Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Visit to Higbury by Joan Austen-Leigh

I really messed this one up. I ordered both A Visit to Highbury and Later Days at Highbury at the same time, from two different Amazon vendors, along with several other volumes. Since the latter came first I went ahead and read it, completely forgetting that there was a first volume until it arrived last week (in spite of the fact that it says "Praise for A Visit to Highbury" in huge letters on the back). So please forgive my scatterbrained behavior. You can see my review for Later Days at Highbury here.

A Visit to Highbury follows the text of Emma in epistolary format. Our main characters are the familiar Mrs. Goddard and her sister, the recently widowed and remarried Mrs. Pinkney. The story adheres meticulously to the original text and is a lovely insight into how Highbury gossip construes the events transpiring at Hartfield. We also spend time in London and Bath with Mrs. Pinkney, giving us hints of how the John Knightlys are fairing and a new perspective on the courtship of Mr. and Mrs. Elton. Particularly interesting new details included in the story involve the terrors of riding atop of a mail coach, the workings of a period school, and the very exciting politics of the day. Ms. Austen-Leigh adds greatly to the reader's picture of life in 1813 England, venturing beyond the periphery of her great-great-great-aunt's piece of ivory without contaminating it with the tawdry. I have thoroughly enjoyed these books and look forward to rereading them, in order next time.

One last thought. So much Emma fan fiction betrays the writers' dislike for our heroine. Having always found Emma to be perfectly charming (and relating to her far better than any of Austen's other heroines) I tend to resent this. As a result, I found the following passage, from one of Mrs. Pinkney's letters, particularly gratifying:

Poor Miss W., with her quick mind, I daresay, made a thoughtless remark to Miss Bates without considering how it would be received. I sympathize deeply with her distress, because it is just the sort of thing I have often done, myself!

How very true! Let those who have never stuck a foot in their mouth criticize: I will always feel the torment Emma suffers after Box hill acutely.


  1. You are right! Emma is an enjoyable lovely character with all her fawls. Those make her so human.

  2. Excellent review again! I'm sorry you read the books out of order. Reading your reviews have made me want to read them all over again.

    I'm with you about liking Emma, I am fond of her and Fanny Price, who both seem to be the least liked Austen heroines. I can relate to both their personalities, I have times were I will say something I shouldn't and I have times when people walk over me and I am too timid to confront them about it. They are both wonderful and intelligent heroines in my book!

    I'm glad you enjoyed this series and I loved reading your thought about them. Joan Austen-Leigh truly did a fantastic service to us Austenfans when she gave these two books!

  3. It's always refreshing to hear the voices of Emma defenders!

    Maria - Emma is lovely, in spite of her faults. It's what makes all of Austen's heroines so wonderful - if they were perfect creatures they would be intolerably boring. I believe Jane once said something along these lines but, at the moment, I'm at a loss to recall what it was.

    Meredith - I think those of us who adore Austen unconditionally have a hard time understanding why anyone would find fault with her characters and are thus frequently thrown into the role of defending both Fanny and Emma, the two heroines who attract the most censure. They are wonderful and intelligent. I sometimes wonder if people are uncomfortable with them simply because they are too real - don't we all know an Emma Woodhouse and a Fanny Price? They are much easier to come by than an Elizabeth Bennet or an Anne Elliot. Thanks for putting me in the way of these novels. They are a gift I will be forever thankful for.

  4. I think I am a (male) Emma Woodhouse - and I know several young women who are like Fanny (and good for them, I say). I think people who dislike or hate either of them have significant background issues in general - for instance, one of my professor friends hates Emma because she feels very disestablished, and Emma is one of the most establishment figures in all of Austen. But I don't think that's a legitimate reading of Emma - it's certainly a legitimate reaction, but I think to try and say Jane Austen meant it that way is not fair or right.

  5. I think we can give Jane Austen a huge amount of credit for creating characters that people respond to so poignantly, whether it's rational or not. It's really quite a triumph to inspire hate in a reader - I'm just always surprised to learn how many Janeites feel this way. It almost feels as if because Austen declared no one would much like Emma but herself, there is an inclination to fulfill her prediction.

  6. Especially by lazy journalists who can't think of anything but really tired quotes.

    As much as I love Emma, I almost cringed when I heard of the new series, since I knew that would mean at least two months of press interviews in which that tidbit would appear over and over and over again.

    I mean, even questions about why Emma drops Harriet Smith as a friend would be preferable to that, I think.

  7. Now that Emma is coming out in the US we can look forward to a whole new round of speculation on this point. I'm always iffy on the question of whether or not an authors intentions are relevant to the analysis of a book. With Austen it is terribly tempting to impose her private commentary onto her work but I try not to, keeping my 9th grade English teacher's admonishments against doing this in my head (despite the fact that my college professors were all so devoted to their individual schools of theory that they were constantly analyzing through a clouded lens - it's the main reason why I never pursued my youthful intention of becoming an English prof). Personally, I don't comprehend how any reader could dislike Emma but, then again, I'm a lot like Emma and people frequently don't care for me. Maybe I should take the hint.

  8. Well, as an aspiring (in grad school racking up them loans) English prof, I can sympathize with the annoyance at theoritically induced blindness. And I'm a big fan of authorial intent. However, I also see a lot of sense in certain elements (not the whole thing, certainly) of both deconstructionism and reader-response theory. Which is to say, people's experiences and values shape the way we react to the text - and these reactions are valid, even if they tend to warp the text and author's intention. Because really, all of our readings are warpings of the text - as, indeed, is the author's. One of the things that makes literature so worth teaching and reading is that it expands our world - great books have ever-new insights to be discovered with out own expanding experiences. Reading shows us we are not alone, and it gives us examples to avoid and follow in ways that persuade us more than the most rational argument - because the values are incarnated, rather than outlined.

    Sorry, wannabe English prof rant.

    Anyhoo, I think people like Emma are wonderful (which isn't saying much, as I think I'm like her in several ways). So keep on ignoring those hints! I know I do!

  9. Literary theory certainly has its place and is very useful if you want to leverage your politics onto a piece of writing but I really felt like most of my professors took it way too far. There is a point where theory strips all pleasure out of reading. I love analyzing books, please don't get me wrong, and theory has definitely added to my contextual understanding of the cultural function of literature, but it is not something I wished to have imposed on me. This came to a head when I wrote my undergrad thesis on images of madwoman in 19th century British literature and my adviser and the review board insisted I define myself as either a feminist or psychoanalytic critic and I resisted, to their great chagrin. I hate being categorized and saw a future in academia which was not going to accept my resistance. Now this was in the late 90's - from what I understand, English departments have lightened up a bit since then. There is a strong possibility I will someday return to school. I really love the academic environment. I hope you are greatly enjoying your studies. Part of me is extremely envious.

  10. I think the departments have lightened up a bit - at least, my profs are not forcing theories on us (though since I'm taking Cultural Studies, which is basically Marxist ideology trying to be academic discipline, naturally has all the theory I could want, but even there, the teacher is more "teaching the conflicts" than advocating a side). And I can see how a thesis on madwomen could cause butting heads - after all, the most famous (and to me annoying) feminist book of lit crit is "The Madwoman in the Attic." If you ask me in about two weeks if I'm enjoying my studies, I'll probably say yes. Now, when I have twenty pages due Wednesday, not so much. :-)

    As for theory stripping pleasure out of books, I think that's because most of the theory I've seen practiced has not be concerned with books. I don't much care for Harold Bloom, but he put it better than I can - most of todays theories are really no more than schools of resentment - whining about this, that, and the other, without actually looking to see if there's artistic or ideological merit in the works they examine, but instead looking to see if an author agrees with them, and if they do, the author is "good," if they don't, then they castigate them for not agreeing with a position not invented for centuries.

    Not so, I think, with analysis, properly done. Or even theory, when properly applied - since after all, everyone has theories about literature, even if they are as simple as "The author has a point of view and tries to communicate it."

  11. Ugh - you nailed it. Gilbert & Gubar haunted me throughout the entire project. Of course I addressed their work, I had little choice, and the fact that I went to the same university where one of these illustrious ladies reigned supreme certainly didn't aide my rebellion. The entire experience was pretty jading.

    The concept of theory is all well and good. It's when theory trumps art that I get edgy. You (or Bloom) put it pretty well. Good luck with your paper.

  12. Oh, I imagine. I find their work pernicious - I feel for you, going to one of their schools. Though for me, my comparable experience would probably be going to Claudia Johnson, Terry Castle, or Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick's schools, since those are the primary "Austen was totally a subversive pervert" critics. Arg.

  13. We can then feel for each other. I have major issues with Johnson - her Austen book left me fuming. I am glad to know that more stalwart individuals than I manage to endure such experiences without beating a quick retreat. Academia needs voices such as yours to combat such imposture.