In Which the Narrative Fights Back

It is nearly two months since I wrote the previous post. Where did the time go? Well, where does it ever go? Is that not the whole problem with life?

I suppose  that I should be excited. In the weeks since my last post I have had an experience I have often read about happening to other novelists and would-be novelists but never quite believed possible, when the characters revolted and refused to behave as they were told, instead rendering the narrative lifeless, stranding me in repeated blind alleys, until I relented and gave them what they wanted.

There was a character I meant to kill. I have intended all along, since I was first planning this novel in early 2008, to kill this character at the end of the book. The death had an important narrative function, or so I thought. It was supposed to be all about what we sacrifice for love and art. The death was supposed to make everything that happened after that, the tidy resolution of the various plot points, possible.

Except it didn’t work that way. Killing the character suddenly created a number of serious, seemingly unfixable problems. Worse, it suddenly halted the forward momentum of my narrative. As in real life, when someone important dies, everything stops, everything changes, and you are left gasping and paralyzed. How did I fail to realize that would happen?

I myself was devastated by the death of my character. It wasn’t supposed to work like this. They are, after all, fictional. How can I entertain such tender feelings for them? It seems the height of self-indulgence.

And I have to wonder, did Jane Austen have such problems?

Did she ever struggle, for example, over the question of whether Henry Crawford should come to his senses and not elope with Maria but persist in his love for Fanny? Actually, that is not a very good example. Did she ever think about having Willoboughy repent at the last minute and leave Sophy at the altar to reunite with his beloved Marianne, and marrying Elinor off to Colonel Brandon instead?

I have to think that she did not. And that is the difference between Jane Austen and me. She knew what she was doing. She never let the seams show. If she lived today and had a blog, it would probably be about needlework and fashion, but never about the struggles with her art.

On the other hand, thanks to the canceled Chapter 10, we do know that while she never doubted that Anne would end up with Captain Wentworth, there was some confusion in her mind about exactly how to make this happy event take place in a way that was dramatic and yet natural.

So maybe Jane Austen wasn’t perfect. I take only the most moderate comfort in this reflection, however.

I am still waiting for the other fabled thing that supposedly happens to novelists, when the characters rise up and push me to the finish line, when the force of the narrative propels me to the end, breathless but effortless. Yeah. I am waiting for that.

“Three Weissmanns of Westport” and “Murder at Mansfield Park”: On Austen Homage

To write any novel invoking the name or spirit of Jane Austen is to ask for trouble, by inviting unflattering comparisons with one of the greatest novelists of her age (or indeed of any age). Few can stand up to the comparison. The Jane Austen Book Club does. So, I am happy to report, does The Three Weissmanns of Westport, which  I started with apprehension and finished with steadily mounting delight.

The apprehension was at the notion of what Cathleen Schine had, according to the reviews, undertaken in this book: a modern retelling of Sense and Sensibility. How many ways are there to screw that up? Too many to count. But my delight grew as I kept reading, because there is a sense of joyful mystery in reading a novelist who is firing on all cylinders, writing at the height of her powers (actually, since this is the first book by Ms. Schine that I have read, I can’t really say that. Maybe her other books are even better, and I hope to determine that soon. The one about dogs looks especially promising. But it’s hard to imagine this particular book being any better than it was, and that is not something I think that often).

Why did it work so well? That was what I kept trying to figure out afterward, and it was kind of hard. Books that don’t work are often more instructive than those that do. With the successful ones, the seams don’t show. Also, novels that work seem to lull one into a happy stupor, putting the critical faculties to sleep, so later it is hard to be analytical.

First, it succeeds on a micro level because the writing, at the sentence and paragraph level, is good. By good, I mean, it does not draw attention itself by being either clumsy or excessively mannered.  The prose struck me initially as workmanlike, uncliched, a thing that is rarer than it should be. Then I began to gradually find the writing not just satisfactory, but actually rather lovely, though again in a nonshowy way. Also, funny. The humor sneaks up on the reader, not unlike Jane Austen’s in that that respect, though the jokes are quite different.

The book succeeds on more macro levels, too. The plot works because the author is not afraid to have nothing in particular happen for rather long periods of time; again, the mark of a writer who knows what she’s doing, who recognizes that plot is not just the piling on of incidents, but the reflection on what those incidents mean, the accretion of time changing the characters’ understanding of what is going on.  The plot, one might object, is stolen from Jane Austen; but that is not strictly true. What is so delightful about The Three Weissmans is how the author uses the skeleton of Sense and Sensibility but adapts it to her own story’s needs. The characters and situations are recognizable and yet transfigured — cleverly, but never simply to show off the author’s cleverness. They resonate with the spirit of Jane Austen, but they also offer a witty commentary on contemporary life. It is almost as if Sense and Sensibility and The Three Weissmans are nodding to each other across the chasm of the 200 years and the wide ocean that separates them: with understanding and compassion, but also with a smile. Because what it is, first and last, is funny.

Now I am reading Murder at Mansfield Park by Lynn Shepherd. I wanted to like this, but I am finding it hard going. I love Mansfield Park, and I love murder mysteries.  Ms. Shepherd has a Ph.D. in English literature from Oxford, and it shows. Her command of the vocabulary of the Austen era is pitch-perfect. She also scatters learned references throughout,  lifting entire sentences and paragraphs not just from  MP but from the other novels, as well as from  the letters and from Austen biography. “The heat keeps me in a continual state of inelegance,” one character remarks in a line  straight from a letter. “Indeed, she is quite the vainest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly I have ever had the misfortune to encounter,” Mrs. Norris says of Mary Crawford, a remark in real life supposedly made about Jane Austen as a young woman by the mother of Mary Russell Mitford (though whether she actually knew her, or just later claimed to have, is open to some doubt).

The characters in Ms. Shepherd’s alternative Mansfield Park are jumbled like dice in a box. Most notably, Fanny Price, still a cousin of the Betrams, is now orphaned, fabulously rich, and insufferable. Mary Crawford is poor and worthy. Henry Crawford is a renovator of estates, rather like Repton. Julia Betram is sensitive and romantic and neglected, and vaguely like the two younger Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility. Edmund, for some reason, is now the son and heir of Mrs. Norris, who is much like the original Mrs. Norris, except richer and more obnoxious; he seems to have cross-pollinated with Edward Ferrars from Sense and Sensbility. Everyone expects he and his cousin Fanny to marry and keep the wealth in the family. Maria Betram is rather like herself, and so is Tom Betram. Mr. Rushworth is still rich but no longer stupid.

I fancy I know Mansfield Park as well as the next person, having reread it only two months ago, but I find myself getting confused between the elements that overlap and those that don’t. In the first half of the book (as much as I’ve read so far) many of the same scenes and elements crop up — the trip to Sotherton, Lover’s Vows, the necklace, the ball, the game of Speculation, Sir Thomas Betram’s departure (he merely goes to Yorkshire, not Antigua), the departure of a beloved brother to sea (it’s Julia who pines for him, not Fanny).

Incident rapidly succeeds incident, but I can’t seem to answer the essential questions. Why has the author changed some things so utterly and left others the same? Where is she going with this? In theory it ought to be funny and ironic, winkingly postmodern, but for some reason I am not laughing. I think I am working too hard on figuring out what I am supposed to be paying attention to. It is undoubtedly a sincere homage. But why isn’t it working for me?

Returning to Mansfield Park

Olive the smooth fox terrier.  I  briefly considered changing her name to Fanny Price.

I reread Mansfield Park, again. It was fantastic, but in a completely different way than before. I remember the last time I read it (in December 2008)  I had been researching a lot about daily life in the era in order to try to realistically describe Liam and Rachel’s journey to 1815, and I was struck by how much more household detail there is in Mansfield Park, compared with many other of Jane Austen’s books. Mrs. Norris’s ideas about housekeeping, for example, and her interactions with servants, such as a reported conversation with the housekeeper at Sotherton:

That Mrs. Whitaker is a treasure! She was quite shocked, when I asked her whether wine was allowed at the second table, and she has turned away two housemaids for wearing white gowns.

It is the sort of remark that makes no real sense to the casual reader, 200 years later. But dropped at the end of the eventful chapter in which the party from Mansfield Park goes to visit the grand house of Maria Betram’s rich but idiotic fiance, it is not really confusing enough to make one stop, either: there is too much else going on, too much to enjoy.

What Jane Austen is doing here is giving expression to Mrs. Norris’s  avarice and nosiness through telling household details. She has been “spunging” as Maria puts it, wheedling a cream cheese and some pheasant’s eggs out of the housekeeper, meanwhile pressing her for details of how Sotherton is run, something no polite person would ever do. The “second table” refers to the dining arrangements for the less important servants, the rank and file: housemaids, scullery maids, porters, as opposed to the butler, housekeeper and cooks, for the servants’ world was made up of hierarchies as clearly defined  as that of their employers, with perks for the more important ones, like better food.

What may seem most strange to us now is that either group of servants would expect wine with dinner, but it was different world, with potable water a rare commodity, a world  where even children might drink small (weak) beer at breakfast.

And white gowns on housemaids? Wearing white was fashionable at this time, and a signifier of status in a world lacking Shout and automatic washing machines, because it was hard to keep clean for long, and hard to get clean once it was dirty. The message of  white gowns was that you had someone else doing your laundry, and lots of changes of clothes. But social striving being a constant across the centuries, it is reasonable to suppose that even housemaids would want to imitate their rich employers by wearing white, too — a species of putting on airs that Mrs. Whitaker was quick to detect and quash in the unfortunate housemaids, to the approbation of Mrs. Norris.

This time, I noticed different things:  the people. Julia and Maria, in their complacent narcissism, seem altogether modern. Described in slightly different words, you could easily imagine them starring in a reality show. The part in italics below seems to me a particularly insightful observation. Who has not known someone like that?

The Miss Bertams were now fully established among the belles of the neighborhood, and as they joined to beauty and brilliant acquirements, a manner naturally easy, and carefully formed to general civility and obligingness, they possessed its favor as well as its admiration. Their vanity was in such good order that they seemed quite free from it, and gave themselves no airs; while the praises attending such behavior, secured, and brought round by their aunt, served to strengthen them in believing they had no faults.

Henry and Mary Crawford  are also easily recognizable types found everywhere today: blase, amoral, mercenary, with a charm that conceals the void beneath. In the conversation between Mary, Fanny and Edmund in the chapel at Sotherton, Mary is saying exactly what most modern readers would probably feel about religion; her repeated determination to marry well (that is, to  find someone with money)  is also a common theme among a certain subset of contemporary women.

Fanny, by contrast, seems quite alien, and this is probably why she is hard for the 2010 reader to appreciate, along with the fact that her name has unfortunately become risible to modern ears. Her shyness, her humility, her physical weakness and her total lack of any sense of entitlement all seem like defects. The idea that she was might be a Christian heroine, a less flashy counterpart of Clarissa Harlowe or Beth March, is merely puzzling to the modern reader. Today she would be diagnosed with  low self-esteem and mild depression, a meek loser in a world where winners are people like her cousins Julia and Maria. She would probably be put on Prozac. And yet despite being afraid of practically everything, she is stubborn.  (An unlikely welding of traits, since we expect the nervous to be tractable, but also found in my dog, Olive,  above, to such a degree that I once thought of changing her name to Fanny Price.)

Fanny stands up for what is right,  resisting the theatricals with all her (limited) might, urging her cousin not to slip through the fence into the park (in one of the most symbolic moments in all Jane Austen’s writing):

“You will hurt yourself, Miss Betram,” she cried, “you will certainly hurt yourself against those spikes — you will tear your gown — you will be in danger of slipping into the Ha-Ha. You had better not go.”

She was right, of course, in the end, but no one listened.  Fanny takes her stand for the unfashionable virtues: order, restraint and tradition; for meekness, humility and right-thinking. She is the person everyone ignores, the poor relation whose wishes count for nothing, even to herself. She is Jane Eyre, minus the grit. I like her more every time I read this book. But I do have to wonder what Jane Austen was thinking about when she created her. Did Fanny seem a bit annoying and goody-two-shoes even in 1814? Was Jane Austen’s own experience of being a poor relation, for example when staying at her brother Edward’s great house at Godmersham, filtered through fiction to be reflected in little Fanny?

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.