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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Book Review, Family, Fiction, Marriage, Memory, metafiction, PhD, Richard Russo

Review: That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

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That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 52

Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting and believable.

That Old Cape Magic might be one of my favorite reads of the year.  The main character, Jack Griffin, is the son of two Literature Professors – brilliant people, Yale educated, who never quite made it as far as they believe they should have.  Jack is a disappointment to his parents because he gives up on “important” writing and moves to Hollywood in order to write screenplays. Of course, they are also quite envious of him for getting out of “the mid-fucking-west,” as they call it.  Still, his parents are of the class of “academics” who find any popular writing – anything that anybody would willingly publish or find enjoyable to read- not at all valuable (don’t we all know those types of academics who think, “if the commoners are reading it, it must not be very good!”?). Griffin struggles against their influence all his life, only to realize very late that he has become exactly like them (even –gasp- a literature professor!).  Over the course of decades, as he slowly morphs into the very thing he was rebelling against, he loses his parents, his wife, and any sense of self he once had.  He, like his parents, seeks out Cape Cod in order to reclaim himself and remind him of what is truly important to him, and to set his parents to rest, at long last. Ultimately, Jack’s journey is to find happiness by accepting where he comes from, by letting go of pains from the past, and by acknowledging all the good things that he has – a lesson most of us could be reminded of from time to time.

Characterization:
4 – Characters very well-developed.

The characters in this book range from self-absorbed (most of them), to self-deprecating; from hilariously buffoonish (Jack’s brothers-in-law) to sensible and patient (Jack’s wife).  Although the main character’s parents are painted with a somewhat biased brush, the truth is that they are supposed to appear rather one-sided.  Part of the story is an exploration of memory and perception – when we remember events from childhood, when we think of our parents as they were when we were children- are we remembering things accurately?  Could we really have known what anyone was like, when we look back on a child’s perspective, thirty years later?  Jack looks at each character in the book a certain way, very rarely changing his mind about anyone, but readers get glimpses into different sides of their personalities, which tells us more about them but also about the narrator and his reliability (or not). Russo is adept at narrating small moments, such as a woman crying in the shower or a father thinking about his daughter, to illustrate and round-out even the more minor of characters in the story.  We learn that everyone has at least two identities, the way they see themselves and the way others see them, but two is just the minimum – most of us have many more.  Although the cast is rather sad and unlikable (his characters and plots combine in ways which create a sense of what Thoreau calls the “quiet desperation” of man), and though many of them have bloated egos and often lament the life they could have had, without making much effort to achieve it, still they come together to tell a story – they are believable, recognizable people in believable, recognizable families and situations. 

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

Perhaps Russo’s greatest strength, at least in That Old Cape Magic, is his storytelling ability.  He understands people and their complexities.  He is sensitive and observant, which is appropriate when considering that this is really a story about stories and a tale about telling (one would expect a writer to be almost obsessively observant – and we surely recognize this in ourselves). His prose is light but serious – it’s a bizarre way of reflecting real life, where most of our thoughts are on the surface, yet powerful and sometimes dangerous emotions are always at work, deep in the undertow.  Russo drops philosophical tidbits here and there throughout the book – little life lessons about understanding people, living with compassion, questioning (and even doubting) our own memories.  The fluid prose, the welcoming language (drawing us into the story even when the characters might be repellant), and the oftentimes hilarious reflections and dialogue all make for an enjoyable and satisfying reading experience.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements are present & enhance the story.

There are two primary subjects in That Old Cape Magic.  The first is family and relationships; the second is writing and, more specifically, popular writing vs. academic writing (what is “valuable?”).  For the first, Russo explores an idea that his main character, Griffin, inherits from his parents – that happiness, and home, is “a place you could visit but never own.”  For his family, that place is Cape Cod, but the reality is that they are never truly happy there, either.  The second theme, academic versus popular writing, and what matters, is especially fun and interesting for students of English/Literature, particularly those familiar with academic department politics (groan).  Russo’s book is clever in that it is written as popular contemporary fiction, but he is clearly aware of the academic side (and likely reception by academics to this, his own work) and of the prejudices and pretensions that come with “literary” scrutiny.  Who are these people who get to define what is “good” and “important,” he seems to be asking.  Russo drops-in references to Melville, Faulkner, and other canonical writers, which is clearly a “poke in the eye” to the prestigious readers, indicating that he knows what he is talking about; but, he also manages to make the story his own, modern and readable, so that really anyone (particularly fans of fiction that explores families, memory, and writing) can enjoy it.  I would not go so far as to say that this is a brilliant work, but Russo is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and That Old Cape Magic helps to explain why.  It is fun but powerful, light but deep, easy to follow, yet deceptively layered.  A great read, especially for the well-trained reader who will pick-up on subtle literary references (they are not as in-your-face as Jasper Fforde’s, but they are there).

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 14+
Interest: Family, Marriage, Adultery, Academia, Metafiction, Literature, Memory

Notable Quotes:

“For a moment it seemed as if Bartleby might offer an observation of his own, but he apparently preferred not to, though he did sigh meaningfully.” (8)

“Stories worked much the same way . . . A false note at the beginning was much more costly than one nearer the end because early errors were part of the foundation.” (67)

“Only very stupid people are happy.” (195)

“Late middle age, he was coming to understand, was a time of life when everything was predictable and yet somehow you failed to see any of it coming.”

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Book Review, Comedy, Creative Non-Fiction, Drama, Edward Albee, Fiction, Madness, Marriage, Play, Psychology, Sexuality

Review: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? By Edward Albee
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

YTD:  59

Plot/Story:

 4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful

Edward Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is intoxicating – literally.  With every turn of the page, the reader is taken deeper and deeper into the twisted mind of the play’s main characters, George and Martha.  This married couple, daughter of the College President and Professor of History, horribly stagnant in his career, bring a fresh young couple (the new Biology professor and his wife) over for drinks after a late faculty party at Martha’s father’s house.  If the scenes reflect the actualities of “behind the scenes” University leadership life, then perhaps college education should not be such an American ideal.   The examination of mental instability (i.e. sociopathic tendencies, narcissism, and schizophrenia) are riveting and terrifying all at once, particularly as the story unfolds and more and more truth is sucked out from the multitude of fictions.  The dangers of the enabler, to, and the perverse pleasure which can be gained from progressing another person’s instabilities and delusions is interesting and embarrassingly amusing.  The description for the play states that one of the greatest points for this drama is its dramatic revelation at the end, and I must agree- though I saw it coming from early on, many readers probably will not and, regardless of knowing or not knowing, the revelation and its subsequent impact on the small party is stunning.


 Characterization:

 4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

The two main characters, George and Martha, are brilliantly rendered.  As their mania unfolds, the reader twisted personality traits – their motivations, desires, and failings – all come to light, in such a loudly subtle way, seen seldom in any piece of writing.  Their son, too, and Martha’s father, though the reader never actually meets either of these characters, are so well described and recalled by George and Martha, it is almost as if they are active characters in the play – something Albee deserves immense credit for having achieved, as it adds an interesting sub-plot which advances the over-the-top major scenes quite nicely.   Also, the younger couple, Nick and Honey, is developed just as much as they need to be in order to allow George and Martha’s story unfolds.  They are there to serve a purpose, which is to allow George and Martha’s “games” to progress, their animosity to reach the boiling point, and the great truth (or lie) be revealed in the final pages.  It also allows the reader to contrast a simple, well-planned, and expected “romance” (Hope and Nick) with a ravenous, destructive, sickening lasting-passion (Martha and George).


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

In a play or drama, the biggest indicator of great “prose” is really great dialogue, scene direction, and description.  This play in particular does not have much scene direction, though the points where Albee does make suggestions as far as stage placement, facial expression, etc. are so well-thought that the play almost requires nothing else (each director will be able to make this play his/her own, but with the direction Albee affords, it is almost certain that the most important moments will be executed in the right ways).   The character reactions and descriptions, too, are simply stated, but make all the difference; such as when Nick, after finally picking up on the nature of Martha and George’s disturbing tete-a-tete is directed to be: “Stretching . . . luxuriating . . . playing the game) – perfection.   What really progresses this play, though, is the interaction between the characters – the simple, flippant replies, the overly-dramatic reactions to the most mundane situations – Nick’s embarrassed replies; Honey’s confusion and naivety.  Each of the characters is completely “on point,” though the only one who really seems to develop at all is Nick – and this is fitting, because George indicates that Nick will, indeed, be the one to move forward, while the rest of them remain stagnant in their lives, relationships and, most notably, careers.  The most development, though, is not with characters – but with the story itself.  Still, it is the characters and their dealings with one another which allows this development to occur and to work.


Additional Elements:
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

One of the most interesting elements of this particular story is that it deals with characters that are completely mentally unstable and irrational – illogical in every way, but working in what one would assume to be one of the most sound, logical professions, higher education.  Who could be more staid and calm than a History professor?  Who could me more respectable and proper than a University President’s daughter?  Edward Albee grabs us from the start by putting these seemingly simple character types into a relationship which is highly volatile and unpredictable, in a setting which should be nothing but calm and moderate.  The inclusion of the two “new kids” on the collegiate block adds much in comparison – as if to say, with age and experience comes not wisdom, but insanity, so be warned!  Of course, Albee is not making generalizations about all Academicians, or all History professors, or all Biology professors’ wives; but, still, he does seem to be saying: “Dear reader, take another look – things are rarely what we expect them to be.”  The nature and art of psychological warfare is put under the microscope and outcome is extraordinary.  Watching Martha and Gorge go back-and-forth with their “games” is at times invigorating, at times exhausting, but always interesting and unbelievable (except that it seems entirely natural).  Sexuality, too, as well as alcoholism, politics, and science vs. society are all discussed as a part of the dialogue of this one evening, and these elements progress the story further into madness and resolution.


 

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level:  Adult

Interest: Psychology, Madness, Marriage, Sexuality, Schizophrenia, Sociopaths, Delusions, Academia

Notable Quotes:

“Martha, will you show her where we keep the, uh, euphemism?”

“Martha, in my mind, you are buried in cement right up to the neck. No, up to the nose — it’s much quieter.”

“I looked at you tonight and you weren’t there! Finally snapped! And– and I’m gonna howl it out! And I’m not gonna give a damn what I do, and I’m gonna make the biggest goddamn explosion you’ve ever heard!”

 

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