Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Austen Assizes and the Brooklyn Bridge

Cast of "The Austen Assizes," by Syrie James and Diana Birchall

Lady Catherine (Marcee Chipman), Willoughby (Jonathan Ross), Court Clerk (Beatrice Nearey), Mrs. Bennett (Miriam Fuller), Fanny Dashwood (Diana Birchall), Robert Ferrars (Juliet McMaster), Lucy Steele (Syrie James), Col. Brandon (Bill James)

No time and only a few waning shards of energy left with which to blog, but "The Austen Assizes" was a huge success. Several hundred people howling with laughter for a solid hour, never heard or saw anything like it! The actors were hilarious, divine - everyone in the other panel sessions could hear the constant laughter and shouts through the walls the whole time! Walking on air...Literally, for after the play I went and walked across the whole entire Brooklyn Bridge. An unparalleled, exalting day. I'll only share a few top pictures now, and tell the whole story more fully later.

Judge Dubious Honorarius Ray (Joan Ray)

Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Marcee Chipman) and Court Clerk (Beatrice Nearey)

Mrs. Bennet (Miriam Fuller)

Mr. Willoughby (Jonathan Ross)

Lucy Steele (Syrie James) and Robert Ferrars (Juliet McMaster)

Me on the Brooklyn Bridge

Friday, October 5, 2012

Blogging from New York

Apple crumb cake a la mode at Veselka's, East Village...

My first report from the JASNA conference in Brooklyn.  Every minute busy, exciting, packed, stimulated - never enough sleep, body aching from hauling up subway steps and walking on punishing concrete. In the debate that's pressing to my contemporaries, the die-hard New Yorkers swear this is the only place in the world to be old, with the cultural offerings and services, you live in an elevator building and take cabs. The other group (into which I fall) says that this is the last place you'd want to grow old, it's overwhelmingly physically punishing and assaultive.  Picture me trekking back from Brooklyn to the Village every night after an incredibly packed day, dragging my heavy bag, knee aching, huge young people bashing into me so that I feel like I'm in one of those games where you have to dart to avoid collisions, and getting the worst of it. Moreover it's mortifying to remember that only a mere few visits ago I was one of the darters myself!

But the conference itself is sheer joy.  There's something about being part of a far flung community for thirty years, coming together yearly, keeping in touch via internet; it's all explosions of "THERE you are!" and "Eeek!  You are the very and only person I have been wanting to SEE!"  Here, I say in all modesty, I'm known to all and it's the only niche in my life where I approach (dare I say it!) mini-celebrity status.  And now, burgeoning out with my new play ventures, there's a walking-on-air exalted feeling about it all, which quite counteracts the ache in my subway-stubbed stumps.  So, on with the picture show...

Washington Square Park at night.  The same spot where my icon picture was taken in 1962.

Thrifting with Hunter Elementary School friend Debbie on the Upper East Side.  The kids in us definitely come out!

Grand Ballroom.  Play venue, 800 seats.  It's big!

In rehearsal.  Joan Ray as the Judge, Miriam Fuller as Mrs. Bennet

Jonathan Ross as Willoughby, Beatrice Nearey as Court Clerk (in rehearsal)

Jonathan and Miriam - Willoughby and Marianne

A dozen Austen authors at the publishing panel.  My, we look glummish!

Ellen Moody and Paul, breakfast in the Village

Syrie and English Jane Austen Society President Richard Knight

Syrie and husband Bill James, always well costumed

Me and blogger Vic Sanbourn

Sad little kittens being sold on 14th Street

Oh, would that I could take you home!

Notes on the rest...Anna Quinlen's talk was magnificent, witty, deep, intelligent, readerish, moving.  From reading Jane Austen, she said she learned that "Some women could live forever."

Other break-out sessions, Tim Bullamore,  London obituary writer, also editor of Jane Austen's Regency World Magazine, was witty; Miriam Fuller gave a rouser about "coded sexual indiscretion" in the novels.  And the day was rounded off with dinner in an excellent Italian restaurant, Queen, with a party that included by Elsa Solender (former JASNA President), humorist friend Gene Gill, simpatico Susan Schwartz, fascinating musical theater genius Amanda Jacobs, a group from Chawton House Library, and more.  Talk about stimulating conversation!  But that's life at this AGM.  Tomorrow is the play.

The weather is horrible.  Muggy, humid, foul, there are fleas.  You'd think it was Rome in August.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Austenesque Extravaganza: Regarding the Rogues

"This will prove a spirited beginning of your winter engagements, sir. Something new for your coachman and horses to be making their way through a storm of snow," Mr. John Knightley snidely observed to his father-in-law Mr. Woodhouse in Emma.

September is not nearly time for winter engagements (though the greeting card companies may think otherwise!), but my blog is experiencing "something new" today, fortunately not nearly as arduous as making its way through a snowstorm.  It is part of AUSTEN EXTRAVAGANZA, a famous all-Austen month-long blog block party put together by the innovative and charming Meredith Esparza and Jakki Leatherberry.  The main site is here:

And here is an Official Banner.  

I was somewhat puzzled as to what my part would be, when assigned to a "Traveling Tuesday," together with two other Austen authors, Monica Fairview in London, who has written many Austenesque and Regency novels, most recently The Other Mr. Darcy, and Alexa Adams who lives in Delaware and is the author of First Impressions.  But, "It is such a happiness when good people get together," as Miss Bates said, and so we promptly and gleefully seized on Jane Austen's Rogues as our subject.  From there it was the opposite of "an easy step to silence," as Catherine Moreland found about the topic of politics.  Another Catherine, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, might have said, "I must have my share of the conversation, if the subject is Rogues."  For it is irresistible, is it not?

Traveling Tuesday

Before launching into our Roguish Ruminations, let me explain how this little barouche-landau tour  will work.  It all starts on Alexa's blog, where I have left some Roguish Scratchings.  You can read them here:  Do not, however, venture before Traveling Tuesday the 18th, remember, for that is when all this merriment is due to burst forth upon a wondering world.  I have only posted early here in order to get it finished - no, what I mean is that in the extremity of my enthusiasm I have been a bit previous!

I'm not exactly sure whether you're supposed to visit my blog next, or Monica's, but I am not tenacious about precedence (like Mary Musgrove) and am quite happy to come "last and least" like Fanny Price.  At any rate, here is Monica's blog, where reside Alexa's guestly thoughts, or will reside on Tuesday:

And now that you are comfortably seated in my blog, it is my honour to present to you what Monica, my very first Guest Blogger ever in more than a hundred posts, has written:

Is a Rogue really a Rogue in Jane Austen?  by Monica Fairview
Jane Austen is often considered to be a moralist and a traditionalist at that. Some would even go so far as to say that she tends to support the status quo and that her novels reinforce the social norms of the day. A closer look at the boys and gals she chose to be her “villains” reveals that she wasn’t as conventional as she seems when it comes to traits she considered to be “evil”. Unlike the “horrid” gothic novel of her day, she doesn’t have darkly evil characters who commit every crime in the book, nor do we have helpless victims (often women) who are subjected to abuse, abduction and imprisonment. In her Juvenilia she makes fun of the very idea. Perhaps the only truly villainous villain in her writings is Lady Susan Vernon, who torments her own daughter as she goes on her merry way. 
In Jane Austen’s world, villainy is more subtle, not always easy to detect, and often inhabits a grey area that isn’t quite defined. Things are neither black nor white. At times this can be frustrating, because we want to know exactly who the antagonist is and we want to see them punished, but more often than not, JA seems to let them off the hook with little more than a slap on the wrist.

That isn’t to say that JA doesn’t have “pet peeves” so to speak. There are certain qualities she satirizes fairly consistently throughout her novels.

1. Toadying in its many forms, especially when it’s done for reasons of self-interest:

a. Mr. Collins in P&P and his obnoxious servile attitude towards Lady Catherine.

b. Who can forget Caroline Bingley’s pathetic attempts to flatter Mr. Darcy?

c. Sir Walter in Persuasion who, in his vanity and desire to cut a fine figure, fawns on the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple and wants Anne to fawn on her, too.

2. Those who interfere in other people’s lives and try to control them

a. Lady Russell, who persuades Anne Elliott to give up Wentworth and makes her life miserable as a consequence. Lady Russell’s interference comes to an end when Anne undermines her authority by accepting Wentworth, but does she suffer for it?

b. Mrs. Bennett, who ruins the very relationships she’s trying to promote. She never realizes how much damage her interference has caused, and her only real punishment is when her favourite Lydia runs away.

c. Mr. Darcy (only briefly), who convinces Bingley to leave Netherfield and persuades him that Jane doesn’t care for him. Darcy receives his just punishment by having Lizzy turn him down.

d. Lady Catherine de Bourgh who thinks all she has to do is wave her magic wand and she’ll convince Elizabeth to give up Darcy.

e. The tyrant General Tilney, who has his daughter and son by the throat and dictates every moment of their lives, including arranging for Catherine to come to Northanger Abbey when he thinks she has money, and disposing of her ruthlessly when he discovers she doesn’t. He’s the closest we have to a gothic villain we see in Austen, but then the whole novel is a take on the Gothic.

f. Emma, who thinks she can arrange people’s lives as she pleases but ends up making a fool of herself.

3. Those guilty of deception

a. Willoughby, who marries an heiress then regrets losing Marianne. Willoughby is not only guilty of double-dealing with Marianne; he has also seduced a young girl and takes no responsibility for her baby. Not unusual in those days, but despicable nevertheless considering Colonel Brandon has to pick up the pieces.

b. Wickham spreads lies about Darcy and runs away secretly with Lydiagets all his debts paid off but ends up stuck with Lydia and sent to the north where presumably his opportunities of seducing local ladies is more restricted.

c. Frank Churchill, who marries the woman he loves after giving the impression he’s interested in Emma.

d. Edward Ferrars who makes poor Elinor suffer so much, but everything is resolved very smoothly for him when Lucy transfers her affection to his brother.

e. Mrs. Clay, whose plotting and planning comes to naught when she loses the chance to marry Sir Walter.

f. Mr. Elliott whose “love” for Anne is accompanied by some underhanded plans with Mrs. Clay.

g. Isabella Thorpe, who is less inclined to like James Morland when she realizes he doesn’t have money. But did she really hope to catch a rake like Captain Tilney? Isabella lies to Catherine on several occasions and takes advantage of Catherine’s naiveté. Really, she’s there as a foil, a jaded woman-about-town. It would be interesting to compare her to Caroline Bingley (of course I’d think that, since my novel The Other Mr. Darcy is about Caroline).

4. Those who have no sense of responsibility or the consequences of their actions. These are the flighty types of whom Lady Susan is an extreme example.

a. Lydia, who remains blissfully unaware of the uproar her escape with Wickham causes. Her punishment is to be married to a man like Wickham who is going to be unfaithful to her at the drop of the hat, but it’s a case of “she’s made her bed, now she has to lie in it.”

b. John Thorpe, really, why does he tell the Tilneys that Catherine is rich? It certainly triggers a lot of things but it doesn’t serve his own interest.

c. Henry Crawford, proposing to Fanny then running off with Maria? Well, he’s on the scandal sheets, so he gets some negative exposure.

d. Mary Crawford, she doesn’t get Edmund, but just as well, she didn’t really want to marry a preacher anyway. She doesn’t do anything evil except try to steal Edmund from Fanny (a la Caroline Bingley), but she’s bad because she doesn’t think Henry did anything wrong.

Conclusion: In many ways Jane Austen’s villains aren’t true full-fledged villains. I’d agree with Diana that the villains are really people who make the heroine unhappy – most often intentionally deceiving her or preventing her from accomplishing her aims. I agree with Alexa that Willoughby and Wickham are the worst of the lot, mostly because they have no hesitation lying to those around them and they have no hesitation in seducing a young girl of fifteen, ruining her reputation, and abandoning her to her fate.

Two Rowlandson Rogues

In parting, Monica graciously posed some questions for us.  I will give my answers, and would be charmed if any readers would like to give their own as well.  Let my "Comments" section become a theatre of lively disputation, though hopefully not so spirited as the riot Henry Tilney describes: "a mob of three thousand men assembling in St. George’s Fields, the Bank attacked, the Tower threatened, the streets of London flowing with blood, a detachment of the Twelfth Light Dragoons (the hopes of the nation) called up from Northampton to quell the insurgents..."

1. Who do you think was punished most severely?
Ah, poor Maria, to be sure.  Eternity with Mrs. Norris would confound the Frenchman who wrote the play No Exit.  Surely a little fornication does not deserve such penance as that.  Even if you believe that Adultery should be severely dealt with, like Mr. Price, who thought that "A little flogging for man and woman too would be the best way of preventing such things" (on second thought, perhaps he meant a little blogging?), surely a Norrisean Eternity would be more worthy of such sins as Murder and Treason.

2. Who do you think gets let off most easily?
Probably Mr. Wickham.  He deserves gaol, that one.

3. Do you think the women get a worse punishment than the men?
Their lives were a worse punishment in those days, so yes, certainly.

4. If you got to rewrite the ending of any of the novels, who would you choose to punish and why?
I think I would be inclined to be more merciful.  I would let Mary Crawford find love.  I would let Sir Walter Elliot find a rich widow.  But I am so fond of all of Jane Austen's characters, I wish them all well, even the rogues and villains.  Well, no, there are a few to whom even I could not show mercy.  Mrs. Norris (but she gets what she deserves), and General Tilney, who goes completely unpunished!  I would involve him in a very nasty public scandal at the very least.  Rat bastard.
Now go on, have your say, and leave some quilled chicken tracks behind in the Comments, so I may have the memory of many visitors.  I hope you have enjoyed the "Light, Bright, and Sparkling" portion of the Austen Extravaganza!
Diana Birchall, proferring something light, bright, and sparkling to drink, and some rout cakes. 
What I hope my Comments section will soon resemble.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Two Peak Experiences

Paul and I drove up to Mammoth, leaving Peter (who hates the 300-mile drive) with the cats, who also wisely prefer to remain home. We stayed at our favorite condo, and then at the May Lake back country High Sierra Camp with our old hiking friend Mike. Then on Thursday we drove back down for the Saturday performance of my play "You are Passionate, Jane" in Pasadena - pretty fast turnaround time!   Here are pictures from both experiences, peak moments, wildly contrasting...

Two literary Angels:  Me as Charlotte Bronte and Syrie James as Jane Austen in my play, "You are Passionate, Jane"

Another peak...on the Saddlebag Lakes trail in Tioga Pass, 10,000 feet, very exalting
Our first hike was to Gardisky Lake in Tioga Pass, 10,000 feet with a 1,000 foot elevation gain in a little over a mile - gorgeous, but rather a misery to my knee, which objected!
Paul and Mike at the lake. Not an easy hike, even for people without knees!
Me at the lake.  Well, it was worth it. 
I really just went up there to see the purple gentians.
And white striped gentians, too.
Next hike was to May Lake, which is inside Yosemite.  We climbed above the lake.
We climbed to lovely Hoffman meadow, but did not scale the peak of Mt. Hoffman, above.  That'll be the day!
Descending back down to May Lake, we could see the High Sierra Camp.
Paul at May Lake...the most peaceful place.
The dinner cabin at May Lake.  There's unfortunately a hantavirus outbreak in Yosemite, apparently from mice at Camp Curry, so they're taking precautions at the High Sierra Camps too, spraying the tent cabins with antiseptics and pesticides daily.
Me relaxing at May Lake
Campfire at night
Morning sunshine on the lake 
Morning reflections
After the 350-mile drive back from Yosemite - emoting onstage!
Syrie and me after the play - relaxed and relieved!
A sunflower at Lee Vining, near Mammoth

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Acting Up in Seattle

I've written about the experience of writing and acting in one's own play and the exhilarating feeling that comes when the audience laughs (not at you, but well, you know what I mean).  That post is on the Austen Authors blog,  But I thought that here I'd give a picture of the whole visit, when Syrie James and I flew up to Seattle to play Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte in my playlet, "You are Passionate, Jane."

Me and Syrie as Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen in "You are Passionate, Jane"
(photo by Sallie Tierney)

The play takes place in Heaven, where Jane is the Literary Gatekeeper, and I cast the divine Syrie who keeps my Charlotte writhing in suspense to see if she "ascends" or not.  It was enormous fun: the performance, the relief that it went so well, and the royal way we were entertained by our JASNA Puget Sound region friends!  So, here is my diary...

Friday, Aug 10 2012

Trip started on a fraught note, as I didn't finish my work manuscript till 3 AM and I had to get up at 5 to make the 7:20 AM (yes, AM) flight.  So, with an hour and a half of sleep, and hating flying at the best of times, I felt pretty ragged.  Luckily kind neighbor Pam drove me to the airport, and the flight was a smooth two hours over pretty mountains.  On arrival, I waited listening to awful Princess Cruises greeters herd their victims, but my hostess Laurel Ann Nattress (of premier Jane Austen blog Austenprose fame) met me and we collected Syrie.  Then we drove straight to the Queen Mary Teahouse, which is just what it sounds like and what it ought to be:  a cunningly English enclave bursting with pretty china, scones, cakes, sandwiches, and flowing with tea.  We were joined by two other Austen Authors, Shannon Winslow and Susan Mason-Milks, whom I knew online but now happily know in person.

Shannon Winslow, Laurel Ann Nattress, Syrie James, Diana, Susan Mason-Milks

Then we drove to Laurel Ann's lovely country cottage in Snohomish.  Lovely sunny day, green countryside farmland, her cottage so English and pretty, with the exquisite English garden she made... lobelias, hollyhocks, foxgloves, roses to perfection.  After enjoying rapturous breathfuls we repaired to an English pub to dine with members of the JASNA-Puget Sound group, Marian, Ken, Charlene and Julie.  Lovely folks, delicious steak pasty and spinach salad - but I was falling asleep at the table, so they drove me to Julie's pretty condo in Redmond where I was to sleep, er, crash.  Delighted to make the acquaintance of her handsome boy cat Byron, an English shorthair in a trim cat suit of grey with orange eyes. 

Syrie and Laurel Ann at the cottage

In the garden

Saturday.  Slept like the dead, then woke up and had a cappuccino at a coffeehouse across the way called Tully's like my cat. Then we drove to Laurel Ann's, and all four of us went to Snohomish, a veritable village of antiques stores, never seen anything like it outside England and went a little bit crazy! We had lunch in a pretty place with especially good scones and homemade raspberry jam; also a Dungeness crab omelette.  Then shopping until dropping:  I bought a Venetian bag, Limoges earrings, a Carnival glass bowl and Shawnee porcelain gold vase.  Syrie bought a lace shawl and beaded reticle, and Julie got the most amazing vintage shoes like a cyclamen flame.

Scones and crab with Syrie, Laurel Ann, Julie

Serious Shopping in Snohomish

Painting "Naughty Kitties" by Licinio Barzanti (1857-1944). 
They want $8250 for it, which I thought nuts until I looked him up online.  It's cheap!

On the way back we stopped at a fruit stand and picked up fresh corn and blackberries. Laurel Ann and Julie then proceeded to bake the most gorgeous blackberry pie! Dinner was salmon, corn, quinoa, salad, pie and ice cream. First course enjoyed outdoors, but finished the rest inside. Then back to Julie's to sleep.

Dinner outdoors...

...and in

Beautiful Blackberry Pie

Sunday.  Day of the play.  We drove to the venue on Mercer Island, and I changed into my costume. Syrie and I primped and prepared, while mixing a bit with the arriving group members.  Then we were introduced and went up to the "set" of chairs and our props on a little table, and launched into it.  Didn't use microphones, but it all went well:  audience laughed a lot!  Syrie was magnificent, the very airy, grand, whimsical, authoritative and tart Jane Austen in Heaven; all I had to do as Charlotte Bronte was to react against her with tears, rage and resentment, until...well, I won't give it away, but it was fun to be crowned!  Afterwards a short Q & A, and then we sort of collapsed and ate sandwiches and chatted with fellow Janeites.  Susan from the Piffle group came to see me, and so did Sallie the Byronist, and we chatted happily. Then dinner at an excellent Chinese restaurant with Syrie, Laurel Ann, Julie and Susan. 

Charlotte and Jane

Syrie and me after the play

Monday.  Our hike.  We drove to the cottage, and then went on a walk to the Snohomish River, three miles round trip.  Rather a sultry day, so we were glad to sit on the turfy green grass under trees and have a picnic.

Hikers:  Syrie, Laurel Ann, Julie and me

By the Snohomish River

 Later we went back to Laurel Ann's and had a repeat of our first dinner there, which was perfect, as it could not be surpassed!  The only variation to the salmon and fresh corn was that there was fresh asparagus too, and as we'd finished the pie we had fresh Rainier cherries and chocolate digestives instead.  Syrie and I then fast-forwarded through the Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility to get a bead on "our" characters in "Austen Assizes," the play we've co-authored for the Brooklyn JASNA AGM in October.  Imogen Stubbs played Lucy (we really noticed the expressive usage of her sly eyes), and Harriet Walter was Fanny Dashwood (made me realize I really am going to have to dress up more...). Then back to Julie's house and a final frolic with my darling new friend Byron before bed, and flying home Tuesday morning...

The Boy Byron.  A very fine cat indeed, though possibly the poet is sunk in the athlete.

Coming home with me in my suitcase, Byron?