A Latter-day Bluestocking

For the love of reading

Category: Literature

Jane Austen and Firefly. Wait!!…What??

Title page from the first edition of the first...

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Folks who know me are aware that besides being a literature reading junkie I am also a sci-fi fanatic.  My reading in the genre has been meager and I am remedying that.  I have read and loved Starship Troopers, Fahrenheit 451, and The Left Hand of Darkness.  I have to admit that the majority of my fondness for science fiction has come from the medium of television and film:  Star Trek, Star Wars, Space 1999, Battlestar Galactica, and Buck Rogers.  Yes, I’ve dressed Trek (Original Series only, thank you) and Star Wars (Princess Leia, slave Leia if you’re lucky) but don’t hold that against me.

The one sci-fi preoccupation I love the most and simply cannot live without is Firefly.  Yep, the defunct, didn’t make it a season, space-cowboy, all chock-full of goodness television show.  Love it, love it, love it!  That’s right if I were stranded on a desert island that just happened to have a DVD player and a television and presumably electricity there are two things I must have so I don’t go all-Lord of the Flies:  the book, Pride and Prejudice and the DVD boxed set of Firefly.  I know what you are thinking:  “Wow, that woman is totally out of her mind!!”  But before you run with that allow me to explain why I feel these two very different genres may not be as incompatible as one would presume.  And, no, it’s not because of Mr. Darcy and Capt. Reynolds.

Characterization!  Jane Austen is a genius when it comes to her characters.  Despite the fact that her stories are confined to a limited society she spans the width and breadth of human mettle as well as foible.  Who hasn’t chanced upon someone as arrogant and pedantic as Lady Catherine de Bourgh or an insipid flatterer as Mr. Collins.  It has been written in a contemporary criticism that Jane Austen handled character with a masterly “perception of its more delicate shades.”  In other words, the men and women Jane Austen describes are true representations and not caricature, not two-dimensional and her characters do not lack fault but are nonetheless charming.  G.H. Lewes wrote of her writing in 1847:

“What we most heartily enjoy and applaud, is truth in the delineation of life and character:  incidents however wonderful, adventures however perilous, are almost as naught when compared with the deep and lasting interest excited by any thing like a correct representation of life.”

And characterization is what is most appealing about Firefly.  The creator, Joss Whedon, has created dramatis personae who are engaging and interesting; every role has depth and more to it than meets the eye, again no two-dimensional characters here.  The nine people on board Serenity are not perfect (except Kaylee, “I don’t believe there’s a power in the ‘verse that can stop Kaylee from being cheerful.”) and yet they have a dynamic that is genuine, they too struggle with self-reproach, doubt, and questions of right and wrong.  These characters exhibit the same shortcomings that we can relate to and because of this, the canceled show which only consisted of 14 episodes (only 11 were actually aired) has taken on a life after death existence amongst devotees (called “Browncoats”).

So as you can see, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Joss Whedon’s Firefly although very different are not very dissimilar when it comes to characterization and each’s ability to transcend the story and make each character a genuine entity.  I think this is why they appeal to me, the inhabitants of each genre speak to me and I can see myself in them.  But it doesn’t hurt that they have:

Him

and Him

Why Jane Austen? Why, indeed!

I have just finished Why Jane Austen? by Rachel M. Brownstein.  It is a scholarly book, a serious discourse that attempts to interpret why Jane Austen is considered such a great writer and why she has become such a phenomenon in this day and age.  The author strives to explain and understand from many viewpoints: Jane Austen’s contemporaries, her family, the young girls who are looking for a simple courtship story, women who see early feminist messages á la Mary Wollstonecraft, white-haired ladies who ooh and aah at the neat writing of her manuscripts and letters, and the zealots who would defend, to the death, her genius.  It is a well-written book; the author, a professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center and who has lectured at meetings of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), knows her stuff.  I enjoyed reading it but found parts of the book dry and, at times, confusing.  I am wondering if my dense reading of this book is because it wasn’t what I expected.  The well-known axiom, “don’t judge a book by its cover” is appropriate here as the cover picturing a Jane Austen “action figure” atop a stack of books belies its content.  I thought it would be a “light, bright and sparkling” book appropriate for summer holiday reading.  Beach reading it was not.

No sooner had I read the last page I began to question why I love Jane Austen so much.  Oddly enough, it is a tough question to answer, most likely because my outlook towards her has changed over the years.  I must admit I came to her quite late.  I never read Pride and Prejudice as a giddy schoolgirl; I discovered her in college.  I am embarrassed to say that my introduction to Jane Austen was through the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth as Elizabeth and Darcy.  I remember loving it as I tried to watch while being teased by a neanderthal who felt that the highly mannered society, the clothes and stately settings, and period language were pretentious.  I read the book and soon after the other five novels.  I fell in love.

A small part of my Jane Austen collection

Since then, I have read the biographies, the Juvenilia, the letters, magazines, articles, on-line blogs, and have re-read the books countless times.  I would rather go hungry than not purchase the newest edition of any of the novels, biography, or critical essays.  I even watch and enjoy the cinematic versions of the books and Jane Austen’s life.  My favorite P&P is no longer the Firth one; he being much too Byronic for my tastes and not the Darcy of the novel.  I have read each book in different ways, sometimes I focus on character, sometimes it’s the language, I like to focus on reading between the lines to gently uncover Jane Austen’s witty and humorous and very accurate assessments of the people we still come into contact today.  She was a master of language; her writing so exquisite and at the same time so humble.  Unless you are looking for it this can be easy to miss.   Virginia Woolf summed it up best in A Room of One’s Own,

“Anyone who has the temerity to write about Jane Austen is aware…that of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.”

So why Jane Austen?  Because I am the giddy girl seeking romance, the intellectual woman looking for discourse on the perfect novel, the feminist fighting for female independence and a break from the accepted docile rendering of womanhood, the gray-haired lady who values penmanship, civility, and manners.  Jane Austen answers to all of these various parts of my personality and so much more.  I’ve never been let down by her and have always been able to find a kernel of wisdom, laughter, and joy no matter my mood.  Her words have uplifted my spirits, answered difficult questions, and given me an understanding of people through the behavior of her characters.  She is great.  It is as simple as that.

Quote of the Day: Jane Austen

Title page from the first edition of the first...

Image via Wikipedia

“All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”  (Pride and Prejudice, Vol I., Ch. VIII)

Cultivation of the Earth and Mind

Today I visited The Brooklyn Botanical Garden (BBG) with my son and his friend.  I know that this doesn’t sound initially like it has anything to do with books or reading but bear with me.  It was the most beautiful day, the sun was shining and a delicious cooling breeze was blowing, I wandered through this most perfect of botanical gardens, watching the boys enjoy the delights of this place, I couldn’t help but think of how wonderful it would be to have a tract of land like this.  It has dozens of wonderful places to sit, be in nature, and read.  The scents of the plants, the flowers, the herbs and the gentle sounds of the rustling trees offer an idyllic landscape for literary pursuits. Today,the highlights were the Herb Garden and the Shakespeare Garden.

The Herb Garden is a magnificent planted prospect of vegetables, fruits, and herbs.  It had this city dweller dreaming of one day having a garden of her own.  The book, Designing an Herb Garden, published by the BBG will inspire my dreams.  But for now, I have to settle for potted herbs at the windows of my apartment, my local CSA, and farmer’s markets.  To this end, The Locavore’s Handbook:  The Busy Person’s Guide to Eating Local on a Budget by Leda Meredith will keep me happy.

The Shakespeare Garden is a special place and pretty popular given the amount of people in this small garden today.  I suppose the Bard seizes people’s imaginations even in the heart of Brooklyn.  It is a cottage-style garden abundantly planted with over 80 flowers, herbs, shrubs, and trees that appear in Shakespeare’s works.  The beds, bordered by twig wattling, were lush on this late Summer day and had this reader thinking of the words that inspired such a delightful and magical place.

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantines.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, scene 1

The List of Books I Want to Finish Reading Before the End of Summer (but won’t)

I am always very ambitious about my summer reading list and I always start out very strong.  The problem is that by the middle of the summer I’ve added books not on the original list.  For example, today I stopped into Barnes and Noble to pick up Lord of the Flies by William Golding.  I’m not really sure why I must read that book NOW but I am guessing it has something to do with my son’s sleepaway summer camp experience and the photograph of him with war paint on his face and painted handprints on his stomach.  Go figure.  Simple, right?  It’s only one more book, right?  Wrong, because I also picked up two more books, A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (I’ve seen two random episodes of the HBO mini-series and I am intrigued, besides I’ve heard good things) and Why Jane Austen? by Rachel M. Brownstein.  The latter is because I am Jane Austen obsessed and I just cannot pass up any new book about her.

So in addition to my three latest acquisitions, here’s the rest my summer book list (this does not include the books I’ve actually read) which I will not be able to finish before the end of summer.

  1. American Creation by Joseph J. Ellis
  2. Jane Austen:  The Critical Heritage edited by B.C. Southam
  3. Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhood by Alison G. Sulloway
  4. Sex at Dawn:  How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá
  5. Jane Austen:  A Life by David Nokes
  6. Room by Amanda Donoghue
  7. The Wind’s Twelve Quarters:  Stories by Ursula K. Le Guin
  8. The Woman Who Could Not Forget:  Iris Chang Before and Beyond “The Rape of Nanking” by Ying-Ying Chang
  9. March by Geraldine Brooks
  10. Six Frigates:  The Epic History of the Founding of The U.S. Navy by Ian W. Toll

I think I need a 12 step program for book addiction.

A Book that Changed My Life

Siddhartha Buddha under Bodhi tree painting

When I was in my early to mid 20s I read a book that had a profound impact on my thought and attitude towards life. That book was Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. Before the age of 30 I was in grave danger of becoming world weary. I was disheartened and had no hope for mankind or for myself. This book helped to shake the lethargy from my brain; the simple story of Siddhartha, a young man who embarks on a journey seeking enlightenment, inspired me.

The book spoke to me as no other ever had. I took away from the story that happiness and enlightenment are not achieved by external factors but by self awareness; the acceptance of the world and self, the good and the bad. I am nowhere near the enlightenment and wisdom attained by Siddhartha but I still strive towards it.

“The world was beautiful when looked at in this way––without any seeking, so simple, so childlike. The moon and the stars were beautiful, the brook, the shore, the forest and rock, the goat and the golden beetle, the flower and butterfly were beautiful. It was beautiful and pleasant to go through the world like that, so childlike, so awakened, so concerned with the immediate, without any distrust.”

When I first read this book I vowed I would read it one day to my unborn child, to pass to him, in utero, what took me decades to comprehend. I am ashamed to say I never did. That beautiful boy is, on his own, showing an interest in the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, and how he attained wise illumination through a contemplative life.

Perhaps, it’s not too late to read this book together, aloud.

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