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emma

Read in part for #AusteninAugustRBR and partly because I have wanted to re-read it for ages and received a lovely new cloth bound edition for Christmas.

It is very difficult to sit down and try to review classic works of literature – whenever I read anything so well-known and well-loved I rather dread having to review it.
For me Emma seems to be the most Austen like novel of all her novels. That is: by Jane’s own recipe for a “nice novel”

“two or three families living near to one another in the country”

Obviously all her novels do conform to this ideal – but Emma does so more than the others in my opinion – it does not have the high romance of Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion or the drama of Sense and Sensibility, nor the complexity of Mansfield Park. On the face of it not very much happens in Emma – instead we have quite a minute examination of those two or three families, their daily lives are reproduced faithfully and the reader feels these characters must surely have lived.

“And have you never known the pleasure and triumph of a lucky guess? I pity you. I thought you cleverer; for depend upon it, a lucky guess is never merely luck. There is always some talent in it.”

Emma Woodhouse is a famously interfering and deluded character her behaviour can very irritating to the reader. A beautiful heiress she lives with her elderly widowed father on their Hartfield estate. A regular visitor to the house and long-time friend of the family is Mr Knightly to whose younger brother Emma’s sister Isabella is married. Emma’s former governess Miss Taylor has been recently married to Mr Weston and is happily ensconced nearby at The Randalls. However Mr Woodhouse always resistant to change and saddened at the loss of an important member of the household, now calls her “poor Miss Taylor” just as he describes his married daughter as “poor Isabella.” The Weston’s form part of the tight circle of friends and acquaintances of Emma and her father. Mr Woodhouse is a lovable old character a terrible hypochondriac – his chief concerns seem to be the potential health hazards for himself and his friends in almost any social activity that is being planned. Mr Weston has a grown up son from a former marriage, his son brought up by a wealthy aunt was obliged to take her name, and Frank Churchill as he is now called rarely sees his father. An expected and long overdue visit to his father and his new wife excites the imagination of everyone in the village of Highbury and the surrounding country families.

Meanwhile, the delusional Emma – convinced that she brought her beloved Miss Taylor together with Mr Weston and brought about their happy union – deaf to Mr Knightly’s entreaties of non-interference takes naïve and unsophisticated Harriet Smith under her wing. Harriet is the natural daughter of no one knows who, placed in a local school, has risen from scholar to parlour boarder. Socially speaking, Harriet Smith’s future is uncertain, but Emma has decided Harriet’s father must have been a gentleman – on no evidence whatsoever – and decides her new friend is far too good to end up the wife of gentleman farmer Robert Martin whose family Harriet has become friendly with. Emma settles on Vicar Mr Elton as the perfect match for Harriet – and this becomes just the first of the errors of judgement that Emma makes. In concerning herself far too much in the lives and loves of those around her Emma almost fails to see what is under her own nose.

“I cannot make speeches, Emma…If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am. You hear nothing but truth from me. I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.”

Last year when the librarything Virago group were reading the novels of Elizabeth Taylor there was a lot of discussion about the influences of Jane Austen upon Elizabeth Taylor’s work, I even wrote a post about that. While reading The Soul of Kindness there were some suggestions that Flora in that novel is not unlike Austen’s Emma in the way she is deluded to her actions and the effect she has on others. It is a very long time since I first read Emma – and I had remembered the character of Emma Woodhouse as being very annoying. Reading it now however I didn’t find her nearly as annoying as I thought I would. Despite everything, Emma is quite a sympathetic character – Flora in The Soul of Kindness is not. Flora is much darker creation and the reader cannot be entirely convinced of her redemption at the end. While with Emma the reader really sees how she gradually begins to see the error of her ways, sharing her burgeoning discomfort over particular errors and assumptions that she has made.

Emma is a wonderful read, pure and simple, Austen’s sharp wit and acute observation of people is brilliantly displayed. There are a host of wonderful characters, both good and bad – including the slightly ridiculous yet pitiful Miss Bates, the dreadfully socially ambitious Mrs Elton, the endearing Mr Woodhouse and the wonderfully sensible and kindly Mr Knightly – who I had a bit of a crush on in my teens. Almost everyone in the novel loves Emma – only Mr Knightly seem aware of any fault in her, but Emma herself is a pretty flawed character- she means well though, and that is her saving, that and her ability to see the error of her ways.

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sensandsensibility

It has been a very long time since I first read Sense and Sensibility. Thanks, however to the various TV adaptions and films that have been made of this story in the years since, it remained very much a story I knew well. In the last year or so I have increased the amount of re-reading I have been doing – and finding it a surprising joy. I re-read Northanger Abbey during my month of re-reading in July, in January I read Persuasion. Austen is certainly an author whose work it is really worth re-visiting. For those of us who read all Jane Austen’s novels a long time ago, and have sat through countless TV and film versions – it is easy to think we know the stories and characters so well that we don’t need to re-read them. However I have found that in re-reading things now which I first encountered as a much younger reader, I discover so much. To begin with I am reading them on a different level, with many, many years of reading experiences under my belt.

The story of Sense and Sensibility is one I am sure almost everyone knows. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood their mother and sensandsensibility2younger sister Margaret have to leave their home in Norland Park upon the death of their father. Norland Park is inherited by Elinor and Marianne’s half-brother John Dashwood. John Dashwood and his monstrous wife Fanny take up residence at Norland Park even before the bereaved women have left. During this time Elinor and Marianne become good friends with Edward Ferrars – brother to Fanny Dashwood their sister-in-law. As Elinor and Edward’s feelings for one another begin to deepen, Fanny becomes suspicious, determined her brother will do better than Elinor Dashwood. Mrs Dashwood is eventually invited by a relative Sir John Middleton, to make her home in Devon in Barton cottage, very close to his home in Barton Park.
The family then leave Sussex for Devon, to make their home in a much smaller house, not knowing the people with whom they are to be associating almost daily. Barely are the family settled into their new home when they are thrust into the life of Barton Park, Sir John married to a younger woman, having young children and a garrulous mother-in-law, Barton Park is a lively house. Frequently invited to dinner, the Dashwoods are soon a big part of Barton Park society, becoming friendly with the good hearted but gossipy Mrs Jennings and meeting the middle aged Colonel Brandon, who is immediately smitten with seventeen year old Marianne. However one day while out walking with her younger sister Margaret, Marianne encounters John Willoughby, a dashingly handsome young man – with whom she is soon recklessly infatuated.

“She was sensible and clever, but eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation.”

Marianne’s feelings for Willoughby are immediately obvious to everyone leaving her wide open to gossip. As Marianne becomes increasingly attached to Willoughby – Elinor’s heart is quietly broken, as she hears of a secret involving Edward, a secret she is duty bound to keep to herself. Marianne wears her heart on her sleeve, she is romantic and impetuous and ripe for heartbreak, which naturally soon follows. Elinor and Marianne accompany Mrs Jennings to London, following the hasty departure of Willoughby from Devon.

“Mrs. Jennings was a widow, with an ample jointure. She had only two daughters, both of whom she had lived to see respectably married, and she had now therefore nothing to do but to marry all the rest of the world.”

Here Marianne’s irrepressible behaviour leaves her open to society’s speculation and gossip. She pursues Willoughby, sending him notes and generally behaving in a way not considered correct by society at the beginning of the nineteenth century. As Marianne is crushed by the aftermath of her recklessness, Elinor holds everything together, never once revealing her own hurt.

“Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims.”

There are many interesting aspects to Sense and Sensibility, to begin with – although not the first novel that Jane Austen wrote – it was the first to be published. For me I have to say I think it lacks the emotional subtlety and quiet genius of Persuasion, and as regards sheer romance, nothing can quite compare to Pride and Prejudice. However it is still a joy to read – the comic creations which are so much a part of Austen’s writing are worth re-reading this novel for alone. Coming out of Austen’s early writing career though, Sense and Sensibility clearly shows her true brilliance, aside from a brilliantly readable story, which is still engaging readers more than 200 years after it was first published – there is a fascinating duality to many of the characters and events in the novel. Almost everyone who is central to the story has no father, mothers and daughters are at the heart of the novel, and two mothers are shown to have preferences for their second born children. Elinor represents the sense of the title, and Marianne the sensibility. In many of her novels Austen concerned herself with the unsuitability of some marriages, in a society which put family and fortune above finer feelings she must have witnessed such ridiculous mismatching many times. In Sense and Sensibility, the elder Dashwoods, and the Palmers particularly demonstrate this societal mismatching which Austen re-creates so brilliantly. Family ambitions and lack of money conspire to rob both Elinor and Marianne of their hopes.
In the end of course – I hope I’m not spoiling things for anyone who really doesn’t know how it all works out, Elinor’s good sense pays off – and Marianne by the time she is an old lady of nineteen has come to appreciate the worth of a man like Colonel Brandon.
I thoroughly enjoyed re-engaging with Elinor and Marianne – funnily enough I found Marianne highly annoying this time of reading, I liked Elinor as much as ever, and although I remember liking Colonel Brandon enormously – this time I appreciated dear Edward far more.

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classicclub meme

(picture stolen from classics club blog)

I don’t usually bother with memes – but I am getting quite addicted to the classics club and as the question is about Jane Austen I had to join in.

classics club

Here’s the question this month
Do you love Jane Austen or want to “dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone”? (Phrase borrowed from Mark Twain).
1. Why? (for either answer)?
2. Favourite and/or least favourite Austen novel?

I love Jane Austen – although until fairly recently it had been many years since I had read any of the novels. I love her observations of people – her wit and how even after all these years, her characters are recognisable as people we might know. I love the settings – the small communities, the Bath pump rooms and regency drawing rooms.
1. I’m not sure which novel is my favourite – although Pride and Prejudice is the one I have read most often – and for which I still have enormous affection. I always pity Mr Bennett so much in his ridiculous wife – and love Jane and Lizzie. However I also love Sense and Sensibility and recently was reminded of the utter brilliance of Persuasion. jacloth3
2. I am currently in the process of re-reading all of Austen’s novels so I’m not sure if I can pick a least favourite at the moment – although I can remember many years ago, wanting to strangle both Emma Wodehouse and Fanny price. My least favourite used to be Mansfield Park – but I’m not sure it still will be now – it is a long time since I read it – and I think I will enjoy re-reading it at some point. I wonder how I’ll like Fanny after all these years?

jacloth1In 2009 I read Claire Tomalin’s ‘Jane Austen – a life’ – which I think helped to remind me about Jane and how much I wanted to re-read her. I still needed a nudge however. That nudge may have been provided by Lynn Shepherd’s A Murder at Mansfield Park – which I read right at the end of 2011 – which turns Austen’s story on its head – and is great fun for those who hated Fanny Price. So then finally in July 2012 I re-read Northanger Abbey, and in January I re-read Persuasion – I enjoyed them both so much, I am looking forward to my further Austen re-reading. Not long ago I also read the selected letters of Jane Austen – but didn’t find them quite as wonderful as I had wanted them to be.  For Christmas I received three of the Jane Austen clothbound classics – they are such lovely editions and have inspired me. I intend to read Sense and Sensibility over the Easter holidays – and Emma later in the year.

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persuasion

Persuasion is a fairly short but perfectly structured little novel. First published in 1818 after Jane Austen’s death it concerns Anne Elliot, the oldest of all Austen’s heroines. She is a much quieter and less excitable character than some of the heroines who came before her.
According to the introduction to this edition, it is possible to see Jane Austen’s inspiration for this novel in her own life. Shortly before she began to write Persuasion, Jane was obliged to involve herself in the romance of her beloved niece Fanny Knight, helping to sway her away from entering into a long engagement as she was uncertain that her niece’s affection for her suitor would survive such a long and uncertain commitment. This was seemingly not a position she relished being in, and she must have wondered again and again whether she had given her niece the right advice. Whether such a persuasion is a good thing or not, is a question which lies at the heart of this novel.
Twenty seven year old Anne Elliot is the second of the three daughters of Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch Hall. Her eldest sister Elizabeth is their father’s constant companion and favourite, her youngest sister Mary already married. Anne is of little interest to her family except for where she can be of use to them. Her selfish spendthrift father has mismanaged his affairs to the point where he finds himself obliged to let out Kellynch Hall. Anne is saddened to think of her home being inhabited by others, but she has a particular interest in the news of who it is that has taken on the lease. The lease has been taken by Admiral Croft and his wife, and Mrs Croft is the sister to Captain Wentworth – who Anne was once very briefly engaged to. The engagement eight years earlier was entered into and then got out of almost as quickly, due to the interference of Lady Russell an especially close friend to Anne, who persuaded Anne that an engagement to Frederick Wentworth at that time would be damaging to his career and unwise for her. Eight years on Wentworth has returned from the Napoleonic wars having had a successful career and made a large fortune. Thankfully for Anne, only she, Captain Wentworth and Lady Russell know of the events of eight years earlier – events that poor Anne has always regretted. When her father and sister leaven Kellynch Hall for Bath, Anne goes to stay just a few miles away with her sister Mary, a selfish whiney young woman rather given to thinking herself ill, who is quite happy for Anne to manage her young children, and is far happier having the added interest of her sister’s presence in the house. During her stay at Uppercross with her sister Anne is thrown into society with her sister’s in-laws the Musgroves and through them meets the Crofts who have installed themselves in her old home and with them Captain Wentworth. Anne is anxious about meeting Wentworth again, and as no one knows what her feelings about him may be they unconsciously hurt her when talking about him, and speculating about his future.

” Captain Wentworth is not very gallant by you, Anne, though he was so attentive to me. Henrietta asked him what he thought of you, when they went away, and he said: ‘ You were so altered he should not of known you again.”

Anne spends a very happy few months at Uppercross with an especially pleasant couple of days spent at Lyme with the new set of friends and acquaintances she has been thrown into constant companionship with. Captain Wentworth is very much of this group, and Anne is surer than ever that she made a terrible mistake eight years earlier. Later, in the company of Lady Russell Anne leaves her sister’s home to join her father and sister in Bath. Here she comes to the notice of another Mr Elliot, her cousin, and her father’s heir. It soon becomes an expected thing in Bath that Anne Elliot will marry her cousin, although Anne has rather different feelings about the matter. She is therefore delighted when she discovers that Captain Wentworth has also come to Bath. However she is concerned that any residual interest that Captain Wentworth may have for her will be quashed by his jealousy of Mr Elliot.

“She understood him. He could not forgive her,-but he could not be unfeeling. Though condemning her for the past, and considering it with high and unjest resentment, though perfectly careless of her, and though becoming attached to another, still he could not see her suffer, without the desire of giving her relief. It was a remainder of former sentiment; it was an impuse of pure, though unacknowledged friendship; it was a proof of his own warm and amiable heart, which she could not contemplate without emotions so compounded of pleasure and pain, that she knew not which prevailed.

One of the things I particularly like about Anne Elliot is her quiet steadfastness; she knows her own mind now, as she is a more mature woman who has long nursed a bitter regret. She is sensible and good, graceful and gentle, and probably the very nicest of all Jane Austen’s heroines. The pain that she carries with her is a quiet sadness, which the reader can easily identify with. Persuasion is a perfectly crafted novel, and I can see why so many people think it a masterpiece. The novel explores the complexities of relationships and the misunderstandings that arise when young people are separated by the interference of others. Jane Austen’s characteristic wit and satirical observations are in good evidence too however. Anne’s sister Mary for instance is quite a hilariously ridiculous character. As a hero Captain Wentworth may not have to pomp and swagger of Mr Darcy but he is a thoroughly nice man, with whom the reader is certain Anne could be happy, and he writes a pretty good letter too.
Persuasion was a joy to re-read – I was surprised how I had forgotten most of the story, so it was almost like enjoying it for the first time. Reading Jane Austen feels like a real treat, and I am looking forward to re-reading the other novels at some point.

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I must start off by saying I do love Jane Austen. In July I re-read Northanger Abbey during my first month of re-reading, and it made me want to re-read everything of hers soon. I then bought this book of letters and a collection of her juvenilia. I wanted to love this collection, was fully prepared to be captivated by Jane Austen’s life. So it is with some regret I have to say I was a bit disappointed. I had failed to remember that these are private letters, their intended audience only that person to whom they were addressed – usually, though not exclusively Cassandra Austen. It would also appear that the Austen family – possibly not surprisingly – disposed of many of her most private letters in the years following Jane’s death.
The letters cover a period of 21 years and are filled with the minutiae of everyday life. Like so many of Jane Austen’s characters, she and Cassandra spent a lot of time away from the family home, visiting for instance the homes of other members of the family, caring for sick relatives or on purely pleasurable visits to London and Bath. The letters that Jane sent Cassandra then, when they were apart, are filled with family news, local gossip, descriptions of new gowns, and details of balls attended.

“There were twenty dances and I danced them all, & without any fatigue. I was glad to find myself capable of dancing so much & with so much satisfaction as I did; – from my slender enjoyment of the Ashford Balls (as Assemblies for dancing) I had not thought myself equal to it, but in cold weather & with few couples I fancy I could just as well dance for a week together as for half an hour.” (Letter to Cassandra Austen 1798)

I think had there been say fifty pages of such letters – they would have been just charming and interesting enough to be satisfying. However for me there was just a little too much similar content, at times I got a little bogged down by it. That is not to say that there is nothing of interest – there is – and Jane Austen’s wonderful style in itself is an absolute joy. What a marvellous letter writer she was, of course this was a time when gently brought up young women did write a lot of letters. What does shine through so beautifully though is Jane Austen’s deep affection for her sister Cassandra, and indeed her family as a whole. Little in jokes and snippets of a private language used by her and a niece, show us how important she must have been to her family. One can only guess at the loss they must have felt when Jane Austen died at just 41.
One thing I really loved however – and which there wasn’t quite enough of for me – was Jane Austen’s references to her own novels. The novels which she refers to as being her children, and that we, all these years later are still reading and talking about.

“P&P is sold. –Egerton gives £110 for it. – I would rather have had £150, but we could not both be pleased, & I am not at all surprised that he should not chuse to hazard so much.” (Letter to Mary Lloyd 1812)

One thing this collection has done for me is to make me all the more enthusiastic about re-reading the other novels. I’m pretty sure I will read one during my month of re-reading in January.

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The fourth of my re-reads this month.
I remember reading this book a long time ago now – I may have been about eighteen, it introduced me to Mrs Radcliffe who I hadn’t previously heard of. I read the Castle of Udolpho and the Romance of the Forest as a result.
In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland is presented to us by a rather tongue in cheek Jane Austen as not being a typical heroine.

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her. Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard — and he had never been handsome. He had a considerable independence besides two good livings — and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters. Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and, what is more remarkable, with a good constitution. She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on — lived to have six children more — to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself. A family of ten children will be always called a fine family, where there are heads and arms and legs enough for the number; but the Morlands had little other right to the word, for they were in general very plain, and Catherine, for many years of her life, as plain as any. She had a thin awkward figure, a sallow skin without colour, dark lank hair, and strong features — so much for her person; and not less unpropitious for heroism seemed her mind.

Accompanying some friends to Bath for a few weeks, Catherine soon makes the acquaintance of Isabella and John Thorpe. Jane Austen presents these fairly monstrous creations hilariously, poor Catherine seems unaware of her new friend’s duplicitousness –the reader however is immediately on the alert. Catherine enjoys the society of Bath, and her new friend Isabella, although she takes an instant dislike to her oafish brother. He however has set his sights on Catherine. However soon after meeting the Thorpes, Catherine meets Henry and Eleanor Tilney, Catherine is immediately attached to the Tilney’s finding them to be exactly on her wavelength. Having danced with Henry Tilney, Catherine cannot help but look for him at every dance and at every play she attends. Unfortunately John Thorpe is quite happy to throw a spanner in the works, and is cause for an embarrassing misunderstanding between Catherine and Eleanor. Thankfully the misunderstanding is healed and Catherine is invited to stay with Eleanor at Northanger Abbey, the family home. To Catherine a great reader of romances by such authors as Mrs Radcliffe, the name of Northanger Abbey excites her imagination.
Upon arrival at Northanger Abbey, Catherine does allow her imagination to run away with itself, when she decides there must be some mystery surrounding Henry and Eleanor’s father, and their deceased mother. However just when Catherine finally seems to have settled in to her stay at Northanger Abbey, having put all such suspicions behind her, and to have real hopes of Henry Tilney’s intentions towards her – she is unceremoniously packed off home.
This was a delightful re-read for me. I had forgotten, somehow just how funny Jane Austen is. Her observations of people and their petty ridiculousness’s are quite brilliant; she has a sharp wit and a real eye for the inconsistencies and vagaries of human beings. I am now intending to re-read all my Jane Austen’s at some point – not sure when – the state of TBR being what it is – but I really want to revisit them all.

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