Hardbacks or Paperbacks? The Problem with Jane Austen

We’re… still… indoors! Not under lockdown, just waiting for the vaccine. All over the world manufacturers are accumulating the following curious ingredients:

Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and owlet's wing...

But more important, we are facing a Jane Austen problem.

The plan was simple: we would reorganize our books in alphabetical order by author. And then we discovered Jane Austen dominated the “A” shelf.

A newish Modern Library edition and a Penguin Deluxe Classic,

We have acquired multiple copies of Jane Austen’s books over the years, perhaps due to the JASNA influence. During a phase of profligate spending, I ordered a partial Jane Austen set from the Folio Society.

Folio Society editions

The sad thing is I do not admire the illustrations in all of the Folio Society editions. Some in Persuasion are colorful and fun, others are a little grotesque. Why do the women have such pouty lips? It’s not how I see them.

In so many ways I prefer the Penguin, Modern Library editions, and occasional Signets, which leave the appearance of characters to our imagination. I admit the Folio Society editions are more durable, and the paper in paperbacks has a limited shelf life, but I certainly can’t take the big hardcover on a bike trip.

An illustration from the Folio Society edition of “Persuasion”

And yet one shouldn’t donate the Folio Society to the book sales, because you drop them through a slot in a shabby building, and somehow they are bent and disheveled at the sales.

Perhaps all our hardcover Austen classics should go together on a bookcase, leaving the paperbacks on their own.

But any organization is better than the lack of system we’ve had.

The Marriage Trap: Henry James’s “The Awkward Age”

Henry James’s The Awkward Age, published in 1899, is a striking, garrulous novel, not without a note of hysteria. It unfolds like a play, in dialogue and drawing-room scenes (sometimes the characters go into the garden); and was written after the failure of James’s play, Guy Domville, in 1895.

Some of you like garrulity, some do not. I admire James’s wordy dialogue, and am not in the least perturbed by periodic sentences. Oratorically and decoratively it all makes sense to me. But the plot is a different thing: we are startled when the ostensible heroine, Nanda, a beautiful, decidedly unpoetic young woman, introduced very late into society by her sexually competitive mother, Mrs. Brooks, turns out to be a manipulator of men. And yet she does it all under a mask of goodness, and indeed she knows no better, and is in a way good.

There is no main character in The Awkward Age; rather, there are main characters. Nanda is offstage in the early scenes, much discussed by the people in her witty mother’s social circle. We get to know the men before the women; in this book particularly, James hints at the possibility of asexuality, or perhaps homosexuality. The first scene features Vanderbank, known as Van, the sophisticated, impecunious lover of Mrs. Brooks. His new friend, Mr. Longdon, a wealthy man in his late fifties, has come to London to revisit his past, and is interested in Nanda, who looks exactly like her grandmother, to whom he once proposed.

Usually James is brilliant in his delineation of women: think Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady, or Maggie Verver in The Golden Bowl. Nanda is elusive, not very interesting, but so very pretty that all admire her. Mr. Longdon mistakes beauty for innocence, though Nanda’s best friend is a fast young woman who is not quite-quite. Soon all the men are hovering around Nanda—Vanderbank, Longdon, and Mitchy, a smart, funny man whose father made his money by trade. I do love Mitchy, the most sincere character in the book!

Of course Mrs. Brooks plots to marry Nanda off, with the help of Mr. Longdon’s money and sponsorship, while at the same time she schemes to keep the men in her circle under her thumb. Nanda also schemes, but not for money. She wants to help her mother. And yet her matchmaking mirrors her mother’s, resulting in a friend’s miserable marriage.

We ask ourselves, What is the deal here, Henry James? I have seldom met so many characters so little interested in sex and marriage. By the end, we understand Nanda’s ambivalence, and the role of her mother in it. In my view, only Mrs. Brooks is truly corrupt, but Nanda has somehow been spoiled, too. And yet Nanda has a chance left: she may escape into innocence, after innocently causing much misery.

Sometimes There’s a Reason: Dropping Dumas & Enchanted by Lord Berners

No, I have too many books!

Every year, my favorite bloggers pipe up: “We plan to read more books from our own shelves.” What an enticing idea! I have a LOT of dusty books, on a LOT of shelves, and I’d love to get rid of the bookcases in the dining room, where the incongruous shelving of the Brownings beside Lilian Jackson Braun lowers the level of conversation.

My better-organized fellows have a certain je ne sais quoi. They emanate a charming positivity, a Pollyanna-ish spirit that can guide them through the slog of Dumas and the unvarying cleverness of Georgette Heyer. They have spreadsheets. It is humbling. But who knows? Perhaps they, too, have bookcases in the dining room.

Mind you, I recently lost my Dumas book after enjoying 300 pages of it. And I’ve forgotten the title! Well, in my defense, the title was French. Easy French, but French. La Sanfelice, or The Vicomte de Bragelonne, I think. Perhaps I could open ANY Dumas book at page 300 and enjoy it.

Oh, well, the Dumas book did make it off the shelf.

I had better luck with Lord Berners’s Collected Tales and Fantasies. I stared at it gloomily, and thought, Well, let’s try it. And I was enchanted by this strange collection of macabre, witty tales and novellas. Lord Berners (1883-1950) was known for eccentricity as a writer, composer, and painter. He moved in the set of the Sitwells. He also knew Nancy Mitford, who based her character Lord Merlin on him.

Two of the stories in this collection feature animals with special powers. In his charming novella, The Camel, a camel rings the doorbell at the vicarage one snowy day. The Reverend is terrified, but his wife Antonia leads the camel to the barn: she rode camels when she was a missionary in the East. And soon she and the camel have a special bond, as she rides him around the village, where he does not cause as much chaos as you might think, except for one man’s worry that he is hallucinating. The camel is so fond of Antonia that every time she makes a wish, he grants it. She wishes she had a mink coat like a posh neighbor’s, and it shows up at the vicarage. Yes, the camel steals for her! Everyone is quite puzzled.

In “Mister Pidger,” Millicent Denham surreptitiously brings her lapdog Mister Pidger on a visit to Uncle Wilfred Davenant. Uncle Wilfrid has disinherited one couple who brought a dog to the house, so Millicent’s husband Walter rightly worries they will be disinherited because of Mister Pidger. Millicent plans to hide Mister Pidger in her bedroom, but anyway who wouldn’t adore this charming lapdog? I won’t give away the plot, but you will wonder: IS Mister Pidger psychic?

All the stories are imaginative and very strange: in “The Romance of a Nose,” Cleopatra has plastic surgery. In “Percy Wallingford,” the perfect man’s perfect life abruptly falls apart; are the causes supernatural?

I am not at all sure the genre here is fantasy, but I suppose “fantasies” is accurate.

Does Criticism Quell the Joy of Reading?

I never wanted to be an academic. I enjoyed reading, but You Know, I Had a Life. I rarely studied at the library (there were no windows), and avoided the student snuggery where the more serious plugged away. I do not mean to suggest they were grinds–they were nice people–but it was much more comfortable and less distracting to work at home. And, honestly, I put my work aside by six or seven at the latest, and curled up to read novels: the Lucia books, Margaret Drabble, Larry Woiwode, or Trollope. Novels were my secret vice. I avoided mentioning them, because (a) my fellow students probably did not read novels, and (b) they would have been condescending. (An 18th-century hold-over about novels?)

I think I took a class from him.

I preferred reading novels to criticism, and good academic jobs were scarce. If you finished a Ph.D., you might become a Visiting Lecturer, also known as a gypsy scholar, depending on your point-of-view, or your self-presentation. To be a gypsy scholar meant spending one year here, two years there, never having a stable job or being able to buy a house. One friend was so miserable she left to go into the business sector. God knows what she did all day, but at night she read novels.

Of course we all loved to read, but were pleased that we never had to do literary criticism again, thank God. When I want to read criticism, I read the TLS or The New York Review of Books. Let those who love scholarship be scholars. Let the rest of us read novels and occasionally consult the scholars’ work.

Some academic writers still do analyze books from a common reader’s point of view, though. AT PUBLIC BOOKS, Matthew Rubery champions the joy of reading in his essay, “Stop Reading like a Critic.” Here are the first two paragraphs.

Take a moment to think about your favorite book. Now ask yourself: Would you be willing to reveal your thoughts to other readers? Most people wouldn’t think twice about sharing their enthusiasms. But literature professors are not most people. One of the first lessons you learn in grad school is to hide your personal taste or risk being shamed for liking the wrong sorts of things. Scholars have been conditioned to respond to talk of likes and dislikes with embarrassment, if not outright contempt. The facade of critical detachment may be on the way out, however. Some academics—most prominently, Rita Felski and Andrew Miller, each with a new book on the subject—invite their colleagues to fess up to the feelings they have for what they study, interpret, and even—dare I say it—love.

For Felski, examining this love is just as important as focusing on how “useful” a novel is, or whether a body of work serves a particular politics. More importantly, talking about attachments allows readers to admit to all the works they adore, breaking down barriers between what is “critically” and “commercially” good. It is time, urges Felski, to talk about Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir the same way we talk about Beyoncé and the Boss.

This next article isn’t quite on the same topic, but I do recommend it: “Why Some People Become Lifelong Readers” by Joe Pinsker at The Atlantic. Here are the first two paragraphs.

They can be identified by their independent-bookstore tote bags, their “Book Lover” mugs, or—most reliably—by the bound, printed stacks of paper they flip through on their lap. They are, for lack of a more specific term, readers.

Joining their tribe seems simple enough: Get a book, read it, and voilà! You’re a reader—no tote bag necessary. But behind that simple process is a question of motivation—of why some people grow up to derive great pleasure from reading, while others don’t. That why is consequential—leisure reading has been linked to a range of good academic and professional outcomes—as well as difficult to fully explain. But a chief factor seems to be the household one is born into, and the culture of reading that parents create within it.

Does criticism interfere with the joy of reading? I’d love to hear your opinion. Perhaps you are common readers, but your attitude toward criticism might be very different from mine.

I Am Trying to Reconnect…with Mrs. Oliphant!

Mrs. Oliphant, an underrated Victorian writer

Although we are not housebound, we have new ice and snow on top of the old snow. It is very slippery, my husband says. He searched the closets for the Yaktrax, special cleats you attach to the soles of your shoes. (The mailmen and mailwomen wear them.) One does not slip on Yaktrax, but the farthest I’ve ever managed to walk in them is three blocks.

“No, don’t bother,” I said listlessly.

I have been lethargic lately. Well, it is February. Instead of contentment, or at least the ability to fake it, I am utterly drained by winter. And my reading has not made me happy: I have perused several unsatisfying third-rate 19th-century novels.

The difficulty began when I decided to read books from the old TBR list. Very Goodreads-ish plan, yes? But actually, I am not the list-ticking type at all, so this was a bad idea for my personality type.

“I don’t want to read this crap!” I gently threw a paperback copy of an inoffensive but ridiculous novel across the room. I didn’t want to damage it, just to make a gesture before dropping it in the donate box–actually, boxES at this point.

There was nothing for it but to turn to some of my favorite classics, books rich in language, style, and plot.

And so I turned to Mrs. Oliphant’s delightful Chronicles of Carlingford, a six-book series which, I think, was inspired by Trollope’s Barsetshire series. All the books are set in the fictitious town of Carlingford, and many of the characters are connected with the church. Characters also recur from one novel to the next. The first in the series includes a short story, “The Rector,” and a short novel, The Doctor’s Family. Although I enjoyed “The Rector,” The Doctor’s Family is really brilliant–and I shall write a little about it here.

Young Dr. Rider lived in the new quarter of Carlingford: had he aimed at a reputation in society, he could not have done a more foolish thing; but such was not his leading motive.

Dr. Rider practices medicine in the ugly brickworkers’ part of town so as not to have to tread on the toes of the wealthy, established Dr. Marjoribanks in Carlingford proper. But Dr. Rider is frazzled and bitter, because he is unmarried, uncomfortable, and overworked. He returns every day to an unhomely home. And when his ne’er-do-well brother, Fred, shows up out of the blue and moves in, Dr. Rider is exasperated and depressed.

The only good thing about Fred: he likes to read. He lolls about the house all day drinking alcohol and reading novels. Fred ruined Dr. Rider’s living at his last practice, so Dr. Rider paid Fred’s passage to Australia and started again in Carlingford. He is horrified by Fred’s return, and worries that he will be ruined a second time.

And then the plot takes a fantastical, fascinating turn. Two young Australian women show up at Dr. Rider’s office, and one of them is Fred’s wife, Susan. Dr. Rider is flabbergasted: he had no idea Fred was married. And Susan and her younger sister, Nettie, have the impression that Fred needs to be rescued from Dr. Rider. Fred had told them falsely that Dr. Rider had ruined him, instead of the other way around. But fortunately Nettie is savvy and sees the way things are. Totally in charge of the family, she marches Fred to the hotel–where his three children also await him!

Pretty, tiny, fairy-like Nettie rents a house and supports the family on her small income. She impresses Dr. Rider with her competence and charm, and naturally his thoughts turn to marriage. The course of Dr. Rider’s courtship of the oblivious Nettie does not run smooth, though, and we have to laugh a little. Nettie is too busy managing her whiny sister and Fred. and raising the children to think about marriage. In fact, she says she will never marry.

But the marriage plot rules in The Doctor’s Family. Mrs. Oliphant has a gift for matching compatible types of people. Dr. Rider and Nettie are two of a kind–smart, hard-working, and competent–while Fred and his wife are lazy and inept, completely without conscience about sponging on their relatives. Quite a few other characters appear in the novel, and other things happen, but we are satisfied well before the end that one marriage or even more will occur.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ Mrs. Oliphant (1828-1897). She is an underrated Victorian writer who somehow has not been admitted to the canon. (Sounds like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, doesn’t it?) She wrote more than 100 books to support her family, and though not all are equally good, her best are certainly as good as Mrs. Gaskell’s. As far as I know, The Carlingford Chronicles are not in print. You can find e-books. I have used copies of the old Viragos. But it’s a disgrace that Penguin and Oxford haven’t published them.