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Archive for the ‘Jane Austen’ Category

After months of anticipation, a very great event occurred last Sunday: I became an aunt.  Arguably, that was the least of the changes: my brother and sister-in-law became parents, two sets of existing parents became grandparents, and a small and rather wonderful girl came into being.

But as I am unable to comment on any of their mindsets with confidence, let us focus on me.

I am rather adrift as to what it means to be an aunt.  Literature provides few useful guides.  If I wanted to be a terrifyingly despotic aunt, or a meek spinster aunt, or an emotionally withholding aunt, I am overwhelmed with bookish inspiration.  Children’s literature runneth over with aunts you would never want to expose your children to.  But what about the kindly aunts?

Eva Ibbotson offers a few: the aunts in Magic Flutes are wonderful, as are the equally supportive aunts in The Dragonfly Pool, but they are a bit timid.  Perhaps more suitable inspiration lies with the suffragette aunts in A Song for Summer, who love their niece even if they can’t understand why she would throw away an education to work at an eccentric boarding school.  That sounds much more like me.

But Ibbotson also offers up some joyfully awful aunts in A Company of Swans and in some of her children’s books.  She was, she admitted, a fan of using aunts in her books and deployed them in all their various facets.

And, of course, P.G. Wodehouse created aunts so terrifying I run from them as quickly as their lily-livered nieces and nephews ever did.  There are some nice ones mixed in but who remembers them?

Jane Austen certainly had a flurry of memorable aunts floating around in her books, from the very, very bad (Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park or Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice) to the very good (Mrs Gardiner, an excellent source of motherly counsel for Elizabeth Bennet) to the undefinable (Miss Bates – doubtlessly a good woman but who doesn’t pity Jane Fairfax for having to deal with her tiresome fussings and rather vocal timidity?).

But that does put me in mind of Fay Weldon’s excellent Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen.  If I could be the kind of aunt who dispenses sensible, non-binding advice while discoursing on Jane Austen I think I should be very happy indeed.  We may need to wait a few years for that though.  Until then, I will be content with cooing over her and buying obscene numbers of children’s books and looking forward to the day we can read them together.

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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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Mr Tileny

I think what I love most about Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Letters (which I will eventually – probably – discuss at length) are the glimpses they give into her wonderfully imaginative, unconfined mind.  She bounces from topic to topic with absolute grace and indulges in delightful flights of whimsy.  Getting a letter from her must have been like receiving a present.  Speaking of presents…

One of the topics she returns to again and again are the characters created by Jane Austen.  She loved Austen’s novels (she even wrote a book about them) and was as comfortable with Austen’s characters as with her own friends and family.  So comfortable, in fact, that she knew just how they behaved in their post-novel lives – and how they compared to her own real-life acquaintances, as she explained in a letter to her friend George Plank:

…you have the nicest hand with a parcel.  I can’t think of anyone to match you in parcelling except perhaps Henry Tilney, to whom I attribute all the graces.  Mr Knightley’s parcels would never come undone, true; but think of all the paper & string involved.  Elinor had to do up all Edward’s; Edward required a good deal of buttoning and unbuttoning, though she enjoyed his dependence on her: the butler did all Marianne’s & Colonel Brandon’s.  Mr Darcy did exactly three parcels a year, for Lizzy’s birthday, for New Year’s day, & for their wedding anniversary.  The product was excellent, but he took hours to achieve it.  And locked the library door.  (7 April 1961)

Isn’t that just delightful?

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Mansfield ParkI was struck with the sudden desire late Wednesday night to pick up Mansfield Park by Jane Austen.  Among Austen’s works, it is the one I am the least familiar with.  I have read it only two or three times and never with any particular sense of joy.  Yet suddenly I felt that I must try it again, that this time I might finally unlock its charms.

It does not begin well.  Austen, whose masterful opening lines for Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, and Emma can be readily quoted by even non-rabid fans, was frankly slacking off when she commenced Mansfield Park with a rambling compound sentence on the history of the Bertram family.  It is an immediate reminder for readers that this is her least sprightly, least optimistic novel.  Even Persuasion has more energy and hope in its pages.  Yes, structurally it is beautifully, thoughtfully crafted and has a cast of well-developed characters second only to Emma, but, like Fanny herself, only after a long acquaintance do you come to recognize the book’s virtues and love it.  First, you must make it through the opening pages, at least to Fanny’s arrival at Mansfield Park.

Well, I have done that now so, trusting that the worst is behind me, look forward to reading on.  But, a bit shamefully, I must admit that I am more excited to renew my acquaintance with the charming Crawford siblings than with Fanny or Edmund.

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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-matters-in-jane-austen-john-mullan-2013-x-2001While I was reading What Matters in Jane Austen? by John Mullan earlier this year, I was consumed by one thought: I have read too many books about Jane Austen.  I have become one of those people who has too many tiny details memorized and who, in a book that is consumed with pointing out the details that most readers forget, spent half my time wondering how the author could have omitted X,Y, and Z, examples that would have better illustrated his point if included.  Oh dear.  I am far too young to already be this neurotic.

It is a fun book, especially if you’re able to quiet your inner debater and just enjoy Mullan’s points.  He addresses “twenty crucial puzzles” (hint: not remotely crucial and, for readers already familiar with the books, not particularly puzzling either) in essays such as “Why Is It Risky to Go to the Seaside?”, “Is There Any Sex in Jane Austen?”, “What Do the Characters Call Each Other?”, “How Much Money Is Enough?” and, “Do We Ever See the Lower Classes?”  These five chapters I’ve just named were among my least favourite, largely because they did little more than pull examples from the books and leave it at that.  If you’ve read the novels, you know why it is risky to go to the seaside, you know what servants are seen (and you know their names) and what lower class characters appear, and you certainly know who is calling each other “Miss” and “Mr” as opposed to by their first names.  I did like that Mullan rightly put the more salacious interpretations of Austen’s books in their proper place in “Is There Any Sex in Jane Austen?” but it still managed to be a pretty dull chapter.  If you’re a veteran of tricky Austen trivia quizzes there won’t be a lot of new information or analysis here, just a catalogue of events and people who fulfil the chapter’s criteria.

In contrast, my favourite chapters were “How Much Does Age Matter?”, “Who Dies in the Course of the Novels?”, and “Which Important Characters Never Speak?”.  “How Much Does Age Matter?” won me over in the easiest way possible: by talking about Emma.  Mullan argues that the difference in age between Emma and Mr Knightley matters primarily because it seems large enough to both of them to rule out a romantic relationship:

The sixteen years between them allowed them not to notice what they felt towards each other.  They have behaved as if the gap between their ages precluded romance, but we know that they should have known better.  Age does shape their relationship, but not at all as they expected.

“Who Dies in the Course of the Novels?” is just plain fun, probably the most fun that this book has to offer.  There are obvious deaths that shape the fate of characters (the death of Frank Churchill’s aunt allowing him and Jane Fairfax to finally go public with their engagement is the first example that comes to mind) but it is the little details that don’t necessarily matter to the plot that interested me most: 

No one dies during the course of Persuasion but the novel is full of the deaths that have mattered to its characters.  As Linda Bree rightly says, ‘most of the characters would have been wearing black, in some form, throughout the novel.’

Does the wearing of black change our fundamental understanding of Persuasion or its characters in any way?  No, of course not.  But it is still an intriguing point to consider the next time you’re reading the book.

“What Do Characters Say?” looks at the speeches of characters who were granted a voice (since this is Austen, that means the vast majority).  It is a bit of a muddled chapter but it does contain one very odd snippet: when discussing Mary and Henry Crawford’s relationship, specifically Mary’s teasing about her brother’s libertine ways, Mullan states that:

There is something chilling in the jesting of brother and sister.  Mary Crawford’s mock-condemnation (“horrible”, “detestable”) measures her distance from any real disapproval of his habitual behaviour.

Chilling?  That does not sit right with me, nor does the implication that Mary ought to disapprove of her brother’s behaviour.

(Query: most books about Austen touch on the relationships between sisters across her novels but do any look in depth at the relationships between brothers and sisters?  I would love to read essays on that topic.)

The flip side of what characters say is what they do not say, a subject Mullan addresses in “Which Important Characters Never Speak?”  Now, this is a topic so many Austen-lovers have touched on in the past that I am afraid Mullan was never going to be able to do justice to it in my eyes.  It is that old problem of too many examples and not enough analysis.  Why does Austen silence Susan Price, Fanny’s younger sister, who had once had so much to say?  And, fascinating as it is that Benwick does not speak in Persuasion, why are so many other characters in that book rendered almost mute?  Lady Russell, whose voice was of particular importance to Anne years before, is remarkably silent, denied speech for much of the novel.  Why?  It is a book that is notable for its overall lack of dialogue and yet Mullan never points that out or stops to consider why.  I found this wildly frustrating since speech (or the lack thereof) in Austen’s novels is one of my favourite topics to discuss and I cannot understand why anyone would want to touch on it so lightly and superficially.

Though the chapters I had been most excited to read (“How Much Money Is Enough?” in particular) ended up disappointing me, this was still an interesting book.  I just wanted a little more from it.  It absolutely suffered from my having read Speaking of Jane Austen by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern only a few months before, which is much more fun and addresses the same questions (and many more) in greater depth.

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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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