Thursday, June 04, 2009

An Evening Outing at the University Library

It was such a beautiful evening that we made the 40-mile trip to the university library, staring at lush green fields, a bright blue sky, and occasional cows and horses. Rifling through our CDs, I could not find anything we could agree to listen to. Query: why are there so many Talking Heads albums in the car? A few weeks ago I mentioned that David Byrne has a new book on bicycling in the fall, and suddenly Talking Heads CDs are GROWING in the car. But we can’t really sing along with those: we don’t know the words, so we compromised with 10,000 Maniacs, though I haven’t the faintest idea what Natalie Merchant is singing, either.

The campus is beautiful: we passed softball fields, the Union, the Bell Tower, the Administration Building with the exhausting staircase, Caribou, and then arrived at the library. Nobody was there: too lovely for students to stay inside, but perfect for doddering adults like us. This is an unusually pretty library: lots of light, comfortable chairs, and five floors of good browsing. You can find everything here from coal miners’ narratives to Compton Mackenzie to Persuasions magazine (the JASNA journal) to small-press books of poetry.

This time I went mainly for non-fiction and poetry, operating on the premise that my house overflows with great novels, letters, and literary diaries.. Waiting on the shelf was Elaine Showalter’s A Jury of Her Peers, the new acclaimed study of American women’s literature, which, at a glance, I can tell I’ll be skimming rather than reading, as I have read everything she mentions after the first 125 pages, from the Civil War on. (There was a fantastic American Studies department at my university.) Switching over to my typical English obsession, I found Sir Thomas Wyatt: The Complete Poems, edited by R. A. Rebholz (Yale University Press), with great notes, which I needed and appreciate. I added a mystery, Nicolas Freeling’s The Janeites, because, temporarily at least, I'm obsessed with Jane.

Speaking of Jane, I’m almost finished rereading Mansfield Park. This novel has grown in my esteem: I can't tell you how much I admire this muted comedy, though last summer I was lukewarm (read here). Fanny is a quiet kind of heroine, but she certainly has spirit and a sharp intelligence, and I'm fascinated by the theater scenes that enliven and in many cases render insensitive the Bertram and Crawford families. Strangely, I rather guiltily prefer Henry Crawford to Edmund, though of course Henry has bad morals, betrays the Bertram sisters, etc. Edmund is dull, not my ideal romantic figure, and his flirtation with Mary Crawford irritates me more than Henry's flirtation with the Bertram sisters, because poor Fanny has to witness it. Of course Edmund is meant to be handsome and animated, as Mary Crawford AND Fanny fall for him; Fanny's crush develops over many years: the two have an affinity. The best i can say for him is that he's quietly witty. In the end one doesn't really want Henry for Fanny: the Crawfords let us down in a BIG way, a result of their light morals and tainted education.

This summer I appreciate the slower pace and less rackety voice. I'm not expecting a satire like P&P, so I'm enjoying it for what it is. As always with good books, I'm in suspense, wondering if maybe the ending will change...


Danielle said...

How impressive that you've read so many of the books in Showalter's Jury of Her Peers. I don't read enough American Lit and would like to rectify that, but I've done a lousy job this year. I've never read Mansfield Park by the way (I have two unread Austen novels that I'd like to get to this year), but I may have to reread Pride and Prejudice first (it just sounds good at the moment!).

Ellen said...

What a lovely blog. You conveyed your real pleasure in the evening out and drive and university.

I suggest maybe we are not supposed to find Edmund that attractive. He's supposed to be obtuse: remember how he thinks Aunt Norris wants to take Fanny in and will be good to Fanny as a companion (!). He has to be blind not to see that Fanny couldn't care less about Henry. He doesn't see what is happening to Maria; even his father sees a part of this (the father tries to stop the marriage). So if, like Tom, he's supposed to be big, healthy, blonde and probably handsome, in fact personally he's not supposed to be gifted or special or insightful. He is kind and ethical and has been the only one in the family to treat Fanny with love. That's why she loves him.

_A Jury of Her Peers_ looks so long and I have so much I want to read as well as see.


Mad Housewife said...

Danielle, I read more English than American literature, too. I took some really, really good American Studies/Women's Studies courses. And some of the writers, like Glaspell, I discovered through Persephone. (My anglophilia brought an American writer to me. It figures.)

Ellen, I'm mystified by Edmund. How can Mary Crawford and Fanny both be in love with him? I can understand Fanny's loyalty, but Mary seems so lively. She must see his good qualities, too.

Ellen said...

It's made believable that Fanny loves him by having him be so kind to her, and by their congenial natures: love of reading, of nature, of quiet. She is herself desperately starved for respect & affection and he alone gives it to her. She has been separated from her nuclear family and feels treated derisively or like a servant or marginalized by all the Bertrams except Edmund.

But he is dense, and obtuse, and without having to make an argument for this it seems to me highly unlikely any Henry Crawford would go for Fanny no matter how much she didn't want him. What would he care? This is fairy tale -- as is the idea a man of Darcy's wealth and stature would consider marrying Elizabeth Bennet. Austen performs card tricks on us.

Another "deeper" reason for the oddities of love in _MP_ I think is Austen loses perspective: I see in the book quasi-incestuous patterns and Fanny's love for Edmund and William mirror Austen's own deep attachment to her brother, especially Francis whom she wrote diligently for years. Those letters were destroyed, 3 packets of them.

I mean to say how I've loved _MP_ myself since age 15 and it's never much left my mind since. These unrealistic things don't detract from the inward power and beauty of the book somehow.


Mad Housewife said...

I accepted Fanny's sudden blooming as the reason for Henry's interest. yet it is strange: a reluctant Cinderella story teaching you to beware of the prince. Fanny knows that love is all fun and games to Henry. But his good deeds! So many of them! And it's simply play for the rich man! Austen gets us back down to earth fast.

Vintage Reading said...

I'm quite fond of Henry Crawford, too. He's not that bad really, by today's standards at least! Good post.

Mad Housewife said...

Two Henry fans! I'm glad I'm not alone.