Mansfield Park: First Impressions

This is a tricksy novel, is it not? I am about half way through and on so many levels I am thoroughly enjoying myself. My toes are positively curling with glee every time I immerse myself back into the world of Mansfield Park; there is so much hilarity! Austen’s wit, characterisation and always perfectly timed observations on the vagaries of human nature are, as usual, superb. The cast of characters is Austen at her best; there are so many to hate, and so few to love; just as it should be. Mrs Norris is particularly brilliantly realised; a busybody with an opinion on everything and an uncanny ability to extricate herself from any financial or other inconvenience resulting from her suggestions for improvement, she is even more odious than Mrs Elton – I never thought such a thing could be possible! Lady Bertram is another stroke of genius; she loves her dog more than her children and seems to spend most of her time dozing on the sofa, and Maria and Julia Bertram are a more grown up Kitty and Lydia Bennett, bickering constantly and jealously vying for the attention of whichever single bachelors happen to come their way.

However, amidst these lively folk live Edmund and Fanny, and you’d be hard pressed to find a drearier pair. Fanny can barely walk to the bottom of the garden without needing to sit down and gets a headache from spending half an hour cutting flowers in a bit of sunshine. Please! She meekly puts up with a garret bedroom and being used as an errand girl, and is entirely dependent on Edmund to protect her; heaven forbid that she should speak a word in defence of herself! Don’t get me wrong; Fanny is a sweet girl, who appreciates nature, is kind and thoughtful, and is naturally shy and retiring. These are all fine character traits, and shouldn’t prevent her from being endearing or interesting, especially not when created by the pen of Jane Austen. I understand that she struggles to speak up for herself because she has strong feelings of inadequacy and a lack of self confidence due to her unusual upbringing; she is, after all, a dependent in someone else’s home and is made to feel like she should be constantly grateful and obliging, which isn’t an easy position to be in. However, despite being able to rationally sympathise with Fanny, emotionally I couldn’t care less about her. She is flat, cold, and dull; she has no sense of humour, no spunk, and no backbone. Anne Elliot is a similarly quiet and put upon heroine, but Austen manages to bring Anne to life in a way that she fails to do with Fanny. I think, at this stage, Fanny is just presented as far too two-dimensional to endear her to the reader. Her inner thoughts are not much exposed, and even though there is a flash of endearability in her jealousy of Mary Crawford, it’s not enough to redeem her for me. She bores me to tears.

Edmund is a rather different kettle of fish. His relationship with Fanny is very interesting, and I hadn’t picked up on many of the complexities of this before. While Edmund’s primary aim is to make Fanny feel safe and welcome in his family’s home, there is also a rather disturbing undercurrent of control. Edmund has moulded Fanny into a ‘mini-me’, using his emotional power over her to shape her thoughts, feelings and decisions until he is sure she will always be his ally. As Austen says, Edmund has ‘formed her mind’; he manipulates Fanny’s affection and trust to the point where Fanny seeks Edmund’s approval in her every decision, and is incapable of having an independent opinion that does not tie in with his. Edmund is keen to control everyone, and is always quick to dispense his opinions on others’ behaviour when he finds it lacking in comparison to his own moral standards. However, when it suits him, his standards can very quickly alter, and no one is more gifted than he at finding mitigating circumstances to explain away his sudden change of heart.

I find Edmund sly, calculating and controlling; while he can be perceptive and caring, he can also be incredibly obtuse – he totally fails to realise that Fanny worships the ground he walks on – and I wonder how much of his behaviour is for appearances’ sake. I know that Henry and Mary Crawford are supposed to be the villains of the piece, but at the moment they are my hero and heroine; they might be up to no good, but at least they do not pretend to be anything other than what they are, and they have a lot of fun in the process. Mary Crawford actually reminds me a lot of Elizabeth Bennett; lively, witty and not afraid to give her opinion, she sparkles next to the dull Fanny.

So, what exactly is Austen doing here? We have a flat heroine, a manipulative and very flawed hero, a villainess who is actually very likeable and a villain who is dashing, good fun and hasn’t technically done anything wrong (yet). I think I need to read a little further in order to come to some concrete conclusions. What I can say at this point is that Mansfield Park is a very well written and well structured novel; the dialogue sparkles, the wit is perfectly judged, the characters are intriguing, and there is plenty of plot. However, my dislike of the two major players is souring the taste a little. Austen has created a very strange scenario in which we have two characters that charm and two that offend, and by the end of the novel we are expected to be content with the two offenders becoming our happy ever after. Subverting the traditional course of the novel is a very ambitious scheme indeed; at the moment, I’m not convinced that Jane’s going to be able to pull it off. That Edmund is nothing but a snake in the grass as far as I’m concerned, and Fanny really needs to lighten up.

Book Serendipity

Yesterday I was shopping in Tunbridge Wells, and there are two very good bookshops nestled away in the Pantiles area of town, which is essentially a pretty cobbled Victorian shopping arcade. One is an Oxfam Books, which I know is the death of the high street second hand bookseller, but they do have a very good selection and as much as my principles burden me with guilt whenever I step inside, the tradeoff of what is technically just giving to charity and receiving a gift in return does somewhat lessen the additional guilt of buying books I really don’t need.  The other bookshop is a wonderfully crowded, Dickensian labyrinth of poky shelves and piles of dusty hardcovers that usually doesn’t fail to offer up a gem or two. It has Viragos and Orange Penguins aplenty, and it’s also a goldmine of original hardcovers of my favourite mid century authors.

I was on the hunt for the next in the Palliser series of Trollopes, and I was certain one of these two would be able to offer up the goods. Sadly neither had the title I wanted at a price I was prepared to pay, but Oxfam had another little treasure up its sleeve for me. As I mentioned a few days ago, I am planning on re-reading the much maligned Mansfield Park in the New Year. I do already have a nice little hardcover copy, but it’s nothing special and I’m not overly attached to it. So, imagine my delight when I spotted an absolutely stunning turn of the century, elaborately decorated and beautifully illustrated copy of Mansfield Park sitting waiting for me on a dusty top shelf at the back of the shop! And for only £2.50! I gathered it up, paid my money and skipped off home with it.

Later that evening I was attempting to settle my baby nephew down to sleep, and I thought a bit of soothing reading would do the trick. So, I opened Mansfield Park and began to read out loud. As little Albert’s eyes began to get heavier and heavier, mine lit up. The irony! The wit! The odiousness of Mrs Norris! The Lord Grantham-esque-ness of Sir Thomas! It is all far more wonderful and brilliantly written than I remember. I am not allowing myself to go any further than I did last night, as I am in the midst of another book at the moment, but I am eager to get stuck in as soon as I can in January. Would anyone like to join me?

Persuasion’s Men

Anne Elliot is a marvellous heroine, and I’ve spent a lot of time talking about her and the depth of emotional weight she brings to the novel. However, Persuasion has some superb male characters; some whom it is easy to love, and others whom I hate more every time I read the novel. Whether you like them or not, their characterisation is very well done by Austen, who, as always, is sure to avoid stereotypes and tropes. The heroes are far from perfect, and the villains are not without their redeeming features. I don’t think we get as much of their inner life as we do of Anne’s, but it is not really their story; they are supporting players who have a vital role in that they show who Anne could have been, what she has turned away from, and what qualities will best partner hers. They illustrate how difficult it can be to choose a partner, and if one is not a wise judge of character, how it can be easy to marry someone who will degrade rather than improve your own character, tastes and quality of life.

Sir Walter, Anne’s father, is the first male character we meet. It is clear from the start that he is not going to be a favourite. Like most (maybe all?) of Austen’s fathers, he is not a particularly good patriarch; he has chosen his favourite and the other two daughters receive little of his attention or consideration. His major passion in life has always been himself, and his personal vanity and selfishness is on a par with that wonderful clergyman from Highbury, the odious Mr Elton. He is a poor manager of money, a poor judge of character, and an incorrigible snob. Elizabeth, Anne’s elder sister, has followed in her father’s footsteps, and as such has failed to develop the qualities necessary to make her an attractive friend or partner. Mary, her middle sister, has inherited her father’s selfishness and snobbery, though fortunately for her she has married a man who won’t put up with her nonsense and has prevented her behaviour from becoming more unpleasant. Anne’s personal strength of character and caring, selfless attitude is a reaction to the personalities she was brought up alongside. Sir Walter has not set a good example, but Anne is wise enough to realise this, and has gone as far opposite his ways as possible. Sir Walter shows us what Anne might have become, had she not possessed the heart and mind she does.

Mr Elliot is a key male character in the novel because he represents Anne’s only other real chance of marrying someone she esteems. We know that Mr Elliot has not always been popular in the Elliot household, but his changed behaviour after losing his wife impresses everyone, including Anne. Polite, attentive, considerate, intelligent, cultured and with impeccable manners, Mr Elliot appears to have the whole package – including good looks. He acknowledges his past failings, apologises for them, and wastes no time in working hard to mend his bridges. When Anne believes that all is lost with Captain Wentworth, she begins to seriously think about him as a marriage prospect. She enjoys his company, she appreciates his good manners and his tastes, and she is tempted at the thought of being Lady Elliot, reinstated to Kellynch Hall in her mother’s place. However, something isn’t quite right – Mr Elliot is a bit too good to be true. He is careful to say all the right things and make all the right noises, but deep down Anne knows the selfish, rude and frivolous young man who first snubbed her father is still in there, and it is all a show. She frequently wonders whether he is ‘not quite sincere’. When Mrs Smith presents her with the evidence to prove it, Anne is shocked, but it only confirms the suspicions she already had. Anne does wonder whether she might have been induced to marry him by Lady Russell, but somehow I doubt this; she never feels any particular passion for Mr Elliot, and when a woman is flattered, and other prospects appear to be hopeless, many wild fancies can start to be treated as reasonable possibilities, but they are rarely acted upon. Importantly when Mr Elliot is exposed as the liar he is, Anne realises that ‘he stood as opposed to Captain Wentworth, in all his own unwelcome obtrusiveness’. Mr Elliot is the final proof for Anne that no one but Captain Wentworth will do.

Finally; Captain Wentworth. The wonderful, heartfelt, romantic letter he writes to Anne at the end of the novel is enough to make any woman sigh at the mere mention of his hallowed name, and these words, breathlessly written while Anne stood just an arm’s length away from him, would make him perfect in many an eye. However, Austen does not write Wentworth as the perfect romantic hero. He is not a white knight on a trusty steed, and his judgement is often severely lacking. When he first arrives back in Kellynch, his behaviour towards Anne is rude at best. He remarks that she is ‘wretchedly changed’ –  a comment he knows will get back to her – and is abrupt and perfunctory in his tone and manner of speaking with her. He has allowed his disappointment and anger at Anne’s refusal, eight years before, to harden his heart, and like a child, he hits out at the one he loves because he cannot articulate his feelings towards her. He runs after the silly Louisa and spends a good deal of time alone with her, apparently without realising the very obvious impression this gives to all around them. Most seriously of all, he grossly underrates Anne, and takes an incredibly long time to realise that, at the tender age of 19, being persuaded by the only mother figure she has not to marry a man who is not in an immediate position to provide for her is not really a colossal character fault but the actions of any impressionable young woman. Wentworth may be a sensitive soul and a successful, brave and dashing naval Captain, but he is also blind to a lot of his behaviours and quick to react emotionally to circumstances, untempered by reason. His wild jealousy at Mr Elliot’s attention towards Anne at the concert is another case in point; rather than wait to speak to Anne calmly about his suspicions, or rationally take on board the fact that Anne clearly only has eyes and ears for him, he storms out of the concert hall like a spoilt little boy who hasn’t got his own way, leaving poor Anne confused and bereft. Like the woman he loves, Wentworth is a flawed hero; a man whose hot temper and quick tongue belie a soft and constant heart. Anne; careful, studied, measured Anne, will be his perfect foil. They make up each other’s deficiencies and temper the other’s weaknesses. Wentworth might not be perfect; but he is perfect for Anne.

There are plenty of other interesting male figures in the novel; Admiral Croft, Charles Musgrove, Captain Benwick, to name a few; but if I go into depth about all of them I’ll never stop talking! I wanted to make the point that Austen’s men are often as well fleshed out as her women, and that they also serve a very key purpose aside from being romantic fodder for the ladies. I think Persuasion‘s men are particularly well characterised in that they are all very multidimensional, and their flaws make them as interesting as their strengths. I’d love to hear what you think…

Persuasion Week 2: Emotion

Well, week two of the Persuasion read-along and I’ve had another week to ponder on this marvellous novel. Something that kept swirling about in my head was the emotive atmosphere Austen manages to create, and how a character’s emotional life bears on their general wellbeing. At the beginning, we feel Anne’s choice to withdraw from the possibility of a romantic life; we feel that sense of her being wasted; dried up, almost. This is not only evidenced in her lack of activity and of speech, as I discussed in my last post, but also in her appearance. ‘Her bloom had vanished early’; she is ‘faded and thin’; she is ‘haggard’. According to Wentworth, when he meets her again after eight and a half years, she is ‘wretchedly changed’. These descriptions create the image of a woman only half alive; she has been drained of her vitality, of her youth, and of her joy. She is a shadow of the self she was when in love; she gave everything to Wentworth and when he was gone, that effervescent spirit went with him. Now, she is of no consequence to anyone; ‘only Anne’; a figure in the background of everybody else’s life, not permitted to take first place anywhere except in Lady Russell’s heart, ironically the woman who was the cause of Anne’s ‘wretched’ change in the first place.

Anne’s refusal of Wentworth changed her life from one of hope, love, possibility and adventure to one of sadness, regret, loneliness and sacrifice. It ‘clouded every enjoyment of youth’. Her world is small; her friends few; her opportunities miniscule. The farthest she is permitted to go is to the next village to help her sister Mary, whose emotional life is one of shallow self interest that leads her nowhere but that Victorian Chaise-Longue of imaginary illness developed to stave off the boredom of provincial married life. As Anne’s world shrivels, so does her happiness; her appearance is ‘wretchedly changed’ because she has so little in her life that fills her heart with genuine joy.

When Wentworth arrives back in town, Anne’s appearance as well as her attitude changes. After the first conversation about the Crofts letting Kellynch Hall, the very possibility of Captain Wentworth being in the vicinity of her childhood home brings a flush to her normally wan cheeks. After the first awkward meetings are out of the way, the mere presence of him brings her back to life; her eyes sparkle, her cheeks are plumper and pinker, her confidence increases and other people’s opinions of her change. As Wentworth’s presence reawakens the love that lay dormant in her heart for so long, she re-engages with the world around her. She is admired by plenty of men; Mr Elliot and Captain Harville are certainly much taken with her, and Admiral Croft acknowledges her to be a very pretty young woman. She is desired and desirable; she is no longer ‘only Anne’. The hope that Wentworth brings with him; the hope of a life that will not revolve around the whims of her father and sisters, the hope of a life that is filled with love and respect and happiness, the hope of a life of independence and appreciation, changes Anne from the inside out.

It’s not just how Anne changes that makes Persuasion such an emotionally vital novel; it’s the way that Austen perfectly describes how it feels to be hopelessly in love. That feeling of excitement at going out to a party or gathering where you know he will be; the feeling of total boredom and disinterest in everything and everyone when you arrive and realise he is not there; the flash of vicious jealousy when you see him talking to someone else; the heart stopping joy when you catch him looking at you; the way your heart leaps and flutters when you realise he is coming forward to speak to you; the crushing disappointment when you are prevented from spending much time together in a crowded room – Austen paints it with a clarity that shows she must have experienced it all. When Anne realises that Wentworth is not going to marry Louisa, her heart beats with ‘senseless joy’. At the concert, Anne is consumed with ‘agitation’ while she waits for a look, a smile, something that confirms the suspicion that is starting to stir within her desperate, longing heart. The tension mounts and mounts until the glorious letter, and then we as readers, along with Anne, are allowed to finally rejoice in the glory of a love equally and beautifully shared between two people who should never have been separated for so long. We feel that Anne really has got what she deserved, because we have suffered with her from the very first page, and seen her blossom as hope wells up once more and is finally allowed to come to fruition.

It is a deep emotion that runs through this novel; one of experience, regret, and pain, and therefore one that resonates powerfully with the reader. We feel that Anne deserves her happiness, because she has suffered for it. Austen draws us into the depths of her heart and takes us from feeling small, unloved and lifeless to feeling beautiful, vibrant and full of joy. Anne is an everywoman; the life of her heart charts emotions we have all felt at some point or another.  Her happy ending, therefore, is something we can all share in, because it is something we all would want for ourselves. If Anne can achieve it, then perhaps so can we; that, I think, is the key to the beauty and the power of this special, lovely, wonderful novel – it makes you dare to, as Emily Dickinson would say, dwell in possibility.

Next week: Persuasion‘s Men….

Persuasion: First Impressions

I’m almost finished re-reading Persuasion after not picking it up for a couple of years, and I was rewarded from the very first page by just how witty and observant Austen’s writing is. Even in this, her most ‘serious’ book, Austen can’t help being funny. Her wry asides are so perfectly judged, slotted into the narrative at just the right moment to produce the best effect, that they often had me giggling. However, within the same sentence that will leave me in fits of laughter, her skill is so great that she can also have my eyes pricking with tears. I really do believe, having read all of her works, that Persuasion is the culmination of Austen’s literary talents. It is her tightest and most convincing narrative, with a heroine who is flawed but perfect when it comes to providing the ultimate in reading pleasure.

The main thing I have noticed so far is how little direct speech Anne is given by Austen. We rarely hear her words; just her thoughts. Her voice is stifled; instead of reporting her conversation, Austen simply writes something along the lines of ‘Anne said what was proper’, or ‘She said all that was reasonable and proper’. What Anne says is not important to so many people in the novel; her father and sisters couldn’t care less for Anne’s opinions, comments, thoughts or feelings unless they have a direct effect on them; Anne is simply called upon to agree or soothe. Therefore, Austen doesn’t bother to give Anne a spoken voice; instead, she opens up her mind to us. Anne thinks to herself frequently; Austen tells us everything that is running through her head. Usually this is the exact opposite of what she has been called upon to say; the exact opposite of being ‘proper’. This oral restraint compared to the thoughts circling in her really very witty and intelligent mind is what makes her such an endearing character; she might appear to be very good and kind and patient and selfless, but inside she’s screaming in frustration at her idiotic, delusional father, and rolling her eyes at her sister Mary’s melodramatics and selfishness.

However, she wisely – I wish I were so wise –  keeps her thoughts to herself, and lets what she can’t control wash over her. When it really matters, however, Anne stands up for herself – she won’t be forced against her will to do anything that she is able to have an influence over; she has learned her lesson. Anne is often viewed as a pushover, easily persuaded, easily led, a wet blanket, even; however, this reread has reminded me of her remarkable self control. Her strength of mind and character and her ability to keep herself going through the most trying of emotional upheavals and personal disappointments are extraordinary. Austen’s wonderful prose that closes Anne’s mouth while opening her mind and heart to the reader ensures that Anne’s inner strength shines through. I know that on the surface Anne can appear a rather dull Cinderella-like heroine, pushed about from pillar to post, allowing herself to be ill used by everyone; but really, she’s the exact opposite of this. She can discern when it’s worth putting up a fight, and when it’s not. When it matters, she is more than capable of fighting her corner, but when it comes to her sisters and her father, she knows that flattering them and doing as they wish will ultimately serve her better. Going against them, refusing to indulge them, or speaking up for those they disrespect, is not worth her while; it will only cause unnecessary conflict that would cause her pain anyway. She does what is ‘proper’ not because she is a pushover, but because she is sensible. She is wise enough to know when to speak and when not; but her thoughts do not have the same censure. They reveal Anne’s true heart, which has a depth, a beauty, a warmth and a humour her conversation with vain and silly people could never truly disclose.

I will write more on Persuasion next week; I hope that those of you who are reading along are enjoying it as much as I am. I’d love to hear your thoughts!