Only A Novel

The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

Posted in Books, Fiction, Literature, Patricia Highsmith, Reading, Review by onlyanovel on June 14, 2008

It reminded her of conversations at tables, on sofas, with people whose words seemed to hover over dead, unstirrable things, who never touched a string that played. And when one tried to touch a live string, looked at one with faces as masked as ever, making a remark so perfect in its banality that one could not even believe it might be subterfuge.

—The Price of Salt

The Price of SaltPatricia Highsmith was the author of well-known suspense novels like Strangers on a Train (1950), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)—both of which have been adapted to film—and others of the “Ripliad” series.

The Price of Salt was first published in 1952, and its setting is contemporaneous. But far from falling into Highsmith’s trademark thriller category, this one is a love story—between two women. I imagine that, in those days, writing a novel like this was a bold thing for a serious, up-and-coming author to do.

Therese Belivet is nineteen, a struggling stage-designer in Manhattan, who has an unambitious boyfriend whom she is not in love with but who clings to her with tenacity. Carol Aird is an elegant and beautiful woman in her early thirties, financially well-off, and is in the middle of a divorce from her husband, Harge. At stake is their daughter, Rindy. Perfect strangers in the beginning, Therese and Carol lock eyes from across a room crowded with holiday shoppers and, at least for one of them, it was obsession at first sight. Some quick plot turns later, they become unlikely friends.

Meanwhile, Harge has won temporary custody of Rindy. To take some time away from the stress of the divorce and the battle for Rindy, Carol decides to take a road trip out West and asks Therese to come with her. Thus, the unlikely pair sets out on the road: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Chicago, Minneapolis, Sioux Falls, Salt Lake City, Denver, Colorado Springs… Along the way, they finally confirm their suspicion of love for each other, and fall deeper in love with each passing mile. But well into their trip, they discover that Harge has hired a detective who has been spying on them and following them on the road, in an attempt to collect evidence against Carol for the divorce case. With this discovery, Carol realizes that she must immediately return East to confront Harge and fight for Rindy. She leaves Therese behind in the middle of the country and, while apart, each gets a chance to think about the price to be paid in pursuing their relationship further.

Mercifully, and with respect for her readers’ intelligence, Highsmith includes a break-up letter which is thoughtful rather than sappy. In one part of the letter, Carol explains to Therese:

It was said or at least implied yesterday that my present course would bring me to the depths of human vice and degeneration. Yes, I have sunk a good deal since they took you from me. It is true, if I were to go on like this and be spied upon, attacked, never possessing one person long enough so that knowledge of a person is a superficial thing—that is degeneration. Or to live against one’s grain, that is degeneration by definition.

Even in this love story—and that is what it is at its core—Highsmith displays her talent for suspense. With only a few pages left on the right side of my open book, I was still wondering how Highsmith would resolve the plot.

I thought, with a bit of a surprise, that the novel was quite well written, the story well told and unhurried. Highsmith wrote eloquently and simply, without making the words groan for seeming to try too hard. Notwithstanding the plot, there was a general lack of hostility in the tone, and the presence of possibilities. While a comparison would not be fair, the novel did remind me of Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith (which has a BBC adaptation of the same title).

And, no, there is no explicit description of sex between the two women. But Highsmith was able to convey the depth of the emotional and physical intimacy between her two protagonists better than if there had been that explicitness. Imagine that.

‘What do they say makes a play a classic, Therese?’

‘A classic—‘ Her voice sounded tight and stifled. ‘A classic is something with a basic human situation.’


Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell

Posted in Books, Elizabeth Gaskell, Fiction, Literature, Reading, Review by onlyanovel on June 8, 2008

‘We have dreaded men too much, and God too little, in the course we have taken.’

—Thurstan Benson

RuthI started writing this post immediately after I finished reading the book, and the tears have yet to dry from my eyes. It was a very strange, and seemingly unnatural, experience for me, for I was crying—at some parts uncontrollably—as I was reading the last few chapters of this book. I did not think that fiction could have this much of an effect on me. But by the last few chapters, it all seemed very real, and my emotions were deeply felt and real, and difficult to explain to myself. This was, indeed, strange and new to me. I am tempted to leave this post at that, but I thought that I should say more about the novel, in return for what it has given me.

This is the story of Ruth Hilton. Ruth had the advantage of being raised by good, loving, and simple country parents, but by the time she is sixteen years old, her parents have died, and she is alone in the world, has no one she can turn to for companionship and the continuing guidance and education that she yet needed. Into this emotional vacuum enters Henry Bellingham, a licentious heir to a fortune who is bewitched by Ruth’s loveliness and grace, combined with the ‘naivete, simplicity, and innocence of an intelligent child.’ Bellingham schemes to seduce the very young and very innocent Ruth, is successful in making Ruth fall deeply in love with him, and then abandons her. Ruth consequently wears the stigma of a sinful relationship and, to make matters worse, is pregnant with an illegitimate child. In the eyes of men, she and her yet-to-be-born child are doomed to a wretched life. But fate throws Thurstan and Faith Benson in Ruth’s path. They are brother and sister, both God-fearing and compassionate, Dissenters from the Church of England, he a beloved minister in the town of Eccleston. They welcome Ruth into their home as their own, and in this humble but loving home Leonard is born. At about seventeen years of age, Ruth is a mother.

Most of the novel is devoted to exploring the means to Ruth’s redemption, and the struggles and sacrifices that Ruth goes through to procure it. It is heavy on religion and biblical allusions, and even prayerful pleas to God. And throughout, Gaskell challenges her readers with questions. What is required, or, what matters—redemption in the eyes of men, or in the eyes of God? Is evil to be done that good may come? Should an innocent child be made to suffer for his mother’s sin, or can this child be an instrument for his mother’s atonement and purification? How is it that, at least in this case, men will not be as tender a judge as Christ (‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’)?

It is interesting that Gaskell’s Thurstan Benson, the most morally upright character in the novel, is physically deformed—a hunchback. Perhaps it is but part of the novel’s recurring theme: That it is not the external, physical manifestation of being that matters most, but the internal, spiritual one. In giving counsel to Ruth on how to help Leonard cope with the harsh treatment that will come his way for being an illegitimate child, Benson says:

‘The world is not everything, Ruth; nor is the want of men’s good opinion and esteem the highest need which man has. Teach Leonard this. You would not wish his life to be one summer’s day.’

This novel recalled from my more self-examining past, precepts learned long ago which today seem like ghosts to me, and I am grateful for the reminder. Admittedly, this was not an easy post to write, and is incomplete, because of the depth of the themes that Gaskell bravely chose. Themes of repentance, quiet suffering, sacrifice, faith, unselfish love, forgiveness, redemption. That is a lot for one novel, and I thought that Gaskell’s Ruth was a powerful one.

And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them.

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat.

For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters, and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.

—Revelations 7:14-17

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Posted in Books, Elizabeth Gaskell, Fiction, Literature, Reading, Review by onlyanovel on May 17, 2008

‘Oh, Helstone! I shall never love any place like you.’

North and SouthSo exclaims Margaret Hale in a fit of passion after a long day spent in the country hamlet of Helstone in recollection of days past. North and South is a novel where the places are as much the central characters as the protagonists themselves. One cannot separate the people from the places. The Hales are from Helstone, the Thorntons and Higginses are from Milton, the Shaws are from London.

Margaret describes Helstone as “like a village in a poem—in one of Tennyson’s poems,” where cottages had “roses growing all over them.” The manufacturing town of Milton-Northern cannot be more different: It had a “lead-coloured cloud” hanging over it, and its air “had a faint taste and smell of smoke.” And, of course, the ways of their respective inhabitants will be different in proportion.

This novel, first published in book form in 1855, tells a tender and touching story. It tells the story of Margaret Hale as she struggles through personal trials and changes of circumstances during the three-year period covered in the novel. Margaret Hale was born and raised at Helstone parsonage, where her father has a small living. But she spends the latter part of her childhood, up to her early womanhood, in London with her aunt Shaw and cousin Edith, and so she is used to the ways and accoutrements of fashionable society. You might guess as to the combined effect of these influences on the person that is Margaret Hale.

Pitted against Miss Hale is John Thornton, a talented, self-made, and powerful manufacturer in the town of Milton-Northern. She is from the idyllic south, he from the industrial north. She is genteel and well-read, he lacks refinement and a formal education. Superficially, they are as different as the places where they have known comfort. The novel gives Gaskell a platform for giving commentary on social issues relating to the manufacturing trade and industrialization, but she does so with a light hand, painting the issues on a personal scale rather than on a sweeping vista. Here and there in the novel, Miss Hale and Mr. Thornton clash in their discussions of the differences between North and South, and the social issues in Milton, among which is the extent of the social and moral responsibilities of the masters over their workers.

By all accounts, Margaret Hale is a stunning beauty, described by Gaskell as tall, stately, queenly, and eighteen years of age at the start of the story. Here is how Gaskell describes Miss Hale during her first meeting with Mr. Thornton:

She had taken off her shawl, and hung it over the back of her chair. She sat facing him and facing the light; her full beauty met his eye; her round white flexile throat rising out of the full, yet lithe figure; her lips, moving so slightly as she spoke, not breaking the cold serene look of her face with any variation from the one lovely haughty curve; her eyes, with their soft gloom, meeting his with quiet maiden freedom.

But to turn a good story, one does not rely on external appearances. Beyond her haughty looks and queenly, feminine graces, Miss Hale is a woman of deep and abiding faith, innate courage, with a kind and compassionate heart, and an overbearing conscience. Oh, and she’s smart and sensible, too. In short, she is a person who probably exists only in fiction, or in an earlier century. It is a wonder that Gaskell made the character believable. In one of her moments of self-examination for a sin committed, Margaret finds encouragement even for herself:

‘The way of humility. Ah,’ thought Margaret, ‘that is what I have missed! But courage, little heart. We will turn back, and by God’s help we may find the lost path.’

Gaskell does not shy away from making religion an integral part of the plot. The novel is replete with religious and biblical references. Indeed, faith and morality are core ingredients for the existence of the central characters that are Margaret Hale and her father, Richard Hale.

Neither does Gaskell shy away from the topic of death. There are no fewer than six deaths in this novel, with a scare of a seventh. At least two of the deaths caught me by surprise, the kind of surprise which makes me rouse from my pillow and yell, “No!” But Gaskell is not only adept at sneakily killing off her characters, but equally so at empathizing with her survivors: Gaskell knows how it is to grieve.

and when they came up, Margaret was standing, trying to steady her dizzy self; and when she saw her aunt, she went forward to the arms open to receive her, and first found the passionate relief of tears on her aunt’s shoulder. All thoughts of quiet habitual love, of tenderness for years, of relationship to the dead,—all that inexplicable likeness in look, tone, and gesture, that seem to belong to one family, and which reminded Margaret so forcibly at this moment of her mother,—came in to melt and soften her numbed heart into the overflow of warm tears.

With all these deaths, one would think that the novel has a gloomy and hopeless tone. But this is not so. The tone is on an even keel, even as the plot sails into rough waters. The characters find ways to move on, as real people move on, if not hope. In the end, after all her painful ordeals, but with much of her life before her, the heroine takes control:

But she had learnt, in those solemn hours of thought, that she herself must one day answer for her own life, and what she had done with it; and she tried to settle that most difficult problem for women, how much was to be utterly merged in obedience to authority, and how much might be set apart for freedom in working.

Indeed, there are parts of the novel which I thought were sweetly funny, as in the exchanges of light banter between Margaret and her sixty-year-old, gouty godfather, Mr. Bell:

‘But—Mr. Bell—have you come from Oxford or from Milton?’

‘From Milton. Don’t you see I’m smoke-dried?’

‘Certainly. But I thought that might be the effect of the antiquities of Oxford.’

Gaskell is known for writing “in the dialect,” that is, writing the way characters of a certain background speak. She does so in this novel in the case of Bessy and Nicholas Higgins, who are daughter and father, poor Milton laborers who are befriended by Miss Hale, and who play central roles in rousing her interest in the plight of the Milton workers.

And what of Mr. Thornton? He is a proud, intense, purposeful, morally upright fellow, who strives to crush any sign of weakness in his character. He strives to be “John Thornton in whatever circumstances; endeavouring to do right, and making great blunders; and then trying to be brave in setting to afresh.” Maybe he and Miss Hale are not so different after all. And, for most of the novel, the poor guy is also sorely in love with Margaret and goes about his existence with wounded pride. To him, Mr. Bell says:

‘I did hope you had had nobleness enough in you to make you pay her the homage of the heart. Though I believe—in fact I know, she would have rejected you, still to have loved her without return would have lifted you higher than all those, be they who they may, that have never known her to love.’

By the end, Margaret’s influence on his way of doing business is also evident:

and it had taken him long silent years to come even to a glimmering of what he might be now, to-day, here in his own town, his own factory, among his own people. He and they had led parallel lives—very close, but never touching—till the accident (or so it seemed) of his acquaintance with Higgins. Once brought face to face, man to man, with an individual of the masses around him, and (take notice) out of the character of master and workman, in the first instance, they had each begun to recognise that ‘we have all of us one human heart.’

Gaskell writes beautifully, and this is a beautiful novel. She particularly excels in transcribing emotions and thoughts into outward, physical manifestations. As far as physical lust can be described in a work of popular fiction at that time, Gaskell did it in this novel, ever so delicately and ever so subtly. So delicately and so subtly that one hardly noticed it.

The ending was masterfully written, and this is a terrific read.

BBC has a TV production of this novel. I heard it’s good (and that’s probably an understatement). After having read the book, I’ll definitely be trying to get my hands on the DVD.

Lovers’ Vows

Posted in Books, Jane Austen, Literature, Mansfield Park, Reading by onlyanovel on February 27, 2008

My Chapman edition of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park included the play Lovers’ Vows by Mrs. Inchbald. I read Mansfield Park last month, and I thought it would be fun and interesting to read Lovers’ Vows, which Austen had made a big part of the plot in Volume I of the novel. I was also curious why Austen did include this particular play as part of the plot. Well, reading the play did turn out to be fun; in fact, I thought Mrs. Inchbald’s Lovers’ Vows was hilarious! (Recall that the amateur actors of Mansfield required that the play for their production be both tragedy and comedy.)

Lovers' VowsThe play is short—it’s only 60 pages long in the small, close print of the Chapman edition. Lovers’ Vows is an English adaptation of a German play, Natural Son, by Kotzebue. Chapman confirms that the adaptation by Mrs. Inchbald is the Lovers’ Vows of Mansfield Park: The line which was to have been Edmund Bertram’s, “When two sympathetic hearts meet in the marriage state, matrimony may be called a happy life,” was in Mrs. Inchbald’s version; and Count Cassel’s speeches numbered just “two-and-forty.” Chapman further reports that, “Lovers’ Vows had a great vogue and was frequently reprinted.”

In the preface, Mrs. Inchbald says that she made modifications to the play in order to adapt it to the “English rather than the German taste.” Regarding the character of Amelia (played by Mary Crawford), Mrs. Inchbald says, “The part of Amelia has been a very particular object of my solicitude and alteration: the same situations which the author gave her remain, but almost all the dialogue of the character I have changed: the forward and unequivocal manner in which she announces her affection to her lover, in the original, would have been revolting to an English audience.” Also, the character of the Butler was modified so that he preferred to speak in rhyme and verse rather than prose, thus the reference to the “rhyming Butler” in the novel. The effect is simply funny.

A summary of the plot of Lovers’ Vows follows, but one really needs to read the actual play to appreciate the humor. First, the dramatis personae—after reading the play, one realizes that Austen’s casting was perfect:


  • Baron Wildenhaim   .   .   Mr. Yates
  • Count Cassel   .   .   .   Mr. Rushworth
  • Anhalt .   .   .   .   .   Edmund Bertram
  • Frederick  .   .   .   .   Henry Crawford
  • Verdun the Butler  .   .   Tom Bertram
  • Cottager   .   .   .   .   Tom Bertram


  • Agatha Friburg .   .   .   Maria Bertram
  • Amelia Wildenhaim  .   .   Mary Crawford
  • Cottager’s wife    .   .   Mrs. Grant (turned down by Fanny Price)

Lovers' VowsLovers’ Vows is set in Germany, and the entire play takes place in the short span of a day. Frederick is a German soldier who has come home from war on a leave of absence, and is eager to see his beloved mother, Agatha, after an absence of five years. By happenstance, he meets his mother by a country road, starving and almost dying. In this bittersweet moment of seeing each other again after a long absence, and the discovery of the tragic circumstances of Agatha, it is revealed to Frederick by his mother that he is an illegitimate son and that his father is Baron Wildenheim. Twenty years ago, the young would-be Baron seduced Agatha, who was a poor country girl taken in by his mother. Being young and fearful of his mother’s wrath (it’s all about money), and promising Agatha marriage upon his mother’s death, Wildenheim prevailed on Agatha not to reveal to anyone that he was the father of the child she was carrying. Of course, this meant that Agatha was banished from the Wildenheim castle by her own benefactress. Wildenheim, at the same time went off to France, married well, and had a daughter, named Amelia Wildenheim.


People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Posted in Books, Fiction, Reading, Review by onlyanovel on February 17, 2008

Well, there’s a perfect example of how life gets in the way of reading books (and reading my favorite blogs, for that matter). I started this book a few weeks ago, but had to put it aside to take care of some annoying curveballs. It’s an easy book, but I only got around to finishing it recently. I wish I were capable of reading during lunch breaks, but I find that those times are rather too short and distracting to get me into a reading groove.

People of the BookI picked up this book because of the hype. I think it’s been on many bestseller lists for a while now. I also heard it being featured, and Brooks being interviewed, on public radio. I usually don’t pick up a book just because it’s on a bestseller list–I actually try to avoid those books–but this one seemed and sounded interesting enough.

People of the Book is a fictional account of the origin and journey, through cities and centuries, of the brilliantly illuminated Hebrew manuscript known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. According to Wiki:

The Sarajevo Haggadah is an illuminated manuscript that contains the traditional text of the Passover Haggadah which accompanies the Passover Seder. It is the oldest Sephardic Haggadah in the world, originating in Barcelona around 1350. The Haggadah is presently owned by the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, where it is on permanent display.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is handwritten on bleached calfskin and illuminated in copper and gold. It opens with 34 pages of illustrations of key scenes in the Bible from Creation through the death of Moses. Its pages are stained with wine, evidence that it was used at many Passover Seders. It is considered to be the most beautiful illuminated Jewish manuscript in existence and one of the most valuable books in the world. In 1991 it was appraised at US$700 million.

Sarajevo HaggadahTo me, the Sarajevo Haggadah sounds like a fascinating historical and religious object. It is apparently a small but very striking book. In the Afterword of her book, Brooks says that scholars know little about this magnificent book’s creation and history. It is known, however, that this Jewish book was saved from destruction at least twice–during World War II and during the Bosnian war of the 1990s–by Muslim librarians, Dervis Korkut and Enver Imamovic, who risked their lives by doing so. Inspirational stories during these times, indeed, and therein lies the perfect opening for a promising novel. Brooks, who was formerly a war correspondent, also says in the Afterword that, “The librarians of Sarajevo are a very special breed. At least one of them, Aida Buturovic, gave her life as she saved books from Sarajevo’s burning library…” In her dedication, Brooks says that her book is “For the librarians.” And, appropriately, this is a story about the people of the book–as they represent the countless caretakers who, through the centuries, have ensured the survival of the wealth of the world’s knowledge and traditions that are preserved in books and manuscripts–more than the book itself. The novel’s heroine, Hanna, while trying to write an essay about the Sarajevo Haggadah which was about to be put on public display, thought:

I wanted this one to be different. I wanted to give a sense of the people of the book, the different hands that had made it, used it, protected it. I wanted it to be a gripping narrative, even suspenseful.


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Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Posted in Books, Fanny Price, Jane Austen, Literature, Mansfield Park, Reading, Review by onlyanovel on January 23, 2008

Mansfield ParkHaving read the other five of Austen’s novels, I thought I had gained enough immunity, and was safe against an attack from Austen’s writing style and substance while I was reading Mansfield Park. But I was helpless. I was once again charmed, even more so than before, if you can believe it possible. I cannot possibly put all my thoughts in this post—it would be too long—for Austen gave me a lot to think about in this book. But here are some highlights.

Among Austen’s novels, Mansfield Park, in my opinion, is the one which presents the deepest insight and knowledge of the nuances and vicissitudes of human nature, and it presents them masterfully. In it, Austen pays tribute to a sound mind, judgment, and principles, as the compass which can safely guide us through the changes of time and circumstances. Never mind that the person who possesses these traits cannot play the pianoforte or the harp. Austen gives the young heroine, Fanny Price, a knowledge of these things. When Edmund Bertram, her cousin and secret love, promises to write to her when he has news of success in pursuing his own love, Mary Crawford, Fanny thinks:

For this letter she must try to arm herself. That a letter from Edmund should be a subject of terror! She began to feel that she had not yet gone through all the changes of opinion and sentiment, which the progress of time and variation of circumstances occasion in this world of changes. The vicissitudes of the human mind had not yet been exhausted by her.

Austen emphasizes the importance of proper upbringing and education in shaping an individual’s character, judgement, and principles, whether this education is supplied by a natural or an adoptive family. But she also acknowledges that a favorable disposition and judgement can be innate, if struggling to prevail, as in the case of Mary Crawford and Susan Price, Fanny’s younger sister.

Fanny PriceI have this impression—though I might be wrong—that among Austen’s heroines, Fanny Price is the least liked. I love Fanny Price. Austen’s Miss Price is painfully shy, delicate, quiet, nervous, and an introvert, who derives her pleasures from books, riding, sitting and keenly observing, and the company of her cousin, mentor, and confidant, Edmund. Fanny Price also seems to be the Austen heroine whose colour changes the most—she is constantly turning scarlet or white, but mostly scarlet. She is also the most prone to almost, but not quite, faint, as if Austen is gently teasing her for her delicacy, which she also does in other ways at some points in the novel. Yet these are the words which Austen uses over and over again in the novel in their variety, as if the reader cannot be reminded enough, in relation to Fanny: gentle, sweet, tender, good, modest, soft; and with purity of mind and intentions, excellence of principles, an affectionate heart, tenderness of heart, a quick and clear understanding, mental superiority, the heart which knew no guile; and with beauty of face and figure to boot. Henry Crawford, Mary’s brother and a character that I was wholly prepared to hate until Austen botched my plans, says to Fanny:

“You have qualities which I had not before supposed to exist in such a degree in any human creature. You have some touches of the angel in you, beyond what—not merely beyond what one sees, because one never sees any thing like it—but beyond what one fancies might be.”

Even Austen the narrator, at the end of the novel, refers to the heroine as “My Fanny,” which I think is a rare public display of fondness for one of her heroines. And yet, Fanny is all too human. When Edmund and Mary have a lovers’ spat at a ball, this is how Fanny reacts:

Fanny, not able to refrain entirely from observing them, had seen enough to be tolerably satisfied. It was barbarous to be happy when Edmund was suffering. Yet some happiness must and would arise, from the very conviction, that he did suffer.


Sir Walter Scott’s Review of Emma

Posted in Books, Emma, Jane Austen, Literature, Review by onlyanovel on January 19, 2008

Quarterly ReviewWhat can I say? I was curious. I have often read about this famous “flattering” review that Sir Walter Scott—author of Ivanhoe, The Lady of the Lake, and many others—wrote about Austen’s Emma, but I’ve never really read excerpts from that review, which appeared in the October 1815 edition (published on 12 March 1816) of The Quarterly Review. So I went in search of the article so I can read it myself. It wasn’t straightforward to find a digital copy online—to my surprise—but I eventually found one reproduced in the book Famous Reviews, edited by R. Brimley Johnson (London, 1914). Hooray for Project Gutenberg! Here are some excerpts from Scott’s review, which I’ve also posted on this blog’s The Pages (see sidebar).

Scott starts by discussing the value of a novel, even mediocre ones, but acknowledges that Austen’s Emma, as well as Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, were not your run-of-the-mill novels:

If such apologies may be admitted in judging the labours of ordinary
novelists, it becomes doubly the duty of the critic to treat with
kindness as well as candour works which, like this before us, proclaim a
knowledge of the human heart, with the power and resolution to bring
that knowledge to the service of honour and virtue. The author is
already known to the public by the two novels announced in her title-page,
and both, the last especially, attracted, with justice, an
attention from the public far superior to what is granted to the
ephemeral productions which supply the regular demand of watering-places
and circulating libraries. They belong to a class of fictions which has
arisen almost in our own times, and which draws the characters and
incidents introduced more immediately from the current of ordinary life
than was permitted by the former rules of the novel.

As the last sentence of this quote indicates, there was at that time occurring a transormation of the novel from one which related sensational, overly sentimental, impossible schemes and tones to one which realistically reflected ordinary life and ordinary people. Does this remind you of anything? Reading the first half of Scott’s article, I was continually reminded of Austen’s Northanger Abbey, which was written around 16 years before the review (but published posthumously). In light of the first sentence of the next excerpt, I find this very interesting! Check it out: (more…)

Motivations, or why I started this blog (Part II)

Posted in Books, Jane Austen, Motivations, Reading by onlyanovel on January 16, 2008

So, to continue where I left off in my first post, I finished reading Emma with a sense of satisfaction which no other novel had given me. (I note here that I can honestly say that, until about a couple of months ago, I had not been aware of the current fascination with Austen in the popular culture.) Months after Emma, I found myself at the same indie bookstore grabbing every Penguin edition Austen novel that they had on the shelves—they had all that I needed except Mansfield Park. Do you sometimes envy people who are about to read for the first time your favorite books, knowing the hours of pleasure that were ahead of them in reading those books? I now had in my possession four additional Austen novels, none of which I knew anything about, except what was written on the back covers which, thankfully, didn’t give anything away. I didn’t know then what I was in for.

Pride and Prejudice title pageI started with Pride and Prejudice. The thing had me rolling on the floor laughing. Emma notwithstanding, I was surprised, I really was. At the sharp wit, the beautiful writing, the humor, the delicacy, the storytelling, the vividness of the characters, the truths that were told. Everything. I couldn’t believe that here was a writer from the early 19th century who connected at different levels with a 21st-century, hard-to-impress scientist who used to think that reading fiction was a complete waste of time. I find that utterly amazing. At around this time, it also became clear to me that Austen was a literary genius. And the fact need not be diluted. Austen was a genius like Einstein was a genius.

After Pride and Prejudice, I was under Austen’s spell. I had no sooner finished Pride and Prejudice than I was reaching for the next novel. In quick succession, I read Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, and Sense and Sensibility, each becoming a favorite as I read it. As I read, it also became clear that Austen was a very well-read person. I also convinced myself that she was, in today’s jargon, a sort of feminist. I was very, very impressed, to say the least. I was hooked. I wanted to learn more about this genius. I started reading her letters. But that’s another story.

Darcy holding out letterThat’s how I found myself at this point, wanting to spend the rest of my life reading. By reading Austen, I have been inspired to read again, to strive to be literate. To read not just prose, but also poetry. Before Austen, I didn’t care a hoot about poetry. Now I even manage to memorize them, and seek them. And, yes, I was wrong. Reading fiction, very good fiction, is not a waste of time. I do learn something—not all new—about myself, about others, about the human condition, about possibilities. And, dare I say, universal truths? 😉

I sometimes wonder if my experience is strange. But, perhaps, it is just another measure of Austen’s genius and, perhaps, I am not alone.

Those who have read Northanger Abbey will recognize the title I have chosen for this nascent blog and, after reading this and my first post, will perhaps understand why I chose it. I’ll end by quoting the relevant text from the novel:

“I am no novel reader—I seldom look into novels—Do not imagine that I often read novels—It is really very well for a novel.”—Such is the common cant.— “And what are you reading, Miss —?” “Oh! it is only a novel!” replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame.— “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;” or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.

(The illustration in this post is by H. M. Brock, for Pride and Prejudice.)

I welcome your comments.

Motivations, or why I started this blog (Part I)

Posted in Books, Jane Austen, Motivations, Reading by onlyanovel on January 15, 2008

The reason I started this blog can be summarized as follows: Jane Austen. It doesn’t mean, though, that this is a blog about Jane Austen and her work, though that will no doubt be a big part of it. Let me explain.

I am a professional scientist. You can imagine what getting to be called such probably entailed: Graduate school, lots of all-nighters, sleeping in libraries, lots of reading and studying. Yes, I read a lot, but the kind of books I read were obviously technical and scientific in nature, with as much equations as text in them. I had been fond of books as a child. For this I have my family to thank, for raising me in an environment full of books and newspapers. The books were varied, from children’s books to grammar books, chemistry books, complete sets of encyclopedias, medical books, the Pentagon Papers, bibles, big, fat dictionaries, sundry novels, etc. (Alas, no Austen.) Wanting to be a scientist early on, I was eventually drawn more and more to science books—books which contained mankind’s collective knowledge about the Universe. My education in literature, in the other kind of books, was virtually stunted and, until recently, I thought I suffered no great loss from it. Indeed, while in graduate school, I decided that reading fiction was a complete waste of time, because nothing was to be learned from reading such books.

Fast forward to about a year ago. No longer in graduate school and things going well with my research work, I found myself with some expendable time. I guess I began to be envious of people who read, and was embarrassed that I couldn’t call myself a reader. While in an indie bookstore, I picked up a used copy of Austen’s Emma without knowing what the story was about. I had read that Austen was a great writer. If there is any doubt in the reader’s mind that I am illiterate, then that last sentence should erase any trace of it.

Polaroid of Austen booksIn the comfort of home, I proceeded to read Emma. At first, the 19th-century language slowed me down, but it didn’t make me put down the book. (This is an appropriate place to say that I have a short attention span.) The storytelling compelled me to turn each page, and the language eventually gained a rhythm with each page I read, and the rhythm stuck. Around the middle of the book, I began to realize what I was actually reading, and the realization sent a rush of blood to my head, and words of awe from my mouth. I had to pause in disbelief. I realized that before me were words that were strung together into sentences to convey a meaning in a way that was absolutely beautiful and subtle. I realized that I understood what Austen was saying at a much deeper level than what the words and sentences seemed to be conveying at the surface. It was like I was reading feelings and thoughts instead of words. If that doesn’t make much sense, it’s because I am at a loss as to how to describe the experience. Perhaps I should just say that the experience, the realization, was profound.

I will continue this personal story, and the motivations for this blog, on my next post. I welcome your comments.