Saturday, June 30, 2012

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Published: 1814
Rating: 5

Having started and stopped this book twice - for no particular reason except that it was hard to find the 2 hours of undistracted reading time needed to get a handle on the characters and plot of this more serious, expansive Austen work - more drastic measures were needed. Therefore, on a recent business trip to Charlotte, NC from my home in Northern Virginia, it was the only book I took on the plane.

I loved it.   So many themes are explored:  the relationship between marriage and money, of which Austen is unparalleled; class and education; character and morality; the role and importance of the clergy; sibling love and rivalry; and the clash between the new secular-based, libertine views versus the more traditional, devout and conservative way of life.

The protagonist and heroine, Fanny Price, reminded me of Pamela in Samuel Richardson's novel, Pamela or Virtue Rewarded as both were virtuous young women of no means to speak of, being pursued by amoral men.  Apparently Richardson was one of her favorite authors.

Thanks to Priscilla Long's book, The Writer's Portable Mentor, I am on the look-out for superb, hard-working sentences where each word has a purpose.   I found many such sentences in Mansfield Park which is another testament to Jane Austen's masterful writing.   Some examples are below:

I love this description of the 10-year old Fanny:
She was small of her age, with no glow of complexion, nor any other striking beauty; exceedingly timid and shy, and shrinking from notice; but her air, though awkward, was not vulgar, her voice was sweet, and when she spoke, her countenance was pretty.
And of the ego-centric, lazy Mrs. Bertram:
To the education of her daughters, Lady Bertram paid not the smallest attention.  She had not time for such cares.  She was a woman who spent her days in sitting nicely dressed on a sofa, doing some long piece of needle-work, of little use and no beauty, thinking more of her pug than her children, but very indulgent to the latter, when it did not put herself to inconvenience, guided in everything important by Sir Thomas, and in smaller concerns by her sister. 
Fanny had a "room of one's own" in Mansfield Park and in writing about how she spends her time there, Austen gives the reader a glimpse into Fanny's generous and forgiving heart:
She could go there after any thing unpleasant below, and find immediate consolation in some pursuit, or some train of thought at hand. - Her plants, her books - of which she had been a collector, from the first hour of her commanding a shilling - her writing desk, and her works of charity and ingenuity, were all within her reach; - or if indisposed for employment, if nothing but musing would do, she could scarcely see an object in that room which had not an interesting remembrance connected with it. - Everything was a friend, or bore her thoughts to a friend; and though there had been sometimes much of suffering to her - though her motives had been often misunderstood, her feelings disregarded, and her comprehension under-valued; though she had known the pains of tyranny, of ridicule, and neglect, yet almost every recurrence of either had led to something consolatory; her aunt Bertram had spoken for her, or Miss Lee had been encouraging, or what was yet more frequent or more dear - Edmund had been her champion and her friend, - he had supported her cause, or explained her meaning, he had told her not to cry, or had given her some proof of affection which make her tears delightful - and the whole was now so blended together, so harmonized by distance, that every former affliction had its charm.
I have one more Austen novel to read - Northanger Abbey.  I wonder where it will fit in my ranking below:
  1. Pride and Prejudice tied with Persuasion
  2. Sense and Sensibility tied with Mansfield Park
  3. Emma

Friday, June 29, 2012

Oroonoko by Aphra Behn

Oroonoko by Aphra Behn
Published: 1688
Rating: 5
For a woman in the stifling and sexist 17th century England, Aphra Behn lived a colorful life: she traveled in the West Indies, married a Dutch merchant and was widowed soon after, worked as a spy in Antwerp for Charles II, spent time in debtor's prison and became the first English woman who wrote poetry, novels and plays for a living.

In her famous extended essay, A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf gives props to Behn saying, " All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds."

I loved this novella, but be warned;  it is a tragedy amongst all tragedies.  Surprising accessible - once you get used to the longer-than-normal paragraph length and randomly capitalized words within the sentence - the story moves at break neck speed.  I was about one-third of the way through when, on a sleepless night, I got up at 4am to read thinking that it would make me sleepy.  Fat chance - once I got back into the story, I couldn't put it down, nor could I stop thinking about the horrifically tragic ending.