Dull Elves

Inspired by this essay in Persuasions, which discusses By a Lady in the context of Austen biography, I went back and started rereading another book it mentions, The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler. I read this when it first came out, several years ago, and I remember liking it not at all. For I had expected it to be more about Jane Austen, and less about the members of the book club, who seemed to me spoiled and Californian, with problems I could not relate to.

What a difference a few years and a few more books make! I started reading it again in the subway on the way to work and was astonished by how witty it is, how subtly it connects the plots and themes of Jane Austen’s novels with incidents from the lives of the book club members. I felt both ashamed (because I was too ignorant to get it the first time around, and blamed the book rather than myself)  and happy (it’s agreeable to realize that one can grow smarter even as one grows older, and that I had).  It also made me wonder how many other books that I have read and not liked and was just too stupid to understand. Certainly several Jane Austen books were like that. And I probably have not given David Copperfield its due.

Emma. I think it’s fair to say the first two or maybe three times I read Emma I did not get it at all, however one defines that term. Mortifying admission indeed! But true. I failed to get Mansfield Park the first time through (I remember reading it on a train from Amsterdam to Berlin when I was  16, with complete, unadulterated incomprehension). The next time, a long time later, I think I understood it well enough, from the perspective of the plot, but I did not like it. I resisted its implications, which are still disturbing.

Before requesting The Jane Austen Book Club I had gotten The Female Quixote from the library, so I am kind of reading these together, to curious effect. FQ was written in 1752 by Charlotte Lennox, who was friendly with both Samuel Richardson and Samuel Johnson. We know Jane Austen read this book, for she mentions in a 1807 letter that she is rereading, and finding it funnier than ever.

The Female Quixote is graced with a perfect title, which I admit put me off the book, because the idea seemed so odd, but now that I am reading, am enchanted with. What would Don Quixote be like if he were a woman living in England in the mid-18th century, and instead of tales of chivalry had messed up his brain with romances? He would be like Arabella! This edition features charming mid-sentence capitalization which, along with the elaborate sentence structure, makes 18th-century literature so much fun to read, to wit:

Arabella indeed had been in such a terrible Consternation, that it was some Time before she even reconciled Appearances to herself; but, as she had a most happy Facility in accommodating every Incident to her own Wishes and Conceptions, she examined this Matter in so many different Ways, drew so many Conclusions, and fansied so many Mysteries in the most indifferent Actions of the supposed noble Unknown, that she remained, at last, more than ever confirmed in the Opinion, that he was some great Personage, whom her Beauty had forced to assume an Appearance unworthy of himself: When Lucy, no longer able to keep Silence, drew off her Attention from these pleasing images, by speaking of the Carp-stealing Affair again.

I’ve finished By a Lady, and now feel free to pass judgment on it. I continue to feel the weakest thing about it was tone. I need to write a whole post on tone, and the perplexities it presents, but at this moment the analogy that presents itself is about horses (why?). A horse can tell, I am certain, if it is being ridden by someone who has never sat on a horse before, versus an experienced, confident rider.  When you start reading a book, it is much the same, although it might take the reader longer than the horse to be certain. By a Lady seemed unable to decide just what it wanted to be. Was it a farce? A romance? A steamy erotic novel? Was it aiming high or low? It was wacky, but it lacked the courage of its convictions to go for broke and be quite wacky enough. In the end (and I am not giving anything away here) the reader realizes the author’s real debt is to Shakespeare, not Austen, as amazing coincidences and lost-and-found orphans lead to the longed-for happy ending. Lost-and-found orphans in Shakespeare (or in Fielding or Burney) can be accepted  in a way they would not be in say, Austen. It’s all about context, too, I guess.


Reading Material

I am extremely excited about this.  Thanks, AustenBlog, for the reminder! I wish I had time to read the whole issue right now, instead I shall link to it so I can easily find it again.

Persuasions, from what I have see of it before, is a fascinating examination of some of the most arcane Jane Austen topics imaginable (a great article about handwriting and writing materials proved immensely useful). It is intelligent without being academic and pretentious, a rare combination. At least in America.

Right now, in a little metafictional excursion,  I am reading By a Lady, by Amanda Elyot, a novel about time travel and Jane Austen.(!) This was quite harshly criticized by many Amazon readers, too harshly, I think.  I never pass final judgment on any book before finishing it, but I am finding it amusing, though more  Fanny Burney than Jane Austen. Picaresque and wacky, it is more fun to read than a lot of the Austen fan fiction out there.  Miss Elyot has done her research, though her exposition of it is sometimes clunky, not seamlessly integrated as you see, for instance, in the work of Tracy Chevalier.

The biggest problem I see is an unevenness of tone. That is so important, so hard to describe and so easy to get wrong.

Update and spoiler alert: There are two chapters in rapid succession devoted to steamy sex scenes! Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I  have noticed that some readers hate sex scenes when they weren’t expecting them (and if they were expecting them, presumably would not read the book). One reviewer praised “Jane Austen Ruined My Life” precisely because it did not contain sex scenes, which to my mind seems a bit odd. I have nothing against them, per se, but it does seem to push willing suspension of disbelief to the breaking point to suppose that the heroine of the book would have unprotected (as well as mind-blowingly excellent) sex with the earl she had only recently met and become engaged (if somewhat informally) to. It just seems to pose too many practical problems, from birth control to chaperonage to spying servants. Also, she just happens to walk through a door in Bath and find herself in an elaborate sex club out of “Eyes Wide Shut”? Dens of vice were far from unknown in England of the time, but I would expect the door to be better policed.

This makes me realize: a narrative can contain many unrealistic elements but must somehow follow the rules it sets for itself. What those rules actually are becomes obvious only after the fact, when they are broken.  To take an example of a famous and unrealistic story — Alice in Wonderland. Alice falls down a rabbit hole and has a series of strange adventures involving talking animals, changes in her own body size, a baby that changes into a pig, a croquet game involving live animals, etc. What is the constant in all of this is Alice’s own response to: baffled, yet unfailingly polite by her own standards of politeness. She is the glue that holds all this together, along with Lewis Carroll’s deadpan tone.

Along with the sex, Miss Elyot brings Jane Austen onstage. She solves the problem of what Jane Austen was like by putting into her mouth words that she actually wrote: choice epigrams lifted straight from the novels and letters. This is kind of funny; it turns Jane Austen into a sort of Regency-era Oscar Wilde, or a  Groucho Marx, perhaps a better analogy, because part of the charm of  Groucho is that no one ever seems to react as if he were saying anything odd. Similarly, Jane Austen makes one snarky remark after another, sotto voce, to the heroine she has just met, and her wit goes unremarked and unappreciated  (except by her cousin  the earl (!) the one who also happens to be having mind-blowingly excellent sex with the heroine). How handy!

I guess that is the other major weakness with this book, which for all I am criticizing I also am kind of enjoying, if only out of a sense of fellowship. It takes the parts of 1801 that it wants and ignores the parts that don’t suit it. And I see, perhaps more than most readers, just how hard that is not to do.

The Trouble With Normal


I was near a TV, and the 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice was on, which meant that  I watched it. Amazing! And not in such a good way. I saw it in a theater when it came out five years ago, but was distracted by the problem of how very beautiful Keira Knightly is, and how having a drop-dead gorgeous Elizabeth  Bennet utterly transforms the plot dynamic,  since much of the charm of P&P resides in the fact that Mr. Darcy falls in love with her mind. Also, the movie itself is beautiful. The costumes, the houses, the landscapes all feel beautifully composed and yet slightly  imperfect, like real life, except more so. I think on a large screen all this beauty kept me from noticing the stunning omission that was immediately apparent 4.5  years later on a tiny television: It is not at all funny.

Pride & Prejudice. Not funny. How is that even possible?

It’s not surprising to find a film version of P&P devoid of irony,  since, like most literary devices, irony  transfers poorly to film.  And while the irony that suffuses P&P is perhaps the book’s most distinguishing feature, you don’t have to appreciate literary irony to recognize that P&P is also very funny. It’s witty, full of sparkling dialogue and hilarious exchanges that both move the action of the story forward and illuminate deeper themes of plot and character, as here in Chapter 10. As many before me have observed, P&P relies heavily on dialogue and is almost playlike in many places.  What could be simpler than transforming it into a screenplay, as the makers of the 1995 version learned to their lasting delight? You stand back and let Jane Austen do the heavy lifting, sometimes adding a scene of someone bathing or fencing or jumping into a lake just to take a break from all the talking and dancing and gowns.

This version did not. In the quest to keep the plot moving forward at a rapid clip, something had to go. Actually a lot of stuff did: Mr. Bingley was reduced to one sister, for instance, which had the effect of making the surviving one seem much friendlier with Mr. Darcy than she really had any right to be. Some of the funniest scenes in the book were brutally abbreviated, but even those that got their due (like Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s interrogation of Elizabeth at their first meeting) were, strangely, not funny.  Once Darcy and Elizabeth’s most famous exchanges have lost their subtle restraint and their sophisticated syntax, the characters also seem to lose all respect for each other, and express their unacknowledged passion by bickering like fishwives.  The only attempts at humor seemed of the stupidest slapstick variety,  more Three’s Company than Marx Brothers, as in two separate instances near the end of the film when various members of the Bennet family listen at doors — to overhear Mr. Bingley’s proposal to Jane, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s interview with Elizabeth. Besides not being that funny, it seems a deliberate lowering of standards, for in Jane Austen’s world the only person crass enough to eavesdrop deliberately is the dreadful Anne Steele.

Maybe a lowering of standards is the wrong way to put it. This is a Pride and Prejudice that seeks to shake the dust off a classic, as one reviewer put it. It attempts to make a nearly 200-year-old work seem up to date, and the way it does this is by making the people seem more like normal people today, who tend in the main to flatly state what they are feeling, lack a sense of irony, shout when they get angry, listen at doors.

But the whole charm of Jane Austen 200 years on is that these people she writes of are not like us: they are recognizably human, in their emotions and their failings, yet they are also very different, in their acceptance of social restraints that would seem highly limiting to us, were we forced to abide by them. The tension between one’s true feelings and these social constrictions is the real problem in Jane Austen’s work, and the movie adapters who seek to update her work by having characters toss off the restraints so that only the feelings remain (as when poor Anne Elliot is made to run through the streets of Bath, hatless and panting, in the 2007 adaptation) do so at their peril, at the cost of a fundamental integrity.