Category Archives: Jane Austen

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

Let’s Just Blame the Plot on Someone’s Sex Drive

The Problems with Leaving Romance up to “Overwhelming Attraction”

The Kiss

‘The Kiss,’ by Francesco Hayez

You know what I hate? I hate when romantic comedies or romance novels set up a perfectly good antagonistic relationship between two main characters (you know, where they take an instant dislike to each other, like in the beginning of Pride and Prejudice), and then easily overcome this obstacle by making them realize their mad attraction for each other. The characters go from screaming at each other from across the room, to climbing all over each other and unable to tear themselves away. Okay, I’m not going to argue it’s unrealistic. I know hormones can make people do crazy and unbelievable things (whether that’s a unjustifiable excuse for anything is another topic, but hey, I’m saying I know it happens). But I hate it when an author makes a sex drive over-rule everything that came before. The author spent half the book showing us how the characters can’t get along. And now we’re supposed to believe it’s all solved because the two had one make-out session in some deserted hallway or something?

I hate it because it’s lazy. I don’t care how realistic it is, it’s like the author realized they did their job a little too well and it seems impossible to justify that their two characters ever will get together. In Pride and Prejudice, it takes Elizabeth chapters and chapters for her to realize she’s misjudged Mr. Darcy. But if you don’t want to write chapters and chapters of someone’s internal thoughts, struggling to make them seem believable, you can just throw hormones into the mix, because isn’t that reality? I guess for me the problem is, in this case, that reality is unrealistic. And I want to read about how people process their changing opinions. Good fiction, for me, is opening a window into characters’ minds, not having characters jerked about by uncontrollable urges, random environmental events (like an earthquake from nowhere), or deus ex machinas. It just feels lazy. Real life doesn’t have a plot either, but fiction is pretty boring without one.

I guess it also doesn’t tell me anything about the characters, other than the fact they have a sex drive like everyone else. Part of the reason I enjoy well-written­ romance is because the interaction between two characters reveal more and more what the characters are like. For better or worse, they can’t hide who they are, and the other has to decide if they’re up for putting up with that or not. If you short-cut the process by throwing in “overwhelming attraction,” you end up with the kind of romance novels people laugh – cookie-cutter, cliché, with the main characters indistinguishable from the main characters of every cookie-cutter novel.

This is even worse in fanfiction. It’s shooting fish in a barrel to complain about fanfiction, because most writers are clearly amateur, but I have to bring it up anyway. (And yes, sometimes I do have to spend more time with characters after a book or movie is over, and passably written fanfiction is one way to do it. That, or write fanfiction myself – see my one-shots of Jane Austen). The basis of too much fanfiction is romantic relationships between characters that had no romantic relationship in the original work. So the antagonistic relationship, or even a lack of any relationship at all, is already set up for the would-be fanfiction writer. The problem now is to write the characters into an understanding. But what reason can you give to make enemies overcome their differences? Oh, just throw in a sex drive and everything will work itself out.

It’s even worse with characters that are supposed to be pretty emotionless already, like Sherlock Holmes or Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. I’m not saying you can’t write a pretty convincing story about them falling in love. It’s just going to take a lot of effort. A lot of believable plot events that make the characters re-evaluate everything they thought they knew about themselves. If Sherlock Holmes finds himself kissing Irene Adler or something, he’s not going to throw himself into a passionate relationship with her. He’s going to freak out. After all, Doctor Watson clearly says, “[Holmes] never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer — excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results.” Don’t you see – if such a thing were to happen, Sherlock Holmes would be in danger of no longer being Sherlock Holmes. It would throw his whole mental processes in doubt, and his mental processes are the basis of the Sherlock Holmes character.

And yes, I’ve read a few too many novels that have had this problem. Have you? Agree or disagree? Thoughts?

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Why Some Girls Like Mr. Darcy

Mr Darcy {{PD-US}}

Maybe this post should actually be called ‘why I like Mr. Darcy,’ but I flatter myself these reasons might be shared by other females.

Mr. Darcy gets a lot of flak from guys. He’s just some woman’s imagination of the perfect guy, no real guy acts like that, women in general should just grow up and settle for reality (etc., etc.) And, well, some reasons for liking him are a little flimsy. He’s good-looking? Well, he’s a literary character, so you get to imagine him as good-looking as you like (and while the novel does describe him as handsome, the bad boy of the book, Wickham, is called more handsome). You could point out he’s rich, or that he’s well-mannered, but run the risk of being called mercenary, or looking like you want every guy to throw his coat over a puddle for you. No, there’s several very good reasons for enjoying Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, and I shall list them below.

He’s Bad at Talking to People

When I first read Pride and Prejudice, I really had no idea what it was about or what exactly was going to happen, but this part is what first gave me some fellow feeling for Mr. Darcy in the novel. Elizabeth is teasing him for being so quiet at the dance she first met him at (she accuses him of pride, which was partly the reason.) And he replies, “I certainly have not the talent which some people possess, 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.”

Oh, Mr. Darcy, you too? A man described as handsome and rich, who still fumbles around in conversations with strangers? Well, then, I feel a bit better at possessing this flaw myself. If you can’t think of anything to talk about, why should someone so much less interesting as myself, ever be good at it? You don’t know how many times I’ve stood across from someone for many long, awkward minutes, with my mind going a mile a minute and still not having a word to say. While everyone around me can strike up a conversation without any effort at all.

I’m afraid I come off rude sometimes too, without meaning to be. Hopefully I don’t come off as proud. That’s what everyone Elizabeth knows first thinks of Darcy.

Yes, Jane Austen gave me something to relate to in her hero, and this is one big reason I can get on board with the whole Pride and Prejudice fan bandwagon.

He Actually Makes a Move

Mr. Darcy does not wait around ninety percent of the book, too scared to find out what the heroine thinks of him (which too many romance novels do). Jane Austen is not fumbling around for some device to drag out her plot, and does not decide to make him get this close to saying something to Elizabeth, before being frustratingly interrupted. No, he actually gets up and walks over to where Elizabeth is staying, and asks her to marry him. (Okay, it’s be a bit strange if a guy who liked you just straight-up proposed to you nowadays, but at least Elizabeth isn’t in the dark about how he feels). And – take note of this, guys – he does get brutally shot down. But at least he took the risk. And the plot moves on!

When females try to explain to males what Mr. Darcy’s attraction is, they don’t often explain this, but I think it plays a role. None of this ‘secret admirer for years’ stuff. He’ll actually tell you to your face how he’s feeling.

He’s Flawed

This might be a point for the writer in me, but I love how Mr. Darcy is not a perfect paragon of virtue, and it is his very flaws that separate him from Elizabeth for most of the novel. They always tell writers that heroes that are too perfect are boring to read about. Yet, for some reason, romance novels still keep pulling out endlessly romantic and caring dudes with rippling abs. Even when the heroine gives the guy ample reason to throw in the towel! But no, this guy is sincere and loves the girl for who she is… blah, blah, blah.

Anyway, this point directly contradicts the charge that Mr. Darcy is “too unrealistic.” I’ll admit finding a good-looking, virtuous guy who also happens to be rich is stretching things a little far, but the fact he has flaws makes him more believable. He can’t quite take a joke, not even by the end of the novel. And he is proud. He tones it down a bit by the end, but he has pride in spades. This gets toned down a bit in the movie adaptions, I think (at least in the Keira Knightley one), but for a long time he was not ashamed at all for breaking up Jane and Bingley because he really thought Jane was beneath Bingley. He actually, while proposing to Elizabeth, spends a long chunk of time describing how he’s lowering himself to do so (you wonder why she shot him down, huh?) In his letter to her, he still insists he did right by Bingley. And by the end, he still can’t quite take all of Elizabeth’s teasing, as I mentioned before.

At least he’s consistent. “Love” doesn’t turn him into the opposite of everything he’d been throughout the book before – unfortunately, I’ve seen this happen in too many novels before too.

Anyway, there’s my two cents on that. Are there any more reasons you can add?

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Rant About Jane Austen’s ‘Mansfield Park’

(public domain)

So, I don’t usually do book reviews on this blog, but Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is so frustrating, I just have to vent about it somewhere. If you haven’t read it or what to avoid spoilers, don’t worry, you can skip this post.

Mansfield Park is a book that has had love and hate poured out on it over the years (probably more hate than love). I didn’t know this when I first read it, I just picked it up because it said ‘Jane Austen’ on the front. And anything by Jane Austen is highly superior, if only because of her adept writing style. But Mansfield Park is, well, frustrating – the first time I read it I thought it was because I didn’t like how it ends (the climax – spoiler! – is exactly the same as in Pride and Prejudice, but with slightly different results), but now I think it’s just frustrating the whole way through.

Pride and Prejudice – Corrupted?

To me, Mansfield Park is like a corrupted version of Pride and Prejudice. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy change for the better because they met each other, but in Mansfield Park it’s like Jane Austen decided to warn all those impressionable young girls out there that people rarely do change. Nobody fundamentally changes in this novel. The main character, Fanny Price, remains steadfastly quiet and shy the whole time, and she is vindicated in the end when her unfavourable opinion of Mr. Crawford turns out to be right (instead of, say, a prejudice like Elizabeth’s opinion was). It’s like Jane Austen’s saying – girls, don’t believe what I said before about men changing because of love for you. They don’t change. And if you think a man is a cad, you’re probably right. Don’t let him convince you otherwise. Which might be perfectly true in reality, and probably is a good lesson for all romance readers out there. But in a novel, where character arcs are important, it requires that what appears to be a character arc for Henry Crawford (and Mary Crawford too), to be chopped off and revealed to be a non-arc. It also requires for there to be no character arc for Fanny, and none for Edmund either.

Also, in Pride and Prejudice, the two central couples are matched up happily. In Mansfield Park, only one couple is, leaving the two leftover spares to misery. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy steps up when Lydia runs away with Wickham, and saves the Bennet family from shame. In Mansfield Park, no one saves the Bertram family from shame, though the result is that Edmund is free to marry Fanny.

So, corrupted version of Pride and Prejudice? It seems so to me – even Mary Crawford is like an exaggerated version of what Lizzy would be like if she were a little bit too free with her tongue. (And had more corrupted morals).

And What a Self-Assertive Main Character!

Most of the hate for this book centres around Fanny, and I have to admit, she is a problematic main character. Any time you make a shy, passive person the main character of the novel, you risk making the reader annoyed because they don’t do anything. But while I realize it limits the novel, I don’t absolutely hate Fanny, because I share enough similarities with her. I am a shy introvert myself, who really should take initiative more often, but just don’t have the guts. I will sit back in a room full of noisy people and watch them, and notice all the little ways they are hurting and irritating each other, when they themselves don’t even realize it. I guess I have strong moral principles too, and while I don’t understand her objections to acting in a play, I do understand her objections to accepting the attention of a man she knows plays with women’s hearts. In fact, I really would like to love Fanny. I like it when introverts get their due. Which just leads to frustration when her passivity gets in the way of advancing the plot.

The Honourable Romantic Hero

And another reason the book frustrates me is Edmund. I know he is honourable, upright, and all the rest of it, but he is also bland and boring. More than any of Jane Austen’s other heroes, his good qualities appear to be more informed attributes. She never really makes it clear why Fanny is so in love with him, other than the fact they grew up together and he is the only one who notices her once in a while. Anyway, it is difficult to cheer for a romantic hero who spends ninety-nine percent of the book chasing after another woman who is all wrong for him. And perpetually forgetting Fanny because of it, though Fanny is apparently too used to being taken for granted to care. But the reader notices!

Sorry, No Hope Here

But my biggest frustration is that I have: that there is no hope for Henry Crawford and Mary. This is the way the book has to end, and after re-reading it several times, I see redeeming them would completely ruin the main point of the story. But it is so sad for them! They are likeable people, Jane Austen makes sure of that. They are not like Mrs. Elton in Emma, whom you would love to see being taken down a notch or two. But Henry Crawford abuses women’s affections abominably, and to let Fanny fall in love with him would make it seem like that fault doesn’t really matter. Also, she would probably never make him happy because she doesn’t possess the nerve to stand up to him. If he trotted off to flirt with other women after they got married, she would hardly have the ability to protest that it makes her miserable. So I can’t see the book ending in any other way, but I wish for the Crawfords’ sake that they could somehow learn from their mistakes. That they wouldn’t just let their blindness, bad morals and folly ruin their lives. This leave me with a frustrating, unfinished feeling when I reach the end of the book – and if there has to be more to the story that will tie up these loose ends. As if a sequel is begging to be written.

So there you have it – all my thoughts on this book out on paper. A quick search of Jane Austen sites on the net will show there are many, many more people frustrated with this book, for a variety of reasons. But I will say, I don’t regret reading it, or re-reading it again and again, because it is of Jane-Austen-quality. Her worst book (and I don’t know if this is her worst) is better than many authors’ best. I also really, really want to like Mansfield Park. And large chunks of it are very enjoyable. That, of course, just makes it more frustrating.

What about you? Have you read Mansfield Park, and what did you think of it?

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Happy Endings vs. Sad Endings

Darcy and Elizabeth. {{PD-US}}

And Everything In Between

Endings are one of the hardest things for me to write. Obviously, I feel the weight of the readers’ expectations—hey, if anyone is reading this, they’re trusting me to end this satisfactorily! And I’ve read so many books where a so-so ending kept the book from becoming great.

But both happy endings and sad endings have pitfalls. Happy endings can come off too unrealistic and gushy. But do a sad ending badly, and no one believes your tragedy. Even done well, a sad ending can be rather—depressing. Really, does nothing good ever happen in life?

As a reader, I’d probably pick the happy ending every time if I have a choice. I can skim over glurge, and have many times, but a sad ending to a book or even a movie can leave me stuck on how it ends for weeks. That’s the point of most sad endings, of course. But I can’t handle every book I read to impact me that much. And, of course, I like to believe that though there are so many terrible things in life, sometimes people end up being happy.

One example of a good happy ending is, I think, (spoiler alerts ahead!) Pride and Prejudice. Yeah, the couple does end up getting together and getting married and all those other cliché happy-ending tropes, but Lydia is still married to Wickham. Her mother is still a fool—endings that are too happy change everyone’s characters into unrecognizable versions of their previous personalities—and her father still has to put up with her (or hide in the library). And as for Elizabeth and Darcy themselves… well, Austen makes it very clear that Darcy has a way to go in managing his pride, so their marriage will not be heaven. But I think it’s exactly those kinds of shots of reality that keep happy endings from becoming, well, too unrealistic.

How shall we call those endings? Gritty-yet-happily-ever-after?

But I think the best compromise between a happy ending and a sad one is a bittersweet ending. When things in life are happy, they’re never completely happy. The best book example I can think of this is Lord of the Rings. The One Ring is destroyed and the Dark Lord is vanquished forever, but Frodo is never the same again. Most characters go on to become leaders or get married, or do something great, but there is something about the world that is changed forever. It’s probably the best mix of the readers’ hopes andcynicism that a novel can achieve.

 

Now, I should go study for exams again. Comment below on what type of ending you prefer!

***

Prince.CharmingLookin' GoodLooking for a story with an ending that won’t devastate you for days? I can promise you that if you find yourself mulling over my ebooks, Prince Charming or Lookin‘ Good, it won’t be because they leave you feeling gloomy on the inside. You can decide for yourself if the endings are happy or bittersweet!

 

Update: Lookin’ Good–a short, five-minute read–is now free at Smashwords.

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Filed under GENERAL Bookish Thoughts, Jane Austen, Lord of the Rings, On Writing

Do You Need to be Younger than 40 to Write Great Novels?

The other day, Little Brown Mushroom Blog linked to an article in the New York Times – an article which claims that most great novels are written by authors under the age of forty. The Little Brown Mushroom Blog was interested in this because they wanted to know if the same was true for photographers. I’m interested in this because I wonder if most great novels truly were written by authors under the age of forty.

Of course, I can’t deny the impressive array of evidence in The New York Times – novels including The Great Gatsby, Moby-Dick, and The Sun Also Rises (unfortunately, I haven’t read every one of these novels, so I’ll go along with the consensus view that all of them are ‘great.’) But I thought a good experiment would be to look at a selection of my favourite books, and find out at what age the authors wrote them.

Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien
According to Wikipedia, Tolkien started ‘a new Hobbit’ in 1937, which means he was around forty-five when he started writing it. He didn’t finish till twelve years later. Well, if he could put out three massive tomes of epic fantasy despite being the ancient old age (in writer’s years) of forty-five, there’s hope for all of us. (All of us who are brilliant linguists and university professors, at least).

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by CS Lewis
It’s a bit fuzzy as to when exactly CS Lewis actually started The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but it seems most of it was written 1948-1949. So Lewis would’ve been around fifty years old. Fifty! Another writer bucking the trend! Unless it’s merely British university professor who are clever enough to do this…

Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones
Here’s a book I absolutely love, which is NOT written by a British professor. Honestly, I’ve read this book hundreds of times over without getting bored. So… it was published in 1986. Wikipedia has no information on when Diana Wynne Jones wrote it, but let’s take a guess and say she started it five years before that. Five years is a long time to write a book, but let’s exaggerate for the sake of fairness… if it took her five years she would’ve been… forty-seven! Well over the alleged age of author senility.

Emma, by Jane Austen
Shoot, she was only thirty-nine when she wrote this. Maybe it’s only fantasy authors who benefit from maturity.

Admittedly, The New York Times article’s point is not to claim there are no late-blooming authors, but rather to refrain from judging authors because they are young, since many younger authors are brilliant. I just needed to reassure myself that my talent doesn’t have a sell-by date. After all, the short story I’m currently working (set in Brazil, by the way) is refusing to end, and the novel I mentioned before has not made a ton of progress in a while. I might be forty before I write anything worthwhile. 🙂

What do you think – does an author’s age matter?

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Filed under Howl's Moving Castle, Jane Austen, Lord of the Rings, On Writing, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

The Pleasures of Re-Reading

Reading in bed, by Artotem. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution LIcense 2.0

Or, Surprise! I Actually Like This Book

Some novels can stand up to the pressures of being re-read over and over – Lord of the Rings, Howl’s Moving Castle, Pride and Prejudice – and get better and better each time I read them. To come back to them is like finding a comfortable old friend, to pay more attention to sections I merely skimmed over before, or to open my eyes wider and wider to the genius of the author. Other novels fail this test miserably. Still others that don’t seem all that great on their first reading actually improve once you’ve read them multiple times. I’m not sure why that is. Either sometimes the story benefits because I know exactly what the plot is and where the author is trying to go, or somehow all the little annoyances get less annoying the more I read them. Anyway, here are a couple of novels I’ve experienced this with – which just goes to show that not judging on first impressions extends to more than just not judging a book by its cover!

Emma, by Jane Austen:
You probably think I’m the biggest fan of this book, especially after posting that “missing chapter” on this blog last Saturday. Actually, for the longest time I never understood why so many fans of Austen’s work liked this book so much. Not that I thought it was exactly lesser quality of prose than anything else she wrote, but she seemed to demonstrate rather too well how little went on in the life of a well-bred young lady in that time period – how closed and confined her society really was. All Emma does is drive into town, or visit with her neighbours, or “cheer” her father’s spirits. I had nothing against the general plot, but I thought the author could’ve cut out some long passages of “nothing happens.”
Here is an example of what I mean by a book being better when you know where the author is going. The first read-through you are completely guided by Emma. But all those long passages of “nothing happens” are liberally sprinkled with clues that point exactly to the ending, and you have to be as blind as Emma to miss them. It is a joy to read them over and figure out what they all mean. Frank Churchill is not fixing Mrs. Bates’ spectacles merely out of the goodness of his heart!
I have to admit, it took me at least three read-throughs to appreciate this one, but now it has gone up my hierarchy of Jane Austen’s novels. All I can say is – worth the effort.

Good Wives, by Louisa May Alcott: 
This is the sequel to Little Women, and is in fact packaged in the same volume as Little Women in most editions. I actually read it long after I read Little Women, and thought it far weaker than Little Women, Little Men, or Jo’s Boys. Again, it took me three times reading it to appreciate it on its own.
*Spoilers ahead*   Surprisingly, it was not the much complained about fact that Jo does not marry Laurie that bugged me about this book. I don’t really mind that Laurie marries Amy instead. I never saw it coming, but I find their relationship relatively sensible. Professor Bhaer came way out of left field though, and I could not see him as a romantic interest (in fact, I still see him as a better husband and father than a romantic interest – not all good husbands make good heroes of romance novels, remember that!) And I had no idea why Jo went off with him to start a school, since to my younger self “starting a school” was unheard of – all schools I knew were institutions and not run by random individuals. In fact, probably most of my displeasure with the book came from reading Little Women when I was so much younger – I accepted Jo and Laurie as just good friends, and Jo as rather motherly towards him, and to see them hurting each other as a result of misplaced romance was just weird. And Beth dies, when the high point of Little Women is that she lives after her illness. And so on. I had to get over my preconceptions to fully enjoy it. And once I did, my opinion of it rose.

Two examples are probably enough for now. There’s plenty more books I have NOT been able to get into, despite the number of times I re-read them (I could never get into Emily of New Moon, despite loving the Anne of Green Gables series). Who knows, maybe I just have to re-read them a few more times.
What about you? What are your favourite books to re-read, and has re-reading a book ever changed your mind about it?

This post comes to you on Friday, not Thursday, which I think will become the regular schedule for this semester. Class-wise, it works much better for the next couple months. 

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Filed under Bookish Thoughts, Jane Austen, Misc. Books

The Trouble With Modern Romance

Romantic SunSet by Yusri Abd Halim. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

The trouble with modern romance novels is that our culture sees no reason for two people who are in love not to be together. This significantly cuts down on the potential for conflict in the novel. In comparison, Jane Austen had it easy.

I’m going to use Jane Austen as an example for a second, since pretty much everybody knows she wrote romance novels in the 1800s, and I can hardly be blamed for “spoiling the ending” of any of her novels (if a book’s been around for two hundred years, its ending is fair game for discussion – proven by the fact most classic novels are prefaced by an essay by some English professor or another, in which every single plot point of the novel is discussed. Seriously, if you don’t want the novel spoiled, skip those essays. You might want to skip the next two paragraphs of this post too).

Anyway, let’s start with Jane Austen’s most famous – Pride and Prejudice. Central conflict at the end: Lydia runs off with the dastardly Wickham, and Elizabeth thinks Darcy will never want to be seen with her family again because of the shame. Nowadays most guys couldn’t care less who your sister runs off with, so not a major conflict. Also, a major obstacle between Darcy and Elizabeth is that they’re in different classes. In real life, of course, class still effects relationships, but most of us would prefer to pretend we live in a world that doesn’t emphasize social standing anymore – making class struggle a touchy thing to handle in the dream-world of romance novels.

Then take Sense and Sensibility. Central conflict: the man Elinor is in love with is secretly engaged to someone else. Goodness, think of a reason that would cause someone nowadays to keep an engagement secret for four years (far longer than the guy was in love with the girl, too). I used to wonder why there were no modern versions of Sense and Sensibility, like there are of Pride and Prejudice, until I realized how hard the plot would be to update. And then take Northanger Abbey – the hero’s father forbids the match and throws the heroine out of his house. In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth is considered too lowly for Anne Elliot, and she’s persuaded to drop him by her father and her friend. Parents nowadays only wish they had that much influence over their children!!!

Jane Austen got her pick between secret engagements, class struggles, lack of fortune, parental disapproval… all valid reasons in Jane Austen’s day, but harder to make plausible now. A couple in a book or movie can meet cute, hang out, start kissing, and spent the night together before the end of a scene… and where does the story go from that? An “unexplained past” is the cliché solution, though the secret is never shocking enough to deserve being kept secret (because, of course, if the secret past is truly horrible, how will the main character ever be sympathetic? Seriously, the hero’s secret in the last novel I read was that once he’d illustrated romance novels in his spare time.) The other solution is jealousy of past girlfriends/boyfriends, co-workers, etc., which is tiresome and either makes one character look insecure, or makes the other look like a cad.

Which possibly is the reason for the multitudes of anemic chick flicks or novels where the whole plot could be solved in five minutes if the guy and the girl just talked to each other! No other option for conflict, so let’s just make them not talk. Which makes absolutely no sense – if the basis of a good relationship is good communication, how is the reader supposed to believe this couple’s going to last five minutes after “The End,” when they spent the whole time not communicating?

So in modern romance, where’s the conflict? No one’s stopping the couple from getting drunk and running to Vegas, except the couple themselves.

 Maybe that’s the key – the couple themselves. My guess is that romance novels have shifted from external conflict imposed by society, parents, lack of finances and so on, to internal conflict created by the people in the relationship. Certain aspects of character WILL create conflict, and make a good novel. Certain values of hero/heroine may delay progress of relationship, or past experiences may affect it. But a novel needs incredibly strong characterization to pull this off.

No wonder so many romance novels fail then – characterization is a tough thing to pull off. I’m not sure I succeed at it either. But it’s something to aim for.

What do you think – have changes in society made it harder to write romances, or easier?

 

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Filed under Jane Austen, On Writing, True Romance