Saturday, 24 September 2011

TALKING JANE AUSTEN WITH ... CORNELIS DE JONG, AUTHOR OF "MY BROTHER AND I"

Cornelis De Jong lives in Netherlands. He teaches English at A-levels, with a particular emphasis on literature. Although in recent years he and his students have been focusing largely on Jane Austen with regard to their courses on the English novel, his interest in literature extends much further. He completed his masters at the University of Nijmegen with a dissertation on post-modernist fiction. 
He wrote and published a continuation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, "My Brother and I"
He has kindly accepted to answer some questions and be my guest on My Jane Austen Book Club today.

First of all, welcome to my little Austen-dedicated corner of the Net. Cornelis, I cannot believe that a man could like Jane Austen to the extent that you do! I find it hard enough to convince my own male teenage students to read just one or two pages of her work. How did this come about?

During my studies we did a wide range of writers and their works. One of my lecturers, who took us from Old English (which he could read fluently, and brought to life most brilliantly) all the way to Post-Modern American prose, was always very distinct and elaborate about the worth or otherwise of each writer he dealt with – except for Jane Austen. All he said to us about her was, ‘Well, Jane Austen is a case apart,’ and left it at that. The manner in which he said that suggested that there was something special here. To be discovered by reading, and reading again, till we had discovered what it was that made this slip of a woman from the country so very special. As a reader it has never mattered to me whether the writer is a woman or a man. I very much agree with Joyce Carol Oates (whom I admire greatly as a writer) when she says, ‘I am not a women writer; I happen to be a woman who writes.’ In fact, if getting your students to read Jane Austen is difficult, you should try getting them to voluntarily read Samuel Richardson’s Pamela – impossible! – even I could not stomach it, in spite of its literary worth.

When did you first read Jane Austen?

I wish I had read Jane Austen as a teenager or even in my early twenties. I was thirty-five before I read Emma, and soon the rest followed. However, here is something you, and your readers, might not know: boys and young men are very keen on love stories; the popularity of romantic comedy films among youngsters is proof of that. During my puberty I devoured books that dealt with that mysterious thing called love, and being loved by a girl you could dream about. (Incidentally, most boys will not admit that they read love stories, but they do, believe me!) My word! Jane Austen would have been a most welcome addition to my corpus of readable reads when I was young. But it is never too late to read Jane Austen; she transcends all the adolescent penny-horribles that we might have read when we were young.

Just like me, you teach English literature to teenage students. What are your students’ reactions when it comes to classics like Jane Austen? How do you make students interested in her little Regency world so distant from them? (I’m bluntly asking for useful tips, if you don’t mind.)

Getting students interested in the Regency Period (including the Romantic Period and all that that entails) is easy. It was a turbulent time in history littered with dramatic events. A poem about the dreadful life of a chimney sweep as portrayed by Blake can, if explained and read properly, drive even the toughest teenage boy to tears. The French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the madness of the Luddites, a philandering and debauched Regent, and so on are all ingredients of history that grips the imagination of any teenager, male or female. Put in the right context, Jane Austen will be read by all youngsters with interest – much more so, of course, by girls: at least, if you go by their effusive reactions to her characters, especially how they have been portrayed in films. But you need only read the essays boys write on this subject (such as on the plight of Regency women to find eligible men to marry or face a life of destitute) to see that they often think as deeply and, dare I say it, with as much feeling about Jane Austen’s works as girls do.

You published My Brother and I, a continuation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Why write yet another sequel to Pride and Prejudice?

For fear of repeating myself, since you pose the same question as I did, a link (http://sites.google.com/site/corneliswriter/Front-Page/apology-1) to the preface to My Brother and I should suffice to get your readers to what I had to say on the matter. You will notice that I call it an ‘apology’ in the manner of Defoe or Cervantes, which serves as an explanation of why the book was written at all. But I would like to add one comment though – the word ‘yet’ might suggest that there are too many sequels to her work. I do not think there can be a limit to how often we write adaptations or continuations of existing stories. However, we could amend the above question to, ‘why write yet another bad sequel to Pride and Prejudice?’ or any other of Jane Austen’s works; for, in my view, there are far too many poorly written sequels about.

You wrote this sequel from a completely different point of view. Can you tell us something more about this new perspective, and what it reveals of the inhabitants of Pemberley and their lifestyle?

Every writer has his or her own ‘voice’. I prefer to write from the first person so as to get ‘into’ the character I wish to portray – be it a man or a woman. All other characters are then seen through the eyes of the narrator. Moreover, I think it is more honest. The narrator can truthfully tell only what he has seen and report only what he has heard. In fact, Jane Austen does something similar: she never follows her male characters about when they are not in the company of women.
Having a first-person narrator enabled me to put a ‘witness’ on the estate, one who is a keen observer, and one who can give us an impression of life at Pemberley as seen from outside the circle of regular Jane Austen characters. This did mean that I could not ‘hear’ what was said in the Great House behind closed doors, but I hope I have ‘captured’ enough of their conversations to get an impression of who they are and what they think. But my main aim was to draw a picture of the interactions between the gentry and the people who serve them, as seen through the eyes of a ‘servant’ – and what that could lead to.

Do you think this glut of Austen adaptations, both written and for the screen, have altered, mislead or even distorted a proper interpretation of Jane Austen’s work?

Ironically, the flood of Austen films in particular has been a good thing. From being poorly interpreted, poorly cast and in some cases inappropriately set and costumed, films or series based on Jane Austen’s books have, over the years, increased in credibility. They are much more believable now than twenty years ago. The 2008 television version of Sense and Sensibility is an example of how very good such an adaptation can be. I am sure the maker of that series looked back at earlier attempts (such as the Lee film, which it surpasses) and learnt from their mistakes. As Andrew Davies points out, there is a lot happening behind the scenes in an Austen novel: seduction, adultery, and so on – which can be brought into a film in a manner to make the novel that much more interesting.

Sense and Sensibility - BBC 2008
On the other hand, what worries me is the vogue in ‘alternate’ versions of Jane Austen’s work that has sprung up recently. ‘Lost in Austen’ was amusing and thoroughly enjoyable to watch, but there is a fine line between being playful and being vulgar. Zombies and so-called modern re-interpretations are an insult to Jane Austen’s work, just as a Shakespeare play in jeans and t-shirt is absurd.
But ultimately, we the viewers and readers will decide. If many readers buy zombie versions of her books, it will popularize rubbish. Nothing new there, I’m afraid – which is a pity, for one of the endearing things about Jane Austen is that she allows us to escape from modern-day mediocrity when we read her books.

Lost in Austen - ITV 2008
What is there in Jane Austen’s books which can be useful to contemporary men and women in want of a relationship?

Anyone in want of a relationship should not read Jane Austen; anyone wanting to learn about human behaviour should want to read her novels, and do so with great care. What Jane Austen teaches us (more often as not) is how not to behave towards each other. All her novels are a compendium of mishaps brought about by indiscretion and careless behaviour. That most of these mishaps are resolved amicably in her novels may be an encouragement to us that we could do likewise in our own lives – but, I doubt it; social intercourse has changed too much. That Jane Austen cannot help us very much with modern relationships is perhaps a good thing – it makes her world that much more desirable, or like a fairy-tale.

Isn’t the romantic aspect of her novels over- emphasized in the film versions or TV series we’ve seen so far?

If by romantic you mean love scenes or the development of an intimate relationship, I would say no. If any film-maker is to achieve Jane Austen’s goal of ending in a marriage involving the protagonists, then film has to focus heavily on those aspects of the novel that give us a picture of the state of their relationship at each stage in the story. Besides, film can do what not even Jane Austen could. Elinor and Edward’s library scene in the BBC version of Sense and Sensibility is quite brilliant: this and subsequent scenes like it can hardly be described in prose.

What is the peculiarity which makes Jane Austen’s genius unique?

It has been said before in many academic studies but is worth repeating here. Jane Austen was the first writer who actually succeeded in letting her characters ‘speak’ for themselves. My favourite example is Mrs Bennet. Jane Austen does not have to go to great lengths to describe her character to us, she lets the woman talk. From Mrs Benett’s own words we get a vivid picture of her personality: who she is and what to expect from her. The astonishing thing about this is that this is precisely what we do in real life: we listen to people talk and form our opinions on them based on that. The trick was, of course, how do you do that in writing? – Jane Austen showed us how.

How would you advertise your book in less than 50 words?

I would not advertise it at all – my aim is to enjoy writing; what happens after the novel is written is of little consequence to me. I crave neither praise nor sales; however, it would pain me to think that it is not being read. Speaking as an academic and distancing myself from my own work, in less than fifty words I would say: My Brother and I breaks the mould of ‘regular’ sequels, and is a credit to the quality of Jane Austen’s writing. This is the only affirmation, and compliment, I need from my readers.” 



My Brother and I is available as paperback  at Barnes and Noble , at Amazon and CreateSpace. It is also available for Kindle at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk .

5 comments:

Sophia Rose said...

That was very insightful. Thank you! And 'My Brother and I' is on my TBR list. Glad to hear from its author.

mbreakfield said...

My Brother and I sounds like a good read. I'm adding it to my wishlist.
marlenebreakfield(at)yahoo(dot)com

Cornelis Teacher said...

Thank you Maria for posting this interview. My, you have been busy finding suitable images: they do illustrate the relevant parts well.

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@Cornelis Teacher
Hi! Many thanks to you for finding the time to answer my questions!
Adding suitable images is something I like doing and it didn't take me long, actually.
Going to read "My Brother and I" soon!

Meredith said...

Lovely interview! I completely agree about how there aren't too many P&P sequels. I never tire of them!