Mansfield Park, Jane Austen

Mansfield Park (Penguin Classics)I finished Mansfield Park just under the wire with less than 24 hours remaining in the year, which means that I have also completed the Everything Austen Challenge.

Mansfield Park is the story of Fanny Price, daughter of the poor sister of Lady Bertram of Mansfield Park. The Bertrams offer to take Fanny in as a favor to their sister, who has had the misfortune to marry poorly and have yet another child practically every year. Fanny is at first treated disdainfully by the Bertrams and her aunt Mrs. Norris, the other sister of Lady Bertram, but she proves her worth to the family through her constancy of character, her forbearance, and her usefulness. Her cousin Edmund, the second eldest son, is the only member of the Bertram family to love Fanny from the first. She develops a love for Edmund beyond the sort of brotherly love he feels for her and is appalled when Henry Crawford, a man with what Fanny deems to be a dubious character, begins trying to win Fanny’s heart. Even worse, Edmund falls in love with Henry’s sister, Mary Crawford. Will Fanny ever catch a break?

This book is very different from the other Jane Austen books I’ve read. I always enjoy a trip into her world. However, it is in this book that Austen truly shows us a peek into the lives of people outside the gentle class with her portrayal of the Prices. Mary Crawford is a nasty little piece of work, and I never liked her. Very selfish and vain. I never liked the Bertram daughters, Maria and Julia, either. They were spoiled and reminded me of the ugly stepsisters in Cinderella. In fact, their aunt Mrs. Norris compares well with the wicked stepmother in that story as well, and of course, Fanny is the too-good-to-be-true, long-suffering Cinderella. She always puts others before herself. I feel at some points in the book, she plants herself on a bit of a moral high horse. But worse, she doesn’t seem to have a single fault. It’s no wonder that some readers don’t like her. She’s a bit too perfect. On the other hand, she is spunky in defying the Bertrams in refusing to marry Henry Crawford. She alone seems to have the true measure of his character.

Here in this novel we have an elopement even more scandalous than that of Lydia and Mr. Wickham. I was extremely puzzled by that plot turn, even though I knew it was coming, because I didn’t feel the groundwork was properly laid for it. I didn’t buy that either Maria or Henry Crawford were interested enough in each other to run off together they way that they did. On the other hand, I did feel Jane Austen explored some issues in this novel that she didn’t explore in her others, and the ending is not nice and neat. Maria has irreparably damaged her reputation and relationship with her family. Tom is sick, and it looks like consumption. Julia didn’t fare much better than Maria. Definitely not a happy ending for all.

Ultimately, I liked the novel better than I expected to, but not as much as Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, or Sense and Sensibility. However, now I can say I’ve read all of Austen’s complete novels.

Rating: ★★★½☆
Miss Austen Regrets

Miss Austen Regrets

Miss Austen Regrets
Fanny Knight (Imogen Poots) with Jane Austen (Olivia Williams)

The BBC film Miss Austen Regrets has a bit of a misleading title. As Austen’s niece Fanny reaches an age at which she is considering marriage to Mr. John Plumptre, she seeks her Aunt Jane’s advice regarding the potential match. The film examines Jane’s choices as she reflects on the potential of her niece. Fanny fears marrying too soon only to discover “Mr. Darcy” later. As Jane tells Fanny, “My darling girl. The only way to get a Mr. Darcy is to make him up.” The movie centers on the last few years of Jane Austen’s life, as she publishes Emma and writes Persuasion.

What I liked about the movie was its beautiful shots and costumes. Fanny was especially pretty. It was also refreshing to see a film portray the author as clever, attractive, and witty. I think too often the conclusion is drawn that because Austen never married she must have been uninteresting to men, especially as she aged. Indeed, Olivia Williams’s Jane Austen attracts men younger than herself. I also enjoyed seeing Jane and Cassandra’s close relationship and Jane’s relationship with her brothers Henry and Edward.

What I didn’t like is the pervading gloom and doom. Worries over money plague Olivia Williams’s Jane Austen, which was probably true in life, but in this film, these concerns are rarely leavened with moments of joy or even contentment.

Olivia Williams’s portrayal of Jane Austen rings true. Imogen Poots as Fanny also displays some fine talent, particularly when she realizes her Aunt Jane is dying. Of the portrayals of Jane’s life I’ve seen on screen, this one is probably closer to the truth, but the fact is that there is much we can never know about Jane’s private life: her passion, her love interests, her flirtations. In all, I felt the movie a little uneven. I didn’t feel the sense of contentment I usually feel connected with Jane Austen. I said on Twitter the other day that she’s my literary comfort food, and this movie is a bit too ambiguous to feel comfortable. It was certainly a pleasure to see Jane penning my favorite of her novels—Persuasion.

Here’s a clip from the movie. Jane is talking to former love interest Brook Edward Bridges.

You can read more about the movie, including reviews from other Janeites:

Rating: ★★★½☆

Everything Austen Challenge

I viewed this film as part of the Everything Austen Challenge.

Image © BBC and used here according to the Fair Use doctrine.

The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen

The Lost Memoirs of Jane AustenSyrie James’s first novel The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen is the story of Jane Austen’s passion for Frederick Ashford and its subsequent influence over her novels. At the novel’s outset, Jane’s father has died, leaving Jane, Cassandra, and their mother in desperate circumstances. Shuffled from brother to brother and feeling rootless, Jane feels the lack of Virginia Woolf’s recommended room of one’s own. Jane’s brother Henry suggests a trip to Lyme, where she nearly falls from the steps on the Cobb, just like Louisa Musgrove, and is caught by her Frederick. The two fall in love as quickly as Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars, or perhaps Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby. Of course, any cursory student of Jane’s life knows how the story must end—Jane Austen may be one of the most famous “spinsters” in history—I hate to use that word, but in Austen’s time, remaining unmarried was difficult for women, and Jane herself suffered for it. However, knowing the end won’t keep readers from being easily drawn into their story.

Jane Austen fans will probably be of two minds about this book: 1) they will enjoy the references to Austen’s novels and feel the excitement that goes with catching each reference; 2) they won’t like Syrie James’s invention regarding Jane’s life. Put me firmly in the first camp. I don’t care how accurate the novel is, I enjoyed it from start to finish. I loved the allusions to Jane Austen’s books, and I was swept away into the story. James has done her research and has recreated what we do know of Jane Austen’s life in loving detail. One thing Syrie James will make you wonder about is the contents of those letters Cassandra edited and destroyed.

I pictured Frederick Ashford as Greg Wise, and if they ever make a movie, I do hope he plays Ashford. He is every bit as charming as any one of Jane Austen’s heroes—Austen fans will recognize just about all of them in Frederick Ashford. Jane Austen comes across exactly as one would imagine based on her writing and what we know of her. And she remains a historical personage with whom I would love to have a cup of tea.

I enjoyed Syrie James’s second novel, The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, but I think I like this novel even better. Something about the character of Jane Austen and her circle is captured more crisply. They feel more real than the Brontë sisters. And as much as I loved The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, it is high praise to say I enjoyed this novel even more.

Rating: ★★★★★

I read The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen for the Everything Austen Challenge II. Four down, two more to go! May I truly finish Mansfield Park this time. However, first I will be finishing Dracula, My Love, also by Syrie James, for the R.I.P. Challenge, and Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson in honor of Banned Books Week.

Reading Update: September 25, 2010

The Kindle Gazer, after Lilla Cabot PerryI am falling behind in my Everything Austen Reading Challenge, everyone. I set aside The House of the Seven Gables for now. I might still dip into it a little bit here and there, but I really need to finish some of the Austen-related reading I committed to. To that end, I picked up Syrie James’s novel The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen. I finished the R.I.P. Challenge at my commitment level (two books), so I am going to try to finish two more and meet the challenge level for Peril the First—four books. The two books I’ve chosen are Dracula, My Love, also by Syrie James, and Wuthering Bites, by Sarah Gray. Wuthering Bites is, of course, a mashup of Wuthering Heights and a vampire story. If you have read this blog for a while, you’ll recall Wuthering Heights is my favorite book, so it will be a test of my sense of humor to see how I deal with Heathcliff as a vampire, but then, if you think about it, it’s not much of a stretch.

I’ve added a new plugin that allows you to share your Twitter handle when you comment. There is a box beneath the text box for entering your comment that invites you to input your Twitter username. You don’t need to enter the URL for your profile, just your username. It should save the information and will work each time you comment unless you change your Twitter username. If you don’t have Twitter, you can safely ignore it. I thought it might be a fun way for commenters to discover great new Twitter feeds to follow. If you prefer not to put your Twitter username in the space, feel free to leave it blank.

So what are you reading? How are the reading challenges going?

photo credit: Mike Licht,

Persuasion Audio Book

Persuasion (Complete Classics)After a great deal of consideration, I have decided Persuasion is my favorite Jane Austen novel. I had to read Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion twice before I came to that conclusion. I haven’t been able to finish Mansfield Park yet—it’s on my list for the Everything Austen Challenge—but I didn’t really like Emma as much as the others. I think what clinched it for me was Juliet Stevenson’s reading of the novel in the Naxos audio book. She’s simply perfect; there’s no other way to put it.

For those unfamiliar with the story of Persuasion, it is the story of Anne Eliot, daughter of the baronet Sir Walter Eliot of Kellynch, who had the misfortune to have three daughters and must pass his estate to a cousin who has little to do with the family. Anne is the under-appreciated, sensible daughter in the family. She is now 27, and her prospects of marriage look dim now that she has “lost her bloom.” Her older sister is snooty and vain, like their father, and her younger sister is a silly hypochondriac. Their mother has been dead for some time, but a friend of hers, Lady Russell, has taken on that sort of role, and Anne looks to her for guidance and support—certainly not more so that eight years earlier when Lady Russell persuaded her to break off her engagement to Frederick Wentworth, who seemed at that time unlikely to produce a fortune adequate to deserve the daughter of a baronet. But Anne has pined for Wentworth ever since, and their paths cross once again. Anne has no reason to hope they will have a second chance, especially after Captain Wentworth seems to have an eye for Anne’s sister Mary’s sister-in-law Louisa Musgrove. Can he be persuaded that Anne made a mistake before and to give her a second chance?

Juliet Stevenson’s characterization of the silly Mary Musgrove and the pompous Sir Walter Eliot were hilarious. I loved the line from Admiral Croft, after noting he removed several mirrors from his dressing room at Kellynch, about Anne’s father being a “dressy sort of man” to have had so many mirrors. Where Juliet Stevenson really shone, however, was in evoking feeling in parts of the novel that previously haven’t really struck me in the same way. She read with a tremble, as though fighting back tears, Captain Harville’s line to Anne, “Poor Fanny! she would not have forgotten him so soon!” I don’t think I’ve been moved to tears by Captain Harville before. And forget about Captain Wentworth’s letter. I was driving on I-285, sitting on the edge my seat, my hand over my mouth, and it was impossible not to feel the same way as Anne Eliot as she read those words. And then, “Such a letter was not soon to be recovered from.” Well, I pretty much laughed out loud. Of course it wasn’t.

Rating: ★★★★★

I listened to this book for the Everything Austen Challenge.

Everything Austen Challenge

Full disclosure: I won this book in a contest at Austenprose.

Reading Update: September 11, 2010

TeaIt feels each day like fall is just around the corner. Fall makes me think of tea. I truly wish we had a little tea place like this, where I had a great pot of tea several years ago. We have a few branches of Teavana, but none close by (that I know of) have a little place to sit. Sort of like Starbucks, but for tea. Because Starbucks’ tea is only OK.

What goes with a great cup of tea? Books, of course! So I finished The Hunger Games series, and am currently experiencing the withdrawal symptoms that go with finishing the last book and wishing it wasn’t the last book. I did pick up The Heretic’s Daughter, and so far it’s fine, but it doesn’t have me by the hair yet.

I had to abandon American Music. It has some great reviews on Amazon, but it looks like some of the folks on Goodreads were in agreement with me. It sounds like an interesting premise, but I just wasn’t interested, and I decided not to spend any more time on it. I realized I needed to just stop listening to the book in the car when I was trying to find other things to do—listen to all of my podcasts and music—rather than listen to it. It might be better to actually read rather than listen to, but at any rate, I don’t think it’s for me. When I decided to stop listening to it, it was sitting on about two stars for me, and life is growing too short to spend on two-star books. So I am listening to Persuasion, and Juliet Stevenson is a brilliant narrator. I love her characterization of Sir Walter Eliot. Plus it’s part of my Everything Austen II Challenge, and since I feel behind on that one, I need to give it some attention.

I have what I think is a pretty good idea for a reading challenge in 2011, but I’m keeping quiet about it for the time being.

Now I’m going to go fix a cup of tea and work on my portfolio a little while before I read. How are you spending the weekend? And what are you reading?

photo credit: Prakhar Amba

Reading Challenge Update

I have participated in six reading challenges this year. This late in the game, I probably won’t be adding more unless they run over in to 2011.

Crossed out challenges and books have been completed.

You know, I would really like to host a reading challenge next year, so I need to think of an idea for one.

* Technically finished at the level I committed, but if I read one more book, I can move up a level in the challenge.

Katherine Howe and Me

Re-Reading The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

Katherine Howe and MeAfter my trip to Salem in July, I have been reading books set there, and I just finished a re-read of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. I found the book as enjoyable the second time as I did the first. I’d really like to read some more books set in Salem, but aside from The House of Seven Gables, I don’t have any on hand. I decided to go forward with the Everything Austen Challenge and read Syrie James’s The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen. I’m looking forward to reading her newest book, Dracula, My Love. Anyone reading that one?

My students seemed interested to hear about my trip to Salem. Many of them had read The Crucible last year, and they remembered the characters. I told them I had seen Judge Hathorne’s grave and all the memorials for each of the people who were executed. I think I’ll have a lot of fun teaching The Crucible this year.

I think I’ll try to start both The House of Seven Gables and The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen tonight.

Sense and Sensibility

Sense And SensibilityJane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is the story of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood who, along with their younger sister Margaret, are children of their father’s second marriage. When their father dies, their older half-brother John and his wife Fanny decide not to provide for their younger sisters and step-mother, leaving them in much reduced circumstances. Fanny does everything in her power to make her husband’s family feel unwelcome, especially in light of Elinor’s attachment to Fanny Dashwood’s brother Edward Ferrars, which Fanny sees as an inappropriate match for her brother. The family removes to a cottage in Devonshire, where Marianne meets and falls in love with John Willoughby. The novel follows the romantic fortunes and misfortunes of Elinor and Marianne as they learn to strike a balance between sense and sensibility.

I first read this novel in 1998, during my first year as a high school teacher. It was refreshing to return to it again and discover I loved it as much as I remembered. I had completely forgotten Willoughby returns upon hearing of Marianne’s illness to confess he still loves Marianne to Elinor. I can’t remember if that scene was absent from both movies I’ve seen or just the most recent. I have always admired Elinor as the kind of person who puts others before herself and rolls up her sleeves to do what must be done. I wish I were more like her. To Marianne’s credit, she realizes her behavior is selfish and repents of it. Her essential romantic nature and love for music and books is what I admire about her.

I can’t tell if I like this book better than Pride and Prejudice or not. Elizabeth Bennet is a spunky, admirable character, and Mr. Darcy a worthy romantic hero. Yet, the Misses Dashwood certainly have their charms. I have thoroughly enjoyed my re-reads of both books this year.

Rating: ★★★★★

I re-read this novel for the Everything Austen Challenge. It is the second of six Austen-related activities I have planned. Others:

The Three Weissmanns of Westport

The Three Weissmanns of Westport: A NovelCathleen Schine’s novel The Three Weissmanns of Westport is a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. I first became intrigued by the novel after I heard Lois Reitzes interview Schine on Between the Lines. Here is the interview:

Cathleen Schine, author of The Three Weissmans of Westport

Schine explains in the interview that her motivation for telling the tale lay in part in the fact that in many ways, women today are as vulnerable to the same financial difficulties as the Dashwoods because of divorce. It was an interesting take. The story begins as Betty Weissmann learns her husband nearly fifty years, Joseph, plans to leave her for a younger woman, the Fanny Dashwoodish Felicity. In an argument over the apartment the Weissmanns share in the Central Park West area in Manhattan, Betty finds herself cut off from the money she has never had to worry about in the past. Meanwhile, Betty’s two daughters have troubles of their own. Schine has recast the characters into older counterparts, and I found it worked well. Annie is the Elinor figure; a librarian with two grown sons, she pines for Felicity’s brother, the novelist Frederick Barrows. Miranda is the Marianne figure, a literary agent who peddles fake memoirs and is outed by Oprah. Cousin Lou, the Mr. Middleton figure, comes to the rescue and offers the Weissmanns his cottage in Westport because they’re “like family.” The three women move in together. Miranda falls in love with the dashing young actor Kit and his son Henry. Betty mourns the death of her marriage like a true widow. Annie wonders how she is going to pay all the bills.

One of the enjoyable aspects of reading derivative works like this—modern updates or retellings—is seeing how an old story can still speak to a modern audience and can still be as fresh and as true as it ever was. I particularly liked A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley’s retelling of King Lear for that reason. This retelling works. The situations were plausible, and the characters were flawed, but intriguing and funny and even charming enough to keep me interested. In this case, knowing Sense and Sensibility made me wonder how the author might, for instance, deal with Willoughby’s betrayal or Elinor’s introduction to Lucy Steele. It was satisfying to turn the page, then, and see it coming. For instance, as soon as Amber and Crystal walked on the scene, I thought “here come the Misses Steele.” Schine captured those two particularly well. The book has a lot of pop culture references, from James Frey, to Shamwow, to Snuggies, and more, but I wonder if these problems won’t date the book in the future. Then again, maybe it will be a snapshot of the early 21st century. Austen purists won’t like some of the changes made to the ending. I think the ending Sense and Sensibility of is one of the best endings ever. However, I liked the ending of this book. Around about the middle, I had to keep plowing through the book to see how Schine would modernize next.

Rating: ★★★★☆

This is my first book for the Everything Austen Challenge.