Jane Austen vs. the Brontes:  Does Anyone Still Read “Shirley”? 

 Jane Austen is the most popular writer in the world. We base this on intuition, not stats: the Janeites are rather like Star Trek fans. They go to conventions and dress up in costumes. They go to balls. One hundred Janeites think nothing of squeezing into folding chairs in a smallish room to participate in a discussion of Pride and Prejudice. Alas, in such a crowd, only the loudest and fastest prevail. “Next time I’ll try pantomime,” one woman commented.

Janeites are also glued to the British film adaptations of Austen’s books: a TV series of Sanditon, one of her unfinished novels, was spun out to last three seasons. And of course they read and reread the books (as do I). Some read nothing but Jane. And they love Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club. And they love the film of The Jane Austen Book Club.

I adore Austen, but I prefer the Brontes. And I have noted that Bronte fans differ from Janeites in that they tend to be one-book fans: they may love Charlotte’s  Jane Eyre, but are lukewarm about Emily’s lyrical Gothic, Wuthering Heights, or vice versa.   Charlotte’s Villette, my own favorite, is often dismissed as too bleak, and though Anne Bronte is rising in popularity, her masterpiece, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, does not compare to her sisters’ work. Many will disagree!

But perhaps the greatest difference is the publishers’ approach to the two authors. Take the Penguin Clothbound Classics:  the Austen collection has seven volumes: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, and Love and Friendship.  The Penguin Clothbound Classics Bronte collection is less inclusive. It has only four novels out of the seven:  Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Villette, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. 

Penguin Clothbound Classics Bronte Collection

I wonder:  Where is Agnes Grey, my favorite of Anne’s?   And what about Charlotte’s  ShirleyShirley, which Charlotte finished after the deaths of her brother and two sisters, while still mourning, may be uneven, but it is a solid 19th-century factory novel. Charlotte worried because one of Elizabeth Gaskell’s factory novels, Mary Barton, was published before Shirley. She thought that it might affect sales and reviews.

Shirley begins as an industrial novel, set in Yorkshire, centered on the clash between workers and manufacturers in 1811.  But it is also a romance, and a study of women’s depression.  The heroine, Caroline Helstone, is raised by her uncle, a bossy, opinionated clergyman.  She falls in love with her Belgian cousin, Robert Moore, a mill owner, and it is the highlight of her day when, during her French lessons with her cousin Hortense, Robert appears.  For very inadequate reasons, her  uncle forbids her to visit the Helstones, and lonely Caroline becomes depressed and anorexic.  Then Shirley, an energetic heiress, arrives in the neighborhood, and becomes Caroline’s best friend.  The two are present when the mill workers strike:  the men become violent when Robert Moore awaits a delivery of new machines, they fear (rightly) that some will be replaced.  And if you like Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and Mary Barton, you will enjoy Shirley

If you want a complete hardcover set, I recommend the Everyman’s Library editions. They are not sold as a set, but they make a set.  Three volumes are devoted to Charlotte: one to Jane Eyre, another to Villette, and another to Shirley and The Professor;  one to Emily’s Wuthering Heights; and one to Anne Bronte’s two novels. These attractive books, have enjoyable, smart introductions by critics and novelist, but in general they are less scholarly than the  Penguins.

You can also make your own set with Penguin and Oxford World Classics paperbacks.  If you’re a Bronte girl, there are plenty of copies – even of Shirley.  There is also a boxed complete Wordsworth paperback Bronte set, which one blogger raved about. I am not a fan of the Wordsworth covers, but there is nothing wrong with the books.

Do you have favorite editions of Austen or the Brontes?

Collectible Classics:  Why We Need More Jane Austen

Penguin Clothbound Classic

If you watch Booktube, you have seen ecstatic vloggers opening a box to reveal a new set of collectible classics. In order to perform this task, it is necessary for these dedicated souls to practice long hours with a letter opener or scissors.  We evaluate their technique:  it is precise and clean; they have not stabbed the box or tried to cut the tape with blunt scissors.  To be honest, we are mesmerized by this ritual. And yet we already know what the box will contain:  Jane Austen’s beloved novels.

These vlogs are fatal, like glossy catalogues or the shopping channel.  I often must buy a new hardcover edition of Austen to add to my already adequate paperback “collection.”  Mind you,  I have no interest in collecting valuable books.  These hardbacks, thank goodness, are “reading copies,” in the $15-$30 range.

Penguin Clothbound Classics are the most popular and accessible brand, with their attractive covers designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith, high-quality paper, and ribbon bookmarks.  Like the paperback Penguins, they have extensive notes and appendixes.  I rationalized buying Penguin hardbacks of Sanditon and Love and Friendship because I did not have them in paperback. And it is a pleasure to read these beautifully-designed hardcovers.

Let us move on to more obscure brands.  Have you seen the Austen editions with illustrations by Marjolein Bastin?  After seeing a vlogger hold it up FOR LESS THAN A MINUTE and praise the design, I found a copy of Sense and Sensibility at a reasonable price .  The  cover, with Bastin’s floral design, is gorgeous, but the illustrations, alas, do not portray Eleanor and Marianne. Instead, Bastin has chosen a nature theme:  she depicts flowers, birds, and butterflies.  And tucked within the pages are small envelopes and folded papers with titles like “The World of Sense and Sensibility.”  I found these a bit distracting, so I removed them.

For years bloggers (though not vloggers so much) have raved about the Thomas Nelson editions of classics These have laser-cut covers, and whole pages devoted to  quotes. Because these classics are out-of-print, they are insanely expensive.  But here is good news:  Harper has published the Harper Muse Jane Austen Collection with the original  laser-cut covers, quotes, and ribbon bookmarks.  These are sturdy and have a good amount of space between the lines, which makes them very readable.  I am very fond of these books, and wish I had the whole collection. Caveat: the print in Pride and Prejudice is, for some reason, much larger than the print in the other books in the collection.

How do I rate these editions? 

  1. Penguin Clothbound Classics
  2. Harper Muse Jane Austen collection
  3. Editions with illustrations by Marjolein Bastin

Any favorite editions of Austen, hardback or paperback?

The Enigma of Mr. Darcy

 Mr. Darcy is an enigma. I find him romantic against my better judgment. I recently reread Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s most famous novel, and as always I enjoyed it. She entertains us with a portrayal of the comic chaos of the Bennet family, the charming relationship between quick-witted Elizabeth and her too-kind older sister, Jane, and the boisterous younger sisters, bold Lydia  and coquettish Kitty, and tedious Mary, who insists on singing and playing the piano at dinner parties – to no one’s enjoyment.  

But then we get to the sparring romance between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.  How did this happen? Of course I know how – but Mr. Darcy is an enigma.

I am always cautious of Mr. Darcy.  I am delighted to fall in love with him, but in the first half of the novel I ask myself, Who is that man?

Matthew Macfayden and Keira Knightly (2005)

Mind you, viewers of the film versions have reason to trust Darcy’s transformation.  Colin Firth, in the superb TV series (1995), is apparently remembered for his wet shirt scene, which does not occur in Austen’s novel: what I  remember is his believable transition into a charmer.  And then there is the sullenly gorgeous Matthew Macfadyen in the movie with Keira Knightley (2005) – who can keep her eyes off him?  Macfadyen, too, is a beliveable charmer, but Austen’s Darcy is Delphically inscrutable.  

Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle (1995)

In the beginning of the novel,  Mr. Darcy is grumpy. He refuses to dance at a small-town ball, though his friend, Mr. Bingley, who has been dancing with beautiful Jane Bennet, urges him to dance with Elizabeth, because there are not enough men.  Mr. Darcy wounds Elizabeth’s feelings:  she overhears him say of her, “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humor at present to give consequence to ladies who are slighted by other men.”

That is brutal.  But Mr. Darcy goes further:  he disapproves so highly of Mr. Bingley’s falling in love with Jane that he persuades him to move back to London.  And he convinces him that Jane is superficial, and that the Bennets’ connections are embarrassing and beneath him.

Not to give away the plot,  but Mr. Darcy changes his feelings and proposes to Elizabeth.  He is rude:  he says he has fought against his love for her because her family and connections are so beneath him, especially Mrs. Bennet and her relations. Elizabeth refuses the proposal in no uncertain terms. 

But later, Mr. Darcy does become gallant.  And when we contrast him with the soldier, Wickham, so handsome, so sympathetic, and popular with the Bennet girls …well, appearances are misleading.

I love Mr. Darcy.  But just once, I wish Jane Austen would (have) create(d) a male character I could truly admire.  Reluctant Marianne in Sense and Sensibility is married off to Colonel Brandon (who  falls in love with her in her teens, when he is 35), after her lover turns out to be a cad; Knightley in Emma is intelligent and courteous but again much older and too much a father figure, I think; Edmund in Mansfield Park, the clergyman who is kind to his cousin, Fanny, and with whom she falls in love, throws over all good sense when he falls in love with worldly Mary Crawford-  is he worth Fanny’s love?  The only Austen hero I love and admire is Captain Wentworth in Persuasion.  He is not only intelligent, kind, and fun, but actually sexy – don’t you think?

Walter A. Raleigh, an English scholar (1879-1922), wrote of the men in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:

She knows a lot; and I believe she knows what she doesn’t know.  At least, I shouldn’t like to believe that she thought she knew anything about married people or young men.  Her married people are merely a bore or a comfort to the young – nothing to each other.  Her young men, by Gawd!  I will take only Darcy and Bingley.  Of course they have no profession – they have money.  But there is no scrap of evidence, no indication, that they can do anything, shoot a partridge, or add up figures, or swim or brush their hair.  They never talk of anything except young women, a subject taboo among decent young men.  (I find that women mostly don’t know that men never talk intimately about them.  Jane didn’t know this.)   Well, Darcy and Bingley have only one object in life – getting married, and marrying their friends one to another.

It is incredible, immense, yet it deludes you.

I did laugh at this, though I recall that Darcy invites Elizabeth’s uncle to go fishing at Pemberley when Elizabeth and the aunt and uncle are exploring the grounds as tourists.  That is something, isn’t it? We do not, of course, see the fishing scene!

Being in love with a fictional character can be a trial.  What do you think of Mr. Darcy?

This is, by the way, one of Jane’s most magnificent novels. The films are great fun, but are not to be compared to the book.

“Lady Susan,” Jane Austen’s Epistolary Novella

One summer, when the planet was still habitable, before the glaciers melted and the butterflies began to die, I lugged around a Modern Library edition of The Complete Novels of Jane Austen in a basket I used as a purse.  To match my Austen enthusiasm,  I often donned my “Regency mod” outfit: a green, embroidered, empire-waist mini-dress, worn as a top over jeans. 

Some friends have asked, “Was the Austen book a fashion accessory, too?” 

No, I read it.

My favorite of Jane’s novels are Emma and Persuasion, but of course I enjoy them all.  And yet I have never been drawn to her early work and unfinished novels.  That, I think, is the line between the Jane Austen fan and the  Jane Austen fanatic and/or scholar. 

 I have nary a Jane Austen cup or Jane Austen greeting card.  But  I recently DID acquire a Jane Austen fashion accessory:  a beautiful yellow Penguin hardcover edition of Sanditon, which also includes her early works, Lady Susan and The Watsons.  Time to read her early stuff!

And I have just finished Lady Susan (1793-94), an entertaining epistolary novella.  It is a fascinating romp, actually a bit more raucous than Austen’s published books, more in the spirit of the eighteenth century.

 The villainous heroine,  Lady Susan, is a beautiful thirty-five-year-old widow.  She is a siren: Women, beware! On long visits to friends’ estates, she  flirts with married men and steals the  hearts of susceptible fiancés of hysterical young women.  The men chase her, the women are shattered, and her reputation is mud.  She  has to leave Langford, because the husband, Mainwaring, has fallen for her, and she has appropriated the affections of Sir James, who is attached to the daughter of the house.

Taking no responsibility means Lady Susan has a clear conscience.  She writes a gossipy account of her reasons for leaving Langford in a letter to her co-villainous best friend, Mrs. Johnson.

At present, nothing goes smoothly; the females of the family are united against me. You foretold how it would be when I first came to Langford, and Mainwaring is so uncommonly pleasing that I was not without apprehensions for myself. I remember saying to myself, as I drove to the house, “I like this man, pray Heaven no harm come of it!” But I was determined to be discreet, to bear in mind my being only four months a widow, and to be as quiet as possible: and I have been so, my dear creature; I have admitted no one’s attentions but Mainwaring’s. I have avoided all general flirtation whatever; I have distinguished no creature besides, of all the numbers resorting hither, except Sir James Martin, on whom I bestowed a little notice, in order to detach him from Miss Mainwaring; but, if the world could know my motive there they would honour me. I have been called an unkind mother, but it was the sacred impulse of maternal affection, it was the advantage of my daughter that led me on; and if that daughter were not the greatest simpleton on earth, I might have been rewarded for my exertions as I ought.

At Churchill, the home of her in-laws, Lady Susan is charming to her late husband’s brother, Mr. Vernon, and his wife, Mrs. Vernon, and their children. Without appearing to flirt, she soon enchants Mrs. Vernon’s brother,  Reginald de Courcy.  Mrs. Vernon, who knows Lady Susan’s reputation,  recognizes the danger of Lady Susan’s fascination, and warns her mother that Reginald should be brought home on some pretense if possible. 

And then a wrench is thrown into the works:  Lady Susan’s nervous, downtrodden daughter, Fredericka, is expelled from school for running away (she wasn’t much of a runner:  she made it only two blocks). 

Lady Susan’s supremacy is temporarily shaken when Fredericka wins the sympathy of the Vernons and Reginald.

Will Lady Susan be banished or the ultimate victor?  The suave manipulator can convince anyone of just about anything.

This book is great fun, though there isn’t much depth, and the ending is really just a précis of who’s marrying whom.

And I agree with Margaret Drabble, who in the introduction praises the potential of Lady Susan and wishes Austen had pursued it.

Drabble writes,

One cannot leave Lady Susan without a word of regret.  What a pity it is that she never, in her mature work, returned to the subject of a handsome 35-year-old widow.  What scope there would have been, what choices offered.   Perhaps one should be grateful that she attempted it at the age of twenty. before she decided she could not or should not handle such a theme.

Reading in a Heat Wave: Edith Wharton’s “The Mother’s Recompense” & Jane Austen’s “Persuasion”

Edith Wharton

Saturday was the last  hot day.  That’s what  the Weather Channel said.  You’d think we’d accomplish a lot indoors when it’s 100 degrees outdoors – finish writing that novel, learn to play the guitar – but in fact there is a lot of lolling around.

I did, however,  reread two short novels, Edith Wharton’s The Mother’s Recompense and Jane Austen’s  Persuasion.

I wonder if Edith Wharton is still in fashion.  I don’t see her mentioned much online. The last time I saw an essay on Wharton was in The New Yorker in 2012, by Jonathan Franzen, who is never adverse to being obnoxious.  He said that Edith Wharton wasn’t pretty.  He adds, “Edith Wharton might well be more congenial to us now if, alongside her other advantages, she looked like Grace Kelly or Jacqueline Kennedy.”

I was exasperated by this non sequitur.  Actually, I think Wharton  is pretty enough, but what does it matter?  What do Grace Kelly and Jacqueline Kennedy have to do with it?  Would anyone have said of Henry James or James Joyce, “He isn’t pretty”? 

Before I go on to The Mother’s Recompense, let me say that my favorite Wharton heroine is Lily Bart in The House of Mirth.  Every time I reread it, I am indignant and distressed over her tragedy, as well as in awe of every elegant word Wharton wrote.  How can charming, intelligent Lily fall not just a few rungs, but right off the social ladder?  Lily is desperate: she believes she should marry a rich man to support her life-style, but bungles her chances because she doesn’t like the available bachelors.  The spell of drugs (laudanum) is her only relief as she falls into debt and deeper unhappiness.  Here’s what we learn from Edith Wharton:  No Prince Charming will save Lily Bart.  People like Lily – but not enough. The mystery of fiction is our identification with characters like Lily from Old New York.

I’ve made my way through most of Wharton’s work, and last week I took The Mothers Recompense (1925) off the shelf, because a writer in one of those short interviews at The Guardian or The New York Times called it an underrated classic.

The fact that I had read The Mother’s Recompense, and didn’t remember it, might have been a portent that I would not rate it highly.  If I were a Roman augur, I would have watched some chickens or examined an animal’s entrails and then announced:  “This is not a good day to read The Mother’s Recompense.”

But even though it is far from Wharton’s best, I was riveted by this slight, tragic novel. Plot-wise, it is a page-turner. The 45-year-old American heroine, Kate Clephane, has lived on the Riviera for years, ever since she ran away from her rich husband in New York with another man from whom she soon parted.  Kate has survived in comfort, living in slightly shabby hotels, and dividing her days into periods of aimless social life, taking long drives with the elderly Mrs. Minty, dining with friends at the casino, attending a Ladies’ Guild meeting at the American church, and buying new hats.  And she often muses about her second lover, Chris, a much younger man who eventually left her, but who was the love of her life.

Kate considers herself permanently severed from her family.  And then her daughter, Anne, sends her a telegram, inviting Kate  to return to New York and live with her.  Kate’s mother-in law, the dragon lady who had forbidden Kate to visit Anne for the last 18 years, has died. 

Kate’s reunion with Anne is touching, and their relationship almost perfect, until Anne announces she is engaged to Chris.  This is a tragedy for Kate, who doesn’t know what  a mother should do in this situation. Should she tell Anne about her own relationship with Chris? Can she scare Chris away from Anne?  Either Kate or Anne will break. 

Wharton is usually a great stylist, but here we simply race through the book, not noticing that it’s less elegant than some of her best work.

A good read, not a great book.

As for Jane Austen’s Persuasion, is it not her best novel?  It is less complex than Emma and Mansfield Park, but it is stunning.

These days I read this as a sublime comedy about loneliness and the reinvention of self.  Anne Elliott has lost her bloom:  she is a lonely woman in her late twenties, who some years ago refused  Frederick Wentworth’s proposal of marriage, because her mentor, Lady Russell, said it would be unwise to marry a navy officer with uncertain prospects. Anne has never gotten over the disappointment; she still loves Frederick.  When chance brings Captain Wentworth and Anne together during her visit to her very funny, hypochondriac younger sister, Mary, the two try to avoid each other. But Anne blooms in the admiration of others, and reinvents herself, and there is, of course, romance.

Rereading Jane Austen: Is “Sense and Sensibility” Sultry?


This summer I have read mainly books by men – which is an unusual choice for me.  But I did reread Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.

 And I’m so glad I reread it.  It has always seemed to me the weakest of her books, but on a third reading I appreciated it. The characters are livelier than I remembered, and this time I loved Elinor Dashwood. (In the past I’ve been a Marianne person.) Elinor is a bit of a martinet, with her perfect manners and conventional mores, but she is intelligent and kind.  She holds the impoverished Dashwood household together after her father’s death.  

Elinor doesn’t get much help:  her younger sister, 17-year-old Marianne, is Elinor’s opposite.  Marianne is fantastically romantic, despising anyone who doesn’t have strong emotions, and is passionate about music and art. Elinor is repressed and dutiful and isnow, more or less, the man od the family.

How, you may wonder, could Sense and Sensibility be sultry with this cast?  There is one sultry scene – sultry by Austen’s standards.  After Marianne falls on a hill and sprains her ankle, a handsome stranger comes to the rescue. 

Austen writes,

A gentleman carrying a gun, with two pointers playing  round him, was passing up the hill and within a few yards of Marianne, when her accident happened.  He put down his gun and ran to her assistance.  She had raised herself from the ground, but her foot had been twisted in the fall, and she was scarcely able to stand. The gentleman offered his services, and perceiving that her modesty declined what her situation rendered necessary, took her up in his arms without further delay, and carried her down the hill.

It is the classic man-saves-the-injured-woman trope.  (Another incident occurs  in Persuasion.) I am amused when the gentleman scoops up Marianne: this was never my fantasy.  But this memorable gentleman is Willoughby, the most charming man in the novel.  (The only charming man in the novel!)  Marianne and Willoughby spend every day together after this meeting, discover they share the same interests,  and fall in love.  But then he leaves without proposing.  

 Elinor’s suitor, Edward Ferrars – who, like Willoughby, does not propose – is a moping, listless, charmless man who seems anemic compared to the other chracters.  But Elinor does love him. And yet… why do the Dashwoods have parallel love problems.  Why aren’t the men proposing?
Jane Austen has strict ideas about love.  She values friendship more than love, which is unfortunate for Marianne.  You can almost hear the maxims:   Handsome is as handsome does. The worthiest men are not always the wittiest. 

In one of Margaret Drabble’s novels, the heroine shudders at Knightley in Emma – far better to be with Frank Churchill, or the libertine Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, she thinks.   

I seldom like Austen’s heroes, but I love her writing.  Sense and Sensibility, her first published novel, is rather awkward, but it has its moments.

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.

When You Can’t Get Enough Jane Austen & Literary Links

When you can’t get enough Jane Austen, you turn to essays and criticism.  I just read a splendid essay at The Silver Petticoat Review, “Anne and Catherine at 200: Celebrating Two Centuries of Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.”  Somehow I missed this anniversary last year. Here is a brief excerpt from The Silver Petticoat Review.

Six months after Jane Austen’s death, the first book EVER listing Jane Austen as its author was published. Persuasion and Northanger Abbey – a four-volume work – hit the market in late December 1817, although the title page lists 1818 as the publishing year. So here they were, two of Austen’s heretofore unpublished works, two completed novels by the master’s hand published together, and the first to ever openly name Jane Austen as their author. During her lifetime, all of Austen’s works were published anonymously, variously “By a Lady” or “By the Author of …”

In many ways, the novels are apt bookends to Austen’s authorship. Northanger Abbey is one of Austen’s early works, a novel she’d already been working on during the 1790s, the same period that she was writing Sense and Sensibility (her first published novel) and Pride and Prejudice (her second published novel). In fact, Northanger Abbey was the first novel Jane Austen submitted for publication back in 1803. She sold the publishing rights to a bookseller, who never did publish it, just sat on it, refusing to return it and threatening legal repercussions should Austen seek publication elsewhere. Eventually, the publisher relented and said that Austen could purchase the rights back. In 1816, her brother did just that, and Austen edited it extensively before her death, including changing the main character’s name from Susan to Catherine.

Virginia Woolf

2. If you’ve ever encountered readers who refuse to finish a classic because they disagree with a fictional character, you’ll want to read Brian Morton’s essay at The New York Times, “Virginia Woolf? Snob! Richard Wright? Sexist! Dostoyevsky? Anti-Semite!” His brilliant approach to opening readers’ minds to the literary past involves (mental) time travel.

He writes,

…The passion for social justice that many students feel — a beautiful passion for social justice — leads them to be keenly aware of the distasteful opinions held by many writers of earlier generations. When they discover the anti-Semitism of Wharton or Dostoyevsky, the racism of Walt Whitman or Joseph Conrad, the sexism of Ernest Hemingway or Richard Wright, the class snobbery of E. M. Forster or Virginia Woolf, not all of them express their repugnance as dramatically as the student I talked to, but many perform an equivalent exercise, dumping the offending books into a trash basket in their imaginations.

…I think it’s a general misunderstanding, not just his. It’s as if we imagine an old book to be a time machine that brings the writer to us. We buy a book and take it home, and the writer appears before us, asking to be admitted into our company. If we find that the writer’s views are ethnocentric or sexist or racist, we reject the application, and we bar his or her entry into the present.

Morton points out that we readers are the ones doing the time travel.  Do read the essay!

3.  Can you read 30 books in a week?  Here’s what happened when Lois Beckett unplugged for a week and tried to read the entire National Book Award longlist.   The essay was published at The Guardian, “Unplugged: what I learned by logging off and reading 12 books in a week.”

Are You an Upstart? Emma vs. Mrs. Elton

Are you ready for winter reading?  Not a single flake has stuck to the ground, but the mix of mushy rain-snow is unpleasant.  And so I did a LOT of laundry today, and then retreated into a 19th-century novel.  Jane Austen’s Emma soon obliterated the gloom.

Each time I read Emma, I  focus on a different aspect, and this time  I was struck by the rivalry between Emma Woodhouse and the nouveau riche Mrs. Elton.  Mr. Elton, the vicar, married Augusta on the rebound after Emma rejected his proposal of marriage.   The first meeting between Emma and Mrs. Elton is awkward.  Mrs. Elton marks her territory:  she insists that Emma’s stately home, Hartfield, is exactly like her brother Mr. Suckling’s estate, Maple Grove.   She is  determined to rival Emma in society, and does not recognize their class differences.  (Should I say, “Good for her,” or “How annoying”?)

Mrs. Elton (Juliet Stevenson) and Mr. Elton (Alan Cumming) in “Emma” (1996)

Nobody likes bossy, vulgar Mrs. Elton. Emma considers her an upstart, Knightley thinks her manners deplorable, and the brilliant Jane Fairfax, Emma’s only real rival in terms of education and talent (Jane surpasses her), must bear Mrs. Elton’s condescension as long as she lives with her impoverished aunt and grandmother.  Mrs. Elton assumes that a ball in Highbury has been put on for her, though it was planned before Mrs.Elton moved to Highbury.  But the best people, though they despise Mrs. Elton,  have such excellent manners that Mrs. Weston urges her husband to open the ball with Mrs. Elton.  (It should have been Emma and Frank Churchill, we learn.)

Mrs. Elton is a kind of shadow Emma. She does good works with less grace:  Emma has befriended Harriet Smith, a young woman of unknown birth; Mrs. Elton has befriended, or more like dominated, the superior Jane  Fairfax.   Ironically Mrs. Elton “has a horror of upstarts.” When Mr. Weston explains that his son’s aunt, Mrs. Churchill, is not well-born but soon outdid  Churchill family in snobbery, Mrs. Elton says,

Only think! well, that must be infinitely provoking! I have quite a horror of upstarts. Maple Grove has given me a thorough disgust to people of that sort; for there is a family in that neighborhood who are such an annoyance to my brother and sister from the airs they give themselves! Your description of Mrs. Churchill made me think of them directly. People of the name of Tupman, very lately settled there, and encumbered with many low connexions, but giving themselves immense airs, and expecting to be on a footing with the old established families.”

We have all known social climbers,  but the brazen Mrs. Elton thinks she has no need to climb.  That’s much more American than English, isn’t it? Am I an upstart?  I don’t know many upstarts,  because I am no use to them in their clawing to the top!


How the Internet Ruined Jane Austen

The internet ruined  Jane Austen.

It has ruined:  attention spans, rock album playlists (I’m sure the songs on albums were deliberately arranged in a certain order), newspapers, book reviews, and respect for expertise.  That’s what happens when you depend on Facebook.

I’m  not exaggerating about Austen.  When I first got wifi, I joined a Janeites group.

Fanny Price (Billie Piper) and Henry Crawford (Joseph Beattie) in TV movie “Mansfield Park”

And what a long, strange trip that was.  Though there are many brilliant fans and scholars in the group, some read Austen like Georgette Heyer.  I was never crazy about Mr. Darcy, but all romance fans “heart” Mr. Darcy.  Mind you, I’m not a fan of Austen’s heroes anyway.  My favorite is the immoral Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park.  I know he’d  make a horrible husband, but I can’t help it:  he’s so much fun!

My real problem is not with Mr. Darcy, though.  It’s with the more literal readings of Emma, my favorite Austen.

I fell in love with Emma in college.   The 19th-century lit professor dismissed a timid student who asked why we weren’t doing Pride and Prejudice:  “It is so much done.”  She was right, though we hadn’t done it much!

And we all loved Emma.  She is witty and her misconceptions are hilarious.   Though the marriage plot is in earnest, as always, Emma is more independent than most of Austen’s heroines.  She is handsome, clever, and rich, as Austen says in the first sentence, and since she doesn’t have to marry, she can do as she likes.

The professor thought Austen was a  horrible snob and couldn’t see any satire in the book.  I find Emma comical from beginning to end:  Emma’s kindness to her ridiculous but sweet valetudinarian father, her conviction that her friend Harriet must be the bastard daughter of a well-connected gentleman, thinking Mr. Elton is in love with Harriet rather than with herself, and complete misunderstanding of the characters of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax.

I am not saying my reading of Emma is the “right” one.  Even Jane Austen wrote, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”  Yes, Emma has faults but I can’t imagine  thinking her malicious, as some Janeites do.  She is conceited, often mistaken, and gossips like most young women, but becomes a nicer person by the end of the book.  So why the wrath?

For a few years after reading the Janeites posts, I  could not read Austen.  And the 200th anniversary of her death in 2017 was so much written about in both professional and amateur publications that I overdosed on Austen.  (I now limit the number of online publications I read, because, what am I, a media critic?)

Austen and I recently got back together, now that I’ve had a break from the internet.  She is the greatest writer, well, except for Charlotte Bronte maybe.

So perhaps I’ll read Austen as my women’s fiction this Thanksgiving. Nothing like reading a good book while the guys are watching football…

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