The Six Part III — Emma and Persuasion

Emma

“A heroine whom no-one but myself will much like” is Austen’s famous description of Emma Woodhouse. And yes, Emma is not very likeable. She is a self-important busybody who doesn’t even understand how badly she has ruined Harriet’s life. And that is the whole point of her involvement with poor Harriet. The girl is an illegitimate nobody of little value to Emma, so she feels she can do with her what she wants, under the guise of improving her life. And who doesn’t love the fact that Emma thinks she’s a whiz at matchmaking precisely because she introduced one couple to each other? One match! One match, Emma! That’s just beginner’s luck! Her smug self-importance knows no bounds.

Mr. Knightley does his best to open Emma’s eyes to the dangers of her scheming, and he gets really angry with her a number of times. Emma’s saving grace is that when she is called to account for her behavior, she does feel guilty. But Emma! Why does it take you so long to see that you are so mean to Miss Bates?

Like many Austen readers, Emma’s personality turned me off. But I’ve come to love the book, not just for the plot, but as always, for the wonderful background that Austen draws of the little village that is the setting for Emma’s antics. Also, how can you not love these lines, when her brother-in-law gives her instructions for taking care of her nephews:

“Well, Emma, I do not believe I have any thing more to say about the boys; but you have your sister’s letter, and every thing is down at full length there we may be sure. My charge would be much more concise than her’s, and probably not much in the same spirit; all that I have to recommend being comprised in, do not spoil them, and do not physic them.”

Yeah, basically he’s saying, your sister wrote down a whole long list of instructions about taking care of the boys. I’ve got two rules: Don’t spoil them, and don’t let your father give them medicine. For a woman who famously never married and never had children, Austen knew a whole hell of a lot about what whackjobs parents are. Just wait until we get to Persuasion.

And then there’s Mrs Elton. Oh, Mrs. Elton. She marries Mr. Elton, who Emma had designs on for Harriet, and immediately takes on the role of the leading member of society — not knowing that Emma already has that job. The two clash, and for all that Emma is so annoyingly obtuse, Mrs. Elton makes her look as if she’s the most introspective heroine this side of Sylvia Plath. (Sorry — too soon?) Anyway, Mrs. Elton, with her caro sposo, and her pastoral picnic in which she arrives on a picturesque donkey, and the ball at the community center (what? It’s totally a community center!), drives Emma nuts.

And then there’s the paragon of virtue, Jane Fairfax. I don’t get Jane, but we’re not supposed to get Jane. Jane is there to be the person Emma is supposed to aspire to be, and Emma is so incredibly jealous of Jane, and Jane has far more serious problems that she can’t do anything about, so she has no time to feel anything other than annoyed by Emma, as if Emma were a gnat. For one thing, she’s engaged to Frank Churchill.

With every Austen novel, there’s always one thing that I come up against as a headscratcher, and in this case it’s Frank and whatever Jane saw in him. Then again, Anne’s mother in Persuasion also fell for a stupid man, and Mr. Bennet is famously contemptuous of Mrs. Bennet, so bad marriages are a pretty common theme in Austen’s books. Maybe one of Austen’s goals was to warn her fellow women. No matter how pretty the boy is, make sure you respect him too.

So why is Emma Austen’s masterpiece? It is the most assured of all her novels. She doesn’t put a foot wrong at any moment. Everything works, from plot, to character, to setting, to dialog — she is at the top of her game. As I said, I love Persuasion the best of all Austen’s books, but Emma, man — Emma is amazing. If you haven’t read it in a while, or if you’ve only seen the adaptations with Gwyneth Paltrow or Romola Garai, you owe it to yourself to visit Highbury.

Oh: Not a romance. Yes, she finally marries Mr. Knightley, and Harriet marries her farmer, Mr. Martin, and the whole book revolves around Emma’s attempts at matchmaking, but this is so not a romance. In fact, this is like the anti-marriage plot, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Austen was doing that on purpose.

Persuasion

Oh, Persuasion. Best of all Austen novels. It’s unabashedly a romance, and a Romance, with its depiction of the wildness of nature (the seaside, where Louisa falls) and the melancholy of autumn echoing the melancholy of Anne Eliot. Although Persuasion ends up in Bath, its heart is in the countryside. Austen describes the natural world with a yearning that is missing from her other novels. I think it’s the most personal of her work.

In Persuasion, Austen illustrates family dynamics and human nature in scenes so modern as to be almost uncanny. Here are some examples:

Mary’s declaration was, “I hate sending the children to the Great House, though their grandmamma is always wanting to see them, for she humours and indulges them to such a degree, and gives them so much trash and sweet things, that they are sure to come back sick and cross for the rest of the day.” And Mrs. Musgrove took the first opportunity of being alone with Anne, to say, “Oh! Miss Anne, I cannot help wishing Mrs. Charles had a little of your method with those children. They are quite different creatures with you! But to be sure, in general they are so spoilt!”

The visitors took their leave; and Charles, having civilly seen them off, and then made a face at them, and abused them for coming, began with —

And this is straight out of an American high school:

“She is pretty, I think; Anne Elliot; very pretty when one comes to look at her. It is not the fashion to say so, but I confess I admire her more than her sister.”

“Oh! so do I.”

“And so do I. No comparison. “

I could quote from Persuasion for pages, but will restrain myself, except to mention The Letter. The letter is Captain Wentworth’s Grovel, in which he apologizes for being angry and insulted when Anne turned him down ten years before. Go read the book. When you get to The Letter, you’ll see what I mean.

The theme of influence and persuasion run through all of Austen’s books. In P&P, it’s Darcy’s influence over Bingley, for instance. In Persuasion, Lady Russell is guilty of convincing Anne of turning down Wentworth when they were young. She’s practically a mother to Anne, and she saw exactly what happened when her friend married a pretty face — she married Sir Walter Elliot. She wanted to spare Anne that fate. But Austen sticks to her guns. Persuasion never turns out in the best interests of the persuadee.

I’ll leave it to other readers to wonder if Austen’s continued return to the action of persuasion is a clue to her own happiness and unmarried state. I for one am glad that she never married, because if she had, I doubt she would have written her books. But she does redemption very well, and Persuasion is a ripe example of it. Anne and Wentworth get their second chance at love, and only the most curmudgeonly reader would have it otherwise.

Persuasion: Most definitely, gloriously, emphatically A Romance.

Part II: Sense & Sensibility and Northanger Abbey

Part I: Pride & Prejudice and Mansfield Park

The Six Part II — Sense & Sensibility and Northanger Abbey

Sense & Sensibility

For a lot of readers, Sense & Sensibility pales by comparison to Pride & Prejudice. Its structure is so similar to the more famous work — two sisters, straitened circumstances, witty dialog, and finally, married happiness and financial comfort — that the public can be forgiven for considering it Pride & Prejudice Lite.

But as with anything by Austen, S&S has unexpected depths and sparkling characterization, as well as a keen understanding of human nature, and how the deck is stacked against women in how their fate is determined.

At this stage in my re-reading of Austen’s body of work, I focus less on the romance and more on her descriptions of family, character, society — all the background stuff. Austen’s characters in Sense & Sensibility leap off the page (with the exception of Edward Ferrars. He’s very dull, but he entirely suits Eleanor, so they are a great match). Marianne is such a goof. Their little sister Margaret acts exactly the way a twelve-year-old should. Colonel Brandon, Lucy Steele, John Dashwood, who lets his wife talk him down from bestowing a comfortable living on his step-mother and sisters to an occasional gift of a few pounds here and there — we know these people, because human nature does not change.

And with all of Austen’s keen insight into society and people, she also wrote a mighty fine romance. Yes — S&S is a romance. You have two people crossed in love, there’s sex although it happens offstage, there’re any number of romantic heroes and foils (Brandon and Willoughby, and dull Edward Ferrars), there’s bad behavior (Willoughby and Ferrars), and a romantic sensibility permeates the book.

There’s even a Final Obstacle (Marianne confronting Willoughby at the ball) and a Big Fat Misunderstanding (When Eleanor thinks that Edward has married and it turns out nope, he has not.)  Now, as modern readers we are primed to see the loss of Willoughby as a bad thing, but it’s really a bait and switch. Colonel Brandon is perfect for Marianne, and we all know it. Jane Austen is really working the marriage plot, and honestly, this feels like the book that invented it.

Emma Thompson’s screenplay does such great justice to Sense & Sensibility. It’s a lovely movie that matches a lovely book. It’s not my favorite Austen, but it’s the favorite of many fans for all the reasons that people love a fabulous story. Now I have the urge to re-read it.

Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey is a record-setting book. It might be the earliest mention of baseball in literature, and it may also be the first example of fanfic. Yes. Northanger Abbey is an affectionate homage to gothic novels.

This book is just fun. Catherine Morland is a YA heroine who is emphatically not a Gothic romance lead. She’s normal, not too pretty, has just gotten out of her gangly tomboy stage, and her parents say things about her like, “Catherine looked almost pretty today.” She’s a dreamer and a reader too. She’s kind, innocent but also practical, and you would definitely want her to babysit your twins, if she somehow got transported to the Babysitter Club books, or Sweet Valley High.

I love Catherine Morland.

So what happens is, this ordinary girl is transported into a Gothic novel in the most prosaic way, thinks she is in a murder mystery, insults the young man she has a crush on, they make up, and then, because the boy’s father is a control freak alpha male, gets sent home by herself, and has to borrow money to pay the stagecoach fare.

Imagine having to travel several hundred miles by yourself on a Greyhound when you’re a protected teenager, and there are no cellphones, and your parents aren’t expecting you and don’t know what happened to you. Catherine manages the Regency equivalent, and it’s a bit scary, but she’s fine. And that’s her adventure! That’s her Gothic mishap! She has to get on a stagecoach and come home to her entirely normal family. This is like a 1960s teen novel. Catherine Morland and Beezus would be best friends. I know it.

The visit to Northanger Abbey stands in stark contrast to Catherine’s stay in Bath. I’m pretty sure that Austen hated the place, and she calls out the Pump Room for what it is — overcrowded, uncomfortable, and a meat market. We have this image of the Regency era being oh so pretty and lovely, but we don’t have to read far between the lines to get at the realistic parts. And as always, Austen shines when she’s writing her villains. The manipulative brother and sister pair, John and Isabella Thorpe, are soooooo nasty. They know exactly how to maneuver Catherine, and they flat out lie to her when they trick her into standing up her real friends. They are absolute jerks. Isabella gets her comeuppance. John is a  self-involved fratboy type, and there again, some character types never change. Oh and by the way, bad driving is bad driving, whether it’s a car or a carriage. John Thorpe is a bad driver who thinks he’s a good one, and it’s pretty harrowing.

Anyway, what with one thing or another, Catherine ends up marrying Henry Tilney, and again, her mother has the best line.

“I give it six months. Four, if she cooks for him.”

No! Wait! That’s from Parenthood. What Mrs. Morland says is, “Catherine would make a sad, heedless, young housekeeper to be sure.” But it’s the exact same idea and it’s delivered with the exact same sense of parental resignation. This is why people who think of Jane Austen as old-fashioned have no freaking idea.

Of all Jane Austen’s leading men, Henry Tilney is the one to whom I give the most side-eye. I don’t like him. He thinks he’s very clever, and I think he likes the idea of having a guiless young wife. He better be good to Catherine, or I might have to have strong words for him.

Yes, have I mentioned how much I love Catherine Morland?

Anyway, for those keeping score. Northanger Abbey: Not A Romance.

Next up: Emma and Persuasion, or, Austen’s masterpiece and my favorite of hers, respectively.

Part I: Pride & Prejudice and Mansfield Park

The Six — an analysis of Jane Austen’s novels

The six are the Jane Austen canon — Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Emma. The following is my analysis of the six, in no particular order.

Pride & Prejudice

I first read Pride & Prejudice in high school and didn’t like it. I picked it up again when I was 25, at loose ends with my life, and a few months away from drawing stakes and moving from Connecticut where I grew up, to Austin, Texas, a monumental move that changed the trajectory of my life.

I’ve re-read it dozens of times since, especially my several close reads prior to writing The Unexpected Miss Bennet. And I’ve grown to both like it less and appreciate it more. For one thing, over-familiarity can render even the best-loved novel a bit tattered and faded. What was once the brightly colored experience of a beloved re-read suffers from a closer examination that reveals the age marks and the water spots.

But damn, it is probably one of the most perfect novels ever written. It has just enough imperfections to make the good stuff stand out, and to keep English doctoral students in business studying what Austen actually meant when she wrote that. For instance — Lizzy’s very odd conversation with Wickham at the end. Or whether Lizzy fell in love with Darcy before or after she saw his house. Or who is the worse parent — Mr. Bennet or Mrs. Bennet?

Adaptations of Pride & Prejudice emphasize the romance, but the novel itself is not a romance, even if it makes use of a modern romance trope — The Grovel. Darcy has done a pretty unthinkable thing, by influencing Bingley to dump Jane Bennet. He redeems himself by finding Lydia, making Wickham marry her by providing the bulk of the payout, and even takes responsibility for Wickham seducing Lydia in the first place. And he does it all without expecting anything of Lizzy. When he changes Bingley’s mind again (we’ll see this crop up again in Persuasion and Emma), that’s for Lizzy, because it removes the Final Obstacle, which is another modern romance tactic.  And it works, of course.

Austen wasn’t writing romance. She was writing commentary on middle class society. She’s more Anne Tyler than Nora Roberts. P&P does follow the marriage plot, but I still see it less of romance and more of a contemporary novel of manners and morals and society.

Mansfield Park

From Austen’s best-loved novel to her most misunderstood, you won’t find two novels more different from one another. I think that even Jane Austen’s contemporary readers found Mansfield Park puzzling and unlikeable. It’s a barbed commentary on smug, pompous, foolish middle-class society, whose money comes from trade. Austen isn’t just looking down on the merchant class. If current scholarship is correct, she is making a direct statement about people whose fortune came from slave labor.  She is also taking on meanness, hypocrisy, and self-deceit. Nobody is likeable, even Fanny. In fact, Fanny is such a pain in the ass. She’s timid, mealy-mouthed, a milksop, no fun to be around, a killjoy, and everybody’s favorite whipping post.

And that girl stands firm. Every one of her Christian beliefs is tested and she never gives an inch. Of course nobody likes her! She lives according to her principles! She’s very un-modern, which is why modern readers don’t like her, and she is a direct rebuke to her contemporaries, who probably disliked her for the same reason.

Despite all that (“other than that, Mrs. Lincoln…”) Mansfield Park is an engaging read. It’s not an easy book but it is amazing at how modern the language is. Austen is an opaque writer, and Mansfield Park is a thick book, but some things jump out. At one point, Maria asks her aunt, Mrs. Norris, if she’s been sponging again, meaning exactly what we mean when we say someone is sponging off someone.

Mansfield Park is almost Dickensian. My favorite part of the novel comes near the end, when Fanny goes home to visit her family. They are very poor, and they live in squalor and discontent, and there is something so marvelous about that description because it is so different from P&P, and even different from Sense & Sensibility, and the Dashwoods are very poor. But this is different, and we see it. The Price family is rowdy and quarrelsome, and they don’t have even a bit of gentility, and Fanny is ashamed of them, and ashamed of being ashamed.

We have this image of Jane Austen being drawing room nice — sprigged muslin and china cups and dances at the Pump Room, and all of that. The Price family gives a lie to all that. Those people are real, and the only way to write a family like that is to know it.

One other thing that becomes very clear is that Austen loves her some sailors. This comes across in Persuasion as well. Mansfield Park comes alive with Fanny’s love for her brother, who has gone to sea, and the description of Portsmouth and the docks.

Mansfield Park is decidedly not a romance, even if it ends with Fanny and Edmund together. I think that’s why film adaptations have failed. The movie didn’t quite get at the point of the novel, and the miniseries was just plain lousy.

Next installment: Sense & Sensibility and Northanger Abbey.