Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Emma, Chapters 29-40

I am so sorry, readers and Jane Austen Challenge participants. Things are quite crazy around these parts lately, but I promise that once I move out of my apartment to Chicago and then go to Massachusetts, where I'm spending the summer, things will get back to normal. I even have an exciting box from Powell's waiting for me when I get there, so there will be lots of reading and writing to share.

Here's a quick summary of what you missed in Emma.

Frank and Emma have decided that they want to throw a ball. Since Randalls is too small, they opt for the Crown Inn. Frank makes Emma promise to dance the first two numbers with him. Emma worries that Mrs. Churchill won’t let Frank stay in Highbury long enough for the ball, but she does. But two days later, she calls him home since she’s ill. Frank leaves and the ball is cancelled. Emma is upset, and recognizes that she has some feelings for him after all.

Before Emma can dwell too much on Frank, word comes that Mr. Elton and his wife will be arriving soon in Highbury. Emma tries to convince Harriet to get over him, and the girls go to visit the couple. Emma realizes on their second visit that Mrs. Elton is incredibly gauche and superficial.

Mrs. Elton turns cold towards Emma, and decides to take Jane Fairfax under her wing. Jane also refuses another trip to Ireland to stay on in Highbury. Emma asks Mr. Knightley about this, and also hints to him that she things he has feelings for Jane. He’s flustered, and tells Emma that he isn’t interested in Jane.

Emma throws a dinner party for Mrs. Elton, and her brother in law shows up to bring his sons to visit Emma and Mr. Woodhouse. While there, he chides Jane for going to the post office in the rain. There’s also an awkward discussion of who in the party has good handwriting, with Emma praising Frank’s and Knightley telling her she’s wrong. Do these two ever do anything besides disagree?

A letter arrives from Frank, saying that he and the Churchills are heading to London, so they’ll be close by, and that Frank will be coming to stay in Highbury. Emma worries about this, but because he has feelings for her and she barely returns them. When Frank arrives, the ball is back on. There’s an uncomfortable moment when the Westons realize that Mrs. Elton will be expected to lead the first dance and that Emma can’t do it as planned.

The ball is fun otherwise, and after Mr. Elton won’t dance with Harriet, Mr. Knightley saves the day. Emma thanks him afterwards, and tells him that he was right about Mr. Elton. Knightley tells her that she was more right about Harriet than he had realized. They’re finally getting along, and they dance.

Things take a weird turn when Harriet is accosted by gypsies while out walking. Frank runs into her and saves the day, bringing her to Hartfield. Harriet later tells Emma that she is no longer interested in Mr. Elton, and that she is ready to get rid of trinkets he used that she saved. Harriet tells Emma that she plans to never marry, but Emma suspects that Harriet is interested in someone out of her league (she means Frank). Harriet confirms these feelings. And that's where we leave things. More summary/analysis next week!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Emma, Chapters 14-28

Whew, is anyone else finding the characters difficult to keep track of? Mansfield Park and Pride and Prejudice have smaller sets of characters, but Emma, like Sense and Sensibility, seems to have a much more populated neighborhood. I feel like I’m constantly flipping back and forth to check who someone is. Despite this, Emma has a lot in common with the other three Austen novels we’ve read — there’s the heroine who can’t seem to figure out that someone is in love with her, the visiting girl who everyone loves despite her being boring/odd, the rambling/busybody/annoying old maid, and the man who leads all the ladies on. Here’s a quick recap of these chapters.

While Emma is worrying that Mr. Knightley may be right about Mr. Elton’s feelings for her, she learns that Frank Churchill is coming to visit in January. It turns out that Emma, despite her declarations that she’ll never marry, seems to think she will get along swimmingly with Mr. Churchill and maybe marry him. But probably not.

It starts to snow, and the visitors set off for home. Emma ends up in a carriage with just Mr. Elton and he seizes the moment and declares his love for her. Emma can’t understand how he transferred his feelings from Harriet to her, and he tells her that he’s never had feelings for Harriet, and that it has always been Emma. Emma turns him down and decides to stop matchmaking.

Frank Churchill postpones his visit, and Emma and Mr. Knightley debate his character -- they wonder how an adult male can be so influenced by his aunt not to come. Emma believes he will be delightful when she does meet him, while Knightley expects him to be insufferable. Emma can’t understand why Knightley isn’t open-minded about him.

Emma and Harriet go to visit Mrs. and Miss Bates, and they hear about Mr. Elton’s trip to Bath and learn that Jane Fairfax, Mrs. Bates’ granddaughter will be visiting. Jane lives with the Campbells, who are leaving to visit their daughter Mrs. Dixon, in Ireland. The ladies aren’t sure why Jane isn’t going with them, and Emma assumes that Jane and Mr. Dixon had a flirtation at some point.

Austen gives up Jane’s back-story: she was orphaned when her father died in battle and her mother died of grief. Mrs. and Miss Bates initially raised Jane, but then the Campbells, friends of her father’s, offered to take her in and educate her. They planned to make her a teacher, which she will have to do after visiting her family. Emma has never been a big fan of Jane, but on this visit she feels pity for her. She learns that Jane has known Frank Churchill for quite some time.

Mr. Elton gets engaged to Miss Hawkins, a wealthy and beautiful lady, and news makes its way back to Highbury. Emma is relieved by the news, and thinks it will make things less awkward when he returns to town. Harriet has a run-in with the Martins, and though the encounter is awkward, they’re nice to her. Miss Martin later visit her at Mrs. Goddard’s when Harriet is out, and Emma tells her repay the visit, but only stay a short time. This is precisely what happens, and the Martins are hurt by the brief visit.

Frank finally arrives and Emma finds him attractive and charming, but he leaves her company to go visit Jane Fairfax. Frank later tells Emma that he doesn’t find Jane attractive but that they were regular acquaintances previously. Emma tells him that she thinks Jane and Mr. Dixon had something going on, and Frank doesn't quite believe it. Frank leaves town to go get his hair cut in London, which rubs Emma the wrong way, but she’s starting to be smitten with him.

More social acquaintances surface — the Coles — who invite everyone to a dinner party, but Emma’s invite is delayed, prompting her to be put out by an imagined snub from a nouveau-riche family, but she accepts the invite when it arrives. At the Coles, everyone learns that Jane has recently received a piano as a gift, from a mysterious benefactor. Everyone thinks it is from the Campbells, but Emma thinks it’s from Mr. Dixon. Mrs. Weston tells Emma that she thinks Mr. Knightley likes Jane, that he may have given her the piano, and that he brought his carriage so he could take her home. Emma is stunned by this suggestion, since her nephew won’t inherit Mr. Knightley’s estate if he marries. Mr. Knightley denies to Emma that he sent Jane the piano, and Emma feels better about the whole thing when he doesn’t ask Jane to dance. Emma dances with Frank, and he tells her that he’s glad he doesn’t have to dance with Jane.

After the dinner, visiting takes place, and Emma and Harriet visit Mrs. and Miss Bates. Miss Bates tells them that Mr. Knightley sent Jane some apples. When they enter the house, Frank is there fixing Mrs. Bates’ glasses. Mr. Knightley pops by, but won’t come in since Frank is there.

So that’s where we leave things. I’m not really sure how I feel about Emma as a heroine — sure, she feels pretty darn bad for leading Harriet on, but she starts and spreads rumors about Jane’s past without worrying that it might affect her reputation. Though Emma doesn’t do anything with malice, she doesn’t understand how meddling in others’ affairs could cause problems for them and for herself.

Emma, so far, seems most like Sense and Sensibility. There are incessant visits and parties taking place in the country, but there’s also this undercurrent of assumption — but one more dangerous than in Austen’s first novel. While everyone assumes that Marianne is engaged to Willoughby, they do create that impression, probably in part since Marianne believes it herself. But here, Emma assumes certain things and shares these assumptions, but only because she has made herself believe them. She tries to set up Harriet and Elton, then imagines an attraction between them and convinces herself that it’s real. She’s imagined a relationship between Jane and Mr. Dixon, and while we don’t yet know what the truth is, Austen is laying the groundwork for it to be false.

But I think what’s really interesting here is that Emma is the first wealthy Austen heroine. She says she doesn’t want to marry, and whether or not she means that, she is the first one who doesn’t have to. Because Emma can do whatever she pleases with her life, she assumes the roles filled by Mary Crawford, the Palmers/Mrs. Jennings, and the Bingley sisters — she can play around with the romantic lives of the less-well-off girls with little consequence to herself. I’m interested to see where Austen takes this.

Next up, chapters 29-40.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Summer Reading List

Ahh, the summer reading list. Though we're not in high school anymore, it seems like every newspaper book section I read has recently come out with a list of top summer reads.

Below is my list of 10 books that I'm planning to read between now and the end of August, though I reserve the right to change my mind at any time — after all, summer reading shouldn't be too much like school.

The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman

The Thieves of Manhattan, Adam Langer

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender

The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker

Last Night in Montreal, Emily St. John Mandel

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

Persuasion, Jane Austen

The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Stieg Larsson

The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga

What's on your summer reading list?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

What's Your Favorite Book?

If you've enjoyed reading about people talking about their favorite books in their own words —  like Emily St. John Mandel on Hopscotch, Marjorie Kehe on Jane Eyre, or Coralie Bickford-Smith on 1984 and Songs of Innocence and of Experience and —  then now's your chance to join in.

Write to and share your favorite book. As you can see from all the other submissions, you can focus on any aspect you like. It doesn't even have to be your single favorite, it just has to be a book you're passionate about. Also, if you have suggestions for writers you think would be good for this project, drop a line too. Looking forward to seeing what you come up with!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Emma, Chapters 1-13

Emma, Jane Austen’s fourth published novel (1815), seems to mark a bit of a shift from her previous books. At least so far, with the emphasis on games and wordplay, Emma comes across as lighter and more playful than Austen’s other works. From the riddles that Emma and Harriet compile to the name of the Woodhouses’ estate (Hartfield), it seems that Austen is having a bit of fun. We’ll see where she takes it from here.

The first chapters kick off with an introduction to Emma Woodhouse, clever, pretty, and our first wealthy Austen heroine. She lives with her father, the frequently hilarious Mr. Woodhouse. As the novel opens her governess, Mrs. Weston, has just gotten married and left Hartfield. Emma’s sister Isabella is married to John Knightley, and the couple and their five children live in London, so Emma’s feeling a little lonely at the start.

George Knightley, Emma’s brother-in-law, pays them a visit just after the wedding, and Emma tells him that she matched up her governess and Mr. Weston. Emma tells him that she next plans to match up Mr. Elton, a rector, and George suggests she stay out of it.

Austen gives us Mr. Weston’s back story - he has a son, Frank, from his first marriage to Miss Churchill, and since he was unable to care for his son after his wife’s death, Frank was raised by his mother’s relatives. Word arrives that he’s coming to visit the Weston’s soon.

Country life in High bury is just as charming as it is in other Austen novels — the regular social group of the Emma, her father, Mr. Knightley, Mr. Elton, Mrs. Goddard, and Mrs. and Miss Bates get together often for parties. Mrs. Goddard, who runs a boarding school, brings one of her old students, Harriet Smith to visit one night, and Emma decides to make her a project.

Emma and Harriet begin to spend lots of time together, and Emma learns that she’s a friend of the Martins and their son Robert. Emma assumes correctly that Robert is interested in Harriet, but Emma isn’t impressed by him, which she tells Harriet. Emma tries to interest Harriet in Mr. Elton, and one night she draws a picture of Harriet, which Mr. Elton fawns over, though others point out mistakes. Mr. Elton takes the picture to London to be framed, and Emma is convinced that he’s in love with Harriet. Then Robert Martin proposes to Harriet and she shows Emma the letter. Emma tells her that it’s well-written, but convinces her that marrying him would be a mistake.

Mr. Knightley goes to visit Emma and tells her that Robert Martin will be proposing to her soon and he thinks it will be a good match. When Emma tells him he already has, and that Harriet has refused him, Mr. Knightley is upset with her and tells her that her plot to fix up Harriet and Mr. Elton won’t work.

Emma and Harriet start collecting riddles in a book, and they ask Mr. Elton to write one. He does, and the answer is “courtship,” which Emma takes as a positive sign. The girls go to visit a sick family, and on their way home, run into Mr. Elton. Emma breaks her shoelace so she can fall back and get the others talking.

Isabella and her family arrive for Christmas and when Mr. Knightley comes for dinner, Emma makes up with him. They plan to go dine with the Westons, but Harriet falls ill and Emma tries to convince Mr. Elton that he shouldn’t come either. John Knightley tells Emma that Mr. Elton likes her, but Emma denies it. She wonders at how little interest Mr. Elton has in Harriet’s illness.

We meet a lot of characters right off the bat, and I had a bit of trouble keeping track of everyone and their relationships at first. But one character we don’t meet is Mrs. Woodhouse, because she died when Emma was very young. This is the fourth novel in a row that features absent or lapsed parents — Mr. Dashwood dies in the opening pages of Sense and Sensibility, the Bennet parents are such poor role models that the Bennet girls either get themselves in trouble or treat their aunt and uncle as surrogate parents in Pride and Prejudice; in Mansfield Park, Fanny Price is sent away from her troubled parents and into a home with an uncle who disappears for a very long stretch and an aunt unable to offer any guidance, and in Emma, her best role model, Mrs. Weston moves out, leaving her with a father overly concerned about everyone’s health and too indulgent.

Before I go into this further, I want to see if/how the idea of absent parents plays out in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, but Austen is working with something interesting here. Are parentless women more apt to get into trouble? Are they influenced by society and social relationships than they would otherwise be? Are we having a nature vs. nurture debate?

We’ve seen busybody characters in each of the other Austen novels, but this is the first one in which the busybody is the heroine. Emma tells Harriet (and has seemingly told everyone else too) that she never intends to marry. Interesting, since the other busybodies are all old maids or widowers, and Emma plans to join their ranks — though she insists she won’t be a lame old maid. Most busybodies really have good intentions, but like Mrs. Jennings in Sense and Sensibility, usually end up hurting the very same people they’re trying to help. We know that Emma will be no exception.

Next week’s assignment is Chapters 14-28.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Catching Up With An Old Friend: Ali McSherry on A Farewell to Arms

Catching Up With An Old Friend is a series in which readers, authors, and other bookish people share their favorite books. Read more about the project or see all the past entries. To participate, e-mail
Ali McSherry is a staff writer for Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.
I first read A Farewell to Arms when I was 19. It wasn't ever listed on my school curriculum, but I'd heard so much about the book that I figured I'd have to read it. It just so happened that I picked it up a few weeks after ending a tumultuous relationship with my army boyfriend who had spent much of our relationship hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from me. Reading a book about a romance between a nurse and a soldier who were torn apart by war was really just piling on the pain at this point — or so I thought.

There I was heartbroken, depressed, single yet again, and electing to read a love story set in World War I. Forget moving on and moving forward — I was in the mood to wallow as I turned the pages of Hemingway's classic novel. I soon became enraptured by Henry and Catherine Barkley's tale, swooning over their courtship and surprisingly devouring the battle scenes. Despite my penchant for military men, I never cared much for the theater of war, though Hemingway described it in such exquisite detail that I found myself completely captivated. I carried the book with me everywhere that summer, sneaking in a few pages here and there between babysitting jobs and porch parties with my friends.

While getting swept up in a literary romance so shortly after the demise of my own may have been detrimental to some, it was in fact a blessing to me. I found the characters unbelievably relatable and saw my situation through fresh eyes as I turned each page.

To me, A Farewell to Arms isn't the perfect love story. Sure there is love and loss and drama to boot, but in the end Henry and Catherine were two people alone in the world who got caught up in a situation. There was a war raging in Europe and the rules of the world were changing and these two people were desperate for something stable. They found that in their relationship, no matter how mismatched they may have been. I found their relationship paralleled mine in some ways.

When I first met my military boyfriend I had just transferred colleges and was still navigating the path to adulthood. I was getting used to living away from my family and readjusting my values as an independent adult. While it wasn't a World War, it was a significant period of change and transition in my life. I was craving stability when I met my boyfriend, much like Catherine and Henry were when their paths first crossed.

In the end, A Farewell to Arms helped me get over my heartbreak and introduced me to one of my favorite authors. It has all the ingredients for an over-the-top romance, but Hemingway sprinkled in enough truth to make it real and keep it grounded. I will always love this book for its wonderful story and its pivotal influence on my life. I wish I could re read it again for the first time.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Mansfield Park, Chapters 38-48 & Emma Kick-off

We finished up Mansfield Park yesterday, and here's what happened in the last chapters. Fanny and William went to see their family, and Fanny is surprised by what greets her: neither parent devotes much time to their long-absent daughter and the house is in shambles. William has to depart soon after he gets there, so Fanny is left with her sister Susan, who needs reining in but is generally a good person.

Things aren’t going well for Fanny — besides the mess of her family, Edmund hasn't been writing — and they get worse when Henry shows up for visit. He tells Fanny that Edmund is in London where he will visit Mary. Fanny is embarrassed that Henry will see the type of people she comes from, but her father holds it together and Henry can’t stay for dinner. He returns the next day and offers to take Fanny back to Mansfield with him, but she says no and he leaves.

Edmund finally writes, telling Fanny that he is back at Mansfield and upset at how Mary behaved - yet again. He also tells her to Sir Thomas can’t come back to get her until after Easter, which depresses her. Lady Bertram writes to tell Fanny that Tom is very ill, thanks to his drinking, and no one can come get Fanny in this time of need.

After Henry's visit Fanny has been thinking about his feelings for her, and you start to wonder if she'll admit that she feels something for him and marry him. But then Mary writes to say that if Tom dies it would benefit her(!) since Edmund would be the Bertram heir. She also says that Henry has been visiting Maria. In a second letter Mary writes that Fanny should absolutely not believe any rumors she hears about Henry and Maria. Fanny learns from the newspaper that "Mrs. R" ran off with "Mr. C."

Edmund writes (these people would be keeping the USPS in business today) to say that he is coming to get Fanny tomorrow, and that she can invite Susan to come along with her. Plus he has more news to share - Julia eloped with Yates. Plus Maria and Henry are still MIA.

When Fanny, Susan, and Edmund return to Mansfield, everyone is in a state of despair. Fanny learns from Edmund that Mary blames her for Henry running off with Maria - after all if she was engaged to him, he wouldn’t be able to think about other women. Then good things happen: Edmund finally tells Mary off, Julia apologizes to everyone and she and Yates marry, and Tom’s illness turns him into a better man. Edmund realizes that he loves Fanny and they marry - everyone is thrilled and the couple move into the parsonage, while Susan stays with the Bertrams. But things aren’t so good for Maria — she and Henry live together but ultimately break up. Rushworth has already divorced her, and Mrs. Norris takes Maria away.

Of the Austen novels we've read so far, this is definitely her most serious look at society. Mansfield Park is focused on morals — "good" people are rewarded, "bad" people are not — but it's also interesting to think about in terms of nature vs. nurture. Fanny is ripped from her underprivileged home and sent to live with her much wealthier relatives. She's supposed to learn from them how to behave in society, and supposed to use these connections to better herself. But these "better" relatives are actually quite awful — the neurotic mother, the missing father, the meddlesome aunt. Then there's her cousins: Maria and Julia each run off with a man, while Tom drinks too much. So is Fanny just innately good and that's why she's rewarded by getting to marry Edmund? Are the Crawford siblings just bad eggs? Interestingly, the Crawfords are in a similar situation as Fanny, in that they live with their sister and her husband and not their parents, but in either case it isn't clear how their characters are formed.

One thing that I continue to find notable about Austen's work is how quickly she wraps things up — Fanny lusts after Edmund for the entire book, only to finally end up with him in the last handful of pages; Austen doesn't give us enough on how and why Edmund's feelings change. It's something that's characteristic of her writing, as we also saw it in Sense and Sensibility when Marianne does a 180 and marries Col. Brandon at the very end. But Austen isn't the kind of writer who realizes "whoops! I'm almost at 500 pages, I have to wrap this up," and then tacks on an ending. Has anyone else noticed this? And does anyone else have any last thoughts on Mansfield Park before we move on to Emma?

Here's the reading schedule for Emma:

Monday, June 7 - Chapters 1-13
Monday, June 14 - Chapters 14-28
Monday, June 21 - Chapters 29-40
Monday, June 28 - Chapters 41-51
Wednesday, June 30 - Chapters 52-55