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!

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.

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!

Books, bookcases and deadlines.

I love reading. Always have and always will. There is just something so eternal in reading, you will never run out of things to read. Your library will forever expand, and if you are like me, expand way too quickly for you to facilitate where to store all of those books. I hate to leave books in piles on the floor, they deserve to be shelved or at least stacked on something to avoid being kicked or abused, but sometimes that is just the only option.

A couple of years ago I asked for a bookcase for Christmas. A strange present for a 16 year old girl to some, but it was by far the best investment I ever made. It managed to accommodate all of my books nicely…well it did until I discovered a little secondhand bookshop with all books for £1 and before I knew it…I was back to stacking on the floor.

English Degree...history books seem to be a bit more dusty.

English Degree…history books seem to be a bit more dusty.

But the other real problem that I find with reading, is that because there are so many books I can’t decide which one to read. Or worse than that, I just read them all at the same time. This indecisiveness once led to me reading 7 books simultaneously, in fact I think I still haven’t finished one of them.

You find a nice juicy book. You read for a few hours and get hooked and before you know it chapter 7 has already flown by. But then you find another book, one that you have been searching for and you want to read that one too. Yet you know that the original is at the peak of its excitement and yet the lure of this untainted and unexplored territory is what you really want. You must know whether that new book is as good as you think it is, or how it stands compared to the one you should be reading right now.

And then just as you are resolving your dilemma and you decide that you will finish the one you are reading and then move on, you remember that you have to finish that reading for class. That reading for your essay due in next week. That journal article that has nothing interesting in it, except perhaps for a few quirky gimmicks that make you remember you love history because of the simple stupidity of some people. The book that you have to read and review to keep your blog up to date. Reading to a deadline is the kryptonite to reading, it takes away all the joy that people find in that discovery process. Fair enough you may have got hooked and read the book in a night regardless of the seminar you have on it at 11am tomorrow. But it is the inability for you to decide which book you want to prioritise which is sad.

If I could have it my way, reading in summertime would be year round. But I guess taking a degree in English and History comes with the guarantee of changing people’s love of reading. Hopefully though, it won’t be for long…