Mansfield Park by Jane Austen: B

From the back cover:
From its sharply satiric opening sentence, Mansfield Park deals with money and marriage, and how strongly they affect each other. Shy, fragile Fanny Price is the consummate “poor relation.” Sent to live with her wealthy uncle Thomas, she clashes with his spoiled, selfish daughters and falls in love with his son. Their lives are further complicated by the arrival of a pair of sophisticated Londoners, whose flair for flirtation collides with the quiet, conservative country ways of Mansfield Park. An outsider looking in on an unfamiliar and often inhospitable world, Fanny eventually wins the affection of her benefactors, endearing herself to the Bertram family and readers alike.

I feel very much that I ought to love Mansfield Park, Austen fan that I am, but I simply can’t. With any Austen novel—satirical as they are—one is bound to encounter excessively foolish and self-aggrandizing characters. I fully expect that and am accustomed to disliking a few in each novel. I did not, however, expect to dislike nearly everyone, which is lamentably the case with this novel.

Fanny herself is the biggest problem. She’s meek, weak, weepy, and irksomely virtuous, to the point where other characters annoyed me simply because they gave her fodder for her hand-wringing. Her cousin Edmund, our ostensible romantic hero, isn’t much better. He’s a wet blanket, too, fond of lecturing others about what is right, but also a hypocrite, since his objections to the scandalous idea of producing a play at Mansfield Park are easily overcome when he learns one additional man is required to play the suitor of his lady friend, Miss Crawford.

Everyone else is self-absorbed, indolent, or deluded to varying degrees. Though Fanny’s personality is the biggest blow to my enjoyment of the novel as a whole, the character I hate most is actually Mrs. Norris (though at least with her I can feel assured that this doesn’t run counter to Austen’s intentions). She’s Fanny’s aunt, a frequent visitor to her sister and brother-in-law at Mansfield Park, and is fond of claiming charitable acts for herself that she actually had no part in executing, getting into everyone’s business, and making snide remarks about Fanny at every opportunity. No wonder J. K. Rowling named Filch’s cat after this odious woman! The only character I truly like is Fanny’s uncle, Sir Thomas, for he’s one of those gruff but kind paternal types that I can’t help but love.

The plot itself, like Austen’s other novels, involves the social interactions of several country families, with the importance of marrying well uppermost on everyone’s minds. The back cover blurb quoted above says that Fanny “wins the affection of her benefactors,” but that implies that Fanny actually does something to bring this about. In reality, Fanny pretty much sits back, sticks to her principles in refusing one undesirable suitor, and, when he is proven a rake and her female cousin disgraced, is suddenly valued for all of her propriety.

Thus brings us to the inevitable conclusion, wherein Edmund realizes that Fanny would make a better wife than Miss Crawford. There’s no romance leading up to this, since he spends the majority of the novel longing for the latter and often employs Fanny as his confidante in this regard. Though I am probably supposed to be happy for Fanny at this outcome, I instead find it pretty icky. True, Fanny has sheltered romantic feelings for Edmund throughout the novel, but he has always treated her very properly like a close relation. In fact, as he ponders the match, he holds hopes that her “warm and sisterly regard for him would be foundation enough for wedded love.” To that I must say, “Ew.”

Although I had plenty to complain about, Mansfield Park is still an Austen novel, which means that the writing is excellent and the characters vividly drawn and memorable. Though it’s my least favorite of the four I’ve read so far it by no means decreases my regard for her in general.

Emma by Jane Austen: A

From the back cover:
“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable house and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

With this opening sentence, a reader might seem quite justified in thinking Jane Austen to have painted herself into a corner. What could possibly happen from here? In Austen’s comedic masterpiece, however, Emma fancies herself a superb judge of human character and becomes entrenched in the amorous affairs of her friends. In doing so, she remains oblivious to her own romantic possibilities, and the resulting comical misunderstandings are highly entertaining.

This book is the acme of Jane Austen’s work, wry and funny all at the same time.

Merriam-Webster defines bildungsroman as “a novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character.” I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that fit that description more than Emma.

I didn’t much care for the title character at first. In fact, she initially reminded me of Lady Catherine from Pride and Prejudice, dispensing unsolicited advice and basing many of her opinions on assumptions and an inordinate amount of focus on social standing. I found myself gleefully anticipating her comeuppance.

When she did begin to improve, Austen handled the transition incrementally, using friends to prompt Emma to give up meddling or urge her to accept a social engagement she’d believed beneath her notice. She learned from rebukes and mistakes and gradually became someone more likeable. The feminist in me tells me I should be perturbed that so many of these chastising remarks were delivered by her eventual love interest, but since Mr. Knightley was my favorite character, I can’t really be bothered.

The events of the plot were somewhat predictable, in a “the young lady introduced into the story in act two must be destined for the young man introduced not long after” sort of way. A big secret revealed toward the end was not a particular surprise, and also seemed recycled from Sense and Sensibility. Also, as I’m coming to find common in Austen’s novels, the sillier characters were given such free rein to display their ridiculousness that they really got on my nerves.

The end of the novel, however, was satisfying. I liked the way in which Emma was forced to finally realize her feelings for Mr. Knightley, as well as the mortification and regret over her past conduct that ensued. The conclusion could be called too tidy, I suppose, with no one left lonely or unhappy, but I found no fault with it.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: A+

From the back cover:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Thus memorably begins Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, one of the world’s most popular novels. From the initial friction between the opinionated Elizabeth Bennet and the arrogant, wealthy Mr. Darcy, this witty comedy of manners dips and turns through its interlocking plots to reach an immensely satisfying conclusion.

Filled with highly entertaining dialogue, Pride and Prejudice is, in the words of Eudora Welty, as “irresistible and as nearly flawless as any fiction could be.”

There isn’t much that I can say in praise of Pride and Prejudice that hasn’t already been said often and better. So, instead I shall just enthuse on various things.

I love that Darcy secretly despises those who constantly court his approval, and loves Elizabeth for her liveliness of mind and playful, unaffected manner.

The writing is snarky and very cleverly wrought, with sentences like: “Their indifference towards Jane, when not immediately before them, restored Elizabeth to the enjoyment of all her original dislike.”

I adore Mr. Bennet, especially his amusement in the foolish behavior of others. Best line (occurring in a scene where his wife expects his cooperation in furthering her aims): “Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”

There are many great scenes, but my favorites are possibly those at the Netherfield ball, where most of the members of the Bennet family behave in a highly embarrassing fashion and where Darcy and Elizabeth have a conversation about Wickham whilst they dance. I also quite enjoy his bungled first proposal.

The minor characters are often very amusing. They’re also capable of grating on the nerves, though, especially Lydia and her absolute lack of repentance after her scandalous behavior with Wickham.

So, I find I concur heartily with the quote above. “Nearly flawless,” indeed.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen: A+

Book description:
Jane Austen’s first published novel, Sense and Sensibility is a wonderfully entertaining tale of flirtation and folly that revolves around two starkly different sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. While Elinor is thoughtful, considerate, and calm, her younger sister is emotional and wildly romantic. Both are looking for a husband, but neither Elinor’s reason nor Marianne’s passion can lead them to perfect happiness.

Startling secrets, unexpected twists, and heartless betrayals interrupt the marriage games that follow. Filled with satiric wit and subtle characterizations, Sense and Sensibility teaches that true love requires a balance of reason and emotion.

I had never read this before. And I call myself an Austen fan!

There is much to recommend this book, but primarily I would say that the characterizations were its best asset. It can’t be easy to create a very sensible character like Elinor, and yet perfectly convey that she is also a person of great feeling and compassion or to create a very emotional one like Marianne, and yet also make clear that she isn’t flighty or stupid. Additionally, Austen populates the novel with a host of memorable minor characters, at whose expense she occasionally engages in some breezily skewering satire. Here’s a favorite passage of mine:

Sir John was loud in his admiration at the end of every song and as loud in his conversation with the others while every song lasted. Lady Middleton frequently called him to order, wondered how any one’s attention could be diverted from music for a moment, and asked Marianne to sing a particular song which Marianne had just finished.

If pressed to note a flaw, the only thing I could mention is the character of Edward, and Elinor’s feelings for him. Because they are formed before the start of the novel, and then Edward is never quite himself on his subsequent appearances, I didn’t really get why she loved him.

As a random observation, I was struck with how often the Dashwood sisters were compelled to accept invitations they would have preferred to refuse, be it to reside in a certain house for a time or to spend time associating with tiresome people. Once there, they often had to sit around for hours being bored or discussing which of a pair of children was the taller. Dreary! Happily, the same cannot be said of Sense and Sensibility.