Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Rambling Fancy and Flirting with Pride & Prejudice

Here is a review that I started right before leaving for Barnabas in July 2007. It was originally going to be a review of two Austen books I had recently read, but for the life of me, I cannot recall what the second book was! That's what almost two years and a fondness for Harp will get you.

I've always wanted a good guide book to "Jane Austen's England," as I cherish the hope of someday paying homage to the ground on which her pattened boots tread in bad weather and the walls within which her genius flowed forth. A Rambling Fancy: In the Footsteps of Jane Austen by Caroline Sanderson is not that guide book, but it is something more and something better. Part travel essay, part biography, part personal speculation, A Rambling Fancy is a jolly good time. Ms. Sanderson knows her stuff and writes well; therefore, she has earned the right to guide us on her personal pilgrimage to all places Austen. Truly, this book reads as though it were written by your best friend -- should you be fortunate enough to possess a friend so learned in Austenalia and so outspoken with her well-informed opinions thereof.

I love the way Caroline Sanderson unhesitatingly challenges some of the conventional wisdom of Jane Austen. Ms. Sanderson is a careful and thoughtful reader of the novels and the letters, and she boldly takes on such Austen lore as Jane's loathing of Bath (Sanderson holds that Austen rather liked the resort town), Jane's matrimonial longings (Sanderson sees a positive decision to remain single and devoted to writing, rather than an unlooked-for spinsterhood), the Tom Lefroy debacle (Sanderson finds it hard to believe that Jane's heart was broken by their interrupted flirtation). More, though, than these contentions, Ms. Sanderson brings her own keen eye and piercing wit to the people and places she encounters on her journey, which makes the book a fun read even, I hazard to say, for those without lifetime memberships in the Austen fan club.

Ms. Sanderson begins A Rambling Fancy (whose name is taken from Fanny Price in Mansfield Park: You will think me rhapsodizing; but when I am out of doors, especially when I am sitting out of doors, I am very apt to get into this sort of wondering strain. One cannot fix one's eyes on the commonest natural production without finding food for a rambling fancy.) in Jane Austen birthplace, Steventon. How disappointing to think that the old rectory where young Jane composed her Juvenalia stories and scraps for the amusement of her family circle is long gone! At least the church where her father officiated still stands. Particularly poignant is Sanderson's recounting of this entry from the guestbook: "I just wanted to see something she saw."

From there, Sanderson wanders to Bath, where the Austens went to live after Jane's father retired from the clergy in 1801. Fortunately, many of the buildings of the Georgian and Regency eras still stand. As she was relating her encounters with "Jane Austen as Big Bucks Tourist Attraction" things in Bath, I couldn't help but think of my father's trip to Bath in 2004. He made a PowerPoint presentation for us afterward and included this picture of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath:

Coming from the mannequin's mouth was a cartoon speaking bubble with the cry, "Help! Help! I'm being exploited!" He thought the Jane Austen Centre in Bath was a rip-off. I thought the souvenirs he brought me were lovely.

I think that Ms. Sanderson was more inclined to agree with my father. The kitschy overdone-ness of some of the Austen memorabilia and the patness of the touring programs seemed to disappoint her; though, her spirited banter with the walking tour guide, Roger, makes for an enjoyable read. I wouldn't want to be an Austen tour guide. I can only imagine the frothing-at-the-mouth fanatics they must encounter -- genteel-looking women of all ages whose sharp-edged tongues belie their modestly feminine appearances as soon as the guide ventures a not quite kosher opinion or propagates a downright myth. At least, that's how I imagine myself on a Jane Austen tour.

From Bath, Ms. Sanderson goes to Lyme Regis, a place more interesting for itself, it would seem, than for its Austen heritage. Apparently the Austens vacationed there several times when Mr. Austen was still alive and there was money available for such seashore jaunts. It's funny to think, isn't it, of 18th Century families going on vacation -- that seems like more of a modern phenomenon. But, Lyme Regis sounds like a fascinating bit of English coastline, and Louisa Musgrove did take her famous plunge off of those (impossibly steep and precarious) steps, so the town deserves the chapter it's given.

Godmersham, the estate that Jane's brother Edward inherited from his adoptive parents, is the star of the next part of the adventure. I found this chapter very exciting, as I had never before really contemplated what having a brother in such a situation might mean for Jane. Not surprisingly, her letters detail cherished moments alone in the cozy, fire lit library of the big house, and, of course, the good wine she could imbibe.

***This is where I was dragged off to family camp. I'm sure I hadn't much more to write. Reading over this review, I cannot help but think that this sounds like a lovely book. I'll have to pull it from my home library and give it a second read.

Since my original intent was to share about two books, I will add a bit about an unfortunate Austen-ish book that I checked out of the public library. It is Flirting With Pride & Prejudice: Fresh Perspectives on the Original Chick-Lit Masterpiece edited by Jennifer Crusie (BenBella, 2005). Many authors from several different genres -- most of whom I had never heard before -- offered essays and short fiction inspired by that most fruitful of Austen works, P&P. I cringed a little at seeing my favorite comedy of manners denigrated as "chick-lit" on the cover (and, I imagine, many proud chick-lit authors would cringe at my calling such a designation a denigration), but I was in a benevolent mood, so I checked it out.

I couldn't make it entirely through Ms Crusie's introduction. So, I skipped ahead to an essay by Laura Caldwell called "High-Class Problems." I couldn't get into that either. The book sat on my nightstand, reproaching my negligence for another three weeks, until I had mercy on myself and returned it to the library. I guess when you love something as much as I love P&P, you cannot stand to see it passed around like a cheap whore.

I realize that this estimation is probably pretty harsh. I admit that I did not give the collection more than the most cursory of glances. I confess that I am an intolerant purist when it comes to Miss Austen. But there are my two cents, for what they are worth. I recently came across this gem of a line in Cold Comfort Farm that reminded me of Flirting with Pride & Prejudice: One of the disadvantages of almost universal education was the fact that all kinds of persons acquired a familiarity with one's favourite writers. It gave one a curious feeling; it was like seeing a drunken stranger wrapped in one's own dressing gown. As always, Flora Poste nailed it.

Appreciating Austen as Austen

To me, one of the most frustrating aspects of the enduring obsession on both sides of the pond with all things Austen is that -- so far as ground-breaking discoveries or observations -- there is so little left to be said. Sometimes, in groping for a new and startling angle, admirers and scholars start proposing things that are simply silly. The worst is when people -- usually womyn in academia -- co-opt Jane to their own political agenda. All of a sudden, Miss Austen loses an "i" and a "s," and it is a bitter Ms indeed who writes subversive proto-feminist manifestos against the patriarchal Western cultural structure of Regency England. Oh please.

My fellow weary Janeites will be happy to hear that there is a recent volume of critical essays that bucks these vicious trends. Richard Jenkyns of Oxford has offered us a rare treat in his A Fine Brush on Ivory: An Appreciation of Jane Austen (Oxford University Press, 2004). Here, at last, is Austen without sensationalism; Austen without revisionism; Austen without an agenda. I nearly missed this slender book when perusing the shelves at my local library branch. Thank heavens that I didn't, for to read this thoughtful thesis is to drink from the refreshing well of elegance and sanity.

The main theme of A Fine Brush on Ivory is found in this declaration a bit of the way into the second chapter, "The Shape of Comedy": There are good, even great, novelists who are not good story-tellers, and there are highly gifted story-tellers who write thoroughly bad books. Jane Austen was a very good story-teller and a very good novelist. How did she do it? Mr Jenkyns then proceeds to show us how. That he is able to dissect and expound upon Miss Austen's craft in a way that, far from detracting from the mystery of her artistry, magically seems to enhance the reader's appreciation of it is a singular accomplishment for which he deserves not only our approbation, but our gratitude.

The book opens, appropriately enough, with a chapter titled, "Beginnings." And it is in this chapter that you discover that you are on excitingly uncommon Austen ground. Mr. Jenkyns uses the famous first lines of Pride and Prejudice as a springboard to examine what makes Miss Austen so very innovative and unique among novelists. I had never stopped to notice how differently P&P opens, not only compared with other writers both before and after her time, but also from Austen's other novels. Mr. Jenkyns points out that she begins with a pair of bold and succinct aphorisms, delves immediately into dialogue, and ends the chapter with a brief character study. Not only does this mark P&P as a comedy from the outset, not only does this structure read more like a play, but the character vignette at the end serves to congratulate the astute reader on what he has already discerned. In other words, by describing and defining Mr. and Mrs. Bennet at the end of a fast-paced and highly comical discourse, the author shares with her reader a sly, knowing wink when she "reveals" that Mr. Bennet is an odd mixture of "quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve and caprice" and his lady possesses "mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper."

That is just a small slice of what awaits the lucky Austen fan who stumbles upon this tender tribute. Mr. Jenkyns not only delights in his subject, he has both the critical chops and the graceful pen to write a substantial contribution to Austen scholarship without sounding as though he were in the throes of a bowel complaint.

Richard Jenkyns touches upon all the novels, but his main concentration is upon Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma. In each, he brings to light different ideas to ponder in subsequent re-readings of Miss Austen's work. Will Mrs. Norris seem any more sympathetic when we realize that she is the only loveless character in Mansfield Park?* Will our view of Emma change when we read Mr. Woodhouse as the villain of the piece? And, will Mr. Jenkyns assertion that Mr. Darcy's first proposal to Elizabeth reveals that "he is so desperate to get her into bed that he will marry her even though it will be a degradation to him" make Darcy even more of a sexy beast the next time we enjoy Pride and Prejudice?

Though, in the end, Richard Jenkyns's fine work may not be at the top of your mind the next time you revel in Austen, you will be infinitely richer for having had the experience of reading his thoughtful observations beforehand. Let them seep into the rivers of your subconscious, and you may just find something newer, deeper, even more fulfilling on Miss Austen's famous "little bit[s] (two inches wide) of ivory." I find it always easy to get more from Austen with every reading -- her bounty seems limitless -- but A Fine Brush on Ivory gives you a headwind on the next journey, and a kindred spirit to sail with as well.

*Having since re-read MP, I can answer that, for me, the answer is, "No."