I am fascinated by the 18thC. It was bawdy, raucous and rough – the age of Hogarth and Fielding. Yet it was also the Age of Enlightenment, when ‘Reason’ and ‘Civilisation’ became all important. And it was the century that saw the start of the English novel. (The image above is from Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe which is often credited as marking the beginning of realistic fiction as a literary genre.)
Have you read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman? It is her first novel and is quirky, different and both comic and tragic. I found it absorbing and touching and can recommend it. I hope the author writes more books. One of the things I liked about Eleanor is that she turns to the classics for consolation, inspiration and entertainment. Do you?
A rather topical issue at the moment is the pulling down of statues of controversial historical figures. When I travel around the world, I love seeing statues of famous writers, seeing which ones have been honoured by a statue. If you stroll in New York’s Central Park you’ll find Shakespeare, Hans Christian Andersen, Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, as well as a statue of Alice in Wonderland (pictured above) and a fountain dedicated to Frances Hodgson Burnett.
In the lectures I give, I love to provide background to a novel or poem by telling my audience something about the life of its author. I find it fascinating to know about the man or woman behind the work, to discover how they came to write, what their love lives were like, what interesting quirks of personality they displayed. I read many literary biographies as part of my research for lectures, but also for pleasure. And in my view the best biographer alive today is Claire Tomalin, so I was delighted to see that she has just written a memoir which is a biography of herself, called A Life of My Own.
I have just recently enjoyed some days in Amsterdam – such a beautiful, vibrant city. I had the pleasure of giving a talk to a group of Jane Austen readers at the English-language bookshop there, and now welcome some Dutch friends to my newsletter list. While in the Netherlands, I read and very much enjoyed Why the Dutch are Different by Ben Coates, an Englishman who went to Rotterdam, fell in love with a Dutch girl, and stayed. His book discusses various aspects of Dutch history and society, from football to WWII, but made almost no reference to literature, and it left me speculating about Dutch writers. Holland has produced far more than its fair share of internationally renowned artists, but its literary star is not nearly as bright. Why is it that some countries suddenly flourish in one particular area of the arts, but fail to shine in another?
More filmed versions of classics we can look forward to include The Aspern Papers, a Henry James novel set in Venice, which is being made into a movie starring Jonathan Rhys Myers, Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson. It is many many years since I read the book, so I’ll add it to my re-reading list. And the producers of the hugely popular Poldark series have bravely decided to make a new TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, promising a less ‘bonnety’ version that does justice to Jane Austen’s “dark intelligence”. It will be ready to screen 25 years after the iconic Colin Firth / Jennifer Ehle adaptation (oh dear, that does make me feel old!).
Do you enjoy a good thriller? If so, you might like to try I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. It has all the right ingredients – murder, espionage, several exotic locations, plenty of twists and turns, a terrifying terrorist plot, and a satisfying ending. Its 900 pages kept me gripped on the horrifically long flight from Bordeaux to London to Singapore to Sydney. Not a book for the faint-hearted, as there were some rather grim torture scenes, and it did rather over-do the clichés, but certainly an exciting read.
London by William Blake
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear
I am so terribly excited. In early December this year I am to become a grandma!!!! My daughter Elinor and her husband Craig are expecting their first baby. Of course, as soon as I heard the news my thoughts turned to literary associations. If this baby really wants to get off to a good start with its grandmother, it will arrive on 16 December (Jane Austen’s birthday). And I’d love little Jane or little Austen to be given a nice literary name – not that I have any say at all in the matter, but one can always hope.
Being the child of a famous author is not easy. Being the child that a famous author has included in his books is virtually a nightmare. Christopher Robin Milne certainly found it horrific.
His early years were happy ones, but once his father included him and his toys in Now We are Six and Winnie-the-Pooh, the boy was mercilessly teased and lived under a spotlight of media attention. He came to loathe the poem Vespers (“Christopher Robin is saying his prayers …”) because he was so endlessly teased about it, while the lines “Christopher Robin goes hoppity hoppity hoppity hoppity hop …” drove him almost to distraction.
Seventy-five years ago, a book called Child Whispers was published. It was a collection of poems for children, illustrated by the author’s friend, and it set that author on a path to fame. Her name was Enid Blyton and this year is her 120th birthday, on 11 August. She went on to become one of the world’s best-selling writers, her books (of which she wrote about 600) translated into over 90 languages, and films and merchandise galore made from her stories. Five on a Treasure Island, her first book in the Famous Five series, was published in 1942, while The Secret Seven came out in 1949.
I recently visited the fabulous new Seamus Heaney Homeplace in the village of Bellaghy in Ireland. There, along with all my tour group, I absolutely fell in love with Heaney. He was a stunning poet and an incredibly nice man. The new centre is superb – interactive and informative, it brings his works alive for the visitor. In the village is a wonderful new statue, depicting a man digging peat. It is an illustration of one of Heaney’s most famous poems:
Digging by Seamus Heaney
“I have lost a treasure”, wrote Cassandra Austen on the death of her sister Jane. The literary world too lost one of its brightest treasures when Jane Austen died on 18 July, 1817, aged only 41. Around the world those who love her six novels will mourn her loss and celebrate her legacy.
There is plenty happening in the Jane Austen world this July – a new statue is going up in Basingstoke (the first statue of her ever created), Jane Austen’s face will appear on the £10 banknote and on the £2 coin (making her the first person ever, apart from a reigning monarch, to appear on an English coin and banknote simultaneously), public benches shaped like half-opened books and adorned with Austenian scenes have been erected around Hampshire, her words will appear in public places when it rains (in a project called ‘Rain Jane’), exhibitions will be staged around England on her life and fiction, and there will be dances, costume parades, guided walks, talks, new Jane Austen merchandise, and more. Jane Austen societies in the UK, USA, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany, Singapore, New Zealand, Japan, the Czech Republic, Italy and Pakistan will celebrate Jane Austen’s extraordinary literary legacy.
I was very honoured last month to be awarded an Order of Australia Medal for Services to Literature. I share this award with all of you who attend my talks, come on my tours, and read this newsletter. It was such a thrill to receive it. And on top of that I was also last month made a Fellow of the Royal Society of NSW. This is primarily a scientific body, but they are extending into the arts and I was lucky enough to be chosen as a Fellow.