There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
~ Emily Dickinson

Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. ~ Helen Keller

Monday, 16 September 2013

Summer Reading Roundup (Part 2)

 (Containing the more literary books read this summer, lest anyone is disappointed in the odd content of my first roundup.)

One of my big summer reads, of course, was Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues by Sarah Emsley. Here's the first post in my series on it. Those who enjoy this series may also enjoy my friend Esther's series on the same book. I also recently enjoyed reading Emsley's series for the bicentennial of Pride and Prejudice, especially her post: Does Mr Collins Read Novels?

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
(Completed partly as audiobook)

As a feminist Christian, I think that Patriarchy in the Bible created many problems. This is well demonstrated in the story of Jacob and his wives and concubines, and his daughter Dinah. Diamant's feminist reimagining of the story of Dinah has been much lauded, and I did enjoy her thoughts on feminism and authorship in her introduction to the reissued novel. However, acknowledgment of the problems of Patriarchy doesn't have to mean that we paint all men as boors or villains, especially influential ones in Jewish and Christian spirituality, such as Jacob and Joseph. I almost prefer a Patriarchy in which these men "command their households" after the one God, than this version of female power through persistent polytheism. Despite beautiful prose, it was quite a depressing book, and I agree with my friend 3gee on Tumblr that it adds little to my understanding of Genesis. I found this hermeneutical examination of Dinah's story both more relevent to feminist concerns, and more respectful of the biblical record. It examines the systems of oppression and violence that led and resulted from Dinah's rape, while maintaining her agency in her own story.

Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon by Jane Austen (reread, actually listened to LS as librivox recording)

I decided to reread this because of the Youtube series Welcome to Sanditon, by the creators of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Lady Susan has some great lines, but the epistolatory form prevents Austen from developing each member of her cast so distinctly as in novels with more dialogue. Rereading The Watsons made me grieve that it's unfinished. I know some critics have felt that written during a time Austen was likely in low spirits, it lacks the sparkle and promise of her other works. I think it has tremendous potential. There's the fact that Mr Watson was to die during the course of the novel -- while in most of Austen's works death is only mentioned in the opening narration. Then there is poor Emma Watson having to be "dependent for a home" on that buffoon Robert and her equally egregious sister-in-law. Lord Osborne is also a buffoon, but his interest in Emma may be more extreme (in class distinction) than Darcy's in Elizabeth. Poor Mr Howard is to pursued by Lady Osborne, creating a love triangle of sorts. And my suspicion is that Margaret may have been readying to run away with Tom Musgrave.

As for Sanditon, it's also funny and fresh, exploring themes new for Austen. Unfortunately, the webseries was awful. I ranted about it on Tumblr.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (reread, to be embarrassingly honest)

Yes, I'd read this novel before, but I guess three years ago I was too young and impatient for its aching, slow beauty. This time I determined to simply appreciate it, and I found it a perfect read for summer -- teaching me to focus on the sensations, and rest in the moment. Of course, the novel is not just beautiful prose. It contains the "heavy, and the weary weight" of everyday tragedy. Woolf makes us instinctively feel a part of every life, no matter how trivial, degraded, jealous, impotent, or damaged. To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, this novel is "just the weight" of life.

Adam Bede by George Eliot

When I first started watching the web-series I would read the comments, and chuckle at all the people shipping Edward and Clara. spoiler for the real work follows — In the text, Sir Edward Denham aspires to be the kind of rake in Samuel Richardson’s novels. His intention is to seduce (and if “necessary” kidnap!) the poor dependent Clara Brereton. His deliberately misreads popular novels (pop culture, as the webseries chose to transliterate it) to further his attempts to manipulate women. If the webseries had chosen to take this angle, they could have initiated real dialogue about dude-bros* patriarchy, gender relations, and even rape culture. Instead they went with a syrupy romance, with no real tension or interest - See more at:
When I first started watching the web-series I would read the comments, and chuckle at all the people shipping Edward and Clara. spoiler for the real work follows — In the text, Sir Edward Denham aspires to be the kind of rake in Samuel Richardson’s novels. His intention is to seduce (and if “necessary” kidnap!) the poor dependent Clara Brereton. His deliberately misreads popular novels (pop culture, as the webseries chose to transliterate it) to further his attempts to manipulate women. If the webseries had chosen to take this angle, they could have initiated real dialogue about dude-bros* patriarchy, gender relations, and even rape culture. Instead they went with a syrupy romance, with no real tension or interest - See more at:
When I first started watching the web-series I would read the comments, and chuckle at all the people shipping Edward and Clara. spoiler for the real work follows — In the text, Sir Edward Denham aspires to be the kind of rake in Samuel Richardson’s novels. His intention is to seduce (and if “necessary” kidnap!) the poor dependent Clara Brereton. His deliberately misreads popular novels (pop culture, as the webseries chose to transliterate it) to further his attempts to manipulate women. If the webseries had chosen to take this angle, they could have initiated real dialogue about dude-bros* patriarchy, gender relations, and even rape culture. Instead they went with a syrupy romance, with no real tension or interest - See more at:
When I first started watching the web-series I would read the comments, and chuckle at all the people shipping Edward and Clara. spoiler for the real work follows — In the text, Sir Edward Denham aspires to be the kind of rake in Samuel Richardson’s novels. His intention is to seduce (and if “necessary” kidnap!) the poor dependent Clara Brereton. His deliberately misreads popular novels (pop culture, as the webseries chose to transliterate it) to further his attempts to manipulate women. If the webseries had chosen to take this angle, they could have initiated real dialogue about dude-bros* patriarchy, gender relations, and even rape culture. Instead they went with a syrupy romance, with no real tension or interest - See more at:
When I first started watching the web-series I would read the comments, and chuckle at all the people shipping Edward and Clara. spoiler for the real work follows — In the text, Sir Edward Denham aspires to be the kind of rake in Samuel Richardson’s novels. His intention is to seduce (and if “necessary” kidnap!) the poor dependent Clara Brereton. His deliberately misreads popular novels (pop culture, as the webseries chose to transliterate it) to further his attempts to manipulate women. If the webseries had chosen to take this angle, they could have initiated real dialogue about dude-bros* patriarchy, gender relations, and even rape culture. Instead they went with a syrupy romance, with no real tension or interest - See more at:
When I first started watching the web-series I would read the comments, and chuckle at all the people shipping Edward and Clara. spoiler for the real work follows — In the text, Sir Edward Denham aspires to be the kind of rake in Samuel Richardson’s novels. His intention is to seduce (and if “necessary” kidnap!) the poor dependent Clara Brereton. His deliberately misreads popular novels (pop culture, as the webseries chose to transliterate it) to further his attempts to manipulate women. If the webseries had chosen to take this angle, they could have initiated real dialogue about dude-bros* patriarchy, gender relations, and even rape culture. Instead they went with a syrupy romance, with no real tension or interest - See more at:
When I first started watching the web-series I would read the comments, and chuckle at all the people shipping Edward and Clara. spoiler for the real work follows — In the text, Sir Edward Denham aspires to be the kind of rake in Samuel Richardson’s novels. His intention is to seduce (and if “necessary” kidnap!) the poor dependent Clara Brereton. His deliberately misreads popular novels (pop culture, as the webseries chose to transliterate it) to further his attempts to manipulate women. If the webseries had chosen to take this angle, they could have initiated real dialogue about dude-bros* patriarchy, gender relations, and even rape culture. Instead they went with a syrupy romance, with no real tension or interest - See more at:
This was Eliot's first full-length novel and it does contain a few literary tropes that disappear in her later masterpieces. However, this novel has gained a special place in my heart. Reading it had the effect that all great things -- music, poetry, novels, art, even theology -- have: it made me see everything through its prism. It transformed the very air around me. I felt that those who have not read it could not have the same consciousness I had attained. Drawing to the end, I felt all other books and experiences would be flat and stale after my immersion in Dinah, Adam and Hetty's world. (My feet did return to earth quite quickly, but I would not exchange the brief experience of floating above common things.)

Yet all this is strange, because Adam Bede is (except for those small tropes) a supremely realistic work. Set in the rural world of early 19th century England, the land may be sometimes idealized, but its inhabitants are not. It's also a work replete with homely humor. Smiley faces decorate most of Mrs Poyser's speeches in my copy.

Like Eliot's other works, it's a complex study in psychology, especially drawing on Wordsworth. Like all Eliot's works, it called me to self-examination of how my "personal" faults affect others, but also called me to be less black and white in my condemnations of others' seemingly-heinous sins.  I return to my absorption in the fortunes of its characters when I quote Dickens' words as true for me: "Adam Bede has taken its place among the actual experiences and endurances of my life."

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green (Young Adult novel)
Dear An Abundance of Katherines ~

I like you; I just don't love you. You're really funny, and you have the breathless, unique voice of your creator Mr Green. You're smart: I didn't much care for the math problems, but I learned a cool new word and a Latin phrase. I identified with protagonist Colin Singleton's desire to matter through accomplishments. I tend to resent prodigies like him because I want to be one, but your point that in the end it is the stories we live and create that "make us matter to each other" had some resonance.

It's not you, it's me. (I think.) I'm not used to reading YA novels, and frankly, the attitude toward sex, and the references to bodily functions aren't my thing. I picked you up with low expectations, as a fun read on a road trip. So don't take it really personally when I say you didn't measure up (or down, actually) with the depth of, say, Anne of Green Gables.

Hey, it was fun. I just don't think we're totally compatible. I'm holding out a bit of hope for Looking for Alaska

(not really) Yours,

Reader, that's pretty much all that I read during anything that looked remotely like summer here, other than my annual August Jane Eyre reread/re-listen (which, as ever, was filled with "light for the mind" and pure delight). What have you all been reading?

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Summer Reading Roundup (Part 1)

 Currently Reading: Adam Bede by George Eliot (absolutely absorbing!); William Wordsworth: A Biography with Selected Poems by Rosanna Negrotti; The World of Ellen G White edited by Gary Land; and listening to a librivox recording of Jane Eyre.

Summer has been busy and -- as some of you have probably gotten sick of being reminded -- my laptop gave up the ghost. Hence, my failure to provide monthly reading updates. However, my review compulsion, and love of discussing books with my friends here, won't let me go without giving a few lines on what I've been reading in the past months.

 The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers
It's not my favorite Sayers work, but that's probably my own fault for rushing through it without making an effort to understand the change ringing. Nevertheless, it has some gorgeous prose and a just-surprising-enough-but-not-too-much mystery solution.

Doctor Adrian: A Story of Old Holland by Deborah Alcock (reread)

(image from

This poster of Dutch Anabaptist Dirk Willems rescuing his Catholic pursuer hangs in my room. The novel Doctor Adrian takes place in the Dutch provinces, ravaged by Philip II's inquisition. I probably should mock its sentimental Victorian prose and penchant for treacherous Jesuits in disguise... but I rather like both. I like still more the title character -- a fictional protege of Andreas Vesalius -- with his fictional friend, Dirk Willems' son. Still more I like the heroic portrayal of the Prince of Orange, who is the primary focus of the next book I read...

Stories of the Reformation in the Netherlands by Ruth Gordon Short (reread)

(Praise for the Prince of Orange and other Protestants, mostly opprobrium for Philip II and his minions, though with some occasional sympathy for Charles V. That's probably all most of you care to know. Since I was having all my Orange feelings several months ago when I wasn't posting, you're all spared the recital.)

I Am Hutterite: The Fascinating True Story of a Young Woman's Journey to Reclaim Her Heritage by

Listening to this as an audiobook helped humanize the communal Anabaptist group every prairie Canadian knows on sight. Mary-Ann's life growing up in the colony was in many ways warm, loving, and idyllic. Her description of her family showed real Christianity in their lives, but as with most exclusive groups, corrupt power dynamics rose in the colony, and eventually drove her family to the difficult choice of starting a new life in the "English" world.

To Drink of His Love by Mary Wuestefeld
A young woman's experiences escaping the clutches of legalistic religion that had made her question how the gospel could really be good news.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Conclusion: After Austen

 Jane Austen's popularity has ensured that every generation sees some writer heralded as "the new Jane Austen". Most, of course, sink back into relative obscurity, although the various genres Austen is credited as influencing continue. Having placed Austen in a tradition of ethical writers stretching from Aristotle to Shakespeare, Sarah Emsley looks at the inheritors of Austen's moral seriousness and ethical deliberation. For Emsley, three authors stand out: George Eliot, Henry James, and Edith Wharton.

Anyone familiar George Eliot knows about her emphasis on empathy, or sympathy. Emsley states that for Eliot, "Sympathy is the alternative to faith as the grounding of all virtue..." (161) Humility is a necessary part of sympathy, as Maggie rages at Tom, "You boast of your own virtues... [and] have no sense of your own imperfection" (The Mill on the Floss) However, Emsley agrees with Will's criticism of Dorothea's "fanaticism of sympathy" as unable to bring about ultimate virtue and happiness (see Middlemarch). Eliot's novels contrast with Austen's in that "faith is discussed explicitly and frequently, but the reason why it is addressed directly is that it is often either lost or endangered" (Emsley, 162). This, of course, is because Eliot had lost her once-strong faith. I admit, I love Eliot and her idea of sympathy. However, as a Christian, I think I agree with Emsley that it cannot be the sole foundation of virtue. (Rohan Maitzen has written some interesting pieces on Eliot's view of sympathy, rather than religion, as moral framework.)

In "The Janeites" Kipling declares that Jane Austen left "lawful issue" in Henry James. However, according to Emsley, in "James's later novels, virtue seems not just a mysterious desert, but an unfathomable sea" (162). In one work "Aesthetics replace ethics" (163) for the hero. In another, two characters decide on a system of "care" that entails "never consciously" wounding others. Their "care", however, involves keeping their affair a secret from their respective spouses. Their ethical deliberation "works toward what makes life.. more comfortable" (163). While in Austen's novels "it generally becomes clear where the moral center of the novel is..." this is not so for James. Emsley tells us, "Increasingly for James's main characters, the virtues are replaced by the values of modern life, values that are negotiable rather than flexible" (163). James is more interested in knowledge and analysis of ethics than ethical action. He too seems hardly a worthy heir for Austen.

Emsley argues that Edith Wharton's novels lack hope born of "faith in something positive". "The ruling value is authenticity" (165) Wharton, therefore, also fails to live up to Austen's vision of virtue that produces happiness.

Emsley concludes: "Just as Austen's contemporaries often saw virtue as sexual purity, writers after Austen tend to focus on a particular kind of virtue that informs the ethics of a given situation" (165). Throughout the book Emsley effectively argues that "Even among writers of her time, Jane Austen's exploration of the unity of the virtues is original and exceptional" (166). Austen, therefore, is unrivaled in her exploration of the virtuous life. Austen's popularity also implies that she is unrivaled in showing that "An education in virtue can be dramatically interesting" (167).

As I stated at the beginning of this series, the best books "show us to ourselves". Despite being an academic work, Emsley's engagement with the principles of ethics helped me think more deeply about my ethical foundations. Her emphasis on Austen's Christian moorings made me think more closely about love, hope, and faith as ways of seeing and reacting to life. (And, yes, by extension I even thought more closely about some statements of Paul's.) I'll continue to look back on this book as a pivotal experience as I navigate the worlds of Austen criticism and virtuous life.

 This series of posts would not have been possible without Esther, who graciously sent her copy of Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues all the way to Canada for me to read. (Esther has herself written a series of posts on this book, which summarize it beautifully, doubtless covering points I missed.) I also want to thank all my perspicacious friends who commented (keep it up! the discussions don't have to end!) and shared thoughts. I especially appreciated the thoughts that the Mansfield Park post generated. And lastly, thanks to Sarah Emsley for writing such a great work and even mentioning this series on her excellent blog.

Balancing the Virtues in "Persuasion"

I have a theory that Austen made the heroines of her successive novels studies in contrast. Quiet Fanny follows sparkling Elizabeth, persuadable Anne follows confident Emma. According to Sarah Emsley, Anne is also a foil to Emma in truly possessing the "resources of mind and spirit... that Emma Woodhouse thinks she herself possesses" (Emsley, 145). Emsley also sees Persuasion as the most explicit of the six novels in balancing the virtues. She states, "Anne's argument at the end of the novel that she was right to take Lady Russel's advice, even if the advice was wrong, demonstrates that for Austen, ethics has to do with character rather than rules" (146).

Austen makes deliberate reference to the need for balance -- in this case between firmness and persuadability -- after Louisa's disastrous fall. This "recalls Aristotle's doctrine of the mean, in which virtuous qualities have proportions and limits. Though Wentworth himself does not realize it, he does think that to be sometimes persuadable is a good thing, as he has recommended that Louisa persuade Henrietta to be firm" (148).

Emsley also agrees with my theory that "It is Wentworth, not Anne, who must change in this novel" (149). Once again, critics who claim Austen does not deal with the minds of men are proven wrong, through Wentworth's succinct account of how he came to recognize his own pride.

In Persuasion, Anne must exercise her judgment in her treatment of her varied acquaintances -- from the prideful Lady Dalrymple, and the seemingly-charming Mr Eliot, to the humble Mrs Smith. Emsley demonstrates that in this novel right treatment of others requires consideration, not of "birth or fortune", but of "understanding and value" (153). Sir Walter and Elizabeth are notably without such judgment in their treatment of "only Anne" whose "elegance of mind and sweetness of character" should distinguish her.

Emsley presents Anne's pang of conscience while reading Mr Eliot's private letters as an example of the virtues in tension. In this situation "the code of honor that protects a man's private life and letters conflicts with the attempt of two women to establish the truth. In this case, truth must win in order for Anne to preserve her own character, and to separate herself and her family from the designs of Mr Eliot.. [T]he real virtue of truth triumphs over mere rules..." (154)

When Anne argues that women love longest "when hope is gone" she is uses no literary examples, and it is clear she is thinking of her own situation. However, her behavior throughout the novel demonstrates that she does possess hope, if not in a renewal of Wentworth's love (though this is a primary theme of the last section of the novel), then in something greater than herself. "[It] is through constancy and faith in Persuasion that [Austen] demonstrates the unity of the virtues... Constancy is the natural consequence of the uniting of the classical virtue of fortitude with the Christian virtue of hope" (156). While some critics have argued that Anne is depressed at the beginning of the novel, her consistent actions of kindness and care for others are examples of fortitude born of hope. This is hope as Paul conceives of it in Romans 5:4, "Experience [worketh] hope." Like love, it is not merely an emotion, but a way of viewing the world that motivates action toward others. In short, Anne possess Paul's trivium: faith, hope, and love. Emsley concludes that "Persuasion contains the closest thing to an explicit theory of the unity of classical and Christian virtues" (158).

These thoughts are drawn from Sarah Emsley's book Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Learning the Art of Charity in Emma

Emma has been my favorite Jane Austen novel since the first time I read it, because I immediately identified with the undisciplined, imaginative heroine. Thus, it's hardly surprising that I enjoyed Emsley's chapter on this novel most, but I was also surprised by how much this chapter of literary criticism "showed me to myself'. Although Emsely considers Emma less well-developed that P&P, I found the most striking insights in this chapter. Perhaps it is because it focuses on "the greatest of these" -- love.

Emma Woodhouse, who possess some of the "best blessings of existence" is yet in the position described by Paul in 1Corinthians 13 -- all her gifts profit her nothing, because she has a false understanding of love. This is partly do to her lack of self-knowledge. Emma is, of course, quite confident that she does know herself, telling Harriet, "If I know myself... mine is an active mind".  However, Emsley posits that Emma's pursual of company, even inferior company like Harriet's, proves that she fears lonliness or "the reality of being left with her own mind" (131). This was a moment of revelation for me. Although not as sociable as Emma, I too fear the solitude of my own mind, refusing to lie awake and think about my own faults and failures when I can distract myself with various forms of entertainment.

"Emma does, however see some things clearly, early on..." (132) Emsley declares. When she defends Frank for not visiting Mrs Weston she is "taking the other side of the question from her real opinion". She also cannot long pretend to be in love with Frank. More importantly, Emsley acknowledges something I've thought, but not articulated well: "In contrast to Elizabeth Bennet and Catherine Morland, whose revelations of self-knowledge come quite late in their respective novels, Emma has her first encounter with the pain of enlightenment relatively early in Chapter 16" (133). After Elton makes "violent love to her" she is very penitent and miserable. Does this mean Emma is the most complex of Austen's ouvre through making "conversion" (repentance/self-knowledge, whatever word suits) a repeated process? Perhaps this is yet another reason I love this novel best, because I too have never had one moment of change or even spiritual conversion, but learn slowly. The fact that Emma experiences not one but three epiphanies is also an argument against the idea that she does not change, since throughout the story, self-knowledge is a continuing process. (Can anyone tell me who the critic was who thought she doesn't change at the end? I may have read it in "A Truth Universally Acknowledged".)

Another vital point that Emsley makes is about the difference between "charity as love and charity as image" (138). As much as Emma despises Mrs Elton, she has been guilty of having a disturbingly similar conception of charity. Emsley says that "In [Mrs Elton's] estimation, charity is what those in power offer to those without power" (135). Emma too "has thought that it woud be charitable to be useful to Harriet (when in fact she uses Harriet as a pawn in her own matchmaking game), that it woud be charitable to Mr Elton to find him a pretty wife (when she has used him as the object of that game), and also, that it would be charitable to Frank Churchill for her to bestow her affections on him. This is charity conceived of as condescension. Emma Woodhouse, proud, elegant, and benevolent, might condescend to treat 'a Harriet Smith' as a friend, to arrange the local clergyman's love life for him, and to fall in love with a long-lost neighbor. But, as Emma needs to learn, charity is not about power"  (133).

This conception of charity as power is a common failing, perhaps especially among we Westerners who consider ourselves educationally and culturally advanced; and among we Christians, eager to spread our "good news" in condescending ways. A right conception of charity, Austen and Emsley imply, is based on respect for others' personhood and autonomy. Whenever we begin to use others -- to advance our positions, our reputations, or even our self-esteem -- we have abandoned real charity.

Emsley concludes her comments on charity with the statement: "In E, charity is not defined simply as either good works performed for other people, or as love offered to one's intimates; romantic love, the love of friendship, and the love of benevolent good works are all part of Austen's understanding of charity. The process of learning to be charitable, therefore, is more than an education in good works or social justice, as it can help characters work toward happiness as well as goodness" (140).

Emsley then turns to a discussion of happiness, concluding that through practicing the virtues "Austen suggests, one may achieve something like perfect happiness, not happiness as an end result, but as a process open to revision" (141).  She asks, "Is it the aim of virtue to be in charity with one's self?" (141) While she does not explicitly answer the question, through examining the process by which Emma comes to understand the cruelty of her remark to Miss Bates, she suggests that a time of great self-reproach may be the first step to later self-charity. She shows that while Emma is not a reader like Lizzie Bennet (who is changed through her close reading of a letter), once Emma has had her error pointed out by Mr Knightley she is harder on herself than he has been, recalling all her "scornful, ungracious" private thoughts and remarks that led up to the open barb. Ultimately, "Emma has to learn to love her neighbor as herself, and to be in love and charity with her neighbors rather than simply with herself" (144). She has claimed it is not her "way" to fall in love, but has it been because her own self-love has blinded her to what it is to be "in love" as a way of life?

 (I'm doing a remarkably reprehensible [think Mr Woodhouse's voice in Emma 2006] thing and posting this in a great rush unedited. Will edit later, so for now I beg you all to show charity and forgive ;)

Friday, 19 July 2013

Fanny Price and the Contemplative Life

It's ironic that Fanny Price, one of Austen's most quiet and (seemingly) timid heroines, is the subject of so much contention among critics and readers. Here's where I make the dreadful confession that despite wanting to kick Kinsley Amis* out of windows** I have not always appreciated Fanny as much as the other heroines. As I began reading the chapter I jotted down these words: "I think my own need is for her to be a little more tempted in all points, perhaps as a reaction to Edmund's characterization of her as a creature of habit. He claims novelty has almost no power over her, but it has so much power for people like myself, and for other literary heroines, such as Emma Woodhouse, Jane Eyre, or Maggie Tulliver." Well, it turns out that a significant portion of Emsley's argument takes on Edmund's characterization and makes me ashamed to have questioned the sovereign lady's judgment.

Emsley's main thesis in this chapter is that Fanny is Austen's heroine who most achieves philosophic wisdom. She has been criticized as a weak character for her submissiveness and deference to others. In urging her to act gratefully and accept Henry Crawford, the Bertrams expect of her what Wollsonecraft called "spaniel-like virtues". However, it is the fact Fanny has been "long used to submission" yet still resists these urgings that proves her real strength. And while much is made of Edmund having formed her mind, in fact, we see her independent judgments growing more confident and more distinct from Edmund's as the novel progresses. This view is reinforced by her words to Henry describing a "better guide in ourselves" that all possess.

Emsley also brings out the fascinating metaphor, introduced in the chapel scene, of Mansfield Park as a nation. Edmund's moral failing, in not giving the example he has stated the clergy should, augurs ill for his model of a clergy-directed nation. Fanny, however, is an individual who departs from the stus quo in refusing to participate in the play. Austen's belief in the prerequisite of moral individuals is reinforced by Emsley's epigraph from "Catherine", which states that "the welfare of every nation depends on the virtue of it's [sic] individuals".

Here I return to Fanny's attitude toward novelty. Emsley proves -- especially through surveying Fanny's expressions about plants and the changing seasons -- that she is not without appreciation for novelty and change. In fact, it is those around her who stifle her rapturous expressions, through their indifference to "intellectual subjects" (121). For instance, Fanny attempts to engage Mary Crawford on the "wonderful ... changes of the human mind" but is met with silence. Nor does Fanny advocate habit merely for its own sake. In the scene in which Henry reads Shakespeare and discusses the art of sermons, Fanny approves of recent changes in the manner of their delivery.

Emsley has rendered the claim that Fanny is static invalid. Another character frequently criticized is Sir Thomas. Emsley sheds light on how we are to view Sir Thomas through comparing him with Mr Bennet. The former is "the longest to suffer" his family's disgrace due to "errors in his own conduct as a parent", while Mr Bennet acknowledges his family's disgrace as his "own doing", but is "not afraid of being overpowered by the impression". Sir Thomas and his son Tom are characters who have been morally indictable, but change. Fanny is a character whose consistent habit of contemplation -- both privately and in "community" when consulting her uncle -- has led to moral comfort (peace), and also to growth of personality and intellect.


*I've frequently expressed my hatred of Amis' essay "What Became of Jane Austen?" Emsley provided an excellent clue to where Amis went wrong. In her S&S chapter she points to Aristotle who "says that there is an important distinction between vice and moral weakness, the difference being that while vice is an imbalance of emotion that makes us unable to see that what we do is wrong, moral weakness is the state of knowing what is right, behaving wrongly, and being conscious of regret at falling short of practicing the virtues" (Emsley, 71) Isn't this an exact description of the difference between the Crawfords and Edmund?

**See "Frederic and Elfrida" (Seriously, what awful names, Miss Austen!)

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Pride and Prejudice and the Beauty of Justice

Growing up, I heard the word "judging" used frequently -- often pejoratively by those telling others in the church to stop worrying about other people's dress, adornment, and behavior. My mother would earnestly rejoin that while we cannot judge the heart, we must judge between right and wrong. What often got left out of these discussions was the necessity of careful judgment in pursuing justice. In Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues Sarah Emsley explores the role of judgment in treating others with justice.

Like Sense and Sensibility, Emsley views P&P as exploring the vital question of "how to be truthful and civil simultaneously" (83). However, the latter novel's dramatic plot combines Elizabeth's livelier personality  to heighten the tensions of the virtues, and to present what Emsley considers the best of Austen's "living arguments".

As "light, bright, and sparkling" as P&P is, it is a controversial novel. Feminist critics have devalued Austen's marriage plots as humiliations to the heroines and "complicit in bourgeois ideology" (85), while a host of male critics have been more appreciative. Nevertheless, every Janeite has at some point encountered the complaint that a novel set around the Napeolonic wars contains no politics. Emsley points to Aristotle's teaching that the question "How shall our life together be ordered?" is the "central issue of politics" (84). In this light, Austen is highly political in a way that trascends her time and touches the politics of our own. Ultimately, Emsley believes critics are a little too ready to take Austen's word on the "light, bright and sparkling" question, and fail to realize that this is actually "the most serious of Austen's novels..." (84). This view is reinforced by Plato's theory that the genius of tragedy is the same genius as that of comedy.

Emsley's explores righteous anger that seeks to "set things right"(89) and both enables, and springs from, the Christian love and joy displayed in the novels. Again, danger lies on both sides of the mean of good temper. Emsley contrasts Lady Catherine and Mr Collins as opposites -- he overreaches the mean with his obsequiousness, she with her cantankerous impertinence. Personally, I would argue that both are manifestations of their extreme selfishness, directed into seemingly opposite channels by their widely different social positions. An example of those who keep to the mean -- exercising judgment in their anger and civility -- are the Gardeners. They are willing to believe good of Mr Darcy quite readily, but are justly angry with Lydia when she arrives at their home, unrepentant and still-thoughtless.

Especially perspicacious is Emsley's explication of beneficial prejudice (perhaps comparable to proper pride) which leads Elizabeth to reject Mr Collins, while Jane, "apt to like people", might conceivably have accepted him. Elizabeth does not, after all, become so changed by her "just humiliation" as to become unjudgmental like Jane. Rather, Elizabeth and Darcy's early judgments are condemned because both both "judge others before they judge themselves" (95). Correct judgment involves looking closely at situations, judging one's self before judging others, and judging one's self more strictly. This process of correct judgment is an art, and therefore "harder to achieve than the correct execution of technical skill" (97). Emsley effectively demonstrates that "good judgment does not by any means come easily to Elizabeth" following her moment of discovery, but she does become less hasty in her pronouncements as the novel progresses (101).

We few, we happy few, we Janeites are especially fortunate in being able to enjoy Austen's balanced perspective on judgment. Characters in her novels who judge hastily and without humility are educated through their mistakes, but judgment remains vital to the heroines who navigate deceptions and pitfalls to achieve happy endings. Judgment is also the prerequisite to appreciating Austen's finely tuned sense of irony, which relies on the difference between what ought to be and what is. Lastly, judgment is vital to Austen's equally subtle sense of morality. Emsley concludes that critics Maskell and Robinson "are right that Jane Austen goes further than Socrates does in his suggestion that 'The unreasoned life.. is not worth living'; for Austen, 'a life without judgment... would not be a human life at all'" (105).

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues (3) Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility, Sarah Emsley posits, is about social virtues in tension with the virtue of honesty. Who among us can't think of some uncomfortable situation when we have been forced to speak, knowing honesty might wound? Emsley describes this problem thus: "In loving one's neighbor there is an inherent tension between respect and affirmation; that is, it is difficult to draw the line between being polite and sympathetic to someone, and being complicit with that person's behavior" (59). This is certainly true in S&S, in which it seems as if the Dashwood sisters are surrounded by the most vulgar, villainous, or cloying people imaginable. A balance must be struck through sympathy tempered by judgment.

Kind and friendly behavior is referred to in Austen's novels as amiability. Like the other virtues, it is a mean, with faults lying at both extremes. "The excess of amiability is obsequiousness... and the defect is cantankerousness" (62); S&S certainly has its share of characters - from Lucy Steele to Mrs Ferrars - falling on either side. In discussing the qualities of friendship and social life, Emsley brought my attention to a description of the Middletons that will now make me momentarily abandon my essay tone: "Continual engagements at home and abroad... supplied all the deficiencies of nature and education." Sorry if this is mean, but to me that's an exact representation of the Middleton family who feature so much in gossip columns today. ;)

 Emsley goes on to discuss whether virtue is best formed in contact with the world, or in isolation from it. In exploring this question she returns to the theologians à Kempis and Augustine who advocated separation from the world, but acknowledged that the monastic life is not for all. She then turns to "Areopagitica", concluding that Austen agrees with Milton that "knowledge and survey of vice... [are] necessary to the constituing of virtue." Austen demonstrates this belief in a number of ways. Elinor speaks to Colonel Brandon of Marianne's need for a "better acquaintance with the world".  Edward states that his foolish engagement to Lucy was the "consequence of ignorance of the world". This need for knowledge is, however, balanced by the conclusion "the world [has] made [Willoughby] extravagant and vain". Knowledge, therefore, is necessary to the formation of good judgment in the young, but utter license is destructive to their character.

One of my favorite insights in this chapter involves how Austen signals out Willoughby's seduction of Eliza Williams as the "origin" of all his other crimes. Emsley points out how "this is in contrast to [David] Hume's theory that a man's virtue can be more easily redeemed. Thus Austen's fiction might be seen as opposing Hume's double standard of virtue" (60).

Another striking, though simple, insight was the presentation of the virtues as a chain. "Self-knowledge may bring us to understand our faults, knowledge of how we have injured others may bring us to exert ourselves...[,] and the constant discipline... requires courage" (74). This idea of virtues that "cause and affect each other" (74) reminded me of 2 Peter 1. Perhaps that text is especially significant in the light of the foundation of religion in Austen's worldview: "Add to your faith virtue."

One thing I question is Emsley's conclusion that, unlike Marianne, Elinor is not "prepared to ask for divine grace" (81). Although it is true she does not do so as explicitly as Marianne, could it be because Marianne has "sinned" more publicly? To what degree must confession be public? (Emsley uses the term penance in referring to Marianne's behavior. Could this be a Catholic element in Austen, or is this merely part of Marianne's tendency to extremes?) These questions are very interesting, when we consider the fact that three heroines (Marianne, Elizabeth, and Elinor) experience identifiable times of repentance, while the less hasty heroines (Elinor, Fanny, and Anne) seem to have little for which to repent. Emsley explores these differences further in the following chapters, especially relating to Fanny, but perhaps part of the answer lies in a quote she cites from Alastair Duckworth suggesting that Elinor "does not so much evince a moral growth as a constant internal moral struggle" ("The Improvement of the Estates" 114).

This moral struggle remains in evidence as Emsley ends her discussion of the tension between honesty and amiability. She concludes that "by behaving civilly to other people, Elinor is closer to practicing the virtues than Marianne, because a virtue is no longer a virtue when the practice of it is unjustly harmful to others" (71).

(A note on quotes: I'm providing page numbers for Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues because I may wish to use these in future essays. I'm not providing page numbers for Austen's works, as they may all be easily searched on the internet.)

Monday, 8 July 2013

Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues (2): Propriety's Claims on Prudence

In the second chapter of Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues, Emsley discusses virtue in Austen's early works - Northanger Abbey and Lady Susan. Of course, any good Janeite will be quick to point out that the eponymous heroine of Lady Susan is entirely without virtue - possessed of the kind of shocking amorality that in later novels Austen is hesitant to assign even to the rakes. However, Lady Susan makes a great show of propriety -- leaving the Manwarings' house, or being a model of feminine reserve to Reginald DeCourcy - to cover her selfishness and immorality. Emsley points out the ghastly degree of Lady Susan's immorality when she encourages her friend Alicia to bring on the death of the feeble Mrs Manwearing "through irritating her feelings".

Feminist critics have sometimes viewed LS as Austen's exploration of female power, a theme patriarchal influences forced her to discontinue pursuing in her later works. Emsey agrees "that Lady Susan criticizes female power," but posits "the heroine's pursuit of virtue in [the] later novels as a quest for a different kind of power. Given that older definitions of virtue (or vertu) had to do with strength and power, it is important to emphasize that the virtues are moral excellences, and therefore may be seen as more powerful than aggression or manipulation" (48).

Lady Susan is an inherently amoral character who uses propriety to cover her villainy. In contrast, Emsley views Catherine Morland of NA as an innately virtuous heroine, who must learn the proprieties of society. For example, Catherine would consider it a sacrifice to ride with the Thorpes rather than walk with the Tilneys. In contrast to George Eliot who once stated that "All self-sacrifice is good", in this instance Austen upholds the propriety of following through with the first engagement. For Austen "the morality of sacrifice depends on what the sacrifice is for... In Northanger Abbey... Austen tests sacrifice against loyalty, honesty against propriety, and authority against natural inclination" (54).

While I agree with the analysis of Catherine's innate sense of honesty as vital to her actions and character, I think there may be room for a little more exploration of her terrible surmises and consequent moment of shame. This chapter is Emsley's weakest (though I'd still give it an A), probably because it deals with works Austen wrote at a young age. Among Austen's ouvre, NA seems most influenced by contemporary sentimental novels and Emsley acknowledges that "later Austen heroines will have to think more, struggle more, and suffer for more than ten minutes or one dark night in a scary room" (55).   Emsley's analysis focuses primarily on a couple of Catherine's interactions with the Thorpes and Tilneys in Bath, without exploring the gothic elements introduced at the Abbey. Although something of an off-shoot from discussing specific virtues, the exploration might be expanded by a look into the moral implications of imagination and sentimentality.

Despite its slimness, this chapter also provides some fabulous incites into Austen's originality. For example, "That villains can be ordinary people is radical, just as the idea that heroines can be ordinary people is radical" (55). That's why NA is another wonderful examplar of Austen's lessons for us today. Today in my ordinariness, I can be a heroine. Like Catherine I can acknowledge my mistakes and then take comfort in Austen's declaration, "She had nothing to do but to forgive herself and be happier than ever."

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues (Introduction and Chapter 1)

As every true bookworm knows, there are two kinds of books: the ones we read, and the ones that read us. Bronson Alcott described the latter kind when he wrote of The Pilgrim's Progress, "This is one of the few books that showed me to myself." Such a book is Sarah Emsley's Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues. It's a work of literary criticism that I've long been eager to read. I owe my lovely friend Esther an immense debt of gratitude for lending her copy to me (and for not bugging me about why I haven't finished and posted sooner.)

Emsley's theses is that Austen participates in the tradition of "virtue ethics" developed by philosophers and theologians over the centuries. Especially prominent in the development of this tradition is Aristotle, for whom the telos [end or goal] of virtue is "human flourishing". This view is reinforced by the cardinal virtues of the early philosophers: justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude. Combined with the Christian (or Theological) virtues - faith, hope, and love - these present flexible guide to living the good life. Emsley presents the primary concern of Austen's heroines not as "Who shall I marry? but as "How shall I live my life?" Contemplation and practice of the virtues will produce a flourishing life. However, such a life requires practice and effort, since "for Austen, as for Aristotle, virtue is a disposition and is chosen, acquired, and practiced through habit..." (Emsley 18)

Through presenting Austen as concerned with happiness attained through virtue, Emsley immediately confronts popular criticism that emphasizes the humiliation of the heroines as harmful, and strong Christian mores as antithetical to happiness. Gilbert and Gubar were among the feminist critics who spearheaded this view of Austen's universe, leading many subsequent feminist critics to maintain a strong interest in Austen, while disparaging the endings of her novels. However, I'm glad to say Emsley also shows herself sympathetic to true forms of women's equality, through her references to Wollstonecraft's criticism of the "spaniel-like virtues" expected of women in the 18th century.

While Emsley acknowledges the lack of much explicit Christianity in Austen's works, she points out that the tradition of virtues was expanded by Aquinas and Augustine. She suggests that since Protestants tended to "downplay Catholic catalogues of specific vices and virtues" (31), Austen's Catholic sympathies in "The History of England" might extend to her philosophical emphasis on the virtues. Despite her interest in the specific virtues, Austen does not see them as items on a list to be checked off. (An example of this type of thinking is Benjamin Franklin's list of 13 virtues - one to work on each week - which has been described as "secular Calvanism".) Nor does Austen view virtue in the narrow form it was equated with in her day - as female sexual purity, or a "state of being that could be acted on by others" (35). Rather, for Austen, individual deliberation and judgment are vital in all circumstances, for vice may lie on either side of the mean of virtue. "It is the right kind of actions, at the right time, and in the right way, that constitute virtuous behavior..." (40).

Reading the Introduction and first chapter of this book helped to acquaint me more intimately with several philosophers, but it also "showed me to myself" through making me think more deeply about my own judgments of virtues and morals, and about how I walk the mean of virtue.

On Rachel Held Evans' "A Year of Biblical Womanhood"

"If a woman was pastor of our church, I wouldn't go," my grandma declares over Sabbath-evening supper. "I'd stay at home for church."

"Then you'd be leading the service," I tease. "You'd have to get a man to read aloud to obey Paul."

"You know what that passage really means don't you?" Aunty L asks and proceeds to give the traditional Adventist interpretation of how in those days men and women sat in separate sections of the synagogue and services were being disrupted by women shouting questions to their husbands. Nobody acknowledges the irony as we put that injunction of Paul's firmly in its cultural context, but go on to declare we know that Doug Bachelor will present the "Biblical view" to the SDA ordination committee. (The "Biblical view" being that since no female priests served in the tabernacle, no woman should be ordained to gospel ministry today. To my knowledge none of the men ordained at camp-meeting last year were descendents of Aaron, or of the tribe of Levi.)

When I was 16 I went to a conservative Adventist "family camp" that emphasized character building and family issues. The year before the speakers had taught what I later learned is an aspect of Christian Patriarchy - girls shouldn't hold jobs outside of the home. This year I covertly watched a family whose "patriarch" had decreed that the women of the family could not go to church during their periods. They were obviously fanatical. (Although three years before I might have agreed with them on the "Thou shalt only wear long skirts and dresses" addition to the Decalogue.*) I provide these anecdotes to show that in a conservative Adventist family, I grew up in a culture - like the larger Evangelical culture - very concerned with "Biblical womanhood", but filled with disparate interpretations and practices.

It is these baffling varieties of "Biblical womanhood" and the attitudes and assumptions that led to their formation that Held Evans' takes apart in her best seller. It's a hilariously funny book and her experiments in following various texts - from camping in a tent during her period to mothering a battery-operated baby - have laid her open to charges of mockery and attempting to destroy Christianity. However, like all good comedy, the book is gravely serious: the "burdens, grevious to be born" laid on women through unbending expectations, the theologies that foster abuse (i.e. Miachel and Debi Pearl's teachings), and the poverty experienced by women worldwide.

The book demonstrates that we all - fundamentalists and progressives, complementarians and egalitarians, alike - need to learn that God's dealings with humankind represent principles more often than rules. Any good Bible students knows the pronouncements and stories of the Old Testament condemning intermarriage between Hebrews and the heathen. But God isn't confined - He holds up the courage of foreigners Ruth and Rahab, and makes them part of the line of Christ. Or there's the fact that according to the Levitical code, the woman with the issue of blood was not allowed to touch Jesus, but He praised her counter-culture act of faith.

Held Evans also points out imperfect translations of Greek and Hebrew words that have influenced traditional understandings for centuries. For example, the Greek word kosmios translated as modest in 1Tim 2, is translated more perfectly as self-controlled when pertaining to the qualities of a bishop in the following chapter.

This leads me to why I'm a little afraid sometimes to speak my doubts on difficult scripture passages. I'm a Protestsant; I grew up on Luther's "Except I am persuaded by the testimony of scripture or by plain reason..." I don't want to take the Bible lightly, or to be seen as doing so. However, in that reformation statement is the twin of Sola Scriptura: The priesthood of all believers. From Luther pointing Zwingle to his HOC EST MEUM CORPUS on the tablecloth, to my suspicions of the centring prayer practises Held Evans - like many progressives - advocates, disagreement has not only been rife, but necessary. These disagreements, these "Where in the world did she get that idea?" moments as I read this book sent me flipping through my Bible. I'd consider that an indication of a book being worth reading.

Sometimes in the Bible's countless difficult texts we forget the unequivocal "The greatest of these is love." That's why Held Evans' chapter on her trip to Bolivia with World Vision was my favorite. In it she introduces us to Elena, living in a remote mountain village, sunk from poverty into indigence by her husband's disabling stroke. Yet, in conditions that would make most of us beg for aid, she has given aid. She shares with her adopted daughter, Arminda, her 'mite' - quite literally a dwelling with the pigs.

In conclusion, I will continue to question and agonize over scriptural interpretation, gender roles, and cultural responsibility. I trust Rachel Held Evans will too. (Although she was in contact with a practicing Jewish woman throughout her experiment, she may want to look into concerns about appropriation of Jewish language and customs before she continues celebrating festivals and blowing shofars in her home.) Yet despite differences and questions, I will continue to champion with her the healing truths that reach out to all - women, men, conservatives, liberals, Mary Magdalenes and Simons - as described in Held Evans' words:

What I love about the ministry of Jesus is that he identified the poor as blessed and the rich as needy... and then he went and ministered to them both. This, I think, is the difference between charity and justice. Justice means moving beyond the dichotomy between those who need and those who supply and confronting the frightening and beautiful reality that we desperately need one another.
 That's what I love about the Kingdom: For the poor there is food. For the rich, there is joy. For all of us, there is grace. 

* I still wear long skirts and dresses to church and camp-meeting. But now it's largely because they hide the hair on my legs, rather than because it makes me more holy.

Friday, 17 May 2013

The Sunne in Splendour

I may have done a "happy dance" when I found Sharon Kay Penman's novel for $2 in a thrift shop. I'd known about it for several years and been even more eager to read it after the announcement of the discovery of Richard III's remains in February. However, I expected it might take me longer than the library would allow to finish this 936 page novel. I was wrong; it took me just over two weeks, and that with rereading several portions. And the "happy dance" was just the first of many physical reactions that this sweeping epic provoked from me.

I guess I should confess straight off. I'd been holding out on taking the final plunge, joining the rabid Ricardian ranks - declaring Richard III my liege lord. My alleged reason, if I had to give one, would have been that while it certainly can't be proved that Richard was responsible for the death of the Princes in the Tower, he did have enough motivation. The real reason is that while I've had plenty of historical crushes in my lifetime, Ricardians are embarrassingly numerous, organized, and earnest. However, my historical interests have always been in the biographical, "how did individuals live and feel?" aspects, not dispassionate political analysis. (Or rather, I'm interested in reading that analysis after I've developed an emotional attachment to characters, which then makes me too biased to ever be a historian.) I'm susceptible to hagiography, as shown by how much I loved Penman's version of Richard. By the final hundred pages I was in tears,  pounding my bed, whimpering, and softly damning consumption, the Stanleys and Henry Tudor.

Why? Because Penman portrays Richard as a prince among men. That's not because his brother is a king, but because in comparison to the intemperate, impious, self-serving men around him, Richard is a model of virtue and justice. He is loyal to a fault and utterly uxorious to Anne Neville. (Yes, I realize the latter is not a very historically valid interpretation.) From the beginning pages with Richard as the sensitive six-year-old, to the final (slightly overlong) final chapters on early Tudor propaganda, it's unabashed hagiography. Penman tries, but can afford virtually no sympathy for Richard's foes, from Elizabeth Woodville to Henry Tudor. And, yes, Richard is a romantic hero; we don't just respect him, we fall in love with him. Or at least I did. Maybe I should resent that, but I don't.

Since I recently read Philippa Gregory's Cousins War novels, comparisons were inevitable. I certainly felt like I entered into the emotions and motivations of the characters more in this novel than in Gregory's. While Gregory's novels focus on the women behind the famous men, I still felt like several women got their due more from Penman. (Cecily Neville isn't so blatantly biased as in Gregory's account where she favors George, Duke of Clarence, despite his betrayals of his brothers and slander of her own name. Nan Neville's relationship with her daughter Anne is still strained, but not so utterly hostile as in The Kingmaker's Daughter. However, in the latter Gregory has a complex - if slightly confusing - portrayal of Anne and Isabel Neville's relationship that this novel lacks.) While the medieval issues of witchcraft and magic cannot be denied, I've found Gregory's repetitious emphasis on this theme slightly annoying. In contrast, Penman gives a limited, but respectful, view of Catholic faith in those times.

My biggest complaint about the novel is actually its grammar. While the substitution of "be" for "are" could be argued to lend historic sense to necessarily-modern speech patterns, the dropping of conjunctions in the narrative portions brought me up short rather frequently. 

My emotional absorption in the novel hasn't entirely beclouded my vision. I still acknowledge that within the morality of his time Richard III is neither black nor white. I am, however, with Jane Austen, "rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable man" and Henry Tudor "as great a villain as ever lived." 

Also, I'm nerdy enough that I'm including this graphic of the Battle of Barnet (found here) for future reference.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

The Best of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane

Perhaps that title is a little unfair since I have not (yet) read all the Wimsey novels. However, I believe it is a truth universally acknowledged that Gaudy Night is the best of Sayer's oeuvre, and the other novels featuring Harriet Vane are also greatly esteemed among her readers.

Have His Carcase
  I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Harriet Vane and Lord Peter better. One of the things I especially liked about this novel is that Lord Peter doesn't do everything by himself. Indeed, Harriet is making suggestions and discoveries along with him the entire time. The novel is most notable as a precursor to Gaudy Night, showing Harriet's unwillingness to have an unequal relationship with Peter based on gratitude. As with previous Sayers mysteries, I finished it in (nearly) a day. 

Gaudy Night
   Gaudy Night is a hard book to categorize: is it merely a mystery? an intelligent romance? a campus novel? a feminist bildungsroman? It contains multiple complex themes - such as balancing head and heart, intellectual integrity, and women's education - yet manages to sustain an entertaining central story. In this respect it reminds me a little of Middlemarch. Actually that connection is hardly surprising since I first learned of Gaudy Night from a friend who kindly sent me a term essay she'd written comparing female intellectuality in the two novels. I've been waiting to read it for almost three years now and it certainly didn't disappoint. Rather, it was a slightly dangerous read, making me fall more in love with a place, a (fictional) person, and a profession.

Besides intelligence and complexity, Gaudy Night shares with Middlemarch an abundance of literary epigraphs that add to the novel's intellectual, and even academic, air. One of my goals is to eventually be able to read all the French and Latin passages without looking up or guessing meanings. 

Busman's Honeymoon
 How do you describe perfection? While this novel has its humorous vignettes, and while it's also a romance novel, it's ultimately gravely serious. It's serious about the things in life that really matter. One of these things is maintaining integrity and independence in relationships. It's a heady blend of honesty about the difficulty of marriage (such as the moment when Peter and the Superintendent are having a little too much fun at the expense of the suspected Miss Twitterton and Harriet feels the two men are "on the far side of a chasm, and she hated them both") and passion bathed in the fiercely intelligent light of John Donne. It's obvious that Sayers poured the depths of her intelligence and conscience into this novel when we see Peter's struggles with his persona as the wealthy, hobbyist sleuth whose work condemns people to death.

Yes, all the Donne poetry the two quote to each other is a significant factor in my love for this novel. Ironically, there aren't really words to describe it. For me personally, Donne is about grace that strengthens the intellect, and vice versa. This novel presents the intellectuality of Donne's poetry as elevating and purifying the erotic.  

Here's a review that explains how Sayers created such lasting works through breaking all the mystery writers' rules. 

Now that I've read the best novels, I confess I'm hesitant to go back and read the other three I own (Murder Must Advertise, Nine Tailors, and Five Red Herrings) that don't feature Harriet. I'm more likely to reread the above novels, or even go for some of Sayers' theological or academic works. 

A Few Favorite Quotes ("A few!" Excuse me while I type out half the books.)
She had written what she felt herself called upon to write; and, though she was beginning to feel that she might perhaps do this thing better, she had no doubt that the thing itself was the right thing for her. It had overmastered her without her knowledge or notice, and that was the proof of its mastery.
Gaudy Night, p43

 Not one man in ten thousand would say to the woman he loved, or to any woman: 'Disagreeableness and danger will not turn you back, and God forbid they should.' That was an admission of equality, and she had not expected it of him. If he conceived of marriage along those lines, then the whole problem would have to be reviewed in that new light; but that seemed scarcely possible. To take such a line and stick to it, he would have to be, not a man but a miracle. 
Ibid, 262

The following is one of those passages I had encountered before reading the novel. Susan Wise Bauer further whetted my appetite for this novel, writing of the "great golden phrases".

In that melodious silence, something came back to her that had lain dumb and dead ever since the old, innocent undergraduate days. The singing voice, stifled long ago by the pressure of the struggle for existence, and throttled into dumbness by that queer, unhappy contact with physical passion, began to stammer a few uncertain notes. Great golden phrases, rising from nothing and leading to nothing, swam up out of her dreaming mind like the huge, sluggish carp in the cool water of Mercury.... Then, with many false starts and blank feet, returning and filling and erasing painfully as she went, she began to write again, knowing with a deep inner certainty that somehow, after long and bitter wandering, she was once more in her own place.
Ibid, 268,269

Meanwhile she had got her mood on to paper - and this is the release that all writers, even the feeblest, seek for as men seek for love; and, having found it, they doze off happily into dreams and trouble their heads no further.
Ibid, 270

Are you noticing a theme in page numbers? This is the "still centre" where the plot of the novel pauses. And yet it's the most evocative, memorable part. After that the plot seems to pick up again with sufficient speed that I ceased to add exclamations and stars in the margins, so you, reader, are spared a dozen more quotes. Now to Busman's Honeymoon.

 From the diary of the endlessly quotable Dowager Duchess of Denver:
Wonder whether Mussolini's mother spanked him too much or too little - you never know, these psychological days.
Busman's Honeymoon p. 19

Peter: How can I find words? Poets have taken them all, and left me with nothing to say or do-- 
          Harriet: Except to teach me for the first time what they meant.
Ibid, 326

For God's sake let's take the word "possess" and put a brick round its neck and drown it. I will not use it or hear it used - not even in the crudest physical sense. It's meaningless. We can't possess one another. We can only give and hazard all we have - Shakespeare, as Kirk would say...
Ibid, 362
 (That last phrase "as Kirk would say" is a reference to the game of filling conversation up with literary quotes that Peter and Harriet play with a police inspector. Peter's tendency to "talk piffle" tempts me to start throwing Shakespeare, Donne, and Browning into random conversations.)

Well, I can't capture the charm, the vigor, the honesty of these books in a few quotes. What searching for my favorite passages to share has taught me is that I need to reread these novels. Soon.


Wednesday, 1 May 2013

March and April Reading Roundup

Currently reading: The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman (thrilling $1 find at a thrift shop) and The Darwin Conspiracy by John Darnton (random selection at library). Listening to Heretic Queen: Elizabeth I and the Wars of Religion by Susan Ronald (seemed an appropriate selection for April, since last year at this time I immersed myself in Elizabeth's world).

Warning: Since I missed posting last month, this is a loooong post. Reviews of novels by authors I've read multiple books by lately are separate. I want to start writing more detailed reviews directly after finishing books, so subsequent Monthly Reading Roundups may contain links to longer reviews.

Young Romantics by Daisy Hay
 Daisy Hay's stated aim in this group-biography is to dispel the myth of the second generation Romantic poets (especially Shelley, Byron, and Keats) as a solitary geniuses, and to illuminate the "mingled yarn" of their interactions and friendships. As such, it gives a comprehensive biography of many figures, as well as amusing anecdotes of their shared creativity. However, as the their lives and communities unravel (with the tragic deaths of Keats and Shelley) the story is poignantly sad. Not least because Hay is not writing hagiography: no one is wholly sympathetic. In fact, in the words of Mary (Godwin) Shelley's step-sister Claire Clairmont, Shelley and Byron's philosophy of free love transformed them into "monsters of lying, meanness, cruelty and treachery." Certainly I found Byron deplorable in his behavior to Claire and their daughter Allegra. (Basically, I hate him.) Shelley frequently showed himself unsympathetic to the anguish endured by Mary after the deaths of three children. Much to my surprise I found myself liking Leigh Hunt best of the assembled (male) caste, although Hay is honest about his financial inabilities that gave rise to Dickens' caricature of him in the character of Harold Skimpole. Keats drifted in and out of the group and he was the notable poet I felt the book explored least.
Since I'm not particularly familiar with the second-generation Romantics, this group biography of them was a good introduction

Imprison Him by Miriam Wood
 The story of an Adventist pastor/missionary/administrator imprisoned for six months by the totalitarian government of an unnamed (due to danger for others) African country. I still really want to know which country this is, as I'm sure it had legitimate grievances with imperialism that it reacted to dangerously. A good account of a wife's loyalty and the emotional and spiritual struggles of the persecuted. It's been sitting on my grandma's bookshelf my whole life, so I'm thankful I finally read it, but it's definitely not among the most memorable reads of the year.

Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America by David S. Reynolds
Weird. I thought I'd written a short goodreads review of this, but now don't see one. However, I've written quite a lengthy post inspired by this book - so far my favorite non-fiction read of the year.

Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden
  I've read a shelf of books with "escape" in the title. From stories of Jews under Nazism, to Christians under Communism, to Huguenots under Catholicism, I've learned about torture, hard-labor, and how the human spirit sustains courage and compassion in the worst circumstances. Shin In Geun's story is different: born into North Korea's worst internment camp, he never knew a time when he was valuable. He viewed his mother as a competitor for food, and felt no qualms of conscience when he reported that he had heard her and his brother planning to escape. Watching them executed as a result of his snitching, he felt only resentment against the parents who had caused him to be born into this hideous prison. Years later, as his conscience developed in the Western world, he developed remorse and self-loathing for the "memory of the kind of son he once was." This, for me, was probably the most tragic part of the book: the dehumanization of the camp system and then the torture experienced when individuals come to understand the guilt of the past.

North Korea is "viewed by human rights groups as the world's largest prison", and Camp 14 is said to be among the worst of its many prison camps. It is a place where Shin had his finger cut off for dropping a piece of machinery, a place where a little girl may be beaten to death for stealing a few kernels of corn. The book points out that even "free" North Korean escapees are malnourished and under-sized for their age. It ultimately raises the question of why powerful governments are willing to allow such human rights atrocities to continue and also what we as individuals can do to increase awareness and concern.

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
I tend to identify and empathize with failed, fatally flawed, characters, so of course was heart-broken by Willy Loman's doomed attempt to grasp and hold the American Dream. My one notable complaint about this play is that it failed the Bechdel Test.

Rainbow in the Flames: A Tragic Fire, A Bow of Promise, A Love of the Lasting Kind by Linda Franklin

Linda and eight-year-old Jed were alone at their remote mountain home when an explosion left him with third degree burns over more than half of his body. The story follows their painful journey of months spent in hospitals, years spent getting grafts, decades of regrets and questions. The most poignant and touching moments for me were reading of the despair and patience exhibited in one tiny little person. This book was also good for me because it taught me to see the humanity in people I disagree with. I know of the Franklins through their ministry (Sanctuary Ranch) and through mutual acquaintances. I've read one of Mr. Franklin's books, and disagree very strongly with his views on courtship, marriage roles, and women's dress and hair. However, this book showed me the pained, loving, and human hearts that lie behind the ideas and images of the people I am so quick to judge. Thus the book was both a rebuke and a beautiful inspiration.

Though the Heavens Fall by Mikhail P. Kulakov Sr.
Elder Kulakov became the leader of the Euro-Asian Division of Seventh-day Adventists and a translator of a Russian New Testament. But years before that  he spent 5 years in a hard labor camp for his Christian faith and witnessing. Even after being released he experienced the constant surveillance that Stalin's regime exercised toward Christians. My mom and I read this together over a several months, so the story is already a little hazy in my memory. However, one vignette told Pastor Kulakov by a fellow prisoner stood out in my mind as similar to the world of 1984. It concerned a speech at a District Party Meeting that was loudly applauded, with a standing ovation, by all present. "For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes... it continued... Palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. The older people were panting from exhaustion." Yet all were afraid that stopping would brand them as enemies of the Party. Finally, "after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat.... That same night [he] was arrested. They easily pasted 10 years on him on the pretext of something quite different. After he signed... the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him: 'Don't ever be the first to stop applauding!'" (p. 63-64)

Links to reviews of three Dorothy Sayers mysteries and three Philippa Gregory historical fiction novels.  
(All images from

Philippa Gregory's Cousins' War Novels

 The following are some thoughts on the novels in Philippa Gregory's Cousin's War series that I've read (or listened to as audiobooks) in recent months.

The White Queen
 I first listened to this novel (about Elizabeth Woodville, queen consort of Edward IV) as an abridged audiobook early in the year and was disappointed. The abridged version showed little of the York court, concentrating on Elizabeth's times in sanctuary during the wars and Lancastrian restoration. It also expunged references to Edward's unfaithfulness, a thing that would have doubtless been sometimes on Elizabeth's mind, even if she tolerated it. However, skimming through the hardback book, I found that these elements were indeed there. I still wouldn't call it a favorite; I didn't connect with the portrayal of Elizabeth's personality. That said, Gregory should be commended for writing a decently sympathetic portrait of the woman who was - and in historical fiction (such as The Sunne in Splendour) still seems to be - the reviled Wallis Simpson of her age. As with her novel about Elizabeth's mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Gregory portrays women as using forbidden herbalism and magic to gain their own form of power in a man's world.

The Red Queen 
The extreme piety and sense of purpose that makes many readers dislike Gregory's characterization of Margaret Beaufort (grandmother of Henry VIII) at first enlisted my sympathy, reminding me of Dorothea Brooke in my beloved Middlemarch. However, eventually Margaret's self-centered outlook, and a rather slow-moving plot, turned me off. I only finished it to find out Gregory's unusual theory on the fate of the Princes in the Tower

The Kingmaker's Daughter

 This novel - centering on the life of Anne Neville, queen consort of Richard III - was rather uneven. It had some wonderful moments showing the absolute horror and danger of childbirth in late Medieval times. Anne's relationship with her sister Isabel was depicted as close and complex. However, I never really felt like Anne's character was well defined. Especially confusing was how quickly she became loyal to her formerly-feared mother-in-law, Margaret d'Angou. Richard (yes, of course that's who we're really interested in) is quite well-drawn. Gregory doesn't come across as a raving Ricardian or a Shakespearean hater. Her Richard can be kind or ruthless, simultaneously charismatic and calculating.

 While Gregory isn't a very highbrow author, I probably will pick up the other books in the series when I see them at the library. Of course I'm already raising my eyebrows at the premise of her new book on Princess Elizabeth of York. SPOILERS FOLLOW which appears to be that Elizabeth and Richard III were lovers. It is, of course, not an unprecedented idea and it's hardly surprising that it was the route Gregory chose to take. She is certainly never one to miss out on the most sensational interpretation.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Reflections on Uncle Tom's Cabin on its 161st Anniversary

On March 20th 1852 - 161 years ago today - Uncle Tom's Cabin was first published as a two-volume book. Like many Victorian-era novels, it had previously been printed in magazine installments, but now the public could treasure the complete work that was already stirring the nation.

Last week I finished what has so-far been my favorite read of the year: Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America by David S. Reynolds. I must confess that I kept this book out of the library almost a month past its "due-date" and paid a $5 fine for it; it was fully worth it. While some may find the minutiae on the novel's influences and spin-offs too much detail, this was precisely what made the book relevant for me. Raised in a denomination - Seventh-day Adventist - that developed in the Northern, Protestant culture Stowe also lived in, her concerns and influences felt familiar. From the connections of the temperance movement to popular eschatology, to the connections of the women's movement to spiritualism, these were issues effecting the pioneers of Adventism.

In fact, the connection between Harriet Beecher Stowe and my own faith and culture are so strong that I originally intended to call this post something like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ellen White, Fiction, Spiritualism, Feminism, and Me. I'm going to spare you the whole volume of navel gazing such a broad topic would invite, but still tell a little of my own relationship with Stowe's novel.

When I read UTC last year I had a specific purpose - to discover what was wrong with it. Not to discover what was wrong from an artistic stand-point, or to label its portrayal of blacks unacceptable from my liberal, (hopefully) resistant to stereotypes perspective. No, it was to discover what was wrong with the book spiritually; in fact, it was to be my experiment in examining conservative Adventists' views on novel reading. (They're against it.)

This is what Adventist founder, authoress, and prophetess, Ellen White, had to say about UTC:
There are many things in the work that would do no harm, and there are many things which have served a purpose in the exposure of slavery, but I would not want to recommend this book to our youth for their perusal. There are statements and pen-pictures which set the imagination upon a train of thought that has been deleterious and positively injurious. These highly-wrought pictures have taken hold of nervous, susceptible youth, and they have lived them over and over again in imagination. It has destroyed appetite for the Bible, and the desire to attend prayer-meetings; for everything was stale and without interest after feasting upon the diet found in this book.

As a young Adventist whose one form of "rebellion" has been my appetite for classic literature, I read the novel with eyes peeled for anything sensual, "highly-wrought", or otherwise suspect so that I could examine the above statement. I did, in fact, find some aspects that might fit with this description. First, there's the simple fact that Harriet Beecher Stowe was deeply attracted to the then-new and popular spiritualism movement and claimed, "I did not write that book... I only put down what I saw. It all came before me in visions, one after another, and I put them down in words.” The novel itself incorporates what Adventists consider a great error - the natural immortality of the soul.

There are several ways in which the novel might be considered "highly-wrought". The intersecting plots, especially the one dealing with the escape of the Harris family, are exciting, like the popular adventure novels of the day. We are even led just to the brink of sympathizing with violence (in self-defense) when George Harris shoots, but does not kill, slave-catcher Tom Loker. However, as Reynolds points out, Stowe does not actually condone violence in this novel, since "George Harris is relieved that Loker is not killed" and takes him to be nursed by the kindly Quakers.

Another feature that may have called forth White's objection (since it certainly did other reviewers' of the day) is the frank depiction of sexual slavery. Yet, as Reynolds again points out, “Stowe suggests [women's] sexual attractiveness without being tawdry.” The male gaze is present, but in loathsome characters, not ones the reader is to identify with, and sex acts occur “in a threatened future... in the past... or offstage...” While some characters are necessarily depicted as debased, we are led to sympathize with the oppressed (and pious) characters.

My own conclusion, especially after reading Reynolds' informative work, is that Stowe was able to refine elements of popular culture into a tool for righteousness. Her own concerns about the moral influences of literature and theater, coupled with her intelligence and deeply-personal faith, convince me that her work deserves respectful, though not-uncritical attention. Uncle Tom's Cabin helped launch the Civil War by appealing to the emotions and empathy of the public. Today, I try to read it critically and appreciate the context given by a book like Reynolds'. 

Yet, 161 years later, the emotional power of the novel still matters. It is still empathy that teaches us to acknowledge the rights of others, that bases (in Stowe's words) a "ladder to heaven in human affections." That's why, today this post is not merely about the questions about literature raised for me by the writings of Ellen White. It's also not merely about the things the novel - and especially its spin-off plays - got wrong in the area of racial stereotyping, even though talking about this matters. Instead, this post is about the power of literature to change hearts, start wars, and strike fear into the hearts of Equality's enemies (as evidenced by the free black man in the antebellum South sentenced to ten years in jail for owning a copy of UTC). This post is about the wonderful Harriet Beecher Stowe - a doubter, a believer, a wife, a mother, a sister, an author, an ally, an influence for a "great cause/God's new Messiah". This post is me saying that I can think critically about this novel in a variety of ways, and yet declare that I love it. It (and reading about the characters' real-life counterparts in Reynolds' book) has enlarged my sympathy for others and shown me a vision of Christ suffering in His people. This post is me declaring that all my questions aren't answered, and that's okay, because this novel did for me what it did for thousands 161 years ago - it made me think more critically, and it made me love more widely. Racism, sexual slavery, economic oppression and other evils addressed by Stowe still must be fought today, and therefore this novel still matters.