Emma by Jane Austen

emmaEng

I know (or at least vaguely remember) I always mention this when I write about Jane Austen, but I will mention it again that my favorite Austen novel is always the one I’m re-reading. So I enjoyed this again, a lot, and right now this is my favorite, even if my latest re-reading wasn’t the result of my usual spring-summer desire for English romanticism (which is, by the way, not really romantic at all – and I probably like it exactly because it’s not romantic) but mostly the result of the fact that Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own wrote about Austen in a most flattering way.

Looking at Austen from Woolf’s perspective, I realized that she really didn’t try or want to please anyone, which is great. Her style, her irony, her cool-headed sensitivity, the way she describes her characters through their style and mannerisms, and the way she criticizes are all very much her, filtered through her own experiences, way of thinking and imagination – and the amount of criticism or compassion she has towards people doesn’t depend on whether Austen is a man or a woman, or whether the character she describes is male or female.

I read somewhere once how Austen never wrote scenes where only men were present, after all, she couldn’t have known how men behave, what they talk about when they are in an all-male company. I must have been a bit surprised when I first read this but now I tend to consider it another sign of Austen’s genius, and I think about how fantastically smart she must have been, and how great it is that she never presumed to be a know-it-all, and didn’t attempt to write about things she hadn’t seen with her own eyes. And I think, too, that she could draw extremely precise conclusions from the things she had seen.

Of course: this is a true Austen novel, where the main goal is marriage, and where everyone lives happily ever after when the goal is reached. But I see her idea of conjugal happiness less and less romantic and fairy-tale-like, even if all her novels end with saying something like how the couple then went ahead to spend their lives in the most perfect harmony imaginable. Yes, the text might end like this, but the implication that this is not a static state is very much there.

Here and now I was especially struck by how much she emphasizes the importance of happy couples complementing each other, and how much her idea of happiness in marriage is based on the assumption or foundation that man and woman will have a good influence on each other.

Perhaps Austen was an archetypal romantic after all. But no matter in what I light I see her, I always feel that what and how she writes – is real, ever since I first read her work in my teens.

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Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

northangerIt’s been a truth universally acknowledged for about 15 years that Pride and Prejudice is my all-time favorite novel by Jane Austen. As regards, however, my second favorite by her, it seems that it’s always the one I read the most recently. Therefore, it is Northanger Abbey now.

The heroine of the story is Catherine Morland, a seventeen-year old girl whose imagination was shaped by all the gothic novels she perused. Catherine spends her first season in Bath, and at first her sufferings are almost unbearable because she knows not a single soul there. But if someone was born to be a heroine, it’s only natural that sooner or later (usually: sooner) she should meet her hero. Catherine soon strikes up an acquaintance with Henry Tilney, a witty, taunting but otherwise very nice young man, and his father and sister as well. Despite a couple of misunderstandings and other calamities, everything seems to be going well, and when Catherine is invited to the Tilneys’ family home, Northanger Abbey, it seems that her wildest dreams are about to come true and she will have the pleasure of getting to know a true gothic castle which is – supposedly – a home to several frightful ghosts and apparitions. But than it turns out that things are not exactly the way our naive heroine expected.

Critics usually agree that this book is a parody of gothic novels, but I think there’s more to Northanger Abbey than this. True, Henry Tilney enjoys making fun of Catherine because of her obsession with gothic novels, and it’s also true that Catherine often behaves like the heroine of a gothic story and makes herself ridiculous this way – but I think Jane Austen loves novels (all novels, even the gothic stories) so much that I cannot think that she would seriously like to disparage them. As she explains somewhere near the beginning of the story, novels tell you everything there’s to know about human behavior, society and the world as such – and they tell you all this in the most beautiful language, in the most enjoyable manner. Therefore, Austen argues, only those can be called ridiculous and narrow-minded who claim that they refrain from reading any such work saying that it’s „only” a novel.

And Austen doesn’t want to argue against her own genre, therefore she doesn’t offend and she’s not painfully sarcastic – she’s only ironic, and she uses irony here as well as in her other novels. The first couple of chapters could be block-quoted the way they are, they are so perfectly witty and entertaining. For instance, Austen’s descriptions of Catherine’s not so heroine-like appearance and personality, and the introduction to our heroine’s family members (who are, contrary to what you would expect, absolutely lovely and caring) are simply great.

Moreover, Austen is in possession of some amiable self-irony as well. E. g., Catherine never has any trouble getting a good night’s sleep, not even during her greatest emotional crises – and this is not characteristic of the young heroines of romantic or gothic novels. Catherine’s peaceful sleeping habits also remind me of Marianne, the protagonist of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility – she’s exactly the way a heroine should be, and when her feelings are shaken, she can’t get any sleep at all. Of course I’m not sure if this is deliberately self-ironic or not, since Northanger Abbey, even though it was published later, was written before Sense and Sensibility and the other „major” novels. Anyway, it may be possible that Austen modified her text and added some self-ironic details later on. And it also may be possible that all the fitfully slumbering young girls, the protective mothers, the tyrannic fathers and all the other stock characters of Austen’s novels were so prevalent in contemporaneous literature (or reality) that it was virtually impossible to write a novel without featuring them, and this is why they are so abundant in Austen’s fiction as well. In this case, Austen’s self-irony might not be deliberate – but deliberate or not, I like it immensely.

And I like the whole novel immensely, in spite of all its flaws: the abruptly discontinued story-lines, the too sudden ending, Austen’s slightly annoying habit that she makes relatively important characters disappear without a trace, or introduces new characters to the story two pages before the ending, and other juvenile faults, because despite all these, Northanger Abbey is still a very clever and hugely entertaining novel.

Persuasion by Jane Austen

I read an extensive and exquisite post on the sequels to Jane Austen’s novel not long ago, and I immediately got a craving for one of Ms. Austen’s books. Although my all-time favorite is Pride and Prejudice, this time I chose Persuasion for some reason. I only read this novel once so far, and I did not like it very much that time, but I was curious how it might strike me now, reading it for the second time. Moreover, I could not really recall the story of this novel, while I know Pride and Prejudice almost by heart, and even though the story of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth never ceases to fascinate me, now I wanted something else.

I will not dwell for long on the story, on the one hand, it can be found all over the internet, and on the other hand, Persuasion is set in the same limited world where all the other Austen novels are set, and it depicts the same intricate relationships existing among the noblemen of the countryside that can be found in every Austen novel. So just as in Ms. Austen’s other books, in Persuasion we get to know all the games, intrigues, strengths and weaknesses of every character, with a special emphasis on their attempts to catch a husband or a wife. In the meantime, we also get a clear and quite ironic picture of the everyday life and insurmountable problems of the country gentry.

I assume it comes as no surprise that after tackling the necessary number of obstacles, the hero and heroine of Persuasion are successfully united, but it seems to me that the mere fact of the protagonists’ marriage is the least important part of the novel, and in fact Ms. Austen gets done with the big reconciliation and all the usual explanations in a couple of pages. In comparison with this, it is much more emphatic that the protagonists need to go through a long series of difficulties which provides them with ample opportunities to get to know their own and their lover’s personality, to learn to think in an independent and mature way, to regret their previous mistakes, and finally, to become really deserving of a sensible marriage based on similar ways of thinking and similar virtues.

Still, the process during which the characters acquire the self-awareness and maturity necessary for marriage is in itself but a small part of the novel. Much more important is the way Ms. Austen depicts contemporary society, and the way she proves her opinions with several witty, often sarcastic observations. Sometimes I felt as if Ms. Austen bothered with coming up with a plot only for the reason that hiding behind the façade of a light, romantic story she could freely indulge in irony and write down her opinions of everything she considered tiresome or ridiculous. Of course my heart is not made of stone either, and I shed some tears at the relevant parts of the novel, however, the fact that in the whole book we find around 5 pages of romantic love as opposed to 250 pages of realistically depicted vanity, selfishness, intrigue, vacuousness and weakness, seems to indicate that Ms. Austen was not the author of silly, lovely stories for romantic girls.

The relative unimportance of the plot itself was also made obvious to me by the fact that Persuasion reminded me of Pride and Prejudice in several details. For instance, when the heroine, Anne learns at the beginning of the novel that there is a good chance that her former lover will come to the neighborhood again and will tread on the same paths she used to tread on, she emits the same big sighs as Ms. Eliza Bennet does when she arrives at Pemberley as a visitor, and contemplates that Pemberley is Mr. Darcy’s home and she is now walking on the same ground as her beloved does at other times. Of course it is possible that the heroines of a given novelist are in the habit of reacting to similar situations in a similar way, but I can also imagine that, when writing Persuasion, it was much more important for Ms. Austen to express her opinion than to create absolutely unique heroines, reactions and scenes.

And I believe that she succeeded very well in writing a highly ironic and critical novel. Apart from creating a series of strongly caricaturistic character (such as Anne’s father, the exceedingly vain Sir Walter; her sister, Mary, who always imagines that she is being trodden on by the others; or the slimy Mr. Eliot), she also strikes out at the everyday airs and social graces. For a 21st century reader of Ms. Austen, it may seem at once funny and pathetic how many things depended on such politeness formulas as making a sufficiently low bow for the other person, keeping up a conversation for the right amount of time, or being the winner in the “who is the most polite” competition of two equally courteous ladies – and Ms. Austen also knows very well how ridiculous this is. As a matter of fact, it is quite a wonder that despite all the obstacles and the general ignorance of the majority of the characters Ms. Austen is optimistic enough to let all her heroines be married at the end of her novels and to go as far as to imply that their marriage will be a success.

And to answer the question implied in the first paragraph of this post: I liked Persuasion much better now than for the first time, and I am sure that in the future I will not omit it from my regular Austen re-reading sprees.