Sunday, 27 January 2013

Jane Austen

I’ve already written about Jane Austen in last year's review of Persuasion, but I couldn’t resist penning a little something to celebrate 200 years since the publication of Pride and Prejudice. I am not the first, nor will I be the last, young woman to feel that Jane Austen’s novels have a special place in my heart. Like many my first Austen was Pride and Prejudice; in fact my introduction to her began with the much loved BBC adaptation starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. There are few authors who loom so large in our collective imaginations, and the impact she has had on literature is huge, but perhaps underrated.

Pride & Prejudice is one of the most loved novels of all time. It has the whole package: romance, humour, and excellent prose, but mostly we love it for the characters. In her leads, Austen created one of the best couples in literary history. Elizabeth is lively and likable, Darcy takes some warming too, but we love him by the end. Early on Elizabeth is tempted by the roguish Wickham. The ridiculous Mr Collins is tempered by the pragmatic Charlotte Lucas, who serves as a reminder of what society expected for young women, by marrying without affection. It was Austen’s second published novel, after Sense & Sensibility, and was an immediate success. It took a long time to make it to publication - the earliest version was written in 1796, sixteen years earlier. I suspect we have benefited from this delay, as Austen finessed the story into the novel we know and love today.

I’ve read only a very little of eighteenth & early-nineteenth century prose; the reality is very little is worth reading. Poetry was where a lot of the quality writing was. A popular novel form was the gothic novel. Unlike the later gothic novels, such as Dracula, which created atmosphere and horror, these were by and large very shlocky books. They are full of young maidens, evil men, ghosts, and candles guttering out at the worst moment. To a jaded modern audience they are hilarious. Of course there are exceptions, but it is easy to forget that Jane Austen was writing realism before it became the norm. Furthermore, to do so as a female writer was extraordinary. Unlike the Brontes, who (much later) hid behind male pseudonyms to be published, it was always known her books were written by a female, although anonymously.

Unlike the popular gothic authors, Austen wrote many admirable female characters. I am not alone in finding some hard to love, Fanny Price from Mansfield Park being the obvious choice. Even in writing those she ridiculed Austen brought female concerns into a public sphere. Their interests are still recognisable: discussing fashion, giggling over boys, worrying about how to make ends meet. Others deal with the pressing concerns of female lower gentry, such as how to lead an autonomous life when you are dependent on men. Miss Bingley and Elizabeth Bennet, or Emma and Jane Fairfax, are prime examples of how women are their own worst enemies - judging spitefully to make themselves look better, or in competition over men. She wrote a diverse range of characters, far from the simple romantic heroines her novels are associated with.

Part of this perception is due to the way her image was shaped by her family after her death. Although they were initially successful, her novels were out of print for sometime, and only popular amongst the intellectual crowd. They had a resurgence in the late Victorian era; especially after her nephew wrote a biography. In doing so he cultivated a ‘Jane Austen’ who was a fitting figure for Victorian values. The Regency period of her lifetime was very different, and Austen was a much more knowing woman than she is often credited for. It is easy for us to forget how people lived without modern hospitals; although unmarried, it would have been normal for her to care for ill members of the family, including women in childbirth (although I don’t know for a fact Austen herself did this). Victorians were notoriously prudish, but Austen must have been less so than her nephew would have liked people to think. She may have written the meek Fanny Price, but she also wrote Mary Crawford, who even makes a pun about sodomy.

The truth is very little is known about the real Jane Austen. Her sister Cassandra destroyed most of her letters after her death, and others were destroyed by her extended family. She speaks to us through her novels. In them she portrays a diverse picture of the society she lived in. Sure there are lots of things she ignored: she does not write of people outside of her class, and slavery is barely mentioned (although I have heard it argued that abolition was so widely accepted by the time she was published that it may have seemed a non-issue). She holds up a mirror to the society of her time - what it reveals is not always pretty. This is tempered by the genuine feeling at the heart of the novels. Her heroines tell us much about what hopes and dreams women held in the Regency period, and presumably what Austen herself had hoped for.

There are only two authenticated pictures of Jane Austen, both drawn by Cassandra. The first sketch is seen in nearly every edition of her books. It was not considered by her family to be a very good likeness. The second is a woman, dressed in blue, sitting outside. She faces away from us. It leaves us to imagine what she is looking at, or thinking. I rather like this image of her.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev

Anyone who takes a look at my bookshelf can tell you I like a nineteenth century novel. While it is the Victorians who really have my heart I do branch out occasionally. Ivan Turgenev is one of the lesser known Russian authors - outside of Russia that is. During his lifetime he rivalled Tolstoy for popularity, and his signature work is Fathers and Sons. Having enjoyed his novella First Love, I rather expected more from this novel. It is an interesting insight into the divides in mid-nineteenth century Russian society, but in his attempt to create characters that are emblematic of both the nihilistic and the westernised schools of thought, I felt they began to lack actual character. I suspect this problem is exacerbated by the stifling censorship Russian artists found themselves under; this is especially clear at the end of the novel.

As you can probably guess from the title, the book tells the story of two generations of Russians: Nikolai Kirsanov - a wealthy landlord, his son Arkady Kirsanov, and Arkady’s friend Yevgeny Bazarov. Bazarov is a nihilist and has recruited the impressionable Arkady to his cause. At the beginning of the story they have returned to the Kirsanov lands from St Petersburg, and find their philosophy brings them into conflict with Arkady’s father, and uncle Pavel. They both belong to the older generation of Liberals who admire Western values. We also meet in the novel characters who represent traditional Russian views, particularly Bazarov’s parents. These conflicts are tacked onto a mish-mash of lovers, broken hearts, marriages, and even a duel.

At the time of its publication the novel inspired much debate. The conflicting opinions over Russia’s future is apparently historically accurate. The young generation insisted that it did not recognise itself in Turgenev’s depiction. Likewise, the older generation did not like its depiction, although both thought the other well described. It is something of a relief that the generational bashing we see in bollocks newspaper articles (Gen Y is narcissistic, the baby boomers are greedy) is nothing new. At times though I wondered if the real answer is that neither is very well depicted.

It isn’t bad. I’m not saying ‘it is a terrible novel, what have the Russians been thinking for 150 years!’ I just found it uncompelling. This is partly because Turgenev relies too much on telling us things, rather than making them be. Bazarov’s mother is an excellent example of this. For most of the book she bursts into tears every time she thinks of her son, and professes herself almost to frightened to talk to him. Turgenev devotes a few paragraphs to describing this woman, her superstitions, how she doesn’t read books or write many letters, her phobias of mice, frogs, sparrows etc etc. Then suddenly asserts that she is ‘in her own way not at all stupid’. Really? Because you kind of convinced me she was an incredibly stupid woman.

The main problem with this novel, though, is the end. To give a nice neat ending Turgenev resorts to killing off a character. It is done in a particularly ridiculous way. This ending enabled him to get the book published without incurring wrath from the censors. Anything other than an acceptance of the status quo in Russia would have been risky and Turgenev had reason to be wary, having been exiled to his country estates once before. One does wonder what he would have written if he could have. It certainly reads like a missed opportunity.