Book Club Q & A, Four

Here’s a question from Dana in Birmingham:

I’ve been wondering why are so many [Jane Austen] enthusiasts talking about Frankenstein? I thought you might have some ideas on this because there are a lot of Gothic ideas in your novel.

 

Great question, Dana!

The reason why Gothic flavours invade Persuasion‘s landscape in The Widow’s Fire is because of the enormous contrast between the two worlds.

Gothic literature — which can be briefly characterized as incorporating lurid or ghostly themes, metaphysical explorations, or a preoccupation with death and decay — is so far removed from Austen’s sensibilities that she acknowledges its existence only through satire.

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Definitely not Austen: Charles Ogle in the 1910 Edison film of Frankenstein

In Persuasion, grief- stricken Captain Benwick broods day and night over his departed fiancée, reading morbid poetry, only to fall gleefully in love with someone else at the earliest opportunity.  Catherine Morland’s  Gothic intrigues in Northanger Abbey are merely symptoms of her immaturity. So Jane really didn’t have all that much time for Gothic fiction.

Gothic literature existed before, during, and after Jane Austen’s productive period. Frankenstein was published in 1818, a year after Jane Austen’s death, and the same year Persuasion was posthumously brought into the world.  But while gender and anniversaries have conspired to group Austen and Shelley together of late,  they are, as writers, as far from each other  as it is possible to get.

Austen’s work is about making sense of the nuances of conduct in the extraordinarily constricted world in which the author herself lived. Frankenstein values physical adventure, the exhilaration of travel, and active political involvement. Shelley, like her philosopher mother Mary Wollstonecraft, was a feminist before the term itself was coined.

And Frankenstein is a coded feminist novel.

One overarching metaphor in Frankenstein is a critique of the story of Eve as presented through Christian dogma. Frankenstein‘s creature is made (it is implied) from bits and pieces of cadavers (think Adam’s rib) then becomes an object of horror to everyone it comes across. Though denied love and nurturing, the creature  gets the education it needs by stealth, reading a purloined copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost and other key works of western culture at the time. When the creature takes over the narrative in the novel, it shocks both the reader and its creator with its eloquence.

This is very far from the drawing room of Mansfield Park and begs the question what would Jane Austen have thought of Frankenstein had she lived long enough to read the novel?

Instinct suggests two possible answers, as opposite to each other as the authors themselves.

First the negative: While Austen’s novels show no obvious signs of religious devotion, Shelley’s allegorical attack on Christian orthodoxy would surely have been seen by Austen, the daughter of a clergyman, as extreme. Even if the ‘creation of woman’ myth bypasses the reader, Frankenstein still reads like the work of a religious skeptic: A mad scientist creates, then callously abandons, his creature. The implication from Shelley is that, if a Christian god exists, this is surely how He has treated us all. This feeling becomes more powerful as most readers’ empathy is drawn more to the abandoned creature than to any other character.

All in all, hardly Regency society’s model of propriety.

On the plus side, however, Austen did understand audacity, and she appreciated it too. Her humour comes from this quality more than any other; she put a radical kind of wit into the mouths of some of her most likeable heroines, Pride and Prejudice‘s Elizabeth Bennet, for instance. She saw nothing wrong in a young woman’s observations cutting conventional logic to ribbons if the logic was faulty.

More importantly, the creature’s story in Frankenstein is also Austen’s story, as much as it is any woman author’s story from the period. Her brilliance had to be hidden from human view. When Sense and Sensibility appeared in 1811 it was credited to “a Lady”; its follow up, Pride and Prejudice, was attributed to “The author of Sense and Sensibility”.

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Illicit talent: the original title page of Austen’s first novel.

Though on opposite poles in many ways both authors are connected by a common theme. Eloquence, from some quarters, is an illicit quality. Perhaps this is why, 200 years on, we tend to put Frankenstein’s creature and Jane Austen together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Excavating Austen’s Bath

Two years ago, I traveled to the UK and spent several days exploring and mapping the streets of Bath. Bath is the setting for my novel, The Widow’s Fire, which is an unauthorized sequel to Jane Austen’s final novel, Persuasion.

This was an expensive research trip and initially I struggled with the necessity. I believed in research and I knew that lived experience is the best research of all. However, the primary reference point for a modern novel which revisits a literary classic is not a geographical setting; it is rather the cultural and psychological landscape the original author created. This landscape lies not upon the streets of any city, especially 200 years after the fact, but rather upon the pages of the novel. The 21st century novelist is addressing a perspective, not an objective reality.

And there was another, somewhat romantically-motivated, qualm. Part of me suspected that modern chain stores, the cafes selling lattes and espressos might be a distraction rather than a help when it came to conjuring the 200-year-old Bath of Austen’s imagination.

But, in the end, I needed to be certain I wasn’t making a mistake. I needed to be sure I wasn’t leaving out a detail. This might be something as intangible as a quality in the atmosphere that might shed a light on the states of mind described in Austen’s work.  Bath takes up a lot of space in Austen’s cannon and it is characterized perhaps more carefully, and with more reference to mood, than many of her settings. In Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, it is a city of constant amusement. But it is also a city that does not amuse Austen’s most mature protagonist Anne Elliot, the heroine of Persuasion.

Anne associates Bath with low spirits and sad memories. Its clamour and gossip jars the demure and thoughtful Anne. Bath draws the fashionable and trivial-minded, and it is no accident that this is where her spendthrift father sets up court when he is forced to let the family home, nor is it purely by chance that Bath is where Anne’s duplicitous cousin, Mr. Elliot, should tempt to woo her. This is their city, not hers.

Austen’s Bath is about contrasts, lovely gardens and not always lovely society, grand squares in the central sections of the city, leafy-gardened spacious houses in the opulent north, and narrower, dingier streets in some of the city’s more southerly, and lower, sections. It is here in Westgate Street where Anne, against the wishes of her vain father, visits an old school friend, Mrs. Smith, a widow who has been plunged into poverty. This meeting of two worlds – baronet’s daughter and impoverished widow — and the fact Anne has to journey southwards and downhill is one of the subtle, unstated metaphors Austen was at pains to weave beneath her works.

My first surprise on this trip was that this area of Bath is almost as gentile as the others. Much time has passed, of course, but still the discovery served as a reminder that Austen’s concept of poverty is not quite the same as ours. People genuinely on the fringes – the homeless and hungry – do not feature in her stories.

I had an early draft completed before I set out this journey, and I had already created one protagonist who was entirely beyond the reach of the Austenesque radar, namely a former slave, whimsically named Plato by his late master after his own dedication to the classical world. Plato, now working as a liveried doorman, is one of our guides through the story. Together with the other protagonists – some from Persuasion, some not — Plato is on a quest, like his ancient Greek namesake — to define love.  This is really the core of Austen’s universe too. Love that springs out of apparent dislike and resentment, love which has been under the protagonist’s nose all along, love which is patient and kind, in the words of the saint.

Plato was the character who gained most from my visit and through Plato I got the most out of Bath. His perspective helped me to see everything — the graceful semi-circular Royal Crescent, the fine bath stone buildings, and the Assembly Rooms —from an entirely different angle. Luckily it is Austen’s Bath that has survived more or less intact. The Abbey, which was built and rebuilt many times, and the Roman baths tell the city’s layered history, but the Bath that dominates is the same city which provided the social playground described in Austen. I viewed all this through the eyes of Plato, a genuine outsider and one whose family had once been enslaved by the people he now served.

What would Plato have thought, I wondered, of the swirling masses of fashionable people who ignored his presence. More importantly how would he have compared them to the civilizations upon whose ruins this “modern” Bath was built?

Plato was my anachronism in the social idyll of early 1800s Bath. And, for me, it is this contrast, this clash of values, which is the natural seed of unfolding drama.

I was glad I had properly tasted the city of Bath before a second draft. Some things can never be found solely on the page.

See a review of The Widow’s Fire in Consumed by Ink.

Writing Contest Teaser

Watch this blog for news of the next annual writing contest, temporarily taking the space of the Instant Hook Writing Contest. The deadline will be December 31 as usual and there will be no entry fee. However there will be a twist. So, think of your favourite classic (pre-late 20th century) story and in the spirit of post colonialism — or just the spirit of fun if you prefer! — let your creative juices run on the question of how you might bring it to life in your own imagination.

Open Book Interview: Subverting Jane Austen and How We Define Love

Delighted to have taken part in this Open Book interview, Subverting Jane Austen & How We Define Love. Either click this link. Or copy and paste the following in your browser: http://open-book.ca/News/Paul-Butler-on-Subverting-Jane-Austen-How-We-Define-Love.

In the upcoming months, I will be exploring Jane Austen’s influence in a series of articles. Stay tuned!