Jane Austen and Reader Perspective

thHow soon should the protagonist turn up? For Austen the answer was “right away” only with Emma Wodehouse. Fanny Price and Lizzy Bennett don’t appear in the first chapter of their novels. Anne enters only after her family is described in some detail. The situation of the family in Sense and Sensibility is the first thing to be described.

I didn’t realize how important this was until I had watched a few adaptations of Austen novels and noticed something interesting: when a film opens with a shot of the heroine, it is likely to be less “purist” than not. When it opens with the direct perspective of the heroine (see 1999’s Mansfield Park and 2007’s Persuasion) it takes even more liberties. But when it opens with the family, the community, it is more likely to take as many cues as possible from the book.

Until I had made this connection, I didn’t fully understand how important the setting is to Austen novels. The are not about a heroine; they are about how a heroine is functioning in a particular world. Establishing that world, be it the interaction of Mr and Mrs Bennett or the genealogy of Sir Elliot, is of central importance to an adaptation that wishes to capture some part of the soul of an Austen novel.


Kindness and Cruelty in Jane Austen

25597577Mr Bennett and Eliza Bennett love to see the absurdities in their neighbors, friends, and acquaintances. This makes for very entertaining reading: Mr Bennett egging Mrs Bennett on creates one of the most famous scenes in Western literature. Sir Elliot complaining about how ugly people in Bath are is perfectly ridiculous. Mrs Norris in her endless miserliness sometimes verges into becoming a satire of herself.

Though this makes for very lively and entertaining reading, there is a times an edge of cruelty to Austen’s depictions of absurdity. Both of Anne Elliot’s sisters say that “Anne is nothing.” Elizabeth Bennett, provoked by Mr Collins, allows him to humiliate himself and her family.

Austen clearly loves the society she writes about, but she also has no illusions about them. Fielding, in his interminable “Tom Jones,” says that people with great understanding need to learn forgiveness as well, because those who recognize the faults and limitations of others and that those others will never change can easily become cynics and disgusted with the entire human race. Austen balanced her cruelty–her cutting observations and uncaring villains–with a delicate and heartfelt kindness.

18619998This is one of those things that I learned by watching other people’s interpretations of Austen. In the two different versions of “Persuasion,” the first embraced Austen’s kindness, the second her cruelty. Characters who are pathetic and unfeeling in the earlier versions are cutting and nasty later. Sir Elliot is bumbling and careless in the ’90s version, angry and calculating in the ’07 version.

I have developed the opinion that it is probably impossible for anyone to fully bring to life this aspect of an Austen novel. The comic scenes can be comic, but to show cruel edges risks alienating viewers from characters–risks which Austen, with her freedom and talent, could take and overcome with apparent effortlessness. Elizabeth Bennett does not seriously consider marriage to Mr Darcy as attractive until she sees his beautiful property. Later, she actually spots this in her behavior and mocks it to Jane. But in the film versions, such a thing would make her seem too mercenary, too worldly. No one, truly, can match Jane Austen.

Why are there 5 Bennet Sisters?


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Let’s be honest: one of the fun parts of being widely read is editing novels in our heads. “Author A really failed to define this character properly,” “Author B really didn’t need this section where the character stays at yet another Inn (I’m looking at you Henry Fielding).” Personally, I like to take this critical editor’s eye to older novels, where editors operated differently then they do now. Victorians were clearly working in a bit of a different literary landscape, particularly when they were writing serials (Dickens, Gaskill, let’s be honest: did you need every one of those chapters?)

Having read “Pride and Prejudice” about 4 times in the last month (yes I’m obsessed, but what a wonderful obsession), I couldn’t help but poke at a few of the looser ends. Since we’re talking about Jane Austen, I had to start with the basic assumption that she is much smarter than me, so all of my questions must have an answer somewhere in the book.

The most striking “flaw’ in Pride and Prejudice is an overabundance of characters. A chunk of the characters, including Maria Lucas, Mr and Mrs Hurst, and Kitty, have no affect on the plot whatsoever. Take the Hursts: what purpose do the Hursts actually serve? They have absolutely no narrative function. They don’t do anything, which is why adaptations often leave them out. What they have is thematic significance, as an example of one of the many ways marriage can and does go wrong.

Another and larger question was: why are there 5 Bennett sisters? Kitty doesn’t actually do anything but cry over Lydia leaving and conceal information about her impending elopement. Neither of these things are actually necessary. And although each of the other sisters has a clearly defined character, Kitty is always just a parasite to Lydia.

That was where I realized I was onto something. Having 5 sisters of similar ages and identical situations in life should have been hard for a writer to juggle. But each of the characters comes out completely and utterly different, until mixing them up would be impossible. Each sister, coming from the same background of prosperous but neglectful parents, is left utterly to the development of their own character. They are in a perfect position for their selves to flourish.

Jane is kind and compassionate, always ready to see the best in others. Eliza is sensible and observing, comedic and judgemental. Mary is foolish and studious.Lydia is silly and small-minded.  Kitty…what is Kitty?

Kitty is a follower. She is, as I mentioned before, a parasite. Her oldest sisters were close, probably from a very young age. Mary doesn’t like anyone. Kitty thus had absolutely no one to turn to to exercise her instinct for flattery, enabling, and copying except for her younger sister Lydia. In a family where the parents paid attention to their children, Kitty would have been able to latch onto a governess or someone else. But Kitty is vulnerable in a way that no one else is.

She still serves no plot function. But in terms of psychology and human nature, the odd sort of hole that Kitty’s lack of independent characterization leaves in the novel makes sense.

The Wind in the Willows and the Journey Home


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“The Wind in the Willows” begins with the Mole leaving home. He sets off to have an adventure, just as everyone who leaves home beleives he or she is doing.

Yet, as the book continues, I think that the destination of every character finally poves to be home after all. The quest to return home, rather than to find adventure, is the center of every character’s journey. Mole comes back to his home at last and settles into it with joy. Rat moves in with him without discussion. Toad is willing to go to any lengths to make his way home.

We see this theme of the return home most clearly when Rat gets the urge to go “seawards first and then on shipboard, and so to the shores that are calling to me!” But the Mole physically drags Rat home at that point. And to bring Rat back to himself, to relieve him of the fever of adventure that has gripped him, he talks about casual things, about the land. About harvests and jam and winter.


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When I think of “The Wind and the Willows,” I will think a bit of Rat and Mole on the river, or wandering in the storm. I will laugh at Toad in his dress getting rides on riverboats on trains. But most of all, I will think of the image of Mole and Rat, in front of the fire in Mole’s comfortable home. Safe and snug.


The Neverending Story and the Madness of Writers


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“‘I wonder,’ he said to himself, ‘what’s in a book while it’s closed. Oh, I know it’s full of letters printed on paper, but all the same, something must be happening, because as soon as I open it, ther’s a whole story with people I don’t know yet and all kinds of adventures and deeds and battles. And sometimes there are storms at sea, or it takes you to strange cities and countries. All those things are somehow shut up in a book. Of course you have to read it to find out. But it’s already there, that’s the funny thing. I just wish I knew how it could be.”

“The Neverending Story” is a story about the creation of stories. It is about being an author, about writing a story and the paths that leads a writer down.

Bastian begins by finding a seed, a beginning of a story. Then he finds that this is not just someone else’s story: this is his story. It was somehow his story all along. Just as a writer plays with ideas in her head, reads books, doodles and makes notes: it has started, and it’s growing, and it doesn’t feel entirely within the author’s control.

Bastian, though he is part of the book now, draws back. He knows that name of the Childlike Empress, but he is afraid to speak it because he believes the inhabitants of Fantastica will hate him. Authors are afraid too, to the point of paralysis. The fear is twofold: will an audience like me? Will they care about what I say? And more important than that is a question that can eat writers alive: am I good enough to write this story?


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Then the Childlike Empress forces Bastian’s hand, creates a paradox of a story within a story. This is a glorious sequence, and in it we see the way some stories demand to be written. And once you have begun to enter a story, you can never really escape it again.

Then Bastian enters the story and is changed. At first the changes seem harmless, heroic. He is finally the writer of his own story. But the story is changing him too, just as authors find themselves changing with their creations.

This is where the story becomes very dark, as Bastian is overtaken by his own selfishness, as his desire to create new stories literally eats his mind alive. He destroys his relationships, cuts himself off from everyone.

Finally he comes to a city of mad people. Of all ages and times, they are constantly doing something and yet what they do amounts to nothing. They are what happens when authors loose to much of themselves; they are the madness which being a vehicle of creation can lead to.

But Bastian is able to escape. He still has friends who love him. He still has a home to go back to. And when he leaves Fantastica, he is himself and yet changed, new and yet old. And there is a new story, to join to part of the Neverending Story.

On William Shatner’s “Leonard” and Authorial vs. Readerly Perception


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Autobiographies are intensely biased, of course. And William Shatner is known to have quite the ego on him. But I had a strange experience reading this book: I felt as though I knew something about his relationship with Leonard Nimoy that Shatner himself had not understood. I don’t know if I’m right, but it seemed quite obvious.

As the book winds up and Shatner talks about his relationship with Nimoy in the last years of Nimoy’s life, Shatner expresses his regret that he and Nimoy had grown apart. He attributed it to Nimoy, and says he wishes he understood why Nimoy had placed such distance between them.

But to me it seems very clear. Shatner says that Nimoy decided to “major in family” in the last years of his life. Nimoy wanted to focus on his children and his wife, not on work.

But Shatner’s entire book is about a working friendship. He spends huge amounts of time listing the shows that he and Nimoy worked on, the movies and plays that they did, their forays into new areas of work. Shatner’s life is clearly about work, about his professional commitments. He chose to fulfill a professional committment rather than going to Nimoy’s funeral: that shows pretty clearly what was important in his life. One can easily imagine that most of what he talks about is work. It thus makes sense that, when one decides that they are going to set work aside and think about their family first, one does not want to spend that much time with the friend who won’t shut up about their job.


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Not only that, but one can imagine that Nimoy, forced to slow down due to illness, would have trouble listening to a friend go on and on about all the things he was doing, all the projects he was involved in.

It feels strange to draw these conclusions about real people, about a real relationship which this book gives only a tiny window into. And yet, I don’t think I’m wrong.

The Challenges of Dialect: Their Eyes Were Watching God and Huckleberry Finn

I hated reading “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in school. I just hated every second of it, every slow ponderous second. I hated it not because of the story, but because I could barely tell what the story was through the damn dialogue.


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When I read “Their Eyes Were Watching God” years later, I was also unimpressed. Yes, it has some interesting bits, but I spent so much time trying to decode what the hell anyone was saying, or what the meaning of certain sentences was, that I could barely pay attention to the language.

I was wrong. I was so, so wrong. “Huck Finn” is a hilarious book, poigniant and delightful. “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is a work of genius, of staggering beauty and with a music all its own. I found this out by buying the audiobooks.


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Words that were unbelievably irritating to read on the page were suddenly easy. Both books were read by professional actors, and they did the work I hated of decoding the dialect. And suddenly the dialect was no longer a curse: it was magical. The dialect sang. But because I could not hear the music, because I did not know the rhythm or could not stretch my imagination to it, I had missed it all.