A Latter-day Bluestocking

For the love of reading

Tag: Jane Austen

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...

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“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)

Books to read again, again, and again, ad infinitum.

Rainy Day in Brooklyn

It is raining, and not just raining but pouring!  Bucket after bucket of water pouring off the rooftops so loudly it sounds like a gentle roar on my apartment’s ceiling.  The spray as cars drive by, the individual drops off my fire escape sounds like a shower left to run.  Most people see a day like today as dreary and depressing, there are times when I do too, but on a lazy Sunday I am looking forward to reading.  I will roam from bedroom to living room and curl up on the bed or sofa and indulge myself in a good book.

Cover of "The Wind's Twelve Quarters: Stories"

Today I happen to be reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Wind’s Twelve Quartersa book of 17 short stories each introduced by the author.  It is a great read for a day such as today because an intense commitment is not necessary as with a novel.  A story can be finished, the book put down (albeit temporarily) after all one does have to eat.  And for some reason, rainy days have always been good days to read stories of fantasy, magic, and science fiction.  I don’t know exactly why that is but I like to imagine that as the rain cleanses the earth, stories that have a magical element cleanse the mind and open it up to possibilities beyond the mundane.  Too romantic, I know.

It is days such as this when I reflect on all the books too good to just molder on shelves, or in my case piled on floors in front of over-filled bookshelves, books that should be read again and again.  A few favorites come to mind, Jane Austen for example.  All her books (Juvenilia and letters) can be read over and over and never become stale.  There is not a year that passes that I do not reread one of her books (or more); one year focusing on plot, another on character, and yet another on the period in which the stories take place (things that Austen would have taken for granted that her reader’s would know).  Others include, Tolkien, Bronte, Doyle, Hardy, Shelley, and Lewis.  A rereading of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is essential if only for its lessons on the wrongs of racial inequality and the integrity of its hero, Atticus Finch.  This is a book on how we should behave but seldom do.

My list has changed over the years, evolved.  When I was 16 I reread A Room with a View so many times that the cover is in tatters and now I barely give it a second glance; not because it isn’t a wonderful book, it is, but now with more decades under my belt than I care to admit it doesn’t speak to me in the same way as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn does.  That is the beauty of books, they evolve with the reader.  For example, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  First read when I was 12 or 13 1) because it was on a banned book list and 2) I was curious about sex.  When I first read it I was titillated by the frank descriptions of copulation and didn’t remember much beyond that.  I reread it again in my early 20s, now living with a boyfriend, and found myself bored by the book, my lack of innocence relegating the book to a place of stuffy indifference.  I recently reread it yet again, a middle-aged woman separated from her husband in the midst of divorce, and finally “got it”; understood what Lawrence was trying to convey in this story:  a wholeness of life is necessary in the pursuit of happiness.  Well, at least, that’s what I “got” from it.

Here are ten books that I believe should be read again, again, and again, ad infinitum.

  1. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  (because they are great stories)
  2. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.  (probably one of the most perfect books in the English language)
  3. Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre.  (its themes of atonement and forgiveness)
  4. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes stories and The White Company (great story-telling)
  5. Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass (brilliant memoirs)
  6. Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory  and The Witches (because they are so fun to read aloud and make your kid laugh, especially when done with voices)
  7. Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (for its themes of feminism, mental illness, and existentialism)
  8. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Earthsea Cycle (because they are so wonderfully written and have a lot of themes to explore)
  9. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (a moralistic story about the over-fulfillment of modern man: a good narrative and appropriate for our time)
  10. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (a vivid and unromantic view of the fragmentation of the American Dream)

Wow!  That was harder than I thought it was going to be.  I am happy to say that my list has 6 women authors; is somewhat well-rounded, consisting of classics, fantasy, and science-fiction (Frankenstein); and has American and English (and one Danish) authors.  These are books I consider worth rereading and probably says more about me personally at this particular moment in time than anything else.  Your list may be different.  Reader, I would love to hear about the books you think are worth rereading and why.  Leave a comment, I would really like to know.

Okay, now I have to get back to reading!

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.

"Give me but a little cheerful company, let me only have the company of the people I love, let me only be where I like and with whom I like, and the devil may take the rest, say I."

Jane Austen’s Will

If I could have tea with any one author, dead or alive, I would choose unhesitatingly, Jane Austen. Despite the countless books and articles, blogs, societies, websites, and fan pages dedicated to her, she remains an enigma. Oh, her books are studies in perfection, glimpses of her wit are revealed in her letters, and their are only two confirmed images of her (one only of her back) but do we really know who she was? I think everyone has an idea of who Jane Austen was but much of our perception of her is through the white-wash job presented by her Victorian relations. An insipid view, in my opinion, and far from the truth.

Her books, letters, Juvenilia, and unfinished manuscripts show a woman not demure and quiet but funny, engaging, intelligent, and, on occasion, peevish. I don’t doubt that Miss Austen would be a refreshing teatime companion and I would only hope to hold my own and not invite her jocular ridicule in a later letter to her sister, Cassandra.

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Jane’s Fame by Claire Harman

Jane Austen, Watercolour and pencil portrait b...

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Jane’s Fame by Claire Harman is not strictly a biography or a scholarly analysis of the various books but a straightforward and satisfying romp through all things Jane. It begins within her lifetime with the publication of her books and the modest success she achieved. It looks at the years immediately after her death, the family assuming she would be all but forgotten. She was neglected for about 20 years and then a rediscovery of her books and a biography encouraged a longing for more and more.

Her fame is now, nearly 200 years later, a phenomenon; re-prints in the millions, translations into every conceivable language, and biographies to satisfy the craving for all things Austen. And now with the instant access of the internet Jane Austen has become a cultural wonder. Claire Harman reveals that Jane Austen still offers something to everyone. I recommend this book wholeheartedly and without reservation to anyone who answers to the description of Jane-ite!

Jane says it best

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”  Jane Austen, 1775-1817

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