Tag Archives: literary classics

Jane Austen’s Punctuation

Oh, really?

Historically, women authors get a lot of flack. Hardly any of them manage to struggle through the gauntlet of academic sneerage, the popular theory of “well it’s not like she wrote about anything serious” and The Great Specific-To-Female-Authors-Amnesia-Plagues that occurred regularly through the 20th Century.

But at least we have Jane Austen, right? Author of the Greatest Book Ever Written (ABC TV told me Pride and Prejudice was more popular than the Bible and I think that’s excellent news considering the lack of sparkling dialogue and pretty frocks in the Bible)

Only apparently, Jane Austen isn’t as brilliant as we all thought she was. Guess why. No, go on, guess. Cos she wrote about women and parlours and forgot to put in a few pithy remarks about Napoleon? Nope. Cos she couldn’t land a husband? Nope.

Apparently Jane Austen no longer counts as a literary genius because she didn’t singlehandedly arrange every piece of her own punctuation. Apparently (prepare those fainting couches, ladies) AN EDITOR PUT IN THE SEMI-COLONS FOR HER. Obviously all lady authors must give up now, our heroine forever sullied by this dramatic revelation.

Possibly my sarcastic tone of voice just got a leetle too high pitched, as all the dogs in our neighbourhood are sounding anxious. But, seriously. I get that new revelations about Austen’s writing style are actually newsworthy and of interest to the book reading world, but how is this beat up into some kind of scandal? Authors need editors. Having editorial input is not cheating, it’s now considered a vital part of the process, and if Austen’s didn’t do much more than replace some em dashes with semi colons, she was still far more lightly edited than any author these days who doesn’t have a close personal relationship with Lulu.com.

Once I calmed my ire and read the article properly, of course, I saw that it wasn’t actually proclaiming that Austen was a lesser author because she had the help in to tidy her manuscripts – though from the set up of the article that is certainly the initial tone, and others like this one have no problem with dismissing Austen’s contributions to her own books, despite the best efforts of the academic in question to steer the topic on to her more positive discoveries. The key to this literary “scandal” is that a myth has been exploded – the myth of perfection. One which was started not by Austen herself, but by her brother who claimed “”Everything came finished from her pen.”

So we have a great writer, built up into an impossibly perfect paragon by a male relative, and now that we have evidence that maybe she didn’t live up to that impossible ideal, who is going to be blamed? I really hope that this story doesn’t metamorphose into a vague sensation of “but you know she didn’t write it all herself,” one of those classic tactics of suppressing women writers that Joanna Russ identified. And yet… the headlines are way ahead of us, turning this story of interesting scholarship into a negative blow against one of the few women whose position in the literary canon is so ingrained that few have the bottle to try to kick her out.

The aspect that most interested me, reading through the sensationalist reporting to the actual quotes by Professor Kathryn Sutherland, is that Jane Austen’s personal punctuation style tended more towards the dash than the semi-colon… was, in other words, far more in touch with how most fiction writers work now than with her contemporaries (apart from, apparently, Lord Byron who was also prone to dashing about). I will be scouring the papers for a headline that reads JANE AUSTEN’S PUNCTUATION AHEAD OF HER TIME!!! or something equally positive but somehow I don’t think I’m going to find one.

How to Suppress Women’s Writing

This is a book I should have read fifteen years ago. This is a book someone should have put in my hands the week before I started university, and locked me in a room until I had read it. I should have read it again before I started my Honours degree, and every year I worked on my PhD. When I walked out of my head of school’s office, numbed by his awful pronouncement that the work I had done over 5 years was not enough, that the thesis was simply not worthy of a doctorate because of its scope and subject matter, I should have gone home again and read this book from cover to cover before I began my campaign to prove him wrong.

(he was, as it turned out, wrong, but that is a story for another day)

I don’t believe in ‘should’ when it comes to books. Who are you to decide how I should spend my limited reading time? But yeah. Someone should have told me about this book.

(except, of course, they did)

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Blyton Lite Easy Meals™

I wasn’t going to comment on the news about the updated versions of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books when I first saw it a few days ago, and have since seen it grow and grow in traction in local news outlets. My initial thought was that this was in no way news. There have been updated versions of Blyton before, usually to work around issues such as the vocabulary and naming conventions of the day that are a bit unfortunately hilarious now. I used to get terribly snippy about Dame Slap being changed to Dame Snap, and was delighted to find last year reprint collections of the Faraway Tree and Wishing Chair books which not only had the preserved text, but the same typesetting and illustrations as the editions I grew up with.

Most people are pointing to the news story, saying “well that’s silly” and then making some Dick and Fanny jokes. I’ve taken a bit longer to mull over my reaction. The story itself shows two sides: the one supposedly supported by the teachers, parents and educators who point out that old-fashioned language is a barrier to more children enjoying these books, and the one supported by the lone historian (ie book fetishist) in the Enid Blyton Society who points out that other historical children’s books are not treated like this, and while editing books here and there to remove objectionable vocab is one thing, editing them to make them less complicated is a bit dodgy.

The examples given in the article show that the edits are not just removing the now confusing uses of the words ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ or any embarrassing bits of racism – they are erasing the historical language and tone from the books in order to make them “timeless.” Those responsible in fact seem to think this is a beneficial thing. They also seem to have a different definition of what timeless literature is – to me, it’s a book that’s just as awesome fifty years later as it is when it’s written. Not a book that could have been written in any decade. Continue reading →


Day 05 – A book or series you hate

I spent some time railing against this question. Bringing the book hate is not what I am about. Also it means that my current method of choosing what to write about (walking into my library and staring meaningfully at the shelves) would not work, right? Because I wouldn’t keep a book I hated on the shelves. And besides, I don’t hate books these days because you really have to know a book well in order to hate it, and I filter too hard to let that happen – if I’m not into a book, I just abandon it or don’t open it to start with, and that hardly counts as hate…

And, oh. Well. Okay.

So, Jane Eyre. I hate it.

I have a beautiful edition of Jane Eyre, an ancient bound hardback in green with gold lettering. I bought it with my mother when she was going through an “acquire old editions” phase (there were many phases in my childhood). It matches my Wuthering Heights edition, which is the only reason (apart from it being a physically beautiful book) that it still sits in my library.

Because I really, really hate Jane Eyre.

This is a book that was given many chances. I read it at least twice in my teens, trying as hard as I could to like it. It took me weeks and weeks to get through. (a book an afternoon and two a day on weekends was pretty much my style back then)

I hate Jane. I hate all the characters she interacts with. I hate the way she is so very good and suffers so very much and that ultimately her reward is to keep being as good as she possibly can. I want to smack her, constantly.

I loathe Rochester even more than Jane. The man is vile, and I have a long history of enjoying vile male fictional characters. I consider Heathcliff to be a bit of an adorable scamp (no, not really, but at least H knows he’s a horrible person, whereas Rochester is so self-righteous). When it comes to Rochester, I can totally understand why Bertha set him on fire.

Later, at university, I studied aspects of this book, and managed to put into words and analysis why it is so very, very dreadful. (in short, the story centres around a man who locks his racially ambiguous and “mad” wife in an attic and then marries someone else, and gets FORGIVEN for it – and the whole thing is redolent with fairly despicable and misogynistic attitudes, let alone a detestable treatment of the mentally ill, not just by Rochester himself but by the author)

Basically, I hate Jane Eyre as much as I love and adore Wuthering Heights, and for this reason, that matched pair will always stay on my bookshelf.

(for the record I also loathe The Mill on the Floss, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Power and the Glory and The Warden – I think I read all four of them in the year I was sixteen. There’s a reason I turned to Terry Pratchett with open arms. Oh, and I detest everything Charles Dickens ever wrote, except A Christmas Carol which is actually quite good.)

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Why I Read Women

I recently put up my Best of the Year short story list up at Not If You Were the Last Short Story on Earth. (Alisa, Ben, Alex and Sarah have all put their lists up too) This also meant that I got to deal with my annual ‘is it okay that most of the stories I like are by women, and does that make me a hypocrite?’ qualms.

I have, on occasion, been rather scathing of Best Of lists, shortlists, and collected works which skew towards celebrating the work of male authors over and above the work of female authors. I frequently challenge the idea that “taste” matters in these cases. I do continue to believe that it is a problem when the majority of people who tell us where to find the best fiction of year have “taste” that skews towards the male. Because it ceases to become a matter of personal taste and starts to be a matter of politics when the pattern is so wide, so all-encompassing that it is considered the default.

My cards on the table: I skew towards the celebration of the female. This isn’t a political decision on my part. I don’t set out to ‘see’ the value of women’s art over that of the male. I just do. I was raised by a very feminist single mother who made sure that I was exposed to female artists and themes. I was very aware from a very young age about how this stuff works – how themes preferred by female artists are often treated differently to those preferred by men. I saw my mother and other women at the Art School (especially the very male-oriented Sculpture Department) risk failing grades for making art about motherhood. So there is that political edge there, and it has informed the construction of my personal taste, in that I was never taught to not value women’s art.

When I make a list of stuff I liked, it’s exactly that. Stuff I liked. And generally speaking, when it comes to short stories, I come up roughly 75% stuff I liked by women, and 25% by men. My lists with novels skewer much higher, because unlike short fiction, I often self-select male authors out of the equation. Male writers have to be very, very good and come recommended by people I trust for me to spend time on them. My current tally for 2009 is 12 – 2 non fiction, 4 fiction and 6 anthologies written, edited or co-edited by men. Which sounds perfectly reasonable to me. Though it is out of a total of books read of 108…

I’m okay with my reading choices. I read for several reasons: enjoyment, to increase awareness of what’s going on currently in the fields of literature I’m most interested in (children’s, YA, fantasy, some crime, some SF), to educate myself about the classics, and to find good books to recommend to others. The aspects of my current reading I feel most guilty about lately are: not reading enough classics (particularly those by female authors) and not reading enough “grown up books” (YA tastes so gooood). Not reading enough books by men doesn’t actually bother me at all.

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That little savage is lost and it was her that I loved

I’m not managing to consume much live tv these days (or even catch up on the tv I’ve recorded – so much Dexter & United States of Tara saved on our DVR…) so I was delighted to catch the first half of the new Wuthering Heights mini-series last week on the ABC. Against all the odds, I even managed to catch the second half which screened on TV last night.

I love Wuthering Heights. It may well be my favourite classic novel of all time. It’s one of the few novels I discovered after being forced to read it at school which I went on to re-read voluntarily, because I love it so very much. I love the utter wrongness of its narrative structure, I love the fact that not a single character in the story is particularly endearing, and I adore the fact that so many people loathe it with a fiery vengeance. I even like the fact that there are just so MANY convenient deaths in the narrative that the Yorkshire moor itself is presented as a disease for which there is no cure. It’s grey and miserable and damp and people die like flies. And oh yes, there’s a very bitchy, selfish ghost haunting a man who thoroughly deserves it – even welcomes it, because quite frankly the ghost is better company than the people he has surrounded himself with. Even torturing them doesn’t cheer him up any more.

Wuthering Heights kicks Jane Eyre’s arse.

I enjoyed the new adaptation very much. It chopped the order of narration around differently to the book, and I did think for a while there that I had already missed a first episode. It was also exceptionally fast-paced, so if you made a cup of tea you could come back to find out that years had passed. Hard to fault it for that. They didn’t miss much out that was important (though I would have liked a touch more of the Catherine-Linton-Hareton triangle, Linton in particular was skimmed over rather lightly) and mostly cut out a lot of brooding and staring into the distance.

And of course, it cut out poor old Lockwood. It did not surprise me in the least, given that Lockwood isn’t really a character at all, but a narrative device used to transition between flashbacks in the novel. I was surprised how much I missed him, though, wet slice of cabbage that he is. Lockwood is the intruder whose sole purpose is to wander into the immense fucked-up soap opera on the moors that is the Earnshaw-Linton-Heathcliff family, and observe it as an outsider. His gossipy interest in the dark and brooding people he meets, his vaguely stalkerish crush on Catherine the younger, and his attempts to insert himself into the narrative are all utterly fruitless. Thus, it was ridiculously easy to slice him out of the story altogether when transitioning to a televised version. But I still miss him.

The whole cast were excellent. I liked that there was no attempt (cough, Laurence Oliver, cough, Merle Oberon) to make Heathcliff and Cathy remotely likeable or romanticised. Their self-absorbed and destructive natures were beautifully evoked by Tom Hardy and Charlotte Riley, neither of whom are actors I have ever noticed in anything before. Hardy had something of a Jonathan Rhys Meyer pout about him – he should go far.

Andrew Lincoln, an old favourite of mine, makes poor dull old Edgar Linton a bit more interesting than usual. Sarah Lancashire manages to make Nelly the maid somewhat less than annoying, which is a very impressive feat. Young Catherine and Hareton were appropriately daft as brushes. I particularly enjoyed Kevin McNally as Mr Earnshaw, and Burn Gorman’s Hindley was electric in his degradation at Heathcliff’s hands.

Also, they all had Yorkshire accents, and the costumes were fantastic – Cathy’s progression from bedraggled wildcat to fine lady was especially well conveyed through her frocks.

Definitely a cut above the Laurence Olivier version, in any case, which is about nineteen different kinds of dreadful.