Feminism & Jane Austen

Well, now that I’ve tried to recover from all the excitement of Virago Reading Week (I was staying up late and waking up early, eager to read what everyone had posted!) and have only spent the time with my thoughts about literature and feminism jumping about more and more in my head, it seems time to discuss a few more things.

There are still a few Virago reviews popping up, including this one by Rachel at Flowers & Stripes, about Pat Barker’s first novel Union Street, which she tried for ten years to get published and was constantly turned down because it was considered too bleak and depressing. It’s about working class women living in poverty and violence, from what I can gather. But haven’t men written about the working class before, why should this have been so unpublishable? Angela Carter was the one who encouraged Barker to submit it to Virago and so began her career, as a Booker winner! (Though she won the Booker for writing about men and male themes, namely soldiers and war. I’d like to read the Regeneration trilogy, I’m just saying.)

I was amused and awakened by this part of the review:

It’s the story of seven girls/women who live on Union Street. It is definitely not a comfort read. This is real poverty. Not the ‘we used to be rich but now we’re living in a tumbling pile, at least we have Granny’s fur stole to keep us warm’ type poor. This is ‘thank my lucky stars I hopefully will never live like this and what can I do to make sure other people don’t too’ type poverty.

As a matter of fact, I did read a bit of I Capture the Castle recently (comic yet heartfelt coming of age in tumbling pile), which I enjoyed more than I expected to and most of Diary of a Provincial Lady, which I didn’t really enjoy. Horrors, but it seemed that her life was actually unfulfilled, with a husband who doesn’t pay attention and endless envy of those better off, or else that it’s just British humour exaggerating things, in either case, the life described seemed small and I couldn’t see the meaning in it. Or maybe I was just in a bad mood and feeling restless?

To be fair, I’ve also got a library stack of more feminist books like Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir and Beloved by Toni Morrison and Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood and honestly… I’m not reading them either. I considered Elizabeth Bowen, since I own most of her books in beautiful editions and have only read two (but what fantastic two: The Death of the Heart and The Last September. I highly recommend her as another great early 20th century female author! Darlene of roses over a cottage door is also reading and loving To the North right now.) — I really want to read and promote more of her books, but none of them were quite right just now.

I tried to read some Proust again, since I keep longing to think more deeply and privately like that, but it began to seem too ornate and also too male, with his mother obsession. (I have read In Search of Lost Time before, I’m just not always in the mood for that much neurosis!) I tried to read Thoreau’s nature journals and fell asleep. They are beautifully written in places and I do enjoy good nature writing on occasion, but better for skimming than linear beginning to end reading, is all I can conclude. (I’ve tried to read them before and was even then, quite rightly distracted by Virago books!)

As for Virago books, I’m definitely wanting to read more, especially Rosamond Lehmann and so was happy to find this article by Jonathan Coe about her and other Virago authors and how he discovered them and is inspired by them in his own writing.

Thinking further about Dusty Answer, I realized it has many of the same basic elements as Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh — both extremely nostalgic stories about a lost upper class British way of life, with the outsider main characters completely enamoured of a rich and glamorous troubled family. Both main characters also go to one of the big British universities, Judith Cambridge, Charles Oxford. They also both form sudden and extremely intense relationships with one beautifully charming person, who takes a liking to them for no real reason. These relationships both hint at going beyond simple friendship, and indeed both of their charming friends are involved with other homosexual characters. What else, other love affairs don’t work out as well as hoped, although for different reasons. And let me add… Lehmann’s book was written in 1927. Waugh’s? 1945. Waugh’s novel has never been out of print, while Lehmann’s was and remains almost forgotten. Personally, I wasn’t quite a fan of Brideshead (more horrors?), the religious theme drove me nuts with its ending of ultimate conservatism, propping up the past, the sterile old British way of life. Dusty Answer has a more uncertain ending, but also one that gives freedom and opportunity to women. The future is open, not reigned in by platitudes and dead duties.

I’ve now picked up Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which seems to be what I want. I read it for the first time last year without ever knowing how to properly write about it, there was so much beauty but also so much sadness. As someone who’s been through an at times suicidal depression, I didn’t know what could be said that wouldn’t seem too personal. I’d like to explore it more here this year, there’s so much that is fresh and joyful and so lyrical about it. It seems I could read the first few pages over and over, for sheer pleasure. Woolf was very influenced by Proust, but there is nothing overly ponderous or self pitying about her work, there is such a celebration of life. And yet she shows the darkness too. I have a lovely Mrs. Dalloway Reader, edited by Francine Prose, which also includes the short stories that developed into the novel, as well as selections from her diary about writing it and essays by other critics about it, of her time and ours, I keep wandering into these parts and learning more about Mrs. Dalloway instead of reading it at times!

The real unedited Jane Austen. Deal with it.

I’m still thinking about how to see Jane Austen as a feminist, although I’ve been a bit hesitant to write about it, for fear of feathers and ruffling and all that. But the gist of my idea is — what if Jane Austen didn’t marry not because she never met a man who could be her Mr. Darcy but because… she wanted her freedom? To continue writing and thinking for herself. My romantic self would think it so sad she remained single and yet wrote these classic romances and yet, that image of her as a pining romantic didn’t gibe with the lively sharp witted and even at times spiteful author I sensed in the books themselves, who would never tolerate any such sentimental nonsense. The truth is, if a woman did marry in that time, they’d be worn out from having babies All The Time. They wouldn’t be able to write and they wouldn’t be having endless fancy love times either! Sex would likely be frightening because of the endless pregnancies. And Jane gave up in a large and poorer household, she knew what it would be like for her.

Being single and relying on her male relatives for support wasn’t easy either, but at least she had that metaphorical room of her own. The other idea I had is that maybe she did slip the reality of women’s lives into her novels, but it was hidden under the necessity (for a woman writer at least) of a happy conventional ending. Most men then and now, are more likely to be either like her bad men, and Wickham, Willoughby, Crawford, Mr. Collins etc do seem completely realistic in their self-centeredness or they’d be a more realistic version of her heroes. In reality, Darcy would continue to be an arrogant snob, Tilney a know-it-all tease, Knightley a scold, always wanting to fix Emma, just as she wants to fix others, Wentworth is resentful, Edmund Bertram blinded by infatuation. And both Colonel Brandon and Edward Ferrars are nice, but bland. (Honestly, read the book, Colonel Brandon is never sexy. I’ve tried and tried to read him that way and it just won’t work.)

I think the realistic sides of these men are shown in the first three quarters or so of the books before their completely abrupt turn arounds, with often very sudden and unlikely proposals all around at the end. (Tilney and Catherine, really? Fanny and Edmund, come on. Also anyone, have you ever heard of a real Mr. Darcy changing that much?? Well, have you, I’d like to know! Usually they are far too aware of their elevated positions to go after anyone less than perfect. In women’s novels the richer man tends to love the poorer woman. In men’s novels the hard to get girl suddenly falls for the nerd. It’s all a fantasy without any equality, and equality, a meeting of equals, is what’s needed in a balanced relationship. It’s just not as exciting…)

Dead inside Jane Austen who never actually existed.

If you read Austen’s juvenilia, she satirizes romance and romantic expectations in novels to no end. I can’t stand it that she’s seen as being the grandmother of chick lit when she’s so much more than that! Also that movie Becoming Jane? What kind of sentimental tosh is that, that her doe-eyed princess diary juvenilia was sloppy and horrid trash until a man came into her life?! This trivialization and infantilization of female authors is truly appalling (you can bet if there was a bio pic of Hemingway the facts wouldn’t be so badly distorted). Go read Searching for Jane Austen by Emily Auerbach (rare link to actual book included, because it really is that good), where she discusses how Austen’s image has been tampered with over the years, from the first memoir written about her by her nephew, to make her look more pretty and safe and sweet, just good old Aunt Jane. The actual painting of her by her sister Cassandra, which looks cross and fed up and but also perhaps privately amused, looking critically at the world behind her folded arms (the first picture above), has even over the years been changed into things like the second picture I’ve included, which wasn’t an actual painting of her, just a prettified tidying up of the first and only painting of her!!! Now she wears nicer clothes, she’s not critical or even laughing, she just looks bored.

Similar things have happened to the Brontes to downplay that they knew how revolutionary their writing was (fancy women writing about alcoholism and revenge and madness, how shocking), their misery and seclusion on the moors was played up to heighten belief in their docility and innocence. The book to read there is The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller and now I’m done. I know it’s fun to read and watch Jane Austen (and the Brontes) as escapism, but it’s also good to look more deeply sometimes too and I think there are plenty of hints in the novels that lead towards that idea, that the Regency era wasn’t one glamorous party time of romance and that women were, as usual, getting the short end of the stick. Just a thought.

Perhaps — just one further thought! — she does hold out some hope that men (and women) can change and that women can have more equal and satisfying marriages built on love and mutual respect. But to my mind the transitions between her selfish ‘heroes’ suddenly becoming good men ready to marry the poor but plucky heroines are far too quick and unlikely. Perhaps in time, when more women refuse to be blinded by social conventions and write more openly about reality and are less willing to jump through sexist hoops, just as Jane Austen tried to do, then these kind of equal relationships can happen.

Emma & new shelves

Thank you all so much for your many kind comments on my last post! I’ve told my husband about them and they brought a smile to his face too. He is on a lot of antibiotics to clear up his abscess and infection, instead of a surgery, which is always nice and he may even be home today. I’m just waiting to hear about that. They’re inserting some kind of more direct IV thing into him, so he’ll have to come to the hospital and continue to get infusions of antibiotics every day, but at least he’ll be able to be home again.

Yesterday I picked up some of Claire’s bookshelves as she is moving this week, with my practical sister along to help park the car in the snow (I would have got stuck) and to fit three bookshelves into the car! Here they are in my place now, although I’ll be moving them soon too. The small shelf holds most of my minimalist collection of the only books I’ve kept, the rest are already at the cottage at my parent’s place, waiting for me. You may notice I’ve mixed my favourite movies in with my books, just for something different. The second shelf holds some of my husband’s movies and books and I’ve got a few library books up top, including a very huge biography of Elizabeth Gaskell! I absolutely love these shelves, Claire, so peaceful and orderly and well worth all the pushing and tugging to make them fit in the car yesterday!

I’ve also gone back to reading Emma again (you can see my beautiful clothbound edition first on my shelf) and since watching the lovely new miniseries of it, am enjoying it all the more. Despite often thinking of Jeremy Northam as Jeremy Knightley, Jonny Lee Miller, who seemed very miscast as Mr. Knightley initially, has done a wonderful job with the role too and I now often find myself torn between them! Miller brings such warmth and understated humour to the role. He’s not tall, dark and brooding with stately grace like Northam, he’s “not a gallant man, but he is a very humane one”, as Emma herself says (at about page 208). “I know no man more likely than Mr. Knightley to do the sort of thing — to do anything really good-natured, useful, considerate, or benevolent.” Miller makes the character less romantic or intimidating and more like the best friend you’d always overlooked. He softens Mr. Knightley and makes him more sensible (I especially love his pleasure in walking) yet approachable. Mr. Knightley has always seemed too much of a scold before (see Mark Strong in the role, or better yet: don’t) and really, so much older than Emma, that he just wasn’t as attractive as an Austen hero as some, but with this gentler version of him in mind (and really, there’s nothing saying what he looks like or that he is even tall and intimidating! Mr. Darcy is described that way, but Mr. Knightley is far kinder from the very beginning) I’m liking him more and more.

As usual, I also get a kick out of John Knightley, his younger brother, and the way he complains over everything, especially over having to go out to parties on Christmas Eve! Emma has the best Christmas scenes of all the Austen novels, with Mr. Woodhouse’s fuss over an inch of snow when he’s away from home and his older daughter Isabella’s determination to walk home in the snow to get to her children despite her general overconcern over everyone’s health and of course, Mr. Elton’s botched proposal to Emma. It’s such a wonderful comic piece, I do hope you have time to revisit at least that little corner of Highbury on your holidays!

Here’s one of my favourite phrases in all of Austen (italicised), at the end of this quote:

He was too angry to say another word; her manner too decided to invite supplication; and in this state of swelling resentment, and mutually deep mortification, they had to continue together a few minutes longer, for the fears of Mr. Woodhouse had confined them to a foot pace. If there had not been so much anger, there would have been desperate awkwardness; but their straight-forward emotions left no room for the little zigzags of embarrassment.

Harry Potter & Henry Tilney

Hello all. I’ve been in a state of depression and panic lately (depressed panic or perhaps just panicked depression?) over our upcoming move to my parents’ place (they came down over the weekend with a truck and so all of our bookshelves but one and most of our books are at their place now, after much hard work on my part) and my husband’s ongoing health problems. So I’ve been avoiding blogging as one more stress while every day making up something new in my head to write about and finally decided I really might need to just talk to my friends for a bit! (that’s you)

I foolishly packed up all my books except for about 25, thinking there’s no way I can read that many in a month anyway, what do I need them for? All of their big unread faces just stress me out! Well as I am now discovering, books are for more than just reading! They are friends and now I don’t have my friend George Eliot in Middlemarch or my friend Miss Pettigrew in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day or the Mitfords or even Charlotte Bronte in Villette… I finally remembered I still have the library though, so that’s some consolation.

So without those books, I have been madly rereading (for the second time this year) the Harry Potter series. I’ve even read a short guide to the series, complete with author bio and examination of the themes in the books. And my husband and I went to see the movie in IMAX a second time… So I’ve become a bit obsessed with that lately, but I’m also wanting something more satisfying, like a 19th century novel written by a woman. I can’t handle anything too stressful right now though, so although I’ve signed up for some Trollope reading, I may not be finishing it on time. Reading that back to back with Dickens just feels like too many Victorian men all at once and very thick big chatterboxes of men too!

Finally, as my favourite Jane Austen hero is Mr. Tilney of Northanger Abbey, I quite enjoyed seeing this on AustenBlog:

Hello ladies. Look at your Mister Darcy. Now back to me. Now look at Captain Wentworth. Now back to me. Sadly, those gentlemen are not me. But if they knew enough about muslin to buy their own cravats and were more nice than wise, they could be like me.

Look down. Back up. Where are you? You’re in the Lower Rooms with the gentleman your gentleman could be like. I’m asking you to dance. Unlike some gentlemen who refuse to dance, I love to dance, and you are handsome enough to tempt me.

What’s in your hand? Back at me. I have it. I’m reading that novel you love. I’m reading it to my sister.

Anything is possible when your gentleman is Henry Tilney.

Thoreau, Emma, Effie and Virago Classics

I didn’t mean to go a whole week without posting, but with my husband back at work, I’ve been trying to get out of the apartment more myself, so this past week has seemed busier than usual for me. I also wound up with possible food poisoning yesterday, so spent most of the day napping in between sips of water and trips to the bathroom, ugh. I’ve written up many posts in my head though, I just haven’t known where to begin!

First, I’m sort of joining in NYRB Reading Week (hosted by The Literary Stew and Coffeespoons): I bought the NYRB edition of Thoreau’s Journals in Florida earlier this year, since I’ve been meaning to read Walden for a few years now, love the idea of snooping in other people’s diaries and love keeping them myself (hence obvious love of blogging) and also would like to enjoy more nature writing, poems especially, but any really that reminds me of the joy and beauty of being outside. But as such a long diary (it covers the years 1837-1861) with more random observations than strong narrative, I have trouble focusing on it or finishing it in one week. So the plan is to post one of his November journal entries for each day this week. We’ll see how it goes.

November 4, 1852. Autumnal dandelion and yarrow.

Must be out-of-doors enough to get experience of wholesome reality, as a ballast to thought and sentiment. Health requires this relaxation, this aimless life. This life in the present. Let a man have thought what he will of Nature in the house, she will still be novel outdoors. I keep out of doors for the sake of the mineral, vegetable, and animal in me.

My thought is a part of the meaning of the world, and hence I use a part of the world as a symbol to express my thought.

This past week I read about half of Emma, until Frank Churchill annoyed me too much to keep reading! (At least for now.) I can’t stand how he lies by omission and as nice as he is, doesn’t even visit his father until he has more selfish motives to do so. It was absolutely wonderful to read it in my new clothbound edition though, especially with the ribbon bookmark that I never had to worry about losing.

I was also distracted from it by this review at I Prefer Reading about Effie: A Victorian Scandal by Merryn Williams, the story of the woman who annulled her marriage with John Ruskin, one of the great Victorian art critics, on grounds of unconsummation.  Although my library doesn’t carry this book, it led me to start thinking about marriage in the Victorian era and to making lists of novels and history books that describe what it was like to be in an unhappy marriage you couldn’t escape, as divorce was very expensive, reputation ruining and for women, very difficult to obtain: while men only had to prove infidelity, women had to prove that plus bigamy, incest or extreme cruelty.

However, instead of any Victorian reading like I’d planned, I next jumped to The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins in a Virago edition, which I heard about this summer, but was drawn to now because of this autumnal opening paragraph:

The sunlight of late September filled the pale, formal streets between Portland Place and Manchester Square. The sky was a burning blue yet the still air was chill. A gold chestnut fan sailed down from some unseen tree and tinkled on the pavement. In the small antique-dealer’s a strong shaft of sunlight, cloudy with whirling gold-dust, penetrated the collection of red lacquer and tortoiseshell, ormolu and morocco. Imogen Gresham held a mug in her bare hands; it was a pure sky blue, decorated with a pattern of raised wheat ears, and of the kind known in country districts as a “harvester.” Her eye absorbed the colour and her fingers the moulding of the wheat. Her husband however saw that there was a chip at the base of the mug, from which cracks meandered up the inside like rivers on a map.

This beautiful writing evocatively describes the interior life of a weak willed woman who hero worships her older husband, even as he is drawn towards another woman: an older one… Despite reading over half of The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West and a chapter or two of Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann and Angel by Elizabeth Taylor, this is the first Virago that really felt like my kind of book. Now I’m wanting to know: has anyone thought of organizing a Virago Reading Week?? I need a little boost to read more of these early 20th century forgotten classics, as clearly Virginia Woolf was far from the only great female author in that time period.

And continuing my interest in early 20th century literature, along with the small publishers reprinting them, I bought my first Capuchin Classics book this week, Love in Winter by Storm Jameson.

I’ve also got Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill on inter-library loan, so lots of good reading possibilities!

Mr Darcy: clever, haughty, reserved, fastidious, offensive

Despite having far too many piles of unread library books hanging around my apartment (I work at a library information desk and when I get bored, I put books on hold. Far too many to be read in any reasonable amount of time), I am reading Pride & Prejudice. Again. For the second time this year.

I’m developing an interesting theory about Mr. Darcy, since I’ve also been reading Belinda by Maria Edgeworth and she was, as Nicola at Vintage Reads recently quoted, perhaps one of Jane Austen’s favourite writers…

I have made up my mind to like no Novels really, but Miss Edgeworth’s, Yours & my own. Jane Austen, letter to Anna Austen, Wednesday 28th September 1814

So, in Miss Edgeworth’s novel, Belinda is sent to London with a woman of fashion, Lady Delacour, by her matchmaking aunt Mrs. Stanhope (who’s already set six of her penniless nieces up with rich husbands) who’s determined Belinda will also marry well and gives her plenty of advice on how to do it. But once in London, Belinda soon finds out that all the rich men are not about to be tricked into marrying a poor wife by Belinda’s by now famous matchmaking aunt and pretending that she is someone else at a
masked ball, a certain gentleman gives her an embarrassing hint:

‘…you don’t imagine I go to Lady Delacour’s to look for a wife? Belinda Portman’s a good pretty girl, but what then? Do you think I’m an idiot — do you think I could be taken in by one of the Stanhope school? Do you think I don’t see… that Belinda Portman’s a composition of art and affectation?’

This got me thinking about Mr. Darcy’s rude comment about Elizabeth at the dance where they first meet: “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men” and also about the fact that unlike how it’s shown in the various movies, where Elizabeth is innocently just around the corner from where Darcy is privately talking to Bingley and accidentally happens to overhear them, in the book it says he turns around, stares at her until she looks at him and then makes the remark. Knowing she’s right there and that she can probably hear him and not caring if she does, perhaps wanting her to hear so that she’ll realize he’s too good for her.

So with all this (and maybe this isn’t a new idea, I don’t know), I think perhaps Darcy has been chased by fortune hunters quite a lot in London. If the behavour of Caroline Bingley is anything to go by, she’s probably far from the only girl to try and catch him and is also probably trying to make the most of her time alone with him in the country, with no other eligible girls around! He’s likely very used to being fawned over by beautiful and accomplished women for everything he does, even for doing nothing, and he’s probably deliberately picked up the habit of rudeness to those he considers socially beneath him as a way of saying you don’t stand a chance with me, so don’t even try. He is also an introvert and doesn’t enjoy interacting with people he doesn’t know, he’s not a flirt with every pretty girl. He doesn’t have Bingley’s thrill of meeting a new girl to easily fall in love with. (To his credit, Bingley seems to prefer falling in love on occasion rather than making a hobby of having women fall in love with him, as Wickham, Willoughby and Henry Crawford all do.) To Darcy’s credit, he does value his family highly and is perhaps looking for a wife to create a new family with since losing his parents and also probably to be a good role model and sister/mother for Georgiana, his sister, perhaps since her misbehaving incident.

Darcy also seems to have very high standards for the kind of wife he’s looking for and has become rather cynical as he sees that women, even if they are rich enough to be admitted into his social circle (like Caroline Bingley), are often vapid and heartless. This could be why he tells Caroline so quickly that he’s become even passingly interested in Elizabeth (“I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow”), it could be a hint that he doesn’t really see Caroline in that way? I’ve never understood why he tells her that, as I would have thought Darcy would be more private about what he felt.

Even as Darcy begins to be attracted to Elizabeth, he is highly critical of her:

Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness.

More than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form! How dare she offend his critical eye (highly trained in evaluating women like this) in such a manner! He’s also used to evaluating women based on what they can do: “I cannot boast of knowing more than half a dozen, in the whole range of my acquaintance, that are really accomplished.” He’s made a list, out of the whole range of women he knows, showing also that he seems to know a lot of women trying to show off to men like him with a whole range of skills.

Darcy has also spent enough time around women like this to become cynically well aware of how they think: “A lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.” It’s funny, but also shows he’s used to women assuming that because he danced with her once or twice, she has a chance with him, which is why he refuses to dance with women he doesn’t know at the first ball (he’s well aware that he gives consequence to whomever he chooses to dance with), especially poor country women who’ve been slighted by other men.

His cynicism comes out again when speaking to Caroline after she accuses Elizabeth of seeking to recommend herself to the other sex with ‘a very mean art’: “there is meanness in all the arts which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation. Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable.” He knows exactly what women do to get his attention, to try to captivate him. He probably enjoys the feeling of power it gives him (even if it annoys him sometimes to have all these women chasing after him), which he uses at that first ball, perhaps as a matter of course, to squish all hopes that he’s going to pay any attention to one of their poor girls.

Ok, this is long enough for now, I will continue my Darcy analysis in another post. It’s been quite fun to think about lately and makes him more human and understandable to me.

Literary heroines

I’ve got several ideas for posts that I’ve been thinking about, one being on reading Sense & Sensibility and The Cookbook Collector back to back (something I recommend as the latter is loosely inspired by the former) and another about all the Elizabeth Gaskell buzz that I’m starting to hear around the internet (and it’s music to my ears buzz!) I even read a bit of Gaskell criticism this evening, from one of the few books on her my public library carries. It was published in the 1980s, sigh. But more on those things later, hopefully.

Tonight I am sleepy and not up for serious literary focusing on serious classic things. So I’m presenting one of my fun side projects lately, writing up lists of my top tens of literary things.

So here’s the list of my top ten literary heroines.

1. Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Not only is Rosalind unafraid to romp around in boy’s clothes and act tough when it’s time to play runaway from the castle, the king my uncle hates me, she’s also funny and witty while sweetly in love, testing her lover through her disguise to see if he’s truly worthy of her. She teases him a lot, while also showing her true feelings privately. She’s strong, playful and passionate (and could be called the Elizabeth Bennet of Shakespeare). A lot of people say Much Ado About Nothing is their favourite Shakespeare romantic comedy with the feuding Beatrice and Benedick, but give me Rosalind (and Orlando, ok he’s slightly less memorable than her) any day.

2. Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. I come up as Catherine when I take the ‘which Jane Austen character are you’ quiz, although I’m a more grown up mature Catherine now who’s been married to Mr. Tilney for a few years, promise! Catherine is naive, but has a good heart and a very overactive imagination, which is fed by a love of reading long past bedtime.

3. Gwen in Helen Humphrey’s The Lost Garden. I’ve reread this book about five times (I’ve only read Pride & Prejudice more often) because I could relate so intensely to Gwen’s story in WW2, where she feels deeply lonely on an English country estate with the Women’s Land Army, supposed to be growing potatoes and digging for victory, but really just longing for love and a deep and meaningful connection with someone, even a friendship. She feels awkward with the people around her and secretly names the other girls she works with after potatoes (she’s a horticulturalist). She often thinks about Virginia Woolf (who’s death has just been announced in the papers) and when she gets drunk, becomes overly sentimental about Wordsworth and daffodils. My kind of girl.

4. Cecily in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. I adore the imaginative courtship she invents for herself and Ernest in her diary and how, when she finally meets him, she soon tells him all about. She seems a sweet young girl, but she’s got a gleam in her eye that’s all comic imagination.

5. Dorothea Brooke, in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Next to all these playful women, I also relate to Dorothea’s religious idealism, her desire to do something important and noble and good. I was that kind of girl too, like her I tried to sacrifice myself for my ideals, only to find a more balanced approach to life and love in the end, after a deep strain in trying to do everything I thought I ‘should’. Dorothea doesn’t have a lot of common sense at first (maybe that is a unifying theme in the characters I’ve chosen??), but she’s clever and she longs to know more, to make her mark. She transcends the typical marriage plot, towering over other 19th century heroines as her own person.

Okay, so I’m going to stop at my top five. I’m sleepy and require tea and toast. Also those paragraphs are already long and self revealing enough. And I can’t quite decide on the next five.

Mr. Thornton vs. Mr. Rochester

My wrists are still somewhat sore (and yes, my left wrist started hurting too after having to do all the work while the right wrist took a vacation… it’s been a rather sorry time and then my heel started hurting again, as I broke a small bone in it this spring… I’ve been hobbling to my job at the library, however, hoping to find something to do that didn’t involve too much walking or too much moving of books or too much typing or too much eye strain since my eyes also are sensitive…. at least my internal organs are still all in good working condition!) but I am spilling over with book news nonetheless.

First off, I have developed a belated crush on those Penguin hardcover clothbound classics everyone has been raving about for a while. I’ve especially been eyeing the copy of Sense & Sensibility since I’m rereading it right now and my copy is getting quite ratty and this one has a blue background with pink flowers. I usually never (ever) like hardcovers, but these ones feel right somehow. And they also have an edition of Cranford! Also, the copy of Sense & Sensibility has two really interesting essays (or introductions or whatever) in the front and back of the book and you can read them, in their entirety, on Amazon with that whole handy click-to-look-inside feature. The essay at the end of the book is all about secrecy and sickness in the novel and it makes me want to read more commentary (or criticism) on Jane Austen’s novels. I’ve mostly avoided that in the ten plus years I’ve been loving her books because I wanted to have my own experience with them. I’ve avoided her biography too and most of her unfinished work and letters but that could change. It’s nice to have something still new by or about a favourite author.

Also Claire of The Captive Reader is perhaps influencing me? I finally read Wives & Daughters this year after hearing how much she loved it and eventually went on to more Elizabeth Gaskell, all of which I’ve enjoyed (I just finished North & South on the first of October, more of that in a bit).

She also told me she’s never liked Jane Eyre. I loved that book in my early 20s, so was rather shocked that it could be disliked, but then, dear reader. I started rereading it myself this year. First I found Jane’s childhood too depressing and had to stop for some pick-me-up Victorian mill worker strikes and romance and a ridiculous number of sudden deaths in the north of England (ie, North & South). Then I found… oh gosh. I found I didn’t like Mr. Rochester anymore. I was so looking forward to reading Jane’s romance (especially after putting myself through Villette earlier this year), but soon became very put out by the way Rochester manipulates Jane. They say they have a ‘natural sympathy’ with each other, fine they’re becoming friends, etc and then he flirts with another woman (uh spoiler?) to get Jane to care for him more, he hopes so much that she won’t care what the consequences are. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Jane Austen steadily (and yes, as a kind of moral guide in life) while only giving the Brontes the occasional nod, but I’m really not into that kind of thing anymore. This article in The Millions gives a pretty good run-down on why yes, Mr. Rochester is a Creep. (Although the crossdressing part doesn’t really bug me. Just the ‘romantic’ manipulation.) So that’s why I’ve left Thornfield Hall and gone back yet again to Barton Cottage and those sensitive, sensible Miss Dashwoods.

In comparison to Mr. Rochester, Mr. Thornton of North & South, although both are considered byronic heroes, is a much more admirable chap. He’s honest about his feelings, rough as they often are. He shows vulnerability, compassion, he wants to learn more about great literature, he gets mad and jealous, he’s determined as a bulldog… I really like all the feelings he shows, even if they are ‘negative’ feelings, he openly acknowledges having them. It’s very refreshing. Mr. Darcy, another one of those byronic types, is a little flat in comparison. And while Mr. Rochester shrouds himself in mysterious self pity, he is definitely not honest. Mr. Thornton has risen from an even more potentially crippling past and he’s not complaining. I also like that Mr. Thornton acknowledges Margaret as his social better and looks up to her. Both Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre are much poorer than their romantic partners, they are the social inferiors, much as they claim the right to human equality. I have this theory that Elizabeth Gaskell’s heroes (and George Eliot’s come to that) may just be more well-rounded than Austen’s or Bronte’s (in my opinion obviously, I don’t want to start wars here) because she was married, she had a more realistic view of men. Just a thought.

I also loved the realistic portrayal of Margaret having to deal with stressful family situations in North & South. I could relate, as my husband is still home recovering from surgery while I’m off (as already mentioned) hobbling in to work. I found it comforting to find a fictional character going through something similar. So there’s a few thoughts on the satisfying goodness of North & South. It’s growing on me and I’m sure I’ll return to it often.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about is that I don’t really like writing reviews with plot descriptions and a catchy hook so you’ll read it with a few neat and descriptive adjectives thrown in and all that, especially if it’s a classic book. I just like sharing a few thoughts or quotes. What I’d really prefer even more than that though, is an essay style free-for-all, with no worries about spoilers. I’d rather discuss the interesting parts of the book, hopefully with others who’ve already read it, instead of trying to sell it to someone new. How do I make that work on a blog outside of the classroom though? (This is part of the reason I’m thinking of going back to university for more English classes in January!)

Jane Austen: super-excellent

Yes, Jane Austen is quite obviously super-excellent, which most book bloggers already know, but you might not have known that she actually uses that phrase in Pride and Prejudice…? I quote:

They shook hands with great cordiality; and then till her sister came down, she had to listen to all he had to say, of his own happiness, and of Jane’s perfections; and in spite of his being a lover, Elizabeth really believed all his expectations of felicity, to be rationally founded, because they had for basis the excellent understanding, and super-excellent disposition of Jane, and a general similarity of feeling and taste between her and himself.

Who knew?

I am slacking on the blogging front lately, perhaps it was telling myself I needed to write a very detailed review of Marie Therese: The Fate of Marie Antoinette’s Daughter by Susan Nagel that I’ve been talking about so much lately. Yes, I finished it and I have to say, it was the first biography I think I’ve ever read. Usually I find them boring with all the slow childhood details I don’t really care about but Marie Therese’s life was fascinating from the start, it gave a nice taste of life at the grand end of Versailles without overdoing it the way Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser did. And once the French Revolution started, I was glued to the edge of my seat. It trailed off a little towards the end, but Marie Therese in general had a fascinating life and lived it boldly, despite probably having post-traumatic stress disorder from her experiences living in prison and seeing death all around her during the French Revolution. It reminded me that as wonderful as fictional make-believe is, sometimes what really happened makes an even better story and I think this will inspire me to try more history books in the future as more than just handy references but actually entertaining and inspiring stories that go further than fiction. (In my university history classes, I always just used the index to find the parts of the books that were most useful for my essays and left the rest alone!) I’ve since bought both A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel which is set in the French Revolution, to take a ride around the block on her bandwagon and see if it’s to my taste (so far yes, but I’ve since gotten distracted) and Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose. I am becoming more interested in biography, but I also like that it’s not the massive attack that most books about the Victorians are.

And as far as Pride and Prejudice goes, I may sometimes think I’m bored of it and couldn’t possibly be bothered with it again (this is probably my seventh time reading it) but I still love the elegance and humour in Jane Austen’s writing that provides such clear insight into a wide variety of relationships, I know I’ll continue to reread it every few years. Now I’m debating rereading Jane Eyre, which I haven’t touched in years, or starting Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. I’ve begun tipping towards the Victorians again…

First Lines

I’ve decided to post the answers to my little identify the first lines of my favourite books quiz today and write a few reasons about why I like each book so much.

I’ll start with the ones that were identified first…

2. ______, 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.

This is Emma by Jane Austen (the blanked out words are of course ‘Emma Woodhouse’), as correctly guessed by Atla at Book to Book and Nicola at Vintage Reads.

I can’t seem to quite decide if I like Emma or Persuasion more, but that day it was Emma! Which is I think the cosiest of Austen’s novels and always gives me warm family feelings. As Atla recently wrote, the books you read three times or more do become a part of you and all of Jane Austen is definitely in that category for me.

4. There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, as guessed by Atla and Nicola again.

I don’t think I’ve read Jane Eyre in years and now I’m wondering if I’ve even read it three times, but it has impacted me and I’m so glad I read it at 20. The example of someone shy and yet so strong willed and determined to be her own person and value love over religion made it for a while more of a personal favourite even over Jane Austen!

5. _____ had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.

Middlemarch by George Eliot, as guessed by Helen at She Reads Novels, with the blanked out words being ‘Miss Brooke’.

I read Middlemarch in my last year of university, after thinking it must be terribly dull and musty (a bad experience with Silas Marner in junior high is the only excuse I can give!) Instead, I found so much to relate to. Dorothea Brooke is excessively idealistic and almost ruins her life trying to pursue a great and worthy cause. In the end, she finds happiness in a more simple life that is balanced with love and shows how living a good and regular life is as important as becoming famous for some great and noble deed. It also shows how a good or a bad influence in life, can turn a person in a direction they didn’t originally set out to go in, for good or bad. I’ve never managed to quite reread it all the way through (there’s so many other characters) but I highly highly recommend it, George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte (and Wilkie Collins!) are by far my preferred Victorian authors (over ahem, Charles Dickens…)

7. I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, as guessed by Nymeth at things mean a lot.

I only discovered this small nostalgic gem of a book a few years ago, but on rereading it this year, I’ve deemed it one of my comfort books and will likely be returning to it in the future. For starters, it’s much better and slightly more bittersweet than the movie. Also it is so short, a one sit read! I can relate to Holly’s ‘lopsided romantic’ mode of life, it’s somewhat how I lived parts of my 20s (with sadly less glamour) and something I still long to go back to somedays. It definitely speaks to the nostalgic romantic in me.

8. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, as guessed yet again by Atla.

I love the drama of this book. It’s not really my idea of the perfect romance (I prefer slightly less conflict on that front), but for characters caught in emotional conflict, it can’t be beat. I’m not such a fan of Tolstoy’s earnestly good alter ego Levin, but everything to do with Anna was such great reading. There are so many great scenes too, the ball, the train in the snow storm, the horse race…. I kept making furious notes throughout on each new development. The first time I read it I was driving down a highway, having just taken it out from the library and being too intrigued to stop reading! (Uh, I don’t usually do that, ever…) I loved the Constance Garnett translation and for years looked for it, being unable to enjoy any other version (Modern Library publishes it), but I’m sure others prefer more modern versions of it.

9. ‘The Signora had no business to do it,’ said Miss ____, ‘no business at all.’

This is A Room With a View by E.M. Forster, again as guessed by Nymeth. The blanked out name is Bartlett.

This book is pretty short and was again a comfort reread this year. I’m sure my enjoyment of it is coloured by the wonderful Merchant Ivory film of it, but that’s no bad thing since it introduced me to Forster and Howards End too. More than the scenes in Italy, I like the cosy Honeychurch home and family at Windy Corners and the happy innocent side of Edwardian life it portrays, while encouraging people to take risks on what really matters in life, true love over convention.

And now… I think I will wait one more day to reveal the unguessed other four opening lines! Here are a few hints though…

1. For a long time, I went to bed early.

This is a surprisingly quick start to what is one of the longest books in world literature (in fact maybe the longest book in French literature, period). It also has ridiculously long sentences, which sometimes meander daydreamily over memory, the past, nature, sexual jealousy and high society and are sometimes quite comic in their portrayal of a wide varying of characters. This author is not literally a neuroscientist, but he may change your life.

3. What can I say about love?

By a lesser known Canadian author, this book (with a title bearing close allusions to Frances Hodgon Burnett’s most famous children’s classic) is about a London girl going to work on a British country estate in WW2 to help the Women’s Land Army grow potatoes and dig for victory. It’s a very poetic portrayal of a woman who’s long lived without love and what happens when she thinks she’s found it, along with a garden that’s been hidden perhaps since the last war… Absolutely gorgeous and I wish more people read it!

Here’s a further quote, just because:

Can words go straight to the heart? Is this possible? Can words be as direct as the scent of roses?

I only discovered this book five years ago (it was released in 2002) and have reread it at least four times since and already the pages are starting to come loose at the bottom! Another short gem.

6. That morning’s ice, no more than a brittle film, had cracked and was now floating in segments.

(Oh dear, yet another of my long posts!) This book is by a lesser known Anglo-Irish early 20th century female author (and I have already reviewed one of her books and mentioned this book in the review), who was friends with Virginia Woolf. This book is about a naive girl going to live with her step-brother and the cracks that come when no one knows how to deal with her, or worse yet, are falsely charming to her.

10. Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

Lastly, a late 19th century classic by another author who is famously overfond of long and difficult sentences, although he is an American writing from Europe, about imaginary Americans being taken advantage of by those wily and so much more experienced Europeans… There are a lot of beautiful scenes in this book, from the opening with tea on the lawn of an English country house to a charming and worrisome Roman villa with roses in the garden. As well as writing dense and often impenetrable novels, this author has also written various novellas, including a famous ghost story, but this novel is one of his most accessible, being written in his ‘Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary stage’, as one reviewer put it.

That’s it! [Edited for one final hint: 3 of these books are shown in the photo header of my blog as well… ;)]

(ps: I’ve often found that if I write about what I’m currently reading I jinx it and lose interest. Does anyone else ever feel that way or am I just strange here?)

Friday Finds: The Book Bunny Edition!

Since we’ve been on holidays, my husband and I have been to a bookstore every. single. day. This is a booklover’s kind of wonderful. (And actually, it’s been escalating to twice and even three times a day!)

I have tried to moderate my purchases somewhat, as I’ve still got to fly home with all this stuff…

So here’s my first issue of Friday Finds, inspired by a thought on one of our rare trips to the beach instead of the bookstore: I would rather be a book bunny than a beach bunny.

So my first purchase on this trip was a new condensed one volume edition of  Thoreau’s Journal, published by NYRB Classics. I want to read Walden at some point and love reading other people’s journals, as well as nature writing.

Next I picked up The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon, partly because I’ve been hearing more about it online and also because I was thinking about investigating it before. The first few paragraphs about the beauties of each season are delightful! But reading further reminds me how much it is about a culture very different from my own (medieval Japan) and I feel a bit in over my head…

I also picked up a second copy of Emile Zola’s The Kill because I suddenly decided to join in on the Classics Circuit tour of Zola and didn’t have my copy with me… If anyone would be interested in acquiring this once I write my review of it on April 23, I would be happy to mail it to you!

A few days later, my husband and I came across a little used bookstore near a beach, with a lot of old paperbacks and a few interesting finds. Like a cheap non-movie tie-in edition of Cheri and The Last of Cheri by Colette! I’ve been interested in reading this French love story with a twist (about an older woman with a younger man) for a while.

I was also able to pick up What I saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell in hardcover for just under $5. It’s a noir-ish 1940s teen coming of age story set in Florida and just won the National Book Award. I thought it would be good Florida beach reading, since sometimes a book with a local setting works well on holidays, but I just kept reading Mrs. Dalloway once we got to the beach. I am excited to read this eventually though.

Finally, yesterday evening as I was browsing in the Jane Austen area at a Borders bookstore (I already own all of her novels, but you know, I just like to look at all the other editions!), I saw something that made me catch my breath, even though I knew it couldn’t quite be true: it looked like a new Jane Austen novel I hadn’t read or even heard of it! Entitled Catharine (And Other Writings), it is actually a new (? to me!) collection of Austen’s early stories. I had heard of them, but never paid them much attention. But: they are HILARIOUS. Perhaps that is not surprising, but still. I was laughing very loudly over them this morning, reading sentences out to my husband in between giggles. It also contains some of her letters, so I will be reading this with pleasure for a long time to come. It also inspires me to finally read her early unfinished novels The Watsons and Lady Susan and possibly a biography as well. So there is more Austen for me after all!

I also found With Violets (by Elizabeth Robards) the same evening, a novel about an imagined affair between Berthe Morisot and Edouard Manet and the ‘dawn of Impressionism’, as the book cover states. I was so excited to find this book, I love 1860s Paris (and have thought about writing a book set there actually), I’ve studied Manet and love his paintings, especially one of his paintings of Berthe Morisot in which she is all in black, holding a bouquet of violets. I began reading this as soon as I got home last night. The problem is… it’s full of editing problems, with past and present tenses constantly interchanged. Not only that, but I felt it was very light on the history and much too heavy on the romance (that art historians don’t think ever happened). Perhaps my expectations were high because I already know something about the time period (it’s also when Zola’s novels are set and if you want to learn more about Second Empire Paris, he was actually there and even had his portrait painted by Manet and writes about the time period beautifully), but it took historical figures I admire and gave them completely infantile thoughts and dialogue. I don’t know if I can finish it, but it has left me with a itch to learn more about Berthe Morisot!

I have more than one full week left in Florida, let’s see how many more books I end up with…! 🙂