Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Pride and Prejudice and Please Make it Stop

Jane Austen penned six novels--two of which were published posthumously. Each has endured to see printing after printing, BBC adaptations, and dubious Hollywood retellings. Of the six, however, one Austen novel stands above the rest in fame:

Pride and Prejudice

There is no question of P&P's influence and staying power. More than any of Austen's other novels, P&P is the direct ancestor of the modern romance novel. It gives us a spunky heroine, a handsome and honorable hero and... the formula. I firmly believe that the Regency subgenre of historical romance is as booming as it is because of P&P. This novel is the gateway drug to Regency obsession.

Hellooooo, Darcy. Rawr.
First published in 1813, the story of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy has captured the hearts and imaginations of generations of readers. It was adapted for the stage in the 1930's, and for film in 1940. In addition to multiple feature-length films, there have been numerous miniseries adaptations. The 1995 BBC version, of course, makes millions of ovaries ache to this day at the very mention of Colin Firth.

As happens when people are smitten with a particular story, readers are left wondering, "And then what?" about their favorite characters. Fan fiction, in which an author other than the story's original teller imagines new adventures for characters, is a fun way to explore possibilities beyond The End. Most fan fiction remains unpublished. Occasionally it makes it to print.

When Scarlett: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind was published in 1991, it was a Very Big Deal. Fans of the original novel and movie adaptation held their collective breath and cringed in anticipation of what Alexandra Ripley had done to Rhett and Scarlett. Reviews of the new novel were published nation-wide--most of them highly unfavorable. Readers were not best pleased with Ms. Ripley's treatment of these beloved characters.

In light of that novel's poor reception, I am all astonishment at the cottage industry that has emerged of Pride and Prejudice-inspired novels. There are just. so. many. of. them. The original story has been told from Darcy's point of view. Elizabeth Aston has published seven P&P-related novels. At least one which I have personally read (the Althea Darcy novel) portrays Elizabeth and Darcy as absentee parents. Colleen McCullough gave us a novel in which Elizabeth and Darcy have a sexless, loveless marriage (and, in fact, Darcy regrets ever marrying beneath his station.). The Darcys are a mystery solving duo. They fight a P&P character now suffering with Dissociative Identity Disorder. And there are zombies. Which now have a prequel. And a film in development.

A search on Amazon.com for Mr. Darcy returns 571 hits. Try Pride and Prejudice Sequels.

She's spun in her grave so many times,
the threading is stripped.

Based on the sheer number of these novels, I can only assume they make money, which answers the question, "Why are they still being published?" But it doesn't answer another question: Why are authors still writing these books? Don't they have other stories to tell? Stories of their own?

I adore Pride and Prejudice. I truly do. I don't think you'll find a Regency Romance author who can't trace her love of the period back to Austen, and probably to P&P. And while I certainly take inspiration from novels I read, I, personally, would not wish to make an entire career directly based on someone else's work. Have we not yet exhausted the general scenarios for Darcy and Elizabeth fan fiction? Eventually, the market hits saturation point. Sales and readership start to decline. Are we there yet with Pride and Prejudice-inspired novels? Whether or not the market is, I am. I'm weary of seeing two of my favorite characters paraded out for stories that never live up to the original. I don't think I'll be picking up another any time soon--not when there are so many new characters on the shelves, just waiting for me to meet them.

What do you think, readers? Have you read any P&P sequels or retellings? Have any of your favorite novels received the same third-party sequel treatment? How do you feel about them? Let's discuss it in the comments!

Monday, June 20, 2011

And The Winner Is...

A big thank you to everyone who participated in my first giveaway! I appreciate all the entries and following and sharing. You're the very best readers a girl could hope for. I wish I could send you all a prize for being so fabulous.

But, if we learned anything from Highlander, it's that there can be only one. So here we go. I'm heading over to random.org right now to select the winner. Are you ready? I'm nervous, but you totally shouldn't be, because you're a winner in my heart, no matter what.

OK, here goes.

The winner of Jane Austen's Guide to Good Manners is:


Carrie, I will contact you all private-like to get your contact info. Your prize will be winging its way to you shortly. Thanks again to everyone who entered! I hope we can do this again soon.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Field Trip and a Giveaway

This past weekend, I spent some time in New Orleans with my dear friend, MBG from We Bought a Project.

Whilst traipsing about the Crescent City, we stepped down Pirate's Alley and visited Faulkner House Books (As a good Southern girl, I'm contractually obligated to make pilgrimages to literary holy sites.).

What a delightful little shop! The walls are lined with shelves all the way up to the high ceiling, except for a few spots where Faulkner memorobilia is displayed.

I didn't get a picture of this, but there was another small display (on the wall just to the left) showcasing other Southern greats, including a handwritten letter from Flannery O'Connor (it was addressed "Dear Bill," in reference to William Freaking Faulkner. Isn't that wild?!?).

The shelves are lined with an eclectic collection of books--much more interesting than your typical Barnes A Million type fare. MBG and I had a wonderful time examining the offerings. If you ever get the chance to visit this gorgeous shop, I heartily recommend you do so.

I was already planning to blog about my visit to Faulkner House Books, but, you guys, when I opened the door, magic happened:

The display facing the door contained Austen and other nineteenth century British novels. Some of my favorite books, in a Southern literary landmark--it was so very, very me. And that little gem on top there, did you spot it? Jane Austen's Guide to Good Manners: Compliments, Charades, & Horrible Blunders, by Josephine Ross and Henrietta Webb. I saw it. I gasped. I snatched. I purchased.

And now I'm giving it to you.

And the fancy bookmark, too!

If you'd like to have this charming book delivered to your door, here's how to enter:

1. Leave a comment. Say something obvious like, "Enter me!" so even obtuse me knows it's your official entry comment.

2. For another entry, follow my blog and tell me in your entry comment.

3. For a third entry, share this post on Facebook, Twitter, your own blog, etc., and tell me that, too.

4. Entries will be accepted until 11:59 PM EST on Sunday, June 19. On Monday, I will select a winner using the Random Number Generator.

That's THREE possible chances to win! I'm so excited to share this fun find with one of you. Good luck!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Why I Love the British Regency, Part Two: A Very Dapper Gent

In my first post in this series exploring similarities between the British Regency and our own era, we looked at political similarities. Today, we turn our eye to a much lighter topic, fashion. Specifically, masculine fashion. Specifically-er, we're going to talk about one particular man: Beau Brummel.

If you have ever worn, or admired a gentleman in, this attire:

Or this:

You have this man to thank:
He was a little less bronzed in life.

The influence of George Bryan (Beau) Brummell has endured for two hundred years, and shows no sign of flagging.

We tend to think of English high society as being the playground of the aristocracy--those born into old, titled families. While the haute ton was predominantly made up of the nobility, Regency society also embraced outsiders--so long as those individuals proved to be sufficiently diverting.

Beau Brummell (b. 1778) was just such an outsider. His grandfather was a valet, and his father was a private secretary to Lord North. The connections his father made through his work enabled him to send young Beau to Eton and Oxford, where he made the acquaintance of the future grandees of Society. Beau met the future Prince Regent in 1793, at the age of fifteen. The two became fast friends. By the time of the Regency, Beau was part of the Prince's inner circle, called the Carlton House Set. This small group led the way in dictating the Regency's tone and style.

What did Beau Brummell do that was so revolutionary? In the eighteenth century, the well turned-out gentleman donned an array of colorful silks and satins, powdered wigs, knee-length breeches, and as much lace as the ladies.
Totally GQ, yo.

Damn, I look good.
Beau stripped away the ostentation and ornamentation in men's fashion, focusing instead on elegant simplicity. He began with thorough daily grooming, which included washing, shaving, plucking, and exfoliating his face. In lieu of gaudy fripperies, Beau demanded exquisite tailoring in his clothes, in order to showcase the clean lines of the masculine physique. He wore long trousers instead of breeches. He introduced the starched cravat, and insisted on a precisely executed knot. If he made the slightest error in tying his neckcloth, it was discarded, and he started over with a fresh length of linen.

Beau's whole process of getting ready became a literal spectacle. He admitted a lucky few to his dressing room to watch his daily toilette and learn his trade secrets.

In An Elegant Madness, Venetia Murray conveys this reflection of a devotee of Beau's:

Max Beerbohm (a dedicated dandy in his youth) wrote some fifty years after Brummell's death that his hero had been 'in the utmost sense of the word, an artist' and went on to extol 'the costume of the nineteenth century, as shadowed for us first by Mr. Brummell, so quiet, so reasonable, and, I say, emphatically, so beautiful; free from folly or affectation, yet susceptible to exquisite ordering; plastic, austere, economical.' Beerbohm writes of the beau's 'fine scorn of accessories' and says that 'In certain congruities of dark cloth, in the rigid perfection of the linen, in the symmetry of his glove with his hand, lay the secret of Mr Brummell's miracles.'

Like other outsiders admitted to the heights of society, Beau's status was only as secure as his aristocratic friends wished it to be. Eventually, an unforgivable gaffe cost him his position with the Prince Regent. Again, from Murray:

Brummell overstepped the line on several occasions, treating the Prince with far too much familiarity and an astonishing lack of respect. He obviously believed his position in society to be so secure that he could get away with anything. The crash came at a ball in London, in 1814. The Prince had arrived in the company of Lord Alvanley, and stood talking to him but openly ignored Brummell. The latter, furious at being cut in public, for once lost his habitual self-control, and called out in a loud voice the fatal words: 'Alvanley, who is your fat friend?' The Prince, whose vanity was legendary, never spoke to him again.

This was the beginning of Brummell's decline in society. In 1816, he fled to France to escape his debts. There he lived, in penniless exile, until his death in 1840.

Though he suffered a spectacular fall from grace in Regency society, Beau Brummell left an indelible mark on masculine fashion. He created the image we associate with the Regency gentleman. His style was so revelatory, so revolutionary, we have not yet supplanted it with anything better. The style of neckcloths (ties) may change over time, and the size of lapels and collars waxes and wanes, but at its essence, our idea of masculine elegance is still Beau Brummell's.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

In Defense of the Formula

A criticism I have often heard about Romance is that the genre is formulaic. To which I reply... Yep. It sure is. But what in the world is wrong with formulaic? The history of literature is a long study of formulas. If writing to a formula means I must be grouped with other formulaic writers like Sophocles and Shakespeare, well, I guess I'll survive.
I could turn lead into gold again, but that
would be boring.

Almost all Western literary tradition can be traced back to ancient Greece. There, we find the roots of the formulas for tragedy and comedy. Anyone who survived high school literature class should recall that the plot of a classical tragedy is marked by a great person, possessed of a tragic flaw, suffering a reversal in fortune. Things will end badly for our hero. Comedy, on the other hand, deals in the base and lewd, has a bumbling protagonist who manages to reach his goal in spite of himself, and always features a happy ending. Watch a popular comedy movie in 2011, and you're witnessing a formula described by Aristotle 2300 years ago.

Poetry, too, is rife with formulas (aka structure) dictating the number of lines, syllables per line, rhyme scheme, and themes. Every English sonnet has fourteen lines of ten syllables each, written in iambic pentameter, usually centered on the theme of love. A haiku consists of three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, and traditionally looks to nature for subject matter.

Back to Romance. Yes, there is a loose formula for Romance novels. It basically goes this way (SPOILER ALERT!!!): Hero and Heroine meet. Attraction grows, but H & H are kept apart by circumstance. Failure to communicate leads to complications. Hilarity ensues. External complications are resolved. Love is acknowledged; communication brings understanding and resolution for H & H. And the big ending, Happily Ever After.

There you have it. The master plot of every Romance novel currently in publication, revealed. You're welcome.

Literary formulas give the writer a skeleton to flesh out, and they give the reader a reasonable idea of what to expect. You know that when you pluck a novel from the Mystery section at the book store, before you even crack the cover, there will be a crime to solve and secrets to reveal. When you pick up a Fantasy novel, there will be magic inside. Science Fiction will take you to a future of fabulous technology. Formulas allow both writers and readers to find literary genres they enjoy.
Some of my favorite formulas end in cake.

Artistry in writing does not come from eschewing formulas, but from working within the confines of one and creating something new and wonderful. As strictly regimented as a sonnet is, there are still limitless ways to write a beautiful one. Even though you know the hero and heroine will achieve HEA in the end of a Romance novel, getting there will be an adventure. Working within the confines of a formula forces innovation on the part of the writer, and gives the reader a fresh take on a favorite genre.