“How Soft This Prison Is”: Reading Emily Dickinson in Quarantine

As we spend our days in isolation and uncertainty, we thought it fitting to revisit the poems of Emily Dickinson, who led a singular and solitary life, reminding us of the importance of maintaining a rich inner world.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) spent the majority of her life in and around her father’s homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she lived and died in relative seclusion. She never married, rarely travelled, and most of her interactions with people occurred through letters and other correspondence. By the final years of her life, she barely even left her bedroom.

If that sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. Nowadays, while a pandemic sweeps the globe, most of us spend our days confined to our bedrooms or our living rooms, only interacting with those we care about from a distance. Technology helps, to be sure. But there’s no doubt that a lot of us are feeling isolated and anxious during this uncertain time. Who better to turn to for some solace than Emily Dickinson?

Maureen N. McLane calls Dickinson “a homegrown poet of terror, abjection, and difficulty.” Dickinson often wrote about death and the nature of consciousness, the negation of self and the discomfort of being a body in the world.

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Big mood. Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson in Apple TV+’s Dickinson, which puts a modern spin on the poet’s life and work. Photo: Giphy

She was no stranger to solitude. In a letter to her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, Dickinson wrote: “I would paint a portrait which would bring the tears, had I a canvass for it, and the scene should be—solitude, and the figures—solitude—and the lights and shades each a solitude. I could fill a chamber with landscapes so lone, men should pause and weep there; then haste grateful home, for a loved one left.”

There’s a lot of debate about why Dickinson self-isolated, whether it was by choice or whether she was forced into seclusion due to illness of some kind (mental or otherwise). But I like what poet Adrienne Rich supposes: “I have a notion that genius knows itself; that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed. It was, moreover, no hermetic retreat, but a seclusion which included a wide range of people, of reading and correspondence.”

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Portrait of Emily Dickinson. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Dickinson chose seclusion because that’s what she needed in order to write the astonishing 1,789 poems she left behind.

And what her poems reveal is a sharp-witted, fierce, intelligent woman, who reinvented poetic form and carved her own path in life to the bewilderment of those around her. In short, her poems reveal the vastness of a rich inner life, something we could all work to cultivate during this time. When your external world is limited to a small town, or as is the case for many of us now, to house and home, then our inner worlds become our most important dwelling places. Per Dickinson:

The Brain – is wider than the Sky –
For – put them side by side –
The one the other will contain
With ease – and You – beside –

(632)

The mind, to paraphrase Milton, is its own place and can contain the whole sky or sea or anything besides, including you and me and everyone we know. Its capacity for imagination and wonder and expansive thought is unfathomable. More than this, our minds give us the ability to read and think and empathize with others, allowing for the expansion of our inner world.

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –

(1263)

Poetry is exceptional in its capacity to transport us. Through her imagination and her poetry, Dickinson could traverse any distance. By returning to her poems, and following her example—her keen observation of the beautiful details of her immediate world and her willingness to look within herself for substance and meaning—we might make the distance we all feel right now a little more bearable. After all,

Distance – is not the Realm of Fox
Nor by Relay of Bird
Abated – Distance is
Until thyself, Beloved.

(1155)

Here, Dickinson tells us that distance is not about physical space, the lengths a fox or a bird can travel. But the final line is tricky to decipher. Dickinson delights in ambiguity (“Tell all the truth but tell it slant”), taking her readers to a place where meaning loses stable footing. “Distance is / Until thyself, Beloved” could mean that distance is nothing more than the space between the speaker and their beloved. But “thyself” could also be an address to the reader or to the speaker herself, suggesting that physical distance pales in comparison to metaphysical distance, the distance that we feel within. Knowledge of self, having an inner life as sharp and imaginative as Dickinson’s, is how we really overcome distance. And we will overcome this distance.

Dickinson sums it up best in one of my favourite poems:

i dwell in possibility
“I dwell in Possibility” manuscript. Photo: Emily Dickinson Archive

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

(657)

Although we remain confined to our houses, Emily Dickinson shows us one way, at least, that we might use this time to dwell not in the physical isolation we feel, but in the inherent possibility of our own minds.

For more on how poetry can be a balm in times of solitude, check out Serena Ypelaar on Wordsworth and the transportive power of nature.

The Longest and Most Charming Love Letter in Literature

A love letter can be one of the most intimate ways to express love and affection to another. Thankfully for us, some of the greatest writers in English literature also wrote beautiful letters, which often take on new life after the deaths of their writers and recipients.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

In 1928, Virginia Woolf published Orlando, a novel about a poet who lives for centuries and changes from man to woman. The book was inspired by Vita Sackville-West, with whom Virginia had a decades-long romance and later friendship. Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, famously described Orlando as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.” The book is really an ode to Vita in all her complexities and contradictions and a testament to the power of language and story to express the most complicated human experiences. Fitting, too, that Nicolson likened Orlando to a love letter, since Vita and Virginia wrote letters to one another from their first encounter in 1922 until Virginia’s death in 1941.

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Vita Sackville-West (left) and Virginia Woolf (right). Photo: Time

In the age of Internet dating, it’s easier than ever to stay connected, but convenience has in some ways come at the expense of creativity. Somewhere along the way, sliding into your crush’s DMs became the primary mode of expressing romantic interest. Love letters, by comparison, seem like a dying art form.

There’s something strangely fascinating about reading another person’s intimate letters, like peering behind a curtain you’re not supposed to. Letters, after all, are meant to be private. Yet, our inclination to uncover the private lives of public figures persists.

Writers like John Keats, Franz Kafka, Emily Dickinson, and Woolf, among many others, were all exceptional diarists and letter-writers as well as poets and novelists. It’s a curious thing to read the most intimate writings of our favourite writers—like realizing your professors are human beings who have entire lives outside of the academy. The letters of writers continue to be published posthumously not only because they make for interesting historical documents, but also because they offer insight into the remarkable and mundane inner lives of often exalted figures.

The love letter, in particular, reflects exactly what makes the medium of letters so special. Call me a hopeless romantic, but reading the most intimate expressions of love and desire between two people is kind of swoon-worthy. The power of reading these love letters comes from the medium itself, which is at once private and public, immediate and remote, intimate and mundane, fleeting and permanent.

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Vita and Virginia and dogs! Photo: Charleston

Vita and Virginia wrote letters to each other throughout the entirety of their complex and shifting relationship, and through those letters, we get a glimpse of just how much the two meant to each other, how much impact each left on the other’s life and art. Their letters to each other are a chronicle of human connection, captured across space and time.

In perhaps my favourite love letter of all time, Vita writes to Virginia:

I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your undumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it should lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is really just a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any more by giving myself away like this — But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defenses. And I don’t really resent it.

January 1926

That’s the beauty of a letter: it’s there and then it’s gone. Here, Vita puts her feelings in the starkest of terms: simple, honest, vulnerable. But the “little gap” she talks about is present also in the form of the letter. There is always a gap in what we can know from these missives. We get only a glimpse but are unable to fully grasp all that remains unspoken and what happens between the acts. But that’s also what makes reading these letters such a unique experience: we’re only getting a part of the story. Some of it will be forever unavailable to us. And maybe that’s exactly as it should be.

Kindness Among the Unkind: Penny Dreadful and the Art of Adaptation

Showtime’s short-lived horror drama Penny Dreadful embodied the very best of Victorian Gothic. The show’s investment in literature proves that the best adaptations are unafraid to honour their origins. 

By Adriana Wiszniewska

As we discussed earlier this month, the Victorians were much more than their stodgy reputation leads us to believe. Victorian society was slippery and grey, invested as much in the supernatural as the natural. It was, after all, a time of great upheaval. And out of that shadowy underlife emerged some of the most iconic Gothic monsters.

Do you believe there is a demimonde, Mr. Chandler? A half-world between what we know and what we fear? A place in the shadows, rarely seen but deeply felt?

Penny Dreadful, “Night Work” (1×01)

While Gothic literature had its heyday in the late eighteenth century, the genre underwent a massive resurgence in the Victorian era. The old forms of eighteenth-century Gothic were updated to reflect the anxieties of a society teetering on the edge of modernity. It’s remarkable just how many Gothic novels were published in the final decades of the nineteenth century, including classics like Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898).

Among this slew of new horror fiction were penny dreadfuls, cheap, sensational, serialized stories that were looked down upon not just for their lurid subject matter but also for their mass popularity. Which brings me to Penny Dreadful (2014-2016), a TV series that took its inspiration from all of the above.

Episode 101
Eva Green is mesmerizing as Penny Dreadful‘s Vanessa Ives. If there’s one reason for you to watch this show, it’s Eva Green. Photo: IMDb

Written and created by John Logan (who also wrote the play Red), Penny Dreadful takes the monster-parts of classic Gothic literature, from Dracula to Dorian Gray to Frankenstein, and stitches them together into one exquisite tapestry of postmodern beauty and terror, blurring the edge between the lurid grotesque of pop culture and the high-minded literary aspirations of high art.

Penny Dreadful wears its literary influences on its puffy Victorian sleeve, shamelessly flaunting its literariness at every step. While most obviously shaped by nineteenth-century Gothic, the show is also knee-deep in Romantic poetry.

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She’s not wrong. Sad monsters too, apparently. Photo: Tumblr

In Penny Dreadful, two strangers can casually recite the same poem to each other from memory like it’s nothing. Victor Frankenstein, in seeking a name for his creation, reaches not for the Bible but for Shakespeare, because “theological connotations aren’t very ‘us’, are they?”

The same could be said of Penny Dreadful. In a world of vampires, werewolves, and witches—a world of senseless death and cruelty—existence seems devoid of the divinity and order that the Romantics saw in nature. As Frankenstein’s monster puts it:

I am not a creation of the antique pastoral world. I am modernity personified. Did you not know that’s what you were creating? The modern age? Did you really imagine that your modern creation would hold to the values of Keats and Wordsworth? We are men of iron and mechanization now. We are steam engines and turbines. Were you really so naive to imagine that we’d see eternity in a daffodil?

Penny Dreadful, “Resurrection” (1×03)

The Gothic is the dark underside of Romanticism, anticipating the bloody monstrous mechanized world that Penny Dreadful knows has already arrived and still haunts us to this day. But the show’s investment in poetry, in beauty and love and kindness among the unkind, shows that there are ways to hold back the dark, even if just for a moment.

That’s why all monsters in Penny Dreadful are secretly poets, the Creature perhaps most of all. Just as his creator reached for Shakespeare, the Creature renames himself John Clare after the poet of the same name  in an attempt to shed his monstrous past. And in the cavernous dark beneath London (a place in the shadows, rarely seen but deeply felt), Clare finds kinship with Vanessa Ives, another damaged person who dwells in the halfway place between light and dark (Vanessa, notably an original creation, is the glue that holds the show together). She looks at his scarred face with warmth and the two trade soft words and lines of poetry:

The characters of Penny Dreadful speak in and through literature, finding solace in poetry when the world offers them only pain and loss and darkness. This is a story about monsters—the scary, bloodsucking, evil monsters, of course. But also the sad, lonely, misunderstood monsters—the broken things—the kind of monsters that shed light on what it means to be human and, conversely, what it means to be cast out from humanity.

Stories make up Penny Dreadful‘s blood and bones. Its characters use literary texts to define themselves, to narrate their lives, to make sense of the world around them. They themselves are texts, living and breathing and endlessly generative. That’s what makes literature so powerful to begin with, and Penny Dreadful understands that better than any show on television.

“Material Without Being Real”: How IMAX Immerses

Watching film favourites in IMAX offers viewers the chance to feel as close to a story as possible, going one step further with visual immersion to transport the viewer.

By Serena Ypelaar

“Life is much more successfully looked at through a single window,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald in his 1925 novel The Great Gatsby – and when it comes to film, I couldn’t agree more, the “single window” being the big screen. Despite the rise of home streaming services, the cinema still thrives as a public space for one reason: its ability to immerse. IMAX is an exceptional example, as I was reminded last night at the Cinesphere in Toronto.

I’ve seen two films at the Cinesphere in the last year, and both experiences were cinematic treats. I should also note that both are among my all-time favourite movies: The Sound of Music (1965) and The Great Gatsby (2013). Rewatching these films on the big(ger) screen was a phenomenal exercise in 1) spectacle and 2) film criticism.

In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music (1965), IMAX drops us right amidst the Alps as we follow Maria’s adventures up close and personal. Photo: The Sound of Music

My family loves films. Throughout my life my parents have introduced me to a multitude of classic films, and we always revered IMAX as a special chance to see those classics larger than life. When my mother was in university, she got to meet with one of the creators of IMAX to learn about its inception. IMAX is actually a Canadian creation, distributed worldwide since the 1960s – and it has the power to transport viewers using large-scale visuals.

Take The Great Gatsby, for example. I saw it a couple of times (ahem, a few) in theatres, but that was six years ago now – and ever since then, I’ve only watched on television screens at home. Returning to the cinema to watch Gatsby last night was even more invigorating than I expected. Baz Luhrmann’s film is a highly visual, often dizzying romp through the 1920s and it takes some time to get into, but after the first half hour or so I was so absorbed that I didn’t even notice where I was or that I was actually watching a story from outside it. My friend and I delved so deep into discussion about the film and its execution of the titular 20th century literary novel that I’m still now recovering from the magnitude of such an intense viewing experience.

Being tossed headfirst into Jay Gatsby’s parties is one of the joys of watching films in an even larger, more immersive cinema. Photo: Collider

IMAX has the power to take you into the world it presents, through the mere sights and sounds of the experience but also in its creation itself. The IMAX projector allows films to be ten times larger than 35mm, with outstanding quality picture. Combine the sheer size of the screen with the sheer size of the Gatsby universe, and you’ve got yourself a winner. As viewers, we’re drawn deeply into the narrative through immersion, picking up details like never before: the nuances of each character’s expression, the ornate features of the sets, and cinematography as it pulls us further in.

Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) in The Great Gatsby (2013). The film in IMAX faithfully recreated the white curtain scene from Fitzgerald’s novel. Photo: IMDb

As the film drew to a close last night, the audience was mesmerized – it’s been ages since I could hear a pin drop in a theatre like that. The weightiest scenes were magnetic in the sense that I felt like I was there; I got absorbed in Jay Gatsby’s parties, his gardens, or roaring along in his large yellow car. Watching The Sound of Music in IMAX was just as enticing, with the rolling hills and mountains of the Austrian landscape spilling before the audience. In IMAX, we’re immune to commonplace distractions that might interrupt at home; we’re fully surrounded by the action.

The reality of the Valley of Ashes is jarringly brought to life in IMAX, where there is no hiding from the dirt and grime of industrial New York in the 1920s. Photo: Popsugar

Essentially, IMAX can elevate an average movie night to a sublime experience, one that shows cinema at its best: taking us out of ourselves and into another universe. These innovations in media offer top notch escapism without even leaving our seats, and personally, I’m more than grateful for the chance to get swallowed up into a good story.

Quotes used in this article are taken from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925).

Reflections and Realizations on a Wizard’s Birthday

Like a fine wine, a book, too, can get better with age. With age comes maturity; with maturity comes appreciation. This is all to say that a reread of a prolific childhood novel can leave one with a much greater understanding and respect in adulthood.

By Bretton Weir

July 31st comes but once a year. To most, this seems like it could be nothing more than an arbitrary date; to others, this day celebrates the birth of one of literature’s most prolific heroes: Harry Potter turns 39. To commemorate this day, a Harry Potter-inspired post is a (room of) requirement.

If I baked, I’d make this cake in celebration.
Source: Giphy

I am a fan of Harry Potter. I grew up with the book series and enjoyed the films; however, I recognize that my passive appreciation doesn’t hold a match to the fanaticism of many, including a few of the contributing writers of The Mindful Rambler.

I wanted to write this post, however, because I have come to this realization as an adult: The Chamber of Secrets is the book I underrated most growing up BUT I have come to realize it is a lynch pin to the plot of the entire series. 

Building on Perfection

The first novel in the series, The Philosopher’s Stone, is bliss. It gives us all the tools to understand the Wizarding World — the grandeur, the allure, the sense of place Harry finds so comforting, and it sets up the conflict of good versus evil. However, it can stand alone as a novel. Independent. A one-off.

The Chamber of Secrets takes what the first book establishes, uses it as its foundation, and further builds up and solidifies the future of the entire series. 

Expanding the Wizarding World

In this second installment, we get to see more of what makes the Wizarding World so magnificent. For instance, we are introduced to the Weasleys’ homestead, The Burrow. This is a location that will continue to represent a place of belonging for Harry throughout the series. Or take the Floo network, a magical highway of sorts, connecting all the fireplaces of the Wizarding World together.

Accio: Floo Powder
Source: Giphy

While all very intriguing, what The Chamber of Secrets does so well is in its setup of the extent of Voldemort’s evil and how Harry will eventually meet and defeat his foe. 

Horcruxes FTW

Yes, Voldemort is the big bad. And yes, we know that from the start. What The Chamber of Secrets does is covertly introduce us to the concept of Horcruxes — the physical objects in which Voldemort has split his soul. As any reader knows, the Horcruxes are what drive the plot and action of the last third of the series. For J.K. Rowling to plant this seed so early in the series, however, speaks to her ingenuity and thoughtful long-term planning. The fact Harry is able to face and defeat one of these manifestations of evil (Tom Riddle’s diary) so early gives us some comforting foresight. As well, the continued use of the basilisk as a further symbol of Voldemort’s terror is very affecting. Furthermore, this symbolism contrasts the fact that the fangs of this creature are a powerful tool in destroying the evil they seem to represent. Two words I use to describe this: bloody brilliant.

Wise words, Ronald Weasley. Wise words.
Source: Giphy

With all this being said, I would suggest we all give The Chamber of Secrets a reread. Heck, why not a reread of the entire series? I reckon you’ll be amazed at what you’ll pick up on another pass through the books.

What are you thoughts on The Chamber of Secrets, and Harry Potter, at large? Drop us a comment below!

You Can’t Repeat the Past

Why, of course you can! Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013) demonstrates that while it may seem unorthodox to decide against a by-the-book 1920s soundtrack, the choice to incorporate contemporary artists worked.

By Serena Ypelaar

When a new adaptation of The Great Gatsby got the green light (pun intended), I was over the moon. High School Me was obsessed with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, despite never being assigned to read it (or perhaps that’s why I actually liked it: it wasn’t just schoolwork).

Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Photo: The Gentleman’s Journal

Leonardo DiCaprio was cast as Jay Gatsby, Tobey Maguire was to play narrator Nick Carraway, and Carey Mulligan was Daisy; matches made in heaven, basically. But one thing I just wasn’t sure about was the soundtrack. When I saw a couple of early trailers for the film, I was mildly indignant. Eager as I was, I was a purist and had expected authentic 1920s music to furnish the lavish Baz Luhrmann film. But that’s the understanding I lacked: I hadn’t seen Moulin Rouge or any of Luhrmann’s other films at that time, so his style was unknown to me. What do you mean, they’re using modern music in such a sacred film, one rooted so inextricably in the Jazz Age? I was positively affronted. How would that ever work?

But then came May, and I saw the movie. And it worked; by God, did it ever work. I don’t know how, but I finally understood the vision and appreciated the 1920s flair added to each track, as produced by Jay-Z. Joining him were Kanye West, Beyoncé and André 3000, Lana Del Rey, will.i.am, Fergie, Gotye, Sia, Florence + the Machine,
Emeli Sandé, Bryan Ferry, The xx, and Jack White. In other words, a gilded lineup if I ever saw (or heard) one.

Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and Jay Gatsby (Leo DiCaprio) in New York. Photo: Pinterest

Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” is achingly wistful; The xx’s “Together” is languid and romantic. On the flip side, Fergie and will.i.am’s tracks brought the party to life, and Jay-Z, Kanye, and Beyoncé capture the enigmatic allure of both Gatsby and New York City. Jay-Z and Kanye’s “No Church in the Wild” overlaid a city montage so memorably that I picture the scene whenever I hear the track.

The soundtrack is used (in conjunction with original novel quotes) to great effect at Gatsby’s party, seen here.

As seen through Nick’s eyes, Gatsby’s party is a perfect example of the soundtrack at play. In my reading of the novel, Fitzgerald knew exactly the right balance to strike between well-placed pithiness and sprawlingly eloquent description. The film soundtrack is the perfect complement: opulence, combined with Fitzgerald’s judicious prose, creates a picture of how the party might look and sound.

The Buchanans, Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and Tom (Joel Edgerton). Photo: Pinterest

Surrendering my preconceived notions was easy once swept up by the film in its totality. I appreciate how the soundtrack was able to unseat my stubborn misgivings, and I think creatively, it was a phenomenal success. When I imagine the alternative, my originally preferred 1920s jazz, I can admit that the film might then have come across as static compared to this adaptation, which lies fluidly between Fitzgerald’s era and ours. It’s a bridge to audiences, who can relate to these familiar musicians in a setting that may be largely unfamiliar. In less capable hands, it could have been a disaster. But elements of each song nod to the novel, from Florence’s “green light” in “Over the Love” to Gatsby’s ultimate fate, tacitly referenced in will.i.am’s “Bang Bang”. Interspersed with Craig Armstrong’s alternately bubbly and haunting score, the soundtrack represents all the warring interests and desires of the film, looping backstory into the ominous plot progression.

Some people didn’t even like this film. But Luhrmann’s Gatsby is staunchly faithful to the source material as far as the screenplay goes. The characters spoke many lines verbatim from the book, which warmed my purist heart; the costumes were wonderfully executed. Any liberality had to be assigned elsewhere, and I’m actually glad it was the music. This soundtrack might not have thrived with a direct repeat of past music. Instead, it acknowledges history and moves forward with it to inform something new, which the misguided Gatsby failed to do as he tried to reconstruct the past.

Gatsby (DiCaprio) reaches for the green light across the bay, obsessed with getting back to Daisy as if nothing had changed. Photo: Odyssey

This soundtrack will always be relevant to me as a reminder that our fixation on what things should be isn’t always what’s best – there are so many new and daring possibilities out there.

Unfinished Austen: Sanditon

Sanditon is one of two novels Jane Austen never finished. Since her death, this fragment of writing has undergone a long journey of alternate interpretations. For better or for worse, everyone who interacts with Sanditon must make their own interpretive choices.

By Sadie MacDonald

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Jane Austen fan in possession of six full-length novels must be in want of even more Austen stories.

Luckily for us greedy fans, more writing is available! There are several works of juvenilia as well as unfinished fragments The Watsons and Sanditon. Today I’ll focus on Sanditon, which you can read online. As an unfinished novel, it’s been subject to a lot of interpretation and conjecture over time.

First, Sanditon‘s publishing history: it wasn’t a given that it would be widely shared with readers. Jane Austen was a private person who cared deeply about her work, heavily revising manuscripts before publishing them anonymously. After Austen died, her sister Cassandra safeguarded her writing by destroying some of Jane’s letters and preserving unpublished manuscripts, which were distributed among family members after Cassandra’s death. Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh included extracts of Sanditon in A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1871. Some of the Austen family had doubts about publishing Jane’s unfinished works, but Austen-Leigh felt that the public should read them. R.W. Chapman published the full text for the first time in 1925. There are pressing questions here regarding the ethics of publishing posthumously, which is beyond the scope of this post (fortunately, Serena will discuss this topic in an upcoming article!).

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A watercolour of Jane Austen painted by her sister Cassandra in 1804. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Sanditon tells the story of the Parker family and their speculative attempts to make the titular seaside town a resort destination for tourists. The Parkers invite Charlotte Heywood to experience Sanditon’s charms for herself. The sensible, wry Charlotte meets many characters who vary in ridiculousness. Lady Denham, for example, is a rude, tightfisted gentlewoman who delights in having her relatives compete for her favour. There’s also Mr. Parker’s three hypochondriac siblings, who have teeth pulled on the merest suspicion of gum issues, and his charming unmarried brother, Sidney Parker. The stage is set – but the story didn’t have the chance to play out.

Austen started writing Sanditon in the last months of her life, but she was forced to abandon it when she became too ill. The fragment consists of twelve chapters, ending abruptly after Charlotte compares the portraits of Lady Denham’s deceased husbands: one has a “whole-length portrait” over the mantelpiece, while the other gets an inconspicuous miniature. It’s an innocuous moment to end on – but it’s fitting for Austen’s career to end with a witty observation. What little we have of Sanditon is tantalizing, and Austen presents it with characteristic irony and snideness. Sanditon is most intriguing, however, for what we don’t get to see, and for what we must interpret ourselves.

In her introduction to the Penguin edition of Sanditon, Margaret Drabble notes that “one cannot predict with any certainty the ways in which the plot would have developed.” The biggest questions surround the speculative venture; Mr. Parker’s naïvety left me pessimistic about its success. There’s also Sidney Parker to consider – is he another rakish red herring of a love interest like Wickham and Willoughby, a jovial beau like Mr. Tilney, or something else entirely? One interesting character, discussed but not seen, is Miss Lambe, “a young West Indian of large fortune” who is “about seventeen, half mulatto,* chilly and tender” and the “most important and precious” charge of her guardian. Austen novels can be insular, as they focus on the rural English upper-class; Mansfield Park is one exception, as it mentions that the Bertrams acquired their wealth through slave plantations. Sanditon could have been another chance to broaden horizons.

Unsurprisingly, others have tried to finish Sanditon. Some adaptations have questionable literary merits, but the blanks must be filled in. Prominent continuations include Marie Dobbs’s 1975 version and an attempted completion by Austen’s niece Anna Austen Lefroy. There is also an upcoming television series. What choices will it make?

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The attribution of Marie Dobbs’s continuation makes reference to how Sense and Sensibility was originally promoted as “A New Novel by a Lady.” Photo: Amazon

We all must guess when it comes to Sanditon. By necessity, reading it is an exercise in making one’s own interpretations. In many respects this is nerve-wracking and unsatisfying. Can our own imaginations match up to Austen’s? Should they? Sanditon, perhaps, can be seen as a gift: a Jane Austen story we can make our own.

*The archaic term “mulatto” refers to people of mixed Black and white heritage and came into use during the period of Trans-Atlantic slavery. Considered offensive to English-speakers today, it is not a word that should be used casually in 2019!

Long Story Short, You Can’t Control Everything

Though storytelling is highly personal, it thrives on human interaction and the sharing of experiences, making storytelling and interpretation inherently collaborative processes.

By Serena Ypelaar

“You can’t control what others think, but you can control what you put out there.”

This idea is something a lot of people carry around, and it has a special relevance when we think of how we’re surrounded by stories. As we enter a brand new year of The Mindful Rambler, I’d like to reframe the discussion on storytelling and interpretation – and the methods of both processes – which we’ve been examining here on the blog.

In telling a story, whether it’s for entertainment, healing, documentation, critical analysis, or otherwise, there’s always a lot of pressure around how it will be received. Will people like it? Will they get it? Will they take from it the information you’re hoping to impart?

Shakespeare definitely distilled some information down when he wrote his history plays, inciting a multitude of different interpretations.
Photo: Giphy

I experience that pressure whenever I write something. Anything I write can be interpreted, misinterpreted, and reinterpreted, and the truth is that my writing won’t exist entirely under my control once it’s out there. Every person who hears a story brings their own unique experience to it, creating something new. Two people who read the same book, for example, might see it in completely different ways, meaning that the result – the experience of storytelling – actually becomes a hybridization, a meeting place between the “teller” and the “listener”. Storytelling is the act of bringing one’s story, through words, images, sound, and other sensory outputs, into being outside of one’s self.

To avoid delving too far into the abstract, I’ll use an example. If someone is describing a place while telling a story, they’ll describe it as best they can noting features they feel are important to the story or of personal value to them. The person listening to the story will then construct their own interpretation of the event, incorporating their past experiences, feelings, biases, and assumptions. In short, the story is changed by the listener’s reception of it. Every single person hearing that story will have a different conceptualization of it, and a different understanding.

It’s the same with novel writing. Writers describe a character, for instance, and we, the readers, each construct a mental image of that person (and then get angry when the film casting doesn’t match that). I don’t know how many people I heard, back in middle school, ranting about how they definitely, totally did not picture Robert Pattinson when they dreamed up Twilight’s Edward Cullen in their heads. There are also race-based biases toward literary characters which often become clear when a person of colour is cast as a character many assumed would be white (like the vampire Laurent from the same franchise), racial prejudices becoming evident with readers’ indignation.

As demonstrated by their reaction to Edi Gathegi being cast as Laurent, Twilight‘s preteen fanbase did not want a diverse cast for the 2009 film adaptation… and, according to director Catherine Hardwicke, neither did the author (Stephenie Meyer) herself.

Irrespective of a story and its content, creators must become comfortable with the notion that each person who hears their story is going to see something different. There’s no way a storyteller can construct their tale in a way that guarantees uniform interpretation. Attempting to do so can result in over-describing something and alienating readers by unconsciously (or consciously) trying to harness control over their perceptions. It’s possible to use photographs to aid a visual picture, for instance, but these will still foster further imaginings on the part of the listener. Gaps in information will be filled independently – so the point is not to describe every single thing that is within you, but rather what is important to the story. That’s how we get such engaging stories, whether in literature, history, entertainment, art, memoir, or otherwise. Allow the listener to meet you halfway, and together you can share the experience while expressing trust in another person.

Maybe that’s why storytelling is so important to us – on an instinctual level, it allows us to connect with each other and find common ground.

What the Dickens? Christmas the Scrooge Way

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a classic favourite when it comes to the Christmas spirit, and he entwines a fictional biography with class commentary.

By Serena Ypelaar

“In life I was your partner, Jacob Marley.”

This phrase from Charles Dickens’ well-loved Christmas novella cleverly establishes the intersection of life and death, as the ghost of Ebenezer Scrooge’s business partner comes to warn him off his cold-hearted ways. A Christmas Carol (1843) illuminates the importance of generosity during the festive season, but it also serves as an excellent form of fictional biography.

In the book, Dickens exemplifies the writerly adage “show, don’t tell” and spins a compelling illustration of a man’s life without resorting to long-winded character monologues. Where a lesser author might have their protagonist prattle on at length about their upbringing in a style that bores most readers, Dickens instead shows us almost firsthand how miser Ebenezer Scrooge became the person he is.

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Ebenezer Scrooge (Alistair Sim) watches events of his past as shown by the Ghost of Christmas Past (Michael Dolan) in the 1951 adaptation of “A Christmas Carol”. Photo: The Guardian

It’s a fascinating combination of realism and supernaturality, with the Ghosts of Christmas Past appearing to guide Scrooge (and us) through a revival of his past. Not a retelling, but a re-experiencing. But what does Dickens want from us when taking us through fictional Scrooge’s lifetime? An understanding of the character is the obvious answer, but it also goes a little deeper than that. He wants us to foster empathy for not only Scrooge, but those he deprives.

Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present, illustrated by John Leech. Photo: Wikimedia

From an interpretive perspective, the flashback device serves to place us directly in Scrooge’s shoes, therefore holding us accountable. By using Scrooge as an overarching symbol of avarice (especially during the holidays), Dickens warns against the danger of greed. In his customary fashion, he prompts us – through experiencing Scrooge’s life alongside him – to ensure we don’t repeat the same mistakes. Do we donate to those in need at the holidays? Many of us do, but many of us don’t. We fret about shopping and wish lists but fail to consider those for whom (like the Cratchits) a big family dinner would mean the world.

It’s fascinating to consider that Dickens predated the commercial bastardization of Christmas by almost century, as we now sit at a point where Christmas for many people is defined by dollar signs (or pounds, for that matter).

Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim, who walks with a cane, as illustrated by Fred Barnard. The Cratchits cannot afford adequate medical care for Tim. Photo: Wikimedia

So when we read A Christmas Carol or watch an adaptation (my family and I favour the 1951 film starring Alistair Sim), we’re prompted to examine our own behaviour. In damning Scrooge for his constant refrain of “bah, Humbug”, are we ourselves really focused on the true meaning of Christmas? We can interpret Dickens’ work many ways, but the one immovable theme at the core is that Christmas calls us toward togetherness, kindness, and compassion. Dickens wishes us a Merry Christmas, certainly, but he doesn’t let us off easy when it comes to our own thoughtfulness. That much is clear when he stresses the final two words of Tiny Tim’s famous refrain: God bless us, every one.”

The world may be an unequal place, as Dickens knew well, but his works inspire us to do whatever we can to reset the balance and share what we have.

In parting, Merry Christmas, and thank you for reading The Mindful Rambler! Sending you all the best wishes – take care of each other.

Leaving you with a wonderful Dickens parody on the television series Quacks, starring Andrew Scott as the writer himself!

The pen is mightier than the sword, especially when it’s Jane Austen’s

243 years after Jane Austen’s birth, her words still loom large over the literary world –  and in the dialogue about women’s rights.

By Serena Ypelaar

Today is Jane Austen’s birthday.

This time every year, I’m left reflecting on the legacy of that talented and incredibly smart woman, one whose voice speaks so loudly in both her contemporary era and our own. Despite living in a male-dominated society, Austen’s wit and wisdom has pervaded the literary world and she remains one of Britain’s most prominent authors.

Jane Austen.
Photo: Goodreads

So on her birthday, I’d like to recall the significance of her work as a canon that redefined feminism even at such an early point in time.

The author of Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Emma, among other titles, left an indelible mark on English literature as a writer who speaks from a distinctly feminine perspective in a patriarchal society.

“Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.”

Anne Elliot discussing gender inequality in “Persuasion” (1817)

To paint a brief picture, in Austen’s society only landowning men could vote; genteel women of the middle and upper classes could only retain or augment social standing through a successful marriage. Even then, influence was confined to that of one’s husband, a notion at odds with today’s circumstances. Failure to marry well would usually result in spinsterhood, living with one’s parents for the remainder of one’s life (which was extremely embarrassing back then) and a complete lack of independence.

Despite all this, Austen rejected the marriage proposal she received from one Harris Bigg-Wither and instead committed to reconciling the two seemingly disparate lifestyles I’ve just mentioned: autonomy as a single woman.

How did she do it, you ask? She did it through her words, as a woman writer. She wrote about women’s experiences of Regency society, highlighting issues of income, class, personality, gender, and manners. She successfully sold her novels to earn money, making her quite entrepreneurial for a woman of her time. Her discerning assessments of the dynamic between men and women – despite being set 200 years before now – still resonate with us today, and her comments on the human condition have charmed readers of all genders and classes.

I have been open and sincere where I ought to have been reserved, spiritless, dull, and deceitful. Had I talked only of the weather and the roads, and had I spoken only once in ten minutes, this reproach would have been spared.

Marianne Dashwood describing the severe expectations of women in her society in “Sense and Sensibility” (1811)

Regardless of how I feel about today’s designation of “chick lit” as an excuse to dismiss female authorship, Austen owns her femininity unabashedly, delivering exacting jabs and insightful criticisms from the seat of an observer – each time a considerate and emotionally complex female character. What makes her so relevant today is that amidst the ongoing push for equal rights, people connect to her ability to find flaws in her society and propose solutions to them.

I hate to hear you talk about women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives. 

Anne Elliot in “Persuasion” (1817)

Since her books achieved mass popularity, Austen has served as an inspiration to many, though she’s not without her critics (jealous haters). Mark Twain, Charlotte Brontë, and other writers claimed to find no brilliance in her work, but as The Mindful Rambler is by no means a neutral publication, I feel no hesitation in discrediting their criticisms. Austen is brilliant because she represents the everyday. What might seem to some the banalities of the well-to-do in the countryside in fact set Austen apart, through the minutiae of her social criticisms and her practiced understanding of others. We’ve all met a Mrs. Bennet, whether she is our own mother, a voracious aunt, or otherwise; we all want to meet a Mr. Darcy (or Mr. Tilney of Northanger Abbey in my case, but I’m sure we’ll get to that in a future post).

A woman, especially if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

Jane Austen employing her signature biting irony in “Northanger Abbey” (1817)

I write this from the perspective of a woman who loves writing too, and whose work has been shaped by two prominent female writers, J.K. Rowling and Austen herself. But while the former shies away from gender politics in favour of the ideological, the latter champions her gender through representation and highlights disparities between men’s and women’s quality of life. Austen does this using a combination of cultural nuances and hyperbolic characters, stressing important themes while more subtly suggesting at other details. The result is a complex but convincing illustration of feminism in the early 19th century, one that we can use to inform our discussions of feminist literature today. And we have a well-educated, unmarried woman in Regency England who forged her own path – despite the restrictions of her society – to thank for that.

Learn more about Jane Austen and her portrayal of women here.