Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Tag: Advent with Austen

Endings, of Sorts

Time has been flying by this month and I’ve ended up posting this a lot later than I thought I would have. This post is a bit of a mash up of my reading over the last two weeks before Christmas – Christmas posts to follow shortly!

After my bout of complaining about Sense and Sensibility I did manage to complete Emma. I even enjoyed it. It was the first time I had read it, and found its silliness somewhat light relief after ploughing through Sense and Sensibility. I loved the character of Emma’s father; his gruel in the evening, panic at dining in company, wariness of chills, robbers, colds, overexertion, wet feet, mist, marriages… As for Emma herself, I thought she was pretty lucky that everyone was so tolerant and adoring of her. I’m not sure she’d get the same reaction today – although Cher was pretty believable in Clueless. I wonder if Austen felt a little bit of glee in sending up women like Emma (I hope so!). I suppose I read Austen for the marriages not the money, although I did miss having a heroine I truly wanted the best for.

I called it a day on Advent with Austen after that, but I was pleased with what I managed. I read Death Comes to Pemberley, Jane’s Fame, Sense and Sensibility and Emma. My conclusions are: I admire Austen for the legacy she has left and I have no desire to ever read an Austen spin off. At long last I have read all of Austen’s major novels and my order of preference is:

  • Northanger Abbey
  • Persuasion
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Emma
  • Sense and Sensibility
  • Mansfield Park
I didn’t get to read Claire Tomalin’s biography or Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon, but thats okay – they’ll just sit snugly on the shelf until their time comes.
Following the Austenathon I needed something new, but guaranteed to be brilliant. I started writing a round up of the this years reading when the solution was obvious – Margaret Atwood. She is one of my very favourite authors, who I first discovered back in January. I read The Handmaid’s Tale and was immediately hooked by Atwood’s immense talent and sheer genius. She is so intelligent and such a brilliant writer. She creates characters I feel I know inside and out, people I’ve lived with, loved, parted with, and missed as soon as the book is over. I then picked The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace to read back to back and loved them both too. So I chose the last two Atwoods on my bookshelf to see the year out as it began.
Cat’s Eye or The Robber Bride? I could read them both (and did!) but which to start with? I read the opening lines of both:
‘Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space.’ – Cat’s Eye
‘The story of Zenia ought to begin when Zenia began.’ – The Robber Bride
I eventually picked Cat’s Eye because of the introduction by Ali Smith – nothing but praise, enthusiasm and an urging sense that not reading this book means you are missing out… It turns out I had been missing out, because Cat’s Eye is a fantastic book. I absolutely fell in love with the main character, Elaine. The book is about childhood, growing up, bullying, depression, creativity and the passing of time. It was such a realistic portrayal of childhood innocence and the way the rituals and games of youth are remembered. This has definitely overtaken The Blind Assassin as my favourite of all Margaret Atwood’s book which I’ve read so far.

The Robber Bride didn’t hook me in quite the same way: it wasn’t instant love like Cat’s Eye but a growing interest in the characters. Zenia is a fantastic literary villain – after a few chapters I couldn’t believe how much I disliked her! I can’t recommend Margaret Atwood’s books enough, because I haven’t read books by many other authors with such a fantastic imagination.

Lost the Will to Austen

Advent with Austen has had the very unfortunate (and unexpected) outcome of making me unable to read any more. Before I started this, I had grown up appreciating Austen – ever since my Mum and I watched the BBC Pride and Prejudice adaptation. I was eight and had found the pinnacle of romance. We visited the stately homes, talked about the merits of and empire line and I read the book.

So far, so good. At University I had to study Mansfield Park. Despite this being Jane’s favourite I couldn’t get into it, but put that down to (a) studying it, and (b) that Mansfield Park and the heroine differs to her other novels. So even though I was never taken with Mansfield Park I still considered myself an Austen fan. A few years later I read Northanger Abbey and fell in love. Not only that, but it introduced me to a whole genre of writing that I’m still enjoying discovering. Quite recently I added Persuasion to my list, and carried on appreciating Austen.

The first book I read for Advent with Austen was Jane’s Fame by Claire Harman. I really enjoyed this book and it whet my appetite for exploring more of Austen’s writing. The best part of Jane’s Fame is how Harman captures the reception of Austen’s work through each century after publication. I also found out which authors Austen enjoyed – Samuel Richardson for one, an author I can’t wait to try, and who I cannot mention without a reference to o’s review of Clarissa (probably my favourite ever book blog review).

My overall feeling reading Jane’s Fame was guilt for not having read the major novels, let alone any of the short/ unfinished stuff. So here was my opportunity, and Sense and Sensibility was dusted off. As you may have read – I didn’t like it! But other people do! It is some people’s favourite Austen novel! Alas, even with a weeks hindsight, I still don’t see it – and everyone else’s reviews just leave me confused.

Perhaps against my better judgement I decided that finishing the big six would make me feel better so I went straight onto Emma. It has been a week, I’m barely half way through, I have 29 chapters to go and I seem to have lost all enthusiasm for reading. I’m bored. I’m bored with Austen. How has it all gone so wrong? I really and truly love three of her books. Why is she ruining this for me? Maybe this is a lesson in not just liking classics for the sake of their canonical value. I suppose its very unlikely that I’m going to love every classic I read. But the status of books as ‘classics’ heightens their worth for me – they have stood the test of time and are part of history. They shape writing today and in the case of Austen, they shape popular culture.

I’ll finish Emma, but it won’t be the achievement I thought it would be before I started. I can’t be alone in this: Are there any classic authors or novels you felt sure you would love but didn’t?

Crossing Off Sense and Sensibility

Oh no! A Jane Austen I didn’t enjoy! How can this be?!

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I didn’t like it at all, but I am very aware that if this wasn’t an Austen I would probably be more scathing. Sense and Sensibility was first written around 1795 but wasn’t published until 1811, and from what I can remember, Austen worried that it was out of date by the time it appeared in print. Could this have something to do with my dislike? My love of classics makes this unlikely… But there must be something:

  • A lack of man: Who is supposed to be the love interest in this? Where is the Wentworth / Darcy / Tilney? One man is casually engaged to the wrong woman, one man is only secretly interesting and outwardly dull, and the other man can’t even get bastardry right.
  • Money: Nobody could appreciate anything or anyone in this book because they were too busy talking about how much it cost or how rich / poor they were.

There are a couple of saving graces:

  • I kept reminding myself that this was satire and Jane Austen wasn’t advocating sensibility as the proper way forward.
  • I liked Elinor Dashwood. Not as a full on leading lady, but enough.

I haven’t seen the Emma Thompson adaptation but I’m told it fills in a lot of gaps. I’d watch it to see if it changed my opinion at all.

My latest Austen rankings go:

Northanger Abbey
Pride and Prejudice
Sense and Sensibility
Mansfield Park

Sweeping Sense and Sensibility aside and putting it down to experience, I am moving onto Emma. The conquering of Austen is nigh.

Sorting Out Sensibility

I’ve started reading Sense and Sensibility for the first time and it wasn’t until chapter ten that I suddenly thought… Sensibility… What is it? Austen’s titles are so recognisable that I never thought about the words she chose for them. A little bit of afternoon research and I feel better! Sensibility isn’t a word we use now, but it was quite the concern of the eighteenth century.

Sensibility began as a scientific concept quickly adopted by philosophers. It is based on people’s perception of and response to events. It seems to be an emotional and intellectual concern – people with sensibility often showed signs of extreme distress, tenderness and ‘fine feeling’. This popular idea inspired writers who turned it into a literary movement: the sentimental novel. For example the narrator of The Sorrows of Young Werther demonstrated a very exaggerated response to unrequited love which led to young readers following his unwise example *spoiler removed, sorry Jillian!*.

The sentimental novel seems quite similar to gothic novels: I’m particularly thinking of Ann Radcliffe’s heroines! They faint at a moments notice, love passionately and unwaveringly, and weep at the beauty of mountains. There are a couple of other authors who wrote novels about sensibility that were admired by Jane Austen, for example Samuel Richardson and Frances Burney. Towards the end of the eighteenth century the sentimental novel was no longer popular; perhaps sensibiity had become cheapened; the activities involved in being ‘sensitive’ became more associated with illness. Sense and Sensibility was a latecomer to the genre, and satirises the sentimental novel by contrasting sensibility with actual sense and reason: Elinor Dashwood is sensible and considering, whilst Marianne Dashwood is passionate:

Elinor has not my feelings, and therefore she may overlook it, and be happy with him. But it would have broke my heart had I loved him, to hear him read with so little sensibility.

I’m quite good at avoiding ever finding out the plot of classic stories if I’m likely to ever read them, so I have never seen an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility or let anyone tell me anything about the plot, so I’m curious to discover – reason or emotion – which will prevail?

And so, Advent with Austen continues. I finished Claire Harman’s Jane’s Fame last night but I think I will wait until the end of my Austen adventures to review it.

The Demise of Elizabeth Bennet

Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James

death pemberley

To me, this book shall forever raise the question ‘But what happened to Elizabeth?’ in wailing, disappointed tones.

First things first, this was the first book by P. D. James I’ve read, and I would like to read more of her detective stores. She is quite analytical and matter of fact with her criminal details, like Agatha Christie but with more characterisation. From reading Death at Pemberley, James’ love and care for Austen’s characters is obvious. As an introduction to the book she writes:

No doubt (Austen) would have replied to my apology by saying that, had she wished to dwell on such odious subjects, she would have written the story herself, and done it better.

I wouldn’t ever call Austen melodramatic, but she was good at (particularly in Pride and Prejudice) writing the hysterical characters. This story really could have done with a bit of drama. It was too subdued and matter of fact to really make the reader care. Yes, I was going to read to the end where I would find out who the murderer was, but I didn’t really care who it was. Perhaps this is the nature of trying to write a sequel: If you don’t like what you read, it doesn’t matter because it isn’t the real story anyway. I do, however, think she was spot on with her language. Death at Pemberley is split into six books, for example, which are called; ‘The Day Before the Ball’, ‘The Body in the Woodland’, ‘Police at Pemberley’, ‘The Inquest’, ‘The Trial’ and ‘Gracechurch Street’. P. D. James’ attention to detail made the atmosphere; I liked the parts of the story involving the servants of the house and the day-to-day running of it. The historical details dropped in were interesting… What is almond soup? I also enjoyed reading about early forensic science and post-mortem attempts – seems rather difficult to get your man without CSI style science!

Reading Death Comes to Pemberley as a sequel to Austen’s works, two things made me happy, and one thing was wrong. Firstly I chuckled at Anne Elliot’s cameo. Secondly I thought James was really good at writing Mr. Darcy. She managed to flesh out his back story but maintained the mysterious distance he kept during Pride and Prejudice. So that just leaves my massive MASSIVE problem with Elizabeth. What happened to her spark and independence? Why was it likely she’d become a simpering housewife? And whilst she was ‘good’ in Pride and Prejudice I’m not sure she was so blandly good. I’ve always thought my reasons for liking Elizabeth Bennet were somewhat enigmatic: she must be even more difficult to write.

Advent with Austen

November 27th until Christmas Eve is Advent with Austen. And indeed, Advent in general.


I’m planning to read as much of this list as possible, although what I don’t manage I’m sure I’ll get to at some point:

  • Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
  • Emma by Jane Austen
  • Lady Susan / The Watsons / Sanditon by Jane Austen
  • Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James
  • Jane’s Fame by Claire Harman
  • Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin
I’ve never read Sense and SensibilityEmma or the unfinished stories before so I’m looking forward to completing the Austen novels. My currently read Austen’s are ranked:
Northanger Abbey
Pride and Prejudice
Mansfield Park
It’ll be interesting to see whether this changes at all after this month. I’ll confess it is hard to imagine anything beating Northanger Abbey or anything being worse than Mansfield ParkDeath Comes to Pemberley will be my first attempt at reading an Austen sequel; it takes place six years after Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage in Pride and Prejudice. I think that if anyone could pull it off, P. D. James could – something about the tone of her writing feels possible. Other than snippets of information gathered from The Jane Austen Book Club, I know pretty much nothing about Austen herself. Claire Tomalin has written biographies of so many authors I like that I really want to actually read one. Claire Harman’s book seems to capture the spirit of Advent with Austen; what makes her so timeless and why we want to read her books today. Time to get the books out…