It is a truth universally acknowledged, than a modern woman who fancies herself as intelligent, with a love of history, and a hint of sympathy for romance, must love Pride and Prejudice. I am not here to talk to you about Pride and Prejudice.
I, as the attentive reader might have gleaned, am in possession of two degrees, both focussed wholly or in part on the study of Literature. For a person with an MA in Literature, I am horribly ill-read. I do not love Shakespeare. Actually, I rather love Hamlet, but was put off Antony and Cleopatra as a teenager by the distinctly unattractive portrayal of middle-aged, uncontrolled sexual urges, which rather too closely resembled a situation that was exploding in my own family for comfort. As a student, I read the first half a dozen chapters of Dickens’ Great Expectations, and threw it aside in disgust. I bumbled through the essay by trying not to refer directly to much that happened beyond chapter 7, which I seemed to get away with, somehow. If you are reading this from a faculty post at LJMU’s Literature department, think carefully about what is actually possible for students to get away with on your courses, I implore you.
I first met Austen in the form of Colin Firth’s wet shirt scene in the BBC’s never-to-be-bettered adaptation of P&P, in 1996. I still love it. My 8 year old loves it, too, though hopefully not for the wet shirt. 8 seems a little young for that sort of thing. But even then, I never bothered to read the book. I know. Having come to Austen through the medium of TV, why on earth would any self-respecting student of literature not go and look up the original? But I didn’t. I was grateful for the varied (well, a bit) and interesting books that I was required to read for my course, but I read very little for pleasure, at that time, and even less for extra-curricular personal improvement. Also, I read very slowly, in those days. I was 28 before an employer put me on a Speed Reading course, which revolutionised my ability to consume long texts without dying of old age before the end. I remember asking the course leaders why no-one had taught me these skills when I was ten or twelve – it would have made an enormous difference to my academic life in the intervening period.
So, in my mid-thirties, I revisited Dickens, and discovered that he was much more palatable now I had grown up sufficiently to appreciate him. A Christmas Carol is a wonderful, and mercifully short, piece of writing, most of the direct speech of which is perfectly reproduced by Michael Caine in The Muppets’ Christmas Carol – I had no idea that the Muppets were so faithful to literature. Having mastered Dickens (though I started Bleak House, and enjoyed it, but it’s been kind of paused for about three years), I turned to Austen for the first time.
Pride and Prejudice is a very readable book. Much more of the nuance of the social mores of the time are revealed by the book, and Elizabeth remains a very likeable character, whom I am genuinely delighted to see living happily ever after with Mr Darcy at the end (SPOILERS! Oops. Ah well. It’s been out for 200 years, it’s not my fault if you hadn’t got to it yet).
When I recently finished a re-read of P&P, I decided to start another Austen novel. Knowing nothing about any of them, I selected Mansfield Park, downloaded it to my phone (free books for the win!), and read.
The first thing I learned was this: Argus Filch’s cat, in the Harry Potter books, is named after an Austen character – a busybodying, interfering woman whom nobody likes, and who thinks she’s much more important than she is. Always satisfying to discover a connection of that sort – so far, so good.
Fanny is rather annoying. She’s quite pathetic, for most of the book, vividly conscious as she is that she is less than the dust beneath the feet of, well, everyone, frankly. She’s a doormat. She garners very little respect from most of the other characters, largely, as far as I can see, because she demands none. She is plucked from home, where she was presumably more of a Somebody, as older sister to string of youngsters, she cries for weeks, it occurs to no-one that she might ever like to see her mother again, and then she settles into a role of trying not to threaten the position of her older cousins by appearing more attractive, intelligent, wise or scintillating than they. In short, she is a mouse, perpetually trying to shrink herself into invisibility in a corner somewhere. Oh, and hoping that Edmund will marry her. Which he won’t, because he likes her well enough, but only sees a mouse who sits quietly enough to let him unload the contents of his own mind, tidy them into neat piles, and put them back with a decision made.
I read it. It bumbled along. Fanny grew up, there was a long and slightly tedious episode concerning an attempt to put on an amateur play, in which I was led to believe that only Fanny and Edwin were taking the correct line, that such a thing was morally reprehensible, and should not be allowed. Anyway, Fanny’s uncle returned from Antigua, and put a stop to all that, clearly being of the same mind. I’m afraid I found it difficult to place myself in the moral and ethical belief structures of these people. I was clearly supposed to side with them, and obviously, such things had a very different hue 200 years ago than they might now, but I don’t think I quite cared enough to try – or at least, to try hard enough for the effort it would take to see things from Fanny’s insipid and rather prudish point of view.
Anyway, it’s not great, but I’m into it, now, so I’m still reading. I don’t so much care what happens to Fanny, than wonder how on earth Austen proposed to wrap up the story suitably, when Fanny was clearly destined for Edmund (the inclinations of a heroine, even a pathetic one, generally being honoured in these situations), but Edmund was determined to be in love with some trollop from the vicarage (and who knew that Recency vicarages were largely populated with trollops? Charlotte was no such thing!).
So, Fanny is suddenly permitted to visit her family in Portsmouth, yada yada, the guy she doesn’t want to marry follows her there for the purposes of wooing, yada yada, her family barely remember her, and don’t care much either way, she misses Mansfield Park desperately, since she unsurprisingly considers the place she’s lived since she was 9 to be her actual home. Yada yada. It’s all trundling along, and I can see that I’m only about fifty pages from the end, now, so I’m getting quite involved in just how these loose ends are going to be wound up.
And then – dramatic climax, people! Tom is suddenly dangerously ill, and everyone is worried he’ll die. He doesn’t, and it doesn’t make any material difference to Fanny, so it’s almost a wasted plot device. All it does is convince Edmund that the trollop from the vicarage is too materialistic for him – she’s a little too excited by the idea of Edmund losing his older brother, and becoming next in line for the baronetcy and associated stately home.
Then, more dramatic climax! Maria, the older of the girl-cousins, who spent the play incident flirting with the wrong man, before settling down to marry the staid and boring one she was engaged to, has run away with said Wrong Man! The same man who was, incidentally, failing to make Fanny agree to marry him. Shock and horror! Her reputation is ruined, the family is reduced to pieces. Gasp, etc. Oh, and Julia has eloped, but no-one seems that bothered about that.
This crisis, rather than that of the dying older son, brings Fanny back to Mansfield Park to offer what help and comfort she can in such difficult times. Though dying older son seems to be recovering nicely now, but they were all quite sure he had been dying.
So here we are. Fanny is back at Mansfield, Edmund is no longer in love with a trollop, so now… wait, what?
The last chapter has no dialogue. At all. In one chapter, Austen tells me that Maria and the unscrupulous young man annoyed each other, that she was divorced by her husband, and that her father, being basically a nice bloke, if a bit dull, has set her up in a cottage somewhere where she can’t embarrass them all, with the annoying aunt Norris to keep her company. Oh, and Edmund decided to marry Fanny, and she let him. And that’s it.
It’s the oddest, most anticlimactic end to a book I have EVER come across, and I sometimes read fan fiction. It feels precisely as if Austen wrote herself into a corner, and became so interminably bored with them all, that she just gave up, wrote her plot notes up in proper sentences, and called it done. It was incredibly disappointing. It’s not the greatest book I’ve ever read, but I’d invested quite a lot of energy into it by that point, and I wanted her to return my commitment, damn it.
You disappoint me, Jane. We don’t have to discuss this again, but know this – I have just downloaded Northanger Abbey, and Chapter 1 is pretty readable. I do not wish to see a repeat of this debacle.