On Austen’s LADY SUSAN

Okay so!

A little something different today!

I recently read Jane Austen’s short epistolary piece, Lady Susan, and boy, I liked it! Five out of five stars, was vastly entertained, what fun, deliciously scandalous!

They speculate it was written about 1794, and didn’t see publication until 1871, for some reason or other. It offers a snippet of the lives of the beautiful widow Lady Susan, her poor daughter Frederica, her friend Mrs Johnson, and several other characters, letter-writing ones being Mrs Vernon (the wife of Lady Susan’s brother in law), her brother Reginald de Courcy, and their parents. Behind the scenes, we are also told something of Lady Susan’s lover, Lord Manwaring,, and his wife and daughter.

This all may sound very confusing, and it is, at first. Here, I stopped reading after the fifth letter and drew a diagram (it’s actually missing a dotted line but oh well):

susanmap

Lady Susan is delightful, and I’m just pleased to have read it. It’s more worldly than Austen’s other novels – yes, even more than Mansfield Park – and, it seems to me and as Margaret Drabble points out in the introduction of the Wordsworth edition I have, probably owes something to Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s famous epistolary work of schemes and sex, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782).* As soon as you get the characters straightened in your head, the story becomes highly entertaining, and the way Austen conveys the story through several different people writing letters is superb; it is deft and clever, with no overlaps, and with very relatable feelings.

I recommend it very, very warmly. It’s very short, maybe 60 pages, and makes excellent reading in-between books.

The reason I finally read it that there is a movie coming out. Yup! As far as I know, this is the first adaptation of Lady Susan – quite annoyingly titled Love & Friendship after another longer and better known piece of Austen’s juvenilia – and boy, it looks gorgeous! Watch the trailer HERE! (Costumes! Pretty people! Wit! Fun!)

There are no words for how much I’m looking forward to seeing this! It’s been in the works for quite a while, but is finally coming out this year. Hooray for new Austen adaptations!

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*I highly recommend Dangerous Liaisons! It’s a very decent book, and there is also a fantastic adaptation from 1988, based on the stage version of the novel, starring Glen Close as Marquise de Merteuil, John Malkovich as Vicomte de Valmont, Michelle Pfeiffer as Madame de Tourvel, Uma Thurman as Cecile de Volanges, and Keanu Reeves as Le Chevalier Danceny! Directed by Stephen Frears, too! (There are other adaptations, but this is seriously the best one.)

Update!

It’s been a quiet month over here at Paperwights, and in lieu of actual content I wanted to pop by and make my excuses.

The national conference of Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association took place last week in Seattle, WA, and my absence has been due to that. I presented a paper, and that involved all kinds of getting ready, and as a result I haven’t really been reading as much as usual or writing reviews. But never fear! I am getting back to it now!

(The conference and presentation went really well, by the way. I met lots of other romance scholars, learned things, ate ALL the bagels, and generally had a really good time. A busy week, sure, but most instructive!)

I’m now trying to catch up on reading, including all the books I bought – several recent romance releases as well as finally the last of Kowal’s Glamourist Histories – and I hope to get them reviewed soon! I’m currently two thirds into Maya Rodale’s Lady Bridget’s Diary, so stay tuned for a review of it! (Sneak peek: enjoying it enormously so far!)

MANSFIELD PARK: Tips for reading

The book: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, published 1814.

My relationship with the book:

As much as I am a Janeite, I have never particularly liked Mansfield Park. My first acquaintance with it came from the 2007 adaptation (starring Billie Piper, Hayley Atwell and Blake Ritson), and subsequently the controversial Patricia Rozema adaptation from 1999. I read it for the first time in 2011, spring semester of my first year at uni, for the Jane Austen class I was taking at the time. I didn’t particularly like it – I found Fanny and pretty much everyone except the Crawfords annoying and/or boring. However, I recently got very intrigued by it after reading some critiques and close readings of it, and reread it in January 2016, with much more interest.

Why it can be scary:

It is, I would say, the generally most disliked Austen. The main character splits people up pretty evenly, and nothing too dramatic in the modern sense happens, and you sort of need to have a grasp of nuance regarding the time to get the magnitude of things. It’s a rather cumbersome novel compared to Pride and Prejudice or Emma – or any of the others, really. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but many people are dissatisfied with it. (There is a lot to be said about the endings in Austen, but that might be an essay right there so maybe I will save it for another time.)

My five tips to reading it:

  1. Look for irony. This applies to all Austen, really, but I can’t emphasise it enough, because it seems people miss it. The questions you need to ask is who is saying it, how they phrase it, and what they actually mean. A lot of Austen’s characters contradict themselves a lot – just look at Mrs Elton in Emma or Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey, or Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice! It’s usually the unpleasant characters who do this, but the narrator does it also – there are some excellent bits of narration that are merciless when it comes to the characters. Pay attention to wording, because that is so important.
  2. As with War and Peace, you may want to write down some names in the beginning. The book opens with a description of the family situation, and it requires some concentration. Basically though, the odious Mrs Norris is the eldest sister, Lady Bertram the middle one, and Mrs Price, Fanny’s mother, the youngest. Of the Bertram girls, Maria is the elder. I am saying this because I keep forgetting, which way around they are.
  3. Pay attention to Fanny. This may sound like silly advice when you consider that she’s the main character, of course you’ll pay attention to her – except you don’t. Fanny is so easy to forget. As John Mullan says, you forget that she’s in the room, or, indeed, in the book. For most of the book, it seems more like Edmund Bertram and Mary Crawford are the main characters, but don’t forget Fanny. If you keep an eye on when you and the other characters forget about her, and when they notice her, you’ll find that this is very interesting in terms of the message of the book.
  4. Related to point three, pay attention to emotion. People call Fanny cold, but she really isn’t. She feels very deeply, but keeps it to herself – indeed, there is a lot of scholarship discussing the way she self-confessedly doesn’t and cannot act. Don’t let her inactivity fool you: she is absolutely brimming with emotion and feeling, especially when it comes to a certain letter. (I was reading that bit on the bus and wanted to scream because of how incredibly, if unintentionally, cruel it is. Poor Fanny!)
  5. There are some important themes that you might keep in mind. Theatre and acting is absolutely one of them – everyone is putting up an act, or at least everyone central, that is, Fanny, Edmund, Mary, and Henry. There is some delightful ambiguity about the last of that list though. It’s also interesting to read this novel from a postcolonial point of view (this explains the curiously long conversation about an apricot tree, as observed by Kathleen Fowler). Indeed, I would suggest looking up some thematic analyses of the novel, especially if you’re about to read it for the second time, as this illustrates with how many focalisers one can look at it.

As I said, upon the second reading I enjoyed Mansfield Park much more. I’m still annoyed at myself for disliking Fanny Price for so long; she’s not everyone’s cup of tea and I can certainly understand that, but I don’t think she should be judged for the wrong things. Five years has also made Mary and Henry Crawford more interesting – I can’t decide what to make of them. Are they sincere? Are they not? Are they bad people, or just misguided? Is there a difference? A fact often ignored is that Mansfield Park is Austen’s most scandalous novel, when it comes to events, and it addresses a number of moral questions. No, it’s not light and funny, but that does not make it any less good. I hereby publicly admit my shame and claim Mansfield as just as worthy of my love as the other Austens.

If you have misgivings about the book, I recommend you watch/listen to John Mullan’s speech at the Hay Festival. In this speech he sets to reclaim Fanny and her novel, and does it extremely well – it is this speech that ignited my interest in this book in earnest. He is also an excellent close-reader, and a hugely entertaining and energetic performer! One of my favourite things he does in this speech is draw attention to the similarities between Elizabeth Bennet and Mary Crawford.

Sarah J. Maas: A COURT OF THORNS AND ROSES

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J Maas
A Court of Thorns and Roses #1
Bloomsbury 2015
416 pages
4/5 stars

This is a book that came to my attention because of the title, which I think a pleasing one, and entered my reading list when it turned out it’s a Beauty and the Beast retelling. And I’m a sucker for Beauty and the Beast. Although not perfectly to my taste, for reasons that I will discuss below, Maas shifts the theme and, if you will, moral of the original story in a way I find refreshing, and I enjoyed this book enormously – enough to read it in two days.

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Madeline Miller: THE SONG OF ACHILLES

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Bloomsbury 2011
352 pages
4/5 stars

I’ve been seeing this book around constantly. It has been talked about in a very similar way to that which lead me to read Donna Tartt’s Secret History – which I enjoyed very much – and so I decided it was finally time to pick it up. After all, I studied Latin for a few years, and mythology, both Roman and Greek, became familiar during that time.

Whether knowledge of how the War of Troy spans out in The Iliad is beneficial or not in the experience of reading this book, it is hard to say. What I can say is, I’m certain it makes a world of difference.

(No specific spoilers, in case some of you haven’t happened upon the details of this story. Or seen the movie Troy. That one with Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom, Eric Bana, Diane Kruger, etc.)

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Eloisa James: MY AMERICAN DUCHESS

My American Duchess by Eloisa James
Avon 2016
400 pages
4/5 stars

I’m a little unclear about whether this book is part of the Desperate Duchesses series exactly, but nonetheless, My American Duchess is without a doubt one of the most anticipated releases of early 2016. James’s first American heroine takes London, and her readership, by storm.

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