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Archive for the ‘Jane Austen’ Category

Arts Club production of “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” (photo credit: David Cooper)

Today is the anniversary of Jane Austen’s birth but, being unintentionally ahead of the game, I was already paying homage to her yesterday.  I went down to Granville Island (which is always far more joyous in winter than in tourist-ridden summer) to my very favourite theatre to see the delightful “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon.

Set two years after the events of Pride and Prejudice, “Miss Bennet” reunites the audience with favourite characters as they prepare to spend Christmas together at Pemberley.  The family arrives in waves, with the BIngleys and Mary Bennet arriving first, followed by Lydia alone (Wickham, obviously, not being welcome), with Mr and Mrs Bennet and Kitty to follow on Christmas Day.

But soon it is not just Bennets descending on Pemberley.  Lady Catherine de Bourgh has recently passed away and it has been discovered that, due to the conditions of her late husband’s will, Rosings now passes to Arthur de Bourgh, his nephew.  Mr Darcy has invited Arthur to join them for Christmas and soon Anne de Bourgh, showing much of her mother’s determination, arrives as well.

Mary Bennet takes centre stage here and, as played by Kate Dion-Richard, is wonderful.  In the two years since her sisters married, she has matured but no one seems to notice.  Jane and Elizabeth, when reunited, barely acknowledge their younger sister is in the room.  They don’t stop to consider how Mary must feel, left at home with their ill-matched parents, expected by everyone to remain a dutiful old maid, content to be quiet and alone with her books and piano.   But Mary is not content and she wants more, even if she doesn’t quite know what that would be.

She is still Mary – socially awkward with her dedication to absolutely factual statements, absorbed by lengthy dense books that her sisters can’t begin to understand, and happier in a library than a ballroom – but she is far more interesting and energetic than Austen ever made her.

Arts Club production of “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” (photo credit: David Cooper)

Mary is saved from spending the holidays entirely alone in the library by the arrival of a fellow socially-awkward bookworm: Arthur de Bourgh, played absurdly well by Matthew Macdonald-Bain.  An only child who went from home to school to Oxford, Arthur has lived in an almost entirely male and almost entirely academic world.  He is in no way prepared for his role as master of Rosing – or for a Christmas among the lively Bennet sisters.  He is particularly not prepared for Mary Bennet, with whom he instantly feels a kinship.  Their shared joy in discovery and learning, and their general conversational awkwardness make for some hilarious and heartwarming scenes.  Everyone in the theatre spent the entire first act, as these two got to know one another, with a broad smile on their face.

There are, of course, comic complications but it is a Christmas play – and more importantly an Austen-inspired one – so all ends well.

The set was gorgeous, all the actors were excellent, and every theatregoer had a marvellous time.  It’s playing until December 30th and I’m already considering going again.  After all, it’s hard to have either too much Christmas or too much Austen in your life, especially when it is this much fun.

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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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