What I’ve been reading

Old: Sense and Sensibility. Probably my favourite among Jane Austen’s novels. By the way, has anyone else noticed that while Austen’s heroines are interestingly different, all her books seem to feature the same two male characters – the attractive, but dishonest younger man (Willoughby, Wickham, William Elliot, Frank Churchill) and the seemingly reserved, but really passionate (and usually older) man (Darcy, Brandon, Knightley, Wentworth). I wonder if this is just a handy plot device or whether it reflects some event in Austen’s life, of which we know little.

New Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. A great story, and also interesting for the link between Anansi, the West African trickster-spider and Brer Rabbit, which is obvious enough once pointed out (there’s even a tar baby story) but was still new to me.

27 thoughts on “What I’ve been reading

  1. I absolutely loved Anansi Boys – pure delight to read, and provides a nice counterpoint to American Gods (which was just as good). I’m looking forward to getting stuck into Fragile Things, which I just picked up today.

    John, have you read much of Neil Gaiman? Or is this the first time you’ve read his stuff? (Considering your previous analyses of book awards, I assume you’ve at least read American Gods)

  2. Damien: it was made for TV.

    Personally I’m currently re-reading through the Sandman series. What an amazing storyteller. Can get a little tricky in some places reading it on the train.

  3. Actually I’ve only read Stardust. Quite a gap in my reading, which I plan to fill before too long.

  4. Ah… well, I found Stardust and Anansi Boys to have a similar feel. American Gods is a lot darker, more serious – violence, swearing, sex.

    I’ve only read the first collection of Sandman though, so can’t really compare that to the rest of his works.

  5. Anansi Boys is fun. I’ve read most of Gaiman’s work and he never ceases to delight. None of these ideas are new (old, super-annuated Gods, fables) and in this book he signals all his big moves up front – the journey is fun anyway – it’s like being on a rollercoaster – you know what’s coming and just enjoy the ride. (And boo the villains and cheer the heroes)

    Sometimes the best stories are the old ones made new again.

  6. Good Omens , people: Pratchett and Gaiman, and almost as good as that would lead you to expect.

  7. I’m afraid I’ll be overseas. This is the 3rd time I’ve missed him. Once I was speaking in the room next door to him at ANU. Reluctantly I went to my own talk rather than his.

  8. Colonel Brandon’s calm, exterior doesn’t conceal a passionate soul. He’s the same all the way down. Frederick Wentworth, on the other hand, is quite the angsty angry fellow and doesn’t exactly hide it. I note you don’t mention Henry Tilney nor Edmund Bertram….?

  9. Laura, it’s such a long time since I read Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey that I didn’t want to chance my arm on these.

    I disagree on Brandon – he’s Darcy all over again, right down to the rescue mission.

  10. I’m with the Cap’n, Laura.

    Henry Tilney isn’t quite a match to Wentworth or Darcy, but the contrast with John Thorpe shows a similar bifurcation of masculinity. Likewise, Bertram may not appear as dashing as Darcy or Wentworth, but he is very alike to Knightley in sense, propriety and kindness, and is contrasted with the rakish Henry Crawford, as is Knightley with Frank Churchill.

    So, to catalogue the dualities:

    S&S: Brandon vs. Willoughby
    P&P: Darcy vs. Wickham
    MP: Bertram vs. Crawford
    E: Knightley vs. Churchill
    NA: Tilney vs: Thorpe
    P: Wentworth vs. (William) Elliot

    Also, you’re being unfair to Wentworth: not angsty and angry so much as proud and resentful.

  11. I tried to read Mansfield Park about a year ago. I gave up about 100 pages in. I couldn’t stand the sanctimoniousness. I kept looking for traces of irony, but failed to detect any. I only needed that one to complete the set; looks like it will remain incomplete.

  12. Austen’s books are more interesting for their comments on political economy than for their heroes and heroines.

  13. “Austen’s books are more interesting for their comments on political economy than for their heroes and heroines. ”

    Yes, that’s why I read them. Her comments on Ricardian trade policy and fractional reserve banking are very enlightening.

  14. Fyodor, I’m so glad you manage to find so much! I wasn’t aware she went into that level of detail.

  15. Dear Fyodor, I know you were taking the piss. And I was taking the piss too. I have read all the books, some of them several times. The term ‘political economy’ was deliberate hyperbole, but Austen is nonetheless a very keen observer of the sources of revenue and methods of expenditure among a certain class of people. She is almost didactic in her portrayal of her heroes and heroines in this regard (for example, the housekeeper’s speech in Pride and Prejudice on the virutes of Mr Darcy as manager of his estate, guardian of his sister’s marriageability and toleration, up to a point, of Wickham’s ‘scurrilous’ profligacy). The inability of women to support themselves and the vital importance, therefore, of a sound marriage has always seemed to me the main point of her stories – all the more poignant when you know her own history of trying to get published. Miss Bennett’s sudden turnabout in attitude towards Darcy upon visiting the house (where she imagines herself the mistress) is a very pointed reference to the intimate connection between love and money, virtue and money. S&S is all about the dependence of women on men and the inability of women of ‘sense’ to pursue anything related to ‘sensibility’.

  16. Yes, Melanie, it’s so clear that all that romantic gumph (oh, you know: the plot, the characters, the dialogue – all that crap) is just a smokescreen for an underlying thesis on the brutal struggle between the classes and the sexes. Her novels make Thomas Hardy’s look like Mills & Boon – it’s the historical materialism embodied in the novels’ economic tension that keeps bringing the punters back. As opposed to Darcy’s shirt, f’rinstance…

    Sorry, taking the piss again.

  17. S&S is all about the dependence of women on men and the inability of women of ’sense’ to pursue anything related to ’sensibility’.

    Yes, if we went back to these canonical works in the high schools instead of all that terrible postmodern stuff, we’re still exposing them to stuff that will put nasty feminist ideas in their little heads.

    What to do, what do do…?

  18. Oh Fyodor, if only she’d made a TV series with Colin Firth in it instead of writing mere words! I’d have seen your point!

  19. Fyodor, let me try to blur your ‘bifurcation of masculinity’ a little bit:

    S&S: Brandon vs. Willoughby…..(and Robert Dashwood?)
    P&P: Darcy vs. Wickham……(Mr Collins?)
    MP: Bertram vs. Crawford……(I assume the Bertram you allude to is Edmund, but what about Tom? & Rushworth, and Yates, and William Price.)
    E: Knightley vs. Churchill (Mr Elton also proposes to Emma)
    NA: Tilney vs: Thorpe (yes, I agree with you about these two.)
    P: Wentworth vs. (William) Elliot (Charles Hayter? Capt. Benwick?)

    I most strenuously object to the suggestion that all Austen’s novels are more or less the same, and that this alleged sameness must derive from some biographical fact. Think about it for half a second & you’ll see how silly a notion this is. Not to mention insulting.

  20. I’m certainly not suggesting they’re all “more or less the same”. But I don’t see that it’s insulting to observe that they share structural similarities, and that these might be in some way related to Austen’s personal experience. Most obviously, all the novels turn on the heroine’s experiences in the marriage market, and it seems reasonable to suppose that Austen’s views on that market were influenced by her own experience. As I said in the post, the heroines are interestingly different and most comparisons of the novels I’ve seen focus on these differences.

  21. I don’t agree that all the novels ‘turn’ on the heroine’s experiences of the marriage market, unless by turning you mean they are all hung (with different degrees of sincerity) on that single slender peg.
    On the biographical point, it depends on whether you take “her own experience” to signal her personal skirmishes with romance, her observations of her very large & varied social network, or her deep familiarity with the courtship theme in English literature from Shakespeare onwards.

    I apologise for seeming impatient in my last comment. I don’t like it when people seem to say she produced good novels through a more or less instinctive reshaping of her personal life experiences. That does not acknowledge the conscious and deliberate side of her artistry (which is the side I value.)

  22. I think I was the first to introduce her personal experiences into this discussion. My reference was to the difficulty of getting published – i.e., having an existence independent of one’s male family members, and the fact that the marriage market theme that is present in every novel was made more poignant by that experience. Whether or not it was a theme deliberately introduced as a critique of the society she moved in, I will leave to others more expert. However, the idea that it could be an ‘instinctive reshaping’ to the neglect of ‘conscious and deliberate… artistry’ has not been introduced at any stage except by Laura.

    People often dismiss Austen as a romantic novelist – maybe a superior version of Georgette Heyer – and the founder of “chick lit”. But her self-conscious portrayal of a certain social set and its marriage market is, in my view, precisely what raises her above that genre.

    To be fair to JQ, he only raised the issue of the less diverse characterisation of men compared with women. But I think that does depend on the way the novels are structured around the marriage market. The principal characters are the women and the men are seen through their eyes and, in fact, their career ambitions.

  23. Oh! Apologies, I see JQ did introduce the issue of personal experience, but see my comment above – it’s do do with the way the novels are structured.

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