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Why We Read Jane Austen

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Review by Arti of Ripple Effects

The first challenge you face when writing about Pride and Prejudice is to get through your first sentences without saying, “it is a truth universally acknowledged…”
—– Martin Amis

Isn’t it true that these words from the clever and satirical opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice have been so overused that they have sadly become a cliché in our contemporary language, together with ‘zombies’ and ‘vampires’.

So what did I expect from a book entitled A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen? (Buy online at our giftshop!)

I admit, at first I thought it was a literary version of those lifetime achievement award presentations, where the honoree is showered with superfluous speeches by his/her peers, over champagne and frivolous dinner, something which Jane Austen herself would abhor.

I found out soon enough that between the modest and classic looking covers, Susannah Carson, the editor of the volume, had gathered the essays of 33 writers, not toasts or roasts, but detailed biographical notes, thoughtful musings, heartfelt admiration and in-depth analysis of Austen characters and works. It is a collection of articles stemming from a balanced fusion of sense and sensibility, something that Austen herself would have approved.

Included are literary figures from the late 19th to 20th centuries like E. M. Forster, W. Somerset Maugham, C. S. Lewis, Eudora Welty and Virginia Woolf. Contemporary contributors include writers, academics, Austen historian, and screenwriters. There are views from Harold Bloom, Lionel Trilling, Janet Todd, Anna Quindlen, A. S. Byatt, Amy Bloom, to name a few. All of them point to Austen’s inimitable humor, incisive observations of human nature and unwavering moral stance that make her works still relevant two hundred years later today.

The following are some samples from this smorgasboard of Austen delights.

Harold Bloom, writing the preface, concludes with these lines:

“We read Austen because she seems to know us better than we know ourselves, and she seems to know us so intimately for the simple reason that she helped determine who we are both as readers and as human beings.”

Anna Quindlen, defending the subject matter in Austen’s works being mainly about the family (it’s a pity that she even needs to do this):

“…[Austen was] a writer who believed the clash of personalities was as meaningful as—perhaps more meaningful than—the clash of sabers. For those of us who suspect that all the mysteries of life are contained in the microcosm of the family, that personal relationships prefigure all else, the work of Jane Austen is the Rosetta stone of literature.”

Austen once referred her own writing as “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour.” Screenwriter and director Amy Heckerling, who has adapted Emma into the movie ‘Clueless’, compares Austen’s writing to a Vermeer painting:

“Sometimes the finest brushes paint the biggest truths.”

James Collins, a writer and editor, and frequent contributor to The New Yorker, shares a very personal view:

“I find that reading Jane Austen helps me clarify ethical choices, helps me figure out a way to live with integrity in the corrupt world, even helps me adopt the proper tone and manner in dealing with others… Reading Austen I sometimes feel as if my morals are a wobbly figurine that her hand reaches out and steadies.”

But she is not all didactic and stern… far from it. Jane Austen has long been celebrated for her animated humour and witty ironies, the essence of her writing. I love this analogy that Collins uses:

Her ironies swirl and drop like the cast of a fly fisherman. This rhythmic motion seems to me ideal for both accepting and rejecting the ways of the wretched world while maintaining balance.

Demonstrating the relevance of her satires for today, Benjamin Nugent, the author of American Nerd: The Story of My People, discusses the nerds in Pride and Prejudice, Mary Bennett and Mr. Collins, and why they miss out on life.

“If you read sci-fi novels, you’ll generally read about worlds in which scientists and the technologies they create drive the plot; if you read Austen, you’ll read about a world in which technology means nothing and the triumphs and failures of conversational agility drive everything.”

His advice for modern day nerds:

“Young nerds should read Austen because she’ll force them to hear dissonant notes in their own speech they might otherwise miss, and open their eyes to defeats and victories they otherwise wouldn’t even have noticed. Like almost all worthwhile adolescent experience, it can be depressing, but it can also feel like waking up.”

It takes a sharp ear and intelligence to be a good humorist, and Austen shows that she has what it takes to be one at an early age. About her prodigious talent, Virginia Woolf praises her first work, the novella Love and Friendship, written when Austen was only 15:

“an astonishing and unchildish story… Spirited, easy, full of fun, verging with freedom upon sheer nonsense–Love and Friendship is all that… The girl of fifteen is laughing, in her corner, at the world.”

Indeed, as editor Susannah Carson has stated, any hint of ‘romance’ in her novels is merely the irony of it. About the seemingly unconvincing romantic plot in Northanger Abbey, Carson asserts:

“What if Austen actually intended the romance plot to be unconvincing? … It is probable… that Austen intended the failure of the romance plot, not to sabotage her own work, but to make a point about romance plots in general… that [they] are inherently artificial.”

That Northanger Abbey is a satire on the gothic novel has long been noted. Other writers also stress that Austen should not be labelled as a ‘romance writer’ because of the satirical styling behind her writing. W. Somerset Maugham keenly observes: ”She had too much common sense and too sprightly a humor to be romantic.”

In his essay ‘Beautiful Mind’, writer Jay McInerney bravely admits that: “If my actual romantic life has sometimes been influenced by superficial considerations, as an Austen reader the basis of my affections has been almost entirely cerebral.

Amy Bloom sums it up succinctly about this common confusion about romance and love:

“Jane Austen is, for me, the best writer for anyone who believes in love more than in romance, and who cares more for the private than the public. She understands that men and women have to grow up in order to deserve and achieve great love, that some suffering is necessary (that mewling about it in your memoir or on a talk show will not help at all), and that people who mistake the desirable object for the one necessary and essential love will get what they deserve.”

To master such a distinction could well be one of the main reasons why we read Jane Austen.

List Price: $25.00
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Random House; 1 edition (10 Nov 2009)
ISBN-10: 1400068053
ISBN-13: 978-1400068050

Arti reviews movies, books, arts and entertainment on her blog Ripple Effects. She has pleasure in many things, in particular, the work and wit of Jane Austen.

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A Jane Austen Education

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A Jane Austen Education
by William Deresiewicz

Reviewed By Arti of Ripple Effects

I’ve been following William Deresiewicz’s articles in The American Scholar for a few years. Although I’ve not seen any pictures of him, I know that he has taught English at Yale for ten years. So I’ve always thought him to be one calm, cool, and collected (older) academic. Well, I was totally surprised as I read his book A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter. Expecting a book on literary criticism, and from the title, maybe a dash of personal anecdote, I found it to be much more than these.

It is all of the following: literary analysis, biography, memoir and even confessional. Introduced to Jane Austen by his professor in graduate school, Deresiewicz had encountered numerous ‘eureka moments’ of self-discovery from reading her six novels. He unabashedly discloses how his own life experiences, and often youthful foibles, parallel those of Austen’s characters from each book. For us who have savored Austen’s works, we already know how wise and perceptive she is. But Deresiewicz has gone much deeper by being so brave as to reveal his self-absorbed psyche of younger days, his romantic mishaps, true friends and those who appear to be, the painful conflicts between his parents, and his search for self apart from a domineering father, all in light of Austen’s colorful literary canvas.

So before the calm, cool and collected guy emerged, there was one rebel, alienated follower of the modernists. Seems like every guy who comes to Austen is being dragged along with much reluctance, “just thinking about her made me sleepy.” But his reading, studying and writing a dissertation chapter on Austen’s works totally reshaped his views, and life.

Here’s an outline of Deresiewicz’s journey of maturity, of finding true love, and most importantly, of becoming one who has the capacity to love, all due to Austen’s novels. Too good to be true, isn’t it? I admit at times I found there were too many coincidences and perfect parallels, a bit contrived. But as I read, I knew I must decide one way or the other. And I was persuaded to see it as audacious honesty. His self-deprecating and revealing account of his journey towards maturity and improvement is entertaining, bold even as he mentally draws the line between friends and ‘foes’, true and fake, albeit keeping them anonymous. I’m sure those he’d described would definitely recognize themselves in the book.

As with Austen’s opening lines in her novels, Deresiewicz’s opening line sets the stage of what’s to come:

“I was twenty-six, and about as dumb, in all human things, as any twenty-six-year-old has a right to be, when I met the woman who would change my life.”

That woman, of course, is Jane Austen. Here are some of the key lessons:

From Emma, he learns to put aside his academic snobbery, that there’s no one too lowly for him to know, nothing too trivial or common for him to pass by. For these are the very ingredients that make up life.

“Not that I hadn’t always taken my plans and grand ambitions seriously–of course I had. What I hadn’t taken seriously were the little events, the little moments of feeling, that my life actually consisted of. I wasn’t Stephen Dedalus or Conrad’s Marlow, I was Emma. I was Jane Fairfax. I was Miss Bates. I wasn’t a rebel, I was a fool. I wasn’t floating in splendid isolation a million miles above the herd. I was part of the herd. I was a regular person, after all. Which means, I was a person.”

From Pride and Prejudice, he learns to grow up.

“For [Austen], growing up has nothing to do with knowledge or skills, because it has everything to do with character and conduct… Growing up means making mistakes… to learn to doubt ourselves…

By making mistakes, and recognizing her mistakes, and testing her impulses against the claims of logic, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice learned the most important lesson of all. She learned that she wasn’t the center of the universe.”

From Northanger Abbey, he learns to learn, and by so doing, to teach.

“The habit of learning: if Catherine could learn to love a hyacinth when she was seventeen… I could keep learning to love new things my whole life. Of course, it was my professor himself who had helped me learn to love Jane Austen in the first place, against expectations at least as stubborn as the ones that Catherine brought to Northanger Abbey. But I was starting to get it now: the wonderful thing about life, if you live it right, is that it keeps taking you by surprise.”

From Mansfield Park, he learns to see it as a mirror of “the rich Manhattanites” circle he was trying to get in.

“… the greed beneath the elegance, the cruelty behind the glow–and what I myself had been doing in it… If my friend was a social climber, then what the hell was I?… my attraction to that golden crowd, my ache to be accepted by them, what did it amount to if not the very same thing? Who was I becoming? Who had I already become?

… we also have an aristocracy in this country, and I was looking at it.”

From Persuasion, and from his own experience, he learns to prove Nora Ephron wrong. Unlike her movie script When Harry Met Sally, man and woman can be friends, without “the sex thing getting in the way.”

“A man and a woman, even two young, available ones, could talk to each other, understand each other, sympathize with each other, be drawn to each other, even share their intimate thoughts and feelings with each other–as Anne and Benwick did–without having to be attracted to each other–as Anne and Benwick clearly weren’t. They could, in other words, be friends.”

“Anne and Harville shared a common footing in the conversation, debating each other with mutual respect and affection and esteem. Men and women can be equals, Austen was telling us, so men and women can be friends.”

And finally, from Sense and Sensibility, he learns what it means to fall in love.

“To Austen, love at first sight is a contradiction in terms… As dull as it sounded, I now saw, Elinor’s way of going about things is the right one: to see a great deal of a person, to study their sentiments, to hear their opinions. … And it is a person’s character, not their body, with which we fall in love.

Like all Austen’s novels, Deresiewicz’s book ends with a marriage, his own. But without first reading the six Austen novels, he would have been totally unprepared for such a relationship. “Love, for Austen, is not becoming forever young. It’s about becoming an adult.” The book is the best way to show his gratitude to the matchmaker.

CLICK HERE to visit William Deresiewicz’s website, and watch interviews of him with the editorial director of Penguin Classics, Elda Rotor.

RRP: £16.03
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Penguin Press (28 April 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1594202885
ISBN-13: 978-1594202889


Arti reviews movies, books, arts and entertainment on her blog Ripple Effects. She has pleasure in many things, in particular, the work and wit of Jane Austen.

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Two Guys Read Jane Austen

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Two Guys Read Jane Austen
by Steve Chandler, Terence N Hill

Reviewed By Arti of Ripple Effects

Some guys would rather have jaw surgery than to read JA. Steve Chandler could well have been one of them. As an English major in college, now a successful writer in his sixties, Steve has miraculously managed to avoid reading Jane Austen all his life, until now. On the other hand, his co-author Terrence N. Hill, an award-winning playwright and author, has read Pride and Prejudice three times, good man. Prompted by their wives, Steve and Terry embarked on this new project in their Two Guys series, taking the risk of treading no man’s land. However, considering their previous Two Guys titles, Two Guys Read Moby Dick and Two Guys Read the Obituaries, they are well-primed for this venture.

Attaining to true Austenesque style, the two lifelong friends read two Jane Austen novels and wrote letters to each other about their thoughts over a six-month period. I must admit I’m surprised (sorry guys) at the incisive look and the fresh perspective they bring to the forefront. Their sharp observations, humorous takes on many issues, their LOL commentaries on popular culture, and intelligent analysis on various topics make this a most gratifying read for both men and women, Janeites or would be’s.

Many do not want to read Jane Austen because they think she was just a 19th Century rural spinster awashed in naiveté, who had never heard of Napoleon or the war he was raging, ignorant about the slave trade from which England was benefiting, or couldn’t tell the difference between a country and a continent. The most they might think of her is as the mother of all modern day chick lit or the romance novel. Well, these myths are all dispelled by two guys that have experienced Jane Austen first-hand, and lived to tell their discovery.

Here are some of their insights and words of wisdom as they read Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park. I’m quoting directly from their letters to each other:

     

  • Jane’s got more adoring female fans than Brad Pitt, and my guess is they’re more intelligent too.
  • JA (through Elizabeth) is a witty, rebellious voice for intelligence and passion in the face of those stuffy British strictures. I love this. I love a woman (or a man, for that matter) who has no need to win anyone over.
  • Wasn’t Elizabeth Bennet heroic because she was such a totally self-responsible, proudly independent person? Wasn’t Darcy the same?
  • I really enjoy how much you like Jane Austen, that you cry when reading her books, and that you can still be a man… A man not afraid of the feminine principle becomes even more of a man.
  • …elegantly cerebral. But once you acclimate yourself to the flow of the language, it is addictive. JA’s writing becomes more captivating with each new chapter because of how many layers of psychological posturing she strips away.
  • Men are often accused of putting their wives on a pedestal. Women build a pedestal and then spend their time trying to create something worthy of going on it.
  • I don’t think Austen ever gets proper credit for her role in the development of the comic novel.
  • Jane never attended school after the age of 11. After that she was entirely self-taught… S&S, P&P, NA, three of the greatest novels of all time–all written by 25. Thinking of myself at that age. If I had had time on my hands I could well imagine having written three novels… What I can’t imagine is that they would have been any good. Ah, but then I had the disadvantage of an education.
  • The true measure of her characters is their hearts and minds. What the movies cannot get to – or do justice to – is the intelligence.
  • What has excited Henry Crawford the most is Fanny’s inner strength. On the surface she is delicate and demure. But underneath she is power itself. That’s what makes JA so great and so endearing.
  • Jane is all about principle. Living true to your highest ideals, your highest self… she shows us there is a beauty to morality… there’s beauty in integrity!

Need I say more?

List Price: £7.50
Paperback: 126 pages
Publisher: Robert D. Reed Publishers; 3 edition (15 Oct 2008)
ISBN-10: 1934759171
ISBN-13: 978-1934759172

Arti reviews movies, books, arts and entertainment on her blog Ripple Effects. She has pleasure in many things, in particular, the work and wit of Jane Austen.

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Claire Tomalin and Carol Shields on Jane Austen’s Life

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Jane Austen – A Life
by Claire Tomalin

Reviewed By Arti of Ripple Effects

As a biographer, Tomalin’s account of Jane Austen’s life is meticulous and exhaustive. Her analysis is critical and sharp, her writing style bold, precise and cutting. The following excerpts are prime examples.

When speculating about the possible consequence of Mrs. Austen sending her infants away to be raised, Tomalin makes the following inference:

“The most striking aspect of Jane’s adult letters is their defensiveness. They lack tenderness towards herself as much as towards others. You are aware of the inner creature, deeply responsive and alive, but mostly you are faced with the hard shell; and sometimes a claw is put out, and a sharp nip is given to whatever offends. They are the letters of someone who does not open her heart; and in the adult who avoids intimacy you sense the child who was uncertain where to expect love or to look for security, and armoured herself against rejection.”

Or this to say about mother and daughter:

“Mrs. Austen had a sharp tongue for neighbours, appreciated by her daughter and passed on to her.”

Or, with the episode of Jane accepting and later recanting Harris Bigg-Wither’s marriage proposal, Tomalin’s view is clear:

“We would naturally rather have Mansfield Park and Emma than the Bigg-Wither baby Jane Austen might have given the world, and who would almost certainly have prevented her from writing any further books.”

If you can appreciate such kind of abrasive commentaries, you would certainly find it entertaining to read Tomalin’s than an otherwise ordinary biographical sketch. Ironically, I have a feeling that this is the kind of biographies Jane would have written if she could write without censure.

Putting her incisive analysis to good use, Tomalin explores Jane’s creative process, giving credits to her imaginative ingenuity. The limitation of physical and social mobility render Jane’s world parochial, yet her characters and story lines are diverse and innovative. Her writing are evidences of pure creative concoctions.

“…essentially she is inventing, absorbed by the form and possibilities of the novel… The world of her imagination was separate and distinct from the world she inhabited.”

For Jane, it is imagination and not experience that has given her wings to soar outside of her bleak circumstances. A vivid example is the writing of the sprightly Pride and Prejudice. The novel was written during a time of family tragedy with the death of Cassandra’s fiancé Tom Fowle, and amidst Jane’s own disappointment with the evaporation of hope with Tom LeFroy.

All in all, Tomalin’s sharp and cutting writing style works towards Jane’s favour. Her biography is resourceful and entertaining, her analysis incisive, and her conclusion moving. Above all, Jane would have found it amusing and satisfying.

Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin, includes an additional 16 pages of photos. Buy online here!

Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Penguin; New edition edition
ISBN-10: 0140296905
ISBN-13: 978-0140296907
RRP: £9.99

 

Jane Austen by Carol Shields

Reviewed By Arti of Ripple Effects

Carol Shield’s Jane Austen is a succinct and gentler rendition of Jane’s life. Shields and her daughter, the writer Anne Giardini, were presenters at the JASNA AGM in Richmond, Virginia in 1996. This book came out five years after that. Shields has crafted a highly readable literary gem, adorned by her lucid and flowing writing style.

As a novelist, Shields’ main thrust is to trace Jane’s development as a writer. Exploring her family circumstances as she was growing up, Shields presents to us a gifted youth of exuberant spirit, one who had known the joy of theatrical performances and experienced the exhilarating power of humor. Jane’s ingenuity lies in her parodies. As a young contributor to her older brother James’ weekly magazine The Loiterer , she was already a skillful writer of satires. Shield notes that:

“…it is the satirical form of her youthful writing that astonishes us today. What makes a child of twelve or thirteen a satirist?

… Jane Austen had been nurtured, certainly, in a circle appreciative of burlesque… but she was also a small presence in a large and gifted household. Her desire to claim the attention of her parents and siblings can be assumed. She gave them what they wanted, that which would make them laugh and marvel aloud at her cleverness”

This yearning to entertain, influence and be acknowledged remained the motivation for Jane’s writing throughout her life. Her youthful gigs and satires transformed into full-fledged novels. Just take Northanger Abbey for example. It is a burlesque of the Gothic in a style which she was so familiar with since her girlhood days. And a look at the characters like Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, or Mrs. Elton in Emma, readers could readily appreciate Jane’s “comic brilliance and… consummate artistry”.

Shields offers in-depth analysis of Austen’s works, exploring not just the writing but the psyche of a brilliant mind. Like Tomalin, she dispels the myth of art imitating life, and credits Jane’s imagination as the key ingredient of her ingenuity:

“Her novels were conceived and composed in isolation. She invented their characters, their scenes and scenery, and their moral framework. The novelistic architecture may have been borrowed from the eighteenth-century novelists, but she made it new, clean, and rational, just as though she’d taken a broom to the old fussiness of plot and action. She did all this alone.”

Considering the physical and social limitations confining Jane, it was her writing that transported her to brave new worlds, and the vehicle was her imagination.

As I finished reading these two biographies, Virginia Woolf’s praise of Jane Austen resonated in my mind:

“Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That was how Shakespeare wrote.”

While we lament that Jane had left only six complete novels upon her untimely death at forty-one, we treasure these legacies of imagination and the inspiration they evoke for generations to come.

Paperback: 208 pages
Publisher: Phoenix; New Ed edition
ISBN-10: 0753812568
ISBN-13: 978-0753812563
RRP: £7.99

 

Arti reviews movies, books, arts and entertainment on her blog Ripple Effects. She has pleasure in many things, in particular, the work and wit of Jane Austen.

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Why Jane Austen? Why Now?

Written By Arti of Ripple Effects

The Welsh filmmaker Peter Greenaway once made a controversial remark* criticising film versions of literary work as mere “illustrated books”. Regarding Jane Austen’s work, he said:

“Cinema is predicated on the 19th century novel. We’re still illustrating Jane Austen novels–there are 41 films of Jane Austen novels in the world.
What a waste of time.”

To the discomfort of Mr. Greenaway, there have been more Austen adaptations made since he spoke. Just weeks ago, BBC announced that a four-episode production of Emma will be launched this fall. The award-winning writer Sandy Welch (Jane Eyre, 2006, TV; Our Mutual Friend, 1998, TV) has been working on the new script, and filming has already begun.

Why do we need another Austen adaptation? Do we need another “illustrated book” as Greenaway has argued?

I was surprised to hear such remarks from Mr. Greenaway, himself an art house filmmaker. He certainly doesn’t need to be reminded of the power of the visual. I have expressed my stance against his argument in a previous blogposting entitled Vision not Illustration. But as more Austen adaptations appear, laying ratings and profits aside, I still believe there is an artistic merit in turning book into film.

The visual has an immense power in bringing out the essence of the literary. An image can elicit deep and hidden thoughts, stir up emotions of past experiences, point to new insights, and unleash multiple responses in just a short lapse of time. The cliché “A picture speaks a thousand words” has its application in this visually driven generation. Not that I do not treasure the classics, or the literary tradition. Far from it. I think a good film adaptation can, at best, enhance our enjoyment of the literary, and if it fails, can only help us appreciate the original genius even more.

If Bach, over 300 years ago, could invent Theme and Variations, why can’t we in this post-modern age, where multiple narratives are cherished, create adaptations to a recognized original? Of course, the key is held by the filmmakers. It takes the insightful and interpretive lens of a good writer, director, and cinematographer to craft a fresh perspective, one that can evoke a new vision and yet still remain true to the spirit of the original.

Kate Harwood of BBC explains why another adaptation of Emma is ensued:

“In Emma, Austen has created an intriguing heroine, and our four-hour canvas allows us to explore this multi-faceted character in detail. Emma was Austen’s last novel, written when she was at the height of her craft, and we are delighted that such an esteemed writer as Sandy Welch is bringing her vision to this appealing story.”

How appropriate it is for Harwood to see film as a canvas for visual exploration, and the writer’s vision as a crucial element in the creative process.

I say, bring on more Austen adaptations. Jane would be most pleased… belatedly.

Enjoyed this article? Browse our book shop at janeaustengiftshop.co.uk


Arti reviews movies, books, arts and entertainment on her blog Ripple Effects. She has pleasure in many things, in particular, the work and wit of Jane Austen.

* The full text of the article can be found here: Cinema is dead says Welsh film-maker, available online from Walesonline.co.uk.

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Mansfield Park: Jane Austen the Contrarian

Written By Arti of Ripple Effects

Mansfield Park is probably the most controversial and least favored of all six Austen novels. Drawing the issue of slavery into the limelight, post-colonialist critic Edward Said had certainly stirred up some ripples in alleging Austen’s acceptance of British imperialism with her mention of Sir Thomas Bertram’s Antigua plantation. (1) Susan Fraiman has aptly presented her rebuttal to Said’s argument, noting in particular Austen’s brilliant irony and metaphor upon deeper reading. (2) So here, I would just like to concentrate on Austen’s characterization, which I believe is more in line with her central purpose in Mansfield Park. That brings me to the other major controversy.

What Makes a Heroine?

Published after Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park presents a very different heroine from that of Austen’s previous success. Fanny Price is often measured against Elizabeth Bennet, consequently being looked upon as inferior. On the outset, Fanny is indeed everything Lizzy is not. First of all, she is physically fragile, easily succumbs to exhaustion and fainting spells, very unlike Lizzy who can take on extensive walks in the outdoors, happily treading through miles of muddy paths. No rosy cheeks from such exercise for Fanny. She may have grown into a fair lady at eighteen, but she does not have Lizzy’s athletic prowess, or her pair of fine eyes, the trademark of her exuberance.

Further, Fanny Price is painfully shy, an introvert. Readers may find her insipid, lacking glamour, but they may be more impatient with her passive, yielding personality. Why does Jane Austen present to us such a heroine, especially after the very lively and charismatic Lizzy Bennet?

Well, I, for one, am glad to see Austen has demonstrated her wisdom by depicting an anti-stereotyped heroine. With Fanny Price, Austen has shattered the image of the typical heroine: a captivating beauty, quick witted and forthright, even audacious at times, endowed with energy and charisma. Why is reticence, or introvert nature being frowned upon? When did we start thinking of long-suffering and perseverance as negative traits? Why is humility not getting its rightful esteem? And, why are the quiet, observant and thinking female not as attractive as those who are more expressive, or who possess only outward beauty?

What Fanny lacks in physical vigor, she more than compensates with her inner strength. And it is in the nobility of character that Austen has chosen to depict her heroine. Underneath Fanny’s fragile appearance is a quiet and principled perseverance. Seeing the impropriety of staging a play which entails the remodelling of Sir Thomas’ very private library in his absence, Fanny stands firm in not participating, despite the pressures and insults from her older cousins, the persuasion from the Crawfords, the scornful criticisms from Mrs. Norris, and even the eventual yielding of Edmund himself.

In her ingenious manner, with biting irony, Austen pits Fanny Price against her formidable foe, Mary Crawford. At first sight, “Mary Crawford was remarkably pretty.” Not long after that, Austen adds:

 

“She had none of Fanny’s delicacy of taste, of mind, of feeling; she saw nature, inanimate nature, with little observation; her attention was all for men and women, her talents for the light and lively.”

Indeed, when it comes to moral uprightness, Mary Crawford is no match. Thanks to the way she defends her brother Henry who has snatched Maria away from her husband, even Edmund can now see clearly. Henry Crawford is a carnal schemer, and Mary Crawford is equally manipulative and egotistic. Unfortunately, it takes a scandal and trepidations for others to learn what Fanny has seen clearly from the very beginning.

In a way, Fanny Price is more lucid than Elizabeth Bennet in not succumbing to the lure of vanity with Henry Crawford’s superfluous praise and wooing. If only Elizabeth had conquered that soft spot regarding Wickham earlier on….but of course, there wouldn’t be any story then. And if it is admirably bold for Lizzy to resist Lady Catherine de Bourgh, someone who is of no relation to her, Fanny is all the more courageous in her refusing to marry Henry Crawford by standing up against the very guardian to whom she owed her upbringing and her present living, the patriarch Sir Thomas Bertram. It takes extraordinary fortitude to go against everyone in Mansfield Park, and follow her own heart, while the privilege to explain herself is infeasible.

Compared to other Austen heroines, Fanny Price is equally, if not more, worthy. Fanny has the passion of Marianne, while possessing the rationale of Elinor. That is why her secret love for Edmund can endure unfavorable conditions. Her lucid sense of judgement restrains her to reveal it to Edmund, who, with his emotional frailty, would be exasperated knowing his own beloved cousin is a rival rather than a friend of Mary Crawford. Her perseverance can easily match and surpass that of Anne Elliot. She may be uneducated and naive like Catherine Morland to start with, though equally moldable and respectful when taught, as the story progresses she far surpasses her mentor in insight and maturity .

By presenting a heroine who may not be a typical favorite, Austen seems to be writing contrary to conventional norms. (But is it just modern audience who have differed in their expectations, resulting in recent film adaptations altering the very spirit and essence of Austen’s characters to appeal to them?) Has Austen created a character so different from her other heroines?

Comparing Mansfield Park with all her other novels, I do not feel she is particularly off her usual standpoint. As with her other heroines, Austen is more concerned with character, virtues, and morals, the inner qualities of the person rather than the outer appearance. Mansfield Park is the best manifestation of her stance.

Ultimately, what shine through for our Austenian heroine are:

“…the sweetness of her temper, the purity of her mind, and the excellence of her principles.”

In the end, the steadfast and long-suffering Fanny Price triumphs. And for critics who assert that Austen had silently condoned slavery, the ending of Mansfield Park should silence them all, for it is the socially and economically disenfranchised and marginalized that is exalted and vindicated. In my view, Edmund does not deserve her. However, it is Fanny’s heart and long unrequited love that Austen attempts to satisfy. And I totally concur with that, for our heroine deserves it. And no, Fanny does not become mistress of Mansfield Park, which is also ideal: it is not affluence and materialism that win after all, but spiritual values and nobility of character that overcome, and they are their own rewards. The Parsonage is a most fitting place for both Edmund and Fanny to begin their life together.

 


 

Arti reviews movies, books, arts and entertainment on her blog Ripple Effects. She has pleasure in many things, in particular, the work and wit of Jane Austen.

Notes:
1. Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. (Alfred A. Knopf, 1993). His chapter on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park can be read in Dorothy Hale’s The Novel: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1900- 2000. (Blackwell, 2005) pp. 691-715. You can read part of it online on Google Books by clicking here.

2. Fairman, Susan. Jane Austen and Edward Said: Gender, Culture, and Imperialism.Critical Inquiry, 21 (4), pp. 805-821.

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Miss Woodhouse Regrets

Written By Arti of Ripple Effects

“I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.”
Jane Austen, on Emma

Andrew Davies created another proficient and loyal adaptation of Austen’s work, a year after his success with Pride and Prejudice(1995). Emma (1996 TV) is effectively written for the screen, bringing out all the crucial scenes in congruent sequences. Great acting from all, except I must say, Mark Strong’s Mr. Knightly seems to be a bit too severe and lacks the forbearing and benevolent nature he possesses in the book. Maybe because of that, Kate Beckinsale is a more subdued Emma, less spriteful than Gwyneth Paltrow’s portrayal. I have enjoyed Olivia Williams as Jane Fairfax and Samantha Morton as Harriet Smith, who is more appropriately cast than Toni Collette in the other 1996 movie.

Is Emma such a despicable character that Jane Austen thought no one but herself would much like?

At first, I thought so. Emma is manipulative, imposing and snobbish. In her pride, she has toyed with Harriet’s emotions, misdirected her path, and dominated her decisions. In her blindness, she has misjudged intentions and at times, behaved disdainfully. If Lady Catherine were around, her words targeted at Elizabeth Bennet would be most appropriate here: “Obstinate, headstrong girl!”. Lizzy would also decry: “Insufferable!”

But, why did Jane Austen still like her?

In her ingenious style, Austen has led us in a most gratifying way, to see our heroine regret. Emma is not a perfect human being. Far from it. She probably has more ingrained flaws than most of the other characters in the story. However, that is the way our beloved author likes to sculpt her heroines: making them earn their respect by their mending their ways. And she knows how gratified her readers must feel to see Emma enlightened and humbled. By showing a regretful and corrected Emma, Jane Austen has aligned our views with hers, helping us to appreciate our heroine as a respectable character who is not afraid to own up to her blunders. Emma’s tears of regret have melted our hearts away.

Moreover, and most importantly I think, Austen has inconspicuously led us to see Emma from the eyes of Mr. Knightly towards the end of the story. Mr. Knightly has been Emma’s moral compass and benevolent mentor. While he can see her errors clearly, and does not hesitate to correct and admonish, he is also ready to forgive. He has chosen to love her from a distance while she is still an immature and self-deluded girl, albeit an imaginative one.

At the end, we are rewarded to see Emma gaining self-understanding:

“I seem to have been doomed to blindness.”

Hearing Knightly’s declaration of love, the undeserved euphoria is unspeakable. But of course, Mr. Knightly sees it otherwise:

“I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.”

His kindness and love for Emma compel him to still give her credit in her most self-deprecating state. In his eyes, she is ‘faultless in spite of all her faults’.

So, from Mr. Knightly’s point of view, we’ve come to appreciate a very human Emma, humbled by experience, regretful of her ways, and in the end, ever so ready to change. After all, it’s about time that a blissful match is made for herself.

Arti reviews movies, books, arts and entertainment on her blog Ripple Effects. She has pleasure in many things, in particular, the work and wit of Jane Austen.

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Pride and Prejudice Revisited

Written By Arti of Ripple Effects
Pride and PrejudiceIs it coincidental that PBS chose, of all the six Jane Austen adaptations, to air Pride and Prejudice the Sunday before Valentine’s Day? I think they must have strategically placed it there, knowing that this novel is one of the most-loved books in literature, as the results in recent polls have shown. They must have known that Pride and Prejudice is ranked the third most reread books in Britain, and first in a poll on books that people in the British nation can’t live without.

Other surveys reveal similar results. In a 2003 BBC poll, Pride and Prejudice ranked second as UK’s favorite book. In 2007, it ranked first.

Only in Britain, you might say…but it seems like this is a phenomenon across countries.

In Australia, Austenmania and Janespotting are the common terms to describe this unprecedented occurrence since the mid 1990’s. The Pride and Prejudice miniseries (1995) broke TV ratings, books and sales records.

Jane Austen takes an international stance as it goes multicultural. InBride and Prejudice (2004), the best-loved Austen novel received a dashing Bollywood makeover. Which country doesn’t have its own class system and prejudice? The movie has also put Aishwarya Rai on the world map.

Most recently, Venezuelan director Fina Torres is getting ready to film Sense and Sensibilidad, with screenplay by Mexican Luis Alfaro. Locations of filming will be in Mexico and East L.A., and to be released at the end of 2008. If Jane is around she would be much gratified and amused to see her books gaining such a multi-cultural following.

In the cyberworld, as recent as this past week, Project Gutenberg ranks Jane Austen as the third most downloaded author in the past 30 days after Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, while Pride and Prejudice is the most downloaded Austen books.

But of course, statistics are irrelevant when it comes to matter of the heart.

We who love Austen’s works and, in particular, Pride and Prejudice, will continue to reread the book and rewatch this TV miniseries regardless of what the polls show. Different people might find different reasons for its appeal. But I, for one, feel that Austen has created through Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy the ideal (note: not perfect) woman and the ideal man. I see in them the essential ingredients of relationships, with oneself, and with others: respect, compassion, kindness, generosity, hope, and grace, but above all, the willingness to change and be transformed for the better. I’m much grounded to expect perfection in the human world, but through Austen’s depiction I can cherish and admire the ideal.

With our world unfolding as it is, cherishing the ideal could well be the key to helping us build a more beautiful tomorrow.

Favorite Scenes
Pride and Prejudice

The second installment of Pride and Prejudiceaired on PBS carries some of my favorite scenes in the whole miniseries. The ‘wet shirt’ episode, the favorite of many, is naturally one of them. Thousands have already talked about it, but allow me to add one small voice here. I find the surprise and embarrassing encounter of Elizabeth with the dripping wet Darcy to be an ingenious creation by Andrew Davis, an imaginary addition easily forgiven by many Jane Austen purists, I suppose. My reason for adoring this scene can be summed up in one word: vulnerability.

Both are caught unprepared and their vulnerability makes them equal. The inhibition of Elizabeth’s fondness of the place and her bewilderment of Darcy’s character based on the housekeeper’s compliments are well matched by Darcy’s eagerness to make a good impression but alas, while being caught in the most uncouth manner. Both clumsily and comically try to regain composure and maintain some form of civility. In the spontaneity of the moment, pride is laid aside and prejudice banished. Darcy, stripped of his usual formal attire, presents his dripping and humble self in the most unguarded manner. Colin Firth has vividly shown us that genuine and dishevelled appearances can be utterly appealing.

Another favorite scene of mine comes shortly after this chance encounter. As Elizabeth is driven away in the open carriage, she looks back at Darcy in a distance, wearing the fulfilled and satisfied smile on her face, while the camera, from her point of view, captures the handsomely poised Darcy seeing her off, his tall and slender physique growing smaller and smaller in the distance as the carriage is being pulled slowly away…how much tenderness can a camera shot elicit?

But before this beautiful departure at Pemberley, there is the duel of words. The scene I like most in this Part 2 of Pride and Prejudice is probably the first marriage proposal in Hunsford parsonage. Darcy’s words have but achieved one function: confirming every single prejudice Elizabeth might have held towards him. Through Elizabeth, Jane Austen has eloquently delivered her social commentary on the female predicament of her time. While love can be the most attractive reason for marriage for idealistic Lizzy, her better, rational self challenges the form, the motive, and the consequence of love. Would she be satisfied with the kind of love that is condescending, unequally bestowed, that is based on feelings ‘despite of’ and not admiration ‘because of’? Austen has articulated her critique on marrying for financial gains, even for the common good of securing the future of one’s whole family. A condescending relationship, despite the appearance of fondness and love, does not warrant the sacrifice of one’s dignity and value. Elizabeth has demonstrated clearly she has a choice, and she exercises her freedom to reject despite of the lure of wealth, status, and security. Just this scene is reason enough for me to admire Jane Austen.

Ideals Universally Acknowledged

I have watched this miniseries countless times, but I still wanted to see it again… the finale of Pride and Prejudice (1995) on PBS’s Masterpiece. I knew I was partaking in a communal experience shared by kindred spirits across North America. Every time I watch it, I glean some new insights, and I cherish the story all over again.

While Elizabeth and Darcy have virtues of their own, they have character flaws that if remain unchecked and unaltered, could well lead to a downfall like a tragic hero. Elizabeth, biased by her confidence in her own judgment, initially found Darcy to be utterly despicable. And Darcy, acting according to his own hubris, only fuels the very prejudice held by the one he admires. In circumstances like this, the ideal scenario is for the characters to change, to transform themselves into a better person in order to earn requited love. And that is exactly what Austen has done, and I think it is one of the main reasons why we love her story. She has put together two flawed characters and placed them in an ideal scenario wherein they strive to improve themselves, and turned into a better person for the sake of the other…Well, maybe more on the part of Darcy, and we love him for that. I like the title Pride and Prejudicemore than Jane’s original First Impressions. It gives a bit more depth and sets readers out searching for the universal shortfall in us all. Often our own prejudgment and overconfidence in our myopic view confine us squarely inside the box, unable to see the world beyond.

The portrayal of such transformation is vividly and sensitively acted in the miniseries. Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle effectively help us envision such an ideal scenario, satisfying our quest for the good, the wholesome, universal ideal of love hidden in us all. Kudos to Andrew Davis. I think he has written an ideal screen adaptation of Austen’s novel. Because of its loyalty to the original and still keeping the integrity of the work even when Davis presents to us imagined visions arise from his own interpretation, I believe this miniseries is the definitive version of Pride and Prejudice on screen.

Colin Firth as Mr. DarcyThe Gaze

Again, I have several favorite scenes. Which heart will not melt by that burning gaze of Darcy ardently holding Elizabeth as she rescues his disturbed sister in Pemberley upon the malicious mention of the name Wickham by Ms. Bingley? (BTW, this is Andrew Davis’ favorite scene in all of his Austen adaptations!) Who will not rejoice in Elizabeth’s assertive and eloquent rebuttal against the diatribe of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and her calm refusal to promise never to enter into any engagement with Darcy? Whose heart will not stir as a restrained yet passionate Darcy extends his second marriage proposal to Elizabeth?

Elizabeth has demonstrated time and again that she has the autonomy to make her own choices, yet Austen has also poignantly shown us that while Elizabeth can choose who to love, she cannot force the other to choose her, especially after her family’s reputation has been ruined by Lydia’s elopement. Darcy learns this lesson much earlier, in a most traumatic and humiliating manner, as he realizes that wealth and social standing, or even his own declaration of love cannot force another person to accept him. Here lies the paradox of love, one can choose who to love but cannot demand requited love. Choosing one’s love manifests the autonomy of self, but having to earn and wait for the other to choose you is a most humbling discipline. Maybe the ideal thing to do in such a circumstance is just to become a lovable person. That could well create the best chance of gaining love.

In the end, it is heart-warming to see both Darcy and Elizabeth, each having decided on each other, still quietly pines and waits for the other to declare his/her choice. A sense of uncertainty is what keeps us humble and instills in us the virtue of hope.

“It taught me to hope as I had scarcely ever allowed myself to hope before.”

Knowing our innermost yearning, Jane Austen brings her characters together in the most humbling circumstance, with their mutual admission of wrongs and weaknesses while esteeming the other higher than him/herself, fulfilling the ideal state of love.

“Do not repeat what I said then…I have long been most heartily ashamed of it.” “As a child… I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit… and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth!”

Through such mutual respect and admiration, our beloved author delivers the ideal ending to the love story of two imperfect persons…and sets us up for another round of watching and reading.

Arti reviews movies, books, arts and entertainment on her blog Ripple Effects. She has pleasure in many things, in particular, the work and wit of Jane Austen.