Tag Archives: Emma

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 He’s stuck to some kind of outdated set of morals, and wants Emma to follow them too.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okay for a guy to call a girl out on something if she’s actually wrong about it – it’s not a symbol of patriarchy or an outdated moral code.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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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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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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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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Thoughts of Mr. Knightley, A Missing Chapter From Emma

And now for something completely different…

 

 

Author’s Note: I do not pretend I can write like Jane Austen. Aside from the fact she’s a genius at writing courtship novels, I could never write in that exact style of English, because the language’s changed since then. All the same, I’ve been obsessed with Emma lately, so I had to try something from Mr. Knightley’s point of view. This bit is inspired by the book, and not the movie, so hopefully you won’t be confused about any of the details I’ve included.

Of course, if you wish to know what happens next, read Chapter 49 of Emma.

 

Mr. Knightley’s Thoughts Upon Travelling to London

 “I should like to see Emma in love, and in some doubt of a return; it would do her good…”

He had said that. He, himself, had said that. So why should it be that he was very much in love, and certainly in doubt of a return?
The hooves of his horse thundered over the ground below him. He soon would be far from Hartfield, and all residents therein. Distance at this point in time was desirous and necessary, but he highly doubted any length of distance could fully settle the tumult of his soul…

He had almost kissed her hand – been the merest breath away from doing so, but something had held him back. Something in the way a blush had risen to her cheeks. A blush he’d seen a hundred thousand time before, from her precocious infancy to her full bloom of womanhood, but the last blush before this had been accompanied by a smile and a laugh, and been directed at Frank Churchill.

Frank Churchill – that dog!

He straightened in the saddle. All the bitterness of spirits could not be enough to excuse an uncharacteristic slump to his shoulders. He would learn to be indifferent. He would learn indifference enough that Emma would be free to smile at whomever she wished, without it so thoroughly affecting him.

London was only fifteen miles hence. He should be in there, in Brunswick Square, by evening. Then a pleasant evening with John and Isabella and the children should drive all thoughts of Hartfield from his mind. One could never fully concentrate on anything with those boys of John’s rampaging about.

His upper lip twisted. But now the road was empty. There were no such distractions around.

Emma! – Emma! – Emma, who was so dear to him, so heedless of her own faults, and yet so eager to do better. Always resolving to improve and always forgetting her resolve mere days after making it. How often it had used to amuse him! How far less amusing it was to watch those faults be worsened under the hand of a careless, foppish, flirtatious young man…

Still, at his encouragement, his, she had gone to see Miss Bates today. She put some value in his reproofs, that relieved his mind. Sound counsel had always held weight with her. This proved it still did, though not that she preferred sound counsel from any particular source. Least of all that of an old family friend.

That they could disagree and yet never cease to be friends – that was the pinnacle of it all. Far too many women of his acquaintance could not bear for their opinions to be crossed. Yet he could be irritated with Emma and she bore it with spirit. And he was not always right, he knew he was not always right. He could not support always being agreed with by a woman, or a woman who always needed to be agreed with by him.

Which was why of late he had begun to consider… Donwell Abbey felt very empty and cold despite the number of fire lit… he wished for light, lilting chatter to cheer his long evenings and drown out the thick silence…

But not such chatter as he had endured at Box Hill! Miss Woodhouse demands from each of you one very clever thing, indeed. His ears could not bear the words.

His gaze fell on the very fine stand of trees in the distance. It was far easier to think of a stand of trees than that disastrous party. There must be some good timber yonder in that stand. He wondered who could possibly own the lands hereabout.

Yes, indifference.

For thirty-seven years he had been indifferent. Thirty-seven years he had lived in peace, content with the knowledge he possessed an income which could support him, and could make life easier for his tenants. For a long time being known in the county as a “good landlord” had been enough. He had felt useful. He had contributed to the betterment of people’s lives, including that of his dear neighbours. He had grown used to ignoring the prophecies of the women of Highbury – “I declare, he will be married by midsummer,” or “she surely will not fail to catch his eye!”

He had been content to live by himself and mix with society at his leisure. There was a good amount of silliness in Highbury society, as there was any time one mixed a great number of disparate people together, but the majority of them were worthy souls. He had never seen any reason to be a snob, or hold himself above them. The only failing of the place was the scarcity of suitable companions for Emma.

Again. He would not wish to take back the moment Emma had been laid in his arms as a boy of sixteen, but he most assuredly would have paused if he had known the doubt that darkened his mind right now. The ease in which perfect contentment with his own society in his own house would suddenly turn to disgust at the dull creature he was on his own.

The ease in which a slim figure, the closest approximation of an accomplished young lady Emma could be without ceasing to be Emma, could slip herself into the centre of his daily routine, his conversations, his thoughts.

Those arching black brows over bright eyes, so warm with regard for him…

He’d admit to anyone he was fond of her. He’d sworn he’d do his best by her, the moment he’d heard the news her mother had passed away. She deserved a friendly hand to guide her when her overeager feet led her to stumble, and a neighbourly eye to watch out for her. But this – this prompting in his hear was to do more, far more, and he could not do that now, not while Frank Churchill –

He could wish Frank Churchill at the ends of the earth – at the bottom of the sea, if it meant he would be away from Highbury. He never wished harm against another man before. But now, he hated most of all how this disappointment caused him to be untrue to himself.

He would never be glib, like Frank Churchill.

He would let plain words speak for himself someday.

He could only pray to God that someday he would be granted the chance to say them.

He did not dare to allow himself to hope again, not until a certain letter of Mr. Weston reached him and he had read the postscript. Then he burst out –

“Jane, Jane, you will be a miserable creature!”

But, if he could do anything about it – not Emma.

***

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