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 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 book abandonment

On book abandonment

Now I wholeheartedly believe in finishing what you started, but sometimes there have to be exceptions. I mean if you get the sun lounger and a cold drink out and the thought of reading more of the book turns you cold – I think you should stop. If you are not enjoying it put it back on the shelf, or give it to someone who will enjoy it. Books are there for your enjoyment, they shouldn’t be a chore.

However saying that and going back to my original point, if you have only a couple of chapters left, get rid of that apathy and man-up. The satisfaction of completing a book that was challenging will be greater than if you cave. In the end I guess it all comes down to you.

Birdsong – an epic?

I apologise for my lack of posts recently, but I was working at the Wimbledon Championships which was an amazing experience, especially with Murray winning! I feel unbelievably proud to have been part of such an historic event and so I hope you can forgive me for not keeping up to date with my blog. The good news is however that I was able to do a large amount of reading across the fortnight – there was rather a lot of travel involved as well as waiting around in queues for various things.

I managed to tackle a rather voluminous work: Birdsong. This is one of those everyone-must-read-before-they-die books or everyone-must-read-in-order-to-know-our-past-better books. Truly amazing. The first world war is often a very difficult subject to talk about, with the vast amount of lives lost, and the destruction it caused not to just to humanity but to the countries involved, the world economy and international relations. Sebastian Faulks has very cleverly built up characters that we not only sympathise with and back to survive through the war, but we are also able to see them change.

The non-linear narrative enables Faulks to jump around with the plot, revealing sections about Wraysford’s life before the war, then during, then skipping ahead to his granddaughter’s path of historical discovery – which moments before we had been living through his eyes. This style effectively reveals subtle layers of the characters’ personalities and histories without being blunt and direct. It gives depth. They become real characters, with lineages with future possibilities. It also allows the reader to subconsciously compare the decisions of Isabelle and Elizabeth, who live extremely different lifestyles, France 1910 and then England 1978 both find themselves unmarried and pregnant.

Men at war.

Men at war.

This really is not just a love story. It is an epic love story. It is in itself and epic. The novel covers such a vast period of time and lives and people that it isn’t really a novel. It has the important historical element to it too, the war is the crux of the plot, it holds the story all together. The opening in 1910 is foreshadowed by the readers knowledge that the war will follow four years later and then all the characters are directly affected by it. As I have said it is an epic, but sometimes it does go on and drag a little. The descriptions of the war scenes and the life of the men in the trenches is often times repetitive and full of similarities – but I guess trench life was mundane and repetitive.

I cannot recommend this more highly, for those who dislike historical fiction, this is also a romance and for those of you who don’t like romance, there is so much death, destruction and loss that it counterbalances any love affairs early on. And for those of you who like the sound of it but don’t like the length, I really recommend the BBC adaptation that came out last year with Eddie Redmayne. Amazing.

Review: Animal Farm: Politics and Fantasy

Now that I am finished reading for exams it is quite nice to read for fun again. The pressure is off, there are little to no time constraints, I can just sit back, relax and enjoy turning the pages as slowly as I like. However if I a to finish Ulysses and then Anna Karenina any time soon I should probably get a move on.

Not like Animal Farm, I whizzed through that little novella like a boy racer down the motorway (not the M25 of course, nobody really whizzes down there…). Aside from the political aspect of the text which I will come to later, George Orwell has written a relatable story that can easily be transferred and understood by various audiences. Both adults and children can appreciate the songs, poems and the slogans that are used to create the revolution, regardless of the propaganda agenda they possess. But the story is simply about animals that decide to run their own farm. To a child that can be nothing but comical. How can a pig that likes to roll around in mud and walk on four legs possibly run a farm that would normally require a farmer and the rest of the family to do it well? To me, I can’t help but see Napoleon and Snowball as the character from one of my favourite childhood books The Pig in the Pond. Yes they are malicious and easily corruptable and seem to represent everything that is bad and tragic about the human condition, but at the bottom of it, they are pigs.

How Napoleon should be through our eyes, regardless of the transcendental nature of politics.

How Napoleon should be through our eyes, regardless of the transcendental nature of politics.

What I remember liking most about this book was Boxer. Boxer is the loveable character that tries to be his best, he is the ultimate hero and has the characteristics many people would like to possess. He is dedicated and loyal, perhaps to the point of his own detriment and ultimately his hard work goes unappreciated. But like most things in life, this remains pessimistically universal. He is the figure that holds the farm together, although nothing more than the epitome of the working class exploited labourer he is crucial to its’ success and development. While Boxer is present to work on the farm, rebuild the windmill and plough the field when the other animals are just too tired, Animal Farm effectively experiences the roaring 20’s.

Why I think this novella is most successful is because it transmits its’ message through animals. The story of the Russian Revolution  is not a nice one, in fact most of it is pretty grim. Trotsky threatening men to sign up to the Red Army whilst he has their wives and children under threat, not an easy thing to narrate. Telling a story through images or animals somehow lightens the load, dulls down the harsh quality of it. Art Spiegleman’s Maus is a graphic novel that tells the story of a family who survive the Holocaust and does so by depicting the Nazi’s as cats and the Jews as mice. Some may consider this derogatory, or demeaning but I disagree. By representing troubling but important issues through animals it takes away the direct human quality and makes them relatable. They are less likely to be judges; but as with the case of cat and mouse, animal instincts are implied intuitively.

Rows and rows of mice from Maus.

Rows and rows of mice from Maus.

Although the novel resembles the Russian Revolution and the changes that were implemented under Stalin and Trotsky’s rule of terror, the main characters can be seen as general symbols for authorial figures. Napoleon could represent his namesake, a political tyrant who at first used his power for the good of the public but then once he had declared himself Emperor and had supreme power, those ideals altered somewhat. Mao, Tito and Stalin are just a few more examples of despots who can be represented through Napoleon the pig. At the heart of Animal Farm is a socialist agenda, the novel critiques the corruption of the Soviet State and the impact that it had on the people. Similarly the novel contains a striking class division between the animals in power and those that work. The intellectuals and the physical labourers; which is a symbolic reflection of the Bourgeois/Proletariat relationship. The working class are naive and believe the animals in charge, with Boxer being a tragic example. The novel is a literary example of Marx and the Russian Revolution in action.

Unless you were aware of the history of Russia, then this becomes apparent. It is more than possible to read the novella without having any knowledge on that part, and it is more than possible to enjoy it as such. I read the text a few years ago before I had studied Russia in depth and loved it just for the characters that are lovable and the hope that they represent despite the gloomy circumstances. Plus the story is only 100 pages long and so can be read over a couple of lunch hours. Easy peasy.

On Gatsby and the loss of its’ greatness

I finally have seen it. After all this time waiting in anticipation, and also a lot of angst that I wasn’t going to like this film, or even enjoy it. I watched Gatsby. Yes, I was right I didn’t like it.

I enjoyed the film, I really did, but I didn’t like it. I decided before I went into the screening that I would try to appreciate it as a film and not compare it to the novel. This was a good decision but it was so hard; having the day before sat an exam on the book. The film was a good film, there were stunning visuals and the props and wardrobe clearly had a never-ending budget because the glamour and the wealth was extravagantly done. The houses were big and the champagne glasses were fuller and I think it really created the atmosphere well. The cars were fast and shiny, freshly made to help belong in the new fast and free world that the new American culture was supposed to offer.

The Great Gatsby and Gatsby

The Great Gatsby and Gatsby

There was also some really impressive acting I thought on behalf of the minor role, particularly George and Myrtle Wilson. George captured that hope of a social climber at the beginning and then the despair and rage that accompanied the death of his wife. Myrtle, although I have to say I really cannot stand her as a character, nor Daisy for that fact, but I thought she was acted well. She was a wannabe wag. Social climber who tried to act the leisure class lifestyle that she wanted. I really did like the juxtaposition of the introductions of both Daisy and Myrtle. They happened one after the other, Daisy elegantly lounging amongst blowing white drapes and Myrtle walking down the stairs with big red hair and lipstick, kissing her sister on the cheek with as much effort as could be. She was as far from the leisure class life as could be, which I liked. Not in a sadistic way, but purely because it was in-keeping with the book.

But some characters really felt so fake and unbelievable that I couldn’t warm to them. Gatsby. I don’t even know where I can begin. The overuse of his catchphrase “Old Sport” in the first few moments he was on-screen bugged me. Yes he says it a lot in the novel. But that was just ridiculous. His accent was also very confusing, it seemed like a mixture of English and American, was he trying for the sophisticated education that he supposedly had in Oxford, whilst also showing his Americanism? I don’t know. I really don’t know how they could possibly think that he would sound good talking like that. What annoyed me most was the Gatsby/DiCaprio hero-worship. There were times when it was difficult to differentiate between the actor and the man he was acting. The moment we are first introduced to Gatsby, he spins around, smile painted across his face, cocktail in hand and fireworks exploding in the background. This would have been a great unveiling of the elusive Mr Gatsby, the man who was possibly second cousin to Kaiser Wilhelm, a Prince, a murderer if it had been done right. Swift and brief and it wouldn’t have been too cheesy. It would have probably even told the audience that this is a great man. But instead we had to wait for the music to crescendo and the fireworks to fade, Nick to get a grip of his grin and DiCaprio to lower his class. It felt like an eternity.

Old sport, why of course fireworks are absolutely necessary. Of course they are.

Old sport, why of course fireworks are absolutely necessary. Of course they are.

Nick. Nick Carraway. A failed author who tried to make in the stock business. A man who throughout the novel is not only the narrator to the story, but is also perhaps the one and only decent and real character among the lot: and they send him to a mental institution. This not only horrified but truly saddened me. He was the one figure that I just about liked in the book, and he was turned into a depressive alcoholic, who in order to make himself better, writes down his story; which, you’ve guessed it, becomes The Great Gatsby. The writing out of your story is overused in film in my opinion too, generic and easy way to have a narrator voice-over events as they unfold. I know that in the novel Nick is effectively the author of the events, but he does so from the comfort of his own home, in order to preserve Gatsby’s memory and set the truth straight. Not in the selfish way the film does it.

Sex sells. I know that. I understand that this film has been made for a modern audience and with a modern twist on it, but it felt a bit out of place. The party lifestyle was overdone I felt. The scene at the beginning when Nick is drugged by Myrtle’s sister and then ends in the destruction of pillows, the removal of clothes and the music getting louder just felt unnatural and entirely staged. There is a lack of sex in the book, which has often been criticised by academics as down to Nick’s romantic narrative voice and his aesthetic censorship of the gender politics and the social differences. That doesn’t mean that sex wouldn’t have happened between the characters, I just felt that it was made too prevalent in the film. Too much attention was focused on it. I was a huge fan of the soundtrack as can be seen in my previous post I wrote in the run up to Gatsby’s release and I did like its’ use in the film. But sometimes it just felt too modern.

Sex sells.

Sex sells, perhaps I am just a prude. 

Perhaps The Great Gatsby is just one of those novels that cannot be transferred to screen well. The novel has so many layers to it that it is both dark and light simultaneously, this film focussed mainly on the dark aspects I felt, which is perhaps why it was unlike the novel and why I found it hard to like it. I really wanted to like it and I really tried, but there were just so many things that I couldn’t see through that made it hard for me to do so.

On reading and rereading for revision

When I sit down to read, I want to do just that. Read. Enjoy the peace and quiet that I have earned after working on that essay all day long, because I honestly didn’t leave it to the last minute…again…honest. Find a comfy chair, make a cuppa and perhaps if I am feeling particularly indulgent, maybe even a chocolate digestive or two.

But reading a novel with the purpose of taking notes is a completely different experience. Your mind is full of questions the whole time, why has the author made character a say this to character b? Is it significant that the author is writing about a culture that they are not part of? Do they have the authority to write about it? Who decides where the authoritarian line is drawn? and before you know it, your mind has gone down a completely different path to the one that the book was hoping for it to go down, and chances are that all of those thoughts occurred to you in the space of a couple of seconds and are just fleeting ones. Never leaving you enough time to write them down on the side of the book, or if you disagree with marking books then the sheet of paper that you have next to you.

For english, you read the novel. You then read the academic criticisms (occasionally there are some praises thrown into the mix, just to spice things up a bit). You then should ideally, or if you have the attention or inclination, reread the original text so that the you can apply the critiques to the work and make more sense of it. But what happens in reality, you wait till you have an exam or an essay on that subject and then do the rereading, and miraculously everything (or perhaps I am being overly optimistic with my revision schedule and hopes for reading everything in time) makes sense.

a handy pocket-sized notebook could work...

a handy pocket-sized notebook could work…

The other problem that I find about reading and taking notes is that where does everything go? If I am making extended notes because I am reading an academic journal, I can put it on my kindle and curl up on the sofa, but where does the pad go? I can read it through Adobe on my laptop and have the notepad in front, but then I run the risk of finding more interesting activities available online. Then you have the really bad time when it is actually a book that you enjoy. You don’t want to spend two-to-three times longer reading the novel/play/poem/graphic narrative and making notes because you want to find out what will happen to the characters next. Moreover, you don’t physically have the time or motivation to read that slowly every week because the reading list is just so large that it isn’t possible.

I know that these may sound like petty things. But for anyone in a similar situation to me I really could do with some suggestions. So far sticking with saving the note taking to the reread and only academic works is pretty good. But I still feel that there would be a better way of doing it.

I guess I still have another two years to try to perfect it!