Category Archives: Jane Austen

You Might Relate to Mary Bennett, but You’re Not Supposed to Imitate Her

The novels and letters of Jane Austen (1906) (14596328597)Mary Bennett gets a lot of good press. In Pride and Prejudice, she’s one of heroine Elizabeth Bennett’s three younger sisters, and she’s described as the bookish one. Maybe because readers of Pride and Prejudice tend to be bookish as well, we tend to feel the story overlooks her, and write multiple blog posts and articles and sequel novels bemoaning this. This is in spite of the plentiful evidence Jane Austen herself did not like her. Despite her being bookish, Austen did not mean to point to her as a character that we should imitate.

This is astonishing, as the bookish girl is a pretty strong stereotype for female heroines by now—just think of Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Hermione in Harry Potter, and Jane Eyre. All of them readers, some a bit know-it-all, but all with a heart of gold. The character of Mary Bennett is swimming directly against the current in this matter.

And readers relate to Mary Bennett—we know what it feels like to be ‘plainer’ than those around us, to feel less intelligent even though we’re desperately trying to appear smart, to be more than just a background character in someone else’s story. Who can’t relate to wanting some distinction of your own, even if it’s not beauty? We like books about bookish characters proving themselves because we’re reassured that our bookishness will not be our undoing, and that someday those that laugh at us in real life will agree our bookishness has value. But Jane Austen does not give us that satisfaction with Mary.

Evidence of dissatisfaction with Mary’s story can easily be found. Both The Guardian and The Atlantic wrote articles last summer about the proliferation of sequels about Miss Mary Bennett (including The Independence Of Miss Mary Bennet, The Forgotten Sister: Mary Bennet’s Pride and Prejudice, The Pursuit of Mary Bennet: A Pride and Prejudice Novel, and of course, one called There’s Something About Mary, Bennett.) Many, many authors have seen potential in her character, and clearly many readers want to read about that potential.

So what are Mary Bennett’s faults, according to Jane Austen?

It’s not that she’s bookish and plain. It’s that she appears to read only in order to lecture others about what she’s read. She appears to practice music only in order to draw attention to herself with it. As a result, neither her speeches on the books she reads nor her performances on the piano avoid sounding ‘affected.’

“Mary had neither genius nor taste; and though vanity had given her application, it had given her likewise a pedantic air and conceited manner, which would have injured a higher degree of excellence than she had reached.”

And despite in other places defending the reading of books and applying oneself to improving oneself, Austen never vindicates these aspects of Mary. She really doesn’t do much with her character plot-wise, and appears to argue her way of being is just as ‘silly’ as Kitty and Lydia’s way of living. Mary does not get a character arc or much development at all. She has no romantic events come her way either.

I don’t think Jane Austen was against bookish girls. I don’t think she was subtly fighting against education for women, or against women having an opinion. I think she had a more complex idea here.

In reality, what Jane Austen is trying to show is how one trait, overemphasized and over-developed, can be ridiculous. You can’t have a personality that relies on only one characteristic—you need to develop your whole personality.

It’s kind of amazing how, despite all of Mary’s deficiencies in beauty and intelligence, her self-absorption is still derided as vanity by Austen. This is an important point! We like to think if we haven’t been given all the advantages other people have, we’re protected from vanity. We’re given a free pass to focus on ourselves, because after all, we aren’t as advantaged as everyone else. People should recognize and encourage us in what we do have.

However, this very lack of humility can prevent improvement in the areas we might have relative strength in! It’s Mary’s air of condescension and pedantry that makes her sisters dislike her speeches more—no one likes to be talked down to. Her piano-playing, while better than some, is less pleasant to listen to because of how conceited she makes it sound—she all-too-aware she is more skilled than Elizabeth. Her vanity in these things prevents her from using her gifts in a way that would actually give pleasure to other people (as Elizabeth proves you can give some pleasure to a listener even without being the best piano-player ever). And her vanity likely prevents her from even seeing the ways her gifts fall short of what she thinks they are. She doesn’t improve in the areas of attitude and mannerisms because she doesn’t think she needs to.

Does this mean she deserves to be laughed at by her sisters, or shamed by Mr. Bennett at the Netherfield ball? Of course not. I think Mr. Bennett’s treatment of her, in particular, is meant to short his shortcomings as a father and his insensitivity to what might improve his daughters’ characters. As he has with his wife, he’s basically given up on them, and endures their silliness instead. Now, if Mary actually is meant to have a character arc, perhaps one of Elizabeth’s or Jane’s attempts to rein in their younger sister’s vanities would sink in. As it is, we as readers as only left with the impression her vanity leaves on us, with the implication it is a warning—do not get so consumed in creating your own space for your own gifts that you blind yourself to how useless they are to anyone outside yourself. This is basically the opposite of every ‘find yourself’ novel released today.

So perhaps for us bookish types, we can take the message that there’s nothing wrong with being bookish, but it’s our attitude to others as a result of that can be the problem. Even if others don’t understand us, it doesn’t give us justification to feel superior to them. Even if we are actually better in one area than someone else we know, rubbing that in everyone’s faces will not help anyone else, and can even be destructive to ourselves. And I don’t mean this to lecture everyone else–I know I am prone to rely on my own intelligence and knowledge as my number one characteristics when relating to other people.

But then again, this is not meant to be the main message of the novel—Mary is merely one of dozens of Austen side-characters that demonstrate how one over-developed characteristic renders one ridiculous. It’s Darcy and Elizabeth who get character arcs, and who change throughout the novel. Austen uses their story to tell her message. Though if you look at how Austen takes down her main character’s characteristics of ‘pride’ and ‘prejudice,’ maybe Mary Bennett’s characterization does support the overall theme of the novel after all.

What about you? Do you find yourself with a lot of sympathy for Mary Bennett, or do you find her tiresome (as her sisters did)? Was Jane Austen too harsh on her?

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A Few Classics That Are Not Hard to Read

Classics are usually heavy reading. Even if they’re short, the language is unfamiliar enough that they take a long time to get through. But every once in a while you find one that surprises you, and here are three that surprised me.

Note: I’m not including any classics described as ‘children’s literature’ in this list.

'Around the World in Eighty Days' by Neuville and Benett 22
Around the World in Eighty Days, by Jules Verne

I just really enjoyed the very punctual and methodical Phileas Fogg racing around the world with his comic French servant, Passepartout. They get into preposterous adventures of all sorts, some of which strain believability but are incredibly fun to read. It gives a wonderful picture of travel before airplanes were invented, with railroads and steamboats. Verne is known as a science fiction author, but this was a contemporary novel for him—and so for us it’s a nice view in on the past. Also, I loved the sudden revelation of Fogg’s tender side in the end.

As a side note, Jules Verne’s novels have historically received poor English translations, which led him to have a higher reputation in his native France than in the English-speaking world. This is the only sample of his work I’ve read, but I quite enjoyed him. In addition, I’ve noticed publishers give this novel nonsensical cover pages – one edition had a hot air balloon, but hot air balloons failed to appear in the story. Another recent edition has a daredevil racing in an old-fashioned car, but this does not happen in the novel either.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

This remains the only Dickens novel I’ve read cover to cover. It’s short, so Dickens’ verbosity won’t put you off. The plot is easy enough to follow. I actually read it because I knew nothing about the plot and wanted to find out what this Christmas carol business everyone always went on about at Christmastime was all about, but I’ve reread it since without boredom. I’ve heard complaints about the opening paragraphs, where Dickens goes on about different types of nails and why the doornail should not be considered the ‘deadest’ type of nail out there, but personally I found it humorous. If you find it tedious, it’s a short novel, so it’s soon over and the rest of the plot begins!

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

This was my introduction to Jane Austen, and I still believe it’s the easiest one to start with (though none of her novels are too difficult for the modern reader, aside from the formality of the language). This novel gets right into the action and humor, with Mr. Bingley arriving in town and Mrs. Bennett nagging her husband to go meet him. It does not start with family history, like Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Mansfield Park. The heroine is lively enough that it’s not a chore to follow her through the story, and the story is shorter than Emma. There’s a few lulls in action, but overall it’s a very satisfying romance and shows off Austen’s talent very well.

 

 

These are my recommendations—your mileage may vary! After all, I thought Lord of the Rings and The Iliad were surprisingly easy to get into, and I know many people who didn’t. And I just struggle with Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, while others just love them. But if you’re meaning to read a few novels that have stood the test of time, these are a few places to start!

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Do People Fall in Love Out of Gratitude?

What’s going on here? A romance novel is seriously making the hero fall for a girl simply because she adored him first?

quotables button“[T]hough Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of an heroine’s dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own.”

– Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Shouldn’t there be something grander? Shouldn’t she have been the prettiest girl in the room, and he couldn’t keep his eyes off her? (But in real life, there’s always someone prettier). Shouldn’t he have somehow found her absolutely unique? (But everyone blurs together until we take the time to get to know them.) Shouldn’t she have hidden her feelings until he’d fallen good and hard for her? (But Jane Austen knew this didn’t work– “Few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement.”)

Northanger Abbey is perhaps Jane Austen’s attempt to inject a little ‘realism’ into novels–most deliberately in her attempts to spoof Gothic novels by showing how the spooky can be very ordinary (mysterious papers turn out to be a laundry list, a mean-spirited man turns out to be driven by greed rather than remorse or guilt)–but perhaps also in her handling of the romance between the central characters, Henry and Catharine. He falls in love with her because she was in love with him! He falls in love out of gratitude!

But this is realistic! Who doesn’t find their opinion of someone improving because we know they like us? I’ve experienced it myself, when people have straight-up told me they enjoy hanging out with me, I find myself wanting to hang out with them more. Because they told me they like me, it takes the pressure off. I don’t have to wonder what they think about me being myself. I know, so I can just be myself. And focus on getting to know them more and more.

It’s a way for one person to distinguish themselves from the sea of other people in the world–this person is memorable because this person admires me. Why waste time on people who don’t like you, when you know someone does?

And gratitude? It is gratifying to hear someone thinks we’re clever–or pretty–or funny – or adventurous. It feels so good it leaves us wide open to manipulating flattery. We can be manipulated into suddenly thinking so very highly of someone who flatters us, and not admit that’s the reason why we suddenly think so well of them. (I can’t help but add a side-note: It’s almost more insidious when people flatter things we’re very proud of instead– “what a nice family you have,” “what wonderful people are your friends,” “your church is really amazing…”)

But when the admiration is genuine! It’s almost a relief to hear someone sincerely believes one of our strengths is actually a strength. And there comes the gratitude–and increased liking–and increased friendship–and maybe love…

Now, is this a sure-fire recipe for making friends, or falling in love? Sadly, no.

The terrible thing about letting someone know how much you like them is finding out your feelings don’t make them like you more. This is why we so rarely tell anyone how we feel! They don’t feel good that you like them, they feel pressured and afraid you expect something from them, and so they pull back. So despite trying to strengthen your relationship by sharing your admiration, you actually end up driving the person away.

Now, maybe this is not as common as we all believe. Maybe we truly all would have a thousand more healthy relationships if we just were honest about our admiration. In fact, we probably would, because people are far less likely to reject us than our negative brains want us to believe. However, it’s reality that people do react negatively. People you make an effort for do disappear. People you fall in love with don’t fall for you. The stronger your admiration for another person is, the more painful it is when it’s clearly not mutual.

So I’m not saying go out and tell everyone how you feel all the time. The risk is very great. The pain is nasty when everything goes wrong-side-up. You can’t predict the results of your honesty.

But honest admiration can result in something wonderful, even in this non-fictional world. So in the end it’s worth it to weigh the risks and open yourself up to this possibility.

 

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In Jane Austen, Nice Guys Finish First

Girls go for the bad guys, they say, and nice guys finish last. If so, then Jane Austen has achieved an amazing feat of literature by creating nice guys you want to cheer for. Nice guys many females claim they’d like to date. Nice guys who aren’t boring, but actually readable.

I realized this while reading several people online insist Frank Churchill and Henry Crawford are far more interesting than their romantic rivals (the nice guys who actually get the girl, in other words) – George Knightley and Edmund Bertram.

This is craziness, of course. You’d have to be pretty committed to living a lifetime of misery to choose Frank Churchill or Henry Crawford over George Knightley or Edmund Bertram. Let’s see why:

George Knightley:

Okay, let’s look at George Knightley first. He’s too demanding, his detractors claim. He tells Emma what to do, and yells at her when she doesn’t do something right. He’s stuck to some kind of outdated set of morals, and wants Emma to follow them too.

In contrast, Frank Churchill – well, he’s fun. (According to the anti-Knightley people, anyway). He and Emma joke around, enjoy themselves, don’t take things too seriously. Wouldn’t a marriage between them just be great fun?

Sure… until you remember Frank and Emma’s ‘fun’ is at other people’s expense, and this is exactly what Knightley was being a ‘stick-in-the-mud’ about. Emma could’ve hitched herself to a guy who was rather callous about other people’s feelings – teasing people who maybe can’t take it at the moment, flirting to make his fiancée jealous, using his charm to get away with things. At heart he’s not a villain, but his charm doesn’t make up for all his faults.

And when it comes to Knightley – you know, it’s totally okay for a guy to call a girl out on something if she’s actually wrong about it – it’s not a symbol of patriarchy or an outdated moral code. It’s merely reasonable, and I hope whoever I’d get engaged to would do the same to me. Emma was a rather frightening person for anyone in the novel to call out on her behaviour anyway, and Mr. Knightley is the only one who does it – you could say he was of equal or superior social standing so that helped make him brave enough, but then you’d be forgetting one thing. You’d be forgetting he was in love with her – who wants to risk criticizing the person you’re crazy about? He doesn’t want to lecture her. He’d rather not open her eyes to how thoughtless and cruel she’s being to others around her (at Frank’s instigation). It’s a sign of the strength of Mr. Knightley’s moral fibre that he does anyway.

And as for fun – he and Emma have lovely debates that do not descend into bickering. Being able to disagree well, and able to debate well, is one thing I think of as fun. Maybe I’m alone here…

Anyway, he’s a ‘nice guy.’ And he gets the girl. Austen writes Emma as a girl who realizes exactly what the worth of Mr. Knightley is, and doesn’t despise him for being less charming than Frank Churchill.

Edmund Bertram:

Okay, now Edmund Bertram. I have to admit, Edmund Bertram is dreadfully boring – the worst of Jane Austen’s heroes. (Jane Austen fans – if Edmund Bertram is your favourite, stick up your hand now – I’ve never met one of you yet.) He hurts Fanny over and over – completely clueless because he doesn’t know she’s desperately in love with him, but still, he hurts her. And he dithers the whole novel over this other girl who’s just charm and a pretty face (according to Austen, at least).

And Henry Crawford – he comes closest of any of Austen’s villains to being reformed.

But really, Edmund Bertram is a nice guy. He loves Fanny as a sister, not a potential wife, and that’s not really his fault since they grew up together. He doesn’t even know how much it hurts Fanny to see him with this other girl, since he actually thinks Fanny likes this girl.

Whereas Henry Crawford just starts flirting with Fanny to see if he can get her to fall for him. Sure, he claims his feelings grow deeper as time goes on, but it says something about him when you know where it started. Would he really have ‘reformed’ for her? How often do people change themselves for the better for another, and how long does that kind of change stick? He doesn’t start as a nice guy, and after all the events of the novel, he doesn’t end as one either (leaving Fanny’s cousin Maria with her reputation in tatters, and abandoning her to her fate.)

Reformed bad boys may be exciting, but in Jane Austen the nice guys finish first. (Edmund wises up to Fanny’s charms in the end…)

I’ve ranted about Mansfield Park before, if you want to read it it’s here.

Austen’s other novels:

I don’t think I have to do too much convincing to argue Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon are far nicer guys than Willoughby, or that Henry Tilney (how I love this character’s snark!) is nicer than John Thorpe – and especially the General and Frederick Tilney.

And now we come to Mr. Darcy…

Mr. Darcy:

Aha, someone is arguing now. What about the most famous of them all – Mr. Darcy? Isn’t he emphatically a stuck-up prig in Pride and Prejudice, and doesn’t that show girls only want arrogant dudes who look down on them?

No, think of Mr. Darcy as that awkward dude at the party, who doesn’t quite know how to talk to anyone. When he does talk, he just makes people look at him strange. Completely socially awkward, especially in comparison with smooth talkers like Wickham. Haven’t you met people like that? Maybe ignored people like that?

You’d be right if you insisted Darcy is a bit too condescending and superior at first (awkwardly superior), but he does learn, and more importantly, Elizabeth doesn’t fall for him until AFTER he learns. (Contrary to how she is often portrayed by people, she DOESN’T feel any hidden, burning attraction to him at the beginning of the novel at all. No slap-slap/kiss-kiss, in other words.) He has to be a nice guy first.

Compare this to several Bronte heroes. Now, I’ve never been able to get into their books, and I really should give them another chance because I have reread books before and liked them so much more the second time. BUT I confess to a complete inability to see how Heathcliff, or even Rochester, is romantic at all. If you want to be treated horribly, sure, by all means fall in love with them. Let one lie to you, and the other be all moody and violent. Ugh, so romantic.

In Conclusion:

Authors can write their ‘nice guys’ as Mary Sues (or Gary Stus or whatever you want to call the male version) – far too easily. I’ve read many novels where the romantic hero is very, very boring. He’s supposed to be the epitome of good, and he is, to the point of dullness. The solution to this, it is said, is to add faults.

But add too many faults, and you just end up reinforcing the trope, “All Girls Want Bad Boys.”

It takes a genius like Jane Austen to make the nice-guy heroes be exactly the kind of person real-life women would fall in love with.

What do you think? Girls, who’s your favourite Austen character? Guys, are you ever offended by which Austen men get the girl in the end?

Also – I just released my sixth short ebook this weekend – it’s a romantic short story about one girl’s confidence or lack thereof towards one guy, and it’s called Lookin’ Good. Check it out and drop me a line or review telling me what you think!

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How to Catch a Man 101: Show More Affection Than You Feel

AKA Dating Advice from Dear Jane Austen

Bingley&Jane_CH_55

Bingley and Jane, by C.E. Brooks. {PD-US}

“There are very few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement,” [said Charlotte]. “In nine cases out of ten, a woman had better show more affection than she feels. Bingley likes your sister undoubtedly; but he may never do more than like her, if she does not help him on.”

– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 6

Here’s the trouble with romance!

Let me start off by saying this is not true in most books and movies out there. If you took the romance advice of most plots, you’d begin to think the way to fall in love with someone is to be as deliberately antagonistic as possible. Insult him to his face! Slap him! Try to avoid him as much as possible – if he’s really fallen in love with you during that half second that you met, he’ll keep coming back for more. Beyond any reasonable expectation, he’ll keep coming back again and again and again, no matter how much you insist you don’t want to see him. He’ll wait for you to change your mind.

Isn’t that ridiculous?

So – more evidence Jane Austen is a cut above (many) other romance writers out there! She’s dealing with reality here. She’s dealing with the reality most people aren’t masochistic enough to keep chasing someone who keeps pushing them down. Most people aren’t that good with rejection.

But I said this was the trouble with romance, didn’t I? Why is this a reality a problem?

Well, mostly because you have to show a lot of interest before you even know you’re interested, logically.

Most people aren’t going to hang around forever while the person they just felt a flash of attraction to makes up their mind, especially if that dithering looks a shade too similar to rejection. Move on. Plenty of fish in the sea. No time for this.

Not that there’s anything wrong with this – it’s just reality! Just the crazy system we have to live in. It makes us appreciate the true romances that actually work out, that’s all.

And in case you think I’m reading too much into Jane Austen, I don’t think she completely disagrees with her character, Charlotte Lucas (the character I’m quoting up at the top). After all, Elizabeth’s sister Jane does lose Bingley because she is too guarded and he can’t tell how much she likes him. Neither can any of Bingley’s friends.

Elizabeth argues to Charlotte that Jane is just taking her time to get to know Bingley (which seems to be quite sensible). Charlotte doubts whether this is a good strategy for the situation.

Here is Charlotte’s very practical (perhaps cynical?) solution:

“Jane should therefore make the most of every half hour in which she can command his attention. When she is secure of him, there will be leisure for falling in love as much as she chooses.”

Here’s where I (and perhaps Jane Austen) part ways with Charlotte’s logic. Making someone else fall for you first, before you decide to fall – that seems little self-centered. A little too self-centered.

What’s the solution then?

There isn’t one. That’s why romance is a mystery. That’s why it’s beautiful when it sprouts mutually for two people at the same time, and miserable when it only sprouts for one of them. That’s why we eternally write books and movies and plays about it. Because we can’t figure it out.

There’s my thoughts on it, anyway. Have a Merry Christmas, everyone!

(Oh, and stay tuned to this blog in the upcoming weeks! There may be some exciting changes and experiments in the new year!)

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Ranking Jane Austen – Is It Possible?

Emma
Mansfield Park
Pride and Prejudice
Sense and Sensibility
Northanger Abbey
Persuasion

 Is this a sensible way to rank Jane Austen’s books? As far as I can discern, this is how Adelle Waldman ranks them, in “I Read Everything Jane Austen Wrote, Several Times: Here Are Some of the Many Things I Learned.” Fans of Jane Austen, of course, can argue for hours about which of her novels are best, and non-fans are probably just surprised she wrote more than Pride and Prejudice. But this particular ranking is unique enough that I feel compelled to comment on it.

 In general, most of these choices are justifiable, and while I would rank Pride and Prejudice just a little higher than Emma, they are both of such good quality that they could both be at the top of any list. I did not think Emma was well-plotted the first time I read it, because it was so long and it felt like the action dragged out forever. But it is well-plotted, if you know many of the little details will add up to something in the end, and reveal how blind Emma was at certain point, or how blind you as the reader were about what was really going on.

 Uniquely, Waldman looks down on Persuasion. I have often been confused as to why so many critics think it is one of Austen’s best works, though I would not be as hard on the novel as Waldman is. It is not as funny and sparkling, true, but there is something sweet about it. I have the most amount of sympathy for Anne Elliot, because I know what it’s like to be overlooked.  Depending upon which novel I am reading, I would probably rate Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey all pretty close to each other, and so I’m not going to quibble about which one should be rated higher than the others. I just have to stick up for Persuasion when it is stuck dead last.

 But she puts Mansfield Park far too high up the list. While the complexity of the characters do make the novel a more mature work, I cannot forgive the deficiencies of its plot. It does not leave the reader with any feeling or satisfaction, or ending in the right spot, even though it ends with the expected happy ending. (I ranted more about Mansfield Park here).

 However, I can’t help but thank Waldman for the observation that Austen is not merely about romance and marriage, but primarily about people and how they should behave. Romance and marriage tends to act as a reward for the right sort of behaviour, which is why Austen’s work often comes off as intensely moralistic. But it is also why Austen’s works have endured so well. We all know vain and pompous fools (Sir Walter Elliot), scoundrels who lead women on (Wickham), jealous and competitive women (Caroline Bingley), and foolish and vindicative women (Mrs. Elton). We want to see people like that learn a lesson – though Austen realistically never forces a vile character to change as a result of the lessons a reader can glean from the action. As Waldman states, “She gives us a cast of characters and then zeroes in, showing us who and what is admirable, who is flawed but forgivable, who is risible and who is truly vile… Austen wrote stories that show us how we think.”

Yes to that.

As a postscript, my personal ranking goes like this:

 Pride and Prejudice (as the best paced and best plotted one of the bunch, with highly entertaining characters who go through believable character development)

Emma (almost as good as Pride and Prejudice, upon second reading, but a little too long to be thoroughly enjoyed on first reading – as I discovered here)

Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion (both entirely serviceable and charming novels, and I’m not sure which one rates above the other)

Northanger Abbey (which is enjoyable but somewhat flawed – understandable considering it was one of the first she wrote, as well as one she later revised, though it was published posthumously and therefore it’s hard to say it she would’ve been satisfied with its finish published form)

If you include Lady Susan as one of Austen’s novels, though it is more of a novella, I would stick it last on the list. If it had been longer, I would’ve liked it more (more of my thoughts on Lady Susan here).

And then… I can’t decide where Mansfield Park fits in. I think that novel will annoy me for the rest of my life. Is that a mark of great literature?

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Advice for an Introvert in Fiction

Darcy proposing to Elizabeth, by Hugh Thomson. {PD}

Darcy proposing to Elizabeth, by Hugh Thomson. {PD}

“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess,” said Darcy, “of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”

“My fingers,” said Elizabeth, “do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault — because I would not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman’s of superior execution.”

 – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

 I did one of those “What Jane Austen Character Are You?” quizzes the other day, and my answer was that I was Elizabeth. Which made me laugh, because I am far more like Mr. Darcy than Elizabeth. Not in the handsome and rich sense, of course – more in the “I don’t always know what to say in social situations” sense. As I wrote about before, that’s part of what makes him such a good romantic protagonist for Pride and Prejudice. I love Elizabeth, and would certainly love to be as witty as her, but my clever remarks tend to occur to me long after the conversation is done. Especially if it’s a conversation with someone I’d like to impress, of course.

But this quote is a good one in another way too. As an introvert, it’s easy just to say, “This is the way I am,” and give up on people. To excuse yourself from making the effort to talk to people you don’t know. To just stare at the floor and back away from all the people, and not even think there might be other people in the room who feel just as awkward as you. I’m not saying every introvert should try to act more like an extrovert, not at all. I know how excruciating that can feel. But to practice – well, I really do get better at socializing the more I socialize. Sometimes I need to break out of my inward-focused bubble and think about other people more. And refusing to always use introversion as an excuse is a good first step in that.

So is advice that’s good enough for Mr. Darcy good enough for me? Why, yes, it is – thank you, Elizabeth!

 

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The Best Kind of People to Hang Out With

quotables button

Anne smiled and said, “My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.”

“You are mistaken,” said he gently, “that is not good company, that is the best.”

Persuasion, Chapter 16, by Jane Austen

Mr. Elliot gets a lot of things wrong in Persuasion, but this is one thing he gets right.

Sometimes I think I am too much like Anne Elliot. Yes, in being too reserved, quiet, and worst of all, far too passive – but also in what I think is ‘fun.’ A evening in a quiet coffee shop with interesting people can be more exciting than the wildest party – not that I ever would draw away from a party, especially one filled with “clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation.” I love people who have opinions and who can tell me stuff I never knew, even if I disagree with them. If I’ve never heard it before, it’s highly exciting to listen to it. If I am at all like Anne Elliot, I am not ashamed of looking for stimulating and thought-provoking people to hang out with, at the very least.

What is good company to you?

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Filed under Jane Austen, Quotables

Secret Admirers Don’t Exist

“I have a secret secret admirer. Not only is her identity a secret—but so is the fact that she admires me.”

Jarod Kintz, This Book Title is Invisible

It’s a bit of an awkward admission to make, but every once in a while, I need to give up on a guy more quickly. I think most girls have a tendency to do this – hang onto hope that the guy might actually have an interest in you, even if he’s given you zero sign of it. At some point, you just have to face the central premise of He’s Just Not That Into You. That is, that far too many fairytales, romance novels and chick flicks have trained us to think that maybe, just maybe, the guy has a secret flame for you. Even though he doesn’t show it.

(I don’t recommend that movie, by the way. It’s just barely okay, not to mention the fact it completely subverts the message it pretends to be sending, by ending the way it does.)

But really, does anything show better how rarely romantic fiction matches up with reality? (I wrote about this before). Worse yet, if we don’t realize it’s not reality, we’ll trick ourselves into thinking in unhealthy ways. Sometimes, in fiction, ridiculous situations are necessary because they make a good plot. But you can’t let them raise expectations – and I don’t just mean expectations that a tall, dark and handsome stranger will drop out of the sky and declare he is in love with you.

So, take the Hunger Games. I had no idea this book was so focused on romance, given the fact it appears to be about kids forced to act as gladiators and kill each other, but it is. Apparently, for eleven years Peeta was in love with Katniss and never said anything to her. This makes a very good plot! Katniss finds out she’s in the ring, ready to kill a guy who is apparently devoted to her, and she actually figures out a way to play this angle to her advantage. Then the author makes the tried-and-true move of adding in another guy waiting for her back home, and makes the situation a genuine love triangle. Very good plot! Bear any resemblance to reality? Not really. If Peeta didn’t have the guts to say anything to Katniss before, how did he suddenly get the nerve to say something in front of millions of people on national television?

Okay, so Hunger Games fans might jump on me here and say it makes perfect sense. But my point is, people read that and start to hope that guy they’ve never talked to might secretly have a crush on them back! You know, they were just to shy to say so! In this case, I’d like to present the character of Romeo as a counter-example. Strange, but I’m going to use Romeo and Juliet as an example of more-realistic fiction for once. Romeo starts off the play as a secret admirer of Rosalie, but can’t work up the nerve to talk to her. He just can’t. All he can do is moon from afar. And then he meets Juliet, forgets about Rosalie completely, and never does talk to her in the end. Yes, I’m saying I think it’s far more likely the guy will meet someone else he actually can talk to, before devoting himself to secret admiration for years on end.

To pick another work of literature as an example, let me bring up Mansfield Park again. In Mansfield Park, Henry Crawford makes the mistake of trying to make Fanny Price fall in love with him, and instead falls in love with her! Oh, the drama! Don’t we all wish that jerk who’s been breaking all the hearts of the women around us would fall in love with us, just so we have the chance to teach them a lesson? Fanny is, of course, far too modest to realize Henry Crawford has fallen for her, which is the only reason she doesn’t notice he has, because everyone else around her does. She is completely blindsided when he tells her how her feels (and he is completely blindsided that she doesn’t feel the same way – their relationship is an interesting subversion of the Pride-and-Prejudice-plot). But really, unless you are far more modest than Fanny, you’d probably catch on faster than her. But if you think that jerk really doesn’t like you, you’re probably right. Don’t hope he’s trying to disguise a mad attraction.

What? Am I being a spoilsport here? Am I ignoring the fact that guys sometimes do need time to work up the nerve to say something? No, let me clarify. I mean if he’s never given you any sign of interest, you just gotta face reality, no matter what fiction might try to tell you. He might need time to work up his nerve, but if he takes eleven years, he’s not working up his nerve. He’s probably not even thinking of working up his nerve.

Therefore: secret admirers might exist, but not for long. They either say something or move along. 🙂

There you have it – another reason why fiction and real life differ. Agree or disagree?

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Filed under Hunger Games, Jane Austen, Misc. Books, True Romance

Top 5 Literary Couples

public domain

So if I complain about Romeo and Juliet, Twilight, et al., what literary couple do I think worthy of being in the “top five”? Clearly, ones with some sort of strong personality types, and some sort of relationship journey. I don’t necessarily think these couples have to be in “romance books,” because sometimes the best romance plots are side-plots to the main events of the story (and I think only a truly skilled writer can drag out the will-they-or-won’t-they? over an 80 000 word novel without boring the reader). Anyway, I thought I might as well come clean and tell you exactly which romances in fiction I enjoyed. The list below is in no particular order.

Wizard Howl and Sophie:

Oh, Howl’s Moving Castle! Have I mentioned before how much I love this book? Well, take a vain, heartless, irresponsible wizard (with a habit of breaking ladies’ hearts), and a shy hat-maker currently under a curse that turned her into an old woman, and tell me how they’re going to get along. Unfortunately for Howl, Sophie’s transformation gives her to courage to tell people exactly what she thinks – now she’s only a crotchety old woman, after all. Even more unfortunately, Howl’s next conquest is set to be one of Sophie’s sisters, whom Sophie has fiercely groomed for adventure (not a broken heart) from her youth.

Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett

If you’ve been following my blog at all, you knew this one was going to be on the list, didn’t you? Jane Austen is one of the few authors who can make her characters agonize over does he like me or doesn’t he? for chapters, without making said character absolutely annoying. Darcy and Elizabeth both have faults they have to overcome, and it’s pretty clear by the end of Pride and Prejudice that they will still have to struggle with these faults for the rest of their life, even if they have found happiness.  Also, I like a couple who can disagree and work through it. I’m starting to realize more and more how many people shy away from disagreements, and how sometimes you need to just face that disagreement if you want to have any kind of relationship at all. Yes, I need a guy who won’t let me think I’m always right. 🙂

Gilbert Blythe and Anne Shirley

Anne Shirley breaks her slate over Gilbert’s head, because he had the nerve to call her “carrots” – is there any more iconic moment to the whole Anne of Green Gables series? From that moment on, readers just knew Anne and Gilbert were meant for each other. (I also loved Anne’s struggles through the series between her “friendship” feelings for Gilbert, and her ideas of what “falling in love” should be like. I think this is something many a girl has struggled with – and we all know guys who complain about being stuck in the “friend zone”)

Faramir and Eowyn

And now a couple from Lord of the Rings – surprise! It doesn’t include Aragorn.

I’ve always loved Eowyn. Her complaint to Aragorn of being a bird in a gilded cage, her disguise as Dernholm, her “But no living man am I!” defiance to the Witch-King… Lord of the Rings has very few strong female characters, but Eowyn more than makes up for it. I was SO surprised she ended up with Faramir, because if you read the books before you’ve seen the movies, you know Arwen doesn’t really show up as a character at all. Eowyn and Aragorn have all the interaction, and I thought in the end she would overcome his reluctance. (You don’t find out till the appendix that it’s not reluctance, but Aragorn is in love with Arwen the whole time.) But despite not expecting her to end up with Faramir, I really enjoyed reading about how they got to know each other, and “The Steward and the King” is one of my favourite chapters in the book. Faramir is another great, complex character in Lord of the Rings, so it made sense for them to get together. Also, Eowyn starts to realize by focusing so hard on her idea of what perfection in a man should look like, she is missing out on the decent, honourable man standing right in front of her.

I was SO sad they cut this part out of the movie, but I guess they couldn’t have done it justice!

Tommy and Tuppence

Agatha Christie has been knocked before for flat characterization, and I’ve never understood why because for most of her novels her characterization is perfectly serviceable to the plot. The focus is the mystery, after all. Despite this, I think she does have some characters in her 60+ novels that stick out, and two of these are Tommy and Tuppence. Take the first lines of The Secret Adversary:

“Tommy, old thing!”

“Tuppence, old bean!”

That gives you a pretty interesting intro to these two. Tuppence is a clever, broke, and not-very-good typist, who is forthright about her plans to marry a millionaire. Tommy is your stereotypical English bloke. They’re both survivors of WWI who returned to England to find there’s no jobs for veterans. So what do they do? Start fighting crime, of course.

There may be more of them that I missed. Have you read any of the above, and do you think I missed any important couples?

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Filed under Anne of Green Gables, Howl's Moving Castle, Jane Austen, Lord of the Rings, Misc. Books