Here we are: the last day of Austen April and boy have I saved the best till last! Persuasion, in all its autumnal, melancholy, romantic glory is Jane Austen’s masterpiece and, in my incredibly biased opinion, one of the finest works ever committed to paper.
Written in the twilight of Jane’s life, it was her last completed novel. Like Northanger Abbey, its exceptional author did not live to see it published, which makes me very sad. She should have lived to be showered with praise for every chapter.
As I’ve spent the month rereading Jane Austen’s published works, it also seemed appropriate that I should get through the most recent of her many biographies: Jane Austen at Home by the queen of TV historians, Lucy Worsley.
Here we are at last: my least favoured of all the Austen novels. I put it fifth in the order of reading so that afterwards I would have the literary perfection of Persuasion to look forward to to close off the month, because the truth is; devoted and ardent an admirer though I am of all Jane’s other works, I am not at all much of a fan of Northanger Abbey.
I have fallen a little bit behind with Austen April, firstly due to health issues and then a tremendous weekend away at Comic Con in Wales, but clearly I will have several reviews to squeeze in this week! Nothing like a challenge!
I have a bit of a confession to start off with…Emma is one of my least favourite Jane Austen Novels.
Yes, I know, sacrilege, isn’t it? But so it is – Persuasion remains by far and away my favourite, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park share a sort of triplicate second place where I esteem them all and sometimes like one more than the other. Then comes Emma and lastly of all, Northanger Abbey.
That is not to say, I hasten to add, that I dislike Emma or don’t enjoy reading it. Nothing could be further from the truth; it is a masterpiece of witty prose and memorable characters. The plot is sensational…indeed, it’s almost a Regency Comedy of Errors. And of all Jane’s heroines, Emma Wodehouse perhaps shows the most personal growth and development from the beginning to the end of her story.
The main reason I enjoy it slightly less than the other four I’ve mentioned though is largely because I find so few of the characters to be personally likeable. Emma Wodehouse, with wealth, consequence and good health, has not the trials of Elinor Dashwood, Fanny Price, Anne Elliot to move me to sympathy. Her wittiness, self-important and occasionally manipulative, is not equal to that of Elizabeth Bennet’s in amusing me. I find her – as Jane doubtlessly intended – spoiled, arrogant and interfering; and therefore cannot get quite as emotionally invested as I do in the stories of her rival heroines. I feel like I’d get on with most of the others, while Emma would undoubtedly get on my nerves.
The same can be said from amongst the supporting cast: take out the worthy Mrs Weston and the serious, gentlemanly Mr Knightley and there are no other characters left to admire. Mr Wodehouse is quite as silly as Mrs Bennet or Sir Walter Elliot, but his silliness is such that it renders him a really rather pathetic figure; who can’t stir out of doors for fear of being ill and who cannot bear the thought of his daughters marrying because change distresses him. Harriet Smith is weak willed and easily influenced into thinking exactly as Emma does in every particular and to fancying herself in love with whoever Emma convinces her is interested. Miss Bates is a rather ridiculous, tedious chatterbox, Mr Elton a pompous snob, Mrs Elton officious and vulgar, and so the list goes on.
Of course, the fact that these characters elicit such responses is testament to the brilliancy of Jane’s storytelling. Nobody can sketch the characters of eccentrics, busybodies and fools like she can! In most of the other books though, they are countered by sensible characters. In Emma, there’s a decided imbalance in the scales.
Mr Knightley is a very commendable leading man, showing good principles and providing wise counsel from the start, but as so much of the book is dedicated to Emma’s journey into self-awareness and the interactions between she and Harriet, he does not quite get the same chance to shine as Mr Darcy, Captain Wentworth or even Colonel Brandon. However, his marriage to Emma – lukewarm though my liking for her is – brings the book to a very satisfactory conclusion, as do the two other marriages which occur in the same timeline.
The more I read of Jane’s life, the more of herself I can see in each of her novels. In Emma, it is easy to see the significance of a statement such as this:
“Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public!”
It has particular meaning, considering that Jane certainly turned down at least one proposal from a man of considerable fortune. Clearly she did not believe, as some of her contemporaries did, that marriage and children were all that any young woman ought to desire, and this certainly shines through in Emma more so than any of the others.
It is certainly less of an emotional read for me than some of the others, but vastly enjoyable nonetheless. While you won’t be in for a sweeping love story, there is plenty of witty comedy to be found, some of the great absurdities of English literature and a good deal of wise advice on the perils of interfering and matchmaking.
I was a little too quick off the mark with Mansfield Park, but have decided that rereading the remaining five of Jane Austen’s novels is my aim for April, as well as finishing Lucy Worsley’s biographical work. Therefore, it is very much ‘Austen April’ on this site.
Pride and Prejudice is the most celebrated of all Jane Austen’s novels and often many readers’ favourite. How could it not be: from one of the most famous opening sentences in the whole of the English language, to its dazzling happy ending, there is spectacularly little to criticise.
Titled originally ‘First Impressions’, the story sees the lively Miss Elizabeth Bennet and the solemn, reserved Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy overcome their initial negative perceptions of each other and eventually fall in love. The path to such a happy ending of course does not run smoothly and their felicity is alternative prevented and then threatened by Lizzy’s embarrassing, vulgar family, the devious lies of George Wickham , Mr Darcy’s supercilious relations, the spiteful Caroline Bingley and finally by the elopement of Lizzy’s thoughtless younger sister Lydia with the aforementioned Mr Wickham. In true Jane Austen style, though, all comes well at the end. I am a sucker for a happy ending, so I’m always thankful that she gave each of her heroines some much-deserved joy.
It’s actually tremendously difficult to review a book which everyone knows and loves so well – what is there to say really that has not already been said? I can only explain why I personally love Pride and Prejudice so much, and why reading it once again has been so very enjoyable.
Firstly, it is because the character development is so tremendous and satisfying. Both Lizzy and Darcy learn some valuable life lessons throughout the story; not just by their own experiences but those of friends and family too. Charlotte Lucas, without money or beauty, chooses to marry a man she has no regard for in order to secure herself a suitable home and income; showing that ‘happily ever after’ has very different meanings to different people. Lizzy is forced to acknowledge that though her father has ever favoured her, he has in fact been a poor and negligent parent to her sisters and it is not just the fault of her silly mother that Lydia runs astray. Darcy, valuing rank, wealth and dignity, has to realise they do not actually intrinsically make a person good, as evidenced by his rude and unkind aunt. And of course, everyone learns that first impressions are not always correct.
Secondly, Jane’s social satire and comedy are at their most exquisite in this novel, which is why it always frustrates me tremendously that people can, with a hearty helping of inverted snobbery, dismiss her books as simply ‘posh people falling in love’. Mrs Bennet alone, with her histrionics, hypochondria, shameless contradictions and hypocrisies is a character almost beyond compare in English literature. She is delightfully silly, ridiculous and laughably ignorant. As I have been working my way through Lucy Worsley’s excellent Jane Austen at Home, which discusses Jane’s relationship with her own mother, it has made me wonder if it was Jane’s own experiences that caused her to give her heriones mothers that are either silly, negligent, indolent or dead.
This passage, when Mrs Bennet, having been delighted to see Lydia flirt with anything in a read coat and depart off to Brighton with Mrs Foster, is now in hysterics after her infamous elopement, is exquisite:
‘If I had been able,’ said she, ‘of carrying my point of going to Brighton with all my family, this would not have happened; but poor dear Lydia had no one to take care of her. Why did the Forsters ever let her go out of their sight? I am sure there was some great neglect or other on their side, for she is not the kind of girl to do such a thing, if she had been well looked after. I always thought they were unfit to have the charge of her; but I was overruled, as I always am. Poor, dear child! And now here’s Mr Bennet gone away, and I know he will fight Wickham, wherever he meets him, and then he will be killed, and what is to become of us all? The Collinses will turn us out, before he is cold in his grave; and if you are not kind to us, brother, I do not know what we shall do!’
Another great strength of all of Jane’s novels is that her supporting cast of characters are always just as well fleshed-out, just as entertaining and just as engaging as her two leads. It is a pleasure to see the sweet-natured and golden-hearted Jane Bennet wind up with the good-humoured and generous Mr Bingley. It is equally satisfactory to see the snobbish and supercilious Caroline Bingley fail in her attempts to make Mr Darcy her own and for the deceitful, mercenary Mr Wickham to wind up with Lydia; the least worthy of the five Bennet sisters. The Gardiners are excellent, the Lucases gently ridiculous and Mr and Mrs Bennet vastly entertaining. Mr Collins’s obsequious behaviour, as always, made me cringe so hard that I almost wanted to skip sections – and if that is not a mark of brilliant writing then I do not know what is!
One of the very, very few criticisms I can venture to make of this book is that it would be good to hear what became eventually of Kitty and Mary. We are told in the novel’s closing that Kitty was materially improved by staying largely with her elder sisters and Mary forced to be more sociable due to all the other girls having left home, but it would be nice to know that they too had a happy ending. Jane Austen did tell a correspondent once in a letter that Kitty eventually married a clergyman in Derbyshire, and I can only hope Mary – who I really feel for every time I read the book, bereft as she is of anyone’s esteem or love – was similarly happy.
The plotline itself is just so thoroughly well-paced, so engaging, so enjoyable and so wholly satisfactory that I can’t imagine anyone ever picking up this book and not enjoying it! On a related note, as I was finishing the novel, I decided it was time to re-watch the 1995 adaptation starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle and convinced my husband, who’d never seen nor read the story before, to watch it with me. Despite his expectations, he was hooked on the story.
I was struck once again by just how wonderfully faithful and pitch perfect an adaptation it was; every character’s casting was spot on and the source material handled with reverence. Much of the dialogue was taken directly from the book, the plot had very little alteration and everything felt wholly and totally correct. It remains, in my opinion, possibly the very best book-to-screen adaptation I’ve ever seen and utterly wipes the floor with the absolutely horrendous film starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. The highlights of course are Colin Firth’s dashing Mr Darcy and Jennifer Ehle’s spirited and sprightly Lizzy, but Alison Steadman’s absolutely and utterly brilliant performance as Mrs Bennet deserved an award!
If you’ve not seen or read the story before – even if you’re not into period dramas or romances – why not give it a try: I bet you will find yourself pleasantly surprised! It remains for me, an eternal resident of my top shelf!