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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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I think one of the most frustrating experiences as a reader is when you know that you’re not getting full value out of a book.  I found Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood by Maria Tatar, an exploration of how stories impact children, fascinating and more approachable than I’d expected (but still clearly written by an academic) but oh how much more I might have gotten out of it if I had been familiar with the more modern children’s books she included in her analysis!  Still, Tatar’s analyses and the incredible variety of sources she draws on make this a very interesting book, though structurally it’s a bit of a mishmash that never quite comes together to form a cohesive whole.

Tatar is interested in how children react to stories they encounter when quite young.   What happens to children when they read or are read to?  What elements capture their imaginations and stay with them into adulthood?  To do this, Tatar relies on the thoughts of adult looking back on their childhoods.  If the book were only that, I would have been perfectly content.  In fact, the lengthy appendix, which is entirely devoted to quotes from authors about how childhood reading has influenced them, was my favourite part of the book and, frankly, the only section that stays true to Tatar’s stated interest.  The rest of the book is a bit of a muddle.  An entertaining muddle, mind you, but a meandering muddle that never quite manages to make a clear argument, preferring instead to jump from topic to topic.  Tatar (unconvincingly) examines paintings of children being read to through the centuries, describing faces as blank or enigmatic when, just as easily, one might see them as utterly engrossed.  She ponders the act of reading a child to sleep while stressing how stimulating stories are for young, active imaginations.   She contemplates death and beauty in children’s books and the shocking, mesmerizing impact those topics have on children.  And then, of course, there is her analysis of the books themselves.  I have no idea how Tatar thought she was linking these topics into a cohesive whole but it still made for a very interesting though not always convincing read.  Touching on so many topics, so briefly, I never felt fully satisfied by any of her conclusions.

The book is full of 21st Century, politically correct judgements that are exactly what you expect from a modern, North American academic but which still had the power to irritate me to distraction: the assumption that any adult conscious of Peter Pan’s “racist and sexist stereotypes”  would “begin to worry about reading it to young children”; her incredulity that a child could find the tale of Blackbeard and his murdered wives more thrilling and imaginatively inspirational than “Cinderella”; her belief that “alarm bells go off in our heads when we read about the beautiful deaths in A Token for Children and the grotesque deaths in Struwwelpeter”, that children need to be shielded from such monstrous horror stories as…”The Little Match Girl”?  Really?  Tatar believes that conscientious parents worry “that the story is likely to rouse more fear than pity” for the little girl’s sad fate.  What bothered me most about these judgements was how little reference was made to how children feel about the stories: Tatar’s views of the value of these stories seemed to be based on her own sophisticated, adult perspective, which in any other book would be fine but it is not quite right for one that is focused on how children, ignorant of the psychological damage they may be doing their future selves, react to stories.

In preference to these classic, grim tales of death, Tatar looks to sanitized, modern children’s books “designed to help children – at various phases in their lives – develop strategies for managing anxieties about darkness, loss, and death” in a more subtle manner.  Which is where she completely lost me because of the three books she examines for this question – Goodnight Moon, In the Night Kitchen, and Charlotte’s Web – I’ve only ever read one.  The power of her other analyses came from my shared knowledge of the books.  Peter Pan, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Secret Garden and any number of fairy tales are all touchstones of the Western canon.  But when she moves on to these modern ‘classics’, I can’t follow her as a reader.  Tatar assumes that her audience is familiar with the books so when you’re not it becomes most confusing (what is this rabbit in Goodnight Moon?).  Also, if I’m going to criticize her chosen books, I must admit that I will always harbour some resentment towards any book about the power of stories in childhood that never once mentions A.A. Mille or Winnie-the-Pooh and only reference Beatrix Potter for her thoughts on Dr. Seuss.  A surprising amount of time is given over to Philip Pullman and J.K. Rowling when there is no Tolkien, no T.H. White, no Enid Blyton or Arthur Ransome, and only a brief reference to Kipling.

Clearly, I had a few issues with this one.  It is short but not particularly satisfying.  The tone can be gratingly academic.  Tatar calls on a huge variety of sources to support her analysis but she overloads the book with ideas and opinions and, in two hundred pages, I never found a persuasive, well-supported argument.   But it is still very interesting and I did really enjoy reading it.  Tatar may not always develop her thoughts with the kind of thoroughness I would have liked but, even in brief, they were intriguing.  And the appendix, with reflections on reading from so many different authors, is an absolute delight.

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As much as I enjoyed Making Avonlea, a volume of essays about Lucy Maud Montgomery and popular culture, it left me longing for a deeper discussion of Montgomery’s writing.  As far as I’m concerned, there can never be too much discussion of her books, too much time devoted to thinking about the characters, the settings, the allusions…what bliss!  So, primed from reading Making Avonlea, I picked up The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass: L.M. Montgomery’s Heroines and the Pursuit of Romance by Elizabeth Rollins Epperly, a “full length critical study of all L.M. Montgomery’s fiction.”  Epperly considers all of the novels, devoting significant time to the Anne and Emily books, examining the romantic traditions (in poetry, in nature, in the male-female relationship, etc) at play in each and considering each heroine’s personal journey to find herself:

For each of Montgomery’s heroines a recognition of her own distinctive voice is a crucial step to self-awareness; talking back is sometimes a measure of self-confidence or self-worth; love of place is a way of celebrating the centred, whole personality.  For Montgomery’s heroines ‘home’ includes an awareness of the centred self; ‘home’ is an attitude as well as a place.  Through ingenious – and perhaps often necessarily unconscious – subversions of the various systems and codes around them, Montgomery’s heroines learn to hold their own in a culture that will give them a very limited framework in which to live respectably and comfortably.  Not a single one of Montgomery’s heroines loses respectability.

Epperly won me over quite early on when, in her discussion of Anne of Avonlea, she complains “Anne sounds like a romantic guiding spirit rather than a flesh-and-blood adolescent” and that there is no character development over the course of the novel.  Yes!  I find it difficult to reread Anne of Avonlea for just that reason.  For the most part, it presents Anne as a dreamy, condescending bore (though there are flashes of the funny, normal girl every so often).  Thankfully, that dreary girl disappears by the time Anne of the Island begins.  Again, Epperly perfectly describes what it is that makes the university-aged Anne so appealing by the time the third novel begins:

Anne’s voice in this novel seldom lapses into the dreamy sentimentality of Anne of Avonlea; instead, this Anne shows herself sometimes sarcastic, sometimes ironic, sometimes outraged, embarrassed, or downright angry.  She can stoop to sparring with Mrs Harmon Andrews; she can write sentimental trash; she can mistake infatuation for love; she can get depressed and fell alienated from home and spiritual kinship.  Even if the genre Montgomery chose (domestic romance) and the audience for which she wrote predetermined that the novel would be preoccupied with marriage and fully exploring the right man rather than finding the individual self, Anne Shirley is frequently here a believable and fairly independent person. (p. 57)

Grown up Anne is, as we all know, far less interesting than young Anne but Epperly’s comments about the later books are quite fascinating, particularly her thoughts on the romantic, sea-based imagery used in Anne’s House of Dreams and the impact of Montgomery’s attitude towards the war on the strong moral tone of Rainbow Valley (published in 1919).  The focus of the later Anne novels shifts to just about any woman other than Anne, a decision that Epperly unfortunately doesn’t truly delve into.  The last book Montgomery wrote in the series, Anne of Ingleside (published in 1939) is the only one where Anne Blythe really feels like a person rather than a paragon of womanhood.  Until then, she is (as Epperly notes when discussing Rainbow Valley):

…only a reminder of her earlier self.  She is not a real person.  She speaks to defend the manse children and to remind us of their similarities with her, bust she is no longer an active individual.  This Anne is a dreamy woman (maybe the Anne of Anne of Avonlea grown up?) in whom everyone wants to confide – Faith, Mr Meredith, her own sons and daughters, Miss Cornelia.  We take everyone’s word for it that Anne is alive and well, for she seems most often to have just left.

(Side note: What I wouldn’t have given for a deeper analysis of Miss Cornelia!)

The analysis of all the books was interesting but I was particularly impressed with Epperly’s take on the Emily novels, looking at the numerous literary influences on both the character and the story (most obviously, Jane Eyre, ‘Aurora Leigh’, The Story of an African Farm) and dissecting the many romantic conventions presented in the character of Dean Priest (who, fond as I am of him, I had never thought about in quite this level of detail).  I will never prefer the Emily books to the admittedly paler, more temperate Anne books, but I appreciate them more now, even Emily’s irritatingly over-the-top psychic spells that drove me wild with frustration as a child.  

I am intrigued by the number of readers who complain that Anne disappointed them by choosing a family rather than a career, unlike Emily who pursued her passion at the expense of her happiness for many years.  It seems a strange argument, given how casually both Anne and the narrator always treated her attempts at writing.  The Anne books were always about family, abut feeling loved and accepted, but there is none of that safety or cosiness about the far more autobiographical Emily novels.  Emily is passionate and driven, loving her writing far more than any man she ever crossed paths with.  The great tension comes from Emily’s relationship with Dean Priest, who wants Emily the woman, not Emily the writer:

…Emily’s real threat and temptation as woman and artist come from the needy, sexually powerful, consummate art critic, Dean Priest.  In Montgomery’s happy-ending series, the struggles with Dean eventually bring out Emily’s powers as woman and writer and actually enable her to free herself from his stifling romanticism, but her escape is narrow and she turns from one man to another.  Teddy may seem a pale rival for Dean, but at least with him Emily is free to pursue her own work.  Teddy, who becomes a famous painter, accepts Emily as his equal without questions – and that, Montgomery’s story slyly encourages us to see, is fairy tale. (p. 147)

Emily, despite her eventual marriage, is the most autonomous of Montgomery’s heroines and when she does marry it is once she has achieved success as a writer, has made her own way for more than a decade, and it is to another artist who can understand that he will always come second (and is so terrifically boring that he probably doesn’t even mind):

Their ‘late’ joining is not merely a sap to romantic convention, however, nor a denial of feminist principles, nor a pandering to audience taste. Montgomery does not let Teddy and Emily wed in their first youth perhaps because both still have so much to learn about their respective gifts.  Through their separation Montgomery shows how a strong woman can live without conventional (or unconventional) romance if she once recognizes the power of her inner voice…With so many years of sorrow and loneliness behind her, Emily’s eventual marriage to Teddy is a relief rather than a positive joy.  A more conventional book and story would not have risked so much. Montgomery has her way with the story and thus makes her points about the writer and the woman.  (p. 190)

The other novels are dealt with quickly and in no great detail, which suited me perfectly.  When I recently reread The Blue Castle, one of Montgomery’s adult novels, I was quite enjoying it up until Valancy married Barney and she lost all of the sharpness that had made her interesting.  It is always gratifying to find people who agree with you so I was very pleased with Epperly’s remarks on the book:

As a person Valancy ceases to be really interesting once she is married to Barney – she becomes his other self and an almost mute appreciation of the enchanted world of Mistawis.  She sheds every spark of bitterness or anger or piercing irony that made her initial break from her clan both entertaining and meaningful.

Epperly also had some very interesting thoughts on A Tangled Web, Montgomery’s other adult novel, which I’d almost forgotten about.  Doesn’t she make it sound intriguing, as she compliments Montgomery’s balanced approached to her male and female characters and their romantic entanglements?

There is no single heroine in A Tangled Web, though the novel does focus on females, as do all Montgomery’s novels.  But the focus here is different from the focus in Montgomery’s other stories in that the men and women really do seem to play equal parts in the fabrication, destruction, and reconstruction of romance.  We may see through the eyes of Donna and Gay and Margaret and Jocelyn, but we also see clearly what Peter and Roger and Penny and Hugh think.  Everyone suffers; everyone changes; everyone gives up some secret dream or delusion and then recovers something of it.  For the first time, perhaps because it was an adult novel, but more probably because it came later in her career, Montgomery tries to show women and men as similarly deluded and self-deluding and as equally entangled in a great pattern of events over which they have, paradoxically, both ultimate and little control.

I do wish the focus of the book had been expanded to touch on Montgomery’s supporting characters and their interpretations of romance.  Part of Anne’s development is learning to recognize the romantic possibilities of the world around her, reality over idealised fantasy, but her best friend Diana realises far sooner than Anne that real love is worth sacrificing romantic dreams for, choosing dependable Fred not as a compromise, not out of a lack of imagination or hope but because she has matured enough to know that love can come in many forms (and faces).  And let us not forget the fascinating Ilse!  Emily’s best friend (though the strength of Emily’s attachments to others can and should be questioned at all times) is magnificently inconsiderate and is nothing if not bold in her romantic maneuverings.

And then there’s Phil Gordon, Anne’s magnificent Redmond friend.  Rich, spoiled, brilliant and utterly immune to the idea of romance (she is thoughtfully pondering the merits of the equally dull Alec and Alonzo when we meet her, neither of whom she feels the least love for), Phil ends up making the most unconventional match, marrying Jonas Blake, a poor, homely, serious young minister – outwardly Phil’s exact opposite.  But Phil is determined to have him, once she realises what she wants, and her practical, purposeful side earns her her man.  Other women have to learn to see the romance in their everyday lives as preferable to their fairy tale imaginings.  Phil just has to embrace the mere fact that romance exists and is achievable for her.  Once she realises that, she determinedly hangs on.  Phil is not blinded by visions of what love should look like and so is the character quickest to spot it in real life.  Of course, I shall also always adore Phil because she is Gilbert’s greatest ally in his campaign for Anne.  I secretly suspect that, even without the happy conclusion of Anne of the Island that sees Anne and Gilbert engaged, I would love it best of all the series simply because it introduced me to Phil. 

I had great fun reading this, nodding my head alongside most of Epperly’s arguments, disagreeing with others, and generally being fascinated by the analysis of things I had certainly never picked up on as young, uncritical reader.  The discussion of the influence of poetry and Victorian romantic sentiment in the Anne books was most intriguing.  The modern feminist viewpoint is very clear and a concern with each character’s claiming of their ‘voice’, the evolution of their distinct, adult, female self, runs throughout the book.  On the other hand, I was bored to tears by most of the discussions of the romance of place and the importance of landscape imagery.  All in all, it was a very interesting, very readable, very thorough analysis of all Montgomery’s novels.

 

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My memories of reading prior to Grade Three are very hazy.  In Grade One, there was a very serious non-fiction treatise on the daily lives of bunnies that introduced me to the wonderful world of independent reading but my recollection trails off after that.  Until Grade Three when I picked up Anne of Green Gables for the first time.  In retrospect, it was a major life event for me.  I had loved reading before that but more for the sense of accomplishment I felt, for the pleasure of being good and quick at something, not out of any particular fascination with my reading material.  After all, when you are seven or eight what is going on in your imagination is often far more interesting that what any adult could think to put down on paper.  But then I had my first encounter with Anne and I fell completely, utterly, and eternally in love with her.  I delighted in her escapades and saved my allowance money for weeks to buy all the other books in the series, reading them over and over again until they fell to pieces.  Anne led, of course, to Emily, and once I’d exhausted all of her works, L.M. Montgomery led to Laura Ingalls Wilder, to Louisa May Alcott, to Roger Lancelyn Green…to everyone I have read since that day, really.  I became not just someone who could read, I became a Reader.   

I read and reread everything I can by and about Montgomery but, until now, I had never touched a volume attempting to analysis the works and their cultural significance but I am so glad I did and that I started with the delightfully wide-ranging Making Avonlea: L.M. Montgomery and Popular Culture edited by Irene Gammel, described in the introduction as” …the first critical book examining the national international popular industry that has emerged in Montgomery’s name.” 

The book is divided into three sections: Mapping Avonlea: Cultural Value and Iconography; Viewing Avonlea: Television, Drama, and Musical; and Touring Avonlea: Landscape, Tourism, and Spin-Off Products.  The tourist mecca that is Cavendish, PEI and the Japanese obsession with the red-haired Anne have very little to do with how I experience the books and, honestly, Anne’s role in Canadian tourism is far too well-documented, even in school books, to be of much interest to me and, for that reason, Touring Avonlea was probably my least favourite section.  It was still interesting, absolutely, particularly the “Day in the Life” provided by a young woman who is ‘Anne’ at a Japanese theme park, but I was far more intrigued by the other sections.

Mapping Avonlea is wonderful.  This is where the literary criticism of the Anne and Emily books (the only works touched on) happens and where Montgomery’s own life and her records of it (her journals, her photography) are discussed. Montgomery’s journals are wonderful and, as is only right given Montgomery’s significance in my reading life, reading them was my first real encounter with primary sources and I can’t think of a more engaging way to be introduced to the research process than uncovering information about a person you’re already so passionate about.  I have lost count of the number of times I have reread the journals since then.  I love Montgomery and appreciated her books even more after gaining insight into her life and her struggles, so Margaret Steffler’s essay on the value of the journals in giving adult readers an even greater connection to Montgomery and her works was particularly resonant:

As our reading of Anne and Emily helped us to construct our girlhood identity, so our reading of L.M. Montgomery in the journals has played a role in confirming our places as women; and few of us have been disappointed in the role she had played.  The reading of the novels and the journals, when viewed as a continuous process, connects girlhood and womanhood in a remarkable manner, accounting to a certain extent for the popularity and attraction of the journals and of the persona of L.M. Montgomery as a woman as well as a writer.  It is a connection that we welcome and crave, as our reading of Maud, developing out of our earlier reading of her characters, continues to be an active process that often recognizes and validates our needs, choices, and decisions as Canadian women at the beginning of the twenty-first century. (‘This has been a day in hell’: Montgomery, Popular Literature, Life Writing by Margaret Steffler, p. 72 – 73)

And I’ll certainly never be able to read the already unsettling Emily books again without thinking of Irene Gammel’s “Safe Pleasures for Girls: L.M. Montgomery’s Erotic Landscapes”.  It definitely made me think more about the books than I had done in years, though I was both delighted and vaguely alarmed by how many of the small details I still remembered.  I loved the Emily books but they scared me as a child and even as an adult I’ve never been comfortable with their gothic overtones and intensity, which is why I rarely reread them.  Emily, with all her darkness and brilliance, her passion and otherworldly ‘spells’, was too extreme for me, at any age.  Her devotion to her writing was too complete, too exhausting.  Dean Priest was the only alluring thing about the novels for me, until he is disappeared in favour of the insubstantial Teddy.  Dean was unsettling in a good way, an exciting and terrifyingly sexual figure in what unsuspecting adults might consider tepid children’s books.  But his desire and passion for Emily pale in comparison to her obsession with her writing. 

Viewing Avonlea is simply fun.  It is hard for me to take the miniseries and television shows based on Montgomery’s works all that seriously (and, honestly, if you’ve seen even an episode of “Emily of New Moon” you should be able to understand this) but I loved both “It’s all mine: The Modern Woman as Writer in Sullivan’s Anne of Green Gables films” by Eleanor Hersey and “Who’s Got the Power?  Montgomery, Sullivan, and the Unsuspecting Viewer” by K.L. Poe, which discuss Kevin Sullivan’s alterations to Montgomery’s plots in his television adaptations and the late twentieth-century feminist agenda imposed on the character of Anne, vastly exaggerating her interest and seriousness about writing.  There is also a wonderful discussion of Sullivan’s decision to use “The Lady of Shallot” in the first adaptation rather than “Lancelot and Elaine”, which is the Tennyson poem Montgomery’s references, and the implications of that change.  I am a firm believer in loyal adaptations and have never forgiven Sullivan for his many liberties so I was in full sympathy with K.L. Poe’s argument against the modernization of my most beloved literary heroine:

…what is the value of books written in the past if we perpetually modernize them?  First, if we insist on wiping away any contextual traces under the misconception that modern audiences won’t ‘get’ what is going on, we risk pushing the past farther and farther out of sight.  Second, if we continually privilege the present over the past, there is little way we can educate ‘unsuspecting’ younger generations, and girls in particular, about how far people (especially women) have come in the intervening years.  The homogenizing effect creates a world in which no one is able to understand that other live(d) and believe(d) differently than they do; it emphasizes not the internal elements that can bridge the gaps of ages but rather the superficial aspects that are ultimately meaningless without the contextual situation.  The extreme devotion of the Japanese to Montgomery’s Anne should be evidence enough that a work must not reproduce its readers’ world exactly to be loved and respected.  (“Who’s Got the Power?  Montgomery, Sullivan and the Unsuspecting Viewer” by K.L. Poe, p. 152)

The essays are written primarily by scholars yet most are highly readable and entertaining (yes, this betrays my expectation that academics are only capable of dull writing but I am always happy to be proven wrong).  Carole Gerson’s “Anne of Green Gables Goes to University: L.M. Montgomery and Academic Culture” may be the exception, though Gerson’s tracking of Montgomery’s popularity as a research subject over the twentieth century and her explosion in popularity as a ‘serious’ subject after the airing of the miniseries in the 1980s in quite intriguing.  Still, its tone is rather dry compared to the other essays.  As always, the most personal contributions were the most interesting ones.  Brenda R. Weber’s “Confessions of a Kindred Spirit with an Academic Bent” is a delight from start to finish, recalling how she bonded over the books with her grandmother during summer vacations and how, as an adult, she was able to reflect on how much of her personality was influenced by Anne Shirley.  She also captures what it is, at least for me, that made the Anne books so special, so different from the countless other children’s novels about young girls:

Yet the figure of Anne is unlike other orphans in literature…predominantly because the reader is encouraged to laugh at Anne even while admiring her.  This is an interesting writerly device on Montgomery’s part, for it pulls the reader not through common devices of sentimental fiction (for instance, tears, pious lessons, and innate goodness, though certainly the Anne books have those too), but through a shared field of humour.  The result is a re-imagination of what a childhood heroine might look like…She can be a girl both ardent and ridiculous, trying and talented.  (“Confessions of a Kindred Spirit with an Academic Bent” by Brenda R. Weber, p. 49)

I had a delightful time reading this.  Growing up, I tried endlessly, pathetically, to get my friends to read the Anne books with me.  I just wanted to share the reading experience with someone, to have someone at least understand what a kindred spirit was.  Anne of Green Gables is the most famous children’s book Canada has ever produced and yet I was surrounded by people who had never read it!  I suspect my paternal grandmother read the books as a child and, given our similar tastes in reading, probably loved them, but we lived too far apart to be familiar enough with one another for such conversations.  Instead, I grew up surrounded by my mother’s family, a trio of women who had never read, had never even heard of the English-language classics I was raised on.  My maternal grandmother was a great reader but there was no common literary heritage between us – indeed, at one point she insisted that I abandon what she was certain were trashy light romances (the cover art on those editions did not help my argument that they were in fact classic Canadian novels) and move on to ‘real’ literature.  Given that, I suppose it is not surprising that to finally read an entire book devoted to Montgomery, full of the kind of discussions and analysis I love best, made me irrationally happy.  I loved reading this, both because it engaged me on an intellectual level and because, finally, I felt I had found other readers who connected withMontgomery on the same emotional level that I did.

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