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What Would Jane Read? Episode 31: LFL#8084

What Would Jane Read?
Episode 31

...in Which Action Figure Jane Austen Learns About Modern Halloween Rituals

It was almost exactly a year ago and the Halloween decorations were still up, as they are around town this week. (Did I mention that I'm really far behind in recounting my travels with Jane?) Right here in Alexandria, Virginia, Action FIgure Jane Austen and I visited a Little Free Library in the Four Mile Run area, at the edge of a park and bike trail.

Little Free Library #8084 is set in a cleverly designed nook in the top of a fence along the end of a row of modest brick townhouses, with easy access for those using the trail that runs alongside it.

When we visited, the LFL was tastefully decorated with a skeleton wearing prison stripes, an orange pumpkin made of wire, a bouquet of tulips, and a pink flamingo that exactly matched the pink of Jane's bodice,

This book box is sturdy and attractive, made of stained wood with a deep red painted door. Inside was a nice selection of books, including children's books, contemporary fiction, and classics.

The classics caught Jane's eye. She was pleased to see a book she recognized, Voltaire's Candide, a French satire published in 1759, sixteen years before Jane was born. Voltaire is not mentioned in any of Jane's published works, but she once did refer to him in a letter as "the brilliant Frenchman," and must have appreciated his intellectualism and wit, as both of them were writing rational prose in an age dominated by romanticism and melodrama. She has read Candide before, of course. But after 200-some years, it's easy to forget the details. especially when you've been reincarnated as a plastic action figure. So Jane chose Candide as her takeaway book.

In exchange, she left a copy of her third published novel, Mansfield Park. She also donated a Spanish-language children's picture book, because we knew that the LFL is near a predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhood.

So what about that skeleton and pumpkin? Jane was familiar with Halloween. In her own era, All Hallows Eve kicked off the winter holidays, a time of masking, tricks, and performances. As Lesley Bannatyne describes in Halloween: A History, actors and musicians would take to the streets in England that night, offering plays and songs in exchange for money, food, or drink.

In Wales, children processed from house to house singing Halloween rhymes -- the boys dressed as girls, and the girls dressed as boys. In Ireland, it was adults who moved from house to house, begging for food; they were led by a white mare--a man covered with a white sheet and holding a wooden horse’s head. And Jane's contemporary, the Scottish poet Robert Burns (born 1759) wrote a poem called "Halloween." which describes the fairies dancing in the hills.

So modern American Halloween celebrations do share some traits with the All Hallows Eves of Jane's past. In fact, she recognized the skeleton right away as an appropriate part of the decorations, and she understands the pumpkins as an excellent and fitting American contribution to the festivities. She had never heard of my personal tradition of giving away books to trick-or-treaters, as well as candy. But she heartily approved.

On the other hand, some aspects of our modern American version of the holiday perplex her. During trick-or-treat time this week, she saw children (and adults) dressed in many costumes that were not recognizable as ghosts, demons, skeletons, fairies, or other traditional All Hallows Eve images. For example, my son's friend trick-or-treated as Bob Marley, and my husband dressed as a farmer. And our neighbor, also a grown man, went as a giant banana. Jane was also confused by the supposed "treats" being distributed to trick-or-treaters, some of which were not recognizable as food. I was at a loss to explain Skittles. But, then again, I am always at a loss to explain Skittles.

As for the flamingo, well, it didn't seem the least bit Halloweenish to Jane. But at least it was her color.

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