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!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Austen 2014: Introduction to Sense & Sensibility

So, before we begin our second leg of Austen 2014, a few words of introduction regarding Austen's first published novel, and the first of the three that are most widely known, Sense & Sensibility. Remember, this is *an* introduction--not *the* introduction. In fact, while it is *my* introduction, there are almost certainly much better ones out there, and I encourage you to seek them out.

When was it written?

Because it was published in Austen's lifetime, we can be much more certain about the dates for S&S than we were for Northanger Abbey. (Which, did I ever mention, wasn't necessarily even Austen's own choice of title for that book? She always referred to it by the main characters first name--first Susan, later Catherine. Her brother named it when he prepared it for publication after her death. The same is true of Persuasion. But back to the matter at hand.) Austen wrote S&S in the 1790's as an epistolary novel, then revised it and published it anonymously, credited only as "A Lady" (a nom de plume my one, very welcome, commenter has cheekily adopted for him or herself). She paid for it to be published, at quite a cost to herself and her family, but she ended up making a not unsubstantial profit from the book, and it was certainly popular enough that her later novels were advertised as being "by the Author of Sense & Sensibility." Overall, I think it's safe to say that the warm reception S&S received convinced both Austen and her family that her talents would be appreciated by the wider reading public and not just the intimate family circle. From this time on, she published, on average, a novel every 18 months or so until her death in 1817.

What's it about?

As I stated earlier, within the basic marriage plot that Austen uses for all of her novels, she finds great variance by changing the co-ordinates. In S&S, she takes the basic pattern and doubles it by presenting a pair of sisters as, essentially, co-equal protagonists. What this allows her to do is to problematize and enrich each sisters' narrative by having them constantly mirror each other in different ways. Originally named after the sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Austen deliberately chose to rename her novel after two abstract ideas much in vogue at the time, and while it's tempting to identify Elinor as "Sense" and Marianne as "Sensibility," that oversimplifies the novel's moral balance and does a disservice to both sisters, and to their creator's judgment. To an extent, Austen is parodying and working within the confines of the "novel of sensibility," though it's nowhere near as explicit or focused as NA's dealings parody of the Gothic novel, and this novels requires much less explanation of references, for example.

This dual structure, of course, also allows Austen to tell two stories at once. Elinor, the older of the two sisters (and, arguably, the true viewpoint character, though more of that later), meets a man and falls in love, though they find themselves separated by external circumstances. Marianne, the younger sister, also meets a man, and she and he embark on a great, passionate, if still chaste, relationship, which is similarly suspended due to outside influence. The reactions each sister has to her disappointment, and the eventual resolution of their relationships, provide the structure for the novel. Oh, and there's a rather bizarre story about a mother and a daughter who share the same name and meet a similar, unpleasant end--plus, what might be the very earliest incarnation of that modern phenomenon: the drunk dial.

What should I be looking for when I read?

Well, obviously, the differences and balances between sense and sensibility--and indeed, what Austen even means by those terms--are certainly good places to start. However, there are other questions the novel raises.

For example, while money certainly plays a role in NA, it's largely in the Isabella subplot and in the General's mistaken opinions (in both directions) as to Catherine's fortune. In S&S, however, money--and more specifically, the lack thereof--is a recurring theme, from the very first pages to the final resolution of the novel. The Dashwood sisters are forced from their childhood home when their father dies and leaves them with very little money due to inheritance rules. Several other characters have decidedly mercenary motives, and money concerns are never far from the sisters' minds. Of course, the fact that they can be so easily disinherited because they are women once again immediately invites the reader to think of the sexual politics of the day and the way they permeate the novel.

This is also a novel of secrets and withheld information. Over the course of the novel, *all* of the main characters withhold vital pieces of information, even the sisters from each other, but they all do so for very different reasons. Rest assured, this is not one of those stories where, simply to draw out the story, important revelations are saved until the end. Rather, Austen looks at the various ways that information flows from person to person and how societal bonds and expectations can constrict that flow. Do you keep your promise to a person you don't like? Do you disclose damaging information about one member of a couple to the other, even if you believe the couple to be happy? And so on.

The last thing I would call your attention to before letting you loose is structural. We know that this novel was originally written entirely in letters--are there traces of that still? Aside from making it less archaic, what does the shift to third-person narration allow Austen to do?

So, we'll reconvene back here in a few weeks for Volume 1 of Jane Austen's Sense & Sensibility. N.B.: In most modern editions, which do away with volume divisions, Volume 1 ends with Chapter 23, Volume 2 covers Chapter 24-42, and Volume 3 covers Chapters 43-61, otherwise known as the end of the book. Any questions, ideas, suggestions, niggles, or broadsides? Leave a comment here or over on Twitter, @Austen2014 for the project, @sjcAustenite for your humble blogger.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Austen 2014: Northanger Abbey, Volume 2 and Wrap-Up

N.B.--As this is my final post on Northanger Abbey, the entire novel is fair game, so be warned: spoilers ahead for those of you who may not have finished.

Well, that was charming, wasn't it?

That may sound like damning with faint praise, but a charming novel--especially one that doesn't wear out its welcome--is not something to be underestimated. It's certainly not Austen's densest or most complicated work, but it's no less enjoyable for being relatively simple and straightforward. Indeed, Catherine meets Henry almost immediately, and, save for the ham-fisted interference of the odious John Thorpe, no real obstacle to their eventual union presents itself until the very end, at which point, as even the author concedes shortly thereafter in a different context, there are too few pages left in the book to believe the General's interference will long prevent Catherine and Henry's engagement. Moreover, the relative lack of side characters (there are really only five or six characters who actions shape the plot) or subplots (James and Isabella are the only "mirror couple" in the novel, and we barely see them, cf. Jane and Bingley, Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, etc.) makes Northanger both a good introduction to Austen's works, but also a poor representative of them.

However, there are three things that I think Northanger has that truly set it apart: namely, Henry Tilney, General Tilney, and Catherine herself. The other main characters--Eleanor and Isabella, chiefly--reiterate themselves in the later works, with Eleanor arguably morphing over time into Anne Elliot of Persuasion. Henry, the General, and Catherine, however, strike me as more or less unique in Austen.

Let's start with Henry. From the moment we meet him, Henry is, aside from being fairly handsome, witty, cynical, sarcastic, arch, charming, and just about perfect. That last point is important because, unlike later Austen heroes, Henry's character never presents any obstacle for either the heroine or the plot to overcome, save the fact that he seems to delay proposing to Catherine just long enough for the General to pitch a fit. He even knows about muslins, which makes Mrs. Allen like him immediately. Indeed, the exchange about muslins is typically Henry--he displays a knowledge not necessarily expected from one of his station (see also his love of Gothic novels), while also commenting on it quite archly, but also revealing his kindness and goodness.

In this instance, his knowledge of muslins--and the fact that he makes it clear he knows them for his sister's sake--gives us a very good picture of his role in his sister's life. Our later time at Northanger Abbey completes the picture. Obviously, since her mother died at thirteen, Eleanor has been very much alone. Unlike similarly situated young women in other Austen novels, Eleanor has neither sister(s) nor nearby friend(s) nor any sort of companion, paid or otherwise. What she has is Henry. And Henry, being a genuinely good and caring man, isn't afraid to learn about "feminine" things like muslin--or Gothic novels--if it means he can bring happiness to his sister. Henry is, therefore, a combination of circumstance and innate character, and much of his personality can be read as a direct response against his father's.

But this quality of kindness toward a much beloved sister--a trait shared by at least one author Austen hero and evinced in others--is counterbalanced by an archness and tendency toward sarcasm that is unique among her heroes. Like a male Elizabeth Bennet, Henry Tilney combines the soul of a gentleman with vivacity, wit, and charm. The feasibility of combining all of these qualities together in one person is a question that Austen will return to, especially in Mansfield Park, but she never again does so via the hero's personality the same way she does with Henry.  

Also unique in Austen is the role General Tilney plays. The good (sic) General is a male authority figure who a) takes an active interest in his children's lives and 2) plays the part of the older villain. To take the second point first (because it's my blog and I want to), Austen often has an older character who either actively or accidentally conspires to keep the hero and heroine apart. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is the most famous example of this character type, but variations appear in many of her books, though, with the exception of the General, they are all female. This ties in with my first point about him, namely, that he is very interested in his children's lives and their marital futures. Again, this is not uncommon--Mrs. Bennet shares this trait, and Mrs. Norris is constantly matchmaking. However, again, General Tilney is the only male authority figure who exerts the power of the patriarch to play a key role in determining his children's fate...until we come to Sir Thomas Bertram, about whom much more much later. The General, however, is much more in the Mrs. Norris/Lady Catherine mold--a meddling, petty person who wants to control his children's lives, but who can ultimately be overcome by the power of love and titles. Sir Thomas is sui generis in that he is, alternately, both and ally and opponent of our heroine and goes on quite the journey himself. But, as I said, more on him later.

The General, however, along with the Thorpes, does represent a real threat to our heroine's happiness, and, in that sense, much be viewed as the villain of the piece. The Thorpes, mainly because they are so bad at what they do and they have so little power of their own, are in fact quite pitiable in some ways and are almost too pathetic to be real villains. In the General, however, Austen portrays a true obstacle to her happy ending. And as a final twist on her Gothic parody, Austen has the General strike just as Catherine had lost her final illusion about the world's similarities to Mrs. Radcliffe's novels. Following Henry's very sobering speech, Catherine resolves to live in the real world, where people live by laws and codes of conduct--and then the General turns her from the house in a manner that must be strikingly rude even to modern readers. At the time of the novel's writing, his treatment of Catherine would have appeared even more vicious considering the fact that he forces her from the house on a Sunday and makes her travel all day. At a time when Sundays consisted of two separate church services and very little else, missing both and travelling all day was certainly not behavior for a young lady to engage in. Therefore, not only is he a bad host, but the General is a bad Christian. While he didn't lock up or murder his wife, he does violate any number of social mores, associates with unsavory types (how else does one encounter John Thorpe in London?), and shows a coldness toward his only daughter that justifies Catherine's judgment of him not being fundamentally a very nice man. Catherine learns--and perhaps Henry does, too--that while Gothic tales are not to be confused with reality, the real world is full of enough wicked men and deceptive women to fill any three volume novel.

Which leaves us only with Catherine. Catherine gets short shrift from Austen devotees--and while I'd like to say she's my favorite, I'd rather not lie to all two of you reading this. Catherine is very young when she sets out for Bath--indeed, we see glimpses of her in childhood in the opening passages, which is not something we see from the other heroines--and even by the end, Catherine feels, if more mature, still rather...unfinished. The extent to which women are completed by, shaped by, and educated by the men in their lives--particularly their husbands--is another motif that floats through Austen. For readers most familiar with Pride & Prejudice, this may come as something of a surprise, because Lizzie and Darcy rather complete each other. However, that is only one variant of the dynamics Austen is exploring, and in Northanger, we see another: namely, Catherine is still quite young, and while she has a good amount of independence of mind and a strong moral center, much of her continued development will clearly be guided and shaped by her marriage to Henry. Catherine at twenty-seven or thirty-seven will be a very different person from the girl of seventeen who accepts Henry's hand, in a way that doesn't seem to be as true for other Austen heroines--though, as she often does, Austen complicates this scenario in several of her books. However, discussions of those books' heroines will have to wait at least a little longer.

And that's Northanger Abbey. To be honest, even when I'm reading Northanger, it's not my favorite Austen. Though it does have some of my favorite moments in Austen (every novel of hers has at least some of those), and it features my favorite Austen hero in Henry Tilney (God, he makes Darcy look downright dull), as reference above, it simply feels slighter to me than her best work does. The literary parody, while well done from a comic perspective, isn't quite engaging enough, and the comparative simplicity of the story means that the second half of the novel feels somewhat anti-climactic. Once it's clear that Henry loves Catherine, which happens pretty much as soon as they arrive at Northanger, the rest feels unimportant. While I feel bad for the fictional James Morland, his broken engagement to Isabella never really touches on the main story-line. Austen would, I feel, learn from this and structure later books in such a way that the actions of the secondary characters (Lydia, Frank Churchill, even Maria Bertram-Rushworth) would directly impact our heroes and heroines. Still, as my senior thesis adviser once wrote, "Jane Austen wrote a perfect number of perfect novels," and while I find Northanger's perfection to be of a lesser nature, it is still a perfect book, and one I am sure I will return to before long to read for the n+1th time.

At some point, I'll do a separate post on the two filmed adaptations of Northanger, as well as revisiting Bath before ending the year there with Persuasion. But, for now, it's time to looks ahead to our next book: Sense & Sensibility, as the Misses Dashwood accompany us through spring.

Don't forget: @Austen2014 & #Austen2014. Or follow my personal account; @sjcAustenite.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Austen 2014: Northanger Abbey, Volume 1

N.B.--I will only be writing here about the first volume of Northanger Abbey, which concludes with Chapter 15, dealing with James and Isabella's engagement. While knowledge of the novel's resolution may inform my writing, I will try not to give away pertinent plot details unless unavoidable.

 The tone of each of Jane Austen's novels, I feel, can be graphed using three main co-ordinates: the characters of the heroine, the hero, and the heroine's confidante. Now, of course, this oversimplifies the situation, as Austen is far too complex and subtle an author to be graphed using any number of co-ordinates, but it's useful for comparison. For example, in Pride & Prejudice, it is the relationships that Elizabeth has with Darcy and her sister Jane, and, indeed, Darcy's assessment of Jane, that define much of how the novel progresses. In Sense & Sensibility, the structure is complicated by essentially having co-heroines, but that just makes the importance of the relationship between them even more important (each is the confidante to the other's heroine at different times). In Mansfield Park, Austen will complicate the triangle by essentially overlaying two of the data points, a trick she'll repeat in Emma, with a twist. In Persuasion, she largely abandons the confidante role, a choice which underpins must of the central thrust of that book.We'll deal with these all later, of course, because we're talking here about Catherine Morland.

As Austen writes, no-one who meets Catherine could mistake her for the heroine of a novel. I'll address those opening lines more fully below later, but the remarkable thing about Catherine is how un-remarkable she is. She is a young woman of 17, with very little experience and education, come to Bath to be happy, and her raptures and sulks must remind any modern reader of the same upward and downward swings experienced by every adolescent girl (and boy) since. What forces Catherine onto a path of discovering who she is, unique from everyone else, are the people in Bath who come to play roles of her hero and confidante.

Henry Tilney, of course, is her chosen hero; from the first moment they met, Catherine was smitten, and she proceeded to fall deeper and deeper into smit with every subsequent meeting. There is, however, always the specter of John Thorpe to be reckoned with. Not a proper rival, rather more of a distraction, he still serves to confuse the issue and separate Catherine from both Tilneys. The choice of hero, however, is always clear.

In her choice of confidante, however, Catherine is more torn. Isabella, of course, is her oldest and dearest friend in Bath--their acquaintance having lasted the better part of a fortnight and several volumes of Udolpho. However, we have all been party to friendships that arise quickly, and just as quickly take on great import. Given Isabella's superficially charming nature and her willingness to push for more and more intimacy with her new friend Catherine, it's not surprising that the younger woman relents and, more importantly, feels special and loved for who she is.

Miss Eleanor Tilney, on the other hand, is not quick to push intimacies, and is actually, while not cold, certainly much less effusive than Isabella. She seems very pleased to make Catherine's acquaintance, but their friendship develops much more slowly--and much more traditionally for the era. Moreover, Austen plays an interesting trick whereby so much of the focus is on Henry Tilney in the scenes they share together, and Eleanor is given so little dialogue, comparatively, that Eleanor is something of a cypher.

So, as we conclude Volume 1, the battle lines are being drawn. Catherine loves Isabella--who is soon to be her sister by marriage--but she is repulsed by her brother. She also loves Henry Tilney (or is very near to it), but she is mainly curious about Eleanor at this stage because she is *his* sister. Being torn between Thorpes and Tilneys seems a very precarious position, indeed.


While reading Volume 1, I was struck afresh by how the first sentence, "No one who had seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be a heroine," brought into play three key ideas that would percolate throughout the rest of the text. Aside from showing Austen to be an idiosyncratic comma user, this first sentence also raises three "-ists" that Austen certainly was, and that get borne out by later passages, namely: a novelist, a satirist, and a feminist. 

Obviously, her standing as a novelist is clear. But Austen here is speaking of a novelist who is a reader of novels--she is creating the sort of art that she wishes to see in the world. If everyday novel writers think Catherine is too dull or everyday to be the subject of a novel, well, Austen will show how that simply isn't true. In the process, she helped create the realistic novel, a genre that largely didn't exist before her time and didn't really come to the fore until later in the 19th century. The great earlier works of Richardson and Fielding were highly exaggerated, either for humorous or emotional effect, and we certainly know how far from reality the Gothic fiction of Mrs. Radcliffe was. Austen is doing something very different here, self-consciously bringing the novel into the real world. That said, as she makes it clear, she adores the novels of earlier writers, and ensures that her characters do, too, since if fellow novels writers can't speak well of each other, who can?

However, as Austen was a satirist, the more ridiculous flights of fancy of both the Gothic and the sentimental novel come in for criticism in Northanger Abbey. While the Gothic elements really come to the fore in the latter half of the novel, once we get to the titular abbey (it's coming, I promise), we already see Austen subverting the tropes of Gothic fiction for her own ends. For example, instead of having her heroine kidnapped by a cruel and vicious count, Austen has Catherine taken against her well on an open-topped carriage ride instead of going walking with the Tilneys. She's taking the emotional beats of the Gothic story, as it were, and applying them to real-life situations. She also pokes fun at the excesses of the sentimental novel, making it clear that, while Catherine is upset by things that go against her, she's generally of good spirits and doesn't spend days, or even hours, weeping her life away. She also is decidedly imperfect, which is another reason many authors might have found her lacking a certain something a heroine requires.

Lastly, and perhaps most subtly, Austen was a feminist. Now, obviously, we can't know where Austen would have stood on questions of equal pay, or even voting rights for women, as those issues were far, far beyond her time. Mary Wollstonecraft, the grandmother of the feminist movement, was just a generation older than Austen, and her major works involved proving that women were not naturally inferior to men with regard to reason, and that only lack of education made it seem so. Indeed, these questions are taken up strongly in Austen, particularly in Northanger Abbey, where Eleanor Tilney avows that her brother believes there to be no difference in rational capacity between men and women and we're clearly meant to see that this paints him as an intelligent, insightful man.

Back to that first sentence: part of the reason Catherine is so unsuitable as a heroine is because heroines are meant to be paragons of distinctly *female* virtue. Catherine is, depressingly, like every other human before or since, in that she never earned anything she wasn't taught, and sometimes struggled even then. Austen is making it clear--there is nothing about her sex that impairs Catherine being a better student. Rather, it's the fact that she's just not that into the subject matter--possibly because history (for example) is so dull when it's all stories of men, with hardly any women at all. Two hundred years ago, Catherine Morland, and Jane Austen, were asking for a feminist history.


There's a lot in Volume 1 I didn't touch on: the characterizations of the vapid Mrs. Allen and Mrs. Thorpe, each defined by their obsession with one thing; Henry Tilney's decidedly odd personality (which I will be dealing with later--don't you worry); the striking lack of parental, especially maternal, oversight that Catherine experiences (a recurring trend in Austen); the implication of Catherine's moral superiority to her brother (James thinks she should break her plans with Eleanor Tilney); the difficulty in determining character's moralities based upon the art they consume (Shouldn't Henry, intelligent, well-educated, man of the cloth Henry, be "above" the Gothic fictions that Catherine and Isabella love? No, because that's not how it works.); and one of the most famous and extended discussions of marriage in all of Austen, Henry's long discourse comparing it to a country dance. As mentioned, some of these will receive better treatment in the fullness of time, but others will simply go on the pile of "ideas I never got to." 

Now's your chance--tell me, in the comments or over on Twitter (@Austen2014, #Austen2014), what stood out to you about the book so far? Is this your first time reading it? Or reading Austen generally? If so, is it what you expected? If someone expresses an interest in a particular topic of theme, I'm much more likely to write about it. Of course, as illustrated above, I am rarely at a loss regarding what to say about Austen. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Austen 2014: Introduction to Northanger Abbey

Below is my introduction to the first novel we'll tackle in our journey through Austen, Northanger Abbey. As will be the case with all of my entries, it is the work of a "partial, prejudiced & ignorant" scholar, so please be kind.

What's it about?

It's about a young woman meeting a man, falling love, and then becoming engaged to him near the novel's end, with an indication from the narrator that they will have a happy marriage. ...What, too vague? Fine,      

Northanger Abbey is the story of Catherine Morland, a young woman who is one of 10 children of a rural vicar--not too dissimilar from Austen herself. She is taken by the Allens, a wealthy, childless couple who are friends of the Morlands, to Bath, England's second city in terms of society. (Bath and its society is central to both NA and Persuasion--indeed, we will begin and end this year-long journey in Bath, so I'll be doing an extra post about Bath in the near future.) There she meets friends, potential husbands, and engages in her love for the Gothic novels that were popular at the time. Eventually, she will visit  some her new friends, the Tilneys, at their home, Northanger Abbey, where Catherine believes sinister deeds may be afoot... Catherine is certainly one of Austen's least mature heroines when we first meet her, so much of the dramatic action of the novel is centered around Catherine's, often painful, acquisition of the ability to discern true friends from false ones, good ideas for bad ones, and the evils of reality from the evils of her beloved Gothic fiction. In that sense, NA is very much a coming-of-age story, possibly the most clearly delineated one Austen wrote.

Whether you label it a pastiche, a parody, or a satire, Northanger Abbey is unique in Austen's novels in that it self-consciously takes as one its aims poking fun at a popular literary form, namely, the Gothic novel. In particular, Austen sets her sights upon the the Gothic novel as written by Anne Radcliffe, often referred to, both quaintly and patronizingly as "Mrs. Radcliffe." Far from being the only practitioner of the form, Radcliffe was, nonetheless, one of the leading lights of the genre, and her books The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian are both referenced frequently by Austen over the course of the novel, as well as parodied. As written by Radcliffe, the Gothic novel involved, well, what we now refer to as the Gothic: old, creepy European castles; counts or barons with dark secrets; secret passageways explored by candlelight; hidden cells deep within the dungeons holding unspeakable secrets: all the stuff that would later get incorporated into the Frankenstein and Dracula stories as told on stage and screen. The main difference is that, largely, while Gothic tales were lurid and "horrid" to use the word Austen's characters use, they were not supernatural stories, per se. They made claims to realism--or, at least, didn't rely on supernatural elements. While greatly exaggerated, human vice and virtue was their topic, just as it was Austen's.

What should I be looking for when I read?

Just as with Bath, NA offers many delights, a few of which I think deserve special attention. First, I would pay attention to the self-conscious nature of the work as a novel. As mentioned above, the novel is a sort of parody of a popular style, but Austen takes it several steps farther, commenting on Catherine's own unsuitability to be the heroine of a novel, and talking about the novel as a form, itself. Austen makes a strong case that, contrary to "merely" being works to entertain women and the less intelligent, as was often thought in her time, the novel, in fact, represents the highest pinnacle of literary achievement--an assessment that we've essentially adopted in modern times.

Second, pay attention to Austen's use of dialogue to delineate characters. Within a few sentences of speaking, we get very clear pictures of many of the characters, from Catherine herself to the brother/sister pairings of John and Isabella Thorpe and Henry and Eleanor Tilney. Henry Tilney, in particular, is a quotable character and his dialogue often has great wit and intelligence.

Last, I would encourage you to take a lot of the morality animating the story. Austen's lead characters are all complex moral agents, navigating many competing claims, while striving to do the right thing. This is a major component of her works, and it's well illustrated numerous times in NA, as Catherine, for the first time away from her parents, seeks to make the proper decisions without their guidance.

When was it written? Is this really Austen's first completed novel? (Only read if you're curious--it's not all that important a question.)

Yes and no. And no again.

As I mentioned in my overall intro to this project, Northanger Abbey wasn't actually published in Austen's lifetime, instead coming out in 1818 along with her last novel, Persuasion. It was written significantly earlier, and probably finished by 1803, save a few changes, with most of the the work having been done in 1798-99, when Austen was in her early/mid twenties. There are various accounts of which novels were written and completed when, with tradition stating that the three early novels, Northanger, Sense & Sensibility, and Pride & Prejudice were written one after another in the late 1790s, with various orders being given but with Northanger being the last of the three. So why read it first?

Well, some scholars have argued, I think persuasively, that, while Northanger was the last of the three earlier novels to be completed in bulk, it was the first of the three to be set aside as largely "finished" by Austen. She sold it, in what we assume was something quite like the form we have it, to a publisher in Bath in 1803, who proceeded to sit on it, as he was apparently an idiot and had no taste. Austen and a brother later bought it back after getting a bit of money from her other novels, which had also made her something of a literary celebrity, though anonymously. The Bath publisher never knew, it seems, the that lonely little novel he bought in 1803 was by the same author as the quite successful Sense & Sensibility and the even more successful Pride & Prejudice. In any case, for reasons we can only speculate on as Austen's correspondence is only spottily preserved, much of it having been burned by her sister Cassandra upon her death, Austen never found another publisher for it. So, it seems likely to me that it sat on the shelf, while Austen worked on other novels. Indeed, there is a note, written by Austen to accompany NA were it ever to be published, that strongly indicates that she felt that some of the elements in the story had gone out of fashion and might be difficult for later readers to understand. This strongly indicates, to me, that, at some point, she stopped revising and just let it stay as it was.

The other two early novels were published well after Northanger was first sold (1811 for S&S, 1813 for P&P) and one assumes she was revising them fairly constantly before publication--especially as we have evidence that both were originally written in the 1790s as epistolary novels, i.e. novels told in the form of letters. This had been the reigning novel from in the 1700s, but was already falling from favor by the time Austen was using it, so she made the very wise decision to revise them as third person narratives. So, my completely theoretical, though plausible timeline, is that she writes the bulk of the three novels, revises NA to a near-final state, sells it, continues to work on S&S and P&P, and sells and publishes them, only making minor changes to NA before her death. Of course, this could all be wrong, and NA could be the third novel in the sequence of six. I've been wrong before, so it wouldn't be an unprecedented event.

So, that's the yes and no mentioned above. As for the "no again": Austen had already completed at least one novel before setting to work on any of the three books discussed above. Well, a novella, really. Called Lady Susan and written in the epistolary style, it dates from Austen's late teens, most likely, putting it first in the pecking order, as it were. I'll be talking about it at some point over the course of his year in more detail, but suffice to say here that it's the sort of bridge between her early works written during her teens ("juvenilia" to use the literary term of art--which I'll also write about, because Austen's juvenilia is awesome), intended only to amuse various family members, and her later, mature novels, that were written with an eye toward publication.

If, gentle reader, all this doesn't really, in the end, justify Northanger Abbey's position as first in this year's rotor I'll fall back to that most subjective of things: to me, it just *feels* like her first novel. There are elements in it that seem rougher and less carefully constructed than in her later works. These elements appear to a lesser extent in S&S, and are almost entirely absent from P&P, so that's the order we're taking them.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Austen 2014: Reading Schedule & General Introduction

Now that the holidays are over, the decorations have been put away, and the resolutions have either been committed to or forgotten, it's time to focus on what really matters in 2014: reading all of Jane Austen's major novels. Partially because her work is so much more familiar to people generally, and partly out of a selfish desire to write fewer, but higher quality, posts, we're going to handle this read-a-thon slightly differently from the way we have the previous two. Only slightly, however--I'm not reinventing the wheel here.

So, we begin with Northanger Abbey which was (possibly? I'll do a note before we begin each discussing the problems of dating the first three novels) completed first, but wasn't published until after her death, when it was packaged together with her last novel, Persuasion, in 1818. Indeed, the "definitive" modern editions of her novels, those published by Oxford University Press and edited by R.W. Chapman, still follow that precedent and include them in the same volume. (Incidentally, these will be the versions I use for any quotations, etc. throughout.) Northanger was written in two volumes, giving us the perfect chance to do two readings on it. (All dates below indicate when I expect to post my blog entry about that topic. Subject to some variation. If you want to follow along with any, or all, of the readings use these dates as your "completed by" goals.)

Introduction to Northanger Abbey: Coming soon!
NA Volume 1: February 2, 2014
NA Volume 2: February 23, 2014

Next we will tackle Sense & Sensibility. originally published in 1811, through written significantly earlier--likely before the turn of the century. It was published in three volumes.

Intro to Sense & Sensibility: March 1, 2014
S&S Volume 1: March 22, 2014
S&S Volume 2: April 15, 2014
S&S Volume 3: May 5, 2014

Then, we'll progress to the last of Austen's "early" works--her most famous novel, Pride & Prejudice. As with the previous two novels, it's hard to date the writing of this work, and it may actually have been completed first, depending on how you read the evidence. However, it was published in 1813, and as such, just celebrated its 200th anniversary, and there was quite the to-do. It was published in three volumes.

Intro to Pride &Prejudice: May 15th, 2014
P&P Volume 1: June 5, 2014
P&P Volume 2: June 25, 2014 
P&P Volume 3: July 15, 2014

Austen took a significant break from writing between the early and the late novels, but the publishing dates don't necessarily reflect that. As such, in 1814, came Mansfield Park, one of her more challenging novels and the one that has bedeviled Austen fans for 200 years. It was published in three volumes.

Intro to Mansfield Park: July 25, 2014
MP Volume 1: August 5, 2014
MP Volume 2: August 25, 2014
MP Volume 3: September 12, 2014

Then, just two years later, in 1816, came Emma. Emma is, for me, the most daunting of her novels, because it is, to my mind, the smoothest of her works. Most novels, even by great authors, have jagged bits--little parts that stick out and provide a foothold for the person trying to grapple with it. Emma strikes me as having very few, if any, jagged bits. It does, however, have volumes--three of them, in fact.

Intro to Emma: September 19, 2014
E, Volume 1: September 29, 2014
E, Volume 2: October 15, 2014
E, Volume 3: November 5, 2014.

Last comes Persuasion, which Austen was working on shortly before her death. Some scholars claim, in fact, that Austen, had she lived, would have made another round of revisions to the text. That's possible, I suppose, but I don't think it's evident to the average reader what would have changed. In an case, it was published posthumously, in 1818, along with Northanger Abbey, in two volumes.

Intro to Persuasion: November 15, 2014.
P Volume 1: November 25, 2014.
P Volume 2: December 10, 2014.

Interspersed throughout this calendar, I also anticipate doing supplemental posts on some of the various film adaptations, the texts that Austen assumes the reader to be familiar with if they're to fully appreciate her work (Gothic novels for Northanger Abbey, Lover's Vows for Mansfield Park), her juvenilia and uncompleted works, her reception over time, the question of her feminist standing, and whatever else might strike my fancy.

Lastly, in the introductory post to each novel, I will include more detailed information about where the volume breaks are, because not every edition follows the original divisions. Indeed, I own three copies of Pride & Prejudice, and while the texts are relatively uniform, the volume divisions are not. Such is life in the public domain.

Follow on Twitter! @Austen2014, and #Austen2014.

Friday, January 3, 2014

War and Peace 2013: Entry 24--The First Epilogue

N.B.--This post will cover the First Epilogue to War and Peace, which means it essentially deals with the final outcomes of most of the characters. In other words, SPOILERS AHEAD. Also, this will not necessarily be my last post on this topic, but it very well might be, so, if you're reading this--thanks for reading any/all of these posts and keeping me company on this journey. :)

People joke that the First Epilogue is essentially the "Peace" part of War and Peace. While that's an oversimplification, it's roughly accurate. The tone and feeling of the First Epilogue is rather different from what came before it. While there are brief mentions of what's going on in the outside world, there's a much more timeless quality to these domestic scenes of the combined Rostov/Bolkonskaya/Bezukhov families. The story that Tolstoy was telling is over, so the epilogue merely shows us what happened later to our main characters.

After some explanation of the Rostov's financial situation and the death of the old Count, we read about Mary and Nicholas. While there are some elements of their marriage that might surprise the reader--Nicholas' intense interest in farming, for example--by and large, I think Mary and Nicholas' marital dynamics follow on from what we already know of their characters and what can be inferred from the few times we've seen them interact. Mary maintains the otherworldliness that has defined her character throughout, continuing to live her life in the most Christian way possible, and not judging herself worthy of the happiness she has found, but accepting it gracefully. Nicholas has grown into a somewhat dull, but reliable man, a predictable defender of tradition and custom. Their marriage is happy, if perhaps limited by Mary's inability to understand why farming makes Nicholas so happy and Nicholas' inability to understand Mary's innate religiosity. They will always remain something of a mystery to each other, but their love is real and enduring.

The other couple we see takes more explaining, I feel. Pierre's marriage to Natasha leaves him relatively the same character, though without his previous tendency towards flights of fancy and dissolution; however it completely changes our understanding of Natasha. Tolstoy essentially writes that the liveliness that Natasha expressed earlier was simply her maternal and wifely feelings bursting out and that, once properly channeled, Natasha became rather dull. Old Countess Rostov claims to have always known that this was the case, but it feels like something of a betrayal, I think, to modern readers. Natasha and Pierre are the most vivid and vibrant characters in the book--they, each in their own way, personify the vitality of the Russian people, in the same way that Mary typifies their spirituality and Platon Karataev was emblematic of the wisdom of the peasants. Pierre, after his (second) marriage, continues to be much the same striving, questioning, and engaged person that he was. Natasha, however, loses all of her spark. She cares only about her family and her immediate circle of friends, never goes out into society, and never sings. I understand, I think, what Tolstoy was trying to get at with this depiction of mature Natasha--but I don't think I like it, and I think it could certainly be interpreted as misogynistic. While I wouldn't go that far, it is still, for me, a problematic end for a character that had so much potential. 

All the forgoing, of course, is in no way meant to disparage the importance of being a wife and mother--or a husband and father, for that matter. Rather, it's merely to illustrate that, of all the characters dealt with in the First Epilogue, it is only Natasha, the willful, lively, impetuous girl, who seems to undergo a major shift. The men are allowed to maintain their natures, essentially, and Mary's personality remains relatively unaltered. Even Sonya, the sterile flower, remains Sonya--loyal, meek, and unfailingly helpful. It was almost as if Tolstoy viewed the young Natasha as a problem to be solved by the end of the book.

The final character we spend time with in the First Epilogue, and therefore in the narrative as a whole, is young Nicholas Bolkonsky, Andrew's son. Like his father, he is full of ambition, and wants to do great things. Also like his father, he admires and loves Pierre, even if it seems unlikely that Nicholas will grow up to be anything like his father's best friend. Young Nicholas dreams of a future where he can be a great man, like his father--knowing little that, at the end of his life, his father had utterly renounced all those ideas of greatness he'd earlier espoused. His father is not a real person, but rather an ideal--one he'll likely always fall short of. In this way, the Bolkonsky tradition of impossible standards seems to be alive and well. 

Still, Tolstoy does something very clever, I think, by ending with young Nicholas. Given the argument he makes in the Second Epilogue (discussed here) about history and the chain of cause and effect that extends essentially infinitely in both directions, the natural question to ask of him is: "Okay, but then how do you tell a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end?" The answer is that he doesn't--what we get it is all middle. Return briefly to the very beginning of the book, which we read essentially a year ago. The first line, spoken by Anna Pavlovna, refers to something that has previously happened, and the entire conversation between her and Prince Vasili flows from it. There is no true beginning, but rather a place wherein we join the great chain of history. Just the same is it in the First Epilogue. Tolstoy's story is finished, but the lives of its protagonists continue, so he tells us about them, almost as if it prove his point. He actually does it in order of how long they have left to be a part of the great story unfolding, starting with the Old Countess, passing on to the two married couples, and ending with young Nicholas. But young Nicholas is looking toward the future. And, due to his age and position, he essentially is the future of Russia. Again, we've not reached the end--just an ending. The book may be over, but just as the story began before we started reading, so it continues long after we have stopped.