Why read Jane Austen?

{2017 celebrates the life of Jane Austen, and her death 200 years ago, on 18th July 1817}

I suppose most of us were made to read one or another of Jane Austen’s small output of novels while we were at school, and many didn’t enjoy the experience. Something about the combination of old-fashioned language and compulsory reading can be off-putting. Still, haven’t we all watched the TV or film adaptations, and enjoyed her portrayals of the high life in Eighteenth Century England? But it’s all a far cry from the modern world, where’s there’s surely no place for essays in etiquette, or comedies of manners.

Au contraire. For in Jane Austen, we have someone who may have danced at balls, guested at fine mansions, and observed the behaviours of high society, but she didn’t belong to the upper echelons. Jane was a vicarage child; her parents were would-be gentry without the means to achieve gentility. Due in part to her brother’s Edward’s adoption by genuinely wealthy people, Jane frequently visited and stayed in the smart and expensive households of the era, but she never belonged there. She was always the observer. And as she was clever, and witty, and enjoyed writing about her experiences, we are graced today with some of the best observations on human behaviour ever recorded.

You don’t have to plough through Pride and Prejudice, or suffer Sense and Sensibility, to see the truth of this. If you hated the novels – or simply didn’t get on with them – you can get a quick and clear sense of Jane’s wit from reading her letters. Here she is replying to her niece, Fanny Knight, who has forced her boyfriend to read one of Jane’s books, only to discover that he didn’t enjoy it:

Do not oblige him to read any more. Have mercy on him, tell him the truth, and make him an apology. He and I should not in the least agree, of course, in our ideas of novels and heroines. Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked: but there is some very good sense in what he says, and I particularly respect him for wishing to think well of all young ladies; it shows an amiable and a delicate mind. And he deserves better treatment than to be obliged to read any more of my works.

A pithy sentence deals with the poet Byron – she gives the clear impression she doesn’t think much of him.

I have read [Byron’s] The Corsair, mended my petticoat, and have nothing else to do.

On the other hand, if you read between the lines of her apparent complaint about Sir Walter Scott, it’s clear that she likes his writing very much. This is the writing style seen in the novels, where keen observation of humanity’s follies is delivered in a droll and humorous style, with the wit carefully concealed in words that can be read two ways. Does she ever write straight? Or is her view always slightly slant?

Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. — It is not fair. — He has fame and profit enough as a poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths. — I do not like him, and do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it — but fear I must.

She can be just as tart in making non-literary references. To her sister Cassandra (with whom she kept up a long and extensive correspondence):

I give you joy of our new nephew, and hope if he ever comes to be hanged it will not be till we are too old to care about it.

And in another:

Next week [I] shall begin my operations on my hat, on which you know my principal hopes of happiness depend.

This is both amusing and poignant. As Jane’s income was limited, and she wished to continue to move in the wealthier circles frequented by members of her extended family, such a comment is both a joke (we know perfectly well she is too intelligent to take more than a superficial happiness in material goods) and heartfelt – the hat represents her need to present herself well, despite her circumstances, and it therefore stands for her material condition, which well might affect her ability to feel happy.

One of her most famous quotes – now enshrined on the new English £10 note – simply says:

I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! 

(It continues, How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.)

On the surface, and particularly if you haven’t read the book, this is a straightforward comment. Of course Jane Austen feels this way about reading. How lovely. However, she puts these words into the mouth of Caroline Bingley, a woman who most definitely does not enjoy reading, but pretends she does in order to impress her wannabe beau, Mr Darcy. Wicked Jane. We know she believes this – but in the novel it actually means the opposite of what it says. Do you feel manipulated? So you should – that is her intent – and the disjunct between the superficial meaning of the words and the intent of the character who speaks them is deliberate. It has caused much discussion online, as Janeites and literary scholars weight out in favour of, or against, the quote on the bank note.

How nice to see Jane getting lots of free press in this, the bicentenary of her death!

Sources:

Quotes came from the wonderful Pemberly.com, a tremendous resort for Janeites of all stripes.

Some of the information came from Lucy Worsley’s Jane Austen at Home – a well-written and very entertaining biography which gives us Jane for our age. Previous biographies have been quite different, and this new take is well worth reading.

 

 

Bee and Let Bee: Carol Anne Hunter

A nice little ramble about bees… I like bees… much more interesting than having me bumble on.

The Romaniacs

We are delighted to welcome Carol Anne Hunter, author of Project Me, to Romaniac HQ. Get your cake and coffee, put your feet up, and enjoy this beautiful story.

Let’s bee having you, Carol Anne …

Carol Hunter Author Pic

My novel, Project Me, a comedy about starting again at fifty, was published last year. I’ve received the usual feedback from friends and family but one two-para piece of romantic rambling about bees is regularly cited as a stand-out point. The thing is, I stole these two paragraphs from a random short story I wrote a couple of years ago, changed the wording a little and used them as a device to give my character hope when she was near breaking point. The ploy worked a treat. So in the hope of warming away your winter blues and giving you something to look forward to, here is the latest version of the whole story…

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Review of Parallax by Sinead Morrissey

the StAnza Blog

sinead-morrissey-parallaxAs part of our project to make available reviews of poets taking part at StAnza 2015, we are obliged to DURA – the Dundee University Review of the Arts – for allowing us to re-post this review from their website. Written by staff and students, DURA supports independent cinema & publishing. DURA promotes diversity and supports local and regional arts. See more reviews of poetry and prose on their website at http://dura-dundee.org.

Parallax (Winner of the 2014 TS Eliot Poetry Prize)

Sinéad Morrissey
(Carcanet, 2013); pbk, £9.95

Parallax is an astronomical term for the apparent displacement of an object caused by a change in the point of observation. In this wide-ranging collection of the same name, short-listed for the 2013 Forward Prize, Morrissey considers from different angles how our position affects what and how we see.

In several poems, Morrissey’s lens is taken from the visual arts. She writes about…

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Ursula Le Guin

On Nov. 19 2014, at the annual National Book Awards gala, Neil Gaiman presented the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Ursula K. Le Guin.

Lots of media commentators have been talking about this, and I don’t want to repeat what others are saying, but because Ursula K Le Guin is my favourite author of all time, because she is at the top of my bucket list of people whose feet I’d like to kiss before I die, I’m going to talk about why I love her so much. I’m going to tell you about my three favourite U K Le Guin novels.

Now, in doing this I’m going to leave out the entire Earthsea oeuvre. This is because I began to read these books in childhood, and although I adore them, and Tenar’s story in The Tombs of Atuan is my favourite Earthsea book, I can’t really count it in the big list, because I’m completely unable to be objective about them. If you have children aged around the 11-12 mark or a little older and they are interested in fantasy, you can’t give them a better world view than that of Sparrowhawk and his milieu. If you want them to know about balance, and taking responsibility for the world they live in, and give them the magic of everyday things as well as the true magic of wizards – these are the books you need.

Number 3 in my list is Always Coming Home. I purchased this brand new on release with no idea what it was actually about. I became so enamoured of it that I bought it for a number of my friends, and donated a copy to a local library, just so I could spread the word. It’s not quite like anything else I can think of. Le Guin herself called it ‘An archaeology of the future,’ and that’s as good a description as any. The world of Always Coming Home is no utopia, although it has been described as such. It’s set in a future time in which the environmental wealth of the planet has been almost exhausted, and people make compromises with their surroundings that we civilized moderns would never accept. There’s a thread of story running through, the way a thin trickle of a river will run through a dry valley, meandering through the dust. And surrounding it are a wealth of stories, poems, songs, glimpses, analyses – all the bits and pieces of a literate society, gathered together, for us, the archaeologists, to pore over and ponder. I read it again and again, and always get something new from it.

Number 2 in my all-time list is The Left Hand of Darkness, I came to this book late. In my teens I could never finish it – it was just too hard, too dry. I was interested in the gender identities of the Gethenians, or rather the non-gender identities – in adolescence I was beginning to see that human life is defined by issues of gender and sexuality, even in arenas where one would expect it to be irrelevant, and so the gendering issue in The Left Hand of Darkness made me think. But I couldn’t handle the politics. I came back to it in my late 30s, with a bit more life behind me, and loved it. It is a book about politics, and it’s a book that makes its reader work hard. One of my top 10 books of all time. Well worth reading.

Number 1: The Telling. This is a deceptively simple book. Set in the Hainish universe, it is one of a number of Le Guin’s novels that treat with the topic of the alien visitor – oh-so-human Sutty finds herself on a planet where everything seems very human and familiar, but things are not as they appear. The society that she discovers is fragile and wounded, and its scars mirror Sutty’s own emotional pain. Above all, this is a novel about writing and history, and about the stories we tell that make us who we are, and it reminds us that if we forget to tell the stories of our own culture, it will diminish and narrow and fail. There’s something about The Telling that speaks to me on a very personal level, but it’s also a great story told well, and if its climax doesn’t move you to tears then there is no hope for you. Let the cold airs of Mount Silong blow through you and tell your story on the wind.

Ice Cream Star

I’m an inveterate reader. I always have several books on the go, both fiction and non-fiction, and if I run out of new things I’m happy to read old favourites over and over again. Every now and again, though, a book comes along that makes me think: why did I not realise until this moment that my life was incomplete? Some books ambush you in the first few words, and then take up a space in your heart that was waiting for them, it was only that you didn’t realise their place was already prepared.

Such a book is “The Country of Ice Cream Star” by Sandra Newman.

Please let me say: I don’t know the author, I have nothing to do with the publisher, I haven’t been asked to do this review. Ice Cream Star is just by light years the best thing I have read this year. Here’s the review I wrote for it on Amazon:

“It’s not often I wish Amazon allowed the award of six stars. This is one of those books. I’d award it maximum points for its use of language alone: Ice Cream Star speaks to us in a patois of childspeak, mutated grammar and sophisticated reasoning that is compelling to read. She has a unique voice.

The story itself is a beautifully written realisation of a harsh, unforgiving world. It is full of hardship and misery, and the kinds of half-baked systems that you would expect to be invented by children left in charge of their own future. The plot is horrifyingly plausible: a brilliantly realised dystopian vision, with Ice Cream Star front and centre, a reluctant heroine we cannot help but love.

I can only wish to write with such facility. I confidently predict that this book is going to soar.”

If you haven’t read a sample of this book yet, please do. It’s consummate prose, not a word out of place. I stayed up until 1 a.m. because I couldn’t put it down until I’d finished. Now I’m going to read it again, and see what I can learn from it. Take a look. You won’t regret it.