Review 1896: Sense and Sensibility

When I was making up my current Classics Club list, I realized I hadn’t reread any Austen for a while. So, I picked Sense and Sensibility.

When Mr. Dashwood was dying, he made his son John promise to take care of his second wife and daughters, since he was unable to leave them anything due to an entail. John makes this promise with good intentions and tells his wife he will give each of them £1000, but she talks him out of each of his suggestions until he gives them nothing.

On a very small budget, then, Mrs. Dashwood must find a new home for herself and her three daughters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret. Just as things are getting unbearable at the shared home, a relative of Mrs. Dashwood, Sir John Middleton, offers the women a cottage in Devonshire at a low rate.

Elinor regrets leaving her home all the more because she has developed what she believes is a shared attachment with her brother-in-law, Edward Ferrars. But Mrs. John Dashwood wants her brother as far away from Elinor as possible. Both she and her mother plan for him to marry well.

Relocated to their new home, the Dashwoods find their neighbors, the Middletons, and Mrs. Jennings, Mrs. Middleton’s mother, to be almost overly friendly.

One day Marianne and Margaret are caught out in a rainstorm and Marianne sprains her ankle skidding down a grassy hill. A gentleman rescues her, and he, Mr. Willoughby, becomes a frequent visitor. It is clear he is attracted to Marianne, and she, having fully adopted the ideals of Romanticism, shows plainly that she’s in love with him. Meanwhile, Elinor wonders why she isn’t hearing from Edward.

This novel is about two sisters who deal with unhappy love affairs in opposite ways and the result. It has vividly believable characters, some funny, and in its own way constitutes a sharp social satire. This novel is one of my favorites by Austen.

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Review 1595: Mansfield Park

I was having difficulty reading another book, so I decided to take a break by rereading Mansfield Park, which is on my Classics Club list. In these days, Austen’s heroine, Fanny Price, is not admired, but she is a true and admirable product of her environment and circumstances.

At nine, Fanny is brought to live at Mansfield Park as an act of charity, for she is a poor relation. She is taught to be grateful for this charity and to have no expectations for herself. Sir Thomas Bertram is an upright, stern man whom she and her cousins fear. Lady Bertram is languid. Fanny’s Aunt Norris, who suggested they give her a home in the first place, actively dislikes her and favors her female cousins, particularly Maria.

Fanny is very shy and miserable at first, but the younger son of the house, Edmund, takes her under his wing, is her friend and educator.

As a young lady, Fanny is happy to be of service and not used to her needs or inclinations being attended to. Then two things happen at about the same time. Sir Thomas goes away on a lengthy business trip, and Mary and Henry Crawford arrive to stay with the Grants at the parsonage. Edmund, whom Fanny loves, is immediately attracted to Mary, but Fanny is dismayed by the sister and brother’s lack of principles. Maria Bertram is engaged by then to a rich but stupid young man, but Henry Crawford flirts with both Bertram sisters, playing one off the other. Mary’s behavior is more or less impeccable, but she expresses unprincipled ideas. Edmund seems blind to her faults.

Fanny is one of Austen’s more thoughtful heroines. Will she ever be appreciated for her qualities of affection, duty, and principle? Will Edmund marry Mary or recognize Fanny’s superior qualities? Well, we can all probably answer that, but the journey there is wonderful, as Austen’s novels tend to be.

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Day 654: Longbourn

Cover for LongbournBest Book of the Week!
There has been a plethora of Pride and Prejudice reinterpretations and sequels in the past few years, and I haven’t found the ones I’ve read to be very interesting. Longbourn, however, looks at the novel from a completely different angle, from the point of view of the servants in the Bennet household.

Sarah has been a housemaid for the Bennets since she was a child. Although she is grateful for the kindness shown to her by the housekeeper, Mrs. Hill, she chafes against the limits of her existence and the sheer hard work. She has begun to wish for more.

Mr. Bennet unexpectedly hires a servant named James Smith. There is some mystery about him, for Sarah overhears Mrs. Hill having a heated discussion with Mr. Bennet about him. At first excited to have a new member in the household, Sarah is disappointed by his unkempt appearance and the fact that he never looks at her. Besides, she soon meets the handsome and exotic Ptolemy Bingham, Mr. Bingham’s mulatto coachman.

Aside from presenting fully realized characters and an interesting story, Longbourn imagines a completely different view of the Bennet household and the action of the original novel, which here is only peripheral. We find unexpected sympathy for Mrs. Bennet through Mrs. Hill’s knowledge of her history. Mr. Bennet turns out to have a secret. Lizzie and Jane are still the most likable Bennet girls, but they think nothing of sending Sarah to walk to Meryton in the pouring rain to buy roses for the girls’ dancing shoes. The viewpoint from the kitchen is certain to be an unexpected one.

This novel is fascinating, providing its own rich story while carefully observing the events of Austen’s novel in the background. I loved this truly original re-imagining.

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Day 537: The Jane Austen Book Club

Cover for The Jane Austen Book ClubI am sometimes rather contrary about bestsellers. I assume that I’m not going to like them and avoid reading them. This attitude isn’t entirely irrational as I am familiar with the writing of many consistently bestselling authors that I do not like at all. The idea behind The Jane Austen Book Club also seemed like something I wouldn’t enjoy, as I am a little tired of all the Jane Austen spin-offs and other hoopla (although never tired of Austen herself). So, it wasn’t until I picked up the book at a used book sale that I decided to try it.

I found the novel extremely light reading but enjoyable and sometimes witty. Of course, it is about a book club of Austen lovers who get together to read all of Austen. Only one member is male, and Grigg is also the only one who has never read Austen.

The novel does not have much of a plot. There are some romances and a banquet. That’s about it. As in Austen novels, it is more about the characters and their relationships.

Jocelyn, the founder of the club, is a dog breeder in her 50’s who likes to arrange things and make matches. Sylvia is her best friend from high school whose husband Daniel recently left her for a younger woman. Allegra is a strong, adventurous lesbian. She isn’t so much an Austen fan but is in the club because she’s Sylvia’s daughter. Bernadette, a kind older woman with a colorful past, talks a lot and repeats herself. Prudie, the married French teacher, annoys everyone by speaking French during the club meetings. Grigg is a little more of an enigma, a science fiction reader in his 40’s who just moved to town.

Each section of the novel focuses on a book club meeting and tells us more about the character who hosts the meeting. Throughout the novel, quotes from Austen and other sources appear appropriately, or maybe with an angle we need to figure out. Strikingly, the novel is narrated in the second person plural, apparently by the entire book club, and in omniscient viewpoint.

I found myself liking the characters and drawn into their dramas. Early on, we feel Grigg is interested in one of the women, but I don’t think we’re supposed to guess which one. I thought it was obvious.

If you are looking for some light, amusing reading with just a hint of romance, you may enjoy this novel. I did.

Day 519: Northanger Abbey

Cover for Northanger AbbeyNorthanger Abbey seems to be the Austen novel people like least. Perhaps this is because Catherine Morland is an ordinary girl, naive and not overly bright, so the opportunity for witty conversation is lost. But Austen has some fun with the fad for Gothic novels at the time. One of young Catherine’s misadventures results from her dreaming up a lurid past for her new friends’ family, her imagination influenced by her choice of reading. Austen also creates some broadly comic characters in the greedy and crass Isabella and John Thorpe.

When I learned that Val McDermid was attempting an update, I was intrigued, because McDermid is better known for her chilling thrillers. She places her updated version of the novel in Edinburgh during the festival. This could have been an inspired choice if she had made more use of the setting.

Cat Morland is attending the festival as the guest of her neighbors, the wealthy Allens. She meets Bella Thorpe, who befriends her because she likes Cat’s brother James (although this is not of course obvious to Cat). Bella’s brother John in turn begins pursuing Cat. Cat, though, is already interested in Henry Tilney, son of General Tilney, the owner of Northanger Abbey.

Much of the plot of Austen’s original book rides on the Thorpes’ assumption that Catherine is the Allens’ heir. McDermid implies a similar motive for their friendliness.

McDermid has not changed the plot of Austen’s novel in any major respect, except for the reason why General Tilney throws Cat out of the house in the middle of the night. In that instance, she chooses to pursue a theme that has been cropping up a lot in her later fiction, and the choice is unfortunate. She has set us up to expect something else, and the motive she chooses doesn’t fit in well with anything that has already happened. It is clear that General Tilney is unusually friendly with Cat because he thinks she is wealthy, so to alter the reason for this dramatic scene at the last moment throws us off.

Although the novel seems promising at first, with some witty observations about the festival attendees, we soon fall into the banalities of conversation and texts between vapid young women. Cat just loves vampire fiction and actually believes vampires might exist. You can see where this might lead in terms of the original novel, if McDermid had given it a bit of a twist. I am sick of vampire fiction, but I was almost hoping one would appear in the darkness of an Edinburgh street.

http://www.netgalley.comCat and the Tilney siblings are likable, but Cat doesn’t capture my sympathy as much in her current guise. Again, I’ll stick with Austen.

Just as a side note, those wily internet marketers must have noticed my searches for Northanger Abbey, because I got an email about the Complete Northanger Horrid Novel Collection. This collection includes all of the gothic novels referred to in Austen’s novel. All mine on my iPad for a mere $.99! Well, why not? I’ll be reporting back later.



Day 479: Jane Austen: A Life

Cover for Jane Austen: A LifeIn Jane Austen: A Life, noted biographer Claire Tomalin has handily accomplished a difficult task. Because most of Jane Austen’s letters and papers were destroyed by well-meaning relatives, very little first-hand information about her life is available. As a 19th century unmarried woman, her experience was circumscribed, so the events of her life are ordinary ones. Descriptions of a life like this could be thin and lifeless, but Tomalin manages to provide us with a biography that is full of interest and lively and creates a convincing idea of Austen’s character.

From records, letters, the remaining few of Austen’s papers, and accounts of her by relatives, friends, and neighbors, Tomalin reconstructs the story of not only Austen’s life but of those who were important to her. Tomalin acquaints us with the members of Austen’s family and the bustling environment in the Steventon Rectory, where Jane’s father ran a small boys’ school. She describes friendships and visits to neighboring families. Even though Austen never used her own neighborhood in her books, it is easy from them to imagine the daily social calls and the housewifely tasks with which she and her female relatives were engaged.

It is not too hard to imagine the relationship between Jane and her sister Cassandra as close to that of Lizzie and her sister Jane in Pride and Prejudice, although Tomalin never mentions that either of these characters were based on real people. Still, the two sisters were extremely close.

Unlike Lizzie and Jane, though, both Jane and Cassandra were disappointed in love, Cassandra because her fiancé died, and Jane because her suitor needed to marry a woman with money. Tomalin makes the points that a married Jane Austen would probably have been too busy or too distracted to produce a body of literature and that later in life she seemed to understand some of the benefits of remaining single. As to the first point, it is certainly true that being removed without warning and against her will from Steventon because of the retirement of her father, and her family’s failure to settle anywhere for ten years afterward, completely cut off Austen’s literary production for that time period.

It seems that Austen’s status as a spinster with no money of her own gave her no control at all in her life about such questions as where she would live and even in one case when she could return home from a family visit. That is, she had no control until her late thirties, when she began to publish her novels. Even then, she ultimately earned very little money from them but enough to give her a small amount of autonomy.

Although most of the events of Austen’s life were relatively small, Tomalin’s book provides an absorbing account. I did not always agree with her interpretations of Austen’s novels, but I feel that this book allows me to know Austen and her family and friends a little better.

Day 457: Sense & Sensibility

Cover for Sense & SensibilityIn general I’m not a fan of the plethora of Jane Austen rewrites, although I will occasionally read one by an author whose work I trust. Such is the case with Joanna Trollope, who writes realistic contemporary fiction about family situations. So, I thought I’d give her reworking of Sense and Sensibility a try.

The story is a familiar one. The Dashwood women are ousted from their family home when the girls’ half brother John inherits. His selfish wife Fanny quickly talks him out of the generosity he promised his father he would show to his father’s second family.

Elinor Dashwood is in love with Fanny’s brother Edward Ferrars, but Edward’s future is uncertain. He has not spoken, so Elinor keeps her feelings to herself. Her sister Marianne, however, throws herself wholeheartedly and recklessly into an affair with handsome John Willoughby, who is visiting his aunt, a neighbor of their new home.

The reworkings I’ve read generally have some twist or contemporary slant to put on the story. In Bridget Jones’ Diary, for example, it was the surprise of finding you are reading an update of Pride and Prejudice and the charming narrative style of Bridget. Unfortunately, aside from updating the story to the current time, I don’t feel that this novel has much to add to or say differently than the original.

More importantly, I’m not sure that this novel translates very well to the 21st century, or at least not this version of it. The amount of money the Dashwoods are left would sound like a lot to most people, unlike the paltry amount left to them in the original novel, and the girls can always get a job in the current time period. Marianne’s behavior, while shocking to a 19th century audience, where ladies did not reveal their feelings for young men until they received a proposal, is mostly just excessive in the current day, except for the lovers’ behavior when visiting Willoughby’s aunt’s house. And while Edward in the original novel was behaving scrupulously in a time when a gentleman did not end an engagement, in the current times Ed just comes off as weak and indecisive. Frankly, I found myself sometimes wishing that Trollope would change the end of the novel to have Elinor end up with Bill.

I enjoyed the novel to an extent, but this modern version doesn’t involve me as the original does. The scene where Ed finally proposes to Elinor left me dry-eyed. Sense and Sensibility is one of my favorite Austen novels, and I think I’ll stick to Austen.

Day 297: Persuasion

Cover for PersuasionMost people have probably read Pride and Prejudice, which is a wonderful book, but if I had to pick my favorite Jane Austen heroine, it would be hard to decide between Elinor Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility and Anne Elliot of Persuasion. Probably fewer people are familiar with Persuasion.

Anne is no longer in the bloom of youth. Seven years ago she fell in love with a young naval officer named Frederick Wentworth, but Sir Walter, her superficial, supercilious father, did not approve. Perhaps the gentle Anne would not have been dissuaded from marriage, but her older friend and mentor, Lady Russell, talked her out of the engagement because of Wentworth’s lack of wealth and social position. Anne listened because she viewed Lady Russell as a surrogate mother, and she hasn’t heard from Wentworth since.

Now the family has fallen upon hard times, and Sir Walter is forced by his profligacy to lease their house and take rooms in Bath. He and Anne’s fashionable sister Elizabeth care very little for Anne, and they leave her to close up the house and make all the arrangements for its occupation by an Admiral Croft. Much harassed, she readies the house and tends to her hypochondriac, selfish sister Mary Musgrove. At least she enjoys the company of the children and Mary’s genial in-laws, with their two daughters Henrietta and Louisa and Anne’s brother-in-law Charles.

Anne meets the friendly Admiral and Mrs. Croft, and between their society and that of the Musgroves, begins to find a little pleasant enjoyment. However, she is soon dismayed to learn that Frederick Wentworth is Mrs. Croft’s brother, and he will be arriving soon. Wentworth is now wealthy and has retired from the service.

When he arrives, Wentworth pays little attention to Anne; in fact, she overhears him saying that she has changed so much he would not have recognized her. This remark distresses her very much, as her feelings have not altered. Soon he appears to be courting Louisa Musgrove. Anne finds it easiest to send Mary off into company while she stays home with her nephews.

After Louisa has a fateful accident on an outing in Lyme Regis, Anne finds herself taking charge and summoning help. Then she returns with Wentworth to notify Louisa’s parents. Feeling superfluous after the Musgroves leave with Wentworth for Lyme Regis, Anne decides she has no choice but to join her unpleasant father and sister in Bath.

What I love about Anne is her understated good will. Despite the insults by her family members and their general bad treatment of her, she tries to help them and to be a true sister and daughter to them. Despite Wentworth’s slights and attention to Louisa, she hides her feelings and remains faithful in her heart. Anne has much in common with Elinor Dashwood, except that Elinor is well regarded by her family and Anne is not. There is something delicate and understated in this novel, and in all of Austen’s work, that I appreciate in this more tempestuous modern world.