Joanna Trollope on the power of Jane Austen

English novelist Joanna Trollope has written a wonderful article on the power of Jane Austen. Here’s an excerpt:

Which leads, very comfortably, to her second extraordinary strength. Which is her voice. It isn’t just the sentiment in that celebrated opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice that is so arresting, it is the tone in which it is uttered – cool, amused, restrained and slightly ironic. Austen is right in these novels – Elinor Dashwood’s and Anne Elliot’s real suffering is vividly portrayed – but she is outside them too. These are her people, but they are also her puppets. Of course, she says, teenage Marianne Dashwood would never have forgiven herself if she’d managed to sleep the night after Willoughby inexplicably dashes to London. Of course Mr Elton and Mr Collins make absolute fools of themselves, proposing to the wrong girls for the wrong reasons. This is how they are: they can’t help themselves. But they need to be teased about their behaviour, don’t they? Of course they do!

There is such a maturity in this attitude, and this way of expressing herself. There is, in her style, a profound recognition of the need to live as truly to yourself as you can, but always within the constraints of society. You can tell, from the way she writes, that she loves cleverness, and modesty, and self-control. But she also loves wit. And because she is half in and half out of her novels, she not only leaves us free to possess them, but also to see what she sees, as freshly as if she were looking over our shoulders, pointing things out.

Read the rest here.

Pride and Prejudice at 200

edjn_20130128_final_a5_102987_i001I’m a late convert to Jane Austen: never really read her when I was growing up, and didn’t really start to get interested in her until I noticed in his letters how enthusiastic C.S. Lewis was. I’ve since read all of her novels, some of them several times, and although I break with convention in preferring Emma, I do want to join with many others on the Internet today in paying tribute to the 200th birthday of Pride and Prejudice, published in three volumes on January 28th 1813.

In this morning’s Edmonton Journal Paula Simons noted that we have a first edition of Pride and Prejudice in the University of Alberta’s Rutherford Library. In her column, she had this to say:

Today, it’s easy to forget how truly radical this book was, both in subject matter and in its use of language. The typical Gothic romance of the day featured drooping damsels in distress, who fainted at the first sign of trouble, and who spoke in high-flown, artificial rhetoric. Lizzie Bennet, the wisecracking girl next door who shocks the neighbours by tromping three miles through the mud, who sasses the formidable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, never thinks of fainting. She is no picture of perfection, to make us sick and wicked. Instead, with her unquenchable spirit, her capacity to own her mistakes, her willingness to seize and shape her destiny, she speaks to us as a thoroughly modern character. On her bicentennial birthday, she, her sisters, their lovers and their families, are a fresh, as funny, as socially subversive as ever.

I agree. Miss Austen. you created a masterpiece, and we salute you for it today. And no matter how good the movies are (and there are several very good ones), they will never equal the brilliance of your written word.

P.S. Grandmère Mimi’s heartfelt personal tribute is well worth reading.

Hopefully, a bit of wisdom for 2013

I tend not to make New Year’s resolutions because I’m not good at keeping them, but here are a few nuggets of wisdom to take into 2013. A few old saws here, but true nonetheless.

‘Most folks are as happy as they choose to be’
 – attributed to Abraham Lincoln.

“Deserves death! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
Gandalf, speaking to Frodo about Gollum in Tolkien’s ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’.

‘Junk will always expand to fill available space, and work will always expand to fill available time. So building more storage space is not the answer, and neither is working longer hours’.
Me!

‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.’
– Jesus, Luke 12:15 

‘From the lying moon to the movement of stars,
Everyone’s wondering who they are;
And those who know don’t have the words to tell,
And those with the words don’t know too well’
 – Bruce Cockburn, ‘Burden of the Angel/Beast’

‘Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar;
The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledg’d comrade.’
Polonius, in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’

“Do not waste time bothering whether you ʿloveʾ your neighbour; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”
– C.S. Lewis, in ‘Mere Christianity’

‘There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do, if he chuses, and that is, his duty; not by maneuvering and finessing, but by vigour and resolution.’
– Mr. Knightley to Emma Woodhouse, in Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’

‘Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you’re making’.
– C.S. Lewis, in ‘Mere Christianity’

‘Therefore…
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy’.
– Portia, in Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’

‘The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’, or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life—the life God is sending one day by day: what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination’.
– C.S. Lewis, from a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves

‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’
 – several places in the Old Testament

‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.’
– Jesus, Matthew 7:21

‘So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own’.
– Jesus, Matthew 5:31-34

Elinor and Marianne, Martha and Mary

Some of my readers will know that I am a big fan of the novels of Jane Austen, which is not an especially masculine thing to admit to, but what can I say? I think she has brilliant characters, witty dialogue, and is ‘a sound moralist’, as C.S. Lewis once observed to a friend.

Among Austen’s novels, one of my favourites is ‘Sense and Sensibility’, the story of the two sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood and the way their different personalities cause them to respond to the situations life sends them.

The title of the book is perhaps a little misleading today, as these words have changed their meaning in modern English. By ‘sensibility’, Austen means perhaps something closer to what we would now call ‘sensitivity’ – a temperament that is oriented toward the emotional and the intuitive. Marianne is the ‘sensible’ or ‘sensitive’ one; she wears her feelings on her sleeve all the time, is concerned always to be true to what is in her heart, and is impatient with the rational and the conventional.

The ‘sense’ in the title, on the other hand, refers to ‘common sense’ or (confusingly), what we would now think of as ‘being sensible’. This is Elinor, the older sister, the one who keeps her feelings to herself, gets on with  life and does what has to be done, and doesn’t make a big fuss about things. I have to say that all my sympathies here are with Elinor, which is perhaps what Jane Austen had in mind when she wrote the book!

Over the last few days, in the ‘New Daylight‘ Bible reading notes, we have been going through John chapters 9-11 under the excellent guidance of Maggi Dawn. It has occurred to me, as I’ve been reading the story of the raising of Lazarus in John 11, that his two sisters Mary and Martha are in fact very like Marianne and Elinor.

Luke’s Gospel tells us the well-known story of how Jesus came to visit in the home of these two women (their brother Lazarus is not mentioned); when he arrived, Martha busied herself with preparing the meal and doing what needed to be done, and Mary just went into the living room and sat at Jesus’ feet to hear his teaching (breaking the conventional rules about the place of women in her society). Martha asked Jesus to rebuke Mary, but, interestingly, he refused to do so; “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42 NIV 2011).

But now let’s turn to the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead in John 11, which we have been reading for the past few days. What has struck me as I’ve been following this story is the way that Jesus is able to bring a different kind of comfort to each of these two sisters.

The story is a well-known one; Lazarus is ill, Jesus is notified about it, but he delays coming to help them (intentionally), and by the time he gets there Lazarus has been dead four days. On his arrival Jesus is met by each of the sisters in turn, and each of them greets him with exactly the same words: ‘”Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21, 32).

But Jesus’ response to each of them is different. He first meets Martha, who, although grieving for her brother, is still apparently able to use her mind. Here’s how the story unfolds in John 11:21-27:

21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

So Martha receives comfort from Jesus in a theological conversation about the resurrection of the dead. She is able to draw on the resources of her Jewish belief system and of her faith in Jesus; she knows that on the last day God will raise the righteous dead to life, and she knows that her brother will be in that number. She even dares to hope that something can be done for him now (“…even now God will give you whatever you ask”). And so Jesus is able to lead her on, to a more definite belief in himself as the resurrection and the life, and she finds in this the comfort and strength she needs.

With Mary it is very different.

32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
35 Jesus wept.
36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

There is no theological conversation with Mary; she is overcome with grief and cannot hear anything that Jesus would have to say. And so Jesus allows himself to enter into her grief (which, no doubt, he is feeling himself too, as Lazarus was his friend) so that (as the shortest verse in the Bible tells us) ‘Jesus wept’.

As I said at the beginning, my sympathies are all with Martha or, in Jane Austen’s story, with Elinor! In ‘Sense and Sensibility‘ it’s not that Elinor doesn’t have deep emotions – in fact, she feels things very deeply. But she tends to keep her emotions to herself, and she has the temperamental ability to put them on one side when something practical needs to be done – something that Marianne finds far more difficult.

I am like Elinor. I feel things very deeply, but I am also able to put my feelings ‘on hold’, so to speak, in order to do what needs to be done, and I find it very difficult to be sympathetic to people like Marianne or Mary who are paralysed by their emotions and don’t seem to be able to pull themselves together. I’ve even allowed myself to ‘feel superior’ to them.

Jesus, however, does not feel superior to either Mary or Martha. He is able to meet each sister where she is and give each one the comfort she needs. And I need to learn from that. God has created each of us with a particular temperament, and each temperament has its own characteristic strengths and weaknesses. Jesus is aware of  the strengths and weaknesses of each of these two sisters, Martha and Mary, and is able to meet each one where she is and give her the help that she needs. He does the same for us today. I pray that I may work harder at following his good example.

Emma (BBC Miniseries 2009)

I’ve just finished watching the 2009 BBC Miniseries adaptation of Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’. I’m not going to write a proper review of this until I’ve watched it again. But I have to say that on first viewing I was mightily impressed – and I’m a big Jane Austen fan so I don’t like it when they mess with the stories. The dialogue was somewhat modernised, but the characters were brilliantly portrayed. Romola Garai was perhaps a little old for the part at 27, but she played Emma Woodhouse to a tee – passionate, impetuous, full of fun – and Jonny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightley was every bit as sensible and severe as he needed to be, and yet also believable as a family friend. Michael Gambon of course was excellent (he always is) as Mr. Woodhouse, and I also really liked Tamsin Greig as Miss Bates.

I’d give this miniseries four and a half out of five.