Jane Austen January – Emma – some early thoughts

I decided to do something a little different this year and start out my annual Jane Austen re-read with Emma, which is never in the running for my favorite Austen novel and sometimes finds itself in the position of least favored.  It’s been several years since I last read it, and I don’t think I have ever done it justice, as a reader.

Let me see if I can explain.  I read Pride and Prejudice first, and then I spent so much time watching the 1995 BBC adaptation that it supplanted the original; when I read the book, I was most often struck by its deviation from the adaptation.  Sometimes I took the trouble to read the book carefully and critically, to consider new (to me) ideas and challenge my assumptions about the book.  Sometimes I read it for the comfort of a familiar and amusing story.  But no matter what I sought from the reading of it, I have always approached P&P with respect.  I know it’s brilliant, and I know that after 20 or so readings (and God knows how many viewings of the various adaptations) that I have just scratched the surface of all the truth and wisdom Austen crammed into it.

Emma, on the other hand, I have never — ’till now — bothered to read carefully and critically, nor have I ever found it particularly comfortable (or comforting).  When I read it, I did because I thought I should, not because I particularly wanted to or anticipated any benefit from it.  I was first introduced to its story through the movie adaptation Clueless, and I very incorrectly assumed that the original was a bit frivolous.  Emma is such a difficult character to like, and there are so many troubling aspects to the story (Mr. Knightley’s being vaguely creepy, perhaps, or Emma’s and Harriet’s friendship being so unequal — and frankly awful — or the entire Jane Fairfax/Frank Churchill comedy of errors story seeming like such an interruption to the main story line), that I honestly could not be bothered to take it seriously.  Emma is a fun, light, and entertaining comedy of manners and nothing more, I thought.

I was wrong.

Now about halfway through the book, I am not finding anything particularly fun and light about it.  In fact, the whole thing seems overshadowed by impending doom.  The action opens with loss — the loss of Miss Taylor — and with Emma seeing her future stretching out before her, bleak and lonely.  Emma, in desperation, seeks an unequal friendship with young, naive Harriet Smith, whom Emma pretty much captures and isolates like a pet, removing her from the company of good people among whom Harriet could have a happy and prosperous life and setting her on a path that cannot end well.

Later in the story, when Mrs. Bates, Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax are introduced, the story grows darker still.  Miss Bates is a natural foil for Emma, except that Miss Bates is poor where Emma is rich, and Miss Bates loves and approves of everybody (while viewing herself in a somewhat self-deprecating sort of way) where Emma is contemptuous and critical of everyone, including herself, at times (moreover, most of Emma’s criticisms of others apply directly to her, so I read her criticism of the neighborhood as an extension of her dislike of herself.).  Take away Emma’s wealth and shift her twenty years into the future and she’s actually in a much worse position than Miss Bates, who is at least harmless and well liked…

And then there’s Jane Fairfax, whom Emma avoids and abuses simply because Jane, out of everybody in the neighborhood, best demonstrates the sort of young woman Emma knows she ought to be but isn’t.  When Jane Fairfax is around, Emma cannot escape from her self-disgust (though she does try to take Jane Fairfax down a peg or two by inventing the notion that Jane, a much prettier woman than Miss Campbell, the girl with whom she was brought up, either supplanted Miss Campbell in the affections of her husband or nursed an unrequited affection for him; Emma then shares this invented notion with Frank Churchill, which action is one of the most ridiculous and dangerous things Emma does in the entire book.).  Moreover, Emma fears not only that Jane Fairfax acknowledges Emma’s deficiencies of character and application but also that other worthy people (Mr. Knightley and Miss Taylor/Mrs. Weston) do as well.  Honestly, none of that is fun and light.

Jane Austen does not have to be sparkling and enjoyable in order to be interesting, however, and I am finding in this reading of Emma that it might be the most interesting (read: thought-provoking) of all of Austen’s novels.  Here is a story about a woman who is allowed to be perfectly awful, whose sterling qualities are difficult to find amid all the jealousies and pettiness of her youth and pride.  But I honestly don’t believe that Emma is in any way more awful than I was at 20.  Emma isn’t nice, kind, or pleasant; she doesn’t inspire pity (she is, after all, “handsome, clever, and rich.”); and she doesn’t actually suffer all that much on her road to love.  Given all of this, it seems typical for readers to dislike Emma just as much as she dislikes herself; however, I find myself, on this read-through, at least, giving Emma (and, through her, myself) the permission to be unpleasant.  We’ll see how that continues as I progress to the novel’s second half.

Let’s discuss!  From the conversations I’ve had with some of you on Twitter, I don’t think I’m alone in my habitual approach to Emma.  What do you think Austen was about with this book?

(I’m planning another post on some of the perviness to be found in Emma, by the way.)

Jane Austen January – a late start

It’s January!  That means lots of things, actually (for instance that it’s outrageously cold pretty much everywhere in the country except where I live; or that I’m still slightly hung over from last Wednesday; or that I’m struggling to write the correct date on things; or that it’s eerily quiet where I work because most folks don’t return from break for a few more weeks, so I’ve been spending an astonishing amount of time watching videos on YouTube instead of working…), but chiefly that it’s time for me to get my Austen on for my 16th annual Jane Austen January.

“16th Annual” makes it sound super official, but this is really only the second year that I’ve invited other folk to participate with me… sooo….. And I haven’t been bothered to do any of the things you’re supposed to do if you want folk on the Internet to do a thing.  I don’t have a cool graphic.  I mean, I could make one, but it wouldn’t be cool.  It would be this:

Jane Austen January Bitches

I don’t even have a linky, because I don’t know how to insert one in a post, and — frankly — I can’t be bothered.  Anyway, all are welcome to participate to whatever extent, but I totally understand if I end up alone at this party.

This year, I plan to read Sense and Sensibility, Emma and Persuasion.  I’ll probably end up listening to all three books (I’m partial to the recordings narrated by Flo Gibson).

So, if you’re interested in participating, awesome!  Just read some Jane Austen, and let’s talk about it in the comments, on your blog (if you have one), or on Twitter.  What Austen will you be reading this January?

Jane Austen January – Austen’s men

OK, here’s the thing.  I love Persuasion, but Captain Wentworth is a bit of a douche-pony throughout much of the story.  Every time I re-read the book, I am astonished anew at how annoying he is in his anger and resentfulness.  It annoys me further that Anne interprets and excuses his behavior, that she castigates and blames herself for the decision she made at nineteen.  But then the novel redeems itself (to me) by giving Anne an opportunity to share her thoughts with Captain Harville, overheard by Wentworth, and allowing Wentworth to realize fully just how wrong he was and do a bit of groveling.

I absolutely love it when Austen allows her heroes to learn where they have been in the wrong and to amend their behavior where appropriate in order to earn the respect and affection of their chosen ladies.

  • Pride and Prejudice – Darcy’s fatal error in his first proposal to Elizabeth is his arrogant assumption that she will be gratified by his proposal, that he need not exert himself in any way to be pleasing.  Honestly — “Your family is pretty damn awful, and I know I’m going to spend the rest of my life wishing that they weren’t a part of it, but I just can’t help myself… Marry me.”  After the ensuing confrontation with Elizabeth, Darcy eventually realizes that her condemnation of his character is not wholly unjust, and he takes pains to improve himself.  When he approaches her a second time, he is hopeful but not certain that he has succeeded.
  • Persuasion – Wentworth’s error throughout the eight years of his estrangement with Anne is in holding too tightly to his belief of having been wronged by an inconstant Anne (rather than perceiving that the risk in marrying him was all on her side and asking her again once his ability to provide for her (and any children) was more a sure thing.  He compounds this error by being a real jerk muffin towards Anne once he is again in her company.  These are grievous errors, to be sure, but in his letter to Anne and subsequent conversation, Wentworth demonstrates that he appreciate’s Anne’s sufferings and fully comprehends that he was the cause of most of them.  And, oh, that letter…
  • Emma is perhaps a bit less approachable to a modern audience given the huge age gap between Emma and her Mr. Knightley and the rather odd occurrence of Emma sort of growing up under his tutelage (ew).  Yet even in this story, Mr. Knightley approaches Emma convinced that he, with his constant correcting and nitpicking, has driven away all chance of her affection.  The very instance of his seeing his behavior towards Emma as potentially officious rather than his natural right becomes, to me, the most attractive part of his character.
  • Northanger Abbey – Henry Tilney gets to apologize for his father’s atrocious behavior, but he’s mostly on this side of the list because I like the story and construction of Northanger Abbey so well.  Henry may not be exactly my favorite type of hero, but he is certainly the most charming and witty of all of Austen’s men (except, maybe, Frank Churchill–but Frank is also a bit silly and quite selfish and so does not qualify as a truly good man).

To my mind, nothing suits a man so well as a little uncertainty.  It is the quality that separates my favorites of the Austen men from my least favorite.

  • Mansfield Park – Edmund Bertram… ugh.  One day he happens to look over at Fanny and realizes that he might just be in love with her after all.  It’s true that he repents of trying to force her to marry Henry Crawford (and of being carried away by his appreciation of Mary Crawford’s fine features…), but I always wish for significantly more groveling than the reader receives.  Fanny, of course, is perfectly happy to have him, but she’s Fanny, so it hardly signifies.
  • Sense and Sensibility – Edward Ferrars gets another ugh from me.  I think he’s my least favorite of all the leading men.  After leading Elinor on and being super moody and a bit freaky about the hair ring (ew), he just shows up one day, declares that Lucy married Robert instead and asks Elinor to marry him, and she’s like “Hells yeah!!” And he’s like, “Good, ’cause Lucy had appalling diction, and her letters have been an embarrassment to me for a long time, but what can I say? Boobs!” And Elinor’s like “LOLZ.”  Ugh.

Who are your favorites among Austen’s men?  What are your qualifications for inclusion on your favorites list?

Jane Austen January – Pride and Prejudice – Caroline Bingley

I haven’t started reading Persuasion yet, so Pride and Prejudice is still my favorite book of all time.  I seem to waffle back and forth between these two, but my waffling has nothing to do with any concrete, supportable impressions of the books; rather, my inclination towards one or another is based on which one I have most recently read, what my prevailing mood is that season, and, probably, what I had for breakfast.  My rational self, who shows up to the party every now and then, believes that both books are equally excellent, yet different (rather like my children).

Anyway…

My favorite thing about Pride and Prejudice is that both Elizabeth and Darcy go on an incredible internal journey to get from their starting positions to their ending ones.  My next favorite thing is the way that all the secondary characters (caricatures, all) influence Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s respective journeys.  If these characters cannot go on a journey of their own, at least they have some impact on the main characters’ development, right?

My favorite of these influential secondary characters is Caroline Bingley, who is wonderfully awful throughout the book and is considerably more observant than Elizabeth (of course, nearly every character wins that prize).  In a weird way, she acts both as Darcy’s confidante and as Elizabeth’s tormentor, and, throughout the Netherfield section of the book, she simultaneously helps Darcy to increase his affection for Elizabeth and helps Elizabeth to increase her dislike for Darcy.

Caroline Bingley has her own reasons for paying close attention to Darcy, but I wonder if she would have picked up on his burgeoning regard so quickly had he not rather flippantly made to her his initial comment about Elizabeth Bennet’s fine eyes.  Darcy must have known that Caroline was angling for him–she isn’t subtle–so I wonder if he was trying to let her know that he just wasn’t into her.  I’m not entirely certain, however, that Darcy’s motives are so virtuous.  If he were really interested in discouraging Caroline’s regard, he ought not have made his vaguely smarmy “I can appreciate your figure better from over here, sexy ladies!” comment to Caroline and Elizabeth.

A lot of characters notice that Darcy frequently follows Elizabeth around with his creepy stalker eyes, but only Caroline knows with certainty that he looks out of admiration rather than censure, and only Caroline is in any position to talk to Darcy about his staring problem.  As Caroline is consumed by jealousy, she takes every opportunity to needle Darcy about his attraction to Elizabeth, and her needling prompts in Darcy a consciousness of his growing feelings (and feeling of their being dangerous to him) and, perhaps, an increased awareness of Elizabeth’s attractiveness.  After Elizabeth walks to Netherfield, Caroline slyly suggests that Elizabeth’s behavior may have dampened his appreciation for her ‘fine eyes.’  Darcy replies that they were brightened by the exercise.  Once Elizabeth and Caroline are under the same roof, Darcy has the opportunity to compare their behavior: Elizabeth reads, and Caroline pretends to read; Elizabeth behaves with civility to most and friendly warmth to Bingley, and Caroline is cold and uncivil (sometimes downright rude) to Elizabeth and obsequious to Darcy.  With such comparisons to hand, it’s no wonder Darcy develops an attraction to Elizabeth.

Caroline’s influence on Elizabeth is exactly the reverse.  Elizabeth views Caroline’s obvious attempts to attract Darcy’s attention with contempt, and she, although indirectly, seems to blame Darcy for Caroline’s behavior.  The more Caroline reacts to Elizabeth with jealousy and spitefulness and to Darcy with toadying, the lower Darcy sinks in Elizabeth’s estimation.  This is not, in itself, all that surprising; how could Darcy possibly appear to advantage in such a setting?  So, while Darcy is able to compare Elizabeth and Caroline and conclude that Elizabeth is far superior, Elizabeth views Darcy’s interactions with Caroline and concludes that Darcy is proud and vain.  She assumes Darcy’s responses to Caroline are in keeping with his usual manner, proud, reserved, aloof, and awful (Bingley’s term: “I declare I do not know a more awful object than Darcy, on particular occasions, and in particular places; at his own house especially, and of a Sunday evening, when he has nothing to do.”), and she does not consider that Darcy’s responses to herself and Bingley are of quite a different tone.

In the end, it all comes down to Darcy’s letter and his amended behavior in Derbyshire to remove the last of Elizabeth’s resentments and misconceptions of Darcy.  When she meets Caroline at Pemberley, Elizabeth is able to see and appreciate the difference in behavior between Darcy, Miss Darcy, and Caroline Bingley.

For those who are participating in this Jane Austen January, how is your reading going?  If reading for the first time, what do you think of it?  If this is a re-read, has anything stuck out to you as surprising or new during this read?

Jane Austen January – Sense and Sensibility

Oh, Sense and Sensibility

Best synopsis ever.

There are a lot of things that I enjoy about Sense and Sensibility, and an equal number that I find troubling or downright irritating, but it is still my fourth favorite Austen novel and still ranks quite high on my list of all the books I’ve ever read.  As with most of Austen’s novels, my chief enjoyment is in the antics of the wide cast of secondary characters and in Austen’s witty, if harsh, take on those antics.  Who could not love the delightfully awful Mrs. Ferrars, Robert Ferrars (toothpick cases are important, after all), and John and Fanny Dashwood?  And what about Mr. and Mrs. Palmer?  I challenge any one to resist their charms.

Regarding the things I find troubling, most of them revolve around Elinor and Marianne.  Elinor seems to be the chief heroine of the piece, even though nobody much likes her, especially when she is in one of her disapproving moods.  Unlike Marianne, whose happy ending is sort of a throwaway and is actually Col. Brandon’s happy ending, after all (pun totally intended), Elinor achieves the full arc of her story.  My difficulty is that Elinor doesn’t go on any kind of internal journey throughout the story, so while I’m always happy that she gets her Edward (who doesn’t change much, either), it isn’t as satisfying as when Lizzy gets her Darcy, or Catherine her Henry, or Anne her Wentworth.

Can anyone really relate to Elinor as a character?  I certainly can’t, not because she’s so emotionally constipated (I am, too), but because she always behaves with the utmost propriety.  While I can comprehend showing a brave face and drawing as little attention as possible to one’s distress, I can’t imagine enduring all that Elinor does without at least a few episodes of histrionics or angry jazz hands.  Elinor’s adherence to strict propriety perhaps should, in being the exact opposite of her sister’s and mother’s wild expression of sensibility, be considered just as immoderate and intemperate as their behavior is.  But that’s not the case in this book.  Instead of Elinor being able to learn anything throughout the course of the story (instead of her story being able to have some point or purpose), she is instead depicted as the model for proper lady behavior.

“I am not wishing him too much good,” said Marianne at last with a sigh, “when I wish his secret reflections may be no more unpleasant than my own.  He will suffer enough in them.”

“Do you compare your conduct with his?”

“No.  I compare it with what it ought to have been; I compare it with yours.”

Elinor learns no lessons (rather like Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, come to think of it), and Sense and Sensibility is less interesting a book as a result.  I am not suggesting that her behavior is not model, but it does seem to me that a character who behaves perfectly on every occasion can have little claim to being realistically portrayed.  Further, if a character behaves so well all the time that no reader can identify with her, how can the reader be more than passively interested in her story?  I would like Sense and Sensibility much more if Edward and Elinor’s story received the treatment that Col. Brandon and Marianne’s does in the book and if the latter couple got more page time to show how their understanding came about.  Theirs is the more interesting story, right?

Given I mentioned that there were things I find irritating about the book, I should, at least, mention them.

  1. Why does Margaret exist as a character?  As far as I can tell, she serves no purpose at all.
  2. Elinor recognizes that Marianne is Mrs. Dashwood’s favorite daughter by rather a large margin, but she accepts this parental failing with all the philosophy of a totally disinterested party–except she isn’t one.  Of all Elinor’s unlikely traits, this one strikes me as being the least realistic.  Who wouldn’t be hurt or angered to be so slighted by one’s parent?  But Elinor in all her perfection accepts what love comes her way and feels justified in the righteousness of expecting no more.  Ugh!

For those who are participating in this Jane Austen January (and for those who aren’t–and here’s a shout-out to the lurkers: HOLLA!), I’d love to know what you think of Sense and Sensibility.  Theories as to why Margaret exists are also very welcome.