Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

IMG_20130901_102915Mansfield Park was a book with baggage. Lots of bad baggage. I originally read the book after seeing the 1999 film with Johnny Lee Miller that I absolutely adored. Honestly, I can’t tell you how many times I watched that movie. Video Warehouse probably hated me with how torn and damaged their VHS copy was by the time I graduated and moved away. This was all before my Jane Austen obsession.

Even though I wasn’t quite the book fangirl I am now, I still wanted to read the source material. But Mansfield Park just wasn’t a book I should have attempted in high school. Obviously, I hated it and chucked it into a dusty corner to be forgotten. Until now!!!

Fourteen years have gone by and man, what fourteen years can do. I loved Mansfield Park this time around despite all of the anxiety and apprehension I felt going in. I’m also well aware that the 1999 film only borrowed bits and pieces from the novel and is in no way an adequate representation of Austen’s original story. And, for me, that’s okay. I still love the movie for what it is. Although I was a bit shocked at how sexualized everything was in the film…not that I should have been. Edmund is also far more appealing in the movie.

I read Mansfield Park over the course of four weeks. Slowly, but surely, I made my way through Austen’s most serious novel and mostly adored every word. I liked Fanny – her moral compass, although rigid, was respectable because she truly believed in her morality in the face of so many detractors. She fiercely defended her beliefs and didn’t back down for anyone. That’s far more than we can say about Edmund and his fickle morality in the face of Mary Crawford.

Sir Bertram is another father figure I’ve come to love (I know that Sir Bertram isn’t always the kind of character one can praise – specifically when you consider whether or not he was involved in the slave trade). Jane Austen can write some excellent fathers. Aunt Norris is a despicable bit of comic relief. I loved that Aunt Norris dotes on Maria while trashing Fanny which only manages to ruin Maria in the end.

As for Fanny and Edmund’s ending, holy rushed romance, Batman! Jeez. Edmund essentially just decides to be in love with Fanny and marry her in about two sentences. To me, this romance is underdeveloped and swept under the rug which tells me Austen’s point wasn’t to get Fanny a hero, but rather to let her be her own hero. I like that. I like Mansfield Park. For the moment, however fleeting, it shall stand as my favorite Austen. Until my next reread…

Rating: starstarstarstar

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Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

12875355Death Comes to Pemberley had a promising premise even to a Jane Austen fanfiction avoider such as myself. Death and mayhem befalling the dramatically inclined Wickham household is mostly irresistible especially in the hands of prolific writer, P.D. James. The lady is no novice and knows a thing or two about the whodunnit genre. I was willing to take a chance despite all the rather unfortunate reviews.

Plot-wise, there’s not much to talk about. A murder occurs on the Pemberley property the night before the Darcys are meant to hold a huge ball. Lydia and Wickham are involved in said murder. There’s an investigation, inquest, trial, and aftermath. That’s pretty much it.

James sets her story six years after Pride and Prejudice. I was so excited to see where marriage had led Lizzie and Darcy, Jane and Bingley. Plus, I really wanted to see the Wickhams get what they had coming to them. Particularly Lydia. I really detest Lydia.

The novel opens with a whole chapter that recaps P&P. The entire plot. Boring. Snooze. I think this was completely unnecessary as most of the readers were coming directly from the source material. The others probably know the plot of P&P simply because they are alive and read. Maybe I’m being harsh. Once I had slogged through that bit of redundancy, the pacing should have, but didn’t pick up. I don’t mean to say that the book is hard to read or takes a long time, but if FELT long. James seems to be trying too hard to write Austen-esque prose. It doesn’t flow smoothly.

But people, where the hell is Elizabeth? She’s present, off and on, but mainly as background scenery. In what literary world would our dear Lizzie Bennett ever not be a driving force to any story involving her? Her lack of vivacity and general characterization was the book’s most evil downfall. Darcy has also reverted back to his icy, stoic ways. And since he’s the lead to this narrative, the book feels just as icy and stoic. I missed Darcy and Elizabeth so hard.

The other characters are decent enough – the Wickhams are still dastardly, the Bingleys still sweet, and Mr. Bennett is still my favorite literary father. The newly introduced characters never really amount to much although I did enjoy Georgiana and her male suitors quite a bit. The murder mystery is almost not worth mentioning. Nothing was surprising or particularly interesting in how it all unfolded. Only one scene was at all shocking and, again, Darcy’s wooden perspective pretty much ruined it.

I did enjoy one aspect of the novel immensely. Off and on, James manages to bring together the Austenian society of her many novels into this one story. I really loved seeing how the Knightley’s (of Emma fame) found their way into the plot.

I know P.D. James is better than this. I’m determined to read something else by her and love it. But Death Comes to Pemberley is just a tragically epic mess. And as much as I hated writing that sentence, it’s the truth. I should have listened to my peers and stayed away. Perhaps I should just stay away from Austen fanfiction in general. I hated Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as well as Austenland. Boo, hiss.

So tell me Austen fans – what’s your favorite Austen fanfiction? Any good recommendations? Did you like this one or love Austenland and just think I’m a Scrooge?

Persuasion by Jane Austen

11758566I only read Persuasion for the first time a couple of years ago and it has always been an Austen novel not very familiar to me. So many readers adore her final work, so I’m not sure why I haven’t caught on quicker. January felt like a good time to rectify that situation so I picked up a new edition – the Penguin clothbound – and dove in. And now I’m a huge Anne Elliot fan and adoringly Team Wentworth!

Persuasion follows Anne Elliot, Austen’s oldest heroine (correct me if I’m wrong) who many years ago was persuaded to call off her relationship with Wentworth due to his inferior place in society. He had no family connections and was a simple navy man. Heartbroken by Anne, he goes off to pursue his naval career, becomes extremely successful, and finds himself back in Anne’s neighborhood and with loads of money and prominence. Meanwhile, Anne’s silly father and older sister have allowed their estate to fall to near ruins. Can Anne and Captain Wentworth find their way back to each other?

Jane Austen’s last complete novel is definitely one of her better works and filled with her trademark wit. Persuasion doesn’t dawdle nearly as much as some of her earlier and much more verbose stories. You can really see Austen’s craft sharpening – not just in her characterizations and storytelling, but in her editing abilities as well. Anne is such a strong protagonist in a very quiet way. She’s a normal girl surrounded by a ridiculous family doing her best to stay sane and happy. She’s highly personable and easy to relate to even 200 years later. You root for her on every page. I also particularly enjoyed seeing her growth from a child easily swayed to abandon her own happiness to keep her station in life and family’s reputation in tact into a woman fully capable of satisfying her family without sacrificing her own well-being. Anne Elliot, you are one classy lady.

Captain Wentworth’s letter and his pencil dropping incident at the end of the novel will have you swooning right along with Anne. He’s a great male lead – a very solid, constant presence, a compliment I’m sure he’d be quite thrilled with! He’s gentle with Anne even after she’s hurt him so deeply. I love that Austen is able to write such layered men – men who are both strong and unashamedly sensitive. Gallant, noble heroes can be just as satisfying as the bad boys we tend to love so much.

I highly recommend Persuasion, not that that should surprise anyone. I believe that Anne and Captain Wentworth are perhaps Austen’s strongest couple. I think they are true equals and can see them having the happiest of long-lived marriages. Again, I’m saddened at how early we lost Jane Austen and can only imagine the amazing novels she never got the chance to write.

Join me again Wednesday when I review For Darkness Shows the Stars which is a Persuasion retelling!

Jane Austen: A Life by Carol Shields

31678“In one of his judgements brother Henry was far too moderate. Jane Austen’s works, he prophesied, would eventually be “placed on the same shelf as the works f a D’Arblay and an Edgeworth.” How far from the mark he was. Not only would she outdistance those all-but-forgotten names, but she would also find herself comfortably on the same shelf and in the good and steady company of Chaucer and Shakespeare.” (pg. 84)

Despite my intense love of Jane Austen’s novels, I had never read a biography about her life. I knew that not much was known, mostly just bits and pieces of information put together from various family correspondences. Sure, we know where she was born, where she lived, and when she died, but we don’t know much about her personality – her hopes and dreams – who she was as a human being and woman of regency England. Understanding how limited the sources were, I was always weary of picking up a supposed biography, fearing the whole thing would merely be fiction masquerading as a life. Shields defies all my fears and has written one of my favorite books of the year!

This volume is tiny at less than 200 pages and the Penguin edition is a glorious apple green. Definitely a book worth collecting for your shelves! As far as the writing is concerned, the reader is in capable hands with Shields. I felt a since of kinship between Austen’s prose and Shields’s. Shields manages to update her language for modern readers, but the same quick wit and clever turns of phrase are still recognizable. Nothing here is fiction, although parts are obviously being surmised through educational intreptations of Austen’s novels and letters. Shields generously informs the reader when the facts are a little shaky, but does a superb job of providing supporting evidence of all her claims. For this, I was most thankful.

I’d recommend this biography to anyone who adores Austen. But, perhaps more importantly, I’d recommend this book to any reader who isn’t familiar with Austen’s novels or who has had a hard time loving them. Shields does a magnificent job of searching through the famous stories and their equally famous heriones to help bring readers a better understanding, not just of Jane, but the works themselves. Every time I turned a new page, I desparately desired to pick up all 6 of her novels for a reread, armed with new insights I couldn’t wait to put to the test! Nothing in this small tribute to Jane Austen is a disappointment.

Shields also suggests several other biographies to read for which I am eternally thankful. This way I know which ones are a must read and which aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on! I’m thinking of making 2013 an Austen intensive year. January will see a reread of Persuasion! So excited.

Emma by Jane Austen: Wrap Up

Jane Austen’s endings always leave a smile on my face.  How could anyone be but pleased at Mr. Knightley’s declaration:

“I cannot make speeches, Emma . . . If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”

Everyone ends up properly engaged or married to their rightful mate and Emma has grown so much as a character.  Mr. Knightley – or perhaps we’ve now earned the right to call him George – has won me all over again at his offer to live at Hartfield so that Emma’s father is not left alone.  The third section of Emma always leaves me in Austen fangirly speechlessness and a tendency to ramble on incessantly about how modern men lack a Knightley-esque finesse.

My overall impressions of the story have not changed – I freakin’ ADORE this book and it’s my favorite Austen, for sure.  Before I get all blubbery, let me just leave you with a perfect scene from the 2009 BBC version of Emma as Mr. Knightley makes his speech that’s not a speech and you can all feel free to swoon with me.

Emma by Jane Austen – Volume II

Reading Volume II, I was, yet again, amazed at how adeptly Ms. Austen juggles her numerous plots and sub-plots.  She sure knows how to seamlessly weave together an entire town’s worth of story lines:  marriages, gossip, deceptions, schemes, secrets – really, Austen’s awesome.  For a novel to work (at least for me) all the characters must be well developed, interesting, and meaningful to the plot.  Volume II accomplishes this wonderfully – not just in advancing our initial townsfolk, but brilliantly adding several new characters into the mix – most notably, Mrs. Elton and Mr. Frank Churchill.

Two of my favorite scenes occur – Mr. Churchill’s escape to London for a mere haircut (or perhaps some super secret mission to be uncovered later!) and the anonymous gifting of Jane Fairfax’s pianoforte.  Frank’s haircut (I feel improper calling him his Christian name – does anyone else ever feel this way when reading classic literature?) with its silliness is worthy of several genuine chuckles (who knew classic literature could be so amusing!).  And the mysteriously appearing pianoforte much discussed at the dinner party hosted by the Coles adds intrigue worthy of any well constructed detective novel, but also begins to reveal Emma’s true feelings towards Mr. Knightley she’s still very much unaware of.  I love how Austen does that – revealing truths while creating secrets.

I think my biggest revelation so far in this re-read is how much I’m enjoying knowing everything that happens in advance.  Being spoiled allows me to pay attention to the intricacies cleverly woven by Ms. Austen so much earlier on than a first reading would allow.  I particularly love this in respect to Miss Fairfax and Mr. Churchill.

Another striking matter is how little Mr. Knightley has actually been in the story thus far.  He’s far too often holed up in Donwell Abbey seeing to his farming and whatnot.  I find myself pining for his attendance at Emma’s little social dalliances because I am a fangirl.  And fangirls should never be denied.  Despite his solitary nature, Mr. Knightley does fulfill his social engagements, keeping him from hermit status, and his presence is always pivotal to the story and never needlessly wasted.  He may not say much, but what he does say can not be ignored.

Excited to embark upon Volume III where our hero and heroine will finally find their way to one another and all will be well in Highbury!

Emma by Jane Austen: Volume I

Note to all readers:  I am passionately in love with everything Jane Austen has ever written, including her juvenilia.  I try to re-read one of her six full length novels a year and this year is Emma‘s turn!

I own three copies of Emma – a beat up Penguin paperback, the leatherbound Easton Press collector’s edition, and the Penguin Threads version designed by Jillian Tamaki.  I’m reading the latter and you can see the GORGEOUS cover I’ve included for your viewing pleasure.  When publishers publish books that are beautiful to stare at – I buy them.  So far, Penguin is Ruler of Book World in this regard.

Let’s get to know Miss Emma Woodhouse, shall we?

“The read evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments.  The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.”

So, Emma’s a bit of a selfish, spoiled rich girl and for this reason many readers despise her.  I love her.  Emma and all her flaws are a product of the way she was raised and the societal rules that governed the land during the turn of the 19th century.  She also has no idea how off-putting she can be and honestly believes she’s trying to do right by others in all her plots and schemes.

And oh, how she does scheme!  Emma fancies herself a bit of a matchmaker and spends Volume I encouraging a very misguided match between her friend, Harriet Smith, and one of the village’s most eligible bachelors, Mr. Elton.  Unfortunately, Harriet has grown up in a school for girls with no idea of her parentage and no fortune to speak of.  Mr. Elton is of high birth with a consequential income and influence – far beyond what Harriet could ever hope to marry.  But Emma is determined and convinces poor Harriet to turn down a marriage proposal to modest farmer, Robert Martin.  Spoiler Alert:  All goes awry because Mr. Elton is actually in love with Emma!

Our hero, although we don’t know it yet, Mr. Knightley is Emma’s oldest and dearest friend (16 years her senior).  He’s the only close relation that sees through Emma’s plots and tries to reason with her willful blindness to the rules of who can and cannot marry.  They have several fun, snarky battles that end with Emma’s nose turned up in rebellious stubbornness and Mr. Knightley storming off huffily like a boy instead of a grown ass man.  I love Emma and Knightley – they are my favorite Austen couple for their refusal to act like lovesick puppies, for their mutual respect and ability to call each other on their bullshit, and the quiet, slow development of friendship turned to love.  Their dialogue is some of the best dialogue EVER.  Do not argue.

Despite Emma often being hard to love, she has  moments of redemption.  She visits the poor frequently, always willing to lend a helping hand or monetary assistance.  She spends most of her time wanting to help those around her and not caring for her own marriage whatsoever.  Her relationship with her father is endearing – she wants to always be by his side, despite his silliness (think Mrs. Bennett as a man).  And when she tells Harriet of her mistake, she genuinely fells awful and spends the next few weeks miserable.  Emma has the best of intentions, she just lacks in execution.

Volume I, and really the whole novel, can be summed up with the following quote:

“One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.”

Regency England is divided by so many rules and social etiquettes – men/women, parent/child, rich/poor, those of high birth/those of low birth – I could go on and on.  To me, Emma’s main faults are often found trying to overcome these precedents and so I’m thoroughly ‘Team Emma’ and can’t wait to dive into Volume II.

Also, the humor in this novel surpasses Austen’s other works – further proof of her brilliance and how much we missed by her dying so young.