A Brief Request

I am interested in hearing from fans of Jane Austen who share a love for her books with a sister or sister-figure in their lives. Did you grow up reading her books or watching Austen films with your sister(s)? Let me know, I might have some questions for you.

Answer in the comments, or reach me via twitter @AmyLeeP.

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Portrait of Charlotte and Sarah Carteret-Hardy, 1801 – from the Cleveland Museum of Art
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England Trip: Hay, ladies!

Haaaaay there readers. Today I am going to take you on a side trip to a beautiful little place we drove to after we left Stoneleigh. (Remember that place? It’s been a while, so I’ll give you some links to my three-part series about that visit. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.) After a harrowing journey through tiny one-lane winding roads, after which I was amazed my mother and sister were still speaking with me, we arrived at our only not-entirely-Austen-related destination of the business trip. And this destination was… drumroll please:

Hay-on-Wye, Powys, Wales.hayonewyemap

Located just inside the Welsh border, this beautiful, charming, quaint, lovely, (no, seriously, all that & more, don’t be so cynical) village holds a special place in the hearts of book nerds the world over. It’s a place to which bibliophiles make pilgrimages. Why, you ask? Why, I’ll tell you. To quote from the map they hand out to book nerds (you can find one here – warning, PDF) (I would have scanned one of ours in but we wrote all over them):

Hay was a quiet run down market town in 1962, when Richard Booth opened his first bookshop. Ten years and 40 bookshops later, the town had become a Mecca for book lovers the whole world over. On 1st April 1977 (All Fools’ Day) Richard declared Hay an Independent Kingdom and the town has been in the public eye ever since. The twinning with Timbuktu and our annual Literary Festival have also helped.

Did you see that?? A Mecca for book lovers! Hay has made its mark on the world as “that little town with hundreds of bookshops.” Unfortunately, over the last several years a lot of them have closed again, because that’s just how things have gone in the post-tabletoclyptic ebookocracy. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still many wonderful and amazing bookshops. And since the main reason for our trip was to do some much needed re-stocking of the kinds of literary treasures that can only be found in Britain, we were FORCED to SHOP for BOOKS ALL DAY!! (I know, right? You can hate me, it’s okay.)

Okay so did you also see where “Richard Booth opened his first bookshop”? Here it is. (Make sure you look really hard at the FOLIO SOCIETY READING ROOM PICTURES, OMG, I KNOW.) (And don’t forget to click to make them bigger.)

To be honest though, there is a lot of wonderful non-bookish stuff in Hay as well. Including a place that sells sheep ice cream. (No, Mrs. Doyle, not ice cream for sheep. Ice cream made from sheep’s milk! And it was like SRSLY WTH OMG ALL THE ACRONYMS.) I know the camera can’t capture the sweeping vistas of the foothills of Brecon Beacons National Park, or the sound of sheep baaaa-ing from miles away on some distant hillside, but at least it can give you an idea of the place.

We bought a few small stacks of books in little shops around town, but we ended up doing most of our best shopping at the Hay Cinema bookshop – the map I linked to above describes it thusly:

20. HAY CINEMA BOOKSHOP. Castle St, Hay-on-Wye, HR35DF. Tel: (01497) 820071. Fax: (01497) 821900. Email:sales@haycinemabookshop.co.uk. http://www.haycinemabookshop.co.uk Hay-on-Wye’s converted cinema carries a running stock of ca.200,000 secondhand and antiquarian books on all subjects. Open (inc. Bank Holidays) 9.00am-6.00pm Mon-Sat. (Sun 10.00-5.30). Easter and Summer Holidays open till 7.00pm, Hay Festival open till 9pm. Closed Easter Sunday and Christmas day. Bargain books in the sculpture garden. Picnic area. Free customer parking. theguardian ‘Independent Bookshop Directory’ (2011) ‘A cathedral of books – an enormous building, stuff ed to the rafters with second-hand books on old library shelving. We visit Hay every year for a frenzy of book-buying, and the Cinema is usually our first port of call’.

We found a ton of amazing stuff there, but instead of telling you about it, how about I stick some pictures in here at which you may gape in awe? (Or maybe just laugh at us for being tired jeg-lagged nerds.)

In between bouts of shopping, we found ourselves strolling the beautiful countryside around the town, which is famous for its lovely walks. And, like I do every time I’m in England, I found myself fantasizing about the acts of bravery and cowardice and love and intrigue that may have happened under the trees that line the river Hay. After all, the history of the place is just like all of England – castles, wars, Kings, Princes, murders… It doesn’t help that I’ve been bingeing on medieval English histories for the last year or so. Like, seriously, I just read that bit about the walled-up-and-starved-to-death lady (mentioned below) again last night, and this Richard III story popped up today, so I’m totally nerding out while revisiting my trip. Aaaand remembering how I made a bit of an ass out of myself when my friend mentioned that she’s a Catholic and I was like “WHOA, you can be CATHOLIC here?!” because I seriously forget what century I’m in whenever I’m over there. So, friend, I apologize for getting all swept away in amazing British history. But judge for yourself, I think Hay’s got a pretty cool story:

Excerpt from “A Brief History of Hay-on-Wye:”

The history of the town and the castle are inextricably bound together since William de Breos II, one of the most infamously treacherous of the Norman Marcher Lords, built the present castle c.1200. According to legend, the castle was rebuilt in one night by the wife of William de Breos, Maud de St Valery (also known as Moll Wallbee), carrying the stones in her apron.

William and his wife had the misfortune to fall foul of King John who took vengeance by imprisoning Maud and her eldest son. It is reported that, in 1211, they were starved to death by being walled up alive, probably at Windsor, but possibly at Corfe. William fled to France where he died in poverty in Normandy in 1213. His body was taken to Paris and buried in the Abbey at St. Victor.

The castle and town, during nearly eight hundred years, have suffered equally at the hands of Welsh patriots, English lords and reigning monarchs.

In 1231 the castle was burnt down by Prince Llewelyn ap Ioweth and then rebuilt by Henry III c. 1233 before being restored to the de Breos family.

Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, reduced the castle in 1265 during the Barons uprising against the king. In 1322 the castle was captured by Edward II’s forces and confiscated from the de Bohum family, then lords of the manor. In 1353 the town and castle were, once again, destroyed by fire during the rebellion of Owain Glyndwr and the castle was declared to be ‘in a ruinous state’.

Sometime between 1600 and 1650 the Jacobean mansion, set within the Norman walls, was built under the ownership of the Gwynn family of Trecastle but this too fell into disrepair. The 18th and 19th centuries saw a variety of tenants leasing the castle.

 —

We made the time to take a walk along the river itself, during which I could mull over all of the proposals and refusals, hiding-outs and turnings-in, battles and skirmishes this little bit of land had possibly seen. Or, you know, maybe not. But England is kind of like Disney for LitNerds. Can’t help it. Everywhere I look I see intrigue, mystery, “battles, barbarous and bloody.” (I mean come on, they’re finding dead kings in parking lots, it’s not like I’m that far off.)

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…unless you think you’re too good for this breakfast. Seriously, you’re not. It’s amazing. Shutup and book the trip already!

 —

In case you couldn’t tell, I highly recommend Hay-on-Wye, both for booklovers and for tourists in general. It is an incredibly peaceful little piece of country, if you can stand to drive on the roads that lead to it. (Or be smart and make someone else drive!) And if you do decide to go, I will also let you in on the secret of the most charming little B&B on the most charming little street, with the most charming little cats…

Bottom line: this one definitely goes on the bucket list. Five stars. Good show, Hay. Good show indeed.

EDITED TO ADD: Want more pictures of this charming bookish hamlet? This great little piece at Roadtrippers.com has a whole lot of them, obviously taken by people who weren’t so loaded down with stacks of books that they couldn’t get the camera out. Enjoy!

England Trip: Stoneleigh Abbey, Part 3

Greetings and salutations! I left you all unceremoniously in the main hall, discussing fascinating plasterwork and a mad cousin. Today I’ll tie up a few loose ends, get into a little more detail about another Austen cousin, and finish up with some ZOMG MANSFIELD PARK SQUEEE! business that I know you’ve all been waiting for. First let’s start by taking a little trip back to the library. In Part 2 I mentioned “the wife of Jane Austen’s mother’s cousin, nephew of the Reverend who inherited in 1806, [who] later turned the [bed]room into a fantastic library.” And I included a handy family tree. If you are lost, feel free to take a moment. Okay. Better?

This wife of James Henry Leigh, nephew of Jane Austen’s mother’s cousin (omg I’m doing it again), was named Lady Caroline Brydges. She and James Henry had a son named Chandos Leigh, as she was the daughter of Henry Brydges, 2nd Duke of Chandos, and these fancy folks like to keep their family names in their families, even if it results in a little silliness. (Fitzwilliam Darcy, cousin of Col Fitzwilliam? hee hee) But Chandos wasn’t the only one in their circle named after someone important – his friend and fellow poet Leigh Hunt was named in honor of James Henry Leigh, Chandos’s very own father. Wikipedia tells it better than I do, (I’m lying, I can’t read my notes from that page) so I’ll just give you the information straight from the most reliable web-based encyclopedia to be found on Wikipedia’s servers:

Leigh Hunt was born at Southgate, London, where his parents had settled after leaving the United States. His father Isaac, a lawyer from Philadelphia, and his mother, Mary Shewell, a merchant’s daughter and a devout Quaker, had been forced to come to Britain because of their loyalist sympathies during the American War of Independence. Hunt’s father took holy orders and became a popular preacher, but he was unsuccessful in obtaining a permanent living. Hunt’s father was then employed by James Brydges, 3rd Duke of Chandos as tutor to his nephew, James Henry Leigh (father of Chandos Leigh), after whom the boy was named.

Coooool. Royalist refugees! Fleeing those naughty American teenagers with their silly temper tantrums and brutal guerilla warfa… oh. 😦 Chandos and Leigh Hunt were therefore quite close, but Leigh Hunt went to school at Christ’s Hospital, just after Charles Lamb and Samuel Taylor Coleridge1, while Chandos attended Harrow School with – guess who! – that inimitable scoundrel, George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron. In fact, David (remember – our tour guide) explained that the two were such close friends that Chandos Leigh was among the party that dined with Lord Byron on his last evening in England. With friends like Byron, I can’t help but wonder what kind of wild parties happened at Stoneleigh – but perhaps ol’ George was polite enough to keep his wildest behavior in check around the parents. We all had that friend, right?

Chandos Leigh, while apparently being all emo & stuff as a young Romantic, eventually grew out of that noecleighabbeypainting1842historynsense and into his role as High Sherriff & Baron & Other Important Grownup Things. Then his kids grew up too, and like many weatlhy white kids, were huge jocks and made him turn their lawn into a cricket ground and form the Stoneleigh Cricket Club, which is like an important historical sports thing. That cricket was the lifeblood of the young Messrs. Leigh is obvious in the portrait which hangs in the Queen Victoria Suite of the two boys and their (poor, poor, probably-sick-of-hearing-about-cricket-already) sister. My photograph of this portrait didn’t come out very well, which turned out to be a good thing, because some enthusiastic googling for it led me to the Stoneleigh Cricket Club site (linked above. And here again I guess.) which gives the portrait the following caption:

Hon William Henry Leigh (aged 18) holds the cricket bat, Hon. Edward Chandos Leigh (aged 9) holds the stumps and sister Julie Leigh looks on. Painted 1842 Stoneleigh Abbey – © Stoneleigh Trust

Although who knows – maybe Julie got in on it too? The generation of Leigh children pictured here also had a very special treat in store for them in 1858. In the summer of that year, Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert (and a whole bunch of their employees) descended on Stoneleigh to give the Leighs the pleasure of their company. The Royal Party’s visit was under much less trying circumstances than that of Charles I, (remember him?) but the expectation of having money spent on their visit was still present. David informed our group that the Leighs had to rush through an order of brand new china for the visit – they had to pay the factory to stop production on all of their other lines and produce their custom set for the Queen. And yet, even with all of tvictoria bedhe expense of such a step, the set was used only during her three-day visit, and packed into storage after!

Another way in which the Leighs pampered their Queen was by creating a special set of bedding just for her. The ladies of the house had a bedspread sewn from their most impressive dresses. But, David informed us, Victoria was so paranoid about assassination that she had the beautiful custom bedding replaced with her own for her visit. Typical!

Now, just in case you think I’ve forgotten about our Dear Jane, I want to tell you that the room with all of the fussy flowery Victorian stuff is actually not the room the Queen stayed in at Stoneleigh – it is what Jane knew as the breakfast room. (Since us common folk are not fit to wander the upper corridors of this stately home, the Keepers of House have graciously rearranged a bit, so we can bask in Victoria’s frilly pinkness without leaving the plebe level of the house.) Remember how I mentioned that Jane and her mother preferred this end of the house, with its painted panels, to the dark oak on the other end? This was Jane’s favorite room, and the room from which she could sit and observe her favorite view.

My sister took an awesome video of the room, in which you can see my hulking figure stumbling about the room, being, like, totally a loutish American, whoa! Go me!

In the video, you can also catch a glimpse of David in his lovely costume. He is describing the view the Austens would have seen on their first approach to the house, and he mentions Repton’s watercolor, which is quite convenient for me. I’ll show it to you here:

Repton's Stoneleigh Watercolor
Repton’s Stoneleigh Watercolor

… and consider it a segue into my next topic – the Improvement of the Estate.

Austenonly has a much better version of this painting on her Pinterest page, and I strongly, strongly, strongly recommend you read this post about the grounds, which we, having only a few hours, were not able to enjoy in their entirety. (Yes, believe me, I was also thinking: “I shall never be quite happy till I have been all round the park. A low phaeton, with a nice little pair of ponies, would be the very thing.”) She gets into the Repton history a little, but before I get too carried away with links, let me give you some hints of it.

Stoneleigh Abbey’s website has this blurb on the front page:

REPTON WALK

In 1809, Humphry Repton, the most respected landscape gardener of his time, was invited to Stoneleigh Abbey by Reverend Thomas Leigh to advise him on updating the abbey landscape.  Repton created one of his ‘Red Books’, a collection of watercolour images of the house and grounds as they existed with overlays to suggest alterations to the estate.  While not all of his suggestions were implemented, the result is a stunning natural landscape with superb views.  New for 2014: visitors can enjoy the first phase of Repton’s idyllic walks over the river and take in the spectacular view.

I have seen a few links with more information about Repton’s Stoneleigh book, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to see it myself. I recommend checking out a couple of the links though:

Stoneleigh and Repton at www.plants.info
A window on a green and pleasant land… one of Humphrey Repton’s Red Books
> and: Repton’s Regency Landscapes: Moving Towards a Picturesque Ideal and also Cassandra Leigh Austen’s Stay at Stoneleigh Abbey (both at Jane Austen’s World, a blog you should be reading all of the time anyway, so you should already have these links, because it’s like the best thing ever, and I am already disappointed with you for not knowing that!)

Okay, so that’s where the Repton stuff comes in. Are you getting some Mansfield Park tingles yet? Are you heartbroken over the fate of an avenue you’ve never even seen? Well, hang tight. I said I was going to tie up some loose ends and then SQUEE you with those Mansfield Park things, and there is one more (TOTALLY WORTH IT) loose end here. I’ve now taken you through a majority of the tour, but I left out one important room – the sitting room, which we toured just before the Queen’s bedroom. This is another delightful light-painted room, with red velvet cushions and impressive china cabinets:

Captain Wentworth
Come on now. What mom is gonna reject that guy?

While we were in this room, David told us a fascinating story about one of the Leigh ancestors, Elizabeth Wentworth. She was the sister of Mary Lord, the wife of William Leigh, of the Adlestrop branch, who was Cassandra’s uncle, father to the Rev. Leigh who inherited Stoneleigh. There will be a quiz.2 This Elizabeth fell in love with a charming soldier without family or fortune to recommend him. His proposal was received with disgust by her mother, and he was turned away. BUT! Her loving sister Mary secretly helped the couple wed. Elizabeth’s mother presented her with more suitors while her secret love was off doing what soldiers do, but they were all spurned. Finally, a young man showed up for dinner, invited by Mary, and introduced as Lord Craven. (I think. Seriously, my handwriting…) He met the mother’s approval, and only after this did the sisters reveal that he was actually the soldier she had disapproved, now wealthy and aligned with her daughter Elizabeth!

The kicker? His name was Thomas… wait for it… Wentworth. I know. I KNOW. SHUTUP!

Jane Lark must have taken the same tour we did, because she has a nice romantic write up of the story – not surprising, as she writes romances. How swoony is that though? And yes, Jane probably would have heard this story from her mother, whose Aunt Mary perhaps disseminated it among the more adventurous of her young nieces.

Now, speaking of young nieces, I will finally get to the part you’ve all been “GET ON WITH IT”-ing in your head for. Yes. YES. Stoneleigh is often considered to have inspired the description of Mr. Rushworth’s home at Sotherton Court. The house itself, while not seen by Fanny until Chapter 8, is first described to us as being, in Rushworth’s eyes, “quite a dismal old prison.” The conversation goes on:

“[…] Repton, or anybody of that sort, would certainly have the avenue at Sotherton down: the avenue that leads from the west front to the top of the hill, you know,” turning to Miss Bertram particularly as he spoke. But Miss Bertram thought it most becoming to reply—

“The avenue! Oh! I do not recollect it. I really know very little of Sotherton.”

Fanny, who was sitting on the other side of Edmund, exactly opposite Miss Crawford, and who had been attentively listening, now looked at him, and said in a low voice—

“Cut down an avenue! What a pity! Does it not make you think of Cowper? ‘Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.’”

He smiled as he answered, “I am afraid the avenue stands a bad chance, Fanny.” — MP, Chapter 6

Now, obviously, Repton wasn’t brought to Stoneleigh until 1809, three years after Jane’s visit. But there is no reason to believe she would not have known of his coming, through family letters and gossip. We can perhaps imagine that she overheard conversations similar to those between Mr. Rushworth and Henry Crawford, who was enthusiastic about improvement, during her visit with Reverend Leigh. There must have been some of the party who disapproved not only of the dark oak inside the house, but perhaps of the dark woods outside as well. And it’s easy to imagine a man who has just come into such an amazing inheritance brimming over with plans for the future.

Fanny, however, feels more of a reverence for things historical and “untouched” by improvers – perhaps overlooking the irony that each previous generation has undoubtedly improved upon Sotherton in its own way. It is during her outing to Sotherton that we can begin to see similarities to Stoneleigh: (emph. mine)

The whole party rose accordingly, and under Mrs. Rushworth’s guidance were shewn through a number of rooms, all lofty, and many large, and amply furnished in the taste of fifty years back, with shining floors, solid mahogany, rich damask, marble, gilding, and carving, each handsome in its way. Of pictures there were abundance, and some few good, but the larger part were family portraits, no longer anything to anybody but Mrs. Rushworth, who had been at great pains to learn all that the housekeeper could teach, and was now almost equally well qualified to shew the house.

And soon they come to the chapel, the one physical space in the book that can truly be said to be modeled on Stoneleigh:

Having visited many more rooms than could be supposed to be of any other use than to contribute to the window–tax, and find employment for housemaids, “Now,” said Mrs. Rushworth, “we are coming to the chapel, which properly we ought to enter from above, and look down upon; but as we are quite among friends, I will take you in this way, if you will excuse me.”

They entered. Fanny’s imagination had prepared her for something grander than a mere spacious, oblong room, fitted up for the purpose of devotion: with nothing more striking or more solemn than the profusion of mahogany, and the crimson velvet cushions appearing over the ledge of the family gallery above. “I am disappointed,” said she, in a low voice, to Edmund. “This is not my idea of a chapel. There is nothing awful here, nothing melancholy, nothing grand. Here are no aisles, no arches, no inscriptions, no banners. No banners, cousin, to be ‘blown by the night wind of heaven.’ No signs that a ‘Scottish monarch sleeps below.’”

[…] Having visited many more rooms than could be supposed to be of any other use than to contribute to the window–tax, and find employment for housemaids, “Now,” said Mrs. Rushworth, “we are coming to the chapel, which properly we ought to enter from above, and look down upon; but as we are quite among friends, I will take you in this way, if you will excuse me.”

They entered. Fanny’s imagination had prepared her for something grander than a mere spacious, oblong room, fitted up for the purpose of devotion: with nothing more striking or more solemn than the profusion of mahogany, and the crimson velvet cushions appearing over the ledge of the family gallery above. “I am disappointed,” said she, in a low voice, to Edmund. “This is not my idea of a chapel. There is nothing awful here, nothing melancholy, nothing grand. Here are no aisles, no arches, no inscriptions, no banners. No banners, cousin, to be ‘blown by the night wind of heaven.’ No signs that a ‘Scottish monarch sleeps below.’”

It seems that what stood out Jane’s mind was the utilitarian nature of the chapel. This was not a medieval place of worship, painted round with red vines and filled with centuries of intricate wood carvings. It didn’t even have the cachet of the little Saxon stone church her father preached in, sanctified by untold generations of christenings and burials. This was a place where working people came to be preached to by a working minister, and the family, instead of suffering to be seated alongside the parishioners with only a wooden box to protect them from the sight of gap-toothed old widows, were granted the privilege of a seat high above the teeming masses of maids and butlers.

Not that it isn’t nice, but yes, it does strike one as “a mere spacious, oblong room, fitted up for the purpose of devotion:”

The notorious crimson velvet cushions are still present, still appearing over the ledge like they must have been in 1806. Here is consistency to warm even Fanny’s heart. But would she have been disappointed to learn that Edward Leigh originally wanted them in blue velvet, and was forced into crimson due to a shortage of blue? How differently would Maria’s story have unfolded if only those cushions had not been of such a suggestively passionate hue? The world may never know.

So there, there’s the payoff – the chapel at Sotherton, here before your very eyes. I believe that is all the loose ends of Stoneleigh for now3, although if I find any other goodies buried in my chicken scratch notes I will surely amend. When I return it will be to bring you tidings of another fascinating Austen site, and I promise you will not be disappointed! Unless you expect it to be written rather soon, in which case yes, you will be disappointed. I do not perform for strangers. But only because I’m too busy performing for my children.

Until then…!

 —

1. I already mentioned Samuel Taylor Coleridge in this post, and if you read the footnote of that post you will see that I lamented that the text of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is not available online, because anyone who has read that book will know that Mr. Coleridge was almost entirely responsible for the fate of the human race. Well, tell me to shutup next time I say that, because here it is. (pdf)

2. Quiz time:

Q: Is there too much convoluted family tree stuff in this blog?
A. yes B. yes C. all of the above
If you answered A, B, or C, congratulations, you passed!

3. Actually, there is one more loose end. Harken back to Part Two – do you remember a photo captioned “Jane Austen’s Great Grandpa! In “of Orange” orange“? Well, you don’t have to remember it, I just linked to it for you. This is Theophilus Leigh, the one who had all the kids pictured in the dining room. The story goes that he rode off in opposition to William of Orange’s (William III) invasion of England, but, when the tide turned in William’s favor, he was quick to accept him as King, even going so far as to have himself painted with an orange sash. Oh, the vagaries of court life.

Why, hello there!

It’s been a while! I stopped writing “for free” for a bit to concentrate on pursuits that involved monetary recompense. But at the moment I am sitting in a “sitting room” in England, using it for what it’s intended, huzzah, and I have a lot of pictures I want to show all of you, and lots of background to those pictures that I think you’ll enjoy.

You see, I’ve been on a trip for the last 11 days through “Austen country” – both the bits you know and the bits you probably haven’t yet heard of. I think you’ll really enjoy some of these photos and the stories behind them. And the best bit is that sharing them with you won’t keep me from getting paid! And that is the most important thing, after all, isn’t it.

“A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of.”

Sneak Peek

I have a few topics I’m going to be addressing here in the upcoming weeks. I thought I’d give you all a little peek.

First, I’m going to talk about Mr Collins’ marriage to Charlotte as a reflection of his “marriage” to the Church. As “judgy” as Elizabeth gets with Charlotte for accepting him, his language relating to his profession indicates that he’s just as mercenary as anyone else in the book. OOOOH, the unprincipled Clergyman! I promise I’ll try not to bring up Monk Lewis this time.

I’m also still planning to publish that little autobiographical “Parallels” thing in which I talk about moments and events in my life that are similar to moments & events in Jane Austen’s life. Not because I think I’m that special, but because I am inspired by what she did with her moments.

And thirdly, right around May 4th I’ll be posting a summary of “my remarks” at the JASNA Greater Chicago Region Spring Gala 2013. I’ll also try to post some slides. I’ll be talking about Mr Darcy, so prepare to swoon.

That’s enough of a peek for now. Time for Jeeves to bring out the bathrobe.

firthtub

10,000 Books in the Basement

Not my basement. My mom’s basement. My basement was full of boxes of stuff that we hadn’t unpacked since New Mexico. And more boxes that we hadn’t unpacked since Virginia. And a futon that Greg slept on, because I was 7 months pregnant, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to share the queen bed with him.

I was, in fact, having a nice sleep-in on that queen bed while Greg played an early weekend round of whatever monsters and blood & guts video game he had on the PlayStation. My phone rang and I saw that it was, not surprisingly, my mother. We talked pretty frequently on the phone, and as I was carrying her very first grandchild, I was expecting the typical “are you feeling ok?” conversation.

“Hi mom.”

“Hiii… So you’re feeling ok?”

“Yeah, you know, I wish I could get more sleep and everything. And I have this big paper due on Tuesday and a final in International Political Economy, so I suppose I should be working on that stuff instead of sleeping in, right?” I knew she liked to make sure I was keeping up with my homework.

“Yeah I guess you should! Well I have a question. How would you like to own a bookstore?”

My mom has a unique way of introducing topics. My sister and I call it the “momtrain” – she kind of blasts through a conversation like a freight train, and if you aren’t ready for it, you can get a bit confused.

“What?”

“Well I called Pat to order some books from her and I ended up having a long conversation with her about the store. She’s thinking of getting out of the business, and I think it would be a real shame for all of those books to go to someone who doesn’t specialize in Jane Austen like she does, you know?”

“Um….” …and so it began.

My mom and I did a lot of the business planning and financial stuff in the next few weeks. We went up to Chicago to see the books and talk over the details of the transition with the previous owner, me carting around my big pregnant belly and trying very hard not to let Chicago traffic cause me to go into labor. I was luckily a little too busy creating life to help move 10,000 books from Chicago to Cleveland – in July. But I sure didn’t escape the work of cataloging, categorizing, labelling, pricing, and more that went on over the next few months.

Our “coming out” was at the JASNA AGM in Chicago – fitting, as the previous home of the bookstore. We would be bringing not only the books, but the new baby. At 10 weeks, my little Colin was still just figuring out all of that eating and pooping stuff that they do, but boy did he look adorable as a mini Mr Darcy.  We were totally taken aback by the swarm of shoppers – there were several points at which I was delicately nestling my dear boy in the crook of my left elbow, while my right hand was in a frenzy, scribbling receipts like a mad woman. It was intense, bizarre, overwhelming, and just about the most fun I’ve ever had.

Colin as Mr Darcy in 2008…
…and again in 2009

Of course, we should have known that we’d get swarmed. Not only is Chicago a book town, but this was a conference full of people JUST LIKE US. The only difference between us and them is that while they love books so much that they just can’t walk past a bookshop without buying one, we love books so much that we couldn’t walk past without buying the whole darn store.

Which brings me back to the basement. Over the next few months we finally settled in, got everything alphebetized, got Colin a real shirt, and spread further and further into every last available nook and cranny of my parents’ basement. Any hopes of a future pool table were dashed! Space for band practice disappeared! Amplifiers and exercise equipment, old bedroom furniture, books about things other than Jane Austen were banished upstairs! The books spread like locusts, their innocently charming subject matter doing nothing to obscure the menacing rapidity of their growth!

Or something like that.

Of course, there is a simple solution – we could just sell all of the books, and run off to the East Indies with boatloads of cash and an empty basement! That’s totally how it works. Just ask any bookseller “How can I make a million dollars selling books?” and they’ll tell you the secret!

No, seriously, it’s pretty cool having a mom with a basement full of books. In fact, the hardest part about running the bookstore is parting with some of the amazing things we have, especially if they’re sold before any of us gets to read them. Maybe book lovers shouldn’t be in the business selling books, I don’t know, but every now and then we get a really nice used copy of something that someone else has already gone to the trouble of beating up a little, so we don’t feel so bad about sneaking a read.

So now I’ve let the cat out of the bag – there are truly some great perks to running this little bookstore. One of the best is that we get to take “business trips” to some really awesome places. We were already members of JASNA for years before we got into the Jane Austen Books business, but we very rarely had the pleasure of attending an AGM. Now we have to go, and even though we spend the whole time working crazy long hours, carrying literally tons of books around a hotel in our grownup clothes, carting babies back and forth across the country, dressing said babies in costumes they will hate us for, and working ourselves into little worn out, frazzled husks of our former selves, we also get to sneak away to breakout sessions, chat with our friends in Austen-speak, and meet authors we look up to like movie stars! We got an order from David Gilson in our first week! Juliet McMaster says hi to us and asks us about our kids! Joan Ray sent me an email!!!!

Frenzied!
Costumed!
Overworked!

It’s just a bit too much to take in, isn’t it. We are incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to do the things we do, and pass on some of the fantastic books and merchandise we have, much of which would be out of reach for many of our customers, since much of it still comes from overseas. Because as bustling and crowded and busy as the Austen world seems to those of us pre-Firth-shirt fans, it is still largely driven by a small core of passionate fans – of course, many of whom are members of JASNA – but we are the crazy ones who, having once dipped our toes into the mysterious pool of Jane’s genius, were swept away beyond the shore into lands of fantasy re-writes, Bollywood adaptations, and the in-est of in-joke t-shirts. We are the ones who flock to a screening of a new movie just so we can complain about the things they left out. We are the ones who drive our spouses crazy by saying things like “don’t even joke, you are so not clever enough to be Mr Palmer!”

And for the forseeable future, we, – my mother, my sister and I – are the ones who are pulling that book you really want off the shelf for you, flipping through it as we pretend to gather packing material, knowing that we’re never going to see this book again because it’s rare, as so many of our books are, and sending it out to you, out of the basement and into the world, ready to enlighten or entertain. We are a humble little bunch of people, and we are still learning how to do this whole bookstore thing, but it is as much a part of our lives now as our children.

Lucky for the kids though, they weren’t alive before we had the bookstore, so they’ll never know about all the cool stuff they missed in that pre-bookstore basement. I mean seriously, Dad’s band was pretty good.