Jane Austen and Juvenal: It Is Difficult Not to Write Satire

Either the sparkling Jane Austen or the cynical Juvenal could have said the following:  “It is difficult not to write satire.”  The  Roman satirist Juvenal wrote it ( Satire I):   difficile est saturam non scribere. And yet the 19th-century English novelist and second-century Roman satirist have something in common–the wickedest tongues in their respective languages.

Their spheres of expertise are very different: Austen writes novels about women’s lives, satirizing the tedium of domesticity and the trials of marrying off women in restricted class-appropriate circles; while Juvenal, having survived Domitian’s reign of terror, lampoons the decline of morals and Roman decadence, daring to name  only dead men as examples.  Austen delves subtly beneath the surface, so that sometimes it takes a second or third reading to catch the subversiveness.

Whom do I prefer?  Sometimes one, sometimes the other.  As on a small sketchpad, Austen delineates women’s social lives, their walks and conversations; as in a painting by Bosch, Juvenal derides a colorful cast of Romans, among them women who poison husbands, gamblers who leave their purses but drag a safe instead to the gaming table, and gluttons who eat a whole boar and then die in the bath with an undigested peacock in their stomach.

The form of the satire in dactylic hexameter allows Juvenal occasionally to generalize at the end of a long catalogue of vices. Here is such a generalization in my rough translation: “There will be nothing worse that Posterity can add to our corruption; our descendants will do the same and crave the same depravity; and every vice has stood on the precipice.” (N.B. “… vice can go no further.)

Do you think of Austen as a satirist balanced on a precipice, shifting between a pretense of ladylike reserve and a pointed calculation of “outrageous fortune”(s)?  When I read Emma for the first time, I deemed it a  satire of love and finance. But Austen is more subtle than that: she has a satiric side, and a moral side, and no one better understands than she the serpentine relationship between love and money, and the cryptic  conventions that form the bond between men and women.  Her heroines want to marry, and,  yes, they get their men, but what men!  Handsome, clever, and rich Emma must eat humble pie before her snobbish, hypercritical, much older neighbor, Mr. Knightley, proposes. In Helena Kelly’s Jane Austen, The Radical, she does not dismiss the possibility that Mr. Knightley, who has a passion for “enclosure” of land, wants to marry Emma partly “for all those extra acres, fenced and ditched for free, and the £30,000 besides.”  And certainly I have always thought that their marriage would be made in hell.

Money matters in Austen’s world.   In her first novel, Sense and Sensibility,  Austen begins by describing the financial difficulties of the Dashwoods.  The Dashwood sisters and their mother must leave their comfortable home, because their father managed his finances badly and their half-brother inherited the estate. Now they depend on the kindness of a distant relative, who allows them to live in a cottage on his estate.

Whom will the girls marry?  It is more urgent than ever, now that they are poor.  Elinor assumes her boyfriend Edward Ferrars will propose, but when he does not even visit, she is unable to parse the world of men.  Ferrars has lied to her, a very important lie, we learn.  And how sensible is Elinor, even though she is more sensible than most? Like other girls, she has not been educated in finance, nor does she have any control over money, and could not have suspected any deception because of it.

Like Elinor, Marianne is unable to parse the thinking of men.  When she twists her ankle while running blithely down a hill, a typical Marianne-ish entertainment, a handsome stranger named Willoughby carries her home.  They fall in love:  they love art, novels, poetry..  They have many common tastes.  Unfortunately Willoughby drops her after paying her very marked attentions.

Marianne is a strong character, but she makes herself sick with sensibility and languishes with a real illness after she takes a walk in the rain, mourning Willoughby.   In Lucy Worsley’s witty biography, Jane Austen at Home, she explains the disease of “sensibility”  that afflicts Marianne.  Worsley writes,

Known as The English Malady, ‘sensibility’ had by the middle of the eighteenth century become a fashionable affliction for the well off. It was a classy kind of problem from which to suffer, for your nerves only became dangerously ‘sensitive’ if you had plenty of leisure time, and therefore lots of money, to indulge them.  But if you did want to appear delicate, full of sensibility, refined, it was a good idea to start by reading novels. And as people started to read more novels, with their high-blown, elevated notions about love and romance, they actually began to write to their  own real-life lovers in the same sensitive, romantic terms.

But Helena Kelly, author of Jane Austen, The Secret Radical, interprets sensibility differently.  Depending on whether Austen wrote Sense and Sensibility in the late 18th century or early 19th centurey,  Austen may have been alluding to Wollstonecraft’s The Vindication of the Rights of Women. Wollstonecraft writes that men’s  power is “reason,” while women’s only power is “sensiblity,”  i.e., having the accomplishments that help her attract men and marry.

Mary Wollstonecraft writes,

 I lament that women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions, which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when, in fact, they are insultingly supporting their own superiority. It is not condescension to bow to an interior. So ludicrous, in fact, do these ceremonies appear to me, that I scarcely am able to govern my muscles, when I see a man start with eager, and serious solicitude to lift a handkerchief, or shut a door, when the ladycould have done it herself, had she only moved a pace or two.

Reading Wollstonecraft, I am surprised to recognize that her words still apply. Think of the difference between professional training (business, law) and the liberal arts (languages, literature, the arts). I so value the  liberal arts that I will make a case for sensibility over sense, but I admit our sensibility  prepared us mostly for (women’s?) lower-tier income jobs, teaching, paralegal work, PR,  or freelance writing. I omitted my master’s degree from a few job applications, after learning that  men with bachelor’s degrees weren’t at all interested in hiring women with more education.   I wonder where women are today on the “sensibility” question?  Surely more are in the professions.  I prefer sensibility, but sense–and cents–also matter.

And yet without sensibility are we human? One wonders when one sees people walking up and down the street looking at their phones, doubtless asking Alexa/Siri for directions.

As Juvenal says, difficile est saturam non scribere.

What I’ve Been Reading: Allende, Austen, Anders, & Literary Links

You may ask, Is Mirabile Dictu finally done with Ladies’ Greek?

Yes, I am reading, reading, and reading novels again!

Here are brief remarks on a South American masterpiece by Isabel Allende, Jane Austen’s first novel, and and Charlie Jane Ander’s acclaimed science fiction.

1. The Chilean-American writer Isabel Allende’s stunning  first novel, The House of the Spirits, was translated by Magda Bogin and published in the U.S.  in 1985. This lush, witty, poetic masterpiece is laced with magic realism, and  reminiscent of the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Allende narrates the story of the rise and fall of three generations of the Trueba family in a politically unstable  country in South America.  The strong women of the family ignore Esteban Trueba, the volatile family patriarch, and live their own lives. I am especially fond of Clara, the  psychic matriarch who opens their enormous house to eccentrics and adds on rooms and staircases that go nowhere; her daughter, Blanca, a potter who teaches Mongoloids; and her radical granddaughter, Alba, who  feeds the homeless and hides refugees in the wake of a fascist coup. Even the tyrannical patriarch, Esteban Trueba, a landowner and far-right politician, is appalled in old age by violence of the new regime and begins to understand the women. Not only was I reminded of how very great Allende is, but I am eagerly looking forward to her new novel, In the Midst of Winter (October).

2. A rereading of Jane Austen’s Northanger AbbeyThe heroine, Catherine Morland, is one of Austen’s most comical characters, and I enjoyed my rereading of this charming little book.  Catherine, a fan of Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and other “horrid” Gothic novel, hopes to find a ghost or secret manuscript when she visits the Tilneys at the elegant  Northanger Abbey. Her witty boyfriend, Henry Tilney, one of the very few of Austen’s heroes I heartily approve, brings Catherine down to earth when she gets carried away.  He, too, is a novel reader, and has a good sense of humor.  He says,

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.  I have read all Mrs. Radliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure.  The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again,–I remember finishing it in two days–my hair standing on end the whole time.”

3.  Charlie Jane Anders’s All the Birds in the Sky.  A nominee for the Hugo Award, this  science fiction novel was highly lauded.   Parts are charming, parts are a bit awkward and rambling, but it should appeal to fans of Harry Potter and Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy.  The story of the relationship between Patricia, a witch, and Laurence, a brilliant techie, includes lots of magic, science, sex, and global warming.  Though this novel seems to me very slight, it is a good weekend read.


AND NOW FOR TWO LITERARY LINKS.  When I spotted an online review at the TLS of Ann Hood’s bibliomemoir, Morningstar,I paid a month’s subscription fee to read the review.  Well, I will also benefit by reading other reviews for subscribers only.   I loved Hood’s memoir, and hope others will enjoy it, too.  (You can read my post on Morningstar here.)

Jenny Hendrix writes in the TLS,

…[Hood] credits her childhood bookishness with setting her on a path to the literary life of her dreams. Hood reflects on ten works of fiction that guided her through adolescence in the late 1960s and early 70s, and her discovery through them of how to live “the mysterious, unnam­able, big dream life I wanted”: “My parents learned about life from hardship”, she writes. “Me? I learned from books.”

In her blue-collar Rhode Island mill town, Hood was an oddity in a household of non-readers; in her hard-working Italian immigrant family, books were seen as a waste of time and money. But, after she had enjoyed a chance encounter with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, literature opened Hood’s eyes to possibilities beyond her immediate milieu. She learnt what it meant to be a writer from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar; learnt to love language via the poet Rod McKuen; and credits John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath with teaching her how to write. There were other, extra-literary lessons as well, in subjects her family didn’t discuss. As the Vietnam War drew to a close, the novel Johnny Got His Gun sharpened her political thinking; the free-loving teens of The Harrad Experiment opened her eyes to the mechanics of sex. Together, these books built Hood an off-ramp from what she experienced as the dull and uninspiring trajectory of her peers: baptized in the church at one end of the town’s main street, married at the club in the middle, and buried by the funeral parlour at the same street’s far end.

The tough women criticizing women at the TLS always find a few negative things to say, and so Hendrix calls the book “heart-warming,” which is not the worst thing I’ve ever heard!  Overall, she liked the book.

If you like free reviews, and don’t we all, you can read the insightful review at  The Minneapolis Star Tribune .  Laurie Hertzel, the book page editor, aptly describes Hood’s graceful book.

In these 10 appealing essays, Hood deftly recounts pivotal moments in her early life, recalling not just what happened, but how she felt and how wonderful it was that the right book seemed to appear at the right time. “Once again,” she writes, “my world had been cracked open by a book.”

Hood’s book is actually one of my favorite books of the year.

“Jane Austen” by Jill Bialosky

The bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death was on Tuesday, July 18.  Here is a lovely poem by the American poet, Jill Bialosky.

“Jane Austen”
By Jill Bialosky

“A fine Sunday in Bath empties every house of its inhabitants, and all the world appears on such an occasion to walk about and tell their acquaintance what a charming day it is.” —northanger abbey

I awoke from the tunnel
to the fields of yellow rape,
seventeenth-century buildings, and cobbled
streets as she would have seen them.
It was rainy; the rain came and went,
came and went so that you could not escape
its dampness. I understood the need for tea
and the luxury of cremes and pastries
and why the ladies longed for a strong shoulder
to see them through the winter.
The seagulls cried overhead,
though there was no sea, only a muddy river
from Bath to Bristol. The scavengers
lived on the rooftops and if desperate
enough would swoop down and take
a sandwich from your hand.
I secured my room at the Royal Bath Hotel.
It was a hovel, really, with a carpet
as old as the early century.
Walking through the hotel,
I sensed something lurid
in the air, every eye upon me as if they knew
I was a foreigner in a strange land.
Over the bed, a burgundy bedspread
dusty and faded as vintage wine,
made me long for the bright color of red.
In the next room, sleepless, I heard
through thin walls the sounds
of an un-tender coupling.
I looked in the warped mirror
and found myself ugly
and when I turned from it,
could not escape the vision.
It lingered. The rain came and went,
came and went. I took an umbrella
and began my walk, hoping to come upon
her quarters. I passed the Roman Baths,
the statues not beautiful,
but puckered and fossilled
and the Pump Room where her protagonist,
other self, doppelgänger,
good, strong, loyal Catherine,
longing for companionship, fell
under the seduction of Isabella
and her reprehensible brother.
Even then her coming out
seemed less magisterial,
and Bath a representation of the emptiness
and evils of society where a woman’s dowry
might confine her forever,
than a reprieve from country life.
I gave up my search.
Images were everywhere.
And my mind had been made up.
I perceived no romance
in the wind, no comfort in the hard
glances of strangers, girls with chipped nail polish,
lads unkempt as if there were no hope of glory.
The next morning I boarded the train
to the modern world and it wasn’t until a sheet
of blue slipped out like a love letter
from its envelope of dark gray sky
that I knew the journey had ended
and, like Catherine, I was finally safe.

Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility”

I love Jane Austen.  But Sense and Sensibility is my least favorite comedy of manners. Is it a comedy at all?  The satire is apparent, but S&S is the least humorous of her books. Yet she establishes her basic themes and tropes here: in later books, especially Pride and Prejudice, she refines and recycles her characters, plot elements, and themes: the devoted sisters and/or friends, the courtiers, cads, the preoccupation with (un)romantic love, and the almighty god of money.

By the way, I’ve been admiring these super-feminine covers of Sense and Sensibility.  I have a row of sedate Penguins, but rather like the pinks, greens, and yellows.   I was not the designers’ audience, but the covers have grown on me.   What do you think?

 On a recent rereading, I had a strange un-Jane-ish experience.  From the beginning I  felt a hair-raising angst.  The newly-widowed Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters, sensible Elinor, romantic Marianne, and silly Margaret, must move to a cottage on Mrs. Dashwood’s cousin’s land.  How will they survive on their scant inheritance?   John Dashwood, the girls’ half-brother, has inherited the entailed estate.   In a sharply comic but horrific scene, John’s shrewish wife talks him out of giving them a gift of money that might have made a real difference.

Four women in a country house:  how will the Dashwood sisters ever find husbands?  Sir John Middleton, their mother’s cousin, is jolly and sociable, but perhaps not quite the thing, and his wife, Lady Middleton, is a dull stick.  The heroine, sensible Elinor, who has a long-distance beau, Edward Ferrars, doesn’t dwell much on love:  she is busy.  She must organize the move, plan the finances, advise  her impractical mother, and gently temper the impetuosity of her romantic  younger sister Marianne. While everyone else expresses  emotions, Elinor has to hold everything in.

Much of the book centers on Marianne, as filtered through Elinor’s sensibility. Naturally, seventeen-year-old Marianne falls in love.  Running down a hill in the rain, she sprains her ankle, and a handsome stranger, Willoughby, who is walking the hills with his gun and pointers, carries her home.  It’s a good thing she’s a sylph-like girl, or that might have been awkward.  He is charming, well-educated, literary, and musical:  he and Marianne spend the next weeks together gossiping, reading aloud, playing music,  and taking walks.  But then Willoughby suddenly leaves for London.  Why did he leave?  Why doesn’t he write?

The course of love does not run smooth for the Dashwood women.  Edward Ferrars pays a brief visit, but is gloomy and does not propose.  The manipulative Lucy Steele, a guest of the Middletons, informs Elinor that Edward is her secret fiance.  Marianne has another suitor, Sir John’s suitable friend,  Colonel Brand, but she thinks he’s an old man in his mid-thirties, “old enough to be my father.”   (And isn’t he for someone of her age?)

But there are many hilarious minor characters to temper sense and sensibility: Mrs. Jennings seems absurd to the Dashwoods at first, with her constant teasing about match-making and boyfriends, but turns out to be very kind and much less “common” than is their first impression.  And their visit to Mrs. Jennings in London,  which is disastrous from a romantic point of view, proves to them the worth of Mrs. Jenning’s friendship and support.

Mrs. Jennings, Lady Middleton’s mother, was  a good humoured, merry, fat, elderly woman, who talked a great deal, seemed very happy, and rather vulgar. She was full of jokes and laughter, and before dinner was over had said many witty things on the subjects of lovers and husbands; hoped they had not left their hearts behind them in Sussex, and pretended to see them blush whether they did or not. Marianne was vexed at it for her sister’s sake, and turned her eyes towards Elinor to see how she bore these attacks, with an earnestness which gave Elinor far more pain than could arise from such common-place raillery as Mrs. Jennings’s.

Of course, Austen’s books center on the marriage plot.  The ending is happy, or not happy, just as you like.   Happiness is not the top of the list.  Sense trumps sensibility. Elinor is sensible and rewarded.   Marianne is sensitive, and supposedly marries happily, but one wonders.  Certainly in my youth I was a Marianne, not an Elinor; and found Elinor’s perfect manners and middle-aged restraint irritating, even though she is always right.

But  I cannot quite imagine that either Elinor or Marianne will be very happy in this Comedy of Compromise.  Elinor gets her guy:  let’s hope for the best, as I don’t think he’s worthy of her.  Jane punishes Marianne, as she later punishes Emma–for what?  Being imperfect, being subversive, saying what they think, making mistakes?

But at least the sisters have each other.

Between Barton and Delaford, there was that constant communication which strong family affection would naturally dictate;—and among the merits and the happiness of Elinor and Marianne, let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands.

The Janeites, Why I Love Emma, & Anthony Lane on Sanditon

I am a Janeite.  Well, perhaps not.  I don’t belong to the Jane Austen Society, but I do love Jane and read her over and over.

And I very much enjoyed Rudyard Kipling’s humorous, touching story, “The Janeites.” One of the protagonists, Humberstall, a hairdresser and World War I vet,  recalls how he began to read Austen when he was an assistant mess waiter.  The officers in the mess hall often discussed “Jane.”  They introduced him to the books, and he still reads them again and again.

But his friend, Anthony, has never heard of her.  Humberstall says,

‘Jane? Why, she was a little old maid ’oo’d written ’alf a dozen books about a hundred years ago. ’Twasn’t as if there was anythin’ to ’em, either. I know. I had to read ’em. They weren’t adventurous, nor smutty, nor what you’d call even interestin’—all about girls o’ seventeen (they begun young then, I tell you), not certain ’oom they’d like to marry; an’ their dances an’ card-parties an’ picnics, and their young blokes goin’ off to London on ’orseback for ’air-cuts an’ shaves. It took a full day in those days, if you went to a proper barber. They wore wigs, too, when they was chemists or clergymen. All that interested me on account o’ me profession, an’ cuttin’ the men’s ’air every fortnight. Macklin used to chip me about bein’ an ’air-dresser. ’E could pass remarks, too!’

I love his hair-cutting interest.  And, yes, Frank Churchill in Emma rode his horse to London whimsically, saying he had to get his hair cut, but actually took care of other business.

Quite a few Jane fans dislike Emma, or so I’ve heard online.  Not necessarily the book, but the character.

Emma Woodhouse?  My Emma?  Emma of my favorite book, Emma?--at least it’s my favorite Austen.  How could they dislike Emma?  It is one of the funniest books ever written.

One thing all should remember:  Jane doesn’t lie. When Jane praises Emma and shows us that she is good to her hypochondriac father and visits neighbors of a lower class, these actions count.  It is Emma’s lively conversation that sometimes gets her in trouble.

Here is the opening sentence.

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

Yes, that’s who Emma is. She has a “happy disposition.” I once heard someone call Emma malicious, and I almost fainted.

I am not an intense enough fan to read Jane’s unfinished novels.

But  now I want to.


Anthony Lane at The New Yorker has written a charming, inspiring essay, “Reading Jane Austen’s Final, Unfinished Novel.”And he recommends the Penguin with Margaret Drabble’s introduction.

I don’t often read unfinished novels, though I wonder if I did read Sanditon “finished by another lady” when I was in high school.

Perhaps this one?

In his lively essay, Lane begins,

On March 18, 1817, Jane Austen stopped writing a book. We know the date because she wrote it at the end of the manuscript, in her slanting hand. She had done the same at the beginning of the manuscript, on January 27th of that year. In the seven weeks in between, she had completed eleven chapters and slightly more than nine pages of a twelfth—some twenty-three thousand five hundred words. The final sentence in the manuscript runs as follows: “Poor Mr. Hollis!—It was impossible not to feel him hardly used; to be obliged to stand back in his own House and see the best place by the fire constantly occupied by Sir H. D.” This is a joke. Mr. Hollis and Sir Harry Denham are dead, and it is their respective portraits that contend for social eminence in the sitting room of Lady Denham, the woman who married and buried them both. Exactly four months after writing that line, Jane Austen died, unmarried, at the age of forty-one. Her position, unlike theirs, remains secure.

I am now yearning to get my hands on a copy of Sanditon.  Here are some of our options:

This lovely Everyman hardback fits the bill.

Oops, is that the same “Another Lady” who wrote the other one?

The Oxford always has nice legible print. And, look, we even get Northanger Abbey in this volume!

It’s so much fun to read Jane.  It’s been a few years, so now I can go back and reread one of my favorites.  And I must find a copy of Sanditon.

The 200th Anniversary Penguin Deluxe Classics Edition of Jane Austen’s Emma & a Few Others

The cover of my edition fell apart long ago!

My old Modern Library edition disintegrated long ago, alas!

The summer before ninth grade, I toted a Modern Library edition of The Complete Novels of Jane Austen everywhere. It weighed a ton, but fit in my basket purse.   I read Sense and Sensibility on the steps of MacBride Hall on the Pentacrest in Iowa City, Pride and Prejudice at The Mill, where you could sit for hours over a Diet Coke, and Northanger Abbey after everyone else fell asleep at a slumber party.  One friend’s mother, a Smith alumna,  said “You’re gonna love it.”  I did love it, though at that age I  didn’t differentiate between Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Goudge.

jane austen Cover_EmmaFast forward to college and  Emma was the funniest book I’d ever read. I have read Emma many, many times, and my Modern Library edition disintegrated long ago.  And so I could not resist the new 200th Anniversary Annotated Penguin Deluxe Classic edition of Emma. This handsome orange paperback has a cover design that blends the contemporary with traditional illustrations.  (The figures of 19th-century-style men and women are cleverly displayed inside the figure of the heroine, Emma.)  The colors remind me of Klimt’s painting, The Kiss.  And the high-quality paper makes this an excellent reading experience.

Klimt's "The Kiss"

Klimt’s “The Kiss”

This is an edition for the common reader, says Juliet Wells, the editor.  It has an excellent introduction, notes, maps, illustrations from early editions, and contextual essays on dancing, food, health, love etc.

Juliet Wells explains,

It’s a reader’s edition, not a scholarly one.  In other words, the information you’ll find here is intended to support your understanding and appreciation of Emma rather than to instruct you in literary terms, theoretical perspectives, or critical debates.  In choosing what to include, I’ve borne in mind what I’ve heard from students and others over the years about what has intrigued, and frustrated, them in reading this novel.

This is perfect for the common reader: I love reading this well-made paperback.   If you need something more scholarly, the Norton edition includes critical essays as well as basic background.  And I have a copy of The Annotated Emma, annotated and edited by David M. Shapard (Anchor Books).  (I use that for notes rather than reading, though.  I find it distracting to have the long notes on the sides of the pages of text.)

annotated emma shepard 51Vz1rBtWgL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Surprisingly, Emma is controversial.  Readers argue over whether this brilliant comedy is an essentially  conservative novel, reinforcing the values of a classist society, or a satire.  It is both, I think. Not all online Janeites chortle over Emma’s wicked wit, ridiculous misunderstandings, and boredom with the very talented, musical, but prim Jane Fairfax, a young woman she very much dislikes. Some criticize her outrageous observations (who hasn’t had them?) and a strong will they mistake for selfishness.  They overlook Emma’s kindness to her valetudinarian father, the card parties she arranges for him, her devotion to her nephews and nieces, and charity to the poor.   She is the most hated (the only hated?) Austen heroine!

I love Emma.   At the beginning of the novel, after her ex-governess’s wedding to a country squire, she tells Mr. Knightley, her brother-in-law, that she  made the match four years ago.  She says she intends to make more matches.  Knightley is characteristically grim in response to her liveliness, and her hypochondriac father discourages her:  he pities “poor Miss Taylor” for marrying and moving half a mile away.  But Emma continues to tease them:

“I promise to make none for myself, papa; but I must, indeed, for other people.  It is the greatest amusement in the world!  And after such success, you know!–everybody said that Mr. Weston would never marry again.

Emma is half-serious about match-making.  She fantasizes that her new friend Harriet, an orphan awho is the “natural” daughter of no-one-knows-whom, is of gentle birth, and needs a gentleman husband.   The new clergyman Mr. Elton would be an appropriate match, she thinks.  Unfortunately, Emma does not understand men. She misreads Mr. Elton’s sexual signals:  she is horrified when she discovers he is courting her, not Harriet.  Eventually Emma realizes her all-too-human mistakes:  she has hurt feelings without intending to; she has encouraged Harriet to aspire too high  (shame, shame!); and she has not found a husband for herself.  Finally Emma gets Knightley:  of course I loved him as the logical mate when I was very young, but he  is 14 years older and so controlling and critical:  will the strong Emma prevail?

In The Annotated Emma (Anchor Books,) Shapard describes Emma as Austen’s “most flawed heroine.”  He says Emma drives the plot more than any of the heroines of  Austen’s other novels.  And he points out her good points.

A significant reason for Emma’s greater ability to drive the plot is that the other Austen heroines are all in a state of dependence, inhabiting households run by others an dsubjec to tothers’ wills.  furthermore, they all suffere because of people around them sho scorn or neglect or mistreat them in some way.  Emma, while severely restricted geographically by her need to care constantly for her father, is mistress of all she surveys (within her limited field).  She is completely in charge of her household and able to guide her fatehre, restrained only by her own concern for him, in those areas where he retains nominal leadership.  She is also in a supreme  position socially.

I love Emma’s strength, though I am concerned about her future as a wife.

the watefall margaret drabble 6574486-MMargaret Drabble’s narrator, Jane Grey, in The Waterfall, also particularly dislikes Knightley.

How I dislike Jane Austen. How deeply I deplore her desperate wit. Her moral tone dismays me: my heart goes out to the vulgarity of those little card parties that Mrs. Phillips gave at Meryton, to that squalid rowdy hole at Portsmouth where Fanny Price used to live, to Lydia at fifteen gaily flashing her wedding ring through the carriage window, to Frank Churchill, above all to Frank Churchill, lying and deceiving and proffering embarrassing extravagant gifts. Emma got what she deserved, in marrying Mr. Knightley. What can it have like, in bed with Mr. Knightley. Sorrow awaited that woman: she would have done better to steal Frank Churchill, if she could.

I do know exactly what she means about Knightley.

But if this is not a happy ending, what is?  Clearly Austen thinks it is happy.

Rereading Bronte and Austen & Modern Versions

As I grow older, there is nothing I like better than rereading the classics. If I only have three or (optimistically) four decades left, I want to go out with the Charlotte Bronte-Jane Austen party.

Jane Eyre old penguin bronteLast month I partied rather intensely with Bronte and Austen.  I reread Jane Eyre and Northanger Abbey.

I hadn’t read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre in 20 years, because I’m such a Villette devotee that I feared disappointment.

And I hadn’t been able to face Austen’s Northanger Abbey, because it is so slight.

Villette, Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece, is Jane Eyre for adults (I have written extensively about Villette here), and it is by far the better of the two books. Indeed, the heroine of Villette, Lucy Snowe, has a more challenging time as a woman (she is sexy but too plain to attract the hero) and as a teacher has no training and must figure out both how to teach and how to discipline a class of unruly girls.  She has it harder than the plain, girlish Jane Eyre, who fulfills all our romantic dreams. Jane Eyre is Charlotte’s dream autobiography; Villette is the realistic version.

The good news? I loved  Jane Eyre.  It is a beautifully-written work of great literature, not just for teenagers.   Bronte penned a stunning, fast-paced, emotionally pitch-perfect blockbuster.

Jane Eyre is an orphan who stands up for truth–and who of us hasn’t felt like an orphan?. Her cruel aunt banishes her to a charity school, where she is forced to wear a sign that says “liar” because her vicious aunt told the lie that she was a liar.  She wins many friends at the school, and becomes a teacher, and finally lands a governess job at the romantic house, Thornfield Hall.  The owner, witty, rakish Mr. Rochester, whose love child, Adele, is her charge, falls in love with here.

Bronte’s dialogue is witty and, if not quite realistic, compelling.  Who can help but fall in love with Mr. Rochester when he jokingly compares his dog Pilot to his bastard, Adele, by his opera-singer girlfriend, Celine Varens?

But unluckily the Varens…had given me this fillette Adele, who, she affirmed, was my daughter; and perhaps she may be, though I see no proofs of such grim paternity written in her countenance:  Pilot is more like me than she.”

And Rochester presents himself as a hero:  he says Celine deserted Adele, so he took “the poor thing out of the slime and mud of Paris , and transplanted it here, to grow up clean in the wholesome soil of an English country garden.  Mrs. Fairfax found you to train it;…”

And on an emotional level, we love it that the plain, smart heroine wins the hero’s affections.

But we worry about the mad wife in the attic who constantly sets the house on fire, seeming to know that Jane Eyre is there, and exactly who she is.  The mad wife is at the center of Jean Rhys’s sequel, Wide Sargasso Sea.  I didn’t think Wide Sargasso Sea was very good when I read it years ago; I tried to reread it last month, and my original judgment stands.  But I do like the idea of it.  Anybody know any modern versions of Jane Eyre?

Northanger Abbey jane austenI reread Austen’s Northanger Abbey so I could read Val McDermid’s retelling, also called Northanger Abbey, the second in a series of updated Austen novels (the first was by Joanna Trollope, Sense and Sensibility).

Austen’s Northanger Abbey is thoroughly enjoyable, a novel about a novel reader so absorbed in Gothic fiction that she is constantly fantasizing about ghosts and murders.  But it is mainly the story of a likable, if ordinary and rather silly, young woman, Catherine Morland, who goes to Bath with her neighbors, and falls in love with Henry Tilney.  The difference between Northanger Abbey and Austen’s other novels?   There is no suspense; we know immediately who will get the girl, and whom the girl will get.  And the writing is uneven.

Naturally, we all fall in love with Henry, because he, like Catherine, is a novel reader.  He says,

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has no pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again,–I remember finishing it in two days–my hair standing on end the whole time.”

He also teases her about writing in her journal, and predicts she will go home at night and write abouit their meeting.

Austen is always witty, and I laughed aloud as I read this.

Northanger Abbey val mcdermidI have read half of McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, and it, too, is lots of fun.  The 21st-century Cat is a fan of paranormal romances, and , indeed, at one point she wonders if Henry is a vampire.  He teases her about updating her Facebook page, rather than writing in her journal, and she spends a lot of time texting. A missed appointment has to do with Henry’s sister’s having written down the wrong phone number.  McDermid is an award-winning mystery writer, and she is up to the challenge of rewriting Austen’s lightest novel.  Don’t expect too much here, but it is charming and will certainly make  good “summer reading.”  The writer who has signed on to update Pride and Prejudice or Emma will have the greatest difficulty!

Have English Writers Gone Crazy on the Subject of Genre Fiction?

Have English writers gone crazy on the subject of genre fiction?

Are they genre-centric and campy?

Or is it simply that they no longer distinguish between literature and pop fiction?

I recently read in The Guardian two very odd articles.

1. Elizabeth Edmondson, an Oxford-educated author of historical novels and historical and contemporary romantic comedies, claims it is nonsense to say Jane Austen wrote literary fiction.


2.  Julie Myerson, an award-winning novelist and columnist, says Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn is more than just genre fiction.

May I just say, Good God!

emma jane austen penguinIt has not escaped me in my eclectic reading life that Jane Austen is one of the greatest writers in the English language.  Reading Emma was a revelation in my teens.  I have never laughed so hard, nor so identified with a heroine.

Emma is appealing not just because she is “handsome, clever, and rich.”  I understood completely why she preferred doing girl stuff with her friend Harriet–drawing portraits and and chatting whimsically while walking past Mr. Elton’s house–to practicing piano like Jane Fairfax, the bright, prissy, good girl she is supposed to befriend.  (It was not until many years later, when I joined a women’s group online, that I discovered that many fans think Emma is bitchy.  She is far less bitchy than Lizzie Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, who falls for Darcy only after she sees his property.)

Edmondson dislikes the term “literary fiction,” which she calls “lit fic,” and insists Austen’s books would never have been classified “lit fic” list had she published s today.

Edmondson writes,

Austen never for a moment imagined she was writing Literature. Posterity decided that – not her, not John Murray, not even her contemporary readership. She wrote fiction, to entertain and to make money.

Some might contend that Austen did not write “lit fic,” and, indeed, she can be read on many levels.  But surely we maintain that her witty, harshly satiric, yet also conservative novels about marriage and money are classics, far superior to the books of her contemporaries, Maria Edgeworth and Fanny Burney?

Let’s face it:  Austen wrote literary fiction.

And then there is the other article.

Julie Myerson reread Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn just in time for her enjoyable article to be published in The Guardian before a TV adaptation.

Back in 1974, I’m sure I read this novel as an adventure yarn, a tale of smugglers, wreckers and the perilous exploits of a bold, shawl-wrapped heroine on a vast and desolate landscape. And it is, of course, all of those things. But the book I just re‑read is also something else much larger and darker: a disturbingly timeless evocation of domestic abuse, binge-drinking, criminality and the mass killing of men, women and children. Most startlingly of all, it sets out to explore evil in its purest and most chilling form.

Not the Virago cover...

Not the Virago cover…

This is all very well, but there is one problem: it’s trash.  I read it five or six years ago, when I still was starry-eyed over English bloggers, who, alas, I learned after reading several of their blog entries, were not necessarily working for Virago, but gave rave reviews indiscriminately to all books labeled VMC (Virago Modern Classics).

Rebecca is stunning, a classic,  but it is the only stunning novel du Maurier wrote.

And so it goes with The Guardian.  Always fun to read, but really…sometimes they go too far.

The Persuasion Book Club

She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older–the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.”—-Jane Austen, Persuasion

Persuasion by Jane Austen Penguin Deluxe Edition

Heavens, what’s with this cover? Do you like it?

My cousin and I have formed a Persuasion book club.

We are doing this for you.

Yes, we’re grateful for your consternation over the fact that (1)  she was called an idiot by a private online Austen book group; and (2) you don’t entirely dismiss her view that Anne Elliott, the heroine of Persuasion, was a wimp.

And so I suggested that I reread the book, and that she and I discuss it next week.  Possibly Wednesday, possibly Thursday:  it depends on when I finish.  There will not be a video:  I will write from notes in my reporter notebook.  I am a good note taker.

I have read Persuasion many times, and of course am on the side of Anne Elliott, the smart, quiet, charming heroine who behaves so beautifully with her ex-boyfriend.

My cousin thinks Anne is a wimp, and I think that point can be argued.  As I put it, some of us are Annes, some of us are not.

I fear that in my youth I was like Louisa Musgrave, the gregarious, bright 20-year-old rival who jumps off walls on walks to get attention.  Far worse, I wore leotards without a bra and made out with Captain Wentworth, oops, I mean So and So, on the stairway at work.

But a modern Anne might well have done the same.  She probably made out with Captain Wentworth, don’t you imagine?  Or did she have to wait till the official engagement?  We are not scholarly here, and we want to know.

May I say that Captain Wentworth is Austen’s sexiest hero?  Don’t you love it when he wordlessly picks up Anne and puts her in the carriage?

Now, guys and gals, I am PRETENDING to be a hip, silly reader. (Perhaps like the heroine of a Tama Janowitz story.)  I am hip, but not dumb, and I am not a blonde, though that might be a good idea.  Perhaps I WILL dye my hair before the book group.  But last time I dyed it I had an allergic reaction.

My cousin is occasionally blonde, and she is not dumb: she just doesn’t read many novels.  She wants me to add that her favorite book is Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians.  Now she wants me to tell you that she made that up because she knew we would enjoy that comment.  Her favorite book is Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August.  She also likes Diana Gabaldon’s romances.

We will find at least one sequel to Persuasion.  (We will comb Jane Austen websites for suggestions.)

We will post a playlist.  (The video of Richard Thompson’s song, “Persuasion,” appears at the bottom of the post.)  Please contribute songs to our playlist.

I look forward to the discussion and your comments.

Sleeping with Knightley, Margaret Drabble’s The Waterfall, & Howard Jacobson on Jane Austen

Emma (Kate Beckinsale) and Knightley (Mark Strong), not looking too sexy together.

Emma (Kate Beckinsale) and Knightley (Mark Strong)  in 1996 film.

Jane Austen’s Emma is the funniest book I have ever read.

Emma may be too clever for her own good, she may flirt too heedlessly with Frank Churchill, she may almost ruin her friend Harriet’s life by advising her badly on marriage, but I prefer her company to that of the more subtly bitchy Lizzie Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, the decorous Fanny in Mansfield Park, or the weak Anne in Persuasion (I love Anne, but she’s too passive, however hard Austen tries to explain it).  Emma is smart.  Emma says what she thinks.  She doesn’t want to marry, and she prefers the lively Harriet to the rigid Jane Fairfax.  Emma would destroy society in a moment, if Knightley weren’t there to criticize.

Knightley corrects all Emma’s mistakes, but he’s more like a father than a lover. I’ve always suspected he would be as tyrannical as Lucy Snowe’s unattractive fiance, M. Paul (her second choice when the man she loves chooses someone else), in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette.

Margaret Drabble’s heroine, Jane Grey,  in The Waterfall particularly dislikes Knightley.

How I dislike Jane Austen.  How deeply I deplore her desperate wit.  Her moral tone dismays me:  my heart goes out to the vulgarity of those little card parties that Mrs. Phillips gave at Meryton, to that squalid rowdy hole at Portsmouth where Fanny Price used to live, to Lydia at fifteen gaily flashing her wedding ring through the carriage window, to Frank Churchill, above all to Frank Churchill, lying and deceiving and proffering embarrassing extravagant gifts.  Emma got what she deserved, in marrying Mr. Knightley.  What can it have like, in bed with Mr. Knightley.  Sorrow awaited that woman:  she would have done better to steal Frank Churchill, if she could.

the Waterfall Margaret Drabble penguinThe Waterfall is a remarkable novel, has some Austenish overtones, and Drabble knows it.  Her heroine Jane is a kind of anti-Jane Austen.  In the last weeks of pregnancy, Jane lives alone, her husband having left her and her son having been sent to stay with her mother.  She wanders around the house drinking coffee, shops only where no one will recognize her so she can be solitary, and reads an article about a woman who gave birth alone in a hut in Alaska.

Although Jane loves to be alone, she does call the midwife when she goes into labor.  Then her cousin Lucy and husband James take turns staying with her.  Handsome, sexy James, who owns a garage and fast cars, climbs into bed with her and sleeps with her chastely until she can have sex again.  Then they have a steamy affair.

It is Jane’s first real love affair.  She had married Malcolm, a musician, because she felt sorry for him, and they hadn’t suited one another in bed.  James is an ideal lover, and loves to sit around the house with her:  he doesn’t really work, he explains.  He takes her and her children on outings and to the racetrack.  The racetrack is too nerve-racking for her, though.

Jane doesn’t want much human contact except with James, and it is the fault of her neurotic family.  She very much dislikes the rigidity of anything that resembles Austen’s social code.  She hates the dissimulation and pretenses of her family:  her father, a sarcastic headmaster, bullied boys and was deemed a success; her mother was a hypocrite and social climber who pretended not to care about material things but spent all her time sucking up to the rich; and her aunt browbeat her inferior “husband in trade” until he became capable of  middle-class malice.

Drabble’s portrait of her parents does remind us of Austen’s world, and Jane inhabits a post-Austen world of the ’60s.

Some people conspire to deceive the world and find in their conspiracy a bond, but they did it, I think, with a sense of profound mutual dislike.  They presented a united front to the world, because their survival demanded that they should, because they could not afford to betray each other in public; but their dissension found other devious forms, secret forms, underhand attacks and reprisals, covered malice, discreet inverted insults, painful praise.

Margaret Drabble, the '70s

Margaret Drabble, the ’70s

Jane looks like Lucy, and does feel some guilt about her cousin.  And when there’s an accident…

The fascinating narrative is sometimes in the third person, other times first-person, with Jane trying in the first-person sections to explain how she has lied or exaggerated in the third person.

She even cites Jane Eyre, and muses how she could have rendered James impotent/crippled like Rochester had she felt like Charlotte Bronte (which she doesn’t).

This is possibly Drabble’s most difficult book:  it is beautifully written, but a humorless predecessor of The Needle’s Eye, one of her masterpieces.

By the way, I love Jane Austen, I read her books again and again, but I do understand Drabble’s Jane’s doubts.

For Jane fans, here is a link to Howard Jacobson’s fascinating speech on love and sex in Austen:  he gave it at the Telegraph Hay Festival last weekend.