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 Amazon.com 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 Amazon.com 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 goodreads.com, 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.