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Tea with Miss Austen Mouse: What Makes a Good Jane Austen Retelling?

by Cassandra Bates

So many retellings…so little time

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if your favorite author has passed, you will indubitably want more of their works. Enter in the world of Jane Austen Fan Fiction, or JAFF. Later this month our region will be discussing “What makes a good Jane Austen retelling?” So, I decided to take tea with my good friend Miss Austen Mouse and discuss what DOES make a Jane Austen retelling good, and while we are at it ask some the officers of the region what their favorite retelling is.

I met my good friend Miss Austen Mouse in her garden, as the weather was quite delightful. We took tea under a trailing Wisteria, and she provided the most scrumptious tea biscuits. We started our discussion on what makes a Jane Austen retelling good, which really amounted to more questions than answers. What is a Jane Austen retelling, does it have to be in line with her works (canon) or not? What about the storyline can deviate from canon, or does it need to follow the Jane Austen formula? Does it need to be a social commentary, which many of her works are thought to be, or something totally light and easy to read? Can it expand on Jane Austen’s stories, like a continuation of sorts, or does a retelling need to be exactly that, a retelling of her stories? What about time periods, does it need to be set in Regency era, like Austen’s novels, or can it be set in other time periods, could it, gasp, include time travel?

Since it had seemed that we were coming up with more questions than an actual discussion we decided to talk with the officers of the region to see what their favorite Jane Austen retelling is.

We started with Regional Co-Coordinator, Michele Larrow. Michele took to a very contemporary retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in Soniah Kamal’s Unmarriageable. It tells the tale of a family in Pakistan over the course of a year (2000-2001). Alysba (Alys) Binat [Elizabeth] teaches English literature at a girls’ school in a fictional provincial town (Dilipabad) in Pakistan. Valentine (Val) Darsee [Darcy] meets her first at a wedding of mutual friends and has connections to the school she works at. Michele enjoyed the ways that P&P is transformed to a Muslim Pakistani family.  Alys teaches P&P to her teenage students and asks them to consider how the book’s themes apply to their lives.  Darsee and Alys have great discussions about post-colonial identity, the role of language in personal identity and literature, and the role of women in Pakistani society.  Sherry [Charlotte] gets a bit of a redemption in this telling, having a marriage to Dr. Farhat Kaleen [Mr. Collins] that seems fulfilling for her.  The descriptions of food will have you hungry and Michele has dreams of the rose-flavored rose garden cake that Nona Gardenaar [Mrs. Gardiner] makes for Darsee’s sister Jujeena (Juju).  Through the Qitty character [Kitty], Kamal explores body acceptance and oppressive standards of beauty. Showing the timelessness of P&P, Kamal addresses its themes in near-contemporary Pakistani culture, such as whether unmarried women can have independence, the role of family in our lives, the role money plays in marriage choices, and how challenging it can be to get to know people.  Michele has re-read this book several times with great pleasure!

Debra Peck, Secretary for the region had this to say about the very first continuation of Jane Austen’s novels, Old Friends and New Fancies written by Sybil G. Brinton. The book deals with many of the characters in Jane’s novels who were left without partners at the end of many of her stories. Many of the main characters of all 6 novels are a part of the story, and they all know each other! Lots of matchmaking going on, very entertaining!

Our own Miss Jane, Jane Provinsal, Regional Co-Coordinator, prefers the Southern side to Jane Austen retellings, with the Jane Austen Takes the South series by Mary Jane Hathaway! There are three books (hopefully she writes the other three, pretty please!) and she read book one Pride, Prejudice, and Cheese Grits, and book three Persuasion, Captain Wentworth, and Cracklin Cornbread the last two summers for our region’s Jane Austen July. Hathaway did a beautiful job of taking the essence of Jane’s stories and setting them in the modern South. The plots feel completely new and still wonderfully familiar. She enjoyed connecting characters and scenes with Jane’s novels, but it didn’t feel like someone just copied Jane’s words. Jane’s works and characters are timeless and these books show that so well without losing the charm! Our Jane LOVED that Hathaway included some recipes for dishes included in the books and can’t wait to try them! These books are lovely, fun, and uplifting. 

With such lovely conversations that Miss Austen Mouse and I had with the officers of the region, we were sad that our garden party was at the end, and we still had so much more to discuss about what makes a retelling of Jane Austen good. We hope you will join us for more discussion on September 19th at 2:30 PM (PST) for a continuation of Miss Austen Mouse’s and my discussion on what makes a retelling of Jane Austen good (and what makes one bad, if there is such a one). For more information on joining the discussion and the form to register, please go to our events page https://jasnaewanid.org/events/.

OH, and this would not be a Tea with Miss Austen Mouse without a recipe. Here is the scrumptious tea biscuits she served me under the trailing Wisteria, fit for Royalty!

Balmoral Shortbread (from Her Majesty’s own former personal Chef)

Ingredients:

225g (8oz) plain flour

225g (8oz) butter

115g (4oz) icing sugar

115g (4oz) corn flour (corn starch)

1tsp salt

1-2tsp vanilla paste

Method:

Preheat oven to 350°F. Add all of the ingredients, except vanilla in a large bowl and work together until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add the vanilla and lightly bring together.

Tip out onto a lightly floured surface and gently knead to form a dough.

Dust a classic Scottish shortbread mold with flour and press the dough into the cavity. Using a sharp knife, trim the top to make a flat surface, alternatively you can use a round cake tin, or roll out and cut fingers or rounds.

Gently turn out the shortbread and place onto a lined baking tray. Using a fork, prick the surface of the shortbread all over and bake in the over for around 20 minutes (you want the shortbread to remain a light sandy color).

Once baked, remove from the oven and, using a sharp knife, score the surface of the shortbread into wedges, this will create a defined break when it comes to portioning. Dust the surface with sugar and leave to cool for 1 hour.

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“Perfect Happiness” on Viewing Four Jane Austen First Editions

A few members of our region had the good fortune to visit the Washington State University (WSU) Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections (MASC) room in the library to view four first editions of Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion.  A WSU alum, Lorraine (Kure) Hanaway recently left the first editions to WSU in her will (https://news.wsu.edu/2021/06/07/first-edition-jane-austen-novels-added-wsu-libraries-collection/).  Lorraine was one of the founding members of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) and was a member of the Eastern Pennsylvania region (http://jasna.org/publications-2/persuasions-online/vol-41-no-1/memorium-hanaway/). Dr. Trevor Bond, Associate Dean for Digital Initiative and Special Collections, and Greg Matthews, Special Collections Librarian at MASC, were our guides for the viewing and arranged all the books that we saw.  I think two themes that shape my reflections on seeing the first editions are:  the importance of preserving and understanding Jane Austen’s early editions and the joy of finding your “small band of true friends” who love Austen. 

Preserving and Understanding Jane Austen’s Early Editions

It seems centrally important to understanding Austen’s works to maintain the volume structure of the novels.  The three volumes structure clearly organizes the novels that were published during Austen’s lifetime.  (Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously each as two volumes of a four-volume set so we can’t be sure of author intent in terms of volumes.)  For example, in Mansfield Park at the end of Volume I, the volume ends quite dramatically when Sir Thomas comes home, and his return is announced to those rehearsing the play by an aghast Julia.  While most recent edited editions of the novels preserve the three (or two) volume structure, it is wonderful to actually see the three volumes and think about what it must have been like to read one volume and then be so excited to start the next volume to find out what came next.  In the first editions we also see the ways that the printers kept continuity in the text by printing the first word of the next page at the end of the previous page (aka the “catchword”, see Deb Barnum’s blog on collecting books: https://janeausteninvermont.blog/2021/03/06/collecting-jane-austen-book-collecting-101/).  We also can see that not many words are printed on each line, so that the words on one page of a current edition might be spread out over two pages in a first edition (compare the Emma proposal scene in the first edition to the proposal scene in the Penguin edition edited by Juliette Wells, marked in the picture below by blue brackets).  It feels amazing that these volumes from the early 1800s have survived into the 21st century.

Finding Your “Small Band of True Friends”

It was so special to see the first editions with two of our region’s “founding members”.  Vic was at our very first meeting in Pullman in June 2017 and Chuck was at our first tea in Spokane in July 2017.  They both joined JASNA that year and helped our region to be recognized as an official region.  One of the joys of being a regional coordinator is getting to meet new Jane Austen fans in our region in person (such as Deb, who came with Vic) and, through social media and on Zoom, getting to meet people from all over the world who are Janeites. When viewing the first editions I also felt a connection to Lorraine Hanaway, who donated them, although I never had the pleasure of meeting her.  I could imagine her walking around the WSU campus in the late 1940s, thinking about the next edition of the student paper, The Daily Evergreen, in her job as editor.

T to B, L to R: Michele, Chuck, Vic, and Debbie are all smiling widely behind their masks!

The other Janeite I connected with at the MASC was, unexpectedly, Virginia Woolf!  The MASC has a large collection of volumes from Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s personal library (http://ntserver1.wsulibs.wsu.edu/masc/onlinebooks/woolflibrary/woolflibraryonline.htm).  I knew that Woolf was a big Jane Austen fan.  Trevor Bond and Greg Matthews arranged for us to see the Jane Austen books from the Woolf personal library.  The novels were mainly the “Everyman Library” versions from the early 1900s, although there was a two volume edition of Pride and Prejudice printed in 1817 by Egerton that was given to Virginia Woolf from John Maynard Keynes (the economist, who was also a part of the Bloomsbury group) and signed by him.  I was excited to see first editions of several of the Oxford publications from the 1920s: Lady Susan (pictured), Volume the First, and the final chapters of Persuasion, including the canceled chapter 10.  Another volume was probably quite rare since it said in the volume that only 250 were published:  a special printing of the final chapters of Persuasion printed on handmade paper with a facsimile version of the canceled chapter 10 in Jane Austen’s handwriting (see picture).  Holding volumes that Virginia Woolf held was very special.

It was a dream come true for me to be able to hold some Jane Austen first editions. I need to go back and study the first edition volumes in more detail.  I also want to get a better look at the P&P from 1817 that belonged to Virginia Woolf.  If you live locally and would like to see the volumes, they are available to view when MASC is open.  See https://libraries.wsu.edu/masc/ for more information about hours and how to access material in the reading room at MASC.

Michele Larrow, Regional Co-Coordinator

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Taking Tea with Miss Austen Mouse: Gingerbread Cakes

by Cassandra Bates, Region Treasurer

With our Spring Tea quickly approaching, I felt that it was a good time to take tea with Miss Austen Mouse. You see, Miss Austen Mouse is somewhat of a connoisseur when it comes to Regency Gastronomy and absolutely loves sharing when she discovers a “new” Regency recipe.  Since we were taking tea together, she decided to share a recipe for Gingerbread Cakes from The Art of Cookery: Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse, originally published in 1805:

Take three pounds of flour, one pound of sugar, one pound of butter rubbed in a very find, two ounces of ginger beat fine, a large nutmeg grated then take a pound a treacle, a quarter of a pint of cream, make them warm together, and make up the bread stiff, roll it out, and make it up into thin cakes, cut them out with a tea-cup, or small glass, or roll them round like nuts, and bake them on tin-plates in a slack oven. 

Now, I am not sure about you dear reader, but I did not find that recipe to be plain nor simple. Luckily, my dear friend Miss Austen Mouse was able to modernize the recipe for me:

1 ½ lbs. all-purpose unbleached flour

½ lb. sugar

½ lb. butter softened to room temperature

2 tbsp. ground ginger

1 tbsp. ground nutmeg

1 cup molasses

¼ cup cream

  1. Preheat oven to 375°
  2. In a large mixing bowl, blend the flour, sugar and spices thoroughly with your hands.
  3. Warm the molasses and cream together in a small saucepan, stirring to blend. This is not to be hot but warm so that they blend together, not cook.
  4. Work the butter into the flour mixture with your hands until it has a sort of grated bread look.
  5. Add the molasses and cream mixture and work it up into a stiff dough with your hands. If it seems dry, add a little more cream to it. The dough should be stiff but not dry.
  6. Roll out the dough on a floured surface about ¼ inch thick and cut cookies into whatever shapes please you. If you wish to form them into nut shapes as the recipe states they will look sort of button shaped when they bake.
  7. Bake these in a 375° oven for about 8 to 10 minutes. They should still be soft to the touch before they come from the oven, not hard.

Enjoy and stay tuned for more Regency Gourmandise and other adventures with Miss Austen Mouse!

If you have a request for Miss Austen Mouse, please email: jasnaewanid@gmail.com or post on our Facebook page or Twitter feed.  Want to snag your very own tea cozy like the one pictured here? Hop on over to BerindeensTeaTime on Etsy: https://www.etsy.com/shop/BernideensTeaTime?ref=profile_header