Reviews

Emma by Jane Austen: Review

The first time I read Emma was a couple of years ago while I was doing a semester abroad in Ireland. I was overjoyed when I walked into the first day of class and learned that the major author I was going to spend the semester studying would be Jane Austen. My joy did not last long. That was one of the most disappointing classes I’ve ever taken because it was so incredibly poorly taught. The one thing that I can say in favor of that class is that it finally induced me to read all of Jane Austen’s novels whereas before I had only read Pride and Prejudice. For that reason alone I am grateful to the class.

Although that class familiarized me with all seven novels it did not teach me to like them all. I loved Pride and Prejudice already, and Northanger Abbey was lovable on first sight, but my relationship with some of the other novels started on rocky footing, and Emma is included in that. The professor for that class had some very strange ideas about Austen and her writing, and the way she ran her classes left no room for discussion or debate. So I dutifully trudged through each novel only half appreciating what I was reading because I was reading for stuff I could use to craft essays specifically suited to this professors taste (since she didn’t really leave room for writing any other kind of essay). With all that being as it was, I did not like Emma the first read through. I found the character shallow and unlikable, and I pretty much left the novel behind a quickly as I could. I don’t know if it was because it’s better on a second read through, or just because I’m not reading with that professors ideas looming over my head, but I really loved Emma this time around.

During this read through of Emma I think I finally figured out what I love so much about Austen’s novels. If you’ve read some of my other reviews then you may have realized that few things bother me more in a novel than a good plot with underdeveloped characters. Characters make or break a novel, you can have the best plot in the world, but if you’re characters aren’t well developed and believable it’s not going to be worth reading. Austen’s characters are some of the best I’ve ever read and that’s what I love so much about her writing.

Austen’s novels take place in limited settings, with very little “action” as we would consider it. And yet they aren’t boring, in fact, they’re completely absorbing, and it’s because Austen’s characters are so good. I could go in depth into all of the different characters in all seven novels, but since this review is technically about Emma I’m going to try and restrain myself. I think Emma is actually a superb example, possibly the best, of what Austen does so brilliantly with her characters. What I found during this read through was that the characters were all vivid and alive, all so believable, that I actually felt like I knew them, and, in a way, I do. Austen’s characters are people, real people that we know. The best way I have to explain what I mean by that is that the characters are caricatures, but not just caricatures since that suggests a certain lack of depth and exaggeration, which definitely is not the case here.

It’s as if there are two layers to each character. The first layer is the base, the fundamental caricature of a certain type of person. Then the second layer is the the unique individual traits, background, and feelings that make each character unique. My favorite example is Miss Bates. The character is so simple and so beautifully done, I feel like I know her, like I understand her. Even more importantly, because her character seemed so familiar to me I was able to understand and relate to Emma’s feeling towards her. That’s the second thing that makes Austen’s writing and characters so wonderful. They’re emotions and actions are so believable and relatable that you feel like you know them and can sympathize with or understand their actions.

Those two things, or rather the one overarching thing, the characters, are what make Austen so brilliant and why I love her so much as an author. Her character Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice once has a conversation about how she loves to make a study of peoples’ characters, and I think that was a little bit of the authors personality slipping into her character. I think she must have enjoyed watching and studying people, finding their idiosyncrasies, their faults, their virtues, and working out how those things all fit together to make a person, and she used that. I also think she must have been very good at it, and that, in turn, made her a fantastic author.

I’ve gone on enough about the characters, but really that’s the best part of this novel. That being said the plot is also top notch, and quite funny as well. Without giving away to much the entire plot is basically made up of characters whose faults and failings cause them to get themselves into some unfortunate messes. Watching the characters dig themselves into holes and climb back out again is quite entertaining. Even if sometimes you do want to reach through the pages, grab Emma by the shoulders and shake her until she realizes how foolish she’s being.

I had a pretty good segue I wanted to use here, but, since using it would give away to much of the story, instead I’m just going to make this awkward transition into my last point. In my review of Northanger Abbey I’d said that I was still trying to decide between Henry Tilney (from Northanger) and George Knightly (from Emma) for my second and third favorite Austen hero (Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice is obviously my first favorite). Having now reread both novels I’ve decided that Henry Tilney wins out in the end. It was a tough decision. The problem with all the Austen heroes is that they are all so perfectly suited to the heroines that when you read each novel you think that that hero is the perfect guy because of how perfect he is for her, but when you read the next novel you think the same thing all over again. But Henry won in the end because, when I really thought about it, he’s the one I would rather know personally and who I think would be more fun to have a conversation with. Although, when it comes to which one has more merit as a person, I think George Knightly would be the winner.

5/5 in case you couldn’t tell. Also read it, read it, read it. It’s so good.

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Reviews

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen: Review

I believe I’ve mentioned in some previous posts how fond I am of Jane Austen and her novels. So it really shouldn’t come as any surprise that I love this one. It’s only the second time that I’ve read it, but this read through confirmed for me that it’s worthy of being my second favorite Austen novel (Pride and Prejudice being the first, of course).

Northanger Abbey is the funniest Austin novel in my opinion. That’s not to say that it’s the laugh out loud kind of funny, but rather that it has a lot of clever jokes and hidden meanings that make it a delight to read because Northanger Abbey is a satire of the Gothic type novel that was very popular during Austen’s time. That being said you don’t have to be knowledgeable about Austen or Gothic novels to be able to enjoy the humor in this satire, yes, there would probably be some stuff that you miss if you’re completely unfamiliar with the genre, but you will absolutely still be able to enjoy the book. I would highly recommend reading the notes as you go though. Normally I’m not a fan of foot notes or end notes unless I’m reading a book for a class, because I feel like always checking the notes to get things explained is an unnecessary interruption, but, in this case, I definitely recommend reading the notes because they help you understand and enjoy a lot more of the humor in the book. For example, if you don’t know what Blaise Castle is, you’re missing out on a big part of the joke in that chapter.

If you’re thinking right now that you shouldn’t read Northanger Abbey because there’s no way you can be bothered to read the notes, I want to change your mind. Even without those extra insights it’s definitely still worth reading. Catherine, the heroine, is the most endearingly naive heroine I’ve ever read. Normally a character like Catherine might get on my nerves, but Austen wrote her so well, and she tries so hard, that I have to love her in the end. Not to mention Henry Tilney, the clever hero who always has something witty to say. He’s definitely in my top three for Austen heroes, and I just need to reread Emma so I can decide between him and George Knightly.

As much as I love the character’s in this novel, my favorite part is actually Austen herself. One might even call her a character in this novel because she breaks the fourth wall on several occasions. In a lot of books that wouldn’t work, but in this one it’s perfect. Northanger Abbey is completely self aware. It’s a satire and it knows that, and the author knows, and the reader knows. Pretty much the only ones who don’t know are the characters, and that’s a lot of what makes it so funny. I’m not going to spend to much time trying to convince you that this is a totally awesome aspect of the novel, because I could never do it justice, and you should just read it for yourself to find out how good it is. I will throw in that the last few pagers are actually my favorite, and the ending sentence is hilarious, specifically because of how Austen breaks the first wall, and sort of makes fun of her own novel and characters.

I could continue to go on at length about this novel, I could write an essay on it, in fact I think I did once. I could even go into my well rehearsed rant about how poorly this book was taught to me in school and how it’s still lovable anyway, but I think I’ve said enough. I give this a 5/5 of course, and highly recommend it to anyone and everyone. Normally I don’t include quotes in my reviews, but today I’m actually going to end with one because of how much I love it:

“we are all hastening together to perfect felicity”  Jane Austin, Northanger Abbey.

Reviews

Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor (Being the First Jane Austen Mystery) by Stephanie Barron: Review

I need to preface this whole review by saying that Jane Austen is one of my all time favorite authors. I have read every single one of her novels (I’ve read Pride and Prejudice twice already this year bringing my total up to something like fifteen of sixteen). I studied Jane Austen’s literature extensively in school and have written multiple essays about her. This book was actually recommended to me by a professor after I wrote about Jane Austen as detective fiction in his class (it sounds weird, but I pulled it off and got an A no less). It’s taken me a long time to get around to reading this first of Stephanie Barron’s novels featuring Jane Austen as the ‘detective’ because, as much as I love Jane Austen, I’m really not that big a fan of detective stories. Given my background with Jane Austen you might imagine that I had mixed feeling picking up this novel. Would Barron do Austen justice? Would it be authentic to the times? Would the story actually be good or was Barron just trying to attract attention to a mediocre novel by using Austen’s well known and respected name? Having read the novel my feeling are mixed, but enough of this intro stuff, lets get to it.

The first few chapters of the book had me enthralled. I was, to put it bluntly, ridiculously excited, because in a very few pages I began to realize what kind of game Barron was playing at. Sprinkled throughout the pages of this novel are dozens of hints, references, and nods towards Jane Austen’s own novels. Character names, places, the personalities of the characters, there were so many things I could point to and say “AHA! I see which Austen character this is based on!” or “This is the conversation that is supposed to ‘inspire’ such and such scene in this Austen novel.” It became something like a treasure hunt, trying to pick out the specific bits that made direct references to Austen’s own  writing. It was this aspect that really got me reading and remained one of my greatest pleasures in the novel throughout. However, after a while the novelty of what Barron was doing started to wear off and I began to pay attention to the novel itself.

The plot of The Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor didn’t hold a lot of interest for me for the first half of the novel or so, but eventually I did start getting invested in the story and trying to figuring out who the culprit was and all that. Unfortunately the story was somewhat predictable, at least in the bigger aspects of the plot. I knew who’d done it, who seemed to have done it but was really innocent, and such and such, way before the big reveal at the end, but I still enjoyed reading the story to see how Barron would have all of her characters figure it out. Still, on the rare occasion that I do read detective fiction I prefer for the plots to be slightly less predictable.

It’s about time that we start coming to my major problems with this book. The novel is written in the form of a journal that was supposed to have been kept by Austen herself and that details the events of the unpleasantness that she is witness to, and involved in, at Scargrave Manor, and that’s where Barron really starts to go wrong. Since the novel is written from Austen’s perspective it, of course, needed to try and imitate her voice, and Barron did a commendably decent job. However, although Barron used Austen’s typical language, phrasing, and syntax relatively well, you could still see the more modern narrative style coming through. Had the novel been narrated from a third person perspective I think this would have been perfectly acceptable, but, since it was supposed to have been written by Jane Austen herself, it ended up seeming false and inauthentic. Even had her writing style been a complete and perfect imitation of Austen’s, Barron’s attempt would still have fallen short because of the necessity of weaving into the narrative information that we, as modern readers, needed to know but that Austen would never have included because of it being perfectly understood in her time without the need for further comment. Barron does save herself from some of this by using footnotes to explain some of the more historical information. At first these footnotes added to the authenticity that she was going for as they were presented in the guise of editor’s notes and explained such things as social class and geography or the like. Then Barron took it too far. The notes started turning to the “history” of Austen’s life. Claiming that this character in Barron’s novel was supposed to be the inspiration for this character in Austen’s novel, and that kind of thing. It was all lies. Had the foot notes been restrained to actual historical information relevant to the story it would have been fine, but I take great issue with Barron trying to twist Austen’s actual life story for her own literary aims. I understand that it’s fiction, and if this had been done to an author that I liked a bit less then I might not care, I might have even thought it was clever, but as it is I found it incredibly wrong that Barron would corrupt the history of an amazing author for her own benefit.

At some point during the novel, around when I started getting more interested in the plot and more frustrated by Barron’s false footnotes, I started trying to read the novel as just another historical novel with a detective plot rather than as anything connected to Austen, her work, or her life. While I could manage to do that I found the story to be a fun read. That, combined with the fun I had picking out all of the little Austen treasures (the real ones based on Austen’s work, not the fake stuff that Barron was making up), kept me from actually disliking this novel. It certainly won’t be ranked among my favorites, and I likely won’t continue with reading the following books in the series, but I did enjoy this book in the end.

Final recommendation. If you like Austen, and you like detective fiction, you should give this book a try. If you read this book without a strong familiarity with Austen’s works then you miss out on a lot of what makes this novel worth reading, but, on the other hand, you could probably enjoy it just for the plot and historical aspect. Final rating 2.5/5 stars. If I were rating just plot or quality of writing then I’d have rated it higher, probably 3.5/5, but I’ve got to take that extra point off for those frustrating footnotes.