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.