Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Silas Marner

1861, 1960 Signet Classic edition
George Eliot
Silas Marner
Original price unknown, bought used for $1.50
Tattered paperback

I attempted to read The Lord of the Rings several times, and usually I'd quit at the moment when the Orcs first show up in Fellowship of the Ring.  The problem was I wanted to stay in the Shire, with the Hobbits shooting the breeze at the pub.  Then I found Silas Marner, and there were all the villagers shooting the breeze at the pub.  That doesn't mean that this slim novel is exactly what I wanted, but I tend to prefer quieter, realistic fiction to grand adventures.  I'm much more a fan of Eliot's Middlemarch (coming up), in part because this novel is too short.  I understand why the narrative jumps ahead fifteen years, but it makes the novel feel lopsided.  The author probably would've drawn it out more later in her career.

Speaking of careers, Richard Armour in his otherwise spot on humorous summary of the novel missed one of the funniest lines, where the dog is described as "having no other career before her," when she follows her master out of the room.  That line used to send me into hysterics.  This time I had to read one line in Chapter Two twice, because it's about "Ann Coulter."

This copy has perhaps the oddest note in any of my books.  Someone wrote, "Someday we'll find it-- The rainbow connection/ The lovers, the dreamers and me."  It's definitely not my handwriting, but it is uncanny that someone quoted from my favorite Muppets song.  How does it apply to Silas Marner?  I'm not sure, but I think it has something to do with the motif of gold in the novel, although Silas hoards his gold and doesn't find it at the end of a rainbow.

Great Expectations

1861, 1980 Signet Classic edition
Charles Dickens
Great Expectations
Possibly bought newish for $4.50
Somewhat tattered paperback

While David Copperfield is more entertaining than expected, this is less.  The two main plot elements-- bitter Miss Havisham forever trapped on her wedding day, and the criminal Magwitch determined to make Pip a gentleman-- just aren't that interesting.  Nor is Pip's obsessive love for heartless Estella.  Also, while Pip does eventually regret his snubbing of loyal Joe and Biddy, it's not pleasant to read about.  As for Pip's abusive sister, well!  Martin Chuzzlewit has many unpleasant characters, but even the murderer is more intriguing there.  Just about the only people I enjoyed in this story were Wemmick and his Aged P (Parent).  All that said, it's not a bad book, just an over-rated one, and I'm puzzled why they assigned it in my high school almost thirty years ago.  David Copperfield has a much more accessible style and would've given us more to talk about. 

Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Photographer's Day Out

Lewis Carroll

Not as good as the "Hiawatha" poem, this very short story tells of another family who want to be photographed.  In this case, the photographer develops (ha ha, pun) a crush on the eldest daughter and gets beat up by a farmer for trespassing on his land.

The Ordeal of Richard Feverel

1859, 1964 Holt, Rinehart and Winston edition
George Meredith
The Ordeal of Richard Feverel: A History of Father and Son
Original price unknown, bought used for $4.25
Worn paperback but not bad condition for its age

I'm not sure why I don't read this book more often.  It's just as good as Don Quixote and Tom Jones, and certainly not as long.   It might be that, despite its proto-Wildean wit, it's emotionally draining, especially the ending.  I'm not bothered by there being an unhappy ending, since, as Charles J. Hill notes in the introduction, there's lots of foreshadowing.  It's more that it's not the unhappy ending that it seems to be building to.  If Richard died in the duel, that would have a literary and karmic justice.  But Lucy's death comes almost out of nowhere.  And the worst part about the ending is in the chapters just before it.  It's all so preventable, if someone would speak up.

The title seems at first a paradox.  Is this about Richard or about him and his father?  The answer is it's about the "ordeal," the burden that is on father and son because Lady Feverel ran off with the father's best friend.  Austin Feverel responds by, one, writing a book that seems misogynist but wins him the admiration of women, and two, raising his son according to a system.  Richard turns out well in the sense that he's physically healthy, intelligent, and pure-minded.  However, he's inherited both his mother's impetuosity and his father's stubbornness, a very dangerous combination.  When he falls for a working-class Catholic girl, while his father has betrothed him to the youngest daughter of a more ridiculous system, things do not go well.  And they keep going not well, because Austin punishes Richard in a way that's unemotional on the surface and bitter underneath.

I remembered this book as very like Vanity Fair, and certainly a few of the characters, such as The Eighteenth Century, could've stepped out of Thackeray.  Some of the simpler characters, such as Tom Bakewell and Mrs. Berry, feel like they're out of Dickens.  But there is more complexity and less caricature than in either Thackeray or Dickens.  In fact, I was reminded a bit of Jane Austen, down to Meredith putting in a witty but flawed character, Adrian Harley.

One thing that sets this apart from Vanity Fair and so many other books of its time is that it's contemporary.  Yes, the beginning tells of Richard's early childhood, but the main part of the book covers a span of about seven years.  And it's a world of trains and telegrams, a world where Adrian can comment on expanding the vote (even further than in the pre-1832-Reform-Act world of Middlemarch, which is coming up).  Much as I love Austen, it's almost a relief to move into the "modern world."  (I can relate to the mid-1800s much more than to the early 1800s.)

That the writing, especially plotting, isn't as solid as the best of Austen, that the novel is just very, very good rather than fantastic is nothing to be ashamed of.  As father and son learn, flaws are part of being human.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Hiawatha's Photographing

1857, from the Jupiter Books edition of The Illustrated Lewis Carroll 1978
Lewis Carroll
Original and purchase price unknown
Hardcover in good shape except for missing jacket and a few food stains
This poem a B-

While definitely one of Carroll's minor works, in both length and quality, I like it for two of the same reasons I like Humphry Clinker.  It shows how family members can react to the same situation in very different ways, and it captures a particular moment in social history.  Portrait photography was very new in the late 1850s, yet Hiawatha's subjects have each worked out a particular pose and style.  As you can guess from the title, this poem follows the meter of "The Song of Hiawatha."

The Professor

1857, 1989 Penguin Classic edition
Charlotte Brontë
The Professor
Probably bought new for $4.95
Worn paperback

Although this novel was written in 1846, it was rejected by publishers nine times, despite the success of Jane Eyre.  I'm going with the posthumous publication date, because Brontë's widower and father edited out some of the "coarser" passages.  The story has similarities to Villette, although Brussels is undisguised here, and it's a male narrator this time.  I like The Professor better than Villette, although as always Brontë can't write an appealing romance to save her life.  The introduction by Heather Glen suggests that this is deliberate-- to go along with the themes of violence and conflict that run throughout the book-- but if Brontë actually meant the romances to be unappealing (something I considered and then rejected about the Twilight series), it makes me more annoyed with her.  Also, Brontë's prejudices against "foreigners" (French, Belgian, Catholic, etc.) are on full display here.

So why read this novel?  Well, I do like her recurring motif of the teacher overcoming obstacles and starting a school.  The narrator, messed up individual though he is, remains my second favorite of Brontë's after Jane Eyre.  He's dry and sarcastic, and yes, it is nice to see what Brontë does with a male main character.  Also, I liked the setting of Villette, so it's cool to get the real names of places here.  And finally, there is no character who makes me impatient to be done with the book as M. Paul did.

Monday, January 23, 2012


1853, 1987 Signet Classic edition
Charlotte Brontë
Original price $4.95, bought used for 95 cents
Worn paperback

This novel is mostly set in a fictionalised version of Brussels (the title being ironic, as if a capital city is a little village).  The setting is what I like best, although I also enjoy most of the characters and, as usual with Brontë, the first-person narration.  Unfortunately, also as usual with Brontë, the love interest and romance don't work.  M. Paul is not as repellent as a Moore brother but he's not as tolerable as Mr. Rochester.  He spends most of the novel bullying the heroine, to the point that he even locks her in an overheated attic to rehearse an acting role he's pressured her into taking.  Not only is Lucy Snowe more passive than Jane Eyre, but even Fanny Price would've protested at this.  Lucy mostly seems amused.  At some point, they decide that they're friends, so they swear eternal friendship, which turns to love.  They'd marry in the end, but he dies at sea.  Or does he?

It is this ambiguous ending that rescues the novel from a C+.  People who are more romantic than I am can imagine a Happily Ever After.  (I am generally a matchmaker of fictional characters, ever since as a little girl I imagined Heidi grew up to marry Peter the goatherd, but I have my limits.)  And people who hope that Lucy is a happy spinster schoolteacher, can believe that M. Paul is out of her life for good.

A note about this edition.  There are a shocking number of typos for a professional publication, often of the letter-dropping sort, like "vice" for "voice" and "she" for "shed," although in one case I had to shake my head at "misserable."  Shame on you, Signet Classic!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

David Copperfield

1850, 1951 The Modern Readers' Series edition, abridged by Edith Freelove Smith
Charles Dickens
Illustrated by Harriet Savage Smith
The Personal History of David Copperfield the Younger
Original price unknown, bought $1.95
Worn hardcover, possibly with mold

This novel is more entertaining than it has any right to be, considering it's just autobiographical details (e.g. D.C. = C.D.), characters with funny names, a lot of crying, and a series of "surprising" reunions.  However, Dickens doesn't just fictionalise his life; he finds what works best in a story.  Some of the characters do have funny names-- and Richard Armour would point out the humour in someone using "Tommy Traddles" for credit-- but that makes them all the more memorable.  As for the crying and the reunions, well, Dickens was writing this as a serial, and those were the sorts of things that kept bringing the readers back.  He's good at spinning a tale, and even in the 21st century there's something about this tale that makes readers want to keep going, implausible as the plot gets at times.

A few words about the Smiths with the wonderful middle names.  I hadn't realized till this reading that this was an abridgement, so I can't tell you what's left out, or if the book would be better or worse in the original.  The illustrations are done with the people in silhouette and the backgrounds lightly detailed.  This edition was clearly meant for students, since it ends with "Questions on the Text."  My favorite of these is "Do you like Dora?  Do you admire her?  Which would you prefer as a friend, Dora or Agnes?"  I don't know how people would answer in the 1850s or the 1950s, but it's hard to warm up to a character so feather-brained that the mere thought of doing the accounts or even the cooking makes her swoon.  (Also, her dog Jip must rank as one of the most annoying pets in fiction.)  Agnes, on the other hand, is likable and admirable, so it's a relief that she doesn't marry the "umble" Uriah Heep.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


1849, 1974 Penguin Classics edition
Charlotte Brontë
Shirley: A Tale
Original price $4.95, bought newish?
A bit worn paperback

Easily the worst of Brontë's novels, this is also the worst novel I've read so far in this project.  The other C-s are all part of that Shakespeare collection, so it's not like I'll be getting rid of them.  With this book, I'll decide later whether to keep the discrete C-s.  As for why this scores so low, it  blends a boring historical plot of the early days (1811-12) of the Industrial Revolution with not one but two icky romances.  The best two things about it are the mockery of three Yorkshire curates (based on actual people, including ironically her future husband) and the women's rights pleas.  Even more than Jane Eyre, this novel shows the difficulties of single middle-class girls and women, who had so few options.  In fact, Brontë puts the words of a negative reviewer of Jane Eyre into the mouths of some upper-class women who are berating a governess.

This makes it all the more frustrating that she gives her two intelligent co-heroines, the title character and Caroline, such unpleasant suitors.  Robert Moore is focused on money over emotion, to the point that he proposes to clever, beautiful Shirley only because she's an heiress.  Caroline lapses into a Marianne-Dashwood-like fever brought on by months of rejection, only to be saved by finding out that Shirley's ex-governess is Caroline's long-lost mother.

As for the romance between Robert's brother and Shirley, here's Louis Moore talking about the woman he loves, except wishing that she were poor:  "Something to tame first, and teach afterwards: to break in and then to fondle. To lift the destitute proud thing out of poverty; to establish power over, and then to be indulgent to the capricious moods that never were influenced and never indulged before; to see her alternately irritated and subdued about twelve times in the twenty-four hours; and perhaps, eventually, when her training was accomplished, to behold her the exemplary and patient mother of about a dozen children, only now and then lending little Louis a cordial cuff by way of paying the interest of the vast debt she owes his father."  That this is exactly the kind of man that Shirley wants, someone to tame the "lioness" that everyone sees her as, does not make it more palatable to me.

The first third of the 560-page novel is the dullest, the last third the most unpleasant.  The story behind the story is much more interesting, although tragic.  The author's three surviving siblings all died during 1848-49, and yet Charlotte continued to struggle to write.  Also, the title is interesting in that Shirley herself doesn't show up till several chapters in (part of why the first third is boring), and she has been given a boy's name and jokes about how she would act if she were Captain Keeldar, the male version of herself.  This is weird for someone born in the 20th century, because of course "Shirley" suggests Miss Temple.  In fact, the popularity of this novel changed "Shirley" from a boy's name to a girl's.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Vanity Fair

1848, 1963 Holt, Rinehart and Winston edition
William Makepeace Thackeray
Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero
Original price unknown, bought used for $1.95
Split in half, also water-damaged

A very witty journey through almost two decades with a variety of characters, although mainly the two women Amelia and Becky and the men in their lives.  There is pathos, too, but it's never overwhelming.   Like most of my 1840s books (Martin Chuzzlewit excepted), it's set in the past, and there's definitely a sense of contrast between the time of Waterloo and the early Victorian period.  Even more than Charlotte Brontë, Thackeray likes to address the reader (in one case specifying strong-minded "Miss Smith"), and sometimes he asks that reader to look back to the times of their shared youth.  The moment when a not as sophisticated as she will be Becky first eats a chili, and finds that it's much hotter than it sounds, is a delightful one.  Becky herself is an admirable anti-heroine.  The way she treats her husband and child is unforgivable, but otherwise it's fun to see her getting the best of almost everyone around her.  And I love the moment when she lets Amelia know that George is not worth pining for fifteen years after his death.

Amelia is in some ways the stereotypical Victorian heroine:  sweet, sentimental, and helpless.  Dobbin probably deserves better, as he does realise eventually.  And yet, she's impossible to dislike because she is genuinely well-meaning and not a bit sanctimonious (unlike some Victorian heroines).  I've always had a soft spot for Miss Swartz because she appreciates Amelia, even if I could've done without Thackeray invariably describing her as "wooly-headed."  As with Scott and the Jews in Ivanhoe, Thackeray is a product of his time and can't describe a black character (like the unfortunately named Mr. Sambo) without mentioning that the person is black.    On the other hand, he does also keep mentioning Becky's sandy hair, so he's not racist per se.

Much of the humour of the novel comes from characters being caricatures, often with obviously symbolic names, like Lady Bareacres.  The broader humour, and the best action scenes, come in the first half of the novel.  After George dies, the novel is not as good, although it is interesting to watch Becky's further ups and downs.  It's notable that, as in Jane Eyre, a charade (in the sense of scenes acted out in costume to indicate syllables of a word or phrase) figures into the plot, in both cases with a scheming woman showing off her talent and beauty.

The previous owner underlined and bracketed much of the book, plus putting a couple notes about point of view.  One of these is when Thackeray himself makes a cameo late in the novel, telling of how he first met Dobbin, Amelia, and her brother Jos.  Even before that, he has come across as a generously omniscient narrator.  It is that feeling that the author is sharing something with us, to the point that I actually thought, "Oo, goody, gossip!  Oh, wait, these characters are fictional," that is the true charm of this story.

The breakdown of the first 100 posts is as follows:
1 F
2 F+s
2 D-s
3 D's
7 D+s
6 C-s
12 C's
21 C+s
16 B-s
19 B's
9 B+s
2 A-s

It's odd that I have more B's than B-s.  We'll see if that continues.  There are no A's or A+s, but I don't know if there will be. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Wuthering Heights

1847, 1981 Bantam Classic edition
Emily Brontë
Wuthering Heights
Original price $1.75, bought used for unknown
Very ratty paperback

While big sister Charlotte was writing Jane Eyre (and little sister Anne was penning Agnes Grey, which I've never read), Emily created this tale of tortured love.  The writing is compelling and sometimes lovely, but the characters, Heathcliff in particular, are so unsavoury it's hard for me to enjoy this novel.  Narrator Ellen comes across the best, although on this reading I was really struck with how manipulative she is.  Yes, she's in the midst of people who are spoiled and/or insane, but sometimes her endeavors to survive and help others survive only make matters worse.

A previous owner wrote marginal notes on vocabulary words and their definitions, although he/she stopped after awhile.  Perhaps it was assigned for school but the student couldn't get through it.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Jane Eyre

1847, 1971 Norton Critical edition
Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre: An Autobiography
Original price unknown, bought used for $4.50
Torn paperback

Although the love interest and thus the central romance don't appeal to me, this story remains a good one.  It's partly the first-person narrator.  Jane has a dry humour and a gift for description.  Also, the way she directly addresses the reader, mostly famously with the opening of the last chapter-- "Reader, I married him"-- is engaging.  I like the part about Jane's childhood and how she finds sisterhood with Diana and Mary, who turn out to be her cousins.  I also enjoy reading the parts about Jane's teaching career, and frankly a happier ending would've been if she'd used her inheritance to start a real school of her own.

A note about the "autobiography" part of the title.  Brontë admired Vanity Fair, which was then being serialised, and she dedicated this novel to William Makepeace Thackeray.  Unfortunately, she didn't know that Mrs. Thackeray was insane.  Rumours started about "Jane Eyre" being Mr. Thackeray's governess-mistress.  There are autobiographical elements of Charlotte's life in this novel, but less than in Villette (1853).

This copy has several notes, in tiny, almost illegible writing.  The most interesting is one about how Jane assumes she knows what others are thinking.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Martin Chuzzlewit

1844, 1965 Signet Classic edition
Charles Dickens
Martin Chuzzlewit
Original price unknown, bought used for $2.95
Worn paperback

Even though most of the characters are unpleasant to some degree, Dickens's skill as a storyteller keeps the reader going through more than 800 pages.   There are two title characters, old Martin Chuzzlewit and his namesake grandson, and some of the characters have two names, whether Montague Tigg/ Tigg Montague or the two Pecksniff daughters whose names and nicknames are meant to be ironic (Charity/Cherry and Mercy/Merry).  And many of the characters, Mr. Pecksniff in particular, are two-faced.  There are more than two plot threads, although since nearly every thread interweaves with the others, it's hard to sort them out.  The trip to America at first seems pointless, both as an expedition and as a subplot, but it's the vehicle for both selfish young Martin and selfless Mark to reexamine their lives.  Martin learns how he's mistreated people who care about him, and Mark learns that while it's nice to make the best of a bad situation, it's near suicidal to always choose the worst situation.

In his afterword, Marvin Mudrick notes that Dickens had his Pecksniff side, and I find the way Dickens drools over Ruth Pinch to be almost as nauseating as a Pecksniffian courtship.  Fielding was quite honest about his love of Sophia Western, who was modeled on his late wife, but at least he admitted her flaws.  Dickens seems to be unable to moderate either his adoration of "angelic" young women or his horror of devilish crones like Mrs. Gamp.  The latter does get a nice moment late in the novel when her probably fictional friend Mrs. Harris is used to trick a client.  It's not on the level of The Importance of Being Earnest's Bunbury or M*A*S*H's Captain Tuttle, but it does make me smile.

The American sequence contains broader satire than the English parts, and is interesting in that I haven't yet gotten up to any American fiction (and won't till the 1860s).  I love the titles of the New York newspapers, like The Plunderer, but I have my doubts about Dickens's ability to do American dialect.  While there may've been Americans who pronounced "are" as "air," whoever said "to" as "Toe"?  (Yes, capitalized.)

Monday, January 9, 2012


1819, 1962 Signet Classic edition
Sir Walter Scott
Original price and purchase price both $2.95
Frayed paperback with back cover come off

Scott to some degree invented popular historical fiction, and his pioneering shows in both anachronisms and a need to over-explain historical terms.  (He defines a dais no less than four times, including twice on one page!)  The story itself holds up OK, although the title character is a bit forgettable and this story might as well have been called Rebecca, or The Jewess.  The Jewish characters are treated surprisingly fairly (more so than in Merchant of Venice), although I got a little tired of that being their main characterisation.  It does lead to a hilarious phrase (be careful Googling this without the word "Ivanhoe"):  "...ere they will suffer him to depart from their uncircumcised hands."

I have to skip over the 1820s and 1830s, but from that point on there will be at least four books per decade.

Friday, January 6, 2012


1818, 1985 Penguin Classics edition
Mary Shelley
Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus
Probably bought new for $2.95
OK condition paperback

I don't reread this book very often, so it's always strange to me how verbose the nameless monster is.  And his creator is Frankenstein, not a doctor though, but a madcap college student.  Since swallowing goldfish, stuffing people into phone booths, and putting naked pictures of oneself on the Internet haven't yet been invented, young Victor instead decides to create life through science.  This is his story, although it also contains a travelogue of Britain that defuses the tension to the point of ennui.  (I like the description of the Orkneys, but did we need the history of Oxford?)  The best part of the novel is the monster's narration, although I kept wondering when in the 1700s this was supposed to be set, because there are French characters who seem untouched by the Revolution.  It's notable that two centuries on, Don Quixote was still influencing British writers, although here it is less the humour than the misguided idealism of the hero.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Nightmare Abbey

1818, 1964 Norton Library edition
Thomas Love Peacock
Nightmare Abbey
Original price unknown, bought used for 95 cents
Frayed paperback

Yes, I own two books from 1818 whose titles are N_____ Abbey.  This story is also a parody of Gothic fiction, but it's so much more.  It is a laugh-out-loud satire of just about every intellectual trend of its time, including Wollstonecraftian feminism.  I don't get every joke of course (which, along with the lack of an actual plot, is why I can't rate this higher), but some things never go out of style.

Take this passage for instance:
"When Scythrop grew up, he was sent, as usual, to a public school, where a little learning was painfully beaten into him, and from thence to the university, where it was carefully taken out of him; and he was sent home like a well-threshed ear of corn, with nothing in his head:  having finished his education to the highest satisfaction of the master and fellows of his college, who had, in testimony of their approbation, presented him with a silver fish-slice, on which his name figured at the head of a laudatory inscription in some semi-barbarous dialect of Anglo-Saxonised Latin.

Even the way that Scythrop, who's lost both his fiancees, considers a suicide worthy of Werther but decides instead on a glass of Madeira is funny.  And I love the thing about "the south-western tower, which was ruinous and full of owls."  

The way I discovered this novella was suitably circuitous.  Sexual Politics (1970) by Kate Millett contains an analysis of George Meredith's The Egoist (1879), and Meredith was briefly Peacock's son-in-law.  In my early 20s, after I dropped out of college, I was reading everything that sounded interesting, so both Meredith and Peacock got added to my list, and, yes, Meredith will be coming up in the next few weeks.  (Millett is a long way off.)


1818, 1989 Bantam Classic edition
Jane Austen
Original price $2.95, possibly bought new
Tattered paperback

I guess this would have to be my second-least favorite of Austen's major works.  Unlike in Mansfield Park, I don't have an issue with the romance or with the heroine.  I'm not crazy about Wentworth but he's okay.  I don't have doubts, as some readers do, about Lady Russell or Admiral Croft.

The main gripes I have with the book involve Mr. Elliot.  I don't buy his rudeness as a young man, or his transformation years later.  I don't believe his courtship of Anne or his elopement with Mrs. Clay.  On top of that, compared to Wickham and Willoughby, he's boring.  In fact, I'm afraid that there are no supporting characters that stand out in this book.  Everyone's just sort of there.  (Vain Sir Walter comes closest to making an impact.)

On the plus side, Anne is an interesting heroine.  Older than most of the Austen protagonists, she's an old maid at twenty-seven.  Yet she isn't bitter, even when her ex-fiance shows up and starts flirting with a pair of sisters.  (He's not unscrupulous like Crawford, and he backs off when he realises the consequences.)  Anne is melancholy sometimes, but she remains kind, generous, wise, and brave.  If Catherine Morland was not "born to be an heroine," Anne definitely was.

The 1995 film is interesting in that it definitely isn't glamourous (though not bleak like Rozema's Mansfield Park).  It has a realism and autumnal quality that suit the novel.  I think I saw the 2007 version, but I have absolutely no memory of it.

Northanger Abbey

1818, 1980 Signet Classic edition
Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey
Price unknown
Poor condition paperback

This novel was originally written in 1799, revised for publication in 1803, mysteriously never published, sold back to Austen in 1816, and finally published posthumously (with Persuasion) by brother Henry the year after Jane's death.  Austen issued an "apology" to be published with the book, to explain that some of the story might be dated.  Little did she know that Gothic horror fiction was a long way from dying out, and I suspect that this novel is one of the reasons why Charlotte Brontë disliked Austen's writing.  Naive young Catherine Morland imagines that Gen. Tilney has either murdered or locked away his wife, and there was Brontë three decades after Austen's death giving Mr. Rochester a mad wife in the attic.  With Brontë's Romantic sensibilities, she wouldn't take kindly to Austen's parody.

I think the satire still works, but then I actually did slog my way through The Mysteries of Udolpho years ago.  More of the novel is a parody of the genteel romance that Fanny Burney and her ilk wrote, with Catherine decidedly not a heroine.  Austen mocks Catherine's looks and intelligence, but also makes it clear that Catherine is warm-hearted.  Also, because Catherine is so truthful herself, she doesn't understand why people like the Thorpes lie, which makes her very refreshing, particularly to Henry Tilney.  Mr. Tilney is probably number one on my "Austen hunks" list, because of his wit and imagination.  Yes, he says some borderline misogynist things, but I think they're meant to be teases of his earnest sister, and in fact he treats Catherine with more respect than most of the people around him do.

This apparently is as hard a novel to adapt as Mansfield Park.  The 1986 TV version is downright silly (one word, cartwheel), while the 2008 attempt makes the mistake of increasing the luridness.  Not only do we get Catherine's Gothic fantasies, but there's an implausible sexual element to the Capt. Tilney/ Isabella Thorpe romance.  Isabella in the book may've made some missteps, but she wouldn't have sacrificed her virginity in order to capture the captain.  She's a lot cagier than Lydia Bennet after all.

With its Bath setting, this story makes an interesting pair with Persuasion.  Also, the closing line, "...I leave it to be settled...whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience," applies equally well to Austen's last completed novel.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


1803? to 1817
Jane Austen

This group of Austen's poems, some of it undated, does include the very last thing she wrote, Venta, Written at Winchester on Tuesday the 15th July 1817, three days before her death.  Like so many of the poems here, it shows a playful whimsy.  My favorite is "Mock Paneyric on a Young Friend," which compares the friend to America, including "her wit [that] descends on foes and friends like famed Niagara's Fall."  There are a few serious poems as well, like the one in tribute to her friend Anne Lefroy.

Taking the length of the works into consideration, this collection of Minor Works actually averages out to a B.  Although it's an Oxford Illustrated Edition, it does have flaws, such as the biographical note on the dust jacket, where Austen is said to have been the sixth of seven children (rather than seventh of eight) and to have died in 1815.  Still, it is a nice handy format for so many small pieces, as well as a glimpse into the less well-known parts of a brilliant writer's mind.


Jane Austen

This novel was the last one Austen started writing before her death.  Ironically or not, one of its subjects is health, with hypochondriacs, one genuinely ill person, and assorted healthy vacationers gathering in a small but ambitious seaside resort.  Austen was still at the top of her game, creating such characters as Lady Denham, stingy but sometimes kind; Mr Parker, with his Shandean "hobbyhorse" of resort plans; his busybody yet "frail" sister Diana; his hearty yet "delicate" brother Arthur; Lovelace wannabe Sir Edward; and sensible heroine Charlotte.  The dry, ironical tone still makes me laugh out loud, and even the last part, about how the portrait of Lady Denham's second husband dominates the sitting room in the home of her first husband, is funny.  Sometimes the burlesque quality echoes the over-the-top feeling of Austen's juvenilia, but with the mature plotting of her later works.

"Another Lady" (the name a compliment to how Austen originally published under the pseudonym "A Lady") did the first of the various completions out there, in 1975, and I've owned it for years, so I will discuss that work in its place.


1817 at the latest
Jane Austen

The three prayers are undated but obviously written by Austen's death in 1817.  The watermark of the paper is 1818, but perhaps they were transcribed by sister Cassandra or brother Henry.  There's nothing particularly remarkable about the prayers, except the line "heartily do we pray for the safety of all that travel by land or by sea."  With two brothers in the Navy, Jane was well aware of the risks of sea travel, as Mansfield Park shows.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


1816, 1980 New American Library edition
Jane Austen
Original price $1.95, bought used for $1.99
Very ratty paperback

Austen on Emma:  "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like."  Little did she guess that snobbish, manipulative self-centred Emma Woodhouse would age better than sweet, sincere Fanny Price.  This is partly that the 20th and 21st centuries have more women like Emma than Fanny and partly that Emma is not just a self-centred, manipulative snob.  Like all Austen heroines, she has a good heart and head, although the latter is stronger in her than the former.  Emma is not just a gleeful bitch like Lady Susan.  She really does mean well.  She just has to learn that one, most people don't want their lives managed; and two, she's far too inexperienced to know how to manage anyone's life except perhaps her father's.

Twenty-one-year-old Emma is not at the beginning of the novel, when she's just said goodbye to her former governess, ready to manage her own life.  Yes, she has a great deal of freedom, but she has not yet learned responsibility.  Life, including love, is just a game to her, but not one she's mastered.  The experiences she has in the year-long story teach her enough that she is an adult by the end.  Oh, she'll always be snobbish, manipulative, and self-centred, but less so.

Mr. Knightley, who's probably number two on my "Austen hunks" list, often gets credit for teaching Emma, through his lectures.  He's sixteen years older and the only character in the book who's at her intellectual level.  (Mrs. Weston comes close but she's too indulgent to challenge Emma.)  Certainly, he has a great deal of both common sense and wisdom, but he has his own blind spots.  When Emma puts down Robert Martin, Knightley puts down Harriet.  When Emma is unfair to Jane Fairfax, Knightley is unfair to Frank Churchill.  He also can be a bit tactless, ironically most often to Miss Bates.  Knightley's big lecture is of course the one at Box Hill, when Emma mocks the kind but ludicrous spinster.  It's cathartic to have Emma called on for her insensitivity, and yet she is not so callous that she isn't affected by his scolding.  She makes a genuine effort to be nicer to Miss Bates, and others, from then on.

As with Lizzy & Darcy, they challenge each other, bring out the best in each other.  More than with the P & P couple, this is done with bantering on both sides, as they are both very witty.  (Darcy is well-spoken, but too serious to be witty most of the time, except when he's snarking back at Caroline Bingley.)  Even though Knightley has known Emma for ages, and "fell in love with her when she was thirteen," the age difference actually seems to matter less than in Sense and Sensibility.  They've long admired each other but their feelings don't turn romantic until jealousy comes along.  And yet this is handled much more expertly and realistically than in most romantic comedies.

There's a realism about Emma that most of Austen doesn't reach.  More than ever, these characters feel real, not just in their time but ours.  Amusingly, I think it's the work that most talks about "modern" times, like the part about the comfort of modern carriages, and the modern table Emma has managed to get her father to use.  Like Humphry Clinker, it's a snapshot of its times, but with characters who feel more developed than archetypes.

Let's talk about Miss Bates.  Austen parodies herself when Emma remarks, "A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid!"  (It's as if Emma has just finished reading P & P and adored it.)  However, even Emma concedes that Miss Bates isn't a stereotypical old maid.  Miss Bates is cheerful and open-hearted, liked by everyone.  I suppose she might be annoying in real life, but she's delightful on the page, not unlike Mrs. Bennet.  Within the story, she not only provides amusement and a lesson for Emma, but clues for the mystery.

J.K. Rowling said, "I have never set up a surprise ending in a Harry Potter book without knowing I can never, and will never, do it anywhere near as well as Austen did in Emma."  On the umpteenth reading, the Jane & Frank subplot seems pretty obvious, but it took me completely by surprise the first time.  True, I tend not to be able to solve mysteries, but usually I at least know that that's the genre I'm reading.  I thought this was a village comedy, and then Austen pulled the carpet out from under me by introducing a romance where I suspected nothing.  Oh, I might've thought, once Mr. Knightley pointed it out to me, that Frank was flirting with both Emma and Jane, but who knew they were engaged!  Fanny Price might've guessed it, but I imagine that Lizzy Bennet would've been as hoodwinked as Emma and everyone in Highbury.

Another character who serves multiple purposes is Mrs. Elton.  I was rereading Sinclair Lewis's Main Street (1920) a few months ago, and it struck me this time with Emma that Carol Kennicott has a very similar situation to Mrs. Elton.  Each lady is a pretty and talented (but not too talented) newlywed who hopes to expose her husband's small town to sophisticated city ways.  Of course, Carol is our heroine in Main Street and meant to be more sympathetic, but I did understand Mrs. Elton's situation better.  Of course, Mrs. Elton is in the novel to throw Emma's faults into relief.  Everything Emma dislikes about Mrs. Elton is an exaggeration of Emma's own faults.  Even Mrs. Elton choosing Jane as her protegee is similar to Emma's near adoption of Harriet.  The main difference is Emma, and Carol, would never deliberately hurt someone's feelings in the way that Mrs. Elton does, and encourages Mr. Elton to do.  As with young Mr. Dashwood in S & S, a man with serious faults has married a woman who amplifies these faults.

The simplest of the major characters in the novel is Mr. Woodhouse.  Like Mary Elliot in Persuasion, he's a hypochondriac, but he's not as grating.  There's an interesting theme in the book of how stupid = nice, as seen in Mr. W, his daughter Isabella, Miss Bates, and of course Harriet Smith.  This isn't true of course, even in the world of the novel, but many of the characters act as if it is.  Of course, there are also not very bright characters who are not nice, like the Eltons, and on the other side bright, nice folks like the Westons.  Emma herself has to learn that her intelligence does not allow her to be thoughtless.

A few words about the movies.  The best adaptation is Clueless, a wonderfully fun movie on its own terms that does capture the Austen spirit in a truly modern (well, mid 1990s) way.  Of the two more literal adaptations that came out in the year after, I prefer the Kate Beckinsdale one ("What about little Henry???"), although the Paltrow version has the more attractive Knightley.

So do I like this novel more than Pride and Prejudice?  Maybe a shade better.  It's equally quotable, with my favorite line being Emma's reply to her father's confusion about why his little grandsons like their uncle to toss them up in the air, "One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other."  And that quote explains why I'd be more likely to recommend a reader start with P & P, like I did.  Emma and Emma are not for everyone.

Plan of a Novel

Jane Austen
Plan of a Novel, According to Hints from Various Quarters

Nice little parody of a summary for a novel that Austen never wrote, "The name of the work not to be Emma."  My favorite bit is how the Hero is "only prevented from paying his addresses to [the Heroine], by some excess of refinement," which sounds like a satire of Fanny Burney among others.

Mansfield Park

1814, 2003 Oxford World's Classic edition
Jane Austen
Mansfield Park
Original price unknown, bought used for $6.00
A bit scruffy paperback

This is often regarded as Austen's weakest major novel with the least appealing heroine and I'm afraid I have to agree.  In my previous edition, Marvin Mudrick talked about how smug Fanny Price seemed, and Patricia Rozema chose to adapt the novel for screen despite seriously disliking Fanny.  She decided to give young Fanny the writing skills and even the juvenilia of Jane Austen.  And she took away Fanny's introversion and primness.

Certainly, it was a shock to me in my early 20s to come from Pride and Prejudice to a novel where a witty young woman is the romantic rival, while the sickly girl is the heroine.  But Fanny is no Anne De Bourgh.  Not only is she healthier, but she's not an heiress with almost no personality or intelligence.  Fanny is more insightful than anyone she knows, even people she looks up to like, Sir Thomas and Edmund.  She is, however, a poor relation, as she is reminded daily, particularly by her poisonous aunt, Mrs. Norris.  (Yes, this is where J. K. Rowling got the name of Filch's cat, although as far as I know the "Ravenshaws" did not influence the "Ravenclaws.")  Fanny is told that her opinions don't matter, and so she has trouble voicing them.

I don't dislike Fanny but I can't say I like her much.  Even Anne Elliot seems like she'd be more fun to hang out with (as well as the Austen heroine to have around during emergencies).  Still, I don't like seeing people push Fanny around.  (And, yes, it took several readings before I could see Fanny's name without snickering, especially with lines like Crawford "began to reckon upon some happy intercourse with Fanny.")  When Sir Thomas and the others (except for once, Mrs. Norris) pressure her into marrying Henry Crawford, I get really angry, especially at Edmund, who should know better but is too blinded by his infatuation with Henry's sister Mary.  Even if Fanny weren't the best judge of character (she would've seen right through Wickham and Willoughby), she should be allowed to say no in a matter that most concerns her and will impact the rest of her life.  And she does say no, repeatedly, which just makes everyone insist that Crawford must prove his "constancy."

Sadly, this everyone includes Austen.  I know that, as always, the ending is written in a dry, ironic tone (with a delightful reference to A Midsummer Nights Dream's Puck, re Sir Thomas), but the narrator does say that if Henry had "persevered, and uprightly, Fanny must have been his reward," if Edmund had married Mary.  So does this mean that no doesn't mean no?  Or would Fanny decide that marriage to a (hopefully reformed) well-off-if-not-in-the-league-of-Rushworth rake beats either oppression by Mrs. Norris or poverty in Portsmouth?  After all, Charlotte Lucas would've leaped at the chance to marry Rushworth, and might've even considered Crawford.  True, Maria Bertram's meal-ticket marriage is a disaster from beginning to end.  (I think this is the only Austen novel with divorce, although Lesley Castle happily played with it.)  But Fanny could probably make a go of such a marriage if she couldn't have Edmund, and maybe she'd even learn to whole-heartedly love her husband, like Marianne Dashwood does with Col. Brandon.  The thing is, Marianne's original objections to Brandon are that he's too old and boring.  She finds out that he has a very interesting, romantic past, and the age difference matters less as time goes on.  Fanny's objections to Henry Crawford are moral ones. Would he ever reform enough to suit her?  Considering he runs off with a woman just because she's bruised his ego, the answer would have to be no.  If Maria didn't tempt him, someone else would.

Rozema's 1999 movie literally made me tear my hair out in the theater.  (It seemed a less disruptive reaction than screaming.)  Having seen so many fine Austen adaptations in the previous four years, I knew going in that this one would be less faithful, despite the full title being Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, but I didn't know how unfaithful.  A couple years ago I watched a bunch of Austen movies and TV series, and I reluctantly included this one.  I even listened to the director's commentary, trying to figure out what she was thinking.  I still don't think the movie works even on its own terms, but I don't hate it as much now.  That said, the TV versions from 1983 and 2007 also miss the point of both the novel and the heroine.  The former gives her movie-Jan-Brady voices in the head, while the latter makes Fanny into a tomboy.  

What works in this novel?  The "fools" are best, Lady Bertram and Mr. Rushworth.  (It wasn't until I got this edition that I even noticed that Pug, Lady B's lapdog, changes sex to the point that "he" might have a litter.)  She is hilariously lazy and calm, except during moments of extreme crisis.  He is like Mr. Collins in that he's boring but respectable, though instead of being a rising clergyman, he's a rich man, and his main fault is vanity rather than ambition.

The wordplay, including with the play, is some of Austen's best.  From the "Rears and Vices" pun (at the least risque, at the most crude) to the use of the terms "liberty" and "freedom," Austen wants us to think about how words are used, in this novel, and in the larger world.  The slave ships off the coast of England in Rozema's movie are typical of her lurid exaggeration, but it is legitimate to say that slavery as the foundation of some of British wealth (including possibly Sir Thomas's) is there in the background of the original story.  In the next novel, Jane Fairfax will compare being a governess to being a slave, and while it's impossible to say that they were the same condition in degree, they definitely were on the same scale.  Wollstonecraft had already pointed out that becoming a governess was the most respectable option for a talented single girl of the middle class, and yet, as Charlotte Bronte was to show in Jane Eyre (coming up hopefully later this month), governesses were treated as less than human.  In this novel, Yates says of the Cottager's Wife in their amateur theatrical, it's a nothing role suitable only for a governess or similar.  So of course, Fanny, who's sort of an unpaid servant, is expected to take it.  Worst of all, Fanny is expected to be grateful to everyone for being taken in as a poor relation, although it wasn't her choice.

She does come to see Mansfield Park as "home," particularly after a trip back to Portsmouth, but it feels similar to the choice between living with Mrs. Norris and marrying Crawford, i.e. not much of a choice.  After Mrs. Norris leaves and little sister Susan stays, Mansfield Park is more pleasant.  Fanny does love her forbidding uncle and languid aunt.  And more importantly, she loves Edmund, whose brotherly regard for her turns to romance after he's disillusioned by Mary.  The cousin marriage is off-putting to some modern readers but doesn't particularly stand out in 19th-century literature.  I can't say I was rooting for or against Fanny & Edmund.  I didn't want her to end up with Henry because of her strong dislike and disapproval, but I thought that Edmund & Mary had a sort of Darcy & Lizzy opposites attraction.  Unfortunately, Mary doesn't bring out the best in Edmund, as Lizzy does in Darcy.  Mary makes Edmund wittier and more outgoing, but she doesn't value what he values.  Edmund generally brings out the best in Fanny, and the narrator assures us that "the happiness of the married cousins must appear as secure as earthly happiness can be."  In a novel full of mismatched and/or miserable couples (the Bertrams, the Prices, the Grants, and the Rushworths, and how happy do you imagine Mr. Norris was?), that's not saying much, but an appearance of a happy ending is all Austen can offer this time.