Sunday, January 31, 2010

Thoughts on Jane Austen II

I was first introduced to Jane Austen by my mother. The summer after my freshman year in college I tried reading Pride & Prejudice, but I didn’t get very far at all. I had trouble keeping all the characters straight, and didn’t understand all the “&tc.”s in my book. I gave up probably only 20 pages in. That school year in my British Lit class, Persuasion was assigned. My professor really intrigued me in his description of this book. In all Austen novels, there is a second woman vying for the attention of the gentleman in question. Normally, maneuvering around that situation takes up a lot of the plot. But in Persuasion, you can tell that Ms. Austen was ill (this was her last novel completed before her death) and that she was sick and tired. Because she just flung the romantic rival off a small cliff. This description of the novel startled me (I hadn’t read it just yet). It reminded me of that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where in a marketplace there is a man brandishing a sword to fight Indiana Jones. Indiana just takes out his gun and shoots him. Similarly to the Austen story, Harrison Ford was sick which is why the script was changed to the more straightforward, funny, and realistic conclusion.

The following year I took a Jane Austen seminar, which was fantastic. My final paper was on a topic that should have occurred to me based on my own first attempt at reading P&P, but which was suggested by a comment made by the sole male in the class: why are there so many Bennet sisters? They’re hard to keep track of initially. In retrospect, writing a 15 page paper on the structure of a novel as opposed to symbolism, theme or allusion should have been a sign to be about my future as a book editor. But I remained oblivious for several years. My conclusion was that in order to keep the readers on the side of Elizabeth, she had to be portrayed as outnumbered. Since Elizabeth also needed a confidant (Jane), that meant there needed to be 3 silly sisters. The parents also cancel each other out, with Mr. Bennet being on the side of Elizabeth and Jane, and Mrs. Bennet on the side of Mary, Kitty, and Lydia. Regardless of your feelings about how sensible/silly Mr. Bennet really was, Elizabeth felt an affinity to and felt understood by her father in a way that was important to her.

Pride & Prejudice really is a masterpiece. Emma is a close second. Persuasion will always be my favorite, probably because it was the first I read and I was set up to have much sympathy for Ms. Austen immediately prior to my reading of it. I have a soft spot for Northanger Abbey which I think is often misunderstood by readers who don’t understand it is a farce of the popular gothic novels of the day and instead take it completely seriously at face value. Sense & Sensibility is sweet but always struck me as a tad bit silly. Mansfield Park I found preachy and overly long, but still masterfully written.

Jane Austen may have led a fairly reserved, quiet, and unremarkable life, but she is one of the most beloved, influential, and long-lasting authors in the English language. It’s true that popularity wanes and waxes, and she might not always be as popular as she is now, but she has stood the test of time for 200 years now, and likely will be here in another 200 years.
I am not watching the latest BBC/PBS version of "Emma" just yet. I have them recording on my TiVo and I will watch all 3 installments at once in a mini marathon, so stay tuned.


Marie Cloutier said...

Persuasion is my favorite, too. :-) I love Emma but I've never been able to finish P&P. Oh well! I took an Austen course in college and P&P was the only one I didn't finish. I think I'm in the minority there! :-)

Carin said...

Hi other Carin! I just wanted to let you know that I've awarded you the "One Lovely Blog" Award because I really enjoy reading your blog. I'm so glad I discovered your blog! I enjoy all the insights you have on different books and the fun entries on other things than books. Here's the link to my post about the blog award: