On an Austen anthology

I recently reread all of Austen’s novels for a special author module I was taking in my final year. i had the privilege to delve into Georgian England, peaceful garden walks and a hell of a lot of contemporary drama. Austen really is one of my all time favourite authors. But what hit me the most was her current audience. On a course of 45 students, there were 2 males. The first time this has ever happened in a long history of the course running.

I didn’t really think about it initially, I was just glad that I had been offered a place on the module. But as the weeks continued and the discussions began to turn towards Austen’s contemporary and modern audience, adaptations and afterlife of the author I began to realise that there was something quite severely wrong.

In her day, her novels were read by whoever could get their hands on them, largely men. These are not romantic novels, they are social satires. This, it seems our modern world seems to have forgotten. Yes, there are marriages, and romances, but this does not solely classify the novel as romance. Her witticisms are subtle, nuanced and her style varies throughout her anthology.

Her later novel Persuasion is more apparently a social critique of the changes occuring in British society. Anne and Wentworth are the only realistic couple, I feel, in the entirety of her lovers. (It may seem like this is blasphemy, I am still very much in love with Elizabeth and Darcy so don’t fret!!) They meet and are kept apart by family, only to meet again in the future when their situations are different, they are more equal but they have loved each other continuously despite their separation regardless.

I am hoping to conduct a summer experiment on my sister this year who has yet to read any Austen literature. She will start with Persuasion first before moving onto read the rest in chronological order or however she would rather do it. My aim, is to investigate whether she will see Anne and Wentworth as being romantic lovers or practical lovers. I feel that for many people, Persuasion is a novel that many people read last because it was the last to be finished by Austen. They therefore bring their memories of lovers being drawn together despite all the odds to their reading of Persuasion and come off slightly disappointed. We all know from the outset that Anne and Wentworth will marry. It is destined.

But is this because we have Austenian presuppositions? I will hopefully find out this summer!

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On Utopia and the loss of our privacy

I really can’t apologise enough on my appalling dedication to my blog recently. The usual justifications of job, exams, essays and just too much core reading has really eaten away at my time and I know they are not acceptable but I am truly sorry. Despite not posting anything I have been making notes on pieces of literature that I have studied that I have found particularly engaging and interesting so hopefully I will have quite a few posts to upload over the next couple of weeks – although, yes, I am sorry, I still have two essays and two presentations looming on the horizon, before March is out I should be liberated from work for a while.

In a Utopian world I would have all the time I could possibly desire to keep my blog updated and interesting, but sadly contemporary England is far from the case. Similarly the England Thomas More lived through with Henry VIII and his multitude of women is far from the Utopian one he has imagined in his pioneering book Utopia. 

What really took me back when I read this novel (if it can be classified as a novel I am not entirely sure; it seems to be a hybrid of the essay format that was popular in Fifteenth Century Europe and extended prose) was how distinctly modern More’s ideas are. Living in a post-Marxist and post-Communist world it is difficult to separate from our current mindset. Plans to educate women as well as men, the introduction of limited work time and leisure time to encourage the creation of moral citizens. The rotation of labour to ensure that nobody is left having to tend the fields their whole life while others sit and glory at their unjustly inherited wealth.

I don’t want this to turn into a discussion on inequality and poverty because although Utopia does raise substantial questions and problems on this topic I feel that it is not that interesting. Moreover it is also a subject that is so current and seems to underpin human nature that dwelling on it is only likely to inspire us to want to change the world, and then upon realising that this is unlikely to happen, to become depressed, demoralised and hate all of humanity.

Social media constitutes our private and public selves

Our private and public selves are constructed by social media

However, I would like to offer a comment on the treatment of gender in this fictional society. More has created a world in which gender is fairly imaginary and only recognised for practicality. For example, men and women are ordered to appear naked to each other before they consent to marriage to ensure that they are both satisfactorily pleased with their partner. Although this seems highly obtrusive to our modern ideas of physical privacy, in contemporary England this would have been practical. I guess it is comparable to the use of social media in our lives today, the role that instagram and tumblr play in keeping the world aware of their everyday activities act in a similar way to the penetrative communal society More has imagined. Not through the mediums that More would have predicted, but modern day society is effectively and rapidly reducing the scope of our inner lives by making it easier for us to display everything about ourselves. What is more, it is making it an inherent and compulsive element of our lives – if we don’t upload the latest photos from last nights dinner then the world will somehow cataclysmically implode from the lack of photos on instagram with the hashtag #food.

More’s penetrative society is entirely public, the separate spheres theory is rendered useless in Utopia because there is no sense of the domestic. Men and women are on display for their entire lives and they have no choice but to conform. The performative nature of our society is removed in More’s which is essentially what makes it equal and deserving of the name Utopian. Benjamin Richardson in 1876 claimed that “Utopia is nothing but another word for time,” perhaps at some point in the development of the world we will reach the stage in the fictional Utopia where everything is public that it no longer ceases to be public and the notion of public itself disappears. With the removal of the public is also the removal of the private, and perhaps this is the path we are already headed down…

On Racing Minds and their ingenuity

“Put an effigy of the Queen in a cup of tea and make him queue for it” was just one of the brilliantly created and deployed lines of the evening, this one referring to what it means to be British.

Racing Minds was a show split into two, the first act was titled ‘And now for something completely improvised’ building off of the incredibly influential Monty Python group. Here the group create a play as the hour goes on based around the key themes that were picked by the audience on the night. No two shows are ever the same.

Daniel Roberts dressed as a Butler proceeded to ask the audience for a name, place and title for today’s play – after being singled out I managed to come up with the top of the Eiffel Tower as the setting ; pleased, the Butler rewarded me with a worthers.

Watch this space.

Watch this space.

The quartet then began the show: each of them trying to out-wit the other, whilst ensuring that there was a rough continuum and enough scope to continue through to the end, but jam-packed with laughs both on set and from the audience.  The play progressed with many ingenious one-liners, stitch ups and altogether exceptional acting. “He was a murderous Rector. The Die-rector.”

After a brief interval, the quartet appeared refreshed, accompanied by two guest actors from the Maydays, Rebecca and Heather. The seven, including the very talented pianist who never missed a queue, performed a more casual set of improvisation; firstly based around the word ‘armadillo’ and then secondly ’bespoke’.

Racing Minds are brimming with talent ensuring each show is a guaranteed success and thrilling to watch. I cannot recommend them enough, they were truly one of the most exciting, enthusiastic group of actors to watch live – you really could see their brains ticking over how they would get out of difficult situations. Truly spectacular.

All I can say is that I am sure we have not heard the last of these guys.

 

On sensibility in The Man of Feeling

I read Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling a few weeks ago now and I really have been unable to stop thinking about it, moreover I am struggling to work out why that is the case. There were differences in the form with it being a manuscript and with their being large sections of the text missing; being written in the 18th Century there were large differences in the language. But I have read similar books before and this one really stood out.

The novel has a slightly confusing synopsis, so I apologise if I get confused here. The manuscript is found in a cottage that used to belong to Harley, The Man of Feeling, and has been used as gun wadding, hence why there are large sections of the text missing and it seems completely fragmented the entire way through. It is then compiled by an unnamed character and published. The text itself has been narrated by a third person, someone who seemed to have appreciated Harley and his moral perspective on life and documented it. The chapters are individually episodes in Harley’s life as he travels from Scotland to London in search of a better financial situation, but ultimately returns home bankrupt.

Sir Brooke Boothby, painted by Joseph Wright of Derby

Sir Brooke Boothby, painted by Joseph Wright of Derby

What I really liked was the way that the text commented on sensibility, which was an important cultural attribute on the 1700’s. To be considered a man of sensibility or feeling was to possess refined emotions and intellect in order to use them. Crying in public was not seen as feminine or embarrassing like it is today, but a cultural aspiration of many men. Harley the protagonist cries at many moments throughout the novel as he witnesses injustices. Interestingly the Victorians, who had the binary opposite attribute of the stiff upper-lip considered this to be a comedy, and an index of tears was compiled at the back of the book for people to reference.

This was what has really troubled me when deciding what to write about this book. I am undecided whether this is idea of sensibility is good or bad, and whether it is applicable to our 21st society. I cannot imagine a man in the City of London walking past a homeless man and offering to hear his life story. Yes, granted Mackenie’s novel is a satirical critique of sensibility but it remains entirely ambiguous throughout. Yet I don’t think it would be a bad thing if people showed more emotion.

In a world that is becoming increasingly isolationist and lonely I think that perhaps what it really needs most is a reintroduction of sentimentality on a small scale.

On Alison Bechdel’s search for her mother

After reading her first graphic tragicomic for my exam last term Fun Home I quickly made the decision that her second graphic novel would be making its appearance onto my shelf very soon. I made a good choice.

Although not as comical as her first novel, this is equally as gripping and interesting. It follows Alison’s life as she tries to explain and understand the relationship that she has with her mother. Are you my mother? is a memoir that reveals how her relationship with her mother influenced the person she is, her interests in literature, in writing and also her sexuality. It follows her journey through therapy as she investigates and tries to get to the cause of her anxiety, whilst being followed by her mother’s career. Classified as a memoir I would say that it doesn’t really seem to fit. Yes it accounts Alison and her mother’s history non-chronologically, but it also is a metabook. It narrates its own creation. The plot follows the progress and also regress of Bechdel’s struggle to complete her second novel; especially after receiving such success from the one based on her father, Fun Home.

What I particularly liked about this book was that there did not seem to be a coherent narrative. We jumped around from past to present, from mother to Alison, good times to bad: and it worked really well. It was compatible with the storyline. The search to discover who we are and why we are the way we are is a long process, it would not occur in a coherent and linear way. Progress is a not a continuous process, it speeds up, slows, plateau’s, picks up and then storms ahead; and not necessarily in that order. What I am trying to say is that within the novel there are multiple story lines interwoven and developing at different rates; with the relationship between mother and daughter at the heart of it.

Honest descriptions.

Honest descriptions.

The relationship between mother and daughter is the most interesting, complicated and inspiring of all relationships for many reasons. The daughter is interested in the mother as she is the first female that she comes into contact with, they have a bond that cannot be replicated. The mother grows and protects the daughter who will potentially do the same to her daughter. The mother has a duty to protect her daughter until she is independent. What makes this novel particularly heart-felt is that the relationship Alison had with her mother is not the usual sunshine and rainbows that you expect. Alison explores the reasons why she has always been independent, not been close to her mother and ultimately whether that influenced her sexuality. Similar to what made her first full length novel so successful is the way Bechdel takes the normal and regular and manages to make it slightly uncanny, familiar and yet simultaneously new and odd.

Bechdel is truly talented and this is a brilliant read. Graphic narratives really are the way forward, the convey both heavy messages and are also light hearted, and so appeal to many people all at once. I truly recommend this book, not as easy going and comical as the first, but just as inspiring and page turning!

On Austen’s Emma and why I just couldn’t warm to it

My summer reading list for my English course starting next Thursday has finally been completed. I successfully managed to read the list in time, whilst simultaneously enjoying my holiday and reading the other books that I wanted to get through. I don’t want to make the reading task sound like a chore, because it wasn’t, it really wasn’t. In fact a lot of the texts that I read I really enjoyed and were already on my ‘To read’ list anyway; so two birds were hit with one stone.

Emma by Jane Austen was the last one to be crossed off, and I am really unsure what I quite make of it. I love Austen, I really do and I find it quite shocking that I have only just read Emma. But there is something about the book that has really perplexed me; and it really is starting to become a nuisance. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the plot I will summarise. Emma is a beautiful and rich girl who adores arranging marriages for her friends, but never seems to be very good at it, to the extent where she causes much more harm than good.

Cover of "Emma"

Cover of Emma

Now, the main problem I had with the novel was that seemed to be it. There was hardly any plot or real storyline. We sit back idle as we watch Emma make blunder after blunder not only for herself, but particularly for Harriet (her friend) who does not possess the same qualities or birth right as Emma and as a result is fairly helpless. But it happened time and time and time again and I couldn’t work out why Austen would have not altered the plot. The conclusion seemed to me, to have been apparent from the beginning of the novel. The marriages that end the novel, were fairly obvious at the outset, it just took them a long and drawn out road to get there.

What also really shocked me about this book was that I simultaneously loved and despised the protagonist Emma. She meant no harm through her little match-making schemes and yet she didn’t stop once they started inflicting pain on her nearest and dearest. At times she acts very much like the spoilt brat that she probably would have been, but then at others she was very genuine and lovable. There seemed to be a lack of continuity in the characterisation. The other characters however, seemed to stay put. They were either hero or villain, never the twain shall meet. So yet another confusion added to the mix.

I even went as far as watching a film adaptation of the novel to see if it improved my opinion. It didn’t. I watched the Kate Beckinsale ITV film version which seemed to only further my opinion on the matter. Emma is both fickle to her friends and family as she is to herself. Her opinions and ideas change and swing back and forth so rapidly it is often like watching a tennis match. She manipulates her father and her friend Harriet, abuses her power of authority in society as a role model for young ladies and ultimately has a few too many unattractive qualities.

I cannot entirely criticise the novel because there are a few things which I found very agreeable indeed. Firstly, the relationships between the families and the differing social situations was very interesting to look at through fiction if one was gathering information on that historical time period. There was a great that could be taken from that novel in relation to social norms and societal expectations, which were very interesting. The balls and the dinner parties offered a great insight into what ladies and gentleman did both for leisure and as a means for courtship. The language and the prose is up to the standard expected of Austen and so it is an enjoyable read on that front. However I personally could not get over the vanity of Emma to really warm to her as a character and therefore the book on the whole. Of course I would recommend this book, however I feel it is just not one of the best.

On fantasy and my love of it

I have yet to post about one of my favourite genres of book: fantasy. Yes I did recently write about Game Of Thrones but it is surprising that it has taken me such a long time to get around to this hugely incorporating genre. I read the Riftwar saga by Raymond E. Feist a few years ago now, but I have been thinking about it a lot recently and so here it belongs.

For those of you that are not into the dragons and chivalry, swordsmen and ogres, dwarves and elves then honestly I don’t know what to say. In my opinion reading is a method of escapism, whether you read a book set in Afghanistan or one set in an invented world full of mythical creatures they both fulfil their purpose: to escape. Fantasy is a realm of fiction that really grabs escapism by the reins and throws them out the window. I hear many people justify their dislike of fantasy with “there is too much unnecessary description, to the point where it is just no longer believable.” But can this not also be said for any classic? The older you get, the more descriptive you get; and in a round about way, fantasy is often set in a world comparable to the middle ages.

magician

This particular saga really is brilliant. The first in the opening trilogy is Magician and although a lengthy volume, is thoroughly enjoyable and fled by in no time at all. I remember feeling almost cheated by Feist after I saw that the second and third books were a third of the size. It can be incredibly difficult to create a setting for your story, let alone a whole world. It is very easy to write too much, use too many of those things we call adjectives and really force those sceptics to jump for joy at yet another failure. Or go the other way and fail at any description of any sort, no character depth or believability. But Feist got the balance perfect I felt. The various cities in Midkemia (the main invented world) in the novel felt so real that I wanted to dive into the page and join the fight. What I liked most was that because it was the Riftwar saga, it not only held one world but to joined by this rift. It really was a brilliant twist to a fantasy novel – a little bit of sci-fi to get everything going.

Yes there is a very heavy male presence throughout the books, but that is expected of these novels. I am not condemning them, or even agreeing that this is right, just that it was what was thought necessary for the book to be successful. There are some brilliant female characters in the novel, very powerful and fiery young women who are determined to get their own way. The male characters are just as excptional, and they range from all different walks of life. They don’t just focus on a poor orphan boy who raises to power like the majority of novels, but we also discover plot from those of wealth, nobility, power and the humble. Martin Longbow particularly tugged at my heart strings, he was such a believable character and I really felt myself spurring him on and happy when he finally found happiness.

But the best character has to be Jimmy the Hand. He is so brilliant in fact, that Raymond E. Feist even wrote a separate book just about him to accompany the saga. He is nothing more than flea-ridden gutter rat, scuttering along and stealing where he can to get by. But he becomes so much more than that as the story develops.

The stories are written through the eyes of various characters and so as the plot progresses the characters change and alter depending on the circumstances. So for those of you who are new to fantasy, a bit reluctant after watching Lord of the Rings and not particularly enjoying it, in my opinion you cannot make a judgement about fantasy as a whole until you have read one of the books. Give it a go. The dragons aren’t real so there is nothing to fear!