Keeping Up With The Penguins

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Everything You Need To Know About Jane Austen

Few historical literary figures have held our attention like Jane Austen. We talk and think a lot about her life, almost more than we do the books she wrote. Where there are gaps in our knowledge (and there are many, for her sister destroyed most of her letters after her death), we’re tempted to borrow facts from her fiction, but it would seem that very little in Austen’s work was autobiographical. Still, understanding Jane Austen definitely allows us a better and fuller understanding of her writing. If you can’t be bothered reading the hundreds (thousands) of books and articles about her, this should do: here’s everything you need to know about Jane Austen.

Everything You Need To Know About Jane Austen - Interesting Jane Austen Facts - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jane Austen’s Birth, Death, and Family

Baby Jane was born in 1775 in Steventon, Hampshire. Her father was a clergyman, with a few side-hustles to keep the family afloat (they were respectable enough, but not well-off financially). Her mother was of the aristocracy, she “married down”, but didn’t seem to regret it in the slightest.

Jane was – get this – the second-youngest of eight(!) children, and one of only two(!) girls. She and her sister, Cassandra, were sent to live with their Aunt Ann Cooper Cawley for a time as children before being sent to boarding school. Jane and Cassandra remained incredibly close throughout their lives. They lived together for most of their lives (at times even sharing a bedroom) and they were each other’s closest confidantes.

As a grown-up, Austen never married, but her love life has been the site of much speculation and curiosity. I’m not overly eager to join the leagues of Janeites desperate to pair her off – I think there are so many more interesting things about her than her relationships with men – so suffice to say she probably had a couple of hot flings, but nothing stuck. That could’ve been the reason that she and Cassandra remained so close; her sister’s fiance and one-true-love died of yellow fever, and she never married either.

Sadly, Jane Austen died in 1817 at just 41 years old, after a months-long illness (now suspected to have been Addison’s disease or Hodgkin’s Lymphoma).

Jane Austen’s Books and Published Works

Austen began writing parodies and satires at just 12 years of age. Despite showing early talent and eagerness, her writing career didn’t kick off in earnest until the old-timey equivalent of “late in life”. She had no independent source of income until she was 36, and relied on pocket money from her parents and hospitality from her family and friends to get by. Her brother had to cover the costs of the initial print run of her first novel (Sense And Sensibility), because she couldn’t find a publisher willing to take the risk.

Throughout her career, all of her work was published anonymously. Sense And Sensibility was published as “by A Lady” and later novels were published as “by the Author of Sense and Sensibility”.

Only four of her books were published during her lifetime (Sense and Sensibility, Pride And Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma). After her death, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published with a Biographical Note from her brother, identifying Austen as the author. Then, her work fell out of circulation altogether, with no new prints published until a decade later when her popularity resurged. Sanditon – her final, incomplete manuscript – wasn’t published until a century later.

The last thing Jane Austen ever wrote – as far as we know – was a poem for her sister, a silly joke about the rotten weather. I haven’t been able to find it anywhere, I suspect it was destroyed in the Great Cassandra Austen Purge, but if you know that it exists and where, please let me know in the comments!

Interesting Facts about Jane Austen (Probably)

Alright, now that that’s out of the way, let’s leave behind the bare-bones biography and get to the good stuff! Here are some of the best Fun Facts(TM) I’ve unearthed about Jane Austen’s life and career. Some of them are fairly well-established and I was able to corroborate them with multiple sources. Others… well, it’d be fun to assume they’re true, if nothing else. Here are some interesting facts about Jane Austen (probably), in no particular order.

She had a knack for brewing her own beer. She used molasses to give her brews (called “spruce beer”) a sweeter taste. She also lamented, in one letter, that her household was running out of mead (apparently fourteen gallons wasn’t enough to last the season) and she had no honey to make more. She must’ve had a bit of a sweet tooth, because she also wrote of her appreciation for sponge cake and Bath bunns (basically a rich brioche bread).

She dedicated Emma to the Prince Regent of the. day. He was a big fan of her work (having heard through the grapevine that she was the anonymous author of Pride And Prejudice), but she… well, she thought he was a dickhead, and said as much in writing. She got word through the Prince Regent’s librarian that it might be a good idea to dedicate her next book to him, to smooth things over. It wasn’t a suggestion, if you catch my drift.

In the years that Jane Austen lived with her sister and their friend Martha in a house in Chawton, she would write in a room with a squeaky door. She refused to have the door fixed, because she preferred to have warning of anyone approaching to interrupt. Those were some of the most productive years of her writing career: she worked on (writing, revising, and publishing) most of her major works during that time.

Jane Austen’s main hype-man was her Dad. George Austen stoked the flames of her literary mind with a huge home library, and took it upon himself to shop her early novels around to publishers (who were reluctant, to say the least, to publish books written by women – boo to them!). Later, her brother Henry took over the role of Jane’s agent, with similar determination.

Although she was shamefully over-looked (being anonymous and all) and under-paid (publishers being arseholes and all) in her own time, we sure as heck recognise her brilliance now. The most recent estimate puts sales of Pride And Prejudice at twenty-million copies in the 200 years since its publication. It’s amazing to think that her assets totalled less than £800 at the time of her death, and she never lived above the era’s poverty line… But let’s not end on such a bummer note. Let’s focus instead on how much we ardently admire this amazing lady, and the enduring power of her work.

Sanditon – Jane Austen

I’m slowly making my way through Jane Austen’s body of work: first up was Emma, then Pride And Prejudice. I couldn’t make up my mind which to read next… until the universe made it up for me. The wonderful folks at Oxford University Press were kind enough to send me a copy of Sanditon for review. Never heard of it? Not surprising! Only the die-hard Austen fans really have. It’s the partial manuscript, her final effort, the one she was working on when she died, aged just 41.

If you take a look at the original manuscript (images are available, with transcription, open access at – good on them!), you can actually trace the timeline of Austen’s writing process. She began Sanditon on 27 January 1817, wrote twelve chapters, then set it aside on 18 March that year. She wrote to her niece a few days later, complaining that she felt unwell, and her condition deteriorated quickly. The unfinished novel, some 24,000 words, sat in a drawer and wasn’t published until more than a century after her death (in 1925). The title comes from the fictional seaside township she created for the story, Sanditon, though that title was applied retroactively (Austen herself never actually decided on a title for the manuscript). It was likely based on the real town of Worthing, where Austen stayed in 1805.

If someone handed you Sanditon without a cover or title page, you probably wouldn’t recognise it as one of Austen’s books. It’s set by the sea, for one thing, moving away from her traditional country-village settings and impoverished-gentry family homes. It may well be the first “seaside novel”, a short tradition in English lit that came after Austen’s time. It’s more than the setting, though, that sets Sanditon apart. Austen was clearly in the mood to mix things up. It starts with a bang, right in the middle of the action, where her novels would have usually begun with a bit of background information or family history (yes, we’re all thinking of “it’s a truth universally acknowledged” here).

She was drawing on a combination of the burgeoning trend for seaside holidays – resorts were capitalising on the reputation of fresh air and salt water bathing for “health” – and the site of cultural revolution that they represented. Here was a setting where the female body, so strictly policed in Austen’s world (real and fictional), was freed from its usual constraints. These towns had floating populations and attracted a variety of characters from all over, which gave her an opportunity (or would have, I guess) to explore new dynamics and new opportunities for humour and critique.

Austen didn’t stray too far from her repertoire, though: Sanditon is still a social satire, as best we can tell, a commentary on the ridiculousness of the craze for seaside holidays. It is also, in some ways, a gentle ribbing of hypochondriacs, people wealthy and privileged enough to imagine illnesses and cures, written by a woman who (we now know) was dying.

It all starts (with a bang, as I said) when the carriage of Mr & Mrs Parker topples over near the home of the Heywoods. Mr Parker is injured, and the carriage all kinds of buggered, so the couple stays with the Heywoods for a fortnight until everyone’s ready to get back on the road. Mr Parker speaks very fondly of Sanditon, a former fishing village; he and his business partner, Lady Denham, have designs on opening a fashionable seaside resort there.

Charlotte Heywood is the eldest daughter still living at the Heywood home (and, again as best we can tell, she was all set to become the main character). When Mr Parker and his carriage are ready to go, she tags along with them, and stays with the Parkers in Sanditon as a summer guest. There, she meets the locals, including Mrs Denham – a twice-widowed woman who got her fortune from her first husband, and her title from the second (wink-wink). She has some scheming and opportunistic family members (it is still an Austen novel, remember) hoping to secure her estate.

It’s a strong set-up, but unfortunately the Sanditon manuscript ends before everything can be laid out properly. More characters are introduced – like Mr Parker’s two sisters, self-declared invalids, and a brother – but the novel cuts off before they can be fully developed and their roles revealed. Still, Austen has just enough time to work in a few zingers.

“I am very sorry you met with your accident, but upon my word you deserved it.–Going after a Doctor!–Why, what should we do with a Doctor here? It would be only encouraging our servants and the Poor to fancy themselves ill, if there was a Doctor at hand.”

Lady Denham, page 35

And a pro health tip from Arthur: take your toast with a “reasonable” quantity of butter, because dry toast will ravage your stomach lining like a “nutmeg grater”. True fact!

Because Austen laid all the ground-work with Sanditon, it’s been a favourite of “continuators” – later writers who tried to complete the novel and emulate her style (her niece, Anna Lefoy, among them). That means there are a few different versions of Sanditon floating around, but my OUP edition is the OG: edited by Kathryn Sutherland (who has worked on a whole bunch of Austen projects), and presented faithfully to Austen’s original work. That means it’s a slim book (it is, after all, unfinished, and ends abruptly in the middle of Chapter 12), but it’s beautifully produced, with a well-researched author biography, introduction, and notes.

Ultimately, Sanditon reads like what it is: a first draft of an incomplete novel. There’s enough of Austen’s natural talent and brilliance there to make it worth reading, but also enough to bum you out – it is terribly, terribly sad that this work will forever remain unfinished (continuators be damned). Still, I appreciated this little window into Austen’s mind, and the opportunity to see the machinations that came before her formally polished and published prose.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Sanditon:

  • “ “I am everything Jane Austin”!” – Gloria Groot
  • “didnt finish” – Joan Strochak
  • “This is not the complete book, only the section Jane Austen wrote” – C. Jones
  • “Slow to start but got better near the end …..” Kaya Penelope
  • “Disappointed with ending, author seems to have tired of writing and abruptly ends the story.” – Teri Jensen

Lost In Translation: Mis-Translated Book Titles

August is Women In Translation month, and here at Keeping Up With The Penguins we kicked off in fine style with a review of Convenience Store Woman. Still, I wanted to do something special to showcase the vital creative work that translators do to bring books to us Anglophone readers. For too long, translators have been overlooked, underpaid, and underappreciated, and that’s only just starting to change (remember, always #namethetranslator in your reviews and recommendations!). In case you’re in any doubt, here’s the proof: using Google’s translate function, I’ve translated some book titles into another language and then back into English. The results are… hilarious, disturbing, and baffling in equal measure. Enjoy!

Lost In Translation - Mis-Translated Book Titles - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Stars Are To Blame

A slightly stroppier take on John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars. Read my full review here.


The literal and complete opposite of Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. Read my full review here.

To Make Fun Of

Harper Lee was kind of hinting that you shouldn’t make fun of anyone in To Kill A MockingbirdRead my full review here.

The Tale Of Her Servant

Kind of gives the Wife a much bigger role than Margaret Atwood’s original The Handmaid’s Tale, no? Read my full review here.

One Hour Work Orange

In fairness, the title of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange makes very little sense in English, unless you’ve read the book… but this still somehow one-ups the confusion. Read my full review here.

The Wind Was Blowing

I really have no idea how the wacky translator algorithm gets here from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Read my full review here.

Who Catches In Rye?

Holden Caulfield does! Or, at least, he wants to in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye. Read my full review here.

Fruits Of Anger

Alright, this one is a pretty obvious mis-translation from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath, but it still makes me giggle (I picture an apple with an angry emoji face on it… hehe!). Read my full review here.

What A Dog Is Surprised By At Night

I mean, it’s kind of beside the point of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time, but this is still a killer title, right? Don’t you want to know?

Rats and Mans

I know, I know, it’s a double up, but John Steinbeck’s book titles just lend themselves so well to mis-translation! This one was Of Mice And Men, obviously.

The Guide Of The Mural For The Galaxy

It’s poetic, but lacks the logical coherence of Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Read my full review here.

The Princess Is Drowning

Yikes! Nowhere near as fun a pun as Carrie Fisher’s original The Princess Diarist.

In The Cold

A far less-menacing take on the true-crime classic, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Read my full review here.

Subtle Art Don’t Fuck

I mean, it’s snappy! Actually, I think I almost like it better than Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck

The Mystery Of Man

I doubt Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret would have been in my top one thousand guesses for the mis-translation of this one… but here we are! Read my full review here.

Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: books in translation are a unique kind of magic. Sayaka Murata has won multiple literary prizes in Japan, she was named one of Vogue Japan’s Women Of The Year in 2016, and yet Convenience Store Woman is the first of her ten (ten!) novels to be translated into English. It was translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori (always, always, always #NameTheTranslator), and it has gone on to make Murata a literary superstar in the Anglophone world, as she has long deserved to be.

The blurb begins: “Keiko isn’t normal,”. A strong start, wouldn’t you say? Keiko has known since childhood that she was “different” from everybody else, but she learned early on that expressing herself in ways that feel natural to her does not go down well in her conservative and conformist culture – it freaks people out and causes problems. Throughout her childhood and adolescence, peers recoil from her and her family worries that she’ll never “fit in”. Everyone’s relieved when, aged 18, she takes a “normal” job in a convenience store (a konbini) – including Keiko. The store provides an employee manual that provides her with strict protocols for interaction that she finds deeply comforting. “This is the only way I can be a normal person,” she says, on page 21. Thus, she becomes the titular Convenience Store Woman.

Eighteen years later, however, the gig is starting to wear thin. Not for Keiko, but for the people around her. Keiko has happily adopted “convenience store worker” as her whole identity, and struggles to understand why that’s not enough. Her friends and family worry about her, and they’re not backwards in coming forwards: as far as they’re concerned, stacking shelves and greeting customers in a 24/7 convenience store is no way for a woman of advancing (reproductive) years to live, and the pressure to find a new job (or a husband) intensifies…

Enter Shiraha: a ragamuffin, layabout, ne’er do well who takes a job at the convenience store for the express purpose of “marriage shopping”. Basically, he’s an in-cel, looking for someone to give him social credibility and (ideally) finance his ridiculous idea for a start-up. He’s fired almost immediately, of course, because he’s the absolute worst – but not before Keiko identifies him as a potential solution. In her world, any explanation for her supposed aberration is better than no explanation at all. So, she takes Shiraha in, and presents him to the world as her live-in partner. There! They both “fit in” now! Happily ever after, right?

Of course not! Stick two misfits like Keiko and Shiraha in a tiny apartment together, on Keiko’s meagre convenience store worker salary no less, and everything will inevitably go to shit. Keiko has mild psychopathic tendencies, resorts to mimicking her co-workers’ speech and dress to “fit in”, and remains blithely indifferent to sex, romance, or anything like it. Shiraha feels entitled to anything and everything he wants, and views their whole arrangement as a huge favour that he is doing for Keiko out of the goodness of his heart. Really, the only thing they have in common is that they both long to flip the bird to the homogenising pressures of Japanese culture.

Let’s be clear here, though: Convenience Store Woman isn’t some kind of odd-couple rom-com, it’s no contemporary take on Pride And Prejudice. In fact, it’s very satirical, almost dystopian, in tone – wry, matter of fact, and mournful, all at once. It’s a class commentary, in the sense that it looks at social problems caused by class and gender inequity in Japan. Keiko lives in a “grim post-capitalist reverie”, where she finds purpose, acceptance, and contentment in the fluorescent, synthetic environment of the convenience store. Into the bargain, she’s a woman, which gives Murata ample fodder to question whether women can truly be happy in their “traditional” roles, that age-old question of feminism.

And yet, Convenience Store Woman is SHORT. Like, seriously SHORT. 163 pages! SHORT! The story moves very fast, which is part of its appeal, but it was almost (only almost) too fast for me. I would’ve loved to spend more time in Keiko’s mind and her world, but I’ve got to respect the mastery. How Murata managed to cram so much into so few pages is beyond me! On par with the economical prose of Arthur Conan Doyle, in my opinion…

I can’t resist a spoiler (but I left it ’til the very last paragraph, so don’t complain): in the end, Keiko rejects the more “convenient” life that Shiraha offers her, and returns to the convenience store. Obviously, that’s a broader statement about rejecting conformism in the pursuit of happiness (real or synthetic), and it’s very cleverly done – in fact, it didn’t strike me until later that that’s what Murata was getting at. Convenience Store Woman is such an intriguingly strange book, one that feels uniquely singular but simultaneously universal. I absolutely recommend it!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Convenience Store Woman:

  • “Cute story, not to norm” – Tanya settle
  • “anybody who didn’t understand this book hasen’t subsumed themselves into the rhythms of a low-level retail job. I loved this book.” – pencillers
  • “What seems would be a dull story about an ordinary woman with a mundane job is a fascinating novel.” – eva b.
  • “A very enjoyable story told from the perspective of a non-violent sociopath. It’s unlike any story I’ve read and quite fun at that.” – JF
  • “This book felt like something Dostoyevsky would have written if he were a woman and had a sense of humor….” – Travis Ann Sherman

7 Books On My To Re-Read List

The whole Keeping Up With The Penguins project began because I was stuck in a loop of re-reading my favourite books over and over again. For the past few years, I’ve been committed to expanding my reading horizons and challenging myself with the new and unfamiliar. Even so, having looked at it from both sides now, I can still see the benefit in re-reading books. It’s beneficial for any number of reasons: taking comfort, nostalgic reminisces, reinforcing memory and recall, learning and thinking about a book in a different way… As soon as I finished reading Me Talk Pretty One Day earlier this week, I knew I’d want to re-read it purely for the sake of enjoying it all over again. At some point, here on the blog, I’ll do a little series of re-read reviews. For now, here are the books on my to re-read list.

7 Books On My To Re-Read List - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Citizen by Claudia Rankine

Citizen - An American Lyric - Claudia Rankine - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Just as the #metoo movement had me itching to revisit classics of feminism and gender studies, the surge in global support for the Black Lives Matter movement has me wanting to re-read those books that taught me about white privilege and anti-racism. Citizen is one of those books. Through multi-media poetry (yes, you read that right – Rankine integrates photography, design, even video and sound into her verse) this book taught me more about race and culture than any I’d read beforehand. I want to re-read it to refamiliarise myself with its message, its representation of lived experience, and examine how I can use it to inform my participation in dismantling systemic oppression moving forward.

1984 by George Orwell

1984 - George Orwell - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I used to make a point of re-reading 1984 once every year or so. I still have the same copy my father gave me when I was a teenager, and I’ve returned to it faithfully each time. It’s one of the markers of a great book, I think, that you can get something new out of it every time you re-read it. 1984 is a political critique, a psychological thriller, a love story, a vision of a bleak future… It’s been a few years since I last picked it up, and given – y’know – everything I think it’s high time I did. I’m sure, being a little older and uglier, I’ll find something new in it once again.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Wuthering Heights was actually on my original Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list. I gave it a go in the early days of this project… and it was a complete disaster. I had a lot on my mind, a lot going on personally, and I just couldn’t focus on this dark and twisted story. As a result, I really didn’t enjoy it, and I didn’t get much out of it at all. I was sick of the pack of them, with their histrionics and melodrama, by the end. Even at the time, though, I knew if I re-read Emily Brontë’s only novel when I had the brain space and emotional resources to properly attend to it, I’d read it completely differently. So, that’s what I plan to do! Read my original review of Wuthering Heights in full here.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

My Year Of Rest And Relaxation - Ottessa Moshfegh - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When I first read My Year Of Rest And Relaxation, I didn’t really have much of a chance to enjoy it. See, it was required reading for one of the courses of my Masters, and I spent the whole time looking for things I could say and questions I could ask about it to look clever in class (kidding… kind of). There’s a lot of value in reading the way that post-grad study requires you to, it opens your mind and makes you think more critically about the books (or “texts”, as I got used to calling them), but it does kind of take the fun out of it sometimes. That’s why I’m eager to re-read this one (and Moshfegh’s other books), with no essays or discussion groups hanging over my head. I feel like it’s a book I could get a lot out of recreationally, given the chance!

Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride And Prejudice - Jane Austen - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Look, it’s not just Pride And Prejudice: I think every Jane Austen novel would benefit from being re-read, over time (well, from the ones I’ve read so far, that seems to be the trend, anyway). They are subtle and nuanced and masterful, and it’s impossible to absorb all that they have to say on a single pass. Pride And Prejudice in particular, however, has saturated our popular consciousness to the point where – if you’ll excuse me – it prejudices us to read it as a simple marriage plot, when there’s so much more to it. Re-reading it will give me an opportunity to examine the other aspects more closely: Austen’s use of free indirect discourse, her commentary on class and power through parent-child relationships, her comedic timing… Read my original review of Pride And Prejudice in full here.

Throat by Ellen Van Neerven

Throat - Ellen Van Neerven - Book On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Throat was only released earlier this year, and UQP was kind enough to send me a copy for review; I read it as soon as I’d pulled it out of the packaging. It is sharp and stunning collection of poetry, and Van Neerven is very deserving of all of the acclaim and accolades that are coming their way as a result. But having devoured Throat once – in a single sitting, no less! – I want to return to it and savour it again, more slowly this time. Some of the poems are timely, some are timeless: I’m interested to see which ones become snapshots of bygone political moments and which ones endure as resonant and poignant reflections of our evolving reality. The whole collection deserves the attention of many careful and considered re-reads.

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In The Dream House - Carmen Maria Machado - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I said, after reading it for the first time, that In The Dream House is a Rubik’s cube of a book. I stand by that. It’s just that I need to re-read it to figure out just how Carmen Maria Machado did it. Reading this memoir is like watching one of those Rubik’s cube masters who can solve the whole damn thing in eight seconds or whatever. You need to slow it down, re-play each moment, in order to even come close to understanding. Plus, it’s just a beautifully written book, and its subject (abuse in queer relationships) is one that has been unfairly under-represented in literature. I’ll read every word that Machado writes for the rest of her career, and re-read them, too.

So, what do you think? Which book should I re-read first? Are there any deserving of a re-read that I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!

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