Downton Abbey HEATS UP

January 5, 2015 at 11:26 am (entertainment, estates) (, , )

Julian Fellowes, stop reading over my shoulder!!

Last night Downton Abbey was ablaze – thanks to a cinder setting Lady Edith’s room on fire.

downton fire1

Emma Austen wrote about a very similar night: in October 1834, on the eve of sister Fanny’s marriage to the Rev. Richard Seymour!

The Smiths had recently moved into Mapledurham House (the wedding was the first “event” after the move); Emma, Edward and the children arrived in the morning hearing the news of the fire. In a letter she wrote, it “thank God did no personal harm – tho’ it has caused great alarm & confusion”.

Unlike Downton, Mapledurham’s cinder smouldered — an ‘insufferable smoke’ woke Mary (Lady Smith), who roused the household. “It was got under by the perseverance of the servants &c in about an hour”.

downton fire2

“The servants were very active & by means of wet blankets extinguished the fire — Engines came from Reading but it was out.”

In the aftermath, Emma’s diary tells us, “The floor of the room & a picture were burnt & the wall & ceiling smoked  the house a good deal injured by fire”.

Only next week will tell viewers if Downtown Abbey survived the conflagration with as little damage.

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KDFC: “Christmas at Downton Abbey” – CD of the Week

December 11, 2014 at 10:54 am (entertainment) ()

Being in snowy New England – with one classical radio station, I sometimes dip into classical stations from elsewhere; my current *FAVORITE* is KDFC in San Francisco: great music!

They have an impressive array of “CDs of the Week” for 2014 – and this week’s entry is CHRISTMAS AT DOWNTON ABBEY. As they say: Lady Grantham Sings! (So does Mr. Carson…)

downtown abbey xmas

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Darcy’s Antidote – Olympics 2

February 9, 2014 at 12:03 pm (entertainment, jane austen) (, , , , )

Sunday, 9 February – Instead of Luge…

lost in austen

….. Lost in Austen (2008)

Perhaps the “original” Austen-Next-Gen, Lost in Austen created such buzz that many of us in the US quickly sought it out on YouTube. Girls just gotta have fun… As “Mr Darcy” (Elliot Cowen, above) takes a dip to indulge a lady (Jemima Rooper). Must admit, if I remember correctly, I rather liked Darcy in modern London even better than Amanda back in Regency England. Time to tune in again, and see if it stands up. If you want a more-serious follow-up, read Laurie Kaplan’s “Lost in Austen and Generation-Y Janeites” in Persuasions On-line (2010). And (by the way) Elizabeth Bennet is played by St Trinian’s “head girl” Gemma Arterton.

Seen it? Find it a Winner/Loser?
Gold – Silver – Bronze?

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Free Book Download

January 15, 2014 at 9:14 pm (books, estates, europe, history, places, research) (, , , , , , , , , , )

Charlotte Frost, author of Sir William Knighton: The Strange Career of a Regency Physician (who was an uncle of Fanny’s husband, Richard Seymour), has mentioned a book that caught her eye:


Slavery and the British Country House is offered on the English Heritage website. Anyone with interest in “the English Country House” (Downton Abbey anyone?) will find something worth reading here. A lavishly-illustrated hardcover has been produced, but dip in to the *free* PDF of the text.

NB: I had to copy the full PDF address, go away from the site, and pop it in the address line. Try it, if you have problems downloading.

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Matters of Fact in Jane Austen (review)

October 3, 2013 at 10:19 pm (books, entertainment, jane austen, jasna) (, , , , )

Entitled “The Sister Arts and Jane Austen,” Janine Barchas entranced her 2009 JASNA AGM audience in Philadelphia with a show-and-tell about the “Sister Art of Painting,” hypothesizing how the insertion of artists’ names suggested extra-textural nuggets Jane Austen’s original audience would have spotted and mined. The most cited instance concerns Pemberley’s housekeeper: Presumably bowing to the famous portraitist, Austen’s “Mrs Reynolds” sketches a verbal portrait of Mr Darcy that serves to enlighten Elizabeth Bennet to his true worth.

matters_barchasBarchas proved a riveting, persuasive speaker. I left the room overwhelmed with the idea of how painting indeed played this unassuming role in Austen’s novels. Her conference paper appears in print in Persuasions (the journal of the Jane Austen Society of North America) [issue No. 31, pp. 145-162], but does not reappear in the book Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity. The three chapters that are reworked prior publications (chs 2, 3 and 5) are among the most convincing, so it is a minor pity that painters and paintings were not similarly “revised and extended.” Mere referencing of this appealing topic (in the Introduction) is no compensation when one is faced with the longueurs of a chapter on John Evelyn and his influence on Burney’s Evelina and Austen’s juvenile effort Evelyn.

Perhaps indicative of an academic press (The John Hopkins University Press, in this instance), there seems an assumption that readers of Matters of Fact would be fully conversant with Donald Greene’s 1953 article “Jane Austen and The Peerage”. The Introduction is heavily predicated upon a discussion of Greene as preparation for the ensuing six chapters. I felt compelled to hunt up a copy before I could continue; an appendix, reprinting Greene, would have been helpful. (Thank goodness for JSToR.)

A name that “‘has the right ring’” (Greene quotes Charles Morgan, author of The Fountain) is a notion most writers will agree holds a certain degree of importance. For topicality and a recent frenzy, examine discussions of names, titles, and estates behind the popular TV series Downton Abbey. While only the writer knows where inspiration sprang from — it can be fun to dissect and deduce!

Clever dissection is why Barchas’ book will have value to readers attracted to slices of history. Thought-provoking connections will create a desire to tease out further avenues of “historical references and topographical clues.” As in her AGM presentation, when Barchas illustrates how a particular historical incident or person elucidates some aspect of an Austen novel, her story engages the imagination. Readers can delve into Austen’s fiction with renewed attention, or simply enjoy the tale imparted.

One favorite chapter, “Touring Farleigh Hungerford Castle” (chapter 3) invokes the life-history of Miss Tilney-Long. Barchas’ recognition that Miss Tilney-Long may have been on the minds of those first readers of Austen’s Northanger Abbey was enlightening. She also presented an interesting story of a long-forgotten heiress. In recovering the “long-forgotten,” Barchas exposes the type of everyday-knowledge Austen surely possessed — knowledge of scandals, travel, books, paintings, politics, general news, which would have been culled from conversation, gossip, letters, newspapers. Anyone reading even a small correspondence – Jane Austen’s own, for instance – will see the rapid succession of news (family or the greater world) and topics that made up an average letter. If, in bringing forth some of the more accessible “histories,” Barchas sheds light on Austen’s integration of the world into her novels, that discussion ultimately aids fans of Austen’s fiction, as well as those who wish to study the “times” in which Austen lived. For instance, reading this condensation of Miss Tilney-Long’s life and struggles made me long to learn more about her.

“Jane Austen as keen observer” should come as no surprise to fans. Barchas highlights more of Austen’s personality – from her individual wit, to her use of word-play; as well, she provides explanation of the mindset of Austen contemporaries. In an online interview, Barchas comments,

Historicizing is back. New editions are encouraging the reading of Austen’s novels in their original historical context, with new notes and increasingly fuller explanations of how a contemporary reader might have understood a detail of dress, money or manners. This is a different impulse from the prior view of celebrating Austen as “timeless” (that view is only partially true). My own book is part of a trend in scholarship that would historicize Austen to her time and place. [read the entire article]

After reading about Sense and Sensibility’s nominative association with some rather-infamous Dashwoods (chapter 5: “Hell-Fire Jane”), it’s rather amusing, in contemplating writers who use Austen’s name, characters, and words (“Zombies” comes to mind) as a marketing tool, to concoct a similar advantage for a newly-published author in 1811. “Quite Unconnected” and “Persuasion’s Battle of the Books” (chapters 1 and 6) invoke the passage wherein Sir Walter Elliot attaches – then detaches – Frederick Wentworth from an influential family tree. Association and detachment, games of hide and seek for “hidden-in-plain-sight truths” (to borrow Devoney Looser’s phrase), all heighten the comical, satirical, timely, and masterful aspects of Austen’s fiction.

An academic remoteness, especially in sections that go a little off-topic, repeat information, or serve to merely inform about prior points or upcoming subject matter, sometimes creeps into Barchas’ discourse, which will distance some readers. Despite a style that occasionally gets in the way of storytelling — and only Austen (in the end) knows what Austen intended, Barchas’ revelations of the histories and “coincidental” references will engage those looking for some timely reading material. New this summer (2013) in a less-expensive paperback edition, Matters of Fact in Jane Austen should gain Barchas larger audiences whenever she offers a public presentation. Hearing her in person is an even better treat.

three and a half filled ink wells

Further Reading:

Downton Abbey links:

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The Biographer’s Craft

May 10, 2013 at 11:00 am (books, diaries, history, jane austen, research) (, , , , , , , , )

Having joined (a few months ago) Biographers International Organization — BIO, for short of course! — I feel (momentarily, at least) among kindred spirits. In today’s email box a new edition of the Society’s Newsletter, The Biographer’s Craft. There are short news articles, a list of biographies just hitting the shelves, a member interview or two.

Until six years ago (almost to the day!), I worked as a staff member at a local college. Oh, how I wanted to rewrite my life! It’s been more like a re-run… Once the economy tanked… Well, I don’t expect I have to say more than that to you. But at the college (university-aged students, for those of you in the UK), I had a few kindreds: people who read books; people who travelled; people who did research, wrote, and published. Not that the professors thought of little ol’ me as far as research went! One prof thought I’d do well writing fiction (rather than history / biography). Another wanted to know, ‘Why is there so much material on these people?’ Luck of the draw, would be my answer to that unanswerable question. Her project? a diary that someone else had transcribed and left voluminous notes about – but she taught me how much can be deduced from so little primary material. I, on the other hand, do have diaries and letters, sketchbooks, printed biographies, &c, &c.

So reading the latest edition of The Biographer’s Craft, my mind was engaged by a couple of bits and pieces:

There’s an upcoming (in NYC) conference – among the roundtables, talks, lectures are two sessions, one entitled Diary of a Biographer: How Authors Lived Their Lives While Writing Someone Else’s and another called Almost Famous: Biographies of Wives, Sisters, Fathers, Lovers of the Famous. The second intrigues me; but I’ll mention the first first.

“Just starting out” means no one cares about my unearthing anything about Mary Gosling and Emma Smith; few know about the project (oh, you lucky few! those reading this post…); people who know me sometimes ask about it with the questioning tone in their voice that says, Are you still working on that?


I think about these families, the Smiths and Goslings, day and night.

I travel with them — right now I’ve just ridden over the Simplon Pass on a mule, enjoyed the beauty of the tremendous mountain scenery, and quaked at the dangerous precipices. This comes from a diary I’m currently transcribing, dated 1827.

I moan over letters I know to be out there, but have remained (some time) unread.

I bemoan pictures and silhouettes and miniatures which may be out there, unattributed; and lament those I, again, know to exist but which haven’t been shared with me.

scenes from lifeWhen I bought my little copy of Scenes from Life at Suttons, a book of “poetry” in which the Smiths go about their daily business of reading, or having breakfast, because I know these people, from their letters, from their diaries, I could hear them speak. For others, however — those with glazing-over eyes who maybe never can share my passion, their lack of enthusiasm sometimes colors my day. So it’s nice to think of writers (some QUITE successful) inhabiting this world. I feel less alone when I read an issue of The Biographer’s Craft.

And I feel invigorated. Take the topic of Almost Famous. Although other materials exist in public archives, the vast majority of materials exist because of Emma’s connection to Jane Austen. I know that. I also know that Austen herself is the interest for the 99%. When I gave a lecture on letters, I asked for a show of hands: How many of my audience had read some of Austen’s Letters. Very few hands went up. More had read a biography of her.

I read biographies of the “almost famous” because of the circle of people they knew, the time period, and of course the connection to England. But we 1% are a GREAT minority in Austen Studies. It’s a small group for me to target — and yet if more Austen readers would find my Emma and Mary, they’d find a story not far removed from Austen’s novels. Will my books ever excite the attention of Jo Baker’s Longbourn… I have a feeling, probably not. Yet: It Should! My Two Teens led fabulous lives, so ordinary in some respects, so unusual in other respects. And the “times” they lived through: the Regency, political strife, war, a changing “welfare” state, the young Victoria ascending the throne. I always think of them as starting in the horse-age and proceeding through the steam-age into the age of trains.

I have long said that I would LOVE to see a volume (probably a set of books would be required) in which ALL the Austen family letters were published — Jane’s among them, all chronological, and of course highly annotated. But if 1% only want to buy such a book, it will never be published.

mozartA favorite book of mine on Mozart is Ruth Halliwell’s The Mozart Family: Four Lives in a Social Context; why can’t there be a book about Jane Austen that treats her entire family circle in such a manner?!? Again, if 99% buy Longbourn, who’s left to care about “lives in a social context”?

And yet, when I see a book on the “used” market which is scarce and hard to come by – quite often, unless I’m quick, another one-percenter snaps it up!

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At Highclere for the Gardens & House

January 7, 2013 at 1:47 am (diaries, estates, europe, history, jane austen, people, places, research, travel) (, , , , , , )

My dear Emma Smith was a talented artist; her diaries are rife with tales of the industry of the Smith of Suttons sisters, their pencils scratching away at their drawings.

Watching the excellent television program, Secrets of Highclere Castle, with its peek inside the walls of the actual residence used in the series Downton Abbey, I had a flash of typing that name — Highclere — while transcribing Emma’s diaries.

highclere castle

Indeed, there is brief mention in 1829, the spring of the first year she spent as Emma Austen. She has been visiting Austen family, and within days of her visit to Highclere (27 May 1829) she is also noting a stay at “Mr Lefroy’s at Ashe,” where they entertained Edward Knight, Mr and Mrs William Knight, Miss Knight, and “Mrs. Cassandra Austen at dinner”.

Watching the special, I was rather surprised that the Carnarvon family tree includes a member of the Rothschild family. I haven’t seen a lot about Almina Wombwell / Lady Carnarvon, but her father, Alfred, was the second son of Baron Lionel de Rothschild — who in 1872 purchased Tring Park, the rented estate the Austens (Emma, Edward and their first children) shared with Emma’s mother Augusta Smith and her unmarried children.

lady carnarvon

Read about the book Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey
at Enchanted Serenity of Period Films.

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Say it ain’t so: Nicholas Hoare Bookstore

September 15, 2012 at 8:44 am (books, entertainment, news, travel) (, , , , , , , , , )

With an expired passport and no “enhanced” driver’s license, I’ve been unable to cross the US-Canada border for some time. Why, you might ask, don’t I just get the documents I need? Well, my mother’s older – never walked well; does worse now – she used to come with me. I always visited Marks & Spencer – if for nothing else, some tea and buscuits! That’s long closed. Used to attend a few productions of l’Opera de Montreal; but tickets grew more expensive as the CN$ came on par with the US$. You see my dilemma? All my favorite reasons for travelling north have slowly disappeared.

One thing along remained: the presence in Westmount of Nicholas Hoare Books. Here in Vermont we see Nicholas Hoare himself on our local PBS station. He sponsors some of their British offerings. So without visiting Montreal (and once CBC radio’s frequency got taken locally=no radio; and I got rid of cable=no CBC-TV), I never knew what had been going on behind the scenes: closure of their Ottawa branch, and the Montreal branch in danger!

Looking for their latest Random Notes, I clicked on “Blog” and there in three brief entries is much of the story. You can read their history yourself.

They are forging ahead as a sponsor of Vermont Public Television’s Downton Abbey (series 3) airings in 2013. I urge all British booklovers – in and around Montreal: Help keep Nicholas Hoare in Westmount!


Some backstory:

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Lady Edith Crawley, Downton Abbey

January 16, 2012 at 8:44 pm (people) (, , )

It was so WONDERFUL to see Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) singled out for praise on last evening’s Downton Abbey.

Why am I such a “Lady Edith” fan? Gotta love the underdog, right — but, really, the character of Lady Edith and the looks of Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith cries out to me: Fanny Smith!

Dear Fanny could be a similar sister-out. Augusta and Emma, the two eldest Smith sisters, were often paired together. The three little ones – Eliza, Charlotte, and Maria – were usually thought of as “the children”. So young Fanny, was sometimes all on her own.

The first season of Downton Abbey, being set earlier than World War I, was just perfect for showing off Lady Edith’s upswept hair and opulent gowns.





Middle sisters rule!

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