In adoration of the late 18th/early 19th centuries. And Jane Austen.

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A cover image for Oxford World Classic’s edition of ‘Evelina’, I think, by Frances Burney (a chastising feminist critic has informed me that it is belittling and demeaning and sexist to call her ‘Fanny Burney’ :( which is unfortunate, because it’s SUCH a catchy name.)

When I find myself in times of trouble (or general bleakness, as it has been with incessant thunderstorms, grey skies, and flooding here in KL), I always turn to the same person for comforting/soothing: Jane Austen.

For reasons I can’t quite figure out (because this really surpasses being just an ‘enjoyable read’), she makes me incredibly happy. It could be the happy endings her books more or less always have – and who can’t love that? (Especially after the despair and hopelessness I’m left with in a lot of modernist/contemporary works!) Some people probably accuse Austen of some sort of saccharine falsity in these perfect endings, but I’m not so sure — after all, life is plenty happy. So why shouldn’t books be, too? Why should there always be tragedy, or if not, some irrevocable strain of regret that taints anything remotely good?

Or it could be that she still teaches me so much, immeasurable amounts and with each time I re-read her works, about patience and virtue. It could be her characters: the ones we like, like Elizabeth Bennet and Elinor Dashwood and Anne Elliot  – Emma is the sole exception here! – are always somewhat poorer, or less glamourous, or less fortunate, in their initial lot in life than the grand old ladies we often dislike. But they bear their crosses with ‘Patience’ and ‘Virtue’ (18th/19th century buzzwords), and that’s sort of inspiring. In a very saccharine way, I know. I almost feel lame for admitting it. But whatever. IT’S TRUE.  (It’s important though to note that they’re ‘good’ without necessarily being boring or flawless, which would be something of a boring lecture from Austen indeed. I think this is why she goes far beyond Richardson, whose two-dimensional view of women as ‘paragons of Virtue’ is really insufferable sometimes, in both its depiction and in the length of that depiction — WE GET IT. PAMELA’S SO VIRTUOUS WE COULD DIE WALLOWING IN THE DEEP POOLS OF HER VIRTUE. PLEASE CUT SHORT YOUR NOVEL BY APPROX. 200 PAGES, PLEASE.) 

But she inspires not just through her characters, but in and of herself (and here I taint my readings with biographical knowledge somewhat); I can never pick up an Austen novel and read it without thinking, once twice or thrice, about how she wrote them. And then I always return to these words in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own:

…the middle-class family in the early nineteenth century was possessed only of a single sitting-room between them…If a woman wrote, she would have to write in the common sitting-room. And, as Miss Nightingale was so vehemently to complain, – “women never have half an hour…that they can call their own” – she was always interrupted. … Jane Austen wrote like that to the end of her days. ‘How she was able to effect all this,’ her nephew writes in his Memoir, ‘is surprising, for she had no separate study to repair to, & most of the work must have been done in the general sitting-room, subject to all kinds of casual interruptions. She was careful that her occupation should not be suspected by servants or visitors or any persons beyond her own family party.’ Jane Austen hid her manuscripts or covered them with a piece of blotting-paper. … To Jane Austen there was something discreditable in writing Pride and Prejudice. Yet Jane Austen was glad that a hinge creaked, so that she might hide her manuscript before anyone came in. And, I wondered, would Pride and Prejudice have been a better novel if J. A. had not thought it necessary to hide her manuscript from visitors? I read a page or two to see; but I could not find any signs that her circumstances had harmed her work in the slightest. That, perhaps, was the chief miracle about it. … If J. A. suffered in any way from her circumstances it was in the narrowness of life that was imposed upon her. It was impossible for a woman to go about alone. She never travelled; she never drove through London in an omnibus or had luncheon in a shop by herself. But perhaps it was the nature of Jane Austen not to want what she had not.

This is at the heart of Woolf’s point in the essay, but nothing about that here – I can’t get over those words. “But perhaps it was the nature of Jane Austen not to want what she had not.” Probably it was, and it is immeasurably chastising to me to be reminded of this, because I am always wanting what I have not. And then I consider how much harder life has been for others worse hemmed in than me; and how much better they have borne it. (That is a very pretentious sentence, but I am reading so much Austen & co. right now that I have basically started addressing thoughts to a “Gentle Reader!”, so this is hardly the worst it can be…). It is a miracle that anyone was able to write such brilliant novels in conditions such as those. I’ve made a couple of pilgrimages to the British Library’s permanent exhibition room, and they have Jane Austen’s writing desk on display there: I always scrutinize it worshipfully, and (like Austen herself, I always think) it’s an unassuming and plain object. I always have to stifle squeals when I remember this passage from Woolf, because I can just picture this desk – it’s so small! – being pushed aside hastily, hidden under cushions maybe? –  when visitors come in.

So um. Yeah. J. A. is pretty inspiring in herself, & I have firmly determined to stop listening to Harper Simon & feeling blue about stuff that isn’t worth being blue about, stuff that I wouldn’t feel blue about if I wasn’t such a mass of bored self-pity and inactivity right now.

I cannot worship Jane Austen enough – although, funnily, I was never ever able to write an essay on her novels whilst at uni. I just couldn’t think of what to say. There’s a sneaky simplicity to her style that belies any easy understanding of what exactly she does and how. I could never figure it out, and perhaps I didn’t really want to – regardless of what others may say, there are books that’re work, and there’s books that’re pleasure, and Jane Austen will never ever become a chore to me.

I am not reading Austen right now – I am reading Fanny Burney instead, and in her I have found someone almost like Austen, almost as lovely & nice and interesting, and I am very much in love with her too. She is also sharply incisive and critical of social foibles; she displays the same incredible powers of observation that Austen does. She seems vastly underrated in comparison to Austen, which is a pity because she is really very good. The brevity of her Wikipedia pages do not do her justice; the scarcity of period dramas made in her name is offensive. Her novel Cecilia is apparently what inspired Pride and Prejudice (this was confirmed to me when I saw the words “PRIDE and PREJUDICE” splayed across some page). Not many authors make me laugh, but Fanny Burney has kept me in fits all night (until 4 am, too). Definitely something people must check out, if they like long 18th/19th century romance novels at all. And OH it makes me miss London so much: so much of Burney’s work is concerned with depicting women from the country coming to the grand metropolis for the first time, and the walks they take (in the Mall and in gardens), or the places they go (to the Opera & the Pantheon & Haymarket – where I watched my first play in London!) all just serve to remind me how much I miss London, and how much more exploring there is to be done there. (I’m not sure what the modern equivalent, or where the site of the Pantheon lies today, but I intend to look it up.)

* * * *

But what sort of paean to Jane Austen would be complete without a mention of innumerable glorious period dramas/films? Because I have been watching them at a furious rate, and unfortunately neither Hollywood nor the BBC have made enough to satiate me. (I have been avoiding a lot of the Andrew Davies stuff, but might have to succumb soon….)

The best Emma hands-down I’ve seen now is… (and I can’t actually quite believe this) — Gwyneth PaltrowI’ve seen Kate Beckinsale be Emma too, but Gwynnie plays her with an awesome wickedness and vivacity which is – I think – just right. Because Emma is wicked and misguided and snobbish, even if her intentions are all good and we still like her despite the dumb stuff she does (and this sounds to me like a really hard balance for an actress to keep, but Paltrow does it!). (Ewan McGregor features in this 1996 Emma too, and I couldn’t believe it either, and didn’t know it till I saw the credits! — it came out the same year as Trainspotting, so I guess he wasn’t quite so famous when he made Emma; he has a surprisingly small role, even for Frank Churchill.)

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Before she’s mean to Miss Bates :(

Then I swallowed up Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995), which was interesting (it’s interesting too that Ang Lee started directing it without even reading/knowing about Austen when he got into it; I recently started thinking that actually, some of the social conventions depicted in these old novels aren’t dead – I feel them quite heavily existent in certain aspects of Asian life, my own included!). It’s got a really famous cast (Kate Winslet! Emma Thompson! Hugh Grant! Alan Rickman! Hugh Laurie! Phewwwf), and I haven’t really seen Emma Thompson (shamefully!) in anything but Love Actually which I hate, so it was quite nice to see her actin’. Apparently she wrote the script, too, which was well done indeed – like a steak – (though not quite as cinematically innovative as Emma up above). Also — it has Hugh Grant! Who, whatever else you may (and probably should) impute to him, is incredibly hot and visually perfect for a Jane Austen period-piece. Well, so I thought – and he didn’t disappoint, visually, but I thought it was a shame he was a bit boring as Edward Ferrars. I don’t really know if he’s a great actor or not, but it would have been nice to see him in a role with a bit more spice. But the problem with Sense and Sensibility is, I think, that not many of the ‘good’ characters do have much ‘spice’, except for Marianne who has too much. O well. Eye-candy anyways.

I’m afraid I have watched every Pride and Prejudice TV, film, etc. adaptation that exists, and so haven’t approached that one yet – but maybe the most recent Keira Knightley adaptation deserves a re-watch, inferior though it can only be, to the great BBC mini-series.

I would love to go on about how I would make sweet (but ardent and genteel) love to Jane Austen were she alive now, but – I will resist. I’ll content myself with despising the callous people who, in online forums, casually dismiss these film adaptations as “SO boring I could DIE”. Fools. FOOLS. (I don’t think they’re being dismissive of the adaptation but the original itself, which is so affronting!). I stumbled upon this article in the HuffPost a few days ago, on the experience of editing Emma, and it points out that “Henry James once tartly noted, [that] Austen often inspires her champions to defend her as if she were a personal acquaintance” which struck me immediately as being – weirdly and oddly true. I always feel so offended if someone has the insensitivity to be mean about Austen. It’s like demons picking on an angel. Maybe my defensiveness stems from what I’ve constructed of her mentally (what with the Woolf and all), but – it’s there nonetheless. Insulting Jane Austen hurts me. People shouldn’t do it.

I remember ending the Bach post with that quote from a novel, which says (approx.) that we ought to be grateful for life, because on the day we’re born we get the music of Bach as a free gift, unasked for. Well, I would say the same of Jane Austen – a gift all the more astonishing, because not only was it unasked for, but history tells us that it was actually discouraged; it was a gift that grew in times hostile to it. It makes me all the more grateful.

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4 comments
  1. I often turn to Jane as well, on a dreary afternoon, she makes me laugh, and think, and look at life in a new way. I used to get defensive about her as well. Though I would not call her “saccharine” sweet.

    Hugh Laurie? In Sense and Sensibility???? Now I must see it again!

    Great post, and congratulations on making Freshly Pressed! Maybe this is not the first time, for you, but still cool!

    PS: You might want to watch “The Jane Austen Book Club” if you have not already, very funny and a must for all JA lovers!

    • Thank you so much for reading, and for the comment! I’m glad I’m not alone in finding Jane Austen immensely comforting when I feel dreary (I didn’t think I was, but good to know, anyways!). It’s true she’s not ‘saccharine’ sweet since she is quite caustic and too witty for that (something a lot of other authors, like Richardson, aren’t!) I guess I just meant the happy endings/ideals of virtue & patience, which words are quite bandied about (though maybe not in these days… open to examination!) and so I always feel I have to qualify them somehow.

      Hugh Laurie IS in Ang Lee’s Sense & Sensibility! He has a fairly small part – he plays the grumpy and bored Mr. Palmer – but he’s brilliant. Definitely worth watching again, because even though his part is so small he is so funny.

      Thank you?! I have not made Freshly Pressed, though I did for the Bach post, which was incredibly surprising & unexpected.

      I will! I’ve never heard of that, but since I am creeping around for anything Austen-related it sounds lovely. I also mean to try ‘Lost in Austen’, which I’ve heard of but which I’ve avoided because it sounds a bit sad. But if I can get over that impediment (I have such a horror of sad things, and esp. if it concerns Jane Austen!) I will watch it. If you have ever read Fanny Burney, you should definitely try out her ‘Cecilia’ – I’m reading it now, and it’s the book that directly inspired Austen to write ‘Pride & Prejudice’: it’s WONDERFUL. Not quite Austen, but still very witty, very lovely, and reaaally interesting.

  2. Great post – thank you. I’m so glad you made the point that it is not just the stories that make Jane Austen great (though they are very strong); they would never have lasted if they had not been set to paper with skill which has rarely been equalled. We can say so much about Emma or Elizabeth Bennett or Ann Elliott because they have been given to us with such depth, and (crucially) with such wit.

    I’ll put in a pitch too, when it comes to screen adaptations, for the 2009 mini-series of Emma, With Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller I think it may be the best of the lot.

    • Thank you so much for reading, and for your kind comment! I completely agree with you – I failed to pay enough homage to her wit and how hilarious she can be in this post (too rapturous!) but that is one of her greatest qualities. And if someone can make you laugh 200+ years after the joke was made… well, kudos. Every time I read other novels from the period I am reminded of how much Austen is at the zenith; how different and complex her characters are to a lot of the frankly insipid and didactic heroines other authors were creating.

      Oooh! Thanks so much for mentioning that; I had forgotten about it, though I remember watching one episode when it came out. Romola Garai is a splendid actress, so I can imagine she does Emma complete justice – will definitely have to check out the series! Thanks!

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