Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Boar's Head Carol

Queen's College, Oxford, celebrates the tradition of the Boar's Head Feast whereby three chefs bring a boar's head into hall, with a procession of a solo singer who sings the first verse, accompanied by torch bearers and followed by a choir. The procession stops during verses and walks during the chorus. The head is placed on the high table, and the Provost distributes the herbs to the choir and the orange from the Boar's mouth to the solo singer.
William Henry Husk, Librarian to the Sacred Harmonic Society, wrote about the tradition in 1868 in his Songs of the Nativity Being Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern:
Where an amusing tradition formerly current in Oxford concerning the boar's head custom, which represented that usage as a commemoration of an act of valour performed by a student of the college, who, while walking in the neighbouring forest of Shotover and reading Aristotle, was suddenly attacked by a wild boar. The furious beast came open-mouthed upon the youth, who, however, very courageously, and with a happy presence of mind, thrust the volume he was reading down the boar's throat, crying, "Græcum est," and fairly choked the savage with the sage. (Wikipedia)
You can listen to the carol at this link

Friday, December 13, 2013

Darcy on the Hudson - Background and Research #6 - Background and Research

In Darcy on the Hudson, Mr. Darcy travels by sloop from Tarrytown to West Point. During his time on the river, one of the houses he would have passed would have been Clermont, home to the Livingston family, one of the oldest families in the Hudson River Valley.

Life had been good to the Livingstons of Dutchess County (including Philip, a signer of the Declaration). From their manor house, the Robert Livingstons could view some of their half million acres of land acquired through patent and marriage. Robert R. Livingston (1718 – 1775, aka “The Judge”) added hundreds of thousands of acres to the family’s landholdings when he had married Margaret Beekman,* a formidable woman from one of the most prominent old Dutch families in the Hudson River Valley.

When Robert the Judge died in 1775, he left Margaret and their children to face the trials of the Revolution. Most dramatic was the burning of Clermont and its outbuildings on October 19, 1777 by British troops under the command of General John Vaughan, who was throwing a hissy fit because of the surrender of the British Armies by General Burgoyne at nearby Saratoga. Once Margaret was informed that General Vaughan had burnt Kingston across the Hudson, she hid the silver and other valuables in her garden fountain. Other possessions were loaded aboard carts, and Mrs. Livingston, her daughters, servants, and slaves fled. Robert was not at Clermont during this time, but he would return to his childhood home to find only the foundation and exterior walls remained.

"Nevertheless, his mother (Margaret Beekman) energetically went about the task of rebuilding Clermont upon its original foundation and on the same Georgian plan. In order to get workmen, she wrote to Governor George Clinton requesting that he exempt skilled tenants, masons, carpenters, plasterers, etc. from military service, and he agreed. By 1782 she was able to entertain General and Martha Washington in her new home, the British forever gone from the Hudson River Valley." (Taken from the official Clermont site)

The Livingstons are excellent examples of the conundrum one faces when writing about the heroes of the Revolution. Yes, they "pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honors," but many had set off on that path because they were protecting their fabulous wealth. (Remember: “No taxation without representation.”) The Livingstons wanted to be free of British tyranny, but kept slaves. And they kept their heels on the necks of their tenants and were disinclined to sell their property to anyone, causing anyone seeking a better life to move westward. During wartime, Margaret Beekman had asked and had received the release of able-bodied men from military service to rebuild her house. But the bottom line is that if the Americans had not succeeded in their quest for independence, their leaders, including the Livingstons and Beekmans, would have had their estates confiscated, and Robert would very likely have hanged. As Abraham Clark of New Jersey, a signer of the Declaration, put it, they would have “freedom or a halter.”

An aside: In the 1920's, the Commonwealth of Virginia wanted to present a statue of George Washington to the British people. There was one problem. After the War of Independence, George Washington had expressly stated that he wished never to stand on English soil. The good people of Virginia were in a quandary. Fortunately, someone came up with the idea of shipping a truckload of soil to England. Outside the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, a hole was dug and filled with good Virginia dirt, and a statue of George Washington placed on top of it. With the possible exception of Washington, everyone was happy.

*The Beekmans appear in Darcy on the Hudson

In Darcy on the Hudson, the United States is on the verge of going to war with Britain--again. For a quick recap of what The War of 1812 was all about, you might enjoy this video.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Darcy on the Hudson - Background and Research #5 - West Point

In Darcy on the Hudson, West Point cadet, Joshua Lucas (Charlotte’s brother) invites Georgiana Darcy to a formal ball at the academy. Of course, she must be accompanied by her brother. Originally, Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, as well as Charles Bingley, were to have made the journey thirty-five miles up the river from Tarryton. Instead, Darcy finds himself in the company of Caroline Bingley:

Darcy stood on the deck as the sloop John Jay made its way through the Tappan Zee, the widest part of the Hudson, where wise sailors shorten sail. Small fishing boats shared the inland sea with schooners and barges carrying poultry, grain, and vegetables for the markets in New York while, nearby, dozens of sloops, with their single masts and retractable keels, negotiated around the shoals in the river.

As the hours passed, the sloop approached the Hudson Highlands, passing Anthony’s Nose and Breakneck Ridge. Farther up the Hudson, vast woodlands appeared with their leaves showing hints of the fall colors that would soon burst into a cornucopia of reds, yellows, and oranges that would ignite the hills from the Hudson to Appalachia in a blaze of color.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Darcy on the Hudson - Background and Research #4 - Hindeloopen Folk Art

When traveling the Hudson River Valley, the Dutch influence can be seen in brick buildings with gambrel and stepped roofs, in the decorative arts in fireplaces and kitchens lined with Delft tiles, and heard in the words the Dutch left behind: crollers, cookies, gherkins, and cole slaw. But the Dutch also brought with them a distinctive style of folk art called Hindeloopen.

Charles Bisschop*
According to Dutch Proverbs by Holly Flame Heusinkveld and Jean Carris-Osland, "Hindeloopen was a thriving seaport on the Zuider Zee in northwest Netherlands. During the Baroque and Rococo periods, guild and self-taught painters lavished their decoration skills on painted wood surfaces, such as furniture and walls, in an attempt to brighten home interiors and add inspiration to their surroundings. Hindeloopen villagers developed a distinct style of painting. Drawing from the scrolls of the Baroque period, the exotic birds of East Indian art, and the stylization of flower forms, the Hindeloopen painters came up with unique folk art forms. The objective was to fill a space, be it a table leg, door panel or storage chest, with flowers and berries or birds, in a stylized fashion."

In an early draft of Darcy on the Hudson, Jane Bennet had painted a firescreen decorated in the Dutch folk art tradition that was greatly admired by Charles Bingley. It ended up being deleted, but I thought I would share the research.

*Christoffel Bisschop, Wiki Loves Art / NL project, organized by Wikimedia Nederland and Creative Commons Nederland.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Darcy on the Hudson - Research and Background #3 - Thanksgiving

During the Federal Era in America, a time corresponding to the Regency Era in England, the biggest holiday of the year was Thanksgiving. At that time, more Americans lived on farms than in cities, and with the grain harvested, the fruit preserved, and the pig butchered, it was time to join with family and friends to celebrate with prayer, song, and dancing the gifts of the harvest.

In 1834, the New Hampshire Patriot made note of the approaching holiday: A moderate rise in the price of molasses and spices—the increased demand for laces, ribbons, and dancing pumps—the hurrying of tailors, milliners, and mantua makers—frequent and important consultation of young gentlemen—whispering, flushed faces, and anxious looks among young ladies—and lastly, a string of proclamations announcing the 27th of November as a day of Thanksgiving in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Vermont.”*

Preparations for the feast
In my novel, Darcy on the Hudson, Fitzwilliam Darcy, Georgiana, and Charles Bingley travel to Tarrytown in the Hudson River Valley to visit Bingley’s Uncle Richard, who has been living in America for twenty-five years. In addition to the love story of Darcy and Elizabeth, the novel mentions the Thanksgiving traditions of the New York/New England area. Here are three excerpts:

Friday, November 15, 2013

Darcy on the Hudson - Research and Background #2 - Boscobel Manor House

The Bennet family home was modeled on Boscobel (pretty woodlands) now located in Garrison, New York overlooking the Hudson River. It was built in the early 19th century by States Dyckman and is an outstanding example of the Federal style of American architecture. Boscobel's distinguishing feature is the unusual delicacy conveyed by the front facade and its ornamentation.

From Wikipedia: “Dyckman, a descendant of early Dutch settlers of Manhattan, had managed to retain his family fortune despite being an active Loyalist... In 1794, he married Elizabeth Corne, daughter of another Loyalist family, who was twenty-one years his junior. After three years in London, Dyckman returned to the United States in 1803 and set about building the house he had long planned. Dyckman died in 1806 before it was finished. His widow completed it, and she and their surviving son moved into it in 1808. It would stay in the family until 1920.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Darcy on the Hudson - Research and Background - Dutch Colonial Architecture

When it gets to be this time of year, I think about the visit my husband and I made to the Hudson River Valley in the spring of 2010. The purpose of the trip was to conduct research for my book, Darcy on the Hudson, which is set in the months leading up to the War of 1812. Although I had read tons of books on the American Revolution and the Federal period that followed, there is nothing like being on-site. I thought I would share some of my findings with you. 

When Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley, and Georgiana Darcy arrive in New York in 1812, they stay with Mr. Bingley’s Uncle Richard who was leasing a Dutch colonial house from his neighbor, Mr. Bennet, in Tarrytown. (Think Sleepy Hollow.) From Darcy on the Hudson:

Richard Bingley’s house was typical of colonial Dutch architecture in that there were no hallways, and a person must pass through one room to gain entry to another. A narrow staircase led to three rooms above, and for purposes of privacy, Georgiana was given the smallest room farthest from the stairs. Darcy and Mercer would be in the room next to Georgiana, and Charles would occupy the largest room, but also the noisiest, because of its location next to the stairs. But Georgiana would soon discover that there was an exterior staircase leading to a porch that wrapped around three sides of the house, a novelty the seventeen-year-old found delightful.

What did a house in the Dutch colonial style look like? According to the website, Life 123, most included the following features:

The door is almost always centered on the house - Cut horizontally, the bisected door allowed the top and bottom half to open separately if required. This enabled the flow of fresh air into the house while keeping domestic animals outside. It also allowed the owners of the house to keep the riff raff out. The missus could talk with visitors without the necessity of inviting them into the house.
Van Cordlandt Manor

Gambrel roofs are common - Long, sloping roofs overhang the doorway giving the appearance of a one-story home. Why? Gambrel roofs were said to have saved the Dutch from heavy taxes imposed on two-story homeowners. The Dutch were known for their thrift.

Two chimneys - Unlike classic Colonial homes with the fireplace in the center of the house, Dutch colonial homes had a chimney on each end of the house to radiate warmth.

Stone or brick exteriors - The Dutch were know for their stone and brickwork and brought their talents to the New World.

Porches – They provided shade.

Double-hung sash windows with wooden casements – They provided increased air circulation and allowed hot air to escape in the summer.

Pieter Bronck House
In Darcy on the Hudson, the Bingley house was modeled on Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. Research on the traditions of Colonial Dutch New York was conducted at the Pieter Bronck House in Coxsachie, New York.

Next post: Boscobel, the home of the Bennets.

I am scheduled for a blog post on Austen Authors on November 21st, at which time, I will be giving away a copy of Darcy on the Hudson. More about that in later posts.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Labor Day - Thank a Worker

Labor Day Parade NYC 1882
As a coal miner’s great granddaughter, and one who has researched just how bad (and dangerous) it was earning a living “down in the hole,” a mile below the surface, I consider Labor Day to be more than a reason to have picnics or for politicians to glad hand their constituents.* However, in appreciation of all those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold,”** I am prepared to enjoy a cold Guinness and to eat Polish sausage, macaroni salad, cole slaw, baked beans, etc.

A little history on the holiday from The Dept. of Labor website: "The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, in accordance with the plans of the Central Labor Union. The CLU urged similar organizations in other cities across the country to follow the example of New York and celebrate a “workingmen’s holiday” on that date. With the growth of labor organizations, the idea spread, and in 1885, Labor Day was celebrated in many industrial centers of the country.
Coal Miners in the cage (elevator)
By 1894, 23 states had adopted the holiday, and on June 28 of that year, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.

So have an enjoyable weekend. Be careful driving, use sun screen, and watch the kiddies around the water.

*Two of my great grandfathers were killed in roof falls in the mines. A third died of pneumonia in his thirties, and the fourth broke is leg in a roof fall and developed emphysema. My grandfathers were both picking slate in the mines before they were twelve and were mule drivers in their teens. Fortunately, as adults, they found jobs above ground.

**That is a quote from Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor and one of two candidates for the founding of Labor Day. The other possibility is Matthew Maguire, later the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, New Jersey. In 1882, he made his proposal while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. Since I grew up in East Paterson, New Jersey, I’m voting for Matthew Maguire.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

When They Fall in Love - Artwork from the Book

On Monday, April 8, at Austen Authors, I will launch my latest Pride and Prejudice re-imagining, When They Fall in Love. The story is set in 1820-21 in Florence, Italy. Here is a summary:

Spring of 1814 – Fitzwilliam Darcy proposes to Elizabeth Bennet at the Hunsford Parsonage, but his offer of marriage is rejected.

Spring of 1821 – A recently widowed Fitzwilliam Darcy has taken up residence with his six-year-old daughter, Alexandra, at a villa in the hills above Florence and invites Charles and Jane Bingley and their daughter to come for a visit. Included in the invitation is Elizabeth Bennet, who has taken on the responsibility of governess for her niece.
Duomo and Campanile - Florence

In the intervening years, Elizabeth’s opinion of the Master of Pemberley has altered greatly, but has Darcy’s opinion of Elizabeth changed? After all, he married another and fathered a child. Will they be able to put their troubled history behind them?
When They Fall in Love is set against the background of the greatest city of the Renaissance, a perfect place to start over.

For those of you who have read my books, you know that I love history, but I also love art, most particularly the art of the Renaissance, which was the primary motivation for placing my story in Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance. I was fortunate to have visited Florence twice and to have viewed the magnificent treasures of the Uffizi Gallery. Several are mentioned in When They Fall in Love, and they are pictured here: Rape of the Sabine Women and the Colossus of the Appenines by Giambologna; Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Cellini; Venus d' Medici modeled on Praxiteles's Aphrodite of Knidos; The Duke of Urbino by Piero della Francesca (with an opening on the left for his deceased wife, Battista Sforza);  The Venus of Urbino by Titian; and Madonna and Child by Fra Lippo Lippi.

I hope you will join me on April 8 at for the launch and giveaway of When They Fall in Love.

Now available on Amazon Kindle and B&N Nook.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

King James Version of the Bible - 402 Years Old

This post originally appeared on sometime in 2011, but I thought it was worth another look.

Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is not the only book having a big anniversary this year. The Authorized King James Version of the Bible beats Austen out by 200 years. This translation of the Bible sponsored by the Church of England was begun in 1604 and completed in 1611 in response to problems with earlier translations as detected by the Puritans, a cranky lot who found fault with everything. The translation was undertaken by 47 scholars, all of whom were members of the Church of England. The New Testament was translated from Greek, the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew, while the Apocrypha were translated from the Greek and Latin.

Now for the interesting part. The Authorized Version’s acceptance by the general public did not happen overnight. Biblical scholar, Hugh Broughton, the most highly regarded English Hebraist of his time (but who had been excluded from the panel of translators because of his uncongenial temperament), chimed in with his opinion of the completed work: “I would rather be torn in pieces by wild horses than that this abominable translation should ever be foisted upon the English people.” Fortunately, for him, no one could find any wild horses.

A primary concern of the translators was to produce a Bible that would be appropriate, dignified and resonant in public reading. Hence, in a period of rapid linguistic change, they avoided contemporary idioms, tending instead towards forms that were already slightly archaic, like “thee and thou,” “verily” and “it came to pass.” The translators also tended to enliven their text with stylistic variation, finding multiple English words or verbal forms in places where the original language employed repetition. In other words, they used a thesaurus.

There are so many phrases that we use in everyday language that come from this translation. Here are a few of them from Matthew:

Man shall not live by bread alone. (4:4)
The salt of the earth (5:13)
The light of the world (5:14)
Turn the other cheek. (5:39)
O ye of little faith (6:30)
Seek and ye shall find. (7:7)
Every kingdom divided against itself shall not stand. (12:25)
The blind lead the blind. (15:14)
The signs of the times (16:3)
Take up the cross. (16:24)
Suffer little children (19:14)
The last shall be first, and the first last. (20:16)
Out of the mouth of babes (21:16)
The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. (26:41)

As a Catholic, I did not grow up with the Protestant King James’ Version of the Bible, but I know a stylistic masterpiece when I read it. British Theologian, F. W. Haber, said it best:  [The King James Version of the Bible] lives on the ear, like music that can never be forgotten, like the sound of church bells, which the convert hardly knows how he can forego. Scholars may argue about the accuracy of the translation of the King James's Version, but it would be hard to find a more beautiful one. Happy Anniversary!

Compiled from on-line sources including Wikipedia as well as The History of the English Language by Professor Seth Lerer, The Teaching Company.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Darcy on the Hudson - Two Five-Star Reviews

Last week, I hit two home runs when Darcy on the Hudson received two five-star reviews. Here are excerpts:

Janet Taylor at More Agreeably Engaged - 5 Stars

"On more than one occasion, I laughed out loud. I even had 'a little water' in my eyes on others. I loved this book, and I thank you, Mary Simonsen, for a good and rewarding read."

To read Janet's entire review, please click here

Evie Cotton at The Lavendar Lady - 5 Stars

"One thing I love about Mary Lydon Simonsen is her attention to detail. Every time I open up one of her books I am transported to a time and place that I never knew that I never knew. For instance, I am a history buff and love war time stories. World Wars I and II are my favorites, but I have never contemplated what life was like in Great Britain during those times. I've really only heard these stories told from the American point of view. While reading 'Darcy Goes To War', I found myself constantly saying out loud (to my husband's irritation) "Huh!" and "Wow!" and "Gee Whiz!". The same is true for 'Darcy on the Hudson'. I learned so many things about the day to day lives of those living in 1811 New York that I hardly know where to begin. Its those day to day events, told in such a detailed yet easy manner that leave you with no question of how things transpired."

To read Evie's entire review, please click here.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Darcy and Elizabeth - Class Differences

In 1814, Patrick Colquhoun, a Scottish merchant, statistician, magistrate, and founder of the first Thames River Police, wrote a report entitled A Treatise on the Wealth, Power, and Resources of the British Empire in which he constructed a table of Britain’s many classes:

Highest orders (first class): Royal family, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, great officers of state, and all above the degree of baronet with their families (576 heads of family/2,880 persons comprising their families.

Second class: Baronets, knights, country gentlemen, and others having large incomes with their families (46,861/234,305)

Third Class: Dignified clergy, persons holding considerable employments in the State, elevated situations in the law, eminent practitioners in physic (doctors), considerable merchants, manufacturers upon a large scale, and bankers of the first order with their families (12,200/61,000)

Fourth Class: Persons holding inferior situations in Church and State, respectable clergymen of different persuasions, practitioners in law and physic, teachers of youth of the superior order, respectable freeholders, ship owners, merchants, and manufactures of the second class, warehousemen and respectable shopkeepers, artists, respectable builders, mechanics, and persons living on moderate incomes with their families (233,650/1,168,250)

Fifth Class: Lesser freeholders, shopkeepers of the second order, innkeepers, publicans, and persons engaged in miscellaneous occupations or living on moderate income with their families (564,799/2,798,475)

Sixth Class: Working mechanics, artisans, handicrafts, agricultural laborers, and others who subsist by labor in various employements with their families (2,126,095/8,792,800) and menial servants (1,279,923)

Seventh or lowest class: Paupers, vagrants, gypsies, rogues, vagabonds, and idle and disorderly persons supported by criminal delinquency (387,100/1,828,170)

Excluding the approximately 1,000,000 men serving in the Army and Navy, the total is 16,402,988. Of that number, only 2,880 belonged to the highest order. That rank would have included Darcy’s grandfather, an earl, and his children, Darcy’s mother, the father of Colonel Fitzwilliam, and Lady Catherine.

The next group, or second class, includes Fitzwilliam Darcy. Although not a member of the aristocracy, he belongs to an elite group of only 46,861 heads of household.

Mr. Collins, as a rector, is in the third class.

According to the annotated Jane Austen edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks (p. 47), the Bennets are in the fourth class as persons of moderate income and, I assume, property owners.

When Elizabeth tells Lady Catherine that “Mr. Darcy is a gentleman, and I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal," it is a stretch. According to the laws of the United States, all men are equal under the law, but we know that some people are more equal than others. This was the case with the Darcys and the Bennets. 

The English were extremely class conscious, and so it is understandable why Mr. Darcy thought he needed to point out to Elizabeth at the time of his proposal how inferior her connections were. In his own clumsy way, he was providing her with a demonstration of the depth of his love, i.e., he was descending to her level. I think when Elizabeth sees Pemberley, she realizes just how much Darcy was willing to put at risk by making her an offer.

What do you think?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Downton Abbey: My Take

If I could sum up Downton Abbey’s third season in one word, it would be whiplash. From week to week, one never knew which Mary Crawley would show up: the loving wife or the woman who picks Edith apart. During this season, Lord Grantham went from caring husband and concerned father to the embodiment of I’m a Little Teapot, "short and stout, when he gets all steamed up, then he shouts…" And he shouted a lot. Thomas, our bad boy, became a weepy girl lying in bed hoping to get some attention from the man he loves. Daisy,  the clueless, but sweet scullery maid, became the nasty assistant cook. And O’Brien? Good grief! She wasn’t happy just getting even with Thomas; she wanted him utterly destroyed! So much for a spiritual renewal following the “soap” incident.

Good points: 
Stellar acting. Considering the scripts they had to work with, the cast did everything they could to pull it off. Kudos to Maggie Smith (Dowager Grantham), Hugh Bonneville for making us not hate Lord Grantham, Jessica Findlay Brown (Sybil) for making the most of an undeveloped character, ditto for Allen Leech (Tom Branson). When Elizabeth McGovern was allowed to act, she was an excellent Lady Grantham.

The below-stairs cast is really fantastic, especially Carson, Mrs. Hughes, and Mrs. Patmore. Although I do not think Thomas would have behaved the way he did when James visited him in his room, the acting was first rate.

High production values, beautiful settings, and exquisite costumes.

Bad points:
Weak scripts: The imprisoned Bates; Thomas, who could go to prison for being a homosexual, kisses a man who has given him no encouragement; Isobel and the reformed prostitute whose first attempt at cooking was a souffle; Edith falling for a man with a wife in an asylum. (Ugh! The crazy wife has already been done. Thank you Charlotte Bronte.) 

Dropping characters into the plot: An example from last year was the supposed Downton heir showing up in bandages; this year we got Rose. Why should we care about her embarrassing herself and the family when we don’t even know her? It’s a lot to ask of an audience. Don’t care about her parents either. Ditto on the maid flirting with Branson.

The Shrimpy and Susan Show. Why make Susan so evil? At any minute, I expected her to turn into the evil queen from Snow White.

The finale: Yes, Dan Stevens wanted out, and so he had to go. But blood running down his cheek! Did we really need to see that? Was it necessary to couple that scene with the blessed arrival of his son?

In my opinion, there are too many story lines. Julian Fellowes thinks he must have something for everyone to do, and so he writes ridiculous tangents. For example, must Edith’s happiness depend on a man? She is quite capable of turning into a stellar newspaperwoman. Let her do that. But, no, she’s in love with a man who cannot, by law, divorce his insane wife. Another was Branson's shenanigans in Ireland. One week of the rebel firebrand, and then he's off to running Downton.

I know that if I lived in England at that time, I would have been a maid, trudging up the stairs to bring the married women their breakfasts. Although the ladies of the house had little to do, and I would have had a great deal of work and a long day ahead of me, it was the way things were. However, I would have loved to see Lady Grantham and Mary actually get up out of bed and have breakfast with their husbands! That would have been something.

Monday, January 28, 2013

My Pilgrimage to Chawton - Celebrating the 200th Anniversary of P&P

Our Chawton Home, how much we find
Already in it to our mind;
And how convinced that when complete
It will all other houses beat
That ever have been made or mended,
With rooms concise or rooms distended.

Letter from Jane to her brother James

Like thousands of pilgrims before me, last spring, I journeyed to Chawton Cottage, the residence of Jane Austen, her sister Cassandra, mother Cassandra, and friend Martha Lloyd, during the last eight years of her life. It is a lovely house where Jane went to work revising Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice as well as writing Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion.

Prior to her brother, Edward Austen Knight, providing his sisters and mother with the cottage, Jane had lived in Bath for a few years, and biographers agree that she was not happy there. Despite the pump room, assembly rooms, teas, dances, and gardens, Jane longed for the country and left Bath with “happy feelings of escape.” Her brother’s generosity of providing Jane with a house in the country is a gift to all of us. The years between Jane leaving Steventon Rectory and her arrival in Bath were fallow, but upon her arrival at Chawton, she more than made up for it.

Chawton’s setting is much more rural than it was in Jane’s time as the cottage was at the juncture of three roads, so there was hustle and bustle right outside her door. I was pleased to see just how roomy the house was. With Cassandra seeing to the running of the household, Jane would have had the time, space, and solitude she needed to write her brilliant novels. I especially liked how much the floorboards creaked. As Jane worked, the movements of her family and friend  would have served as a background to her writing.

While standing in Jane’s bedroom, I found the house meant a good deal more to me than I had expected. I have five sisters (four living), and growing up in a tiny two-bedroom apartment in North Jersey, we all shared a bedroom (two bunks, two sisters in one bed, and a folding cot in the middle). So there was nothing unusual about the idea of Cassandra and Jane sharing a bed. The room oozed sisterly affection, and it brought back good memories for me.

I had gone to Chawton expecting to examine the artifacts of a great writer, but it turned out to be so much more than that. I honestly felt Jane’s presence and her contentment at being in a place she loved, with people she loved, and doing what she loved. It was truly inspirational.

Congratulations on the 200th anniversary of the publication of Price and Prejudice. Your writing changed the world.

(This post originally appeared on the Austen Authors blog.)