A mortifying admission, but I had never read anything by Anthony Trollope until last week.  My youthful hatred of Dickens cast a shadow over the entire Victorian era. Nor did it help that Trollope had written so many books, none universally acknowledged as drastically better than the others, so one could feel confident starting with that. It’s the Joyce Carol Oates problem, made worse (it must be acknowledged) by his being a 19th-century male. I expected — what? Sermons, sentimentality, one-dimensional female characters. What can I say? I was a fool.

“The Way We Live Now,” satirizes, among other things, financial fraud, the English aristocracy, marriage, and Americans. The narrator is wry and knowing, always making asides like “The reader hardly needs to be told that…” which might be annoying, except he’s so funny. There are lot of subplots and and lot of characters: some unabashedly worthless, some striving to do the right thing, and others an entertaining mixture of the above. Trollope is compassionate toward all of them, but never at the expense of being less than clear-sighted about their failings. I could quote many delightful passages, but this one — in which Lady Carbury, a scheming would-be literary lioness, tries to get an editor she knows to publicize her just-completed work — made me start laughing out loud in the subway:

“I suppose you never wrote a novel, Mr. Alf?”

“I? Oh dear no; I never write anything.”

“I have sometimes wondered whether I have hated or loved it the most. One becomes so absorbed in one’s plot and one’s characters! One loves the loveable so intensely, and hates with such fixed aversion those who are intended to be hated. When the mind is attuned to it, one is tempted to think that it is all so good. One cries at one’s own pathos, laughs at one’s own humour, and is lost in admiration at one’s own sagacity and knowledge.”

“How very nice!”

“But then there comes the reversed picture, the other side of the coin. On a sudden everything becomes flat, tedious, and unnatural. The heroine who was yesterday alive with the celestial spark is found to-day to be a lump of motionless clay. The dialogue that was so cheery on the first perusal is utterly uninteresting at a second reading. Yesterday I was sure that there was my monument,” and she put her hand upon the manuscript; “to-day I feel it to be only too heavy for a gravestone!”

“One’s judgment about one’s-self always does vacillate,” said Mr. Alf in a tone as phlegmatic as were the words.

To which I can only add, yes, yes, yes.

According to this literary analysis tool, which I came across by accident 3.5 years after originally writing about it, I now write like Arthur Clarke.

I don’t know. Is this a good thing, or a bad thing?

It goes without saying that having software analyze your prose is probably a bad idea. Particularly when we consider the Hemingway app. Or when we consider, as my earlier post noted, Margaret Atwood was found to write like Stephen King. But something has changed in the intervening 3.5 years; I would like to think for the better; for it is a bias of human nature (or at least my nature) to think we are always making progress toward something, as opposed to falling away from an original state of grace.

Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress

I’ve just finished this. It hurt like a toothache the whole time I was reading, yet I feel strangely lost now that I am done.

People who complain that “Pride & Prejudice” lacks passion, a large group that includes not only Charlotte Bronte but apparently also the authors of “Pride & Promiscuity,” “Pride and Prejudice: The Wanton Edition” and “Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife,” should really try reading “Cecilia.” Compared to it, “Pride & Prejudice,” which gives us Darcy’s “fine, tall person, handsome features and noble mien” as well as Elizabeth’s “light and pleasing” figure and “fine eyes,” is like “Lady Chatterly’s Lover.”

Indeed, anyone who likes “Pride & Prejudice,” an even larger group, should consider reading this work.  There are weird echoes of “Cecilia” all over “P&P,” not least the very title, an allusion to a comment late in “Cecilia” that everything that went wrong between Cecilia and Mortimer could be attributed to the twin woes of PRIDE and PREJUDICE. (As is well known, its original title, “First Impressions,” had already been used by the time Jane Austen got around to finding a publisher in 1813.) “P&P,” like “Cecilia,” owes a debt to Samuel Johnson in its magnificent sentence structures. It explores how misunderstandings and status differences can thwart mutual attraction. It  also gives us a range of “types”: the pompous parson, the self-important country squire, the flirt, the pedant, the dashing soldier…Why, though, do Austen’s characters seem so much more plausible, less like the personifications of ideas? Why does Elizabeth Bennett never seem a victim of circumstances the way Cecilia, though richer, more virtuous  and arguably smarter, often does?

To say that Jane Austen was a genius, while Fanny Burney was a clever woman who wrote amusing novels, gets us only part of the way there. Another mystery is why I enjoyed this book so much at the same time as I was finding it utterly ridiculous. Do I  weigh old books on a different balance than contemporary fiction? I am afraid I probably do, but that’s also a problem for another day.

 

Fanny Burney’s second novel, published 1782, focuses on the lovely Cecilia. Unusually for a woman of the 18th century, she is wealthy in her own right, with (as we learn early on) £10,000 free and clear  from her parents and an estate from an uncle that assures her an additional yearly income of £3,000. She is also beautiful, kind and intelligent. And  an orphan! Random fact that will turn out to be important is an odd condition  of her uncle’s will:  any man she marries must take her name and drop his own. Otherwise she will forfeit the yearly £3,000.

“Ceclilia” begins with a painful slowness. (What I am saying? Despite being crowded with incident, it also continues with a painful slowness. For more than 1,000 pages!) It  starts with Cecilia a little short of her majority, losing her uncle and leaving Suffolk, where she had grown up, for London. Her uncle has left her in the care of three guardians: the husband of her best friend from childhood (for affection); a shrewd businessman in the city (who is supposed to safeguard her fortune) and a well-connected aristocrat (who is supposed to look after her in a social sense). All prove disastrous. Read the rest of this entry »

Time’s Arrow

January 1, 2014

I’ve said this before but I mean it: time to get to work. It’s time to set some goals and meet them. This s— isn’t writing itself, and I am not magically growing younger like Benjamin Button, or even staying in one place like the Tuck family.

This year I want to finally finish The Jane Austen Project, once and for all, send it on its way, and start thinking about something else.

And I want to write some shorter works. How many? Three, that seems like a reasonable number. One every four months? It doesn’t seem too arduous, surely?

One will be the idea that’s been in the back of my mind for a while now: “George and Georgette.” Orwell and Heyer. Meeting by chance in a bomb shelter. I know they were both in London during the Blitz at least part of the time; that’s all I want to know. Well, I want to know a little more about bomb shelters. But I don’t want to know too much about Heyer; this is not a fictionalized biographical fragment. What is it then? What is any writing about except what it means to be human?

I’ve been reading a lot lately, with little enthusiasm. How many novels there are in the world, and how lukewarm are the feelings one entertains for most of them! Even well-written books often fail to move me. Because writing well is just the start (though no small feat in itself), just as having a good idea is just the start. What else? One has to feel the writing is in the service of something, but what do I mean by that? That the story is both about itself and something else. The finger pointing at the moon, but also the moon itself. Does that make any sense? I could feel “The Goldfinch,” for instance, straining for this, but for me it never got there. I realize I am quite alone in that. Though not quite.

This weekend I finished “The Circle” by Dave Eggers, an interesting book in itself and even more interesting for the problems of novel-writing that it casts into relief. It does certain things so well, and others so badly, which is something you don’t see that often in fiction. Read the rest of this entry »

Wide Sargasso Sea

November 4, 2013

No, I haven’t reread it, though it’s been on my list of things to do for over a month now. I’m thinking about it today because of an interesting comment in AustenBlog’s review of Longbourn by Jo Baker:

“We think Ms. Baker was shooting for something less mercenary and more ambitious: the Wide Sargasso Sea of the Jane Austen oeuvre; by which we mean a paraliterature title that strives for literary achievement as well as, or perhaps even more than, popularity. We have long wondered why no one has written such a novel.”

 

This has set me to wondering: what would such a novel be like? Read the rest of this entry »

Constricted

September 16, 2013

A woman fascinated by vintage clothing who decides to start wearing a corset on a daily basis is a book subject that would naturally interest me. Rachel, my first-person narrator, travels to 1815 and starts wearing a corset (along the rest of the period-appropriate outfit), and I am curious about how that must have felt to her. (Though not enough to actually dress up like that. Yet.) Even if the author’s corset — the waist-squeezing, hourglass-figure-imposing kind adopted in the 1830s and worn for the better part of the next century — is different from the c. 1815 model, which left the waist largely as it was, there still must have been a sense of confinement and required uprightness alien to our elasticized age. What would that be like? What practical problems would the author encounter? So when I found a review copy lying around the office, it vaulted to the top of my to be read pile.

“Victorian Secrets” by Sarah A. Chrisman was fascinating, although not in the way I expected and probably not in the way its author intended. Read the rest of this entry »

A book read twice already, with distinct displeasure, might not seem to deserve a third attempt. But Juliet Barker’s “Wild Genius on the Moors” and Jude Morgan’s “Charlotte and Emily” stirred my interest in Emily Bronte, not merely as a person, but also as an artist. Better prepared, I am reading her book very differently, with a new appreciation for what is, no question, one of the most singular achievements in 19th-century literature. Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve been away from this blog for so long I feel almost obliged to fashion some adroit explanation — picnic, lightning — but the truth is, I was doing other things. Reading, writing, rethinking, rewriting. (When does rewriting have an end? I can only say, not yet.)

After “The Golem and the Jinni” I proceeded to read a string of amazing books I wish I had stopped to write about, for now I cannot do justice to them: Read the rest of this entry »

Four days after finishing it, I am finally waking up from the dream that was “The Golem and the Jinni,” which I found as captivating as anything I’ve read in a while, with its own fevered internal logic. Where else would a mythological Northern European Jewish creature meet a mythological Middle Eastern Arab creature, but in 1900 New York, where immigrants of every kind brush shoulders and reinvent themselves? She’s female, sexually demure, made of clay and able to read minds. He’s male, sexually wild, made of fire and able to sculpt metal with his bare hands. Naturally, they fall in love, since they are apparently the only two nonhumans pretending to pass as humans in all of New York, and this unites them despite their many differences. Read the rest of this entry »

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