Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

Book #940

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


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After visiting the  Regency world by re-reading Emma and reviewing it here at the end of last year, I thought I would continue to reacquaint myself with the four Jane Austen novels that remain to be reviewed.

You might remember that in my review of Emma I confessed to being an Austen fan from a young age but that time and *maturity* had altered some of my enjoyment of her work.   Sense and Sensibility continued this trend for me.

This is the first of Austen’s published works; it is set in the 1790s, when it was originally written, and follows the two Dashwood sisters.

Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are daughters of their father’s second marriage, and when he dies their elder brother from the previous marriage takes over the family home, Norland.  Like many women of the time, they are solely reliant on his good graces and a meagre amount of their own money on which to keep themselves.  In Austen’s usual style their step-brother John is influenced by his greedy wife, Fanny, and chooses to settle nothing on them.   Instead, they and their mother are treated rather like unwelcome guests in what had been their own home.

While Mrs Dashwood is searching for a suitable, affordable property for her family to remove to Fanny’s brother, Edward Ferrars, joins the household.  It becomes clear that he and Elinor form an attachment over the time he is with them.  Both are reserved, but it is still obvious to those around them.  Unfortunately, the Ferrars family are bent on his ‘becoming’ someone important and that results in Fanny speeding the Dashwood’s exit from Norland by insinuating that Elinor is, in essence, gold-digging.  Fortunately for the ladies, a distant cousin comes to the rescue with an affordable cottage on an estate in Devonshire, far removed from Norland.  They grasp it and move out with all haste.

Mrs Dashwood, Elinor, Marianne and younger sister Margaret, remove to Devonshire and Barton Cottage.  They are under the attentive eye of their cousin, Sir John Middleton. He, his wife, his mother-in-law Mrs Jennings and Colonel Brandon, a friend of Sir John’s make up the party at Barton Park.
After a short while it becomes clear that Colonel Brandon forms an attachment for Marianne, but she considers him to be an old bachelor and of no attraction for anyone, least of all herself.
Mrs Jennings, a well-off widow who has married her daughters off, now takes on the task of doing the same for the Dashwoods.

In the meantime, Mr Willoughby joins the story when Marianne slips while out walking and twists her ankle.  He rescues her and returns her home.  Thereafter he is included in the regular balls, parties and events of the neighbourhood.  It becomes clear to all that he and Marianne form a strong and unconcealed attachment, which eventually leads people to suspect that they must have become engaged.

All seems to be going along well when in short order both Edward Ferrars and John Willoughby turn the Dashwood sisters’ worlds on end, and a romantic farce ensues.  The sisters go to London under the auspices of the very kind Mrs Jennings, and a comedy of manners involving secret engagements, social climbing, and snobbery takes place.

The main theme is laid out in the title of the novel – Sense and Sensibility.
Elinor is all about prudence, good judgement, careful behaviour and attending to all the social graces even when she is put out and in emotional distress.  It never occurs to her to spread her own pain and grievances to her mother or sister, or friends.  She is self-control personified.  She is sense embodied.

Marianne, on the other hand, is all about feeling.  She must gush, feel every pain and pleasure to its utmost. She does not attempt to be civil or considerate of others when her own emotional state is in flux, and gives no thought to the pain that her excesses give to her mother and sister.  She is ungoverned and makes no exertion to control her excesses of feeling.  She is all sensibility.

The question of how the farce resolves – does good sense result in happiness, or does sensibility? – is well worth the occasional tedious passages, and slightly melodramatic way that the outcome is arrived at.

But do check your modern sensibilities at the door.  There is plenty for a modern eye to disdain in the conduct of more than one character.  It also helps to keep in mind that the characters and some of their actions are meant to be excessive and ridiculous.  It is partly an 18th century send-up after all, not just a social commentary.

Happy reading !

Emma – Jane Austen

Book #936

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


EThe option of reading and reviewing a classic by Jane Austen is rather a relaxing entry in to a summer of 1001 Books for me.  I had read her entire canon when I was a teenager, and have revisited them sporadically ever since.  However, it has been some time since my last venture into Regency England and naturally my ideas and world view have moved on in many respects. This is now evident in how I feel about the novel after this read through.

As a teenager I was enthralled with the Regency world as described in Austen’s works. Even the work required to get around the changes in language over the centuries didn’t diminish my enjoyment.   I was a die hard fan from the outset.

Fast forward an *ahem* number of years and re-reading Emma brought along another set of experiences.  Still, the enjoyment of being immersed in a society so completely different from our own, but with a tinge of modern feminist ‘what the heck’ thrown in for good measure.

The story of the titular heroine is one of meddling, self-indulgence and, eventually, self-awareness.

Emma begins in the home of the Woodhouses following the wedding of Emma’s governess Miss Taylor, to a local gentleman, Mr Weston.  Mr Woodhouse is lamenting their loss and through this we are introduced to his nervous, almost foppish, hypochondria-laden character.  His is a difficult character to read and not want to slap from a modern perspective; but he is also the means with which the underlying behaviour of being well-mannered, courteous and generally good at heart is shown to overrule such deficiencies.

Once ‘poor Miss Taylor’ is settled in at her new abode, Randalls, Emma takes on a local girl as a protégé and companion in lieu of Mrs Weston and eventually succumbs to and indulges her own fancies of being a matchmaker.  Harriet Smith is a girl of unknown parentage, clearly a ‘natural’ child of someone wealthy enough to pay for an education but not wishing the relationship to be generally visible to society.

Mr Knightley, an old friend and Emma’s brother-in-law, sees the danger to both women.  One in being convinced that she should be elevated beyond her station in life by Emma’s encouragement, and the other in being unrestrained by a wiser companion.   He is proved right in the first instance, with Emma dissuading Harriet from the marriage proposal of an eminently suitable young man, and having her fix her eyes on a man for whom the whole idea of marrying beneath him is an abhorrence.

In to this basic plot we add two other young people, Miss Jane Fairfax and Mr Frank Churchill.  The former an accomplished young woman, of sense and character, but of a good family in financial decline.  The latter, the son of Mr Weston who has been raised by his rich aunt and uncle.  He brings pleasing manners and general merriment, but more self-interest than self-awareness.

It is the fondest wishes of Mr and Mrs Weston that Frank and Emma should become attached to each other, while society in general feels for the situation of Miss Fairfax.  What follows is a rich comedy of manners involving all those mentioned so far, as well as Miss Bates (Jane Fairfax’s aunt), Mr Elton and latterly Mrs Elton.

Only the steadfast and observant Mr Knightley seems able to calmly assess the damage and danger to all, courtesy of Emma’s self-indulgent behaviour, and tries to point them out to her. Eventually the comedy plays out and the participants go to their respective right places at the last.  But not without some trepidations.

Emma’s folly and character is softened by her own realisations, and admission of errors.  If she had remained oblivious to herself she would have become a Mrs Elton, full of pride and blind to her lack of understanding.  But that would not do for the story’s heroine; she is not fixed and unable to examine herself and her behaviour.  She understands that she has faults that require her attention, and that makes her accessible.

Although my view of certain characters has changed since my youth, I still find this an excellent novel dealing with the manners, expectations and difficulties the women of this section of Regency society had to navigate.    This is not the novel of manners / love story that we tend to see in Pride and Prejudice, so do not open this book thinking you will be reading a clone of that.  But don’t be put off.  It is still an enjoyable read, language and relative silliness of certain characters to the modern eye aside.

Happy reading !

Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There – Lewis Carroll

Book # 854

REVIEWER: Kara


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In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream—
Lingering in the golden gleam—
Life, what is it but a dream?

For me, this second installment about Alice is even more wonderful than the first (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), and that isn’t an easy feat! Both books feature Alice, a 7-year-old girl with a wildly vivid imagination. In her dreams, she enters magical worlds populated by smart and witty animals and everyday objects. She fearlessly explores, makes friends, and learns, taking the twists and turns of logic and magic that constantly alter the reality around her in stride. For child and adult readers alike, this is about as much fun as literature can be.

The reason I so love Through the Looking Glass, And What Alice Found There is its excellent poetry. The book contains both Jabberwocky, a poem stuffed with old-fashioned words that Alice needs help from others to decipher, and The Walrus and the Carpenter, a lovely poem with both sad and silly moments that has stuck with me as a favorite since my childhood.

What Carroll does so well is lift up and glorify the witty and imaginative ways that children think about words and logic as they grow and learn. He gives credence to what seems silly and absurd, and offers the puns, riddles, jokes, and even nonsense that children love and adults tend to groan about. He refrains from preaching or infantilizing, and an authentic sense of child-like wonder at the world pervades the book.

I highly recommend both of Lewis Carroll’s stories about Alice as family read-aloud options – there’s no better way to experience them.

The Island of Dr Moreau – H.G.Wells

Book#796

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


TIODMThe Island of Dr Moreau was first published in 1896 and is another slim work at around 130 pages, requiring only a small investment of time to read.

The story is an unusual tale told by Edward Prendick of his shipwreck from the Lady Vain and the year that follows on from this.

After being adrift in the dinghy with two other survivors, who fight and perish as a result of doing so, he is spotted and collected up by the schooner Ipecacuanha.
He is nursed back from the brink of death by a passenger on board, Montgomery.  The captain is a drunkard and unpredictable.  When they reach the island where Montgomery, his very unusual manservant and his cargo of animals are being disembarked, the captain decides to set Prendick adrift once more.

Prendick finds himself, eventually, once more rescued by Montgomery and another man who in time we find is the eponymous Dr Moreau.  He lands on the island and is taken to an outer room of a compound that he finds is locked to him.

I followed him, and found myself in a small apartment, plainly but not uncomfortably furnished, and with its inner door, which was slightly ajar, opening into a paved courtyard.  This inner door Montgomery at once closed.  A hammock was slung across the darker corner of the room, and a small unglazed window, defended by an iron bar, looked out towards the sea.
This, the grey-haired man told me, was to be my apartment, and the inner door, which, ‘for fear of accidents’, he said, he would lock on the other side, was my limit inward.

Neither Montgomery nor Moreau explain anything about the animals, the ‘people’ that he observes, nor what keeps them in isolation from the rest of the world.  But it doesn’t take long for his observations to become concerns as he recognises Moreau’s name as belonging to that of a notorious vivisector and work begins within the locked enclosure on one of the cargo animals, a puma.  Prendick sums up his confusion thus,

What could it mean?  A locked enclosure on a lonely island, a notorious vivisector, and these crippled and distorted men? …

Indeed, what could it mean?  Well, you will have to read the novel to find out.

Yes, you will have to read it.  For me to give more information or specific quotes would take away some of the uncertainty and suspense that Wells builds up very nicely throughout the novel.

While I cannot say that I enjoyed reading the story, as it is not a salubrious topic, it was certainly gripping despite the scientific inaccuracies that are glaring to a modern eye.  In our minds, though, we could easily substitute the 19th century version of vivisection with other modern scientific ethical issues.  I think that is what makes this story such a timeless classic and fully deserving of its place on the 1001 list.
The ethical questions it raises, the statements it makes about how easily the abnormal can become normal, and about just how far is too far to go in the name of scientific curiosity, are still ones we confront today.

It is a quick and untaxing way to spend a few hours while also being immensely readable.  Fewer appearances of the word ‘incontinently’ makes it a vast improvement over The Time Machine, to be going on with, and more serious in it’s questioning nature makes it both interesting and thought-provoking.  All in all, I am happy recommending this to you.

Happy reading!

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

BOOK #913
Reviewer: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

A Christmas CarolA Christmas Carol is possibly the most well-known, re-published and oft-adapted of Charles Dickens’ works. Since it was first published in 1843, the novella has been a success, and it continues to delight audiences in the 21st-century. It is a story that has been adapted to screen a number of times, and I’ve already got my eye on tickets for the Royal New Zealand Ballet performance of the story later in 2014.

It tells the story of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, whose character is transformed following the supernatural visits of his business partner, and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come. The story begins on a “cold, bleak, biting” Christmas Eve, seven years after the death of Scrooge’s business partner, Jacob Marley. Scrooge hates Christmas; he refuses his nephew’s Christmas dinner invitation, and turns away two men who seek a donation from him to provide a Christmas dinner for the poor.

Later that night, Scrooge is visited by Marley’s ghost, who is cursed to wander the earth forever after a lifetime of greed and selfishness. Marley tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three spirits that night, and in order to avoid an eternal curse of his own, he is to listen closely to the lessons of each spirit.

The first, The Ghost of Christmas Past, takes Scrooge to Christmas scenes of Scrooge’s childhood, which remind him of a time when he was kinder, happier, more innocent. We are shown a lonely childhood, and a Christmas party hosted by Scrooge’s first employer who treated him like a son. We’re also shown Scrooge’s neglected fiancée, Belle, who ends their relationship when she realises Scrooge loves money above all else; Belle has since married, and we see her happily enjoying Christmas Eve with her family.

The second spirit, Ghost of Christmas Present, takes Scrooge to several different scenes – a market where people are happily buying food for Christmas dinner, celebrations of Christmas in a miner’s cottage and in a lighthouse, and Scrooge’s nephew’s Christmas party, where he speaks of his uncle with pity. We also meet Bob Cratchit and his family; his youngest child, Tiny Tim, is seriously ill but extremely happy. Scrooge is told that Tiny Tim will soon die unless the course of events changes. The spirit shows Scrooge two hideous, emaciated children named Ignorance and Want; he tells Scrooge to beware the former above all.

The third spirit is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who shows Scrooge Christmas Day one year later. Tiny Tim has died because his father could not afford proper care, and we see the death of a “wretched man”. The man’s funeral will only be attended by local businessmen if lunch is provided. Various people steal his possessions while his corpse is on the bed, and when the spirit shows Scrooge the tombstone of this wretched man, he sees it bears his name. In tears, Scrooge promises to change his ways in the hopes that he may “sponge the writing from this stone.”

Dickens paints his usual bleak picture of the plight of the poor, but there is an uplifting, joyous note to A Christmas Carol as well. It reminds the reader of the joys of Christmas, of the spirit of the season, and of the impact we can have on the lives of others. It is an easy, very quick read; despite the length, it still has that characteristic style of Dickens’. It is timeless, with a message that will not date, and I look forward to reading this to my boys when they are a little older.