Criticism, Essay, Jane Austen

Considering the Secret of Northanger Abbey

Although I’m not hosting Austen in August this year, I did want to dip my toes into something Austen-related, at least. Old habits die heard! As many of you know, my favorite Austen novel is Northanger Abbey. It is not her best, but I have a special affinity for it, for a few reasons. I recently read an article that takes a different view on its characters, so I thought I would consider it and respond here.

Edward Neill’s “The Secret of Northanger Abbey”is largely a critique on the “imbecility” of the characters in Jane Austen’s novel. Neill refers to each character individually, pointing out their less admirable traits, without paying much attention to what positivity or sensibility the characters might actually bring to the story. The article revolves around negativity, and does not take into consideration multiple-motives or interpretations.

For instance, when discussing an argument between Catherine and Henry Tilney, over Fred Tilney’s actions with Isabella Thorpe, Neill writes, “Catherine’s condemnation of [Fred’s] caddishness seems more accurate than Henry’s blustering indulgence” (Neill 23). However, Neill only allows for Catherine’s behavior as proper in this circumstance, refusing to acknowledge the fact that Henry must first (especially in the time this novel is written, when familial ties are of the utmost importance) align himself with his brother; furthermore, if we look at the novel itself, it is clear that Henry Tilney understands Isabella’s character, as well as his brothers, and he finds them both equally at fault. Henry touches on this sentiment when he responds to Catherine’s one-sided assault against his brother, essentially stating that, in order for one to fret over Captain Tilney’s treatment of Isabella, one would need “first suppose Isabella to have had a heart to lose, – consequently to have been a very different creature; and in that case, she would have met with very different treatment” (Austen 150-51). Thus, Henry does not disagree that the Captain’s behavior leaves much to be desired, but also that one such as Isabella need not expect, nor deserve, any better.

The character “flaws,” as Neill understands them, are not the only aspects of Austen’s novel with which Neill finds fault. He goes on to examine Catherine’s growth as a character, and rather than applauding Austen for allowing Catherine to develop over the course of the narrative, Neill states that the character growth from “imbecility sprouts at an alarming” rate (Neill 24). I would argue, however, the old adage that one cannot truly grow, or appreciate one’s own self-worth, without first making mistakes (or, “it is better to learn from your mistakes, than to be doomed to repeat them.”) Why does Neill find such fault in a character’s ability to learn and to grow – as Catherine does – with each new experience? It is also clear that her most important life experience to-date is happening at this moment in narrative time, when Catherine is visiting Bath and largely responsible for herself for the first time, so it seems natural that this is a time when she would obtain a great deal of self-awareness (as well as social, political, economic, etc.), even rapidly.

The third issue I take with Neill’s reading of Northanger Abbey comes by way of his deconstruction of an interaction between Catherine and Henry. As the two characters discuss their reading of The Mysteries of Udolpho, Neill labels Henry’s irony “self-reproachful,” then goes on to state that Catherine misunderstands Henry’s intention with his statement that he has read the book and thus, must “gain points” with her (Neill 25). Neill seems to think that Henry is mocking her, and, though Tilney does use sarcasm often enough to get his point across, as when he says, in jest, that “nature has given [women] so much, that they never find it necessary to use more than half,” it is also made clear, early in the story, that he does read and enjoy novels (Austen 79). Therefore, I would argue, this scene is not meant to diminish Henry’s nor Catherine’s character; instead, it is Austen’s way of bringing the general popularity and importance of the novel to the forefront.

Neill’s essay is an interesting piece of criticism, and it does have its value. It offers one way of reading the characters in the novel and leaves room for argument and further consideration. Further, it concludes that “Northanger Abbey contains the meaning of Northanger Abbey” which Catherine, mostly by accident, discovers (Neill 29). The article opened up my own reading of the text by making me look more closely at the way Catherine’s character develops throughout the novel, and how it is her stumbling and misinterpretations of situations, or perhaps more generously, her intuition which allows her to become the true heroine of the novel. What does it mean, for instance, that “not only is she not absolutely wrong, she ends by seeming closer to being right than anyone else?” (Neill 28) Neill is correct that Catherine somehow interprets the natures of John Thorpe, General Tilney, and Captain Tilney; however, I would have to argue that, even though she does not, at first, understand the reason for her “gut feelings” about these people, she is the only person to recognize that there is something wrong. Thus, in my opinion, Catherine is no “imbecile.”

Works Cited

Austen, Jane.  Northanger Abbey.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004.

Neill, Edward. “The Secret of Northanger Abbey.” Essays in Criticism 47.1 (1997): 13-32.


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Jane Austen, The Folio Society

The Folio Society’s Mansfield Park!

Exciting news, dear readers!

Listen. You all know by now that I’m a huge fan of Jane Austen and a huge fan of The Folio Society. I’ve been beyond excited by the fact that The Folio Society has been slowly releasing new, illustrated editions of every Austen novel.

Today, I’m so excited to announce that MANSFIELD PARK has now been published, which also means the complete Austen set is now available!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park

Published in 1814, Mansfield Park marked a conscious departure from Austen’s previous novels. While Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice were drafted in the 1790s, Mansfield Park was composed between 1811 and 1813, when Austen was in her late thirties. The work of a practiced writer, this is Austen’s Bildungsroman: the only one of her novels to follow her heroine from a young girl into womanhood, and to trace the development of her moral consciousness.

At just ten years old, Fanny Price is sent from her poor Portsmouth home to live with the family of her wealthy uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, in the vast grandeur of Mansfield Park. Timid and fragile, Fanny is neglected, belittled and constantly reminded of her lowly status. Her only comfort is the kindness and attention shown by her cousin Edmund, and her sole strength the sense of her own moral integrity. But this strength is tested when the alluring and sophisticated Henry and Mary Crawford arrive, and Fanny must watch her cousins – even her beloved Edmund –succumb to their seductive charms. As Lucy Worsley writes in her erudite introduction, ‘Mansfield Park is complex, mature Austen’, in which familiar themes of unrequited love and social propriety are played out against the backdrop of a nation in transition, one that – in reaction to the Napoleonic Wars and the French Revolution – is responding to ‘the great questions of the age: slavery, religion, wealth, right, wrong’.

This final volume in Folio’s celebrated Jane Austen series is illustrated by Darya Shnykina, whose beautifully textured illustrations won her the commission in the Book Illustration Competition 2017. Like Austen’s heroine, student Shnykina’s work displays a maturity beyond her years; her sensitive images convey a delicacy of atmosphere and expression entirely suited to Austen’s most subtle, discerning novel.

Special Note: I’ve just been in communication with The Folio Society, and I’ve been told that I can whisper this in your ear: Keep your eyes peeled for another visit from The Folio Society in November, during Thanksgiving Week (US). There just might be a special holiday gift available to one of my readers. (subtle, right?)


Product information
Bound in metallic buckram blocked with a design by the artist. Set in Baskerville with Trajan display. 432 pages.
Frontispiece and 7 color illustrations. Blocked slipcase. 9½ ̋ x 6¼ ̋.


For seventy years, The Folio Society has been publishing beautiful illustrated editions of the world’s greatest books. It believes that the literary content of a book should be matched by its physical form. With specially researched images or newly commissioned illustrations, many of its editions are further enhanced with introductions written by leading figures in their fields: novelists, journalists, academics, scientists and artists. Exceptional in content and craftsmanship, and maintaining the very highest standards of fine book production, Folio Society editions last for generations.


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Austen in August, Jane Austen

Austen In August: Year 5! (Call for Participants)

AustenInAugustRBR-Button

Welcome to the sign-up post for AUSTEN IN AUGUST, an annual reading event celebrating one of literature’s greatest writers! This event was inspired by a Twitter conversation that took place five years ago between three founders of The Classics Club. We’ve had ever-growing participation and excitement over these last four years, and I hope this year will see that trend continued! 

Call for Volunteer-Participants: I am currently looking for people who would like to host/sponsor a giveaway or provide a guest post. If you’re interested in doing either (or both) of these, please fill out this form. One of the reasons this event is so great every year is because of the awesome content provided by our participants and partners – I know this year will be no different! Please submit your participation request by July 5th so that I have plenty of time for scheduling. I’ll be responding as your requests come in.

So, why is Jane Austen so interesting? Pemberely explains: Jane Austen is very resistant to being classified as part of a literary “school”, or being placed in any customarily-defined literary period — partly because none of the obvious available terms, “18th-century, “Romantic”, or “Victorian”, would appropriately describe her. Almost all of the major figures who were literarily active in the period 1800-1837, and who are currently deemed worthy of remembering (i.e. are “canonized”), fall into one of a few categories — either they launched their literary careers before 1800 (Burney, Edgeworth); or they were part of the Romantic movement (or were more or less strongly influenced by romanticism, or wrote in self-conscious reaction to romanticism); or they did most of their writing and publishing after 1837 (e.g. Dickens). Jane Austen is the conspicuous exception who does not fit into any of these categories.”

The Goal: To read as many of Jane Austen’s works (finished or unfinished) as you want or are able to, during the month of August. Biographies, audiobooks, spin-offs, and re-reads also count. I will post throughout the month on different subjects, as well as with my own reviews of the Austen books I finish. We will be offering giveaways, guest posts, and other shenanigans, all of which are meant to inspire a great, interactive event. If you are going to participate, you can read any of Jane Austen’s novels, a biography about her, or any contemporary re-imaginings (such as Austenland or The Jane Austen Book Club, for example). All posts will help you qualify for prizes, which I’ll explain in a later post!

If you want to sign-up to join us as a reader during the Austen in August, simply leave a comment stating such! Maybe include some of the books you hope to read. I will be hosting a read-along of Northanger Abbey as the August selection for the Classic Book-a-Month Club. I also plan to read Jane Austen: The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly. I’ve long argued that Austen was more politically aware than people allow; Kelly’s book has received some harsh criticism for suggesting as much. I’m looking forward to reading her arguments to see where we agree or disagree about Austen. I know, for example, we probably agree about the importance of Mansfield Park. 

Sign-ups are open throughout the month of July. If you sign-up after July 31st, you can still participate, but may not be eligible for some of the early giveaway prizes. To Share/Discuss on Twitter and Facebook, Use Hashatag #AustenInAugustRBR. Please also post the button somewhere on your blog (maybe in an announcement post or on your blog’s side-bar) so that we can spread the word, gather excitement, and encourage participation. The more of us reading Austen together, the better!


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Andrew Smith, Austen in August, Blog Post, David Levithan, David Shields, Helene Wecker, J.D. Salinger, Jane Austen, Nancy Sommers, Personal, Shane Salerno, Stephen King, Virginia Woolf, Year In Review

Roof Beam Reader’s Best of 2013

Hello, Readers!

Since I surpassed my 2013 goal of 60 books read (I’m up around 64, right now, with 2 books in progress and likely at least 1 more to go) before year’s end, I thought I would take a cue from some of my favorite bloggers who are posting a “Best of 2013” list.

The list below includes a small selection of categories from which I’ve read this year, with one “favorite” spotlighted for each category.  These are books I’ve read in 2013, not necessarily books that were published in 2013.  I hope you enjoy!

Best Academic Text

15793484From Queer Theory and Feminism, to Linguistics, Rhetoric, and Film Studies, this was a year of heavily theory-based, academic reading, for me.  I read some incredibly interesting texts on the history of sexuality, the French Revolution, bibliographical and textual studies, and the creative writing process.  Of all of these academic texts, though, I think my vote goes to a short little book called Responding to Student Writers, written by Harvard Professor Nancy Sommers, whom I had the honor to meet and work with this summer.  As an English instructor (and, more specifically, a teacher of first year college composition), I found the suggestions, tips, tools, and resources in this booklet to be helpful, as was the CD of student interviews that came with it.  Nancy Sommers is a well-respected expert in the field, and for good reason.  If you are a teacher who often assigns essays/research papers, analyses, etc., then Sommers’ work shouldn’t be missed.

Best Book on Writing / Literary Theory

340793I read a number of books this year which would fall into the category of literary theory and/or “on writing.”  I thought it prudent, then, to mention some of these and to pick a “favorite” amongst a group of rather good texts.  These include, for instance. E.M. Forster’s groundbreaking Aspects of the Novel, Terry Eagleton’s How to Read a Novel, Jim Powell’s graphic guide Postmodernism for Beginners, Judith Mayne’s brilliant collection of essays on feminist film studies, The Woman at the Keyhole, and Anne Lamott’s wonderful Bird by Bird.  Of all the books that fit this category, though, my favorite overall has to be Virginia Woolf’s lecture series, A Room of One’s Own.  Anyone interested in writing, and particularly the historical connection of women and/or socioeconomic status to the process, should definitely check this one out.

Best Contemporary Fiction

13596166I did not read all that much contemporary fiction this year, which is not unusual (I tend to lean towards classics and/or academic texts).  Still, there were enough to be considered and I believe this is a popular category for many of my readers, so I thought I should name a few standouts. First is a wonderful collection of short stories by E.J. Runyon called Claiming One.  Another was the highly controversial but interesting Tampa by Alissa Nutting.   My favorite, though, had to be Stephen King’s Joyland.  Normally, King would probably be the stand-out in the horror/mystery/paranormal genre, and he certainly nailed it with Doctor Sleep, his sequel to The Shining, but Joyland was much more akin to some of his earlier stories, such as “The Body.”  There was some suspense, some magical realism, and a bit of crime-thriller to it, but mostly it was a book about summertime, coming-of-age, and living life. I absolutely loved it.

Best Genre Fiction Book

15819028I read much more genre fiction this year than I did general fiction (other than classics, which will be addressed below), so I am excluding a general fiction category and simply focusing on those books which might be considered fantasy, science fiction, horror, etc.  Of these, I have read a number of works, including The Gunslinger and Doctor Sleep by Stephen King, both of which I highly recommend.  Also,  Inferno by Dan Brown, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. Although Shirley Jackson’s book came close to taking the title, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by The Golem and the Jinni.  I finished it recently and have not had time, yet, to write & post a review, but it was a stunning piece of work.  There’s something of the old-fashioned Romantic wonder and awe of nature in this one – it is bits and pieces of Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson fused with contemporary narrative style. Loved it.

Best LGBT Book

17237214This is an important category for me.  As most of you know, I’m currently in my second year of Ph.D. studies in English, but I’m also about to finish my graduate certificate in LGBT studies.  That said, I have not limited this category to works “of literary merit.”  In this category, I considered books on theory, books which would be called “classics,” and also contemporary fiction, young adult, and whatever else. This made it a bit tough, as I had to choose from a range which included Gods and Monsters by Christopher Bram (fantastic), Sexuality in Europe by Dagmar Herzog (fascinating), and Shine by Lauren Myracle (touching).  Others that deserve mention include Sodom on the Thames by Morris Kaplan, and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz.  It was such a great pleasure to read so many awesome LGBT works of fiction and nonfiction this year.  The ultimate prize, though, has to go to the incredible Two Boys Kissing, by David Levithan. This book touched my soul – it is a book that I felt had been missing from the conversation for far too long, and Levithan delivered it to us beautifully.

Best Nonfiction Book

18238043This is probably the largest category that I had to consider this year, with texts ranging from biography and autobiography to cultural studies, gender and sexuality, literary theory and criticism, and so much more.  It almost had to become separate categories, almost. Some of my favorites of the year included How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Foster, Queer Theory by Annamarie Jagose, Vive la Revolution by Mark Steel, and Colonialism and Homosexuality by Robert Aldrich.  One of the books that I found most helpful, interesting, and readable was Feminism: A Very Short Introduction by Margaret Walters.  When all is said and done, though, my absolute favorite nonfiction read this year was Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno.  If you settled for watching the documentary, then you are missing out on so much.  This biography, unlike others on Salinger, was in-depth, unbiased, well-researched, and revelatory in many ways.  Anyone interested in the life and works of J.D. Salinger should put this at the top of their list.

Best Work of Classic Literature

46133This was my second largest category to consider, and this final call was so difficult!  I love classic literature, so picking one book from such an incredible list of authors, periods, and subjects is almost impossible.  Some of the best of the year include O Pioneers! by Willa Cather, which shouldn’t be missed, Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, which was a difficult but rewarding read, A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams which was stunning, The Adventures of Don Quixote which was hilarious and which I enjoyed far more than I had anticipated. My favorite, though, goes to one of the first books I read this year and one which has stuck with me throughout 2013 – Orlando by Virginia Woolf.  It is poetic justice for Woolf, perhaps, that she has landed on this “best of” list twice, considering I used to vehemently refuse to read her books (I had one bad experience with her many years ago, and swore never to return!).  But Orlando is a stunning, daring epic.  She was disappointed with it (or, more accurately, with the supposed lack of focused attention she paid to it), but it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Best Young Adult Book

11861815Winger by Andrew Smith.  Not only was this the best Young Adult book that I read in 2013, but it was one of the best books I read this year, period.  The competition for this category was stiff, with books by Veronica Roth, Rick Riordan, David Levithan, Benjamin Saenz, Rick Yancey, Cassandra Clare, and Michael Scott to be considered. All of these books were enjoyable and some of them were downright incredible, but Smith’s Winger is a force to be reckoned with.  If you haven’t yet read this book, I would encourage you to read my review and see if it’s for you. Odds are, it is. I also highly recommend his other works, especially Stick, and I look forward to his next publication, Grasshopper Jungle, which is due out early in 2014.

Other Favorite Things

My favorite post of the year: On Horrors and Heroes

My favorite event of the year: Austen In August

My favorite review of the year: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

One blogger I couldn’t get enough of this year:  O of Behold the Stars

So, those were my favorites of 2013.  I am currently reading Ulysses by James Joyce and On What Grounds (Coffeehouse Mysteries #1) by Cleo Coyle, both of which I’m enjoying, for different reasons.  I plan to read one more this year – so that’s a possible three books I could add to this list of “favorites,” but let’s just leave them here as honorable year-end mentions, shall we?

What were YOUR favorite books this year?

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Austen in August, Gender Studies, guest post, Jane Austen, Sexism, Tropes

Jane Austen and the Subversion of Sexist Tropes (#AustenInAugustRBR)

Caro is a 20-something Lit student with a tendency to ignore the world in favor of books and coffee, prone to having far too many projects going on at once, and destined to become a drunken cat lady. She blogs about books over at Wuthering Reads and writes TV recaps at NoWhiteNoise.


Jane Austen & the Subversion of Sexist Tropes

We live, for the most part, in a largely patriarchal society – so it’s not surprising to find that many storytelling tropes ooze sexism. A conversation I had with an extremely intelligent, articulate and socially aware friend re: this sort of trope and its subversions got me thinking – what sexist tropes did Jane Austen deconstruct and subvert in her novels?

Entitled to Have You and Nice Guy™

Mr-Collins-shocked-(1)-copyThe Entitled to Have You trope presents a man who, because of whatever reason, feels entitled to a woman. If she rejects him, the man in question will usually show remarkably selective hearing and interpret her “no” as a “maybe” and keep harassing her with invitations, convinced that his relentlessness will eventually pay off. And the worst part is that, in most cases, it does.

Austen presents this trope in Pride and Prejudice, through the one and only Mr. Collins. Elizabeth very clearly tells him that, while she’s flattered by his interest, she doesn’t feel the same way. Instead of taking it at face value, Mr. Collins assumes that she’s playing hard to get. Now, in many other works of fiction, his perseverance (see harassing) would have paid off and Elizabeth would have eventually ~seen the error of her ways and married him – but not in an Austen novel. No, Mr. Collins isn’t portrayed as sympathetic for his insistence, but rather as pathetic, annoying and incapable of taking a hint.

Another trope, often closely linked to Entitled to Have You, is the Nice Guy™.  John Thorpe from Northanger Abbey is the perfect example of this. Thorpe believes that because he’s such a Nice Guy, he’s entitled to Catherine’s love. When she doesn’t reciprocate his feelings, he sulks forevermore and decides that her rejection stems from Catherine not Appreciating Him Like She Should, instead of realizing that hey, the lady has the right to want whoever she decides.

Bad Boy Woobie, or Jerkass Woobie

This is another particularly annoying trope, especially because it’s everywhere lately. Writing the Big Bads as, you know, bad, and still going out of their way to make them sympathetic is something that narrators everywhere do all the time; and after over two decades of being exposed to storytelling, I have no patience for it anymore.

Apparently, neither did Jane Austen. The Jerkass Woobie was not at all woobified. We’re not only not expected to excuse his faults because of his Daddy Issues, but we’re actually encouraged to hold him accountable for his actions, as we would any functional adult. An example of this is Pride and Prejudice’s George Wickham, whose lies, manipulations and tendency to prey on young girls are by no means excused by the trauma of losing his father as a child.

One Special Girl

jane-austen-copyThis one’s tricky, because at first sight, it doesn’t seem sexist. What’s wrong about portraying a woman as a human being worthy of respect, after all? But scratch a little under the surface and you’ll realize that there are few things as insulting as a normally assholish man suddenly wanting to be ~good and ~different to a woman he perceives as The Paragon of Right Womanhood. This is problematic because it implies that certain women are ~deserving of being treated horribly, unlike the One Special Girl who makes the otherwise horrible guy want to respect her because She’s Not Like The Other Girls. That One Special Girl is usually also a Madonna, never a Whore.

Austen subverts this trope in Sense and Sensibility, through the relationship between Willoughby and Marianne and the fact that he’s not magically redeemed by her love. Being a serial player is part of who Willoughby is, and somebody’s personality is not about to change because The Right Person entered their life. It’s one thing when a person wants to change – but placing the responsibility of somebody’s change on an external party is not the way to go, partly because it’s too much responsibility and partly because it quite simply doesn’t work.


Thanks, Caro, for the excellent guest post on sexist tropes.  A lot of food for thought!  What do you all think? Have you noticed anything similar in Austen’s works?  Can you give other examples, from other texts?


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Austen in August, Blog Post, Books, guest post, Jane Austen, Marriage

What Marriage Really Meant to the Women of Austen (#AustenInAugustRBR)

Hello, Ladies & Gents! Today’s guest post is all about marriage (that inescapable theme) in the works of Jane Austen.  It comes to us from the wonderful Sarah of The Every Day Reader. Please give her a warm welcome!


Austen’s major works have many commonalities, but there is one glaring similarity that stands out above the rest: Marriage. All of Jane’s heroines begin their stories unmarried and end it married to a man they not only love, but who are an advance in social status and/or wealth.

Why was marriage so important to them? The heroines of Austen are strong women, who face trials that we would today see as completely unconnected from the marriage institution. Yet, marriage was important enough that Charlotte Lucas accepts Mr. Collins. Why? Because for them, marriage was more than a love match. It was their salvation.

Financial Security: Austen lived and wrote in a time without pensions, unemployment, health insurance or social benefits. Women also had extremely limited opportunities for independent employment and those they did have, such as being a live in governess, were not well-respected or well paid. Mrs Elton in Emma expresses her surprise that Emma’s former governess is ‘so very lady-like.’ Marriage to a wealthy (or at least financially secure) man was the dream, because it gave Austen’s heroines their only realistic chance at a secure life. Austen knew what a strain financial insecurity could be, spending several years traveling between relatives and friends with her mother and sister after the death of their father.

An Escape from their Family: It would have been unheard of in Austen’s time for a woman to live alone, or with friends. Family, or family approved guardians were the only options. Jane Austen herself would have known the reality of such a situation, never leaving the companionship of her family. Austen was blessed with a family that she enjoyed the company of, but if a woman of her time wasn’t so blessed, marriage would be her only permanent escape. Imagine Elizabeth Bennet’s reaction if she had to resign herself to spending her life in the company of her mother!

Social Status: Connections-connections-connections. Life then, as is now, was just as much about who you knew as what you knew (in fact, perhaps even moreso than now). Advancing up the social ladder was also far more difficult than it is today. Men could do so by earning a fortune through trade or being promoted within the military, though would still be looked down upon by those who hadn’t had to earn it. For women, advancement was through marriage. Making a fortuitous connection not only immediately advanced their own status in society, but meant their children would likely have opportunities that they had not.

A House of their Own: The importance of this factor can not be underestimated and goes far beyond escaping family or having financial security. Being able to manage their own home was a woman’s greatest chance at independent action. These were the days before vacuum cleaners, online shopping, Chinese made clothing and disposable lifestyles in general. Managing the household, especially a large one, was a career in itself. Even Elizabeth Bennet would have found a match for her quick mind in the management of Pemberly and indeed, it is seeing the estate which first makes her rethink her attitude to Darcy.

From Jane Austen’s point of view: It is well-known that Jane Austen never married, despite having at least one serious offer (and another mutual attachment that was never acted upon because of that darned financial insecurity). It’s nice to think that by marrying off her heroines Austen was giving them the future she never secured for herself. Although she later expressed relief at having avoided the pitfalls of married life (especially the risks of childbirth) her heroines still all hit the jackpot. They have everything that could have been desired in a late 18th century marriage and something more besides. They had love, which Austen believed to be the most important factor of all. Indeed, many scholars believe was the true reason she never married. Marriage was important to Austen not only because of societal constraints, but because of the relationship that it represented in its best manifestation.


Thanks, Sarah, for these great thoughts on Marriage in Jane Austen’s books!  What do you all think?  Have you noticed anything similar in your reading this month?  How do the Austen works (or reimaginings) that you’ve read this month, or are reading now, treat marriage?  Are there any differences in the marriage of Austen’s works versus marriage in the more contemporary remakes?  Let’s discuss!


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1001 Books, 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, Austen in August, Book Review, Classics, Fiction, Jane Austen, Literature, Manners, Marriage Plot, Social Drama

Thoughts: Persuasion by Jane Austen

11758566Persuasion by Jane Austen
Final Verdict: 3.75 of 4.0
YTD: 47

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

Persuasion is the story of Anne Elliot, the middle-daughter of Sir Walter and Lady Elliot, the latter of whom died fourteen years prior to the start of the book.  Elizabeth and Anne are both single, but Mary, the youngest, is married to a wealthy man called Charles Musgrove.  Sir Elliot is on the brink of ruin, having spent lavishly and recklessly for some time, but particularly following the death of his wife.  He is a vain man who must be “convinced” by a trusted family friend, Lady Russell, to limit his spending, relocate, and rent out their expansive manor (Kellynch Hall) to raise income.  Lady Russell is also responsible for Anne’s somewhat melancholy state, having persuaded Anne to reject the proposal of one Captain Wentworth who, at the time, was without name or income.  As the story unfolds, secrets are exposed, friends and family are reunited and divided, and the questions of enduring love and what it takes to create a meaningful and functional marriage are raised.


Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

lge_Persuasion_080606024745140_wideweb__300x300Many, if not all, of the characters in this book are important and necessary to the plot.  In Sense and Sensibility, it can be argued that perhaps not all of the Dashwood sisters were necessary to the story; here, however, each character who is introduced seems to serve a purpose – the prose, plot, and character development, then, are all concisely and purposefully crafted.  That being said, however, and while much can be found laudable in the Crofts and Anne Elliot, and even Mrs. Smith, most of the characters, even the primary ones, do not seem deeply developed in such a way as to be truly engaging – to connect the reader with their stories and lives more personally.  This could be because the larger theme of the novel is social change, rather than personal growth, but I still would have liked to have been more personally vested in Anne and Captain Wentworth’s interests.  Anne certainly is an Austen heroine – so much so that Austen herself said that Anne was “a heroine who is almost too good for me.”  She has her flaws, including being “advanced” in age and lacking somewhat in beauty, and also her openness to persuasion (hence the title of the book).  Yet, she stands above her female contemporaries by being calm, collected, and rational, not to mention constant in her friendships and affections.  She earns the admiration of not only Captain Wentworth, but also of Charles Musgrove and Mr. Elliot.

Captain Wentworth, too, is interesting as the representative of a “new gentleman.”  He has excellent manners, he is considerate of those around him, and he is hard-working, brave, and independent.  Also, instead of being born of land and title, he represents a shift in or softening of the potential for social, upward mobility in Britain at this time.  As a naval officer, he worked hard to advance through the ranks and create wealth for himself, rather than “earn” it through inheritance.  We can contrast him with Sir Walter Elliot who is largely a caricature of the very same titled, upper class nobility mentioned above.  Austen’s wit and satire play heaviest on Sir Walter – she shows no mercy, really, when describing him as a vain, imbecile spendthrift whose dressing rooms are lined with mirrors and who refuses to be seen in public with any but those who are incredibly attractive.  He is in many ways a sort of “dandy” to Captain Wentworth’s more masculine presence.

Still, although the characters do what they are supposed to, thematically, they do not reach me, personally, in the way that those of Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice have.  Of course, there are many fans of Anne and Captain Wentworth out there, and of their romance, and I certainly see them as a good match – still, a small “something” – some kind of spark, could have given the more clinical craftsmanship of these characters the personable touch I was hoping for (with the exception of the Crofts – I really enjoyed them!).


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

50336_184189786197_7310_nThe story is told in the third-person omniscient, like most of Austen’s works.  And, also like most of Austen’s narrators, this one is very closely allied with the main character, in this case, Anne Elliott.  Although the narrator is not Anne, and not directly involved in the story, she does make judgments that are similar to Anne’s, while maintaining a point of view that is separated from the story by means of free indirect discourse. Keeping the narrator separate from but close to the character of Anne allows for slightly more honesty in describing the motives and personalities of the various characters, and also some distance between Anne and the others, which is necessary in creating tension and mystery (which we found out near the end of the story is rather important, as certain schemes have been developing behind the scenes).  The narrative voice is softly satirical and at times subtly subversive, making it very interesting to compare with Austen’s first novel, Northanger Abbey, which was ultimately published at the same time (and which is much more obvious and raw in its humor and parodist tone).  Some of Austen’s most tried and true devices, such as the “big reveal” being delivered via letter (in this case, Captain Wentworth’s letter to Anne; in a previous instance, Mr. Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth), as well as the motif of walking to advance a character’s conscience or growth, or to provide opportunity for necessary meetings between key players, are included here again and, again, work quite nicely.


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

353px-Northanger_Abbey_and_PersuasionJane Austen wrote Persuasion in 1816, while she was extremely ill and just before her death.  The book would not be published (with Northanger Abbey) until 1818, after she had already passed away.  Like many of her stories, this one is a novel of manners.  Its focus is not so much on any one character’s growth, as would be the case in a coming-of-age story, but, instead, it is concerned with a group of primary characters who interact with one another and who are learning to navigate their lives within new rules and structures of a changing world.  Although Austen is widely, and rightly, considered to be a writer of marriage plots which lead to happy endings, what some miss in their readings is Austen’s deep concern for the complexities of gender relations and class structures, both of which were rapidly changing in the early 19th century. Persuasion, while certainly constructed as a marriage plot, is absolutely concerned with the latter interests as well.   It is clear that Persuasion is Austen’s later work, as it demonstrates great maturity and mastery of purpose and of craft.  This is evidenced in her subtle but biting satire of the upper middle classes, represented primarily by the character of Sir Walter Elliot.

Persuasion questions the idea of “Separate Spheres,” which has been a traditional way of viewing male and female roles in Britain and much of Europe.  Men would live in the public sphere, taking care of finances and legalities, while women were in charge of the private sphere, including tasks such as running the home and managing the servants.  With the introduction of the Crofts, however, Austen challenges this dichotomy and offers the option of a true marriage partnership, where husband and wife share equal responsibility in both spheres.  That the Crofts are the ideal married couple, and the one which it is presumed Anne and Captain Wentworth will evolve into, it is safe to assume that Austen, who never married, had rather progressive opinions about what a happy and functional marriage could be.

Austen is also often criticized for creating “bubble” worlds, stories which are narrowly confined to their own small towns, without concern for larger world issues.  Yet, it cannot be denied that Austen is aware of the fact that Britain is at war with America and France during this time, and her representation of the British Navy and Naval Officers both pay dues to the “real” Navy and also introduce, in literature, a mirror of what, in real life, was becoming an ideal of manliness – a new gentleman who can rise, through the military, to fame and wealth, if not necessarily to title. Austen does indeed understand the world around her and, just as with Mansfield Park, she incorporates elements of that world into her stories in ways that are so natural, they hardly stand out.  That these issues flow so neatly into the plot is a sign that Austen is an extraordinarily adept, socially aware novelist, not, as some would argue, of a writer oblivious to the world around her.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +
Interest: Novel of Manners; Marriage; Separate Spheres; Persuasion; “The Gentleman”; Class; Social Mobility; Family.


Notable Quotes:

“She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.”

“Let us never underestimate the power of a well-written letter.”

“How quick come the reasons for approving what we like.”

“Facts or opinions which are to pass through the hands of so many, to be misconceived by folly in one, and ignorance in another, can hardly have much truth left.”

“I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

“Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

“One man’s ways may be as good as another’s, but we all like our own best.”

“She hoped to be wise and reasonable in time; but alas! Alas! She must confess to herself that she was not wise yet.”

“Time will explain.”

“Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant.”


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