The Jane Austen that never was

Posted On: November 17th, 2019 | Posted By: miketrial

What if Jane Austen had lived longer than the 41 years she did, and had written more than the six novels she did?

 

I recently explored this question in a presentation I did for the University of Missouri’s Lifelong Learning Institute.

Despite her relatively small output, she is one of the most loved, researched, discussed, parodied, admired, and copied writers in the English language. She pioneered realism, writing insightfully about genteel families in small English villages in the early 1800s. And then she died young of what some researchers believe to be Addison’s disease.

It’s fun to speculate about what she could have written. For example, what if she had completed a novel during the two years she lived in Southampton? I think she could have written a spectacularly good novel during this period. It would have had all the wit and humor and irony of her maturing talent, but could been backgrounded against Britain’s Navy, Britain’s growing Empire, and the Napoleonic Wars. This ‘lost novel’ I envision would have been a transitional novel, like Mansfield Park, but would have incorporated a broader sweep than her previous novels Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice.

In reality she wrote no novels while she was there, but she did incorporate the naval lore she learned from her brother Francis (with whose family she was living) into the characters Charles Price in Mansfield Park and Captain Wentworth in Persuasion.

That ‘lost Southampton novel’ does not exist, which is our loss.

Here’s another speculation: what if Jane had lived as long as the rest of her family? Her sister Cassandra lived to be 72 years old. If Jane had lived longer she would almost certainly have written at least three or four more novels. And it is highly probable she would have written her best work during this latter period of her life.

 

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Ghosts

Posted On: October 21st, 2019 | Posted By: miketrial

Movie actors on the screen are ghosts.  They pretend to be someone they are not; they live and move in a world that doesn’t exist. When an actor dies whose films we have enjoyed, we feel a certain sense of loss as though we had known that person. While of course we have known only the character that actor played.

I have always been intrigued by movies, by the sense of combined reality and unreality, and sometimes the speculation “What if those characters in that movie really were alive in some alternate dimension?”  I tried to express that in a short story I wrote called “A Life in Pictures” published in 2017 in my collection of short stories called Edge of Reality. It’s not quite, but almost, a ghost story.

The 1944 film, The Uninvited, is a ghost story. A nicely photographed and very  atmospheric haunted-house story. The bonus track of the DVD includes a great  essay by Michael Almereyda, in which he discusses the film and the actors, but he ranges beyond that, elaborating on why, for him, movies are a ‘shared dream.’ That description seems right to me, since while we are watching the film, we—and the phantoms on the screen—both inhabit a non-existent dream world. Virginia Woolf noted that when viewing a movie we experience simultaneously being present and not being present.

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Eliza, the British Empire, and the novels of Jane Austen

Posted On: September 18th, 2019 | Posted By: miketrial

 

Eliza Hancock, Jane Austen’s cousin, was born in 1761 in Calcutta, India to British parents. Eliza’s mother, Jane Austen’s aunt, (intriguingly named Philadelphia Austen) had gone to India specifically to find a husband, and she did. Six months after arriving in India she married T.S. Hancock who was doing quite well as an employee of the EIC (The East Indies Company) a British trading firm chartered by the British Crown in 1600, to trade for spice, and anything else profitable in the “East Indies,’ which Britain defined as “everything between Suez and Japan.”

Over the years, the EIC became enormously profitable and enormously powerful. Through political influence in Britain, its charter had been expanded to include coining money, raising an army, acquiring a navy, and governing much of southern India. It had become a nation in all but name, with an army bigger and better-armed than the British Army itself.  “East Indiamen,” the armed trading ships of the East Indies Company, ruled the Indian Ocean. And the Governor-General of the EIC ruled much of India.

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Remembering Days of Change

Posted On: July 28th, 2019 | Posted By: miketrial

 

I’m a bit disappointed that the University of Missouri, my undergraduate alma mater, has made no mention of the 50th anniversary of the student unrest of 1969. Other Universities have. Harvard has a retrospective underway, and there is an indie movie in circulation called ‘Underground 68’ which views those days of student protest through the eyes of one of today’s Harvard undergraduates.

I think that sort of retrospective is useful. To look back from time to time to see who we were and how far we’ve come. For many of us the student protests of 1968 and 1969 were life-changing events, even though we may not have realized it at the time.

And I believe protest was justified then, since in those days the University of Missouri administration still felt that its control of the student population should be firm, sometimes excessively firm. You remember dorm hours, dress codes, etc. Freedom of speech was the central issue at first, protests against the war in Vietnam came later.

Talking about freedom of speech vs. firm control…in 1968 several MU students were arrested and given 45 day jail sentences (later commuted to public service) for chalking ‘Gentle Tuesday is coming’ on sidewalks.

The irony of this harsh sentencing was apparently lost on Columbia police and University administrators, but not on the students and faculty.

Soon a ‘chalk-in’ was organized and some 1500 students from MU, Stephens, and Columbia College (then Christian College) marched from the MU campus to the Boone County courthouse where they chalked quotes from the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence on the courthouse steps. No one was arrested.

The ‘chalk-in’ march was particularly notable in that it was led by an MU faculty member and the president of the student association.

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Radio Pacifica

Posted On: June 15th, 2019 | Posted By: miketrial

In 1978 I lived in Monterey, California, and would occasionally drive up the coast highway to San Francisco. As I neared the Bay I could pick up radio station KPFA-FM, Radio Pacifica, which I thought was named for the wide blue Pacific Ocean. I liked its eclectic mix of music and opinion.

But Radio Pacifica is not named for the Pacific Ocean, as I thought, but for the now almost forgotten political movement called Pacifism, a total rejection of all war.

The story of KPFA-FM in Berkeley, the first non-profit radio station in the U.S. is a fascinating one. Lewis HIll, the founder, was a Pacifist, a WWII Conscientious Objector, interested in creating a means of encouraging the breakdown of ideological barriers. He wanted to communicate through a medium which would also be completely free of the influence of commercial advertising. At first he thought to start a magazine, but later was inspired to found an FM radio station, the first listener-supported station in the world.

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Axis Sally

Posted On: May 2nd, 2019 | Posted By: miketrial

In a small cemetery in Lockbourne, Ohio, there is an unmarked grave, the last resting place of Mildred Gillars.

Her story (well told in a book titled “Axis Sally” by Richard Lucas) is of a rootless childhood, a failed acting career in New York, and a rise to infamy as Axis Sally in Nazi Germany. She was born in Maine, but grew up in Ohio where her dysfunctional family eventually settled. Mildred attended Ohio Wesleyan University, but left for New York in her senior year to try to become an actress.

But her acting career never took off. She visited Europe several times, liked it, and stayed there as WWII began, becoming involved with a man working for Reichsradio in Berlin. She hoped they would marry, but he died in 1944 and by then it was too late for her to leave Nazi Germany. She was by then fluent in German, and was rather successful doing American-accented English language propaganda broadcasts, for what was at the time, a generous salary. For a time, she was better paid, and listened to by a wider audience, than she ever would have been in New York.

I do not think she was purely an opportunist, she was certainly not a rabid Nazi, nor was she a helpless victim trapped in a dictatorship from which she could not escape. She stayed in Germany voluntarily despite US State Department notices advising all American citizens to leave Germany. In part, I think, it was because she had nothing to come back to in the USA. So why did she become a part of Reichsradio’s propaganda machine? I believe it was just a series of decisions that step-by-step lead her in the wrong direction.

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The Novels of Anne Bronte

Posted On: March 21st, 2019 | Posted By: miketrial

 

To me, the Bronte sisters’ novels epitomize mid-19th century English literature.

You’ve not read any of their works? Intimidated by the length of most 19th century English novels, their flowery language, and the unfamiliar social settings? Well, I used to feel that way, but I’ve changed. Part of my resistance to 19th century English lit. was the fact that some truly worthless 19th century novels are taught in literature classes, each surrounded by a cloud of scholarly effulgence. Not good.

But there are some good books and interesting writers. Among the more interesting writers are the Bronte sisters. We’ve all heard of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, but I find the works of Anne (the quiet little sister) to be equally intriguing. For example, Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte is a short, quiet, but nicely written, novel about a governess in Victorian England.

An easy, no-cost, way to try it is to go on-line and download a chapter (I recommend chapter 18 as a taster.) It’s free since all the Bronte books are now public-domain. This site also has the novels and poetry of Emily and Charlotte Bronte.

www.online-literature.com/brontea

But before doing that, I recommend you get some background on the Brontes by watching the video “To Walk Invisible”, a 2016 PBS bio-pic, which is not free, but is fascinating.

Anne, when she was growing up, was babied by the family, so determines to go out into life and make her own way. At age 19 she takes a job as governess (one of the few occupations open to women.) She finds the reality of being a governess a nightmare. Isolated from neighbors, looked down on by the servants, tyrannized by her employer (an incompetent mother of three hostile and mean-spirited children) Anne grits her teeth and works literally day and night, seven days a week to try to teach the children something, anything. Despite her efforts, at the end of nine months she is fired.

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Zarabeth and Loneliness

Posted On: February 13th, 2019 | Posted By: miketrial

The original Star Trek series was on TV when I was in college, and my girlfriend and I, and my roommates and their girlfriends regularly watched it (yes it was difficult for all six of us to see the 19” black and white TV set we had at the time.) We invariably commented on how laughably crude the sets were and how inept much of the acting was, but we would always be there the following week to watch the next episode.

The reason was that, beneath the TV simplicity, some interesting literary themes were being explored.

A memorable episode aired March 14, 1969, titled “All Our Yesterdays.” It’s best feature was a subplot concerning love, loss, and loneliness between characters played by Leonard Nimoy and Mariette Hartley (that’s her in the picture.) To save a life, Zarabeth (played by Hartley) must give up the man she loves and condemn herself to a life of loneliness.

The script, originally titled “A Handful of Dust’ was written by a reference librarian at UCLA named Jean Lisette Aroeste. She had two Star Trek scripts produced, edited an academic reference manual, then disappeared from the literary world. I have often wondered what she was like and why she stopped writing; her treatment of loneliness in this Star Trek script was actually rather profound.

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Darkness Defines the Light

Posted On: January 12th, 2019 | Posted By: miketrial

Paintings with very strong contrasts of light and darkness, like this one by Georges de La Tour, help us realize that what we see is defined in part by what we don’t see. The image quality called Chiaroscuro, the contrast of light and darkness in a painting, dramatizes this. From Caravaggio to Rembrandt, darkness colors the emotions their paintings evoke.

I think memory is somewhat analogous. Darkness – what we don’t remember – shapes us as much as the light – what we do remember.

Our memories inevitably fade with the passage of time, like the fading of a painting. Sharp emotions dissipate, images fade to sepia, and eventually may disappear entirely. In addition to this natural fading, our subconscious works to subtly reshape our memories so that they better support the persona we want to present to the world.

Another kind of memory reshaping can occur when someone we trust informs us that what we remember is not the truth. Our minds adjust, but we are irreversibly changed, and it is sometimes a wrenching, change. We may remain uncertain what to believe.

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Good News

Posted On: December 6th, 2018 | Posted By: miketrial

 We’ve recently gotten some very good news, and most people don’t seem to be aware of it.

A NASA telescope, launched in 2009, and named Kepler after the famous German astronomer, has recently confirmed that there are many, many, many, earth-type planets orbiting other stars.

This is great news. Why? Because it means for the first time in mankind’s history we know for certain that there are other worlds out there. New worlds to explore, the possibility of life, and of other intelligences. The number of planets in temperature zones similar to Earth’s makes the likelihood very high for some planets to be able to support some form of life as we know it.

NASA has made an interesting video summarizing the Kepler mission findings which you can view here.

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Coming home

Posted On: November 12th, 2018 | Posted By: miketrial

People who have lived for a length of time in another country often find that when they return home, it takes time to readjust to American culture.

Last year I posted some comments from a friend of mine, Tamara, who was working for the Peace Corps in Madagascar. She has now returned and I asked her to share her first reactions to being ‘home.’ She sent me the following comments, which I think are quite interesting:

“I keep having a dream that I am back in my village in Madagascar, with no running water, no electricity and no toilet. I have been back home three months, and my life in Madagascar now seems like a strange dream, even though by the time I left it felt quite normal. Although I appreciate the convenience of electricity, running water and a toilet, adjusting to life in the USA has held a number of less-than-pleasant surprises.

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Nineteenth Century English Literature

Posted On: October 27th, 2018 | Posted By: miketrial

On a dark and stormy night in the summer of 1816 Marry Shelley began writing one of the most famous books ever written, Frankenstein. She was 18 years old, and spending the summer with her soon-to-be husband Percy Shelley at a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland. That summer at the villa, Lord Byron’s private physician, John Polidori, also produced a memorable book called The Vampyre which brought the ancient legend of the vampire into the form we know today from the Bela Lugosi movies.

There’s an interesting 1986 Ken Russell film about that summer called Gothic, and an even better 2006 book about it called The Monsters, by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler.

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Dark Music

Posted On: September 25th, 2018 | Posted By: miketrial

In my collection of short stories titled Dark Music, I explore some of the darker corners of music making. Like a lot of writers, I love talking about the stories I write, and since I just completed this book, the characters are still alive in my mind, so I can’t resist talking about them and mentioning some of the sources from which they sprang.

My favorite story in the book is titled “String of Pearls” after the Glenn Miller tune of the WWII era. That tune and others like it lifted the spirits of many who were far away from home. It was especially favored by the WASPs, the Women’s Airforce Service pilots, who were young women assigned to ferry fighter planes from manufacturing facilities to staging bases where they were given to combat units.

These women also learned to love another kind of music – the music made by the high performance engines of the aircraft they flew. It’s an addictive sound – the sound of power, tinctured with fear.

Being a light plane pilot myself, I was fascinated to read about the WASPs. These women were usually quite young, most of them still in their twenties, and they were flying some of the most powerful, highest performing aircraft in the world. Not an easy task.

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A Place Outside of Time

Posted On: August 27th, 2018 | Posted By: miketrial

In the photo to the left the actress Luana Anders is about to open the door and leave her ‘place outside of time.’ Unfortunately for her, the penalty for leaving is very high indeed. This is an Outer Limits episode entitled “The Guests” broadcast in March 1964. It is not one of the best episodes of Outer Limits, in fact it is one of the worst, but the concept of a place outside of time is wonderful, and of course watching the talented and beautiful Luana Anders is always a treat. The photo to the right is from Francis Ford Coppola’s first major film “Dementia 13” in which Luana had a major role. Sadly, she died in 1996, only 58 years old.

The concept of a place outside of time has enduring appeal. James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon is the classic example. In Hilton’s version of the place outside of time, Conway leaves Shangri-La only because he has to help someone else leave. But having left, Conway then spends the rest of his life trying to get back. I like the final line of the novel, where friends are wondering if Conway ever made it back to Shangri-La and one asks another: “Do think he will ever find it?”

A famous version of the ‘leaving paradise’ plot is, of course, Milton’s Paradise Lost. But don’t worry, I will not be discussing Milton’s poem here since I share Professor Jenning’s (of Animal House) view that it is way too long and often rather boring.

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Green eyes…

Posted On: July 29th, 2018 | Posted By: miketrial

Asmahan was a singer, and later an actress in 1940’s Egypt. Although she was of Syrian descent (which caused many complications in her life) she spent much of her adult life in Cairo, which at the time was one of the major entertainment and movie-making centers of the Arabic-speaking world. She was a rising star, her singing widely admired. In my book New Empires Rising, one character is a great fan of Asmahan’s music.

Then, in the midst of filming her second movie, Passion and Revenge, she died one night in a car accident. She was only thirty-one years old. The circumstances of her death remain mysterious. Some believe she was murdered—it was 1944, wartime, and both the Germans and the British did not trust her, believing she was spying for one side or the other. Her conservative family in Syria did not like the fact that she remained in Egypt and continued to sing in nightclubs and act in movies, activities not suitable for a woman whose family was highly placed in Druze governing circles. Or it could even have been political or business machinations internal to Egypt. No one will ever know.

There is an interesting book about Asmahan, written by Sherifa Zuhur, called Asmahan’s Secrets, published originally in 2000 by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and reissued in 2001 by Saqi Books.

Reading about Asmahan and her world reminded me of when my family lived in Lebanon, not far from Syria, for a year. It was 1956; I was ten years old. Those memories are very fond ones.

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Marjory Coleman Straughan 1937 – 2018

Posted On: June 26th, 2018 | Posted By: miketrial

I never met Margie, but before her death I came to know a little bit about her childhood days.

She and her husband lived in Texas, but in 2015 she learned that several of us here in western Boone County Missouri were trying to capture the recollections (and photos) of students, teachers, and one room schoolhouses in the post-WWII era. Many of us had attended one room schools in the final days of their existence. The schoolhouses all closed in 1957 and that way of educating, that had been the norm for a hundred years, vanished. We wanted to preserve a record of it.

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KKMC

Posted On: May 31st, 2018 | Posted By: miketrial

Nearly forty years ago, an octagonal city took shape in northeastern Saudi Arabia. It was called KKMC, King Khalid Military City. It is still there, an active enterprise, inhabited by diverse people living and going about a multitude of tasks. But I am thinking of the days before the owners arrived, the days when I was there, along with several hundred other Americans, when it was being constructed. The years 1976 to 1986.

During those years we lived comfortably, our families were with us; our housing compound included a dining facility, a movie theater, tennis courts, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, and an elementary school for our kids. We drove company cars. We had a small airfield where company planes would fly us to the big cities of Riyadh or Dhahran.

But we worked many long hours. Construction continued virtually every day, often day and night. The project dominated our thinking and our lives. Managers and their families would arrive, work for two years or four years or six, and then depart. But the project continued.

And while we were there, the sense of community we experienced was unsurpassed – for the newest newcomer to the most seasoned veteran. We never locked our house doors or took the keys out of our cars. We all knew each, helped each other, enjoyed each other’s company.

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Days of Change

Posted On: May 4th, 2018 | Posted By: miketrial

A recent article by a friend of mine in the April 2018 issue of the Missouri Historical Review called “Chronicles of Discontent, Tribunes for Change” brought the late 1960’s vividly back to my mind. I was a senior at the University of Missouri in 1969, and a reader of the local underground press. The Missouri Historical Review article explores the influence those publications had on the politics and protests of those turbulent days.

And that influence was far greater than you might expect.  Publications such as Columbia Free Press and the Free Press Underground were the grass-roots voice of cultural change, and regardless of how heated their rhetoric became at times, they remained both credible and highly influential on those of us who were 22 year old University students at the time.

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Foundations of 19th Century English Literature

Posted On: March 18th, 2018 | Posted By: miketrial

In England in the 1790’s, for the first time in history, novels written strictly to entertain, were being printed on moveable type presses in large quantities for sale to the general public. The most popular genre among this flood of books being sold were the Gothic Romances. These tales, usually written by women, influenced a whole generation of English readers – and influenced the next generation of English writers, including Jane Austen. Her first completed novel (although not the first one published) was a combination of homage and parody of the Gothic Romances she had loved to read as a girl. Jane Austen went on to establish forever the form of the realistic novel which dominated the literature of the 19th century, but the roots of her work were firmly set in the Gothic Romances of the 18th century.

Click here to download a PDF of a presentation on The Foundations of 19th Century Literature I gave at the Missouri University Life-Long Learning Institute on March 23, 2018.

Immortality, sort of

Posted On: February 28th, 2018 | Posted By: miketrial

It’s impossible to forget the smoky voice and sultry beauty of the late Joan Greenwood. Beautiful and talented, she had a solid career from the 1940’s to the 1980’s, both on the stage in the movies. She is probably best remembered for her role as Lady Bellaston in the 1963 movie Tom Jones, but I believe an obscure 1947 British film called October Man was her best performance. Read More »