Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Sense and Sensibility Reconsidered

Whenever I re-read any of Jane Austen's novels, I always feel compelled to write about the experience. There are only six completed works in her oeuvre, and each one is a gem in its own way. From the broader comic strokes of Northanger Abbey to the high wit and exuberance of Pride and Prejudice to the fastidious structure of Mansfield Park to the mystery and depth of Emma to the exquisite and mellow voice of Persuasion -- I have read each novel again and again until its spirit has been imprinted on my soul. And then there is Sense and Sensibility. I have only just completed my third read-through ever of Jane Austen's first-published work, and I think I have finally learned to love it.

I was helped along on this journey of new-found appreciation by the annotated edition recently released that was edited by David Shapard. He did an excellent annotation of Pride and Prejudice a few years back, and I enjoyed his editorial tone -- a fine balance between gentle, never intrusive, interpretation and historical context. While I did not agree with every conclusion he made about Jane Austen's masterful shadings of language in my favorite novel -- we Janeites are a prickly crew -- I did respect his views and was edified by his obvious admiration for my favorite novelist. When I saw his edition of Sense and Sensibility a few months ago at B&N, I picked it up without hesitation. I knew I would gain insights into this red-headed Austen stepchild that I was determined to love.

You know, if it weren't for Sense and Sensibility's early, steady, quiet success, I wonder if we would have the rest of Jane Austen's works. Sure, we would have Pride and Prejudice in some form; though, probably not in its current masterful one. We would have had Northanger Abbey, as well. Had her family been faithful in preserving her youthful efforts, as I reckon they probably would have been, those earlier efforts would come down to us in the manner of her Juvenilia and Lady Susan. At least, I hope they would have. They may have never been discovered after all -- the dusty relics of an obscure and anonymous novelist of the early 19th century. What a horrifying thought! But, because Sense and Sensibility met with enough acclaim to encourage A Lady, we have the rest of her too small, too truncated body of work to delight and sustain us today. For that reason alone, I ought not to denigrate Sense and Sensibility.

The heroines: So my main beef with S&S has always been Marianne Dashwood. I know, I know -- she's supposed to be annoying. Boy, is she ever! Her effusions about nature, her refusal to conform to proper societal standards of civility, her overblown emotionalism -- she is really just a selfish little brat. I know she's only seventeen during the main action of the novel. OK, most seventeen-year-olds are selfish little brats. I know I was. But, that doesn't mean you want to spend 350+ pages with them. I think that her main sin is that she is annoying without being amusing. That does not often happen in Jane Austen novels. Even worse: Marianne has no sense of humor -- and I have no patience with those who have no sense of humor! I would have loved to have seen Elinor slap her around a bit. Then, she should have slapped Lucy Steele around a bit, too, for good measure. But, of course, Elinor (sense incarnate) would never do that. In fact, Elinor's almost too-perfect self control and societal conformity rankles nearly as much as Marianne's lack thereof. Unlike many Austen heroines, Elinor never has that moment of self-revelation when she realizes a crucial error in her judgment or assumptions. This keeps her at a certain distance from the reader, even though it is through her eyes that we witness most of the scenes in the novel. But, Elinor does have some sense of humor, so she is redeemed.

The suitors: Willoughby's too weird -- feckless, debauched, hedonistic -- ought we ever to feel sorry for him? In re-reading the novel, I have decided that, no, we are not. Despite what kindnesses of reflection the Dashwood women are able to bestow in the end, Miss Austen wants the reader to be wiser and harsher in her estimation of that cur. And Colonel Brandon . . .OK, so it was another era; I know. It's just that in my world, we have a certain set of attributes we associate with 35-year-old men who obsess over 17-year-old girls. None of them is positive, believe me. So, though all the characters of S&S uniformly declare Col. Brandon's innate goodness, I can never help but think of him as that creepy guy with the van lined with shag carpeting that my parents warned me about. Edward is strong, quiet, and good. I think I would end up liking him very much, if I were ever able to get to know him. He is "off-camera" most of the novel, so that is nigh impossible. But, he seems a good match for Elinor, and I am happy for them both at the end.

The supporting cast: Like many British authors, Jane Austen excels in filling the world of her protagonists with real people -- characters that breathe and live and round out her imagined places with veritable humanness. This is why British writers are the best -- they get the fact that a novel must be filled with real people, not just walking mouthpieces of abstract ideas (yes, I am talking to you, Russians). It was in re-considering these auxiliary players in S&S that I came at last to love the novel. For the sake of Mrs. Jennings alone, I will forever declare S&S a worthy member of the Sensational Six. Lucy Steele is perfectly formed to be perfectly abhorrent. John and Fanny Dashwood are likewise superbly written to be as itchingly irritating as possible.

Sense and Sensibility seems to want to instruct the reader, bending her away from the excesses of emotionalism and toward expressions of rational self-control. No one is more in favor of rational self-control than I. However, I think that the didactic bent of the novel does occasionally interfere with clean story-telling. Mansfield Park is also gently, subtly about core values and the author's view of the behavior and morals most likely to lead to individual happiness and a healthy society. Its structure, though, is so absolutely perfectly balanced, that the reader never realizes she is being instructed until reflecting upon the novel after its completion. I do not know how Sense and Sensibility could have been structured differently; I just know that it does not seem to have the harmony of Miss Austen's later works.

If you are to read Sense and Sensibility for the first or twenty-first time, I highly recommend David Shapard's annotated edition. He does another excellent job of elucidating such tricky Regency-era things as money and fashions and manners that can keep the 21st century reader from fully appreciating Miss Austen's meaning. His interpretive notes are, again, not intrusive -- and any of his strayings from my own decided opinions are, of course, much more easily forgiven for this novel than for those in Pride and Prejudice. It looks like he has done annotated editions for Persuasion and Emma as well. I can hardly wait to read them!

Friday, November 04, 2011

Something of Interest, Perhaps, to Austen Fans

Hey-ho!  Haven't posted 'round these parts in ages, but I thought that I'd put out a reading recommendation for any faithful souls who still peek in here once in a while.  If you love, above even the romance, the "light touch . . . dry humour . . . [and] lucid, lambent style"* of Miss Austen, you will surely enjoy the satirical English village novels of E.F. Benson.  Start with Queen Lucia and enjoy from there.  Such a treat!

*From the introduction to the Everyman's Library Edition of Sanditon and Other Stories, edited and introduced by Peter Washington (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996)

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Amazing Grace of Fanny

This really ought to be a post on lovely Fanny, Jane Austen's most maligned heroine; rather it is a short note about something I thought interesting enough to share, but not meaty enough to warrant a long post.

Jason and I just watched Amazing Grace (2006) last night. Good movie; not great, but good. I learned quite a bit about England's abolitionist movement. Thought a lot about Jane, as this moral and political battle was raging in her formative years. And, while I was watching, who should beam out on my TV screen but Miss Fanny Price! And there was Edmund Bertram, too! They were playing married couple, Marianne and Henry Thornton (two "Austen character" first names, the latter being a favorite . . . Hey! I'm drawing all the Austen tidbits I can out of this to make a longer post!). I love when they use a real-life married couple to play a married couple on stage or screen.

OK, before you think I've gone loopy, I am just teasing. But, Sylvestra Le Touzel and Nicholas Farrell were in the 1983 British mini-series of Mansfield Park (playing Fanny and Edmund respectively), which remains to this day the only screen adaptation of Mansfield Park to watch -- not so much because of its great merit, but because of Patricia Rozema's 1999 atrocity that bears the same name as, but little else of, Miss Austen's masterpiece.*

And, how appropriate is this casting decision, considering that Fanny Price is the only character in any Jane Austen novel (other than an obtuse reference by Jane Fairfax in Emma) to even refer to the slave trade, which was such a hotly debated topic of the era? I am certain that the casting director took that into account.

Anyway, I thought that was a tad interesting. Been reading a lot of J.K. Rowling, not so much Jane Austen, but Persuasion is in queue right after Deathly Hallows. Dear Anne Elliot's birthday is coming up, and I do so want to participate in Lynnae's event. Hi-dee-ho! Off I go!

*It has again come to my attention -- I had blocked it out after a disastrous night of seeing Lizzy exploited on the bookshelves of Barnes & Noble -- that there is also a 2007 British made-for-TV movie of Mansfield Park. I know I ought not to judge a DVD by its cover, but my first thought upon seeing it was, "My, that Fanny looks slutty." Needless to say, I did not rush home and Netflix it.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Anne's Birthday Celebration!

I thought of my dear friend, vermonster, when I saw this wonderful idea on The Little White Attic. I did not realize that Anne Elliot in Persuasion is the only character to whom Jane Austen granted a birthdate -- August 9. To celebrate our patient, overlooked, and disregarded Anne (at least until Capt. Wentworth gets back to his senses), Lynnae is hosting a Birthday Celebration. Please click over to her site and see what you can do to participate.

Let's do!

Monday, July 20, 2009

S&S&SM Trailer

Check out the trailer for Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters:

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters

Got the latest buzz from my Chronicle Books insider (distributor of Quirk Books) that the next entry in the bizarre fusion of Jane Austen and monster lit. will be Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.

Oh, yes they did.

Well, at least a lot of the action of that novel takes place in a cottage by the sea, right? Should be interesting to see how they keep this concept fresh. In my opinion, this is not quite as heretical as Quirk Classic the First, because it is S&S's, not P&P's, being "enhanced."

I will keep abreast of this disturbing and amusing trend.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance -- Now With Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith
Quirk Books; Philadelphia, PA (2009)

The things I do for Austensorium.

I was not going to read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. I just love P&P too much, and I have a real distaste for horror. Mixing the two would be a devil's brew, and I did not want that memory super-imposed the next time I settle down to enjoy the stormy courtship of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. But then I thought of Austensorium and its mission -- to examine and illuminate the continuing legacy of Miss Austen by keeping one finger firmly pressed to the pulse of popular and literary culture -- and I knew that I had to read and review it for the sake of this blog.

So, it is finished. And I cannot truly say that I regret the read. I mean, there is, as advertised, much in the way of "ultraviolent zombie mayhem," but much of it is simply funny, rather than disgusting. And, in all, it is clever the way Mr. Grahame-Smith works in the zombie (referred to, politely, by the assaulted population as 'unmentionables') attacks -- Satan's spawn trudging inexorably on the roads to and from Meryton; brain-seeking monsters crashing the neighborhood balls; the undead waylaying inter-county carriage rides -- with the otherwise calm and ordered existence of English gentry. I think that, had this been the extent of the additions, Mr. Grahame-Smith would have had an unqualified triumph. Unfortunately, he went about the business of altering Elizabeth's character so thoroughly, that our favorite Brit Lit heroine comes across as schizophrenic at best, and almost reprehensible at worst.

My father, who is reading this book in small doses to prolong his enjoyment, argued with me when I pointed out that Elizabeth had been completely changed; and, since her character -- with its playfulness, liveliness, and light-heartedness -- is the very essence of the book, I could not entirely enjoy the novel. "But," my father pointed out, "England has been under threat from these 'unmentionables' for the past 50 years . . . don't you think that that very fact could have legitimately changed Elizabeth from her playful nature into the hardened killer that she has had to become?"

Maybe, but, to paraphrase Mr. Bingley, a Pride and Prejudice without the central Elizabethness at its heart might be an interesting book, but it is not so much like Pride and Prejudice. She is the book -- and, while I think she could have worked as a zombie slayer by accident and necessity, she does not really work as a ruthless, heart-eating, revengeful sort of person. What is even more strange, is that Mr. Grahame-Smith left in enough of Jane Austen's portrayal of Elizabeth to split entirely her personality. So, we still have Austen's Elizabeth blushing and demure and witty and sassy sprinkled throughout, with Grahame-Smith's warrior Elizabeth soaked in both thought and action with bloodlust bookending the former. Like I said, rather schizophrenic.

And, of course, since Mr. Grahame-Smith (who unfortunately, despite having such an Englishly hyphenated last name, does not appear to be British) is a youngish male with, presumably, what are trademarked youngish male inclinations, there are some rather vulgar sexual references thrown into Darcy's and Elizabeth's banter. This is, of course, superfluous, as Miss Austen wrote the sexiest novel that you could read aloud to your maiden aunt. With its fiery undercurrent of sexual tension, it is far more hot and heavy than the sophomoric puns and euphemisms employed by Mr. Grahame-Smith. Of course, I guess men see that sort of thing differently from women.

Perhaps the best part of the book is the "Reader's Discussion Guide" at the end. This priceless scream is a send-up of those ubiquitous book-club-pandering addenda that try to elevate every weeper novel into literature by attaching deep, reflective questions to the text. Hardy-har-har! My other favorite part is the internal musings of Charlotte regarding the potential match of Mr Darcy and Elizabeth during the latter's stay at Hunsford. To write much more would be an unfair spoiler.

All in all, I would say that for any true, diehard Austen fan, this is a must-read -- if only to have it on your bookshelf with its over-the-top cover. Is it silly, strange and mildly offensive? Sure. But, it is also a very intriguing idea, and, if you are anything like me (and I suspect you are), your curiosity will get the better of you in the end. So, give in at the beginning, and come back here to discuss.

One last critical note: My father claims that the zombie scenes are so seamlessly written into the original that he cannot tell where Miss Austen's writing leaves off and Mr. Grahame-Smith's begins. That only proves to me that he has not read nearly as much Jane Austen as he should have. Shame on him. I could always tell -- sometimes it was jarring, at others merely amusing. If you read the book, please let me know whether it is as obvious to you.