Monday, May 30, 2011

Venetia by Georgette Heyer

Still waiting on baby, but my husband and I were able to curb some of our impatience by indulging in yet another fabulous Georgette Heyer novel. Venetia, while not being quite as uproariously funny as some of Heyer's other novels, stands out due to its wonderful characters. Our heroine, Miss Venetia Lanyon has to be one of my favorite Heyer creations. Much in the style of Frederica Merriville of Frederica (read my review here) in her familial dedication, but with the charming benefit of possessing exquisite beauty and a streak of eccentricity, Venetia is certainly one of Heyer's more capable ladies, and her intelligence and charm captivates from the first page. Take the opening conversation, for example, between Venetia and her younger brother, Aubrey. I should admit that my interest in Greek literature adds to the appeal of not only this scene for me, but also much of the book, as Aubrey's pursuits as a classical scholar causes such references as the following to abound:
"A fox got in amongst the hens last night, and ravished our best layer," remarked Miss Lanyon. " A great-grandmother, too! You'd think he would be ashamed!" Receiving no answer, she continued, in an altered voice: "Indeed, you would! It is a great deal too bad. What is to be done?" 

His attention caught, her companion raised his eyes from the book which lay open beside him on the table and directed them upon her in a look of aloof enquiry. "What's that? Did you say something to me, Venetia?"

"Yes, love," responded his sister cheerfully, "but it wasn't of the least consequence, and in any event I answered for you. You would be astonished, I daresay, if you knew what interesting conversations I enjoy with myself."

"I was reading."

"So you were - and have let your coffee grow cold, besides abondoning that slice of bread-and-butter. Do eat it up! I'm persuaded I ought not to permit you to read at the table."

"Oh, the breakfast-table!" he said disparagingly. "Try if you can stop me!"

"I can't, of course. What is it?" she returned, glancing at the volume. "Ah, Greek! Some improving tale, I don't doubt."

"The Medea," he said repressively. "Porson's edition, which Mr. Appersett lent to me."

"I know! She was the delightful creature who cut up her brother, and cast the pieces in her papa's way, wasn't she? I daresay perfectly amiable when on cam to know her."

He hunched an impatient shoulder, and replied contemptuously: "You don't understand, and it's a waste of time to try to make you."

Her eyes twinkled at him. "But I promise you I do! Yes, and sympathise with her, besides wishing I had her resolution! Though I think I should rather have buried your remains tidily in the garden, my dear!"
Though you may not gather it from this episode, brother and sister get along famously, and Aubrey, for all his own oddity, is a great asset to the humor of tale. This unusual duo is plagued by the rather insipid company to be had in their Yorkshire neighborhood, particularly Venetia's two determined suitors: one an immature young  man wrapped in the throws of calf love, and the other, a far more determined and extremely Mr. Collins like man, Edward Yardley. Though certainly more presentable and far less groveling than Austen's most famous buffoon, the resmblance is uncanny, as is demonstraited in his inability to accept it when a proposal is refused, as well as in speeches of this ilk:
His smile was one of conscious superiority. He said: "I am afraid this is a subject on which you must allow me to be a better judge than you, Venetia. We won't argue about it, however - indeed, I should be sorry to engage in any sort of discussion with you on a matter that is not only beyond the female comprehension, but which one could not wish to see within it!"
To such insufferable condescension are Aubrey and Venetia subjected to until their illusive and rakish neighbor, Lord Jasper Damerel, arrives at his ancestral home to provide the excitement and mental challenge that has been so lacking in both the Lanyon's lives. There can be no doubt that he is our hero, for Venetia is quick, upon first acquaintance, to call him an "ogre", while he retaliates with "vixen", and there is nothing more romantically promising in Heyer than an exchange of insults. However, regardless of the inevitability of their eventual union, this book has more surprises in the course of its events than is customary in her books. I found it a joy to read, and an incredibly effective way to forget my discomfort. I am saving the next new Heyer I have on hand, Cousin Kate, for when the real labor pains begin.  

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Pemberley Medley by Abigail Reynolds

Some of you might be wondering, after a somewhat frantic Facebook update three days ago, if I have had the baby yet or not. Sadly, though I am experiencing contractions, they are not yet strong enough to get this show on the road. So here I am, left in limbo, trying to ignore the discomfort by distracting myself with a little bit of Austenesque. Thankfully, I have a fresh supply of unread books on hand, including Abigail Reynolds' recently published collection of short stories, A Pemberley Medley. This book was exactly what the doctor ordered, to employ a rather apropos cliche. Despite my well documented discomfort with more sexualized portrayals of Austen's characters, I can never get enough of Ms. Reynolds "What if?" tales, my qualms easily overlooked in the face of some of the most delightful reimaginations of Pride and Prejudice that it has been my pleasure to encounter. Her short stories were no exception, and I will briefly describe and respond to each one in this post.

I think the first story, Intermezzo, was my favorite. A classic example of Ms. Reynolds' typical style, this story explores what might have happened if Mr. Darcy sent Mr. Bingley back to Hertforshire after learning of Jane's affections at Hunsford. Because of the disastrous results of his failed proposal, he does not accompany his friend, allowing wedding plans to proceed for the happy couple without his own courtship advancing. As a result of the timing, Lydia never goes to Brighton, and Elizabeth does not again encounter Darcy until the day of her sister's wedding. Fortunately, Georgiana, perceiving that someone in the neighborhood of Netherfield had caused her brother great heartache, proceeds him into the neighborhood in an attempt to locate the lady in question and attempt to rectify whatever problems stand in the way of his happiness.

The reason I said that I think Intermezzo was my favorite story in the collection is because I can't really decide between it and the second tale, Such Differing Reports. Also very much in Ms. Reynolds usual mode, this story takes place at Hunsford and questions what might have happened if Elizabeth had taken to heart Charlotte's intuitions regarding Darcy's affection for her. Instead of making his infamous first proposal, the couple have the opportunity to address the issues which arose during that confrontation in a more diffuse manner, leading up to a letter of a far more romantic nature than the one which Darcy pens in Austen's original tale. Be warned: swooning is highly likely when reading it.

The third story is Reason's Rule, a variation on the course of events in one of my favorite books by Ms. Reynolds, Impulse and Initiative, but you do not need to be familiar with that novel to enjoy this alternative ending. However, because of this fact, the action begins after Darcy and Elizabeth have already come to an understanding and focuses upon Lydia's disappearance from Brighton, Wickham's motives now being attributed to her new relationship with the Darcys. A bit of a spoiler: before entering into negotiations with Wickham, the players all agree to hurry along the betrothed couple's wedding date, so as he cannot use their undetermined state as a bargaining ship. This leads us to the only wedding night scene in this collection.

The Most Natural Thing is our forth tale, and while I entered into it with some reservations, the result of Ms. Reynolds introducing the story as "dating from a time when 'Dark Darcy' stories were popular", a phenomenon which I do not particularly care for, I ended up very much enjoying it. The premise is that, shortly following her departure from Hunsford, Elizabeth's father dies, and when Lydia absconds from Brighton with Wickham, Mr. Collins throws the entire Bennet family out of Longbourn. Feeling that she has few options, Elizabeth presents herself at Darcy's door in London, offering herself to him as a mistress in return for his interference with Mr. Collins on her family's behalf. A bit of a disturbing start, and definitely in that "Dark Darcy" mode, but I love the way he responds, confirming all the best attributes Darcy possesses rather than diminishing his character to that of a rogue.

Finally we have A Succession of Rain, a thoroughly sweet story that follows what would have happened if inclement weather prevented Darcy and Elizabeth from taking that detrimental walk, after Lady Catherine's visit to Longbourn, during which they reach an understanding. Those who have read my novel will understand my desire to see everything work out for the couple with relatively little angst and impediment, and Ms. Reynolds definitely caters to that urge in this tale.

All in all, I think this book is a necessary addition to every Austenites library. Sometimes we need quick reads, when life deprives us of an extended attention span, and this collection perfectly fits the bill. I could not be more thankful for its extremely timely arrival in my life.       

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Ben H. Winters

Let me begin by explaining why I have not, in my title for this post, credited this book as a collaborative effort, as is done on the cover. You see, while the basic framework for the tale is undoubtedly that of Jane Austen's original book, the story is so fundamentally altered, and in such a thoroughly bizarre manner, that we really must, in all fairness, put the entire burden of both its triumphs and tribulations solely upon Ben H. Winters. And yes, that was an admission that the book does have moments of triumph, despite the  extreme skepticism with which I approached it. I first began to read Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters two years ago, when it first came out, but only one chapter in I abandoned it in fury, a thing I have only done three times in my life - that's how horrible I thought the book was going to be. I decided to pick it up again in fulfillment of the Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge, hosted by Austenprose, as it was already sitting on my bookshelf. Maybe this is just the happy pregnancy hormones speaking, but I was pleasantly surprised. The same elements that filled me with disgust when I first tried to read the book were no less present than before, but this time around I was able to discern in the book a satiric critique of Austen that I can't help but acknowledge as justified, even though it does rankle.

The fact of the matter is that Jane Austen strictly wrote about the tranquil lives of genteel men and women, never allowing the turbulence of the outside world to interfere with their relatively peaceful existences, despite the fact that she lived in a time of massive social upheaval. This is actually one of the essential elements that makes me love her novels so much: they are an excellent means of escapism. In Mr. Winters' tale, on the other hand, the hostility of the world is ever present. All the characters live in a constant state of imminent peril, such as to render the relatively mundane concerns of society, particularly love and romance, trivial in comparison. Is this a fair critique of Austen? Absolutely, but to take such an approach while billing the novel as a collaborative project (surely for no better reason than that having Austen's name on the cover is publishing gold) seems rather misleading to me.

Instead of the honorable world of Austen's gentlemen and ladies, Mr. Winters takes the reader to a savage place - part fantasy, part horror, and part steampunk - in which humans are engaged in a constant struggle for survival against the creatures of the water. Now one might think that, if all the fish in the sea were determined upon inflicting bodily harm, that people would avoid interacting with them at all costs, but in Mr. Winters' world such logic does not prevail. The humans in this story spend far more time in nautical pursuits than their original counterparts, tempting fate at every turn by embarking on underwater explorations, pleasure boat rides, and even going so far as replacing the role that the metropolis of London played at the time with an underwater city, entrapped in a great glass dome, called Sub-Marine Station Beta. This disregard for life and limb extends to the manner in which servants are treated, who are far more like slaves than freemen, and an unquenchable blood lust, expressed through bloody public spectacles resembling those in which the ancient Romans so greedily indulged. While I am able to rationalize such elements as a deliberate reversal of Austen's portrayal of the world, what I have a far harder time coping with is the insensibility Mr. Winters' attributes to her (I suppose I should say his) characters. Both Marianne and Eleanor constantly ignore blatant signs of danger, consumed instead in their own petty cares, an attribute of obliviousness totally at odds with the characteristics that define not only these two, but all of Austen's heroines. Of course, no one in Austen, regardless of their moral fiber, would pick their teeth, let alone with a cuttlefish bone just hacked up out of one's throat, in the manner that Marianne is here portrayed doing, but perhaps such qualms ignore the spirit of Mr. Winters' project.

Overall, I must admit to thinking this a far better book than the more profitable Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, as Mr. Winters, unlike Seth Grahame-Smith, at least displays a creditable knowledge of Austen original work, his commentary displaying a legitimate engagement in the text rather than a random insertion of desperate elements for the sole purpose of marketing power. However, even disregarding the aspects of the novel that are inherently repulsive to me, it would have been much more successful if some of the newly inserted side plots came to some sort of fruition in the end. Elements such as the Devonshire Fang-Beast and Margaret Dashwood's strange story (neither of which I will elaborate upon, so as to avoid spoilers) prove to have little purpose in the end. Yet as far as monster mashups are concerned, this could have been far worse than it was, and I do not regret, as I feared I would, reading it. A rather lukewarm recommendation, I know, but remarkably generous considering my previous feelings on the genre.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Lady Catherine's Necklace by Joan Aiken

With Lady Catherine's Necklace, I have now read the entirety of Joan Aiken's Austenesque offerings, and with this post, I can finally put aside the love/hate relationship I have for this author (for an explanation of these mixed emotions and more information on Ms. Aiken's other books, please check out this post). I certainly enjoyed this novel more than most of her novels, particularly as it did not contain so many of those dark and sinister elements she has a penchant for including, but her willingness to disregard essential elements of Austen's original plot continues to irk me (more on some aspects of this later). Overall, I found this to be a quick and surprisingly pleasant sequel, and I sincerely lament the fact that it is out of print. It is far more worthy of republishing than some of the other novels of Ms. Aiken's that have been so favored.

The plot of this book, which places Anne de Bourgh and Maria Lucas front and center, is instigated when the carriage of two charming strangers, Miss Priscilla Delaval and Mr. Ralph Delaval, suffer an accident in front of Rosings Hall, forcing the siblings to seek the hospitality of the always formidable Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Their arrival coincides with the death of Mr. Bennet (whose wife has already died and daughters are all established), Mr. Collins' departure for Longbourn in order to attend to affairs, and Charlotte Collins' third lying in. Maria has already arrived to assist her sister at this time, so Mr. Collins' loss, especially when Mr. Delaval (who proves to be ordained) steps forward to deliver sermons in his place, is not mourned by any. Soon the company at Rosings is further enhanced by the arrival of Colonel Fitzwilliam and a new relative invented by Ms. Aiken, one Lord Luke Sherbine. Lord Luke is said to be a second brother of Lady Catherine's (a third also plays a background role in the plot), and while I find it irritating that Ms. Aiken is so willing to alter the biography of Austen's characters, I can't help but admit that Lord Luke was one of my favorite aspects of this book. Wildly eccentric and determined to undermine his dictatorial sister's authority, even when this requires employing rather despicable means, it is to Lord Luke that we owe many of the book's most humorous moments, like the following:
"The earliest hangman whose name survives was called Bull. Is not that interesting?" said Lord Luke. "One asks oneself if it is because of him that the English have adopted John Bull as their national figure. The most famous hangman, of course, was Jack Ketch, who executed Lord Russell and the Duke of Monmouth."

"Will you please quit this disagreeable topic, Lucius," snapped Lady Catherine. "Heaven knows that I have enough to concern my mind without your --"

"A hangman's wage," her brother pursued, wholly ignoring Lady Catherine's interruption, "was thirteen pence and a halfpenny - with another three halfpence for the rope. I daresay it is considerably more nowadays. Nobles, of course, were expected to remunerate the executioner with seven to ten pounds for cutting off their heads. That, to me, seems unfair. Why should I be expected to lay out such a sum for such a dismal service?"

"I daresay you would be glad enough to do so when it came to the point, Uncle Luke," said Anne de Bourgh, rousing herself from a gloomy abstraction. "Hanging seems to be such a chancy process."   
This episode also wonderfully illustrates the manner in which Anne begins to emerge from her shell in this story. While I cringe at Ms. Aiken's decision to make Anne only 19 years old, which would have made her fifteen at the most when Pride and Prejudice takes place, I do like how she begins to thwart her mother's dominance, assert herself, and pursue interests of her own, a development assisted by her friendships with two gentlemen artists who live on the estate (the nature of whose relationship I will not deign to question), and with a young gardener on the estate, Joss. Unfortunately, in order for her plot to develop, Anne's well-established ill-heath is completely disregarded.

Maria also adds an interesting dynamic to the story. She returns to Hunsford having developed something of a romance with Colonel Fitzwilliam the previous year, but now he is engaged to Anne and all three must cope with the ill-effects of this mismatch. I find it disconcerting that the gentleman's character suffers as a result/ Maria has also, somehow, come under the patronage of Mrs. Jennings of Sense and Sensibility, with whom she has stayed with in London and maintains a regular correspondence. While Ms. Aiken paints Miss Jennings in a far less matchmaking light than Austen did, I found her influence on the story both interesting and agreeable, even if the end result of it is extremely far-fetched.

The novel hinges on a mystery surrounding the seeming disappearance of not only Lady Catherine's diamond necklace, but the lady herself. I do not want to spoil the plot and so will say no more on that point, except to declare that the result is one of the more sympathetic portraits of Darcy's officious aunt that anyone has written (with one notable exception being myself). I enjoyed this book for what it is: a fun lark into the world of Austen's Kentish creations. If you enjoyed Ms. Aiken's other books, than this is one that should definitely be pursued.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Northanger Abbey and Angels and Dragons by Vera Nazarian

I have expressed my reservations about the infusion of monsters into Austen's novels frequently enough to not feel compelled to restate those feelings now, so as I begin this review I will only reiterate the notion that any writer who approaches rewriting her books with love and respect for the original texts, as opposed to merely capitalizing on her fame, is, from my perspective, worthy of reading. Vera Nazarian certainly falls into this latter category, and having hugely enjoyed Mansfield Park and Mummies (read my review here), I have been anxiously awaiting my opportunity to read the second book in her series, The Collected Supernatural Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey and Angels and Dragons. Before sharing my thoughts on this novel, let me just say how very much it pleases me that Ms. Nazarian began her series with Austen's two most overlooked and under-appreciated novels, especially as they rank amongst my most favorite (when forced to choose) of her works. In a world where publishers are reluctant to market anything but JAFF premised upon Pride and Prejudice, for the very legitimate reason that nothing else sells so well, this was a gutsy move, and one I highly appreciate.

Following both the plot and text of Northanger Abbey almost verbatim, Ms. Nazarian makes this story her own by endowing Catherine Morland with a unique gift: the ability to see and talk to the guardian angels that  protect all humans in this book. While done in an extremely tongue-in-cheek manner, this narrative works, in the same way that endowing Fanny Price with the ability to perceive the presence of zombies and vampires worked in the previous book, because all of Austen's heroines are already portrayed as superior beings, able to perceive truths that lesser persons are oblivious to, although in Catherine's case this attribute is conveyed through a haze of naivety. Also very organic is Ms. Nazarian's development of John and Isabella Thorpe, whose questionable personalities are taken to an extreme by casting them as demonic. My only qualms about this characterization lies in Catherine's continued tolerance of these two, a fact which adherence to the original story requires, despite her knowledge of their true natures. Nevertheless, I absolutely relished the depiction of John Thorpe, whom I consider the most odious of all Austen's men, and I cannot help but wonder if his portrayal was influenced by the 1986 movie (read my review here), in which he was so masterfully played by Jonathan Coy:
Preceeding him came the heat of a furnace. But even before it struck full force, Catherine saw him, and muttered, "Oh dear, he is an ogre!"

It was indeed the frightful truth. Seen with clarity of supernatural vision that Catherine now enjoyed, he was a large bulky gentleman with limbs like trunks and a torso like a barrel of old port. His skin was coarse and elephantine, swarthier than his sister's, and with an even more greenish tint - a few degrees more and his complexion might have rivaled a toad. His hair stuck out like dry straw from underneath the edges of his otherwise stylish hat, and had a suspiciously fire-tinged ruddy tint, as though it's been through a curtain of flames. And when he grinned, his teeth were simply enormous -

Oh dear, Catherine thought. Indeed, she was so struck by the oddity before her that she forgot to be properly frightened or alarmed, and unabashedly stared in amazement (a behavior which later she comprehended to be hardly appropriate on her part; no wonder the gentleman may have gotten certain ideas).
Ms. Nazarian also cleverly plays upon Austen's use of the Gothic, particularly the Udolpho references in the story, imparting Catheirne's obsession to the entire population of Bath, all of whom become consumed with the notion of deciphering a "Udolpho Code", which is said to lead to hidden treasure. This results in the gentleman of the town abandoning their walking sticks for shovels, and the newest fashions for ladies including bells and tubers. The entire notion is so absurd that it is impossible to imagine Austen not heartily approving, though I do wish this aspect of the storyline, for all its ridiculousness, ended in a more satisfactory manner than it does.

I do have a few other complaints, which cannot be addressed without including spoilers, so those who wish to preserve all the surprises this narrative has to offer for their own perusal of it, please skip this paragraph. Rather than all of Catherine's imaginative meanderings, upon her arrival at Northanger, proving perfectly normal and mundane, her explorations into the suspicious furnishings of her room, in particular, result in the unleashing of a demonic force which reappears on several occasion, demanding the Whore of Babylon (which proves to be a reference to Isabella). Eventually, the horde is expelled merely by Catherine's command that it do so, and I found the entire episode not only unnecessary to the plot, but also an entirely pointless distraction. I wish it had proven more meaningful. My other issue is with the role of the dragons, which prove to be not only General Tilney (a characterization which I feel was successful), but also Henry Tilney, whose true nature is only revealed once his love for Catherine drives him to passionately defend his "treasure". While such extreme attachment on his part is touching, I'm not sure it is in keeping with the thoroughly rational and staid hero Austen created.

I hate to dwell on such minor irritations when reviewing a book I truly enjoyed, but I cannot help but express my increased annoyance with the footnotes, as one book of snide references to sexual innuendos was enough for me. The fact that more of the same are sure to be found throughout the remainder of the series makes me groan. I also feel the need to take this opportunity to beg Ms. Nazarian, should she favor this review with her attention, to please abandon her rather constant use of the word "verily". While the word may cast a sense of dated language upon her manuscript, it surely can be employed with moderation, and I cannot help but note that Austen only twice, as far as I am able to discern, uses the word in any of her writings: once in Northanger Abbey, in which it is spoken by Isabella, and again in Pride and Prejudice, when George Wickham uses it. Perhaps if the word is so very favored by our modern authoress, she could at least reserve its use to only despicable characters?

Over all, this is an amusing and farcical take on Northanger Abbey, which I have no hesitation in recommending to fans of both the novel and of monster mashups. I do think that Ms. Nazarian's adaptation of Mansfield Park was more successful than this second book, but I attribute that to the fact that Mansfield, which is a less perfected novel, intrinsically allows for more manipulation of its plot. Northanger, which Austen had years and years to rewrite and edit, does not provide the same opportunities. This makes me highly curious to see how Ms. Nazarian will apply her approach to the remaining novels, which I will most certainly read (I'm rather anxious to learn if we will ever the origin and purpose of the Brighton Duck). Next on the list is Pride and Platypus: Mr. Darcy's Dreadful Secret, a title which has me nervously praying that my favorite hero does not prove to be a hybrid of a duck, a beaver, and an otter, as such a portrayal would put a massive damper on my romantic fantasies. I think I am most anticipating the final book in the series, Lady Susan, Succubus, which just seems too perfect not to be a roaring success.          

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Kandukondain Kandukondain (I Have Found It) - 2000

I watched Kandukondain Kandukondain (I Have Found It) for the Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge hosted by Laurel Ann of Austenprose. As soon as I signed up for the challenge, I knew this film would be the subject of one of my posts, as I am something of a Bollywood freak. Though this movie is technically a Tamil musical, it still follows the same conventions of Bollywood and features many faces that will be familiar to fans of Indian cinema, most prominently the gorgeous Aishwarya Rai, also known to Austenites as the actress who played the Elizabeth Bennet character (Lalita Bakshi) in 2004's Bride and Prejudice. Though this latter film is far more famous, I must say I far preferred Kandoukondain Kondukondain. While the storyline has been altered to reflect both modern times and a rather different culture, the main characters are largely true to their original counterparts, resulting in a charmingly successful adaptation.

Our story begins in a manner that fundamentally grounds the film in Tamil culture. A helicopter descends before a magnificent waterfall, paratroopers leaping down to make their way through a dense woods. These are members of the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force), who were deployed by India into Sri Lanka during the late 80's in an attempt to being an end to the Sri Lankan Civil War. The troops are lead by Major Bala (played by Mammootty, also a megastar in India), who is our Colonel Brandon character. When lingering by a school, one student opens fire upon the military, and as Bala runs back through the forest he triggers a land mind, resulting in the loss of his leg. It is this event that shapes his character, as opposed to the history of Eliza that molds Colonel Brandon's.

We then cut to a film set in an urban environment, where our Edward Ferrars character, the far more socially adept Manohar (Ajith), is working in pursuit of his dream of being a director, much to the chagrin of his wealthy parents who sent him to the United States for college, where he studied to be an engineer. In the course of filming Manohar is asked to request permission to shoot in a village temple from the royal family of the area, and this is when we finally meet our Dashwoods. Mahalakshmi (Srividya) has returned to her father's home after a rupture, the result of her marrying against his wishes, to care for him, bringing her three daughters along. The cause of the patriarch's illness is not defined, but his incapacitated state suggest he has had a stroke. For months he has been muttering the same word over and over again (will) without being able to convey his desires to his daughter and granddaughters, who think he has lost his senses. Meanwhile, Mahalakshmi is determined to marry her eldest daughter, Sowmya (Tabu), who certainly resembles Eleanor in her pragmatism and emotional conservativeness, but differs from Austen's character in being tainted by the label "unlucky", the result of the death of her former fiance. The family is expecting a potential groom (one of many) when Manohar arrives seeking permission to film in the temple and confuse his purpose, much to Sowmya's embarrassment, but this mix up results in Manohar's pursuit of Sowmya, to whom he is instantly attracted.

While Sowmya is dutifully fulfilling her obligations as daughter, which includes running the college the family owns, the next sister, Meenakshi (Aishwarya's role), is dreaming of being swept off her feet by a romantic hero. Her passions are music and poetry, and it is when he hears her sing that Bala, a successful local florist, becomes infatuated with her. Urging her to pursue more serious music, Meenakshi mocks him for drunkenness (which seems to be his means of dealing with his crippled state and disillusionment). Bala soon reforms and begins to court her, developing a friendship with the family, but when Srikanth (Abbas), a high profile investment banker, comes to the town, he sweeps Meenakshi off her feet (just like Willoughby, literally), bonding with her over their mutual love of poetry. It is easy to see where his downfall will lie, as he is promising outlandish returns on investments made by the village's poor and innocent population, but otherwise I would say this is the character whose storyline most resembles that of his original counterpart. Bala, unlike Colonel Brandon, shows his love for Meenakshi by doing all he can to facilitate her happiness, even when this means trying to unite her with a man he knows is less worthy of her affections.

It is only halfway through the movie that the family patriarch finally dies, right upon the youngest daughter having finally discovered for what he has been asking. The tragedy of this circumstance reveals itself upon the will being read, which leaves everything to Mahalakshmi's brother, who has not been to visit their father in ten years. Completely dominated by his wife, the couple take control of the family holdings, quickly reducing their sister and nieces to the role of servants in their former home. I must say that, if you can believe it possible, this rendition of Fanny Dashwood is even more odious than Austen's. The ladies have nothing, but pride drives them from their ancestral home to take up residence in the capital city of Madras (now Chennai), where they are forced into a transient lifestyle while the girls try to find work. Eventually, Bala and Manohar locate the family, allowing our romances to progress, while Sowmya's ability to find a job as a software developer and Meenakshi's success as a musician and singer stabilize the family finances. There is far more to the plot than revealed here, but I have gone into this level of detail specifically to demonstrate the ways in which the film stays true to the plot of Sense and Sensibility while altering it to fit both the modern and Indian context.

Now if you do not care for the conventions of Bollywood, this movie is unlikely to gratify you. Yes, the characters burst into spontaneous, massively choreographed musical numbers, often taking place in completely disjointed settings (why are we suddenly in Egypt or a European castle?), and our heroines first appear dramatically emerging from the water. However, the stereotypical use of rain to increase dramatic tension is very similar to the manner in which that same atmospheric phenomenon was used by both Ang Lee and John Alexander when they directed the 1995 and 2008 adaptations, respectively. I highly recommend that those who hold prejudices against such tactics try to overcome them by embracing the camp, for there is so much to enjoy this adorable film, let alone in the Indian film industry as a whole, but if such attempts are beyond you, I suppose you will just have to resign yourself to missing out. I, for one, imagine I will be watching and rewatching this movie for years to come, and I must send a big thank you to Laurel Ann for hosting a challenge that brought this overlooked gem to my attention.      

Sunday, May 8, 2011

"Henry and Eliza" by Jane Austen

The prospect of The Classics Circuit doing a Jane Austen tour is one I have anxiously awaited since I first began participating in these literary sprees, and one that pits Austen against Dickens (though I do think there is enough material from both writers to justify individual consideration) sent me into raptures. Unfortunately, the timing could not possibly have been worse. I am very quickly coming to the end of my pregnancy and any blogging has become a rather secondary consideration. Nevertheless, I could not resist the urge to participate, and while I would like to be posting about one of Austen's novels, and probably later this month about one of Dickens' (A Tale of Two Cities is my favorite), I am instead limiting myself to brief discussion of the former's Juvenalia. The kind people of The Classics Circuit were so accommodating as to let me kick off the tour, for any delay of this post might have resulted in its complete (and shameful) neglect.

While within her Juvenalia it is easy to trace the wit that so defined Austen's adult voice, these early works could not be more dissimilar from the novels that are so beloved. While Austen strove to depict meticulously realistic scenarios, in stark opposition to the high degree of melodrama that dominated the novels of her day, her childhood works took the opposite approach, mocking those outlandish conventions by excessively indulging in them. This much is easy to perceive, but what I find most fascinating about the Juvenalia is the degree to which she pushes her absurdities, creating worlds that anticipate not only those later depicted by Lewis Carroll in his Alice stories, in which the conventions of society are mocked by being turned upon their heads, but also the dramatic works of the mid-20th century playwrights belonging to the Theater of the Absurd, the most famous of which is surely Samuel Beckett, best known for Waiting for Godot. Austen's early voice is stunningly avant-garde, and I would love to take the time here to explore this little regarded aspect of her development in massive detail, having long thought that a comparison of her two short plays, The Visit and The Mystery, to the works of Beckett, Harold Pinter, and Edward Albee was overdue, but instead I indulge my baby obsessed brain by looking at a very different work, and one that just so happens to be about a young lady whose name is the same as that of my future daughter: Henry and Eliza. This "novel" is only a few pages long and can be read in full at The Republic of Pemberley, where I direct all interested readers who have either not had the pleasure of enjoying this tale before, or who would like to indulge themselves once again, simultaneously serving the secondary purpose of refreshing their memories (

This story begins with a depiction of a benevolent couple, Sir George and Lady Harcourt, who, while "superintending the Labours of their Haymakers, rewarding the industry of some by smiles of approbation, and punishing the idleness of others, by a cudgel" (one must stop and wonder if the laborers were more motivated by those condescending smiles or their fears of a thrashing), just happen across a three-month old girl in the haycock, who has the good sense to be not only beautiful but fully conversant. Entranced, the childless couple adopts Eliza and proceed to raise her with "their first and principal Care" being to foster "a Love of Virtue and a Hatred of Vice". Austen takes pains to assure us in their complete success, this task having been greatly aided by "Eliza having a natural turn that way herself" before recounting the adventures of our heroine as an adult, in which she reveals herself to be, in fact, totally devoid of virtue and deeply seeped in not only vice, but also frivolity and vanity.  

We first learn about Eliza's perfidy when she is caught (indicating that this was not, perhaps, her first transgression) stealing 50 pounds, a sum large enough by far to justify hanging at the time. She is instantly cast off by her "inhumane Benefactors", an occurrence not so distressing to Eliza as one might predict, as Austen illustrates:
Such a transition to one who did not possess so noble and exalted a mind as Eliza, would have been Death, but she, happy in the conscious knowledge of her own Excellence, amused herself, as she sate beneath a tree making and singing the following Lines.
There follows a short verse attesting to the heroine's "innocent Heart" and dedication to virtue.

Eventually Eliza motivates herself so much as to walk to the local inn, where "her most intimate friend" presides (another incongruity, as the daughter of either  knight or a baronet - Austen does not specify which Sir George is - would not be on terms of friendship with an inn keeper). Expressing her wish to be some wealthy lady's companion (a respectable profession for impoverished women of the gentry), her friend immediately writes to another one of her surprising acquaintances, the Duchess of F., requesting she take Eliza on. Not only does this good lady do so, but Eliza is introduced into her household on the footing of another daughter, an extraordinary kindness which is repaid by our heroine by steeling the affections of one Mr. Henry Cecil, the current admirer of the true daughter, and abandoning her post in order to marry him. At this juncture, the formerly indulgent Duchess sends an army of 300 to track down the couple and return them, "dead or alive; intending that if they should be brought to her in the latter condition to have them put to Death in some torturelike manner, after a few years of Confinement." Such persecution - entirely fantastic under the laws that governed England by this date - causes the couple to flee to the Continent where they remain for three years and have two sons. Through unspecified causes, Henry then dies (making the reader wonder why he received top billing in the title), and due to the extraordinarily lavish lifestyle the couple has been living, spending 18,000 pounds a year, an amount that far exceeds the annual income of any of the gentlemen in Austen's novels and by leaps and bounds Mr. Cecil's, estimated at "less than the twentieth part", Eliza finds herself without any means of support. She does, however, own "a man of Was of 55 Guns" (a ship which would be as unreliable, if not more so, on the ocean as the one Admiral Croft famously mocks in Persuasion), which she uses to return to England, only to be instantly seized by the Duchess' men and thrown into the "snug little Newgate" that had been specially built for this purpose, an indication of the magnitude of the Duchess' grievance.

Eliza's situation now seems most dire, for the builders of her prison were so thoughtful as to provide the door with a lock and the window with bars. Less foresight can be attributed to the Duchess' interior decorators, who for some reason thought to equip the cell with "a small saw and Ladder of ropes", thereby providing Eliza with her means of escape. There is only one impediment: "Her Children were too small to get down the Ladder by themselves, nor would it be possible for her to take them in her arms, when she did." Fortunately, the Duchess did not deprive Eliza of her extremely extensive wardrobe when throwing her into confinement (being poorly dressed would have surely been too much of a hardship), and this our heroine throws out the window, followed by her sons, "having given them strict Charge not to hurt themselves". In defiance of all the child rearing advice I have received in the parenthood classes so recently attended, Eliza, after descending the ladder herself, remarkably finds her boys "in perfect Health and fast asleep."

However, a new predicament now confronts our heroine, and she makes the one attempt at practicality we can ever credit to her, by opting to sell her needlessly opulent wardrobe in order to have the funds to maintain herself and her family. Unfortunately, instead of using the money to procure food, she chooses to purchase clothing "more usefull, some playthings for Her Boys and a gold Watch for herself." Such failed pragmatism is soon repaid when her sons, in their abject hunger, bite of two of her fingers (yes, contrary to all expectations and biased assumptions, Jane Austen did write about cannibalism far before anyone chose to interject zombies into her stories).

Devoid of all other options, Eliza now decides to return to the Harcourts, who for some reason she believes will be more forgiving at presant than they were formerly. Walking 30 of the 40 miles to her intended destination, she establishes herself on the steps of a gentleman's house and sets to begging, a dramatic representation of how very far she has fallen while simultaneously emphasizing her continued readiness to impose on others. Ironically, it is Sir George and Lady Harcourt's carriage that she first approaches. In the style of much 18th century literature, like The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling and Evelina, Lady Harcourt suddenly reveals what she has so long forgotten: Eliza is her true daughter. Sir George (who thus establishes himself as the most reasonable person in this tale, which isn't saying much) begs an explanation from his wife, which she provides by referring back to a time when her husband traveled to America:
"Four months after you were gone, I was delivered of this Girl, but dreading your just resentment at her not proving the Boy you wished, I took her to a Haycock and laid her down. A few weeks afterwards, you returned, and fortunately for me, made no enquiries on the subject. Satisfied within myself on the wellfare of my Child, I soon forgot I had one, insomuch that when, we shortly after found her in the very Haycock, I had placed her, I had no more idea of her being my own, than you had, and nothing I will venture to say would have recalled the circumstance to my remembrance, but my thus accidentally hearing her voice, which now strikes me as being the very counterpart of my own Child's."
Is today Mother's Day? Oh dear! Apparently, Eliza was just as conversant at birth as she was at three months, which we must take as a satisfactory explanation of Lady Harcourt's extraordinary recollection. In spite of the matron's fear for her husband's grievance at having a daughter, a notion much contradicted by his readiness to adopt a girl at random, he instantly welcomes his true child back into the fold (perhaps only an adopted daughter can be accused of stealing what might be considered rightfully hers?). Eliza then gratifies herself by raising an army of her own to destroy the Duchess' prison, an act which "gained the Blessings of thousands, and the Applause of her own Heart."

Despite the outlandish nature of the events that transpire in this story, we can detect in it a pattern for Austen's future writing style. Perhaps the most consistent theme in her novels is the notion that people should be judged based upon their actions as opposed to their words. It is in this manner that Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice, despite seeming arrogance, is proven "the best of men", and that Mr. Elliot of Persuasion, regardless of his impeccable manners, reveals himself a thorough scoundrel. In Henry and Eliza, the reader is instructed not to trust that characters are moral and altruistic just because a narrator (or the characters themselves) declare them so, but to instead look to their conduct. Austen thrives in depictions of hypocrisy, and it is this trait that defines some of her greatest comic (and sometimes villainous) creations, like Mr. Collins, Isabella Thorpe, Lucy Steele, Sir Walter Elliot, and Mrs. Norris. But it is all too intuitive to read any writer's juvenalia as a key to their latter style, which is why I began this post in the manner I did. Each time I approach this material I am struck anew with how daring and experimental Austen's early style was. Granted, I am a dedicated Austenite, and therefore, like E.M. Forster, "slightly imbecile about Jane Austen", but to all those so quick to write her off as predictable, boring, and passe, I offer up her truly revolutionary early writings as evidence to the contrary. Furthermore, I can not only argue her place as the forerunner to absurdism, but also to the modern push for simplicity of language, in stark contrast to the Victorian writers, like Dickens, who succeeded her. After all, long before Gertrude Stein said that a "Rose is a rose is a rose", Catherine Morland declared that "I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible." When Austen's body of work is taken as a whole, by readers unwilling to simply dismiss her work as romantic comedy, experimentation in almost every genre that defined 20th century literature can be detected. Her Juvenalia is key to such a survey, and I highly recommend it to all who have a sincere interest in the evolution of literature.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Jane Austen Handbook by Margaret C. Sullivan

I have been terribly remiss in neglecting to review The Jane Austen Handbook: Proper Life Skills from Regency England by Margaret C. Sullivan (editrix of the fabulous AustenBlog) for so long, which the good people at Quirk Books were so kind as to send me, but life has become rather complex as my pregnancy nears its end (so tired!). I have also been slow to read the book, as I have not sat down and just consumed it from cover to cover, as I usually do with the books I review, but meandered through it instead, reading bits and pieces here and there. Often I have picked it up as I write, either because it might confirm an historical quandry I have, or as a means of combating writer's block. This is actually the same manner in which used the first edition of the book which, until its successor arrived, had a permanent place on my desk. For example, there is a scene in the novel I am currently working on which sets Lady Catherine up as a matchmaker, so upon hitting a part in the dialogue in which I was stumped as to how to move forward, I opened up my trusty Jane Austen Handbook and turned to the section entitled "How to Marry Off Your Daughter", where I was treated to twelve handy tips on making a match for eligible young ladies. Not only did this prove to be the perfect means of rekindling the creative juices, but I was further delighted by the short section that followed, "Is Mrs. Bennet the Hero of Pride and Prejudice?" The book is filled with delightful deviations such as this one, in which Ms. Sullivan explores different aspects of Austen's works, as opposed to the more strictly cultural/social information that makes up its bulk. I particularly enjoyed the list of Austen's sickly ladies in "Hypochondriacs in Jane Austen's Novels" and a similar delineation of the "Worst (and Funniest) Proposals in Jane Austen's Novels".

But this book is in no way geared to those, like myself, who write about, live for, and hungrily devour all things Austen. I have to imagine that it proves even more useful to those just engaging in Austen's world, or those who have long loved her novels without exploring the cultural realities that inform the stories. For example, have you been wondering why Catherine Morland took a sedan chair home from the assembly rooms in Bath as opposed to a carriage, or why Gretna Green was the destination of choice for an eloping couple and how it differed from a reading the banns? If any of this has puzzled you, you will find The Jane Austen Handbook a very handy tool. Alternatively, maybe you'd like to learn how to engage in the endless needlework and crafts that seem to fill each day for the ladies in Austen's novels. If so, Ms. Sullivan has provided a handy primer on how to engage in netting, as well as full instruction on making a filigree basket. From details on the different types of dress, morning through evening, to inheritance laws, The Jane Austen Handbook proves itself time and time again an invaluable source of information on Regency life. I highly recommend this delightful book to all Janeites. It is truly a must have volume.  

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

I first read this book around the same time as I read Cranford (see my review here), sometime during my early teenage years, but as little as I recalled that book, I seem to have had even less memory of Wives and Daughters. I have no explanation as to why Elizabeth Gaskell's books made such little impact on me at that time, especially as I have so enjoyed reading them now, but I owe a debt of gratitude to Katherine of Gaskell Blog for hosting the Gaskell Reading Challenge, thereby compelling me to revisit this author. This is my final review in completion of that challenge, but I have to assume that you will hear more from me about Gaskell down the road, as I have every intention of continuing to explore her works.

You know that feeling of desperate longing you get every time you reread Sanditon (if my presumption that you have read this last fragment of an Austen novel is incorrect, I highly suggest you act to rectify the matter immediately)? Well imagine how much worse that sensation would be if she had manage to write the vast majority of the story, only to die before completing the climax of the book. It would be like Pride and Prejudice suddenly ending right after Lady Catherine's confrontation with Elizabeth at Longbourn, or Persuasion stopping right when Anne receives Captain Wentworth's note.. Without giving too much away, I have to acknowledge that this was what reading Wives and Daughters was like. After following the life of our heroine, Molly Gibson, for more than six hundred pages, the book suddenly ends right before we reach the satisfaction of "happily ever after", due to the untimely death of Gaskell. I so little remembered the book that this took me totally by surprise, but regardless, because the course of the plot is rather transparent throughout, it was still a highly satisfying read. Normally, such an obvious storyline would be a detriment to a story, but because of Gaskell's excellent character development, the novel remains thoroughly compelling. Molly is a heroine who it is impossible not to like - unwaveringly consistent in her morality, unfailingly kind, and touchingly tender in her affections - but I actually think it is the less amiable characters that make the book work so well. Pam Morris, in the introduction to my Penguin Classics edition of the novel, dwells at length on the attractions and multidimensional attributes of Cynthia Kirkpatrick, Molly's step-sister, presenting her as a feminist force, "If she is 'doomed' to be a heroine by the fact that she is a woman, Cynthia is represented as determined to remain in control of the fiction in which she stars." While this reading certainly adds a compelling dimension to any critique of the novel, it is her mother, Mrs. Gibson, who fascinated me most. Mrs. Gibson is in no way the wicked step-mother of fairytale, although Ms. Morris constructs her discussion of the novel within the context of a "fairytale subtext", but she is a consummate hypocrite and, as such, causes both Molly (to say nothing of her duped father) and Cynthia no little discomfort. My attraction to Mrs. Gibson lies greatly in her resemblance to several of Austen's characters, namely Isabella Thorpe and Mary Crawford. I was struck repeatedly by how her words and actions echoed those of these two notorious ladies. Her affinity with Isabella lies in her constant tendency to act in direct opposition to her words, while her similarity to Mary is more calculating and mercenary, particularly her readiness to capitalize on the potential death of an heir to an estate. Again, though I did find the plot rather transparent, I do not wish to divulge too much of the story for those who have not read it by delving deeply into this matter, but fans of Austen cannot help but perceive these correlations.

While we are on the subject of Austen's possible influence on Gaskell in this book, I must take a moment to point out the likenesses that exist between Molly, who I just described, to quote myself, as "impossible not to like", and that most derided of heroines, Fanny Price. Though Molly is not in the marginalized position that Fanny is, being the daughter of the house instead of a poor dependent, their characters are remarkably similar. This is particularly apparent in her constant tendency to scold herself ("'mean,' and 'envious of Cynthia,' and 'ill-natured,' and selfish,' were the terms she kept applying to herself; but it did no good, she was just as naughty at the last as at the first.") but it also comes through in her willingness to take what seems an uncharacteristically brave stance in the name of what she believes to be right, even in the face of immense pressure. Unlike the text of Mansfield Park, this external coercion comes not from a patriarchal figure (Mr. Gibson, though Ms. Morris might characterize him as chauvinistic, is totally enamored of his daughter), but from the gossips who inhabit the town of Hollingford, where the Gibson's live.

Fans of Cranford will enjoy the comfort to be derived from the society of Hollingford, which is uncannily like that of Cranford, right down to the prominent presence of two spinster ladies, the Miss Brownings, who were the daughters of the late rector, the elder of which acts as the stern moral authority of the town while her younger sister, Phoebe, forms its tender core. Just like gossip and rumor can cause irrational (and rather humorous) chaos in Cranford society, those same forces display their more sinister effects in Hollingford when Molly becomes the wrongful target of their venom. However, this incident provides an opportunity in the book to not only display Molly's worth, but also develops those feminist themes Ms. Morris so dwells upon in her intro, displaying the hypocrisies of a society that turns its head towards male misdemeanors while simultaneously, as Mr. Gibson puts it, putting "evil constructions...upon the actions ever so slightly beyond the bounds of maidenly propriety", yet another way in which the books reminds me of both Mansfield Park and Northnager Abbey.

The subtitle of this novel is An Every-Day Story, and while Ms. Morris goes a long way to dispute the accuracy of this label, relating it not only to fairytale and feminism, but also to Darwinism (quite convincingly, I should add), I think it is the familiar qualities of the book, as I have been emphasizing, as well as its resulting predictability, that made it so compelling to me. The novel provides an uncanny sense of coziness that only such thoroughly ordinary territory can provide. Though tensions arise along the way, I had a constant sense of confidence that this book would end well. Perhaps that is why the absence of those final chapters was such an abrasive shock to me. All the assumed givens of the story - the small English village, the maneuvers and motivations of the surrounding landed families, the archetypal characters - created this lovely complacence in me, and I happily lolled along until reaching the abrupt end. Any great writer's death is always a double tragedy, not only depriving their loved ones but also their public, leaving a longing for what might have been. I end this post wishing Mrs. Gaskell had just a few more months, perhaps even weeks would have sufficed, in order to complete this magnificent novel.