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Friday, May 7, 2010

Olden Days

In a sort of book report blog, I must tell you I've finished reading Anne Perry's latest, The Sheen on the Silk, and I am currently reading Deirdre LeFaye's The World of Jane Austen. I think the Byzantine mystery novel and the lit crit are related by my love of time travel. I do wish someone would invent a real time machine, but science fiction aside, books will do!

Anne Perry is a master at putting you into the historical setting of her novels. I've rarely read a modern author who is so good at making the characters seem as if a product of their time and not ours. In this one I especially like that the female characters are extremely strong and yet fit perfectly into the society and restrictions of the time, 13th century Byzantium.

(Small digression: I can't finish novels that try to superimpose political correctness and modern sensibilities on the past; one of my main objections to Caleb Carr's first two otherwise well-written historical mysteries is the overuse of profanity, especially by his female characters who are otherwise supposed to be in the New York upper classes--I just don't buy it when there was, at the time he's writing about, a fine for public use of profanity. Sue Grafton's heroine can swear all she likes; it fits with her character and time, but authors setting their stories in the past need to pay attention to how things usually were back then.)

One thing I especially like about this latest novel of Anne Perry's is the perfect and complete contrast between the two leading female characters. I hate to spoil the novel for anybody interested in reading it, but watching the two play off each other is a pure delight, while the tension gets pretty high when you start realizing how dangerous the one character really is. Another thing is that I love the politics and the encompassing side stories taking in what was happening all around the Mediterranean in those days. I love that all the details checked out accurately with my son's history text that we just finished, in which we had to study this period and place. The intertwining stories, the complexity of the good and bad characters--not one of whom are all good nor all bad--the symbolism of the sheen on silken cloth all create a novel that isn't easy to sum up and that lives up to its Byzantine setting by being elaborately complicated and many sided, like the society of that time according to historical documentation.

Deirdre LeFaye is one of my favorite Jane Austen critics because, similarly to Anne Perry, she has the ability to lead you far into the late Georgian and Regency settings of the world of Jane Austen's novels. This book, The World of Jane Austen, is encyclopedic in its coverage of everything there is to know about living in the world of southern England at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth. She has hundreds and hundreds, maybe a thousand, details explaining the background tied to quote after quote from the novels. It's like reading the ultimate annotated versions, but instead of interrupting your perusal of the story, you read all the background and then pick up the novels with all this extra knowledge in your head to help you appreciate even more the fine tuned wit of your favorite author and to live in her world for a time.

For example, after a detailed explanation of courtship customs of the time, she explains why the reader should start laughing at Emma's behavior toward Mr. Elton at the very outset of Emma's attempts to match him with her friend Harriet Smith. Jane Austen's contemporary readers would have instantly seen that Emma was setting herself up for the hilarious misunderstanding and would have enjoyed the building tension of that theme.

The book also explained something I wondered about: why in Pride and Prejudice and in Sense and Sensibility the heroes were always addressed by their last names alone and it seems normal to all the characters, while in Emma, when Mrs. Elton says "Knightly," Emma's offended reaction indicates the vulgarity of her abbreviating his name. This book explains the change in mode of address from the late 1790s when the first books were written to 1815 when the later books were written, and I have another of those "Oh, why didn't I think of that?" moments with the satisfaction of understanding it all now.

It makes me appreciate all the more Shannon Hales' excellent Austenland for evoking period and place while remaining firmly and amusingly in the present. There's nothing like going to the older authors for entering the past, but I am looking for more modern books that evoke period and place as well as Anne Perry. Anybody have suggestions?

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