Austen & Me, Then & Now

So yesterday was Jane Austen’s birthday in New Zealand. And today is Jane Austen’s birthday in most other places. Therefore, this post is still valid.

Now that we’ve got that disclaimer out of the way, we can move on. As a way of celebrating Austen’s birthday, I decided to write this completely self-indulgent post. I love looking back on books and authors I love(d) and see how my feelings have changed. Of course, I still adore Austen. She is the kind of aunt that everyone wants – witty, wise and totally ok with letting you have a bit of fun without ratting you out to the parents.

But my feelings for some of her characters have undergone changes over the years, and it always interests me how books do that. Or rather, I guess, it’s the books staying the same, and you changing. Anyways, without further ado, let’s flick through her novels, shall we? (Be warned, here be spoilers.)

Pride and Prejudice

Then: When I first came across P&P, I was maybe fourteen or fifteen. I found it boring and dull, and I’m pretty sure I called Lizzie silly. Also I remember proclaiming this very loudly in a library so I can’t believe I’m still alive to tell the tale. Not to mention I hadn’t even read the novel, yet. So this judgement was being passed with nothing to stand on. What a brat.

Now: I still think Lizzie is silly at times, but for completely valid reasons (I mean, taking the word of Wickham as truth when she barely knows him? Not thinking it was weird that someone’s willing to divulge their life story, dirty laundry and all, after you’ve just met them? Not to mention Wickham bailing on the Netherfield ball, despite his If-Darcy-wants-to-avoid-me-then-he’ll-have-to-stay-away-from-the-ball bravado). Of course, now I love this novel, and everyone in it. And if not love, then at least love to laugh at everyone in it.

Sense & Sensibility

Then: When I first read this, I admired Elinor and thought she was incredibly brave and selfless, hiding her feelings and taking care of her family. Also, I couldn’t fathom why she liked Edward Ferrars. He was so meek! So much so that I often referred to him as a Wet Rag.

Now: I don’t call Edward a Wet Rag anymore. Much. It took me awhile, but it dawned on me that it was Edward’s principles that made him stand by his promise to Lucy despite falling in love with Elinor later. Even when he realized what a cow completely different person Lucy was to the facade she presented, he knew she was relying on her. Abandoning women after he’s given them their word is just not what Edward Ferrars does.

As for Elinor, I now think that she was having a little too much fun in playing the martyr. Perhaps fun isn’t the right word. I still think she’s brave, but it helps to share your problems, at least partially, if you aren’t the type to confide in anyone. No one ever benefited from bottling anything up.

Also Elinor was far too lenient with Lucy. Surely there were ways she could have extricated herself from their little tête-à-têtes. It’s almost as if Elinor was a little masochistic. She says to Marianne, “I have enjoyed all the punishments of an attachment, and none of the advantages”, but it seems to me much of the punishment is invited by Elinor herself.

Mansfield Park

Then: I didn’t think much of this one other than that it was super boring, and that Fanny was incredibly dull, if to be pitied. Oh, and I couldn’t deny how brave she was.

Now: To be fair, my view point hasn’t changed all that much. But I can better appreciate Fanny’s resilience when it comes to sticking to her principles, especially with everyone she knows disapproving of her choice. I think I now understand more deeply how hard it can be to be true to yourself when those closest to you are trying to persuade you to do the opposite. It shows immense strength of character, and is certainly admirable. Still not convinced about that Edmund guy, though.

Persuasion

Then: When I first read this novel I was besotted with Anne and Frederick’s story. Young lovers separated for eight long years, throughout which they continued to love another? Constancy! That beautiful and rare thing, and it was all I saw.

Now: Well, now…I have to “tsk” at Frederick’s impulsive actions. After all, Anne wasn’t rejecting him, only suggesting that they postpone their plans until he was better situated. Granted he was young, and couldn’t take the sting of rejection. But then, to return later, and behave like a jerk of the highest order and shove every flirtation in her face? As if Anne had committed some heinous crime. I used to think he was my favorite romantic, but I’ve come to realize that while theirs is my favourite romance (I’m still a sucker for it, I admit), Frederick is far from being the ideal romantic hero.

Northanger Abbey

Then: I adored his story. It’s such a fun romp, and Catherine is a complete fangirl. Also, who can resist the devastating charm of Henry Tilney, whose hobbies including dancing, the science of smirking, and discussing muslin?

Now: I pretty much still feel the same way. Except now I wonder whether Henry falling for Catherine’s naivete and her unabashed adoration of him is enough of a foundation on which to begin a relationship. I suppose it’s a lot more than other couples at the time would have had to start with.

Emma

Then: I found Emma to be insufferable. At the start, she isn’t so bad, but as time goes on she become more and more … monstrous in a way. It’s like watching Frankenstein’s monster wreak havoc. If the monster was interested in matchmaking and manipulating the lives of those around them. I thought she was lucky to have someone like Knightley around her, who was perhaps the only one in her circle who wasn’t afraid to point out her flaws.

Now: I still find Emma insufferable, but I’m also a little fond of her. I suppose everyone goes through that stage where they believe they don’t need to be told anything, and that they know exactly what they’re doing. Emma’s just a much more forthright person, so all her opinions manifest into real-life catastrophes for those around here. In any case, it makes for an entertaining read. Plus, Knightley’s become my favourite Austen hero – there’s something to be said for the devastating combination of common sense and a healthy sense of humour.

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Looking back, I can see how my tastes have changed as I matured more. I think I’ve grown more understanding of the characters in some ways, but perhaps become more judgmental in other ways. What can I say? To judge is human.

Let me know about your Austen experiences. I’d love to hear them. She’s had such a wide ranging influence that it’s always interesting to hear how differently she’s interpreted. (And don’t worry, I can handle criticisms.)

Transcending the Gothic Canon

Gothic literature and I are pretty tight. What’s not to love? Isolated, looming mansions; floating, mysterious figures; sinister secrets. It speaks to the psychological thriller loving, mystery aficionado in me.

If you’re not familiar with this genre, a Gothic story will usually have these common identifiers:

  • an isolated, naive/idealistic/clueless protagonist (usually female);
  • who finds themselves in a large mansion (usually in the middle of nowhere);
  • the dark mansion will harbour a sinister secret of some sort;
  • that everyone else in the mansion is trying to keep from the protagonist;
  • this secret is a danger to the protagonist’s sense of identity, their physical well-being, and/or their emotional well-being (often it’s all three).
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A very recent & delicious addition to the Gothic canon

How the author chooses to present these can vary. Sometimes there are supernatural factors involved, and sometimes it can all be explained away by good old logic. Other times people are just plain crazy.

Gothic literature is labelled such for the Gothic style architecture of these great, looming mansions that these types of stories traditionally take place in. Over time, of course, the settings have changed. The great thing about Gothic literature is that it creates these parameters in which it can discuss the “unmentionables”. (And I don’t mean underwear.) It’s the place where the repressed comes out, and it does so with a vengeance. Everything that’s been swept under the rug no longer stays dutifully under the rug. The rug is now alive with all your worst thoughts, doubts, and everything bad that you ever wanted to do. Thus, the Gothic becomes a space in which social anxieties manifest, usually into a tangible monstrosity that can be pointed at, marveled at,and unpicked and discussed.

“Gothic monsters such as the vampire and the Frankenstein creature, for example, should not be read merely as nightmarish configurations of twisted fantasies, but important metaphors for understanding historically-specific socio-political crises. As Jeffrey Cohen posits, ‘the monster is born only at this metaphorical crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment – of a time, a feeling, and a place. The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy (ataractic or incendiary), giving them life and an uncanny independence. The monstrous body is pure culture.’”

Asian Gothic: Essays on Literature, Film and Anime, ed. Andrew Hock Soon Ng

The first Gothic novel I read was Jane Eyre, though I didn’t realize at the time that it was a part of this genre. Jane Eyre, published in the Victorian century, examined such outrageous notions as female anger, female desire and sexuality, and most outlandish of all: the female’s right to choose. Needless to say, sixteen year old me loved it. I did not expect to find a self-sufficient hero of  badassery garbed in a corset and sleeves wide enough to take out entire crowds.

Over time I have picked out and devoured various Gothic stories: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankentein, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (possibly the first lesbian vampire story ever), and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. These are all the Gothic Greats for me. But over time my reading tastes have also shifted dramatically to accommodate the marginalised authors: from continents other than North America and Europe, of varying degrees of sexuality and backgrounds, authors who push the boundaries of literature and dare to depict the world as it is. And I wanted Gothic stories from these authors, too.

And lo and behold, I stumbled upon some magic words: the Asian Gothic, and the Post-colonial Gothic. The Gothic after all is about transcending boundaries, between the rational and the irrational, the natural and the supernatural. Who’s to say it can’t transcend geographical boundaries?

“… the Gothic has spawned many sub-species of itself including the postmodern Gothic, and more recently, postcolonial Gothic. This attests to the malleable nature of the Gothic to transcend its own historical, cultural and geographical parameters (its “canon”). After all, transgressing taboos, complicity with evil, the dread of life, violence, the return of the repressed (just to name some familiar Gothic themes) are not specific to any culture or people, but are experienced by all throughout history, although of course, the complexities in which these concerns take may vary from culture to culture.”

–  Asian Gothic: Essays on Literature, Film and Anime, ed. Andrew Hock Soon Ng

In Western literature, the Gothic, when talking about the repressed, and the taboo has also examined The Other. The Other can be the monstrous, the irreverent thing that’s supposed to be kept in the dark, but it can also (unsurprisingly) be the foreign(er). In Dracula, Count Dracula is from Transylvania, the mysterious land of superstition and irrationality, trying to insinuate himself into London, where his very presence threatens their structure of science and rational thinking. Not to mention he’s literally a leech on their society. In Jane Eyre Jane’s alter ego is represented by :::spoiler alert::: Bertha Mason, the Caribbean foreigner whose rampant sexuality and madness are supposed to counter the calm, collected, and always in control Jane. Generally speaking, the Gothic has not been kind to non-Westerners.

But the Gothic is exactly the type of genre to subvert the conventional, even itself. It even transcends its own canon, as pointed out in the above quote. How powerful is it when the The Othered take the very tool that has been used to oppress and Other them (the tool being the Gothic genre, and simultaneously the English language), and use it, in their turn, to throw off the oppressors? Post-colonial and Asian Gothic can redefine the old canon to make way for a different set of Gothic stories. Not only that, but they can shed light on a Gothic genre that is as old and as long-standing as the Western one.

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Manichitrathazhu, a South Asian film with strong Gothic undertones

I’ve only just stumbled onto this concept of Post-colonial and Asian Gothic myself. Having read scraps of articles around this new canon, I would say I’ve only read two novels in this genre:

  • Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (which also fits into Caribbean Gothic, and is, incidentally, a retelling of Jane Eyre from the view point of Bertha Mason – talk about subversion) AND
  • Toni Morrison’s Beloved (which falls into Post-colonial Gothic, and details the horrors of colonization of the body and the mind)

This convoluted post is also a way of asking you, dear reader, for any suggestions for stories that might fall into this category of Post-colonial and/or Asian Gothic. I will be publishing another post on South Asian Gothic myself sometime in the near future. As I said, though, it’s a genre that I’ve only just dipped into and I would very much like to dive further into it, so I welcome any and all suggestions.

“Bliss” by Katherine Mansfield – a breakdown

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Katerine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield’s stories are like paper flowers. Seemingly fragile, oozing simplicity, but a closer look reveals the complexity that went into the construction, the precision and accuracy that achieves the deceptive simplicity that is characteristic of her stories.

Bliss centres around Bertha Young, thirty years old and resisting the inexplicable need “to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement.” There is no explanation for the extreme elation that suddenly invades Bertha as she makes her way home.

The stream of consciousness grips as tightly as this overwhelming joy has gripped Bertha. Mansfield really excels at this narrative form, and she knows just how much to put in, and how much to leave out.

“‘No, that about the fiddle is not quite what I mean,’ she thought, running up the steps and feeling in her bag for the key – she’d forgotten it, as usual – and rattling the letter-box. ‘It’s not what I mean, because – Thank you, Mary’ – she went into the hall.”

It’s so very life-like, this fractured thought process and Bertha springs into life so adamantly, and if she wasn’t real to you in the first paragraph, then she certainly is now. And it is this realness that’s so very captivating.

Mansfield’s stories are always tailored with the trappings of daily life – all the quotidian details that you don’t really pay attention to in your routinely adventures, but set within the context of the bigger picture they make a very rich tapestry indeed.

“Mary brought in the fruit on a tray and with a glass bowl, and a blue dish, very lovely, with a strange sheen on it as though it had been dipped in milk.”

I often refer to Mansfield’s writing as stop-and-smell-the-roses writing, because it feels like she’s urging you to take a moment and really look at the trivial details of life. And then she’ll paint them with a brush that will render them magical, almost gem-like in their sudden ability to shine where they didn’t before.

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She dots daily life with these fascinating details, and then brings you down to reality. There is gentle irony in the way she satirizes her own characters for fancying things that mightn’t be there.

“She hardly dared to look into the cold mirror – but she did look, and it gave her back a woman, radiant, with smiling, trembling lips, with big, dark eyes and an air of listening, waiting for something . . . divine to happen . . . that she knew must happen . . . infallibly.”

Everyone’s prone to a little whimsy, a little fantasizing, and none more so than Mansfield’s characters. More than the English teachers who analyze these stories, it’s the characters in them that infuse things with an overripe magic, and symbolize things left and right.

“At the far end, against the wall, there was a tall, slender pear tree in fullest, richest bloom; it stood perfect, as though becalmed against the jade-green sky. Bertha couldn’t help feeling, even from this distance, that it had not a single bud or a faded petal.

. . . And she seemed to see on her eyelids the lovely pear tree with is wide open blossoms as a symbol of her own life.”

On the beauty and perfection of this unassuming pear tree is what Bertha hinges her entire night. She and her husband will be entertaining dinner guests, a few close artistic friends, and “a find” of Bertha’s, Pearl Fulton. Mysterious, sophisticated, whom “Bertha had fallen in love with . . . as she always did fall in love with beautiful women who had something strange about them.”

And so, do we finally come to the source of Bertha’s ecstasy? Is it the strange Miss Fulton who has Bertha in such raptures, feeling the painful intensity of life? Mansfield never says so. Instead she points to more of Bertha’s wishful thinking as she imagines there’s a common feeling between herself and her newest guest, an understanding of just how wonderful this night is.

“But Bertha knew, suddenly, as if the longest, most intimate look had passed between them – as if they had said to each other: ‘You, too?’ – that Pearl Fulton, stirring the beautiful read soup in the grey plate, was feeling just what she was feeling.”

Moving through the steps of the dinner party, Bertha struggles to contain her glee. She watches her friends whom she loves, but knows that they can’t quite understand what she and Pearl are experiencing. The reader, too, is excluded from this bubble. We never quite know why Bertha is so ecstatic, though we are, at least, more clued in than her guests.

This scene is particularly exquisite, because it allows us to eavesdrop in the various tidbits of conversations that Mansfield dangles before us. We are at the dinner party, too, though we are privy to more than the others.

Bertha waiting for a “sign” from Pearl, believes it to be a momentous occasion when Pearl asks to see the garden, something “so exquisite on her part that all Bertha could do was to obey.” Finally, she can show her companion in this unique experience the axis on which this magical night spins: the pear tree.

pear

“How long did they stand there? Both, as it were, caught in that circle of unearthly light, and understanding each other perfectly, creatures of another world, and wondering what they were to do in this one with all this blissful treasure that burned in their bosoms and dropped, in silver flowers, from their hair and hands?

For ever? – for a moment? And did Miss Fulton murmur: ‘Yes. Just that. Or did Bertha dream it?”

And so we reach the home stretch. The day is about to close up again. Bertha has been flitting through it on imaginatively strung trapeze threads. She longs to tell her husband, who has only been ice towards Pearl Fulton, of her special new friend, of what they have shared, and the thought of being alone with her husband thrills and scares Bertha.

“For the first time in her life Bertha Young desired her husband.”

It seems that Bertha’s latent desires for Miss Fulton have manifested in an unlikely urgency for her husband. The pear tree now has a double meaning; with its full blossoms, reaching for the moon, it is no longer just a symbol for Bertha’s perfect night. The giddy day has culminated in this moment of sexual awakening.

And yet, Bertha will not be free to end her night with illusions. Life is not that generous.  Bertha Young, only a girl as her name suggests, farewells her guests, “feeling that this self of hers was taking leave of them forever”, for with the taste of desire she believes she has finally stepped into the adult world. Perhaps this is where she was heading, as a young girl giddily anticipates a milestone birthday, perhaps Bertha sensed that her next step into womanhood was nigh.

Womanhood, when it does arrive, is bittersweet. Because, secluded in the hallway, is beautiful Miss Fulton, more womanly and sophisticated than Bertha, in the arms of Bertha’s husband. It is a shock to both Bertha and the reader. Once Miss Fulton, too, leaves Bertha is left with her realization. All of the magic of the night is stripped away, all of the blissful ignorance shredded, and Bertha is only left with a world that she does not truly understand.

“But the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and still.”

Moon-Pear-Blossoms-Garden-710x400.jpg

Genius Without Discipline

Almost everyone knows, or has heard of, the story of Frankenstein – either Frankenstein, the man who created the monster, or (as seems to be the general misconception) as Frankenstein, the monster. Shelley’s portrayal of her protagonist scientist conveniently allows for both interpretations.

As a child, Victor Frankenstein’s every whim is indulged, every opportunity presented to satiate his overwhelming curiosity of the world around him.

“Curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they were unfolded to me, are among the earliest sensations I can remember.” (Ch 2)

His ultimate goal is to understand everything around him, to grasp the reasons for action, and to understand the cause behind life. This immense thirst for knowledge and hunger to conquer life propels him on a mission to create it.

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Unfortunately, for Victor, he succeeds. His success, though, is not what he imagined. He is disgusted and horrified by his creation. As soon as the life he has given his creation begins to take effect, he immediately wonders why he has undertaken such a deed. He rejects his creation and refuses to think about it, pushing it as far from his mind as much as he can. (I’d say he does a pretty good job, as he manages to put the creature out of his mind for two years. That’s right. Two. Whole. Years.)

And therein lies the problem. Victor, whose every passion and curiosity has been indulged from a young age, who has been lauded and praised for his discipline and his genius, does not have the integrity to take responsibility for his actions. Upon seeing his creation come to life his immediate thought is that his actions have been unsuccessful. Things have not gone according to his plan; therefore these things are apparently no longer his responsibility. I could not understand this behavior, and therefore I could not forgive it. What person, calling himself a scientist, can undertake an experiment, and then abandon that experiment without pausing to consider the outcomes this abandonment may cause? Without pausing to consider his duty as the conductor of the experiment? For all his previous undying curiosity about life and everything to do with it, he displays an alarming lack of curiosity about the result of his actions.

I could not fathom it. My entire face was a question mark during that scene.

SPOILER

He literally goes and hides under his bed covers when he sees his creature get up and move. It doesn’t even attack him. He’s just that repulsed by it. And then he runs out into the church yard or something. And then just forgets about it. It vanishes from his sight, and his (apparently affected) mind as well. I mean, REALLY. How can you ignore something like that?

/END SPOILER

It seems to me that Frankenstein is just as much of a monster as his creature. The creature does do unspeakable things, but each crime can be linked right back to Frankenstein and his neglect. Even before I’d read this novel I was aware of the layer of tragedy that this novel carries. But that tragedy is more pressing after reading it. I can’t help but feel immense pity for the creature. Frankenstein curses it, believing that his creature’s actions stem solely from evil. Yet, the creature demonstrates to him several times that this is not the case. Frankenstein laments the fact that he even created this abomination, but he does not pause to reflect that all the sorrow in his life might have been avoided if he had acknowledged his responsibility to the creature; it is not the creation of the creature, but the neglect, which brings about the calamity.

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For the creature proves that given the opportunity it can exercise great compassion and understanding.

“Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.” (Vol. 2, Ch. 2)

The creature has abilities which are limited by the darkness to which it is forced to cling; his desire to love is eroded by the wilderness to which he is shunned. In a way, his restrictions are an extension of the limitations Frankenstein faced in his scientific pursuits; and just as Frankenstein’s powers explode in what he deems as his horrible creation, the creature’s untended abilities also explode in devastation and tragedy. Their inevitable connection means that the creature’s crimes are Frankenstein’s crimes, too.

Perhaps Frankenstein’s neglect of the creature is also a reflection of the lack of proper guidance in science given to Frankenstein. His initial studies of the outdated philosophers are laughed at, and though he proves himself to be a genius at Oxford his rise is largely undeterred and undisciplined by anyone, least of all himself. But I couldn’t find in myself any sympathy for Frankenstein. The fact that he did absolutely nothing about his creation until he heard news of its destructive behavior appears to be a gross misstep. The fact that he was so determinedly able to forget the creature’s existence is amazing to me; and his consequent neglect of his creature is unforgivable. Genius, without disciplined application is only useless, but destructive.

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Unsurprisingly, this story left me feeling rather hollow afterwards. The writing is at times a bit cumbersome, and the descriptions (despite the book being a slim one) I found to be tedious. This probably had a lot to do with my mood at the time, but I didn’t find anything spectacular in the writing style itself. It could be that I felt the prose was a bit too long-winded for such a story as this (I guess I mean ‘action-packed) but I suppose it has to do with the time it was written. The story on the other hand is clearly a very gripping and thought-provoking one (as proven by my rambling). The best bits were the one with the creature, and I wish they had been longer. I inevitably ended up siding with the creature (why do I say inevitably?). The creature isn’t all good, however, just like Frankenstein, but I think I might have fallen for the former’s sorrowful tale. He did, after all, have to pay for the punishments of a world he was excluded from, as well as the neglect of a creator who rejected him.

Women of the Future

[May 1908]

   “I feel that I do now realise, dimly, what women in the future will be capable of. They truly as yet have never had their chance. Talk of our enlightened days and our emancipated country – pure nonsense! We are firmly held with the self-fashioned chains of slavery. Yes, now I feel that they are self-fashioned, and must be self-removed. 

 . . .Independence, resolve, firm purpose, and the gift of discrimination, mental clearness – here are the inevitable. Again, Will – the realisation that Art is absolutely self-development. The knowledge that genius is dormant in every soul – that that very individuality which is at the root of our being is what matters so poignantly. 

   Here then is a little summary of what I need – power, wealth and freedom. It is the hopelessly insipid doctrine that love is the only thing in the world, taught, hammered into women, from generation to generation, which hampers us so cruelly. We must get rid of that bogey – and then, then comes the opportunity of happiness and freedom.” 

– Katherine Mansfield: Letters and Journals
  I feel as if I’ve been given the best pep talk in – well, a very long time. How is it that this writer who lived over a hundred years ago is able to fire up my blood? For some bizarre reason, I feel the need to make her proud. To make the most of what I have, to somehow compensate for what she didn’t. To live up to her legacy of becoming whole, becoming strong, and most of all, to be free through art. 
   Sincerely,
     Lady Disdain 

Austen Made Me Do It, I Swear

   So I’m a little late on the uptake. I mean, I knew that this year marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of “Pride & Prejudice”. What I didn’t realize was that the actual date was the 28th of January. Today, to be precise. 

   The Austenite in me won’t allow the day pass by without commemorating it in my own small way so here we are. I figured I‘d just post one of my favorite scenes – if not the favorite – from the novel. It offers a tantalizing glimpse of Lizzie’s and Darcy’s life together and confirms all our beliefs that these two do belong with each other. 

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    Elizabeth’s spirits soon rising to playfulness gain, she wanted Mr. Darcy to account for his having ever fallen in love with her. 
   
   ‘How could you being?’ she said. “I can comprehend your going on charmingly, when you had once made a beginning; but what could set you off in the first place?’

   ‘I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.’

   ‘My beauty you had early withstood, and as for my manners – my behaviour to you was at least always bordering on the uncivil, and I never spoke to you without rather wishing to give you pain than not. Now, be sincere; did you admire me for my impertinence?’

   ‘For the liveliness of your mind, I did.’

   ‘You as well call it impertinence at once. It was very little less. The fact, that you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention. You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking and looking and thinking for your approbation alone. I roused and interested you, because I was so unlike them. Had you not been really amiable, you would have hated me for it; but, in spite of the pains you took to disguise yourself, your feelings were always noble and just; and, in your heart, you thoroughly despised the persons who so assiduously courted you. There – I have saved you the trouble of accounting for it; and really, all things considered, I begin to think it perfectly reasonable. To be sure, you know no actual good of me – but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love.’

   ‘Was there no good in your affectionate behaviour to Jane, while she was ill at Netherfield?’

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   ‘Dearest Jane! Who could have done less for her? But make a virtue of it by all means. My good qualities are under your protection, and you are to exaggerate them as much as possible; and, in return, it belongs to me to find occasions for teazing and quarrelling with you as often as may be; and I shall begin directly, by asking you what made you so unwilling to come to the point at last? What made you so shy of me when you first called, and afterwards dined here? Why, especially, when you called, did you look as if you did not care about me?’ 

   ‘Because you were grave and silent, and gave me no encouragement.’

   ‘But I was embarrassed.’

   ‘And so was I.’

   ‘You might have talked to me more when you came to dinner.’

   ‘A man who had felt less, might.’

   ‘How unlucky that you should have a reasonable answer to give, and that I should be so reasonable as to admit it. But I wonder how long you would have gone on if you had been left to yourself! I wonder when you would have spoken, if I had not asked you! My resolution of thanking you for your kindness to Lydia had certainly great effect – too much, I am afraid; for what becomes of the moral, if our comfort springs from a breach of promise? For I ought not to have mentioned the subject. This will never do.’

   ‘You need not distress yourself. The moral will be perfectly fair. Lady Catherine’s unjustifiable endeavours to separate us were the means of removing all my doubts. I am not indebted for my present happiness to your eager desire of expressing your gratitude. I was not in a humour to wait for an opening of yours. My aunt’s intelligence had given me hope, and I was determined at once to know every thing.

   ‘Lady Catherine has been of infinite use which ought to make her happy, for she loves to be of use. But tell me, what did you come down to Netherfield for? Was it merely to ride to Longbourn, and be embarrassed – or had you intended any more serious consequences?’

   ‘My real purpose was to see you, and to judge, if I could, whether I might ever hope to make you love me. My avowed one, or what I avowed to myself, was to see whether your sister was still partial to Bingley, and, if she were, to make the confession to him which I have since made.’

   ‘Shall you ever have courage to announce to Lady Catherine what is to befall her?’

   ‘I am more likely to want time than courage, Elizabeth. But it ought to be done; and if you will give me a sheet of paper, it shall be done directly.

   I love this passage for the ease and familiarity between Darcy and Lizzie that is on display. There is none of that rigidity from their days of hating each other – or I should say of Lizzie hating Darcy. And there’s none of the romantic, ‘dearest, loveliest Elizabeth‘ stuff either – which is all great! I mean, as a “P&P” lover it’s very gratifying to reach that bit and be present for when everything comes into the open. But my preference is for the moments that come after the great declaration has been made.

    It puts a sappy smile on my face to read Darcy saying Lizzie’s first name with such normality – after that huge struggle, here they are, teasing and being teased, discussing their past  mistakes and just generally enjoying each other‘s company. And it makes me so happy to read it! None of the screen adaptations that I’ve seen include this particular dialogue, but I would love it oh so incredibly much if someone were to capture the warmth, the playfulness, and the the way in which both Darcy and Lizzie are so obviously relishing feeling out each other’s characters in this scene. We’ve watched them struggle throughout most of the novel for each other‘s love, so I say give us more of a chance to see the delicious rewards they’ve earned.

x


     I absolutely love this picture of these two! It captures that playful side to their relationship which I can’t help but find appealing, especially considering that Darcy seems as stiff as the proverbial upper lip to begin with . Lizzie obviously finds something funny and Darcy seems to be verging on the beginnings of a smile (because an actual smile would be too much, wouldn’t it Darce? Am I allowed to call him that? Does that make me as bad as Mrs. Eton?) Ah, my P&P fangirl’s showing  and it’s all Jane Austen’s fault.

   Sincerely,
     Lady Disdain       

"Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy

   I honestly don’t know how I can even begin to review this beast of a novel. Not only is the size intimidating, but the esteemed reputation it has come to garner over the years is one that kind of makes me want to hide away under my desk so people don’t have to read my measly attempt at a review of this masterpiece.

   Having said that, however, I’m also someone who believes that all stories, despite the size of the following they have attracted, are still stories, and are therefore meant to be enjoyed and discussed by the audience. So here goes, I guess. Spoilers ahead. 

   When I first decided to read this novel I was sixteen or so, and I can’t remember why exactly I decided to read it other than for the simple reason that it was there. And my copy had one of those annoying blurbs which manage to form a sizable paragraph without actually telling you what the book is about. 

   
   It’s just unacceptable, all right? 
   
“Anna Karenina” actually has two protagonists – the titular Anna herself, and Konstantine Levin. Both are figures who believe themselves to be certain of their position in society, and their path in life, but come to learn that they are not satisfied with these positions. Both are desirous of experiencing so much more in life. The parallels between the two are striking – and the interest of the reader lies in the different ways both tackle the same problems. 

   Anna’s story is one of those you can’t help but know even if you haven’t actually read the entire novel. She is a woman who finds herself married to a man much older than herself, and a mother to a young child. Anna is so much like a child in a lot of ways. She seemed far too young to be a mother. Clearly, there is a huge culture gap and time difference between Anna and me, the reader, but I think that was one of Tolstoy’s main points. Anna’s current situation as wife and mother is one she has found herself in without much input or decision-making on her part; it is simply what is expected of all the women in society. Wife and mother you must be, so wife and mother you become. Despite that, Anna is still lucky enough to feel a strong love towards her son, even though she doesn’t nurse any similar feeling in regards to her husband. So far, it is her little boy who has made life worthwhile for Anna. 

   That is, until Count Vronsky arrives on the scene and Anna begins to see how exquisite life could be for a woman to live with the man she loves. So far she has never experienced anything of the kind, something which obviously made her marriage to the impersonal and dutiful Karenin at least bearable. However, once Anna has glimpsed the alternative she finds she can no longer be satisfied with her current situation. This is the point where I really pitied Anna. Clearly, anyone would find it difficult to refuse an opportunity which could only enrich your experience of life, and I don’t think there was any way in which Anna could have refused – especially with Vronsky being so annoyingly relentless. During my earlier stages of reading this novel, I found myself angry at Anna for abandoning her son, and while I still don’t agree with it now, I can at least understand why she chose the option she did. As I say, I think she was still a child herself and she obviously hadn’t finished ‘living her life’ before she became a mother. That is not to say that all girls had affairs then, but Anna is evidently a sensitive human, and I think a marriage based on love, instead of convenience, would have been the more healthy choice for the poor girl. It was her misfortune that her experience of love came too late.

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   Some of this is reflected in Levin’s story, too. Though it is not of equal magnitude, Levin’s proposal being rejected by Kitty (the girl whom he loves) is another portrayal of a life of love, of which everyone dreams, being denied to the dreamer. Levin, however, throws himself into his work on his country estate, trying to better his land, and the situation of his workers. His character is such an endearing one that I couldn’t help but like it – he’s awkward and bumbling in society, and never says exactly what he means, but there was an inherent quality in him that makes immeidatley likeable. I think it’s because he’s always wanting to do the right thing and be a good person. However, that kind of thinking doesn’t make him pretentious or self-righteous in the slightest – he is honestly trying to be a better human being, and seems to have no idea how good he already is. I just kind of wanted to hug him and whack him over the head at the same time.

   He does get his dream, however. Kitty sees the light in the end and accepts his hand, but their marriage is not perfection. They’re very compatible but they also squabble a lot and both seem to suffer from serious jealousy – Levin slightly more so. It became a little tedious for me at points, though, when Levin became green with envy yet again. Tolstoy has a great eye for detail, and maybe sometimes, the eye was too great. Scenes tend to lull at points and I found myself reading the same kind of sentences just written differently and going, “All right, yes, I know, already.” That might have a little to do with the translation, but I don’t think that was the case for the most part. As a reader, you are actually able to see the world so clearly from each different character’s point of view, their exact thought process, and maybe it’s this meticulousness that slowed things down at times, for me. 

   I’m aware, though, that it is exactly for that meticulousness for which Tolstoy is so lauded. His ability to move from one character’s head to the other is simply perfect – as a reader you just don’t see it happening. Not only that, but his understanding of the characters, male or female, is impressive. The novel clearly tackles the inequality of the positions for men and women. 

   The story actually opens with a wife’s discovery of the husband’s infidelity. The wife is Dolly, and the husband is Oblonsky, Anna’s brother. When we first see Anna, it is as advisor. She visits Oblonsky’s house to persuade Dolly to not leave her children and excuse her husband’s misstep. It is ironic that Anna ends up doing exactly what she advised Dolly against, though in her case she is the one engaging in the affair.  Once Anna is confronted with the possibility of love, all rational thought seems to be dispelled from her mind.

   And then there is the affair itself. I don’t know if the connection between Vronsky and Anna was deep for me to be convinced that it was love. It was certainly obsessive enough, now that I think about it. Vronsky is stunned by Anna’s beauty at first, and I think Anna was overwhelmed by the feeling of having someone value her beauty as a woman, instead of her role as wife, which is all Karenin clearly saw her as. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that it was the novelty and, consequently the excitement, of the relationship that really brought about Anna’s downfall. Please feel free to disagree with me. That’s if you’ve read this far. I’ve babbled a little lot. 

   This hasn’t really been a proper review of the novel itself, more a waffling on the characters in it. But I think that speaks a lot for my experience of the novel. It was the cast of characters that made it worthwhile really. They were all so believable and real – which I guess can be expected when you have a story of this magnitude in which to develop them. I’ve already said it before, but Tolstoy’s transition from one character’s thoughts to another is seamless. More than that, it was his ability to fully explain the characters’ feelings in a believable and understandable manner that really enriched the reading experience. There are downsides, of course. As I mentioned before, the story’s overly detailed at points and that causes the pace to lull at points. And, let me tell you, there were a lot of these points. It probably also had a lot to do with the fact that the novel includes a lot of the political issues that were foremost in that society at that particular time. And, well, a lot of the time I’m not even interested in the politics that are going on in the present day, so I don’t think Tolstoy can really be blamed for that. ‘Tis all me.

   I don’t think I’m done talking about this novel. These are just my first thoughts after reading it. I’ll probably be re-visiting the characters and their actions to question, analyze and then question them some more. They seem to be in my head a lot, lately, and Anna’s tragic story is only just sinking into my brain. I love that Tolstoy had two stories so intertwined that when the book ended you’re left with this weighted sadness as well as a very believable sense of hope. 

   I’d love to hear what you think, that is if you’ve stuck me with me through this discombobulated review. In which case, your patience is admirable and thanks and congratulations are in order. So thank you. And congratulations. 

   Sincerely,
     Lady Disdain