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From Austen to Forster in six steps

It’s time for another round of Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best and for once I have read the starting book in the chain. For anyone unfamiliar with Six Degrees of Separation each month the idea is that from the book chosen as a starting point we find link to another book, and another using whatever flights of fancy and free associations our brains can muster. As always the books in my chain are one I’ve read.

The starting point this month is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in honour of the author’s bicentenary. The story of five daughters of the Bennett family was her third published novel and arguably most popular work in her lifetime, going through three editions before her death. The multiple tv and film adaptations produced since have helped maintain its popularity. One of the key turning points in the narrative arc is when Lizzie Bennet, second eldest daughter, visits Pemberley, the large country estate of Lord William Darcy, a wealthy landowner with whom she has previously clashed. Lizzie’s delight in seeing this estate brings her realisation that she might have misjudged this man and “that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!”

For my next link I’m choosing a book where the central character finds a door into a new world via another large country estate .

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh traces from the 1920s to the early 1940s, the life and romances of the protagonist Charles Ryder, including his friendship with the Flytes, a family of wealthy English Catholics who live in a palatial mansion called Brideshead Castle. He becomes seduced by the charms of the family but ultimately the relationship turns sour, not because Charles is of a different class but because they are Catholic and he cannot understand the hold religion has on their lives. Waugh wrote this as a convert to the Catholic faith and his novel reflects themes of divine grace and reconciliation as the characters struggle with their beliefs.

Like Waugh, Graham Greene was a Catholic convert who also explored the  drama of the struggles within the soul from a Catholic perspective. I could chose one of several books for my second link but I think I’m going to opt for  The Heart of the Matter (my review)  which is my favourite Greene novel. It details a life-changing moral crisis for Henry Scobie, an assistant police commissioner in a British settlement on the West Coast of Africa during World War II. A superb book about a tortured soul who wants to do the right thing but finds himself morally compromised.

Greene was at one time an agent of the British intelligence service and supervised and befriended by Kim Philby, a man later revealed as a traitor and Soviet spy. They worked together in what is known as MI6. Which gives me my next link …

John le Carré is a highly successful British author of espionage novels. He could write authoritatively about spies and their practices because he was, for a time, one of them. During the 1950s and the 1960s, he worked for both the British Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service under his real name of David John Moore Cornwell.  He’s best known for his masterful novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which is a fiendishly intricate plot about a traitor at the heart of the security service. But I’m going to select his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold which is a tremendously atmospheric novel set in Berlin at a time when the city was divided by the wall. Much of the force of Le Carre’s writing comes from the way he portrays the inner conflict of his characters and in this one, he features Alec Leamas, a British agent, who has been sent to East Germany as a fake defector with a mission to spread disinformation. By the end he has to choose between a German girl with whom he has fallen in love and his duty to his country.

Berlin and the cold war. Now that reminds me of the first Ian McEwan novel I read, The Innocent. Set in 1950, this centres on a joint American and British security operation to build a tunnel from the American sector of Berlin into the Russian sector to tap phone lines of the Soviet High Command. Leonard Marnham is the young Englishman tasked with the set up and repair of the tape recorders used in the tunnel. He’s out of his depth and bungles along until he finds in a spot where betrayal becomes easy.

 

That idea of an innocent caught up in something he doesn’t fully understand gives me my next link.  L P Hartley’s The Go-Between is the recollection of 1900 when 13-year-old Leo Colston spends the summer at a grand country house in Norfolk, rented  by the family of a prep-school chum, He gets caught unwittingly in a love affair between his friend’s beautiful sister and a neighbouring farmer.  Initially is involvement is all rather innocent, he just acts as postman between the pair but each of them is eventually very nasty to him and he’s made to feel an intruder rather than a welcome guest.

 

For my final link we’re going to visit another country house though this is on a less grand scale. Howard’s End by E. M depicts the clash of attitudes between three families, the rich and capitalistic Wilcoxes, the half-German Schlegel siblings (Margaret, Tibby, and Helen), whose cultural pursuits have much in common with the real-life Bloomsbury Group; and the Basts, a poor young couple from a lower-class background. Leonard represents the aspirations of the lower classes; he is obsessed with self-improvement and reads constantly, hoping to lift himself up. But he is never able to transform his meager education into an improved standard of living. Through an accidental encounter with the Schlegels he sees a chance to change his fortunes. The Schlegel’s well-intentioned idea of helping him go horribly wrong when, because of their advice he loses his job and becomes destitute. Another example of an innocent seduced by a world outside his own experience.

And with that we’ve looped back to book number 2 in my chain and not just thematically. The TV adaptation of  Brideshead Revisited starring Jeremy Irons, was in fact filmed at  real country house called Castle Howard.

The many sides of Jane Austen

jane austen noteTwo hundred years after her death, the world has not yet had enough of Jane Austen. The Bank of England marked the bicentenary by unveiling a new version of the British  £10 note complete with  Jane’s portrait and a quote from her novel Pride and Prejudice. Winchester Cathedral where she was buried opened a new permanent exhibition about Jane Austen and her life while the town of Basingstoke, near her birthplace of Steventon unveiled what’s believed to be the first statue of Austen. All this in addition to a host of commemorative events in Bath, the city that features in more than one of her novels, and Hampshire where she lived for much of her life.

What is it about her novels that holds such attraction for readers? Is it the fact, as the Wall St Journal asserted, that they deal with universal themes of “love, money, power and status.”? Or that so many of the plots revolve around the desire for personal happiness; something to which we can all relate? Is it the fact her characters are often people  we can recognise from our own communities: the pushy mother (Mrs Bennett); the shy and self-effacing young girl (Fanny Price); the wrong-un (George Wickham) or the romantic idealist (Marianne Dashwood)?  Or is a question of how she tells her stories with their subtle undercurrent of wit and satire that punctures the pretensions of anyone who gets above themselves?

It’s surely all those components.   Austen’s work has so many dimensions that there’s sure to be something that resonates with our individual interests, whether that’s romance, or the social conventions of Georgian England; or the difficulties of being an unmarried woman in a world which offered few prospects of earning your own income.

One of the critiques often levelled at Austen is that her work is circumscribed in its social and emotional range; that her uneventful, retiring life within the domestic circle of her family meant she was secluded from the larger world of political and social affairs. Consequently her novels are concerned only with the domestic affairs of two or three families in a tranquil English neighbourhood. It’s true her plots largely deal with the affairs of the heart rather than the ideological conflicts that characterised English culture during the years that followed the French Revolution. But I don’t think she ignores these issues —running through her work for example are questions about the individual and society: what should their relationship be and what  are the consequences for the individual, for others, and for society when the individual ignores or even deliberately transgress society’s rules?

She also considers the relationship of the imagination/fancy versus reason/judgment; a pertinent issue given the cult of sensibility which had arisen during the late 1700s in reaction to the emphasis on reason and intellect that had predominated during the earlier part of the century. So we have Austen debating in Sense and Sensibility the consequences of Marianne’s yielding to imagination, rather than listening to the dictates of reason that characterises her sister Elinor.

And then of course we have Austen’s concern with income, property and marriage (look carefully at her text and you’ll find repeated references to someone’s wealth). This isn’t in the novels because she had nothing else to write about but because Austen recognised this as one of the big social issues of her time.

In a social world where the only moment accorded importance in a woman’s life was marriage, the choice of a partner was a serious business.  Upon the rightness of that choice depended their entire future well-being. Their ability to actively seek a partner was however severely limited to the number of social acquaintances that came within their social circle. Mrs Bennett boasts that she dines with “five-and-twenty families” but that’s not sufficient to get marriage partners for five daughters so when Lizzie rejects what would be considered a very desirable offer from Mr Collins, her mother’s concern and warning is understandable:

if you take it into your head to go on refusing every offer of marriage in this way, you will never get a husband at all — and I am sure I do not know who is to maintain you when your father is dead —  shall not be able to keep you.

Understandable therefore that Lizzie’s friend Charlotte takes the more pragmatic approach and positions herself to accept the same offer from Mr Collins though he is a few years her junior. Being neither young, pretty, or rich Charlotte cannot afford to view love as the most vital component of a marriage. She knows she has to marry someone  to avoid a life of dependancy on her family but her choices of husband are limited. She is too wealthy, educated, and upper-class to marry a working man—that would represent a social demotion for her family—but not rich or good-looking to attract a truly wealthy one. She can’t marry up or down—she can only marry sideways. Mr Collins, for all he is the “conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man” Lizzie despises does offer respectability and a secure future. As Austen puts it:

Mr. Collins, to be sure, was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband. Without thinking highly either of men or matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. This preservative she had now obtained; and at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it.

Austen’s primary theme of marriage is thus far from trivial. She understands the reality of her age that marriage is women’s best route to financial security and social respect.

Sweet Aunt Jane writing gentle romances from her rose-clad cottage? Conservative Jane who mocked subjective feelings in Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility?  Master stylist Jane who invented the technique of free indirect discourse to gently mock her characters and undermine the persona they want to present to the world?  Many different Jane Austens have been celebrated since 1817. Just like that scene in the film version of 84 Charing Cross Road where Helen Hanff recalls “I remember years ago a guy I knew told me that people going to England find exactly what they go looking for”, we go looking for the Austen we want to experience and enjoy.

If you want further proof of how Austen continues to interest and intrigue take a look at a series of essays published by  Signature (a Penguin Random House site) in a free downloadable guide: Signature’s Essential Guide to Jane Austen. The guide features 12 essays on topics from the level of sexiness in her novels to book-to-film adaptations, from the challenges of  editing Austen fictionso that it resonates with  modern audiences and how Alexander McCall Smith came to write a new version of Emma.

austen in augustNot yet had enough of Austen? Then the Austen in August event at Roof Beam Reader might be your answer. Visit the intro page to find out more and access reviews and guest posts.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen: a novel of tension

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen’s third novel “seethes with sex” according to an article published in the Daily Telegraph to mark the 200th anniversary of the book. Was I reading a totally different novel or was the article’s author overly influenced by Andrew Davies’ determination to fit sex into every one of his TV adaptations of Austen’s work?

Passion and sexual tension were there in abundance in Pride and Prejudice but I could find few indications in Mansfield Park that “… eroticism, danger, illicit love and incest simmer below the surface.” The scene that apparently resonates with sexual undertones is the one where the Bertrams (who live at Mansfield Park) and their lively visitors Henry and  Mary Crawford take a day trip to the country manor of a wealthy, but stupid, young man. Trailing along with them is Fanny Price, a poor cousin of the Betrams who’d been uprooted from her loving but noisy home in and sent to live in a mansion where few of the inhabitants pay her the slightest attention.

MANSFIELD-PARK-BBC_400

Simmering tension in this 2007 adaptation of Mansfield Park

The trip contains plenty of undercurrents as both Bertram sisters compete openly for the attention of Henry Crawford and he plays one off against the other. Apparently we are meant to see as significant that they stroll along a serpentine path until they reach some phallic iron railings that separate the landscaped estate from the wild countryside beyond. Fanny warns Maria against climbing over the railings: “You will certainly hurt yourself against those spikes, you will tear your gown.” which the Telegraph columnist suggests has sexual connotations. Clearly I am a naive reader since I just read that as practical advice..

 

That’s not to say the novel is devoid of tension.

Much of the novel turns on the diametrically opposed attitudes of the Crawfords and the Bertram sisters to how they should disport themselves. The stylish, witty Crawfords arrive at Mansfield Park trailing the glamour of London society life, an aura which proves utterly seductive to Maria and Julia, leading them to  forget decorum to the point where they  stage an erotic play and indulge in some risqué jokes. It’s not the only clash of attitudes seen in Mansfield Park. Running through the novel is an issue of a landowner’s responsibility to manage his estate appropriately. Henry Crawford is an absent landowner who cares little for his duties to the land and to the local farmers, putting him at odds with Fanny and Edmund Bertram who are both sensitive to nature and tradition. Both Bertram sisters are on the side of change, seeing the estates as playgrounds for the wealthy rather than a critical part of the agrarian society of England.

And then we have the thorny question of how these members of the landed gentry earn their wealth. Sir Thomas Bertram, Mansfield Park is a sugar baron whose wealth comes from his plantations in Antuiga. At the start of the novel he sets off for his plantations in the West Indies to sort out a problem of “poor returns” on his investments.  His absenteeism causes him to lose focus on his duties at home, both as a father and a landowner. By leaving Mansfield Park and placing it under the control of a thoroughly inappropriate guardian in the shape of Mrs Norris, he creates an atmosphere in which moral chaos reigns.

These issues kept my attention though Mansfield Park is still not one of my favourite Austen novels. I kept getting confused at the beginning between the Bertram sisters and I also found the opening chapters a bit slow. Once the odious Henry Crawford came on the scene and showed his true colours, the novel perked up immensely. Like many readers I had an issue with Fanny Price. As kind and patient as she is, she still felt rather insipid compared to the feisty Liz Bennett of Pride and Prejudice and the protagonist of Persuasion the intelligent, witty, and considerate  Anne Elliot. I have a feeling though that this is  a novel that rewards re-reading.

Dancing with Jane Austen

Still from the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice

Still from the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice

If you’ve ever watched the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, you’ll easily recall the key scene of the ball at Netherfield Hall.  The balls in Austen’s novels are important devices by which she reveals aspects of the main characters and how they interact with each other. But they also give us insight into the society in which the stories are set and some of the prevailing conventions. So in the Netherfield ball for example, the clumsy Mr Collins not only manages to make a hash of dancing by turning the wrong way and stepping on his partner’s toes, he commits the ultimate faux pas of engaging with Mr Darcy without the benefit of a formal introduction. One of the younger Bennett sisters is chastised for hogging the piano so that other females don’t get their own chance to ‘exhibit’ their piano playing and singing skills.

A new BBC program to be broadcast this week takes a look at some of those conventions and how such events would have been experienced by families like the Bennetts. The program Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball, was designed as an experiment in which the BBC set out to re-create a full scale Regency style ball as part of the bicentenial celebrations marking the publication of Pride and Prejudice. One of the questions the producers were interested in discovering was whether ‘every savage can dance’ as Mr Darcy maintained.
According to one of the participants, the answer to the latter is a resounding No!
The Miss Bennetts and Miss Caroline Bingley might have made them look easy, something they could do without even the slightest hint of a rosy cheek by the end, but the truth apparently was that they were devilishly difficult and strenuous. Even though many of the cast in the new BBC program were dance students and well used to strenuous routines, after 15minutes (the length each set piece lasted typically)  they were perspiring freely.
Broadcaster and journalist Alastair Sooke who took part in the program commented on his experience:
Regency dancing involved lots of skipping and prancing – I spent most of my time on the front parts of my feet, so that afterwards my calf muscles were clenched like cricket balls. It was also very boisterous. If I’m honest, I’m not sure I ever really got the hang of some of the steps, one of which was a kind of quick rhythmic flutter of each foot followed by a pert hop. It was so physically demanding everyone was glistening by the end.
In addition to recreating the dances, the BBC tried to visualise every aspect of the grand occasion – from the 300 plus candles with which the rooms would have been lit, to preparing a  63-dish banquet with the help of an expert on Regency style food.
Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball will be shown on BBC2 on Friday, May 10 at 9pm for those of you lucky enough to live in Europe.  I know I’m going to be glued to the screen for this one.
If you’re interested in the significance of the ball in Austen’s novels, you might want to take a look at The Guardian which has an interesting article on the subject written by John Mullan, author of What Matters in Jane Austen: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved or this article by the Jane Austen society on how women prepared for these events. 
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