Monday, August 26, 2013

thoughts on escapism

This is the last week of summer and I am starting training at a new job while still working my old job and about to go away for my cousin's wedding, SO! before Jane gets lost in the shuffle I want to put out an unfinished post I had stewing around.

I've been thinking a lot about escapism since I started reading Austen. Deresiewicz writes about how non-escapist Austen was in her own writing. She didn't write Gothic romance, though she appreciated that genre: she wrote about women's lives as they were for ladies in small English countries. With her narrow focus, rooted in a context she knew intimately, she revealed universal human truths. People weren't running around Europe, getting locked up in ruined castles. They were talking with their neighbors, falling in love, and going to dances.

But even if her novels were anti-escapist for her time, they are escapes for me now. I don't have a grasp of where my place in the world is, and a world where men of a certain status had the choice of lawyer, clergy, soldier, or sailor seems kinda nice. Her life was so different from mine that I want to escape into her novels, and I don't think this is uncommon. This new movie Austenland seems to tap into that, though I haven't seen it; modern day women go to a Jane Austen theme park to dress up and hope to find their own happy ending. And her novels were escapes for men in the trenches during WWI.

Which would lead me to...
Rudyard Kipling...Science Fiction, romance, pulp/trash...criticism against escapism sort of lame, and I don't mean "escapist" in a negative way. I recognize my reality in Austen reality, but the customs are so different...What does it mean, this word "escapist"? A blogger on romance fiction says: "I’ve always pushed back against the idea that romance is escapist in a “special” way. But that’s probably because of the way I define the word. For me, romance is no more (or less) escapist than many other activities I engage in. We act as if we all know what we mean when we invoke the term, but I’m not sure we’re defining it the same way. I would define it, in this discussion, as a cognitive activity that takes my mind to a different place from its everyday life and provides different types of stimulation, comfort, and/or cognitive stretching. Using that definition, music is an escape (both listening and playing). My scholarly research can be an escape from the modern world."

Escaping into fiction: healthier than drugs or alcohol, but not as easy.

I never got around to finishing that post, once I realized what a loaded term "escapist" was.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Winding discussions and Persuasion.

I appreciated this hot day, and I will enjoy the ones that are to follow, but I have to face reality: Summer is winding down, and with it, mah blurg. I've read eight full books, three essays, and a smattering of assorted Austen-related goodies, and written about a fraction of them.

Today was really special. I had a book discussion on Northanger Abbey with four intelligent, well-read friends. We shared tea, cheese and crackers, and cookies while talking over our favorite things about NA (the "case for innocence," the punctuation and "tastefully ornamental" sentences, and of course, her sharp irony) and differing opinions on Henry Tilney (by turns a "dreamy" educator who really helps improve Catherine's worldview and "a condescending man-splainer"--but nowhere near as bad as this guy). I felt really lucky to have friends who wanted to spend time talking about Austen. And another exciting thing that came from this: We will be meeting in a few months to discuss Mansfield Park! It was a lovely afternoon. I felt so happy before the discussion, after picking up flowers and walking home with a bag of cookies from a local bakery in my hand. I was happy that this was my life: Baked goods, fresh-cut flowers, and a book discussion.

So, to rewind: While on vacation I read Persuasion, which was the first Austen work I read, back with the brilliant Mr. Youngblood in my high-school English class (and apart from his intelligence and influence, he is a total silver fox). I wanted to read it last for that reason (not the silver fox reason), but also because it was her last novel, her oldest heroine, and her most "autumnal." It's important to be seasonal, as anyone who has seen the costumes in Far From Heaven can tell you.

Rocking the fall color palette. 

It was difficult to find time to read on the vacation. I started the novel on the ride to St. John, but once there had trouble reading more than a page or two at a time. What with the views, the people, and the claims of the salt-water pools (where you could open your eyes underwater without it burning!), it was hard to read more than a paragraph without losing my place. And if I decided to really SIT DOWN AND READ, I did so in a hammock, where I promptly fell asleep. But boy, I tried! I took it everywhere--by the pool, on the boat, to various beaches. In a box, with a fox....One of my parents used it as a coaster when I wasn't looking. And it's not even my book, so keep that in mind if I ask to borrow a book.

Maybe it was the distractions, but I had a bit of trouble keeping track of people in this book. Coming off of E, especially, it seemed there were more families and groupings than usual. I found myself confusing the Crofts and the Harvilles--there were so many navy characters!

I liked that Anne Elliot, who was passive, calm, and reserved, was drawn to men who were warm and forthright. She was more suspicious of charm than the younger Austen heroines, who are initially drawn in by the Wickhams, Willoughbys, and Churchills. Anne observed of her cousin: "[He] was rational, discreet, polished--but he was not open. There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others. This, to Anne, was a decided imperfection. [...] She felt that she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped" (end of chap. 17). I like this sum-up of personality quite a bit, and find it interesting that Anne herself is such a composed, private person, unlike Louisa or Henrietta, the girls who you could view as warm and frank, but are seen as imprudent. I think that the above observation is something that holds true in almost all of Austen's novels--the men who are the most lovable are the ones who are the least polished, and they're often awkward.

Amy Smith, in her travelogue All Roads Lead to Austen, talks about how the men in Austen are never Prince Charming, rather, what makes them the hero is more a question of "fit;" a yin-yang match for the heroine. A partner who can balance and improve the other is the ideal. The Crofts provide an example of a happy couple: they do everything together, they are true partners. Mrs. Croft corrects the enthusiastic but sometimes careless driving of the Admiral, and he....I'm not quite sure what he does for her, but provide liveliness and good cheer. I love that scene, and the depiction of the Crofts. I like that characters are decidedly imperfect, but the romance comes from the idea that a union between people can bring them all closer to perfection.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Austen on Illness

Since finishing Sense and Sensibility a few month ago, I have been interested in the use of illness in Austen's work. Some of her most ridiculous characters suffer from or fear illness (often imaginary), and use it to control situations (like Mrs. Bennet and her "nerves"; the hypochondriac Mr. Woodhouse; and the tyrannical Mrs. Churchill, whose illnesses "never occurred but for her own convenience"). On the other hand, bright, lively, and "too" romantic characters suffer life-threatening illnesses and emerge transformed (Marianne Dashwood and Tom Bertram; Col. Brandon's first love is a notable exemption from the "re-emerged"). Illness is often used as a sort of punishment for high living, unhealthy ideas about romance, or betraying social values. Sound familiar? It's like how every prostitute from Manon Lescaut to Marguerite Gautier dies from tuberculous (usually). Illness is still today linked with punishment, unfortunately. Just look at what people continue to say about AIDS. And if you went to that link and feel a little sick, here is a tonic: Blanche tells Rose "AIDS is not a bad person's disease." I'm still surprised and a little sad that line doesn't receive a standing ovation. Austen uses this familiar message of illness and punishment, but allows her characters to face death and repent, albeit their lives proceed more subdued and responsible than before.

In her essay "On Being Ill," Virginia Woolf writes about the transformative aspect of illness. It reveals undiscovered places within ourselves; precipices and flowering valleys, that sort of thing. Illness can change our relation to the world. Through a feverish lens, "friends have changed, some putting on a strange beauty, others deformed to the squatness of toads, while the whole landscape of life lies remote and fair, like the shore seen from a ship far out at sea." It is akin to a religious experience; we see, for the first time, things that have always been there, such as the clouds moving and changing shape, and we speak the truth of our body. "Illness is the great confessional."

In S&S, after her life-threatening illness, Marianne tells her sister that it gave her time to reflect: "It has given me leisure and calmness for serious recollection," and the result is her resolution to "atone" to God and her family, and to live less selfishly. She sees her illness as her fault: "brought on by myself," but her survival was a rebirth, and a chance for change. Contrast this with Col. Brandon's first love, the doomed Eliza, who was "seduced" into "a life of sin" and consequently "faded" and became "worn down by acute suffering of every kind," finally dying, of course, of "consumption." Her sins were greater than Marianne's, and her tragic life serves as a warning against the allure of sensual libertines. But it isn't a clear-cut anecdote. Eliza's story is as much a tragedy about awful marriages, where an unkind husband whose "pleasures were not what they ought to have been" can send a young and inexperienced woman with a lively mind into the arms of another man. And then another and another. And yet part of me smirks at the story-within-a-story. It is so over the top, not to mention cliched, that it seems like a joke. Coupled with Brandon's tiresome and maudlin delivery, I have to wonder if it is inserted as a sort of reminder of the tragic Romances that would have been popular with girls like Marianne; this is the sort of pulp they eat up, but also, this sensibility destroys lives.

In MP, Tom Bertram's illness also provides a renewal: "He was the better for ever for his illness. He had suffered, and he had learnt to think, two advantages that he had never known before." He became "useful," "steady and quiet," and learned to "not [live] merely for himself." But first it was necessary to suffer, which Austen views as an advantage. True suffering humbles the extravagant, and the ones who can and will repent, do.

Tom and Marianne made the most out of their time away from the world, whereas others, like Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Woodhouse, and Mrs. Churchill, fake illness as an escape. Woolf writes about the opportunity for escape in illness, saying: "We cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright." The ill are deserters, and escape the daily drudge. That release from responsibility can be appealing to those who are unhappy or just childish and selfish. It is also a way for those with little or no power to exert their influence.

This use of illness as a punishment is uncomfortable with me, after all the garbage I've heard about STDs through the past decade, but it is worth looking at as a plot device. In Austen's world, every action has a consequence, and yet I don't believe illness is used merely as a punishment. The emphasis is on the somewhat spiritual suffering the characters undergo to develop and grow. Fevers are a good way to externalize that suffering. If I were a historian or new more about 19th century literature, I'm sure I could write a more nuanced perspective on this topic. It might be a fun dissertation.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Emma's Gay Best Friend

Frank Churchill is such a stereotypical gay best friend. Fashionable, charming, and witty, he shares in Emma's jokes and suspicions, and even criticizes people's hairstyles with her. They have an easy intimacy, with no romantic interest coming from his side. Really, it is sort of brilliant that his Clueless incarnation is this guy reading William Burroughs:

"Dyed in the wool homosexual."

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey is a book that means a lot to me. I read it one intense winter, and it was so full of associations even then.

Returning to it with more Austen under my belt changed my reading a little. I was more critical, and the humor this time seemed maybe too distancing. I still really enjoyed it, but some of my pleasure was wrapped up in personal memories and the tactile pleasure of the worn and beautiful 1948 edition I have.

The book, with its cloth-covered binding and thick pages, takes me back five years.

This lady lived in Norwich! And then she brought me to Chicago, in a way.

I was twenty years old and studying in Norwich, England when I first learned about Northanger Abbey. I had heard the title but only had a vague idea what it was about. I mixed it up with my vague knowledge of Wuthering Heights. I was taking a course on Gothic Literature and we were reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, which is the novel that the heroine of NA reads. Our professor told us about Austen's satire on the Gothic Romance, and for awhile that's all I knew. I kept it in mind.

I traveled to London a number of times during the year. On one of my visits to the Tate Museum of Modern Art (which I never did get around to enjoying; it was always too crowded), I met Arthur. He was a volunteer, and an American. I asked him where to check my coat and he asked me to dinner. We went to a restaurant in Sofo, with pounding music and hot waiters. He ordered Veuve Clicquot and invited me to Cape Town for Christmas. I was lonely, and he seemed to be the man of my dreams. He complimented me and treated me with respect. He traveled a lot and had an apartment on the Thames. He was charming, and if you've read any Austen you'll know this should set off alarm bells. Austen wasn't a ready reference for me yet, though I did recognize his charm as "oozey." But it was so exciting.

I was as much (if not more) infatuated with his apartment as I was with him. It was beautiful; full of modern furniture, hidden cabinets, and silver buttons. And South Africa became a reality when he bought my ticket. How exotic! I felt like Sally Bowles. I felt like my dreams were coming true. Part of me knew I couldn't be fully happy with an older man I wasn't sexually attracted to (and who bought cheap toilet paper), but I didn't put words to those thoughts, and so they weren't real. It was only later that I would describe him as a "kraken" in angry poetry scribbled in my journal.

I felt like the ship when I slept with him.

Things quickly became tense, and even though I told him I thought I shouldn't go along on his vacation, he told me he really didn't want to go alone. So I flew in cramped coach, grumbling that parents who bring babies on transcontinental flights should be ejected over water, while Arthur reclined in first class. On arrival we barely spoke, except for him to complain about a flight attendant being slow to bring his orange juice or something. I couldn't think of anything polite to say back. He had lost his veneer of charm, and had become crass, insulting, and thoughtless. The first day at the gay resort I spent like Catherine Moreland, unknown and unknowing. I sat by the pool, reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (which is funny, since I was reading Joyce when I switched to Austen this summer).

And along came the co-owner of the resort, to ask how everything was. He was young, handsome, and fun. But mostly he was just interested and active. He wanted to take me to a South African market; he wanted to show me penguins. Arthur, still mad about the orange juice, wanted to nap, so he let me go.

We had lunch overlooking the water and the walls were lined with old books, one of which was Northanger Abbey. I mentioned my interest, and maybe I talked about Gothic lit for awhile. I don't remember. I just remember being happy. We laughed a lot.

The next few days got sordid fast, and though I did nothing other than accepting attention, "trifles light as air are to the jealous confirmations strong as holy writ," and I ended up trading hands in what amounted to a financial transaction between the men. It's not a time I like to think of very much; it makes me sick and sad. But after Arthur left the resort, when Phil and I drove along the coast and up Table Mountain listening to Beyonce's "Smash Into You" I felt lifted up. It was exhilarating. It was the most passionate I had ever felt, and very different from the depressing affairs I had left behind in Cleveland. I had gone from numb and drunk, to in love, to broken, to exhilarated, and finally, disappointed.

Now when I re-read NA, in that edition Phil gave me from the restaurant with his tender inscription, the story of the ordinary, innocent heroine and her mixture of worldly, scheming friends and her educator/lover, as well as her very active imagination and her passivity, reminds me of that Christmas I spent in Cape Town.

Northanger Abbey describes places I walked in Bath so often, like the Crescent, Milsom and Cheap Street. It reminds me so much of England, much like when I re-read After Leaving Mr. MacKenzie and am right back in my room overlooking UEA's pond, drinking Tanqueray. But NA is tied not only with England, but Cape Town, Phil, and my family. There isn't another novel that is so evocative. It connects my personal life with my academic life--both Shakespeare and Gothic, and yet it was read only for pleasure. Of all the Austen novels, NA is the most significant to me. I identified with the exceedingly normal and naive Catherine, but unfortunately, I lacked her basic good sense and strong morals. I was drawn into the "Thorpe"-like web, too attracted to money and adventure. I know I didn't finish the novel while I was in Cape Town, because I feel like the condemnation of Isabella's character may have stung quite a bit.

Though this was more personal and difficult than anything I've shared on this blog, I don't think I would be doing myself justice if I didn't include this part of my relationship with Austen. It may not be perfectly told, but here it is.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Guest Post!

I asked Kathy Jo Gutgsell (aka "Mom") for her reflections on Pride and Prejudice, and she was generous enough to share her response. I hadn't really noticed the focal point Elizabeth played in her parents' marriage until Mom pointed it out. Here is what KJ had to say about her first time reading P&P:

 "The first few chapters seemed like a soap opera and I wondered why I should care if these daughters found a husband? Whatever does Michael see in this? But then, before I knew it, I did care. I got caught up in the personalities of the sisters and the parents and the neighbors. I laughed out loud. I couldn't wait to know how it all turned out. I got hooked. Along the way, though, I couldn't help but notice the relationship between Elizabeth's mother and father. I've been married for decades, as you know, and I have some ideas about what makes a successful marriage. And their marriage came up short. What struck me was the pivotal point Elizabeth played. She was her dad's favorite and her mom's least favorite child. Elizabeth seemed to represent the gulf that existed in their marriage. We didn't get to see them talk out their differences. We saw their impatience with each other and then Mr. Bennet retreated to his study. But then, what went on behind closed doors we will never know." 

That sense of being "caught up" in the characters is something I hear again and again about Austen. I'm glad my Mom got to see what I love about this talented author. 

Thanks, Mom!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A few things from other people

My sister sent this video from the Daily Show to me, telling me to note the title. Austen's P&P is ubiquitous!

And Betsy let me know about a first edition of P&P is on display in Scotland to celebrate the influence Austen has had over the two hundred years since the novel was published. Amazing! I'd love to see it. It would be like my twenty-first birthday, where I saw Austen's writing desk in the British library and Woolf's first version of Mrs. Dalloway. I cried.

I'd love to know if you all come across any Austen "sightings"! Thanks, Jessie and Betsy!