England Trip: Stoneleigh Abbey, Part 1

The first full day of our England adventure found us hitting two fantastic literary sites. The first was a small, insignificant place in a town no one’s ever heard of.

Oh my gosh, no, seriously, we went to Shakespeare’s house. Yes, Shakespeare’s HOUSE. Because it was awesome, that’s why!

Yes, this the house in which William Shakespeare was born & grew up. No, I don’t know who those random selfie-taking tourists are in the foreground.

I’ll spare you the entire set of “I’M IN SHAKESPEARE’S HOUSE!!!” vacation pictures, unless you’re friends with me on facebook. In that case, once I get them uploaded you’ll never hear the end of it.

From Stratford-Upon-Avon it’s a short drive to Stoneleigh Abbey, near Kenilworth in Warwickshire. In fact, it’s only about fourteen miles away. I would hope that Jane Austen would have known when she visited the house in 1806 that she was so close to Shakespeare country – and she may have. It became a tourist destination for the literary-minded in her lifetime:

Once the family line had come to an end, the house was allowed to fall into a state of disrepair until a rekindling of interest in the 18th century. Isaac WattsCharles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott and Thomas Carlyle were among the notables that visited the birthplace and autographed the walls and windows. Many of the signatures still remain on the windowpanes around the house, although the signed walls have long since been painted over. A guest registry book includes the signatures of Lord ByronAlfred, Lord TennysonJohn Keats, and William Thackeray.

It’s not surprising to see the ever-romantic Byron on the list. And as I found out later, he was in the area for more than just a Shakespeare pilgrimage. But you’ll have to keep reading to find out about that.

After our most excellent tour of Shakespeare’s Birthplace we intended to head directly for Stoneleigh in time to pick up the Jane Austen Tour. Of course, because I am a scatter-brain (me? never!) and we were all running on jet-lag and English food (kidding, it was good), we got there right on time! Half an hour late! I guess I just wrote it down wrong. I have been known to do that kind of thing on a few occasions. Okay, on many occasions.

However, I was expected, because I’m special and amazing. After being greeted by the ever-patient and good humored young man at the desk, we repaired to the Victorian Orangery, now converted to a charming tea room, and waited for the Austen tour to finish. (Click to make the pictures bigger.)

David, our tour guide, met us after he finished the Austen tour and answered some of my questions. The most important thing I learned from him, however, is that the people who work at Stoneleigh Abbey are among the nicest people in England. He even stayed in his Austen costume for our non-Austen tour – and believe me, staying in boots and a tailcoat is just above and beyond the call of duty for a young man. Well done, David.

At this point we finally got ourselves onto an actual tour. It began at the 14th century Gatehouse. “Oh, boring, a Gatehouse, yawn” – right? Wrong.1

You see, way back in 1154, Henry II granted some land to a band of Cistercian monks who weren’t happy in their current home. (Not surprising, as they’d been repeatedly robbed. I’d want to move too.) Henry wasn’t too busy, between all the battles and political subterfuges and claiming territories & whatnot, so he said “Sure guys, why not. Take this land for your Abbey, and I’ll move my hogs somewhere else. No biggie.”

See? Hogs.
See? Hogs.

For a little while the monks moved to a local village, into a peaceful, restful, truly spiritual place. I’m kidding again:

“These monks first settled at a house in the neighbourhood of Stonele called “Crulefield,” now Cryfield, a name ascribed by local tradition to the cries of the children slain by a “foreign Earl,” who was a great robber, and infested the country, and who lived here till removed by the king’s orders to make room for the more peaceable monks.” (History of Stoneleigh Abbey)

Suprisingly, they got robbed there too. So they said “forget it, we’re not staying here to be robbed and screamed at by the ghosts of murdered children,” and they took their God stuff to Stoneleigh, where they built their Abbey. And now we come to the Gatehouse. Everything was finally going well for the monks, and they were left in peace to pray and raise crops and focus entirely on pure, Godly thoughts, ha ha, oh boy, I am kidding again! Apparently the monks were not popular in their new home, because in 1241 King Henry III visited nearby Kenilworth Castle, and while he was there he ordered 40 trees cut down and sent to Stoneleigh to rebuild the Gatehouse. The original Gatehouse was sacked and burned in what must have been an extraordinary riot.

The loss of a Gatehouse to a band of angry torch-wielding peasants was probably quite a dramatic sight to behold. But anyone who missed it only had to wait another century or so, because they did it again. This time the monks got wise to the world, and rebuilt the Gatehouse in stone. This 14th c. Gatehouse still stands, and it makes quite a beautiful entrance to the grounds.

David explained that the monks of Stoneleigh made money for their order by housing pilgrims traveling the road between Coventry and Stratford. Those who could pay more stayed in the stone Gatehouse – the have-nots stayed in the stables or somewhere even less conducive to sleep. Either way, I’m glad I was born in the time of the Econolodge, and the Motel 6. No matter how awful they are, staying in a cheap motel sure beats sleeping in rotten, filthy hay.

David also gave us the interesting history of a certain abbot named Thomas de Pipe. He had the run of the place starting in 1352, and proved to be an incredibly efficient accountant. His new “Leiger Book” not only kept track of local events, but made the Abbey’s accounting easier to reconcile. This ease is perhaps what got him into trouble:

“In 1364 he was summoned before the king’s court on a charge of alienating the property of his abbey. An inquiry was made by twelve men of the neighbourhood, who reported that the abbot had granted land and rents in Finham to Isabel de Beneshale, his concubine, and their eldest son John to hold for their lives quit of rent. Moreover, fearing to be deposed by the visitors of his order, he had given the grange of Melbourn, worth £20 yearly, to Adam de Stokke, cook, and Roger de Cotes, to hold freely for the support of himself and especially for the support and maintenance of Isabel and the abbot’s children by her, who were more in number than his monks.” (History of Warwick)

Apparently having children who were “more in number than his monks” wasn’t too impressive, because there were only eight monks in the Abbey at the time. But the rumor is that he visited his lady-friend Isabel by means of seven secret tunnels that led to seven mills in the area surrounding Stoneleigh. The 1896 History of Stoneleigh mentions that a group of cottages in the village is referred to as “Pipe’s Mill,” after Thomas de Pipe, but that book fails to mention anything more exciting than his ledger.

David claims that Thomas was fired from his job at the Abbey after his embezzlement and other schemes were discovered, and became a highwayman instead. Supposedly, his intimate knowledge of the wealth of the pilgrims who stayed in the Gatehouse served him well in planning his heists. David further claims that after he had successfully robbed lots of people, he was reinstated at the Abbey, because they found that they had more financial success with him inside the walls than outside.

In the ensuing years, things seemed to finally calm down a bit for Stoneleigh. There isn’t much exciting in the records

Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII and Charles Brandon. The got quite a good value out of Henry's toppling of the church.
Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII and Charles Brandon. The got quite a good value out of Henry’s toppling of the church.

until that little bit about Henry VIII. You know, the one who dissolved all of the monasteries. Stoneleigh was not immune from the dissolution, although at least its abbot was pensioned off at £23 per annum – actually quite a princely sum at the time. Henry VIII bestowed the grounds and Abbey (now stripped of treasures, and of glass & lead) to the husband of his sister, Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk. I have read differing accounts of the myriad ways in which the manor passed down through the Leigh family, and in the next post I’ll do my best to break down the route through which Stoneleigh eventually ended up in the hands of Mrs. Austen’s cousin.

On to Part 2!

1. Before I dive in too deep here, I want to share two links with you that will give you some fun information on “Stanlei,” which became Stoneleigh. They’ll come up again later. The first is an excerpt from “A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 2,” published in 1908 and found at British History Online. The second is “Stoneleigh Abbey, from its foundation to the present time,” written in 1896 by (what must have been) a Leigh family member. Only 50 copies were printed, but Archive.org has the whole thing preserved online.


Do you take this man? [Part II]

In Part I, I briefly discussed some of Austen’s clergy and their marriages. One of the things that got me thinking about these marriages was an article referenced by Sarah Emsley in her blog about Mr Collins. (sometimes I think she and I are the only people talking about Mr Collins!) I already knew I wanted to write something about his marriage to Charlotte, but when I read Ruth Perry’s Sleeping with Mr. Collins (JASNA Persuasions No. 22, 2000) my thoughts clarified a bit. I realized that I wasn’t interested in what Mr Collins’s matrimonial choices say about his relationship with Charlotte, but what they say about his relationship with the church and his parishioners.

Mr Collins’s story is another tool in Austen’s “moralist” toolbox. His marriage to Charlotte is a representation of his symbolic marriage to the church; both should be lifelong commitments, and both carry at least the expectation of faithfulness, honesty, and morality.

But why would a young man with his own money to spend choose to encumber himself with a commitment such as marriage? For sure, much is said of the obligation of young women in the Regency era to marry or suffer dire consequences – but men faced pressure to marry as well. For one thing, if a man was part of the landed class and failed to produce a legal heir, his property would no longer belong to his patrilineal line – in Mr Bennet’s case it was entailed upon his distant cousin Mr Collins. There also wasn’t much of a reason to stay single. Many of England’s eligible young men were off fighting Napoleon or colonizing the Indies, leaving a surplus of pleasant young ladies behind. In the most crude sense, it was a buyer’s market.

Mr Collins’s entry into this market comes in Chapter 13. He is presented to us from the beginning as someone who, though disadvantaged in his youth, has achieved his current position through a combination of brown-nosing and being in the right place at the right time1.

Mr. Collins was not a sensible man, … The subjection in which his father had brought him up had given him originally great humility of manner; but it was now a good deal counteracted by the self-conceit of a weak head, living in retirement, and the consequential feelings of early and unexpected prosperity. A fortunate chance had recommended him to Lady Catherine de Bourgh when the living of Hunsford was vacant; and the respect which he felt for her high rank, and his veneration for her as his patroness, mingling with a very good opinion of himself, of his authority as a clergyman, and his rights as a rector, made him altogether a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility.

His vanity is detestable, but more than that, it shows that he is incapable of learning from those around him. He valiantly ignores Elizabeth’s refusal, prompting her to beg him to “pay [her] the compliment of believing what [she says.]”

Not only is he vain and self-centered, he is also totally unaware of his own ample shortcomings. We feel tremendous pity for Charlotte, and sympathize with Elizabeth’s feelings of betrayal over Charlotte’s agreeing to marry him. But are all of these negative feelings limited to his relationship with Charlotte? Or is Austen using his unsuitability as a mate as a representation of his unsuitability as a religious leader?

We see that his marriage is a matter purely of convenience for Mr Collins, and we’ve established that his profession is as well. [This was not uncommon in Austen’s day – I discussed the role of primogeniture in the dissemination of family livings to younger sons in Part I.] Does he preside over his parishioners with an air of self-congratulatory self-importance? One need not imagine that he presides over Charlotte in this way – we witness both his showy displays of affection and his total lack of emotional penetration during Elizabeth’s Hunsford visit. It’s not hard to imagine him, in the most intimate moments for either wife or parishioner, being carried away with his inflated self-worth. In some ways he is rather like Emma, congratulating himself for “helping” while unwittingly inflicting pain and discomfort.

“Unwittingly” is an important word here. There is undoubtedly something malicious about Mr Collins (though not nearly as malicious as the last several film adaptations would have you believe), but he is also so blind to his own behavior, so naive to social customs and social roles – it is very easy for the reader to see how his unhappy childhood and sheltered university years combined to create a man unaware of the true nature of the world.

But that little twinge of malice in his character shows us that every now and then he is fully aware of the hurt he is causing. His letter of condolence to Mr Bennet on the event of Lydia’s disgrace causes him “to reflect, with augmented satisfaction, on a certain event of last November; for had it been otherwise, I must have been involved in all your sorrow and disgrace.” If we compare him once more to Emma, however, we see that when she is finally able to see how hurtful her behavior truly is after injuring dear Miss Bates, she is mortified and attempts to make amends. But Mr Collins has no such moment of clarity. He has wheedled himself into positions in his personal and professional lives that allow him to continue to condescend with impunity.

It’s simply a shame that such a man would be put in charge of the lives and afterlives of parishioners who had no choice but to involve him in their most vulnerable moments. If we return again to the scene at the Lychgate where we have already witnessed the kind an thoughtful words of Edmund and Edward, and the preening and simpering of Mr Elton, we now see Mr Collins lecturing a grieving widow and her passel of children. One can imagine his admonitions to the children to perform their duties without excessive displays of grief that are unsuitable for those in their station in life. And to the mother, not to expect more than her fair share of charity from his esteemed patroness.

After all this discussion of the less-esteemed clergymen in Austen’s novels I should turn to one that we all love and cherish: Henry Tilney. He is the epitome of sweetness and a paragon of clever convsersation. In some Austen circles it’s considered sacrilegious to even hint that he may be, like the rest of us mere mortals, imperfect.

Henry is an adorably easy to love hero. He doesn’t have any of Mr Darcy’s hauteur or Edmund’s lack of resolution. He is just independent enough to make his own decisions about love, but just dependent enough on his tyrannical father to excuse his failings as a suitor.

I’ve often felt that he’s probably so easy to love because Northanger Abbey is, in Austen-terms, “unfinished.” Of course it’s a complete novel, but she never returned to it to clean it up the way she did with her later, more successful novels. Because it was written when she was still a young woman, and not as drastically redone as Elinor & Marianne or First Impressions, the characters are less complex. Yet even a relatively simple Austen character is infinitely more complex than those of other writers. So while I think Henry’s overpowering sweetness is charming, that charm is tempered by my suspicion that if he’d been revisited by the editing pen, he’d have grown some warts.

As wonderful as he is, however, Henry’s character (shockingly!) carries with it some quirks that make him less lovable than he appears at first glance. After all, much of the time he shares with Catherine in Bath is spent lecturing or ridiculing her – however gently it is done, it is ridicule nonetheless.

“…But now really, do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?”
“The nicest — by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding.”

Henry, lovely Henry, is easy to defend because he is a happy, affectionate lover. He greatly enjoys Catherine’s innocence and naivety. Yet his love for her is tempered with a strange kind of disrespect. He occasionally seems to feel – as does the reader – as if Catherine needs a man who is smarter than her to navigate her through life. And while this may be so for Catherine Morland at 17, will she still feel as if she needs such education as Mrs Tilney, 23? As a 31 year old mother of several children? At what point will Henry stop “teaching” her and start learning from her?

“You are shockingly neglectful of your parish!”

While I don’t think news of their marriage at the end of the novel portends doom and gloom, I do wonder if theirs would be the happiest and best-deserved marriages of the 6 novels. To be sure, he braves quite a bit of unpleasantness from his father to secure Catherine, but once he has her, it is possible that he may learn to neglect her or, if her lovely uninformed mind at 17 fails to mature to his expectations, despise her and make her an object of ridicule for their children.

I can hear the Tilney fans shouting already – “Henry would never neglect Catherine!” But we see that he is eminently capable of neglect. (I greatly enjoyed the phrasing in this wikipedia page: “Henry Tilney, in fact, in Northanger Abbey, is absent from his parish half the time and takes holidays in Bath, so that in spite of his intellectual and moral qualities, he bears witness to the lack of commitment of certain clergymen towards their flock.”) He is supposedly an active clergyman – no mere curate – yet he spends a great deal of time in the novel not attending to his parish.

Perhaps Henry, like Catherine, still has much to learn about the world. His wit is one of his main attractions, but it’s also an indication of the type of clergyman he must be. He is clearly thrilled by educating others, and full of joy and happiness, but would he be able to educate his parishioners without condescending to them or laughing at them? He is barely able to do so with Catherine.

Of course, if given the choice between all of Austen’s clergymen I’d probably pick Henry to guide my family through a traumatic circumstance. I’d rather be talked down to by a man with love and joy in his heart than moped at by either of the Eds, preened to by Mister E, or arrogantly blustered about by the hot air escaping from Mr Collins. And if we are carrying on with the theme of comparing husbands to clergymen, I’ll still stick with Henry, if only for this swoon-worthy quote:

I should no more lay it down as a general rule that women write better letters than men, than that they sing better duets, or draw better landscapes. In every power, of which taste is the foundation, excellence is pretty fairly divided between the sexes.

Right on, Henry, right on.

1. A great outline of Regency clergy history, including reasons for choosing the church as a career, can be found on the JASNA Greater Chicago Region website.)

Do you take this man? [Part I]

After a bit of a hiatus due to an overly busy Spring season with the bookstore, I have returned to my rightful place on the couch with a sick little boy laying on top of me. As an Austen fan it’s probably obvious that I’ve daydreamed about visiting Pemberley or spending a week in Hartfield, getting the lay of the land and catching up on all the latest gossip. But I’ve never been so romantic as to think I’d enjoy living a Regency lifestyle for very long – and this idea is never more clear to me than when I have a child with (thankfully very very mild) pneumonia. I got him in to the doctor before it could make him unbearably ill, and a quick & easy administration of antbiotics in the mornings will soon set him right. What a relief.

Many in Austen’s era weren’t as lucky. Epidemics like tuberculosis and tyhpus could kill hundreds of people, with children the most vulnerable, their tiny bodies not strong enough to fight off these horrifying infectious diseases. A trip to an old churchyard will show you the alarming regularity of child loss in the era before modern medicine.


It’s easy to see old churchyards as charming and quaint, almost decorative additions to village life. In England especially the ancient stone churches feel like monuments themselves – not merely to those eternally resting on their grounds, but to the centuries of small-town concerns these buildings would have witnessed.

But even one of the most iconic images of the classic English church – the Lychgate – is a symbol of death. This quaint wooden structure is the last departure point for an unconsecrated body. Under this roof, the family of the dead would gather for a last time and say their goodbyes. And under this roof they would be joined by their clergyman, whose role was to meet the family at the intersection of unholy and holy ground to perform the rites that would allow their loved one to be given a proper Christian funeral in consecrated ground.

Austen gives us varying views of the English clergy. Herself the daughter of a Reverend, she clearly had great respect for the role of the church in everyday village life, even if that role was often fulfilled by those not up to the task. A few of her ecclesiastical characters actually give us hope for their parishioners; Edward Ferrars’ calm resignation and Edmund Bertram’s thoughtfulness (when not distracted by a pretty woman) both make me think they’d make an honorable showing at the Lychgate, providing quiet and peace to a family embarking on the long and painful journey of mourning. However, there are other members of the clergy in the Austen Canon that make me cringe to think of the way they’d conduct themselves in such a moment.

Though many scholars have taken on Austen’s treatment of the clergy (notably Irene Collins in Jane Austen and the Clergy) I feel as if they deserve another look.

“I always preferred the church”

Although many of her contemporary readers would have been familiar with the standard sibling professional hierarchy, it sometimes comes as a surprise to modern audiences that younger brothers were often assigned careers based simply on the order of their birth. Because of primogeniture, the eldest son was destined to inherit the estate, no matter how terrible he would be at maintaining it. It was ostensibly his choice whether to support his younger siblings financially, although running an estate often didn’t include the financial wiggle room to support more than one family. Also, if you’ve ever spent any time around sibling boys, you can probably imagine that they aren’t exactly fond of sharing their toys.

In Sense and Sensibility Austen does a good job of showing us what happens when sibling relationships deteriorate. Colonel Brandon was the victim of not only his father’s disapproval, but his brother’s abuse. He and Eliza were in love, but she was forced by his father to marry his cruel older brother so that her fortune would stay with the estate. The Colonel was forced into the army to forget Eliza, but he never did. (This is just one example – there are quite a few disfunctional sibling relationships in S&S. It’s pretty much “Boyfights: 1811 edition.”)

Colonel Brandon’s story, however, highlights a dynamic in Regency sibling relationships affected by laws of entailment. Because the younger siblings didn’t inherit an estate they often needed to come up with some sort of income. This usually meant a commission in the Army or the Navy, or if those were “too smart,” the law. And for the son who didn’t fit into any of those roles, there was always the clergy.

We never could agree in our choice of a profession. I always preferred the church, as I still do. But that was not smart enough for my family. They recommended the army. That was a great deal too smart for me. The law was allowed to be genteel enough; many young men, who had chambers in the Temple, made a very good appearance in the first circles, and drove about town in very knowing gigs. But I had no inclination for the law, even in this less abstruse study of it, which my family approved. As for the navy, it had fashion on its side, but I was too old when the subject was first started to enter it, — and, at length, as there was no necessity for my having any profession at all, as I might be as dashing and expensive without a red coat on my back as with one, idleness was pronounced on the whole to be the most advantageous and honourable – Edward Ferrars

Of course, Edward Ferrars’ situation was a bit different. He was an older child left waiting for the death of his mother to inherit his fortune. His younger brother’s heartless manipulations allowed Robert to triumph over Edward financially, but one cannot help pitying the man taken in by Lucy Steele.

Mansfield Park‘s Edmund Bertram is truly the younger brother left to the whims of his older brother’s financial indulgences. And like Edward Ferrars, Edmund is luckily rather happy with the idea of being a clergyman. These Austen heroes both find happiness in a life of quiet solitude and reflection – a choice reflected in both of their marriages to quiet, reflective women.

But not all of Austen’s clergymen make such sensible matrimonial decisions.

Mr. Elton, of course, finds his Augusta at a popular watering-place. They were presumably brought together by their mutual desire to impress others at all costs. I often defend my dear Emma, and in this case it’s easy to see that her being fooled by Mr Elton was due as much to her naivety as to her vanity. Elton, however, proves himself to be exactly what Mr Knightley warned Emma he was.

She remembered what Mr. Knightley had once said to her about Mr. Elton, the caution he had given, the conviction he had professed that Mr. Elton would never marry indiscreetly; and blushed to think how much truer a knowledge of his character had been there shewn than any she had reached herself. It was dreadfully mortifying; but Mr. Elton was proving himself, in many respects, the very reverse of what she had meant and believed him; proud, assuming, conceited; very full of his own claims, and little concerned about the feelings of others.

Emma expected Mr Elton to share her values. She valued a friend who would listen to her and be a submissive and pleasant companion – a role she had played for her own father her entire life. But Mr Elton’s choice of wife shows us that he’s driven almost solely by financial and social ambition. It’s easy to imagine that a man “very full of his own claims, and little concerned about the feelings of others”  would choose appearance over substance not only in courtship, but likely in his his choice of profession as well. After all, what gives a more pleasant appearance than a clerical collar? A man as interested in social position as Elton would likely have seen the church as his ticket into the drawing rooms of elegant young ladies. His appearance at the Lychgate, however, would most likely expose his parishioners to the moral failings of their Shepherd.

Mr Elton supervising Emma's painting of Harriet
Mr Elton supervising Emma’s painting of Harriet

I have to break here because it’s taken me quite a while to get this far and I’m just about to dive into my two favorite clerical characters: Mr Collins and Henry Tilney. I started this blog entry in May (the little one got over his pneumonia very quickly, thank you) but between work and motherhood I’ve been struggling to keep up with it. I’ll get the second half up as soon as possible – until then, what are your thoughts on Austen’s clergymen? Do you think any of them would make good husbands?

Senseless Sensibility

Every now and then we learn a lesson. For some of us it’s an old lesson, repackaged and presented in a new way, forcing us to admit that the changes we thought we’d made weren’t permanent. Hopefully we manage to avoid hurting ourselves or others while we’re figuring out exactly what needs changing.

It won’t be a surprise to most people reading this, but I grew up an Austen daughter – I was the “Marianne” and my sister the “Elinor.” (If you haven’t read Sense & Sensibility, there is a remarkably good film adaptation of it starring Kate Winslet & Emma Thompson. And you know if I’ve recommended an Austen film it’s probably good, since I have rather high standards.) I, like Marianne Dashwood, had a hard time controlling the intensity of my emotions1.

Part of it was the product of being the younger child, feeling compelled to do more to gain the attention of parents & caregivers simply by the nature of my station in life. But part of it was just the way I was made. I’ve only recently started to feel comfortable with myself and able to control the way I react to overwhelming situations. This has yielded astonishingly large benefits, and I finally feel as if I am on the same social footing with my friends & family who have always been able to maintain their composure even in the most challenging situations.

Achieving this emotional well-being has involved a lot of hard work and self-examination, but it’s also a direct result of the help, advice, and mentoring of the amazingly wonderful group of friends and family I’ve been lucky enough to end up with. And when I read (or watch) Sense & Sensibility I’m always struck with Marianne’s good fortune at having ended up with a husband who will not only be her friend, but her mentor. Colonel Brandon is the perfect companion to help her learn, and re-learn, the difficult life lessons of grief and powerlessness against fate.

My most recent lesson of this nature was delivered in the midst of one of the hardest chapters of my life. A frightening family health experience left me bewildered, angry, and scared for months. In the deepest hours of the crisis, I sent updates from the hospital to a small group of friends. They were all constantly supportive, making me feel as though my  concerns were theirs as well, and that they’d support me in my darkest hours of fear and loneliness. I was crying out for their support and guidance and they, like Elinor, held me (if only in their hearts) as my soul exploded in agony, striking out against my own heart and mind in senseless fear.


It wasn’t until months later that I learned one of these friends was going through a crisis much more terrifying than mine. The moment I understood the magnitude of what she was facing was a revelation for me. It was like Marianne’s realization that Elinor had also suffered greatly, only Elinor had suffered in silence. In one of the most poignant passages in the novel, Marianne responds to Elinor’s question about the conduct of the man who had so thoroughly broken Marianne’s heart:

“Do you compare your conduct with his?”

“No. I compare it with what it ought to have been; I compare it with yours.”

Although Marianne may be giving her sister undue credit – burying emotional responses as deeply as Elinor does can be just as damaging as uncontrollably letting them loose – this moment is an incredible admission on Marianne’s part that she has been abusing not only the people around her, but herself. By allowing her emotional reactions to take over her life, Marianne has spent the greatest part of the novel in a state of depression and regression. For pages and pages (in her world, months and months) she doesn’t allow her life to move forward, she isn’t able to find any joy either in solitude or in the company of those she loves.

I must also give myself as much credit as I’ve extended to Marianne; I was not wandering through rainstorms in a thin dress, or refusing sleep and food. My emotional reactions were entirely reasonable for the situation I was facing. But “reasonable” is a spectrum, and for the greater part of my life I teetered on the very edge of it. I was just, in fact, beginning to get a pretty good handle on it when my own crisis hit, and I felt my control slipping away into a deep, shattering grief. But unlike Marianne, I had the self-reflection to wonder whether my grief was justified, which only added a layer of guilt and shame to my fear and sadness.

This is the reason I don’t usually believe in comparing levels of grieving – some things hit people harder than others, and when I’m in a clear frame of mind I can see that I’ve got no need to justify my own suffering through comparison with someone else’s. That lesson was one I learned in high school, from a boyfriend who was “bad news” in almost every other way. I was moving from the school district I’d spent my life in to one in which I’d be a stranger and an outcast. I was devastated, and my devastation was compounded by my guilt for being upset over what, in the grand scheme of things, was nothing compared to the suffering of my friend whose father had just passed away, or the friends of a much-beloved teacher who had died of a brief & sudden illness. I was in a spiral of guilt, fear, shame, and anger, but he said to me (seriously, the only moment of that relationship worth remembering) “it doesn’t matter what someone else is going through. This is very hard for you, and you are allowed to be very upset by it.”

But you see, there are grief events which are immune to comparison. The loss of a child, parent, sibling, spouse, partner – these events are on their own grief scale. And when I was faced with the possibility of such an event (which **thankfully** didn’t happen), I was bewildered, terrified, desperate for help and assurances that everything would be okay. So how is it that my friends and family members who have faced these incomparably horrible losses have done so with such composure? These admirable Elinors of mine – I surround myself with the unflappable types – they are my strength even in their suffering. It is through them I have learned so much about myself. I have learned the humility that comes with the realization that my life is not over, my sun still rises. Because unbelievably, they are still living. They are still strong and in control. And even if they have moments where they are neither, they are still able to continue living in a way that honors those they’ve lost. I only hope I have learned enough from these friends and loved ones to be able to do the same if I’m ever faced with such a terrible, senseless loss.


I compare it with what it ought to have been; I compare it with yours.

As momentous as her moment of clarity is, Marianne’s lesson isn’t just learned in that moment. It will be learned again and again over her lifetime. Some Austen scholars theorize that with the extreme age difference and his deep melancholy, her marriage to Colonel Brandon is more penance than prize. While there are reasons to argue in favor of that theory, I also take great comfort in the idea that Marianne will end up with a man who has suffered so much more than she has with such greater dignity, and who can guide her through the self-discovery that becomes necessary as we age. I like to imagine that Marianne will discover, like I have, that it is not only possible but necessary to maintain at least enough composure to prevent injuring oneself & others. Sensibility of the kind Marianne and I share needs to be tempered with the Sense we are magnetically attracted to in others. Senseless indulgence in emotions – even positive emotions – can be destabilizing and counter-productive for those of us who are already intensely tuned in to our own feelings.

There are, however, some benefits to being a “Marianne.” I, like Marianne, am not afraid to speak my mind. Because I, like Marianne, am so eager to share my love and friendship with others, I have built up a lifetime of amazing friends. And since, like Marianne, I have caused myself to suffer more intensely than necessary, I have learned to value the strength of those around me who have been so willing to share their calming presences.

I would love to finish this by saying “I hope nothing bad ever happens again to me or any of my friends, so that I won’t have to test my emotional strength.” But that seems like tempting fate, doesn’t it? As I’ve written this I’ve started to understand one more thing about life, death, loss, and grieving – terribly sad things will happen, and we will all keep going. We will surround ourselves with the people who bring us back to who we want to be. And as for us Mariannes, if we are fortunate we will find Elinors to remind us that we can’t move forward if we are intent on suffering in senseless sensibility.


1. Austen describes her young heroine thus: “She was sensible and clever, but eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation.” This, for modern readers, is what the title is getting at when it identifies “sensibility” as a trait that will be explored during the novel. Although the word’s meaning has evolved a bit into a description of rational thought as opposed to emotional reaction, when we identify Marianne’s emotional displays as her overindulgence of her “sensibilities,” the concept is more easily tied to the word than if we simply apply a modern definition.


I started this entry on the 15th of March, but I couldn’t figure out where it was going for quite a few days. While I’m not sure it ended up anywhere in particular, it was quite a joy to ramble on a bit about such a fascinating pair of characters.


‘The ides of March are come.’
‘Ay, Caesar, but not gone.’

Traditionally the day on which Romans sacrificed their sheep to appease Jupiter, the “Ides of March1” is now mostly remembered for the justification of the soothsayer’s warning to Julius Caesar, that he should “beware the ides of March.” We in the audience know what fate awaits the hubristic Caesar. His ultimate sacrifice to the Roman god of power proves the lie in his boast to the Soothsayer.

PORTIA. Come hither, fellow;
Which way hast thou been?
SOOTHSAYER. At mine own house, good lady.
PORTIA. What is’t o’clock?
SOOTHSAYER. About the ninth hour, lady.
PORTIA. Is Caesar yet gone to the Capitol?
SOOTHSAYER. Madam, not yet. I go to take my stand
To see him pass on to the Capitol.
PORTIA. Thou hast some suit to Caesar, hast thou not?
SOOTHSAYER. That I have, lady. If it will please Caesar
To be so good to Caesar as to hear me,
I shall beseech him to befriend himself.
PORTIA. Why, know’st thou any harm’s intended towards him?
SOOTHSAYER. None that I know will be, much that I fear may chance.
Good morrow to you. Here the street is narrow,
The throng that follows Caesar at the heels,
Of senators, of praetors, common suitors,
Will crowd a feeble man almost to death.
I’ll get me to a place more void and there
Speak to great Caesar as he comes along.

Yet Caesar’s assassination was more than a sacrifice – each blow was a consummation of the oath taken by a circle of conspirators, and each drop of Caesar’s blood, meant to cleanse the Republic of his influence, became a stain on their hands.


Jane Austen was certainly familiar with Shakespeare. And contrary to the beliefs of those who would class her fiction as simple romances or “chick lit,” her books are powerhouses of subtle references to the world around her – one in which war, intrigue, assassination, and espionage were facts of life. At the 2002 JASNA AGM in Toronto, Professor Li-Ping Geng presented his theories2 that Mansfield Park is partly a story of England’s wars superimposed upon a traditional English country manor. Other scholars have theorized that Emma‘s Frank Churchill is a representation of France – his disruptive return to Highbury an attempt to conquer the quintessential English homeland even though they shared familial ties. And of course, Henry Tilney confounds us with his admonition to Catherine that ghastly things could not happen in England, what with every neighborhood being filled with “voluntary spies.”

Austen’s writing is notably free from the violence and gruesome imagery of her Gothic predecessors. She chooses to plumb the depths of human nature through everyday relatable social situations. So where a Lewis or Radcliffe would have placed a terrifying remote castle populated by a brutish thug, Austen demonstrates the real devastation of loneliness, isolation, and grief in ways we can recognize as even modern readers. Though he at least has a choice in the matter, Mr Woodhouse and Miss Bates are both social prisoners in Highbury. Anne de Bourgh’s got a gilded cage. Charlotte Lucas walls herself off from the world of sensible companionship. And of course, young Fanny Price is taken from her family and thrown into the little cramped dungeon of an attic at Mansfield Park, where she spends solitary hours without heat or company.

Austen’s genius, however, is not merely in the portrayal of the victims of loneliness and despair. While her villains are seemingly not as terrifying as a monstrous uncle or raping Monk, they are somehow more troubling due to their all-to-real ability to cling to their positions of social power.

Some Austen villains are able to continue their abuses due to their rank in society. Lady Catherine is an obvious example – perhaps the only statement of Wickham’s we can trust is his description of her: “her manners [are] dictatorial and insolent. She has the reputation of being remarkably sensible and clever; but I rather believe she derives part of her abilities from her rank and fortune, part from her authoritative manner…” General Tilney is another character in which we see rank obscuring what would otherwise be obvious defects in temper. But not all of the villains have the shelter of rank – Mrs Norris, arguably the most evil of Austen’s creations, is in fact a widow with an income dramatically smaller than those whose lives she attempts to control. The others use their rank to grow or retain their power over others; Aunt Norris’s power comes from almost unearthly manipulative control over Sir Thomas Bertram.


On the surface, Mrs Norris doesn’t seem to share many similarities with a fallen Roman Dictator. But her story is (hilariously) similar (seriously, stop here and read the bit from Suetonius3) – like Caesar, who had early potential but was placed into a position with the church, Aunt Norris’s early beauty seems to mark her for something higher than her ultimate betrothal to a Reverend. Once free from the ties that bind them to their clerical responsibilities – Caesar’s position as high priest of Jupiter lost in the upheaval of a civil war involving his uncle, and Aunt Norris’s lost in merry widowhood – they are both free to pursue power as the ultimate end of their means.

Aunt Norris conquers even her allies, bending the Bertrams to her will. She ruthlessly assassinates the character of anyone unfortunate to end up on her bad side (including the carpenter’s son). Yet when called on by Sir Thomas to take on real power, perhaps by lodging the motherless Fanny in the Parsonage, she demures. Upon the death of her husband and her removal to a home even more suitable to the company of a young companion, she again defers her claim to the title of “guardian,” even though she has actively assumed the role since before Fanny’s arrival at Mansfield. Though not remotely as averse to being in the spolight as Mrs Norris, Julius Caesar resigned less than two weeks after being appointed Dictator for the first time. But like Mrs Norris, once he finally assumed ultimate power without oversight, his downfall was inevitable.

For like Caesar, Aunt Norris’s mistakes grew out of self-indulgence and a sense of invincibility. Her repeated “assassination” attempts against Fanny’s character finally undermined her authority with Sir Thomas – especially when contrasted with her encouragement of the truly outrageous behavior of his own daughters – much like Caesar’s overstepping of his powers angered the Senators and powerful Romans he had supplanted through murder or political maneuvering.

In the end, both were destroyed by the very people they’d stepped on in their pursuit of power and control. Some witnesses reported that with Caesar’s last words he lamented Marcus Brutus’ role in his murder, which was inspirational for William Shakespeare in his adaptation of Caesar’s life. Aunt Norris, too, at the last cursed and lamented the role of her trodden-upon niece in her downfall. “Mrs. Norris, instead of having comfort from either, was but the more irritated by the sight of the person whom, in the blindness of her anger, she could have charged as the daemon of the piece. Had Fanny accepted Mr. Crawford this could not have happened.”

‘Et tu, Fanny?’

(Okay, I know it’s not Aunt Norris, but this is such a great picture…)


This is all, of course, silly and speculative. I am not in the least bit convinced that Austen set out to make Aunt Norris in the image of Julius Caesar. Rather, her masterful portrait of a person whose hunger for power overtakes all other pursuits, even friendship, is recognizable in other similar characters whether literary or historical. It’s not hard to find parallels with other personalities, or even with one’s own personality. I certainly have a bit of Aunt Norris in me, even if that bit is tiny and wrapped up and buried in a heck of a lot of layers of “don’t be a jerk.” But I see in myself the same need to feel in control, the same desire to be the one making the Big Decisions, and especially the desire to do so when the risk involves someone else’s resources instead of mine. That’s part of what makes the “bad” characters so much fun to read; they allow us to see the dark parts of our psyches blown out to proportions that make them easier to identify and tear down in our own lives. Unless of course we’re beyond the reach of morality. In which case – I’d advise sticking close to home around March 15th or so…


1. I realize I make frequent use of links to Wikipedia. While there is quite a worthy debate about its accuracy and its standards, as well as other glaring issues, I find it’s a good starting point for really basic background information, and a good jumping-off point for learning more about a topic. (The key is to go down to the bottom of the page and dig through the links in the footnotes.) Still, if all you need is a refresher on the overall plot of The Monk, I don’t see how a few misspellings or inaccuracies are going to keep you from seeing that Ambrosio is a really nasty dude.

2. From JASNA’s Toronto AGM website: Li-Ping Geng: “The Siege of Mansfield: Jane Austen’s Art of Political Manoeuvring.” The myth that Jane Austen was politically naive and less-than-well-informed has been blown away. This paper will examine Jane’s art of politics in her late novel, Mansfield Park (1814), and will focus on its “siege” by “foreign legions”, even as England was waging successful military campaigns across the Channel. It will ponder the moral destruction of a seemingly secure stronghold in the peaceful English countryside, and try to explain why and how the battle was lost. Li-Ping plans to illustrate some of the dramatic and poignant acts of political manoeuvring which typically reflect Jane’s art of irony and humour but, more importantly, reveal Jane’s political viewpoint towards the historic events of her day.

3. The whole segment on Julius Caesar is interesting, but I’ve had a whole lot of fun pulling out Norris-ish tidbits, like “In consequence he had more gold than he knew what to do with,” and “He covered great distances with incredible speed, making a hundred miles a day in a hired carriage and with little baggage, swimming the rivers which barred his path or crossing them on inflated skins, and very often arriving before the messengers sent to announce his coming.” But I really had a lot of fun with this part:

I. Julius Caesar, the Divine [3], lost his father [4] when he was in the sixteenth year of his age [5]; and the year following, being nominated to the office of high-priest of Jupiter [6], [appointed by allies of his uncle] he repudiated Cossutia, who was very wealthy, although her family belonged only to the equestrian order, [Can’t we picture young Miss Ward “repudiating” Sir Thomas because he was only of the “equestrian order”] and to whom he had been contracted when he was a mere boy. He then married (2) Cornelia, the daughter of Cinna, who was four times consul; [politically convenient marriage which allows him to move closer to the seat of power] and had by her, shortly afterwards, a daughter named Julia. [Julia? Hmmm…] Resisting all the efforts of the dictator Sylla to induce him to divorce Cornelia, [Maria?] he suffered the penalty of being stripped of his sacerdotal office, his wife’s dowry, and his own patrimonial estates; and, being identified with the adverse faction [7], was compelled to withdraw from Rome. [Perhaps to an establishment “formed for him in another country, remote and private”] And: We are assured that when Sylla, having withstood for a while the entreaties of his own best friends, persons of distinguished rank, at last yielded to their importunity, he exclaimed—either by a divine impulse, or from a shrewd conjecture: “Your suit is granted, and you may take him among you; but know,” he added, “that this man, for whose safety you are so extremely anxious, will, some day or other, be the ruin of the party of the nobles, in defence of which you are leagued with me; for in this one Caesar, you will find many a Marius.”

Shakespeare had a little Lamb

I haven’t really read Shakespeare since I was in high school. I read very quickly in a bit of a weird way – I tend to just breeze through sentences by sort of “getting a feeling” of what they say – which can be a problem if something unexpected pops up. I don’t know if there’s a name for my style of reading, but as I’ve gotten older I tend to get a bit bored when I have to put in even a tiny bit more than the barest minimum of effort in order to extract plot, dialogue, character, etc. So while I had a lot of fun reading the Bard in my teenagerhood, I find my adult self glazing over and finding off-page distractions due to the extra effort that goes into following the rhyming meter and the “enter“s and “exeunt“s.

See, I used to read for enjoyment. I’d have a few hours to myself, and I’d use them to get every last bit of substance out of whatever was in front of me. But now with two loud, boisterous, insane, interrupting young children, and a job, and lots of things to do, I end up reading in that half hour window between my face hitting the pillow and my eyes closing. What I’m saying here is that lately prose is my thing. It’s a lot easier to fall asleep to a nice, flowing narrative than something requiring that tiny bit of extra work. This is why my big fat heavy copy of the Complete Shakespeare, a gift from my mom for my 18th birthday, has been gathering a bit of dust.

Oh I’ve tried adaptations, but I don’t handle audiobooks well, (zzzzz) and many of the Shakespeare films & plays I’ve seen are poncy & overwrought. Having said that, I generally enjoy live performances, and I’d really love to go to the Globe next time I get to London. (Maybe I could catch an “Original Pronunciation” performance! And I love that these guys  agree with my “poncy & overwrought” bit.) But lately I’ve been finding myself diving into some of the more obscure bits in Austen – many of which involve references to Shakesperian works – so I got that itch to read him again. Only it didn’t itch badly enough for me to pull that big heavy book of my shelf. So I decided to think like a Regencian(?) and take the easy way out. Enter:

Tales From Shakespeare

(1807) by Charles and Mary Lamb

Charles and Mary Lamb were interesting characters. Charles was born in the same year as Jane Austen (1775) and later became close friends with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose main claim to fame is, I believe, being mentioned in Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency1. Their family was not overly poor during their childhood, but as the children grew older the Lambs fell on hard economic times. But through Charles Lamb’s attendance at a boarding school for low-income children (which he unfortunately attended during the reign of a brutally violent headmaster) he was able to earn an education that would eventually allow him a mostly middle-class lifestyle.

His sister Mary was a voracious reader and, being 11 years Charles’ senior, treasured her father’s stories of meeting Samuel Johnson and a childhood memory of spotting Oliver Goldsmith in the street. As a woman she was unable to escape to a school or work outside the home, so she worked as a seamstress while simultaneously caring for three incapacitated family members. Unfortunately, though she was highly intelligent and rational, Mary suffered from a mental illness which rendered her occasionally violently unstable. She had a breakdown in 1796 during which she stabbed her mother to death. She was ruled as suffering from “lunacy,” and was institutionalized on and off during the rest of her life.

Mary’s life stabilized quite a bit after her brother became financially secure enough to take her in. They lived together as bachelor siblings, each offering the support that neither had found in anyone else. Their social circle expanded to include the Wordsworths, William Godwin, and William Hazlitt. (If you’re not familiar with these names, that’s okay – it just means you’re not as gigantic of a nerd as I am.) Mary, having been encouraged by a friend to write fictions aimed at young people, began a project with her brother to adapt Shakespeare’s works for young readers. And thus, Tales from Shakespeare was born.

As I mentioned above, I have a great fondness for prose. This made Tales from Shakespeare a quick and enjoyable read for me, and I highly suggest it to anyone wanting a fast and simple refresher on the more popular plays. But, dear reader, you may notice things about the Lambs’ adaptation which may tickle a funny bone or two.

In true chivalrous style, Charles adapted the tragedies and left Mary the comedies. The true comedy, however, begins in the preface: (pardon me for the huge quote, but this whole bit is hilarious.)

…For young ladies, too, it has been the intention chiefly to write; because boys being generally permitted the use of their fathers’ libraries at a much earlier age than girls are, they frequently have the best scenes of Shakespeare by heart, before their sisters are permitted to look into this manly book; and, therefore, instead of recommending these Tales to the perusal, of young gentlemen who can read them so much better in the originals, their kind assistance is rather requested in explaining to their sisters such parts as are hardest for them to understand: and when they have helped them to get over the difficulties, then perhaps they will read to them (carefully selecting what is proper for a young sister’s ear) some passage which has pleased them in one of these stories, in the very words of the scene from which it is taken; and it is hoped they will find that the beautiful extracts, the select passages, they may choose to give their sisters in this way will be much better relished and understood from their having some notion of the general story…

(emph. mine)

The “manly” plays included for the elucidation of weak young feminine minds are as follows:


“My dear brother, can you please explain this manly book to me?”

I find it rather entertaining to see the bawdy Bard’s best bits through the hyper-moralizing lens of the early 19th century. Though it was not nearly the wet-blanket-prim-and-perfect-party of the later Victorian age, bookshelves of the Regency era (especially in homes with ladies in them) were rife and teeming with morality.

While the Regency era was rather more “englightened” than Elizabethan times, both had their issues with female autonomy. I’ve pulled out some fun quotes from the Lambs’ “modern” interpretations of Shakespeare’s expressions of femininity, and of their general comments concerning customs of his day: (again, emphasis mine)


“…she was, with weariness and hunger, almost dying; for it is not merely putting on a man’s apparel that will enable a young lady, tenderly brought up, to bear the fatigue of wandering about lonely forests like a man…”

“…Imogen delighted them with her neat housewifery, assisting them in preparing their supper; for, though it is not the custom now for young women of high birth to understand cookery, it was then.”

As You Like It:

In those times wrestling, which is only practised now by country clowns, was a favorite sport even in the courts of princes, and before fair ladies and princesses.

Twelfth Night:

“It was a strange fancy in a young lady to put on male attire and pass for a boy; but the forlorn and unprotected state of Viola, who was young and of uncommon beauty, alone, and in a foreign land, must plead her excuse.”

(And here’s a big spoiler in the next paragraph, thanks Mary!)
“When she was dressed in her manly garb she looked so exactly like her brother that some strange errors happened by means of their being mistaken for each other, for, as will afterward appear, Sebastian was also saved.” (Dude! Not cool!)

“Orsino, forsaking the sports of the field and all manly exercises in which he used to delight, passed his hours in ignoble sloth, listening to the effeminate sounds of soft music, gentle airs, and passionate love-songs.”


I wonder if the Lambs ever giggled over archaic phrasing or outdated morality when updating these plays for their contemporary audience. Having read the whole selection, I do feel that there was a concerted effort made to censor not only scenes of violence, but also scenes of sexual excitement or gender ambiguity. I can see why parents of the age would have felt more comfortable exposing their delicate daughters to such a stylized and narrow reading of a set of fiction that was such a vital part of the “Englishman’s constitution.”

“…Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman’s constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them everywhere; one is intimate with him by instinct. No man of any brain can open at a good part of one of his plays without falling into the flow of his meaning immediately.” –Henry Crawford

I also wonder if Jane Austen ever got her hands on a copy of Tales of Shakespeare. I wonder what her thoughts would have been on the quality of the adaptation. Would she have been pleased with the increased accessibility of works which even Edmund Bertram, the nerdiest of nerds, admits are rather complicated?

Or would Austen have bristled at the moralizing tone which Mary Lamb seems to have taken fully to heart in her adaptations of the comedies? Surely there are morals to be learned in Shakespeare’s plays, but I’m not entirely sure “always listen to your husband or father, and never dress like a man” are the main ones.

Anyway, I had a great deal of fun reading the Lambs’ “update” to that Daddy of Drama, that Padre of Poetry, that Cardinal of Comedy, Mr. S. It left me wanting to get back into the plays again, which is a good feeling. Between the children and the purely Austenian day job it’s been a while since I’ve felt inspired to read something for pleasure instead of as a nightcap. Even if their occasional goofy preachies got me giggling, I really appreciated how easy the Lambs’ work made it for me to remember old favorites and assimilate the plots of as-yet unread masterpieces.

Now, I just need a little help getting this giant book down off my shelf. Hmmm, should I start with the tragedies and then move on to histories & comedies? Maybe I should start with the sonnets and then read the plays chronologically? Or… maybe I’ll just play angry birds tonight and leave that big Bard book for tomorrow.

1. Quite possibly one of the best books ever written by one of the best novel writers who ever wrote. If you think I’m kidding, I once wrote an article about how Douglas Adams and Jane Austen are pretty much both the best writers ever ever. Hey, I’m a fangirl, what can I say? [And I’m only linking to the Wiki article because the entire text isn’t online. If you haven’t read this book yet, do it now.]

To New Beginnings

I did something crazy last week. Well, crazier than the things I usually do. I joined Toastmasters International. People who know me may have a hard time accepting the fact that I’m absolute crap at getting up in front of a group of people and talking. Or playing an instrument. Or breathing.

I’m someone you’d think would be great at speaking. In one-on-one interactions I’m relaxed and comfortable – occasionally too comfortable. But once there is a quiet room full of eyeballs focused on me, my hands start to shake and I forget – I’m serious – how to breathe. (Just a note – if you ever happen to look at me and I’m yawning, it’s probably NOT because I’m bored or tired. It’s probably because I’m trying not to hyperventilate. It might be a good time to ask me if I’m ok.)

The real reason I decided to try Toastmasters is because of a talk I did last September at a meeting of the Jane Austen Society of Metropolitan DC. Apparently everyone enjoyed it, but I have a secret to tell you: I messed up my notes. Badly. It’s a very good thing I had slides, because it turned into a much less formal and more conversational talk than I had intended. But don’t let “less formal” and “conversational” deceive you, unless you think it’s totally relaxing to have a conversation with someone who is 30 seconds from bursting into tears and running out the door. But what do I know, I got a good review! Apparently I’m just naturally talented.

That experience was terrifying enough that I decided I would either never do another talk, or I’d figure out a way to do a better job the next time. Then I was asked to speak in Chicago this spring. *gulp* I knew I had to make up my mind.

I decided to jump in to Toastmasters with both feet. I’ll be doing my “Ice Breaker” speech next Thursday night (my husband’s birthday – happy birthday dear, I passed out in front of a room full of strangers!) and right now I’m planning to do a sort of “Parallel Lives” thing1, telling the story of my life along with the life of my Dear Jane – how reading and education were vital parts of our childhood, how each of us almost took the wrong path (poor Harris Bigg-Wither) (poor NMT), how each of us finally found ourselves in a situation where, with the kindness and support of our closest family, we were given the freedom to pursue our passions… yeah, I think it’ll be okay. I just have to be able to get through it without passing out.

Drink to Isabella Thorpe - and to my new venture!
Drink to Isabella Thorpe – and to my new venture!

Turns out these Toastmasters people are everywhere. There’s a club here in town, so I showed up last Thursday unannounced and unexpected. I was wearing the Chuck Nagy jersey I got for free at a game we went to last year, so there was quite a bit of “Oh, is your last name Nagy?” and “So do you play baseball?” nonsense. Sort of like a room full of Christmassy aunts trying to figure out how to talk to a niece they haven’t seen since Easter. I actually enjoyed the meeting quite a bit. It’s kind of like a game show – two people get up and do speeches that are between 5 & 7 minutes, and then the next part is called “Table Topics,” where one person stands up and asks questions to a random attendee and that person has to get up and do a 1-2 minute speech based on the random question or topic.

I went again last night and had my swearing-in ceremony. Wait – let me tell you how it really happened:

I ran into the building, slipping and crunching and almost falling on the snow outside, at 6:31. I burst through the door just as they were finishing reciting the Pledge. Before I could catch my breath I had to take my place at the front of the room and undergo an induction ceremony. I’m sure I was beet red, especially after I realized halfway through the ceremony that I was chewing gum. At some point in the next few days I’m sure I’ll show up on their facebook page getting sworn in as a Toastmaster. Now you know my secret – there was a little ball of Eclipse WinterfrostTM in my left hand.


Then I was told I’d be running the timer that night! Wow, nothing like a trial by fire. But though I may have been all shaky & sweaty the whole time, I did it! Oh, and – one cool thing that happens with this club is that you’re given a “mentor.” Turns out mine is kind of interesting. And to be sure, if Sir Walter’s “man might have had the arranging of his hair, he should not be ashamed of being seen with him any where.”

In case you hadn’t guessed, another “new beginning” for me is this site. I’ve often thought about having a nice, clean, professional place to share my thoughts about writing, reading, Austen, Shakespeare, etc. I hope I can live up to that level of intellectual stimulation. However, don’t be surprised if I occasionally slip in some football or stories about kids.

Thanks for reading. Please feel free to comment with suggestions, questions, or anything else that’s on your mind.

1. …inspired of course by Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, something I started reading after watching Richard Burton & Elizabeth Taylor burn up the screen – and much of the ancient Hellenistic word – in Cleopatra. I just wanted to get a little better feel for poor, long-suffering Marc Antony. Yeah, he was pretty much a drunken letch, but we all have faults.2

2. Plutarch’s work is also known as Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans or simply Plutarch’s Lives – and unlike Cleopatra, it’s available for free at Gutenberg.org.