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My literary week (5), or, those reading coincidences

November 20, 2016

Last time I wrote a My Literary Week post it was because I’d scarcely read that week, but had some literary moments to share. This time it’s because I’ve been reading things which have generated some thoughts that I want to document, but not in long dedicated posts. (I’m feeling lazy). Most have been inspired by those reading coincidences (or synchronicities) where you read something in one place and then it, or something related to it, pops up in another.  See what you think …

Critical critics (and Jane Austen)

Georgette Heyer Regency BuckA week ago, I read a post about Georgette Heyer by blogger Michelle who, knowing my love of Jane Austen, wondered what I thought about Heyer, given she was an avowed Austen fan and wrote about the Regency. I’m afraid I disappointed Michelle because I confessed that I’ve never read Heyer. I tried one a couple of years ago, but I just. couldn’t. get. into. it. I commented on Michelle’s post that what some of those (not Michelle I might add) who try to compare Heyer and Austen miss is that Heyer was writing historical fiction, while Austen was writing contemporary fiction. Austen was writing about her own time, and this makes their works very different. Heyer doesn’t write Jane-Austen sorts of stories. Her stories are not about small villages and a small number of families, but are set on bigger stages and mostly amongst the wealthy. War and high drama are more her subject matter. Austen’s characters are mostly middle class, and even those who are wealthy live in the country and attend quiet social events. Her themes involve critiques of society and human behaviour.

And here comes the synchronicity, sort of. As I was preparing for my local Jane Austen group’s meeting this weekend on Austen’s grand houses, I read the essay “Domestic architecture” by Clare Lamont in Janet Todd’s (ed.) Jane Austen in context. In it, Lamont notes that critics have expressed disappointment at the lack of architectural information or descriptions of interiors in her novels. But, but, but, I say, Austen was writing contemporary fiction. She was writing for readers who knew the homes the wealthy, the middle-class, the parsons, farmers and others lived in. Austen did not have to describe these in detail. Historical novelists do though! So Austen, being the sort of writer she was, used her descriptions to convey character, not to tell us what the places were like.

When we read, it is so important to know the context and genre within which we are reading before we start casting aspersions!

What contemporary readers know

And this brings me to another comment on the topic of what contemporary readers – that is, readers reading books around the time they were written – know. I was mooching through Instagram this morning, and came across an image of mini-pineapples by Iger aforagersheart. She wrote that she’d read a history of pineapples which told her, among other things, that they were used as a symbol of wealth for “fancy Europeans”.

Aha, I thought, Jane Austen used this – and her contemporary readers would have recognised it for what it was, a pointer to the pretensions and focus on money of the character involved, General Tilney in Northanger Abbey. He has “a village of hot-houses” but, oh dear, “The pinery had yielded only one hundred [pineapples] in the last year” he complains to our heroine Catherine. General Tilney, we gradually discover, values people by their money, and is ungenerous to those without. This starkly contrasts with the admirable Mr Knightley in Emma who grows strawberries and apples, in fields and orchards, and shares them willingly with neighbourhood families. He even gives his last keeping apples, to his housekeeper’s dismay, to the poor Bateses:

 Mrs. Hodges … was quite displeased at their being all sent away. She could not bear that her master should not be able to have another apple-tart this spring.

We readers of later times see, of course, this generosity, but we may not know what the pineapples symbolise, and are therefore likely to miss that little early hint to where Austen was going with General Tilney.

Hungary and the war

Susan Varga, Heddy and me Book cover

Penguin edition

The third reading coincidence relates to my review last weekend of Susan Varga’s Heddy and me, in which she tells of her mother’s life in Hungary before, during and after the war, and her (and the 1943-born Susan’s) immigration to Australia. A great read. Then, I opened my digital edition of The Canberra Times this morning, and what did I see but an article about local food-blogger Liz Posmyk’s recently published book, The barber from Budapest, which tells the story of her parents through two world wars in Hungary, the challenge they faced in living postwar under Communism, and their subsequent migration to Australia.

There are still many stories to tell about people’s experiences of the two world wars, and about what happened postwar. Whether we’ll ever learn the lessons they provide is another thing.

Christina Stead Week

And finally, of course, I can’t let the post finish without mentioning Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) Christina Stead Week, with which she has aimed to raise the profile of, and gather together a list of blog reviews for, this often overlooked writer. Stead was, Lisa shares on her post, described by the New Yorker as “the most extraordinary woman novelist … since Virginia Woolf” and by Saul Bellow as “really marvellous.”

I have contributed two posts – one on the story, “Ocean of story”, and another on the first three stories in the Ocean of story collection. I thoroughly enjoyed reading these, and thank Lisa for giving me the impetus to read them.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. November 20, 2016 9:41 pm

    I love Georgette Heyer.

    • November 20, 2016 10:09 pm

      I know – well, I didn’t know you did, of course, Judith, but I know a lot of my firends do, but I just can’t seem to be interested. Not in my teen years, and not now. Different strokes, eh? Do you have favourites? My JA friends – those who like Heyer – say An infamous army is the best.

  2. November 20, 2016 10:09 pm

    Not disappointed at all!! It was interesting conversation I was hoping for and you provided that in spades. As you always do…. Thanks Sue! Love reading about your literary coincidences too. No doubt part of the ‘interconnectedness of all things’ (as Douglas Adams’ creation Dirk Gently was apt to say).

    • November 20, 2016 10:18 pm

      Thanks Michelle – I’m glad to hear that. I was pretty confident you understood where I was coming from, but still it’s good to know you enjoyed the conversation as much as I.

      Yes, you’re probably right about “the interconnectedness of all things”. It has a way of coming out doesn’t it?

  3. November 20, 2016 11:25 pm

    I’ve seen orangeries mentioned in classic novels before, and that having one and growing citrus was a sign of wealth. I have always heard oranges referenced as the fruit of the privileged, I didn’t realize pineapple were, as well!

    • November 21, 2016 8:12 am

      Welcome 4th houseontheleft, I guess most fruits that would have been exotic to the country would – or could – have been luxury items back then, unlike now with our cheap(er) transport and mass production capabilities?

  4. Teresa Pitt permalink
    November 21, 2016 12:06 am

    I once found a whole shelf of Georgette Heyer novels in a holiday house my parents had rented. I read them all straight through. I loved them. Mind you, I was only about fourteen, but even then I knew they were rubbish. However, they set me off on a wonderful tradition of reading nothing but rubbish when I was on holidays. I continued the tradition with my own kids. As soon as we arrived at our holiday destination we would go down to the local newsagent and buy up all the cheap horror novels we could find and read out bits to each other over the next two weeks. Great fun!

    • November 21, 2016 8:19 am

      What a lovely memory Teresa. I think memories of indulgent reading holidays are the best.

      BTW, yes it was around when I was 14-16yo that my friends all read Heyer. I devoured Nevil Shute instead! And other contemporary writers. I remember a South African, I think she was, Joy Packer. And then of course the only sci-fi writer I ever really loved, John Wyndham.

  5. November 21, 2016 12:07 am

    Thanks again for your contributions to #ChristinaSteadWeek, I think that collectively we have definitely raised her profile!

  6. November 21, 2016 2:52 am

    Jane Austen… I love Jane Austen, but she draws readers who would otherwise never open a classic book. I wince when people say they LOVE Austen but can’t even spell her name. Not to sound snooty, but it probably does.

    • November 21, 2016 8:26 am

      Oh yes, Guy, all those Austins you mean? I feel the same too re those who do that in a sentence claiming to love her. It really jars, doesn’t it? I suppose we could/should be charitable and think “autocorrect” or “dyslexia”?

      • November 21, 2016 9:27 am

        There’s something odd about being a Janeite. I don’t think I’ve come across the same thing w/any other author. She seems to arouse emotions in people–both negative and positive.

        • November 21, 2016 10:30 am

          I think you’re probably right, Guy. There are some other authors who have large fan clubs – Tolkein perhaps – but Jane worship is such a hugely diverse thing. Fascinating. What would she have thought!

  7. November 21, 2016 3:24 am

    Exactly. Historical novels are a form of fantasy. Austen wasn’t writing fantasy.

    • November 21, 2016 8:27 am

      Exactly, DKS, though, hmm, I suppose some could call the Elizabeth-Darcy romance a fantasy! But, I know what you mean.

  8. November 21, 2016 5:26 am

    Austen I came to love late in life. Heyer is someone I tried but failed to get engaged with

    • November 21, 2016 8:31 am

      Ah, like me re Heyer, Karen, but not re Austen. I devoured all but one in my teens, saving that one for a couple of decades just so I could have one to go – even though I did know (and regularly confirm) the value of re-reading!

  9. November 21, 2016 9:00 am

    I’ve been babysitting which means I’m currently reading one of my daughter’s extensive collection of Georgette Heyers, in this case ‘The Quiet Gentleman’. By serendipity here is a relevant excerpt: “The Dowager… invited [the newly installed Lord] to partake of some cold meat, and a peach from his own succession houses. These, which had been installed at her own instigation, were, she told him, amongst the finest in the country, and could be depended upon to produce the best grapes, peaches, nectarines and pines which could anywhere be found.”
    Georgette Heyer is unlucky that her amusing and improbable Regency romances have put people off reading An Infamous Army in particular which is good history and well written.

    • November 21, 2016 10:33 am

      “Unlucky”? She did darned well in her time! But yes, Bill, I’ve heard that An infamous army is the one I should have tried. I probably won’t ever though. Time is too short and there’s so much else I really want to read in my precious and too few reading hours.

      Love that quote though. Heyer was known for her research wasn’t she.

      • ian darling permalink
        November 21, 2016 8:47 pm

        I wonder if is a good idea to read some Heyers before tackling Jane Austen? I only have read Mansfield Park and probably admired it more than really enjoyed it – but I wouldn’t like to leave it there.

        • November 21, 2016 10:59 pm

          Hmmm, that’s a good question Ian. I say they are so different that I wouldn’t really say reading one would naturally lead lead to the other.

          Oh, and if someone asked me, I would not recommend people start Austen with Mansfield Park. I’d say P&P or perhaps Emma would be good places to start.

  10. November 22, 2016 4:17 am

    I love reading coincidences! Very good points about Austen and reading in general. We tend to forget contemporary writers and readers expect different things. I can’t say that I have ever missed descriptions on houses, etc from Austen, I am too wrapped up in the people and their surroundings tend to be hazy, though with so many of the books being turned into good screen events, the film visuals have tended to creep in when I read the books which isn’t an especially bad thing.

    As for Heyer, I have never read her. I worry she might be too romance-y for my taste in spite of what people who read and love her tell me.

    • November 22, 2016 8:00 am

      No I’ve never missed those either, Stefanie, because as you say it’s her people you read for. But my Jane Austen group argued that there’s quite a bit of architectural description in her novels, anyway. One of our group members had a good time finding her English examples of Austen’s homes based on description, and class & money.

      Not surprised, I guess, that you’re like me re Heyer.

  11. November 22, 2016 5:18 am

    I love these coincidences! And let’s carry this one step further. I read your email yesterday morning, and at lunch a (very non-reading) friend asked me out of the blue if I’d ever read any Georgette Heyer. I nearly fell off my chair!

    • November 22, 2016 8:02 am

      Ha ha, Debbie, there must be something in the water, though that water has had to travel a long way and uphill! 😁

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