A Walk with Jane Austen, Lori Smith (2007)

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I hope that somehow this proximity to Jane’s life will help me understand my own.

 

This was the perfect book to cap my first Austen in August experience.  A work of nonfiction, A Walk with Jane Austen: A Journey into Adventure, Love & Faith helped with much of the back story to Jane Austen’s life and times that I mentioned in my Mansfield Park post and filled in some of the etiquette and culture gaps that perplexed me.

The Premise

Lori Smith is at a painful and difficult time in her life. Thirty-three years old she is unfulfilled in her job, frustrated that she is still single and though she does not doubt her Christian faith, she is struggling to make sense with all that is not working in her life. But the most difficult impediment is the profound fatigue and debilitating symptoms of an illness doctors cannot diagnose.

She learns to cope with the on again off again pattern of the illness and makes the decision to quit her job to become a full time writer. Long an admirer of Jane Austen, when a medication for an imbalanced thyroid gives her a reprieve from her symptoms, she books a trip to England with the goal of healing and reinventing herself through the life and works of Austen.

Everything in my life was dark, stifling. I needed light and air….In some ways, those of us who love Austen look to her to escape into another world. When our own is complicated and stressful, hers is tea and careful conversations and lovely dresses and healthy country air.

A Travel Guide

Starting with a course at Oxford and by reading through all of Austen’s novels, Smith is armed with maps and tips for visiting cities and landmarks that figure in Austen’s life as well as in her novels: Steventon, Chawton, Lyme Regis, Winchester, Bath, Box Hill and more. She quotes passages and ponders their connections to her own life.

Though I still have two more books of Austen to read (Pride and Prejudice and Emma) it was easy to follow the parallels of Austen’s life with her novels that Smith points out (for example, at Steventon, she sees the barn where Austen “threw rousing family theatricals with her brothers,” and I just read Mansfield Park!)

Some of the Austen family material Smith shares was helpful to me, too, in knowing two of her brothers were in the Navy (William in Mansfield Park, Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility and Captain Wentworth and others in Persuasion), that one of her brothers was adopted into another family (Fanny in Mansfield Park), that James second wife was mean and jealous (Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park) and Chawton Great House as the model for the Tilney home in Northanger Abbey.

This is a book for those new to Jane Austen and for the confirmed Janeite. For anyone planning a trip to England and their own walk with Jane Austen, consider this a comprehensive model.

Romance?

Finally, does Smith find romance? Of course, she does! Youth, England, summer, a course at Oxford. On her first day at the University she meets an American man studying for the summer who is kind, Christian and seems friendly. She falls head over heels, obsesses appropriately, has her future with him all planned out, but sadly, the feelings are not reciprocated. Although there are few resolutions for the issues Smith begins her trip

My days are still small. But the light is beginning to return. Just a couple of weeks ago I started being able to laugh at the world again, and that felt very good–soul healing laughter. I want more of it, to enjoy life, to love the people around me…I hope I will be healthy again.

And in health and all aspects of her life, I wish her well.

 

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Lori Smith has written several books including, Jane Austen’s Guide to Life: Thoughtful Lessons for the Modern Woman.

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My Edition
Title: A Walk with Jane Austen: A Journey into Adventure, Love & Faith
Author: Lori Smith
Publisher: WaterBrook Press
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 2007
Pages: 235
Full plot summary

Challenges: Mount TBR, #AusteninAugustrbr

 

 

 

 

 

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen (1814)

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The nonsense and folly of people’s stepping out of their rank and trying to appear above themselves makes me think it right to give you a hint, Fanny, now that you are going into company without any of us; and I do beseech you and entreat you not to be putting yourself forward, and talking and giving your opinion as if you were one of your cousins…Remember, wherever you are, you must be the lowest and last….

 

Fanny Price is taken from her working class family to live with her more affluent aunt and uncle. Lady Bertram is her mother’s sister and it is suggested by her mother’s other sister, Mrs. Norris that taking Fanny in would relieve their sister of the burden and expense of raising another child. Fanny is 9 years old and a quiet and frightened child when she comes to Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram and their four children at Mansfield Park. For the next decade, while she is given everything material she could need, she lives a liminal life, sometimes included in the activities of her cousins and sometimes treated like a servant; decisions are made for her without her consent and criticisms of her thoughts and behavior are discussed by her aunts and uncle as if she isn’t there. Edmund, the younger of the two brothers, is her constant champion amidst the crassness and criticism of her Aunt Norris, who regularly reminds her of her humble place, regardless of how the Bertrams treat her or what they give to her.

Most of the action takes place through Fanny’s eyes and especially through her moral compass. Her cousins, the neighbors in the parsonage next door, are seen through her world view, which is exacting, unsentimental and harsh.

A Rigid Social Structure or is it just Fanny?

I don’t quite know what to make of Fanny Price. She has an unrelenting moral code that is so rigid and unforgiving it impedes her social interactions. With her delicate constitution she is forced to sit on the sidelines of many of life’s events, so she becomes the observer, the critic and the conscience-filter through which the motivation of each of her family and friends is measured. They ‘commit,’ what seem to me, infractions of the slightest intent or the folly of teenagers, yet to Fanny they are so grievous she cannot forgive.

I think there are subtleties of right and wrong, of etiquette and behavior during this period I am just not familiar. For instance, Fanny’s discomfort with Mary Crawford, which feels like plain old jealousy (over Edmund), yet I think even if she had not been Fanny’s rival, she would have found fault. Each person Fanny comes into contact with—Maria and Julia, her aunts, the Grants—can never live up to her impossibly high standards.

Who is Fanny, Anyway?

Edmund, from her first days at Mansfield Park, shows an almost 6th sense to Fanny’s material and emotional needs and comfort. He makes sure she is given a horse to ride every morning for her health, gives her a chain for the necklace her brother William gave her so she can wear it to the ball. Sir Thomas as well shows immense kindness to Fanny, especially once he returns from his business abroad. She accepts all of this with the appropriate gratitude, embarrassment and deference. But after the downfall of Maria and Julia, the break-up of Edmund and Mary Crawford, and Henry Crawford’s demise and finally, her triumph in winning Edmund, her quietude and deferential demeanor become something else. I see her as a conniver, who bides her time until she gets what she wants. Am I just mean, jaded or am I missing the point entirely?

I think there is a subtlety in this world that is foreign to me. For example, as loathsome as Mrs. Norris is to Fanny and everyone else at Mansfield Park, she is the least subtle and feels the most familiar. Her meanness comes from her own liminal life as a widow without a purpose or a place. She is a busy-body and treats Fanny abominably and tries to force the rest of the family to do her bidding often with disastrous results. She unnerves the Bertrams who want her gone from Mansfield Park; at Maria’s downfall, they get their wish. Yet, she is obvious in her brutishness; no one would expect anything different.

Austen 101

I would love to understand the details of this society; those minute cues and subtle looks that set Fanny off. If there is such a book that would explain it all to me, please let me know!

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My Edition
Title: Mansfield Park
Author: Jane Austen
Publisher: Barnes and Noble Books
Device: Paperback
Year: 1814
Pages: 427
Full plot summary

Challenges: #AustenInAugustRBR, Classics Club, Mount TRB

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen (1817) #AustenInAugustRBR

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….there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them….

 

Catherine Morland is seventeen when she accompanies her wealthy neighbor Mrs. Allen to Bath where her husband has been ordered to take in the healing waters for his gout. Catherine has lived a happy, physically active, carefree, but insulated life with her large family; her imagination developed through the mostly Gothic books she reads. She has never had a suitor, “never seen one amiable youth who could call forth her sensibility,” never “having inspired one real passion….” On her first excursion away from her family and the familiarity of village life, Bath exposes her to the complex society of her peers and widens her perspective on friendship and romance, with comical, frustrating and finally, joyful, results.

I really enjoyed reading this book, although it often had me on the edge of my seat. Austen puts poor Catherine through the ringer with her gullibility and worldly inexperience. She is completely unprepared morally to doubt the sincerity of Isabella Thorpe, the first ‘friend’ she meets at Bath and was not only goaded and duped several times by Isabella and her brother John, even her brother James took advantage of her naiveté. Catherine makes all kinds of gaffes in her friendship with Henry and Eleanor Tilney and could not stand up for herself in other situations and yet, I felt myself pulling for her after each blunder and felt relieved when she found the strength of character to make her own decisions. It is a good thing this is a short novel because it was all I could do to keep from going to the back pages and skimming the end!

One of the more interesting aspects of this book for me concerned Bath as a destination, not for healing, but for socializing during ‘the season.’ When I visited Bath and toured the Roman Baths, I do not remember this aspect of its history being told to us, just that it was an important example of Roman architecture and culture that capitalized on the therapeutic properties of the water. In Northanger Abbey, I do not recall the mention of anyone beside Mr. Allen in Catherine’s sphere who went for that reason. The young people met in the Pump Room, the Upper and Lower Rooms at the “fashionable hours” for tea, for meals, to socialize and to plan trips to the theater and outings throughout the countryside. That Austen herself lived for a time in Bath explains how she created the atmosphere and the details of the variety of people who would have spent time here.

Another aspect of the book I enjoyed is the intensity with which Catherine becomes obsessed with a well-known Gothic novel, called The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe to the extent she cannot put it down eschewing social engagements and asking her friends if they have read it. Of course, they had and Isabella recites a list of other ‘horrid novels’ Catherine will enjoy after she finishes Udolpho. “…but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”* Catherine is hooked.

Austen uses the haunted house aspect of The Mysteries of Udolpho as the lens throughnorthabbey which Catherine imagines Henry Tilney’s home. After she befriends Henry’s sister, Eleanor, and is invited to their home for an extended stay, Catherine’s obsession becomes fodder for a great bit of teasing by Henry when it is mentioned they live in an abbey. Catherine is excited to think “it is a fine old place, just like what one reads about.” Henry asks her if she has a stout heart and “nerves fit for sliding panels and tapestry?” She is not concerned since the home has never been uninhabited for years with the family coming back unawares and without giving notice “as generally happens.” Henry leads her on with a definitive description of a haunted house:

…you must be aware that when a young lady is introduced into a dwelling of this kind, she is always lodged apart from the rest of the family. While they snugly repair to their own end of the home, she is formally conducted by Dorothy the ancient housekeeper up a different staircase, and along many gloomy passages, into an apartment never used since some cousin or kin died in it about twenty years before. Can you stand such a ceremony as this? Will not your mind misgive you, when you find yourself in this gloomy chamber—too lofty and extensive for you, with only the feeble rays of a single lamp to take in its size—its walls hung with tapestry exhibiting figures as large as life, and the bed of dark green stuff or purple velvet, presenting even a funereal appearance?

How fearfully will you examine the furniture of your apartment!—And what will you discern?—Not tables, toilettes, wardrobes, or drawers, but on one side perhaps the remains of a broken lute, on the other a ponderous chest which no efforts can open, and over the fire-place the portrait of some handsome warrior, whose features will so incomprehensibly strike you, that you will not be able to withdraw your eyes from it. Dorothy meanwhile, no less struck by your appearance, gazes on you in great agitation, and drops a few unintelligible hints. To raise your spirits, moreover, she gives you reason to suppose that the part of the abbey you inhabit is undoubtedly haunted, and informs you that you will not have a single domestic within call.

(This passage goes on, reminding me of the Haunting of Hill House and just about any horror book or movie with a haunted house I have ever seen. It can’t be a coincidence)?

Henry continues highlighting every stereotypical element of a haunted house, forcing Catherine to insist she is not afraid. And so with this conversation fresh in her mind and her obsession firmly implanted into her imagination, she is lead to her room. Where, of course, she experiences almost everything Henry just described.

However, the days pass and most of what originally scared her finds a reasonable explanation in the light of day. Though many angst-filled events conspire to keep Henry and Catherine apart, it was a relief to finally end the book knowing they would be together.

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*As I was doing a little research about this novel, I came across some discussions of that list of ‘horrid novels’ Isabella mentioned above. It was thought Austen made up the titles until they were rediscovered in the early 20th century. Valancourt Books is publishing them all in affordable new editions.

My Edition
Title: Northanger Abbey
Author: Jane Austen
Publisher: Penguin Books
Device: Paperback
Year: 1817, 1972
Pages: 252
Full plot summary

Challenges: Classics Club, #AusteninAugustRBR, TBR

Austen in August

All that angst about expanding my blog to include a wider variety of books and what do you know? I plan on immersing myself in Jane Austen this month thanks to the many Austen in August events going on. Admittedly, I have an abysmal track record on keeping up with these events and challenges, but I did make a plan that includes books and films, so I am opting for optimism. And I finished Northanger Abbey last week, so I am off to a good start!

The main Austen event for me is Austen In August hosted by Adam of the Roof Beam Reader blog, following along with his blog and on Twitter, #AustenInAugustRBR

 

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Three films chosen for no other reason than I own them

ETA-Thanks to Brona (Bronasbooks), I just added Love & Friendship which I found on Amazon Prime 🙂

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Northanger Abbey

 

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Mansfield Park

 

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A Walk with Jane Austen: A Journey into Adventure, Love & Faith,  by Lori Smith

I look forward to learning more about Austen this month.