What Killed Jane Austen?

Like everything else about Jane Austen, her death continues to fascinate us. Literary scholars and Janeites still wonder about the illness that plagued the author for more than a year before she died at the age of 41 in July, 1817. It was during this time that she finished Persuasion, the saddest and most pensive of her novels.

In 1964, Dr. Zachary Cope proposed that Addison’s disease, a rare disorder in which the adrenal glands don’t produce enough hormones, killed the famous author. Her symptoms included extreme fatigue and weakness, faintness, back pain, nausea, and pain in the joints.  To Cope, though, a vital clue was skin discoloration. “Recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour,” Austen wrote in March 1817. Addison’s disease can make the skin look bronze or mottled. (Reporters often wondered why U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who had Addison’s Disease, had a perpetual “tan.”)

In 1997, Austen biographer Claire Tomalin begged to differ, and thought Austen’s symptoms suggested lymphoma.

Katherine White, the coordinator for the Addison’s Disease Self-Help Group’s clinical advisory group in the United Kingdom, thinks something much more common killed Jane: bovine tuberculosis, probably from drinking unpasteurized milk. In a paper she wrote for the Medical Humanities journal, White (who is a social scientist, not a medical professional), argues that while Austen could have had Addison’s Disease, tuberculosis seems a more likely cause of her final illness and death.

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The Bitch in a Bonnet

Sometimes it takes a guy to remind many of us women what Jane Austen was really about. In his new blog, Bitch in a Bonnet, Robert Rodi, author of satirical novels, explains why Jane Austen is one of his influences and why it pisses him off that he can’t tell people that because she’s widely viewed as the dewy-eyed, romantic mother of “chick lit.” He’s out to reclaim her reputation as a superb social satirist.

I don’t agree 100% with his views of Austen or chick lit. While much of Austen’s literary reputation lies in her ability to roast upper class hypocrites to a crisp, her comedies of manners did take the form of love stories, after all. Pride and Prejudice is about the strictures and hypocrisy of uppercrust Georgian society, but it is also about how love often arrives in disguise and is a worthy reason for marrying. Emma is a good meditation on the dangers of an aristocracy with way too much time on its hands, but it’s also about how the love of your life can turn out to be your oldest friend, the guy you’ve been taking for granted all these years.

As for “chick lit,” the best of it does follow in Jane Austen’s steps, using love stories as the vehicle to make points about society and gender roles.

But Rodi makes a good point. When people ask me why I like Jane Austen, my first response is usually, “Because she’s got a wicked sense of humor. She’s merciless.” Those who haven’t read her books look puzzled when I say that. If I’m reading an Austen novel and I don’t laugh or say “Ouch!” at least every other page, I figure I need to reread it because I’ve just missed something.

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Challenge Yourself with Everything Austen

Been meaning to read Sense and Sensibility or Mr. Darcy’s Diary? Never did get around to seeing the movie “Mansfield Park”?

Deadline for entering the Everything Austen Challenge is July 15.

Deadline for entering the Everything Austen Challenge is July 15.

Well, here’s your chance to catch up on all things Austen, and maybe win a prize in the process. The blog Stephanie’s Written Word has announced the Everything Austen Challenge. Between July 1, 2009 and January 1, 2010, simply finish six Austen-themed things, such as reading one of Austen’s books, watching Austen-related movies, or attending an Austen event.

Since I’ve seen just about every Austen-related movie out there, my list is heavy on books. The first item on my list is reading The Private Diary of Mr. Darcy, which is proving to be quite diverting (look for a review shortly). I’m also going to read Sense and Sensibility…I never have read it all the way through. Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife should be arriving soon. I’m also keen to read Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. And I look forward to “Clueless,” one of the rare Austen-inspired movies I have not seen. In a more proactive mode, I’m also working on a couple of Austen-related YouTube videos.

Of course, the list may evolve as the months pass.

How about you? What’s on your Austen Challenge list?

A Feast of Austen and Zombies

prideandzombiesIt is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single reader in possession of a good Austen zombie romance, must be in want of more. It is only a matter of time before we are imposed upon by Northanger Abbey and Vampires. Mansfield Park and Werewolves. Emma and the Exorcist.

Yes, I have succumbed to that plague sweeping the land: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which has infested so many that the book, by Jane Austen with a bit of help from screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith, is on the New York Times bestseller list.

The genius of this novel (and I use the term loosely) is that 85 percent of it is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, word for word. The remaining 15 percent is zombies (or unmentionables, as the residents of Regency England prefer to call them) and ninjas. (Ninjas? Yes, really. But then again, who could do a better job of warding off the undead?) Elizabeth catches Darcy’s fancy for the liveliness of her wit and her superior fighting skills. Darcy’s pretty good at beheading zombies himself, though not quite as much a fighting legend as his fearsome aunt, Lady Catherine.

Published this spring and billed as a book that “transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you’d actually want to read,” Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is also illustrated with disgusting drawings of zombies and ninjas doing, well, what zombies and ninjas do.

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Real Guys Have Fun with Austen

YouTube is filled with romantic tributes to Austen’s characters and movies of her books, nearly all of them created by women. As a bit of a refreshing break, I often watch two of my favorite Austen-related videos on YouTube, guys taking a decidedly humorous approach to the author and her characters:

Jane Austen’s Real-Life Mr. Darcy?

Jane Austen wrote wonderfully of love and romance, yet never married herself. We know that she had romances, probably at least one of them serious, but since her sister Cassandra burned much of the correspondence between her and Jane, we can really only speculate about much of Jane’s life.

Some think law student Tom Lefroy inspired Jane to create Mr. Darcy, a notion fueled by the popular chick flick “Becoming Jane.” But in the recently published book Jane Austen: An Unrequited Love, literary historian Andrew Norman believes that the real-life “Darcy” was most likely John Blackall, a theology student who first met Jane in the summer of 1798 while staying with the Lefroys, then met her again in Devon in 1802, where they fell in love. For whatever reason, the summer romance didn’t last, and may have caused a rift between the Austen sisters.

“No-one knows precisely what happened that summer or straight afterwards, because the letters [between the sisters] dry up,” said Norman in an interview with the Daily Telegraph.

He believes Jane’s dispute with Cassandra helped inspire the tale of sisterly betrayal in Jane’s unfinished 1804 novel The Watsons.

I’ve ordered Norman’s book and look forward to seeing what he puts forward as evidence. Look for a “book report” soon.

What About Mr. Almost Right?

Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman) woos Marianne Dashwood (Kate WInslet) in "Sense and Sensibility."

Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman) woos Marianne Dashwood (Kate Winslet) in “Sense and Sensibility.”

It’s the sort of dilemma Jane Austen would have appreciated. A 38-year-woman writes in the Daily Mail in the UK that she is contemplating Settling for Mr. Not Quite Right rather than being alone, and wonders if she is doing the right thing.

“The vast majority of us have been conditioned to crave the dream of falling in love, marrying The One and living happily ever after,” writes Lucy Taylor. “It has taken me 38 years to wake up to the fact that this is just a dream.”

Perhaps, she muses, the practical view of marriage taken in “The Dark Ages” (including Jane Austen’s era) wasn’t that far off the mark. People married to better their position in society, support themselves and their families, and give a home to the children they hoped to have. Many marriages were arranged by the families, as they still are today in many cultures.

It’s a thought-provoking piece (I do wonder if her boyfriend read it, and how he feels about it). Despite having been in love three or four times and married twice (#2 is going on 24 years), I wouldn’t dream of advising someone like Ms. Taylor. Every woman has to figure out these things for herself.

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The Austen vs. Bronte Smackdown

The Bronte sisters

The Bronte sisters

Two names pretty much sum up 19th century “chick lit”: Austen and Brontë. Austen is Jane Austen, of course, who is often credited with inventing the genre. Brontë is the surname of sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne, who wrote gothic tales of romance.

People sometimes get them  mixed up. “Jane Austen…didn’t she write Jane Eyre?” someone asked me recently. It’s amusing, really, since Austen and the Brontës wrote in radically different styles. Charlotte Brontë, author of Jane Eyre, wrote disdainfully of Austen:

“She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well. There is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy, in the painting. She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him with nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood…”

Austen couldn’t return the compliment because she was dead by the time the Brontës were setting pen to paper, but Northanger Abbey nicely parodies the sort of hyper-imaginative tales the trio of sisters excelled at.

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‘Lost in Austen’ DVD Finally Arrives

Lost in Austen's Mr. Darcy, portrayed by Eliot Cowan

Lost in Austen’s Mr. Darcy, portrayed by Elliot Cowan

A couple of weeks ago, “Lost in Austen” finally came out on DVD in the United States. Those of us who delight in this marvelously twisted take on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice couldn’t be happier.

This sharply written four-part series, which originally aired on British TV, then on the Oxygen channel (and PBS) here, revolves around what happens when a modern woman, Amanda Price (excellently portrayed by Jemima Rooper), finds herself transported into fictional Georgian England, right into the heart of Jane Austen’s most famous novel. As Amanda tries to negotiate the intricacies of early 19th century dancing, dining and etiquette, Lizzy Bennet, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, is living it up in 21st century London and shows no signs of wanting to come back.

Like many women, Amanda loves Pride and Prejudice for its timeless love story between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. Then she meets the famous Fitzwilliam Darcy, who bitterly disappoints her by being a “relentlessly unpleasant,” overly arrogant aristocrat. Ah, but we knew that, didn’t we? Elliot Cowan excels as Darcy. He’s proud and overbearing, then contrite, and finally passionate. And he looks really, really good in a wet shirt. (Yes, “Lost in Austen” pays tribute to that famous jump-in-the-lake scene in the 1995 version of P&P, which cemented Colin Firth’s reputation as the Mr. Darcy for all time.)

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Jane Austen Movie Men Stand Tall

Want to play one of Jane Austen’s male romantic heroes in the movies? Don’t bother to audition unless you’re at least 6 feet tall. (Well, maybe you can squeak by at just a shade under.) Consider the evidence:

  • Colin Firth (Mr. Darcy, “Pride and Prejudice”), 6’1”
  • Jeremy Northam (Mr. Knightley, “Emma”), 6’2”
  • JJ Feild (Mr. Tilney, “Northanger Abbey”), 6’1”
  • Matthew McFadyen (Mr. Darcy, “Pride and Prejudice”), 6’3”
  • Mark Strong (Mr. Knightley, “Emma”), 6’2”
  • Ciaran Hinds (Captain Wentworth, “Persuasion”), 6’1”
  • Rupert Penry-Jones (Captain Wentworth, “Persuasion”), 6’2”
  • Alan Rickman (Col. Brandon, “Sense and Sensibility”), 6’1”
  • David Rintoul (Mr. Darcy, “Pride and Prejudice”), height unknown but it’s obvious that he’s pretty tall
  • Elliot Cowan (Mr. Darcy, “Lost in Austen”), 6’2″

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