Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Betsy-Tacy and doing things to impress boys

I suppose there's a lot for an aspiring writer not to love in the reissuing of out-of-print books - after all, that's one less opening for a new writer in the current market - but a) my WIP is still a long way from being done, so it's really not an issue yet, and b) dude, how did I miss out on the Betsy-Tacy books as a kid?

Thanks to HarperCollins and the inimitable Jennifer Hart - and the guiding influence of Mitali Perkins - I'm making progress on Part B. Harper started reissuing Maud Hart Lovelace's* Betsy-Tacy series and related titles about a year ago. Last month, Jennifer was at the Boston Book Fest with $5 copies of the newest releases, so how could I resist? (Especially with Mitali's event - covered by Dawn at She Is Too Fond of Books - just around the corner.)

So my last two Saturdays have been spent engrossed in the world of Deep Valley (and the world of sailor suits, party caps, taffeta, and pompadours. There's a "fashion in Lovelace" post on the way).

This past weekend, it was Heaven to Betsy/Betsy in Spite of Herself, and Betsy in Spite of Herself left me thinking about the whole "change yourself to impress a boy" thing.

Betsy is clearly being dumb as she drops her friends and engrosses herself in Phil. It's kind of the high school version of something that comes up in both Dear Enemy (Gordon) and The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society (Mark). (Have I mentioned that those two books have a lot in common? Yes. Go read them both.)

Doing-dumb-things-to-impress-boys shows up pretty often in YA lit. (Probably adult books, too, but it feels like less of a trope there. Or I just haven't read enough.) And it's one of those things that works in fiction because it's true. It certainly was for me. (I almost tried to dredge up examples. Happily, Open Diary appears to have removed long-neglected accounts of its early users, so I don't have to. Since I definitely wasn't thinking about posterity when I started my first proto-blog there, that's a good thing.)

But I can think of one thing that I did to impress a boy that was a net positive: learning to drive on the highway.

I got my driver's license when I was sixteen years, four months, and four days old - in other words, exactly four days after I met Connecticut's requirements for it. (And if the DMV inspectors hadn't been so overbooked, I would have gotten it on the very day I qualified. I was excited about driving.)

Highway driving had been part of both driver's ed and the practice I got with my parents, but sometime after I got my license I decided that I just couldn't do it. I don't remember why, but it probably had something to do with being an inexperienced driver in rush hour traffic, or something like that. As a result, "Sarah doesn't drive on the highway" was just the way it was during my junior year of high school, and most of my senior year.

Then there was a boy.

He didn't have a driver's license (in fact, he managed to go another year without getting one, despite the fact that we lived in an area with no public transit), which meant that if we were going to start dating, I would be doing all the driving.

And if we wanted to go to the movies, or Borders**, or pretty much anything outside of downtown Ridgefield, I'd have to drive on the highway to get us there.

I decided that it was worth overcoming that particular fear in order to be able to ask the boy out, so one morning I went out rather early, when I-84 wasn't too busy, and I drove. I made a few circuits of the territory between Exit 3 and Exit 9 - it wasn't likely I'd have a reason to go further east, and Exit 9 happened to be an easy one for reversing directions - and tried out the biggest challenge, the left exit I'd have to take to get to Federal Road.

I expect I was grinning a bit when I pulled back into my driveway. After a year and a half of refusing to do it, I'd managed to drive on the highway.

(I'm not sure whether this was the actual timing or whether it just makes a good story, but it may have been that night I asked the boy if he wanted to go see Moulin Rouge with me.)

The boy and I started dating a couple days after we saw Moulin Rouge, in the last few weeks of our senior year in high school. (Speaking of YA tropes, we were sure we'd manage to sustain a relationship even though we were about to leave for colleges 2000 miles apart. We almost did - for the first semester.)

It's been years now since the boy and I broke up. We're still good friends.

And I still drive on the highway - quite a lot. I even took a road trip by myself in the summer of 2009, driving from Connecticut to Florida and back. (No, I don't recommend it.)

I'm not going to say that I never would have reached that point if I hadn't been pushed by wanting to impress the boy. I would have figured it out someday.

But that was one time when a teen-girl crush pushed me in the right direction.

*I have very clear memories of getting a bookmark promoting the Maud Hart Lovelace Awards as a kid visiting the St. Paul Public Library. And yet it wasn't until recently I had any idea she was the author of the Betsy-Tacy books.

**Yeah, I wasn't indie bookstore girl back then. We ended up spending more than a few Friday nights hanging out at Borders. Yes, we're both nerds.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Chapter 11: We arrive

(Fair warning: this is a really long chapter. And more than that, I have a lot to say about it. Proceed.)

Switching tenses is something writers usually avoid (or get dinged for). The exception, I think, is when they can pull it off the way Bronte does, as a way of (quite literally) setting the scene:
A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play; and when I draw up the curtain this time, reader, you must fancy you see a room in the George Inn at Millcote, with such large figured papering on the walls as inn rooms have; such a carpet, such furniture, such ornaments on the mantelpiece, such prints, including a portrait of George the Third, and another of the Prince of Wales, and a representation of the death of Wolfe. All this is visible to you by the light of an oil lamp hanging from the ceiling, and by that of an excellent fire, near which I sit in my cloak and bonnet; my muff and umbrella lie on the table, and I am warming away the numbness and chill contracted by sixteen hours’ exposure to the rawness of an October day: I left Lowton at four o’clock a.m., and the Millcote town clock is now just striking eight.
Jane's got an hour and a half (or perhaps two hours) along a typically bumpy road to ponder just what she's getting herself into - but, as she notes, if it doesn't work, she's free to leave. (Not that she has any idea what she'd do with herself then, but it's always nice to keep that in mind, isn't it?)

"A more reassuring introduction for a new governess could scarcely be conceived" when Jane first crosses the threshold of Thornfield. (I suspect her feelings might have been a tad different if the master had been in residence at the time.) There's some quick sorting-out - Mrs. Fairfax is the housekeeper, not Jane's employer; the charge's name is Adele; Mrs. Fairfax is looking forward to being able to converse with someone of her own class, because
"Leah is a nice girl to be sure, and John and his wife are very decent people; but then you see they are only servants, and one can’t converse with them on terms of equality: one must keep them at due distance, for fear of losing one’s authority."
Which puts one in mind of a J.M. Barrie line: "His lordship may compel us to be equal upstairs, but there will never be equality in the servants' hall."

And then Jane's whisked off to bed - but not before Bronte takes the opportunity to toss in some foreshadowing:
A very chill and vault-like air pervaded the stairs and gallery, suggesting cheerless ideas of space and solitude; and I was glad, when finally ushered into my chamber, to find it of small dimensions, and furnished in ordinary, modern style... the eerie impression made by that wide hall, that dark and spacious staircase, and that long, cold gallery...
Yeah, that's gonna make another appearance. Let's think back to high school English, shall we? Major feature of Gothic fiction: the house that's almost a character itself.

Welcome to Thornfield.
Traversing the long and matted gallery, I descended the slippery steps of oak; then I gained the hall: I halted there a minute; I looked at some pictures on the walls (one, I remember, represented a grim man in a cuirass, and one a lady with powdered hair and a pearl necklace), at a bronze lamp pendent from the ceiling, at a great clock whose case was of oak curiously carved, and ebon black with time and rubbing. Everything appeared very stately and imposing to me; but then I was so little accustomed to grandeur. The hall-door, which was half of glass, stood open; I stepped over the threshold. It was a fine autumn morning; the early sun shone serenely on embrowned groves and still green fields; advancing on to the lawn, I looked up and surveyed the front of the mansion. It was three storeys high, of proportions not vast, though considerable: a gentleman’s manor-house, not a nobleman’s seat: battlements round the top gave it a picturesque look. Its grey front stood out well from the background of a rookery, whose cawing tenants were now on the wing: they flew over the lawn and grounds to alight in a great meadow, from which these were separated by a sunk fence, and where an array of mighty old thorn trees, strong, knotty, and broad as oaks, at once explained the etymology of the mansion’s designation. Farther off were hills: not so lofty as those round Lowood, nor so craggy, nor so like barriers of separation from the living world; but yet quiet and lonely hills enough, and seeming to embrace Thornfield with a seclusion I had not expected to find existent so near the stirring locality of Millcote. A little hamlet, whose roofs were blent with trees, straggled up the side of one of these hills; the church of the district stood nearer Thornfield: its old tower-top looked over a knoll between the house and gates.
Oh, and did I mention foreshadowing?
some of the third-storey rooms, though dark and low, were interesting from their air of antiquity. The furniture once appropriated to the lower apartments had from time to time been removed here, as fashions changed... All these relics gave to the third storey of Thornfield Hall the aspect of a home of the past: a shrine of memory.
Curious phrase, that.

After Jane finishes her early-morning tour, she learns one other essential detail: the house belongs to Mr. Rochester, who's going to wait a few more pages before making his appearance.

Jane (as the narrator) complains that Mrs. Fairfax doesn't do much to enlighten her about their employer's character, but let's take a look at what Mrs. F. has to say, shall we?
  • He has "a gentleman's tastes and habits" (which is why she keeps the house in readiness whether or not he's around)
  • His family is respected, and they own a lot of land and have for a long time (maybe this is a good time to discuss entailment and primogeniture?)
  • She doesn't have any reason to dislike him (which is just a rousing endorsement)
  • He's done some traveling (like, say, to the West Indies?)
  • He's "peculiar" (because Mrs. Fairfax can never quite figure out whether or not he's messing with her, but then we're given to understand that Mrs. F. has no more than common abilities, so that's not saying much)
For a guy you haven't met yet, Jane, how much more do you need? There's something about Mr. Rochester.

In the meantime, Jane meets some new characters: Adele (and her nurse Sophie, but she doesn't play much of a role in the story) and Grace Poole.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Worth Watching: 101 Things I Learned in Film School

When I sign up to work Harvard Book Store events, I don't always pick the most fascinating ones. It's a nice plus if it's a cool author (Edwidge Danticat, last night, for example), but as this is my only source of income at the moment, I'll take pretty much anything that fits my schedule. Which is how I ended up working an event for 101 Things I Learned in Film School.

It was fortuitous: Neil Landau based his talk on the story-making side of the film business, which means the techniques he discussed were totally applicable to any other narrative-based enterprise... like, say, writing YA novels. I was mentally revising the WIP the whole time. And thanks to HBS' partnership with WGBH Forum, the talk is available here:

(The video is embedded below, but since I'm using a fairly narrow blog template here - one of those things I've been meaning to work on - you'll probably get a better view on WGBH's site.)

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Chapter 10: Jane Gets a Job

"But this is not to be a regular autobiography," Jane informs us at the opening of Chapter 10 - in other words, "the next eight years are kind of boring, so let's skip to the part where I acquire an unattractive and brooding yet enticing employer."

So in a couple of sentences (things get better at Lowood; Jane becomes a teacher there; Miss Temple gets married and Jane decides it's time to move on) Jane goes from child to adult, which means it's time for her to make her way in the world. (Which I believe is the phrase the Three Little Pigs' mother used to send them in pursuit of unfortunate architecture...)

Side note: After indulging in some parentheticals myself in the preceding paragraph, let me take this opportunity to point out that this chapter includes one of my favorites from Charlotte Bronte:
“A new servitude! There is something in that,” I soliloquised (mentally, be it understood; I did not talk aloud)
Okay, as someone currently engaged in a job search, I have to admit that I get just a teensy bit jealous of Jane here: her resume and cover letter are no more than a hundred words, she throws a classified ad out into the wild, and a week later she's got an offer for a job at twice her current salary.

Let's try that, shall we?
"A young lady accustomed to the book business" (had I not been a blogger three years, in addition to a BTW writer/editor, and a bookseller even longer?) "is desirous of meeting with a situation in which she can work from the Boston area (I thought that as I had just moved to the city, it would not do to undertake employment elsewhere - though of course young ladies are always open to telecommuting). She is qualified to sell books, write news and feature articles, work with HTML and various CMS platforms, manage corporate social media efforts, coordinate logistics for large events, and copyedit like a charm" (in these days, reader, this rather varied catalogue of accomplishments, was somewhat less unusual than it might once have been). "Address, S.M.R., GMail, srettger@---."
If this works out as well for me as it did for Jane, I'll eat my hat*.

What? We're supposed to be talking about Jane, not me? Very well.

Jane's reply is from a Mrs. Fairfax, who Jane assumes is a mild, unoffensive old woman, "a model of elderly English respectability." (For the record, Cary Fukanaga has ruined me for all others; Judi Dench is now Mrs. Fairfax.) She goes through all the proper channels, getting references from her current employer and permission (well, a brush-off, but with the same effect) from her legal guardian.

Just before Jane is due to leave Lowood behind, she gets a visitor: Bessie, the Gateshead maid. Thanks to Bessie, we get a quick update on the state of the Reed family: Eliza has thwarted Georgiana's plans to run off with a young lordling, and John is "such a dissipated young man, they will never make much of him."

Oh, and one of Jane's paternal relatives dropped by the house. I do have a feeling we're going to hear more about him.

*By "hat," of course, I mean this kind.

(Post pic: not Thornfield, but a boys' school in Bath, according to the label I gave it nearly a decade ago.)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Chapter 9: There's something about Helen...

Oh, dear. Sadness ensues in this chapter.

But first - you know how the Romantics had a thing for nature? Yeah.
April advanced to May: a bright serene May it was; days of blue sky, placid sunshine, and soft western or southern gales filled up its duration. And now vegetation matured with vigour; Lowood shook loose its tresses; it became all green, all flowery; its great elm, ash, and oak skeletons were restored to majestic life; woodland plants sprang up profusely in its recesses; unnumbered varieties of moss filled its hollows, and it made a strange ground-sunshine out of the wealth of its wild primrose plants: I have seen their pale gold gleam in overshadowed spots like scatterings of the sweetest lustre.
But all is not well at Lowood. And thought he isn't called out directly, Jane blames Mr. Brocklehurst's mismanagement from the beginning:
Semi-starvation and neglected colds had predisposed most of the pupils to receive infection: forty-five out of the eighty girls lay ill at one time.
Jane's one of the hardier girls, so she gets to enjoy more-or-less freedom while all the adults are busy in their makeshift hospital. She'd be quite content to spend her days with Helen Burns, but Helen is tucked away in another wing of the school - unlike the other sick girls, she has consumption. Jane assumes it's some kind of minor illness, but she and reality eventually have a little get-together.

Motif alert: Jane's visit to Helen's sickbed marks the moon's first appearance in the book. We'll be seeing more of it.
It was quite at the other end of the house; but I knew my way; and the light of the unclouded summer moon, entering here and there at passage windows, enabled me to find it without difficulty.
Helen's a tragic figure, and she assures Jane she's totally at peace - and within a few paragraphs, she is. Jane stays with her until the end.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Chapter 8: Maybe this place isn't so bad after all

Okay, first of all? So going to see this.

Premiers in March, people! (H/t to Flavorwire and everyone who linked to the trailer on Twitter.)

Let's start with the end of the chapter: "I would not now have exchanged Lowood with all its privations for Gateshead and its daily luxuries," our girl says.

So what makes her willing to put up with borderline starvation and abuse, as opposed to the sufficient food and abuse she got at Gateshead? 'Cause when you phrase it that way...

At first, Jane takes Mr. Brocklehurst's attack on her character pretty hard. But Helen keeps telling her to look on the bright side:

“Everybody, Jane? Why, there are only eighty people who have heard you called so, and the world contains hundreds of millions.”

“But what have I to do with millions? The eighty, I know, despise me.”

“Jane, you are mistaken: probably not one in the school either despises or dislikes you: many, I am sure, pity you much.”

And Jane, after doing her drama-queen thing for a bit - and I'm sorry, but when you're offering to have your arm broken so Miss Temple will like you, there's no other way to describe it - allows herself to be comforted. But there's also a hint here that all is not well:
Helen had calmed me; but in the tranquillity she imparted there was an alloy of inexpressible sadness. I felt the impression of woe as she spoke, but I could not tell whence it came; and when, having done speaking, she breathed a little fast and coughed a short cough, I momentarily forgot my own sorrows to yield to a vague concern for her.
But the real reason Jane finds Lowood more appealing than Gateshead is Miss Temple. She goes to find Jane, asks for her side of the story - you get the sense that she's got a limited level of respect for her employer - offers to get corroboration, feeds Helen and Jane, and then has some serious conversation with Helen before the girls have to leave.

And then she actually obtains corroboration of Jane's story, and publicizes it - thus indirectly challenging Mr. Brocklehurst before the whole school. (Which Bronte doesn't address at all.)

After finding herself welcomed back into the fold, Jane decides it's time to put in some effort too:
Thus relieved of a grievous load, I from that hour set to work afresh, resolved to pioneer my way through every difficulty: I toiled hard, and my success was proportionate to my efforts; my memory, not naturally tenacious, improved with practice; exercise sharpened my wits; in a few weeks I was promoted to a higher class; in less than two months I was allowed to commence French and drawing.
So really, it's no surprise she'll stick with Lowood.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Chapter 7: The Big Bad Wolf returns

Lowood is not a pretty place. (The name might be a bit of a hint - in the nineteenth century, low-lying areas were generally thought unhealthy. And I suppose you can consider that a minor spoiler, too.)
Our clothing was insufficient to protect us from the severe cold: we had no boots, the snow got into our shoes and melted there: our ungloved hands became numbed and covered with chilblains, as were our feet: I remember well the distracting irritation I endured from this cause every evening, when my feet inflamed; and the torture of thrusting the swelled, raw, and stiff toes into my shoes in the morning. Then the scanty supply of food was distressing: with the keen appetites of growing children, we had scarcely sufficient to keep alive a delicate invalid. From this deficiency of nourishment resulted an abuse, which pressed hardly on the younger pupils: whenever the famished great girls had an opportunity, they would coax or menace the little ones out of their portion.
Just where you want to send your kid, isn't it? It appears our Jane was not the only one with less-than-devoted relatives.

But here's the part that tells the reader how bad things really are: "The other teachers, poor things, were generally themselves too much dejected to attempt the task of cheering others." I'm actually a little surprised Jane lets them off so easily here, as opposed to using this to demonstrate that the staff is as bad as the physical plant, but apparently she's inclined to be generous.

And then... Mr. Brocklehurst shows up.

Cue the ominous music, 'cause you just know this isn't going to turn out well.

His visit starts out mildly enough - if he's not very sympathetic, he's not too horrible as he goes over some housekeeping notes with Miss Temple. But his criticisms of her management continue, and then we get to the shocking indulgence of lunch:
I looked over the regulations, and I find no such meal as lunch mentioned. Who introduced this innovation? and by what authority?
Historical side note: Lunch in the sense of a midday meal hadn't really arrived by the time this chapter takes place in. By the end of the book, we're getting to the late 1820s/early 1830s, when it had become more fashionable, but to be fair to Mr. Brocklehurst we have to acknowledge that most girls probably weren't getting any meals beyond breakfast, dinner (which was undergoing some migrations at this point, but was somewhere around mid-afternoon), and supper (the oatcake-with-a-splash-of-coffee meal of Jane's arrival at Lowood).

Etymological side note: Before lunch/luncheon took on the meaning we associate with it, it meant a small serving of something.

Back to the story. Miss Temple explains the extenuating circumstances surrounding the lunches, and Mr. Brocklehurst demonstrates his ability to cloak miserliness in priggishness.
"Madam, allow me an instant. You are aware that my plan in bringing up these girls is, not to accustom them to habits of luxury and indulgence, but to render them hardy, patient, self-denying. Should any little accidental disappointment of the appetite occur, such as the spoiling of a meal, the under or the over dressing of a dish, the incident ought not to be neutralised by replacing with something more delicate the comfort lost, thus pampering the body and obviating the aim of this institution; it ought to be improved to the spiritual edification of the pupils, by encouraging them to evince fortitude under temporary privation."
And Miss Temple looks like she's about to let him have it, when another distraction pops up: hair. Let's just not even get into it. Or the female Brocklehursts. The closest thing to a rational comment on that is ppbbbbthhhhh.

And then we get to the heart of the chapter: Mr. Brocklehurst makes good on his promise to Mrs. Reed, and calls Jane out as a liar. Rather over-the-top eloquently. In front of everyone.

We already know, thanks to her strong feelings in Helen's case, that Jane's not a fan of the public humiliation form of punishment. So how does she feel when she's the object? That's what we'll learn in Chapter 8.

(Post pic: This was actually taken in Georgia, but if you pretend that the vegetation is something more English than Spanish moss and live oaks, it could almost be Lowood's surroundings, couldn't it?)