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Austen 2014: Mansfield Park, Volume 2

In the novels we've already read this year, Austen frequently explores the very close relationships between sisters, perhaps unsurprisingly given her own very close connection with her sister Cassandra. Austen, however, also had a number of brothers, but, while she has featured brother/sister pairs previously, notably in Northanger Abbey, her closest look at the bonds that can form between them occurs in Mansfield Park. There are two prime examples here, both of which come to the fore in this section: William and Fanny Price and Henry and Mary Crawford. Notably, Austen estranges the Bertram brothers and sisters from each other, so that, while they interact with each other as a group--especially during Sir Thomas' long absence in Antigua--only Maria and Julia have a close one-on-one relationship, though that is strained much at times. Still, Tom seems to feel no special consideration for his two sisters, nor they him, and Edmund appears to be viewed by all as the dull, respecta…

Austen 2014: Mansfield Park, Volume 1

Yes, I've been delayed, but I must admit, some of the delay was of my own making. As I've mentioned before, I adore Mansfield Park, and I want to do it justice, so instead of powering through, I've been dawdling over it, as one might expect, and allowing my thoughts to wander all over the text. Perhaps some day I will do a year of Mansfield Park--the text is rich and varied enough to support it--but I must move on, as I have the week of Thanksgiving slated for Emma, and both the chill in the air and the gray skies indicate that we are not far from the feast. So, while I may want to linger longer, it is time to start discussing Mansfield Park.

Maria Bertram is a very good actress--too good, in fact. This observation is made by Fanny during the rehearsals of the Mansfield production of Lovers' Vows. What does it mean that Fanny observes Maria to be too good of an actress? I think we're meant to realize that Maria Bertram is always acting a role. Agatha is no more a c…

Austen 2014: Introduction to Mansfield Park

One can't write about Mansfield Park without first acknowledging the fact that it is just not that funny. Oh, there are definitely funny moments, and Austen's ability to create searing comic types does't abandon her, but it doesn't seem to me that Austen wants us to laugh at this book or at its characters. The comic villains create real pain, and the figures of fun we laugh at have real feelings. In a way, this is because the novel reflects the mindset and outlook of its heroine. Fanny Price lacks the wit and vivacity of Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse; she lacks the ironic detachment of Elinor Dashwood; she even lacks the inherent ridiculousness of naivety shared by Catherine Morland and Marianne Dashwood. Rather, Fanny is quiet, serious-minded, and meek. Indeed, as famously observed by Calvin Trilling, and as quoted in every piece about MP since, "Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park." The fact that this sta…

Austen 2014: Pride & Prejudice, Volume III and a Revised Schedule

Your humble blogger is ridiculously behind schedule. He knows this. Since his last post, he has completed a major (read: time-consuming) project at work, found and moved into a new apartment, and spent far too much time waiting for furniture delivery people who never arrived. However, he is also a rather stupidly optimistic man and is determined to do his duty, both to his three readers and to Austen herself. So, here's a revised schedule, with a bit of give, allowing for more flexibility.

By October 31: Three posts on Mansfield Park.
By November 30: Three posts on Emma.
By December 31: Two posts on Persuasion and at least one on "Lady Susan" and the other juvenilia.

The posts may be dispersed evenly throughout the month, or they may arrive in clusters, depending on the vagaries of life. While there is still hope that he will be able to cover the film adaptations, etc., etc., they may be very brief posts, if they appear at all, and may trickle well into 2015.

Business as…

Austen 2014: Pride & Prejudice, Volume 2

Now that we've read through Chapter 42, the desire to discuss the pivotal proposal and letter scenes is very strong. However, I'm going to stick to my guns and explore some of the less well-trod by-ways of this novel. As I mentioned on Twitter while reading through Volume 2 again, I was quite struck by something I'd never noticed before in this novel--an experience which I savor. In this case, what I noticed was Austen's interest in playing with two interwoven human faculties: memory and imagination.
Memory, wherein we recall past events, and imagination, which we use to visualize possible or impossible ones, are in some sense opposite yet complementary faculties of the human mind. However, the connection between the two is stronger than that, and Austen explores those interconnections in interesting ways.
A simple comment regarding Mrs. Gardiner's memory of the young Mr. Darcy is what first drew caught my attention to the way Austen is playing with these concepts.…

Austen 2014: Pride & Prejudice, Volume 1

For those who aren't sure of the volume delineations, Volume 1 ends with Chapter 23 (which features Mr. Collins' return visit to Longbourne), so I will be dealing with only that section in this post. Volume 2 ends with Chapter 42 (discussing Elizabeth and the Gardiners proposed visit to Derbyshire), and Volume 3 ends with, well, the end.

As I promised to try to focus on the less obvious things in these posts, I'm going to be ignoring many famous scenes and wonderful moments and and instead discuss Austen's verbiage--particularly her usage of the word "chance." Austen uses chance (or its opposite, mischance), by my count twenty-one times in P&P, and over half of those occur in this opening section. She uses it in two of is main meanings here, where it is a rough synonym for both "luck" and of "opportunity." I think this is telling, especially as she almost always uses it in connection with the idea of marriage. Seeing its various uses a…

Austen 2014: Introduction to Pride & Prejudice

When I planned my year-long Austen marathon, I didn't realize I'd be spending a full third of June away from home, so the schedule has rather gotten away from me. However, I allotted enough cushion time that I should be able to get back on track over the next few weeks or so, as we tackle Austen's most popular novel, and one of the most popular novels ever written: Pride and Prejudice. To attempt to write an introduction to one of the most read, studied, and influential novels ever is sheer folly. However, I promised to do so, and for what do we live, if not to make sport for our neighbors, and to laugh at them, in our turn?

When was it written? 

As with the two other "early" novels, Austen largely wrote Pride and Prejudice in the mid-late 1790's, meaning she was rough twenty-one when she completed it in its initial state, under the name First Impressions. She revised the work in 1811-12, changing to name to Pride and Prejudice in what was almost certainly a r…

Austen 2014: An Interlude -- Among the Janeites at the Jane Austen Summer Program

Last weekend, your humble blogger had the great pleasure of spending four days attending the second annual Jane Austen Summer Program (or JASP--I like to think of attendees as JASPers), organized by devoted Janeites among the faculty of UNC Chapel Hill's Department of English and Comparative Literature. The event, which blended lectures by scholars, group discussions, and Regency-themed entertainments, was focused on exploring--and perhaps reclaiming from relative disinterest--Austen's first published novel, Sense & Sensibility. But enough press release-style generalities: I'll give you the skinny on my first extended encounter with organized Jane Austen fandom. Spoiler alert: I'm already planning on going back next year.
But let's begin at the beginning. I arrived in Chapel Hill, a lovely city I look forward to exploring more in the future, on Thursday morning, and, in short order, met my on-line acquaintance Edward Scheinman, a UNC grad student who first aler…

Austen 2014: Sense & Sensibility, Volume 3 and Wrap-Up

Willoughby!!!

Okay, let me back up a bit.

This third volume seems designed to complicate and confuse the clearly established opinions we held about our characters. Elinor comes to realize how far Mrs. Jennings' good nature and kindness can go when confronted with a bad situation, and learns that, while she may be silly, she's a much better person than many of her more sophisticated acquaintances. Indeed, even Mr. Palmer improves upon acquaintance. While Elinor (and the narrator, which are often one and the same) rightly condemns his generally bad-natured behavior toward his wife and mother-in-law, she realizes that he is more complicated than simply a one-dimensional figure defined solely by his surliness. Of course, Marianne's reassessment of Colonel Brandon is the most important change of opinion as far as the plot is concerned, but it is Elinor's encounter with Willoughby that I feel must strike any reader as Austen's clearest attempt at giving everyone--even he…

On Comic Book and Super-hero Movies

A few weeks back, Dana Stevens, film critic at Slate.com and co-host of the excellent Slate Culture Gabfest, recorded one of her trademark Spoiler Special podcasts about Captain America: TWS. I recommend both of these podcasts series, in particular the Spoiler Specials, as they allow an intelligent, insightful film critic to chew over a recent movie without having to worry about giving anything away, since that's the whole idea. Anyway, on the CA:TWS podcast, Dana (we're friendly on Twitter, so I'll use her first name) discusses the movie with Forrest Whickman and admits that she is begrudgingly starting to accept that comic book and super-hero movies are here to stay and that her role isn't merely to dismiss them all out of hand (not that she did that, though I think she sometimes wished she could) but rather to separate the good from the bad. In my opinion, she's exactly right, but I don't think she goes quite far enough.

First, because I was a philosophy maj…

Austen 2014: Sense & Sensibility, Volume 2

Again, yes, late. I know, I know. Anyway...Austen!

While it is easy to take the two traits described in the title and ascribe one each to each of the Dashwood sisters, that is clearly an overly simplistic reading of the novel. Yes, Elinor is often guided by her good sense and Marianne frequently lets her romantic sensibilities overcome her, but they are both more than that. Elinor's distress upon seeing Marianne so hurt by Willoughby (and yes, I'll talk about him later, at length) is a clear demonstration of the strong emotional core that she contains, and Marianne's sense is stated flatly by the narrator when she introduces the character and is shown to us multiple times through her actions. Most notably, while she is sullen and often distant during this volume, either waiting for the letter from Willoughby that never arrives or reeling from the shock of his rejection, she still makes some effort at functioning in society, if only in a minimal capacity. She also demonstra…

Austen 2014: Sense & Sensibility, Volume 1

Yes, this is very late. Life, etc. Anyway, Austen!

There's a lot to cover in this first volume, and it's tempting to start with the Dashwood sisters' respective romances, but I'm more immediately struck by the sheer vulgarity of many of the characters who surround them. Sir John is welcoming and magnanimous, but ultimately full of sound and fury signifying very little, indeed. Mrs. Jennings, while almost certainly a kind and good-hearted woman, has possibly the worst manners in all of Austen. Lady Middleton, her daughter, is better only for two reasons: she is quiet, and she's terrified of seeming coarse. Clearly, she rebelled against her mother's model, but become so obsessed with appearances and status that she has absolutely nothing else to contribute, aside from some very obnoxious children. Mrs. Jennings other daughter, Mrs. Palmer, takes after her mother in terms of temperament and volume, and her husband is so embittered and angry as to resemble a viper.…

Austen 2014: Introduction to Sense & Sensibility

So, before we begin our second leg of Austen 2014, a few words of introduction regarding Austen's first published novel, and the first of the three that are most widely known, Sense & Sensibility. Remember, this is *an* introduction--not *the* introduction. In fact, while it is *my* introduction, there are almost certainly much better ones out there, and I encourage you to seek them out.

When was it written?

Because it was published in Austen's lifetime, we can be much more certain about the dates for S&S than we were for Northanger Abbey. (Which, did I ever mention, wasn't necessarily even Austen's own choice of title for that book? She always referred to it by the main characters first name--first Susan, later Catherine. Her brother named it when he prepared it for publication after her death. The same is true of Persuasion. But back to the matter at hand.) Austen wrote S&S in the 1790's as an epistolary novel, then revised it and published it anonymou…

Austen 2014: Northanger Abbey, Volume 2 and Wrap-Up

N.B.--As this is my final post on Northanger Abbey, the entire novel is fair game, so be warned: spoilers ahead for those of you who may not have finished.

Well, that was charming, wasn't it?

That may sound like damning with faint praise, but a charming novel--especially one that doesn't wear out its welcome--is not something to be underestimated. It's certainly not Austen's densest or most complicated work, but it's no less enjoyable for being relatively simple and straightforward. Indeed, Catherine meets Henry almost immediately, and, save for the ham-fisted interference of the odious John Thorpe, no real obstacle to their eventual union presents itself until the very end, at which point, as even the author concedes shortly thereafter in a different context, there are too few pages left in the book to believe the General's interference will long prevent Catherine and Henry's engagement. Moreover, the relative lack of side characters (there are really only…

Austen 2014: Northanger Abbey, Volume 1

N.B.--I will only be writing here about the first volume of Northanger Abbey, which concludes with Chapter 15, dealing with James and Isabella's engagement. While knowledge of the novel's resolution may inform my writing, I will try not to give away pertinent plot details unless unavoidable.

 The tone of each of Jane Austen's novels, I feel, can be graphed using three main co-ordinates: the characters of the heroine, the hero, and the heroine's confidante. Now, of course, this oversimplifies the situation, as Austen is far too complex and subtle an author to be graphed using any number of co-ordinates, but it's useful for comparison. For example, in Pride & Prejudice, it is the relationships that Elizabeth has with Darcy and her sister Jane, and, indeed, Darcy's assessment of Jane, that define much of how the novel progresses. In Sense & Sensibility, the structure is complicated by essentially having co-heroines, but that just makes the importance of th…