Tag Archives: Jane Austen

The Books You Fight With

Jane Austen’s been in the news a lot lately, due to her death happening two hundred years ago. As with most occasions Austen is mentioned, discussion turns to ranking her books. Pride and Prejudice is apparently preferred by the popular vote, while Emma is lauded by the critical vote. And I have no argument with this—I’d put one or the other of those at the top myself, except—what book do I find myself meditating on the most? Which one do I wrestle with, and spend hours studying thematically and artistically? It’s not my favourite book, but it has the power to haunt my thoughts more than all the others combined. It’s Mansfield Park.

Does this mean it’s the best one?

Some books you’d never choose as your favourite, but they’re the ones with the power to haunt your thoughts. And a book with that kind of power is perhaps more genius than we want to give it credit for. So maybe we should recognize some of the books we fight with more than we do.

This is not to say these books are perfect. Often it’s some of their very flaws that cause us to wrestle with them so deeply. I, for one, will never forgive Mansfield Park for ending with the very same scandal as Pride and Prejudice (though Jane Austen is really not to be blamed—how many exciting societal events did she really have to work with for the climaxes of her novels?) Flaws are part of the reason, but not the whole reason. For instance, I fight with the protagonist’s (Fanny’s) passivity every time I read it. But I can’t shake the feeling her passiveness means something. I can’t shake the feeling this novel displays something more fundamental about Austen’s worldview than all the others. In which case, it might be some of her most important work.

And I get this feeling when I read That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis as well.

Just like with Mansfield Park, among the people that know such a book exists, opinions are divided between those who highly dislike the novel, and those who love it. It was while discovering my brain was stuck in a loop pondering the message of this book, actually, that I realized the books we fight with might have more power over our thoughts than the ones we love.

Because we love easy-to-understand. We love comforting concepts. But the ideas we may need to grapple with are not always easy or comforting.

For example, I need to consider whether passivity and helplessness, as Fanny shows in Mansfield Park, does have value. Despite my modern context screaming at me about the value of assertiveness and standing up for yourself, I need to not despise Fanny for not being ‘modern’ in this way.

When it comes to That Hideous Strength, I need to accept it’s not going to feed me comforting ideas that I really like, as the first book in the trilogy did (Out of the Silent Planet). Sure, I may have issues with some of the plot, and the time spent with unlikable characters, and the possibly ludicrous events that happen. But what I may be avoiding thinking about by doing this is how much some of these unlikable characters resemble me. Or worse—how I’d like some of the unlikable protagonists to be squashed like a bug because they remind me of unlikable people I personally know—but the novel shows them grace. So I should maybe do so too.

I’d go into the plot more but this book is so obscure for a C.S. Lewis book that I don’t know how many of you will have heard of it. I’ll just say check it out if you like his work. My brain thinks about it more than all my other favourite parts of the Space Trilogy.

So start appreciating those books you fight with. They’re at least as powerful as your favourites.

Drop me a line below about which books these are for you!

 

 

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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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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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Stories and Stuff’s Top Posts in 2013

Three years in and this blog is still going strong! And that’s all thanks to all of you, my dear readers, who keep coming back and reading, commenting and sharing. Virtual confetti, balloons and champagne to all of you! Here’s a summary of the top five most popular posts Stories and Stuff had this year:

 1.) Creativity is the Residue of Time Wasted

Creativity – we all want it, we’d all like to know how to have more of it. This was clearly a pithy little quote that explained creativity in a way a lot of people liked.

 2.) Ranking Jane Austen – Is It Possible?

Jane Austen – an ever-fresh topic, no matter what the year. My Jane Austen vignettes were popular this year as well, even though I didn’t get around to publishing a new one in 2013.

 3.) Abusing Punctuation: The Ellipses…

I guess everyone loves rule-breakers, and here’s my post about my addiction to this piece of punctuation.

 4.) Tolkien’s “Take That!” to Shakespeare

We all remember being forced to read Shakespeare in school, and hating it. So clearly this post about one of our favourite authors, J. R. R. Tolkien, taking a stab at bettering Shakespeare struck a chord with readers.

 5.) “You Too?” What Friendship Is, and Why It’s So Hard to Find

That “moment of connection” that’s so necessary to friendship, as C. S. Lewis explains it, and my own take on how I fail sometimes when it comes to this area of friendship. And anyway, we all wish we understood this whole friendship thing better.

So this list features Jane Austen, J. R. R. Tolkien, AND C. S. Lewis… regular readers of my blog will not be surprised! (And, oh look, I abused another ellipsis in that last sentence!) The rest of the list covers aspects of good writing: how to be creative, how to write on friendship, and what a good long sentence without an ellipsis might look like.

In conclusion – thank you so much for supporting this blog in 2013 (and buying my ebooks too – I know some of you did!), and I wish you all the very best in 2014! Happy 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

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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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Reactions to an Engagement – ‘Mansfield Park’ fanfiction

No, ‘Jane Austen fanfiction’ is not my new replacement for Why Polly?, but it is for this week. I wrote this quite a while ago, but I held off on posting it so it wouldn’t interrupt Why Polly?. This is a short fanfiction of Mansfield Park, from Mary Crawford’s point-of-view (remember – the girl who Edmund was in love with but was so wrong for him?) Mansfield Park is one of the lesser-read novels of Jane Austen, so it’s not a huge surprise if you haven’t read it, though I recommend all of Austen’s novels. If you’ve read it, I also spewed out my thoughts on the book previously, in Rant About Mansfield Park.

Reactions to an Engagement

It is a terrible plague to mean to be rich, yet to have fallen for a man who is not.

Why couldn’t Edmund have been rich? Why couldn’t he have at least been the eldest? Or possessed some yearning to increase his income, or to go into some profession that was guaranteed to raise his prominence and expand his style of living?

I looked out the window, down at the rainy streets of London below. A dull day. Nobody about, nothing going on. There was nothing to do but sit here with my own thoughts, and some of my thoughts were rather too painful.

No, better yet, I ought not to have fallen in love with Edmund in the first place. He was so unlike the usual sort of man that attracted me! So invulnerable to all my teasing, so steady and calm, so contented with the country and the lack of stylish amusements it afforded. Insensitive to my teasing he might’ve been, but he had not been insensitive to my charm. Indeed – the months I had spent at the Parsonage had been some of the happiest of my life. To see his gaze soften with admiration as I played that favourite air of his on my harp… But while I had enjoyed his company, I would’ve been better off not to have fallen in love with him. Why had I?

I truly hadn’t intended for such a thing to happen. Usually I select my conquests with care, and judge whether I will succumb to their charms after much contemplation. Edmund was extraordinary to work his way into my affections before I had half-realized it.

Yet for several briefs moments this past year, I had thought maybe I was more tired of the amusements of the city than I realized. That perhaps wealth and consequence, though I had never had either, were not as engrossingly important as I had always imagined. For several moments I had thought so – thought perhaps I could adjust to Edmund’s quiet country-parson’s way of life. Until I stepped back into the bustle of London, and I knew I could never give such amusements up.

There is nothing more terrible than to love and yet know you yourself are the reason the love must be given up.

Not that I had had such a choice. Edmund had turned away from me with a hard heart and hardened eyes, and nothing I could do could make him change his mind. Perhaps it was best to know that now – to know if I had married him I could never have convinced him to spend some months in London, or drive a more stylish carriage, or to seek more fashionable acquaintances. Still, it stung me to my very soul that he had made the decision to break off the potential of anything between us, not I. I might not care so very much if I had felt I had taken control in the deciding.

Oh, I am a failure even at attempting to fool myself. There is no way I could have convinced myself to give such a man as Edmund up, no matter how miserable I should be.

So could I convince myself things were better this way?

Last that I had heard, Edmund was courting his cousin, Fanny Price. Fanny Price! If nothing else had illustrated the impassable gulf that existed between him and me, this did – the fact that he could be consoled after giving me up by a girl such as Fanny. That insipid, shy, retiring shadow of a girl, whose acquaintance I had persistently pursued for so long because I knew how important she was to Edmund! Long had I pursued the acquaintance, without feeling I knew the girl a whit better than before the acquaintance had begun. Such a quiet girl! Yet one who might speak her opinion on moral matters quite decidedly if pressed, and stick to it to a surprisingly degree – a degree no one would have predicted, from her otherwise obliging temperament. Fanny Price’s fastidiousness had ruined everything for my brother – and perhaps now she would ruin everything for me.

What? Was I still clinging to a shred of hope? It did not matter if Edmund married or did not marry Fanny Price. He’d made it clear he would never come back to me.

It was time for me to fling myself into society again, to distract myself with admirers, to appear light-hearted and charming to all who laid eyes on me. And I had been doing so until this day, and until this moment of dullness and silence I had convinced myself I had forgotten everything that had passed in Mansfield Park. But I knew now that none of the unattached society men would hold a candle to Edmund’s steadiness, his earnest ability to convey to a lady how very much he felt for her by a mere glance of his eyes. There was something in making a man such as him admire you! Fanny Price should know how much she had gained!

Yes, she likely did. I could not accuse her of presumption, but she must’ve at least been in love with Edmund for some time.

I was a fool, but as long as he was single, I did have hope.

At that very moment, my brother, Henry, entered the room.

“It is over, Mary,” he said.

Not his flirtations, that was for certain. He had thrown himself into his usual pattern of behaviour with a vengeance, and without seeming much more contented as a result of it. A certain class of respectable women avoided him, of course, but there were enough willing to associate with him to distract him. Except it looked as if he was as difficult to distract as I was.

He handed me a society paper. “Edmund Bertram has announced his engagement to Fanny Price.”

I lifted my eyes to his face. “She has got him at last, then.”

It was only the anguished look on my brother’s face that convinced me it was true.

“I still love her, Mary,” he said. His hand found the arm of the chair behind him, and he sunk himself down into it. “I didn’t think it was possible – I still love her.”

I had never thought it possible either, that my brother could ever lose at the game he played so well. That there’d every be a soul among all the ladies he juggled that would make him regret he could not convince himself to drop the others. Lost? Oh yes, my brother had lost. He is not the sort to love often, perhaps never more than once. And he knows reforming, even were he able to attempt it, would do nothing to win the heart of Fanny Price, nor raise his character in her eyes.

Oh why, oh why had the Crawfords ever gone in among the Bertrams and the Prices? They exposed the folly we could not stop clinging to. And neither of us were the better for having met them.

My heart twisted inside my chest. Edmund was to be married. Henry and I had both played and lost. Life made it clear we could not have everything we wanted, and we’d learned our priorities well.

If only such priorities did not look so dreary and monotonous on their own.

 

 

If you enjoyed Reactions to an Engagment, I also previously wrote a short piece on Emma – called Not Emma.

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