This brilliant and painful book means more to me now than it did in...high school? College? I have no idea when I first read it, but I've never forgotThis brilliant and painful book means more to me now than it did in...high school? College? I have no idea when I first read it, but I've never forgotten it. I re-read it in solidarity with my daughter, for whom it was summer reading for honors English. She reached the end and cried for fifteen minutes, even though she knew--and who didn't?--what was coming. If it's enjoyable, it's on a whole different level than what we usually read for enjoyment. And it says a true but depressing thing: Sometimes we just fail. Sometimes the only choice is the hard one. Of Mice and Men is so unrelenting in this respect--everyone's plans gang aft agley--that it would be easy to read it as a depressing commentary on how life always sucks and there's nothing we can do about it. I don't know if that's the best reading, but it's definitely the easiest....more
This is Austen's lightest and funniest novel, and I love it because of the wit and the characters but, mostly, because I was Catherine Morland when IThis is Austen's lightest and funniest novel, and I love it because of the wit and the characters but, mostly, because I was Catherine Morland when I was 17, at least in terms of her love of the Gothic and tendency to get caught up in her inner fantasy world. Catherine, young and unformed and sweet-tempered, embarks on "the difficulties and dangers of a six weeks' residence in Bath" with the kind of excitement a young and unformed and sweet-tempered girl of 17 can be expected to feel. One of the things I love about this book is Austen's deliberate referencing of the Gothic romance in comparison with the reality of Catherine's life: she has loving parents who are in good health, they're neither wealthy nor impoverished, and they never locked her in the attic, she's not impossibly pretty or overly intelligent, and there's no mysterious young man of unknown birth in the neighborhood for her to fall in love with. She's ordinary, and yet destined to be the heroine of her own life--which is something greatly to be desired.
Austen's characterization is always brilliant, and Catherine is surrounded by interesting characters. Her first acquaintance is Isabella Thorpe and her town buck brother John, neither of whom Catherine sees for what they are: a couple of connivers, Isabella fickle, John a braggart. Balanced against this brother/sister pair are the Tilney siblings, Henry and Eleanor, who are as kind and honest as the Thorpes are not. Catherine isn't brilliant, but she knows sincerity when she sees it, though she's probably not conscious of why she's so eager to make a connection with the Tilneys--her attraction to Henry is part of it, but I think it's clear that she sees in Eleanor a true kindred spirit, as opposed to the superficial relationship she has with Isabella. Isabella is hilarious--constantly betraying her true nature, though Catherine doesn't get it. In speaking of an acquaintance:
I wish you knew Miss Andrews, you would be delighted with her...I think her as beautiful as an angel, and I am so vexed with the men for not admiring her!
Which leads, later, to
you (Catherine) have so much animation, which is exactly what Miss Andrews wants, for I confess there is something amazingly insipid about her.
John Thorpe isn't much better, and his rattling on about his horses and how he's such a great driver has to be the inspiration for much of Georgette Heyer's work.
Henry Tilney, on the other hand, has to be Austen's most overlooked hero, and I far prefer him to Edward Ferrars, who is a limp noodle in comparison. He's funny, intelligent, quick-witted, and kind, and I love so much the scene where Catherine makes a huge, embarrassing mistake in front of him--something he might well have decided to take offense at--and his response is to be attentive and solicitous of her comfort, to reassure her that he doesn't think any the less of her for having let her imagination run away with her. He's also quick to defy his autocratic father and a responsible clergyman. In fact, his only real flaw is that he finds Catherine attractive--not that she isn't, but she's eight years younger than he and I suspect him to be drawn to her innocence and unformed nature as much as to her attraction to him (though I love that Austen points out that his attachment to Catherine came from his knowing that she was attracted to him. That is so true of so many people).
Northanger Abbey is fundamentally a book about novels and the love thereof. Austen writes, early on:
I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding
as well as
"Oh! It is only a novel!"...only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.
And the adorable Henry Tilney says (and how sad it is that this is a famous Austen quote and practically no one knows where it comes from)
The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.
Austen both proves and undercuts her thesis throughout the book. Having established the difference between Catherine's reality and the romance of the Gothic novel, she proceeds to put Catherine in positions where her love of novels gets her into trouble. Novels, she suggests, are important and valuable, deserving of far more respect than society (of her time, and possibly of ours) gives them, but not every aspect of fiction can be taken as representative of reality. Henry, in challenging Catherine on her horrible lapse of judgment, points out that in modern England, such horrors as are perpetrated in Mrs. Radcliffe's novels couldn't really happen--there are laws and social structures and "a neighbourhood of voluntary spies" to prevent atrocities from being visited upon, for example, unloved wives. Austen probably exaggerates here--there's never been a time in which the innocent are perfectly safe from cruelty and violence--but her main point about the truth or falsehood of dramatic fiction remains.
Catherine's conclusion is a little different: her experience with being carried away by a Gothic story leads her to conclude that while, in the pages of story, people might be perfectly good or thoroughly bad, in real life people are more or less a mix of such qualities--even Henry, she concludes, might not be as perfect as she thought. Catherine's lesson is incomplete--instead of recognizing the imperfections of fiction, she concludes that such barbarities might be possible in the Alps or the Pyrenees--and it's left to the reader to again be amused at her naïve certainty that in England, if nowhere else, "murder was not tolerated, servants were not slaves, and neither poison nor sleeping potions were to be procured, like rhubarb, from every druggist." (Though I'm sure this is true.)
Northanger Abbey may lack the depth of Austen's other novels, but I think for what it is, it is remarkably successful. Catherine Morland is young and inexperienced enough that readers in general probably either can't or don't want to identify with her, but I think Austen does a splendid job of keeping her from being insipid or hopelessly stupid. Simple, sweet, and a thoroughly enjoyable read. ...more
Pride and Prejudice is the Jane Austen novel everyone knows, its popularity forever ensured by the tempestuous relationship between Elizabeth Bennet aPride and Prejudice is the Jane Austen novel everyone knows, its popularity forever ensured by the tempestuous relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Sense and Sensibility is, thanks to the current craze for all things Austen, now nearly as well known but not, I think, as universally loved. Yet in many ways I think this older sibling (Austen's first published novel) has a number of qualities superior to its flashy little sister, starting with the characterization of Elinor Dashwood. Quiet, self-contained, devoted to her family, Elinor's feelings for Edward Ferrars are deep and abiding despite not being as extravagant as her emotional sister Marianne would want. Her discovery that he's not only engaged to another woman, but to a shallow, crass woman in every way his inferior, force her to conceal those feelings in ways I can only describe as superhuman. She can't even share her troubles with her sister, whose heightened sensibilities would simply make Elinor's pain worse. If Marianne is our titular Sensibility, then Elinor is Sense, and that seems such a paltry word to apply to anyone with as much extraordinary self-control as she has.
There's this perception that the Regency era was as tight-lipped about sexual matters as the Victorian, but Sense and Sensibility (as does Pride and Prejudice, though not to the same degree) shows that women in that era were fully aware of the possibility of sexual misconduct in both men and women and the consequences thereof, and were not horrified by the barest mention of either. I hadn't realized, somehow, just how explicit Colonel Brandon's story of the two Elizas was, without him ever using a naughty word--"his pleasures were not what they should have been" conjures up so many possibilities that I find the phrase supremely creepy. Elinor responds to this account with horror but not with hysterics or some kind of plea to spare her feminine sensibilities (and there's that word again; I really think it's a concept Austen hated).
Austen's mastery of characterization is never more evident than here, with a host of secondary characters who are funny or annoying or lovable or capable of arousing great ire, as for me the John Dashwoods do. The first chapter of the book, in which Elinor and Marianne's half-brother and heir to their family's entire fortune manages to talk his way out of doing anything to help them financially, infuriates me every time. Lucy Steele is another fantastic, if infuriating, character, poorly educated, jealous, greedy, and completely indifferent to anyone's happiness but her own. And I love Mrs. Jennings, who is evidence that Austen could see goodness in even a coarse character; the contrast between her and, for example, the supercilious and selfish Fanny Dashwood is striking, since the latter has all the good breeding Mrs. Jennings lacks, and yet Mrs. Jennings is the one who takes Marianne to her heart when she's dumped so dramatically by Willoughby.
Elinor and Edward make a much less...I can't think of a good word...emotionally engaging couple than Elizabeth and Darcy. The latter both have sparks that the former lack. But I find satisfaction in seeing the former's romance play out. They don't end up wealthy or successful, but they do end up happy, with a relationship that I can easily see satisfying them for the rest of their lives. (I would like to believe the same of Marianne and Colonel Brandon, but she's practically an infant and I have trouble getting past that. Maybe that's why Sense and Sensibility isn't as popular; it's hard for me to be completely satisfied with it.) I enjoy Pride and Prejudice, but I am impressed with Sense and Sensibility, and maybe that's a more enduring reaction, in the end....more
I appreciate this book more every time I read it. Jane Austen was good at every aspect of writing, but characterization was probably her greatest skilI appreciate this book more every time I read it. Jane Austen was good at every aspect of writing, but characterization was probably her greatest skill, and in Persuasion she's at her peak. Anne Elliot's sister Mary--how sublimely petulant, cross, sickly when it suits her and healthy when it doesn't. The Admiral and his wife--what a brilliant portrayal of a loving marriage between two people perfectly suited to one another. And, of course, Anne herself--unappreciated by her family and suffering because of a wrong choice made years before. This edition includes an ending Austen wrote and then discarded, and the changes are fascinating--it's like a glimpse into her writing process. I only skimmed through Austen-Leigh's memoir of his aunt, which is interesting more for what it says about how Austen was perceived later than about her actual life; the editor's gloss on the memoir gave it a completely different appearance. But these are just some nice little extras to have in the library; it's Persuasion that's important, and it was a truly satisfying read....more
I find I can't write a review of this book that will do justice either to its brilliance or to how much it means to me. Asher Lev, an artist practicalI find I can't write a review of this book that will do justice either to its brilliance or to how much it means to me. Asher Lev, an artist practically from birth, grows to adulthood over the course of the novel, which I think is primarily about the tension between art and life, or art and humanity, or possibly art and family. A great artist, Potok suggests, must be cruel to those he loves because not telling the truth in art means being merely someone who draws, or paints, or sculpts--and truth is inevitably hard for someone, somewhere, to bear. Asher's choice is his art, and Potok (himself telling the truth) doesn't pretend that this choice is easy. And yet as much as Asher's parents can't understand him or his art, and are devastated by its effects on their family, they fail to realize that they, too, had to choose between their work and their family, and they made the same choice Asher does. As I said, brilliant, and brilliant on so many layers....more