Jane Austen recast

When I studied European Literature (Sussex, 1981), our only sources of criticism and commentary were lectures and the library. If you were studying an obscure text, there wasn’t much to go on. For example, for one assessment I compared versions of Troilus and Cressida. I found plenty about the Shakespeare play and lots on Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, a few books about their source which was probably Boccacio‘s Il Filostrato, and one short chapter on a Scottish poet called Henryson. His narrative poem The Testament of Cresseid featured Cressida punished for her love affair by contracting leprosy. I took as gospel everything the critic said about Henryson, because who else was there to consult? And Henryson took a starring role in my essay, to gain me marks for originality.

Undergraduates often depend too much on second hand opinions partly because they respect more senior researchers (good) and partly because they lack confidence in their own views (bad). Thus, at feedback for my essay on Crime and Punishment, the eminent Professor Thorlby greeted me: “I didn’t know you were a lapsed Catholic.” I’d had no idea, dependent as I was on discussing the words of the only Russian critic I could find translated into comprehensible English, that was the impression I’d given. I  thought my essay was contrasting individualism with social responsibility. (I did know enough to know I liked criticism to be rooted in a social and economic context as well as discussing language and style. So with one confused eye on the semiotics and structuralism then still shunned at Cambridge but a big deal at trendy Sussex, the critics I favoured tended to be Marxist, which also made them easier to read.)

As an exchange postgraduate in France, I had to teach Hamlet to students older and more qualified than myself. I fled back to England, to the Sussex library and in horror found over a dozen shelves in the “stacks”, of Hamlet criticism alone. How to sort out the brilliance from the dead wood? And how much worse this dilemma must be now. I just Googled “Hamlet – critical articles” and found 21,600,000 results.

Since that eye opening Sussex foundation, with more decades of reading and some writing of my own, I’m less blinded by academic credentials and more able to judge whether a critical study is telling me something new. One such is Jane Austen: The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly. Now Austen is an author I thought I knew well. But – “Forget the Jane Austen you think you know. Forget the biographies, forget the pretty adaptations. Ignore the banknote. Read Jane’s novels,” says Kelly (p.311). Well, I’ve done that, several times32441705. I studied Persuasion for A level (Don’t knock A levels. A good teacher leading on a great book, covering the solid old style A level syllabus, can provide a key to thinking about literature that’s equal to anything on Google or mouldering in the library stacks.) My Economic History A level covered the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions in the UK, and I studied the French Revolution at university, as well as Mary Wollstonecraft, Marx, and Freud. So I was prepared for much of Kelly’s thinking, and I’d never dismissed Austen’s novels as pretty drawing room dramas. I agree with Kelly that if you “…understand what serious subject marriage was then…all of a sudden courtship plots start to seem like a more suitable vehicle for discussing other serious things.” (p.31) Even so – take a deep breath.

Northanger Abbey, is not as I thought about a young girl carried away into silly fantasies by reading Gothic novels. 50398Kelly points out, in this novel about reading, how little reading actually gets done. But there does seem to be female masturbation, thinly veiled as unlocking a door: “Jane’s society viewed it as common knowledge that girls, as well as boys, indulged in the ‘secret and destructive vice’.” (p.66) There are a number of footnotes and a short bibliography, but this particular assertion is not backed up though Freud must be drooling in his grave. I found the claims that death through sex and childbirth was a major theme, both overt and coded, more convincingly argued through the sad statistics of social history.

Sense and Sensibility is, to Kelly, about “brass” (money). She points out the imagery of 14935metals, money and jewellery, and how this novel, like Pride and Prejudice, highlights unfair inheritance laws and primogeniture. The money references are given so precisely in Sense and Sensibility, the 21st century reader can calculate the exact incomes of various grades of clergy, army personnel, landowners and their dependents, and understand how patronage makes or ruins them. But here’s Freud again: Kelly highlights sexual symbolism, hinting at abuse, and her delving into the moral character of even apparently worthy suitors raise few hopes for the marriages contracted. If Kelly’s reading is correct, Austen is cynically pessimistic about the future for the Dashwood brides.

Most of us are most familiar with Pride and Prejudice. But here’s a less chintzy angle. Kelly is into her stride now, and highlights 1885
how “the presence of the militia in the novel …introduces layer upon layer of anxiety…Invasions..naval mutinies…food riots…They’re in the background, but they’re there.” (p 128). She situates the novel amid precise historical events through indicators like the style of Elizabeth’s petticoat – not a petticoat at all but a fashion that was definitely old fashioned by the mid 1790s. She also explains the extra resonance in the word “prejudice” for contemporary readers – a strength of Kelly’s book is her ability to decode references that would have been much more obvious to Austen’s immediate audience than they are to us. One thing we’d have to be blind to miss is the criticism of the clergy, represented by the absurd Mr Collins, but Kelly is none too impressed by Mr Darcy’s aristocrat either, even after the proud and prejudiced scales have fallen from his eyes. Whoops – here’s another marriage auguring well but, Kelly implies, too much of a fairy tale to ring true.

It’s always gratifying when an expert echoes one’s own thoughts. For Kelly as for me, Mansfield Park was Austen’s most radical and daring novel, and she is moving on Austen’s disappointment at the lack of reviews. Perhaps, says Kelly – the word perhaps appears often in JA:The Secret Radical: not all Kelly’s ideas are fully substantiated – this isn’t surprising. Mansfield Park is a barely coded attack on slavery. Although the 45032abolitionist cause had much public support by Austen’s time, much wealth was still enmeshed with slavery, from her own family to great landowners and the Church of England. It reflected well on the enlightened British to support abolishing slavery in the Caribbean, but at home nobody wanted to see their standard of living fall, or run short of sugar. Kelly finds child abuse and sadism in the novel, as well as fortunes built on slavery and ecclesiastical hypocrisy. “(Mansfield Park) is filled with infidelities, not-so-genteel-poverty, with bullying and threats of violence.” (p. 168). She points out how the names Mansfield, Norris, Madeira (as in wine) and Moor Park (the type of apricot tree planted at Mansfield Parsonage) would have resonated with contemporary readers, who’d recognise the names of players in the slavery debate; she counts many instances of the words “plantation, slave, chains”. She shows how daring it was for a clergyman’s daughter to write a novel so critical of the Church. No wonder it wasn’t reviewed.

I said in my previous post on Jane Austen that I found the story and character of Emma least interesting of all the novels. Kelly len6969ds more meaning to the story, explaining how the plot reflects the enclosures movement. “Enclosing” covered any kind of fencing, walling, hedging or barring access to common and waste ground. It was at its height when Emma was written. It challenged the poor, who had previously been able to supplement their meagre incomes grazing livestock, growing vegetables, gathering firewood and foraging on such land. Without access, the numbers of destitute people swelled, and there was high population growth too. Kelly shows the landscape of Emma emphasising enclosures, “respectable” people reduced to begging for parish relief, gypsies forced off their traditional sites, and the better off feeling vulnerable too. Mr Knightly is not the kind, urbane gentleman he appears, with his enclosure projects; Mr Woodhouse is perhaps justified in being querulous; the gypsies are not threatening but threatened, in Kelly’s reading. Birth advantages can be taken away; illegitimate children cosseted or cast off at whim; the domestic world of Emma is as threatening as the warring background to Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion.

Kelly is least sure of herself talking about 2156Persuasion. She is interesting, but perhaps not original (I don’t know enough about Austen scholarship to say) on the theme of fossils and old certainties giving way to Darwinism, conjecturing Austen may have come across the child Mary Anning on the beach at Lyme Regis. She’s amusing about the idea of marrying to regain an ancestral home and on snobbery – but Austen does that all so well herself with her portrait of Sir Walter Elliot, it barely needs repeating. I felt her writing about Persuasion was like history in the novel: “… disrupted, random, chaotic…You can’t escape the tide of history; you can’t stay firm against that kind of pressure; you have to give way and let yourself be carried, if you want any hope of surviving.” (p 289).

I may give the impression, wrongly, that Kelly discusses only the six principal novels. But she does so in the context of Jane Austen’s letters, of imagined scenes from her life, historical events, her comic verse and fragments of writing, memoirs by the Austen family, contemporary novels and polemic, and the scholarship of others. There are snippets of social history; daring, forthright opinions, and there’s quite a lot of “perhaps” along with a few “undoubtedly”s. It’ s a long time since I’ve been fascinated enough to review a secondary source. I may even go and study literature again.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

Books for older readers

A few days ago I added my own novel to a new Facebook page, Books for Older Readers. It says it’s “for readers over 50 and writers who write books which appeal to this age group. Please join if you write, read, blog or recommend books for the over 50s.”

pennyjenkins-300x225
Singing for the Over 50s
with Penny Jenkins
… fun course is for all singers, any ability, no upper age limit! Rediscover the joy singing brings …make music for many years to come. Benefits to health, happiness, general well-being. 

(Digression #1 – we oldies are allowed to ramble –  coincidentally I had an email today from Jackdaws with a singing course for the over 50s. I went on an all ages course there once and it thoroughly rejuvenated my voice! Recommended.)

I’m broadly in agreement with the aims of Clare Baldry, the retired headteacher and author who set the page up. Of course it raises all sorts of questions, not least: what is “older”? I’m still in my 50s, and never took much trouble to keep very fit, but I’m disconcerted (and worse) to find several university peers already dead, and myself and others beset by serious eyesight problems, cancers, arthritis and so on. The recent death at 51 of  comedian Sean Hughes banged another nail in our collective coffin. And yet…many of us have started new careers and hobbies and the if UK Old Age Pension isn’t now going to start for me until I’m 66 or 67, how can I be “old” before that? Baldry’s 50+ is a wide age group in a country where average life expectancy is now  79 for men and 83 for women. But my local community centre stubbornly continues to offer services for older people from age 55, and many sheltered housing complexes offer flats to anyone over the same age (a complex is what I’d have if I bought one now).older people 4

However, we probably do read different books, or at least in a different way. Everyone’s experienced returning to a book they adored as a young adult to find it either still wonderful, or a bit quaint, or boring, or completely discordant. Fashions in writing style and content change. It seems to me the books I read when younger were wordier, quieter, more thoughtful. Sentences were longer; interior monologues and third person narration and omniscient narrators and multiple points of view and extended scenes and assumptions of background knowledge and intense concentration on the reader’s part were taken for granted. The short sentences, staccato scenes and gasping plots of today’s girls on trains and the extreme violence of some contemporary crime novels are just too shallow and voyeuristic for me, while “cosy crime” is too silly. But a good well written thriller is always fun to read.

(Digression #2: Specific annoyances for a mid 50s woman standing up on a rush hour tube. i) Everyone sitting down is much younger than I am. ii) If they stand up for me it must be because they think I look really old. iii) None of them stands up for me.)

Older people 1
Book “department” – local Waitrose

Of course, most over 50s once had access to good bookshops and/or libraries. We are more familiar with leisurely browsing through hardbacks and paperbacks, not the spurious “look inside” you get on Amazon or the tiny selection of middle and low brow bestsellers and celebrity publications in the local supermarket. We either still do, or once had, better concentration.

Digression #3. It would bore you, and me, if I  researched any evidence for that last statement. (Or would it?)

As an ex teacher, I dislike sweeping generalisations about literacy levels (which are influenced by so many complexities it should be illegal to make them), but many of us were educated (or at least went to school) at a time when vocabulary and style were seen as just as important as phonics and genre, when we wrote “compositions” ourselves and when adverbs were not seen as a disease to be stamped out. My vintage is no doubt betrayed by the length of my sentences and my use of the passive voice. What we read influenced how we wrote as children; how we wrote as children influences how we write now. The editors to whom agents submit are in their late 20s and early 30s now: “whom” just makes them say “what?” and they chuck the (virtual) manuscript straight onto the (virtual) slush pile with a brief “Sorry, I just didn’t love it enough” to the agent,or worse, an out of office reply they’re on maternity leave..

After a while, however perceptive your browsing, you do find you’ve read the same thing rather too often. No more inner thoughts at dinner parties for me! I’m also done with the first  and second world wars (with an exception for A God in Ruins), the Holocaust, the Dustbowl and Depression, most dystopias (I stopped at Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and John Wyndham), university novels, early mid life crises (“…at nearly 40, X worries her life is running away with her…”). The Child in Time by Ian McEwan did child abduction in exemplary fashion years ago and needs no revisit. I don’t think I want to read about the miseries of old age either. As a student I admired and was moved by Simone de Beauvoir’s “A Very Easy Death“. But as a student, I hadn’t yet experienced the death of my own parents, and my back didn’t hurt, I didn’t have to laugh off “senior moments” (how that grates!) and hadn’t started to dislike snow and wet leaves on the pavement.

 

Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves was brilliantly written but grimmer than grim, especially describing dementia that started in middle age. Unadulterated old age is tedious: I began to read Margaret Drabble as a teenager and followed her heroines through youth and middle age as we all matured, but she’s twenty years ahead of me. Last year’s The Dark Flood Rises has too much banal details of food spilling, not being able to run for buses, and too much reflected loss of confidence. Her writing, like our skins, is less fresh, less taut. It disappointed me. (I feel guilty, writing that. A book entirely full of old people: how dare they be so visible? They are not so in the street, in public, on the tube. How inconsiderate of them and their elderly author. And my own confidence takes a further tumble. If Drabble, with her stellar career, is past it, perhaps I should stop submitting to publishers much sooner.)

But my rules are made to be broken! The Oxfam shop supplied me with The Lie this morning. It’s about the First World War, but it has the quality mark of Helen Dunmore who sadly, has not lived to be old. I romped through Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, perhaps because the humour and the detective element leaven the awfulness of the heroine’s confusion. Doris Lessing’s readable, poignant, funny, informative memoir Alfred and Emily was published when she was 89, five years before she died. At nearly 100, Diana Athill published an elegant, witty memoir from her retirement home, Alive, Alive Oh!

Good or bad, we can’t only read about old, and much older age. Well written books whose characters and concerns span several generations work well for older readers too, and may be more cheerful, with their cyclical sense of renewal. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet novels, Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, Maggie O’Farrells This Must Be The Place are in the same tradition, and we love them because we have experience of all the age groups.

Whoops, another rule broken: as a child I devoured the Jalna books. Mazo de la Roche’s now forgotten series based on a family in the Southern States of the USA fascinated me, and I loved the hero Renny Whiteoak, even though he was already twice my age when I read the beginning of his story in my grandmother’s spare bedroom and and 60 years older when I finished it.

402252I just noticed most of the books I’ve praised here for older readers are by women. Coincidence or is it that I find them warmer? I’m straying on to dangerous ground here (or another blog post) and will redress the balance. If you haven’t read (or rather, viewed) the memoir by Raymond Briggs of his parents Ethel and Ernest, you have a treat in store.

Perhaps older readers just want high quality writing with beauty and style, originality, subjects that will interest and intrigue them, escape… The same as younger readers maybe. In some ways it’s easier to achieve because older readers do I think have a more established reading habit, and in some ways harder because, inevitably, they have less sense of wonder at the world. I’ll be curious to see what Books for Older Readers recommends and wish it many happy anniversaries to come.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

More to unite us than divide us

Last week I wrote about a book which resonated. I thought I might feel more detached about Mark Dowd’s just published memoir Queer and Catholic  – I’m neither gay nor Roman Catholic. Nonetheless our common humanity made it both pleasurable and instructive. We do have our age in common – he’s a year younger than I am. It was at university that I was first aware of so many fanciable young men coming out. The same year Dowd was nipping between stints on the adjacent Gay Soc and Catholic Society stalls at the Exeter Freshers’ Fair, I was consoling female friends in the Sussex Union bar when our fellow student Simon Fanshawe didn’t respond to their flirting. Also I did, briefly, go to a Catholic school, where as Dowd found there was relatively little bullying and much gentleness, though he was taught by Brothers rather than by Daisy (Sister Des Anges), Ratty (Sister Mary Raphael) and Revvie (Reverend Mother).

Dowd 17

Dowd grew up the son of northern working class parents, a decade or so after Alan Bennett and David Hockney, contemporaneously with Jeanette Winterson. He began training as a priest but switched to academia and then journalism, a practising but critical Roman Catholic through steady and not so steady relationships,  the 1980s AIDS epidemic, the homophobia of Cardinal Ratzinger, and the revelations of paedophilia in the church (he only came across one instance of this and is otherwise complimentary about the priests who taught him). His tone starts rueful and witty: he knew he was gay, or at least “different” from early childhood: “A Catholic blessed (or cursed) with same sex attraction is rather akin to the orthodox Jew who cannot get the smell of sizzling bacon rashers out of his head, or a fervent Muslim with an irresistible devotion to single malt whisky.” (p.8). See what I mean about common humanity? This is a kind book: to paraphrase Jo Cox, there is more in it to unite us than divide us. So we read his story of adolescent encounters, of fearing discovery, of naivety and disappointment and lust and adoration with, I hope, equal empathy whatever our faith and orientation.

Dowd 6
Handout for visitors to the Tate Britain Hockney exhibition, 2017

A theme throughout is the illogicality of the Catholic church not accepting same sex attraction, when so many of its practitioners are gay and so many of its practices are so attractive to gay men. At his interview for training to be a priest, Dowd is asked if there is anything the college should know about him. In trepidation, he stammers he is gay. “‘Put it this way,’ said Father Weston. ‘I don’t think you’ll be the only one.'”(p. 71)

It’s very funny in parts: the much older partner who pretends for the sake of appearances to be his father and the consequent difficulties of explaining two dads;  the intellectual Oxford Dominican friars who make peach wine in the bathtub; the Vatican priest who greets him with friendship in St Peter’s Square before realising he knows Dowd’s face from a BBC documentary about queer Catholics. It’s very touching: his parents never specifically accept his gayness but they give him brightly coloured nylon double sheets as a housewarming present when he moves in with his partner. Sometimes it’s touching and funny: at the funeral of an AIDS victim friend, the Mother Superior eulogises that his key attributes were “infectious” and none of the mostly gay congregation know where to look.

Dowd alludes with a light touch to the loneliness of longing for both sex and love, against the Church’s requirement of celibacy (for a compassionate and balanced fictional treatment of this, see John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness). His writing is increasingly emotional as the book goes on: where Winterson describes in Why be happy when you could be normal?  the (entirely justifiable) anger she has to resolve, Dowd learns to cry and then what his crying teaches him about himself and others. Anyone who’s read the recent Robert Webb memoir How Not To Be a Boy, or heard Grayson Perry talking about identity will appreciate this openness: Dowd bares his feelings and thoughts to the world with a candidness that is even now unusual. He’s narrated the audiobook himself and my guess is it would be an emotional listen. Think David Sedaris, but with a lot more shared insight. And for the memories of parents and home, think Alan Bennett, or Hockney’s wonderful pictures of his mother. They are all related, and related to us all.

 

The book is political with a small “p”: he discusses others’ research into homosexuality in the Church and poses the question himself: “How can you use the antiquated language of ‘disorder’ about a perfectly naturally occurring minority phenomenon…when you rely on such people to represent Jesus in the daily acts of administering the sacrament?” (p.143). In his BBC career he fronts documentaries about Rwanda and Sarajevo; he discusses male mental health and goes to El Salvador to help set up a radio station in a remote and poverty stricken area. But there is always a light touch, a joke, an anecdote, to help us through the darkest moments.

11395597It’s one to be read in conjunction with others: try Winterson’s Oranges are not the Only Fruit which jollies along in the caricature which was all the young Winterson could bear to reveal of her childhood, and the much darker Why Be Happy when You Could Be Normal? which tells us what really happened. The  title is a quote from her fearsome adoptive mother. Read it in conjunction with what Alan Bennett does NOT say; read it in conjunction with the fiction of John Boyne and Elena Ferrante. Read these books whether you are gay or straight or trans or whatever; whether you have faith or none; whether you are old or young or left or right wing or “apolitical”.

“…to this day the brass crucifix that my parents had given me, a holy communion present when I was seven…remains unstable and slightly skew-whiff on account of a botched repair job with the superglue.” (This after using it as a missile during a row). “So when I see the good Lord staring at me at an odd angle, I think of torrid times with Pablo and the brokenness of fallen humanity.” (p175)

Dowd 15

I think that means there’s hope for us all.

©Jessica Norrie 2017