, 1985

This was many years before Sandy Lerner conceived of turning the "great house" into Chawton House Library, and the whole place, achingly lovely, was in a state of summery sleepiness and old world ways. I remember the Countess introducing Lord David Cecil, and using an upper class old world trill, she intoned, "Will the Chairman please r-r-r-ise." Fortunately I still have some pictures from that day, and will share them here. And, having just returned from the 2011 meeting with more pictures, I invite you to contrast and compare the difference between Chawton meetings, a quarter century apart.

Alwyn Austen, family descendant; Professor Gaye King, and me

Later, Professor Ed Copeland and I examine the famous painting of Jane Austen with her back turned, done by Cassandra.  It was at that time kept in a drawer in Alwyn's house!  Nowadays it's under lock and key in a museum, you may be sure!

Jean Bowden, long time curator of Chawton Cottage, with Lord David Cecil

Lyndall Gordon, myself, her husband Siamon Gordon, Gaye King, and David Nokes

 And now, some more up-to-date pictures.  Below, members of our panel at the 2009 Chawton House Library conference, "New Directions of Jane Austen Studies." 

Phyllis Bottomer, Marcia Folsom, me, Laurie Kaplan
A larger tent, more people...and they do seem younger.  Many more Americans, too.

An Austen icon, Deirdre Le Faye, 2009

Chawton farm, 2009
And now up to days present, here I am at the Chawton meeting once more, in July 2011, in the lovely, mature garden.

The garden

Professor Janet Todd delivers the address on the reality of Mr. Darcy, to a larger audience in a bigger tent

Interior of the remodeled stable block

Nosegay at Chawton Cottage in 2009:  always a tradition

And now, my first essay in Austen-sequelizing!  From Persuasions, 1984.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

An Oxford Meeting

Friends' Meeting House, St. Giles, Oxford

Saturday, July 23

To my surprise, I slept like a top in the Cornish Riviera sleeper train. I’d been anxious about it, thinking it foolhardy to get no sleep on a train the night before having to give a talk, but Jan thought it would be an adventure and she was right – only I slept, and she didn’t! She knocked on my cabin in the morning to say she was off, and departed for Cambridge, having to take a cab to King’s Cross. I was more fortunate, just stepping off the train into the middle of Paddington, where I had only to buy cappuccino and pain au chocolat, and board the next direct train for Oxford.

St. Hilda's College

The garden by the river at St. Hilda's College

Arrived in Oxford about 8 AM, and took a taxi the ten minute drive to Jean’s house. She and Tony were up and about, and we enjoyed tea and a happy reunion together. Then Jean had to go in to St. Hilda’s for a meeting about the Pym conference, and I stayed back, to do email and perhaps nap. We agreed that I’d take the bus into central Oxford to meet her at the old Quaker Friends’ Meeting House before my talk at 4 PM, but to my delight Jean phoned and asked me to come to lunch at St. Hilda’s! I had a chance to refresh myself with a look at the river and gardens which I remembered so well from past conferences, and then was kindly welcomed by the redoubtable organizer Eileen Roberts, and by Clemence Schultz, chairman of the Charlotte M. Yonge Society, whom I remembered from attending the conference of the centenary of Yonge's death, at St. Hilda’s in 2001. Pleasant Yonge talk and shared memories, and then they had to go back to their meeting, while I had a couple of hours free to wander around Oxford before my talk.

A crowded Oxford

This was of course a treat, but I admit to being taken aback by the immense crowds of summer students – clearly not regular university level students, but masses of teenagers from various countries (Japan and Italy seemed the main ones) taking some sort of language classes. Oxford has always been full of summer visitors, students and tourists, but this was at another level. The narrow streets were so thick with kids that you could hardly thread your way, and they were not space conscious, so you were constantly bumped and jostled. The Bodleian quad was almost surreal, with hundreds of kids all taking pictures of each other; walking to the shop, I probably ended up appearing in twenty different shots.  All I managed to do in a couple of hours was a peek at Blackwell’s, a look at an intriging sounding exhibit called Eccentricity at the Museum of the History of Science, which turned out to be rather dry and disappointing, being more about inventions than genuine eccentricity.  But I got to the Meeting House in good time.

My talk at the Friends' Meeting House

After my talk, with Alison Boulton, Jean Harker, Helen Rappaport

Finally I reached the Quaker Meeting House in St. Giles. I’d passed it many time before but never been inside, and was very excited at being asked to speak to the Writers in Oxford Group in such a place. Built in 1660, it is a lovely old building with such a welcoming feeling. As I was early, I greeted people as they arrived, and it was such a warm and wonderful group – which I was happy to see included several old friends, which made me feel very comfortable! I did my talk in a charmingly informal and peaceful setting, a room looking out onto the garden, where chairs were placed all around against the walls, in a very friendly “Quaker meeting” fashion, much nicer than the usual audience/lecturer setting.

A friendly welcome, indeed

The talk was called “A Life in the Story Department: Reading My Way Through Hollywood – Part Two,” since I gave this group a very similar talk a few years ago, and this might be regarded as an update. I talked about my work, and as the group members are all published authors they had lots of questions about what a Hollywood story analyst looks for in submitted novels. I also talked about having been the third of four generations of story analysts in my family, dating from my grandmother, who was story editor of Universal Pictures in 1924, and about her books and mine. It was fun, but as always a great relief when it was pleasantly over! Afterwards, Jean, the group’s treasurer Sheila Cameron, Helen Rappaport, and Christine Finn, took me out for drinks at Brown’s. I had perry, and felt a bit wobbly, which I attributed to having slept on the train! Afterwards went back to Jean’s where Tony prepared one of his famous curries.

A country footpath, near Oxford


Lovely warm sunny day, went for a walk with Tony and Jean in the morning; I had never realized, in all my visits to their house on Cumnor Hill, such a short distance from central Oxford, that merely around the corner was open fields and countryside. This was a revelation, and I so enjoyed the ramble that gave me glimpses of green meadows, thatched cottages, and fast ripening apple trees.

Jane's Tea Shop, near Kirtlington

Jane at work in her tea shop

Me and Simon at the tea shop

Then Simon of Stuck-in-a-Book fame and his housemate Debs picked me up at 11 and we drove, as planned, to the eccentric, hidden, wonderful riverside tea shop called Jane’s Teas near Kirtlington. Only open on Sundays, it’s run by a lady who lives on a Thames riverboat, and originally started serving teas to other boaters, but now serves to the public, if you can find your way there and stroll down a long country lane on a Sunday! It’s a unique, charming place, and the food is delicious, as well it might be as she grows all the fruits and vegetables on her own freeholding, with cream from her own cows.

Debs and Simon

Me on Jane's riverboat

A riverside table

I had a seafood pie and cream tea, and bought some of Jane’s chutneys to bring to friends tomorrow. Lovely chat with Simon, who I know from the Dove Grey Books list (devoted to Persephone books and early middlebrow fiction) and have met before, and I felt as if I’d known Debs for ages. But Simon has written about this idyllic afternoon, as well as my talk, on his own blog, one of the finest book blogs in England; if you’ve never visited, it is my honor and pleasure to introduce it to you:

Was in such a mellow mood on leaving Oxford (Simon kindly drove me to the bus station) that the three-hour bus ride between Oxford and Cambridge only seemed like a mellow winding about the countryside. The bus stopped right near my Cambridge friend's house, where I passed the best evening of the whole trip, at an elegant family dinner, which, being in the bosom of a friend’s family, I will not blog about. But it was the perfect end to a perfect trip, and could only leave me saying, like Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, “I do not deserve it. Oh! Why is not every body as happy!”

Pear trees in Cambridge garden

The pleasure lasted a little longer, when my friend Christine from the Girls Own list met me in the morning, for tea in a little shop not far from King’s College, and then a dip into The Haunted Bookshop, my favorite, still reassuringly piled as high as ever with old books, particularly children’s books. I splurged on a beautiful first English edition of Charlotte M. Yonge’s The Cunning Woman’s Grandson (1889). I thought 20 pounds was a lot, but I now see that I was lucky to find this extremely scarce book and the price was excellent. I gave Christine the pretty copy of What Katy Did Next that I bought in the Scilly museum, as she is a Susan Coolidge scholar, and she gave me a lovely book called From Norfolk Knobs to Fidget Pie: Foods from the Heart of England and East Anglia

The Haunted Bookshop, Cambridge

The journey home, train from Cambridge to King’s Cross, tube to Heathrow, several more movies (for some reason I watched Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits for the first time, quite fascinating, think it must always have been underrated).  A journey marred only by the confiscation of my Jane's Tea Shop precious jam and chutney at Customs for being a few milliliters over the allowed amount!

Probable view behind the scenes at Customs.  Greedy beasts!

Monday, August 1, 2011

England 2011: An Uninhabited Island

Samson, Scilly's largest uninhabited island

Thursday, July 21 – At last, a fully, brilliantly sunny day, the first and most beautiful of all.  In bright sunshine the sea magically transformed into the piercing, heart melting Scillonian turquoise color that I’d kept promising Jan, so, over the enormous English breakfast, we decided among our many choices to take the 10 AM boat to the uninhabited island, Samson.  After a short ride on a small boat with a dozen or so other people, we were landed on a white pure beach of very fine sand shot through with silver flecks that glittered in the sun. Everyone gasped and laughed to find themselves in such a beautiful place.

Starting to climb

 Samson is only half a mile long by a quarter mile wide, but possesses two hills that are famously said to look like “paps” from the sea. We quickly climbed the north hill, past a ruined stone house or two, up to the high point for a truly spectacular view of the islands all around. Then we walked along a brackeny tract on the spine of the island, and dropped down to an equally silvery beach on the other side.

Brackeny tract

From there we climbed again, up the south hill, past some picturesque ruined houses – the last few people were removed from the islands in the 1850s and the frames of their stone cottages are left, through which you glimpse the turquoise water. On the high far end was a long stone wall almost across the width of the island, joined up with stone structures and extensive burial cairns.

Old stone houses

Glimpses of sea

Looking back over the whole island

From the burial cairns

Views from the top

The views were beautiful, and after reveling in them we completed the circle and returned back along the other side, down to the series of white beaches where we’d landed, to wait for the boat. We had a pleasant hour there, sitting on a grassy dune and taking shoes off for a walk in the fine sand and bright cold clear water: it was all very Narnian. The boat was a little late, having to maneuver a long way around sand bars.

Jan's daughter's comment on seeing this picture: "You got my mother to wear a baseball cap. Wow."

Pure clear water - and sand so fine it used to be shipped to the mainland to use before blotting-paper was invented

Officially Scilly

The return boat approaches the beach

Gaily flying the Union Jack

And now for the lesson, some interesting things I learned about the islands.  Samson’s history is outlandish, like that of much of Scilly. It is named after St. Samson of Dol, one of the seven founder saints of Brittany, who lived in the fifth century. 

Earlier, the Greek historian Strabo described the island inhabitants as wearing “an undergarment that reached down to their ankles, and over that another, both of the same color, which was black, girt round a little below the breast with a girdle, and walked with staves in their hands. The riches of the islands were tin and lead, which with skins of their cattle, they exchanged with foreign merchants, the Phoenicians from Cadiz.”  Hard to picture, with modern trippers scrambling over the islands in light summer clothes! 

Figurehead recently retrieved from the Colossus, wrecked off the north reef shore of Samson in 1798. There's a museum of figureheads on Tresco called Valhalla.

Traditional Cornish working women's dress. Spalling seems to mean exfoliating rocks.

In ancient times, the islands were apparently connected, and people could walk from one island to another at ebb tide. “We have not the least notice of anything that regards [the islands] from the fifth to the tenth century,” says the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1823, "though it is conjectured that during this time they were in great measure destroyed by an earthquake, attended with a sinking of the earth.” There is a tradition in Cornwall that an extensive tract of country called the Lioness [the Lyonesse of the Arthurian legends], lying between that country and Scilly, was lost."  And the account concludes with a quaint spelling of Tresco, and a depiction of lonely Samson:  “West from Trescaw, is Samson, in which there is not above one family, which subsist chiefly by the making of kelp.”

Here are some pictures that help to imagine these scenes in days past.

Cornish women's costume in the fishing village of Newlyn.  Painting by Walter Langley of the Newlyn School of plein air painters.

 Another Newlyn painting of fishing people by Walter Langley

Women picking daffodils, on the mainland (as you can see from St. Michael's Mount in the distance).  Daffodil picking was and is a staple industry on the Scilly Isles.  Notice that the men don't seem to be doing much...

The Slip by Walter Langley.  The dock in Penzance still resembles this.

View of Penzance from Newlyn by Stanhope Forbes, 1885.

To continue my own narrative, back at Bryher – such a short distance by water – I lingered on the way back to the hotel, and stopped at the island teashop, the Vine, to rest my sore knee, and treat myself to a truly superb cream tea. The Cornish cream was from St. Agnes, from whence the very finest cream comes, and the strawberry jam was from strawberries grown at Hillside Farm on Bryher. Just fabulous, and I was thirsty and drank cups and cups of tea. Rested at the hotel until the usual magnificent dinner, finished off with apple and rhubarb crumble with cream. Long hot bath, good sleep.

The Vine tea shop, Bryher

Just look at the texture of that cr-r-r-eam!

After breakfast, we walked from 10 to 1 around Rushy Bay, in the other direction from Gweal. Very beautiful, the white beaches fringed with the island's signature purple agapanthus and bits of pink campion, sea-holly and pink thrift.

Sea-holly at Rushy Bay

Agapanthus.  Common to both the Scilly Isles and Santa Monica, California.  Painting by Lesley Newman.

Pink campion (picture from the Healy Dell Nature Reserve website)

Last walk up Gweal Hill

Last look at Gweal Island

Horses below Samson Hill, above Rushy Bay

Last morning at Hell Bay Hotel

Paintings in the lounge

Leaving Bryher, turquoise water in the channel between Bryher and Tresco

Passing the "paps" of Samson Island

Then we returned to the hotel, and were driven down to the quay with our bags to take our departure on the boat to St. Mary’s. Reaching St. Mary's around 2, with time to spare while waiting for the sailing of the Scillonian at 4:30, we had time for a lovely lunch at the cafĂ© we liked so much. I had a plump crab sandwich with salad, followed by a freshly baked Victoria sponge and pot of tea. Then we boarded the dear old Scillonian, where I sit now, just having passed Land’s End.

Approaching the mainland, past Land's End at approximately the spot where the Minack Theatre is carved into the cliff.

Smooth sailing, sunny, cool, a bit windy, but very little rolling. On arrival at 7 PM came the hard part, hauling our luggage to the rail station. Left Luggage was annoyingly closed, so we had to drag the bags again to a restaurant. Found a fish and chips shop called Catch which was just a fast food place but the fish was cod caught fresh at Newlyn and the potatoes were local grown and unusually flavorful. Then we boarded the famous Cornish Riviera Express sleeper train, and were charmed with our little cabins, well fitted out with everything, toiletries, complimentary tea, coffee, biscuits and newspapers in the buffet, etc. We chatted awhile in the buffet car, and are now tucked up in our berths, rolling through the cozy night back to London.

In my cabin on the Cornish Riviera Express sleeper train.