Emma by Jane Austen

Title:  Emma

Author:  Jane Austen

Paperback:  416 pages

Date Published: 1997

Publisher:  Wordsworth Editions Ltd

ISBN:  1853260282

The very first subject, after being seated, was Maple Grove, ‘My brother, Mr Suckling’s seat’; a comparison of Hartfield to Maple Grove… ‘Very like Maple Grove indeed! She was quite struck by the likeness! That room was the very shape and size of the morning-room at Maple Grove; her sister’s favourite room.’ Mr Elton was appealed to. ‘Was not it astonishingly like? She could really almost fancy herself at Maple Grove.

‘And the staircase. You know, as I came in, I observed how very like the staircase was; placed exactly in the same part of the house. I really could not help exclaiming! I assure you, Miss Woodhouse, it is very delightful to me to be reminded of a place I am so extremely partial to as Maple Grove. I have so many happy months there!’ (with a little sigh of sentiment.) ‘A charming place, undoubtedly. Everybody who sees it is struck by its beauty; but to me it has been quite a home. Whenever you are transplanted, like me, Miss Woodhouse, you will understand how very delightful it is to meet with anything at all like what one has left behind. I always say this is quite one of the evils of matrimony.’

Emma made as slight a reply as she could; but it was fully sufficient for Mrs Elton, who only wanted to be talking herself.

Emma by Jane Austen, pages 217-218

I finished this book almost a week ago after being stuck in it for about six months.  I’ve wanted to give it time to sit and think about it before making an official judgment by way of a review.  And, while I still say it was the hardest Austen book so far and my least favorite, I have to admit a serious amount of respect for the women of the era.  I’m definitely grateful times have changed since then!

Long and short of things, Emma Woodhouse more or less grew up the Miss Woodhouse of her father’s home, meaning she was the society keeper.  The golden daughter, beautiful and clever, she has never been denied anything by her father, who’s a bit of a hypochondriac, nor by her governess Miss Taylor, who has just married Mr. Weston in the beginning of the novel.  Emma believes she is responsible for making this match and decides to aim her powers at the single vicar, Mr. Elton.  Her brother-in-law’s brother, Mr. Knightly, however, admonishes her to leave match-making be, to let love take its course, but she doesn’t listen (OF COURSE!) and this sets a series of events into motion that forces Emma to grow up and re-evaluate her own position and judgments and that of those around her. 

What Austen does in Emma is to recreate the sense of isolation and near-claustrophobic sensations of the life and choices living as an early 19thcentury English woman.  She equates the life of a governess as a polite form of slavery.  She also conveys the sense of captivity and inertial force of the class stratification of the era.  Everyone had a place, and everyone had acceptable and unacceptable pools of “friends” within the system to choose from:  Either their equal or many levels beneaththem so as to help improve them, but no one only a little below them.. lest they degrade themselves.  Those who tried to improve their social standing by latching onto those above them and trying the seem their equal were treated with civil incivility:  Invitations “forgotten,” stories told to remind them where they belong, arguments about things immaterial that vented hostilities and prejudices.

Emma by Jane Austen presents the parlor life of  emotional constipation and gilded-cage existence without choices beyond who to invite for dinner that ran on and on until death was begged for.  In this day and age, when I can tell my neighbor flat-out, he’s an ass, and go on.  He and I live a life of pretending the other doesn’t exist, which works well.

The book also conveys the sense of the inescapable lot assigned to a person because of who one’s family is and what they’ve done.  Harriet is a persona somewhat non grata because her parentage is unknown.  She could never expect to marry a gentleman, because no respectable man would take in the chance of social disaster if her father ever turned out to be a criminal or worse.  You are who your grandparents were, and if you screw up your life, you ruin your grandchildren’s chances for a future, destroy your siblings’ reputation and shame your parents. 

It amounted to a suffocating life where the most seemingly trivial choices could destroy one’s life and reputation.  While Emma by Jane Austen is not one of my favorites, it’s a worthwhile book to read.  I’m glad to have read it, as much as I am glad I’m DONE reading it.  4 out of 5 stars.

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Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Mansfield Park

Title: Mansfield Park
Author: Jane Austen
Publisher: Borders Classics
ISBN: 9781587265402

Published in 1814, Mansfield Park was Austen’s third published novel. More serious and complicated than the previous two, Mansfieldis the story of a young woman, Fanny Price, who is brought from her povertous family of 7 siblings to live with and under the care of her very wealthy aunt and uncle, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram. If young Fanny is the Mansfield heroine, then Mrs. Norris is certainly her arch nemesis, and it is this same “Mrs. Norris” that is Argus Filch’s cat’s namesake (from the Harry Potter series) .

The book begins with three grown sisters who take different paths in marriage: the eldest becomes Lady Bertram of Mansfield Park, the second marries Mr. Norris of Mansfield’s parsonage, and the third, Fanny’s mother, marries a man with little money and has 8 children in 10 years without the means to take care of them. Mrs. Norris decides that Sir Thomas, Lady Bertram and herself should take one of their youngest sister’s children off her hands, and Mrs. Norris decides it should be Mrs. Price’s eldest daughter. Of course Mrs. Norris has no intention on spending a penny on Fanny’s care, but she claims all the credit and pain for the kind rescue of her niece from skid row… and Mrs. Norris never misses an opportunity to remind Fanny where she came from and how she owes her life to the Bertrams and herself for putting forth the idea to bring her to Mansfield.

“There will be some difficulty in our way, Mrs. Norris,” observed Sir Thomas, “as to the distinction proper to be made between the girls as they grow up: how to preserve in the minds of my daughters the consciousness of what they are, without making them think too lowly of their cousin; and how, without depressing her spirits too far, to make her remember that she is not a Miss Bertram. I should wish to see them very good friends and would, on no account, authorise in my girls the smallest degree of arrogance towards their relation; but still they cannot be equals. Their rank, fortune, rights, and expectations will always be different…”

After her cousin Maria marries and takes her younger sister to Brighton, Fanny is the only girl left in the main at Mansfield. Having always been the shy, nervous wall-flower who never goes out, she suddenly finds herself the center of attention. She is romantically pursued by the disreputable flirt Henry Crawford. Edmund, the only person in Mansfield who has always treated with respect and love and with whom Fanny is secretly in love, is in love with Mary Crawford, Henry’s sister.
When Edmund leaves to make his living as a minister, Fanny finds herself in crisis as Henry Crawford proposes marriage. If she says yes, she betrays herself… but if she says no, she will be perceived as an ungrateful, wicked, proud and obstinate wretched girl with whom everyone will be disappointed. What can she do?

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading Mansfield Park. This was my first experience with this story, having never read nor seen any movie of it. It was fantastic, and I felt the same joy and discovery I found when I first read Pride and Prejudice. I had forgotten how exquisitely Austen could put different story lines together into on main work.  I had forgotten how reading Austen is like taking a walk through an expertly landscaped garden, where new and wonderful things are revealed gradually and build upon the whole, not a fast and flat snapshot.  I had forgotten how reading Austen is like eating a fine meal of several courses until you nearly weep from appreciation of the culinary arts, not like a number 4 at the fast food joint.

Fanny Price is definitely not one of my favorite of Austen’s characters.  She’s too mousy, weak and put-upon.  I just wanted her to scream at them.  I wanted her to take the ice pick to Aunt Norris… but I guess that’d be a different genre.   She’s Austen’s answer to Cinderella, with a wicked aunt instead of a step-mother.  Lady Bertram is worthless as a wife, mother and person in general, doting completely on her pug.  As a mother Lady Bertram is wickedly bad; she is willing to sacrifice the happiness and future of her own children in deference to her own comfort.  It’s sickening to watch so many worthless people place themselves as superior to one of the only decent people at Mansfield.

Despite it all, horrible as it might be… I must admit that Mansfield holds one of my favorite Austen characters.  I cannot help but love Mrs. Norris as a character.  I have laughed so hard at her vexations and everytime she is foiled in her self-promoting schemes.  What’s more, Mrs. Norris is the literary twin of my grandmother, so I laugh even harder since I’ve met the woman.  Austen’s characters are my recycled relatives!

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice

Title: Pride and Prejudice
Author: Jane Austen
Publisher: Barnes & Noble Classics
Publish date: 2003
ISBN: 1593082010

“How despicably have I acted!” she cried. “I who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable distrust. How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away where either were concerned. Till this moment, I never knew myself.”

Pride and Prejudice, or First Impressions, was first published in 1813 simply “by a lady”.  It is the story of two sisters, the one prefers to view the world through optimism, while the second with sarcasm and pleasure with her own wit and views.  While the first sister, Jane, learns by the end of the book that evil can and does exist in people, and that people can be vicious and cruel all the while wearing a pleasant face and friendly voice.  The second sister, Elizabeth, learns that all is not as it seems on the first impressions, and judgement should be reserved until more facts have come to light.

In Pride and Prejudicewe see Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s family of five girls and no sons,  whose estate must fall to a male heir,  deal with concerns for their future.  Mr. Bennet prefers retreat to his study and occasionally regret not having saved for his family’s future after his death.  He is permissive of his youngest daughters’ wild and flirtatious behaviour chasing after soldiers.  He continually berates his younger three daughters in deference to the older two “sensible” daughters.  Mrs. Bennet chooses to contrive opportunities for her daughters to be alone with a potential suitor, such as sending her daughter out in the rain so she can catch a cold and be forced to stay at the suitor’s home.  She shows wanton favoritism of her silly, ill-behaved youngest daughters, making a fateful choice to send her to Brighton where the daughter makes a socially reprehensible choice that threatens to ruin the family all together.

The lesson learned in Pride and Prejudice is that appearances are not often what they seem.  Mr. Bingley’s sisters seem friendly and doting to Jane, but it is all an act, as their true feelings are that of superiority and disdain.  Mr. Wickham is attractive, affable, and pleasant, but in truth is a wicked womanizer who runs out on his debts and responsibilities.  Mr. Darcy seems cold, snobbish, proud and ill-mannered, but this is really how his shyness and fear of meeting new people, as well as his choice not to reveal the truth of his past with Wickham in order to defend Wickham’s maligning him.

I have read Pride and Prejudice before, and rereading it reminded me how much fun and funny it was.  Many of the tete a tetes between different characters are delightful: Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s interactions, Elizabeth and Darcy’s verbal volleys, and best of all, Lady Catherine’s demand the Elizabeth NOT to accept a proposal from Darcy is met with the latter’s socially inexcusable refusal which leaves the Lady sputtering and hissing disdain for the entire Bennet family.

I have found that the first time I read this book, I was definately Elizabeth.  Now, about 15 years later, I am still Elizabeth Bennet.  I tend to jump to judgements, though not as quickly as before.  I am a fierce defender of my family, more now than before.  I have a sarcastic wit that I enjoy in myself, which is richer with the experiences of life and a better understanding of people.  I love and respect those who champion integrity and help the loved ones of the one one loves.  I am, however tempered with a little Jane: I do choose to believe people good until they prove themselves otherwise.

Like Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice could be modernized and be just as true and socially relative as in 1813.  Parents still desire for their grown children to be successful and  happily married to a good person.  Children still die of embarrassment when out in public with their parents.  And the fiercest enemies of happiness is our own friends and family. 

Jane-A-Thon In Progress!

Jane Austen

I have finally begun my Jane-a-thon, which I’ve been dying to do for some time now. I’m putting aside ARCs, books to review and overdue library books. But such is the sacrifices I make for my obsession!

Jane Austen (1775-1817) is one of the greatest authors of all times, and possible the greatest woman author as well. She cleared the way for many others, the Brontë sisters, Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolfe, and so many others. There were women writers before her, but there was something in the way that Austen wrote that proved a woman could write with a balance of logic and emotions, and that both sexes could enjoy her work. In Austen’s short life of 41 years she published a book every year or so after the 1811 publication of Sense and Sensibility.

When I was in my high school honors English reading club, I read Pride and Prejudice, and I read Sense and Sensibility after watching the Thompson-Grant movie. These two are the only Austen’s I’ve read before, never really taking notice of the others. However, a couple months ago, I thought it might be interesting to read all of them, straight through chronologically to see how Austen grew as a writer, and to get a fairer sense of the life and times of Georgian England.

The following are the Austens in chronological order:
Sense and Sensibility published in 1811
Pride and Prejudice published in 1813
Mansfield Park published in 1814
Emma published in 1816
published in 1818
Northanger Abbey published in 1818

And now… a Janing I must go!