Posts Tagged ‘Sense and Sensibility’

On the genius of Jane Austen

May 31, 2017

A documentary on TV the other night, about the places where she had lived, reminded me that this year is the 200th anniversary of the untimely death of possibly the greatest English novelist. And the year seems to be passing quite quietly so far: there have been a couple of new books – one of which I reviewed here – not terribly exciting, because there’s a limited amount of information about Jane Austen available and no sign of any undiscovered material, so academics are reduced to what they often do, which is to recycle what has been said already, for a new generation, in a rather more demotic and sensational language this time around…

I knew Austen’s name but had disdainfully avoided reading any of the novels in a teenager-ish sort of way, until I got to university and was faced with Mansfield Park in my first term: dutifully I read and really liked the novel, which is often described as both dull and difficult compared with the others, as well as having the priggish and unlikeable Fanny Price as its heroine. Lectures and seminars opened my eyes to the wit, the language and the social issues Austen addresses; I’ve never looked back. Since then, I regularly re-read the novels every few years, enjoying their familiarity as well as noticing new details. And, as my other half is at least as enthusiastic about Jane Austen as I am, often detailed discussions and conversations ensue. We’ve enjoyed watching many film and TV adaptations of the novels, traced Austen’s path through Bath, and visited her home at Chawton and her tomb in Winchester Cathedral. I’ve enjoyed teaching all the novels save Northanger Abbey (which I avoided), particularly relishing the occasion when we had to compare Mansfield Park with Pride and Prejudice; I still haven’t fully decided whether Mansfield Park or Persuasion is my favourite: the former I find intellectually engaging, but the latter is truly about mature love and the sense of Ann and Wentworth re-finding each other and finally being united is still very powerful and moving at the nth re-reading.

So, what is so good about Jane Austen? What attracts me to her world? It was a very narrow world in terms of physical scope and also future prospects, but she was clearly a highly intelligent and well-educated woman, with a keen eye, a sharp wit and a great sense of humour. She writes about what she knows about, which is both a limitation and an advantage; there is a narrowness to the settings, and her choice of characters; she never presumes to present a conversation between men where no women are present; servants are backgrounded, as is the aristocracy; because she knows the rest, she observes minutely and nothing escapes the sharpness of her eye or her comment. And, quite early on in the development of the novel, she brings in the marvellous indirect authorial comment: we are following the heroine’s thoughts, ideas, comments… or are we? who is actually thinking or speaking there… is it the author herself? because we can’t be sure… and we’ve noticed we can’t be sure. It’s very clever, and very effective.

Austen manages to engage with real political issues: slavery lurks in the background in Mansfield Park (pace Edward Said) war overshadows Persuasion – the Napoleonic Wars are part of the entire second half of Austen’s life, as her family history shows. Social change is afoot in England, with agricultural changes and enclosures, again alluded to in Mansfield Park. Austen seems to me to be at the same time conservative (with that important small ‘c’) as Fanny wistfully notes how the countryside is changing – of course, Fanny does not speak for Austen, but… – and also quite radical, particularly in the other novels, where she is quite forthright about the limitations placed on women’s lives by the need for financial security, and in her endorsement of love as crucial for successful relationships, an idea which we take for granted nowadays…

I feel a need coming on to re-read Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. As readers may gather more generally from my blog, I don’t generally feel that England has very much to be proud of at the moment, but I do think we do literature very well…

Advertisements

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Confessions

January 25, 2017

41mz5m030gl-_sx325_bo1204203200_This book has been sitting on my shelves for over twenty years; its moment finally came. I read Rousseau’s On The Social Contract while I was at university and found it very interesting, and I am often reminded of the eighteenth century French literature course I did, and which I enjoyed so much, because it covered the enlightenment and its philosophers who were beginning to cut away from the religious domination of thought and ideas for so many centuries. This course came along at the very same time as I was attempting to free myself from a religious upbringing…

It’s a new genre of writing: apart from St Augustine’s Confessions, no-one else had told the story of their life and development – autobiography, if you like – in such a way; Montaigne includes a good deal of biographical material in his essays, but not in a structured, CV kind of way. Rousseau has an astonishingly detailed memory and pretty good recall of names and events from his past; he demonstrates great sensitivity towards his own and others’ feelings, and a frankness in writing about his rather curious sexual adventures that I hadn’t expected from that era (and then I remembered Diderot’s Memoirs of a Nun!). He recounts his own sins, and shameful acts, with great honesty, even seeming to expect us to admire him for this openness.

I hadn’t expected such a renowned philosopher to come across as such a disorganised wastrel, his early adult life filled with all sorts of half-hearted attempts to make a living and a name for himself; neither had I realised how much one could be dependent on the patronage and protection of wealthy aristocrats, or how easily one could get caught up in the infighting between them and end up being used as a pawn…

I found various aspects of his life shocking: his sexual relations with a woman he called ‘maman’, his handing over of five children fathered on the woman he eventually came to marry, to a foundling hospital without so much as a backward look because they would have been inconvenient…

He seems to have led a pretty chaotic existence all-in all, and his accounts of all the infighting and squabbles that were part of cultural and literary life did become rather tiresome in the end. But he did seem, as he aged, genuinely to espouse the idea of the simpler life, away from the centre of glittering French high society, although his idea of simple didn’t really match mine, rather like Mrs Dashwood’s ‘cottage’ in Sense and Sensibility.

It was a mildly interesting read but not one I’d really recommend unless you’re very keen on enlightenment philosophers. In the end, it’s writing of a kind rather too far removed from what we are accustomed to nowadays.

Note to readers who may be interested: you can keep up with what I’m in the process of reading by seeking me out on Instagram, and you can follow me on Twitter too, if that makes your life any easier..

Jane Austen: Mansfield Park

August 1, 2014

51iDr+F7s-L._AA160_So, what’s with all the cradle-snatching in Jane Austen’s novels? Prompted by an interesting article in the Daily Telegraph about the 200th anniversary of the novel’s publication, I had one of my periodic re-reads of what is still my favourite Jane Austen novel.

The scope of Mansfield Park is far wider than that of her other novels: she writes about the failings of a whole social class, the landed gentry, when faced with the fashionable, less moral city folk: they are too smug and self-satisfied and do not understand the threat from new ways and looser morality. The conflict is viewed through the interactions of the two families, the Bertrams and the Crawfords, and whilst it seems that the Bertrams survive, the family is much weakened and chastened and only with a serious transfusion of new blood from outside the immediate family does it regain some equilibrium.

Austen does not oversimplify the issues: the subtle drawing of her characters allows her to explore the minutiae. Thus the Crawfords are influencd, and somewhat changed by their contact with conservative, country values: maybe Henry has a clearer understanding of love, and his sister, too, and there is some  (small) sympathy at the end, whereas there is none for the fallen Maria Rushworth. Fanny Price is the prig many critics have felt her to be, but not pushed too far; in the end I always find myself liking her, in spite of her flaws.

The structure of the novel is masterly, centred around three key episodes, one in each of the three parts: the Sotherton visit, the ball and Portsmouth. Jane Austen sees that society is moving on; she does not seem to like where is is going – conservative with that small ‘c’ – the influence of the pernicious, modern, urbanites is to be resisted if what is worth saving of the old world is to survive.

And the cradle-snatching? Well, it came to me, as Austen drifted superbly into the resolution in her final chapter, where Fanny gets her Edmund at last, that he has been her friend and confidant since she was ten years old; in Emma, Mr Knightley actually cuddled Emma as a baby, and in Sense and Sensibility the consolation prize for the reformed Marianne is the ageing Colonel Brandon… I’m still thinking about the implications of all that, and reviewing the pairings in the other novels.

%d bloggers like this: