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review 2020-07-04 22:28
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen,Anna Quindlen

This is by far Jane Austen’s most popular book, and while as a kid I found it dull and slow, re-reading as an adult I had a great time with it. It’s easy to see where that popularity comes from. First, unlike some of Austen’s other books, which just have some romance in them, this one actually is a romance, in that it’s structured around the growth of and obstacles to Elizabeth’s and Jane’s relationships.


Second, to the extent that it moralizes (and Austen always moralizes to some extent), it’s mostly about issues that remain both relevant and palatable today: the dangers of assuming yourself better than everyone around you, of clinging to a negative first impression despite new information, of taking people at their word when they eagerly insist to virtual strangers that all their problems are other people’s fault.


Third, and perhaps most importantly, Elizabeth is a great heroine. She’s witty, energetic, and has a sense of humor, which makes her fun. She’s intelligent, caring, and has a backbone, which makes her admirable. And she’s judgmental, jumps to conclusions, and has some learning to do, which makes her human.


Warning: there will be SPOILERS below.


There isn’t much I can say about this book that hasn’t already been said: it’s well-written, engaging, and to an adult reader, it’s quite funny. It’s the perfect piece of intelligent escapism. It’s full of well-drawn and realistic characters, many of them a little bit ridiculous, and the author invites us to laugh at them with her. It isn’t “just” a romance, but explores the intersection of love and money in Austen’s society—though for all that, Austen’s heroines aren’t as mercenary as some make them out to be. At the end I think Darcy is genuinely in love with Elizabeth, while she’s still in the early stages of infatuation, overwhelmed by the fact that this rich and handsome man cares enough to put himself out on her behalf. But I don’t think it’s just about the money either.


I do wish Austen didn’t lapse into narrative summary at the most inconvenient moments, like proposal scenes (!). I actually didn’t remember that Georgiana appears in person in this book, probably because although she and Elizabeth meet several times, none of Georgiana’s lines are ever transcribed for the reader. But Austen was in many ways pioneering the modern English-language novel, so it’s inevitable that not everything was perfect, and impressive that despite that she was able to write characters who still manage to inspire emotional investment today.


I’ll use the rest of this space to comment on some characters I viewed differently this time around. First, the treatment of Mrs. Bennet is rather sad: it’s true that her perspective is limited, but she actually is trying to do right by her daughters, and she obviously loves her husband more than he loves her. Given that the Bennets are on good terms with what seems like a large circle of acquaintance (her claim that they dine with 20 other families is meant to be ridiculous, but is impressive by today’s isolated standards), I suspect her manners are quite good enough by her neighbors’ standards, and it’s the stuck-up Bingley sisters and Mr. Darcy who judge her. It’s a little sad that their happy ending requires Elizabeth and even the otherwise-angelic Jane to distance themselves from her.


Lydia, on the other hand, would be a strong candidate for the heroine if this were a modern novel. Modern audiences seem to love the young woman driven by sexual or romantic passion to flout societal convention just as much as Austen’s society hated her. Particularly sympathetic in Lydia’s case is that she actually loves Wickham but is deceived about his regard for her. Lydia’s exuberance also makes her fun to read about, though because she’s a teenager and not the heroine, she has all-too-human flaws as well: she’s self-absorbed and can’t be bothered to listen to anyone she disagrees with. The scene where she claims she’s “treating” Jane and Elizabeth to lunch, but makes them pay because she already spent her money, is particularly amusing.


Then there’s Mary. Before I thought of her as a typical teenager in her high regard for her own intellect, and starting out here I was sympathetic to her based on her position alone. She’s the only unattractive one out of five sisters (ouch), and also the only member of the family who doesn’t seem particularly beloved by anyone else: her older and younger sisters are each a close-knit pair who also have good friends outside the family, while the parents each have their favorites, all of it excluding Mary. On this reading, though, it seemed likely that Mary is on the autism spectrum, though to Austen’s and therefore Elizabeth’s eyes it just looked like cluelessness. Mary is sententious and blind to social norms, and unlike with Lydia, it isn’t because Mary doesn’t care (she’s visibly embarrassed when her father calls her out at a party). The scene that clinched it for me comes after Lydia’s disgrace, when Mary approaches Elizabeth to suggest that they should “pour into the wounded bosoms of each other the balm of sisterly consolation,” which Elizabeth considers so bizarre that she makes no response. This seems to indicate that either Mary actually does not realize that she and Elizabeth don’t have this kind of relationship, or she’s trying to bond with her but has no idea how to do so. Unfortunately, Mary seems unlikely to improve in understanding when no one can be bothered to explain anything to her.


Reading this right after Emma, I was surprised by how different it felt: shorter chapters, more dialogue, and rather less polished, but perhaps more fun. It didn’t touch me particularly deeply, but I did enjoy it a lot and it also gave me plenty to think about. That’s what makes it a true classic I suppose, that there’s always more to discover and new perspectives to see upon re-reading.

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review 2020-07-04 17:59
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen

In my adult re-reading of Austen’s major works, I came to this one after having a lot of fun with Emma and Pride and Prejudice, and therefore with high expectations. It disappointed a bit, in part for reasons not embedded in the text at all—character portrayals from the 1995 movie kept intruding—in part because as it turns out, even with a master you can tell when you’re reading a debut novel, and in part due to certain elements that have not aged well.

Warning: there will be SPOILERS below.

Austen’s novels have a reputation for being romances, but interestingly, other than Pride and Prejudice and perhaps Persuasion, they aren’t at all, not in the sense of the plot being focused on and structured around a love story. Somehow this label seems to get stuck indiscriminately on classics by women that have weddings at the end; when Shakespeare did it we called them “comedies” instead. So I was surprised by how little we see, in this book, of Elinor and Marianne’s relationships with the men they wind up marrying: Elinor and Edward have fallen in love off-page before the book begins, and see each other rarely during its pages, while from an adult viewpoint it’s hard to argue that Marianne falls in love with Colonel Brandon at all. She seems rather to bow to the inevitable, having been through a devastating heartbreak once and with all her family pushing the match; creepily, Elinor refers twice to wanting her own sister to go to Colonel Brandon as a “reward” for his good behavior.

Instead, this book is a parable about the advantages of sense over “sensibility” (emotion and romance), with Elinor embodying the former and Marianne the latter. The narrator is always poking us to point out how Elinor manages to get what she wants while being polite, while Marianne only causes trouble by being impulsive and oblivious. The problem is that Elinor, our heroine, is tiresomely perfect and a wet blanket. In the abstract, I identify with many of Elinor’s traits, but in concrete terms I didn’t find much to like or relate to in this particular character: she’s just sort of carried along by the plot, without seeming to yearn for anything (except perhaps that guy she fell in love with beforehand, but then she’s not exactly doing anything to pursue the match). She’s no fun; she’s almost just an avatar of what a sensible young woman at the time was supposed to be. It’s telling as to the differences between our modern culture and Austen’s that in the book, it’s Marianne who needs to change; in the film, it’s Elinor.

Though the ending does seem to muddle this a bit. Elinor’s ending is a happy one only if we assume a deep and lasting romantic connection: otherwise she’s just stuck living in a cottage on a third of the income she previously told us she wanted, as a tenant of the wealthy man who becomes her younger sister’s husband. Marianne, meanwhile, winds up with the material advantages, including exactly the income she wanted. One wonders how each feels about her situation ten, twenty, thirty years in the future. It’s not nearly as clear-cut a happy ending as I remember from childhood, when all I noticed was the weddings and the fact that the sisters are still together.

The most disturbing part of the story, though, is the treatment of the two Elizas, characters we never meet but who nevertheless figure prominently. The elder Eliza is the great love of Brandon’s young life, which doesn’t stop him, when he comes back from fighting abroad and finds her in jail for debt with her illegitimate toddler, from considering the fact that she’s also dying to be a “consolation.” This is made more horrific by the fact that Brandon is the single most important person in Eliza’s life from childhood: she’s an orphan, he was her best friend and protector. Although Austen treats his reaction with approval, there’s something profoundly inhuman about this notion that she can never be redeemed even in the eyes of the person who has always loved her most, that the best she can do is cease to exist.

Because of that I can’t help wondering if a real man of that time period in Brandon’s position would actually have thought this way, or if this is simply Austen—who was presumably never in this position herself—projecting what others who have also never been in this position believed he should have felt. Or, hell, maybe Brandon himself didn’t actually feel that way, but is moralizing in retrospect about his own story because it’s the only way he can live with it. But at any rate, Elinor approves, which is hardly to her credit. She also approves Brandon’s subsequent decisions, which involve farming out the young orphan, the younger Eliza, to be raised by someone else, then being shocked when as a teenager and most likely feeling unloved and unwanted, she jumps into an ill-advised romance, and then banishing her to the countryside alone with her baby. One hopes that she manages to raise her own child with a more solid and loving foundation than the last two generations have had.

So it’s kind of hard to wrench my attention back from that situation to the social lives of Elinor and Marianne, though it does seem like Austen tempered the horrible fates of her “fallen women” in future books: Wickham, who seems like a later version of Willoughby, is just as much a seducer, but Georgiana escapes in time with no loss of reputation or her brother’s love, and Lydia is redeemed through marriage in the eyes of all but the most judgmental (who never liked her much anyway). In that sense, it’s strange that Wickham is perhaps drawn as more of a scoundrel than Willoughby, who regrets what he’s done to Marianne (though not Eliza), in a drunken confession that feels unusual for Austen and almost like wish-fulfillment. But Elinor pulls it back into the realm of the realistic with the astute observation that it’s easy for Willoughby to regret the consequences of decisions he’s already made; that doesn’t mean he’d actually have been happy with the alternative.

This book doesn’t flow quite as smoothly as some of Austen’s later works, but it is still engaging and a lot of the secondary characters are just plain fun to read about: John and his money-focused blindness, Mrs. Jennings with her bad manners but good heart. I did enjoy reading it, though not as much as some of her other work, which was written with a bit more experience and has aged better. Though frankly, anything over 200 years old that is at all enjoyable or says anything to anyone today has aged far better than most, and considering the state of the novel at the time Austen wrote this one, it’s quite an achievement.

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review 2020-07-04 06:17
Emma by Jane Austen
Emma - Jane Austen,Fiona Stafford

I have a rocky relationship with Jane Austen. I first read her major works for bragging rights when too young to appreciate them. Then as an adult, I read Mansfield Park and Persuasion, and decided, nope, Austen wasn’t for me. And then I read Northanger Abbey. And it was fun! And funny! So recently, I embarked on a re-read project of Austen’s three most popular works, and what a difference those intervening years have made.

Warning: there will be SPOILERS below.

First of all, I have a strong preference when it comes to Austen’s novels: I enjoy her wit and insight, but not her moralizing, which is why I had great fun with Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey, but found her other books to drag. Her dynamic, imperfect heroines, the ones with real foibles to poke fun at, whose journeys involve needing to grow and change as they learn more about the world and themselves: these are great fun to read about. Her static, flawless heroines who don’t go on a journey so much as stand by while others learn to better appreciate their perfection: ugh, no thank you.

Happily, Emma falls into the first category. It’s one of Austen’s longer books, and I remember taking forever to read it, but this time I burned through, finding the story compelling and fun. It feels a bit more polished than some of Austen’s work, with longer chapters that flow naturally together. It’s also a little ridiculous with its endless misunderstandings, but each one individually is believable. Its characters feel real, and Austen’s observation of certain aspects of human nature is dead-on: Mr. Woodhouse, who allows his high levels of anxiety to control his life and limit the activities of everyone around him, is so much like some real people I know that I was irritated at him every time he appeared on the page. For all her flaws, I can’t help thinking Emma’s a bit of a saint for so patiently putting up with him.

Most interestingly though, as it turns out few people (including my younger self) seem to realize what this novel is actually about. It’s not a romance: for most of the book Mr. Knightley acts the part of a father-figure to Emma, she doesn’t realize her feelings for him till near the end, and before that point there’s only one brief moment of chemistry between them; romance is her reward at the end, but not the subject of her story. It’s not about a young woman facing financial or familial pressure to marry: unique among Austen’s heroines, Emma has no actual need to do so, and no one voices any objections to her stated plan to remain single and eventually adopt one of her nieces for company. It’s also not about Emma’s learning not to try to set up her friends: she actually learns that lesson pretty early on.

In fact, this is a very conservative novel about a young woman learning her proper place in society and how to behave as befits her station as the highest-ranking woman in her rural town. Emma has to learn to be charitable and patient toward the genteel but unfortunate (Miss Bates), not to snub the nouveau riche as long as they remember their place and treat her with proper respect (the Gardners), and to choose as her friends the worthy and well-bred (Jane Fairfax) over people of lesser birth, with whom too close a friendship will inevitably cause trouble and social disorder (Harriet Smith). It’s hard to say much for this sort of message now. For modern audiences, the less charitable parts of it—the message that Emma must ultimately drop Harriet as a friend to maintain proper social order, hammered home through the way Emma’s machinations to keep Harriet within her circle cause escalating trouble until finally Emma herself is done with the friendship—are so obviously unfortunate that people tend to read the novel as being about something else entirely. Austen makes it easy to do that, with several subplots and layers to the story. But I doubt her contemporaries would have missed that the entire novel is about a young woman’s journey toward “correct” behavior, dressed up in a bunch of drama and poking fun at people in a small town society.

All that said, it’s an enjoyable story in its own right, and makes for such lovely escapism while giving the reader multifaceted characters and issues with some real depth to chew on, that I can’t give it less than 4 stars despite rather unfortunate themes. Maybe one day I’ll return to it again and see something completely new.

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review 2020-06-22 05:54
The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner
The Jane Austen Society - Natalie Jenner,Richard Armitage

A diverse cast of characters varying in age, origin, occupation and social status band together to preserve the former estate of Jane Austen in postwar England. It has a similar charm to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, but in my opinion it's a little less bubbly in tone, a little more somber.


There are several obvious parallels to story lines in Austen's books, including but not limited to a broken engagement (Persuasion), inheritance laws favoring male relatives instead of direct female descendants (Sense and Sensibility), and falling in love with a cad (multiple Austen novels, if not every one of them). I had some minor quibbles with narrator Richard Armitage (of The Hobbit movies fame) but in general he does a great job with the different accents and voices required for the characters.


While the story's pacing can feel a bit slow, I was rooting for the characters to achieve their goal and to find happiness in spite of personal losses and hardships. There are a few twists and a surprise pairing that I didn't see coming, and the delightful, heartwarming ending made me bump this up from 3.5 to 4 stars. I wonder if it's time for me to reread another Austen novel.

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review 2020-06-09 11:27
'The Jane Austen Society' by Natalie Jenner
The Jane Austen Society - Natalie Jenner,Richard Armitage

A must-read for Austen fans and anyone who enjoys character-driven fiction with hope at its heart.



I bought 'The Jane Austen Society' by Natalie Jenner on the basis of the title and cover alone. I'm a sucker for Jane Austen and books about Jane Austenish things, both because I love her novels and because I'm fascinated the devotion of Jane Austen's fans.


I'm glad I didn't read the publisher's summary first because it might have put me off and then I'd have missed out on a good read and a new author.


The first part of the publishers summary was encouraging, with some reservations:

'Just after the Second World War, in the small English village of Chawton, an unusual but like-minded group of people band together to attempt something remarkable.'

It offers a book focused on Jane Austen fans and set in the currently fashionable (by now verging on over-used) historical setting of England in 1945. An 'unusual but like-minded' group who 'band together' sounded quirky and jolly, which would have been OK but it suggested that 1945 in England was being positioned as a time of renewal and optimism rather than as a time of huge social conflict, widespread deprivation and collective PTSD.


The next sentence was discouraging:

'One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England's finest novelists.'

The book is set in 1945. Austen lived in Chawton from 1809 to 1817. How is that one hundred and fifty years ago? This left me hoping that this was an oversight by the marketing department and that Natalie Jenner had paid more attention.


I'm happy to say that five chapters into 'The Jane Austen Society' I could already see that this was not the glib, light and instantly comforting book in period dress that had been marketed to me. It was something much better.


The scope was broad, the pace was measured and the tone was sombre, almost melancholy. Everyone's story was edged with grief or the threat of grief and the period was not romanticised and the research was meticulous both in terms of the 1945 setting and of Austen's works. 


This is not a book about a set of quirky villagers who band together to do something jolly. They are people marked by war and loss who have Austen as their common thread. Her books are their refuge and her flawed characters, passionate, stubborn, blind to their own needs or the needs of others, are valued companions who are all the more welcome because they are guaranteed a happy ending.


They don't come together to found the Jane Austen Society until nearly halfway through the book and when they do, it's not a light-hearted let's-throw-a-party kind of thing, more a route for some seriously depressed people, who each find solace in Jane Austen, to achieve some sense of agency for themselves through engagement with the real world in a way that honours Austen.


It was a sombre book that felt real to me. Austen's books and her association with the village in which the main characters live were a source of hope, offering the possibility of community and perhaps happiness.


Many of the challenges facing the people in the Society mirror those of Jane Austen's characters: we have property being entailed away, spirited women being courted by charismatic but dangerous men, long-held but unspoken passions, shy men with good hearts and vulgar men with money but no manners. The people in the Society aren't Austen's characters in modern dress but I had a lot of fun lining up their situations, attributes and relationships with the characters up against the characters in Austen's novels, in a sort of Fantasy Football way.


Surprisingly, the relationship that had me thinking most about the parallels with Austen's characters is between two Americans: a successful movie star and leading lady, Mimi Harrison, who has a passion for Jane Austen and a ruthless millionaire turned studio owner, Jack Leonard, who, despite his obsessive pursuit of her, Mimi initially refuses to take to her bed. 


I was fascinated to see how Jack, a man with an acute insight into the weaknesses of others but who avoids all introspection, and who is paying attention to Austen as a strategem for getting in Mimi's head, admires what he sees as Austen's attraction to bad boys.  Jack never reads Austen's novels. He has a screenwriter write treatments of 'Sense and Sensibility' for him and finds himself admiring Willoughby and wondering why Austen gave him such a happy ending. Jack, of course, is a 1940's version of Austen's bad boys, but with a twist. He has Wickam's passions and Darcy's self-discipline, a frightening combination,


There's also a scene where the studio head pulls a Harvey Weinstein on Mimi, who fends him off. The contrast between his attempt at rape and Jack Leonard's patient but relentless hunt for submission turns Jack from bad guy to something more complicated.


This ability to recognise how complex people are is one of the things that attracts the various members of the Society to Austen's work. In one of the many discussions of Austen between the members of the Society, they speculate on what it must have been like to see people as clearly as Austen does, with their sillinesses and their veniality and small pettinesses all on display, and yet still be able to write about them with compassion and even give them some hope of happiness.


I think that combination of insight and compassion and hope is the defining attribute of this book. 'The Jane Austen Society' is a lovely piece of writing about a small group of people and what they know and are able to feel and say about themselves and each other.


Its clean, calm prose lets us see the world through their eyes, amplified by the different things each of them gets from reading Austen and the way they see Austen's characters.


There's a lot of grief and pain and awkwardness but there is also a backdrop of quiet hope.


I became completely engaged with these people and found myself hoping for a happy ending for each of them.


I recommend the audiobook version of 'The Jane Austen Society'. Richard Armitage's narration is perfectly judged and increased my enjoyment of an already enjoyable book. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear an excerpt.




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