Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen

Brona’s Books: Austen in August

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Some impressions on re-reading (listening to) for the nth time the great Jane Austen.

I don’t remember all the books that were set for English Expression in my matric year – Martin Boyd, A Difficult Young Man; Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh; Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice are the three that stand out. Of the others, there were eleven in all I think, three were American which for confused political reasons I refused to read, and three were Russian which I didn’t read because I wasn’t reading the Americans (I said I was confused). The night before the exam I sat up in bed and re-read P&P just for the pleasure of the love story and I’ve read and re-read Austen ever since.

If you’re wondering, I failed Eng Exp, but seeing as I got firsts in Physics, Chemistry and Pure Maths, Melb Uni Engineering didn’t care, Trinity College didn’t care, and the headmaster of Mudsville High, Mudsville, Western Victoria had an excuse not to make me dux, so everyone was happy (except my father, so win-win all round really).

1. Why do I and so many others read and re-read Austen? I’ve already said I’m a sucker for a classic love story, so that’s no.1; then there’s the precise, spare writing; the sly wit. After that, as we get to know Austen better, some of you will say characters we love. I don’t really, though I have a soft spot for Lydia and Mrs Bennet (In high school I totally identified with Mr Bennet); then there are themes, descriptions, issues – there’s always something.

2. Sense and Sensibility was the first of Austen’s novels published, in 1811 when the author was 35. The first draft had been completed as early as 1800 so, under the title Elinor and Marianne, it had circulated amongst her family and friends – effectively been workshopped – for more than a decade. This of course allowed her to refine her language and her plot but also gave her freedom to experiment and, I think, to play up to her audience, to include jokes about pet topics.

3. It is an opinion generally held held and easily supported that the theme of S&S is the advantages of one and the ridiculousness of the other. The cult of sensibility which obtained amongst young women of refinement prevailed from Regency times right up to the turn of the Twentieth Century. It wasn’t just tight corsets making women swoon, it was the idea propagated by novels that the correct response, for a woman, to any adverse turn of affairs was firstly an excess of emotion, and secondly to fall down unconscious. Austen’s earliest long fiction, Love & Freindship (here), is a spoof on young women in novels and this carries over into S&S. It’s interesting that Elinor who throughout the novel is the embodiment of sense, is finally allowed when she learns that her lover is free, to give into sensibility, albeit behind closed doors.

4. I have not seen it discussed elsewhere but we should at least consider S&S as YA. Elinor and Marianne are respectively 19 and 16. Austen repeatedly makes fun of Marianne’s opinions which are fixed in a way that only teenagers’ are. We, the older reader, don’t ever really believe that Marianne won’t grow out of her tremendous distress at the failure of her first love affair. And we feel for Elinor who must deny her own feelings and act beyond her years to support her sister in the physical/emotional absence of their mother.

5. The two principal young men, the sisters’ love interests, both behave very badly, lying directly or by omission about prior commitments. Austen I think lets them both off lightly. Willoughby, whose belated apology is long, tedious and unnecessary to the plot, gets some undeserved sympathy from Elinor – undeserved but believable. I have daughters, I know how they respond to D & Ms. I’m not sure Edward even apologizes, he is freed when Lucy runs off with his brother and promptly rides to claim Elinor whom he had no right making up to in the first place.

6. This reading, by Sarah Badel for the BBC, reflects something I often think about when I’m reading/listening to/watching Austen and that is I think that our own social crawler instincts – our willingness to accept the gentry’s evaluation of ‘nouveaus’ – end up making some characters more vulgar than Austen intended. This dates back at least to the Olivier P&P (movie) where Mrs Bennet is portrayed as out of her depth in ‘polite’ society and Mr Bennet, as shamed and mocking where I think Austen intended him to be amused and tolerant.

All this gets back to class. Walter Scott wrote at the time (here):

… the author of Emma confines herself chiefly to the middling classes of society; her most distinguished characters do not rise greatly above well-bred country gentlemen and ladies; and those which are sketched with most originality and precision, belong to a class rather below that standard.

To the extent that class analysis is tolerated these days I think that we would grade Austen’s world as ‘upper middle’. Austen did portray a great deal of class mobility, not from the working classes whom she rarely bothers to name (the woman who cares for Marianne when she is ill is “Mrs Jenkins’ maid”), but from the well-off, ordinary middle – people in trade – into the gentry, the idle well-off. That said, I think the Steele sisters, Lucy and Anne, should be seen respectively as grasping and silly rather than lower class.

7. I have not mentioned the funniest and most quoted lines in S&S, as Elinor and Marriane’s sister in law talks their brother down by stages from his original intention to give his sisters a thousand apiece from the money he has inherited from their father, to a general intention to be of assistance to them in finding somewhere else to live; and I’ve probably assumed of my readership a familiarity with Austen which you don’t all have, in which case I apologize and suggest you make up the deficiency immediately.

 

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, first pub. 1811. Audiobook: BBC Audiobooks, 1996, read by Sarah Badel.

Previous Jane Austen posts –
Three Novels, Jane Austen, here
Love and Freindship, here
Jane Austen: Independent Woman, here
Jane’s Fame, Claire Harman, here
Sue at Whispering Gums, here

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Vanity Fair, Thackeray

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William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) was born in India while his father was employed by the East India Company, was shipped back to England to start school on his father’s death in 1815, and during a short stopover at St Helena had the ex-Emperor Napoleon pointed out to him (wiki).

During his lifetime he was apparently second only to Charles Dickens (1812-1870) in the ranks of great Victorian novelists, though really only Vanity Fair (1847-48) of all his works has endured. He regarded Dickens as a ‘sentimentalist’ and himself as a ‘realist’ though in fact he made his reputation as a satirist, and his authorial interpolations in this novel hark back to novelists of the previous century like Fielding (here).

I have never studied this period, between Jane Austen (who died in 1817) and the early Australians who began writing novels in the 1850s and 60s (here), so was keen to begin filling in the gap, though I have still to write anything about Austen’s contemporary, Walter Scott who remained influential (with guy writers anyway) throughout the nineteenth century.

Vanity Fair, all 18 31 hours worth! playing on the truck speakers as I drive, is to some extent Historical Fiction, in that the events it describes take place three to four decades before it was written. And in fact it overlaps by a decade the last years of Jane Austen’s fiction. This provides considerable interest as both authors discuss the lives of the wealthy middle class, although from radically different angles. Austen from the point of view of the landed gentry interacting with upwardly mobile naval officers and merchants, Uncle Gardiner in particular; and Thackeray from the point of view of stockbrokers and entrepreneurs only one or two generations removed from the slums, whom he satirises for aspiring to gentility, and their sons in Wellington’s army or the East India Company.

In this novel without a hero the central character is Becky Sharp of whom I have often heard and never before met. We first see Becky on her last day at Miss Pinkerton’s where she had been a tutor and her late father before her, drawing master. She is going with her friend, final year pupil Amelia (Emmy) Sedley for a couple of week’s holiday before commencing as a governess with Sir Pitt Crawley.

I could take the next 800 words and still not give you a lucid summary of the plot, but here is a very brief overview. Becky’s mother had been a dancer and Becky had lived very rough indeed until accepted at Miss Pinkerton’s. She angles first for Emmy’s fat, well-off brother, Joseph, home from the East India Company, without success; goes to Queens Crawley where the dissolute Sir Pitt uses her as a secretary and his young daughters are ignored; looks for a while like she might become companion to Sir Pitt’s wealthy sister; is found to be secretly married to Rawdon, a captain in the guards and Sir Pitt’s younger son; the aunt disinherits Rawdon.

Meanwhile Emmy is promised to her childhood sweetheart George Osborne, a lieutenant in a line regiment and is secretly loved by William Dobbin, George’s friend, a captain in the same regiment and whose fathers look down on each other in their capacities as merchants and stockbrokers.

Emmy’s father is bankrupted; George is forbidden to marry her; but with the connivance of Becky and William does anyway; and is disinherited. They all go down to Brighton in Jos’s carriage. Napoleon escapes, war breaks out, and in May-June 1815, in the days before Waterloo, they make their various ways to Brussells. There’s lots and lots more, centred around Becky and Rawdon living on Becky’s wits and Rawdon’s card playing, living well on nothing per year as Thackeray puts it, and describes in some detail as many novelists don’t what misery this causes amongst the lower classes who provide the services and don’t get paid.

There must be a century and half of scholarship around Vanity Fair on which I have chosen not to draw, so these are just my own impressions. I see the ‘Fair’ of the title as reflecting not what we might think first – a field full of merry-go-rounds and amusements – but more a marketplace, as in a horse fair. Thackeray refers repeatedly to ‘Vanity Fair’ in the text as though it were conceptually at least a place, a place where the aspiring middle classes trade furiously for advantage, selling their sons, their daughters, their honour.

The final question I wish to consider is, Is Becky Sharp an early Independent Woman? She certainly has an independent spirit, was taught early by her parents how to deal with (the non-payment of) creditors; cheerfully as a young woman seeks employment – and refuses to do one scintilla more than that for which she has been contracted. She approaches the idea of marriage with the repulsive Jos Sedley calculatingly and without sentiment. It comes as a surprise then to find her married almost without explanation to Rawdon Crawley, though she deals with his predictable disinheritance with characteristic cheerfulness. Thackeray discusses the disadvantages of not having a mama to do her marriage-dealing for her, which reminds me of early Australian author Catherine Martin:

We sometimes forget that the freedom of choice in marriage which is permitted to women of the Anglo-Saxon race has the effect of making some of them regard the institution on cool business principles. It is an ‘arrangement’ made by themselves instead of by the mothers, as in France. [An Australian Girl (1890)]

Becky is cold-blooded in her self-promotion, and in her mothering, and Rawdon is happy to do what he is told. Thackeray makes it clear in his oft-declared imperfect understanding of women that he doesn’t like her particularly, especially in comparison to the milksop Emmy. He has Becky solicit and receive gifts from her husband’s superior officers, and if she doesn’t actually go to bed with them that is probably more reflective of the morals of Thackeray’s mid-Victorian period readers than of Becky’s own. If she were a Rosa Praed heroine she would have ditched Rawdon by the half-way mark and married into money and a title.

 

William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair: Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society, first published in Punch over 19 monthly episodes, London, 1847-48. Audiobook: Brilliance Audio The Classic Collection, read by John Castle, 2008


Sun. With about three hours of the book left to go I am having an unexpected couple of days off. If I happen on any surprises between now and posting on Tues morning, I will let you know.

Mon night. The big surprise was to see that the novel takes not 18 but 31 hours. After a long day’s work I still have “three hours” to go, Dobbin has grey hair and still pines after Amelia, Jos has grown prosperous in India, and Becky and Rawdon … well for those of you, like me, who haven’t seen the TV series, that would involve spoilers.

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Yesterday (Sunday)I had to drop off granddaughter and friend at the movies (Black Panther) and came home via Crow Books. A couple of you, Lisa Hill and Kate W probably, have spoken of the cheering properties of book-buying, not that I need cheering, but I was positively elated to come across this near perfect 1958 hard back edition of The Pea Pickers for just TWENTY FIVE DOLLARS. More so as the boring Patrick White next to it, which I already own, was $55. As you can see I picked up a few others which were on my list (and a couple which weren’t).

 

Love and Freindship, Jane Austen

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Jane Austen (1775-1817) is everybody’s favourite novelist and certainly one of the most influential. As Walter Scott makes clear in his 1815 review of Emma which I posted last week (here), the publication of Austen’s novels from 1811 on marked a clear turning point in English Literature, through both her subject matter and the simplicity and clarity of her writing.

I have been reading Elizabeth Jenkins’ Jane Austen (1938) and wished to write on this occasion about Jane’s early years and in particular the reading that led her to taking the paths she did. Sue at Whispering Gums wrote a proper review of Love and Freindship (here) back in 2012 and if you want to know more you should read it, but I will give a brief overview now and then get down to Austen’s reading and writing until she was 35 (!), when her first book was finally published

Love and Freindship is meant to be a story in letters, and it is, sort of, but not in the way that Lady Susan is for instance, where we construct the story from an interchange of letters between a number of parties. Instead, a woman, Isabel, writes and asks her friend Laura to give Isabel’s daughter Marianne “a regular detail of the Misfortunes and Adventures of your life”. And so the story is told episodically, over a series of letters from Laura to Marianne.

The young Jane Austen’s purpose was to parody the cult of ‘Sensibility’, the idea, spread by Gothic novels, that young women should preference feeling over common sense. When you think about it, it is an idea which persisted throughout the nineteenth century – that women of breeding would swoon when confronted with shock, would fade away to a shadow for love lost, would go into hysterics and so on – and which Austen confronted in different ways in all her novels.

Of course Austen had two other purposes: to practice her writing which she did from a very young age, with the encouragement of her father; and to amuse her family who passed around the three bound, hand-written volumes of her final copies and had readings of her work, both by her and by others. By the time Jane was 19, these volumes of sketches and short stories, not including Lady Susan, totalled 74,000 words.

Briefly, a stranger comes to Laura’s parents’ house. The stranger, called variously Lindsay and Edward is a comely young man with whom Laura falls instantly in love, and her father “tho he had never taken orders” marries them.

One of the joys of the story is Austen playing pranks with geography as the protagonists dash from Wales through what seems like all the counties of England by a very roundabout route to London and finally, in a day!, to Scotland.

Edward first takes Laura to his aunt’s where he runs into his father whom he is constantly seeking new ways to defy; then to his friend Augustus with whose wife Sofia, Laura forms an instant bond. They throw their arms around each other, vow to be friends for ever, and share all their secrets.

From there it gets even more nonsensical as Augustus is arrested for unpaid debts and the other three do the only thing they can do, faint on the sofa. Edward sets out for London to find Augustus, the girls follow soon after though without success and end up as I said, in Scotland. There’s more to it than that but I’m sure you get the gist. A very clever young writer has taken all the tropes of Gothic fiction and made them ridiculous.

Jane Austen’s immediate family consisted of her parents, her older brothers James, George, Edward and Henry, her older sister Cassandra, another brother Francis and a younger brother Charles. George was intellectually impaired and was put into care; Edward at age 12 (when Jane was 5) was adopted by wealthy relatives, the Knights; Francis and Charles each went into the navy also at around 12 and both rose to be admirals.

Her wider family included her cousin Eliza Hancock, 14 years older, who married the French Comte de Feuillide in 1781. The Comte was executed in Paris in 1794, following the French Revolution. Eliza was a frequent visitor to the Austens, a regular correspondent, and provided a window for Jane into the rarefied world of high society. It is to Eliza that Love and Freindship is dedicated. Eliza and Jane became sisters in law when in 1797 Eliza married Jane’s brother Henry.

When Jane was 7, she and Cassandra went away to school, firstly with their cousin Jane Cooper to a Mrs Cawley (the relative of a relative) in Oxford, and then in Southampton, where they became ill (with diptheria?). Mrs Austen and her sister Mrs Cooper came down to rescue the girls and Mrs Cooper caught the infection and died. Nothing daunted, another school was found, the Abbey school at Reading which sounds very pleasant: “provided the girls appeared in the tutor’s study for a few hours each morning, they could spend the rest of the day gossiping in the turrets, lounging in the gardens …” They returned home after a year or so and “never left it”. The next seven years, until Jane was 16, formed her as a writer.

The Rev Austen, who had been up to Oxford on a fellowship, took in pupils to supplement his income. It is not known if Jane sat in on any of his classes, but she had the benefit of his and Mrs Austen’s encouragement and of his considerable library, as well as the circulating library for light reading. All the family read and enjoyed popular fiction, though it is probable, from a modern viewpoint, that they read ironically – or at least so they pretended to themselves. Also, Jane’s juvenilia is in places quite bawdy and it is possible that Eliza de Feuillide introduced her to “scandalous” works such as Laclos’ Les Liasons Dangereuses (1782). But Jane’s considerable natural talents as a writer were reinforced by her more serious reading.

Austen of course read Shakespeare and Milton, but Jenkins writes that modern English writing begins with, and Austen’s writing is built on, Dryden, Addison, Fielding, Sterne and Richardson – at this point it becomes obvious I should read my long ignored copy of Dale Spender’s Mothers of the Novel: 100 good women writers before Jane Austen (1986), but I haven’t and I will – I will round up here by researching and writing a little about each of these men.

John Dryden (1631-1700) Jenkins writes of “his clarity and raciness” and “his inimitable blend of vigour and elegance”. Dryden’s first works were a restrained tribute on the death of Cromwell and a much more enthusiastic panegyric for the Restoration, Astraea Redux. “In this work the interregnum is illustrated as a time of anarchy, and Charles is seen as the restorer of peace and order” (wiki). Not to my taste but maybe to Austen’s. Dryden wrote poetry, literary criticism and plays, but is remembered above all as a satirist.

Joseph Addison (1672-1719) An essayist who, with Richard Steele, founded the Spectator,  a daily publication for people who “took literature seriously”, which ran from 1711-1712 and then thrice weekly in 1714. These issues were collected into eight volumes which were read widely well into the nineteenth century. Interestingly, one of the editors’ main objectives was to increase the number of women who were “of a more elevated life and conversation.”

Henry Fielding (1707-1754) was a playwright and political satirist so successful that that they passed a law against it (the Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737). He is best known now for The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749), 346,747 words divided into 18 smaller books, and among the first prose works to be classified as a novel.

Laurence Sterne (1713–1768). An Irishman, an Anglican clergyman and the author of The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767). “As its title suggests, the book is ostensibly Tristram’s narration of his life story. But it is one of the central jokes of the novel that he cannot explain anything simply, that he must make explanatory diversions to add context and colour to his tale, to the extent that Tristram’s own birth is not even reached until Volume III.” (wiki). Maria Bertram in Mansfield Park is referencing Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768) when she says, “I cannot get out, as the starling said.”

Samuel Richardson (1689-1761) who Jenkins says was Austen’s favourite, although now the least regarded, wrote three epistolary novels: Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740), Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady (1748) and The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753). Austen mentions Clarissa just the once, in Sanditon, but makes frequent references to Sir Charles Grandison. “The hold the story with its multitudinous figures took on Jane Austen’s imagination was extraordinary. Henry Austen said that she remembered and would speak of any date throughout the year on which any episode of the book was said to have taken place” (Jenkins).

I love that Clarissa is the story of a young woman fighting to preserve her independence as her family attempts to force her into marriage to secure their own prestige, and she is kidnapped and kept in a brothel. But as it is longer even than Tom Jones I probably won’t ever read it. Clarissa, Tristram Shandy and Sir Charles Grandison were apparently written at least partly each in response to its predecessor.

It is also notable from this brief round-up that the late eighteenth century fiction which Austen grew up on had nothing like the moralism of Victorian England 50 or 100 years later.

I have not got as far as I thought I might, and now will postpone to another occasion consideration of Fanny Burney whose Evelina was published in 1778, and of the writing of Austen’s first attempts at longer works, Lady Susan, First Impressions and Elinor and Marianne. Austen’s contemporary, Walter Scott, I will also get to ‘one day’.

 

Jane Austen, Love and Freindship and Other Youthful Writings, Penguin Classics, London, 2014

Elizabeth Jenkins, Jane Austen, first pub. Gollancz, 1938. This edition Cardinal, London, 1973

Previous Jane Austen posts –
Three Novels, Jane Austen here
Jane Austen: Independent Woman here
Jane’s Fame, Claire Harman here
Sue at Whispering Gums here

Three Novels, Jane Austen

Sue of Whispering Gums, our resident expert on all things JA, recently commented she was insufficiently brave to write a review of Pride and Prejudice. And if she couldn’t then how could I? But luckily my guest reviewer has proved equal to the task, though a little carried away with the ‘state of the novel’. I have cut down what he wrote, but there is a link at the end if you wish to read his piece in full. Thankyou W. Scott.

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(c) BBC. 1995. Colin Firth, Jennifer Ehle

The novel in 1815

There are some vices in civilized society so common that they are hardly acknowledged as stains upon the moral character, the propensity to which is nevertheless carefully concealed, even by those who most frequently give way to them; since no man of pleasure would willingly assume the gross epithet of a debauchee or a drunkard. One would almost think that novel-reading fell under this class of frailties, since among the crowds who read little else, it is not common to find an individual of hardihood sufficient to avow his taste for these frivolous studies. A novel, therefore, is frequently “bread eaten in secret”…

The judicious reader will see at once that we have been pleading our own cause while stating the universal practice, and preparing him for a display of more general acquaintance with this fascinating department of literature, than at first sight may seem consistent with the graver studies to which we are compelled by duty: but in truth, when we consider how many hours of languor and anxiety, of deserted age and solitary celibacy, of pain even and poverty, are beguiled by the perusal of these light volumes, we cannot austerely condemn the source from which is drawn the alleviation of such a portion of human misery, or consider the regulation of this department as beneath the sober consideration of the critic.

If such apologies may be admitted in judging the labours of ordinary novelists, it becomes doubly the duty of the critic to treat with kindness as well as candour works which, like this before us, proclaim a knowledge of the human heart, with the power and resolution to bring that knowledge to the service of honour and virtue.

The author [of Emma] is already known to the public by the two novels announced in her title-page, and both, the last especially, attracted, with justice, an attention from the public far superior to what is granted to the ephemeral productions which supply the regular demand of watering-places and circulating libraries. They belong to a class of fictions which has arisen almost in our own times, and which draws the characters and incidents introduced more immediately from the current of ordinary life than was permitted by the former rules of the novel.

In its first appearance, the novel was the legitimate child of the romance; and
though the manners and general turn of the composition were altered so as to suit modern times, the author remained fettered by many peculiarities derived from the original style of romantic fiction. [However] social life, in our civilized days, affords few instances capable of being painted in the strong dark colours which excite surprise and horror; and robbers, smugglers, bailiffs, caverns, dungeons, and mad-houses, have been all introduced until they ceased to interest. And thus in the novel, as in every style of composition which appeals to the public taste, the more rich and easily worked mines being exhausted, the adventurous author must, if he is desirous of success, have recourse to those which were disdained by his predecessors as unproductive, or avoided as only capable of being turned to profit by great skill and labour.

Accordingly a style of novel has arisen, within the last fifteen or twenty years, differing from the former in the points upon which the interest hinges; neither alarming our credulity nor amusing our imagination by wild variety of incident, or by those pictures of romantic affection and sensibility, which were formerly as certain attributes of fictitious characters as they are of rare occurrence among
those who actually live and die. The substitute for these excitements, which had lost much of their poignancy by the repeated and injudicious use of them, was the art of copying from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life, and presenting to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes of an imaginary world, a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him.

But the author of Emma confines herself chiefly to the middling classes of society; her most distinguished characters do not rise greatly above well-bred country
gentlemen and ladies; and those which are sketched with most originality
and precision, belong to a class rather below that standard. The narrative of all her novels is composed of such common occurrences as may have fallen under the observation of most folks; and her dramatis personae conduct themselves upon the motives and principles which the readers may recognize as ruling their own and that of most of their acquaintances.

The kind of moral, also, which these novels inculcate, applies equally to the paths of common life, as will best appear from a short notice of the author’s former works, with a more full abstract of that which we at present have under consideration.

Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility, the first of these compositions, contains the history of two sisters. The elder, a young lady of prudence and regulated feelings, becomes gradually attached to a man of an excellent heart and limited talents, who happens unfortunately to be fettered by a rash and ill-assorted engagement. In the younger sister, the influence of sensibility and imagination predominates; and she, as was to be expected, also falls in love, but with more unbridled and wilful passion. Her lover, gifted with all the qualities of exterior polish and vivacity, proves faithless, and marries a woman of large fortune. The interest and merit of the piece depend altogether upon the behaviour of the elder sister, while obliged at once to sustain her own disappointment with fortitude, and to support her sister, who abandons
herself, with unsuppressed feelings, to the indulgence of grief. The marriage of the unworthy rival at length relieves her own lover from his imprudent engagement, while her sister, turned wise by precept, example, and experience, transfers her affection to a very respectable and somewhat too serious admirer, who had nourished an unsuccessful passion through the three volumes.

Pride and Prejudice

In Pride and Prejudice the author presents us with a family of young women, bred up under a foolish and vulgar mother, and a father whose good abilities lay hid under such a load of indolence and insensibility, that he had become contented to make the foibles and follies of his wife and daughters the subject of dry and humorous sarcasm, rather than of admonition, or restraint.

This is one of the portraits from ordinary life which shews our author’s talents in a very strong point of view. A friend of ours, whom the author never saw or heard of, was at once recognized by his own family as the original of Mr. Bennet, and we do not know if he has yet got rid of the nickname. A Mr. Collins, too, a formal, conceited, yet servile young sprig of divinity, is drawn with the same force and precision.

The story of the piece consists chiefly in the fates of the second sister, to whom a man of high birth, large fortune, but haughty and reserved manners, becomes attached, in spite of the discredit thrown upon the object of his affection by the vulgarity and ill-conduct of her relations. The lady, on the contrary, hurt at the contempt of her connections, which the lover does not even attempt to suppress, and prejudiced against him on other accounts, refuses the hand which he ungraciously offers, and does not perceive that she has done a foolish thing until she accidentally visits a very handsome seat and grounds belonging to her admirer. They chance to meet exactly as her prudence had begun to subdue her prejudice; and after some essential services rendered to her family, the lover becomes encouraged to renew his addresses, and the novel ends happily.

Emma

Emma has even less story than either of the preceding novels. Miss Emma Woodhouse, from whom the book takes its name, is the daughter of a gentleman of wealth and consequence residing at his seat in the immediate vicinage of a country village called Highbury. The father, a good-natured, silly valetudinary, abandons the management of his household to Emma, he himself being only occupied by his summer and winter walk, his apothecary, his gruel, and his whist table. The latter is supplied from the neighbouring village of Highbury with precisely the sort of persons who occupy the vacant corners of a regular whist table, when a village is in the neighbourhood, and better cannot be found within the family.

[Scott proceeds to enumerate all the principal inhabitants of the village and to give us a detailed, and unneccessary, synopsis of the plot].

The author’s knowledge of the world, and the peculiar tact with which she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize, reminds us something of the merits of the Flemish school of painting. The subjects are not often elegant, and certainly never grand; but they are finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader…

The [merits of the author] consists much in the force of a narrative conducted with much neatness and point, and a quiet yet comic dialogue, in which the characters of the speakers evolve themselves with dramatic effect. The faults, on the contrary, arise from the minute detail which the author’s plan comprehends. Characters of folly or simplicity, such as those of old Woodhouse and Miss Bates, are ridiculous when first presented, but if too often brought forward or too long dwelt upon, their prosing is apt to become as tiresome in fiction as in real society. Upon the whole, the turn of this author’s novels bears the same relation to that of the sentimental and romantic cast, that cornfields and cottages and meadows bear to the highly adorned grounds of a show mansion, or the rugged sublimities of a mountain landscape. It is neither so captivating as the one, nor so grand as the other, but it affords to those who frequent it a pleasure nearly allied with the experience of their own social habits; and what is of some importance, the youthful wanderer may return from his promenade to the ordinary business of life, without any chance of having his head turned by the recollection of the scene through which he has been wandering…

SIR WALTER SCOTT ON JANE AUSTEN

[From. The Quarterly Review, October, 1815]

Emma; a Novel. By the Author of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and
Prejudice
, etc. 3 vols. 12mo. London. 1815


Scott was by 1815 a famous poet but he, like Austen, published his novels anonymously. Waverley (1814) was his first, but apparently his authorship was known to Austen, as she wrote:

Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. – It is not fair. – He has Fame & Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths. – I do not like him, & do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it – but fear I must…

[ Letter 108, 28 September 1814, to Anna Austen (Le Faye)]


My source for the review above was the blog Onlyanovel (here).

[Blogger’s note: This review was extracted in full from the book Famous Reviews, selected and edited by R. Brimley Johnson (London, 1914). An eBook copy of Famous Reviews can be obtained from Project Gutenberg. A free pdf copy is also available from Google Books.]

 

The Taming of the Queen, Philippa Gregory

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Home at last! I landed at Perth airport, home from Melbourne, last Tuesday week at 9.30 am and by noon was at work. I’ve driven, unloaded, driven, loaded for ten and half days straight till now I’m ‘out of hours’ and must take a two day break. We haven’t worked like this since the end of the mining boom a couple of years ago. Obviously I haven’t had time to write any new blog posts but I have done plenty of (audio) reading.

When I’m unloading and sometimes when I’m queuing to load I catch up on my news and blog reading and when that’s done I can read a real, physical book – at the moment Christina Stead’s The Salzburg Tales. Meanwhile, during all that driving, I’ve listened to, amongst others, Amerikanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), Pride and Prejudice, The Taming of the Queen, The Road (Cormack McCarthy), and The Drowning (Camilla Luckborg).

Amerikanah – currently the subject of the Mayor of New York’s citywide book group – was a disappointment, just another plain vanilla American novel, with none of the African rhythms of other Nigerian writers, Nnedi Okorafor say, or Ben Okri. The Road was also less than I expected, just ordinary, post-apocalyptic SF. I get the impression that when literary writers move into SF, and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is another example, they get far more credit than SF specialists who often do it much better, and here I’m thinking of the relative lack of mainstream appreciation for JM Ballard, PK Dick, Ursula La Guin and so on.

The Drowning, standard – which is to say, good – Swedish crime fiction, brought up a different problem, that is depictions of violence. I can only describe the detailed descriptions of two distinct acts of violence, one sexual and one not, perpetrated on one girl as pornographic. The denoument, involving a split personality, was also less than compelling, but that’s another story.

So we come to The Taming of the Queen. Marion Diamond, who blogs at Historians are Past Caring, joked on another post of mine on historical fiction (no, I don’t remember which one) about ‘feisty, feminist medieval princesses’, but this is in fact the thesis of this recent (2015) Philippa Gregory Tudor romance. Gregory is passionate about the feminist credentials of Henry VIII’s sixth wife, ‘Kateryn’ Parr (1512-1548).

I have listened to other books by Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl most recently, and have enjoyed them for the romance and for their veneer of historical fact. One critic has described Gregory’s books as the Mills & Boon of historical fiction. More or less by coincidence I’ve also listened to Hilary Mantel’s much more respected books of the same period, Wolf Hall and Bring Out the Bodies, so I’m getting to be a real expert.

Historical fiction is in the long tradition of well-known stories being re-told to illustrate current concerns, a tradition dating back no doubt to before Homer as it is a given in oral cultures that stories must be retold to survive. My own “opposition” to historical fiction is to retellings that end up obscuring important aspects of the past. So, medieval history is not important to me and I am happy for it to be used as a canvas for Gregory’s imaginings, just as I enjoy learning what I can of Wellington’s campaigns from Georgette Heyer’s The Infamous Army and The Spanish Bride.

Australian history is important and so I must interrogate why I value Voss and not The True History of the Kelly Gang, why I look down on The Secret River and, yes, A House is Built but not The Timeless Land or That Deadman Dance. Voss, I think, like the many adaptations of Shakespeare, celebrates the original story (in this case the disappearance of explorer Ludwig Leichardt) without replacing it; That Deadman Dance is important for supplying an Indigenous perspective to first contact, as is the much earlier The Timeless Land, though of course in that case Dark, the author, is white. Carey’s Kelly Gang rightfully asserts Kelly’s Irish rebel antecedents but I don’t understand why he gives Kelly a wife or how he imagines 1870s Victoria without Aborigines (and I hate novels written in dialect). The others are in a long line of historical fictions written with modern sensibilities and where the facts may be much better understood from accounts written at the time.

Philippa Gregory imputes to Parr a vital part in the survival of the Reformation in England, and indeed the two main threads of this novel are the feminist and intellectual underpinnings of Parr and her inner circle of Ladies in Waiting, and a virulent anti-Catholicism. I have no religious leanings at all, and if I don’t like the appellation ‘atheist’ it is only because there is no theos from which I am ‘a’, but I was a bit shocked by Gregory’s language. Don’t get me wrong, I agree totally that “men in fancy dress performing hocus pocus” is an apt description of Catholic priests, I just didn’t expect to come across it here.

The background to the novel is that the Reformation had taken hold in England following the teachings of Martin Luther and later, John Calvin. Henry, who had his own disputes with Rome, carved off the Church of England in 1529 with himself as head, though the teachings and practices of the church continued to vacillate between Protestantism and Catholicism (to this day). This is also the background to The Scarlet Letter which I reviewed recently.

Henry has already got through five wives in his attempts to come up with a male heir when in 1543 he marries Kateryn, a 31 year old widow who has up till then lived in the north. Henry, by then 52, is grossly overweight and ill. He has a wound to his leg which will not heal, which threatens to kill him through blood poisoning, which requires constant draining, and which of course both stinks and makes it difficult for him to walk unaided. The descriptions of this are all a bit gross! As are the descriptions of Henry’s attempt at intercourse. Gregory posits that a medieval lady would hold herself remote from the processes of sexual intercourse and describes Kateryn sitting stiffly in Henry’s lap as the poor man attempts to ‘get it up’ without assistance.

Although the practices of the Church of England were largely Catholic, reforms included an end to belief in Purgatory – and of payments to the Church to hasten the progress of the dead through Purgatory – services in English and the distribution of an English language Bible (possibly the Wycliffe version from a century or so earlier). Henry himself seems to have translated at least some prayers from Latin into English.

Gregory describes Parr as taking up the cause of Protestantism when she arrives at the court, of she and her ladies making new translations, particularly of the Psalms, from Latin into English and of suffering from the forces of reaction as she fails to give Henry the (second) male child he so desperately wants, and as Henry comes under the influence of pro-Catholic advisors. Parr corresponded with her stepson (later Edward VI) in Latin and  published three books of prayers and religious reflections in English. In an afterword Gregory writes:

No woman before Kateryn Parr had dared to write original material in English for publication and put her own name on the title page, as Parr did with her last book, The Lamentation of a Sinner.

Spoiler Alert. Despite temporary imprisonment in the Tower, Kateryn survived Henry to marry her lover, only to die a year later in childbirth.

Gregory is not the literary writer that Mantel is but this is still an enthralling story well told, and with more heft than her earlier work, those that I’ve read anyway.

 

Philippa Gregory, The Taming of the Queen, Simon & Schuster, London, 2015. Audiobook, Audiobooks.com, narrated by Bianca Amato

 

Cousin Phillis, Elizabeth Gaskell

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Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) was the author of 15 novels, novellas, and story collections, the best known of which were probably North and South (1855) – which I think of rightly or wrongly as Jane Austen with steam engines (Gaskell did cite JA as an influence) – and The Life of Charlotte Bronte (1857). Her novel Ruth (1853), the story of an unmarried mother bringing up a son, I have mentioned a number of times, and I and/or Lisa (ANZLL) who is reading it now, will “shortly” produce a review.

Gaskell was brought up Unitarian, by her aunt in Cheshire following the death of her mother, and married a Unitarian minister. Dissenting religion and the plight of the poor, as well as strong women characters, are all important themes in her work.

I came across the novella Cousin Phillis (1864) recently, in a Madrid book stall (I can’t imagine I’ll ever be able to say that again) and coincidentally, read it in conjunction with Ada Cambridge’s The Three Miss Kings (1883) which I have with me on kindle. The two have similar themes – innocent and religious young women falling in love – and I plan to compare them in adjacent reviews.

For Cousin Phillis, Gaskell assumes the voice of a young man, Paul Manning, not very successfully IMO, and the story consists entirely of his observations of his (second) cousin Phillis falling in love, and of his own unfortunate interferences.

Manning is from Birmingham where his father is a tradesman and an inventor. His father’s industry and success enable him to raise Paul up one level in class, as apprentice to the relatively young Holdsworth, the experienced engineer/manager of a crew putting in a new railway line in the south of England. In one of his weekly letters home Paul mentions that he is working near a town that his mother recognises as the home of her cousin who is married to a farmer who at the weekends is an Independent clergyman. Paul, who has been diligent in his attendance at Chapel is not keen on having to waste his limited free time on another clergyman, but does as his mother bids and goes out to meet his new relations, the Holmans.

The beautiful and demure Phillis, a couple of years younger than Paul, is their only child. Paul finds that he is both welcome, and enjoys being on the farm, and slowly he and Phillis become friends. Holdsworth is introduced to the farm when he becomes ill and needs somewhere to recuperate.

Long rows of peas stretched at right angles from the main walk, and I saw Phillis stooping down among them, before she saw us. As soon as she heard our cranching steps on the gravel, she stood up, and shading her eyes from the sun, recognized us. She was quite still for a moment, and then came slowly towards us, flushing a little from evident shyness. I had never seen Phillis shy before.

Spoiler alert. Phillis, an innocent, reacts to Holdsworth’s attentions by falling in love, but before anything can happen, or even be said between them, he is offered, accepts, and leaves immediately to take up employment in Canada, telling Paul that he will be back in two years to offer for Phillis. Phillis falls into a decline, Paul revives her by telling her what Holdsworth has said, but before the two years are up a letter arrives from Holdsworth telling of his marriage to a Canadian girl, Phillis collapses and Paul must admit to her father the part he has played.

Phillis collapses with brain fever and is unconscious or in a delirium for weeks – is that even a thing now, or were brain fevers, and for that matter hysteria, purely C19th illnesses.

Religion is present throughout this story without being intrusive, so that Phillis is just as moral as any other middle class young woman of her time. Though, while it looks like Phillis will die, Holman’s fellow dissenting preachers, ride out to argue with him to resume his ministry: “First, God has given you the opportunity of showing forth an example of resignation”; and “Secondly, we would have you listen to the voice of the rod, and ask yourself for what sins this trial has been laid upon you”. Holman, no doubt reflecting Gaskell’s own views about these strict interpretations of the situation, refuses both to give up his bedside vigil, and to accept that his daughter’s illness might be punishment for his pursuing his parallel vocation as a farmer.

In Ada Cambridge’s The Three Miss Kings, as we will see, Cambridge, who was married to a Church of England minister, has similar concerns about the strict application of Church dogma, while insisting as does Gaskell, that young women should act both morally and circumspectly.

 

Elizabeth Gaskell, Cousin Phillis, first pub. 1864, this ed. Penguin, 1995

Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell

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They [Catalans] had attempted to produce within the militias a sort of temporary working model of the classless society. Of course there was no perfect equality, but there was a nearer approach to it than I had ever seen or than I would have thought conceivable in time of war.

Homage to Catalonia (1938) is what it says, George Orwell’s homage to the people of Catalonia who attempted an anarchist/socialist revolution in response to the army’s attack on their fledgling democracy, and more broadly in response to centuries of harsh rule by feudal landowners supported by the Catholic church and the monarchy. A revolution that was brought down not by the civil war but by the backsliding of right-wing socialists in the Republican government and by the treachery of the Communists.

In this it resembles (or presages) another account of anarchist ‘revolution’ undone by Communists, Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative (1968) about the Paris uprisings of that year and which I have owned almost since it was written. In fact, a great deal of Orwell’s book, particularly about the lies invented and propagated by the news media, serves to show plus ca change etc.

Homage to Catalonia has two parts – Orwell’s memoir of his time as a volunteer soldier, and an analysis of the failure of the Revolution – written in the immediate aftermath of his service, “five months ago” as he says, and before the end of the Spanish war (1936-1939). The book contains a third part, Looking Back on the Spanish War, written in 1943. But that deals in particular with the partisan, dishonest role played by the press and deserves a separate review.

George Orwell (1903-1950) is well enough known and I will not say much about him, except this: he is often claimed by the Right, especially for Animal Farm (1945) which is clearly an attack on Soviet communism. But let’s be clear. Orwell was of the Left, and like many of us still, was deeply upset by the descent of the Russian Revolution into bureaucracy and totalitarianism, a descent which he experienced personally in Spain. The POUM militia he enlisted in was broadly described as ‘Trotskyite’ – it wasn’t, but it was, and he was, committed to socialist revolution. And although Orwell was fighting firstly for the preservation of democratic government, he understood well, what we have mostly forgotten, that in the end ‘democracy’ is just another name for Capitalism.

When Orwell entered Spain from the south of France in late 1936 Barcelona was effectively anarchist. The churches had been sacked, all forms of deferential address had ceased, tipping was illegal, and so on:

It was a town in which the wealthy classes had ceased to exist… All this was queer and moving. There was much in it I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as as a state of affairs worth fighting for. Also I believed that things were as they appeared, that this was really a workers’ State …

There was a shocking shortage of supplies for the volunteer militias, partly because the Republican government was wary of its ‘allies’ the Anarchists becoming too well-armed, and later, Russian-supplied arms were directed to the Communists and the International Brigades (Orwell is clear that, despite claims to the contrary in the right-wing press, there was very little Soviet army presence in Spain, although there were large numbers of soldiers from Fascist Germany and Italy). Not every soldier was issued with a blanket – in winter! – and Orwell’s first gun was an 1896 Mauser, for which he had just 15 rounds of ammunition.

Many of the recruits were very young, as young as 12 in some cases, refugees from the poverty of the back streets of Barcelona, and it was not long before the government was reverting to conscription.

The rival forces in this region had established fronts several hundred metres apart, along the tops of hills to the north and west of Barcelona. There was very little artillery on either side, and the constant rifle fire was inaccurate and uncoordinated. Occasionally one side or the other would make a sortie, often to gather firewood or the potatoes growing in untended fields. The government was attempting to retake nearby Huesca, and the Anarchists were attempting to cut the road north to Jaca, so Orwell’s section, in which he rose to corporal and eventually lieutenant – though all ranks through to general were on the same pay and orders often had to be argued rather than enforced – would sometimes be involved in fighting to divert Fascist troops from defending those more important actions.

In the early stages the inefficiency of the POUM forces led Orwell to consider seriously transferring to the more efficient Communists in Madrid. But, while on his first leave in Barcelona, communist ministers within the government used government troops to regain control from the workers’ committees, and particularly the anarchist-controlled Telegraph Exchange (Wiki) . For a week Orwell was holed up defending POUM headquarters, although he and his opposite numbers in the building across the road maintained their own private ceasefire. Orwell analyses how it was always the workers who were asked by the government to forgo, in the name of winning the war of course, the freedoms they had seized in the beginning, and which Orwell begins to think they should have hung on to.

My favourite image of the war is from this deeply disillusioning period:

An Anarchist patrol car drove up , bristling with weapons. Beside the driver a beautiful dark-haired girl of about eighteen was nursing a sub-machine gun across her knees.

Orwell’s wife (he doesn’t mention her name) is in Barcelona, and at one time when an attack is imminent she establishes a first-aid post, but otherwise she is mostly out of sight.

Orwell’s biggest concern in this account is to counter the lies which, as he wrote, were still being propagated about this action being a workers’ insurrection. “An immense amount, enough to fill many books, has already been written on the subject, and I do not suppose I should exaggerate if I said nine-tenths of it is untruthful. Nearly all the newspaper accounts published at the time were manufactured by journalists at a distance, and were not only inaccurate in their facts but intentionally misleading.”

Orwell returns to the front, with a unit of mainly British volunteers, is wounded, shot through the neck. His description of the transport and hospitalisation of the wounded is horrifying. He finally gets back to Barcelona, with validly stamped discharge papers, to what he thinks will be a night at last in a hotel bed with his wife, only to find that POUM has been proscribed and he is now a wanted criminal. Shades of our own retrospective terrorism laws. The leader of POUM, Andreu Nin is in jail and has probably already been murdered. Orwell’s commanding officer, a Belgian wanted in his own country for the ‘crime’ of fighting for the Republicans in Spain, is arrested and by the time of writing had almost certainly been shot. Orwell and some other British stay in hiding and eventually make their way back to France.

I suppose I have failed to convey more than a little of what those months in Spain meant to me. I have recorded some of the outward events, but I cannot record the feeling they have left me with. It is all mixed up with the sights, smells and sounds that cannot be conveyed in writing: the smell of the trenches, the mountain dawns stretching away into inconceivable distances … the food queues and the red and black flags and the faces of the Spanish militiamen; above all the faces of militiamen – men whom I knew in the line and who are now scattered Lord knows where, some killed in battle, some maimed, some in prison …

A wonderful book, which to all you lefties out there I recommend unreservedly as an essential part of your education. A new though less competent Franco has seized the United States. The Revolution is coming!

Madrid (6)

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, first pub. 1938, this ed. Penguin, 1966


3 April 2017. Woke yesterday in Madrid and spent a few hours walking in the sun. Found the bookstalls near the Prado. Lots of marxist lit. including the book above, which seemed very a propos. Spent last night in Huesca. Walked all round the inner part of town. The countryside is flatter than I expected, though I guess those snow topped mountains to the north and east are the Pyrenees, which I plan to cross today by railcar and bus.


Sue at Whispering Gums, reviewed Orwell essays on book reviewing, Bookshop Memories, and Books v Cigarettes. Now I’d better go and read them!