Jane Austen

My Annual Jane: Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen

Sense and SensibilitySense and Sensibility by Jane Austen My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“We have neither of us anything to tell; you because you do not communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing.”  Marianne Dashwood to her sister, Elinor.

And thus is Marianne’s yang to Elinor’s yin. Two halves of a whole, two women bound in love and in blood, as different and dependent as the sun and moon. Passion and logic. Emotion and propriety. ESFP and INTJ.

Jane Austen first crafted this story as an epistolary novel and titled it “Elinor and Marianne.” Although the structure would change as she revised the novel over fifteen years until it was published in 1811 as Sense and Sensibility, the relationship between these two young women remained its core.

But this novel isn’t about a conflict between sisters with opposing characters, one directed by Sense, the other driven by Sensibility. It’s about recognizing the sense and sensibility we each possess and how to release one and harness the other when love beckons and threatens in equal measure. It is about a quest for harmony and the embrace of one’s true self, about the ability to admit fallibility while still seeking personal growth. Sense and Sensibility is the Tao of Austen.

The moments of self-actualization are many and profound. Elinor’s is the least notable because she enters and remains the most centered and stable person; Colonel Brandon’s came many years before the novel takes place—we learn of it as he relates the sorrowful story of his lost love and the child he takes on as a ward; but John Willoughby, Edward Ferrars, Marianne Dashwood—each has a period of reckoning that challenges the weakest aspects of their characters and each arrives at a resolution.

Elinor may well be my favorite of Austen’s women (I hedge, because as soon as I reread Pride and Prejudice, I’ll claim it to be Lizzy). She is certainly the most dignified and humane. She is also the most relatable. Her compassion is justified and deeply-felt, which makes her uncharitable thoughts all the more delicious. In this comedy of manners, Elinor is above reproach, but beneath her unflappable surface is a wry sense of humor, prone to irony and exasperation.

Lucy was naturally clever; her remarks were often just and amusing; and as a companion for half an hour Elinor frequently found her agreeable; but her powers had received no aid from education: she was ignorant and illiterate; and her deficiency of all mental improvement, her want of information in the most common particulars, could not be concealed from Miss Dashwood, in spite of her constant endeavour to appear to advantage.

And although Edward Ferrars does not make my heart thump in the slightest, not compared to the enigmatic Mr. Darcy, the dashing Mr. Knightley, or the heroic Christopher Brandon, I have the most tender of spots reserved for the most hopeless of introverts:

"My judgment," he returned, "is all on your side of the question; but I am afraid my practice is much more on your sister's. I never wish to offend, but I am so foolishly shy, that I often seem negligent, when I am only kept back by my natural awkwardness. I have frequently thought that I must have been intended by nature to be fond of low company, I am so little at my ease among strangers of gentility!"

Sense and Sensibility has Austen's most rousing cast of secondary characters, with the wicked witch Mrs. John Dashwood (portrayed with perfect insufferableness by Harriet Walter in the 1995 film adaptation. The one I must watch at least once a year), effusive, lovable busybody Mrs. Jennings, sly and silly Lucy Steele, and the preposterously mis-matched Mr. and Mrs. Palmer. But it is Elinor for whom I turn each page, in admiration and tenderness. It is Elinor who I most aspire to be, to create, who I wish I could have known, who I mourn because she is the closest connection to the author herself. Elinor had the Happily Ever After that Jane was denied.

“Know your own happiness. You want nothing but patience- or give it a more fascinating name, call it hope.”

The Tao of Elinor. The Tao of Jane Austen.

And now. I’m done parsing. For that is Sense. I read Jane Austen to indulge my Sensibility. I sink into her novels and want them never to end. I cherish her language, I adore her characters, I marvel at the simplicity and perfection of her plots, I cry because love triumphs in the end. There is just no making Sense of why I adore Jane Austen. There is only Sensibility: Capacity for refined emotion; delicate sensitiveness of taste; also, readiness to feel compassion for suffering, and to be moved by the pathetic in literature or art. (Oxford English Dictionary; 18th and early 19th c. Usage); the ability to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences; sensitivity (Modern Usage).

Until next time, Jane.

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Answering a Challenge: Five Favorite Reads

I began blogging a couple of summers ago for an audience of approximately one. Me. I still sit here and write mainly to myself because the thought that anyone else actually reads this thing makes me cringe a little inside. The weird moments occur when a colleague tells me his wife read my blog or when the author of a book I've reviewed steps in to say hello. I wonder then if I should go back and scrub clean some of my language or wipe out all the TMI bits or if my family will curse me, or... But mostly it's pretty calm here and occasionally it's magical. Like when you meet a kindred spirit in the blogosphere. And when that kindred spirit just happens to be Irish, as in Living-in-Ireland-Irish, well then you know you aren't here just whistling dixie. My fellow writer and adventuress of the blank page, Edith, who blogs here: In a Room of My Own has been a source of encouragement and inspiration since we chanced upon each other last summer (and Edith, I'd treasure you if you were from Hoboken or Bangkok, you know. It's just that I have this thing about your Emerald Isle!).

Recently Edith tagged me in a lovely challenge: to cite Five Favorite Books and to pass along the challenge to other bloggers whom I admire. A nearly-impossible feat (this naming of only five favorites) but I shall try.

First, let me toss the baton to these wonderful writers, readers, bloggers who inspire me with their writing and life journeys:

mag offleash writing with grace and introspection from a quiet place in the Northeast U.S.

In a Vermont Kitchen a brilliant cook and a passionate reader and writer whom I feel as though I've known forever; someday we shall meet in the flesh!

Grace Makely writer, illustrator, adventuress

Ideas to Words novelist, imaginist, dreamer and doer

Word by Word healing through aromatherapy, inspiring through words in Aix-en-Provence

And now to narrow down a lifetime of reading to five greatest hits:

  • Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh Read when I was six years old, this book set me on my journey to become a writer. Never mind that I took a thirty-eight year detour. Harriet and her journal, Ole Golly and her yellow bathrobe, Sport and the sleep in his eyes, Dostoevsky, and tomato and dill sandwiches never left me. Friends once even read my journal and tossed me out for it, further bonding me to my Harriet. My hero.
  • Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen I make it a point to reread an Austen each year, to remind myself that characters carry a story, that language is to be revered, and that at heart I'm just a girl who loves a love story with a happy ending. Jane Austen reminds me that fewer joys are as pure as a wonderful story.
  • Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner It has been ten years since I read this, my first Wallace Stegner. I cite it as the book that transformed me from a casual, although avid, reader to an analytical one. The book that set me on the path first revealed by Harriet the Spy. For this novel opened to my intellect the wonder of writing and the power of carefully crafted prose. Reading Stegner made me ache to write; he pulled open the empty space in my heart that has finally been filled by my own acts of literary exuberance.
  • The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald I find tremendous inspiration and motivation from reading books on the craft of writing. I am grateful to the writers who explore and contribute to the vast canon of helpful advice for those of us still groping in the dark. That being said, if all those texts were taken away and I was left with only one example of the perfect novel, it would have to be The Great Gatsby.

The first four came to mind with ease. The last is torture, for it means excluding dozens upon dozens of glorious reads. And so the last shall be reserved for an ever-changing roster of "The Last Book I Read" even if it was one I did not enjoy. Because literacy and time to read and the chance to hold someone's heart and soul in my hand are gifts beyond reckoning.

This gives me an easy out, since the last book I read was by one of my favorite writers. And in a sweet turn of chance, I begin and end by delighting in the literary treasures of Ireland: a circle that includes my friend Edith whom you met at the start of this ditty, and the author Colm Tóibín, who completes my favorite reads list.

You can explore my reviews of Tóibín's books here in my blog or via my Goodreads page. Tóibín has given reader-me breathtaking, troubling, resonant stories; for writer-me, he is teaching me to see and listen to the empty space between the words. As a mother-to-be, I took my baby's name from one of his stories. If you know my story, you will know I never had a chance to meet that child. After that loss, as in other impossible times, books became my solace. Weeks later I finally began to find words of my own.

Reading has changed my life. How about you? Although I hand this off officially to the bloggers above, I would love to hear about your five favorite reads.

Tag. You're it.

Book Review: Death Come To Pemberley, P.D. James

Death Comes to PemberleyDeath Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I considered mounting a passionate defense in favor of this lovingly-rendered tribute to Jane Austen, but then I decided I couldn't be bothered with the naysayers. If you pick up this gentle whodunit expecting the sartorial sleuthing of Commander Adam Dalgliesh, you will be disappointed. If you read this looking for the ghost of Jane Austen, you will catch but a glimpse of her delicate frame. Although the point of fan-fiction escapes me entirely (I can't help but think of tribute bands; I have no more desire to explore fan-fiction than I would to see my approaching-middle-age cohorts belt out Whitesnake's greatest hits), Death Comes to Pemberley reads like a tender squeeze of affection from one national literary treasure to another.

If you do sink into this literary treat, know that your Jane ear will delight in the recaptured cadence of her prose and that you will be enchanted by the senses and sensibilities of Regency Britain. You will encounter familiar names and faces from across the Austen oeuvre; you will be moved by James's piquant touches of the political and social realities of the era.

If you aren't able to let go and enjoy Death Comes to Pemberley within its opening pages, put it down, walk away and spend your time reading something better suited to your expectations.

P.D. James isn't so many years from meeting Jane in that Great Bibliotheque in the Sky. I can just see these two outrageously smart, sublime writers sharing a pot of tea and chatting about their writing lives. To curl up in a damask wing chair before a merry fire, listening to Jane and Phyllis plotting out a meeting between Adam Dalgliesh and Fitzwilliam Darcy is my vision of heaven.

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Book Review: Emma by Jane Austen

EmmaEmma by Jane Austen My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"I cannot make speeches, Emma . . . If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more."

Can any literary lover make us swoon more than one of Austen's creations? Oh, Mr. Knightley, I was lost the moment you stepped into the parlour with your spotless shoes and disrupted the backgammon game.

I purchased this beautiful Penguin Classics edition of Emma two years ago (it fits so perfectly in the hand, the font precisely the right shape and size. Such pleasure to hold a lovely book). It remained until now the only Austen novel I had not read. I began the practice of reading an Austen every year some time ago, but I've put this off because it meant accepting that "discovering" Jane would be no more.

What sweet sorrow to end my journey with Jane in the Surrey countryside, at the Hartfield estate, wandering its groomed gardens and golden fields, curled in a chair beside a roaring fire or on a blanket in the shade of a willow tree, scheming with the well-intentioned but wretchedly mis-guided Emma. And what sweet joy to know that the Woodhouses, the Knightleys, the Churchills, the Eltons and the Martins will sit quietly on my bookshelf, patiently awaiting my return to their pastoral idyll.

In Emma, Austen offers the reader a perfectly-crafted piece of social satire. Each character is flawed - our heroine most of all - (oh, but perhaps the regal Mr. Knightley may be allowed near-perfection status!) but she doesn't so obviously strip everyone of their dignity. Even the society-grasping Mrs. Elton shows warmth of heart. Emma embodies Austen's brilliance: through popular prose, she exposes the self-indulgent lifestyle of the landed gentry, their classism and snobbery, their boredom and limited world view; she takes on the objectification of women in a society that offers them little choice and limited futures, regardless of class; she pokes fun at the vagaries of romance. Yet, Austen is the consummate storyteller. She excels at brewing tempests in teapots, at creating solid plots from the floss of country gentility. And, although her internal cynic is strong, she has the tenderest of hearts. Redemption and tidiness rule in the end; Austen leaves the slapstick and supernatural to her contemporaries.

The pleasures of Emma were not immediate for me. It it slow to start and I wondered if I could endure endless episodes of Emma's supercilious meddling. But Austen knows exactly the point at which she must turn away from showing Emma's single-minded superiority to revealing her deeper character and vulnerabilities. At the same time, she widens the ripples of her plot, creating shadows behind her characters that lend mystery and possibility to destiny.

Few joys in life are as pure or as timeless as reading a novel by Jane Austen. Brava, Jane.

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