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Archive for April, 2010

Whilst Mansfield Park is overrun by mummies and Fanny Price is being seduced by a princely corpse who was embalmed and buried 2,000 years ago, we join a select party playing whist at the Assembly Rooms in Bath. Sir Walter Elliot, Mrs. Elton, Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Jennings are in deep discussion about the ghoulish goings on in Britain, for their Society has been decimated in the span of a few short years. Except for the demise of great swaths of the populace, Sir Walter would normally never have found himself spending two hours with people of such low connections. Not one to give up an opportunity to show off his fine gaming skills, Sir Walter graciously agreed to make up a fourth at cards.

Of the group, he had only made a tentative acquaintance with Mrs. Jenkins, an unrefined woman whose fortune was her only saving grace. The others were all unknown to him, which was not surprising. Mrs. Elton, although handsome of form and face, was even more vulgar than Mrs. Jennings, if such a thing were possible, for she also had the misfortune of being a mere clergyman’s wife. Mrs. Bennet’s behavior was beyond the pale. Although she could boast of some connections and had once possessed a beauty that would have attracted his connoisseur’s eye, he could only compare her mind to that of a simpleton’s. How Mr. Bennet could put up with her ceaseless and inane prattle was beyond his comprehension. Sir Walter’s only satisfaction at present lay in the fact that he was winning every rubber and that he looked resplendent in his new jacket and waistcoat.

He turned to Mrs. Jennings and asked politely, “How are the Miss Dashwoods and Mrs. Dashwood getting on?”

“Not well, my dear, Sir Walter, not well at all. A most unfortunate INFESTATION of deadly sea creatures and crustaceans has RUINED our ponds and waters, especially those around Barton Cottage. The ladies Dashwood must be ever vigilant against deadly tentacles wrapping themselves around an innocent limb, lest they be pulled into the waters and DROWNED. They must also guard their virtues from the murderous Colonel Brandon, whose face is designed to disgust. He is not what he appeared to be at first, I assure you.”

“WE do not have such slithery goings on in Highbury or Plymouth,” said Mrs. Elton primly. “In my opinion, these outbreaks must be in some way connected to LICENTIOUS behavior.”

Mrs. Bennet’s nostrils flared at this pronouncement. “Well, if it were not for my dear girls, whose fighting skills are legendary, Meryton must have succumbed to the undead plague long ago. T’is quite uncomfortable to be living in a region where corpses come to life and seek out one’s brain for sustenance.” Shivering delicately, she pulled her Norwich shawl around her. “I recall a dreadful ball at Netherfield Park where the cooks preparing dinner BECAME dinner. My poor Lizzie’s ball gown was torn to shreds as she lopped off the heads and limbs of those horrid creatures in order to save the rest of the assembly.”

“Nay, never!” Mrs. Elton could not contain her excitement. Gossip was her strong suit, and the sharing of it her vocation. Besides, she adored tales filled with blood and gore.

Sir Walter, concentrating on his cards, wished the conversation had not taken this deplorable turn. He was, however, a gentleman first and foremost, and thus he kept silent. If he played his cards right and allowed his opponents to continue to prattle, he would win this hand. If only Mrs. Bennet, his partner, would pay some attention to his discards.

Mrs. Jennings, who was in possession of a scrumptious scrap of knowledge that served no purpose until it was spread far and wide, crowed. “Indeed, t’is true. I understand from a dear old acquaintance, Mrs Norris, that mummies have overtaken Mansfield Park. It seems that her sister, Lady Bertram, evoked some ancient Egyptian INCANTATION and brought them to life.”

Thinking of her two remaining unmarried girls, Mrs. Bennet inquired a tad too eagerly, “Pray tell. what are the mummies’ backgrounds? How far do their families go back?”

“Thousands of years, my dear Mrs. Bennet. The pedigree of these creatures would put Sir Walter’s lineage to shame.”

Sir Walter bristled. No one’s lineage could touch the noble ancestry of the Elliots of Kellynch Hall.

“What of their lands? Their fortunes?” Mrs. Elton asked.

“I believe, said Mrs. Jennings, a closet Blue Stocking, “that their entire fortunes are entombed with them.”

“That is most regrettable,” Sir Walter said, thinking of his eldest unmarried, Elizabeth, whose good looks were withering and dessicating with every moment that passed beyond her prime. He despaired of her ever finding a husband who would suit the Elliots’ exacting standards.

Mrs. Jennings eyes gleamed with the cheap shine of a newly minted shilling. “I understand that the creatures have recently begun to stir again.” She reached for her reticule and retrieved a letter from Mrs. Norris, an odd woman whose acquaintance she had made in Lyme: ‘T’is the strangest phenomenon, my dear Mrs. Jennings,” she read aloud. “For whilst these creatures at first looked quite ungainly and ragged, and lumbered about the countryside walking into trees and emerging from the bushes like so many cavemen, they are starting to look better and better with each passing day. Whilst the mummies are coming to life, our servants have not fared half so well, some disappearing for hours and experiencing lapses in memory that puzzle us exceedingly. I find the Pharaoh startlingly handsome despite the unfortunate fact that his skin is as swarthy as, well, an Egyptian’s! His Eminence is apparently unmarried and looking for a CONSORT.”

The card players stopped playing. Silence lay as heavy in the room as the stone lid of a sarcophagus.

Sir Walter mentally began to formulate a plan that would place his Elizabeth in the path of this lofty, though foreign personage. Handsome, rich, and well connected were the only qualities he sought for a son-in-law. Who cared if his skin was tanned and leathery?

Mrs. Bennet’s shrill voice cut through the tomb-like atmosphere, “T’is a wonder that there are any eligible men left in England at all. My two middle girls are still unmarried, but those detestable zombies have eaten practically all the heads off every young male within three counties. Mr. Bennet and I have considered moving to the Colonies in order to provide for them, matrimonially speaking, of course.” Her thoughts automatically turned to Mr. Collins and that cheap golddigging Charlottte Lucas, whose behavior and manner of speech had become exceedingly strange of late.

Mrs. Elton’s silence did not go unnoticed by herself. She was accustomed to insinuating her opinion into every discussion, but neither Highbury nor Plymouth had been the destinations of choice for the ghouls, demons, and crustaceans that had overrun every nook and cranny of her beloved England! It went against her grain to be mum on any subject, and thus she spoke, “I and the Sucklings are Egyptologists of sorts. Mummy wrappings should be made of the most sturdy linen, for the cloth must survive untold generations of burial. I suggest, Sir Walter, that you meet with your tailor to discuss where you can obtain a cloth of a similar…”

A shriek pierced the assembly hall dance rooms. Above the din, Isabella Thorpe’s voice could be heard crying, “John, oh, John! What have they DONE to your head!? Where are your brains?”

Mrs. Bennet leaped up, scattering the cards on the table, which disconcerted Sir Walter to no end, for he was about to win the rubber …. “I must fetch Lizzie immediately! The zombies have arrived in Bath and we shall require her warrior skills!”

“But I protest!,” cried Mrs. Jennings. “We were speaking of MUMMIES!! T’is not fair that the zombies are taking center stage again! Why is it that they receive ALL the attention, whilst the mummies are getting none?”

Mrs. Elton turned to Mrs. Jennings, “According to Mrs. Norris, they are starting to GAIN GROUND. T’will be up to you, dear madam, to spread the word about Mansfield Park and Mummies as successfully as those Quirk Book upstarts, who have promoted the UNDEAD virally via Web 2.0. Perhaps you should solicit the aid of Vera Nazarian and that vulgar creature, Vic, who oversees that tasteless blog, Jane Austen’s World.”

“Well, if I must,” replied Mrs. Jennings, unhappy with the thought of having to exert herself on anyone’s behalf , especially after her experience with Marianne Dashwood, a most disastrous guest and watering pot. “One would think that people would be as intrigued with Mummies as with Zombies. It’s six of one or a half dozen of the other, if you ask me.”

Sir Walter scraped his chair back and bid his adieu. He would hie home to collect his Elizabeth, and whilst the assembly was preoccupied with staving off the zombies, he would take his daughter to Mansfield Park and place her in the Pharaoh’s way in a most COMPROMISING situation.

Gentle Reader: I have just finished reading Mansfield Park and Mummies and must admit that, much to my surprise, I kept turning the pages and reading the book. Goodness, but I enjoyed this fun romp. While I know that these kinds of books are not for everyone, I feel comfortable recommending Mansfield Park and Mummies to those who would like to take the PLUNGE and read their first Jane Austen mash-up. For those who have not read my interview with Vera Nazarian, please click here. She even made writing the novel sound like fun.

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I had never heard of the book Small Island or author Andrea Levy until PBS scheduled the film as the last presentation for Masterpiece Classic this season. The story follows two couples, one from London, England and the other from Jamaica, whose lives intersect at crucial moments. Against the backdrop of World War II and post war England, we learn about the dreams and ambitions of Queenie, Bernard, Hortense, and Gilbert.

David Oyelowo as Gilbert Joseph

The story is about the reaction of the British to the 492 men from the British Colonies who bought passage on the Empire Windrush in 1948 and emigrated to England. Prior to that event, 6,000 West Indian men had volunteered for the RAF during World War II. After the war, they wanted a better life and sought it in the motherland.

Queenie (Ruth Wilson) and Bernard (Benedict Cumberbatch)

As the story unfolded I was struck by the Jamaican islander’s view of their mother country. Their attitude towards England was  loving, deferential, and loyal. While the Jamaicans learned everything they could about English customs and history, the British knew or cared very little about the people they had exploited. Reality sunk in for the young Jamaican men who had signed up to fight alongside the British in WWII. They dreamed of fighting as pilots, but were assigned menial jobs, some not even at the front. Worse, they encountered racism designed to squash their pride and put them in their place.

Hortense (Naomi Harris) goes out shopping properly dressed

David Oyelowo plays Gilbert Joseph, a wonderfully optimistic and cheerful man, who aims to find a better life in the motherland. His dream was to become a lawyer, but in reality he became a postman for the Royal Mail. His scene on the park bench after being humiliated by other postal workers broke my heart. I think I fell a little in love with Mr. Oyelowo then.

Hortense and Gilbert

Hortense (Naomi Harris) dreams of becoming a school teacher in London. An orphan, she pursues her teaching degree in a Jamaican school and learns how to conduct herself properly. Her ambition prompts her to betray a friend and finagle her way into a marriage of convenience with Gilbert, whose passage on the Empire Windrush she finances. Their deal is that he will send for her as soon as he finds a nice place for them to live in London.

Ruth Wilson as Queenie

Queenie (Ruth Wilson)dreams of a more exciting life than on the pig farm that her parents own. We first meet her with her aunt in London, practicing elocution lessons – “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain”. Queenie’s dreams are squashed when she makes a compromise after her aunt’s death and marries the dull colorless young man who has fallen in love with her. Her existence becomes lackluster and uneventful, and she chafes under her boring routine. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Bernard in the unsympathetic part of Queenie’s husband. Sadly, Bernard has already realized his dream, which was to marry Queenie, who does not love him. He must confront his disillusionment and resistance to change if he is to hold on to his marriage to Queenie.

Bernard (Benedict Cumberbatch)

Then the war begins and suddenly life changes for Queenie, whose path crosses with Gilbert and Hortense, and a mysterious man named Michael, who (coincidentally) Hortense has loved all her life. Rather than spoil the plot, I encourage you to read a lovely synopsis at this PBS link along with an interview with the author, which I recommend highly.

Ashley Walters as Michael

These days we do not often encounter black ladies of the old school. Do you remember them? Their postures were ramrod straight. Their neat clothes did not allow for a single crease. Their hats were proper and decorous, and their purses were held just so in their gloved hands. Their language was grammatically correct, old-fashioned and Victorian, as if they had been taught from a 19th-century grammar book. I volunteered with such a lady, Miss Edna, who had been a school teacher since the 1930’s and who volunteered as a tutor well into her 90’s. Hortense reminded me of Miss Edna. I thought that Naomi Harris captured every aspect of Miss Edna, including her unassailable dignity.

Queenie and Michael

To my mind, Queenie, is the tragic character of this tale. As Andrea Levy said “She is a warmhearted person, a kind person, an open person.” Yet she is not perfect. None of the characters are. The author explains, “With all my characters, I never want them to be perfect, they have faults, just like us all.” Despite her imperfections, Queenie is the heroine who, when faced with a King Solomon decision, does not flinch from choosing the right course.

The acting is superb. There were scenes that caused me to hold my breath, they were that good, and there were times when I literally ached for the characters. When I cried, it was from sympathy, not from a contrived plot. Like real life, this drama is sprinkled with humor, which cuts the tension. At the end of the film, I wanted to see more. Rarely does this happen. PBS will air the first part of Small Island tonight, April 18th at 9 p.m., and the second part on April 25th. I highly recommend that you see it.

Hortense, Michael, and Queenie

If you have missed the first part, you can watch it online at this link starting April 19th through the 25th.

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Three years ago I wrote about the summer of 1816 in England, which was widely regarded as the year without a summer. Six months before, a volcanic eruption in Indonesia ejected over 19 million cubic miles of volcanic ash in the atmosphere. This ash traveled in the upper atmosphere, blocking the sun.

This week, an ash plume from a volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajokull (ay-yah-FYAH’-plah-yer-kuh-duhl) volcano in Iceland has grounded air travel in Europe. As the debris travels around the world in upper atmospheric currents, one wonders if a colder winter than normal will affect the world next year. Will we also experience a year without summer? Or is this an eenie minie volanic eruption as far as eruptions go?

Icelandic volcano April 2010

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During the 18th and early 19th century, social satire prints were engraved and sold separately in print shops. By 1750, the term ‘caricature’ was applied to almost any comic cartoon or satiric illustration.

The ‘golden age’ when James Gillray (1756-1815), Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) and George Cruikshank (1792-1878) were active, occurred between 1780 and 1830. Most satirical prints were produced in London and were sold singly by publishers and booksellers, such as S. W. Fores and William Holland, who also put together collections for clients and even hired them out. A wide range of prices reflected the very different sizes and degrees of sophistication of satirical prints. In 1807 the publisher Thomas Tegg started a business selling cheap, crudely coloured prints aimed at a wide market. – British Museum

“The Fashions of the Day, or Time Past and Present”, an 1807 caricature engraved by Charles Williams after a drawing by Woodward. It presents a contrast between “The Year 1740: A Lady’s full dress of Bombazeen (i.e. bombazine or bombasine, a heavy corded fabric. Black bombazine was worn by widows during heavy mourning) and “The year 1807: A Lady’s undress of Bum-be-seen.”  There are some fascinating details to observe about the fashionable regency lady, whose decolletage is so low that her breasts are practically popping out of their restraints. One can see her drawers under her thin muslin dress, and her stockings come up over her knee. They were held up by garters. (Click on this link to read a fascinating article about stockings and to see a pair of 1820 stockings and garters.  This link also leads to an article about 18th & 19th century hose.) Regency ladies as a rule did not wear drawers for the first 20 years of the 19th century. Those who did wore a modified version of men’s drawers, which tied at the waist and split in the middle. Chances were that, if she did not wear a petticoat or a chemise, her bum would have shown through the thin fabric!


The following comment about Williams’ caricature is from Wikimedia Commons:

Note that “undress” didn’t mean anything naughty — there’s a definition of it here.[1] In pursuing his goal of satirizing certain features of contemporary 1807 fashions, the caricaturist did not really draw a fair comparison between the styles of 1740 and 1807, since a young Regency fashionable is juxtaposed here to a sedate middle-aged pre-Regency lady (perhaps in mourning), and such features of mid-18th century dress as tight stiff stays with extremely low necklines were not included (also, the “1740” costume actually seems to be somewhat of a pastiche with 17th century styles).
(Women’s fashions of the Empire/Regency weren’t always “sensible”, but their excesses do seem to be more in accord overall with the spirit of the 21st century than the fashion excesses of most other periods between the 16th century and World War I, which tended to go in for such things as huge hoopskirts and tight corsets…)

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Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet

David Shipman wrote in his 1996 obituary for Greer Garson:

On her return to Hollywood she was forced into the studio’s chosen image – a New York sophisticate, jagged with sophistication in huge hats – squabbling and making up with Robert Taylor in Remember? But her Mrs Chipping was uppermost in executive minds when casting Pride and Prejudice (1940), based on a stage version which had been bought for Norma Shearer and Clark Gable. Garson and Olivier were much more sensible choices, even if Olivier later observed: “Dear Greer seemed to me all wrong as Elizabeth . . . she was the only down-to-earth sister but Greer played her as the most affected and silly of the lot”. However, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote that she had “stepped out of the book, or rather out of one’s fondest imagination: poised, graceful, self-contained, witty, spasmodically stubborn and as lovely as a woman can be.” Nevertheless those who tend to Olivier’s view sighed for her presence during the recent BBC adaptation, in which Jennifer Ehle completely missed Lizzie’s sense of self-mockery.

Really, Mr. Shipman? I beg to disagree. For quite a few of us, Jennifer Ehle’s Ellizabeth Bennet was close to perfect. She had enough self-deprecating lines to make even a masochist envious. Greer Garson’s Elizabeth Bennet was all wrong, from costume, to her advanced age (she was in her mid-thirties when she made the film), to her interpretation of Elizabeth. I agree with Sir Laurence Olivier’s assessment – Greer was all wrong for the part.

Cheap Pride and Prejudice: Find other comments about this film, which is widely regarded as a classic. My opinion runs counter to that of many movie buffs and critics.

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Inquiring Reader: Mansfield Park and Mummies by Vera Nazarian is another monster mash-up of the work of our estimable Jane Austen. The book has been quietly invading all sections of this earth with its parody of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh who seeks Fanny Price above all women. Author Vera Nazarian was kind enough to sit down for an interview:

1. It is obvious that you have a gift for writing parody. Why did you decide to write a mashup of Mansfield Park, one of Jane Austen’s longer novels and how did you go about deciding that mummies were the perfect ghouls of choice?

Thank you kindly. I admit this was my first foray into parody (and into the uncharted and highly peculiar land of literary “mashups”), and I had no idea I was even capable of such a thing.  Apparently I am. The fact that I made hyena noises and regularly broke out into hoots of hysterical laughter while writing the passages does hint at a certain level of personal connection — nay, entanglement — with the material.

Now, why Mansfield Park, you ask? It has always been one of my favorite Austen novels, and I adore the heroine Fanny Price, (second only to Elinor Dashwood, my favorite) for her combination of astute wisdom and a genuine loyal heart. I believe Fanny has been sadly misunderstood and wrongfully disdained as too weak and submissive — overlooking the profoundly quiet nature of true fortitude.

Modern readers tend to prefer a more clear-cut example of female strength.  Indeed, we have come to expect a more sassy, outgoing, aggressive, and assertive female — commonly summed up by a single term: “feisty.” In many ways this has become a post-twentieth century feminist cliché, with few of us willing to admit it, or vary our expectations. Indeed, in the last couple of decades, the notion of “feisty” has morphed even further into an outright kick-ass sword-fighting brass-and-balls day-job-and-family-juggling female super hero, so that every protagonist heroine must be inordinately “extraordinary” in order to be a heroine at all. But, to quote The Incredibles, “When everyone is Super, no one is.”

Going back to Austen, an example of “feisty” is everyone’s favorite Elizabeth Bennet. Fanny Price on the other hand seems to be mousy and passive and rather “uptight,” at first acquaintance. In reality, Fanny is a rock of strength and constancy.  She’s steadfast, honorable, enduring, loyal, and true to the moral standards of both her heart and her time (indeed, Elizabeth Bennet is far more of a futurism-anachronism in Jane Austen’s day — back then she might have been a thoroughly incomprehensible “modern” girl with liberated sensibilities and rather odd notions of personal independence).

Fanny is not flashy, and her strength is quiet, humble, unpresuming. She is not so much prissy or prudish (another misconception) as simply unwilling to compromise her beliefs, and in that sense she’s just as “willful” as Elizabeth Bennet.  It’s just that her cause is not as “trendy” or appealing to our modern standards. Fanny stands up for spiritual and moral integrity, while Elizabeth for personal freedom and choices; contemporary culture venerates individualism over standards.

Additionally, Fanny is genuinely perceptive, and able to “read” the true character and motives of others — a quality which I personally admire in heroines regardless of historical context. So, in my “mummy-infused” version I decided to enhance Fanny’s true instincts and her ability to cut through the falsity and illusion, with a bit of supernatural “sixth sense,” and made her impervious to all influences of evil — be it vampires, werewolves or… seductive ancient mummies.

The mummies? Why, they came about naturally, an outgrowth of the time period and the story.  Mummies are so versatile — romantic and funny and poignant and terrifying, all in one. Really, think about it: what other monster can be said to be all these things in the same story without switching genres? Firmly etched in my mind was the classic Hollywood silliness of Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, combined with the more recent wacky adventure major motion picture franchise The Mummy starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz — and it all clicked together.

During the nineteenth century, Egyptology was “all the rage,” and archeology was just taking off in Britain and Europe. Unlike the more anachronistic and jarring silliness of other “creature” monsters, mummies actually made perfect historical sense and fit right in. (Zombies, on the other hand, despite their true traditional island origins and rich history, somehow seem more post-industrial, even apocalyptic, and are just not romantic, no matter how you slice — or explode — them.)

In addition, there’s this incredible rich, multi-layered ancient world mystique and period romanticism that is evoked by all that Egypt stands for; all the depth of thousands of years of history.  The glamour of Royal Egyptian dynasties and grand treasure, of monolithic pyramids and pharaohs preserved via the arcane and priestly process of mummification for eternity with the promise of ultimate resurrection — this is unparalleled fuel for the imagination.  In my mind it easily crowds out the relatively recent erotic interpretation of the gory vampire legend. Enough with vampires, I say (in particular, the sparkling kind), time to focus on other supernatural beings to fire our literary canon.

The notion of the Mummy as an ancient haunted lover came together to shape Lord Eastwind, my tragic-comic, elegant and profoundly romantic Ancient Pharaoh and Regency gentleman character.

Lord Eastwind is the potential third love interest — he’s Edmund Bertram’s true rival, and he courts Fanny Price alongside Henry Crawford, and does a far better job of it, I might say.  Plus, he holds his own in matters of philosophical discourse, and makes Fanny not only feel but think — possibly not something one would expect to find in a mere “silly” mash-up.

2. Could you give us just a little back story about the mummies to whet readers’ appetites (just in case they haven’t picked up your book.)

In a nutshell — the mummies ended up at Mansfield Park because Lady Bertram attended a lecture by a famous Egyptologist at the British Museum in London. Her ladyship got interested in the subject, and started to collect various memorabilia and artifacts — admittedly out of boredom and ennui and lukewarm curiosity, but also in a manner true to her bland character.

This went on in mild and harmless form until she accidentally came upon a cursed amulet and fell under the magnetic spell of the grandest mummy of all — a Pharaoh’s Mummy in its splendid sarcophagus (which ended up stashed in her secret attic).  The Mummy immediately began to control Lady Bertram’s mind and actions to great comedic effect, and made her acquire even more Egyptian items including endless crates filled with servant mummies, until the estate was filled to overflowing with grave-robbed treasure and general archeological stuff, and caused much hilarious discomfort to the whole Bertram family.

A side-effect of the same Curse also affected the potentially wolfish Mrs. Norris with real lycanthropy.  And that was just the beginning of the fun!

3. You leave much of Jane Austen’s plot and words in this novel. How hard was it to use her plot and words as opposed to writing a novel from scratch, and deciding where to put in new scenes and dialog?

At first, it was excruciating.  Far easier to write a completely new book from scratch than modify an existing one AND do it proper justice. After all, here’s a self-contained masterpiece, and you are faced with the bizarre task of somehow expanding and merging it with a whole new unrelated plotline. Where to even begin?

I started doing what I told myself was a gentle “edit.” Soon, I realized that merely inserting sentences or paragraphs here and there in “period” style, and hoping it will make sense, was NOT the way to go about it.  That’s how you get crummy blatant patchwork and sloppy Frankenstein-like segments that are glaringly out of place.  Sure, it might be easy to throw in every scene something to the effect of: “and then the door opened, a bunch of mummies lumbered in, and they all screamed and started to fight,” but that’s a one-joke wonder.  First time around it’s amusing, but grows old very fast. A solitary running gag certainly does not justify a whole book (the mistake that some of the other mash-ups make).

The monsters still have to make eventual sense as an integral part of the story, without being idiotic. That’s the first thing the author has to figure out — the logical and entertaining explanation for their being.

Also, the new inserted storyline must enhance the development of the existing characters. Otherwise, things will fall apart, as with application of poor glue. To properly work on a deeper cohesion level, every appearance of these new elements has to be a logical and organic extension of the main plot, relevant, evocative. In short, the additions need to seamlessly advance the ORIGINAL story.  I think that’s the secret of both a genuinely successful mash-up and a good parody.

My writing process ended up being multi-pass. I realized that first it was necessary to cut and streamline the original text.  Yes, the notion of mangling Jane Austen is terrifying, but I had to make an edit pass for two reasons: a) to slightly condense an already very long book (just my luck, Mansfield Park is the longest Jane Austen novel, twice the length of Pride and Prejudice) in order to make room for my additions and b) just to streamline and generally update the style in terms of modern brevity.

As a result, I left almost no sentence unturned — cutting down the subordinate clauses, deleting a lot of the verbosity and some of the longer speeches and descriptive passages (in particular the marvelous nagging of Mrs. Norris). If you want to see for yourself, compare the original text of Mansfield Park with any passages in Mansfield Park and Mummies that “seem” to be original Austen — in other words, parts of the story sans mummies or Egyptology — and you will see how many transparent changes are in fact implemented at sentence level everywhere. An excruciating task indeed, considering that I was “mangling” delightful rich prose that was just fine as is, only making it a bit more spare, smooth and “up to modern standards” of readability.

Only after this painstaking edit was I able to go in and add in the mummies storyline — my own original story that expanded upon Austen’s characters without changing their fundamental nature, only heightening the already present tendencies.

My own Fanny is more proactive, energetic, inventive, and witty; Edmund is more of a caricature, loveable but overtly “blind” to the truth of things. Mary Crawford is an actual blood-sucking vampire, but with suave Regency manners. Henry Crawford is charming, eloquent, and perfectly attractive but lacking in the ultimate “heroic intensity” department — lacking in that true unselfish depth and sincerity needed to win Fanny over. And my own character addition is Lord Eastwind — mysterious, haunting, elegant, romantic, superbly attractive — well, you’ll just have to see for yourself.

4. How has the book been received by Jane Austen fans? Has there been a difference in the attitude between the die-hard Janeite and the mashup fan? As you wrote the book, who, in your mind, would be your readers?

A great question.  It appears so far, the book has been received very well by those who have actually read it.

I notice that many Janeites are initially reluctant to give Mansfield Park and Mummies a try because they are unwilling to give any mash-up a try (in most cases for good reason; I don’t blame them).

That’s been the biggest hurdle so far. There is little I can do or say to reassure them as to the difference in quality of this book except to admit upfront that I am a genuine fan of Jane Austen, and to offer a free reading sample — the first three chapters of the book.

As far as mash-up fans, or better yet, general readers, the reception has been uniformly positive. They give it a chance, have no expectations, and end up pleasantly surprised.

In my mind, the perfect audience for Mansfield Park and Mummies is both a true Janeite and a general well-read fan of classic period literature, with a well-developed appreciation of satire coupled with a modern silly streak.

5. Tell us a little about yourself and your writing background. What are your personal preferences in reading literature. Are you a Jane Austen fan?

In some ways I have an unfair advantage as a modern writer emulating a nineteenth century author, because my own work is stylistically old-fashioned, even stodgy, and my English is naturally bookish and archaic.  Indeed, I am steeped in classics of world literature, initially in my native language (Russian), and yes, I do come from a rather different cultural perspective. And there’s that baggage of other languages rattling around in my cranium (Russian, Armenian, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, a smattering of German and Arabic).  Born and raised in the USSR, a cold-war refugee to the West, having lived in war-torn Lebanon, and being half-Armenian half-Russian by ethnicity, I am not exactly your typical modern American author.

My reading background is eclectic, grounded in world classics and ancient mythology, legends and fairytales. Some of my favorite authors are George Sand, Victor Hugo, Stendhal, Homer, Zola, Thackeray, various great Russians such as Goncharov, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Lermontov, and a host of others. Modern genre favorites are Tanith Lee, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Gene Wolfe, Charles de Lint, Catherine Asaro, and Catherynne M. Valente.

As far as my writing background, I am a two-time Nebula Award Nominee, write fantasy and science fiction, running the gamut from literary to low-brow, and popular non-fiction. My two better-known novel-length works are the “collage” arabesque novel Dreams of the Compass Rose (with each chapter being a “dream” and a standalone story, which together form a connected sequence of stories of a mythic ancient world in the vein of “The One Thousand and One Nights”) and Lords of Rainbow, an epic fantasy about a strange world without color, a silver sun, and an intense love story.

And yes, I am a passionate lover of Jane Austen’s whole oeuvre, ever since being assigned Pride and Prejudice in high school, and then encountering the wonderful BBC miniseries starring David Rintoul (my favorite and still best Mr. Darcy) and Elizabeth Garvie (also my favorite and best Lizzie.)

6. Anything else you would like to share with us?

As a result of doing this book, I have fallen in love with writing the Jane Austen mash-up.  Hence, I am currently at work on Northanger Abbey and Angels and Dragons, which is due in May.

And then, later this fall, I shall do the unimaginable and attempt my very own Pride and Prejudice mash-up, sans zombies.  It will be very Kafkaesque, a frightening awe-inspiring figment of your deepest satiric nightmare, titled Pride and Platypus: Mr. Darcy’s Dreadful Secret.

Both of these books will feature my own interior illustrations, and, as with the mummies book, have similar “Scholarly Footnotes” that harangue the reader, inane and guffaw-inducing “Appendices” and hilarious faux back cover blurbs from Regency ladies and gentlemen. And yes, making yet another appearance, will be everyone’s terrifying favorite, a true rival of the Hound of Baskervilles — the monstrosity known only as The Brighton Duck!

More about the book:

If I may humbly add – my reviews of other Jane Austen mashups

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Ellie Kendrick as Anne Frank

PBS’s new adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank is a must-see for everyone this Sunday night on PBS Masterpiece Classic at 9 PM local time. The film is powerful, how could it not be? Ellie Kendrick, the actress who portrays Anne, is perfect for the part. She is not beautiful like young model Millie Perkins, the 1959 Anne (and hand-picked by Otto Frank, Anne’s father), or 16-year-old Natalie Portman, another beautiful young actress.

Anne Frank learns she is going into hiding

Ellie is more realistic, like the actual Anne – dark-haired, good looking, a little awkward, and on the cusp of womanhood.

Watching the film, I could not help but compare Anne Frank to a young and precocious 15-year old Jane Austen, who in her teens wrote the delightful but irreverent The History of England. Both Jane and Anne changed the world of literature with their writing. Both died too soon, Anne tragically of typhoid fever in Bergen-Belsen. The family had been in hiding for two years and one month before they were betrayed by a Dutch informant.  My heart always aches when I think of how close Anne  came to making it in that notorious concentration camp, for she and her sister died just months shy of liberation.

Albert Dussel joins the Franks and Van Daans. L to R: Tamsin Greig as Mrs. Frank, Iain Glen as Otto, Felicity Jones as Margot, and Ellie Kendrick as Anne

Anne Frank’s story has always loomed large in my life. I spent my childhood years in Holland, as did Anne. My Oma in Utrecht lived near an apartment complex that was similar to Anne’s in this short video. I recall playing with my brother in streets that uncannily resembled the one shot in the film.

Anne and Peter, young love

While Anne and her family, and the Van Daans and Albert Dussel hid in the attic, my 15-year-old step-father hid as a young girl on a Dutch farm in the southernmost tip of The Netherlands. The Franks were able to hide with the help of brave Dutch citizens, as my step-father did. The Franks followed the allied invasion of Normandy and the armies’ progress through Europe, just like my step-father, who pinned their every movement on a map (as in the film).

Keeping tabs on the Allieds' progress

I grew up listening to World War II lore and watching the movies. I grew up wishing with every fiber of my being that the Franks were liberated as both my stepfather and father had been.

Mr. Dussel helps Anne after the attic hideaway has been discovered

But that was not to be. One year before the war’s end, the Franks, Van Daans, and Albert Dussel were betrayed. All died except for Otto Frank. It is a testament to Anne’s humanity that, despite having to hide during the most formative of her young teen-aged years, she was able to write these beautiful words:

Anne Frank writes in her diary

“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again”

My heart aches when I think of the loss of those millions of innocent lives in that senseless, hateful war (any war, for that matter).  As I think about Anne and the life she was never able to live out, I am saddened by the fact that 65 years after her death so many of young people have never heard of her, or could care less about World War II. Even my nieces and nephew, whose great grandfather and great uncles died in a Japanese concentration camp, rarely give a thought to their sacrifices. Anne died in Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp of typhoid fever in March 1945. The war ended in Europe in May.

View from the attic, the Kerk

It is my hope is that every family will sit down on Sunday night to watch this film together … The final scenes in which the Frank family and Van Daam family are found and taken from their hiding place are heart-rending. April 11 is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Cast:

Miep Gies, Kate Ashfield (helped to hide the Franks)

Miep Gies finds the diaries

Peter van Daan, Geoff Breton (the young man Anne liked)

Peter Van Daan dies of exhaustion 3 days before his camp was liberated.

Hermann van Daan, Ron Cook (Peter’s father)

Hermann Van Daan

Victor Kugler, Tim Dantay (helped to hide the Franks)

Albert Dussel, Nicholas Farrell (Dentist, shared a room with Anne)

Albert Dussel

Johannes Kleiman, Roger Frost (helped to hide the Franks)

Bep Voskuijl, Mariah Gale (helped to hide the Franks)

Otto Frank, Iain Glen (father)

Otto Frank, only survivor

Edith Frank, Tamsin Greig (mother)

Edith Frank

Margot Frank, Felicity Jones (sister)

Margot Frank

Anne Frank, Ellie Kendrick

Anne Frank

SS Silberbauer, Robert Morgan (Nazi officer who captured the Franks)

Petronella van Daan, Lesley Sharp (Peter’s mother)

Petronella Van Daan

Director  Jon Jones

Adapted by  Deborah Moggach

The Diary of Anne Frank Airs: Sunday, April 11, 2010, PBS Masterpiece Classic, 9 PM local time.

The film will be available for online viewing April 12 – May 11, 2010

More on the topic:

Actor Connection to Jane Austen Film Adaptations:

  • Nicholas Farrell played Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park, 1981, and Mr. Musgrove in Persuasion, 2007
  • Felicity Jones played Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, 2007
  • Tamsin Greig played Miss Bates in Emma, 2009

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