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?

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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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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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!

“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!

The Evolution of Love

Postcard Grecian Woman editedIt’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of the old-fashioned traditional Regency romance. I devoured them back in the seventies, eighties, and nineties. My office bookcase still has a dedicated favorites shelf crammed with Regencies by Rachelle Edwards, Patricia Wynn, Elizabeth Mansfield, Joan Smith, and, of course, the great
Georgette Heyer.

I often reread those traditional Regencies to cleanse my palate after reading a spate of mysteries, thrillers, or contemporary fiction.

What I like most about traditional Regencies is their level of escapism. Although they’re grounded in historical fact, they’re actually pure fantasy. A major component of the fantasy (as a general rule) is the attractiveness of the hero and heroine. You know the Regency lingo: Nonpareil. Diamond of the first water. Complexion like a damask rose. Regency heroines are usually ravishing, spirited, and enchanting, with red lips, dark curling lashes, and impossibly small waists. It’s part of the fantasy to read about a heroine that I wouldn’t mind looking like myself, if given the chance.

Pearl Fidler LeMunyon_editedGeorgette Heyer certainly clothed her heroines in beauty. Venetia was described as “a fine-looking girl; most would not have hesitated to call her beautiful. It was not only the size and brilliance of her eyes which excited admiration, or the glory of her shining guinea-gold hair, or even the enchanting arch of her pretty mouth; there was something very taking in her face which owed nothing to the excellence of her features; an expression of sweetness, a sparkle of irrepressible fun, an unusually open look, quite devoid of selfconsciousness.”

And Arabella was unquestionably the beauty of the family, with “large, dark, expressive eyes, little straight nose, and delicately molded lips” as well as a complexion that was “the envy of less fortunate young ladies.” Arabella enchanted her admirers by a “deceptive air of fragility, which inspired one romantically minded young gentleman to liken her to a leaf blown by the wind.”

I’m not sure how Regency heroines evolved to being such paragons of attractiveness. In Pride and Prejudice—the book that originally inspired the Regency genre—Jane Austen described her heroine in plainer terms. Elizabeth Bennet, while certainly attractive, was not a beauty. Instead, it was her sister Jane who was the acknowledged beauty of the family. When Darcy sees Elizabeth for the first time, he describes her only as tolerable.

card00300 editedBut that’s where the romantic fantasy of Pride and Prejudice takes hold. As the story progresses and Darcy comes of know Elizabeth, his feelings for her spark, then flame; and at the same time, the author’s description of Elizabeth changes, too, almost as a reflection of Darcy’s feelings. The more love he feels for Elizabeth, the more beautiful she becomes.

“Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticize. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she hardly had a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness.”

Beauty-Dearest Loveliest Elizabeth resized

By the end of Pride and Prejudice, she is his “dearest, loveliest Elizabeth.” And that brings me to the part of the fantasy I love the best . . . That every woman is beautiful in the eyes of the man who truly loves her. It’s that perfect ending that draws me back again and again to Pride and Prejudice, and to many of those traditional Regency romances still crammed on the bookshelf in my office.

Prepare the Barouche; I’m Going to the Thea-tah

At last! I’m finally counting down the days until I see Austenland! I’ve been looking forward to this movie (based on the novel by Shannon Hale) since I first heard about it in January. The film opened yesterday in Los Angeles and New York. Here are a few of the review tweets I read this morning:

Austenland Review Tweets

And USA Today says “Austenland is spirited and gently witty.”

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The film, like the book, pays homage to modern-day Janeites who just can’t get enough of Mr. Darcy and, if given the chance, wouldn’t mind indulging in a little Pride and Prejudice role-playing.

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Sony’s release schedule has the film opening in my city on August 30 and I’ll be there! I hope it comes to your town soon. You can check your city’s release date here.

Jane Austen on the £10 Bank Note

The Bank of England announced that Jane Austen’s image will appear on the new £10 bank note.

Bank of England Jane Austen 10 Pound Note

The new bank note featuring the beloved author of Pride and Prejudice will probably start appearing in 2017.

In addition to Jane Austen’s image, the bank note’s planned design includes:

  • A quote from Pride and Prejudice – “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”
  • An illustration of Elizabeth Bennet, one of the characters in Pride and Prejudice
  • An image of Godmersham Park in Kent – the home of Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen Knight, and the inspiration for a number of novels
  • A central background design of the author’s writing table which she used at home at Chawton Cottage in Hampshire

Click here to read about the announcement and the public campaign that influenced the Bank of England’s decision.