Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Jane Austen Readathon

Steady, gals. It’s time for my annual Jane Austen readathon. Settle back in the wicker chair with your green iced tea and your Austen book of choice. I bought a couple of crisp new Penguins to replace my aging dilapidated copies of Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park - after rejecting the idea of book-binding. Anyway, despite my un-Regency refusal to do Period Sewing on my tattered paperbacks, I am a cozy inhabitant of Austen’s strange world - happily with pages intact.

The world of Austen is essentially a feminine world, but it isn't the romantic ivory hideaway condescendingly described by Nabokov in his unfavorable comparison of Mansfield Park to Bleak House. Austen's female characters may not control Parliament or Chancery Court but the varied domestic patterns of their lives spawn the talent and wit that temper and transcend the frustrating limitations of money and marriage. Jane’s diverse characters run the gamut from saucy high-I.Q. witty women like Elizabeth Bennet and Emma to intelligent, competent, decorous true friends like Elinor Dashwood, Anne Elliott, and Fanny Price to giggling flirts like the romping Lydia Bennet to manipulative bitches like the Bingley sisters and Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Although marriage is the goal of each woman, and almost the only way to escape the claustrophobic role of adult daughter, her characters do not expect perfect happiness and have inner resources.

The Readathon is off to a good start. Last week I read Sense and Sensibility. On Sunday I finished Pride and Prejudice. I especially love the latter, and am always surprised by the realism of this novel. Elizabeth Bennet is curiously modern, vivacious and witty, but also bitchy (in a good way), an outspoken young woman who can charm or sting, and who speaks her mind, unintimidated by wealth and the class system.

Of course sometimes Lizzy is wrong. She misunderstands and underestimates Darcy, whose arrogance makes all of us dislike him. How can she fall in love with him? I wondered as I read. But then they meet at Pemberley and his manner is so different at his home. Of course later she jokes and says she fell in love with him when she saw the grounds. Austen is so wicked that there is a hint of truth there. But so much about this is the reader's narrowing and focusing perceptions through a kind of telescope: we see It is possible for two bright people, one witty and talkative, the other quiet and rational, to live happily together. (And by the end of the book I'm in love with Darcy, so want the marriage anyway.)

The happy endings are not always entirely happy. Poor Marianne, who does not marry for love! And poor Lydia, for whom I have a weak spot. Doesn't the hilarious Lydia deserve a better husband?


Ellen said...

It's stunning how they stand up. I'm having a marathon too -- of movies as well as books.

My favorite of the heroes is Henry Tilney.


Mad Housewife said...

I've never reread Northanger Abbey, but am looking forward to it. Carol Sheilds' short book on Austen has inspired me, and now it seems that you like it, too.

I'm in the middle of Mansfield Park now.

Bethan said...

It is so hard to out the Austen novels in order of preference! I was about to respond to your post and say how Northanger Abbey is my favourite, but then I remembered how much I adore Sense and Sensibility. And Persuasion. I can probably safely say that poor Fanny Price is down the bottom of the favourite heroines list...

I've been doing some work on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in the UK (for the US publisher). It's been lots of fun (is very silly but also respectful of Austen's writing and period). If you want to add it to your readathon - for something very different - I would love to send you a copy!


Mad Housewife said...

Unfortunately the cover of P&P&Z scares me to death! The complimentary copy had better go to someone else...