Book Club Q & A, Four

Here’s a question from Dana in Birmingham:

I’ve been wondering why are so many [Jane Austen] enthusiasts talking about Frankenstein? I thought you might have some ideas on this because there are a lot of Gothic ideas in your novel.

 

Great question, Dana!

The reason why Gothic flavours invade Persuasion‘s landscape in The Widow’s Fire is because of the enormous contrast between the two worlds.

Gothic literature — which can be briefly characterized as incorporating lurid or ghostly themes, metaphysical explorations, or a preoccupation with death and decay — is so far removed from Austen’s sensibilities that she acknowledges its existence only through satire.

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Definitely not Austen: Charles Ogle in the 1910 Edison film of Frankenstein

In Persuasion, grief- stricken Captain Benwick broods day and night over his departed fiancée, reading morbid poetry, only to fall gleefully in love with someone else at the earliest opportunity.  Catherine Morland’s  Gothic intrigues in Northanger Abbey are merely symptoms of her immaturity. So Jane really didn’t have all that much time for Gothic fiction.

Gothic literature existed before, during, and after Jane Austen’s productive period. Frankenstein was published in 1818, a year after Jane Austen’s death, and the same year Persuasion was posthumously brought into the world.  But while gender and anniversaries have conspired to group Austen and Shelley together of late,  they are, as writers, as far from each other  as it is possible to get.

Austen’s work is about making sense of the nuances of conduct in the extraordinarily constricted world in which the author herself lived. Frankenstein values physical adventure, the exhilaration of travel, and active political involvement. Shelley, like her philosopher mother Mary Wollstonecraft, was a feminist before the term itself was coined.

And Frankenstein is a coded feminist novel.

One overarching metaphor in Frankenstein is a critique of the story of Eve as presented through Christian dogma. Frankenstein‘s creature is made (it is implied) from bits and pieces of cadavers (think Adam’s rib) then becomes an object of horror to everyone it comes across. Though denied love and nurturing, the creature  gets the education it needs by stealth, reading a purloined copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost and other key works of western culture at the time. When the creature takes over the narrative in the novel, it shocks both the reader and its creator with its eloquence.

This is very far from the drawing room of Mansfield Park and begs the question what would Jane Austen have thought of Frankenstein had she lived long enough to read the novel?

Instinct suggests two possible answers, as opposite to each other as the authors themselves.

First the negative: While Austen’s novels show no obvious signs of religious devotion, Shelley’s allegorical attack on Christian orthodoxy would surely have been seen by Austen, the daughter of a clergyman, as extreme. Even if the ‘creation of woman’ myth bypasses the reader, Frankenstein still reads like the work of a religious skeptic: A mad scientist creates, then callously abandons, his creature. The implication from Shelley is that, if a Christian god exists, this is surely how He has treated us all. This feeling becomes more powerful as most readers’ empathy is drawn more to the abandoned creature than to any other character.

All in all, hardly Regency society’s model of propriety.

On the plus side, however, Austen did understand audacity, and she appreciated it too. Her humour comes from this quality more than any other; she put a radical kind of wit into the mouths of some of her most likeable heroines, Pride and Prejudice‘s Elizabeth Bennet, for instance. She saw nothing wrong in a young woman’s observations cutting conventional logic to ribbons if the logic was faulty.

More importantly, the creature’s story in Frankenstein is also Austen’s story, as much as it is any woman author’s story from the period. Her brilliance had to be hidden from human view. When Sense and Sensibility appeared in 1811 it was credited to “a Lady”; its follow up, Pride and Prejudice, was attributed to “The author of Sense and Sensibility”.

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Illicit talent: the original title page of Austen’s first novel.

Though on opposite poles in many ways both authors are connected by a common theme. Eloquence, from some quarters, is an illicit quality. Perhaps this is why, 200 years on, we tend to put Frankenstein’s creature and Jane Austen together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Book Club Q & A, Three

Here’s a composite Q & A entry put together from a few book club questions.

Question: (combined and paraphrased): What made you focus on Persuasion’s Mrs. Smith and Captain Harville when it came to challenging Jane Austen’s characterizations?

Answer: One of the themes in The Widow’s Fire is that we only see the world clearly from the gutter, from the perspective of the outcast. This perspective is the one consistently missing from Jane’s canon.

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Amanda Root — Anne Elliot, in a 1995 TV adaptation of Persuasion

Anne Elliot, though thoughtful and perceptive, is an aristocrat. While her immediate family tends to undervalue her, most of society has good reason to be at their best for her, and this is a disadvantage from her point of view. In Persuasion as written by Austen, Anne does give Mrs. Smith a free pass even though her actions in promoting the match between Anne and Mr. Elliot, her cousin, are dubious and self-interested. This was initially what whetted my postcolonial appetite.

The questions it spawned for me as a 21st century author started with this one: If Anne is wrong in her judgement of Mrs. Smith, what else is she wrong about?

I don’t think this reduces Anne as a heroine. She has no option but to accept people at face value. To do otherwise would make her unreasonably untrusting. But I wanted to impose a political context on Austen’s world and ask some tough questions. What would each of Austen’s characters make of the servant class, for instance? What would they think of people living in real poverty (rather than the gentile kind of Emma’s Miss Bates and Mrs. Bates or indeed Mrs. Smith)?

What if some of the characters who are kindly and perfectly mannered in front of people like Anne and her relatives were anything but kindly and perfectly mannered when confronted by someone very far from the social class they aspire to mix with? This is where Plato, a former slave, comes in because he is practically invisible to the pageant of Austen’s characters. Yet he sees everything and has opinions about everyone. His opinion of Captain Harville is diametrically opposite to Anne’s opinion. I find it fascinating to find inner, contradictory worlds within the ones we know about in Austen.  And, paradoxically, it is a way of making the original novel live again.