Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Possibly the best review ever

When I was asked to review Melanie Kerr’s Follies Past, I agreed readily. The novel is termed a prequel to Pride & Prejudice, and who doesn’t love Pride & Prejudice? I was not to be disappointed.

Melanie’s writing is stylistically on the money. She knows this time period well.

She knows the familiar characters well too. None of the Bennetts make an appearance, but Darcy is present. So are Bingley and Wickham, and very true to how Austen created them.  We see the indomitable Lady Catherine de Bourgh and finally find out what is behind her daughter Anne’s silence.

Two subplots give us more information about Caroline Bingley and Georgiana Darcy. The latter introduces a new and charming character who is Georgiana’s dear friend and who plays a big part in averting the scandal that almost overtakes her.

Fans of Austen will delight in this book as much as I did, and even those not familiar with Pride & Prejudice will find a book that stands on its own mertis.

Frances O. Thomas (Rusticating in the Tropics)

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Apologies in advance for my pedantism

My posts usually have some kind of historical bent, even when discussing language. I usually write about etymology or language history, not modern usage.  I am also convinced that the internet is replete with rants about such things, but I am going to throw in my lot with the rest of the grammar police in the fight against that crime against English that is the misuse of the phrase, "begging the question."

I cannot count the number of times I have heard people say, "that begs the question..." followed by the question that the situation poses.

For example, "We want to put a swimming pool in the yard."

"That begs the question of how much it will cost."

NO. Do not say this. It raises the question, or leaves the question, or fails to answer the question, or any number of other words, but is not an example of begging the question. If someone is begging the question, you don't specify the question.

Begging the question is a rhetorical error, similar to a tautology. It means that a question has been posed, and the answer uses the question itself in the answer, and therefore does not answer the question. It has begged the question.

I am put in mind of a time when I had just started working in administrative law, in the area of oil and gas development. In reading some documents, I kept coming across the word, "berming." I didn't know what berming meant, so I called my brother, the pipeline engineer and said, "Cam, what is berming?"

He said, "Oh, that's when you berm something."

I believe I may actually have responded, "Cam, that's begging the question."

This is a very simple example, but it can be more subtle. Another example would be asking someone why they are so strong, only to have them respond that it is because they have strong muscles. It doesn't actually answer the question. It begs the question.

The difference between this and the swimming pool example is the novelty of the question that still stands at the end. If the answer raises the same question that was asked initially, the answer has begged the question. If the answer gives rise to new questions, then it just raises questions. It doesn't "beg the question."

I hope this has been clear. If not, and if you wish to spare us grammar curmudgeons a little of our daily irritation, know that it is always safe just to say, "that doesn't answer my question."

In my case, the question is always, why do I care? My answer is, because it matters to me. Now THAT is begging the question.

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

Read Chapter 1      Watch the Trailers    Order Paperback      Download eBook

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Pride and Prejudice: a Tale of Two Mini-Series

Recently I was trapped in a hotel room in Slave Lake, Alberta. Too tired to do anything productive, and with no local entertainments to draw me out into the bitter, frigid night, I did the only reasonable thing that occurred to me. I watched the 1980 mini-series of Pride and Prejudice on Youtube.

I was deeply apprehensive about doing so. I have attempted to watch pre-nineties adaptations before, and been horrified, so it was with no small suspense that I began the first episode. I think what surprised me the most was how not terrible it was. I would be tempted to say that it is Jane Austen's writing that is so genius, it shines through any production, but one need only look to the latest screen adaptation of the same work to be woefully disproved in that theory.

The 1995 version is definitely superior, on balance, but I must give credit to the 1980 series, as it did many things right. Most importantly, the writers kept as much of Jane Austen's words as they could. Something I cannot tolerate in adaptations of her work is when they totally change the words to the point that none of the underlying genius remains. I understand that dialogue needs to be adjusted to make it work, and I completely allow for the difference between the art forms of novel writing and film-making, but I was nonetheless pleased at the respect for the original work that was shown in the writing.

The casting of Jane Bennett was also excellent in the 1980 show. I have nothing against Susannah Harker, but she is not even as pretty as Jennifer Ehle, much less ten times prettier.

Susannah Harker and Jennifer Ehle

Sabina Franklyn was just right for the role, even if her hair was kind of frizzy in a rather 1970's kind of way.

Sabina Franklyn as Jane Bennett

Barbara Shelley as Mrs. Gardiner
I also really liked Mrs. Gardiner. I thought she really seemed elegant, yet unpretentious. She seemed like just the sort of person Lizzy would confide in and love. She was just as I imagined her in the book. There is nothing wrong with Joanna David's performance. I enjoyed her as I have in all her other roles. I just don't find her as warm as I did Barbara Shelley.

Even with these considerations, however, my opinion of the 1995 series as definitive and best was not threatened in the slightest. A lot of that has to do with advances in film-making generally between 1980 and 1995. We just got a lot better at making shows. I say "we" meaning humanity in general, of course.

In criticising productions, I very rarely blame the actors, and in the case of the 1980 production I am not sure the actors themselves were to blame but the acting itself certainly was. Acting is one of the things that, in my opinion, got a lot better between 1980 and 1995. There will be some who disagree, citing some stellar performances of a bygone age, but really, acting for film and television, generally, has developed as an art form, which is as one would expect given the novelty of it.

It may have been the director making it happen, but the acting was far too artificial, far too choreographed to draw me in. Jane Austen's dialogue is certainly archaic and may feel foreign, but there is no reason it cannot be recited naturally, as we have seen in many subsequent productions.

Elizabeth Garvie as Lizzy
I suspect the director was experienced in classical theatre but not screen acting. There was no intimacy to the performances and it kept me from being drawn in. I just didn't care about the characters that much because they didn't seem like real people.

Perhaps the greatest victim of this was Lizzy. I just didn't like her. I couldn't believe Mr. Darcy would feel so passionately about her. She didn't seem to have any depth. At first, I thought Mr. Darcy was excellent, but that was only in the first half of the show, when he hardly spoke and was disagreeable. Once he started talking, and trying to get Lizzy, and by extension the audience, to like him, it all fell apart. He had convinced me to dislike him, but he could not convince me to like him.

Also, Lady Catherine wasn't funny enough. Mr. Collins was trying to be funny, but he didn't make me actually laugh, not like David Bamber. Mrs. Bennett was quite good. Actually, she might have been one of the better ones, but she just didn't throw herself into it and make it as ridiculous as it should have been, not the way Allison Steadman does. And in much the same way, there is simply no competing with Julia Sawalha as Lydia.

These last two examples perhaps lead me to the belief that it is unfair to compare anything to the 1995 version. The casting was, on the whole, so inspired, and the writing and the production so near perfect, that no other attempt can be expected to rival it.

That said, there was reasonable room for improvement in the 1980 attempt. Another element of the show that demonstrated our advances in film-making was the editing. Not only was everything set up like a stage production, and the pacing very slow, but the transitions themselves were painful. Did someone invent the cross-fade just as this show was in post-production, and were the editors so fascinated and excited by it that they felt they had to use it in EVERY transition? It just made everything drag, and interfered with my suspension of disbelief. The 1995 version, by contrast, skips along at a lively pace and keeps the interest and the energy alive.

I know we fans are often mocked for our devotion to the 1995 mini-series, but really, can you blame us?

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

Read Chapter 1      Watch the Trailers    Order Paperback      Download eBook

Jane Austen thought strawberries were poisonous

I was once asked how I knew so much about strawberries (this was after giving a brief elucidation on their origins and significance). I answered that I was quite avidly interested in Jane Austen. The person I was speaking to looked quite confused and actually said, "what do strawberries have to do with Jane Austen?"

I was stunned. What have they to do with Jane Austen? What has tea to do with China?

I must tell you that I learned everything I know about strawberries from a lecture at the Edmonton Library held by the Jane Austen Society - the same lady in fact from whom I learned about renting pineapples. I don't remember every detail, so if I miss anything, feel free to fill in the blanks in the comments section.

Strawberries are one of the most international plants. I do not say fruits, or berries, because they are neither. They are the inside part of a flower. They seem to have evolved independently on both sides of the Atlantic, and grow in almost every climate.

At some point, I think it might have been the 1700s, the English sent a spy to South America to spy on some colonies there under the very clever disguise of being a botanist. In keeping with his disguise, he brought back some strawberry plants that he found growing on the beach. However, he only brought back the ones with strawberries growing on them, assuming the others were no good. He did not realize there are male and female plants. So the ones he carefully brought to England did not get fertilized and stopped producing - that is until they were planted near some other strawberry plants of different varieties. One such variety had the same number of chromosomes and the two cross-pollinated, producing a whole new breed of strawberry.
Strawberries are called that because they grow in the late summer, and to keep them alive and producing into the cooler fall months, you can pack them with straw for insulation. This was common practice, and gave rise to their name. (I have heard competing theories, but I am going with this one. Please feel free to convince me of others in the comments section.)

In Jane Austen's time, England was coming out of a mini ice age. As the weather warmed, more produce became readily available, and strawberries were a part of that. You will recall the strawberry-picking day in Emma and Mrs. Elton's pontification on the virtues of the various types of strawberry available at the time. They would have made them into jams and pies and other treats, but they would not have eaten them as they picked them, because they believed all raw fruits and vegetables to be poisonous.

Now, it is my experience that often misconceptions like this do have their roots in something true, and since I don't know precisely what they used for fertilizers or pesticides in those days, perhaps it was unsafe to eat them without cooking them.This may be why English cooks are so renowned for boiling their vegetables to death.

I also learned at this lecture that strawberries are a symbol of humility, because they bow themselves to the ground. So, if you see old paintings of people surrounded by strawberry plants, you know that this is meant to show the humility of the subject. I believe the Virgin Mary is sometimes depicted in this way.

This is all I remember from the talk, but I know there was much more. If you know anything else interesting about strawberries, please share. I will only add that I love strawberries. They look so pretty, and when you cut them in half, they look like a heart. How charming.

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Jane Austen locked her tea up and hid the key

Tea box, with key hole
Tea was so valuable once upon a time that the servants were not permitted access to it. They could get to the silver, to the jewels, to the wine, but not the tea. It fell to the family to make the tea themselves, the youngest daughter in general, and in Jane Austen's case, she was the one. She made the tea in the mornings for breakfast, and kept the key herself.

Tea was so valuable that it was used and re-used by the family, then when it was done, it was given to the servants, who used it until it was really done, and THEN, the servants mixed it with sawdust and went to peddle it to the servants of lesser households.

I was told at an event at the Jane Austen festival that it is this practice which gave rise to the use of the phrase "char lady" to refer to the cleaning lady. "Cha" is Chinese for tea. I have also considered the alternative explanation for this term, which is that old tea leaves were used in cleaning floors. If you have read Longbourn by Jo Baker, you might recall her description of this activity.

Georgian Tea Set
Note the large slop bowl at top right, and the handleless cups
Initially, tea cups did not have handles, but were more like Chinese tea cups. Handles were around in Jane Austen's time, but there were plenty of tea sets at her time that had handle-free cups. Tea sets also included, in addition to very large sugar bowls, another large bowl called a slop bowl, for sloshing the last few drops of tea and little bits of tea leaves at the end of a cuppa. Then, when you poured a fresh cup, it did not mix with the cold drops of the previous cup.

As I have said before, tea was not always synonymous with British life. I read one story in Bill Bryson's book "At Home" (an excellent read, which I thoroughly recommend) about the early days of tea in England. He shared a letter from one society lady to another thanking her for sending the tea, saying that she wasn't quite sure what she was supposed to do with it, so she boiled it up and spread it on toast, but found that it wasn't really to her taste. Thanks anyway.

 Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

Read Chapter 1      Watch the Trailers      Download eBook      Order Paperback

Friday, 14 March 2014

A few notes about balls

A ball was not always the grand affair that the word conjures for us these days. Any larger evening gathering with invitations could be called a ball. There would usually be some dancing, but not necessarily. Sometimes there were games. Aside from cards, there were some others, like one where all the guests sat around the table with their hands behind their backs and tried to blow a little ball of string off the table without touching it. Each person was their own goal keeper, and you lost if you let the ball go off the table in front of you.

You did not sit at the table with your spouse and it was considered bad manners to speak to them very much. The idea was that you were out in society; you should engage with society, not with your spouse whom you could talk to any day. Balls could last until dawn sometimes.

If there was dancing, you had to follow certain rules. Firstly, if a gentleman asked a lady to dance, she had to accept, unless she had already agreed to dance with someone else, or she had some very pressing reason. It was the height of rudeness to refuse a dance without cause. Secondly, you could only dance with the same person twice. Any more than that was beyond shocking.

If there were not enough gentlemen, ladies were permitted to dance with each other, one of them taking on the man's part of the dance. Each dance lasted as long as half an hour sometimes, so if you had a bad partner, it could be grueling. Courting couples used dances as one of their only chances to speak with a bit of privacy. There is a part in most dances when the end couple sits out a set, so they just stand there at the end of the line, while everyone else finishes the dance. You always wore your gloves while dancing, so that no skin ever touched.

People often had new dances commissioned for special events like birthdays, and the dance would be named after the birthday girl. I think I learned one in Bath called Laura's Fancy.

There were private and public balls. In London, there were assembly rooms that you had to belong to in order to attend the balls held there during the season, which was from about March to May.

In smaller places, like Bath and seaside resorts, the rules were much more lax, and you didn't have to be quite as high class in order to attend the public balls. This is how these places earned their reputations for attracting social climbers, because it was easy for such types to mix above their station.

A friend of mine told me she is organizing a Jane Austen ball. I hope this post helps her, though I don't know if she will make everyone wear gloves.

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

Read Chapter 1      Watch the Trailers      Download eBook      Order Paperback

5-star review of Follies Past

This book is a prequel to what could have happened prior to the Story of Pride and Prejudice. The story focuses on young Georgianna, she is leaving Pemberley and heading off to continue school in London. We have some original characters Mr. Wickhan and Mr. Darcy to name a few.

Also some new people are introduced. Some are likable, others are not. I liked the originality and the writing style was perfect. Well fitting for the times and we get a glimpse of what could have been. I don't do spoilers so I won't write much more. But I do feel that lovers of Jane Austen would enjoy this read.

- Sheri (Goodreads)

A clever take on what may have happened prior to Pride and Prejudice.

This book is a prequel to what could have happened prior to the Story of Pride and Prejudice. The story focuses on young Georgianna, she is leaving Pemberley and heading off to continue school in London. We have some original characters Mr. Wickhan and Mr. Darcy to name a few.

Also some new people are introduced. Some are likable, others are not. I liked the originality and the writing style was perfect. Well fitting for the times and we get a glimpse of what could have been. I don't do spoilers so I won't write much more. But I do feel that lovers of Jane Austen would enjoy this read.

- Sheri Wilkinson (Amazon.com)

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Bibliobetty's review of Follies Past

From the first two paragraphs it was clear to me that I was to become a captive audience.
The language was beautiful and very similar to Austens. It was a fast read and what a delightful fast read. Darcy, Lord Ashwell, as well as Caroline Bingley with her exuberant ego and hilarious schemes make appearances in this novel.
I fell in love with the character of Clare, for she was a reader. I loved the way the author included titles of books that were popular during that time. The research was remarkably on target.
The romance between Clare and Lord Ashwell gave the book the period romance it needed and all the characters were well-developed. As to Wickham and Mrs. Younge I say “shame on you.”
As I neared the end, I was sad to be leaving the cast of Folly, but then I remembered. I could read Pride and Prejudice again.
- Bibiobetty Books

The Case of the Disappearing "V"

One of the many obscure courses I took in university was Anglo-Saxon. We just studied it as a foreign language. One word that we learned in that class caused me to consider the fragility of the intervocalic "v."

The word was "hlaford" which means "lord." The "f" in the middle is pronounced as a "v." Note that in the modern word, there is no such sound. As I have said before, etymology is a study in which consonants count for little and vowels for nothing at all. Lots of sounds disappear and change, but I thought about the elision of the intervocalic "v" in some poetic examples of words like "ever," "over," and "never," which can be written as "e'er," "o'er," and "ne'er," respectively.

Ever since then, I have been making note of other words in which the "v" disappears.

Take, for example, the lovely Regency gentleman's essential, the cravat. Yes, in English this word has a "v" in the middle, but my point becomes clear when you learn that the origin of this word is "Croat" as in Croatian. Look! The "v" is gone! The Croatian word for Croatia is Hrvatska, with a "v" so we are the ones who took it out of the name of the country, Croatia; we didn't add it to the word for necktie.

Another case is the more common word, "woman." If you go back far enough, the word "man" just meant person. The word "wyf" meant female, and eventually turned into the word "wife." To specify a female person, you could say "wyfman."(The "y" was originally pronounced as a rounded front vowel, like a French "u"). Again, the "f" would have been pronounced as a "v" and again it mysteriously disappears and we are left with "woman."

As an aside, someone came up with a theory that the word "woman" was related to the word "womb" and some people liked this and took it up, even though it is not supported by any evidence and the etymology I have explained is well evidenced and there is no reason to doubt it. If you ever come across this womb-based theory, you may rely on me as your authority for its error.

Another inter-linguistic example is the name John, which in Italian is Giovanni. It seems we English just don't like that "v". (Although not directly relevant, I cannot omit to say that the first "i" in Giovanni is not pronounced. It is only there to soften the "G" the way we don't pronounce the first "e" in George. It is silent, but functional. Without it, the name would be Gorge... King Gorge? Prince Gorge? The Gorge Inn? I don't think so.)

There are other examples, but I think I have made my point with the above. There are reasonable linguistic explanations for this disappearance - "v" is highly vocalic, when placed between vowels, or other highly vocal sounds, it could easily assimilate, etc. - but it was never discussed in the whole course of my degree, and I took every class in which it could have come up. Am I the first to notice this? I would be surprised if there is not a linguist somewhere writing a Masters thesis on the subject, but if not, I am happy to take the credit for it. The "Melanie Kerr Intervocalic Labiodental Fricative Elision Hypothesis" - is it just me or does that sound like a dirty word?

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

Read Chapter 1      Watch the Trailers    Order Paperback      Download eBook

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Nicely Done (review of Follies Past)

I enjoyed this well written novel depicting Jane Austen's beloved characters prior to the period of Pride and Prejudice. The backstory of Georgianna's aborted elopement with Wickham is presented in a very plausible way and nothing in any of the characters seems contradictory to JA's original characterizations.
The humor also comes through, especially in the descriptions of Caroline Bingley and her self-awareness or lack thereof. There is also a parallel story of Georgianna's best friend and her romantic interest. It is, of course, complete with misunderstandings that are eventually rectified to result in the happily ever after ending that typifies Regency novels.
With so many Jane Austen "tribute" novels being written, many of which are truly cringeworthy, it is lovely to be able to recommend one that is nicely done.
- Bichon Mom (Amazon.com)

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Q: Why doesn't your book cover look like a Jane Austen fan fiction cover?

A: I have received a variety of opinions about the cover of my book (on the right), and opinion is certainly divided. Some people say it is not pretty enough, while other say they love how artsy and original it is. The young man who boards in our basement told me he thought the colour choices were very current, very vogue, and he is 21 and knows about these sorts of things. Actually, he didn't say vogue. I think he said "in" - the dark red in particular is apparently very in right now.

Essentially, I didn't want my cover to look like the sort of thing most often seen on Jane Austen spinoff novels. I didn't want it to look like a romance novel, or a novel just for girls, because it really isn't. I mean, it is a love story, but an Austenian love story, with the protagonists acting properly, and the conflict being of good judgment and self-doubt.

Regency Fashion Plate

I thought about doing a few different things for the cover, but they had already been done many times, like fashion-plate type images, or ink drawings on a creamy background.

A fine house, happily situated
Then there were the floral backgrounds with caliagraphic text, or pictures of English country homes with Brownian sloping greens. I do like a lot of the covers that meet these descriptions, but I just wanted to do something that hadn't been done before, something edgy, and bold, yet historical in its references, and still sort of folk-art in its styling. I also wanted it to be just dark enough to be mysterious, but still playful.

The other option was to try to look like a work of classic English literature, and use an image of an old oil painting, or just a plain, monochrome cover with black or gold embossed border. But those didn't seem eye-catching or interesting enough.

In the end, I sat down with Angela Rout, a visual artist, and she showed me some of her design work. I was intrigued when I saw a paper-cutting that she had done for some promotional materials for a local theatre production. I really liked the fact that this was a very old and simple art form, and yet was very graphic and clean and kind of contemporary in its effect. I started to see examples of it everywhere, and I was determined to use it for my cover design.

Although the image we put together is simple, it contains a lot of detail. I wanted to include the image of a man waiting at a door because for me this created tension and intrigue. Who is this man? We cannot see his face. Who is he waiting for? Is he a welcome guest? Is he calling on a lady? What is his purpose?

The general effect of the image reminds me of a cameo, or a silhouette portrait, like the one of Jane Austen that we so often see. The images around the edge of the oval, of ladies and carriages and tea, etc. are like a frame on a pendant. The background is an image of an old piece of parchment, which, of course, looks old, like a lost manuscript discovered 200 years later. The vines creep over the letters, suggesting an overgrown ruin, a folly perhaps, about to be discovered in the woods.

I thought perhaps people might be interested in seeing some of the images that I put together as inspiration, or that contained elements that I thought I might like to include in the cover design. Not all of them bear any sort of resemblance to the final product, but here they are. I searched through a bunch of images of book covers on line, as well as just images that captured my imagination. Below are a few that I liked.

I loved the architectural quality of this one, the way it showed so much of life at the time without romanticizing it, and the thematic content of having the inside and outside worlds exposed. This was a theme of my book, and something I have always perceived in Jane Austen's works as well. Plus it is sort of pretty in its colours, and you can tell what it is right away, but there is so much to keep your interest once you start to study it.

I liked the graphic quality of this one, the way it is so simple and yet so complex. In a way, my own cover ended up resembling this image the most of all the ones I looked at. I find this cover intriguing. It makes me want to read the book. It is obviously about a bygone time, and it captures a sense of excitement, and folly.

 This one just made me sigh. I thought it was so pretty and kind of mystical, romantic and elegant. It is also very simple but with a lot of mood. The lamp posts are from the Regency era, and are in Brighton, so the seaside resort, which is where my book ends up, is referenced, and the period is correct also. The corner pieces on the final cover design are inspired by these lamp posts, as are the actual lamp posts on the central design.

This one was an unexpected take on a typical image - the mansion on the green.  I liked how stylized it was, and yet very hand-made. It looks charming, like it doesn't take itself too seriously and yet is the result of an artist's application. It is very inviting and again, makes me want to read the book. I expect it to be light and enjoyable, without being trite.

This cover might have been my favourite. I just loved the texture of the background, the pretty simplicity of the font, and of the central image. It is delicate and elegant, and yet sturdy and warm. It looks kind of magical, but not silly, graphic, yet old-fashioned. It almost glows.

I thought this cover was adorable. I loved the mixed media. I loved the handwritten text. I loved the imaginary character in a real building. It raises so many questions with just one tiny addition of a drawing to an otherwise very plain photograph. I loved the solid, pale blue sky, the way it looks like you could just float away in it.

This is a picture of a necklace that has been re-set, placed on the bill for the work done. It is from the Regency, and you can see that it has a similar composition to my eventual cover design, including the old parchment background. I just thought it looked pretty, and old-fashioned, and elegant. It is also sort of objet d'art in the way it includes an ordinary bill, which is a practical item, but which carries so much history. It is a piece of evidence, a piece of the past.

The design we came up with in the end may yet be adjusted, or scrapped all together, and I know it is not everyone's idea of what the cover to a book like mine ought to look like. I have even been told that it doesn't reflect the quality of my writing, but we all have different tastes, and that is all right. I think my cover is very sophisticated and I am quite proud of it, particularly because it doesn't look like what you would expect to be on my cover.

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

Read Chapter 1      Watch the Trailers    Order Paperback      Download eBook

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Well worth the read

I would recommend this title to all Jane Austen fans. It is a thoroughly enjoyable read and I couldn't put it down.
- Suziejen (Amazon.co.uk)