Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Jane the Illiterate

Okay, I've been trying to ignore Kathryn Sutherland's bizarre publicity stunt this week, in which she's telling anyone who will listen that Jane was nothing without her alleged editor.  But hearing her interviewed on NPR this morning made my blood boil--and I feel compelled to put down my views.  None of Jane's "fair copy" manuscripts for her published novels has survived.  Therefore, Sutherland has been studying the rough drafts of unpublished work--and nobody who lived before the age of the word processor or standardized spellings should be judged by such manuscripts.  This is why we call them ROUGH drafts.  She also said today in her interview that most of Jane's letters were destroyed--when one hundred and sixty-one exist, and can be seen in manuscript at various libraries in the US and England.  They reveal that Jane rarely placed i before e--but also are remarkable for their fluency, wit, and mastery of the English language. 

I've written twenty-one novels to date, and benefited from the technology of my time.  I value and honor my editor, Kate Miciak--and invariably wait for her response to my prose.  I carefully review the comments of copyeditors on the edited manuscript--because I rely on their gentle corrections of infelicitous grammar or errors of fact.  But do I regard my publishers as having written my novels?  No.  Did Jane's publishers write Pride and Prejudice?  Not even remotely.  Enough with the sensationalism, Kathryn Sutherland.  Jane deserves better.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ratafia Cakes. Yes, Ratafia Cakes.

Who knew that Whole Foods could be a Janeite's best friend?

I'm headed down to The Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale on Saturday, October 23rd, for one of Barbara Peter's fab signings--it wouldn't be a Jane Launch without a visit to the Pen--and in a moment of idiocy this past summer I suggested brightly:  "Let's do a tea!  And I'll bring Ratafia Cakes!"

Devoted readers of Regency-era novels know that such things are frequently referenced in most scenes of routs, balls, masques and impetuous late-night calls, rashly paid by feckless heroines to the bachelor digs of their dangerous suitors.  But what's ratafia?  And how did it get into a cake?

Jane Austen, although she never mentions them to my knowledge in any of her novels--(Sudden Rush of Janeites Everywhere to Prove Me Wrong)--was intimately familiar with the little oohjahs.  A recipe for them shows up in The Jane Austen Cookbook, by Maggie Lane and Deirdre Le Faye.  Most of the recipes are culled from the cherished collection of Martha Lloyd, Jane's longtime friend, housemate, and second wife of brother Frank.  I forget whether the Ratafia Cakes recipe was Martha's or someone else's.  But whatever.  There it is, on the VERY LAST PAGE of the book.  And it turns out to be something like a macaroon.  The kind you buy at Laduree's.  Nothing much more than ground almonds, powdered sugar, egg whites, and...wait for it...rose water.

Hoping to avoid the whole hunt-for-the-archaic-nineteenth-century-ingredient-thing, I decided on a strategic retreat to the front section of  the cookbook, where Naples Biscuits are prominently featured.  Now, in every Georgette Heyer novel involving passage by sea (or is it the Patrick O'Brian books?), the characters are forced to exist on a monotonous diet of Naples Biscuit.  One gets the impression of something like Melba Toast, stored in barrels in the holds of ships.  But apparently they had other uses--Amabel Fancot brings a vast store of them to her country seat from London, for entertaining, in Heyer's False Colours.  And in reading over the handy recipe, I discovered they seem a lot like our present-day biscotti, or even madeleines.  I quite like madeleines.  I dip them in tea and imagine I'm in Paris.  But alas, alack--Naples Biscuits turn out to require orange flower water

I ask you.

Which brings me back to Whole Foods. 
They stock orange flower water.  From Paris.  The label's quaint, and vaguely suggestive of the Moulin Rouge, or a flirtation with absinthe.  I can get into having that in my pantry.  They even stock rose water--although it's in the cosmetics section, which seems a little sketchy.  I bought it anyway.  Best of all, they have pre-ground almonds in their massive section of Bulk Food Items!!!  Who knew?  I got lots of that, too.
So I'll be arriving at The Poisoned Pen with the requisite Austen tea things.  If airport security doesn't rip them off first.

And as for that ratafia?
Turns out it was a kind of liqueur made from apricot pits.  Or cherry stones.  Or bitter almonds.
All of which contain cyanide.
A drink only a detective novelist could love.  :)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Body in the Library

          When I was twenty-four years old and pathetically academic, Stanford University gave me half a year to master the canon of literature in my doctoral field.  I loathed my subject and couldn’t explain for the life of me why I’d bothered to study it; but here was a gift!  Six months with nothing to do but sit in a comfortable armchair in the university library, and read!
          Problem was, I kept falling asleep. 
          They were such lovely, drowsy, golden afternoons in that library—all the glory of California slanting through the modernist stacks, eucalyptus leaves rustling beyond the plate glass windows.  The cushions were deep and the prose was turgid.  From sheer mental torpor I turned to the one thing I knew would save me: I put down the canon and picked up the Dorothy Sayers.   
     Murder Must Advertise, to be exact.
     People fall on their swords every day in defense of their favorite Sayers novel.  Passionate, sensitive and articulate people argue themselves hoarse over the dueling sonnets in Gaudy Night, or the creeping horror of The Nine Tailors’ bludgeoning bells.  But the book I return to, again and again, is Murder Must Advertise.  I love the cleverness of the dope smugglers, the wit of the copywriters, the intricacy of the murder on the iron staircase, the revelations of the final cricket match and Lord Peter Wimsey in a harlequin’s tights.  I love Dian de Momerie, louche and doomed, with her cant dialogue in words of one syllable.  But most, I appreciate Wimsey’s envoie to the unfortunate murderer: Go home now.  Go on foot, and not too fast.  And don’t look behind you.
     When my days are too full and my time is too short, and reading about neuroscience or the Taliban is what Dian de Momerie would call “too terribly yawn-making, darling,” I look to the classics of the Golden Age.  Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke is one of these: a white-knuckle novel of suspense, an elegant study in the redemption of the human soul.  Michael Innes’s Lament for a Maker, in which the story of snowbound Scottish death unfolds through the serial pens of five distinct narrators, is another.  I get a kick out of the cartoonish drama of E.C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case, as well as its fiendishly clever plot; but when I think about why I re-read these books, I always come back to character.  It’s character, not plot, that abides in the dark watches of the night.
     Which brings me to two modern classics, sure to endure: Laurie King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, which offers one of the most sensitive portraits ever drawn of an intelligent young girl’s coming of age; and Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, in which hellion Flavia de Luce—who could be Dorothy Sayers at age twelve—saves everybody worth saving through the force of her own wit.
     I squeaked through my Orals, but never wrote my dissertation.  Twenty-odd novels later, I’m grateful to Stanford for the armchair in the library—and the epiphany it brought: fiction will always be more compelling, to me, than fact; and half a year with nothing to do but read, is still the best gift of all.