writing · Austen · Becoming Catherine Bennet

On Reviews (I)

Becoming Catherine Bennet was a novel I enjoyed writing. It took a fair amount of work and reviewing Pride and Prejudice itself and watching the BBC and 2005 versions.

As I mentioned yesterday, I had a general idea where the story would go but then decided to go in a completely different direction, though leaving the original idea in since the main plot could be built around it. And that main plot involved Kitty/Catherine–one of the tricks was trying to keep how she was referred by characters straight since several affirmatively decide, at her request, to call her “Catherine,” “Kitty” being, as Anne de Bourgh will say, “such a girl’s name.”

The first two-thirds of the book is told in a third-person narrator’s voice. I don’t know if I’m particularly adept with that, but it allows from moving between characters and providing some insight into their thoughts (without, I hope, the dreaded “head hopping”). As I was going, I knew where it would end.

Or thought I did. There was an Edith Wharton ending. It’s still in the book. But I realized that I couldn’t end it there. So began Part II. Part II is Catherine’s first-person narrative. Indeed, in it she explains how she came to take up writing:

A strange thing about Amazon reviews. If the reviewer is not verified, a review in one region doesn’t show up in the US. So I get a quite good 4-star review on Amazon.uk but not on Amazon.com. I don’t know who this reader is, but I liked the review because it notes that the novel is not your standard Pride and Prejudice fare.

Reviews sometimes point to things that readers might not like. (I’ll get to that in a later post.) Here, the concern seems to be about Jane. Jane Bingley is well down on the list of characters, thought she’s still important, and in the end I wanted her not to be quite the empathetic sister she is in the book. But those are the choices one makes.

I’ll get to some less pleased readers soon. But even there, I like to get responses and feedback. Jane Austen Fan Fiction can be tricky. But fun too.

writing · Austen

Becoming Catherine Bennet

I learned that there is a huge market for Jane Austen Fan Fiction (JAFF). I started writing a book entitled Debt Comes to Pemberley, a play on PD James’s Death Comes to Pemberley, which was made into a BBC thing. The core issue was that Darcy someone went bankrupt. (The cover to the right is for the audio version, which I’ll get to in a later post.)

For whatever reason, as I wrote it, I had Anne de Bourgh come to his rescue. Which got me thinking about Anne de Bourgh as a major character which got me thinking of how could she become other than the sickly creature described in Pride and Prejudice itself. The obvious ploy was to kill off her mother, Lady Catherine. So off she went. This has the additional benefit of freeing Mr. and Mrs. Collins from her shadow.

The plot then morphed into a story built around Kitty or Catherine Bennet.

First about Darcy and going bankrupt. Turns out, as best as I could tell, Pemberley was likely entailed (as was Longbourn which had such an adverse impact on the Bennet daughters and as was not Rosings, which had such a positive effect, in the end, on Anne de Bourgh). So I came up with a way to seriously cut out Darcy’s (and Bingley’s) income, which forced retrenchment of the sort Sir Walter Elliot could not tolerate in Persuasion.

If you read the first chapters–they can be sampled here–you’ll see that I kill off George Wickham too. Now, Kitty did move to be with her sister Lydia–this was the one major change I made from Pride and Prejudice itself–and the two youngest Bennets must come to London, where they’ll live with Jane (as opposed to Lizzy, who lives some blocks away).

And stuff happens. I’m quite pleased with the effort. I learned a good deal by re-reading the novel. And it turns out that I have gotten a very large number of reads. It’s on Kindle Unlimited so I get paid (slightly) for page reads. In about three weeks, I have over 42,000 page views and have sold 18 ebooks. Of course, the proceeds for all that are about $200. So I’m not getting rich on this.


New York, New York

In my life, the longest I’ve spent not sleeping in either New York County–which is essentially Manhattan–or Westchester County–which is the county due north of the Bronx (and the City) and is bordered by the Hudson River and Connecticut–is two weeks. One week in Paris, the second in London. That was forty years ago.

So nearly all of my stories take place in and around New York City, chiefly Manhattan and chiefly the Upper West Side of Manhattan and chiefly the Upper West Side of Manhattan to the east of Broadway and between 72nd and 96th Streets and close to the Park. Where I spent twelve years going to law school and afterwards. Alex Locus lives in my old apartment on West 85th Street. The characters in A Theory About Valentine’s Day are there, as is Suzanne Nelson before she moves to…Tuckahoe in Westchester, where I grew up. Etc., etc., etc.

I say this level of precision in my description because I just saw a well-written snippet about “New York,” meaning (I think) Manhattan. It treats New York as some kind of singular expression. It is how I’d likely treat, say, Los Angeles or Boston.

The thing about New York, and I assume LA and Boston and any other place anywhere (I can say this with more assurance about places I’ve spent (albeit tourist) time such as Paris and London), is that it’s just a bunch of little neighborhoods. Jane Jacobs‘s seminal works about Greenwich Village (with her efforts to prevent Robert Moses from having an interstate cross that fundamental part of Manhattan with an interstate as he did with the Cross-Bronx Expressway) centered on life on a single street, with its comings and its goings.

When I lived on West 85th Street less than 100 yards from the Park looking out over the street (as Alex’s apartment does), that’s what it was. A little street in a neighborhood that simply had no yards and a lot more people and cars passing by than a house I think anywhere else anywhere. Except those Stalinesque, gated communities one finds in certain wealthy parts of Florida and elsewhere.

I can be annoying. If I meet someone who says they “live on the Upper West Side” I’ll follow-up (as lawyers say) with a request for greater precision. “What street?” “East or west of Broadway?” Often, for the UWS, “do you have anything to do with Columbia” since many found themselves there (as I did) when they attended school there.

So as Upper West Siders (of whatever neighborhood) properly believe themselves superior in all regards (excepting perhaps money, which has always been a big thing in New York (as noted in my Gilded Age novels) to those on the Upper East Side, the latter mistakenly (except, as I say, about money) believe the opposite to be true.

All of this helps to explain the precision of my locations. In Coming to Terms, I needed a stoop on West 87th. One main character sits on a stoop in front of the other’s apartment thinking the latter is off doing a summer-associate gig in San Francisco and it changes both of their lives, sitting on that stoop. So I had to find a brownstone that had a stoop. And, voila, there it was on Google Maps Street View. Same with the description of Nancy Penchant’s brownstone on West 94th.

So the fourth “character” in my books is not some amorphous “New York City.” The place where a too ambitious woman in to-die-for outfits works while not in her loft-in-the-Village and plays too hard (and wins) at everything before some crisis or another forces her to return to the farm to find the three-day-old bearded guy with an F-150 and a manual-labor job who can play Mozart on the tuba and recite Shakespearean sonnets while cooking and who is, as an Upper West Sider is to an Upper East Siders (except, you know, for the money thing, which won’t matter because who needs Louboutins in Iowa?), superior in all respects to the Big Law/Harvard JD/Greenwich accented/clean shaven hunk who’s her fiancé.

Still, as I say, it’s not just New York. Yet I have the advantage that readers think they know about it. They’ve seen the external shots in Friends and Seinfeld (“Tom’s Restaurant”? It’s on Broadway by Columbia) and the externals and internals of You’ve Got Mail, etc. so they think they know the place. My job is to populate that place with human characters. (Never dogs; one always wants to know who’s taking the Lab out for a walk or when did someone feed the KCS.)

It’s a big advantage, of course, this already established character. But, of course, as I say, being a New Yorker and especially one with years on the Upper West Side has its advantages.


On Public Readings

A writer whose work I admire recently said she was doing a public reading from one of her books. Having performed my own songs in public, I thought I could make some useful suggestions.

First, don’t worry about how it’ll sound. I’ve been in lots of guitar rounds in which some people with good voices close up and don’t project. I’ve heard you do a poem and you’re too flat. They are your words.

Let yourself open up to them. Practice reading them with changes in rhythm and tone and volume. Don’t exaggerate it but think of yourself telling and not reading and you’ll fall into the natural rhythm of your words.

Make sure you know how long your sentences are so you don’t start on one and then realize you’ll run out of breath and race through the end. Believe me, it happens. Super important: you’ll be reading from your page but make sure it’s legible to you.

This was always my great fear: forgetting the lines and losing my place. If you go in worry about that you lose the ability to just tell your story. So get comfortable reading. And get comfortable with the mic. I don’t know how big the room is, but you should focus on your mouth being near the mic. (If I sing and have my own mic, I touch that foam thing with my lips. It gives me a physical focus.) You’re not doing that but make sure the mic is positioned at a comfortable lever for you while you hold the book and while you are reading from the book.

This all sounds very complicated in some respects but practice what you’ll read a few times, standing or sitting as you’ll be doing. I think once you start tonight, you’ll fall into your story and the words will flow and the people will fall into it as well. They’re good words.

I Am Alex Locus begins (after brief preliminaries) and ends (with some final activity) at book readings at the Barnes & Nobel on Broadway and 82nd. So this is how the first one reads, in part:

I’d been to these readings before and the usual podium with the Barnes & Noble logo and a microphone was off to one side, and after about half the seats were taken, a little past eight, the staffer welcomed us and introduced Karen Adams. Her book was in her right hand, and she opened it as she got to the podium. After looking out across us and covering her mouth with a fist for a brief cough, she started. She thanked us for coming. She stopped. With a shake of the head, a sip of water, and a deep breath, she tried again.

I’d been to these readings before and the usual podium with the Barnes & Noble logo and a microphone was off to one side, and after about half the seats were taken, a little past eight, the staffer welcomed us and introduced Karen Adams. Her book was in her right hand, and she opened it as she got to the podium. After looking out across us and covering her mouth with a fist for a brief cough, she started. She thanked us for coming. She stopped. With a shake of the head, a sip of water, and a deep breath, she tried again.

“I am going to go with the beginning of a story that is one of my favorites, though I know I’m not supposed to say that.” A few people chuckled. “It came to me when I was thinking back on summer vacations I took in Vermont, and I wrote it when I was in college. It’s about…Well, it’s called Lonesome, and here’s how it begins.”

Her hand shook as she tried to keep the book open but after a sentence or two, her voice and her hand relaxed. The murmur of people passing off to the side vanished as her words began to flow.

Covers · writing

Covers: Róisín Campbell

For a change, I’m writing on one of my covers today.

Róisín Campbell is about an Irishwoman who is forced to leave Ireland because of economic realty after she turns eighteen. She grew up in Hospital, a town in the eastern part of County Limerick that was not devastated as were Irish Counties in the west and northwest in the Hunger/Famine. (It’s whence my MIL comes.)

In 1870 she leaves home forever and takes the train to Queenstown (now Cobh), the port of Cork, and embarks on her trip to America aboard the City of Paris steamship. Once in New York, she trains to become a maid and then…well, I won’t give away what becomes of her.

My original cover was a John Singer Sargent portrait of his younger sister Violet but when I became aware of concerns that there were rights issues with that portrait, I set about switching them (for rights reasons I’m not putting it up here).

At first I used a portrait that was rather severe. It was Study of Lilia, an 1887 painting by the Frenchman Carolus-Duran, from the National Gallery. Some thought it didn’t work and I agreed.

So I shifted gears and found The Blue Feather by William J. Edmondson at the Cleveland Museum of Art. I fell for the simple beauty of the subject with her reddish hair performing a simple household task.

The Cleveland describes it thusly:

Throughout his long career, Edmondson stubbornly resisted modernist styles and proudly proclaimed himself a traditionalist. He felt that artists should paint what they see, and once declared, “When painting a portrait, I do not indulge in this ‘painting of the soul’ stuff. When some artists fail to get a likeness of a person they say they have not tried to paint him, but have painted his soul.” The sitter in The Blue Feather was Edmondson’s student, Caroline Mytinger, who often modeled for him. Later a portraitist in her own right, she traveled to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands to record its indigenous people.

Mytinger’s journey to the Pacific is described in The Seattle Globalist in a piece about a photographer who retraced her steps a few years ago.

Already a noted portrait painter of high society subjects, Caroline Mytinger was fascinated by writing from European explorers and Western anthropologists about the native cultures of Melanesia, and she set out from Cleveland in 1926 to document the faces and clothing of the region through her art.

Only 29 years old, and with very few funds, she found a ship out of San Francisco and boarded with another adventurous woman friend, Margaret Warner. At the time, it was unusual for women to travel abroad without husbands. And though Mytinger was a successful portraitist, her lack of funds speaks to women artists’ lack of status.

Classics · Covers · Wharton · writing

Covers: The House of Mirth

This is a tough book. It begins in 1905 New York, in the fashionable world, and as with Wharton’s The Glimpses of the Moon–which follows Americans in Europe–it is a story of the gap between wanting to live a particular style of life and having the financial wherewithal to do it.

The novel has a great description of how society looked at men and women different, a notion that I try to address in some of my own books. What freedom does Elizabeth Geherty get when she turns her back on being in society, a role that would require her to surrender the one thing–the one person–about whom she is passionate?

Wharton (with the observation that she was part of that world and that there are those who say that the expression “keeping up with the Joneses” derives from her family, she being born Edith Jones):

“Don’t you ever mind,” she asked suddenly, “not being rich enough to buy all the books you want?”

He followed her glance about the room, with its worn furniture and shabby walls.

“Don’t I just? Do you take me for a saint on a pillar?”

“And having to work—do you mind that?”

“Oh, the work itself is not so bad—I’m rather fond of the law.”

“No; but the being tied down: the routine—don’t you ever want to get away, to see new places and people?”

“Horribly—especially when I see all my friends rushing to the steamer.”

She drew a sympathetic breath. “But do you mind enough—to marry to get out of it?”

Selden broke into a laugh. “God forbid!” he declared.

She rose with a sigh, tossing her cigarette into the grate.

“Ah, there’s the difference—a girl must, a man may if he chooses.” She surveyed him critically. “Your coat’s a little shabby—but who cares? It doesn’t keep people from asking you to dine. If I were shabby no one would have me: a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself. The clothes are the background, the frame, if you like: they don’t make success, but they are a part of it. Who wants a dingy woman? We are expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop—and if we can’t keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership.”

Selden glanced at her with amusement: it was impossible, even with her lovely eyes imploring him, to take a sentimental view of her case.

“Ah, well, there must be plenty of capital on the look-out for such an investment. Perhaps you’ll meet your fate tonight at the Trenors’.”

The cover. This is another one from the Met. Simply entitled A Rose, it is from 1907, by Thomas Anshutz. The museum gives it the following description (there’s an audio description there too):

One of the most gifted American art teachers, Anshutz links the realism of his mentor Thomas Eakins with that of the Ashcan School, some of whom were his students. Perhaps because Anshutz spent so much time teaching, he painted only about 130 oils. Some of the most impressive belong to a series of images of Rebecca H. Whelen, daughter of a trustee of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where Anshutz taught. The woman at leisure and the likening of a beautiful woman to a flower are common themes in late-nineteenth-century American painting. They reflect the contemporary definition of a woman’s proper sphere: the realm of leisure, beauty, and the aesthetic, harmonious domestic environment. “A Rose” reflects Anshutz’s simultaneous appreciation of Eakins’s academic rigor and psychological probing and John Singer Sargent’s painterly freedom. “A Rose” also suggests the influence of Diego Velázquez and James McNeill Whistler on late-nineteenth-century painters, including Eakins and Sargent as well as Anshutz. In portraying the young woman as contemplative and yet intellectually and emotionally alert, Anshutz also anticipates the earthier women painted by members of the Ashcan School and other twentieth-century realists.

Could this be Lily Bart? I think it can.

Classics · Covers · Wharton · writing

Covers: The Age of Innocence

I read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence years ago and listened to an audio version of it after I completed my A Studio on Bleecker Street. I mention this because in my recent revisit to the novel set in 1870s Gilded Age New York, I realized how many elements of Studio related to elements in Age. Indeed, my characters occupy space that Wharton’s characters occupy at just about the same time.

My Bowman family lives not far from the Archers and Wellands but in one way–and I say this pretentiously–my heroine Clara Bowman does what Wharton’s hero Newland Archer does not do. This makes my story…different and [spoiler alert] not as sad.

That said, The Age of Innocence begins at the New York Academy of Music. Within not many years–and the novel was published in 1920 but set in the 1870s (except for the final scenes)–the Academy would be eclipsed as the venue-of-the-upper-class by the Metropolitan Opera. The opening scene at the Academy is quite alive, combining the novel’s three main characters, most ominously Countess Ellen Olenska.

The cover for this was clear. The American Mary Cassatt did a number of Impressionist paintings at the Paris Opera. So to the Paris Opera it was, and the cover is from 1878-1880, only a year or two after the events of Age of Innocence. A side note: my heroine, Clara, spent time in Paris studying the artists there; turning to art was her means of overcoming the tragic loss of her best friend and of that friend’s brother, who all knew Clara would marry. (Excerpt.)

The painting is one of several set there, but this one, at the National Gallery, is published free of all rights, i.e., a CC0 designation. The National Gallery describes it:

Shown from the knees up, two young women with pale, peachy skin wearing white gowns sit close together and almost fill this vertical painting. The women are angled to our left and look in that direction. The young woman on our right has a heart-shaped face, dark blond hair gathered at the back of her head, and light blue eyes. Her full, coral-pink lips are closed, the corners in greenish shadows. Her dress is off the shoulders, has a tightly fitted bodice, and the skirt pools around her lap. The fabric is painted in strokes of pale shell pink, faint blue, and light mint green but our eye reads it as a white dress. She wears a navy-blue ribbon as a choker and long, frosty-green gloves come nearly to her elbows. She holds a bouquet in her lap, made up of cream-white, butter-yellow, and pale pink flowers with grass-green leaves and one blood-red rose. Her companion sits just beyond her on our left and covers the lower part of her face with an open fan. The fan is painted in silvery white decorated with swipes of daffodil yellow, teal green, and coral red. She has violet-colored eyes, a short nose, and her dark blond hair is smoothed over the top of her head and pulled back. She also wears long gloves with her arms crossed on the lap of her ice-blue gown. Along the right edge of the painting, a sliver of a form mirroring the torso, shoulder, and back of the head of the young woman to our right appears just beyond her shoulder, painted in tones of cool blues. Two curving bands in golden yellow and spring green swiped with darker shades of green and gold arc behind the girls and fill the background. The space between the curves is filled with strokes of plum purple, dark red, and pink. The artist signed the lower right, “Mary Cassatt.”

Classics · Covers · writing

Covers: North and South

As Róisín Campbell is onboard the City of Paris, the steamship that is taking her to America, she is trepidatious about what her fate will be. She can read, and has read romances:

Róisín was not so foolish as to believe a well-bred and handsome gentleman would carry her away, notwithstanding how often it happened in the romances she read and re-read. She knew they were fantasies, and that no man of a good family would marry a farmgirl, no matter how handsome he might think her. To such a family, she would be little better than the poor from the west of Ireland who could barely speak let alone read English. She knew there would be many a man in a good family who would seek to take advantage of her, promising her all manner of things to seduce her and that such a man would be her ruination. There were many such rakes in her books too.

But, really, what was awaiting this woman raised on a farm in County Limerick who’d never seen the sea till she was in Queenstown, ready to board the City of Paris? What she “knew” was what she read in the more serious books:

Still, she feared she would end up in the squalor she read about in other, more serious books set in London and Manchester and prayed that that would not be her fate.

The London reference is to Dickens. And “Manchester” is “Milton,” the northern city, and completely different world, to which Margaret Hale is forced to move after her father loses his position in a calm vicarage in the English south. So the cover for Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South required some thought.

This is the only cover I’ve gotten from the Yale Art Gallery. It is Yes or No by the British artist Sir John Everett Millais. It was painted in 1871, so it is not too out of date for the novel, which was published in 1854. Yes or No? North or South?

I could find nothing about the painting from Yale, but the Met has a description of a drawing made of it:

A contemplative woman stands near an open letter, holding a small picture behind her back. The print reproduces a painting that Millais exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts, London in 1871 (no. 1055) (Yale University Art Gallery), where the subject’s black gown indicates that she is in mourning. It was first published in London by Thomas Agnew & Sons in 1873, and this later variation issued a few years later in New York by the Kendall Bank Note Company.

Yes or No indeed.

Classics · writing

Covers: Persuasion

And so we reach Austen’s last, and my favorite, novel. Persuasion.

Anne Elliot is older than the other heroines. She, or at least Miss Austen suggests, has lost some of such beauty as she had in her early twenties, in contrast to her older sister Elizabeth.
She is, of course, a far more attractive woman than her sisters in almost all other respects. Here, I found an 1810 portrait of Mary Fairlie Cooper, from the Cleveland Museum of Art. Again, I know nothing about her and was unable to find anything. As particularly with the portrait that could be Lizzy Bennet, this could be Anne Elliot.

And with this, I conclude with my Austen covers.

Classics · writing

Covers: Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey is likely Austen’s least known novel. Since the heroine Catherine Morland is a dedicated reader, I was looking for a reader.

I came up An Interesting Story (Miss Ray) from the Met. It is actually a miniature, measuring 4 3/4 x 3 7/8 in. It was done in 1806 on Ivory.

The artist is the Brit William Wood. I’ve been unable to find any information about the subject. Nor have I found anything but the dates for Wood, which are 1769-1810.