Okay, so you've read the novels until their pages barely cling to their spines, and you're not sick of Jane (how could you ever be?), but you are beginning to fear that you have some sort of obsession, and you'd like to expand your horizons a wee bit before returning again to the comfort of Pemberley or Mansfield Park or, even, Kellynch Hall. What do you read?
Here are some suggestions from one who understands your predicament:
1) Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons The heroine of this book, Flora Poste, turns to Jane Austen as her arbiter of all that is right and good in civilized behavior. As if that were not enough to charm you, the writing is fresh and funny, and Flora herself is delightful as she goes about "tidying up" the complete dysfunction on her cousins' creepy old farm, Cold Comfort. Look for a strange "time-warp" tone to the book, as Gibbons set it about five to ten years in the future from when it was written in 1932. She assumes some technological advances which are pretty absurd, but it only adds to an otherworldly feeling and enhances the strange atmosphere of the novel. After you read this book, you will join the circle of those of us who smile when we hear: "I saw something nasty in the woodshed." or "There have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort, Robert Poste's child." The author has taken as her motto this line from Austen's Mansfield Park: Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. Few reads are more pure fun than Cold Comfort Farm.
2) Evelina by Fanny Burney You cannot go wrong reading a novel that Jane Austen herself enjoyed, most likely within ten years of its 1778 publication. Wit and humor abound here, as Burney excels in developing very individualized characters in this epistolary format. Of course, some of the characters are rather outlandish, but that is half the fun in reading this romp. The heroine, Evelina, is good, but not treacly, and the villain, Sir Clement, is bad, but not evil. Much of the humor comes from Evelina's friend's father, the Captain, with whom Evelina is staying, and his antagonism of Evelina's grandmother, Madame Duval (an English expatriate, living in France but visiting England), and her grandmother's male companion, Monsieur Du Bois. You'll find yourself cringing -- while laughing -- at his malicious delight in baiting the grande dame and her hapless beau. Plus, the novel is priceless for its portrait of late 18th Century England.
3) The Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic One of the trademarks of Jane Austen's style is her ability to place the reader in the middle of the story as an observer by demanding from them an emotional interpretation of scenes and situations to which she gives only the most deftly bare of descriptions. I found this quality in abundance in Frederic's novel about the fall from faith (such as it was) of a Methodist minister in small-town, turn-of-the-century America. Much like The Six -- when asked if he ever read novels, British philosopher Gilbert Ryle said, "Yes, all six every year," referring, of course to Jane Austen -- Theron Ware holds up to multiple re-readings, as it is very subtle in character shadings and plot points. You will wonder, long after turning the last page, what exactly was Levi Gorringe doing at the revival meeting? Was he trying to seduce Alice Ware? Did Theron ever have any real faith to lose, or was his merely a ministerial profession, not a calling? Do Brother and Sister Soulsby actually believe any of the things they preach at revivals, or is it merely a razzle-dazzle theatrical show? What exactly is the relationship between Father Forbes and Cecilia? So, you will read the book again and again. Of course, to my way of thinking, the capper of the novel is in the last chapter -- for where else is the natural habitat for a minister who has lost his faith and his soul than as a Senator in Washington, D.C.?
4) The Golden Vanity by Isabel Paterson Jane Austen often set up her storylines around three women and their varying fortunes. Pride and Prejudice centers around Elizabeth, Jane, and Lydia. Sense and Sensibility focuses on Marianne, Elinor, and Lucy Steele. Persuasion is primarily about Anne, but we see her juxtaposed against both her own two sisters and the Musgrove sisters. You see my point. The Golden Vanity borrows this device, and uses it effectively to tell the stories of three cousins journeying through the Great Depression. Mysie, who is clearly in the author's greatest sympathy is a wise-cracking stage actress, getting by day-by-day. Gina is a gold-digger who is focused only upon snagging a rich fellow for financial security. Geraldine is a wife and mother living with that curse of Patersonian fiction --the ineffectual husband. In fact, all the men in this novel are pretty weak and unsubstantive. Two are not, but they don't offer much better hope to women looking for strong men. One of them is unable to express himself to the woman he desires -- stranding forever their relationship in limbo. The other is a gangster. The Golden Vanity also borrows another Austen staple -- the older woman, often a dowager, usually either supportive or antagonistic (or both -- I'm thinking of Lady Russell) -- who sets the tone for the old guard, the old ways, and is a foil to the heroine(s). In this book, that character is played by Mrs. Siddall, Gina's eventual mother-in-law. She's a grand old lady, but she clearly belongs to the previous generation -- which puts her highly in favor with Paterson.
So, my friends, here are four novels to tempt you and appease you while you rest and prepare for the next Austen blitz. Happy reading, fellow Austenites! Peace, civility, and respite from vulgarity to all . . .
Explaining a long break
4 years ago