Monday, August 10, 2015
Austen in August: Update the first.
Introduction: The author, John Mullan, quotes a Jane Austen contemporary author, Walter Scott, where he writes in his journal after reading Pride and Prejudice for the third time, Jane Austen has a "talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life." He writes more saying that Austen has an "exquisite touch." Mullan decided to write this book and to answer specific questions "in order to reveal their cleverness."
1. How much does age matter? Most characters are younger than the casting directors of the movies think they are. For example Elinor Dashwood, who is such a paragon of strength and composure in her family is nineteen. When the actress Emma Thompson played this role she was thirty-six. A nineteen-year-old with strength and composure is very different than a woman in her thirties. Austen almost always tells the reader somewhere in the text the age of all her characters, not just the main ones. Unmarried girls in their twenties are considered spinsters even though the average age for marriage in Austen's day was similar to ours today, somewhere around twenty-four.
2. Do sisters sleep together? I actually think the title is a bit deceptive since the chapter dwelt more on the topic of sisters and the confidences they share, often in their bedrooms. All of Austen's characters have sisters but only the ones who share bedrooms are close: Marianne and Elinor (S and S); Jane and Elizabeth (P and P); Fanny and Susan, when she is home in Portsmouth (MP). Mullan makes several points about Emma, in particular, not being close to her sister. If she had been then she wouldn't have been as likely to commit so many thoughtless acts. Her sister would have steered her in another direction. Sisterly closeness is not always desired, however. Think about Lydia and Kitty Bennet. Some of their schemes were no doubt thought up in the bedroom.
3. What do the characters call each other? I thought this was the most interesting chapter I read this week. What characters call each other in Austen's books gives the reader a good idea of the societal pecking order in the Regency period in Britain. Husbands may call wives by their first names but not vice versa with one exception, Mary and Charles Musgrove in Persuasion, and they seem to use the other's christian name as a way to pick at them. Emma called her friend Harriet by her christian name, but Harriet called Emma 'Miss Woodhouse.' Mary Crawford called Fanny Price by her christian name, when Fanny wouldn't even call her cousin Edmund by his. People knew their place and the names they called each other was evidence of this. By the way, what is Mr. Bennet's first name?
4. How do Jane Austen's characters look? Austen didn't follow the examples of other authors of her day who always created the most beautiful and handsome characters imaginable. Often Austen's characters were only good looking once they were inspected closely or known better. Darcy doesn't think Elizabeth is pretty enough to tempt in the beginning but soon he is confessing that her eyes are the finest he's ever seen. Anne Elliott has lost her initial bloom which made Wentworth hardly recognize her but after he notices another man (Anne's cousin) eyeing her his jealousy causes him to view her differently and to notice her internal beauty.
5. Who dies in the course of her novels? Aside from Mr. Dashwood who dies almost at the beginning of Sense and Sensibility there are only two others who actually die in the books, and they are minor characters: Mrs. Churchill and Dr. Grant. But even though few people die, death is an ever present specter in her books. Often an early death has impacted a character's life such as how dramatically Anne Elliot felt her mother's loss. The same could be said for Eleanor and Henry Tilney. The threat of possible death also loomed large such as the close calls with Marianne Dashwood and Tom Bertrand. Death was certainly a part of Austen's life so it isn't surprising that it was a recurring theme.
6. Why is it risky to go to the seaside? Because in Austen's novels the seaside is often equated with sexual flirting and love OR bad behavior. The funniest example is Emma who has never been to the seashore, and she really is very naive about love but once she and Mr. Knightly get engaged they plan to go to the seashore for their honeymoon (wink, wink.)
I'm having fun with this book taking a closer look at Austen's "exquisite touch."
More next week...