Re-reading Jane Austen is always a treat, but I can’t add much to my review from a few years ago. The only thing that stuck in my craw this time was how it seemed to hurry and wrap up, loose ends wrenched into submission by pushing Mrs. Clay (ne’er do well friend of older sister Elizabeth) into Mr. Elliot’s arms (the cousin who stands to inherit the baronetcy). Their plot (witnessed by sisters Anne and Mary from a window in Bath who see Mrs. Clay shake hands with Mr. Elliot when he is supposed to be out of town already) isn’t fully explained, they’re just shoved off the page when Anne and Wentworth’s engagement becomes known.
Also this time I’m more attuned to the horrors of Sir Walter’s possible remarriage with all the nightmares of wicked stepmothers dancing in my own head. And the too-quick remarriage of a widowed friend of Wentworth who goes a’courting mere months after his wife’s death. When these things happen in real life, it’s soothing to have fictional characters to fall back on and see how their friends and family rant against these actions.
Ugh, boring longwinded vile book that I longed to be done with but that I suffered through so that I could get it in here as a warning not to attempt again. This warning needed because as I searched previously, I couldn’t find any evidence that I’d read this, but as I staggered through the first volume, it all rang so familiar. I must have made it through the first third of the book before tossing it on the trash heap. I’m not sure why I hated it so much, except it lacked Austen’s usual cleverness in repartee, and it was filled with tedious dialogue that dragged and contained no sparkle or humor. Emma is a beautiful (natch!), strong-willed, spoiled brat of a daughter left caring for her proper & rich father. Her governess has just married well, and only lives a half mile away, inheriting a step-son (Frank Churchill) that she hopes to wed to Emma. Only, SPOILER!, Frank’s already secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax, the other lovely and talented but poor girl in town. Emma’s main hobby is matchmaking, and she latches onto Harriet, a bastard child with no prospects who’s quite pretty, giving her false hopes about marrying a gentleman and spurning the advances of a farmer (who SPOILER! she ends up marrying at the end). I appear to be alone in my hatred of this book, oh well.
Oh– just flipped through and realized there was one bit I wanted to remember… apparently it was a common practice to write across text diagonally. “To cross a letter” was a paper-saving method in the 18th century; the explanatory notes: “after filling a sheet of paper, the letter writer would turn the page at a right angle and ‘cross the letter’, i.e. write horizontally across the vertical text.” Something to explore in my own epistolary adventures.
After half a dozen false starts for 50-100 pages in other books, I’m happy to have Jane Austen’s classic as my first read book of 2017. The gang holds up well for a classic of almost 200 years: Elizabeth & Darcy, Jane & Bingley, silly sister Lydia who runs off with Wickham, silly sister Kitty who grows up ok under the influence of settled older sisters once they marry. The repartee between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet is as hilarious as always.
Fittingly, the book begins by exposing the great injustice of the English laws of inheritance that leave women helpless unless kindly gentlemen intervene with offers of cottages for rent. The economic question of female/male relationships is never far off page in this book, always nipping at the tea table and tapping at the window. When Mr. Dashwood dies, he leaves the bulk of his estate to his son with clear instructions to take care of his sisters and their mother. The son’s wife persuades him not to settle any amount of money on them, so the three Miss Dashwoods and Mrs. Dashwood trundle off to a cottage on her cousin’s land in Sussex. Naturally, the story involves romance intrigues of the usual Austen sort– lovers who will be cut off without a cent if they don’t marry the person with the biggest fortune, skeletons in closets, the older gent whose constant and enduring love finally breaks through after the ill-fated affair of Willoughby and Marianne. Elinor, the oldest, frets graciously about Edward, especially after she learns of his secret engagement to Lucy. After being cut off by his mother, Edward intends to marry Lucy reluctantly, but Lucy has schemed her way into his brother’s heart, marrying Robert instead (the one with the fortune). Another usual theme for Austen– Edward goes into the church and makes his living on a small parish furnished by Colonel Brandon (the old man who’s in love with Marianne, Elinor’s sister). And of course there’s a major illness and recovery from near death that get everyone’s juices flowing. Austen’s pen and wit never fail to delight and entertain.
To read Austen is to recognize what a trapped life women led in the 19th century English countryside (and before and after and elsewhere, I’m sure). The whole rigamarole of what Austen constantly writes about does not appeal to me: the quest for a good social match that also involves a genuine liking on the part of both parties. Of course a good social match means money, lots of it, and perhaps a title to boot. In this novel, we have Anne, the daughter of a spendthrift baronet who must rent out his estate, still recovering from a heartache of long ago (Captain Wentworth). When he proposed eight years prior, she was persuaded to reject the match since he had no money. Lo and behold he comes marching onto the scene with £25,000, quite the good match now. Anne herself is the perfect Austen character: sweet, charming, well-read, good brains, correct manners, and everyone loves her (except her family, who treat her as an afterthought). She has two good friends, Lady Russell (the earlier persuader against the Wentworth proposal), and Mrs. Smith (an old school chum who provides information about Anne’s cousin which makes us gloat when he walks away with nothing at the end). Through all the whirling gaiety and parties and walks about the countryside, you’re struck by the absolute reliance these unmarried women had on others. Anne must be invited to stay with her sister and Lady Russell in order to stick around the countryside until winter. She’s unable to decide where she goes. She must submit to the advances of her cousin Mr. Elliot, knowing she’ll turn down his proposal. In the end, she must acquire her father’s blessing in order to marry Wentworth. She’s accompanied everywhere, unable to walk alone back to her house and contemplate the hurried letter she gets from Wentworth proclaiming his feelings are still intact. Luckily, brother-in-law Charles hands her off to Wentworth to walk the remaining way to her door. This lack of privacy, autonomy, independence chafes my brain.
Fanny is plucked from the consumptive bosom of her impoverished family and brought to live with her wealthy uncle and aunt. She becomes the perfect gentlewoman under cousin Edmund’s tutelage but is denied the same pleasures that her female cousins have (a nightly fire in her fireplace, attendance at balls, etc.). Eventually these female cousins display their bad apple tendencies, Maria leaves her husband and is shockingly divorced, Julia elopes with someone of meager circumstances, so Fanny becomes even more beloved to her aunt (Lady Bertham) while becoming more reviled by her Aunt Norris. A young visiting couple (brother and sister: Henry & Mary Crawford) enliven the evenings, and while uncle is away in the West Indies, the youth undertake to produce a play, a very risky proposition with risquÃ© material. Henry behaves badly and leads on Maria (then engaged) and Julia, while Mary lures Edmund’s heart (tho disposed to prefer the older brother who will inherit the estate). Eventually Henry sets his sights on Fanny and falls desperately in love, demanding her hand in marriage. She nearly faints away, wanting nothing to do with him. He pursues her to her poor family’s door, where she’s settled in for a three month visit., and he finagles a commission for her brother William. She is summoned back to Mansfield Park and told to bring her younger sister Susan, who then follows in Fanny’s footsteps and fills her place after she marries (no shocker) Edmund. Ah, the delights that pour forth from Austen’s pen. If only she didn’t have to write in secret, pretending her manuscript was a letter that she shoved under stacks of paper when visitors dropped by.