Jane Austen and the Weekly Reader Book Club

When I was a kid in grade school the best day ever was the day my teacher distributed the Weekly Reader Book Club catalog to the class.

A Weekly Reader catalog from 1964

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It was a four-page listing of paperback books children could purchase. For me (growing up in a family that didn’t believe in giving children an allowance) that meant I had to earn the money to buy books. I did extra chores for my parents and neighbors, like pulling weeds for a quarter and sweeping out the garage for fifty cents. I essentially volunteered to do any job that no one else wanted to do.

But come Weekly Reader day, I had money to spend, and that’s what mattered.

Arrow Book Club catalog from the late 1960s

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I have vivid memories of taking my Weekly Reader catalog home and studying it very carefully. My money was hard-earned, and there was only so much of it to go around. I was intent on making the best possible book choices.

Once I decided on my purchases, I filled out the order slip, counted my change into an envelope, which I sealed and wrote my name on, and handed everything—order form and envelope—to my teacher the next day.

The Wrong Box was the first book I read by Robert Louis Stevenson, bought through the Weekly Reader.

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Now that I think about it, ordering the books was easy. The difficult part was waiting for the books to arrive. It’s hard to describe how exciting it was for me two weeks later to see the box sitting on my teacher’s desk, knowing she was going to open it at the end of the day and deliver my books to me at my desk.

My books. Those two words were powerful to me. I loved the idea of owning books of my very own. Books I didn’t have to return to a library; books that didn’t come from a second–hand store. The books my teacher delivered to me were new and beautiful and had never been read by anyone else before. They were just for me.

That experience—repeated over and over again through my elementary and middle school years—firmly established my life-long love for books and reading. The books I bought as a child became my treasures. Now, as an adult, I still have many of the first books I purchased through the Weekly Reader Book Club.

Another purchase. I bought this novel because it was the basis for a Disney movie.

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One of those books was Pride and Prejudice, which I bought when I was 12 years old. Like all lovers of Jane Austen, I now have multiple copies of the novel, but my 1966 Weekly Reader edition is still my go-to copy.

On the inside front cover is my signature scrawled in a twelve-year-old’s hand; and if I set the book down on its spine, the pages now fall naturally open to my favorite parts of the book.

My first copy of Sense and Sensibility also found its way into my home library through the Weekly Reader program. It was Sense and Sensibility that sealed my love for Jane Austen. It, too, is well worn; the cover and most of the pages came loose from the spine decades ago, and I have to keep them in place by tying the book with a ribbon. Still, this version remains my favorite reading copy of S&S.

It’s interesting to me that my love for Jane Austen’s novels was sparked at the same time I first realized my love for books and reading in general. They were simultaneous occurrences, and both combined into a single desire to build my own library of books that I would treasure my entire life.

Another Weekly Reader buy. Not everything I read as a kid was high-brow.

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What about you? Did you buy your own books from a school program like the Weekly Reader?

Do you remember the first book you ever bought? Please share the name of the book in the comments section. Do you still have the book today?

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A Celebration of Jane Austen

200 years ago today, Jane Austen passed away. She left behind an enduring legacy of much-loved novels and correspondence that—to this day—still captivate readers and inspire writers.

Around the globe today are celebrations of Jane Austen’s life and works. If you cannot attend an event in person, I hope you will join one of the many observances taking place on social media today.

On Twitter you can follow hashtag #janeausten200

On Facebook you can go to one of these pages:

@janeausten200

@janeaustenauthor

You can also read a blog post by Kyra Kramer on AustenAuthors.com. Kyra’s post is a lovely and thoughtful tribute to Jane Austen’s life.

Jane Austen’s final resting place is in Winchester Cathedral. Her memorial stone makes no mention of her novels, but today we celebrate them along with her life, and thank her for 200 years of enjoyment and inspiration her books have given us all.

Sir Walter Elliot and Me

I’ve been fascinated by English nobility for as long as I can remember. And like most writers who pen stories set in the era of Regency England, I’ve made a study of the peerage with its ranks and titles, hierarchies and presidencies.

That explains why—whenever I read the opening paragraphs of Jane Austen’s Persuasion—I feel a strong connection with Sir Walter Elliot and his preoccupation with his own book about the baronetage:

Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed. This was the page at which the favourite volume always opened:

ELLIOT OF KELLYNCH HALL.

“Walter Elliot, born March 1, 1760, married, July 15, 1784, Elizabeth, daughter of James Stevenson, Esq. of South Park, in the county of Gloucester, by which lady (who died 1800) he has issue Elizabeth, born June 1, 1785; Anne, born August 9, 1787; a still-born son, November 5, 1789; Mary, born November 20, 1791.”

There are plenty of instances in Persuasion where Austen gives readers reasons to dislike Sir Walter Elliot for his arrogance, or holds him up to ridicule for his vanity; but I have to agree with Sir Walter on one thing: I love a good book about the peerage.

Several years ago, I found my own copy of a book like Sir Walter’s Baronetage, and it’s one of my prized possessions.

In a used book store in southern California I found a battered 1806 edition of Debrett’s Peerage of England, Scotland and Ireland. Here’s the title page:

It’s a thick book, weighing in at over 400 pages of very tiny type; but it contains everything you’d ever want to know about the hereditary peers of Great Britain and Ireland in the early Nineteenth Century.

The book names each peer by rank, his wife (if married), his children (detailing whether they’re alive or deceased), and the name of the peer’s heir.

It even includes illustrations of the major peers’ coats of arms, and their mottoes. For example, the Marquis of Downshire’s motto is:

“Either attempt not, or accomplish.”

That sounds a lot like Yoda’s “Do or do not; there is no try,” doesn’t it? Here’s a page showing some of the coats of arms for English Marquisses:

And like Sir Walter Elliot, I enjoy browsing through the pages of the book whenever I have an idle moment.

In my novel Mary and the Captain, my copy of Debrett’s played a pivotal role in the story. Mary Bennet used the entries in Debrett’s to figure out the identity of a boy apprentice she and Captain Robert Bingley (Caroline and Charles’ brother) rescue from a cruel taskmaster.

But I don’t want to give you the impression that there’s nothing to Debrett’s but a long list of peers, their ancestors, and heirs.

My 1806 edition includes a handy explanation of heraldic terms. I’ve spent many enjoyable hours poring over these pages with a magnifying glass trying to reason out for myself what each symbol meant on a given coat of arms.

Every little detail on a coat of arms means something. For someone like me who enjoys solving puzzles, interpreting the arms shown in the book has been a fun challenge using the illustrations of terms.

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Like Sir Walter, my Debrett’s has given me “occupation for an idle hour” and I’m still discovering fascinating new bits of information in its pages; like this entry for Elizabeth Rawdon, Baroness Hungerford:

What?!? I was pretty startled to see a woman listed among the barons, since all my research showed noble titles were passed from male to male in each generation. But with Lady Hungerford’s entry, I charged off on a new flurry of research to figure out how it was possible that a woman inherited a baronetcy.

I’m still working my way through the book, and with each reading I seem to discover new revelations that fascinate me. That’s why I can whole-heartedly agree with Sir Walter: poring over the pages of a book about the peerage never fails to hold my interest.

 

 

Mr. Darcy and “That Shirt”

When it comes to “Pride and Prejudice” on the big and small screens, I’ve watched every available version, from “Lizzie Bennet’s Diary” to the this year’s “Zombies” to the 1940 Hollywood film starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson. Of all the different interpretations, the 1995 BBC series starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth remains my favorite.

1995 version DVD

What makes that version different from all others? Simple: its stars’ winning performances, lots of period details, and the way in which it stays true to the original novel—except, of course, for one particular scene.

You know what I’m talking about … THAT scene, where Darcy dives into the lake at Pemberley wearing a loose tunic, only to emerge soaking wet with the fabric clinging to his body.

Darcy screenshot

The scene caused an immediate sensation when the series first aired, and Darcy’s reputation as a brooding and misunderstood romantic hero instantly morphed into that of a brooding, misunderstood, and hot romantic hero.

For those familiar with Jane Austen’s novel, there was just one problem: the scene never happened. Jane Austen never wrote about Darcy getting wet and turning into a heartthrob for women everywhere.

And yet, we love that scene and appreciate it as part of the way the BBC version showed Elizabeth’s evolving attraction to Darcy.

In fact, that Regency wet tee-shirt moment has made something of a celebrity of the shirt itself; and if you’ve ever wanted to see the real thing—that famous tunic worn by Collin Firth in the 1995 BBC series of “Pride and Prejudice”—you will soon have your chance.

Beginning August 6 the shirt will be on display as part of an exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.

Interior view of the Folger Shakespeare Library, courtesy of Google Maps.

Interior view of the Folger Shakespeare Library, courtesy of Google Maps.

Titled “Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity,” the display examines the staying power of Austen and Shakespeare, with displays of fashions, movie adaptations, and milestone events that illustrate why these famous authors are still popular in the 21st Century.

Darcy’s shirt will be front and center at the exhibition, although it will be under glass to keep it safe. As one of the curators remarked, “We will be giving the Folger some Windex, to be used in what we anticipate will be a daily wiping-down of lipstick marks.”

The exhibit opens Saturday, August 6 and runs through November 6. Click here for information on times and tickets.

Enjoy the exhibit and your chance to see the shirt that helped us all fall a little bit more in love with Mr. Darcy.

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A Mansfield Park Puzzle for You

I love puzzles of all kinds: jigsaw puzzles that overtake my dining table, Sudoku puzzles of the fiendishly difficult variety, and those wordy logic puzzles where I have to figure out how many bakers got off the train in Philadelphia.

Every once in a while I like to create puzzles, too, and this Austen-themed word search puzzle is for you!

Mansfield Park cover

The puzzle contains 24 terms Jane Austen used to describe Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park.

Instructions:

  • Click on the puzzle image below to open the pdf file.
  • Circle each word as you find it.
  • Words may appear left to right, right to left, downward, upward, and diagonally.
  • Careful! Don’t scroll beyond page 1; page 2 contains the answers.

Pencils ready? Enjoy!

Word Search Lady Bertram_Page_1

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Let’s Dance!

I’m about half-way through the first draft of my next book (tentatively titled The Company She Keeps). In one of the early chapters there’s a ball at the home of the fictional Lady Pangborn. You may have noticed that balls, dressing up and beautiful ladies dancing with handsome gentlemen are staples of the Regency romance. They’re also a few of the reasons I enjoy reading and writing the genre.

Quadrille_Practicing at Home ed

Practicing the Quadrille at home

So when it comes time for me to write said ballroom scene, it’s pretty important that I know what I’m talking about. The truth of the matter is that I really don’t know the difference between a quadrille or a country dance. I grew up in the twentieth century, where the last dance I can remember that had a name was the Macarena.

Quadrilles ed

“The Summer” by an unknown artist.

As an avid viewer of Dancing with the Stars I can recognize a Waltz and an Argentinian Tango, and several other modern ballroom dances. Each dance has certain required elements, but at the same time, dancers have a broad leeway for interpreting the dance in their own way.

Quadrille_A Droit Sur Le Cote ed

Beginning the “Right Side of the Coast” quadrille. Artist unknown

Not so during the Regency. Ballroom dances during the Regency were highly proscribed. With the exception of the Waltz, most dances were based on regimented formations and intricate stepping patterns.

Quadrille_La Pastourelle ed

“The Shepherdess,” a quadrille.

The quadrille was just such a dance. The quadrille was all about the dancers forming precise figures; and each figure was specific to the tune being played. Quadrilles were long, difficult dances. Practicing at home or with a dancing master was a necessity to ensure one knew all the steps, figures and changes. Quadrilles were popular but woe to anyone who missed a step. The caricature below shows dancers desperately trying to master Le Moulinet (The Reel) so they can dance it flawlessly in the ballroom:

Practicing at Home ed

Le Moulinet; practicing quadrille dancing at home for fear of accidents at the ball. Artist unknown

In Regency romances the purpose of the ballroom dance is much more than just an opportunity for characters to move to the music. Jane Austen herself set the standard for what ballroom scenes should accomplish when she wrote the exchange between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy at the Netherfield ball:

They stood for some time without speaking a word; and she began to imagine that their silence was to last through the two dances, and at first was resolved not to break it; till suddenly fancying that it would be the greater punishment to her partner to oblige him to talk, she made some slight observation on the dance. He replied, and was again silent. After a pause of some minutes, she addressed him a second time with: “It is your turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy. I talked about the dance, and you ought to make some sort of remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples.”

He smiled, and assured her that whatever she wished him to say should be said.

“Very well. That reply will do for the present. Perhaps by and by I may observe that private balls are much pleasanter than public ones. But now we may be silent.”

But Darcy had no intention of being silent, and what followed (as seen in the clip below from the 2005 movie version of Pride and Prejudice) is one of the finest thrust-and-parry romantic duels in literature.

 

Once I finish my first draft of my book, I’m going to pull out all my research notes and reread everything I can get my hands on about Regency dances before I go back and edit the ballroom scene. My goal is to write that scene as accurately as possible, including any descriptions of the dance itself. But secretly, deep down, I’m pretty thankful that we don’t dance Quadrilles and Cotillons anymore. If we did, my presence in a ballroom would be more like Mary Bennet’s than Elizabeth’s. I can barely get through the Macarena.

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Lady Susan on the Big Screen

In a previous post I wrote about one of my favorite Jane Austen novels, Lady Susan; and lamented the fact that it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. I think that’s about to change. A new movie, based on the novel, will hit theaters in May.

Love and Friendship movie poster

For some reason the movie version has been named “Love and Friendship” (which I think is a little confusing, since its an adaptation of Lady Susan, not Jane Austen’s book Love and Freindship). But who am I to quibble with the title when the movie trailer clearly shows the film has everything I love in a Jane Austen adaptation?

Kate Beckinsale makes a perfect Lady Susan; deliciously snarky, cunningly manipulative, and vastly entertaining. Add in gorgeous costumes, authentic period settings, and witty dialogue, and I’m ready to stand in line for a theater ticket.

It looks like I’m not the only one who can’t wait to see the movie. Vogue included “Love and Friendship” in their recent list of 16 movies you should see this spring. And Slashfilm said it was laugh-out-loud hilarious.

The movie hits theaters May 13, but no word yet on the cities in which it will first be released. You can get updates about the movie’s release dates on Facebook and on Twitter.

Here’s to you, Lady Susan. See you in May.

Want to Walk the Streets of Meryton?

Did you know Castle Asby in Northamptonshire inspired Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park? Or that Lacock in Wiltshire was used as the setting for Meryton in the 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice?

These are just a couple of the reveals in the April edition of Discover Britain magazine. Their article “Mansions & Manners” includes some drool-worthy photos as they explore locations that inspired Jane Austen’s writings and the filmed versions of her books. My favorite is the photo of the dining room at Lyme Park, which was filmed as Pemberley in the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice. The detailed craftsmanship in the room’s mouldings and ornamentation is simply stunning.

Lyme Park Dining Room

The dining room at Lyme Park

If you aren’t a subscriber, you can click here to visit the magazine’s website and see a few photos of different Austen-inspired locations that didn’t make the issue.

The drawing room fireplace at Lyme Park

The drawing room fireplace at Lyme Park

If magazine subscriptions aren’t your thing, I recommend you visit www.RegencyHistory.net, which is the website of author Rachel Knowles. Her posts are chock-full of great photos of Regency era locations and interesting historical trivia. I never miss it!

Would you like to see more Jane Austen inspired locations? Visit my Pinterest board Jane Austen Country, where I’m collecting photos of places Jane lived, as well as the locations that inspired her work. Thanks for stopping by!

You know you’re a coquette when . . .

Ackermanns 1809 fashion plate 3 edI just finished reading Lady Susan as part of my “Austen in August” challenge. I laughed so many times while reading this book that I had to wonder why this particular Jane Austen novel isn’t more popular than it is. It really shows off Jane Austen’s sense of humor in a way her other novels don’t. In Lady Susan, Austen’s wit is bare-faced and has free rein; it isn’t white-washed with charm (as it is in Pride and Prejudice) or coyness (Northanger Abbey).

Lady Susan knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to go after it. She uses her sexuality to seduce and control men in her pursuit of a husband who will give her comfort and security. She’s an unabashed coquette.

There are so many clever lines in the book—by characters talking about Lady Susan and by Lady Susan herself—that I can’t help but admire Jane Austen’s skill in creating a mercenary character who is so enjoyable to read about.

Here are some of my favorite descriptions of  Lady Susan made by other characters in the novel:

“By all that I can gather Lady Susan possesses a degree of captivating deceit which it must be pleasing to witness and detect.”

“She does not confine herself to that sort of honest flirtation which satisfies most people, but aspires to the more delicious gratification of making a whole family miserable.”

Ackermanns Fashion Plate 22 ed

 

“She is really excessively pretty; however you may choose to question the allurements of a lady no longer young.”

“She is clever and agreeable, has all that knowledge of the world which makes conversation easy, and talks very well, with a happy command of language, which is too often used, I believe, to make black appear white.”

Ackermanns fashion plate 27 ed

“Her neglect of her husband, her encouragement of other men, her extravagance and dissipation, were so gross and notorious that no one could be ignorant of them.”

“She is poor, and may naturally seek an alliance which must be advantageous to herself.”

Ackermanns 1811 fashion plate 11 - Walking Dress or Carriage Costume ed

“I like a red coat myself.”

There’s something about a man in uniform. At least, that’s what the Bennet women believed. And even though Elizabeth Bennet decried her sisters’ obsessions with men in uniform, there was a time when she liked Mr. Wickham in his regimentals more than any other man of her acquaintance.

Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, in 1815 just before he defeated Napoleon at Waterloo

Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, in 1815 just before he defeated Napoleon at Waterloo

In Pride and Prejudice Mrs. Bennet led the charge when it came to admiring men in uniform:

“I remember the time when I liked a red coat myself very well—and, indeed, so I do still at my heart; and if a smart young colonel, with five or six thousand a year, should want one of my girls I shall not say nay to him; and I thought Colonel Forster looked very becoming the other night at Sir William’s in his regimentals.”

Portrait of Captain Alexander McInnes, 2nd Life Guards, by Ramsay Richard Reinage. 1825 (courtesy of National Army Museum; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation)

Portrait of Captain Alexander McInnes, 2nd Life Guards, by Ramsay Richard Reinage. 1825 (courtesy of National Army Museum; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation)

Her youngest daughters joyously followed in her footsteps, chasing after officers and flirting unabashedly with them. Lydia and Kitty Bennet were, in Elizabeth’s judgment:

… ignorant, idle, and vain. While there was an officer in Meryton, they would flirt with him; and while Meryton was within a walk of Longbourn, they would be going there forever.

Lt. General William Stuart, by Henry Raeburn

Lt. General William Stuart, by Henry Raeburn

No wonder, then, that when the Bennet ladies discovered the regiment was removing to Brighton, they were desolate:

The dejection was almost universal. The elder Miss Bennets alone were still able to eat, drink, and sleep, and pursue the usual course of their employments. Very frequently were they reproached for this insensibility by Kitty and Lydia, whose own misery was extreme, and who could not comprehend such hard-heartedness in any of the family.
“Good Heaven! What is to become of us? What are we to do?” would they often exclaim in the bitterness of woe. “How can you be smiling so, Lizzy?”

Their affectionate mother shared all their grief; she remembered what she had herself endured on a similar occasion, five-and-twenty years ago.

“I am sure,” said she, “I cried for two days together when Colonel Miller’s regiment went away. I thought I should have broken my heart.”

Even the Prince of Wales and future King George IV wore a red coat from time to time. An 1815 painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence

Even the Prince of Wales and future King George IV wore a red coat from time to time, as in this 1815 painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence

With that kind of encouragement ringing in her ears, Lydia was more determined than ever to capture the heart of an officer. And when Lydia was invited to travel to Brighton with the regiment, she had a picture in her mind of what would happen once she got there:

In Lydia’s imagination, a visit to Brighton comprised every possibility of earthly happiness. She saw, with the creative eye of fancy, the streets of that gay bathing-place covered with officers. She saw herself the object of attention, to tens and to scores of them at present unknown. She saw all the glories of the camp—its tents stretched forth in beauteous uniformity of lines, crowded with the young and the gay, and dazzling with scarlet; and, to complete the view, she saw herself seated beneath a tent, tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once.

Cavalry Officer by Antoine-Jean Gros

Cavalry Officer by Antoine-Jean Gros

It’s always been interesting to me how much the officers—and the Bennet family’s involvement with them—drove the story of Pride and Prejudice. In a way, the story’s climax (Lydia’s elopement with Wickham) never would have happened had Jane Austen not set the stage by introducing Lydia’s and Mrs. Bennet’s infatuation with officers early in the story and then built on it throughout the novel.

Lieutenant Alexander Graham Spiers by Henry Raeburn, 1814 (courtesy The Keep Military Museum; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation)

Lieutenant Alexander Graham Spiers by Henry Raeburn, 1814 (courtesy The Keep Military Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation)

So decided to see for myself what the attraction was for a man in a red coat. I’ve collected some portraits and illustrations of British officers from about the 1790s to 1820s. They’re displayed on my new Pinterest board, which you can view here. I hope you enjoy it!