A curate’s egg examined

Oakwell Hall, Birstall, W Yorks

Charlotte Brontë: Shirley
Penguin Popular Classics 1994 (1849)

Charlotte Brontë’s follow-up to Jane Eyre turns out to be a curious affair, one in which I found enjoyment and boredom in equal measure. It’s a work that tries to have its cake and eat it and, as a result, fails to completely satisfy. But that’s not to say it’s not worth the effort — on the contrary.

Shirley was first published with the subtitle A Tale, and this I think was to distinguish it from Jane Eyre which had billed itself as An Autobiography. This third person approach proves to be a poisoned chalice (The Professor and Villette were first person narratives, like Jane Eyre) when the omniscient storyteller, unable to maintain a straight face, constantly and self-consciously undermines her ‘tale’ with humorous authorial asides.

But then I think the forced levity may be in reaction to a year of tragedy — her two sisters and her brother all died between September 1848 and May 1849 — and the humour may have been a way to distance herself from the enforced solitude she must then have felt. This dissembling I fancy is a key to unlocking the Chinese boxes which makes up the novel’s construction.

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Of blunders and pardons

The manor house at Steventon (where Jane’s father was rector) — perhaps a model for Hartfield.

Following a review I’ve discussed the who, when and where of Jane Austen’s Emma, and then intimated I’d get onto the what. In this post I plan to briefly discuss the novel’s structure before bringing out some themes, chiefly by means of what the characters say. Needless to add, this is not meant to be an exhaustive or detailed analysis, merely a sketch of what has struck me about this superbly crafted novel.

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The imaginist

Edmund Blair Leighton: The Piano Lesson

Jane Austen: Emma
Edited by James Kinsley and David Lodge
World’s Classics 1980 (1971)

How much more must an imaginist, like herself, be on fire with speculation and foresight! — Emma, Volume III Chapter 3

Emma thoroughly deserves its plaudits as an epitome of the author’s skills. Its status as Austen’s longest novel and the main product of her mature years ensures that any assessment I give is bound to be brief and inconsequential; but I’d be remiss if I didn’t add my own two-penn’orth of praise to the general applause.

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Guilt and misery

mansion

Jane Austen Mansfield Park Penguin Popular Classics 1994 (1814)

Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.

I’ve noted before Austen’s predilection for inserting her authorial voice into her novels: in Sense and Sensibility she speaks in chapter XXXVI, and in Pride and Prejudice she appears at the beginning of the final chapter. And here she is at it again in Mansfield Park, at the start of chapter XLVIII (yes, the final chapter again) giving a succinct if ironic set of observations about the previous forty-seven chapters. She says it’s about the ‘odious’ subjects of guilt and misery; and those who have suffered from such miseries, though not totally innocent, will come to some sort of happy ending, while those who have peddled the misery and turned the knife in feelings of guilt will get their more or less just deserts. Have I committed the unpardonable sin of introducing spoilers or, this being a classic romance, is this what readers of the genre hope for and expect?

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