Sunday, October 26, 2014

Austen 2014: Introduction to Mansfield Park

One can't write about Mansfield Park without first acknowledging the fact that it is just not that funny. Oh, there are definitely funny moments, and Austen's ability to create searing comic types does't abandon her, but it doesn't seem to me that Austen wants us to laugh at this book or at its characters. The comic villains create real pain, and the figures of fun we laugh at have real feelings. In a way, this is because the novel reflects the mindset and outlook of its heroine. Fanny Price lacks the wit and vivacity of Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse; she lacks the ironic detachment of Elinor Dashwood; she even lacks the inherent ridiculousness of naivety shared by Catherine Morland and Marianne Dashwood. Rather, Fanny is quiet, serious-minded, and meek. Indeed, as famously observed by Calvin Trilling, and as quoted in every piece about MP since, "Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park." The fact that this statement of universal boredom or antipathy comes in an essay defending the novel highlights the tensions that surround trying to write anything positive about Austen's most difficult novel.

Well, screw that.

Austen is, in my estimation, the greatest novelist who ever wrote in English, and, to quote something I often find myself thinking when people toss aside supposedly "lesser" works by great artists, "This book is smarter than you are." Mansfield Park is, because it came from the mind of a truly great creative intellect, by default, smarter than the vast majority of its readers. I'm not saying everyone has to love it--taste is, after all, subjective--but saying things like "nobody likes Fanny Price," is just wrong-headed, so I'll not have any of it here. I like Fanny Price. Austen herself clearly liked Fanny Price--she is not an anti-heroine, after all. So, if you don't like Fanny Price, take that as an entry point about how to understand what the novel is saying--do not dismiss her, and the novel about her, as just being not very good.

So, why don't people like Fanny Price? And are you supposed to? To take the second question first, yes, you are supposed to like Fanny. Indeed, the reader should like Fanny more than any of the characters do--even her cousin Edmund--since we are privy to her thoughts, feelings, and motivations in the ways that none of the other characters are. Fanny is an interior person. When she does speak at length, it is often about matters that many of the other characters find dull or tedious. However, I would submit that that is the entire point.

While it can be argued of all of Austen, it is most true of Mansfield Park to say that it is fundamentally about the conflict between inner qualities, such as goodness and moral sense, and outer qualities, such as charm and wit. In Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is both charming and moral, but she is, even for Austen, an extraordinary character. In all her novels, Austen shifts around the alignment among her characters concerning which are interesting and charming, but immoral and/or vacuous. She also, less frequently, creates characters who are highly virtuous and moral, but lacking in surface charms. More often, she chooses to satirize the falsely pious and moral, like Mr. Collins, but she also is aware that, sometimes, goodness does not announce itself via wit and cleverness. Jane Bennet, indeed, almost loses Mr. Bingley's hand, because she is so reserved. In MP, Austen splits the qualities Elizabeth harmoniously combines into two different women: Fanny and the witty, talented, charming, self-assured Mary Crawford. To paraphrase Lizzie on Darcy and Wickham, "One has all the goodness, the other all the appearance of it." That vastly oversimplifies the issue in MP, however. One of the main thrusts of the novel is the exploration of Mary's character and whether or not what lies beneath matches the beauty and charm on the surface. Austen expands on this conflict by introducing not just a rival for Fanny in Edmund's eyes (yes, the love interest is her first cousin--deal with it), but a rival for Fanny's affections in Mary's brother, Henry, allowing for further distinction and delineation.

This overarching theme also manifests itself in the concept of role-playing. Much of the early part of the novel is taken up by some amateur theatricals that the young people organize while the patriarch of the family is away. These, of course, allow the characters to play at being other people, and this idea gets amplified and further explored as the novel progresses, creating what I think is Austen's most subtle depiction of the way society forces people--especially women--to behave in ways that might be contrary to their own natures and their own perception of right and wrong, good and bad.

There are many other themes and motifs in the novel--the sublime and the culture of "improving" estates, nature versus nurture, the role of religion and the established Church--and I'm sure some of these will come up over the course of my posts on the novel. I hope you'll enjoy reading it as much as I have over the years, and grappling with the many questions it presents. Mansfield Park may well be a problematic novel, full of difficult choices and unhappy endings, but I think that makes it all the greater. Despite having a Cinderella story at its core, it is no fairy tale, but rather a realistic depiction of flawed, occasionally unhappy people, trying to find happiness, even if they don't know what would make them happy.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Austen 2014: Pride & Prejudice, Volume III and a Revised Schedule

Your humble blogger is ridiculously behind schedule. He knows this. Since his last post, he has completed a major (read: time-consuming) project at work, found and moved into a new apartment, and spent far too much time waiting for furniture delivery people who never arrived. However, he is also a rather stupidly optimistic man and is determined to do his duty, both to his three readers and to Austen herself. So, here's a revised schedule, with a bit of give, allowing for more flexibility.

By October 31: Three posts on Mansfield Park.
By November 30: Three posts on Emma.
By December 31: Two posts on Persuasion and at least one on "Lady Susan" and the other juvenilia.

The posts may be dispersed evenly throughout the month, or they may arrive in clusters, depending on the vagaries of life. While there is still hope that he will be able to cover the film adaptations, etc., etc., they may be very brief posts, if they appear at all, and may trickle well into 2015.

Business aside, he moves on to wrapping up Pride & Prejudice. He also abandons the third-person, as it has become tiresome.

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Jane Austen is what used to be termed a moralist, before that term came to be associated with humorless prigs intent on scolding everyone around them. Her moral thought--which I hesitate to call a philosophy only for fear of making my readers' eyes roll--pervades all of her novels, and while most prominently on display in Mansfield Park, which is as much a comedy of morals as it is one of manners, Pride & Prejudice has a lot to say to us. In particular, Volume III resonates deeply with the language of responsibility and blame. The more her characters are accurately aware of their own responsibilities--a term I use to avoid her equally frequent choice of "duty," as it has gone the way of the term "moralist"--and the more acutely they feel and accept the blame for their poor decisions, the happier they are and the greater are their rewards.

Let's start with the most irresponsible character of them all: Lydia. While Lydia's initial decision to elope with Wickham shows a troubling lack of understanding of the seriousness of marriage and a total lack of forethought generally, her decision to stay with him when Darcy attempts to persuade her to return to her family is in fact a far greater transgression. Had she acquiesced, her dalliance might have, in time, been forgotten and largely hushed up, much as Miss Darcy's was some few years previously. However, she ignores the responsibility she owes to her family, and to herself, and insists on staying with Wickham. To further display her total lack of a sense of responsibility and blame, when she returns to Longbourne, she shows no sense of shame over her actions, flaunts her new marriage in a way completely at odds with the way it was brought about, and generally proceeds to act as if she has done absolutely nothing wrong.

Her mother scarcely behaves better. Upon finding out that Lydia has eloped, she abdicates all responsibility and places the blame--to paraphrase Austen--everywhere but where it should be placed, namely, with Lydia and, to some extent, herself. Mr. Bennet (who we will come to in a moment), Colonel Forester, Mr. Gardiner--everyone in the world is to blame. Then, when the marriage is finally come to pass, she immediately rebounds from her sickbed and starts asking for money for wedding clothes. In her mind, her only responsibility as a mother is to get her daughters married, and she sees no reason not to count Lydia's marriage as a fulfillment, rather than as a failure, of her maternal responsibility.

Mr. Bennet, on the other hand, is aware of his failures of a father regarding Lydia. For a while. As he says, "[L]et me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame. I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression. It will pass away soon enough." As predicted, soon enough the feeling passes, and aside from his humorous threat to Kitty, he doesn't seem to take Lydia's actions very seriously. He certainly doesn't take them seriously enough to begin to play a larger role in his daughters' lives. Indeed, the intervention of both Mr. Gardiner and Mr. Darcy allow Mr. Bennet to shirk his responsibilities as a father even sooner that he might have otherwise, and his discovery that it was Darcy who paid off Wickham, in his mind, absolves him even further. It is also in this section that Austen take a slight detour from the novel to make it clear how very irresponsible Mr. Bennet has been in providing for his daughters' futures. As a husband and as a father, Mr. Bennet is a failure--a fact which he seems aware of intellectually, but one that he would rather ignore than act upon.

Before we move on to our heroes, let's briefly take a detour to examine people who assume responsibility for things which are not, in fact, theirs. Lady Catherine, Mr. Collins, and even Miss Bingley all fall into this category, and, as the story wraps up, all are essentially made to see their own impotence. Lady Catherine officiously tries to control both her nephew's and her daughter's futures, hoping desperately to marry the two cousins, against the apparent interest or inclination of either. Mr. Collins, of course, takes the scolding of the Bennets upon himself via letter, and, as Mr. Bennet rightly points out, his understanding of his responsibility as a clergyman and as a Christian generally are hardly in keeping with the Bible's theme of forgiveness. And poor Miss Bingley, hoping desperately to maneuver her brother into a marriage with Miss Darcy, and herself into one with Mr. Darcy, fails on both counts. Like Lady Catherine, she discovers too late that attempting to control people's romantic lives is a dangerous business that usually backfires against those who do so. Of course, Mr. Darcy also seeks to control young love, and for a while, succeeds in driving apart Mr. Bingley and Jane. Darcy's moral worth, however, is established when he confesses the whole to Bingley and all but tells him, "Go get her, tiger." Here is a case where someone who has assumed responsibility where they have none correctly realizes their error and tries to rectify the situation.

Elizabeth and Darcy, on the other hand are of a higher moral sort than almost anyone in the book--only the Gardiners can share their high status. This is demonstrated by the keen sense of responsibility and blame that they share together. Mr. Gardiner and Darcy even have a lengthy argument over who should lay out the funds that will entice Wickham to marry Lydia. Each has a case: Mr. Gardiner, a sense of familiar obligation; and Mr. Darcy, one based in his own past failings. Both are valid arguments, but in the end, because he is Mr. Darcy, Mr. Darcy carries the day. However, Mr. Gardiner is very uneasy allowing the more sensible Bennets to think he is their benefactor, and Mrs. Gardiner, when prompted, readily tells Elizabeth of Darcy's role. If taking responsibility for things you shouldn't is a fault, so too, implies Austen, is letting people give you the credit for fulfilling obligations you did not.

Finally, in the end, both Darcy and Elizabeth repent of their past wrongs, making it clear that neither views their past actions as blameless, and that they are acutely aware of their responsibilities both to each other, and to their families. Austen shows us them sharing the responsibility of communicating the good/bad news with various relatives. Even after they are married, they are, it seems, continually sharing each other's responsibilities and reminding each other when they aren't being fulfilled. Elizabeth's encouragement of Darcy in mending the rift with Lady Catherine is an excellent example of this; there is nothing to be gained from restoring the relationship except the knowledge that the Darcys have done their familial duty. Far from polluting the shades of Pemberly, Elizabeth wears the responsibility of being its mistress well, a fact which even Lady Catherine must in the end grudgingly admit.

Obviously, there was much I didn't discuss--did you notice the various discussions of memory that played out in this volume?--but that will suffice for now on Pride & Prejudice. Next we move on to the Austen novel that nobody loves except me: Mansfield Park. Three posts by Halloween!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Austen 2014: Pride & Prejudice, Volume 2

Now that we've read through Chapter 42, the desire to discuss the pivotal proposal and letter scenes is very strong. However, I'm going to stick to my guns and explore some of the less well-trod by-ways of this novel. As I mentioned on Twitter while reading through Volume 2 again, I was quite struck by something I'd never noticed before in this novel--an experience which I savor. In this case, what I noticed was Austen's interest in playing with two interwoven human faculties: memory and imagination.

Memory, wherein we recall past events, and imagination, which we use to visualize possible or impossible ones, are in some sense opposite yet complementary faculties of the human mind. However, the connection between the two is stronger than that, and Austen explores those interconnections in interesting ways.

A simple comment regarding Mrs. Gardiner's memory of the young Mr. Darcy is what first drew caught my attention to the way Austen is playing with these concepts. The passage below occurs at the end of Chapter 25--the him in question is Mr. Wickham:

"On being made acquainted with the present Mr. Darcy's treatment of him, she tried to remember some of that gentleman's reputed disposition when quite a lad which might agree with it, and was confident at last that she recollected having heard Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy formerly spoken of as a very proud, ill-natured boy."

The language here is clearly meant to be ironic. Mrs. Gardiner may, in fact, have heard some talk of Mr. Darcy as a young man, but whatever she may have heard at the time was only recalled with great difficulty and is being filtered through her current, very warm feelings towards Mr Wickham and her belief in his story. And this, Austen is saying, is how memory actually works. It is not a photograph, as the simple metaphor would have it. Rather, whatever memories Mrs. Gardiner may, or may not, have about young Mr. Darcy are being manipulated by her current feelings towards him and Wickham. And what's doing the manipulation? Her imagination, of course, which is strongly influenced by her feelings. She's imagining something, and because that something is in accord with what she currently believes and feels, she ascribes to her imagined thing a reality, and it becomes indistinguishable from actual memory. Moreover, the fact that it is the very sensible, level-headed, intelligent Mrs. Gardiner who is the victim of the trick of memory strongly indicates that this is not the result of any weakness of mind, but rather that it is inherent to the human experience. 

Another place with a striking interplay of memory and imagination occurs when Elizabeth enthusiastically responds to the Gardiners' invitation to join them on a tour of the northern counties and the Lake District. The passage below is from the end of Chapter 27 (emphasis mine):

"And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone—we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarreling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers."

Here, memory and imagination are explicitly linked by Elizabeth. Memory seems, here, to be the faculty for establishing the perception of a given moment or event, but it is the imagination which we use to retrieve it at a later time. But the imagination is a tricky, slippery things, capable of creating entire worlds that don't exist. If it is through the imagination that all memories (visual memories, at the very least) are accessed, how can we ever be certain that what we recall is an accurate reflection of reality? Indeed, Elizabeth acknowledges that most people's memories--or imaginations--fail them when they attempt to describe what they have witnessed. She seems to feel that this is a deficiency of mind, but as with the example from Mrs. Gardiner, I'm more inclined to believe this is because, even if the fact in question (the location of two items in relation to each other) is experienced identically by different people, it will be recalled differently, because the imagination will have its say, influencing our memories in small, or possibly large, ways. If Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle wish to be able to accurately relate everything they saw and never disagree, it is not sufficient that they have identical experience--they must have identical imaginative reactions to that experience.
The last example is not so much an example as it is a sort of gesturing towards something--a suggestion, almost. During Elizabeth's long and varied reaction to Mr. Darcy's letter, her feelings towards him and his goodness change radically. This change in feeling causes her to agree with some of his assessments of his family, and even to remember instances of behavior which support his case. The poor behavior of her younger sisters and mother was already plain to her; however, Mr. Darcy's letter encourages her to re-examine her father's behavior, and she must concede Darcy's point there, too. Is this, perhaps, an example of Mrs. Gardiner's experience with regard to her memories of young Darcy, but in reverse? In other words, had Elizabeth's love for her father been clouding her imagination enough that her memories of him were seen only hazily until Darcy's words--and her willingness to believe those words--lifted the cloud and allowed her imagination to produce the memory not as she saw it but from Mr. Darcy's arguably more accurate vantage point? Or perhaps even as it actually was?

I'll definitely be keeping a lookout for more instances of malleable memory as we proceed into Volume 3, coming soon, quickly to be followed by an introduction to our next Austen: Mansfield Park.

 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Austen 2014: Pride & Prejudice, Volume 1

For those who aren't sure of the volume delineations, Volume 1 ends with Chapter 23 (which features Mr. Collins' return visit to Longbourne), so I will be dealing with only that section in this post. Volume 2 ends with Chapter 42 (discussing Elizabeth and the Gardiners proposed visit to Derbyshire), and Volume 3 ends with, well, the end.

As I promised to try to focus on the less obvious things in these posts, I'm going to be ignoring many famous scenes and wonderful moments and and instead discuss Austen's verbiage--particularly her usage of the word "chance." Austen uses chance (or its opposite, mischance), by my count twenty-one times in P&P, and over half of those occur in this opening section. She uses it in two of is main meanings here, where it is a rough synonym for both "luck" and of "opportunity." I think this is telling, especially as she almost always uses it in connection with the idea of marriage. Seeing its various uses allows us to approach that core topic, from the side, as it were, examining it in all its multivalent complexity.

The most prominent usage, of course, is in Charlotte Lucas' claim that "happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance." Elizabeth, of course, recoils at this notion, but Charlotte seems to believe it. Indeed, her actions leading to her engagement to Mr. Collins seem to support that Charlotte believes that happiness in marriage is a result of chance in both of these senses. Luck put Mr. Collins in her path, but she seized the opportunity of making him fancy himself in love with her. Here Austen seems to support the notion that, to some extent, good luck is the result of making the most of the opportunities which present themselves. Aware that Mr. Collins is determined to return to Hunsford with good news of the marriage front to relate to Lady Catherine, Charlotte assiduously courts his attentions as soon as Elizabeth rejects him. She sees a fortunate opportunity to achieve all that she has ever hoped for in a marriage--a comfortable home--and makes the most of it.

Of course, Mr. Collins is the beneficiary of chance as well, as it was a "fortunate chance" which had recommended him to Lady Catherine just when the living of Hunsford was vacant. Mr. Collins, however, like Charlotte, is aware that one must seize opportunities when they arise. His servile and flattering demeanor clearly pleased Lady Catherine, and he himself admits that he sometimes composes compliments which he can bestow upon her at a later date. Indeed, while his pursuit of Charlotte is couched in very flowery language--as is everything Mr. Collins says--he again here shows his willingness to seize opportunities which present themselves. Unwilling to return to Lady Catherine as a failure in his mission to secure a wife, he finds in Charlotte a willing bride, and the two almost accidentally enter into a conspiracy to become engaged, she contriving to listen to him and throw herself in his way, he sneaking out Longbourne before anyone is up to keep his mission a secret. This is a couple that knows how to make their own luck, to use that hoary cliche, and it seems that, while Austen doesn't endorse their behavior, she acknowledges its efficacy to achieve, if not happiness, then at least material comfort.

The final main explorations of the way chance operates involve the entail that governs the inheritance of the Longbourne estate, and the marriage prospects of the Bennet girls. Mrs. Bennet says it is "chance" which dictates who will inherit the estate given the nature of the entail, which is ridiculous given that, essentially, the entail is a set of rules dictating exactly who will inherit. It is not chance, it is order, but neither Jane nor Lizzie have ever been able to make their mother understand how the entail operates. In a broader sense, however, Mrs. Bennet is exactly right, for it was not pre-ordained that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet would not have any sons to inherit after their father. There is roughly a 3% chance (there's that word again) that a family of five children would have no sons, so in a way, Mrs. Bennet is right--chance is operating against them.

Which leads us to the other main discussion of "chance," namely the conversation among the Netherfield party of the chances of the Bennet girls marrying well. Mr. Darcy is and Miss Bingley adamant--and sadly correct--that the girls' relatively small fortunes and low connections will hinder their ability to make an advantageous match. This is intimately connected with the entail and the fact that the girls' dowry is limited by it. Here the two meanings are united, as the chance of their birth has diminished their opportunities of improving upon their situation.

There's further exploration to be made on this topic, building from the various discussion of games of chance, of winning and losing, and the stakes involved. Mr. Collins, upon losing at a gambling game at Mrs. Phillips' party, comments that loss at a game of chance is part of life, and that he is not a position to bemoan the loss of a few pounds, in a speech which both serves as a complaint about having lost and a boast of his financial status. Elizabeth, on the other hand, abstains from a card game while staying at Netherfield because she is afraid that the stakes would be too high for her--and it is this abstention which leads to the famous discussion of reading. However, I think I might return to this topic at the end of the book, for chance plays a large role in its outcome, so I shall just throw these ideas out there and let them stew for a while.

Because I have some catch-up to do, expect my write-ups of Volumes 2 and 3 to follow soon.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Austen 2014: Introduction to Pride & Prejudice

When I planned my year-long Austen marathon, I didn't realize I'd be spending a full third of June away from home, so the schedule has rather gotten away from me. However, I allotted enough cushion time that I should be able to get back on track over the next few weeks or so, as we tackle Austen's most popular novel, and one of the most popular novels ever written: Pride and Prejudice. To attempt to write an introduction to one of the most read, studied, and influential novels ever is sheer folly. However, I promised to do so, and for what do we live, if not to make sport for our neighbors, and to laugh at them, in our turn?

When was it written? 

As with the two other "early" novels, Austen largely wrote Pride and Prejudice in the mid-late 1790's, meaning she was rough twenty-one when she completed it in its initial state, under the name First Impressions. She revised the work in 1811-12, changing to name to Pride and Prejudice in what was almost certainly a reference to one of Austen's favorite novels, Fanny Burney's Cecilia. Considering that it was published after the success of Sense & Sensibility, it may also have been an attempt at what we would now call branding, allowing readers to associate this new novel with the one they'd already read and enjoyed by the same author. It was published in January 1813, and though it sold very well, Austen sold all the rights to the novel outright rather than receiving a share of the sales, so she didn't profit from it as she might have done. Needless to say, in the two hundred years since it was first published, it has gone through innumerable editions, and was translated into French the same year it was published in English.

What's it about?

You already know this, right? Well, if you don't: Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have five daughters, and Mrs. Bennet is determined to see them all married--well. The eldest, Jane, is the handsomest of the group; the youngest, Lydia, the wildest; the next older, Kitty, lives largely in Lydia's shadow; and the middle daughter, Mary, is bookish and rather overly serious. It is the second daughter, Elizabeth, usually called Eliza or Lizzy, however, who is our main character. Intelligent, witty, and with rather fine eyes, Elizabeth Bennet is also quite headstrong and has a tendency to let her judgment be guided by her emotions. So, when she meets a rather aloof member of the landed gentry, Fitzwilliam Darcy, and hears him speak of her and her acquaintance in less than favorable terms, she takes an instant dislike to him. However, Darcy's friend Charles Bingley, a wealthy, single young man, who clearly is in want of a wife, takes a shine to Jane, so Elizabeth and Darcy are frequently thrown together. Over the course of the novel, they each, separately, fall in love with the other, and realize that first impressions often need to be revised, and that both pride and prejudice can stand in the way of true happiness.

In a way, Pride and Prejudice is a very dangerous book, because it is, more so than any other Austen novel (I'd argue), a fairy tale--and fairy tales are always dangerous, for they establish the false idea that, in this life, wickedness is punished and virtue is rewarded, frequently materially so. Elizabeth's father has not planned well, so though she is a gentleman's daughter, her future is not secure unless she marries well--meaning, marries rich. Our Lizzy, however, is a romantic, however, and wishes to marry for love. She's also a cynic, too, so she despairs of ever doing so. In Mr. Darcy, however, she finds a man who is handsome, wealthy, virtuous, and enough in love with her to defy the wishes of his aunt, many of his friends, and even, to some extent, his more rational judgment. She even persuades Mr. Darcy to laugh at himself when she teases him. This is not realistic romance--this is fantasy, the fantasy we all have of that perfect man or woman who will not only encourage us to be ourselves, but will allow us to do so in a very large house. Austen's other heroines marry clergymen--Catherine, Fanny, Elinor-- or marry someone relatively within their own sphere, such as Emma and Marianne do. Elizabeth, while a gentleman's daughter, is not truly wealthy, and has essentially no dowry. Mr. Darcy is one of the wealthiest men in England. He literally could marry anyone he chooses--and he chooses her. It's a realistic outcome only in the same way that, sometimes, in this world, crazy things do happen. But not often.

What this novel lacks in realism, however, it makes up in wit and charm. Its famous first sentences set the tone of ironic cleverness and witty phrasing that pervades the novel. Elizabeth and Darcy do not talk; they exchange witticisms and bon mots, Lizzy particularly being fond of the choice turn of phrase. To read this novel is to find delight in every paragraph and to revel in its playfulness and warmth. Austen herself, at least somewhat sarcastically, referred to it as being "too light, bright, and sparkling," and indeed, both the prose itself and the novel as a whole are rather jewel-like. Like a diamond, however, this book is harder than it looks, and it has a sharpness about both its characters and its world that is frequently lost when it is read as being "merely" a love story.

What should I be looking for when I read?

We all know about Lizzy and Darcy and their romance, so I'm going to really be looking for and examining those hard edges and cutting moments that often get smoothed over when people think about this book. I'll try to look for and highlight those sections that don't make it onto the big screen, those authorial asides that don't get remembered. In short, and I know this is hard, I'm going to try to read the book that Austen wrote, not the story that we all know before we even read it. As a very smart faculty member at my college said when we were discussing Hamlet, it's hard to talk about a play that's all quotations, meaning we had to get beyond what we thought we knew about the world's most famous play. I am sure I shall fall short, but what I want to try is to go beyond what everyone already knows about one of the world's most famous novels. 

We can swoon over Darcy later. :-)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Austen 2014: An Interlude -- Among the Janeites at the Jane Austen Summer Program

Last weekend, your humble blogger had the great pleasure of spending four days attending the second annual Jane Austen Summer Program (or JASP--I like to think of attendees as JASPers), organized by devoted Janeites among the faculty of UNC Chapel Hill's Department of English and Comparative Literature. The event, which blended lectures by scholars, group discussions, and Regency-themed entertainments, was focused on exploring--and perhaps reclaiming from relative disinterest--Austen's first published novel, Sense & Sensibility. But enough press release-style generalities: I'll give you the skinny on my first extended encounter with organized Jane Austen fandom. Spoiler alert: I'm already planning on going back next year.

But let's begin at the beginning. I arrived in Chapel Hill, a lovely city I look forward to exploring more in the future, on Thursday morning, and, in short order, met my on-line acquaintance Edward Scheinman, a UNC grad student who first alerted me to the program's existence and who wrote an endearing article about last year's inaugural event, tied to the 200th anniversary of Pride & Prejudice. This post will in no way equal his, either for humorous insight or prose style, so you may want to stop here.

As it was last year, the program was organized by James Thompson and Inger Brodey, faculty members at UNC, and after a welcome to the dozens assembled from Thompson, Inger (as everyone seems to call her, rather than the far more formal Dr. Brodey) took the podium for the opening lecture, a discussion of Marianne Dashwood and the cult of sensibility, and within minutes, I was furiously taking notes when not nodding along with her talk. It ranged wide and touches on the works of Rousseau and Goethe, among others, and almost made me like Marianne Dashwood as much as I do Elinor. Almost. During the Q&A, I asked her about altruism, as the cult of sensibility thought that morality grew largely from empathy--that's Rousseau through and through--which doesn't necessarily leave room for doing things simply because they're the right thing to do without any sort of "warm and fuzzy" feeling. Inger paused for a moment, replied that she hadn't thought much about that, and moved on to the next question. I sat down and felt sheepish.

One of the niftier (yes, niftier) components of the program were a series of brief "Context Corner" talks where a grad student walked those assembled through some of the facts of life and society that Jane Austen and her first readers would have been familiar with, but that most modern readers don't know. Over the course of the weekend, we learned about inheritance law, the Anglican Church, education, and medicine and illness in Austen's time; these brief presentations were followed by discussion sessions where, broken down into groups, the attendees had the chance to chew over both the text and the ideas presented by the various talks. My group, named after Barton Park, was led by two distinguished scholars, Charlotte Sussman and Robert Clark, who provided both guidance and insight, but, as at St. John's, our true instructor over the course of the conversations was Austen and her amazingly rich text. We brought many different backgrounds and viewpoints to the table, leading to some really wonderful explorations of the text. For example, one member of the Barton crew, a retired sheep farmer from Vermont, provided frequent and eloquent defenses of both Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood and the sensibility they embrace. Like Inger, she almost made me like Marianne as much as I like Elinor. Again...almost. These conversations, perhaps because, at their best, reminded me so much of a really good St. John's seminar, were certainly the highlights of the program for me. The lectures and panel discussions, however, were also quite good, ranging from discussions of Emma Thompson and Ang Lee's beautiful film adaptation of the novel, and the expanded role it creates for Margaret, to a discussion of political economy in the time of Austen. 

If the lectures and the group discussions represented the more academically inclined portions of the program, the dance lessons on Friday and Saturday were pure Janeite fun. We learned about a dozen dances, which were danced with varying degrees of elegance at Saturday evening's ball, for which many of the attendees dressed in Regency gowns, adding an air of glamour to the proceedings that my shorts/button-down combo decidedly did not. Still, the ball was a delight, and the evening demonstrated quite capably what Ted says so eloquently in his piece: it would be very easy to fall in love with an attractive stranger on such a night.

Oh, and the theaticals! There was a very funny theatrical presentation, based on Austen's youthful story, "Jack & Alice." Unlike her adult novels, her juvenilia, which I shall cover before the year is out, is almost uniformly silly, full of ridiculous, borderline surreal, jokes and plots that are impossible to follow, because she never actually meant them to function as real plots. For example, in "Jack & Alice," Alice is not really the main character, and Jack never actually appears. Still, the story is very funny, featuring echoes of ideas Austen would later play with in S&S, and made for a charming half hour.

All in all, the weekend was very enjoyable, reveling both in Austen's words and in the more enjoyable elements of her times, blending the approach of the scholar and the super-fan. If you're either, I recommend making a trek to Chapel Hill next June for a celebration of Emma--which may or may not be her masterpiece, depending on who you ask. (Dr. Thompson says it is; I'm inclined to argue.) In any case, I hope to see you there.

P.S.--Before the weekend was out, Inger told me that she'd been thinking over my question about altruism all weekend and that we should talk more about it sometime. We never got the chance to do so, but I'm already looking forward to what I can stump her with next year.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Austen 2014: Sense & Sensibility, Volume 3 and Wrap-Up

Willoughby!!!

Okay, let me back up a bit.

This third volume seems designed to complicate and confuse the clearly established opinions we held about our characters. Elinor comes to realize how far Mrs. Jennings' good nature and kindness can go when confronted with a bad situation, and learns that, while she may be silly, she's a much better person than many of her more sophisticated acquaintances. Indeed, even Mr. Palmer improves upon acquaintance. While Elinor (and the narrator, which are often one and the same) rightly condemns his generally bad-natured behavior toward his wife and mother-in-law, she realizes that he is more complicated than simply a one-dimensional figure defined solely by his surliness. Of course, Marianne's reassessment of Colonel Brandon is the most important change of opinion as far as the plot is concerned, but it is Elinor's encounter with Willoughby that I feel must strike any reader as Austen's clearest attempt at giving everyone--even her caddish villain--more depth than a lesser writer might.

Austen specializes in strong, funny, smart heroines and kind, upstanding, and worthy heroes, but she does a strong side business in caddish rogues who provide an obstacle for the happy couple(s) to overcome and to drive some plot mechanics along. In Northanger Abbey, of course, we had John Thorpe, who is really far too unappealing to arouse much interest, and Austen only briefly shows us Captain Tilney, the charming rake. Here, however, Austen decides to focus more on the novel's cad, and goes even so far as to give him a chance to defend and justify his actions. Not to spoil anything for any readers who haven't done all of Austen, as it were, but this is essentially unique. While every novel from here on out will feature a charming but morally deficient (to varying degrees) foil for the heroine and the hero, Willoughby is the only one who gets a chance to speak plainly and clearly about his behavior, without having to renounce his former feelings.

It's this dichotomy to Willoughby--his earnest love and respect for Marianne coupled with his vicious (in the Austenian sense) and weak moral character--that makes him such an interesting, and dangerous figure in the Austen canon. As he explains his behavior and lays his soul bare to her, even Elinor--sensible Elinor!--finds it impossible not to soften toward him. One can only imagine the effect his apologia would have had on Marianne or Mrs. Dashwood. Elinor struggles, but in the end, her awareness of his basic selfishness and lack of scruples, allows her to judge him, yet still find some mercy and understanding for him. While she forgives him some of his behavior toward her sisters and understands some of the choices he made thereafter, she cannot forget or forgive how her treated Eliza. It is this original sin which allows Elinor to realize that, however much he may try to explain himself, his behavior is fundamentally that of a villain. Their encounter, Willoughby all passionate exclamations and soul-baring confessions and Elinor, as ever, Elinor--steady, sensible, and strong--is my favorite passage in the novel, and one of my favorite in all of Austen.

But I called Willoughby dangerous for a reason. The combination he presents of surface charm, keen intelligence, and an overweening selfishness, is a potent one. Austen will return to it again and again, varying to mixture and the nature of the components, constantly examining the lines where charm becomes insincerity, where intelligence becomes cunning, and where general self-interest becomes destructive selfishness. She won't allow her charming but morally compromised figures to make a final speech in their defense again, however, for Austen knows that we, unlike Elinor, may not be able to remind ourselves that, however charming the package, what lies inside is dangerous.

On the whole, this novel is rather difficult for me to love uncritically. Like Northanger Abbey, it has a few rough edges which, while interesting and still fun, tend to poke through the otherwise smooth surface of the narrative. Every time I read the novel, I am reminded how thinly drawn Marianne is in comparison to Elinor. Of course, Elinor is our main viewpoint, so it would be nearly impossible for both to be equally delineated, but I feel that Marianne's storyline takes up too much of the narrative for her to remain so relatively underwritten. Austen may have felt this, as well, for there's never again an attempt at co-main characters. In her other novels, it is always clear whose story it is that we're getting.

Relatedly, because so much time is given over to Willoughby and Marianne's romance, and the sisters' stay in London, poor Edward Ferrars gets rather short shrift. He is charming and pleasant enough--the sort of amiable but aimless English gentleman who often appear in novels--but he isn't nearly as distinctive as the heroes who would come after him, nor does he even make as large an impression as Henry Tilney. Colonel Brandon, interestingly, is actually sketched more fully, partially because his tragic backstory gives him such an air, but partly because he actually spends, I think, more time "on-screen" than Edward. Austen is also, I feel, quite harsh in her depiction of Anne Steele, a silly woman who is well past prime-marrying age and who seems destined to remain forever the poor relation. Such a person hardly needs to be the target of satire, something, again, I think Austen realized and would actually use to her advantage in her depiction of Miss Bates in Emma.

But these objections pale in comparison to the sheer joy I've taken in rereading this book. Elinor is such a wonderful character, wise beyond her years, but still playful and fun, that she's a delight to spend time with and it's a privilege to see the world through her eyes. While it's always dangerous to read anything of Austen's life into her works, in my mind, Elinor is the closest we have to a direct Austen surrogate. Catherine is young and naive, Elizabeth is far too witty to be real, Fanny far too modest and mousy to be an authorial stand-in, Emma is imperious and privileged in a way Austen never ways, and even Austen herself though Anne Elliott was "too good" for her. No, for me, Austen is Elinor--a wise, funny, but compassionate woman, for whom doing the right thing was paramount, but who knew how to laugh at others, and herself, along the way.

Next up, and intro (as if such a thing is needed) to Austen's most famous work: Pride & Prejudice.