Book review: Jane Austen. the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly.

There is an interesting book of literary criticism by Helena Kelly which starts with an overview of Austen’s life and then examines each book or major work she wrote in detail including the last manuscript fragment. The Author, Kelly poses a lot of interesting questions  and theories: about the editing process, the different publishers and the final product, versus the context of what Austen may or may not have intended with her manuscripts.

This view of criticism leans to historical and political views Austen may or may not have woven into the text of her prose with a strong focus on the social classes and the anti-slavery movements with all its connotations and consequences.  There are many citations to Austen’s own letters and to other contemporary authors, as well as magazines, journals and newspapers of the same historical time.  The author, also quotes from many JASNA articles and from other Jane Austen scholars from the historical to the contemporary.

To note, the footnotes were all end the end of the pages in small text which were harder to read but much more handy than having to turn to an index and find them — you got the gist of her cite right away to the material she was referencing — I think that was very well formatted and executed.

Many of the theories both about Austen’s work and her family and personal life, are interesting (no spoilers but I will say there were a few I’d say you could file under being classified as out there or simply being a ‘doozy’), I’m not sure I agree or jump to agree a hundred percent with the author, but they are worth reading about.

If you like to think of reading Austen as more straightforward take or leave it etc., less with shades of nuance perhaps with darker undertones this probably isn’t a book you will enjoy, and the author, Helena Kelly says something similar in the first part/introduction as well.

Letter to Cassandra–Tues. 26-Wed. 27 May 1801 — Living in Bath–The hustle and bustle and the Topaz Crosses.

Jane Austen writes in this letter to her older Sister Cassandra from the Paragon in Bath–reporting on the events of her days plus her efforts to cultivate and retain new friends and acquaintances — relying her visits, walks and talks with a variety of people and then the status of their relationships which are often short lived.

Austen’s wicked wit is rife here at times, not just on the interactions and character observations but also the comings and goings of people they briefly met — as well as her larger commentary and opinion as well on the transient nature of Bath.  Austen admits especially as she ages her preference to be at home and the restless nature and ever changing cast of characters in Bath — does not seem to sit well with her.

“The walk was very beautiful as my companion agreed, whenever I made the observation–And so ends our friendship, for the Chamberlaynes leave Bath in a day or two.–Prepare likewise for the loss of Lady Fust, as you will lose before you find her.” (Austen’s own spelling and capitalization.)

Austen also relays news about their ongoing issues with their accommodations: “Mrs. Evelyn called very civilly on sunday, to tell us that Mr. Evelyn had seen Mr. Philips the proprietor of No. 12 G.P.B. and that Mr. Philips was very willing to raise the kitchen floor; –but all this I fear is fruitless–tho’ the water may  be kept out of sight, it cannot be sent away nor the ill effects of its’ nearness be excluded.–I have nothing more to say on the subject of Houses;–except that we were mistaken as to the aspect of the one in Seymour Street, which instead of being due West is Northwest.”  (Austen’s own spelling and capitalization.)

Austen includes updates about paying a courtesy memorial call and her aunt and uncle as well and updates about dresses and engaging a certain dressmaker.  This letter is particular known though for her relaying news about their naval brother Charles and the news he will be gifting both Jane and Cassandra with topaz crosses: “We shall be unbearably fine.”




Literary Digression: On Atwood & excerpt of The Testaments (sequel to the Handmaid’s Tale).

The Handmaid’s Tale was always a book that I was somewhat afraid of reading.

To note yes,  spoilers follow.  The original book was published in 1985 — when I was in my second (Sophomore) year of high school 1984-1985.  And yes, we did read 1984 by Orwell in 1984 — a dystopian vision by a white British author back in 1948 and the Atwood book never discussed.  My mum greatly preferred Brave New World by Huxley, even though she is not a dystopian fiction fan, and it wasn’t called dystopian fiction back then anyway  And I did read Brave New World sometime in college, for a class where I think I compared and contrasted it with Orwell’s 1984 — that’s all faded now.  And to note, Huxley was apparently one of Orwell’s teachers, when he attended Eton.

But Atwood’s book, or faint buzz about it did reach me, through Ms. and other magazines my dad brought home from the dead letter office at the airport’s postal station before it closed — he was then limited to the free magazines offered by the airlines.  In any case I was aware of it, but for better or worse I did not seek it out.

To clarify, our town library is small and back then was extremely limited.  Today you can order books through an exchange loan through their library network membership — but that was not the case back then.  For serious research for our school papers we had to go the main library in Boston which was all day affair, you had to search the card catalogs, request books back from the stacks and hope to scrape enough research to support your paper — sometimes you were lucky sometimes you weren’t.

Remember also this was pre-internet, pre-Amazon times and also there were no gift cards in the 1980’s so for a teen working part time on three dollars and fifty-five cents an hour, it was a bit of budget issue/challenge.  Some stores had gift certificates but they were generally difficult to redeem and in any case my extended family while affectionate when I was younger, never gave me any gift certificates — and I wasn’t allowed to request them either — as my younger cousins went onto request gift cards — and I had to politely thank everyone for all the ugly sweaters, hats/gloves, purses, and umbrellas I received in good faith over the youthful years instead.  In any case, it wasn’t until post-college 1990’s I received gift cards/certificates for any bookstores and those were usually from friends.

Then I remember seeing the original film from 1990, with Natasha Richardson and Aidan Quinn (script by playwright Harold Pinter*) — I think it ran on the Bravo Network when it was more indie films and programming than it’s current format leaning toward reality television generic, etc.   The film struck many chords with me and I wondered if it differed from the book.  By then I was in my late 20’s and mentioned it to a few acquaintances at work — both of these ladies worked for a time in our law library and we became friends for awhile.  And they were shocked — shocked I had not read Atwood’s original book.  So I did.

The narrative of course blew me away, especially recalling that it was published in the 1980’s and set at that point in the current future to be determined or actually close to when I was actually reading it.  It was also set in our backyard, the hallowed neighbor of Harvard Square in Cambridge — in my mind/imagination the Commander’s house was one of the sprawling Victorians perhaps near where Chef Julia Child once lived, and she shopped along Brattle Street in the stores denoting their wares only through pictures — no more reading allowed for women, and more on that later.

I recall Atwood made nods to birth control and fictional version of the Women’s Health Book Collective (Publisher of Our Bodies Ourselves) and an underground network of feminist women and gay men trying to survive during the onslaught of the Conservatives taking over the government.  The tipping point is when she could not longer use her electronic money card — assets frozen — and I remember being amazed after reading, specifically how Atwood correctly predicted at that time ATM/bankcards and later debit cards and digital money that is now being currently developed.  It was part of her narration but also spot on future forecasting in many ways.

In the book, The Red Center where Offred and the women were screen for fertility and trained as handmaids was definitely in my thoughts, the Cambridge Ridge and Latin school — I’ve never been inside it, but Atwood’s description of the Ladies/Girls room was spot on to the same era schools I’ve attended and visited and experienced the awful features of public school restrooms which is (or was when I grew up) quite universal.  Also the hangings of the women who tried to escape or terminate pregnancy on the walls of Harvard Yard — I can still visualize it coming up from the subway.

In the book and the original film:  Aunts and the Marthas are infertile women denoted to other roles in this ultra conservative/faux biblical regime.  The Aunts to train/monitor both the Handmaids and Jezebels (concubines/prostitutes) more on that later too, and the Marthas are the domestic workers cooks and maids.  The other women are generically called Econowives on the lowest social order that do all other domestic jobs.

The film with Richardson and Quinn did not make specific references to Boston and Cambridge but the cast was strong in it’s portrayal and the screen play was relatively faithful to the book — using some flashbacks to denote how Offred and her husband and daughter eventually had tried to flee to free territory but her husband I thought was presumed dead from being shot in the film, where the book was more vague/his fate unknown but presumed dead — while she and her daughter taken into state custody.

The book is a narration of Offred’s journal, everything is from her point of view — her relation of events going through the process of being assigned to the commander and his wife to participate in the faux biblical ceremony intwined with sexual intercourse in the hope of siring a child.  Her negotiations with his wife, including her ability to have physical relations with Nick the chauffeur/assistant — the Commanders’s Wife/lady of the house, also bend the biblical/societal rules adopted in the name of getting a baby no matter what.

Atwood’s narrative and Offred’s tale are fueled by the poor state of the world.  The idea that infertility became an epidemic and also toxicity of food and water.  This conservative elite was able to somehow leverage this and technology and the idle sleepiness of society to succeed in taking over the former United States.  Atwood lays out grim snippets of women who do not cooperate as handmaids — are not just hung, but banished the colonies as laborers and die working to clear toxic waste and pollution.

Offred and the Commander also develop a relationship.  He seems to be uncomfortable in his official role and with his wife Serena Joy.  Their conversations begin to help facilitate the “ceremony” and the make the process a little bit better.  This expands to some discussions and board games and later an outing outside the house to the brothel kept for high government elites. To note here, from Atwood’s description in the book, I think she based the brothel’s location on the Hyatt Hotel on Memorial Drive, Cambridge which as a unique pyramid-esque architecture — it is still standing and currently remains a Hyatt Hotel today in 2019.

Offred builds on her relationship with the Commander to give him limited requests for items that she thought were banned but as part of the Elite the Commander has access to obtaining like a magazine (so she can read) and hand cream/moisturizer.  Handmaids as it is noted have a limited shelf life of fertility both with age and the condition of the world plus the rules of this biblical society.  Many seek to retain their physical beauty so despite being unable to get pregnant — which again may not be their fault and lie in the infertility of the male elite they are assigned to serve.  My theory is also former handmaidens may try to avoid being sent to the Colonies by becoming a prostitute or concubine of some sort if they retain physical beauty despite not being fertile, but again that is only my theory.

Atwood relays this in the original book and is reflective in the film as well, again when the Commander when his wife is away, dresses Offred in a slinky outfit and brings her to an Elite Club/brothel in a former hotel for relations sans ceremony.  Here she encounters many Jezebels which are state sanctioned including Moira her best friend.  To note, both in the original book/film adaptation Moira was quite a firecracker and in planing her escape in the film she noted she was going to use sexual favors with the guards — in the book it was a little less obvious as she stole an Aunt’s pass and uniform.

To note, in the book the men were leveraged and classified in many levels as well in society but had different roles of access and watching over the women via the rules of this biblical/conservative society — these men who watched over everyone were  permitted to marry only with high rank or military service to the government and it seems their general/lower ranking population were denied access to sex.  And at one point in the book, Offred is conscious of the way she walks and swinging her hips (which is forbidden) to taunt the guards at the check points.

It will be interesting to note, if in the sequel The Testaments — if Atwood clarifies, or expands on the role men cut off from sexual access/restriction of sex — and how this change in society, plays in the downfall of Gilead?  Or if loyal men/guards were compensated with concubines or women not deemed fit to be handmaids all along and that’s how they were physically sated either officially or unofficially — I have a feeling this is the case — thinking back in history where men away from wives via war, exploration or in general had relations with other women either by force or transaction/prostitution.  To be clear this is only my thought and Atwood doesn’t really lay it out in the original book and I’m not sure if she will want to or make an effort to clarify it.

In the original book, there are many underground networks feeding information, the Aunts and the Marthas all have networks — that is how Serena Joy is able to locate and entice Offred with the photo of her daughter.  But the handmaids also have a sort of network of their own, Offred learns connecting them with the rebels.  Although she also learns that being a rebel or connected to them, is dangerous as her shopping companion Offglen disappears and is replaced with subsequent handmaid.

Again in the original book, Offred is uncertain at the end if Nick is a rebel pretending to arrest her for the murder of the Commander or if he is a watcher/guard who doubled crossed her.

The original book ending is hard stop cliff hanger.  The epilogue is an academic symposium reviewing Offred’s journal as an artifact of a weird blip in history being discussed with other similar recordings of that past time.

The film was a little more of a Hollywood to wrap ending, you see Offred pregnant living on the border with rebels, pregnant hoping to have this baby and be reunited with both Nick and her daughter.

I have not seen the new HULU adaptation and cannot comment except I think it’s good in that it’s raised interest in the original book and will surely drive sales of the sequel.

I’ve read an excerpt of the sequel The Testaments via the UK Guardian (link below).  The narrative seems to be divided between three (3) different women — after reading it, I wasn’t sure if anyone in the new book was the original Offred.  Since reading it I’ve learned, Atwood’s new book follows three (3) women with connections to the original Offred but not Offred directly/herself.  So just the format with three (3) narratives and stories is a contrast to the original book itself.

*It’s has been a while since I read the original Atwood novel and I did some checking/confirmation via Wikipedia(dot)com and other Google searches.






Grolier Poetry Bookshop, Cambridge, MA, US — A Short Visit & ee cummings.

Yesterday, en route to meet my friends at book club, I stopped for a short visit at the Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Harvard Square in Cambridge.  About a year ago or so, I was browsing at the local bookstore in my town, which is more of a coffee bar with books, but I try to support it when I can — and I was looking through some used books for sale and I found a collection of poems by ee cummings.  It was without a dust jacket and said it was a first edition but I think a first edition of a subsequent publisher and not a first run first edition.  But I bought it, to give her a sale and as a gift for a poet/friend who loves ee cummings — he no longer lives here, he may visit family and friends but I’m no longer in the inner circle & I guess I never was actually but he was always supportive of my writing.

Thought by purchasing the book, it was a sign perhaps that the universe would bring him back into my life.   That was not the case, and after attending a poetry event he is longer affiliated with and did not travel here for — or if he did — well, the universe did not have him reach out to me — I decided it’s enough time gone by.

When I purchased the book, I did read through it, the poems included were from a certain time period, my favorites of ee cummings not among them but I decided to bring/donate the book to the Grolier because they are such a landmark being the oldest, and at times only poetry bookstore in United States.  I also had read the current owner had established a foundation for the store to keep it going as times are difficult for all bookstores.  Also ee cummings is listed as one of the many poets listed as having connections and being a supporter of the Grolier.  Since ee cummings is well known and popular I figured it would be a welcome donation and could perhaps make a good sale for the store.

Over the years, I’ve stopped into the Grolier from time to time.  My last purchase was Geography III by Elizabeth Bishop (photo above).  And I do have limited bookshelves/space so I have a very small poetry collection.  Ironic at my book club, where we share, swap and trade books I’m the one taking home the poetry books.  I gather them, read through them, clip the ones I like for posterity and usually release them in a little free library or a special poetry care package request via the troops (this is rare but I have sent out a couple over the years).

Walking into the Grolier, time almost stands still.  It is probably the definition of most book lovers idea of a ideal shop, floor to ceiling with books although the front display is also literary magazines.  There were two people at the desk/register, a woman a few years older than me, with gray hair and a heavy colorful sweater and a guy perhaps ten years younger than myself in a tee shirt printed with a slogan about indie bookstores in Philadelphia.  They greeted me hello as I came in the door, then returned to their own conversation, but after I changed my glasses and approached them the woman asked if I needed assistance and I said: “Yes I was just stopping by but I wanted to ask if the shop is still a nonprofit?”

Well she wasn’t exactly sweet about it and said: “I don’t know the answer to that question.  Do you mind telling me who you are and why you ask?”

This is perhaps why the poetry community is considered a little elitist and not welcoming but I plowed on and told her my name and that I wanted to donate the book and handed her the ee cummings.  And from there we chatted for a bit, and I told her about finding the book at the local store in my town, she mentioned two (2) poets she says live in my town, including one (1) name with which I was familiar.

She did tell me the current owner had recently passed away but the family was committed to keeping the store open and again she was unsure about the nonprofit status.  I did not challenge her about it, but this morning I checked Wikipedia and the article on the store notes the recently deceased owner did establish some sort of a nonprofit foundation for the store in 2013 — I remembered reading the same article cited, etc.

It is sad news he has passed away, I am hoping the family will continue the store or have someone else take over/manage the nonprofit since it is a piece of literary history.

If you are ever in Harvard Square, the Grolier is located on Plympton Street, a small side street off Massachusetts Avenue — look for the Harvard Bookstore (not affiliated with Harvard University–confusing I know) at the corner, that is the corner of Mass. Ave and Plimpton, it is only a door or two down.  The Grolier is ADA accessible — you have to ring the bell though for the clerk to open the chairlift — there is a note down by the window.