Archive for the ‘Literary Criticism’ Category

There is a special place in my heart, in the hearts of all readers I suspect, for books about books.  They are the tangible equivalent of a book blog, where we share our love of all things bookish with one another.  We are the writers and the readers – an uniquely insular tribe that cleaves tightly to one another, always eager to share a new favourite title or expound on the joy of a newly discovered bookshop.  And the best testament for a book about books is not just how much pleasure you gain reading it but how many new titles it adds to your to-be-read list.

Judged by that standard, Browsings by Michael Dirda is one of the best of the genre.  And judged by any other standard I can think of it, it still remains one of the best.

Dirda is well-known for his works of literary criticism and has published a number of volumes of criticism (none of which I’ve read though I hear they are rather dry).  However, this book brings together the more casual columns he wrote for The American Scholar.  They reflect on his readings, general bookish topics, and really anything that takes his fancy.  They are warm and friendly and just what personal writing about books should be, chock full of obscure titles he loves or has just unearthed in one of his frequent book-buying jaunts.  His personal crusade is “…to entice people to try unexpected books, old books, neglected books, genre books, upsetting books, downright strange books.”  I am always ready to be enticed by books, making me the perfect audience.

Dirda is a book-buyer par excellence and there are many enjoyable accounts (and rationalisations) of his fruitful browsings in used bookstores.  One of my favourite images is from a memory of a long ago book buying trip in upstate New York, where he found a bookseller’s office that was “half book barn, half gentleman’s study, and completely wonderful.”  It turns out that accounts of other people buying books is just as interesting as going shopping yourself (something, I think, many book bloggers have already discovered).

Most importantly, Dirda is a reader who knows himself and what he likes: “What I like to see on bookcases or steel shelves is lots of pre-World War II fiction, most of it looking just slightly better than shabby.” He has a particular interest in Science Fiction, a genre I’m not terribly familiar with but am now eager to explore, and loves adventure novels so much that he created and taught two fantastic sounding courses at the University of Maryland: “The Classic Adventure Novel: 1885-1915” and “The Modern Adventure Novel: 1917-1973”.  The reading lists make them sound like the most fun you could possibly have at school, including gems like King Solomon’s Mines, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Lost World, These Old Shades and The Princess Bride.  (I feel like this could also be Kate’s dream course.)

I ended up with an amazing variety of books to add to my to-be-read list when I finished this.  Volumes of diaries, biographies of obscure historical figures, Science Fiction short story collections, and, my favourite, travel memoirs.  His recommendations will keep me busy for a long time to come.

Books about books are only satisfying when you and the author have some common ground.  With Dirda, I found someone who loves many of the same books I do, enjoys the same bookish pursuits as me, and is just generally a kindred soul.  And, more importantly for this reader, his enthusiasm transfers wonderfully onto the page, making for one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year.


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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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My excitement about having more time to blog while on vacation obviously hasn’t translated into actual blogging.  I should have anticipated this since, as always, Claire in holiday-mode is busier than Claire in work-mode.  But it has been a lovely break, if not a restful one.  The weather has been perfect, we’ve just had a fabulous party for my parents’ 35th wedding anniversary, and I have been reading like a fiend.  So far, unemployment is treating me very well.

I have been feeling guilty over the past few weeks for not blogging about the three books in Phillip Rock’s Greville Family Saga but just could not work up the enthusiasm to do so in detail.  The books, originally published in the late seventies and early eighties, have recently been reissued and are being marketed on the strength of their similarities to Downton Abbey.  The first book, The Passing Bells, opens in the summer of 1914 and follows the characters through the first half of the war.  Circles of Time picks up a few years later, looking at the impact of the war in both England and Germany, and the trilogy concludes in A Future Arrived, which jumps forward to the Second World War.

The Passing BellsI read The Passing Bells countless times as a teenager and still love it.  It is just as soapy as I remembered but it is great fun.  The writing is not brilliant and it feels very much of its time but it is an entertaining story and Rock is excellent at incorporating historical events into the story.  That is the real issue with the first book: the events and the characters’ experiences are generally better described than the characters themselves.   But Rock does manage to fit a lot of different perspectives in to this relatively short book, between the people at home, the frontline nurses, the career soldier who finds himself enraged by the waste of human life, the young romantic who goes mad after his experiences in France, and, most importantly, the young American journalist who records everything in clear-sighted journal entries that are the highlight of this volume.

circles-of-timeCircles of Time, perhaps because it doesn’t have any big historical events to structure itself around, is a much less eventful book and focuses more the personal lives of the characters from the first book.  It is a fine, entertaining story but the structure is a little uneven and I can’t quite put my finger on why that is.  The book takes a serious turn in the second half when Martin Rilke, the Greville’s American cousin, now a famous journalist, visits his Rilke cousins in Germany and witnesses firsthand the absurdities of the Weimar Republic (from mad hedonism in Berlin nightclubs to assassinations in the streets) and the beginnings of the Nazi party in Bavaria.

A Future ArrivedThe third book, A Future Arrived, is a mess.  Honestly, I wouldn’t even recommend reading it.  The structural problems that plagued the first two books completely finish this one off, and the situation is not helped by the introduction of younger characters who are either poorly developed or second-rate copies of their elders.  It is a messy, unsatisfying book that lacks the historical detail that redeemed the flaws of the earlier novels.  Just read the first two books and forget there is a third one.

Sorcery and CeceliaAs for other books, I enjoyed Sorcery and Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer but am afraid I don’t have all that much to say about it.  It is an epistolary Regency-era fantasy novel – and isn’t that a mouthful?  It is the kind of fantasy I like the least – magic has never done it for me – so I think I enjoyed it less than other reader might have but both main characters (Kate and Cecelia) are great and the book is really very fun.  There are two more books in the series and I’ve already got one of them loaded on to my Kobo.

More Baths Less TalkingMore Baths Less Talking by Nick Hornby, which I read just before Sorcery and Cecelia, is a collection of Hornby’s monthly columns for the Believer about his reading choices and I got some great reading recommendations from it.  I love Hornby’s picks – he mentions many books I have already read or which are already on my TBR list – but, ultimately, he is still Hornby and I still just don’t like him all that much.  I don’t dislike him, but I have very little in common with him and don’t find his viewpoint particularly engaging or his style particularly interesting.  It is entirely a matter of taste.  There are three other volumes of earlier columns that I will probably track down one day but I’m not going to rush out to grab them.

I have some more exciting books to review soon, ones that I want to do justice to with dedicated posts – an excellent Monica Dickens novel, a lacklustre Persephone, and two fabulous Georgette Heyers among them – but for now I’m headed back to the pool.  Work, work, work!

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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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I haven’t written a book review since April.  That seems bizarre but there it is.  I had a lovely little break but am now left with a problem: I may have stopped reviewing in May but I certainly did not stop reading and I have a terrifying number of books I now find myself wanting to review.  Knowing the number of hours it takes to write the average review, this is overwhelming enough to make me want to take June off too but that would accomplish nothing.  Instead, I shall attempt to ease myself back into my old blogging habits by presenting you with a selection of quotes cleverly disguised as a review.

Jane Austen by Sylvia Townsend Warner is a slim pamphlet (only 29 pages) and if Simon hadn’t read it earlier this year, I would never have known it existed.  In fact, when I went to pick it up from the university library it was so slim (even bound) that it had slipped between its two much larger neighbours and I almost didn’t find it.  But I am so pleased that I did.

It is always fascinating to read one author’s analysis of another’s work and when it happens to be Sylvia Townsend Warner (STW) discussing Jane Austen, it is pure delight.  STW is so confident in her judgements and I adore that about her; there is nothing worse than analysis tempered with apologies.  She loves Austen’s works and is able to very clearly articulate both what she views as Austen’s success and her failures.

As always when reading another’s views on Austen, I found myself delighted to see my own likes and dislikes echoed and intrigued when I came across points or arguments I had never considered before.  How could I not be charmed by STW’s description of Elinor Dashwood’s Edward Ferrars as a man “who is so nearly a nincompoop that her sense must be called in question for falling in love with him, however sensibly she conducts herself afterwards”?  Who has ever read Sense & Sensibility and not felt that way, frustrated that the otherwise intelligent and practical Elinor could choose such a disappointing man to spend her life with?  Slightly more controversially (but no less correctly in my mind), STW is unimpressed with certain aspects of the very young Austen’s handling of Mr Darcy:

Indeed, he is at odds with the rest of the book, for he is the only character where the author falters in her worldly wisdom.  Young persons who have recently come of age see mankind divided into three groups: those younger than themselves, who are children; those over thirty, who are elderly; those between twenty and thirty, who are grown up.  An older author would have remembered to make Darcy more perceptibly a young man, whose shyness and youthful censoriousness are in alarmed revolt at a society to which he is not accustomed.

And no one has ever made me unhappy by heaping praise on Emma:

Of all Jane Austen`s novels, Emma most fully conveys the exhilaration of a happy writer.  As the arabesques of the plot curl more intricately, as the characters emerge and display themselves, and say the very things they would naturally say, the reader – better still, the re-reader – feels a collaborating glow.  Above all, it excels in dialogue: not only in such tours de force as Miss Bates being grateful for apples, Mrs Elton establishing her importance when she pays her call at Hartfield, but in the management of dialogue to reveal the unsaid; as when Mr John Knightley`s short-tempered good sense insinuates a comparison with his brother`s drier wit and deeper tolerance; or as in the conversation between Mr Knightley and Emma about Frank Churchill, whom neither of them then know except by repute: Emma is sure he will be all that he should be, Mr Knightley`s best expectation is `well grown and good-looking, with smooth, plausible manners`- and by the time they have done, it is plain that Emma is not prepared to fall in love with Frank Churchill, and that Mr Knightley has been, for a long time, deeply and uncomfortably in love with Emma.

I think that last phrase – “deeply and uncomfortably in love” –  is particularly perfect.

The pamphlet gives only the barest biographical details, which is all it needs.  What STW does attempt to do at times is place the works in their historical context, resulting in this interesting preface to her thoughts on Persuasion:

…the twenty years that had gone by since Pride and Prejudice had brought many changes, notably in what was expected on women.  Under the growing influence of the Evangelical religious revival, women lost much of their liberty of speech and of action: they could assert themselves less; on the other hand they were allowed to feel more.  In Emma, Jane Austen chose a heroine who no one would much like but herself.  In Persuasion, the novel that followed, she complied with the taste of a new generation.

This led up to one of the most thought-provoking passages for me:

Jane Austen writes of Anne Elliot with a solicitude not called out by any of her other characters.  They fall into their scrapes and misfortunes, and their uncomfortable remorses are described with a pardoning understanding, but without much change of voice.  In the case of Anne Elliot – whose only fault has been a submissiveness which by new standards of female behaviour was praiseworthy, not blameworthy – there is a degree of sympathy that almost amounts to special pleading.  This makes Persuasion both the most compelling and the weakest of Jane Austen`s novels.  Every stage of Anne Elliot`s transition from resignation to fortitude, and every detail of her relations with Frederick Wentworth, is registered as though with Anne`s own sensibility: elsewhere the narrative is thin and almost perfunctory.  Mrs Clay, and Lady Russell, and both the Walter Elliots, and the barefacedly expedient Mrs Smith are shadowy figures.  One sees them, in fact, through Anne`s eyes.  They do not hold her attention, and they do not hold ours.

I am still not sure if I agree with STW or not on every point but she has definitely provided food for thought.  I do absolutely agree about the indifference with which the secondary characters are treated; there are so many wonderful characters – the Crofts, Lady Russell, and certainly Mrs Smith – waiting to be brought to life the way Austen did so wonderfully with her supporting casts in Mansfield Park and Emma and every time I read Persuasion I am frustrated by their wasted potential.

STW is very comfortable with her subject and intimately acquainted with Austen’s works, and that familiarity comes across in her writing.  These are not the much laboured-over, emotionless thoughts of an argumentative reviewer but the unusually coherent musings of an intelligent and articulate Janeite.  I had a delightful time reading this and my only complaint is that it was far too short!

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I had never heard of Jane Austen by Margaret Kennedy, published in 1950 as part of a series called ‘The European Novelists’, until Simon reviewed it last month but when I did, I knew immediately that I had to read it.   In just over one hundred pages, Kennedy absorbingly describes Austen’s literary predecessors, her life, her novels, and her place in literature.  It may lack the depth of other more definitive Austen books but it is a wonderful addition to any Janeite’s collection.

Kennedy never pretends to be anything other than a Janeite herself, which is part of what makes this such an engaging book.  She cares.  She not only wants to tell us what happened in Austen’s life but wants to know how it impacted Austen, imagine how she must have felt.  Examining the letters, Kennedy looks at the abrupt change in their author after the move to Bath, contrasting the joyous girl of the pre-Bath letters –one Kennedy could cheerfully imagine and love – with the more subdued, enigmatic woman she quickly became:

The pre-Bath letters were written by a girl with an enormous capacity for enjoying life.  Her high spirits dance through every line.  She can cry with joy at a sailor brother’s promotion.  She prefers that people should not be too agreeable, as it saves her the trouble of liking them very much in a world which is full of things to like.  She shares a bed with another girl and they lie awake, gossiping and giggling, until two o’clock in the morning…And then, after one or two letters describing the removal, the long silence descends.  We never meet this girl again.

For me though, the absolute highlight was reading Kennedy’s thoughts on Austen’s novels.  As you know, I can never read or hear enough of other people’s reactions to Austen.  Kennedy manages to be affectionate yet insightful, to voice her admiration as well as her criticisms.  I didn’t necessarily agree with all of her opinions but her points are well-considered and intelligent – I could always see the appeal of her argument, even when it didn’t win me over.

Considering the early novels, Kennedy adores Elizabeth Bennet and has a fair amount to say on Pride and Prejudice, is quite brief on Sense and Sensibility (though I deeply enjoyed her distaste for Edward Ferrars, ‘a poor stick’), and admires Henry Tilney and the technical skill of Northanger Abbey.  These are the ‘fun’ novels, the bright, exuberant stories from Austen’s youth, and Kennedy is happy to treat them as such, saving her more detailed consideration for the later novels.

Persuasion and Emma are both intelligently discussed (though there was not enough on Emma for my tastes, but then there never is) but Kennedy saves her energy for another book.  She is an admirer of Mansfield Park.  Which, in and of itself, is unexceptional.  But I think where we disagree is in Kennedy’s assertion that:

It is the most important of the novels, the most ambitious in theme, and the best example of her powers.  She put all that she had into it.  As a work of art it heads the list, and if it is not the universal choice, that is because so many people do not ask that a novel should be, primarily, a work of art.

That statement alone almost sent me back to my bookshelf to grab it for a reread.  ‘The best example of her powers’?  Admittedly, it has been a few years since I last read it but…no.  Not for this reader.  For me, there is a bitterness at the heart of Mansfield Park that saw Austen create a singularly unbalanced cast of characters.  She divided virtue and wealth so that they were never distributed equally and were always, unsubtly, in opposition, with the virtuous, impoverished Fanny’s moral superiority clearly on display.  It is a forceful, effective message but I think too forceful to match the skilful, balanced execution of either Persuasion or Emma. This is one argument Kennedy was not able to sell me on.

But she did persuasively discuss the merits of Fanny Price.  Now, I’ve never hated Fanny as some readers do; I’ve just been generally indifferent towards her, though on some readings my feelings warm to border on mild fondness, mostly for the reasons Kennedy highlights:

In every way she is of finer grain that Edmund, her guide and mentor.  He recommends books to improve her mind: she reads them for pleasure.  He tells her the names of the stars: she finds them beautiful.  And to her exclamations on the glories of a summer night he can only rejoin, with patronizing indulgence: ‘I like to hear your enthusiasm.’  He is pitched in too low a key for her, and it is one of the subtleties of the book that Henry Crawford, had he been a better man, would have been the right man.  With him she would have developed her latent capacities more fully and they might have read Shakespeare together for a better reason than self-improvement.  With Edmund she secured happiness at a cost, the sacrifice of certain possibilities in her nature.  For Mansfield Park is not a fairy story.

The final section, dealing with Austen’s place in the literary world, her importance to readers from her time until Kennedy’s, is wonderful for how Kennedy contrasts the reception Austen received from 19th Century female readers intent on breaking out of their homes with happily domesticated mid-20th Century ones:

Jane Austen described the life of women who must live at home, quiet and confined.  The women of the nineteenth century were occupied in claiming the right to live elsewhere, if they liked, to be heard, to be free, to possess other privileges than that of hopeless love.  They could have little patience with girls who were so well content to dance and wait for husbands.  Even so late as 1915 the Principal of an Oxford women’s college was heard to condemn Jane Austen ‘because all her women were so trivial.’  The women of our own time are, perhaps, more sympathetic.  A home in which to live quietly is often, now, the object of their highest ambitions.

She also intriguingly remarks on the abundance of male champions Austen has, in comparison to the disdain she often received from influential female readers:

Her best supporters have always been men.  The leading women of the Victorian age, occupied in the struggle for the liberation of their sex, found less to appreciate in her.  Even where they praised, they did so with a touch of patronage, a frequent suggestion that she was a little old-fashioned.  She was ‘dear Jane Austen,’ a favourite maiden aunt, a relic of yester year. ..And this notion of a lavender-scented, unsophisticated day-dreamer in a vicarage still persists, thanks to the motion pictures and the dramatic critics.

Some things don’t change, do they?

Kennedy has so many fascinating thoughts and so much clever analysis to share, the kind that can only come from a passionate reader.  She clearly finds her topic endlessly engaging and exciting, which makes for a truly enjoyable reading experience and one that any other Austen fan will find easily relatable.  There is no distance here between the author and the reader: we are all Austen admirers.   Kennedy’s passion is the same as ours.  There are better biographies out there and more thorough volumes of criticism but, as a compliment to those, as an expression of one reader’s love of Austen and her work, this is perfect.

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Are you ever just left feeling ‘meh’ about a book, so indifferent that you don’t even care particularly to analyse why? That was my reaction to Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed by Life by Stephanie Staal.  But I shall attempt a half-way coherent review anyway and see where it leads…

I was pleasantly surprised to find this a very different book than what I had imagined going in: it is really a personal memoir, interspersed with literary analysis.  In her thirties, feeling rather adrift and unsure of her identity after marriage and motherhood in quick succession, Staal goes back to school to retake the feminist literature course she had studied in university, eager to revisit the books that had shaped her. Staal talks briefly about the books and touches all too fleetingly on her class discussions but mostly reflects on her life, how she got to be the woman she is now (with all her stresses, anxieties and frustrations) from the girl she was when she first took the class.

All this made for an interesting enough read, but it never excited me. Many of the books Staal touches on are women’s studies classics and I did not come away convinced that I needed to read any of them (nor have I been particularly taken with the ones I have read). Her classes have an anti-male bias that I find insulting and only once does Staal mention a classmate questioning what responsibility women hold for their inferior status and wondering about the burdens and expectations placed on males (the classmate’s point is momentarily acknowledged as intriguing, then pretty much ignored).

I liked Staal’s writing even if I frequently took issue with her opinions. She is intelligent and writes engagingly – clearly, engagingly enough to keep me reading even when I was bothered by her teachers’ arguments or her own descriptions of her dissatisfaction with her domestic roles. It wasn’t really her dissatisfaction that bothered me but rather its root in her idea that everything should be as easy as it was when she was single, as exciting as before she had her daughter; there’s not a lot of allowance for how do you rework your life with these new people in it, just how do you get the essence of the old one back. The experience of going back to school gives her a chance to reflect on the choices she has made and the ways she has changed since she first read these books, and she comes away seemingly more focused, having a new perspective on her life.  The format is a bit too tidy: the experience of rereading gives her one key insight per book and, when the course is over, the book and her problems are neatly wrapped up.

The highlight of the book, for me, came very early on when Staal described her passion for reading.  After reading this, I couldn’t abandon the book, not when it had been written by someone I could so easily sympathize with, at least in this one way.  It would have felt like the ultimate betrayal.  I know now that I could have easily skipped it without having lost out on anything, but there you are.  Still, I’m sure this is a quote many other readers will be able to identify with:

I read constantly – in cars, walking the dog, lying in bed with my legs resting up against the wall, yoga-style. At any given time, I am in the middle of several books at once, my place marked by whatever scrap of paper happens to be close by, whether it’s my latest credit card bill or one of my daughter’s crayon drawings. My bookshelves are three books deep, and piles of books spread and teeter on every open surface of my home. If reading has always been a journey of imagination, a means of escape, it has also been, perhaps at least as importantly, a way of absorbing the intricate complexities of life and experience. To me, books are like magic: They inform the mind and transform the spirit. I have finished a book and felt so bereft at taking leave of its characters that I have immediately turned it over to begin again from page 1. In a special section, old favourites, their pages by now soft as worn cotton, lure me again and again, sometimes just to savour a passage or two for a moment’s inspiration.

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