Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Jane Austin a Quick Traipse Through Six Novels

I have been horribly delinquent in posting on my blog.  Instead of giving you my harangue of excuses I'm going to jump in and do a fast and furious assault on some of my most beloved books.  There is a Jane Austin marathon going on somewhere that I learned of through Brian's Babbling Books.  I haven't participated in it but it has inspired me to share my opinions about Ms. Austin's works.

I am going to follow the format I used when my son was in speech and aural therapy.  He had to process information and then express it in a concise, coherent fashion, something he struggled at.  So while he was walking figure eights around two posts while jumping rope (yes, it was all a part of the therapy) I would read a story to him.  Afterwards, he would have to summarize  the story in three sentences.  Derek became quite good at doing this and it did wonders in enabling him to organize his thoughts.

Let's see how his dear old mother does-although I don't promise to hold myself to three sentences.  In fact I will not summarize the following books but simply tell what I remember about them.

First:  Persuasion

The BBC production of this book is the most romantic rendition I've ever seen.  Persuasion is Emma's last complete novel.  The heroine is Anne, the daughter of a wealthy landowner who squanders his money away and is forced to "retrench".  He moves to Bath with his eldest daughter, Elisabeth, where he hopes to ingratiate himself to the aristocracy there.  Anne joins them after visiting another sister, Mary, who has married "beneath herself" and doesn't fail to remind her husband's family of it at every opportunity. 

The core plot is that Anne had fallen in love with a man who proposed to her.  On the advice of a friend she turned him down, the main reason being that he wasn't good enough for her, had no money etc.  Anne, however, cannot forget this man and spends the next ten years in a state of depression. 

At the time of the story, however, this man has made a name for himself, is now Captain Wentworth, and has returned.

The story revolves around Anne's family members, both blood and through marriage, vying for the captain's attentions.  Austin gives us a picture of the class divisions, motivations for marriage, and the selfishness of Anne's family contrasted with her own, sometimes too, generous and noble character.  There is a little of the Cinderella in Anne. 

The thing that stands out the most to me is how, as in Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds, people born into money show themselves to be such horrible stewards of it and spend most of their lives conniving how to marry others based on their wealth and social standing.

Anne's character is thrown into sharp relief because she is the only one who wants to marry for love.

Second:  Sense and Sensibility

Marrying to secure financial well being is also a theme in Sense and Sensibility.  This book was Austin's first to be published (1811) and was anonymously attributed to "A Lady".

In this story, two sisters find themselves penniless after their father's death.  The circumstances are made the more dire because being ladies of a certain class, they simply cannot earn their living. This dooms them to starvation unless they can marry men who are of their station and have the money to support them.

The younger sister, Marianne, is emotional, impetuous, and falls in love with the dashing John Willoughby.  Willoughby acts as though he returns her affection, but ultimately needs money himself so marries a rich woman.  Being strung along in such a way breaks Marianne's heart, but never fear!  The steadfast, older Colonel Brandon is waiting in the wings.

Elinor is the older sister and more mature and intelligent than Marianne.  She also falls in love with a man, Edward Ferrars, who returns her affection.  Unfortunately, he has intimated to another woman on a previous occasion that he would marry her.

That is what struck me as the most profound statement in this novel.  There was once upon a time when a man's word was as good as a written contract.  Even though  Ferrars is not in love with the other woman, he is bound by her unless she releases him of his declaration.  This woman, Lucy Steele, is not really interested in Edward either, but she also needs a living so she cannot give up a situation that will keep her out of poverty.

It is interesting how Lucy and her sister, Nancy, spend their lives scheming and conniving their way into the homes and lives of rich people as a way to survive.  While one finds it detestable, they also warrant a certain amount of sympathy because the reader understands that there are not a lot of options open to them.

Thirdly: Emma

My favorite of the favorites!  I love Emma.  Austin said that she wrote a character that only she could like, but I like Emma too.  Although it's easy to see why people would not like her and if she never saw the error of her ways she wouldn't be redeemable.

Emma is a sheltered, spoiled daughter of a wealthy landowner.  Since her mother's death, she largely has been allowed to raise herself.  She has a governess, Miss Taylor, but she is devoted to Emma and doesn't do much in the way of reigning her in.  In fact, what saves Emma from being a deplorable character is that she is genuinely a selfless and caring person.

But she is also young and strong willed.  She takes it in to her head to match make.  She does not have the maturity to understand how ill matched her targets are.  She befriends a young girl, Harriet, who is not Emma's intellectual equal.   Harriet is loved by a local farmer.  Emma believes this match is beneath her friend when in fact it would be highly propitious for Harriet, since she's a penniless orphan.

Luckily George Knightly, a man in his thirties, who has loved Emma since she was a child is around to temper her and help steer her in the right direction.

Men in their thirties marrying teenage girls is a common occurrence in Austin's stories but I suppose that was normal back then.  With the lack of medical care I dare say not many people-especially child bearing women- lived to ripe old ages.

Fourthly:  Pride and Prejudice

Of course everyone's favorite and mine too, after Emma.  In addition to all the social commentary already observed in the above novels, this story is the most light-hearted and witty.  Both the hero and heroine are very human but ultimately overcome their personal prejudices and pride.  

In a nutshell, Elizabeth Bennet overhears Mr. Darcy make a disparaging remark about her at a local dance.  In fact, Darcy was idly expressing his annoyance at being at a gathering he doesn't enjoy.  He refuses to dance, even at his friend Mr. Bentley's insistence.  Elizabeth, like your average woman, refuses to forget the slight.  After Darcy gets a more favorable impression of her, she spends most of the novel refusing to understand anything he says except in a negative light.  Darcy, for his part, is mostly amused by her and also taken with Elizabeth's beauty.  Without realizing it, he gradually develops romantic feelings for her.
These feelings reach a feverish pitch and he finally proposes to Elizabeth.  Elizabeth is blind-sided by his declarations of love which is one of the most romantic proposals in literary history.

"in vain have I struggled.  It will not do...You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."  

She is soon sobered up when Darcy then proceeds to shred his own standing by informing Elizabeth  of his "sense of her inferiority-of its being a degradation"-etc..

The best part is how clueless Darcy is.

"He spoke of apprehension and anxiety, but his countenance expressed real security."

Then Elizabeth lets him have it right between the eyes.

 Austin is commenting on the power of the rich man versus the helplessness of a financially needy woman.  Of course she will accept.  She has to.  What other recourse does she have?

And I'm inclined to think that in reality she would have.  This, however, is fiction and Austin no doubt wrote what she would like to have happened.

In fact all of Austin's books are romantic fantasies.  Austin never married, herself, and she died young.  The men in her novels are the product of a woman's mind, which is why they are so attractive to us of the female gender.  In the real world, men think like men and not like women.  This makes our relationships with each other more challenging but not less worthwhile or intriguing.  

In fact, as much as I love Austin's novels I wouldn't trade reality with all the difficulties and even maddening situations I've had with my (newly married!) husband for all the Darcy's, Bentley's, Ferrars and Knightly's in the world.  I never know what's going to happen next.  Marriage is not only romantic, it's adventurous.

Fifthly:  Lady Susan

Lady Susan is an unfinished novel, it is short and- unlike the others- is written through the letters of the protagonist.  Lady Susan is a gold digger.  One sees her plight and that of her daughter's in these letters.  We see how she manipulates her way into households and tries to secure a husband for her daughter.  However, things take an unexpected turn at the end and we find that really all Lady Susan cares about is herself.

And finally:  Jane Austin:  A Family Record (enlarged and revised by Deirdre Le Faye)

This is as good a biography as any out there.  There is very little information on the life of Jane Austin but the authors, William Austin-Leigh and Richard Arthur Austin Leigh give as accurate a record as can be attained. The two men were descended from Jane's nephew James Edward.  They inherited the books, papers and letters of the Austin family and have written down this information in a readable style.

These are not the only Austin books I've read.  I've also read Northhanger Abby and Mansfield Park.  I can't say I enjoyed them as much so I will not attempt a review of them.  I see I was unable to describe each book in three sentences but hopefully I successfully conveyed my own thoughts about Jane Austin and her novels.

For those interested here is the link to Austin in August: