Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

The underrated heroine…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Fanny Price, daughter of a woman who married beneath her and a feckless drunken father, is one of many siblings, all living in relative poverty in Portsmouth. When Mrs Price appeals to her sisters for assistance, they hatch the plan of taking Fanny into their own care, thus relieving Mrs Price of the need to provide for her. Fanny is promptly transplanted from all she has ever known to the, to her, huge house of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, to be brought up alongside their daughters, although always as the poor relation. Here Fanny will grow up, treated kindly to a degree, but expected always to defer to her cousins and to be grateful to her uncle and aunts. Sir Thomas also has two sons, already almost grown up when Fanny joins the family, and the younger of these, Edmund, will become her protector and friend. And Fanny’s lonely little heart will respond to his true kindness…

(What follows is mildly spoilery, but I think we all know how every Austen novel ends…)

Fanny is a shy and self-effacing soul, and her modesty, lack of ready wit and frequent moralising mean that she’s often treated as the least of Austen’s heroines. I’ve always had a soft spot for her, though, and for the novel as a whole, which may not have the sparkling charm of Pride and Prejudice or Northanger Abbey but in some ways gives a broader view of the society within which Austin lived and wrote.

There’s no doubt that Fanny’s quietness and strong moral values do make her harder to warm to as quickly as a Lizzie Bennet or even an Anne Elliot. But she’s deceptively strong-willed and even defiant of the passive role demanded of all women to some degree, but especially of the poor relation, dependent on charity. As a contrast to Anne Elliot, famously persuaded by her relatives to refuse the man she loved, Fanny is clear in her own mind that love is the only foundation for a marriage, and refuses to be forced into a match her relatives think is not just suitable, but wildly above what she could have reasonably hoped for.

Of course, she takes it for granted, being a sensible little thing, that one should only fall in love with a respectable and wealthy young man – she has the example of her mother’s downfall to remind her of the perils of marrying an unsuitable man. And she’s also protected from the dangers of falling for the first man to admire her because she has already given her heart to Edmund. Nonetheless, she has to be admired for standing firm and demanding her right to make her own decisions.

It’s not only on the marital question that she shows that firmness of character, or stubbornness, if one wants to be less kind about it. All through her story she refuses to compromise her own moral judgements by acceding to the wishes of the more assertive characters by whom she’s surrounded, on small issues as well as large. It’s understandable that the people around her find her annoying sometimes, and I’m sure I would too if she were a friend or relative of mine, but as a character it makes her considerably more interesting than some of the more pathetic women in 19th century literature.

Book 90 of 90

Intriguingly she doesn’t just live by a pre-determined set of morals handed to her by her society – she thinks deeply about right and wrong, and comes to her own conclusions. Commentary on the book suggests Austen was using this to show the rise of Evangelical Christianity at the time – it’s not something I know much about, but I find it a convincing argument. To me, the more important aspect is that, while she outwardly defers to Edmund’s more educated and experienced outlook on questions of religion and morality, in fact it is she who influences and strengthens his views. He comes to recognise her moral strength in time, but Fanny is far too clever to ever let him suspect that she is deliberately setting out to mould him into her ideal of manhood. Perhaps Fanny doesn’t even realise herself that that’s what she’s doing, but there’s no doubt in my mind who will make all the important decisions for them both throughout their lives, once she finishes training him!

The outside world plays a role in the book too, though mostly off stage. Sir Thomas’ long absence in his plantation means that much has been written regarding whether the book can be interpreted as supporting or opposing slavery. In my opinion it does neither – it merely recognises that at that time many families in Britain owed their wealth to slavery, a simple truth. What we do see though is the role of men as landowners and householders, the suitable career options for the non-aristocratic wealthy, and the changing views on the Church as a sinecure for younger sons. We are also reminded of the restricted circumstances of this class of women, though interestingly all of the younger women in the book rebel against these in one way or another. Most of these rebellions end in social disaster for the women involved, but the book gives little sense of moral disapproval of their attempts to break free. Austen seems to disapprove of the silly ways they go about it rather than of the idea of rebellion itself. She uses Fanny to show how quiet, determined rebellion can be more successful than flamboyant gestures, and she largely reserves her disapproval for the men.

Jane Austen

As always, there’s far too much in any of these major classics to discuss in a reasonable length blog post, so I’ll finish with one last thing that I particularly enjoy about this book – that Austen takes us out of wealthy society to visit Fanny’s parents’ home in Portsmouth, showing us this naval town during the Napoleonic era, and allowing Fanny to recognise the comforts that wealth provides. Again I’d love to claim that Austen was making some point other than that money is a Good Thing, but I fear she isn’t. She does make it clear that wealth doesn’t guarantee health or happiness, but she doesn’t mawkishly pretend that poverty, even the relative poverty of Fanny’s family, is in any way romantic or better.

One of my favourite Austens (but then I say that about them all), and one that is often overlooked or underrated. She may not have as much fun as Lizzie, and Edmund is not a hero I’d particularly want to marry myself, but Fanny knows what she wants and has the strength of mind and character to get it, and she deserves to be admired for that!

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Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Short and sharp…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon is forced to cut short her stay at Langford when the lady of the house, Mrs Manwaring, becomes jealous of Lady Susan’s flirtation with Mr Manwaring. Off she goes to Churchill, the residence of her late husband’s soft-hearted brother, Mr Charles Vernon, and his sensible wife, Catherine. But soon Catherine is worried that Lady Susan might have got her well-manicured claws into Catherine’s brother, Reginald de Courcy, and she’s also concerned about Lady Susan’s young daughter, Frederica, whom Lady Susan is determined to marry off to an unsuitable young man against her will…

Written entirely in letters between the various friends and family members, this novella length story is full of fun. Lady Susan is so wicked one really feels the need to hiss whenever her name is mentioned, and Catherine is a delightful contrast in her general sense and good nature. While the men are all taken in by Lady Susan’s undeniable beauty and charming manners, Catherine rarely wavers in her opinion of her as a manipulative schemer and an uncaring mother. Maternal Catherine is determined that Frederica must be saved from her mother’s manipulations, but the rules of society preclude any open hostility between the two women. The only time Lady Susan drops her bewitching guard is in her letters to her dear friend, Mrs Johnson, a woman unfortunately married to an older, inconveniently respectable husband, a situation Lady Susan deplores…

“My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a man of his age! Just old enough to be formal, ungovernable, and to have the gout; too old to be agreeable, too young to die.”

A comedy of manners in which Austen spares no character from being a target for her sharply observational wit, this is of course much slighter than her major novels, with far less room for in-depth characterisation and a simple plot that moves quickly towards an end that is relatively obvious from an early stage. While the epistolary style adds to the fun, especially in Lady Susan’s letters to her friend when her true personality is revealed, it’s also limiting in that there’s not much room for description or for commentary on the wider society of the time. On the other hand, this makes it deliciously short, so that it can be gulped down and enjoyed in one sitting.

Part of me would have loved to have seen Austen develop these characters more deeply in a full-length novel, but I’m not sure the slight story could have borne the weight. As it stands, it feels like the perfect length for the story it tells. And Lady Susan deserves to take her place alongside some of the other major victims of Austen’s lethally wicked pen – Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mrs Bennet, the Eltons, et al. Pure pleasure!

Book 9 of 20

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Sanditon by Jane Austen

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Sanditon is a fictional little village on the south coast of England, and local landowner Mr Thomas Parker dreams of turning it into a health resort like its bigger neighbours, Brighton and Eastbourne. The current fad among the fashionable is for sea-air and sea-bathing, both promised to cure any number of ills. Mr Parker and his wife invite the young daughter of a friend to visit, Charlotte Heywood, and it’s through her sensible eyes that the reader sees the inhabitants of Sanditon, with all their foibles, kindnesses and hypocrisies.

This is known as Austen’s unfinished novel but it would be more accurate to describe it as barely started. We get a mere 70 pages – just enough to introduce us to some of the many characters and to begin to see the various plot strands on which Austen’s health never permitted her to follow through. It’s a pity, because it looks as if it would have been fun, and rather different from her finished novels. There’s a more cynical tone about it – the same bright wit but with a harsher, less forgiving edge. It’s not nearly as polished as her usual writing but that’s hardly surprising since in reality this couldn’t have been much more than a first draft.

It begins with the meeting between Mr Parker and Charlotte’s father, and we quickly see that Sanditon is an obsession of Mr Parker’s – he is determined to improve it, whether it wants to be improved or not, by building bathing machines and upgrading houses to be suitable for the fashionable people he hopes to attract. He has a partner in his enterprise – Lady Denham, the great lady of the neighbourhood, having inherited wealth from one husband, a title from another and a pack of relatives from both. Mr Parker’s extended family includes two sisters and a younger brother, all suffering from debilitating ailments according to themselves, or from hypochondria, as the more cynical might see it. There is another brother, Sidney, who, it appears, would likely be the sensible one and possibly a love interest for Charlotte, but I fear we catch only a glimpse of his handsome features before the fragment ends. We also know that new visitors to the town are expected, including a “half-mulatto” heiress from the West Indies, but again we are left tantalised but with our curiosity unsatisfied.

Sea bathing at Brighton

There’s a lot of humour in the portrayal of the Parker siblings, rather less subtle than Austen’s usual. There’s no knowing, of course, how the book would have developed, but I felt that it would probably have had a lot of filler added later – this felt very rapid for Austen as if she were getting down the main elements of the characters and setting up the plot, possibly with the intention of then re-working it to add in more of her delightful social observation. But perhaps she was trying a new style intentionally. The introduction by Kathryn Sutherland in my Oxford World Classic’s edition (which is about a third as long as the entire fragment of story) puts it in its historical context, in an England looking to the future now that the long Napoleonic Wars are finally over. Perhaps Austen was reflecting the new modernity and process of rapid change that tends to follow a long war.

Obviously it can’t be wholly satisfying as merely the start of a story, but I enjoyed reading it nevertheless, and had fun deciding for myself who would marry whom and be happy and who would be taught the folly of their ways and so on. I can see the appeal for people who like to have a go at finishing it, although I’m not sure there’s enough there to give a real indication of where Austen would have taken us. I’m delighted to hear that Andrew Davies is adapting it for television next year. He’s clearly going to have to come up with a plot since this fragment won’t be enough to make a TV series out of. I remember Alan Bleasdale adding in a lengthy backstory for Oliver Twist when he adapted that book many years ago, and while I enjoyed it I wasn’t convinced it felt like Dickens. I’m intrigued to see if Andrew Davies will manage to make this one feel like Austen. He is, of course, the man behind my beloved 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, so he certainly has the credentials. Meantime, I’m desperately avoiding all advance publicity.

Fear not, my Darcy – Sidney will never steal my heart from you…

If you haven’t already, you have plenty of time to read this before the adaptation comes out and invent your own story before Davies tells us his. Personally, I shall be very annoyed if he doesn’t allow Charlotte and Sidney a chance at romance… (if you know, please don’t tell me!)

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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Northanger Abbey: An Audible Original Drama

Horridly excellent!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Northanger Abbey is the most deliciously light of all of Austen’s books, filled with humour as Austen pokes gentle fun at her own class and gender. Catherine Morland is our naive 17-year-old heroine, leaving her country parsonage home for the first time to visit the bright lights of Bath in the company of her generous neighbours, the Allens. Starry-eyed and romantic, and with an obsessive love of the Gothic sensation fiction of the day, Catherine is ready to be thrilled by everything and everyone she meets.

They arrived at Bath. Catherine was all eager delight – her eyes were here, there, everywhere, as they approached its fine and striking environs, and afterwards drove through those streets which conducted them to the hotel. She was come to be happy, and she felt happy already.

I have discussed the book before, (you can read my thoughts here), so am concentrating in this review on the production and performances in Audible’s new dramatisation of it.

This is done as half narration and half dramatisation. The narration is done superbly by Emma Thompson, someone who truly ‘gets’ Austen as anyone who has watched her performance in the wonderful 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility will know – a film for which she also wrote the script. In this one, she goes all out to bring out the humour in the script, and her affectionately ridiculing tone and excellent comic timing had me laughing aloud time and time again. It truly feels to me as if she’s channelling Austen – I suspect if Jane read her manuscript aloud to her family, she’d have delivered it just like this, with the same fond teasing of our delightful Catherine and the same gasping drama over the Gothic horror elements, played strictly for laughs. Thompson verges perilously close to going over the top at points, but is far too masterful to actually do so. Part of me wished this was a straight narration – and I really would like her to narrate all the Austen novels, please, when she has a moment to spare.

That’s not to suggest I didn’t enjoy the dramatised elements too – I did, very much. The young cast were largely unknown to me, since I don’t watch much TV or film, but several of them have impressive lists of credits to their names already. Each turned in a fine performance here with no weak links in the chain.

The role of Catherine is vital, and Ella Purnell does an excellent job in portraying the youthful naivety that sometimes leads her into foolish behaviour. She brings great charm to the role, with the same infectious good humour that makes Catherine such a likeable heroine on the page. Henry, I always feel, is a harder role to pull off, since frankly he’s so patronising to our lovely Catherine and his sister Eleanor that I often have an uncontrollable desire to hit him over the head with a well-filled reticule. So I was very impressed with the way Jeremy Irvine was able to navigate that aspect with such a degree of warmth in his tone that I found it easy to forgive him and to understand Catherine’s attraction to him. (And bear in mind, girls, that I didn’t even have the advantage of being able to see him… except perhaps in my mind’s eye… 😉 )

Douglas Booth and Lily Cole are both nicely unlikeable as the baddies John and Isabella Thorpe (Boo! Hiss!), Booth managing with aplomb all John’s boastful silliness about his horses and so on, while Cole drips delicious insincerity with every word.

As the sensible one, Eleanor Tilney can tend to be somewhat dull as a character, but Eleanor Tomlinson gives her some much needed vivacity, while in the big dramatic scene near the end, she brings out beautifully all her distress and embarrassment. My other favourite is Mrs Allen, played by Anna Chancellor. Again she can be a tricky character; her rather silly empty-headedness and obsession with clothes could easily be annoying in the wrong hands, but Chancellor brings out her affectionate nature and the true warmth of her feelings towards Catherine, and the script is very humorous at showing how she allows her husband to form all her opinions for her.

Directed by Catherine Thompson, the production itself is fun with all the appropriate sound effects of carriages rattling along the roads, dramatic music for the Abbey horror scenes and delightful dance music during all the various balls. The balance between narration and dramatisation is good and I find this format works particularly well for audio – better than either alone for me. The bursts of dramatisation hold my attention in a way that an unbroken narration, however good, sometimes doesn’t; while the narration gives an opportunity to hear the author’s voice and fill out the background that’s sometimes missed when a book is reduced completely to dialogue. The script too, by Anna Lea, is excellent, sticking as it should entirely to Austen’s own words. I felt it had been a little abridged, not just for the linking parts in the dialogue to make it work as a dramatisation, but also in some of the narrated parts. But if so, the abridgement is done smoothly and none of the important elements have been cut.

So another excellent audio drama from Audible, who seem to be producing more and more of these, and casting them with some of our top performers. Keep them coming, I say! And as for this one – highly recommended!

NB This audio drama was provided for review by Audible UK via MidasPR.

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Persuasion by Jane Austen

persuasion coverThe pen in her hand…

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Eight years ago, Anne Elliot fell in love and became engaged to a young naval officer, Frederick Wentworth. Frederick had little money but, at a time when Britain was at war with Napoleonic France, the prospects for advancement in his career were good. But Anne’s friend Lady Russell, who is something of a substitute mother figure to Anne since her own mother died some years earlier, persuaded her that a lengthy engagement with no guarantee that Frederick would make his fortune was unwise, and so Anne broke off with Frederick. She has never forgotten him though, even turning down another more eligible suitor. Now Captain Wentworth has returned from the wars a wealthy and successful man, while the Elliots are on the brink of financial ruin. But Captain Wentworth hasn’t forgotten the hurt that Anne caused him and despises her for her weakness in allowing herself to be persuaded. And his changed circumstances and gallant bearing make him an attractive catch for the other, younger, single women in the neighbourhood.

Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn – that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness – that season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.

This is the last novel that Jane Austen completed before her tragically early death, and Anne is her most mature heroine. At the age of twenty-seven, Anne is already sadly faded and has reached the age when her chances of achieving a good marriage are rapidly receding. Sir Walter Elliot, Anne’s father, is a member of the landed gentry, obsessed with his ancestry and his family’s social standing. Living well above his means, he has reduced the family fortune to such a low ebb that he has no option but to lease his house, Kellynch Hall, and take a much smaller place in Bath. The new tenants of Kellynch are Admiral Croft and his wife Sophy, who is Captain Wentworth’s sister. And so Anne and Frederick are thrown back into the same social circle…

persuasion covers

There is a tendency, not helped by a rash of chick-littish covers over the last few years, for Austen’s books to be looked upon as simple romances. Of course, on one level they are. On the surface, this is a Cinderella story. Anne is the downtrodden under-appreciated daughter, complete with two sisters who might be beautiful on the outside but are pretty ugly underneath. Anne has to be her own fairy godmother – her innate kindness and patient constancy the magic she must use to win her Prince.

Anne wondered whether it ever occurred to him now, to question the justness of his own previous opinion as to the universal felicity and advantage of firmness of character; and whether it might not strike him that, like all other qualities of the mind, it should have its proportions and limits. She thought it could scarcely escape him to feel that a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness as a very resolute character.

But, as in every Austen novel, there’s so much more to it than that. Austen’s insight into the society of her own time catches every nuance of how status worked at a time when it was beginning to change. Completed in 1816, the book reflects the social upheavals of the long war, when military and naval officers had won both fortune and respect and were now looking to take their place in civilian life on an equal footing with the hereditary landowners – their wealth making up for any deficiencies in ancestry. Birth is still important in this society, but character is shown as the true hallmark of the gentleman. Austen’s very positive image of the naval officers might have been influenced by the fact that two of her own brothers were seamen, each rising to the rank of Admiral in later life.

persuasion illustration 3

In contrast, there’s a more biting edge to her observations on the snobbishness and toad-eating of the traditional squirearchy than in her earlier novels. Anne’s father and sisters may still feel their lineage entitles them to automatic respect, but Austen reserves her respect and that of the rest of her characters for the people who have achieved their status through their own actions. Not quite a meritocracy yet, and Austen makes no explicit reference to the recent upheavals of the American and French revolutions, nor to the beginnings of the industrial age, but even her rural society is clearly feeling the first breezes of the winds of change.

persuasion illustration 2

And there’s something similar going on in her portrayal of the status of women. Austen’s heroines always defied the convention of making loveless matches for wealth, but the early ones, even my beloved Lizzie, wanted most of all to find a man they could love and respect but who would give them a life not significantly different to that of their childhoods. They wanted a respectable establishment in a rural society, be it a minor one like Elinor’s rectory in Sense and Sensibility or a glittering prize like Lizzie’s Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice. Emma may be the ultimate example of this – her marriage simply added a husband to the family and house she grew up in and barely changed her position or lifestyle at all.

persuasion illustration 1

Anne Elliot is a different kind of heroine. She has had the benefit of eight years to think about what she wants from life and she knows it’s not the small and restricted world of Kellynch, or even Bath. She admires Admiral Croft’s wife for accompanying her husband as he sailed the world, and part of the attraction of Captain Wentworth is that he will expand her horizons beyond the tiny circle in which she and her family move. Austen’s rather barbed humour about the daily intercourse between the two families at Uppercross is an indication of how small this rural world really is, and of how friendships and relationships are determined by propinquity rather than shared tastes or interests. The senior Musgroves are intriguing in their relative relaxation about whom their daughters marry – they are more concerned with their children’s happiness than their social advancement. These were the days of the first feminist writers – Mary Wollstonecraft et al – and again, without direct reference, Austen provides hints that her world may be on the cusp of change. Marriage and wealth are still key for women, but Anne looks out at a different world and finds it an enticing prospect.

“I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”

“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

Of course, I don’t want to pretend that this is a revolutionary or feminist tract. Anne’s story is still one of a woman subordinate first to her father and then to her husband and subject to persuasion to conform to society’s norms. She’s not a rebel, but her stubbornness in refusing to make a loveless match and her constancy in her love for Captain Wentworth make her a strong and appealing heroine. I wish I liked Captain Wentworth more – I think the way he runs away when Louisa is injured is unforgivable, and I really dislike how his interest in Anne is reawakened only once her youthful bloom begins to return in the bracing air of Lyme. But he recognises her true worth in the end, I suppose. He’ll never be Darcy though…

darcy and lizzie

Emma by Jane Austen

emma austenBig fish in a small pond…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Emma Woodhouse is unusual amongst Austen heroines in being independently wealthy and therefore with no need to marry. When we meet her, she is twenty-one, still untouched by love, and determined to remain single. This is a small society with a tiny number of gentlefolk, so that everyone knows every detail of each other’s lives, and the main interest of the book is in the descriptions of the society – in this case showing the very limited and somewhat dull life of young gentlewomen in small towns where they are socially superior to all their neighbours. Emma lives with her elderly father and, as the book begins, has just lost the constant companionship of her long-time governess, Miss Taylor, who has married Mr Weston, another resident of the town. The only other person in the neighbourhood who matches the social standing of the Woodhouses is Mr Knightley, owner of the neighbouring estate and friend of Emma’s father. He has known Emma all her life and has taken it upon himself to guide her intellectual and emotional development since her early childhood.

Jane Austen
Jane Austen

The plot, such as it is, is a simple comedy of manners. Although she still sees Mrs Weston nearly every day, Emma feels the loss of female companionship, so takes under her wing young Harriet Smith, the illegitimate daughter of a father of unknown identity. The small cast of characters is further enhanced by the arrival of Jane Fairfax, niece of the impoverished but voluble Miss Bates. Soon after, Mr Weston’s son Frank also comes to visit – after his mother’s death, Frank was adopted by his wealthy aunt so, despite his relationship to Mr Weston, he is a stranger in Highbury. These young people are to be the pawns in Emma’s matchmaking games, leading to many misunderstandings and much heartache all round before we reach the traditional Austen happy-ever-after.

* * * * * * *

Any regular reader of the blog will be aware of my ardent devotion to Jane Austen (not to mention my even more ardent devotion to Mr Darcy). So it might come as a surprise to know that I really don’t get along with Emma. Let me try to explain why.

NB There be mega-spoilers ahead…

Apparently before beginning to write Emma, Jane Austen said “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” And this is the fundamental problem. The delicacy with which Austen normally handles the subtleties of class seems to have deserted her almost entirely in this one – Emma is an arrogant, self-satisfied snob who expects everyone to toady to her, not because of her own talents or character, but simply because she is the daughter of the richest man in town. And none of the other characters are much better.

Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma
Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma

There’s the annoying Mr Woodhouse, a selfish hypochondriac, whom everyone kowtows to because he is rich. Frank, a selfish pleasure-seeker, whose behaviour to Jane and Emma shows a complete disregard for anyone else’s feelings, but still isn’t as bad as his unconcealed delight at the death of the wealthy aunt who brought him up. Jane, who has to be the most boring character in all of English literature. Harriet, who has fewer braincells than the average amoeba and about as much personality. (Why would Robert love her? It’s inconceivable…)

Then there’s Mr Knightley. He’s thirty-seven. Emma’s twenty-one. He has shown an interest in her since she was a child, so let’s say since he was twenty-four and she was eight or thereabouts. He has brought her up to be what he wants a woman to be, and now he’s going to marry her. I know middle-aged men married young girls back then, but young girls they had been involved in bringing up? Yes, Colonel Brandon and Marianne had a greater age difference, and yes, Mr Jarndyce was way too old for Esther, but at least they both met these girls once they were women. Colonel Brandon and Mr Jarndyce leave me a little uneasy, but Mr Knightley makes me positively queasy. And did, even when I was seventeen.

(Mr Elton and Mr Collins…or is it the other way round?)

And that just leaves us with Emma. Fans of the book may wish to look away now, because I’m going to say something you may find shocking – it is my belief that by the time she is fifty, Emma will have transmogrified into Lady Catherine de Bourgh. What is different about them other than that Emma is young and pretty? They both think themselves above the need to learn the skills that other young women have to master in order to secure a good marriage. They both think they have the right to interfere in the lives of the people around them because they consider themselves to be intellectually and socially superior. They both expect the local parson to suck up to them (is Mr Elton really significantly different to Mr Collins?). They both resent anyone who shows any kind of independent spirit or who outshines them at any skill. (Is Jane Fairfax not the closest the book has to my beloved Lizzie? Except Jane is insipid and dull, where Lizzie is strong and witty. And look at Emma’s reaction to her…)

Lady Catherine de Bourgh...or future Emma?
Lady Catherine de Bourgh…or future Emma?

All of this would be fine if Emma developed during the course of the book and learned from her mistakes, but she is still just as egotistical and condescending at the end as she is at the beginning. Thrilled to get rid of the now inconvenient Harriet to the farmer she once despised, but determined to drop her friendship as soon as she does because the connection will be too lowly for Emma’s exalted position. Still expecting Jane to toady to her despite Emma’s appalling behaviour to her throughout. Still as dismissive of Miss Bates as ever she was (one visit after the Box Hill incident can’t be seen as a serious attempt to make amends). If only Austen had made Emma suffer – cast her into poverty or broken her heart. But no, she gets everything she could possibly desire and is left basking in a glory that Austen seems to think is as deserved as I think it undeserved.

Emma and Mr Knightley lead the dance...
Emma and Mr Knightley lead the dance…

The book is as well written as all of Austen’s, and is therefore eminently readable. There is some humour, though not as much as in some of her other books, and her characterisation and depiction of society is as insightful as always – all of which explains my four-star rating. But the fact that in this book Austen openly upholds the strict class and wealth divisions in society makes me wonder what happened to her since she taught Mr Darcy not to look down on other people because of their position in society. Is this the same author who had Lizzie declare “He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.”? Is Miss Bates then not equal to Emma? Apparently not, and there is the main reason that for me Emma is not equal to Austen’s other books.

Please feel free to tell me why I’m wrong… 😉

Aah, that's better!
Aah, that’s better!

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Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

A delectable delight!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The first of Austen’s completed novels, Northanger Abbey was sold to a bookseller for £10 in 1803, but the bookseller then decided not to publish it. In 1816, her brother bought it back for the original price – the bookseller was unaware that the book was written by the same author who had by then achieved so much anonymous fame and success with Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility et al. It was finally published in 1818, six months or so after Austen’s death.

They arrived at Bath. Catherine was all eager delight – her eyes were here, there, everywhere, as they approached its fine and striking environs, and afterwards drove through those streets which conducted them to the hotel. She was come to be happy, and she felt happy already.


Northanger Abbey is the most deliciously light of all of Austen’s books, filled with humour as Austen pokes gentle fun at her own class and gender. Catherine Morland is our naïve 17-year-old heroine, leaving her country parsonage home for the first time to visit the bright lights of Bath in the company of her generous neighbours, the Allens. Starry-eyed and romantic, and with an obsessive love of the Gothic sensation fiction of the day, Catherine is ready to be thrilled by everything and everyone she meets.

It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies, could they be made to understand how little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire; how little it is biased by the texture of their muslin, and how unsusceptible of peculiar tenderness towards the spotted, the sprigged, the mull, or the jackonet. Woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone. No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it. Neatness and fashion are enough for the former, and a something of shabbiness or impropriety will be most endearing to the latter.


Empty-headed Mrs Allen is a kind and generous hostess, but is not much of a guide to young Catherine except in the matter of clothes. At first, they know no-one and poor Catherine must watch as the excitement of Bath seems to be passing her by; but then she meets the lively and lovely Isabella and within hours they are inseparable friends – and surely only a cynic would suspect that Isabella’s sudden interest in Catherine could have anything to do with her desire to get closer to Catherine’s handsome brother, James. Even more exciting for Catherine, though, is her first meeting with Henry Tilney – good-looking, charming, wonderful dancer and son of the owner of Northanger Abbey, the very name of which sets Catherine’s Gothic-loving heart a-flutter. The scene is set for misunderstandings, upsets and drama as Catherine learns that not everyone and everything can be taken at face value.

She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance. A misplaced shame. Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can…

…I will only add, in justice to men, that though to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire anything more in woman than ignorance.


The bulk of the book is a social commentary on marriage at a time and in a class where money and family connections were often more important than love in the finding of a suitable partner. But in this one it’s all much lighter than in her other works – Austen gently mocking the tradition in contemporary Gothic fiction that the heroine must go through all kinds of terrors and dangers before being rescued by her perfect hero. Henry has to rescue Catherine from nothing worse than the embarrassment of being left with no dancing partner in the Assembly Rooms. But that doesn’t stop the imagination of Catherine, fed by the sensation novels of the time, running away with her as she invents all kinds of horror stories around the Tilneys and their romantically Gothic home. And here we have proof that TBR lists were just as uncontrollable in Austen’s day…

“…and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read The Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.”
“Have you, indeed! How glad I am!—What are they all?”
“I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocket-book. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.”
“Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”
“Yes, quite sure; for a particular friend of mine, a Miss Andrews, a sweet girl, one of the sweetest creatures in the world, has read every one of them…”

Mrs Radcliffe’s Udolpho and The Italian are still well known, of course, but the others were all real books of the time too and Northanger Abbey’s popularity has meant they have in recent years been brought back from obscurity and republished as the ‘Horrid Novels’.

Northanger illustration 1

Northanger Abbey perhaps doesn’t have quite the depth of the later books but it is highly entertaining, full of witty and well-observed social commentary. Catherine may not have the sparkling wit of Lizzie but she is a sweet and loveable heroine; and, while Henry may not have the smouldering magnificence of a Darcy, he’s a model of propriety, fun to be around (if Catherine doesn’t mind his occasional pomposity why should we?) and, most importantly, independently wealthy. A perfect match in a perfect little comedy of manners – a delectable delight!

* * * * * * * * *

This revew is dedicated to passionate Austen fan, Professor VJ Duke, as a special gift for his blog birthday. And here’s another…

darcy wet shirt

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

The nuances of birth and worth…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

jane austen completeMuch though I love Pride and Prejudice, and although Lizzie will always be my favourite Austen character, for me Sense and Sensibility is the better of the two books overall. That’s not to say it’s more enjoyable – P&P definitely wins out on both humour and romance. But in Sense and Sensibility, I feel Austen paints a more realistic picture of the lives of the ‘gentry’ of her period, and in this book we see much more clearly the constraints placed on young men, as well as on the women. The main thrust of the book is on the contrast of personality between the reserved and sensible Elinor and the frenetic romanticism of Marianne, but for me the more interesting element is what the book tells us about Austen’s late 18th/early 19th century society.

The book starts with a similar premise to P&P; the Dashwood family, all girls, find themselves forced to leave their home and reduced to genteel poverty when, on the death of their father, his house and estate pass down through the male line to the girls’ half-brother, John. There is, of course, no possibility that the girls could work, so they must survive on the little income they have, and look to kindly relatives (all male) to assist them. The only other alternative is to achieve a good match.

But in S&S, we also see the other side of the coin – Edward (Elinor Dashwood’s love interest) is an eldest son and as such has been brought up to be ornamental (which he’s not very good at) and useless (a skill he has pretty much mastered). And so his life is not his own – he must marry to please his mother or risk losing the wealth he has grown up to expect. But as a wealthy young man of a good family, he is considered a good match, despite this combination of uselessness and spinelessness. (Edward’s eventual ‘heroism’ was forced on him, so he deserves no praise for it.) Then we have Sir John Middleton: a kindly and generous man, distant relative of Mrs Dashwood, who offers the family not just a cottage on his estate, but also his friendship and concern for their future (i.e., marriage prospects). And how do the Dashwoods repay him? By looking down on his taste and manners, and the vulgarity of his relations by marriage. The nuances of a multi-tiered class-ridden society, where every tier is jealous of the one above while despising those below, are already becoming clear.

Emma Thompson and Kate Winslett as Elinor and Marianne
Emma Thompson and Kate Winslett as Elinor and Marianne

There are things I don’t like about S&S, but these too tend to shed light on the same class divides and gender roles. Lucy Steele is a much-maligned young lady, in my opinion. Why shouldn’t she have become betrothed to Edward? Should she really have said ‘No, no, I am too vulgar to marry such a sophisticated (and rich) young man’? What was it they all despised her for, except her birth and lack of education – two things she could not control? Why is Edward considered noble for sticking to an engagement he entered into willingly, while Lucy is reviled for not freeing him from it? Is Mrs Dashwood’s desire to marry her daughters to rich, or at least well-established, men any different to Lucy’s desire to escape her relative poverty through rich connections? And since everyone despises her anyway, why shouldn’t she act as she does at the end? I’m always rather glad that things work out for Lucy – she reminds me a little of a less entertaining, but more successful, Becky Sharp.

brandonAnd then there’s Colonel Brandon – and of course I love him. But I can’t help feeling a little queasy that he fixes his passions on a seventeen-year-old girl barely out of the schoolroom and clearly immature. But he’s a rich landowner, and so again seen as a good match, and although Marianne makes it clear from the outset that she sees him as an old man, her entire family encourage her to think of him as a potential suitor. Would they have had he been poor, or even just comfortably off? Lastly Willoughby (the hottest boy in the county, according to the blurb for the Joanna Trollope remake) – a rake, yes, but does what he does because he can’t face disinheritance and, despite ruining one young woman and breaking another’s heart, gains back his place in respectable society within a very short space of time, by making a good though loveless match.

Not as sparkling as P&P, but with much more depth, Sense and Sensibility shows more clearly how this society operated through family alliances and marriage, with the young people of both sexes expected to conform to the wishes of their elders. While Lizzie and Jane are whisked off at the end, Mills & Boon style, to great houses and handsome men, the matches made by Elinor and Marianne are less glitzy but probably more realistic. Both books are great in their own right, but together they give a much fuller picture of the nuances of this complex society, where money and birth determined status and worth in an ever-fluctuating pattern.

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Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen read by Lindsay Duncan

Published by AudioGo – running time 12 hrs 5 mins

The crucial character of Lizzie…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀 for the book           🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 for the reading

pride and prejudice audioWhen I try to pin down why I love Pride and Prejudice as much as I do, it really comes down to the character of Lizzie – her warmth, her strength and her humour. Lizzie, had she gone as governess to Thornton Hall, would not have moped around after the rather unpleasant Mr Rochester – no, indeed! She would have been annoyed at his behaviour, disgusted by his morals (or lack thereof), and would have set him straight on points of etiquette towards governesses and wards. Fortunately, Darcy is not as unpleasant as Rochester and, as well as the major benefit of not having a mad wife locked in the attic, is considerably better-looking.

I’m jesting a little, but there is a point – an independent-minded, strong heroine without her own fortune who is willing to turn down a man with as much material wealth as Darcy is a rarity in nineteenth century fiction. The position of ‘gentlewomen’ was such that, unless they controlled a fortune of their own, their welfare was entirely dependent on their male relatives – fathers, brothers, husbands. It’s hard for us to imagine what that must have been like. We get upset today when we hear of forced marriages, and even arranged marriages are anathema to many of us. But Lizzie and women of her era were expected to accept any offer that came with enough gold attached – you only have to look at Mrs Bennet’s reaction to Lizzie’s refusal of Mr Collins to get a feel for the pressure that girls were put under.

the definitive Lizzie
The definitive Lizzie

OK, this is fiction, and it all works out in the end…but there are other characters in Austen’s work that show the misery of the genteel poverty that many women were forced to live in through lack of a good marriage – Miss Bates in Emma, for instance. This is the future that may well have loomed for Lizzie if she failed to ‘secure’ a husband. How brave, then, to refuse Darcy! And for good reasons – not because she had fallen in love with some disreputable rascal but because she felt his proud manners and lack of concern for the feelings of others made him truly unlikeable.

But does she then boast of her conquest? Or mope over a missed opportunity? No! She keeps her feelings to herself and turns her strength and humour towards cheering up her beloved but blighted-in-love sister Jane, helping her mother and father get through the unfortunate Lydia incident and generally being the rock of the family. And, instead of resenting Darcy for having been proved right about her family, she is open and honest enough to reflect on his words and actions and to discern the goodness of character that hides behind his forbidding exterior. And a word of praise for Darcy here too – many a young man would have bitterly resented Lizzie’s refusal, but Darcy too reflects and comes to see the justice in her harsh words to him.

“She began now to comprehend that he was exactly the man who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her. His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes. It was an union that must have been to the advantage of both: by her ease and liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved; and from his judgement, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance.”

Lindsay Duncan
Lindsay Duncan

All of this is a long preamble to explain why, although I love Lindsay Duncan nearly as much as I love Lizzie, her interpretation of Lizzie didn’t work for me in this audio-disc set. She has a lovely speaking voice and is one of my favourite actresses, but somehow she makes Lizzie sound hard and rather unladylike in this – I could imagine this Lizzie turning into a middle-aged scold. When she spoke the line about Lizzie dating her love for Darcy from ‘my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley’ it didn’t sound like the self-mocking joke that it is in the book. When she gently mocks Darcy at the end, it doesn’t sound gentle and I could imagine them in a few years as one of those harridan-wife/hen-pecked-husband couples that Dickens would have enjoyed so much. Somehow the humour of Austen’s writing and the fundamental and crucial happiness of Lizzie’s nature didn’t shine through. In fact, I felt that, when speaking the dialogue, most of the girls sounded far too old and a bit fishwifely (especially poor Charlotte), whereas in the non-dialogue passages, when using her natural speaking voice, Duncan’s tone is perfect for the book.

So overall I thought this was a very good reading that would probably work well for someone coming fresh to the book with no preconceived ideas, but it just didn’t quite hit the mark for me. 5 stars for the book, of course, but only 4 for the reading.

"You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."
The perfect ending…

NB This audio-disc set was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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