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.

 

 

Best Female Sci Fi Authors

top ten female sci fi.jpg

Last week I reposted (on Facebook) this interesting article about female Sci Fi authors (http://www.whizzpast.com/historys-10-greatest-sci-fi-novels-written-women/), and it roused a lot of interest, so today I’m going a step further: here are my top-ten female Sci Fi authors, and my top picks from their books.

Ursula Le Guin – anything from the Hainish universe, my favourites are The Telling and The Left Hand of Darkness. The latter is Sci Fi second, and brilliantly observed political commentary first. Great writing by a very clever woman. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Telling-GOLLANCZ-S-F-Ursula-LeGuin-ebook/dp/B0049MPKGE/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601355&sr=8-2&keywords=the+telling

C J Cherryh. She has a monumental oeuvre, many of which I’ve read, but my favourites are the Faded Sun books, about the last remnants of the enigmatic mri, warriors born and bred, and the man who finds himself forced, by isolation, to become part of their inward-looking tradition-bound culture. It’s an intimate story of three exiles thrown together, that takes places against a backdrop as big as the universe, and it’s awesome – and offers a perceptive take on Stockholm Syndrome. Foreigner is damn good as well, and I love the Exile’s Gate series, with Morgaine and her Gate Destroying sword. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Faded-Sun-Trilogy-C-J-Cherryh/dp/0886778697/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601386&sr=8-1&keywords=the+faded+sun

Vonda McIntyre. Famous for writing quite a bit of the original Star Trek (and for giving Hikaru Sulu his first name). Her best novels are Superluminal (about the kind of mind that is needed to encompass FTL/cross-dimensional travel) and Dreamsnake (about a healer and snake handler in a ruined earth, post apocalyptic events and alien visitations. The ecology of the dreamsnakes and the disconnect between primitive living conditions and surviving technology are both very interesting). http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dreamsnake-Vonda-McIntyre/dp/0857054260/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601491&sr=8-1&keywords=dreamsnake

Mary Gentle – the linked pair of novels Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light. Not only are they great world-building, with their own convincing ecology, but the sequel ends with a bang, and a sense of utter hopelessness. Very brave to avoid the happy ending in favour of the right one. When I retire, I want to live in Tathcaer, crown of the Southland. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Golden-Witchbreed-Mary-Gentle-ebook/dp/B00D8CY6PM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601536&sr=8-1&keywords=golden+witchbreed

Sheri S Tepper: Grass and its sequels. Grass is a brilliant book; the ecology of the planet Grass is dazzlingly realised, and genuinely scary. She always has an amazing range of characters; even the horrible ones’ behaviour is understandable (though perhaps not forgiveable). http://www.amazon.co.uk/Grass-S-F-MASTERWORKS-Sheri-Tepper/dp/1857987985/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601611&sr=8-1&keywords=grass+tepper

Robin Hobb: The Liveship Traders trilogy. You might define her novels as Fantasy, and the line is definitely blurred here, but I think there’s a strong scientific basis to the liveships and the Rain Wild River, even if it arises out of fantastic origins. She also wrote (as Megan Lindholm) the wonderful Windsingers series. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Mad-Ship-Liveship-Traders-Book/dp/0008117462/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601626&sr=8-1&keywords=the+liveship+traders

Zenna Henderson: her The People series. Lovely, gentle, elegiac portrayal of aliens on earth and the possibility of telepathic powers. They work because she’s a fine observer of people, alien or otherwise. http://www.amazon.co.uk/People-Collection-Zenna-Henderson/dp/055213659X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601657&sr=8-1&keywords=zenna+henderson+the+people

Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern. The books have dated badly, especially the early ones – I tried to persuade my sons to read them and they couldn’t get past the writing style. But Pern is a completely believable ecology, and I still love the dragons. Dragon Quest is my favourite. I love many of her non-dragon stories too: Restoree, the Killashandra books, The Ship that Sang. The woman has so much talent it’s just unfair. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dragonquest-Dragon-Books-Anne-McCaffrey/dp/0552116351/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601761&sr=8-1&keywords=dragon+quest+mccaffrey

Andre Norton’s Witchworld – I didn’t come to it until adulthood, and I’ve never fully embraced it, but she has a knack for taking you into places in your mind that are just a little bit uncomfortable and thus completely memorable. As a teenager I adored Moon of Three Rings and Exiles of the Stars which feature, amongst other things, mind transference, sorcery and galactic smuggling rings. Cracking! http://www.amazon.co.uk/Moon-Three-Rings-Andre-Norton/dp/B000UH4UNG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601741&sr=8-1&keywords=moon+of+three+rings

Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence. Another one that blends fantasy and myth with hard and soft science. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dark-Rising-Modern-Classic/dp/1849412707/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459601762&sr=8-1&keywords=the+dark+is+rising

Special Mention: my Facebook post produced several other good suggestions, the most notable of which was a heart-felt plea on behalf of the writer who is top of my Mythical World Building list – Patricia McKillip. Like my correspondent, I view McKillip’s Riddlemaster trilogy to be amongst the best of its kind ever written. It will always be on my shelves, and Morgon of Hed, Raederle and the inimitable Tristan have a special place in my heart. However, I view it as true fantasy, not Sci Fi (whereas some of the undeniably fantasy-based stories above have a firm Sci Fi foundation). So – not in this top ten, but definitely worth reading. Plus – riddles! Who doesn’t like to read a riddle book? http://www.amazon.co.uk/Riddle-Master-Hed-Patricia-McKillip-ebook/dp/B0124179II/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459602015&sr=8-1&keywords=the+riddlemaster

I hope you enjoy my selection. Join my on facebook if you want to offer your own alternatives. https://www.facebook.com/TheCalgaryChessman/