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.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

On Comic Book and Super-hero Movies

A few weeks back, Dana Stevens, film critic at Slate.com and co-host of the excellent Slate Culture Gabfest, recorded one of her trademark Spoiler Special podcasts about Captain America: TWS. I recommend both of these podcasts series, in particular the Spoiler Specials, as they allow an intelligent, insightful film critic to chew over a recent movie without having to worry about giving anything away, since that's the whole idea. Anyway, on the CA:TWS podcast, Dana (we're friendly on Twitter, so I'll use her first name) discusses the movie with Forrest Whickman and admits that she is begrudgingly starting to accept that comic book and super-hero movies are here to stay and that her role isn't merely to dismiss them all out of hand (not that she did that, though I think she sometimes wished she could) but rather to separate the good from the bad. In my opinion, she's exactly right, but I don't think she goes quite far enough.

First, because I was a philosophy major, let's make sure we define some terms. Comic books movies are movies adapted from comic books, taking either their characters or storylines from comics or their more grown-up cousin, graphic novels. Super-hero movies are just that: movies featuring super-heroes. The former encompasses films as diverse as Persepolis and The Avengers, as well as Kick-Ass and 300. Super-hero movies are narrower in focus, as they share not a source, but a topic: namely, super-powered individuals. People who dismiss "comic book movies" out of hand are doing themselves and, if they are critics, the public, a serious disservice. Just as it would be absurd to pooh-pooh all literary adaptations, or movies based on plays or biographies, comic book movies must not be treated as a whole, for they do not cohere as a genre any more than those other categories do. So, let's stop talking about "comic book movies" as if they were all the same genre, okay?

Many comic book adaptations, of course, do center on super-heroes. Super-hero movies, on the whole, do tend to share certain structural, character, and thematic elements and can be considered, I would say, as a loosely defined genre. However, like all major genres: noir, comedy, horror, science fiction, etc., there are good and bad examples. Also, many films that fall largely within one genre or another will have elements of others. The Incredibles, for example, is most certainly a super-hero movie, but it has many comedic elements, and belongs to that nebulous genre known as "family films." The Dark Knight, which has about as much in common with The Incredibles as a fish does with a gibbon, takes in large crime thriller and noir elements. The first Captain America film, meanwhile, was largely a World War II film, while the second borrowed heavily from conspiracy thrillers.

All this is to say that, like super-hero comic books, super-hero movies embrace a wide variety of tones and storytelling techniques. People who never read comic books may think that all super-hero comics are the same, which is just ridiculous. True, there can be trends in super-hero comics--the silliness of the 50s or the dark, more "realistic" treatments of recent years--but no matter what the prevailing trend is, no-one could mistake a Punisher comic for one featuring Spider-Man or the X-Men, let alone the differences between Marvel and DC that have led to countless nerd-on-nerd battles. (Marvel's better, btw.) There are differences in tone, story structure, character, and even moral and thematic elements that delineate all the characters and their respective books. Even though I have no doubt that The Dark Knight was a very good movie, I didn't really like it that much, because it just wasn't my groove, whereas Thor, while certainly a sillier film, was fun and over-all lighter in tone, and I therefore enjoyed it more, as that's what I want from my super-hero stories.

So, in conclusion: 1) "comic book movie" is so broad a term as to be almost meaningless, so use it carefully, and 2) understand that "super-hero movie" is a genre, and just as with any other genre, there will be examples of it that are good, bad, and indifferent, but just as one bad horror movie shouldn't be used to condemn all horror, one duff super-hero flick isn't proof that the genre is empty.

Post-script: Dana also mentioned that she was growing tired of the various Marvel universe films linking together so tightly as not to stand alone entirely. While I think she overstates the case--indeed, my boyfriend saw CA:TWS without having seen the first Cap flick or many of the other Marvel films and enjoyed it tremendously--she is getting at something real. Marvel Studios is doing something almost unheard of in cinema: building a shared universe where all their films and characters co-exist. Indeed, they are recreating the Marvel comic universe (or at least the part of it they have the rights to) on-screen. To do this, they are taking a technique from comics themselves, whereby the last pages, or a few random panels here and there are, instead of pushing forward the main story of that issue, building toward a larger overall narrative or foreshadowing events that may not pay off for quite some time. While this is obviously a way of building excitement, and thereby guaranteeing that people buy the next issue or see the next movie, it also creates a richer overall environment, allowing the reader and viewer to place these disparate adventures into an overall context, adding, oddly enough, to the sense of reality for all of them.

Post-post-script: You should follow Dana on Twitter: @thehighsign. Just sayin'.

Austen 2014: Sense & Sensibility, Volume 2

Again, yes, late. I know, I know. Anyway...Austen!

While it is easy to take the two traits described in the title and ascribe one each to each of the Dashwood sisters, that is clearly an overly simplistic reading of the novel. Yes, Elinor is often guided by her good sense and Marianne frequently lets her romantic sensibilities overcome her, but they are both more than that. Elinor's distress upon seeing Marianne so hurt by Willoughby (and yes, I'll talk about him later, at length) is a clear demonstration of the strong emotional core that she contains, and Marianne's sense is stated flatly by the narrator when she introduces the character and is shown to us multiple times through her actions. Most notably, while she is sullen and often distant during this volume, either waiting for the letter from Willoughby that never arrives or reeling from the shock of his rejection, she still makes some effort at functioning in society, if only in a minimal capacity. She also demonstrates enough sense to be guided by her sister several times, trusting to Elinor to be sensible for the both of them, just as she trusts that Elinor shall be well enough for the both of them when Edward comes to visit.

Still, Austen is clearly playing with the two contrasting but complementary notions of sense and sensibility, and showing the various forms the deficiency or excess of either can take. Those lacking sense can include Mrs. Palmer, Mrs. Jennings, Sir John, the elder Miss Steele, and the various other stupid characters, but also the vacuous characters who are merely slaves to fashion, such as Lady Middleton and Robert Ferrars. Indeed, Robert Ferrars is a wonderful skewering of the purposeless fashionable male. Austen's heroes either have actual professions or take their responsibilities as landlords and masters very seriously; they do not lead frivolous lives of pleasure. Robert, on the other hand, has no profession except being fashionable, and his mother's refusal to grant her sons independence fosters this lifestyle by keeping him from having to bear responsibility from anything or anyone except himself.

Mr. Palmer, on the other hand, suffers from an excess of sense in relation to his sensibility level. In other words, he's a heartless jerk. The same is true of John and Fanny Dashwood, two of the more odious characters in Austen. John Dashwood, for his part, seems to have some small amount of feeling for his sisters, but he lets his greed and his wife's coldness overrule what little is there. Indeed, it's possible that, had John married a kinder woman, he would be a better man; just the same, if Mr. Palmer had married a less silly woman, he might not be so unpleasant. The same is arguably true for Willoughby, though I think his fault lies neither with sense nor sensibility, but for a third metric Austen is always examining: moral strength. The same is possibly true of Lucy Steele, though I think she lacks any real feeling but has enough sense to know to pretend to do so. Indeed, if Willoughby were deficient in either sense or feeling, he would not have captured the heart of Marianne, nor would he have won the good opinion of Elinor, which he certainly did during their time together in Devon.

Of our main characters, then, the only ones who seem to have sufficient levels of both sense and sensibility--as well as a strong moral sense--are our two heroines and Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon. Edward is not nearly so insensible of feelings and beauty as Marianne would exclaim, which his real affection for the Dashwood family indicates; and Colonel Brandon, though quiet, clearly is at least partly reserved because his emotions are so strong that he must constantly work to keep them in check. In this way, he's a forerunner to the brooding Byronic hero, a wounded man with a dark and secret past, misunderstood by society and full of feeling. Brandon, however, is a gentleman, so he doesn't walk around saying, "Look at me, I'm dark and brooding!" These four characters, then, must surely end up together, for they also all possess a fine moral strength where they not only can know and/or feel what the right thing is to do but actually do it.

The fifth person whom Austen describes as having both good sense and a strong sensibility is, as mentioned above, Willoughby, but he is morally weak. If Brandon's personality is like Willoughby's but in a minor key--sadder and more dour--then Willoughby's morality is the inverse; where Brandon is strong, Willoughby is weak. Their briefly mentioned duel, while in keeping with the narrative that Austen gives Brandon, has no real place in the less dramatic world of the rest of the novel, so it happens off-stage, as it were, and isn't focused on at all. It does, however, serve as a proxy for the relationship between the two men as rivals for Marianne's affections. The last third of the novel, however, complicates the matter still further, for there, finally, Willoughby tells his story...

Coming soon!


Monday, April 21, 2014

Austen 2014: Sense & Sensibility, Volume 1

Yes, this is very late. Life, etc. Anyway, Austen!

There's a lot to cover in this first volume, and it's tempting to start with the Dashwood sisters' respective romances, but I'm more immediately struck by the sheer vulgarity of many of the characters who surround them. Sir John is welcoming and magnanimous, but ultimately full of sound and fury signifying very little, indeed. Mrs. Jennings, while almost certainly a kind and good-hearted woman, has possibly the worst manners in all of Austen. Lady Middleton, her daughter, is better only for two reasons: she is quiet, and she's terrified of seeming coarse. Clearly, she rebelled against her mother's model, but become so obsessed with appearances and status that she has absolutely nothing else to contribute, aside from some very obnoxious children. Mrs. Jennings other daughter, Mrs. Palmer, takes after her mother in terms of temperament and volume, and her husband is so embittered and angry as to resemble a viper. And let's not forget Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood, who, while smoother on the surface, are far more vicious than Mrs. Jennings and her clan could ever be, as they do not just emotional damage to the Dashwood women, but material, financial damage. The fact that the Mrs. Dashwood and the girls are able to cling to gentility at all is largely due to the fact that Sir John is so gracious.

And here is where we come to the Steele sisters. Anne and Lucy Steele are aptly named--not a trick Austen uses frequently, so it's worth noting. Not only are they hard, but they have been tempered--especially Lucy. They are decidedly the "poor relations," so the reader's sympathy is immediately given to them. However, Austen complicates that sympathy by having the behave quite badly. Anne quickly displays herself to be vacuous and desperate--a woman approaching thirty who must certainly know that she ill likely never get married and who chatters inanely about "beaux" to hide her terror. Lucy, however, is more subtle. She's clever, and she knows how to ingratiate. She knows her claim on a place at Barton Park is tenuous, so she makes sure that Lady Middleton is aware of how much she loves children--especially Lady Middleton's. More central to our story, she forces a confidence on Elinor about her and Edward Ferrars' secret engagement. Clearly, as Elinor is unaware, but Austen takes pains to show us, Lucy knows *exactly* who Elinor is to Edward, but also knows that Elinor, being Elinor, will behave entirely properly. If Lucy can't trust Edward to hold up his end of their engagement, she figures, she can certainly make sure that Elinor doesn't encourage his affections.

However, Lucy and Anne provide a dark mirror through which to look at Elinor and Marianne. Anne, like Marianne, tends to focus on the amorous side of life, though Marianne's youth and innocence (and greater degree of sense) makes her sighs rapturous instead of course. Anne, though, is a twisted image of what Marianne might become were she to be disappointed--perhaps repeatedly--in her attempt to find love. And clearly Lucy, who combines both a good mind and a pleasing manner, is a distorted Elinor, who is able to command her feelings to achieve her desired aims. Moreover, both Dashwood sisters must realize that, should they fail to marry well, and soon, little stands between them and the Misses Steele.

This is because the most important similarity between the two pairs lies in their similar lack of financial security. When Marianne complains about the "hard terms" the family has to endure living at Barton Cottage, she is speaking an unpleasant truth: they owe their relatively comfortable position almost entirely to the generosity and benevolence of others--namely Sir John--and in exchange they must socialize with people for whom they care very little. Their continued presence at Barton requires that Sir John remain happy to have them. Fortunately for them, Sir John seems fairly firm in his like and respect for the Dashwoods. But not all people who hold sway over the fortunes over young people are so sensible,as the brief mentions we've seen of Edward and Fanny's mother, Mrs. Ferrars, make quite plain. All the young people in this book--including Willoughby, about whom much much more later--owe whatever comfort they have to older relatives who can remove that comfort at a moment's notice. They are all susceptible to what Willoughby describes as "the privilege of riches upon a poor, dependent cousin;" and in this world, that means none of them are free to create their own lives and to build their happiness. And so, they wait. And hope. Elinor, Edward, Lucy, Anne, Willoughby, Marianne--all are in holding patterns, waiting to see what comes next, and hoping to either make it through unscathed, or, in some cases, profit by it. How these characters fare with what the rest of the novels holds in store for them goes a long way toward dictating their future happiness.

I know I'm already late with Volume 2, but the plan is to have to published by the end of April and the jump back on track. Fingers crossed!