The Writer’s Lifeline: JANE AUSTEN’S BEST FRIEND by Zoe Wheddon


It is also a truth universally acknowledged that a woman in possession of a great talent must be in want of a brilliant best friend.

This twist on the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice ushers us into the book Jane Austen’s Best Friend, a touching piece that sheds a new light on the most famous authoress in history. 

We often picture Miss Jane Austen alone at her desk, poring over her manuscripts. Rarely do we remember she was also a woman. She had a human heart that longed for affection and needed friends to keep her sane.

Thankfully for Jane, such a friend existed. Her name was Martha Lloyd. No drawings of her exist, but Austen scholars have managed to piece together a vague description based on snatches from letters.

Martha had the personality of a devout Christian woman; acts of charity were part of her nature. She was not blessed with a lovely face: as a child, she suffered a violent bout of smallpox. Though she survived, it marked her countenance–a fact which played against her chances of finding a husband, and indeed she remained a spinster.

A caring, gentle soul, Martha was always nursing the sick and at the bedsides of the dying. She did this so often that their families left her allowances on which she survived. There were times when the Austens were struggling to get by; they could always count on Martha to help them through hard financial times.

This book humanizes Jane Austen. I can picture her as a teenage girl writing her Juvenilia, giggling with Martha at the scandalous scenarios. The first to read Jane’s work in their rawest form were Jane’s sister, Cassandra, and Martha Lloyd.

What a thing to envy! Many people today would love a glance at Jane’s first drafts. She later became a heavy editor, as is known in the case of her novel Northanger Abbey, which she continued to tweak until her death. As it was published posthumously, Jane Austen never saw Northanger Abbey as a book. It was that story she could never seem to get right; any author knows how that feels.

From my own experience working on novels, I know that writing is difficult when you’re on the journey alone. There is a balance: you want to share your drafts with people, but they’ve got to be the right people. You want feedback as you go, but the thought of sending those pieces to just anyone–it almost causes a physical pain! 

My fresh-off-the-press readers include my brother, a few critique partners, and writing buddies who don’t always read the draft but allow me to bounce ideas off of them. Jane’s version, the people who cheered her on as she wrote some of the most famous novels in history, included Martha. 

I believe Martha deserves the chance to be known. She was a comfort to Jane, a source of inspiration, and much-needed comic relief when life became dark. Even as I type this, I can picture Jane Austen gossiping with her best friend about situations that would later wind up in her books. It makes my heart sing!

Jane Austen was brilliant, but she wasn’t a member of a different species. She became famous after years of hard work, but was not too different from me.

If you want a heartwarming read, Jane Austen’s Best Friend soothes the soul like a cup of tea–with lots of honey in it. It will give you more insight into Jane Austen’s life. It will also help you see more clearly what it means to be someone’s best friend.

Evils We Seek: NORTHANGER ABBEY by Jane Austen


Though Jane Austen never married, she’s known for being vocal about her society’s obsession with marriage and romance. Her novels feature parodies of love-matches, foolish matches, and matches of convenience. We all know the first line of Pride and Prejudice.

Fewer people think of the messages woven into the lines of Northanger Abbey. Though it is one of Austen’s first novels, it was published posthumously in 1817 (Persuasion was also published posthumously.) Northanger Abbey is a coming-of-age story which follows Catherine Morland.

Catherine’s childhood is summed up in the opening sentence, which packs as humorous a punch as that of Pride and Prejudice:

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.

Does anyone ever see themselves born to be an heroine?

Catherine was an unremarkable child. She has no talent with the skills young ladies were taught at the time; she is a poor artist, her looks are mediocre, and she prefers playing cricket to dolls. Austen mentions that Catherine is the fourth of ten children, which can account in some way for the way she behaved.

I could relate to Catherine in a specific way: she loves to read. She enjoys the Gothic novels that were popular in Austen’s day. Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho appears to be Catherine’s favorite story. She will talk about it with anyone who will listen.

It’s difficult to find someone who’ll take it seriously because it’s a novel. Austen also pokes fun at society’s aversion to novels, making her opinion on this known in chapter five. She mentions that Catherine and her friend Isabella Thorpe read novels together–

(emphasis is mine)

Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried.

Northanger Abbey is a parody, taking elements of Gothic literature and exaggerating them. However, I could not help thinking when reading the above that Jane let her own frustration slip. 

In a previous post about the book Not Just Jane by Shelley DeWees, I mention a similar theme. Women wrote a great majority of novels in that time; many chose to publish with the alias By a Lady to avoid shame if discovered.

Jane Austen never saw Northanger Abbey in print, though she tried many times. This must have been a source of great frustration. Jane was constantly editing Northanger while alive, so it is possible that she added that rant after many failed attempts with the publisher.

I wonder if she chose to make Northanger and its heroine a reflection of herself. Catherine Morland isn’t very interesting and shows little promise (Jane was not very good at simple things such as chores–I heard in one biography that her family seemed to keep her away from the household tasks!) Morland wasn’t surrounded by suitors growing up. Friendship doesn’t come easily to her, either.

She sees the world through the eyes of a reader, as did Jane. Visiting the Abbey, Catherine’s imagination gets the better of her. She imagines a murder and a cruel husband and all sorts of dark common in Gothic books.

The real monsters in Northanger Abbey are greedy people with charming tongues who cheat and double-cross. This is not interesting enough for Catherine, nor is it for us.

In real life, the monsters we face are rude bosses, traffic jams, and math equations. Seldom do we write novels about these problems; like Catherine, we search for more dramatic beasts in the books we read.

Jonathan Gottschall’s excellent book The Storytelling Animal points out our human tendency to seek dramatic problems in story. We ignore the piling bills on the table, looking instead at the murder in a mystery novel. We like trouble–we like drama–just not the sort that we actually deal with.

It seemed to me that Catherine Morland’s greatest character flaw was her preference for Gothic monsters and skeletons in the closet. A mysterious chest and a locked cabinet are more exciting than her backstabbing friends.

Catherine appears to finally grow up when she realizes that fiction is exaggeration. The real monsters in life are people who make decisions to benefit themselves, who discriminate based on social status, who don’t think twice about breaking a heart.

Truthfully, heartbreak is the worst tragedy I can think of.

Life is not a novel. Jane Austen knew that people become addicted to the thrill of fiction. She was more clever than Pride and Prejudice; she understood humans and how they behave. Northanger Abbey was more relatable to me than Pride and Prejudice.

If you haven’t read it yet, I invite you to do so. You might also decide that Catherine Morland represents bookworms and their habits over the centuries.

Classics By Women: NOT JUST JANE by Shelley DeWees


What are the greatest powers to be found in books? There are many, but let’s think about the history behind each piece. People have been writing for centuries, some to inform and others to entertain. There’s a title about everything for everyone.

For more on this, check out my post about Jonathan Gottschall’s book The Storytelling Animal.

Once you start digging into classic literature, you will run into obscure authors and discover the roots of your favorite fairy tales. It’s like Alice falling down the rabbit hole.

Ponder for a moment how the ability to write empowers. Reading and writing have a great influence in the direction that our world takes. Literature makes such a mark on society that it wasn’t always open to everyone.

Women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were discouraged from writing.  It went against the gender roles that society had preset for them. Women were only taught what was necessary for marriage and raising children. If they thought about writing a book (at least, one that wasn’t on the topic of good housekeeping), they risked becoming outcasts.

“Proper” men and women alike mocked ladies who wanted to write. If their tales were indeed written, they were never published. If they were published, most authoresses so feared the condemnation of society that they didn’t publish with their names. Instead they chose the appellation By a Lady.

There are too many women with such a history to celebrate in one blog post or even in a whole book. Shelley DeWees’ Not Just Jane introduces us to seven authoresses aside from Austen who broke the rules. Some were forced into writing to make a living because their husbands could not provide, or–in the case of Sara Coleridge–forced into marriage that tore her away from her passion.

While some of these women wrote about politics, especially during the Great Terror of the French Revolution, others just had stories to tell. Some of them survived because of questionable friends in upper ranks of society. Others were taken “under the wing” of important gentleman (one had a flirtation with the Prince of Wales).

Things like this kept them fed, but didn’t change how they were perceived by the ton. It was a point of no return.

The choice to become a female writer in the eighteenth century was one of strength and bravery. Could I have taken that path when there was so much at stake? I’m glad I don’t have to balance these things now in making that decision; times have changed.

I’m glad the world is full of room for women and their stories.

Learn about seven authoresses who shaped literary history. When you finish Not Just Jane, read a book by one of these women. What can we do to honor their memories? We read the stories they must have doubted could survive.

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas


Though I did enjoy reading this masterpiece of French literature, The Three Musketeers was not exactly the story that I had expected. To begin with, not once in the book did the famous phrase appear: “All for one, and one for all!” Neither did there appear to be a single overarching plot. It’s a book written for people with different attention spans; it had been published in serial form over the course of two months, so it was designed to keep readers hooked like a television show.

I like books written in serial form. They require commitment to read, though; I’ve been working on The Three Musketeers for almost a month, and I’m a fast reader.

Something still felt rather off about the whole story. I blame all of the cartoon adaptations that have popped up over the years. These adaptations present children with a softened version of the story, so it is a surprise when one opens the long novel and discovers elements of darkness or sketchy behavior. Adaptations did this book no justice.

It’s about four men, sword-wielding Musketeers loyal to the King, who are willing to fight and duel almost anyone over anything (many of these things are trivial.) It features gambling, murder, infidelity, mistresses, and a great deal of bloodshed (because of trivial things.) Honor is the big virtue the book touts, but it is often portrayed in a trivial manner–comical.

We might hesitate, these days, to call such men heroes, but they are indeed the heroes of this novel. D’Artagnan, Porthos, Athos and Artemis live to protect the King and Queen, no matter what that might involve. They also protect one another, helping avenge a person who insulted a friend. Loyalty is an admirable quality, too, but some instances I felt could have been let slip.

That’s the point of this book, though–it lauds bravery, fearlessness, loyalty and honor. It perhaps goes a little too far, but I understand that, at the time it was published, readers might have been in need of characters like these. It was published in 1844; not long before that, people had experienced the Bourbon Restoration, the fall of the first Napoleon–a time of great fear, in which wars were waged and many people were killed. Escapism has always been necessary to heal a society from a difficult time period. Maybe the French of the 1840s needed reckless, brave, outspoken heroes, people who would fight for their honor, leaders.

This, of course, is only my speculation; what is for certain is that the fall of Napoleon would have been felt for a long time after it took place, and it would have affected literature.

Of the four characters, the only Musketeer I had sympathy for from the beginning was Aramis. He is only temporarily a Musketeer; his real desire is to enter a monastery. He took up the sword on a youthful matter of honor, but reading about his theological epiphanies and his genuine conscience provided me with a welcome break from the rash duels.

Athos I also came to like, but only near the end, when more details about his past were given. He was able to keep a level head in the midst of a struggle, as opposed to young hot-blooded D’Artagnan, who does not hesitate to draw his pistol. At the age of twenty-one, D’Artagnan has not lived enough. When a tragedy takes place near the end of the novel, he does show his human side, and I sense this tragedy was the initiative for him to mature.

The brave lackeys who aided these men did not get the credit they deserved; rather, they are often treated as objects, even to be gambled away. The Musketeers are not always people worthy of admiration.

Though it was an enjoyable read, I felt that the story did not fully grip me until the final quarter, in which we see the tale from the antagonist’s point of view. Milady de Winter’s thought process is completely different from the Musketeers. For better or for worse, she is making decisions based on reason and cunning, rather than knee-jerk duels. She is by no means a good person, but her intelligent choices kept me reading. I wanted to know what she would do next.

The Musketeers–and most of the men in this novel–underestimated the clever ways in which a woman under pressure can survive.

Finally, the prose–it was so beautiful that I found myself constantly stopping to jot down a quote or two. I wish that I could read The Three Musketeers in its original French; one day, perhaps.

The Three Musketeers is the first in a series of books published by Alexandre Dumas, known as The D’Artagnan Romances. In order, the series is as follows:

  • The Three Musketeers (serialized between March and July, 1844)
  • Twenty Years After (serialized between January and August, 1845)
  • The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later (serialized between October 1847 and January 1850)

In addition, there have been unofficial sequels:

  • The Son of Porthos (1883) by Paul Mahalin, published under the pen name of Alexandre Dumas
  • D’Artagnan Kingmaker (1900) – supposedly based on one of Dumas’ plays
  • The King’s Passport (1925) by H. Bedford-Jones
  • D’Artagnan, the sequel to The Three Musketeers by H. Bedford-Jones

In addition is a sequel written by Dumas himself but left incomplete after seventy-seven chapters, called The Red Sphinx. This, in particular, interests me–as all unfinished classics do, such as Dickens’ Mystery of Edwin Drood and Austen’s Sanditon. Unfinished novels give a sense of the authors’ being very much alive; I’ll write more on this later.

I will certainly finish The D’Artagnan Romances, but keeping in mind that each of them is an almost month-long commitment. You can’t skim old books like these without losing sight of what makes them timeless. 

Our world is fast-paced; to read a good classic, one must be prepared to slow down.

Your Favorite Author?


It takes a while to discover which authors you might call ‘favorites.’ I, for one, tend to bounce from book to book, rarely lingering on a single author unless they wrote classics.

Charles Dickens has been a favorite author of mine from the start—I read A Christmas Carol every Christmas Eve!—but apart from him, I have never thought, “I need to read all the books this person wrote.” There are too many to choose from, I think, to not allow room to explore.

shelf above: Agatha Christie & history (mostly European); below, historical fiction and women writers I enjoy

At last, however, I have found some authors who—while I hesitate to call them favorites—I would want to read their books over and over. It’s their writing style; it’s the way they build the worlds in their novels.

Why don’t I call them favorites? I don’t know; I’ve always had an easier time picking favorite novels than favorite authors. After all, an author might have one really great book, while their others are mediocre; I still like them, but are they a favorite?

Have you ever grappled with the question of a favorite author? I would love to hear if you settled on one, and if so, what you love most about them!

Featured is a photo of a shelf with some of the authors I would read again. (There are more, but their books are on my Kindle!)

Movie Review: Becoming Jane


Based on what’s known of Jane Austen’s life, Becoming Jane is a heartbreaking and beautiful film in which two passions clash.

Jane is introduced in the first scene as a dedicated storyteller. She’s deep in concentration, whispering words as she writes them. The most poignant word haunted me as I watched the film: propriety. That’s ironic, because in her day it was frowned upon for women to be writers—it was improper.

5126

She isn’t thinking about marriage, anyway. She cares only for her novels, determined to feel nothing romantic—

Until she meets a young lawyer named Tom Lefroy. Society doesn’t want them together. For a great deal of the film, even Jane isn’t sure she wants them together. Though it was powerful, Jane’s romance isn’t what made my own heart ache.

As a writer, I cringed at the prejudice Miss Austen endured. Jane seems most alive in the scenes where she’s writing in her room. Society scoffs at novels, and a woman who writes is at a disadvantage.

By the end of the story, I found myself reflecting on three things:

  • Storytellers have always been misunderstood. Not all writers are introverted like Jane or myself, but we do things society finds bizarre, even if it’s no longer disastrous for one’s reputation.
  • If written with skill, dialog is enough to take one’s breath away. Becoming Jane had phrases that made me pause the movie to write them down. Storytellers, can you immerse an audience with just a phrase? If not, practice like I’m planning to.
  • We are obsessed with happy love stories. There are so many that when a bitter one comes around, you remember how strong love can be.

In the movie, Miss Austen made an unselfish decision. It’s a powerful tribute to the author who captivated so many readers, shifting the focus from characters to their own author.

2007_becoming_jane_006

Not all storytellers are the same, but this movie tells a hard truth: Most of us will feel alone or misunderstood at some point in life. We might not end up like Jane, but it’s a passion that demands our all.

Becoming Jane almost made me cry. The heartbreaking outcome of Jane’s only love makes it sink in how weak love makes us, and what we may have to give up for it.

I recommend this film, but make sure to bring your tissue paper.