Give a girl an education

Mansfield Park
by Jane Austen

So I’m still not sold on Jane Austen, having read four of her seven novels. I don’t think I will ever be a big fan, but I do increasingly appreciate her smart wit, her irony and sarcasm.

Fanny Price, however, is my least favourite Austen heroine so far. Her fate is predictable, telegraphed from the first few pages, but that’s not so bad if the journey is still enjoyable. However, Fanny is no fun at all. She’s delicate of health, oversensitive, prim, determined to believe that people can’t change, surprisingly impractical and generally a right goody-two-shoes.

Fanny is the oldest girl in a very large, not very well off family. When she is 10 she is adopted by her aunt Maria, who is married to the wealthy Sir Thomas Bertram, so Fanny moves from her chaotic but happy home in Southampton to the grandeur of Mansfield Park in Northamptonshire. She is shy, scared of her uncle and badly misses her home and family.

“Give a girl an education, and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody.”

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Reading in August: to plan or not plan

Every month there are bookish challenges around and August is no different. My Twitter feed is full of Austen in August and Women in Translation Month, both of which tempt me for different reasons.

I’ve read three Jane Austen books and so far not been blown away, but I keep wondering if she’s a writer I’ll appreciate more as I get older. She’s certainly not flowery, which I have less and less patience for. And she’s smart, which I do like. It’s hard to talk myself into reading a book that I suspect I’m not going to enjoy. But I have heard good things about Mansfield Park, so maybe I’ll give that a go.

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It is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible

by Jane Austen

In my late teens I went through a serious period drama phase, fuelled by TV miniseries based on classic books. A particular favourite was the 1996 ITV production of Emma starring Kate Beckinsale. I loved that show and watched it so many times I can still picture every scene now, a good 15+ years after I last saw it. Plus, of course I’ve seen the Gwyneth Paltrow film (meh), the 2009 BBC series starring Romola Garai (okay) and the greatest (or at least the most fun) Austen adaptation of them all, Clueless.

So you’d think I would have read Emma long ago. However, to date my experience of Jane Austen has not gone so well. I quite liked Northanger Abbey but I gave up multiple times on both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, finding the stuffiness outweighed the wit. I can’t say finally reading Emma has won me over; largely I think I only got through it because I already knew it so well.

Emma Woodhouse is young, rich, devoted to her family and determined to be cheerful. Her elderly father doesn’t like to go out and she doesn’t like to leave him home alone, so ever since her governess Miss Taylor left to marry Mr Weston she has been pretty bored. She makes friends with Harriet Smith, a girl of unknown parentage who was raised by the local schoolmistress. Harriet is dull but straightforward and quick to adore Emma. Emma’s friend and adviser Mr Knightley (her sister’s husband’s brother, who lives nearby) thinks she would do better to befriend Jane Fairfax, who is intelligent and accomplished. But Emma has always found Miss Fairfax cold and distant, not to mention being a little jealous of her musical skill.

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Disagreeing with the majority

Pride and Prejudice
by Jane Austen

This is a book I had started half a dozen times but never finished before. I downloaded it from Project Gutenberg so that I could help test the Kindle that we bought for Tim’s parents and somehow wound up reading the whole thing, finally!

My previous attempts at this book were thwarted by the detached, stuffy manner of the storytelling. I read recently that Jane Austen wrote all her books in secret while in a drawing room full of family and other guests, so she naturally turned to the type of drama that is played out in a drawing room. And that is certainly true. She turns a certain studious eye and ironic wit on her subject and I was surprised to find myself laughing out loud on occasion.

As a lover of the 1990s BBC retelling of this story starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, it was hard to be indifferent to the love stories that were playing out or the comedy of some of the characters, however I still can’t say that I greatly liked this book. Austen never really gets under the skin of anyone and, though she hints that the social niceties being followed are silly or pointless, they are never truly thwarted.

I was surprised to find, despite this being a dialogue-heavy novel, that some of the most important moments are not told in enough detail. For instance, when Lizzie finally confesses her love to Darcy or when she tells her father of her love for Darcy, Austen does not actually give us the words Lizzie uses or hears in return, which I found deeply dissatisfying. Nor is there even one single kiss, and the only embraces are between friends and family. But there is a slightly odd final chapter summarising the next few years of everyone’s lives, giving the novel a feeling of not having a proper solid ending.

I know that a lot of people out there love this book and will wholeheartedly disagree with me. I should also say that I have read a couple of Austen’s other books and enjoyed them (though still not loved them). I recognise that Austen had great talent, intelligence and wit. Her style, however, is not one that I particularly enjoy.

First published in 1813.

For some alternative points of view, see reviews from Bookworm With a View and The Zen Leaf.