Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Annotated Sense and Sensibility, Edited by David M. Shapard

I can think of no better way to end both the year and The Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge than with a a review of The Annotated Sense and Sensibility by David M. Shapard. Like his editions of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion (read my review if the latter here), Mr. Shapard not only displays a sincere love and respect for our dear Miss Austen, but also an incredible understanding of her intentions, humor, and the era in which she lived. I adore his annotated volumes and consider them fundamental reading for all Janeites with an academic interest in her work.

When I read Mr. Shapard's annotations, I feel like I've been transported into an intensive class on Austen. When I reviewed his Persuasion, I quoted extensively from his annotations as a means of conveying this sensation. Unfortunately, the clock rapidly clicking towards year's end, as well as the demands of a six month old, do not allow me the leisure to repeat that effort here. Instead, I will confine myself to pointing out his particular attention to "the cult of sensibility", it's fundamental importance to this novel (especially in the development of Marianne's character), and his success at explaining it to a modern audience. I quote from his introduction:
... the theory of moral sense, was an influential philosophical doctrine that explained morality as the product of an instinctive sense of benevolence in human beings. This sense allowed people to understand moral principals, served as proof of the validity of moral laws, and gave people a reason to act morally, since such actions would naturally produce pleasure while immoral actions would produce pain.
In these principals lies the core of Marianne's philosophy. Often we dismiss her as merely a spoiled teenager and fail to understand that her actions are grounded in a doctrine that was pervasive at the end of the 18th century. Austen directly challenges these notions, advocated by many of the great minds of the day - a rather bold move for a young woman of rural origins. For example, when Marianne clearly trespasses on the rules of decorum when she and Willoughby tour Allenham, she and Elinor have the following exchange:
"I have never spent a pleasanter morning in my life."

"I am afraid," replied Elinor, "that the pleasantness of an employment does not always evince its propriety."

"On the contrary, nothing can be a stronger proof of it, Elinor; for if there had been any real impropriety in what I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for we always know when we are acting wrong, and with such a conviction I could have had no pleasure."
Mr. Shapard's annotations on this scene point right back to the notion of Moral Sense, and it is in this manner that he emphasizes this fundamental aspect of Marianne's character throughout the book, constantly reminding us of what would be obvious to Austen's contemporaries, though it is a rather alien notion to the modern audience. My previous readings of Sense and Sensibility have certainly been informed by the knowledge I have of 18th century philosophies, but it took Mr. Shapard's annotations to illuminate the pervasive extent to which Austen dwells on these subjects. I finished the book with renewed appreciation for Austen's brilliance and a far better understanding of her authorial intentions. This book is so much more than an excellent romance; it is a carefully worked philosophical essay.

For more on the cult of sensibility I refer you the excellent post that Laurel Ann Nattress, coincidentally our Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge host, wrote for the last installment of The Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Celebration at My Jane Austen Book Club, entitled Marianne Dashwood: A Passion for Dead Leaves and Other Sensibilities. Mr. Shapard's Annotated Emma will be out in March. I can hardly wait!

Happy New Year everybody!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Dashwood Sisters Tell All by Beth Pattillo

I managed to get this book read - absolutely necessary if I have any possibility of completing The Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge, issued by Austenprose - by reciting it to my husband as we drove ten hours to Indiana to celebrate Christmas. I have wondered about the books of Beth Pattillo before but never read them, not being super keen on Austenesque set in the present, so this was a welcome opportunity to expand my horizons a bit. The Dashwood Sisters Tell All is about two sisters (shocking, I know) who travel to England to attend a Jane Austen themed walking tour as part of their mother's dieing request. The mother, being a attentive Janeite, knew the importance of documenting her final wishes rather than simply relying on a promise to do as she wished. John Dashwood, after all, certainly intended to fulfill his father's request to care for his sisters, amply demonstrating how good intentions often go to waste. Before Ellen and Mimi Dodge can inherit their mother's estate, they must attend this tour and choose a place to scatter her ashes, and they also must determine what to do with a most unusual item that had been in her possession - Cassandra Austen's diary.

I challenge any Austen lover to read this book without drooling over the prospect of Cassandra's diary. Such an item, as the characters in the book are so good as to continually assert, would be priceless. One of the most intriguing parts of this story is reading some of those imagined entries. Ms. Pattillo envisions a new romance for Jane that drives her behavior in some of the most debated episodes of her life, like the flirtation with Tom Lefroy and Harris Bigg-Wither's proposal. The whole concept is extremely juicy and compelling, but I found myself dissatisfied at the end. The problem with this book is not the premise, which is fabulous, but the characters. Like every Sense and Sensibility modernization I have read during the course of this challenge, the modern versions of Eleanor and Marianne annoyed the heck out of me.

Why is it that when Eleanor and Marianne are transformed into 21st century women they become frigid and ditsy? I noticed this in The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine and Jennifer Ziegler's Sass & Serendipity. Do the Dashwood ladies just not translate into our modern world, or have they not been done justice? I think it is a case of the latter. In this story, Ellen is cast as the practical one while behaving as if her head was sewn on backwards. Here she is in possession of an invaluable article that she insists on hiding it in her hotel room, repeatedly foreshadowing its eventual theft (I do not consider that tidbit a spoiler as it is blatantly apparent that this is precisely what will happen almost as soon as the diary is introduced). I felt like reaching into the book and smacking her. She also completely lacks Eleanor's keen perception of character and empathy, as demonstrated in her paranoid misreading of her Edward's intentions. Mimi is the pretty vivacious one with a knack for falling for the wrong guy. I think I would have been more satisfied with her portrayal if she hadn't kept complaining that no one thought she was smart while acting like an idiot. Should it not be the cardinal rule of all Austen homages that characters display their essence through actions? A person who asserts one thing while behaving in an opposite fashion is the profile for a Lucy Steele or Fanny Dashwood, not our heroine.

Overall, despite my complaints, the book kept us well entertained though our car trip (the baby, in her infinite mercy, slept almost the entire way). I would love to attend a walking tour like the one described here. The Dodge sisters visit all the great Austen locals, from Steventon to Winchester. The story is, in many ways a Janeite fantasy come true, which is precisely what makes the main characters' shortcomings so annoying. I would love to further elaborate on my response to this book, but as I am just barely managing to get this post completed before the end of the year (and I still have one more review to go before the challenge can be considered complete - stay tuned!), I will conclude by simply saying that I do intend to read Ms. Pattillo's other books, but I am not in a rush to do so.   

Jane Austen Made Me Do It: "A Night at Northanger" by Lauren Willig

I wrote this post in mid November and never published it. Oh this disordered Mommy brain of mine!

As I slowly make my way through Jane Austen Made Me Do It, beautifully edited by Laurel Ann Nattress of Austenprose fame, I felt the need to go back and review a story I had previously determined not to: "A Night at Northanger" by Lauren Willig. The tale has grown on me while lingering in my mind ever since I finished it a few weeks ago. Though I was immediately impressed with Ms. Willig's writing (which I had been meaning toexplore for quite sometime), the premise she sets for this story initially left me a bit discombobulated. It begins with our main character Cate, a disgruntled television personality working on a ghost hunting show, descending with her crew upon Northanger Abbey, home of Mr. Moreland Tilney-Tilney, whom I presume to be the horribly inbred descendant of Austen's hero and heroine. Though Cate has absolutely no belief in ghosts, she and her companions are predetermined to uncover something terrifying in the old Abbey, regardless of their host's goodnatured insistence that the house is far from haunted: " mean that rubbish by the lady novelist! Frightfully famous, too, can't think of her name at the moment. Crashing bore, all this dance and that aunt and who's going to marry whom. Don't go in for that sort of thing myself." So it is to Cate's immense surprise that she meets a very real apparition, demanding to know what she is doing in her room and prepared to dole out life advice.

As mentioned above, the notion of a paranormal reality show in the context of an Austen tribute jarred me at first. I really can't stand that sort of programming and was unable to conjure up any sympathy for Cate, who repeatedly laments the fact that she has yet to become the next Barbara Walters, but then the ghost showed up to entrance me. I do not want to completely spoil the story, so let me just quote the extremely sage career advice that the ghost provides a somewhat befuddled Cate:
"An independence," mused the apparition. "Not something at which one would sneer. Even so..." She seated herself on a chair that wasn't there and looked thoughtfully at a fire that wasn't lit. "Poverty is a great evil, but to a woman of education and feeling, it ought not, it cannot be, the worse."
This story keeps running through my head - haunting me, one might say. I've now reread it twice and imagine I will continue to come back for more. The notion of conversing with this particular ghost is so appealing; I keep wondering how she would advise me on the cares and concerns I encounter each day. When I do finally find more time to read again I will definitely move on reading some of Ms. Willig's Pink Carnation books, which had loitered in my TBR pile for far too long. 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

My poor neglected blog! Santa's bringing you lots of posts to make you feel loved again before the year is over. In the meantime, "May your Christmas abound in the gaieties which that season generally brings"!