Thursday, December 25, 2008

God Bless Us Everyone

"Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him. He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!"

-from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Wishing you and yours a blessed and merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Great Reads for the Holidays

I admit that it is hard to get any reading done during the holidays. The shopping, the cooking and the parties all cut in to our already precious reading time. Nevertheless, there are some books that I try to squeeze in every year. Here are some of my favorite books to curl up with by the Christmas tree.

The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans

Though many modern Christmas stories tend to border on the sappy, the deeper meaning found in this book makes it a pleasant and thought provoking read. See my full review here.

Miracle on 34th Street by Valentine Davies

Not many people are aware that Davies, who wrote the screenplay for the classic holiday film Miracle on 34th Street, also penned a novella version of his story. This is a wonderful and different way to enjoy this heartwarming Christmas story.

A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas

This is one that I actually discovered this year. Welsh-born poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) composed this short story as a reflection on his lost, but not forgotten, childhood in Wales. Though it is often found under children's books, I think that it is probably better suited for adults. It's a beautiful collection of reminiscences of Christmases gone by, and the sweetness and innocence of childhood. I think that the opening line is so lovely:

"One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six."

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Finally, we have the grandaddy of all Christmas stories. Charles Dickens' classic tale is so rich and powerful, that it is a must read for EVERYONE each Christmas. See my full review here.

Now it's your turn. What are some of your favorite Christmas stories and have they changed how you see Christmas? Sound off!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Classic Tales

Back in September, I stepped into the 21st century and got my very first iPod (or MP3 player for that matter). I was told by a friend that I absolutely HAD to subscribe to The Classic Tales podcast. Josh, I owe you. Big time!

This really is a wonderful treat for anyone who likes great literature and/or audiobooks. Each week host B. J. Harrison reads a complete and unabridged (!) work of literature. They are usually short stories, but he has also done longer novellas as well. The stories and authors vary greatly, from Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles to P. G. Wodehouse's Leave it to Jeeves, and Mr. Harrison's dramatic presentation adds greatly to the listening experience.

Some of the most recent stories that I have enjoyed include Rikki-tikki-tavi by Rudyard Kipling, The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson and The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster.

There are lots of ways to get a hold of this great audiobook collection. First, you can subscribe (FREE!) at iTunes and then download it to your MP3 player. If you don't want to subscribe, you can download each week's episode here. If you want to purchase past episodes (including A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens) you can do that here.

There are some great stories coming up, including Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs, so sign up now!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

"There is one day that is ours. Thanksgiving Day is the one day that is purely American."
~O. Henry

Wishing you and yours a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Poor Anne Bronte tends to live in the shadows of her two older sisters, Charlotte and Emily. Readers only manage to get around to her after reading Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, if at all. This is most unfortunate, because though her writing style is different from her sisters, it is still poignant and relative to today's world. Her second and last novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, shows the true beauty of grace and love and seals her right to join her sisters in the rank of classic author.

The Plot:

The novel is told as a series of letters from Gilbert Markham to his brother in-law, discussing earlier events in his life. "You must go back with me to the autumn of 1827. " At that time, Gilbert was a young, prosperous farmer who was casually courting the younger daughter of the local vicar, Eliza Millward. His life is pretty routine and ordinary until the arrival of a young widow and her son to nearby Wildfell Hall. The neighborhood is at once astir with curiosity and seeks to know more about her, though Helen Graham is reticent to be drawn in to the local social circles. At first, Gilbert is offended by her cool and distant treatment, but as he slowly gains her trust, he begins to discover the true sweetness and gentleness of her nature. They spend more and more time together, discussing her art (which she sells for a living) as well as literature. But as Gilbert's infatuation grows, ugly rumors begin to surface regarding Helen's past, most of them spread by the spiteful Eliza Millward.

Gilbert disbelieves everything said against Helen, at first. But as circumstances seem to point towards the truth of the rumors, his suspicions are aroused and he demands the truth from her. Her only answer is to give him her diary, which contains the dread secret that she has been so desperately trying to hide. As Gilbert reads Helen's sad story, his love for her grows. But the awful secret contained in the pages of her diary threatens to keep them apart forever.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

Oh, those lovely, lovely Bronte girls! All so different and all so wonderful. Like most readers, I picked up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall because I had already read Charlotte and Emily. Most critics talk down Anne's work, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I must say that I found it to be a very pleasant read. There are many similarities between Anne's and Charlotte and Emily's works, as well as many differences. Some of these make Wildfell Hall better, while others bring it somewhat below the other works.

The main difference between the works is the tone that Wildfell Hall takes. While it is certainly along the Gothic (as well as the Byronic) lines of the other Bronte novels, it leans more towards realism than romance. There is no mad wife locked in the attic, nor do ghosts appear at windows. Instead we have real people with real problems; problems that we still face today. Though Anne touches on the problem of a woman leaving her husband, that is not really the point. Unfortunately, Wildfell Hall, like Jane Eyre, tends to be painted into the "feminist novel" corner. Just because a novel has a strong woman as the main character does not make it "feminist". In the novel, Anne spends more time on the horrible problem of alcoholism (as experienced through her brother, Branwell) and the overwhelming grace of God than she does on "feminist" writing. In fact, you could almost say that salvation and grace are the biggest themes of the novel. Here we have Arthur Huntingdon who treats Helen abominably throughout the story. And yet, as he is dying, Helen returns to nurse him and comfort him. She tries to make him see that even now, with all of his sin, he can still accept the grace of God.

'"Stay with me, Helen," he says; "let me hold you so: it seems as if harm could not reach me while you are here. But death will come - it is coming now - fast, fast! - and - Oh, if I could believe there was nothing after!"

'"Don't try to believe it, Arthur; there is joy and glory after, if you will but try to reach it!"

'"What, for me?" he said, with something like a laugh. "Are we not to be judged according to the deeds done in the body? Where's the use of a probationary existence, if a man may spend it as he pleases, just contrary to God's decrees, and then go to heaven with the best - if the vilest sinner may win the reward of the holiest saint, by merely saying, "I repent!"'

'"But if you sincerely repent - "

'"I can't repent; I only fear."

'"You only regret the past for its consequences to yourself?"

'"Just so - except that I'm sorry to have wronged you, Nell, because you're so good to me."

'"Think of the goodness of God, and you cannot but be grieved to have offended Him."

'"What is God - I cannot see Him or hear Him? - God is only an idea."

'"God is Infinite Wisdom, and Power, and Goodness - and LOVE; but if this idea is too vast for your human faculties - if your mind loses itself in its overwhelming infinitude, fix it on Him who condescended to take our nature upon Him, who was raised to heaven even in His glorified human body, in whom the fullness of the Godhead shines."

Though I really enjoyed the story of Wildfell Hall, there are a few things that somewhat lowered it in my esteem. Perhaps it is because I have loved Jane Eyre for so long, but this novel just couldn't reach the heights of that one. The characters, though as full of passion as Rochester and Jane, never really seemed to come alive. I never lost that subconscious understanding that these were not real people. They just couldn't quite rise from the page. The other problem for me was the format that Anne chose to use. Though it is in the first person, it is addressed to an unknown reader, making me feel more like an intruder than the intimate friend that I felt I was while reading Jane Eyre.

Though it lacks the power and wonderful characterization of Jane Eyre and the technical skill and correctness of Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is still a wonderful story of grace, love and forgiveness. And though Anne only lived to be 29, she left with as rich a literary legacy as her sisters. She is truly worthy of the name Bronte!

The Movie:

There have been 2 versions of this classic Bronte tale made for television, both by the BBC. The first was in 1968 starring Janet Munro and Bryan Marshall as Helen and Gilbert.

The other more popular version was made in 1996 and stars Tara Fitzgerald as Helen and Toby Stephens as Gilbert. I have only seen a few clips of it and it seemed fine. Toby Stephens especially seems to pull off the young, passionate Gilbert very well. The ratings are pretty good, though differences between the film and the book are noted in many of them.

Trivia: Both Tara Fitzgerald and Toby Stephens would star in the 2006 adaptation of another Bronte classic, Jane Eyre, with Tara playing Mrs. Reed and Toby giving a wonderful turn as Edward Rochester.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Happy Birthday To:

Robert Louis Stevenson
November 13, 1850

Give to me the life I love,
Let the lave go by me,
Give the jolly heaven above
And the byway nigh me.
Bed in the bush with stars to see,
Bread I dip in the river -
There's the life for a man like me,
There's the life for ever.

Let the blow fall soon or late,
Let what will be o'er me;
Give the face of earth around
And the road before me.
Wealth I seek not, hope nor love,
Nor a friend to know me;
All I seek, the heaven above
And the road below me.

Or let autumn fall on me
Where afield I linger,
Silencing the bird on tree,
Biting the blue finger.
White as meal the frosty field -
Warm the fireside haven -
Not to autumn will I yield,
Not to winter even!

Let the blow fall soon or late,
Let what will be o'er me;
Give the face of earth around,
And the road before me.
Wealth I ask not, hope nor love,
Nor a friend to know me;
All I ask, the heaven above
And the road below me.

~The Vagabond

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Complete (and Unabridged) Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice

"There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and everyday confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of either merit or sense."

Without a doubt, Pride and Prejudice is Austen's most popular and enduring work. Though it was first published almost 200 years ago, it's story and characters still resonate with 21st century readers and has spawned numerous screen and stage adaptations as well as various sequels and prequels. With good reason! It is probably Austen's most amusing and accessible story; her characters leap off the page and almost live and breathe before our very eyes. With her trademark wit and irony, Austen takes very ordinary people in very ordinary situations and makes them extraordinary.

The Plot:

Charming and witty Elizabeth is the second of the Bennett family's five daughters. Since their father's estate is entailed upon a distant cousin, Mrs. Bennett's goal in life is to see that her daughters marry well (rich). When eligible bachelor Charles Bingley settles near them, she is sure that he will marry one of the girls. His eye is immediately caught by the sweet and beautiful Jane, and they seem to be forming an attachment. Elizabeth is initially interested in Bingley's friend Mr. Darcy, but his haughty manners put her off. Her dislike for him increases when she is told of apparent wrongdoing towards the son of his father's steward, George Wickham. Bingley abruptly leaves the neighborhood and Jane goes to London brokenhearted.

Elizabeth meets Mr. Darcy again while visiting friends in Kent and it is there that she discovers that Mr. Darcy separated Bingley and Jane because her family was "unsuitable". When Darcy reveals his love for Elizabeth and proposes marriage, she stoutly refuses him citing his interference with Bingley and Jane as well as his injustice to Mr. Wickham. As the truth is slowly revealed and Darcy's true character comes to light, Elizabeth begins to see how wrong she was, and wonders if her chance at happiness is gone forever.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

Aah, those first impressions. In this novel, Austen reveals how unfortunate it is that we sometimes allow the first few seconds to determine our relationships with other people. This is exactly the mistake that both Elizabeth and Darcy make and it almost cost them their happiness.

" her he was only the man who made himself agreeable nowhere, and who had not thought her handsome enough to dance with."

"Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise."

Elizabeth especially has a hard time seeing past her early prejudices when judging people. Her abhorrence of Mr. Darcy stems mainly from his insult upon their first meeting, while her good opinion of Wickham is due almost entirely to his agreeable manners. She soon discovers that her prejudices blinded her both to Mr. Darcy's real goodness as well as Wickham's true colors. It is only once she is at Pemberly, hearing Darcy praised by those who knew him best, that Elizabeth realizes her mistake.

"There was certainly at this moment, in Elizabeth's mind, a more gentle sensation towards the original than she had ever felt in the height of their acquaintance. The commendation bestowed on him by Mrs. Reynolds was of no trifling nature. What praise is more valuable than the praise of an intelligent servant? As a brother, a landlord, a master, she considered how many people's happiness were in his guardianship! -- How much of pleasure or pain it was in his power to bestow! -- How much of good or evil must be done by him! Every idea that had been brought forward by the housekeeper was favourable to his character, and as she stood before the canvas, on which he was represented, and fixed his eyes upon herself, she thought of his regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before; she remembered its warmth, and softened its impropriety of expression."

There is also a great irony being played out throughout the entire novel. As with Persuasion, Austen attacks the idea that rank determines good breeding. The main reason that Darcy gives for breaking up Jane and Bingley is the behavior of the majority of the Bennet family.

"The situation of your mother's family, though objectionable, was nothing in comparison of that total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly, betrayed by herself, by your three younger sisters, and occasionally even by your father."

Funny thing is, Darcy and Bingley's relatives aren't all that classy either. Bingley's sisters are extremely rude and his brother-in-law indolent and dull. Darcy's aunt, Lady Catherine De Bourgh, is self-absorbed, vain and demanding. Just as Mrs. Bennett is constantly saying things that betray her absurdity, so is Lady Catherine.

"There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient."

"...and though Mrs. Collins has no instrument, she is very welcome, as I have often told her, to come to Rosings every day, and play on the piano forte in Mrs. Jenkinson's room. She would be in nobody's way, you know, in that part of the house.''

As I said in my introduction, it is truly the characters that, in my opinion, really distinguish Pride and Prejudice from Austens other works. They are so complete, their actions so believable, and their dialogue so revealing, that they can sometimes seem more real than the characters in the other works. It is also a fine example of Austen's writing style at its best, combining the sharp wit of Northanger Abbey with the subtle ironies of Emma. It well deserves its place near the top of many reader's lists (including mine). I can't say enough about it. If you never read any other Austen novel, you must read this one. I'll leave you with a quote from Sir Walter Scott's private journal on his opinion of this novel.

"Also read again and for the third time at least Miss Austen's very finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvement and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going, but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!"

The Movie:

Pride and Prejudice has been adapted for the screen so many times that it isn't even funny. It has even been adapted into a Bollywood production called Bride and Prejudice. But there are four main adaptations that claim the hearts of many fans.

First, there is the 1940 adaptation starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. I've never seen it, but I do know that the time period was pushed forward to allow for more flamboyant dresses. Not sure how I feel about that.

Then there is the 1980 adaptation starring Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul. I haven't seen this one either, but I would imagine it to be like the other Austen adaptations of the period.

Finally, there are the 1995 and 2005 adaptations starring Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth and Keira Knightly/Matthew Macfadyen respectively. They are both wonderful in their own way. For my review of them, see here.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Complete (and Unabridged) Jane Austen: Persuasion

"She had been forced into prudence in her youth; she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning."

In her final complete novel, Jane Austen takes a different tone with her writing. Focusing on the constancy and endurance of a mature love rather than the hopes and joys of youth, Persuasion is perhaps Austen's most romantic work. But as with all of her works, Austen also manages to penetrate the standards of the British class system and to firmly establish her belief that rank and wealth do not determine the goodness of a person.

The Plot:

Eight years before the novel begins, Anne Elliot became engaged to the handsome and ambitious Capt. Frederick Wentworth. But because of his lack of fortune and uncertain connections, Anne was persuaded to break off the engagement by her friend and mentor, Lady Russell, and Capt. Wentworth returned to sea to escape his heartache. As the novel opens, we find Anne an old maid at 27. She has "lost her bloom" and is living at home as the overlooked middle child of Sir Walter Elliot, a man consumed with his looks and his title. Sir Walter's expensive tastes force him to lease his estate and remove his family to Bath. Anne remains behind for awhile at Uppercross Hall with her married younger sister Mary and her family.

Capt. Wentworth enters Anne's life again when his sister and brother-in-law (Admiral and Mrs. Croft) lease the Elliot estate. He is now exceedingly rich due to his success in the Napoleonic Wars and, like many Navy men, is looking to settle down. His cool treatment of Anne makes it very obvious that he still resents her, and he begins to pay more and more attention to Mary's young and impetuous sister-in-law, Louisa Musgrove. When tragedy strikes, Capt. Wentworth is reminded of Anne's strength and character, and Anne discovers that she is not the only one whose love has remained constant.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

Persuasion stands out from the rest of Austen's for many reasons. At 27, Anne Elliot is the oldest of the Austen heroines and the only one to be considered an old maid. Anne's maturity is reflected in the overall tone of the novel, which is "autumn-like" as opposed to the "summer-like" tones of her other novels. This is seen again in the writing style of the novel, for though it still has the wit and irony of all of Austen's works, it is softer and less polished than the others.

The main question that Austen seeks to answer in this novel is "Is persuasion good or bad?", or should one be easily persuaded or not? As with Sense and Sensibility, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Anne was persuaded to give up her engagement not only by Lady Russell's advice, but by the fear of the uncertainty of Capt. Wentworth's future as well. Anne soon realizes her mistake: "She was persuaded that under every disadvantage of disapprobation at home,and every anxiety attending his profession, all their probable fears, delays, and disappointments, she should yet have been a happier woman in maintaining the engagement, than she had been in the sacrifice of it...". By the end of the novel, Anne has learned to trust in her own good sense as well as the power of a constant love. After the end of his engagement, Capt. Wentworth began to hate what he saw as Anne's lack of conviction. This leads to his admiration of Louisa Musgrove, whose firm resolve and determination make her the polar opposite of Anne in his eyes. But after Louisa's accident on the Cobb at Lyme (caused solely by her own willfulness), Capt. Wentworth sees the foolishness of this kind of thinking.
"'Don't talk of it, don't talk of it," he cried. "Oh God! that I had not given way to her at the fatal moment! Had I done as I ought! But so eager and so resolute! Dear, sweet Louisa!'" Anne wondered whether it ever occurred to him now, to question the justness of his own previous opinion as to the universal felicity and advantage of firmness of character; and whether it might not strike him that, like all other qualities of the mind, it should have its proportions and limits. She thought it could scarcely escape him to feel that a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness as a very resolute character."
Another other issue that Austen tackles is the use of rank to determine people's worth in society. The two different ways of thinking are found in this exchange between Anne and her cousin (and admirer) William Elliot:

"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. Good company requires only birth, education, and manners, and with regard to education is not very nice. Birth and good manners are essential; but a little learning is by no means a dangerous thing in good company; on the contrary, it will do very well."

Anne's opinion is, of course, Austen's opinion. Though the British class system of the time would have made Sir Walter Elliot of more consequence than Admiral and Mrs. Croft, it is obvious whose character is the best:

"Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot's character; vanity of person and of situation. He had been remarkably handsome in his youth; and, at fifty-four, was still a very fine man. Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did, nor could the valet of any new made lord be more delighted with the place he held in society. He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliot, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion."

"This meeting of the two parties proved highly satisfactory, and decided the whole business at once. Each lady was previously well disposed for an agreement, and saw nothing, therefore, but good manners in the other; and with regard to the gentlemen, there was such an hearty good humour, such an open, trusting liberality on the Admiral's side, as could not but influence Sir Walter, who had besides been flattered into his very best and most polished behaviour by Mr Shepherd's assurances of his being known, by report,to the Admiral, as a model
of good breeding."

Austen also tries to denounce the idea of women as helpless, finicky creatures as they were so commonly portrayed in the literature of the time.
"But I hate to hear you talking so like a fine gentleman,and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days."

"'If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman's inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman's fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men." "'Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.'"

And finally, as I said before, the mature love portrayed in Persuasion makes it, in my opinion, the most romantic of the Austen novels. The steadfast devotion of the Crofts (who are my favorite of all of Austen's married couples) is so heartwarming and inspires some of the best passages in the novel:
"The only time I ever really suffered in body or mind, the only time that I ever fancied myself unwell, or had any ideas of danger, was the winter that I passed by myself at Deal, when the Admiral (Captain Croft then) was in the North Seas. I lived in perpetual fright at that time, and had all manner of imaginary complaints from not knowing what to do with myself,or when I should hear from him next; but as long as we could be together, nothing ever ailed me, and I never met with the smallest inconvenience."
The letter writing scene in Chapter 23 is also wonderful. You can just feel the tension in the room when Anne says to Capt. Harville "All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one;you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.".

Persuasion is definitely the most emotional of Austen's works. Its maturity, romance and insight all make it an absolutely wonderful read, and if there were no Pride and Prejudice, this would be my favorite Austen novel by far. I'll leave you now with what is perhaps the most romantic letter/proposal in all of English literature, written by Capt. Frederick Wentworth.
I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been,but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in
F. W.
I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father's house this evening or never."
The Movie:

Two early versions of Persuasion were done in 1960 and 1971. No opinion to give.

In 1995, it was released in theaters starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds. This is a wonderful adaptation that catches the true spirit of the novel. In my opinion, this definitely ranks as one of the best Austen adaptations out there. A must see!!

Finally, there was the recent Masterpiece production which I have reviewed here. Though it was VERY pleasing to the eye (**cough**rupertpenry-jonesascaptainwentworth**cough**), it was just too rushed to be a good adaptation. As I said in my review, the acting was good but the script was atrocious. Don't bother.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Complete (and Unabridged) Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility

“’At my time of life opinions are tolerably fixed. It is not likely that I should now see or hear anything to change them.’”

In her first published novel, Jane Austen presents us with two very different sisters who are treading very different paths towards love and marriage. One is guided by her sense and propriety, the other by her emotions. So which path leads to happiness? As always, the answer lies somewhere in the middle, and in order to find it, the sisters discover that some of their fast-held opinions and ideas must be traded in for truth.

The Plot:

Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are the two eldest daughters of Mr. Dashwood by his second wife. Upon their father's death, the family estate passes to their elder half-brother John, and the girls, along with their mother and their younger sister Margaret, are left in reduced circumstances until a distant relative offers them a small cottage in Devonshire. Though Elinor is devastated to leave behind her budding relationship with her sister-in-law's brother, Edward Ferras, she soon takes charge of the situation and handles the move with grace.

The Dashwoods soon find themselves almost constantly in the company of their cousin, Sir John Middleton, his wife and children, his mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings, and his longtime friend Col. Brandon. Passionate Marianne is rather bored with the company until the arrival of a new neighbor, John Willoughby. As Elinor quietly hopes for a reunion with Edward, Marianne and Willoughby grow closer and closer and family and neighbors begin to suspect an engagement. Then, two startling revelations come to light, threatening to separate the Dashwood girls from the ones they love. As the novel reaches its climax, true natures are revealed and happiness is found for both of the sisters in very unexpected ways.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

Sense and Sensibility holds a very special place in my heart because it was the first Austen novel that I read. It is probably the most subtle of Austen's works, and many readers often feel that the ending is somewhat unsatisfactory. I am always seeing comments by readers who doubt whether Marianne was ever able to really love Col. Brandon after having so passionately loved Willoughby. Basically, they want to know "Did Marianne settle?". This is a rather interesting question, because if Marianne did "settle" for Col. Brandon, she would be the only Austen heroine who didn't get the man that she really wanted and/or needed. Fortunately, the novel does answer this question, and with a little digging, we can find a satisfactory ending.

First, we must look at what was happening in the world that influenced Austen's entire theme for this book. At the meeting of the 18th and 19th centuries, two intellectual movements were beginning to war. On the one hand there were the remnants of the Age of Enlightenment that had been the main intellectual movement of the 18th century and had maintained that reason was the primary source of authority. Then, in the late 18th century, a new movement began that would try to counteract the "Enlightenment" period by stressing strong emotion and nature: Romanticism. Though it would not really gain steam until the Industrial Revolution, Romanticism was already having a profound effect on the culture in Western Europe, as seen especially in the works of Lord Byron. Austen uses the Dashwood sisters as embodiments of these two intellectual thoughts with Elinor representing "reason" and Marianne representing "romanticism", and asks the question "Which movement is right?". Austen's answer is that neither thought is entirely connected to reality.

Let's take "reason" (Elinor) as a first example. Though this is certainly the thought that Austen seems to lean towards, it is not perfect and neither is Elinor. Elinor is very practical and kind and is always placing the needs of others above her own. That is one of the main reasons that she strives so fervently to hide her own feelings, especially when she thinks that her showing them might hurt someone else. This presents a problem in two areas. The first is in her relationship with Edward. Edward never reveals his previous engagement to Elinor because he does not think that she cares for him like he does her. "I was simple enough to think, that because my faith was plighted to another, there could be no danger in my being with you; and that the consciousness of my engagement was to keep my heart as safe and sacred as my honour. I felt that I admired you, but I told myself it was only friendship; and till I began to make comparisons between yourself and Lucy, I did not know how far I was got. After that, I suppose, I was wrong in remaining so much in Sussex; and the arguments with which I reconciled myself to the expediency of it were no better than these:- The danger is my own; I am doing no injury to anybody but myself." If Elinor had only shown a little of her feeling towards Edward, he might have told her of his engagement (or at least distanced himself from her) and thereby saved her the heartache of dealing with Lucy Steele directly. The other area where Elinor's lack of openness causes a problem is with Marianne. Marianne will not open up to Elinor about her relationship with Willoughby because Elinor would not be open with her. "You have no confidence in me, Marianne." "Nay, Elinor this reproach from you- you who have confidence in no one!" "Me!" returned Elinor, in some confusion; "indeed, Marianne, I have nothing to tell." "Nor I," answered Marianne with energy; "our situations then are alike. We have neither of us any thing to tell; you, because you communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing." So, though Elinor's good reason is certainly an asset, her not showing emotion causes her much heartache.

Marianne, of course, is the complete opposite of Elinor. She lets her feelings be known, even to the point of impropriety at times. She also "...requires so much..." of the man that she will love. "I could not be happy with a man whose taste did not in every point coincide with my own. He must enter into all my feelings; the same books, the same music must charm us both. . . ." Her outlook on life is a pure product of the Romanticism movement, and she does not see love and happiness in any other form than overwhelming passion. And that is what she finds in Willoughby, or so she thought. But here again we have the one thing that separates the Austen heroes from the Austen villains: CHARACTER. Willoughby is dashing and passionate, but he is also a complete cad who trades life with Marianne for money. Col. Brandon is not really a romantic character (no matter what the films try to make him), but he is a man of sound principle who loves Marianne deeply. Basically, Willoughby is an illusion while Col. Brandon is solid truth. Through her heartache, Marianne learns that happiness is not always found in passion, but most often in quiet devotion. "It has not made him happy. His circumstances are now unembarrassed--he suffers from no evil of that kind; and he thinks only that he has married a woman of a less amiable temper than yourself. But does it follow that had he married you, he would have been happy?--The inconveniences would have been different." As Elinor matured and learned to open herself to others, so Marianne matured and learned to recognize what true love is and what it isn't.

"Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract by her conduct her most favorite maxims. She was born to overcome an affection formed so late in life as at seventeen, and with no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship, voluntarily to give her hand to another--and that other, a man who had suffered no less than herself under the event of a former attachment, whom, two years before, she had considered too old to be married, and who still sought the constitutional safeguard of a flannel waistcoat!"
In the end, we can see that Marianne didn't settle for second best, just as Elizabeth Bennett didn't "settle" for Mr. Darcy just because Mr. Whickham had more pleasing manners. In all of her novels, Jane Austen stresses the importance of character when judging a person, not their rank, wealth or manners. And we all know that when it comes to character, Col. Brandon has it in spades!

The Movie:

There are 2 older versions of Sense and Sensibility, one done in 1971 and one done in 1981. I haven't seen either of these adaptations, so I have no opinion to give.

Then we have the absolutely wonderful 1995 version starring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Greg Wise, Hugh Grant and the great Alan Rickman. Though there are a few problems with this adaptation (mainly Thompson's age when playing Elinor), it is still one of the best Austen adaptations out there. A definite must see!!

And then we have the recent Masterpiece adaptation starring Hattie Morihan and Charity Wakefield. Though it doesn't quite knock the '95 version off the top, it is still a very good adaptation (even if Andrew Davies did steal a few things from Thompson's version). See my review here.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Complete (and Unabridged) Jane Austen: Emma

"Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken . . ."

When describing her fourth novel to her family, Jane Austen said "I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like." At first glance, that is exactly what our opinion is. But as with everything about Emma, things are not always what they seem. In a novel full of riddles, lies and mis-conceptions, it soon becomes apparent that we must be on our guard.

In this "mystery without a murder", we learn to be suspicious of the characters, of events and even of our own conclusions. And in doing so, we soon find the story to be suspiciously pleasing.

The Plot:

At 21 years old, Emma Woodhouse is "handsome, clever, and rich" living with her father in the village of Highbury in Surrey where she reigns as queen bee. The only person who is ever critical of her is a longtime friend and neighbor of the Woodhouse family, Mr. Knightley of Donwell Abbey. As the novel opens, Emma is giving herself credit for bringing about the match of her governess, Miss Taylor and a local gentleman, Mr. Weston. She soon decides that she rather likes matchmaking and, despite Mr. Knightley's disapproval, begins trying to find a match for her new friend, Harriet Smith.

Of course, this does not go as smoothly as Emma had initially envisioned, her first attempt going sadly awry. When the dashing Frank Churchill and the elegant but mysterious Jane Fairfax arrive in Highbury, things get even more interesting. Emma soon learns that she may not be quite as perfect as she had always supposed, and that affairs of the heart (especially her own) are more complicated than she had ever imagined.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

Often considered by critics to be Austen's best work, Emma is somewhat different from the rest of her novels. It is not only her longest novel, but also the novel that has the lightest tone overall, because unlike Mansfield Park or Pride and Prejudice, there are no horrific scandals and our heroine is never in danger of losing her chance of happiness with the hero. Emma also serves as a more polished example of Austen's wit and irony than, say, Northanger Abbey. But it is the four main characters that really set this novel apart.

First, we have the handsome and charming Frank Churchill. Of all of Austen's "villains", Frank is probably the least villainous. Though he does frustrate Jane Fairfax, treat his father with little respect and fool the residents of Highbury, his behavior is not quite as scandalous as other villains like Willoughby and Wickham. He does however posses that fatal flaw that all of them do; he lacks strength of character. His only concern is to save himself from the wrath of Mrs. Churchill, thereby inadvertently wounding his fiance, Jane Fairfax. He is also rather offensive to his father by never coming to see him until Jane comes to Highbury. It is however, only Mr. Knightley who sees Frank's carelessness and immaturity, as evidenced in this speech to Emma regarding Frank's breaking his promise to visit his father: "There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do, if he chuses, and that is, his duty; not by manoeuvring and finessing, but by vigour and resolution. It is Frank Churchill's duty to pay this attention to his father. He knows it to be so, by his promises and messages; but if he wished to do it, it might be done." It is also Mr. Knightley who sees the great irony in Frank's situation after he announces his engagement in what is probably one of my most favorite quotes of the book:

"He is a most fortunate man!" returned Mr. Knightley, with energy. "So early in life--at three-and-twenty--a period when, if a man chuses a wife, he generally chuses ill. At three-and-twenty to have drawn such a prize! What years of felicity that man, in all human calculation, has before him!--Assured of the love of such a woman--the disinterested love, for Jane Fairfax's character vouches for her disinterestedness; every thing in his favour,-- equality of situation--I mean, as far as regards society, and all the habits and manners that are important; equality in every point but one-- and that one, since the purity of her heart is not to be doubted, such as must increase his felicity, for it will be his to bestow the only advantages she wants.--A man would always wish to give a woman a better home than the one he takes her from; and he who can do it, where there is no doubt of her regard, must, I think, be the happiest of mortals.--Frank Churchill is, indeed, the favourite of fortune. Every thing turns out for his good.--He meets with a young woman at a watering-place, gains her affection, cannot even weary her by negligent treatment--and had he and all his family sought round the world for a perfect wife for him, they could not have found her superior.--His aunt is in the way.--His aunt dies.--He has only to speak.--His friends are eager to promote his happiness.-- He had used every body ill--and they are all delighted to forgive him.-- He is a fortunate man indeed!"

Then there is Jane Fairfax, Frank Churchill's fiance and the one person in the world the Emma is really jealous of (and perhaps the most interesting character in all of Austen's works). In some ways, Jane is actually the kind of woman we are used to being an Austen heroine. She is of good birth, but is poor and faces a horrible life as a governess unless she were to marry. But though she is intelligent, elegant and well-mannered, her lack of openness with ANYONE is really the quality that sets her apart from the other Austen women. In fact, Jane Fairfax as a whole almost belongs more to the works of the Brontes than in Regency literature. Again, it is Mr. Knightley who first sees this: "Jane Fairfax is a very charming young woman - but not even Jane Fairfax is perfect. She has a fault. She has not the open temper which a man would wish for in a wife."

And of course there is Mr. Knightley. At 37, he is the oldest of the Austen heroes, but he also comes the closest to being absolutely perfect (tying with Col. Brandon). He is every inch a gentleman; kind, sensible, and possessing sound judgement. His one fault, if you can call it that, is that his jealousy of Frank Churchill somewhat clouds his view of Frank's true character ("He had found her agitated and low.--Frank Churchill was a villain.-- He heard her declare that she had never loved him. Frank Churchill's character was not desperate.--She was his own Emma, by hand and word, when they returned into the house; and if he could have thought of Frank Churchill then, he might have deemed him a very good sort of fellow."). The other wonderful thing about Mr. Knightley is how he shows his strong love for Emma by not flattering her. He cares for her so much that he is unwilling to ruin her by feeding her vanity. One of the most pivotal (dare I say romantic?) parts of the story is his chastising her for insult towards Miss Bates:

"It was badly done, indeed! You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her--and before her niece, too--and before others, many of whom (certainly some,) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.--This is not pleasant to you, Emma--and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will,--I will tell you truths while I can."

And finally we have the heroine herself, Miss Emma Woodhouse. It was extremely hard for me to like Emma at first. Her faults seem to slap you in the face and her absurdities are not as easy to blow off as Catherine Morland's were. Emma's main problem is that she has been so busy being the leader of her small social circle, that she doesn't know how to be a part of it. She doesn't know how to be kind to others because she doesn't know how to put herself in their shoes. She also has a very inflated view of her own insight. It is only through miserably failing in almost all of her calculations that she realizes that she has not been seeing people and circumstances as they are, but merely as she had wanted them to be. In the end, Emma grows on us and we rejoice to see her happy ending because we know that she is now striving to deserve it.

Emma is probably the best example of Austen's witty and ironic writing style. Though perhaps lacking some of the emotional weight of her other works, it is still a wonderful read, or (as Emma is described by Mr. Knightley) it is "... faultless in spite of all her faults...".

The Movie:

Emma has been adapted 3 times, with the first in 1972 starring Dora Godwin and John Carson. Haven't personally seen it, but its ratings are only so-so.

Then in 1996 we had an "Emma"fest and opinions are often split over which is the better representation of the novel. There is the big-screen version starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam. I've only seen clips of this one, and it looks okay, but I can't give a definite opinion.

Finally there's the BBC version starring Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong which I have already reviewed here. I have no problems recommending this version. The cast is great and the story holds very close to the original. A must see even if you prefer another version.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Complete (and Unabridged) Jane Austen: Mansfield Park

"We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be."

In her fourth complete novel, Jane Austen puts into practice the idea that she began exploring in her first novel; that is the idea that novels are not simply for sensation and entertainment, but may also be used for moral instruction as well as expanding the minds of their readers.

Mansfield Park, perhaps Austen's most complex and controversial novel, takes a hard look at a society whose values and morals are quickly changing, and at the consequences facing those who either change with it or stand firm in their principles.

The Plot:

Taken from her relatively poor family at a young age, Fanny Price is sent to live with her Uncle and Aunt Bertram, their four children (Tom, Edmund, Maria and Julia) and her horrid Aunt Norris at Mansfield Park. Shy, sensitive and homesick, Fanny is almost constantly tormented by everyone in the family except Edmund. As time passes and Fanny grows, she and Edmund become very close, with Edmund helping to shape her character and serve as her protector.

Romance seems very likely until the arrival of the siblings Henry and Mary Crawford. The Crawfords are very fashionable, having lived most of their lives in London, and Edmund is especially attracted to the witty and charming Mary, while Henry is playing with the affections of both Maria (who is already engaged) and Julia. Fanny grows increasingly concerned for Edmund as he moves further and further from the firm principles that he once had, and when Henry turns his eyes towards her, she is faced with a decision that will test her own faith and indirectly cause a scandal that will rock the Mansfield family to its core.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

As I've already said, Mansfield Park is probably Austen's most controversial work. Whether you like this novel or not often comes down to your perception of the heroine, Fanny. It is usually because of her that many Austen readers rank this as their least favorite novel. But understanding Fanny requires that we not read this story through the eyes of today's culture or with our own personality in mind.

First off, Fanny's entire character and disposition are different from every other Austen heroine. She is extremely shy, sensitive and almost sickly and often serves as a shadow in the book. All told, she is almost the complete opposite of more popular heroines like Elizabeth Bennett and Emma Woodhouse. Fanny also lacks much of the self-confidence of the other Austen women. She has had it drilled into her (mostly Mrs. Norris) that she is below everyone else in the family. This, along with her natural shyness, makes Fanny extremely modest. Today's readers often look on all of this and see Fanny as somewhat of a wet dishrag, but Fanny's real strength lies within. Her morals and principles are very strong and she never lets go of them, even when it causes others to ridicule and torment her. This is especially seen when Fanny refuses to join in the play led by Tom and Mrs. Norris says "...I shall think her a very obstinate, ungrateful girl, if she does not do what her aunt and cousins wish her-- very ungrateful, indeed, considering who and what she is." Though this pains the modest Fanny, she never considers giving in.

Unfortunately, many readers see this strength of morals as mere priggishness. What is so funny about this kind of thinking is that it is completely backwards from what Austen's intentions are. Let's take the Crawfords as an example. They are both intelligent, good looking, charming and witty and many readers feel a great liking towards them. There is, however, one major thing that they both lack, something that no real Austen hero or heroine does: principle. They both do what feels good, no matter who it might hurt. This is especially obvious with Henry who not only hurts Fanny by giving her unwanted attention, but also both of the Bertram girls through his shameless flirtations. This is the one reason that Fanny could never bring herself to accept or respect him. "I cannot think well of a man who sports with any woman's feelings; and there may often be a great deal more suffered than a stander-by can judge of." Modern readers are also prone to laugh at Fanny's refusing to take part in the play. This is a mistake because at the time, acting in plays, especially one like Lover's Vows, was not something that decent people did. Austen is simply using the play as another example of the Crawford's lack of principles as well as Fanny's strong convictions.

Jane Austen's society was on the cusp of change. It was moving away from long held principles and convictions (represented by Fanny and Mansfield Park) towards a more care-free lifestyle (represented by London and the Crawfords). Though it is not exactly the most romantic or even the most engaging of her novels, its message of deep conviction is relevant even today and its heroine is one that we could all learn something from. I think that this quote regarding Sir Bertram's regrets for his children sums up Austen's intentions very nicely.

"Here had been grievous mismanagement; but, bad as it was, he gradually grew to feel that it had not been the most direful mistake in his plan of education. something must have been wanting within, or time would have worn away much of its ill effect. He feared that principle, active principle, had been wanting; that they had never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers by that sense of duty which can alone suffice. They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice. To be distinguished for elegance and accomplishments, the authorised object of their youth, could have had no useful influence that way, no moral effect on the mind. He had meant them to be good, but his cares had been directed to the understanding and manners, not the disposition; and of the necessity of self-denial and humility, he feared they had never heard from any lips that could profit them."
The Movie:

Poor Mansfield Park! There are really just no good adaptations of this novel.

There's the 1983 version. Haven't seen it, but I would guess that you would have to have a thing for 1980s British TV adaptations. They often lack the eye-pleasing quality of recent adaptations.

Then there's the 1999 movie version, which I've also never seen. Most critics say that it is a well-made movie, but basically re-written for modern audiences with a feisty, independent Fanny and the addition of slave-trade controversy.

And, finally, there's the recent Masterpiece adaptation. I stand by most of my review, especially concerning Blake Ritson as Edmund, but as a whole, this adaptation basically butchered the story. It works if you haven't read the book (which I hadn't at the time), but it's not worth your time if you have. Basically, don't bother to watch it.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Masterpiece Classic: 2009

Masterpiece recently announced the selected adaptations for the upcoming 2009 Classic season. Taking center stage this year will be "The Incomplete Charles Dickens", a collection of adaptations of 4 of the literary genius' works (sorry everyone, Bleak House isn't one of them). Though no firm schedule dates have been set, here is what the complete lineup includes:

"The Incomplete Charles Dickens"

Little Dorrit- 8 hour mini-series. Stars Matthew Macfadyen, Tom Courtenay and Alun Armstrong. Adapted by Andrew Davies.

The Old Curiosity Shop- 90 minute single. Stars Sir Derek Jacobi, Gina McKee and Toby Jones.

Oliver Twist- 3 hour mini-series. Stars Timothy Spall, Tom Hardy and Sophie Okonedo.

David Copperfield- 3 hour mini-series. Stars Daniel Radcliffe, Maggie Smith and Ian McKellen.

Also in 2009:

Wuthering Heights- 3 hour mini-series. Stars Chralotte Reiley, Tom Hardy and Burn Gorman.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles- 4 hour mini-series. Stars Gemma Arterton, Hans Matheson and Eddie Redmayne.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Complete (and Unabridged) Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey

"Perhaps after all it is possible to read too many novels."

Growing up isn't easy. Imagination is replaced by reality, trust must be tempered by discernment, and innocence is lost no matter how hard we try to keep it. This is what the heroine of Jane Austen's first completed novel, Northanger Abbey, faces as she forever leaves childhood behind to enter a world that she has only seen glimpses of and discover that it is a far different world from what she had imagined it to be.

The Plot:

Catherine Morland is a sweet, ordinary and rather naive 17 year-old girl who loves reading Gothic novels. When she is invited by family friends to spend a few weeks with them in Bath, she immediately accepts.

Once in Bath, she meets two very different families. The first is Isabella Thorpe and her boorish brother John (who attends school with Catherine's brother James). Isabella immediately latches on to Catherine, encouraging her passion for Gothic novels and pushing her towards a relationship with John. The second is an intriguing young man by the name of Henry Tilney whom, along with his sister Eleanor, Catherine soon develops a strong attachment to.

The Tilney's, along with their father General Tilney, invite Catherine to stay with them for a few weeks at their home, Northanger Abbey. With Henry's encouragement (teasing), Catherine soon begins to see the visit through the eyes of her novels, with herself as the heroine. As her stay continues, she begins to uncover more and more mysterious circumstances surrounding the inhabitants of Northanger, especially concerning the death of Mrs. Tilney. Once the truth is discovered, Catherine's life and her attitude towards it will be forever altered.

My Review (Caution:Spoilers)

Of all of Austen's novel, this is the one that has its tongue most firmly in its cheek. From the very opening pages, Austen sets the sarcastic, lighthearted tone that the rest of the novel will take.

"She had reached the age of seventeen, without having seen one amiable youth who could call forth her sensibility, without having inspired one real passion, and without having excited even any admiration but what was very moderate and very transient. This was strange indeed! But strange things may be generally accounted for if their cause be fairly searched out. There was not one lord in the neighbourhood; no--not even a baronet. There was not one family among their acquaintance who had reared and supported a boy accidentally found at their door--not one young man whose origin was unknown. Her father had no ward, and the squire of the parish no children. But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way."
It is clear from the beginning that Austen does not want us to take our heroine (or rather our want-to-be-heroine) seriously. Indeed, Catherine is almost the embodiment of the popular Gothic novels that Austen is satirizing; passionate and sincere, but wholly lacking a connection with reality. It is this tone that can make or break Northanger Abbey for readers. Some readers will be delighted with this sarcastic look at Gothic novels, while others might miss the intimate connection with the characters that a more subtle tone would have provided. And because this story was published after Austen's death, she was never able to give it the polish that her other works had, thus creating the biggest difference between this and her later works.

This story tends to rank either at the top or at the bottom of most lists and, ultimately, it will depend on what you as the reader prefer. For me, though I enjoyed the story (even if it is somewhat slow-moving), I must say that I prefer the sparkling wit of Pride and Prejudice and Emma to the scathing sarcasm of Northanger Abbey. Though it is funny and even charming at times, it often lacks the subtlety of the later works. A good story, but not exactly my favorite.

There is, however, one part of Northanger Abbey that we, as readers, should all be very grateful for. That, of course, is Austen's famous "Defense of the novel". Austen was one of the first writers to make the novel accepted as a high literary art and not sub-par reading. It is through this we see that Austen is not attacking all novels in her story, but simply the sensational novels of her time and the desire of readers to translate the stories to real life. Just as we would not throw out our Dickens simply because it is a novel like a Harlequin Romance, Austen pleas for her contemporaries to not degrade the novel because there were some bad ones out there. Because it is such an important part of not only Northanger Abbey, but also of literary history, I think it deserves a spot in this review.
"Yes, novels; -- for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding -- joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens, -- there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of lighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. "I am no novel-reader -- I seldom look into novels -- Do not imagine that I often read novels -- It is really very well for a novel." -- Such is the common cant. -- "And what are you reading, Miss ----------?" "Oh! it is only a novel!" replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. -- "It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;" or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it."
The Movie:

Northanger Abbey is a rarity among the Austen novels because it has only been adapted for the screen twice.

The first was in 1986, starring Katherine Schlesinger as Catherine and Peter Firth as Henry Tilney. I haven't seen it, so I can't give you my opinion, but the reviews on aren't exactly the best that I have ever seen.

Then of course there was the recent Masterpiece adaptation starring Felicity Jones as Catherine and JJ Field as Henry Tilney. I'm not going to add much to my original review other than to say that it is a bit, um, spicier than most of the other Austen adaptations, which should come as no surprise in today's culture. Nevertheless, there are a few scenes where a remote would be handy.

Monday, October 13, 2008

50 Years...

-50 years of marmalade sandwiches.

-50 years of "hard stares".

-50 years of Wellingtons and bush hats.

-50 years of mishaps and adventures.

-50 years of friendship.

-50 years of Paddington!

Happy Birthday Paddington Bear!
Published October 13, 1958

Thursday, October 9, 2008


You may (or may not) have noticed my lack of posting over the last week or so. That is because I was on vacation, my first one in awhile. I spent the week with my grandparents, including 3 days in Savannah, GA. If there is one city in the South that you should visit at least once in your life, it's Savannah. It is such a quaint, easygoing and gorgeous town with tons of history. There is really something for everyone, including us literature lovers. Below are some of the literary moments I caught in Savannah.

The Mercer-Williams House

This house was made famous by the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I've never read it (and I don't really intend to), but it is a big deal in Savannah where residents simply refer to it as "The Book". In fact, the statue found on the cover of the book is now kept at the Telfair Museum under a 24 hour guard.

The Flannery O'Connor Childhood Home

This is the house where Southern writer Flannery O'Connor spent the first 13 years of her life. It wasn't open for tours when we went by, so I'll have to do that when I get back to Savannah. It sits on the lovely Lafayette Square and one can just imagine little Flannery playing there.

The cathedral that the sign mentions is the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. It's directly across the square from the house and is open for tours on most days. With its stunning architecture and gorgeous art, it is a definite must see for visitors.

E. Shaver, Bookseller

One cannot visit a city without checking out the local bookstore, and Savannah has a great one. E. Shaver, Bookseller is located in an old house on Madison Square and has 12 rooms stuffed with books. They have a wide selection ranging from local and regional history to children's books. They also have a pretty good selection of classic literature, almost as big as Barnes and Noble's selection. This is a must visit place for ALL readers. I promise, you won't leave empty handed.

While on vacation, I was also able to pick up some really good books:

-A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor. What better place to pick up an author's work than in their hometown?

-Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. My grandparent's Barnes and Noble was having a great sale (50% off most of their stock) so I couldn't resist picking up a few good reads.

-Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. Also 50% off.

-The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. Also 50% off.

-Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. Found an edition from the early 20th century in wonderful condition at an antique store. Couldn't resist.

-The Crossing by Winston Churchill. Okay, so I thought that this was a novel by THE Winston Churchill. Who knew that there was more than one? This novel is actually by an American writer named Winston Churchill who wrote historical fiction in the early 20th century. Oh well, still a good buy.

And finally I have a couple more things to update you about:

-I am going to begin The Complete (and Unabridged) Jane Austen series either this week or next week, so be on the lookout for that. I hadn't forgotten, I just wanted to get in a Flannery O'Connor review before my trip to Savannah.

-I just joined, which is a great (and FREE) website that lets you basically keep track of all the books that you have read and the ones that you want to read. You can also check out what other members are reading, and get ratings and reviews of different books. If you are already a member, let me know so I can check out your bookshelf. You can see my shelf here. There is also a link on the sidebar as well as a widget showing books that I am planning on reading.

-Today marks the 1 year anniversary of Complete and Unabridged. You can see my introductory post here. Thank you to everyone who reads and comments on this blog. I appreciate it.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Good Man Is Hard To Find

Considered by many to be a master of short stories, Flannery O'Connor marks the end of the Southern Literary Renaissance that occurred from the 1920s through the early '60s. Along with other writers, including William Faulkner, Caroline Gordon, Tennessee Williams, Robert Penn Warren and Walker Percy, O'Connor helped change the way that the South was portrayed in American literature. Her stories, stripped of nostalgia and sentimentalism, are portraits of raw human nature and the overwhelming need for grace. A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories is a collection of 10 of these portraits that force the characters and the reader to see themselves as they really are and to accept their need for God.

The Plot:

Though the plot of each story is different, the basic themes and set-ups are the same. There are one or two main characters (usually backward, Protestant Southerners) who undergo drastic, even violent, transformations to reach divine grace. Other subjects like racism, poverty and even the Holocaust also make appearances.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers)

As someone who's main literary passion is 19th century British literature, I was a little hesitant to read these stories, especially considering some of the things that are associated with them (more on that later). Also, short stories have never been my "thing" so that was a bit of a put off as well. Despite all of this, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found between the covers. First off, O'Connor is a phenomenal writer. Her characters are complete and real and her insight into Southern culture is wonderful. The humor in the stories was also a surprise, and it was especially funny for someone who has lived in the South all of their life. Anybody who has ridden on I-95 can identify with the numerous signs advertising "Red Sammy's Famous BBQ" for miles before and after the actual location. And I found the fact that the Grandmother in the title story dressed up for the trip so that in case they were found dead on the side of the road, everyone would know that she was a lady to be hilarious, mainly since that reminds me of my own grandma. It was little comments like these that lightened up the overall tone of the stories.

Which brings us to the main reason that I hesitated in reading these at first. When you look up reviews for O'Connor's works, most of the words that are used are "violent", "grotesque", "dark" and "disturbing". Not being one for blood and gore, this initially made me nervous. But though dark and violent things happen to the characters, the stories themselves are not. O'Connor doesn't use the violence to sensationalise the stories, but rather as a way to open up her characters to Divine grace. In The Habit of Being, a collection of O'Connor's letters, she writes "The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism... when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror." Throughout these stories, O'Connor addresses the idea that being a "good country person" makes you good enough. Many of the main characters see themselves as better than other people (blacks, foreigners and poor people), yet still claim to be "good Christians" who give unselfishly. It is only through violence and darkness that they awaken to the fact that they, like every human on this earth, are in desperate need of grace.

That is probably the most prominent theme of all of the stories in this collection, though it was not always clear exactly how the characters came to that realization. I especially found A Temple of the Holy Ghost and A Late Encounter with the Enemy to be somewhat confusing. But most of the stories are pretty clear, with my favorites being The River and The Displaced Person.

If anything, O'Connor's stories should make you step back and think. I know that for me, it caused me to look at myself very hard and to see just what I am without the grace of God, and believe me, it was more grotesque, dark and disturbing than anything you'll find in the stories. So, if you're up for something different in your literary diet, this is something that I would recommend. You'll never look at yourself the same way again.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Lord of the Rings

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

After the successful publication of The Hobbit in 1937, J. R. R. Tolkien's publishers begged him to write a sequel. It took twelve years, but the result was what is considered by many to be one of the best novels of all time. Since its publication, The Lord of the Rings has become one of the world's most loved books, appearing on many surveys on favorite works of literature and setting the tone for almost all modern works of fantasy.

The Plot:

It has been many years since Bilbo Baggins returned from his adventure with the dragon. Now he is ready to go on one final adventure, so he leaves all of his belongings to his second cousin once-removed, Frodo Baggins, including the ring that he had "won" from the creature Gollum. Not long after, Gandalf the wizard discovers that the ring is in fact the One ring that, in the hands of the Dark Lord Sauron, could destroy Middle-earth. Now, Frodo must join with his fellow hobbits and the men, elves and dwarves of Middle-earth to reach Mount Doom in the evil land of Mordor to destroy the ring and defeat Sauron once and for all, before he himself is destroyed.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers!):

This story is one that I have heard so much about for many years but, for various reasons, had never gotten around to reading it. So, I guess the main question is, did it live up to my expectations? In a word, yes!

Though in the end, I think that The Hobbit was a more pleasant read (less complicated plot, fewer characters, faster pace, etc.), The Lord of the Rings certainly deserves much of the praise that it gets from critics and readers alike. One of the most amazing things about this book is that Tolkein didn't just make up a story, he created a world. His attention to detail shows forth in his meticulous creation of thousands of years of Middle-earth history as well as various languages, especially that of the elves. It was a little hard to pay attention to it all at first, but in the end, it is this detail that gives the story its richness.

One of the other great things about this story is how Tolkein manages to engage your emotions throughout the book. As I read, my emotions would often reflect what was happening in the story. From buoyant hope as the Fellowship set out to utter weariness as Sam and Frodo made the last push for Mount Doom, Tolkein was able to connect my emotions to his tale. Because of this, I felt that I was not simply a reader, but rather another ring-bearer.

I won't lie to you and tell you that this is an easy story to read, because it isn't. Reading The Lord of the Rings requires patience, perseverness and concentration. There are times when the book can seem unbearably long and dull. This is especially true concerning the many songs and poems found in the story. Though all are very poignant and lovely, there are a lot of them and by the end I was beginning to skim through them rather than really read them. The other thing than can make this difficult is the age at which you are reading it. I would say that the best age at which to read this story is during the mid-teen years, when you are mature enough to understand the writing and the plot, yet young enough to still have a fascination with fantasy. Though I certainly enjoyed and appreciated the fantasy aspects of the book, I don't think that I could fully identify with it and would often feel as if I was reminiscing rather than experiencing. As with The Hobbit, my main regret is that I didn't read it sooner.

Having said that, I honestly think that this is one of those books that everyone should read at least once in their life. It is not an easy journey, but it is certainly one worth making, no matter what age you start at.

P.S. It isn't necessary to read all of the appendices, but I would definitely read Appendix A since this gives the back story for Aragorn and Arwen as well as the fate of other members of the fellowship.

The Movie:

Not only had I not read The Lord of the Rings, I had not even seen the movies directed by Peter Jackson. But I have now emerged from the Dark Ages and viewed these Oscar-winning films. I was glad that I had put it off for 2 reasons. First, reading the book ahead of time certainly put a different spin on the movies than if I had seen them first. Secondly, I didn't have to wait a whole year to see what happened next!

As films, they are superb and as adaptations they are very good. Plot changes are minimal and understandable, and, most importantly, the spirit of the work remains firmly intact (unlike the new Chronicles of Narnia movies). The casting is also good with most of the characters being spot-on, especially Gandalf, Sam, Frodo and Gollum. There were a few things that bugged me, however:

-Aragorn's portrayal, especially in The Fellowship of the Ring. Instead of a man who was finally fulfilling what he had been preparing to do for his entire life, we have someone who is almost forced to take responsibility. To me that severely weakened his character and I lost some of the respect I had had for him.

-Arwen. She is barely in the book but she seems to be EVERYWHERE in the films. Every time you turn around she's there. It got downright annoying after awhile.

-Eowyn and Faramir. Faramir was probably my most favorite character in the entire book and Peter Jackson ruined him. We all know that Faramir is a much better man than his brother Boromir, but Jackson makes him just another guy with a complex. And poor Eowyn could have been developed much further if Arwen wasn't always there. Plus, Aragorn and Arwen are kissing every two seconds and all we get for Eowyn and Faramir is a smile? Give me a break!

-Portrayal of certain other characters and places. Elrond was definitely not what I had pictured him to be and neither was Rosie Cotton (a barmaid?). Also, Lothlorien (probably my favorite place in the book) was much different from the natural peaceful place of my imagination.

Ultimately, these are great films and even with these little problems they were great to watch, though I am not sure if I would have felt this way if I hadn't seen the extended edition. If you are going to watch it, that is definitely the version I would suggest since each film has about an hour of extra scenes and dialogue that help round them out.