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Archive for the ‘G.B. Stern’ Category

I’ve been flicking through More Talk of Jane Austen by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern this morning, a companion to the equally perfect Speaking of Jane Austen.  I marked some favourite passages when I first read it a few years back and it was those I was going through this morning, enjoying anew the joy Kaye-Smith and Stern took in talking about their favourite author and her works.

One of my favourite passages was Stern’s musings on Austen’s most able parental unit: the Morlands:

…I am certain no one can dispute that as parents, Mr and Mrs Morland are without serious rivals; they are, in fact, the only important mother and father in Jane Austen where both emerge coupled in unselfishness and good sense; we find them disposed to indulge their large family where indulgence can do no harm, yet to check any tendency towards bad manners, sulking or affectation.  We are not allowed to see much of the Rev. Richard Morland, though we are assured he was “a very respectable man: and not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters; our good opinion of him is chiefly based on the fact that when his wife acts sensibly (the word must recur often in any description of Mrs Morland), she is apparently not in any fear of opposition from her husband.  Most of us, as children, were told somewhat sententiously that people are likely to judge our parents according to the way we behave…to which we gave our shoulders an impatient shrug and muttered inaudibly: “Don’t believe it.”  The older I grow, the more the truth of this comes home to me: Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, displays so much honesty and spontaneous politeness in her conduct, as well as a genuinely modest measurement of her own claims to notice, no tiresome shrinking nor constant need of reassurance (can I again be thinking of Fanny Price?), that she reflects the greatest possible credit on her mother’s upbringing and her father’s judgement in selection of a wife…

Later in the essay (entitled “Always be Contented, but especially at Home”), she does mark them down a little for not investigating Isabella Thorpe as soon as their son becomes engaged to her but it’s a small matter in the scheme of things.  For my part, I know they are the Austen parents I would pick if I had a choice!

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Ten Days of ChristmasIt is rare that my reading aligns with the season but for once I have done it.  Ten Days of Christmas by G.B. Stern has been recently reprinted (as both an e-book and a paperback) and when the publisher offered me a chance to try it, I jumped.  My only previous encounters with G.B. Stern had been her writings (with Sheila Kaye-Smith) on Jane Austen and I had been looking forward to trying some of her fiction.  Here was an easy – and seasonally  appropriate – chance to do just that.

It is Christmas 1946 and the extended Maitland family, along with friends, is all gathered in the English countryside for their first real family Christmas since 1938.  They are determined to have a Glorious Christmas, complete with a play staged by the children, but there is no surer way to make people petty and argumentative than demanding perfection.  Squabbles among both the adults and children upset everyone and everything goes sadly off the rails.

Conceptually, that sounds quite appealing to me.  I love books about big families and it’s inevitable, especially when adult siblings and their spouses are brought together for any extended period, that little (or large) frictions will surface.  The key to a good book is in how the author handles them.  Dodie Smith did it brilliantly in Dear Octopus; G.B. Stern is not so brilliant.  In fact, she’s positively lacklustre.

After the plodding open pages, where Stern struggles ponderously to describe the tangled web of family and friends convening for the holidays, there is promising period where it seems as though she might be able to pull it all off.  This does not last but when she focuses her attentions on the children – their relationships, their anxieties, their very earnest devotion to putting on a good play – you have a glimpse of what a pleasant and even slightly witty book this could have been.  But then she switches to the adults and the surfeit of angst and fraught relationships tips over into the ridiculous – and the quality of Stern’s writing declines accordingly.

It’s hard to decide quite where the blame lies.  Is it the overly complicated family tree?  The lack of tension throughout (even in the scenes that are meant to be sickeningly tense)?  The hints at a romance that is neither convincing nor emotionally appealing?  The weak overall structure?  Is it that incredibly odd, disjointed ending, complete with a cheap death to serve as a catalyst for two other characters?  It is, of course, a combination of all of the above.

Needless to say, this was not a favourite though I did not give up hope until the very end.  It seemed so much like a book that could turn into the kind of story I love.  Indeed, it reminded me indistinctly of so many other books and writers but, in the end, this was not a comparison Stern benefited from.  Reminding me of Noel Streatfeild, Angela Thirkell, Dodie Smith, and (I dared hope) A.A. Milne only led to disappointment.  In its way, this book probably has more in common with the melodramas of Dorothy Whipple (but without Whipple’s genius for plotting) and the quiet angst and flat characters of Elizabeth Taylor (but without Taylor’s gift of observation or her sharp wit).

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Worst match-maker ever

Worst match-maker ever

I picked up More Talk of Jane Austen by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern last night, inspired (momentarily) to finally review the essays I’d enjoyed reading so much last year.  A thorough review might one day get written but this is not it as I got sidetracked rereading my favourite essays and delighting in both Kaye-Smith’s and Stern’s arguments.

Kaye-Smith and Stern’s first book on Jane Austen, Speaking of Jane Austen, was easily the most delightful thing I read in 2013.  The follow-up volume is not quite as faultless but that is only natural: how can you follow up a book that is both perfect and comprehensive?  The essays here are always entertaining but perhaps lack the marvellous focus and energy contained in the first book.

Last night, it was G.B. Stern who set me pondering, with her discussion of Austen’s use of the Cinderella legend:

Emma and Harriet are the only two of Jane Austen’s heroines who pair off with their equals: Emma with Mr. Knightley, Harriet with Mr. Martin.  Pondering on this, I began to suspect a preoccupation with the Cinderella legend.  All the rest of these young women (not merely heroines in its traditional meaning) illustrate and restate the theme, though without sentimentality: they marry above their station, and achieve it on beauty and virtue in equal parts.

I, as I think I have touched on before, enjoy the escapism of the Cinderella story – who doesn’t? – but am troubled by its practical implications, especially in Austen.  For all her romantic moments, Austen was a writer very much concerned with practical details and with the creations of, to use G.B. Stern’s phrase, “life-size” characters who have, two hundred years later, remained remarkably familiar and relatable:

She’s neither bitter nor boisterous about her people; instead, she has irony, tenderness, clear vision, and most of all a gorgeous sense of their absurdity which is never really exaggerated into more than life-size.  You’re absurd, I’m absurd, and so in some way or other are most of the people we meet.  She does not have to distort or magnify what they’re like; she just recognises them, delights in them herself, and then re-created them for our benefit without illusion or grandiloquence…

So how can such life-like people survive the too perfect fairy-tale endings their author imposes on them?  Any marriage has its stresses but unequal marriages, the kind Austen specialised in arranging, face even more burdens.  Perhaps that is part of why Emma has always been my favourite: there is a worrying, unequal marriage made but not by our heroine (poor Jane Fairfax deserves so much better).

The young Tilneys I am not overly worried about since, though young at her marriage, I have every faith that Catherine, having grown up in a happy home with sensible parents, will be able to create the same sort of environment with the intelligent and good-humoured Henry.  But everyone else I worry about.

And there is much to worry about, I think.  How often do Anne and Captain Wentworth speak before they become re-engaged?  What do they really know of each other?  How can Elizabeth’s winsome impudence serve her as the chatelaine of Pemberley?  Has she any idea of the responsibilities and conformity her new life will require?  Will passionate Marianne grow old before her time?  It is not too difficult to imagine her ten years hence having her head turned by a dashing new arrival in the neighbourhood while her husband sits by the fire wearing one of his flannel vests.  And why must Fanny Price’s life be spent adoring the undeserving Edmund?  It is such a waste of a fascinating young woman, though we must admit that it is the culmination of her life’s ambition.

The match between Elinor and Edward is more equal than many of Austen’s marriages, but it is one of the least satisfying.  Who, aside from Simon T., really likes Edward?  And, more importantly, who doesn’t like Elinor and want the best for her?

No, it is much more restful for me to think about the Knightleys and the Martins, contented with the familiar and sure of happy, easy lives with partners who share the same backgrounds and values, than to ponder the fates of Austen’s other pairings.

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What a strange year it has been, full of changes, new adventures and, as far as this blog is concerned, very abnormal reading habits.  But, however altered my reading schedule may have been, the quality of books remained excellent and it was not at all difficult to pick my ten favourite books from 2013:

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10. The Talisman Ring (1936) – Georgette Heyer
Having discovered Heyer a decade ago, I thought I’d read all her best works.  But no, other bloggers assured me, I still needed to read The Talisman Ring.  Nonsense, I thought, but it was Heyer so I was determined to read it anyways.  Of course, I discovered that everyone was right and that this hilarious tale of a fanciful young woman, a dashing smuggler, and their put-upon elders is indeed one of the greatest things Heyer wrote.

9. Alif the Unseen (2012) – G. Willow Wilson
I struggled to review all the books I wished to this year and that included some of my favourites, like Alif the Unseen.  An extraordinary combination of fantasy, religion, and 21st technology, this story of an Indo-Arab hacker who finds himself on the run from the corrupt state authorities is powerful, timely, and above all, engaging.  It was one of only two books this year that kept me reading until late into the night (the other is #6 on this list).

8. The English Air (1940) – D.E. Stevenson
Stevenson is an author whose quality varies dramatically from book to book.  I love her but most of her novels are merely good rather than excellent.  The English Air is one of those excellent exceptions, sensitively following the struggles of a young German man who finds himself torn between England and Germany at the beginning of the Second World War.  Stevenson paints as alluring a portrait of the domestic charms of middle-class pre-war England as anyone but it is her intelligent handling of Franz’s divided loyalties that makes this rise above most of her other works. 2013Books2

7. The Rosie Project (2013) – Graeme Simsion
This quirky and touching romantic comedy about a socially inept Australian scientist’s search for love was an absolute delight.  I loved it so much in fact that I read it not once but twice this year and am now busy pressing everyone I know to read it too.

6. Under Heaven (2010) – Guy Gavriel Kay
Kay, the master of historical fantasy, has now published two books inspired by Chinese history: Under Heaven and River of Stars.  I read both this year and both are extraordinarily good but Under Heaven was, to me, the most absorbing.  Kay is astonishingly good at balancing character development, political intrigue, and action, making for a book that left my pulse racing and my mind whirling.

5. London War Notes (1971) – Mollie Panter-Downes
The fact that I was even able to get my hands on a copy of this all-too-rare book was a miracle; as anyone who has had the privilege of reading this will agree, it is a travesty that it has not yet been reprinted.  During the Second World War, Mollie Panter-Downes’ “Letter from London” was published every second week in the New Yorker magazine, giving her American readers a glimpse of the wartime experience in London.  In typical Panter-Downes fashion, she is observant and articulate, intelligent and unsentimental.  These letters capture Londoners at their best and worst and are an extraordinary historical record as well as examples of first-rate journalism.

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4. Framley Parsonage (1861) – Anthony Trollope
I had some reservations but, for the most part, I adored the fourth book in Trollope’s Barsetshire series.  Trollope’s handling of the virtues and failings of his young men reminded me once more of the truthfulness of his writing (and the consistency of human beings, regards of the century) while his female characters, young and old, were delightfully strong, funny, and sympathetic.

3. The Harold Nicolson Diaries (2004) – edited by Nigel Nicolson
An absorbing and revealing collection of wonderfully-written diaries and letters, I loved getting to glimpse all the different facets of Nicolson’s character, from youth to old age.

2. A Time of Gifts (1977) – Patrick Leigh Fermor
In another year, this might have grabbed the top spot.  Fermor’s account of the first leg of the charmed journey he took across Europe as a teenager is beautifully written and had me longing to set out on adventures of my own. Speaking of Jane Austen

1. Speaking of Jane Austen (1943) – Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern
All the other titles on this list were wonderful but not nearly as wonderful as this collection of delightfully eccentric Austen-focused essays.  And, of course, it is the only book I have ever come across that spends a sufficient amont of time lavishing praise on the deserving Emma (if you are looking for the fastest way to my heart, look no further).

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Speaking of Jane AustenThere is no doubt in my mind that Speaking of Jane Austen (or Talking of Jane Austen) by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern will find its way onto my “Top Ten Books of 2013” list at the end of the year; the only question is what position it will occupy.  Were I to make that list today there would be no doubt: it is far and away the best thing I have read in 2013.

I always enjoy reading other people’s thoughts on Jane Austen and, goodness knows, there are more than enough books and blogs out there to make even the most rabid Janeite happy.  My preference has always been for personal, informal lit crit: Sylvia Townsend Warner and Margaret Kennedy both wrote wonderfully intelligent and personal books that highlight both Austen’s technical genius and the kind of intense relationships her readers form with her characters.  Speaking of Jane Austen falls in this same category but is quite honestly so much more detailed and joyful than anything else I have ever read on Austen that it deserves to be in a class all its own.

There is no pleasure so complete as reading a book about a topic you love by authors whose tastes match yours in every particular.  I had expected, after reading her memoir, to enjoy Sheila Kaye-Smith’s (SKS) chapters the most and was surprised – but delighted – to enjoy G.B. Stern’s (GBS) just as much.  Both women felt similarly towards the six books but even in their agreement they retain their own unique personalities.  They are warm and funny and their joy at getting to explore any and every Austen-related topic that catches their fancy is immense, as was my joy in reading.

The authors trade off, chapter by chapter, touching on every imaginable topic: the influence of current events on Austen’s writing; the “chumps” in her novels and which ones are most loveable (answer: Mr Woodhouse and Mrs Dashwood); SKS’s desire to know what the heroines were wearing and eating; life in the country; women’s education and accomplishments; Austen’s portrayal of decidedly unspiritual clergymen; the importance of letter writing; and then, most enjoyably, discussions of characters Austen failed to bring to life (GBS picks include Colonel Brandon, Eleanor Tilney and Lady Catherine de Bourgh; SKS is disappointed by Mary Bennet, Mr Palmer, and Lady Russell) and characters who are mentioned but never emerge from the background (Mary King, Colonel Forster, Isabella Thorpe’s friend Miss Andrews, etc).  There is a shamefully difficult quiz (which can be found in its entirety here), with questions like: What kind of apricot did Dr Grant discuss with Mrs Norris and what was the price of it? And What do we know about – (a) Miss Grantley, (b) Mrs Speed, (c) Miss Pope, (d) Charlotte Davies, (e) Miss King, (f) Biddy Henshawe, (g) Lady Stonoway, (h) the Lady Frasers, (i) the Tupmans, (j) Lady Mary Grierson?  Who???  Immediately following these stumpers there is a section of odds and ends, brief musings from both authors on topics that did not fit elsewhere in the book.  After “The Mansfield Park Quartette”, which despite its title is really a chapter discussing all of the romantic pairings in all of the six books, this miscellany was my favourite section, offering perfect observations like:

However often I may re-read Jane Austen, I am for ever discovering some new small proof of genius in a sentence.  I have just found a gem of irony: it occurs after the scene in Persuasion where Frederick and Louisa go nutting down the hedgerow and (his subconscious still sore over the loss of Anne) he extols in an exaggerated style her firmness, decision and strength of mind.  Then, a little later, in family conclave: “Louisa now being armed with the idea of merit in maintaining her own way…”

No small part of my delight came from the discovery that both GBS and SKS counted Emma as their favourite of Austen’s works.  It is no secret that it is mine, too.  After years of searching, I have finally found a book that spends enough time dissecting and heaps enough praise on Emma to satisfy even me.  I loved reading about their worship of Mr Woodhouse, their fantasies of what it must be like to attend a dinner party at Hartfield, their reasons why Mr Knightley is the Austen hero they would most like to marry (Henry Tilney coming in second, as well he should), and, most of all, why they adore dear, flawed, adorable Emma.  I was particularly touched by SKS’s comments about how her relationship to Emma has changed over time:

At the start, Emma was my contemporary; now she might be my granddaughter, but I still have that warm, urgent sense of a personal relationship.  It is curiously charming, this experience of growing up with and round and past a character, entering into ever-changing and new relationships with it as one passes from girlhood’s interest and envy into motherly affection and grandmotherly pride.  Dear Emma!  Dear snobbish, cocksure, deluded Emma! – “faultless in spite of all her faults.”  She is and will doubtless always be my favourite among the Jane Austen heroines…

But that is not to say that they do not heap praise on the other books and the other heroines.  Catherine Morland and Anne Elliot are held in particular esteem (as GBS says, “There is no end to what I can find to praise in Anne Elliot; she deserves all the felicity which her creator bestowed upon her.”), Elizabeth is admired, Fanny is admitted to have virtues than both women feel would have been better served by a marriage to Henry Crawford, Elinor is esteemed and Marianne…frankly, I was surprised by how tenderly Marianne was treated, how sympathetic and admiring both SKS and GBS were to the young girl’s tragedy.  We are reminded how ill-behaved Marianne is compared to other girls of her age (can you imagine Catherine Morland, also seventeen, forgetting herself in public the way Marianne does?) but that does not override their love for her.  The discussions about Marianne and her emotions were some of the best in the entire book, with SKS in particular admiring the “power and sympathy” with which Austen presented “the flaming spirit of youth”, with all its attendant flaws.  The way GBS contrasts Marianne’s suffering with the turmoil experienced by the other heroines was also intriguing:

…the young girl’s tragedy is so vividly translated, and she lies on her bed at Mrs Jenning’s house in Conduit Street, with Willoughby’s letters in her hand and ‘almost screams with agony’, unbearable revelation of what someone we love can do to us if their love is not so great as our own, that it does not seem possible ever to dislike Marianne again.  Poor child; poor wounded child.  Even Anne is not so tormented, for she must always have had a mind to sustain her, even at seventeen; whereas Marianne has evolved no such protection against the storm.  Marianne can only rush out in the thin shoes into a damp shrubbery on a rainy night, and thus fashion some sort of fool’s consolation out of rashness.  Emma, too, like Anne, has a mind with which to meet grief; she is heavy-hearted, but she is not sunk when she believes she has lost Knightley to Harriet; she can still determine that her father shall feel no effects from her own grief.  Yes, Emma, as well as Anne, commands our respect.  Jane Bennet and Elinor Dashwood can also meet perfidy and disillusion with fortitude and put on a serene disguise.  Elizabeth is given very little suffering to try her; she has but hardly discovered that she could love Darcy after rejecting him than here is Darcy back again; ready to stoop his pride and put his fortune to the test for the second time.

I loved all of the questions this book brought up, both serious and whimsical.  While it is little short of ecstasy for obsessive Janeites to spend hours considering which of the heroines you would most like to meet, which hero would make the best husband or which scene you wish you could step into, I was brought up short by SKS’s confidence that all Janeites would roughly agree on how to order the six novels according to their merits:

There is one subject which true Janeites never weary of discussing, though as far as my own experience goes no discussion has ever been brought to a satisfactory conclusion.  By this I do not mean that it has never been settled; on the contrary, it is always settled much too easily.  There is very little difference of opinion among Jane-lovers as to the relative merits of the six novels.  You are not likely to find any one of them maintaining that Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey are flawless and none of the rest is worth reading, or that Sense and Sensibility is a finer book that Persuasion.  As a body we are agreed that the standard is very even and very high; none of the novels is disappointing, but if a list were to be drawn up either Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility would be at the bottom and either Emma or Persuasion at the top. SKS

As usual, I was in complete agreement with SKS and GBS (for the record, I would rank them as follows: Emma, Persuasion, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and, finally, Pride and Prejudice) but I know from past discussions that many of my readers will disagree!  I can vaguely understand how people can shuffle the bottom four around but to rank Emma and Persuasion as anything other than one and two (or vice-versa) is inconceivable.

This is the Austen book I have spent years searching for.  It is intelligent and energetic, quick witted and affectionate.  It is, quite simply, perfect.

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Sense and Sensibility - Dan Stevens

Despite my passion for dissecting Jane Austen novels, I have spent very little time discussing Sense and Sensibility since I started blogging.  After Mansfield Park, it is the Austen novel I have read the fewest times but that doesn’t mean I do not feel strongly about it.  How I identify with Elinor every time I read it!  How I hurt for Marianne’s as she suffers, even while thinking her a very young and very foolish girl!  But mostly, how I hate both of the male heroes!  Colonel Brandon, he of the off-putting flannel waistcoats and perpetually depressed spirits, and Edward Ferrars…well, him I find even more frustrating because I want to like Edward.  But I cannot forgive his weakness and every time I finish the book I feel yet again how poorly suited he is to Elinor, how unworthy he is of such a steadfast and honest mate – the very traits he so obviously lacks.

G.B. Stern echoes all of my concerns over the match perfectly in Speaking of Jane Austen:

Could Jane Austen ever have thought of Edward as anything but utterly dull, and in his handling of the Lucy situation, in his subjection to a discourteous mother, both weak and stupid?  Elinor is not always attractive; we cannot deny that she is a little too prudent and rather more than a little self-righteous, but at least she has positive good qualities; her manners command our admiration over and over again; quite considerable strain is put upon them, as she has to be for ever covering up Marianne’s blatant disregard of all decent and grateful obligations, for which extreme youth is not a sufficient excuse, otherwise why should Catherine Morland be capable of always such uniformly diffident and polite behaviour to her elders?

Elinor deserves a more stimulating mate than Edward, but no one better is provided.  Edward is so completely mild and colourless, that we cannot but wonder what he and Elinor, after they were married, found to talk about in the evenings?  No doubt they wagged their heads over Mrs Dashwood’s continual extravagances and optimism; no doubt they agreed, in their middle-aged sagacity, that Colonel Brandon spoilt Marianne beyond all reason and affection, and what a pity, because it could lead to no good. 

He is not quite the least appealing of the Austen heroes (Colonel Brandon ranks ahead of him in that at least, though still far behind the priggish Edmund Bertram) but, to me, Edward Ferrars will always be the most frustrating one. The man who seemed so attractive on the surface but whose character proved so disappointingly weak.

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