Austen in August is a reading challenge hosted by Roof Beam Reader. I am reading What Matters in Jane Austen? The book is divided into twenty essays that answer questions about different elements in her writing. My goal is to not only finish the book this month but to blog about it at least once a week. Below is my third weekly update. I will highlight a few things from each chapter, by no means are my summaries comprehensive.
10. What Games Do Characters Play? I've always liked it that Jane Austen's characters play game games because we are a game-playing family. I imagine that life during the Regency Period in England would be downright dull for the elite families if they never played at anything. Apparently Jane Austen and her family and friends were all great game-players, too. Though the chapter talks a bit about the actual games that were referenced in her books I had little interest in that. What I was interested in was how Austen used games to advance her plots and introduce plot twists. I've always wondered why Elizabeth didn't join in the game at Netherfield when she was invited by Caroline Bingley. The author, John Mullan, speculated that the game they were playing was likely a form of gambling and real money was being used. Elizabeth knew this and opted not to join in so she wouldn't have to admit to not having enough/any money. In Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford and her brother Henry were great manipulators. They played at life the way they played at games. "Everything really is a game for them, and all the better if they can flaunt their schemes in front of those whom they deceive." At one point Mary announces, 'If I lose the game, it shall not be from not striving for it.' After reading this essay I see the double meaning in her words. We know that she did lose ultimately because she could fool everyone with her games except Fanny Price.
11. Is There Any Sex in Jane Austen? This chapter, unsurprisingly, wasn't as titillating as I had hoped. Yes, some of the characters have sex and Austen even mentions a few. We know that Lydia and Wickham live together for a month before they are forced to get married. We also know that Lydia liked sex in the way she bragged about the experience. Isabel Thorpe has sex with Captain Tilney in Northanger Abbey and hopes the act will secure a marriage proposal. It didn't work out that way in Austen's time just like it doesn't work today. We also learn that several of the male characters in Austen's book rush to marry (Robert Ferrarrs marrying Lucy Steele; Henry Crawford attempting to marry Fanny Price) because they have sexual longings. "In Austen, as in the eighteenth-century novels from which she learned, premarital sex happens because a young woman gets into the hands of a rakish man, not because two people simply cannot resist each other."
12. What Do Characters Say When the Heroine Is Not There? "Austen's heroines are vivid to us because her novels are narrated from their points of view and suffused by their consciousnesses. Yet, one of Austen's devices is to leave her heroine behind, to give us a glimpse of what the world is like in her absence." Occasionally the heroine will leave the room and the narration will continue without her. This way the reader gains insights that the heroine doesn't have yet. For example, when Elizabeth joins Darcy and his sister at Pemberley when she leaves the room Caroline and Mrs. Hurst attempt to make fun of her forcing Darcy to break his silence about what he thinks of her. Sense and Sensibility begins with both Marianne and Elinor getting equal time as the heroine but soon the point of view shifts slowly to reveal mainly Elinor's consciousness. Only in Mansfield Park is one of Austen's heroines often outside the narration. "Her (Fanny Prince's) fate is always to be decided by others...and out of her hearing." We understand Austen's heroines better by "glimpsing things in their absence." This essay, more that any of the others, has really given me new insights into the brilliance of Austen's writing.
13. How Much Money is Enough? Unlike today, the topic of how much money everyone was worth was not a secret in Austen's day. Austen also had an uncanny ability to show the reader how money affected people and their motivations.
14. Why Do Her Plots Rely on Blunders? I am not sure this question was directly answered so I am not sure why her plots rely on blunders but suffice it to say that quite a few of her plots do rely on blunders. Emma is not only full of blunders but uses the actual word "blunders" a dozen times. The most powerful example is when Mr. Knightly finally decides to declare his love and Emma quiets him, thinking he is going to declare his love for Harriet. She quickly decides to allow him to speak his mind and we know the happy results. "Austen loves blunders because they show the difference between what we can understand of her characters, and they can understand of each other." I personally think that Austen gives a nod to her countryman William Shakespeare whenever she includes a blunder into her plot. Shakespeare was the master of misdirection and miscommunication.
15. What Do Characters Read? Jane Austen makes reading a vital part of her character's lives. "Her completed fiction begins in Northanger Abbey, with a heroine (Catherine Moreland) whose errors are entirely the product of books; the Gothic novels that she devours and then confuses with reality." In her last and incomplete novel, Sanditon, Sir Edward Denham has 'read more sentimental novels than agreed with him.' From start to finish her characters interacted with books. Emma was the least likely to read, but she did make reading lists. Marianne would judge people on how well they could read aloud. Fanny, though generally not taken by anything Henry Crawford did, was captivated by his wonderful ability to read aloud. Even non-readers interact with books. Caroline Bingley, for example, picks up a book when she sees Darcy reading, but she stupidly selects the second volume to the book he is reading. Louisa and Captain Benwick fall in love over the reading of poetry. We are told that Fanny Price first fell in love with Edmund because of the books he recommended she read charmed her so much. "Nothing, we sense, can be more intimate."
Five more days, five more chapters. Will I finish the challenge on time?
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