Little Strangers and Haunted Mansions

Author L.P. Hartley once claimed that the ghost story was the hardest literary discipline because there is “no intermediate step between success and failure. Either it comes off or it is a flop.”

This makes life especially difficult for the 21st century writer. It’s so easy these days to see viscerally horrifying images whether in film, video games, or the internet. Surely an art honed to explore more intangible terrors — a thinning of the dividing line between the living and the dead, for instance — has little chance of making an impact on our jaded senses.

It’s curious then to re-read two favourite novels and find that supernatural fiction — subtle, character-driven, and thoughtful — has lost none of its power to invade the unconscious mind and awaken existential terror.

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Privilege and Class Envy, Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger

Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, published in 2009, opens with a memory: A general practitioner, Dr. Faraday, recalls a boyhood Empire Day fête on the grounds of ‘Hundreds Hall’, the grand home of his mother’s former employers, the Ayreses. It is the summer after the Great War. As his mother was once in service for the family, the boy is allowed the rare privilege of sneaking briefly beyond the servants’ quarters into the main part of the house.

Astounded by the beauty of the place, he surreptitiously takes out his penknife, cuts a plaster acorn from its molding, and hides it in his pocket, a “crime” which becomes a guilty secret for a clever, well-behaved future physician. As he looks back, he realizes it was as if “the admiration itself, which [he] suspected a more ordinary child would not have felt, entitled [him] to it.”

The episode awakens the novel’s theme. The Little Stranger is set amidst the societal upheavals of late 1940s Britain, the growth in social housing, universal health care etc., and the decline of the landed gentry. The fortunes of the Ayreses have long since slumped and Hundreds Hall has similarly fallen into disrepair. Meanwhile, the former village boy has risen far enough in status to tend the family servants and even to socialize with the new generation of Ayreses.

Times are changing. Siblings Caroline and Roderick Ayres complain that their ailing maid, Betty, is in many ways better off than them. Dr. Faraday sees the self-delusion in such sentiments, yet he’s also drawn to the the Ayreses. He finds himself regretting how Caroline’s hands have become grimy from peeling her own vegetables. Like many of Waters’s characters, Dr. Faraday is at once complex, convincing, and full of internal contradictions. He resents the young aristocrats for the liberties they take yet yearns for the time when they might have lived in the splendor their parents would have expected for them.

Betty, the maid, isn’t exactly sick. She is frightened of a house full of winding servants’ staircases and obsolete gadgets like the the call bells and wires, that “imperious little machine designed to summon a staff of servants to the grander realm above.” The silence in the house is “so pure, it [feels] pressurized.”

As various mishaps occur — unexplained burn marks on the walls, a child attacked at a social gathering, apparently, by Caroline’s dog Gyp — Dr. Faraday gets closer and closer to the Ayreses, even beginning an unlikely courtship with Caroline. Caroline becomes Hundreds Hall’s most likely heir as her brother’s mental health is threatened.

But is Dr. Faraday really in love with Caroline? Or is he more enamored with the idea of possessing the house? An unwholesome, subtly corrupt atmosphere leaks through the seams of ordinary life as Dr. Faraday struggles with the legacy of class divisions and his own covetousness.

The Little Stranger walks a remarkable line uniting two elements which ought to be mutually exclusive: it creates a sense of logic, a cause and effect, between living characters and supernatural events. Yet those same occurrences remain the province of an unfathomable mystery.

Fifty years before The Little Stranger, Shirley Jackson published The Haunting of Hill House, another seminal work of the supernatural.

Like The Little Stranger, The Haunting of Hill House is peopled by characters as three dimensional as any in fiction, and it features a house which becomes a living part of the plot.

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Disorienting Angles, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House

Eleanor Vance, sole carer of her long-ailing mother, finds that when her charge dies she has no career, no friends, and at thirty-four years of age lives as a permanent but unwelcome guest in her sister’s home.

A series of poltergeist-like events in her youth means Eleanor has been picked as one of the subjects of a summer-long experiment run by Dr. John Montague, an academic studying the supernatural. Dr. Montague wants to observe what happens when susceptible people — possible mediums — spend a couple of months in a notoriously haunted home, the Hill House of the title.

Seeing the project as an escape and an overdue adventure, Eleanor arrives with a heightened sense of excitement. Meeting the bohemian Theodora, a fellow subject, Eleanor invents a life for herself in which she, like Theodora, has her own apartment.

The house, Dr. Montague explains, was designed by its original owner, Hugh Crain, eighty years before and deliberately built with disorienting tilts and angles so that guests become easily lost.

The family history of the Crains is unhappy. Two daughters were left in the house as the widowed Crain took a new wife abroad where he died. One sister inherited and fell out with her sibling who was then accused of breaking in at night and stealing objects.

As Dr. Montague’s subjects settle into Hill House, disturbances begin to occur at night. Something makes a deafening clang along the upstairs landing. Voices murmur through the walls and there is a child’s mocking laughter. Cryptic messages, aimed apparently at Eleanor, appear in huge chalk letters over the walls, and Theodora’s clothes are vandalized and smeared in blood. A nighttime walk for Eleanor and Theodora suddenly turns into blinding daylight and they scramble back to the house, traumatized.

Later in the novel, Luke, one of the company, and the heir to Hill House, reads from a book created by Crain for the eldest of his daughters. Though religious in tone, the language Crain uses reveals a narcissism bordering on blasphemy; he looks forward to when his daughter can be reunited with her father in heaven. But the “father” he refers to is himself. This, the book’s lurid, sexual illustrations which purport to be moral lessons, and an immodest statue self-portrait suggest Hugh Crain was, and might still be, a deeply baleful presence in the house.

Eleanor is the subject most affected by Hill House. She becomes curiously awake to every  movement, even those in distant rooms. “Far away, upstairs, perhaps in the nursery, a little eddy of wind gathered itself and swept along the floor, carrying dust. In the library the iron stairway swayed, and light glittered on the marble eyes of Hugh Crain.”

Theodora, and the others, suspect some of the disturbances revolve around Eleanor’s psychokinetic powers. Eleanor herself senses the house wishes to consume her and make her its own.

These novels, to echo the words of L.P. Hartley, both “come off” admirably in the supernatural sense, but they also satisfy every other literary criteria. Both The Little Stranger and The Haunting of Hill House achieve high levels of supernatural frisson without allowing the ghostly elements to dominate the characters’ individual psychology. In both cases the protagonists are uncomfortably real, and the hauntings in some way relate to their yearnings or their fears.

Neither Waters nor Jackson try to solve the riddle of the universe. They don’t give their hauntings an explanation, just a series of provocative hints and implications. This, in the end, is part of what makes the novels so memorable.

Nothing is more compelling than a question left unanswered.

 

 

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Preservation, Change, and Jane Austen: Book Club Q & A, Five

Here’s a composite question gathered from several sent to me over the summer (many thanks to Nikki, Clarissa, Meg, and Colleen):

Q. When writing The Widow’s Fire how did you decide when to preserve Jane Austen’s approach, when to alter it, and when to oppose it?

A. I’ll start with something specific; one question was why I chose a first person narrative for Captain Wentworth, Mrs. Smith, Nurse Rooke, and Plato.

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Symmetry and Contrast: The Widow’s Fire, a 21st Century Response to Persuasion

Jane Austen didn’t use first person narrative, except in the special sense of a character (for instance Emma‘s Miss Bates) going into an extended monologue. Why then did I decide on this mode?

One compulsory element when re-entering the literary creation of another is contrast. My most obvious model for The Widow’s Fire was Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’s 1966 prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Wide Sargasso Sea makes no attempt to mimic Bronte’s prose style and if an anti-colonial theme is present at all in Jane Eyre — as it is in Rhys’s novel — it is unexplored.

I wanted The Widow’s Fire to signal departure straightaway by plunging the reader into the consciousness of each character. Each narrator has a distinct philosophy which they express for themselves; each inhabits their own moral universe.

But I also wanted my narrators to carry a wisp of the Austenesque flourish. Jane addresses the reader directly. She editorializes when she feels like it. And when it most suits her, she pulls away from the drama to give a general overview of the future.

While there is no omniscient narrator in The Widow’s Fire, I did see a chance of splitting an Austenesque-style omniscient voice into several characters. Each of the first person narratives in my novel — Plato, Captain Wentworth, Mrs. Smith, and Nurse Rooke — retain control. They too address the reader directly. They editorialize, like Jane, when they feel like it, and, like Jane, they reserve the right to pull away from the drama to give an overview of the future.

So I had, in effect, a narrative approach which was both opposite and the same.

When it came to plot, I didn’t want to contradict the events in Persuasion, but I did intend to give some events radically different interpretations, especially when it came to exploring the hidden levers of power. The most notable of these in Persuasion is information, its giving and withholding.

Mrs. Smith, in Persuasion, does both when it serves her purposes. She doesn’t tell Anne  that Mr. Elliot is a scoundrel when she might gain from their marriage, then, when marriage is off the table, she does tell Anne about Mr. Elliot’s character in order to retain Anne’s sympathies. As Mrs. Smith takes centre stage in The Widow’s Fire, so does the politics of information. The possibilities opened up for me at an early stage when Mrs. Smith whispered in my ear that she could be not only the holder of information; she could also be a procurer.

My theme, like Persuasion‘s theme, is love, how we define love and how love sustains itself. My brief was to expand love beyond the romantic kind by making each of the characters (except Mrs. Smith) a seeker as in Plato’s Symposium.

Had Austen been writing a hundred-plus years later, a member of the Bloomsbury set perhaps, I suspect she would have tackled a broader definition of love, and she would have done so with the insight we expect from her.

I think a project like mine is all about the ‘what ifs’ of literature.

The Widow’s Fire is available from Inanna Publications, many independents bookstores, the Chapters-Indigo Chain in Canada, Barnes and Noble in the US, Waterstones in the UK.

 

 

 

 

Unchained Man, Q & A with Maura Hanrahan

A lifetime of interest and 13 research years research has yielded Maura Hanrahan‘s biography of Captain Bob Bartlett, Unchained Man: The Arctic Life and Times of Captain Robert Abram Bartlett. Maura researched at the archives of Bowdoin College, Maine; Dartmouth College, New Hampshire; Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge; The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London; The University of Greenland, Nuuk; Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa; as well as The Rooms Provincial Archives, Newfoundland and Labrador. In Unchained Man, the depth of research shows.

Here is my Q & A with Maura:

Q. 1. In your newly-released book Unchained Man: The Life and Times of Captain Robert Abram Bartlett (Boulder Publications), the reader has the delight of experiencing some of Bartlett’s most famous escapades in greater detail and with a special focus on the social and cultural context of exploration in Bartlett’s era. The book draws attention to the way that the contributions of Indigenous people are minimized, for instance. For me it was like hearing about Bartlett’s adventures for the first time. Far from weighing down the writing, the sense of context actually brought everything, including Bartlett’s extraordinary physical achievements, vividly to life. Did it come naturally to you? Or did you have to work at keeping it pacey and fresh even while the book sheds light on matters of background and social history?

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MH: My goal was to tell Bartlett’s story but not in a Boy’s Own hero kind of way, the way it’s often been told. Without fleshing him out, Bartlett remains a symbol. You can read anything into a symbol but you are missing out an unparalleled true story. Bartlett wasn’t in the Arctic on his own—he was part of ships’ crews, scientific teams, and he was the boss of — as well as friend to — Inuit ‘assistants.’ At home in Brigus, he was an involved family member and the heir to a remarkable seagoing tradition with all the pressure this involved. In New York, where he spent most of his adult life, Bartlett was part of Manhattan high society. Internationally, he was among the elite world of explorers, his every move and plan followed by, for instance, the Times of London. I was interested in how he navigated all those roles and how he lived them. Was it an integrated or as a fractured person? Or as something in between?

I’ve spent time in the Arctic and subarctic as an academic and as a land claims researcher so the geophysical context was always revealing itself to me. Like Bartlett, I fell in love with the northern landscape and the deep feelings of peace it engenders. I worked with Inuit so I came to understand and respect their role in exploration; it’s something many Inuit say they deserve more credit for (even though exploration also caused harm to Inuit society). Though Inuit are still backgrounded, as the book is a biography of Bartlett, I think it’s a step in support of Inuit.

So you have this incredible stories which almost tell themselves, they are so riveting. I did research in four countries to get as much detail as I could. By adding context, different events make more sense or take on more meaning. I had a great deal of fun writing this, picturing Bartlett on Wrangel Island or a dinner at the Explorers Club and so on.

Q. 2. One of the themes which emerges quite early and remains throughout this book is Bartlett’s loneliness. His sense of isolation is really quite vivid, particularly in New York, as were his periods of hunger. Was this something that emerged slowly from the research and did it surprise you?

MH: Bartlett’s loneliness emerged slowly. I knew he wasn’t married when I started the research but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t contented or someone who didn’t fit in. As I delved into archival research, I began to recognize his loneliness, not just as an acquired trait, but something that was inherent in his personality, something he had to tend to and follow. Emily White’s book, Lonely, explains this phenomenon very well. What surprised me was the complexity of his personality, including the depth of this aspect.

 Q. 3. One of the aspects explored in this book is that Bartlett’s public persona – the one we see in his own ghostwritten books – was at times quite sharply at odds with the man. He was in some ways well ahead of his time in the sense of having a “media” image – bluff, no nonsense, jovial — he wore like a mask. Just how self-aware do you think he was about this?

MH: Bartlett was intelligent and usually knew what he was doing. The lecture circuit was big in the 1920s and 1930s with many speakers’ bureaus in New York. The PR machine was in full swing and Bartlett knew how the play the game. Some of the letters between him and his agents demonstrate this and I’ve quoted them in the book. He wasn’t entirely cynical about this; he needed money to fund his trips to the Arctic, where he wanted to be.

Q. 4. There are some haunting passages about Bartlett’s private yearnings. Without giving too much away, did some of the letters in your research make you stop cold? Did you ever think you had suddenly found the “real Bob Bartlett”?

MH: I think I got to the core of his longing and sadness and how and where he found some relief, besides being in the Arctic which was always a balm for him. Jennifer Niven, who wrote the best-selling book, The Ice Master, refers to him as “enigmatic” in her endorsement of Unchained Man. He was indeed. Enigmatic people always have a fascinating story so I hope I’ve got to the kernel of Bartlett’s. It’s certainly time for us to get to know and understand him as a real person, not a cardboard cut-out hero. I have loved spending all these years with him.

Praise for Unchained Man

Wayne Johnston, The Navigator of New York:

Maura Hanrahan has written a fine book about one of Newfoundland’s most famous seamen and arctic explorers, Bob Bartlett. In Unchained Man—meticulously researched and finely written—she has come closer than any writer yet to solving the enigma of the great Bob Bartlett. From the haunting sinking of the Karluk to the epic struggle to reach the North Pole with Admiral Peary, Hanrahan depicts Bartlett as a flawed but extraordinary human being. This book is unforgettable, a must read for lovers of the literature of exploration and the still uncharted region of the Arctic.

Jennifer Niven, the New York Times best-selling author of The Ice Master:

A riveting comprehensive portrait of one of the most dynamic and enigmatic sea captains the Arctic has ever seen. Robert Abram Bartlett was larger than life, his adventures the stuff of legends. Maura Hanrahan expertly recounts the long overdue, very true story of this understated polar hero in engaging, dramatic prose.

Catching the Light by Susan Sinnott, Q & A

In a break from the book club Q & As, I’m delighted to present a series of questions and answers with highly talented new novelist Susan Sinnott. Susan’s much anticipated novel Catching the Light has just been published by Vagrant Press (Nimbus Publishing).

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In Catching the Light two young people from a Newfoundland outport — athletic, extrovert Hutch; and shy, creative Cathy — are brought together against the odds when they both end up studying in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Their journey is about more than geography. Cathy, when we first meet her, has a severe learning disability and has to repeat the same grade over and over. But her talent as an artist has given her the chance to transcend bad luck and a history of isolation. Hutch has been severely injured on a coach trip. This puts an end to his athletic prowess, and the ease with which he relates to the rough and tumble masculine world he knows. Catching the Light is a tale of how people on the fringes of society, either by upbringing or accident of fate, try to overcome their circumstances. It is a story of human interconnections too, and a deeply touching one.

Question 1: I’d like to talk about theme first. Catching the Light is a deeply compassionate novel. The narrative relates with such empathy and understanding to vulnerable people, people with fears, hopes struggles. Pain hovers around the story of Cathy in particular. Are you drawn to characters in fiction with the hardest struggles?

Susan: I think fictional characters always need a struggle of some sort to make them interesting: a yearning for something hard to reach, obstacles to deal with. The Hutch character grew out of my health care background, from seeing lives and plans being upended after physical trauma and seeing how difficult it is for people to adapt, to accept. Hutch had never faced the word “can’t” in his life until the accident and an eighteen year old is at such a vulnerable age and can react in such unpredictable ways, some quite destructive.
Cathy’s struggles were different, beginning early and increasing as she grew older. Of children with literacy problems, only a few have an actual learning disability, like dyslexia. Most simply become left behind in school. I wanted to explore the causes and effects of being “left behind.” With Cathy, the obvious problems with reading and writing would prevent her from attending art school, but the more insidious problem of her difficulties interacting with people made her socially isolated, so she was heading towards a very limited life.

Question 2: There is always a sense that being an outcast (as Cathy feels she is) is actually a little less painful than the first steps of receiving help. When new arrival Sarah Brooks gets involved as a mentor and support, Cathy has to open up and trust. This aspect is very vivid. Self-reliance is not always healthy. In this respect, the novel is a kind of eulogy to the power and importance of community. How central to your artistic belief was this aspect?

Susan: Absolutely central. The effort Cathy had to make to catch up scholastically would be huge but straightforward. However, avoidance had always been her way of dealing with social problems. Letting down the barriers and making herself listen to people and respond appropriately would be very painful, and would require a lot of courage and endurance and practice. This change in behaviour would be every bit as difficult as Hutch’s. It would also take time before she felt any benefits of being more “part of” instead of “outside of”.

Question 3: Your own experience as a come-from-away, if you’ll excuse the term, is reflected, I’m guessing, in the character of Sarah. What are the advantages and disadvantages when it comes to a writer originally from another country, or province, setting their story in Newfoundland.

Susan: I’m not sure about the CFA because I think I’m more here than there! I’m very careful of differences in attitudes and customs and especially in this province in diction, which can change from one area, or even one community, to the next. This is not all bad—in fact it’s fascinating! I had to check on geographical, generational, social and especially linguistic differences in every sentence I wrote, but I think I would have done that if I had grown up here. My husband and children were all born here, which helped, but they’re all townies so I still had to check with people from the north-east coast. It would be a shame always to have to write as an outsider. This has been my home for over forty years and I’ve been away from England far too long to set a story there. If you want to write from inside a character’s head, as I tried to do, you need to write as an insider, which is taking a risk of course. I just hope I haven’t made too many mistakes.

Question 4: Sarah is an intriguing third point of a triangular narrative. She doesn’t have a struggle that corresponds with Cathy’s or Hutch’s yet she provides a connection to the reader. She reminds me of a narrator in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. The themes in Wilder’s play are also about community. I think it works very well in Catching the Light. I’m wondering if you saw Sarah as a kind of alternate narrator, one who would be on the ground, among the weeds, interacting with the characters.

Susan: That is how I saw Sarah when I began writing the novel, but as I re-wrote draft after draft, the outside view became less and less necessary and her part shrank. She still played an important role as Cathy’s mentor in the first half of the book, and to show Cathy’s development near the end, but as Hutch and Cathy’s voices became stronger, so her voice as a narrator became less important.

Question 5: What’s next for you? Do you feel like working more with these characters, or related ones? I’m sure you want to check in on how their lives turn out later on. Or are you thinking of something quite different?

Susan: I’m currently working on a generational novel about a family with a secret, not at all related to this story. However I have ideas about what happens to everyone in Catching the Light so I may come back to them at some point.

Catching the Light is available from Nimbus, from amazon, and in all good bookshops. It is highly recommended.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Book Club Q & A, Two

Here’s a question from Sue and her book club in Chicago.

Sue: Which, in your opinion, is Jane Austen’s best novel?

Thanks for this, Sue. It’s an extremely difficult question to answer for the reason that the answer is usually the last one I’ve read. Because the wit is woven deeply into the fabric of Austen’s prose, I tend to forget how much pleasure each novel gives me until I come around to reading the novel afresh.

But looking back on each as though remembering a landscape, I think Pride and Prejudice stands out for its sheer entertainment value, wit and wonderful characters, and for the symmetry of its plot, while Emma has all the attributes necessary for a modern — and, by some definitions, realist — novel. Emma of all Austen’s novels gives us the most lifelike conflict between the emotional desires of the protagonist on the one hand and the demands of her environment on the other.

Emma

Emma causes most of her own problems, as people tend to do in real life, and her life’s goals are attained when, in modern parlance, she ‘gets over herself’. This is a similar pattern to most of Nick Hornby’s novels (written in the last couple of decades) and it works so well for many of the same reasons: a particular kind of honesty on the part of the writer, a painful process of change and growth on the part of the protagonist. There is also that delicious sense that the reader guesses things in advance that Emma, with all her blind spots, misses.

Having said that, each time I’ve come back to Northanger Abbey, I feel as though my memory has seriously under-rated it. Ditto with Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion is such a likeable novel too.

The only novel I have trouble swallowing is Mansfield Park. Although I admire all the writing craft as much as her other novels, I’m one of those readers who finds something unsatisfactory in the way protagonist Fanny Price is put on a moral pedestal. Members of her slave-owning adoptive family are often spiteful and shallow yet she clearly prefers their company to that of her own humble family, e.g. her “slatternly” mother of whom she is ashamed although her only crime appears to be poverty. I come away from Mansfield Park feeling exasperated.

If there is a perfect symmetry to Pride and Prejudice, I think the reverse is the case with Mansfield Park. The novel asserts Fanny’s moral superiority but falls a long way short of proving it.

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Sylvestra Le Touzel as Fanny Price in an 1983 BBC adaptation

But there is evidence than Austen might have been aware of this. While Austen had been merely satirizing the critics by calling Pride and Prejudice “too light and bright and sparkling,” Mansfield Park’s more moralizing tone suggests she just might have been overcompensating against any future charge of frivolity. In any case, she didn’t make the mistake of creating another heroine like Fanny Price.

Persuasion’s Anne Elliot is good, yes, but Austen wisely doesn’t try to portray her as a saint. She suffers for her own mistake (rejecting Captain Wentworth when young). Through Austen’s handling of this demure but believable heroine, Persuasion has that sense of maturity and balance that makes it a fitting finale to the Austen canon.

So that’s my answer. All of them are my favourite at different times, except one.

Feel free to respond with your own view of Austen’s best novel!