A Hot Handwriting Scene in Jane Austen

love letter with a rose and penA strong pen, even strokes, letters of an impressive length . . . Jane Austen turns up the heat today, on the occasion of National Handwriting Day, with a surprisingly sexy scene about penmanship from Pride and Prejudice. Focusing on courtship in a world ruled by manners, Austen couldn’t touch the subject of sex. Yet she managed to offer an occasional erotic moment, even if couched in a seemingly innocent conversation about, yes, handwriting.

The romance is all one-sided in this P&P excerpt, which has the characters whiling away an afternoon in the drawing room of the Bingleys’ manor house. Mr. Darcy settles in to write a letter to his sister, but he can’t escape the attention of his ardent admirer, Miss Bingley. Though her advances are mostly met with silence, she praises the length of Mr. Darcy’s letter, the speed of his hand, and the evenness of his strokes. She also volunteers to adjust his pen, an offer he quickly refuses, saying he can fix it himself. (Hmmm . . .)

Ultimately, flattery gets Miss Bingley nowhere—in this scene and in the course of the novel. Elizabeth Bennet, who keeps her eyes on her needlework throughout most of the exchange, is the one he ends up asking to dance that day, and the one he asks to marry at the end of the novel.

In a side note, how much should we read into the admission Miss Bingley’s brother makes about his own handwriting? Charles Bingley, Darcy’s likable friend and romantic foil, says his own writing suffers from the problem of premature expression.

The day passed much as the day before had done. . . . Mr. Darcy was writing, and Miss Bingley, seated near him, was watching the progress of his letter, and repeatedly calling off his attention by messages to his sister. . . . Elizabeth took up some needlework, and was sufficiently amused in attending to what passed between Darcy and his companion. The perpetual commendations of the lady either on his handwriting, or on the evenness of his lines, or on the length of his letter, with the perfect unconcern with which her praises were received, formed a curious dialogue. . . .

“How delighted Miss Darcy will be to receive such a letter!”

He made no answer.

“You write uncommonly fast.”

“You are mistaken. I write rather slowly.”1891

“How many letters you must have occasion to write in the course of a year! Letters of business, too! How odious I should think them!”

“It is fortunate, then, that they fall to my lot instead of to yours.”

“Pray tell your sister that I long to see her.”

“I have already told her so once, by your desire.”

“I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well.”

“Thank you—but I always mend my own.”

“How can you contrive to write so even?”

He was silent. . . .

“But do you always write such charming long letters to her, Mr. Darcy?”

“They are generally long; but whether always charming, it is not for me to determine.”

“It is a rule with me, that a person who can write a long letter with ease cannot write ill.”

“That will not do for a compliment to Darcy, Caroline,” cried her brother, “because he does not write with ease. He studies too much for words of four syllables. Do not you, Darcy?”

“My style of writing is very different from yours.”

“Oh,” cried Miss Bingley, “Charles writes in the most careless way imaginable. He leaves out half his words, and blots the rest.”

“My ideas flow so rapidly that I have not time to express them; by which means my letters sometimes convey no ideas at all to my correspondents.”

. . . .

[Elizabeth said,] “Mr. Darcy had much better finish his letter.”

Mr. Darcy took her advice, and did finish his letter.

Day 25

Today marks the official end of The Snail’s “25 Days of Great Reads.” I hope you’ve enjoyed this seasonal series as much as I have. While making my book list and checking it twice, I thought I’d be able to put to bed a bunch of my favorites from the past year. And I did. But, in the process, I also kept discovering more and more great books that deserve our attention.

So, I offer you a final gift: seven more titles to carry you through the end of 2014. These are all books I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading. Based on glowing reviews across the Web, I’ve added them to my own to-read stack and thought you might want to, too. If you’ve read any of these, please share your opinions in the comments below. We’d love to hear your thoughts!

Thanks for following The Snail in 2014. I hope you’ll pick up the trail next year. Until then, happy reading!

25 Days Read 25

25 Days Read 26

25 Days Read 27

25 Days Read 28

25 Days Read 29

25 Reads Day 30

25 Days Read 31

Day 24

25 Days Read 24

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

I apologize in advance if you’re expecting a story with good news today. On this 24th day of our “25 Days of Great Reads,” I bring you tidings not of great joy, but rather a civilization in collapse. But, somehow, in this dazzling new novel, Emily St. John Mandel proves it possible to depict doomsday in beautiful style. Station Eleven is gripping, heartbreaking, and mesmerizing all at the same time. If you’ve started your list of New Year’s resolutions, put this read at the top of your list.

The novel opens with the sudden death of an actor playing the part of King Lear, and then a snowstorm that threatens to shut down the city of Toronto. But those are minor incidents compared to what is about to happen to the world at large:

In the lobby, the people gathered at the bar clinked their glasses together. “To Arthur,” they said. They drank for a few more minutes and then went their separate ways in the storm. Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.

While this unsuspecting group toasts the passing of a famous actor, a flu pandemic is breaking out that will lead to the collapse of the entire civilization. Pretty soon, the world as we know it is gone:

No more cities. . . . No more pharmaceuticals. . . . No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on the finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, a dog bite. . . . No more countries, all borders unmanned. . . .  No more fire departments, no more police. . . . No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween.

But Station Eleven is about so much more than surviving in a post-apocalyptic environment. Mandel presents the possibility of love, friendship, beauty, and art as she tells the story of a traveling band of Shakespearean actors and musicians roaming the strange new territories in the Great Lakes region. The plot takes us both backward and forward in time, as we get to know characters before “the collapse” and then see them 20 years on, making it in a brave new world.

Named one of 2015’s best by the Goodreads Choice Awards, by the National Book Award committee, by Amazon, by HuffPost Books, by NPR, by the Washington Post—and the list goes on—this is one of those novels not to be missed. It’s the kind you’ll still be thinking about—maybe even dreaming about—long after you turn its final page.

Day 23


25 Days Read 23

The Dead, by James Joyce

A Christmas feast lies at the heart of “The Dead,” the closing work in James Joyce’s inimitable collection called Dubliners:

A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a meat paper frill around its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these two rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blanc-mange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry. On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn up according to the colors of their uniforms, the first two black, with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with transverse green sashes.

If you find yourself, in these days leading up to Christmas, assembling a legion of food and drink for your own guests, you will well relate to this description of a laden holiday table. The Misses Morkan’s annual holiday party is always a predictable, but lavish affair with dancing, music, and plentiful food. For one guest, their nephew Gabriel Conroy, this year’s party will prove far more bitter than sweet. We watch him as he spends the whole evening trying to live up to a certain vision he has of himself, but failing time and again. As the party draws to a close, the story narrows its focus to Gabriel’s relationship with his wife, Gretta. Already a little shattered by the events of the night, he wants to take comfort in their marriage, even hoping to rekindle some romantic excitement from their early days. But he senses something keeping them apart. When they return to their hotel after the party, she reveals a fact from long ago that will forever change him and his outlook on the world. “. . . how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life. He watched her while she slept as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife.”

Like all the stories in Dubliners, “The Dead” depicts a character undergoing an epiphany, a transformative awakening to a new sense of self. So, how fitting that the story’s Christmastime party actually occurs in the early days of January, around the time of the Christian Epiphany. For all of us, Christmas can be a time of renewal. For Gabriel Conroy, it may need to be a complete overhaul.

Day 22

25 Reads Day 22

Stone Mattress: Nine Tales, by Margaret Atwood

It’s worth getting a shot of the opening pages of Atwood’s newest book, where we find a list of titles “Also by Margaret Atwood,” just to marvel at the sheer size of her oeuvre. She’s the very definition of prolific, having published more than 40 books of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children’s lit. Her latest novel, MaddAddam, had hardly been released in paperback when Stone Mattress, a new collection of short stories, appeared in September. To add to her apparently intense writing schedule, she maintains an active Twitter presence, and she’s fun to follow. photoIn fact, just a few hours ago, she posted that she was making date squares. Really, Margaret Atwood? How many hours are in your day?

If somehow you’ve missed Margaret Atwood along the way, or you’re familiar only with her oft-studied 1985 classic, The Handmaid’s Tale, I highly recommend you pick up Stone Mattress and wade into her wonderful work. These tales encapsulate much of the strange, singular vision for which Atwood has become known. They explore fantastic, otherworldly places; dark, dystopian scenarios; and highly charged power plays between men and women. Her tone is funny at times but also deadly serious. Take, for instance, the opening line from the book’s title tale, “Stone Mattress”: “At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone. What she had in mind was a vacation, pure and simple.” As you can guess, Verna’s pleasure cruise to the Arctic isn’t going to turn out exactly as planned—especially for a particular male passenger on board.

In a blog post from last year, I extolled the virtues of the short story, especially in light of our busy modern times. Short stories are satisfying morsels that can be read in a sitting but still leave you with a complete experience and a fully realized vision. If you’re looking for literary satisfaction, you’ll certainly find it in each of the nine tales in Stone Mattress. If, however, you’re a reader who looks for a different sort of satisfaction in literature—a happy ending, let’s say, or even one with absolute certainty—don’t expect to find it here. Atwood’s stories often leave us hanging, as real life tends to do. She’s more concerned with the motivation of her characters, which, in Stone Mattress, most often seems to be revenge. So, even if we don’t know precisely what happens in these stories, we do understand why.