Women in Literature: Five Writers Who Have Helped Shape My Identity

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Today is International Women’s Day—a day to commemorate the social, political, cultural, and economic contributions of women throughout history. To celebrate this beautiful event, I’ve decided to share the five writers whose works have helped shape me into becoming the woman I am today.

In Kate Bolick’s seminal piece, Spinster, she borrows the term ‘awakeners’ from Edith Wharton to describe the five historical and literary figures who, through their works, have become her boon companions for life. The following women serve as my constant companions, my top five personal awakeners.

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The Austen Marathon Results

jane austen collection

My month-long Austen Marathon has turned into a 4-month literary journey. In those four months, I didn’t devour Austen’s works the way I imagined I would. Instead, I went through every novel meticulously, reading and rereading specific pages. I wasn’t merely enjoying Austen’s novels, I was studying them. I was in awe of Jane Austen’s tremendous talent. I was green with envy and lily yellow with despair.

 I tried to look at each work as if I were seeing it for the first time—and I succeeded, mainly because of Austen’s terrific storytelling. Whether it’s a first-time or an nth-time read, Austen’s novels always offers something new to the reader. I suppose, that’s why I’m making some changes to my Austen list of favorites.

The following shows the results of my 2012/2013 Austen Marathon.

Top Three Works:

  1. 1.       Persuasion. I find this the most realistic and ‘mature’ of all of Austen’s novels.
  2. 2.       Sense and Sensibility. Because I will always look up to Elinor Dashwood and her tremendous strength.
  3. 3.       Pride and Prejudice. How could one not root for Lizzie and Mr. Darcy?

 

Top Three Heroines:

  1. 1.       Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility)
  2. 2.       Anne Elliott (Persuasion)
  3. 3.       Lizzie Bennet (Pride and Prejudice)

 

Top Three Male Characters:

  1. 1.       Captain James Benwick (Persuasion)
  2. 2.       Henry Tilney (Northanger Abbey)
  3. 3.       Fitzwilliam Darcy (Pride and Prejudice)

 

Top Three Villains:

  1. 1.       Isabella Thorpe (Northanger Abbey)
  2. 2.       John Thorpe (Northanger Abbey)
  3. 3.       Lucy Steele (Sense and Sensibility)

 

Least Favorite Characters: Lydia Bennett (Pride and Prejudice)

Runner-Up: Philip Elton (Emma)

Funniest Characters: Charlotte and Mr. Palmer (Sense and Sensibility)

Runner-Up: Sir Walter Elliott (Persuasion)

Least Favorite Work: Mansfield Park. It’s no longer as bad as I used to think it was, but it’s still not as good as Austen’s other works. At least, in my opinion. 

Featured Author: Jane Austen

Jane Austen

Like many other Jane Austen readers, I first came upon Austen after seeing one of the many films adapted from her novels. I was in grade school in the late 1990s when I saw Sense and Sensibility—the film with Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, and Kate Winslet. I loved everything about the movie too! The cast, the characters, the scenery, and most importantly, the plot.

Upon finding out the film was adapted from a novel, I looked for Sense and Sensibility in the school library, finished the book in two days, and the rest, as they say, is history. I’m under the opinion that one simply can’t stop with a single Austen book. Suffice to say, I was hooked. And I’ve been reading and rereading Austen since.

Austen Bio

 Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775 to a country parson in Steventon, Hampshire. Her father, Reverend George Austen, was by all accounts, a supportive father. After Jane showed interest in literature, he encouraged her to continue reading the works of prominent writers like Sir Walter Scott, George Crabbe, and Henry Fielding. Apart from devouring the works of these literary masters, Jane was also interested in creating her own stories. She started with sketches of popular romance stories, and gradually progressed into her full-length novels. She wrote in secret too—in between her household chores. How she found the time to pen six of the most beautiful novels in Classic literature is beyond me!

During her lifetime, she saw four of her novels published—Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1815). Two of her novels, Northanger Abbey (1818), and Persuasion (1818), were published after her death.

Austen fell ill sometime around 1816. She attempted to ignore her illness, but her health continued its slow and steady decline, until she succumbed to this illness on 18 July 1817. In the last century, many medical experts have tried to figure out Austen’s mystery illness. Some have suggested Addison’s disease, others, Hodgkins lymphoma or tuberculosis. Others still, believe that it was a type of typhus called Brill-Zinsser disease.

Either way, the disease was slow in coming and gave Austen time to continue writing. Time, however, ran out before she could finish Sanditon (1817).

Today, Jane Austen is considered one of the most prominent female novelists in history. Her writing is lauded by critics and literary masters like Somerset Maugham and Sir Walter Scott for portraying the‘real’ and ‘commonplace’ in such a remarkable manner, which makes it impossible to dismiss her writings as merely ‘romantic’ in nature. Her exemplary technique of transforming the ordinary into something worth reading shows her mastery over human emotion and the English language.

Though her works are often classified as Classic Romance novels, many believe that they are also excellent social commentaries that border on satirical at times.

List of Novels

  1. Sense and Sensibility (1811)
  2. Pride and Prejudice (1813)
  3. Mansfield Park (1814)
  4. Emma (1815)
  5. Northanger Abbey (1818)
  6. Persuasion (1818)

Book Review: Persuasion – Jane Austen

Persuasion - Jane Austen

Title: Persuasion

Author: Jane Austen

Genre: Classic, Romance

First Published: 1818 (posthumously)

Pages: 254

 

Persuasion marks the last of Jane Austen’s novels—the completed ones, at least. It starts in media res (in the thick of things). In it, we follow the life of our lovable heroine, Anne Elliott. At 27, Anne is still unmarried. Her youth and bloom having disappeared early, Anne is the shell of her former self. As the story progresses, we soon learn the reason behind her resigned air and fading good looks.

About eight years prior to the start of the novel, Anne had entered into an engagement with a handsome navy officer, Frederick Wentworth. Though she loved him, she reneged on her word after her family and close friend expressed their disapproval of the ‘imprudent’ match. To them, Frederick was most unworthy of Anne. She was, after all, the daughter of a wealthy baronet, and he was a poor navy officer with little to offer. The two part ways with much ill-feeling between them.

Though the years soon pass, Anne’s feelings for Frederick remains unchanged. This becomes most apparent when the two cross paths again. But Frederick, now a successful and wealthy Captain, appears to want little to do with Anne. Will the two end up together? Well, considering this is a novel by Austen, the answer shouldn’t be that difficult to figure out. And there lies the central story of Persuasion.

Despite its seemingly simple plot, Persuasion is made interesting by its plethora of unforgettable characters. In it, we have the incredibly vain and selfish trio that composes Anne’s family—her father, Sir Walter Elliott, and her sisters, Elizabeth and Mary. We also have the scheming duo of Mr. Elliott and Mrs. Clay. But my favorite of all peripheral characters is the kind-hearted and romantic, Captain Benwick. In him, I see this sanguine personality that no amount of melancholia can completely sink. His natural disposition is to find love and give love, and though there is no disputing the appeal of the manly and handsome Captain Frederick Wentworth, there is much to love about Benwick, as well.

Beyond my usual praise for Austen’s incredible ability to infuse excitement in the everyday, what I love about Persuasion is that it showcases Austen’s growth as a writer. Many consider this final novel as somewhat unpolished compared to Emma and Mansfield Park, to me, however, the relative absence of the author breaking the fourth wall only heightens the subtlety and wit of Persuasion. Also, who doesn’t love the massive rewards delayed gratification brings?

All in all, Persuasion is a fine book which I would gladly recommend to all Classic readers and romantics.

Favorite Line: “He had an affectionate heart. He must love somebody.” – Captain James Benwick

Grade: A+

Book Review: Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen

northanger abbey-jane austen

Title: Northanger Abbey

Author: Jane Austen

Genre: Classic, Romance

First Published: 1818 (posthumously)

Pages: 236

 

Northanger Abbey follows the story of Catherine Morland, an unexceptional young woman from the country, who finds herself suddenly a part of the elegant and complex society in Bath. Under the ‘guidance’ of the vapid, though not cruel, Mrs. Allen, Catherine finds herself acquainted with the wrong crowd.

When she is befriended by the deceitful and coquettish Isabella Thorpe, our unlikely heroine falls under the manipulations of Isabella and her brother, John. For a while, she is bullied into participating in indiscreet activities that could make an impact on her reputation. Take note, reader, these activities are by no means as racy as the sentence might suggest. It is, basically, the reputation you get when you quite literally, ‘ride in the car with boys.’

Mercifully, she is saved from further social mishaps when she joins the company of the handsome, though somewhat unromantic, Henry Tilney, and his lovely sister, Eleanor. As would be expected, she falls for Henry, and there is reason to think that he begins to feel the same for her. The only setback lies in the meddling of Henry’s father, General Tilney. Therein, is the real story, and it starts quite late in the novel.

Although the rest of the novel is pleasant enough to read, Northanger Abbey is a lot like Emma, in the sense that the story is not as rich or eventful as Jane Austen’s other works. Notably, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. What gets the reader through the piece though, is the strength of Catherine’s character.

Yes, Jane Austen does take pains to establish how Catherine is unremarkable in almost all aspects—but she also makes our heroine incredibly interesting. Austen infuses her with youth. Catherine’s curiosity and naivety makes her relatable—and that is the mark of a good character.

Northanger Abbey is often regarded as Austen’s earliest work. This shows, especially in Austen’s immense presence in the text. The author makes her thoughts known in a very direct manner throughout the book. In her latter works like Persuasion and Mansfield Park, you get less of the author in the story.  Some critics regard Northanger Abbey as one of the keys to Austen’s mindset. With little else to go by, Austen having requested that all her letters be burnt upon her death, such personal works as this one becomes crucial to historians, literary professors and majors, and Janeites alike. This novel gives as a clue as to what Austen’s mindset was during the period when she wrote this story.

As a parody of Gothic literature, this book also succeeds in being possibly the most lighthearted and easy-to-read novel from Austen. This is why I highly recommend this book to all first-time Austen/Classic readers.

Rating: A-

Austen Marathon: Emma

Emma by Jane Austen - 2008 BBC edition
Emma by Jane Austen – 2008 BBC edition

 

 

Title: Emma

Author: Jane Austen

Genre: Classic, Romance

First Published: 1815

Pages: 495

In Emma, Jane Austen deviates from her usual course, where the poor though lovable heroine falls in love with a wealthy gentleman or clergyman. Instead, Austen chooses to flex her writing skills by creating a character which the author, herself, has described as, “a heroine whom no one but myself [Austen] will much like.”

And true enough, unlike her predecessors (the Dashwood sisters, the Bennet sisters, and Fanny Price), Emma isn’t the type of character that pulls on one’s heartstrings. Emma is privileged, independent, outspoken, and beautiful. She’s stubborn and, though good-intentioned, meddlesome. She has little inclination or interest to fall in love or marry.

Though wealthy on her own, Emma is, in a way, held captive by her love for her father. Her father’s fragile nature, (although hypochondriac also comes to mind), prevents Emma from straying too far or too often away from home. Bored by the simplicity of small town life, Emma finds real passion and excitement in matchmaking.

This becomes most apparent when she takes Harriet Smith under her wing. Harriet is a beautiful and amiable young lady of unknown parentage. Despite her numerous good qualities, Harriet’s station in life greatly limits her prospects when it comes to love and marriage. This, however, does not stop Emma from attempting to elevate Harriet’s status by finding the latter a respectable and acceptable suitor. She sets her eyes on the handsome and well-liked local vicar, Mr. Elton. In the process of bringing Mr. Elton and Harriet together Emma separates Harriet from a growing attachment with the young farmer, Robert Martin. She even dissuades the other young lady from accepting a proposal from Martin by emphasizing the farmer’s lack of finesse and lowly station in life.

Emma’s plans eventually backfire when it becomes clear that Mr. Elton has been trying to impress her all along. Desperate to make things right with Harriet, Emma digs herself a deeper hole by becoming even more meddlesome and scheming in her matchmaking. In the end, the result of her efforts prove satisfactory, though not because of her doing but in spite of it. Harriet finds true love with her farmer friend, and Emma ultimately rethinks her stand in marriage when she realizes her true feelings for her close friend, George Knightley.

Like Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, there is enough comedy in Emma to excuse any meanderings in Austen’s part. Although Austen has always exerted tremendous attention to detail, Emma’s circumstances, her lack of actual freedom because of her ‘ailing’ father, makes it necessary for the writer to make the most out of Highbury. The reader becomes immersed in Emma’s everyday life. This is a dangerous technique. One runs the risk of boring the reader with the ‘details’. But as usual, Austen manages to pull everything off with her wit and her lovable characters.

 

Favorite Character/s: Emma Woodhouse and Jane Fairfax. Though vastly different in temperament and behavior, both women exhibit strength in character. For Ms. Fairfax, fortitude. For Emma, willfulness—the good kind, mostly.

Favorite Quote: “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken.” – Emma

Rating: A

Austen Marathon: Mansfield Park

Title: Mansfield Park

Author: Jane Austen

Genre: Fiction; Classic, Romance

First Published: 1814

Pages: 472

Rating: B+

Status: Reread

 

Mansfield Park is Jane Austen’s third novel. This novel follows the life of Fanny Price, a young girl rescued from poverty by her beautiful but indolent aunt, Lady Bertram, and her respectable but strict uncle, Sir Thomas. Her family sends her off to live with the Bertram family in their spacious estate in Mansfield Park. There, she meets her crafty and oftentimes cruel aunt, Mrs. Norris, and Sir Thomas’ children, Tom, Edmund, Maria, and Julia

Although the children are, by no means, intentionally cruel, constant assurance from Mrs. Norris of their lofty station compared to Fanny made them careless with her feelings. All of her cousins exhibited selfishness, save for the younger brother, Edmund. Edmund becomes Fanny’s closest friend and defender. She grows to love him, but is too afraid to show him how she feels. It all seems too late for Fanny when the Crawford siblings enter the scene.

The rakish and charming Henry Crawford becomes an instant hit with the Bertram sisters, while his own pretty sister, Mary, attracts the attentions of Edmund. Fanny could only watch their growing attractions with pain and dismay. When Maria, the older Bertram girl, marries the silly but incredibly wealthy, Mr. Rushworth, Henry turns his attention to Fanny. He seems to have fallen for our heroine completely. But a scandal awaits in the form of an elopement, an affair, and a terrible disgrace. The rest, is essentially, an incredibly tangled web, which is only set right in the final four pages of the novel.

 

The Results of the Reread.

There was a time when I said I would never reread Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. The first time I read the book, I found it dragging. It was a challenge to get through Fanny’s self-righteous soliloquies. I found Edmund stale and wooden—even more so than Edward Ferrars. The only relief was that there was life to be found in Mary Crawford. Although arguably despicable, I preferred her crassness, her thoughtless remarks over Fanny’s constant cringing and inability to express even a morsel of her sentiments without much prodding. Granted, one could take the novel’s setting into consideration, but the times have rarely stopped Austen from creating strong-willed and vocal characters.

Upon rereading Mansfield Park, I found myself enjoying the book a bit more. A careful reread allows one to appreciate the intricacies of Austen’s writings—the solid descriptions, the wit, the overall picture painstakingly painted pretty and polite. And dear Fanny, she was a quiet surprise. Although her hidden vexations, her trembling, and her general weak constitution made her less striking than the likes of Elizabeth Bennet, Marianne Dashwood, or Emma Woodhouse, she had her merits. She was loyal, intelligent, and virtuous. However, were those traits enough to save the book? Unfortunately, the answer is “No.”

Compared to Austen’s other novels, I find Mansfield Park to be the stalest, the most dated. Perhaps the disappointment I feel is directly tied to how I just reread this novel after reading Pride and Prejudice—which is an easy favorite for many Austen fans. Perhaps I simply don’t like Fanny, because kind as she is, she is a bit weepy and I find her character weak. Or perhaps, it’s simply because out of all of Austen’s works, this is the one that has the poorest character development. That, and I was secretly rooting for a Henry Crawford reform—I wanted Fanny’s love to save him. I also didn’t want Fanny to be Edmund’s second choice—although this point is arguable, as a considerable amount of time may have passed between Edmund’s heartbreak and his realization that he loved Fanny more than as a sister.