Classic Book Review: Northanger Abbey

The first book that my new book club read was Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. Though it was first manuscript that Austin completed in 1803, it was not published until after her death fourteen years later. It follows the story  of Katherine Morland, a seventeen-year-old girl who is spirited away to Bath by her wealthier neighbors. We follow her as she navigates new friendships and budding romances, eventually realizing that not everyone has the best of intentions.

Katherine as a Protagonist

I could identify a lot with Katherine, because even at 28 years old, I struggle with the naivete of trying to see the best in people. Even if I don’t trust someone to behave appropriately personal, moral reasons, I fall into the trap of thinking that they will act reasonably purely out of self-interest to not create problems for themselves  and make unnecessary enemies. More often than not I am proven false, that people think they can partake in immoral behavior and believe nothing bad will come of it.

I could see a lot of myself in Katherine, how when one has lived such a sheltered childhood and adolescence, it is near-impossible to even conceive that someone is knowingly acting with premeditated ill intentions.

The Menace of Novels

One of Katherine’s major weaknesses is her overindulgent imagination, which causes her to presume the worst of General Tinley, hardly a generous man, but not a murderer. This inability to differentiate between fantasy and reality was considered a serious social problem when novels began to gain popularity in Austen’s time. Novels were deemed course and common, and the romanticism that many of them advocated was a sharp disruption to the classical notions of honor and duty.

“Novels took the noble pleasure of reading and made it something quick and dirty. They told exciting stories in simple prose, not poetry. Their heroes were not kings or demigods, but maidservants and mariners, who instead of going on magical quests faced the inward challenges that readers knew from their own lives.”

Leo Benedictus

I was fascinated with the theme of novel reading in the story, mailing because we seem the same debates about literature happening in our time. One can compare the disdain for novels back then to the literary snobbery we see today with the dichotomy between literary fiction and commercial fiction, or traditional vs self-publishing.

Criticism

If there is anything that I didn’t like about the novel, it was its pacing. Northanger Abbey is hailed as Austen’s big parody on Gothic literature, yet only a fraction of the book takes place at the seemingly spooky manor house. It’s almost as if the book should exist as two books (or at least two equal-sized parts in one book), with one part showing Katherine’s time in Bath and the other half showing her solving the “mysteries” of Northanger Abbey. The actual abbey part felt rather rushed and I wished Austen would have fleshed that part out more.

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My First Book Club

Last week I started my first ever book club! It’s a small group comprising of some neighbors from the various condo complexes that circle the lake that ties our community together. We had introductions over tea, cake, and cookies. Then we discussed the finer details of how we would like the club to function.

The idea for this book club has been in my head for about a year now, but I was too shy to take initiative. I was worried that there would be no desire for one, that it would be totally cliché to start such a club, but it seems there are fellow literature enthusiasts who were itching for a book club just as much as myself.

This is a book club specifically geared towards the classics of literature, both historic and modern. I’m usually not a book snob; I need a healthy balance of literary and commercial fiction to remain a happy little bookworm, but I thought classics would have a stronger glue to make a book club in my area stick together.

We ultimate decided that the first book we shall read this month is Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. This blog will directly benefit from this club and I will write a book review for each book we read, in addition to the books I read on my own.

I’m glad I started a book club because it taps into one of my weaknesses: engaging with the wider community. I’ve always focused so much on school or work that I rarely took the time to invest in other types of extracurricular activities. This has sometimes times been to my detriment, like when I noticed how bare my resume was in that department.

This can become even more of a problem as I devote more time to my writing aspirations. Part of why I created a book club was because I am spending more time on my writing. One cannot be a good writer if one is not reading regularly. However, I am determined to turn my focus of reading/writing into a social endeavor rather than have it isolate me.

 

 

 

 

 

When Revenge Backfires: The Scandalous Lady W

Several years ago I saw BBC2’s television movie The Scandalous Lady W, a historical drama depicting the life of Lady Seymour Worsley. She was an 18th century English aristocrat whose dysfunctional marriage became public knowledge when her husband sued her lover for punitive damages.

The story is quite a feminist one where Seymour starts out victimized by a psychologically abusive husband until she finally leaves him for her lover. She maintains her defiance and autonomy from her husband despite living in an era where women were viewed as men’s legal property.

I’ve always been a fan of Natalie Dormer ever since I saw her in the 2005’s Casanova where she played Giacomo’s would-be fiancée Victoria Donato. Her more prominent roles as Anne Boleyn in The Tudors and Margery Tyrell in Games of Thrones have given her ample practice in dramas of a historical/political nature. Upon seeing the trailer and realizing that she was playing Lady Seymour, I knew I had to watch it and I was not disappointed.

The Theme of Revenge

There are a lot of themes at play in The Scandalous Lady W, not least of which is the issue of women’s rights and the historical view that women were considered very much to be literal objects over which their husbands had full legal possession. Other themes include the clash of Romanticism, represented by Seymour, with the lingering Classical sentiment, represented by her husband.

Yet out of all these themes, what struck me most about the piece was the theme of revenge, how Sir Richard reacts to his wife’s desertion and the actions he chooses to take both before and long after the trial against her lover, George Bisset.

Exacting revenge upon a spouse or ex-spouse will always remain a great temptation to mankind. Whether due to legitimate heartbreak or wounded pride, there are those who find it incredibly difficult to let a romantic partner walk away freely without inciting some form of vengeance.

Revenge is seen as a salve that will help heal the wounds of abandonment, betrayal, or loss of control. But often revenge does not always pan out in the way that the avenger intends and can actually cost the avenger more than what they could have gained through the cheap catharsis of revenge.

Sir Richard: Abuser Claiming to be the Victim

Sir Richard, angry, entitled, and believing himself to be in a privileged position, decides to sue his wife’s lover for 20,000 pounds. He is told by advisors that he should instead handle the situation quietly and delicately, but Sir Richard is determined to have his revenge. He thinks that through a trial he can financially ruin Bisset and punish his wife by publicly declaring her an adulteress.

At first Sir Richard seems successful, having already proven Seymour’s adultery with Bisset. However, Seymour and Bisset turn the tables on him by proving that Sir Richard was well aware of their affair and actually encouraged it, along with dozens of affairs Seymour had before Bisset at her husband’s request for his own voyeuristic pleasure.

The revelation of Sir Richard’s voyeurism and sexual coercion causes the jury to reduce the compensation Bisset must pay from 20,000 pounds to one shilling. Sir Richard is humiliated, yet stubbornly refuses to grant Seymour a divorce, again against the council of those around him. He wants to maintain some sense of power over Seymour, even at the expense of himself moving on with his life.

Revenge is Expensive and Unhealthy

Sir Richard tried to obtain revenge rather than accept that his own sexual perversions had driven Seymour away. He felt he was entitled to do as he wished with Seymour without ever taking her feelings into account. He then felt a compelling desire to lash out at Seymour the moment she started to put her own emotional needs above his.

I connected so much to this movie because I could relate Seymour’s plight with her husband to my own husband’s plight with his ex-girlfriend. Like Sir Richard, his ex-girlfriend tried to use lies and half-truths to portray herself as the victim of a toxic relationship. While she may have been partially successful at first, as time wore on more of the truth came out, prompting others to question his ex’s credibility and to apologize to my husband.

Those who seek out revenge will find themselves losing out by the end of the ugly business, especially those who are guilty and have no legitimate, moral right to retaliation. They think they can conceal their own vices while staging the sins of their enemy, but such a strategy rarely works in the long term.

Revenge is not cheap. It is mentally, emotionally, and sometimes even financially draining. It can also cost the avenger a pristine reputation if they choose not to keep their hatred for their target in check.

Above all else, revenge can cause the avenger to place their victim’s punishment above their own happiness and peace of mind. That is the ultimate price, to not live life for one’s self, but rather for the misery of their target. Paraphrasing the words of Nelson Mandela and Emmet Fox, revenge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.

 

Anna Karenina vs. The Duchess

I find it surprising that no one has thought to compare these two movies before. Both are period dramas starring Keira Knightley retelling the lives of two aristocratic women. Both films were excellent is providing strong, multidimensional female leads, one who finds wisdom after being broken and one who falls from grace and succumbs to madness.

The Duchess is the adaption of Amanda Foreman’s biography of Georgiana Cavendish, the 6th Duchess of Devonshire. Born Lady Georgiana Spencer, she was the great-great-great-great-aunt to the late Princess Diana. She married the duke of Devonshire on her 17th birthday. The duke was an emotionally stunted man who was only concerned with having a son, something Georgiana did not provide him until many years into their marriage. She eventually has an affair with the uprising politician Charles Grey until she is forced to break it off when the duke threatens to take her children away. She is also forced to relinquish her illegitimate daughter to the Grey family and lives the rest of her life as the Duchess of Devonshire.

Anna Karenina is the adaptation of the 1873 novel of the same name by Leo Tolstoy, one of my favorite classics of all time. Anna is the dutiful wife of a high-ranking imperial official who is swept into a passionate love affair by the dashing cavalry officer Count Vronsky. Ultimately the affair is discovered and Anna attempts to live her life as Vronsky’s mistress, only to find that all of society has ostracized her. That combined with her increasing erratic jealousy plunges her into insanity until she commits suicide by stepping in front of a train.

Between the two women, Georgiana is the character that inspires the most sympathy. Her husband had already had his own string of affairs before Georgiana has hers with Charles Grey and it is clear that the duke is not genuinely hurt by her actions, only concerned with his reputation. Anna, on the other hand, has her affair with Vronsky when her husband, albeit not overtly affectionate, was still emotionally devoted to her. Georgiana is also the opposite of Anna where she was willing to sacrifice her personal happiness with Grey to remain in her children’s lives, whereas Anna was prepared to leave her son to be with Vronsky.

In the beginning I had sympathy for Anna. Though her husband was not cruel, they did marry out of convenience, thus Count Vronsky could possibly be considered Anna’s first “real” love. My sympathy for Anna came to an end, however, after she decided to return to Vronsky upon regaining her health from the difficult childbirth of her illegitimate daughter. She thought she was going to die and didn’t want to depart this world without obtaining Karenin’s forgiveness. When she didn’t end up dying, she wanted to go back to Vronsky, illustrating that her husband’s forgiveness meant little to her in actuality. She only wanted it to soothe her own conscience in the face of death.

Any sympathy I had for Anna after that was purely at a societal level. I condemned Anna personally, but could still bear witness to the unjust double standards that the Russian aristocracy had in regards to male and female adultery. Anna’s brother, Oblonsky, is depicted as a benevolent character, even though he himself is notorious for having affair after affair without remorse.

If there is a weakness in Georgiana’s character, it is her naivety and her desire for attention. Since she does not receive affection from her husband, she seeks it superficially by focusing on the public who adores her. Her dissatisfaction with her home life leaves her susceptible to various addictions, her biggest one being gambling. The stark contrast between her image as a public figure and her private life has been compared to other modern celebrities like Marilyn Monroe.

Both films hold a special place in my heart because they show two strong women who reacted very differently to the limitations placed upon their gender during the 18th and 19th centuries. Georgiana was able to gain much political influence in her own right in the Whig Party while delicately maintaining deference to her husband, while Anna Karenina brazenly defied her husband and society’s expectations of her, though that ultimately lead to her downfall when she could no longer rely on Vronsky to remain faithful to her. It was not society that directly crushed her, it was the sense that her relationship with Vronsky was not longer healthy and thus no longer “worth” the scorn she was enduring from society.

I strongly recommend anyone to go watch these two amazing historical dramas. Both films are available on Netflix. You will not be disappointed.

Hate the Book, not the Author: A Defense of Twilight and Stephanie Meyer

I first got into the Twilight series because my sister was raving about them, and yeah, I’m not afraid to say that I enjoyed them. What I really appriciated about them was Meyer’s daring to go so far outside the typical vampire templete, giving them a twist that we had never seen before. She went farther outside of the box than I intend for the vampires in my would-be paranormal romance. And for that she has my respect as a fantasy writer.

I could never get into the movie adaptations. I watched the first one, thought many of the creative desicions made were awful, and chose not to engage with the rest of the films. But that didn’t deter my appreciation for the books. Yet unbeknowst to me, there was an entire counter-cultural crusade against the Twilight series and Stephanie Meyer herself that went on during the late 2000s. YouTuber Lindsay Ellis made a phenomenal video about the hate Meyer got, which I highly recommend.

Ellis gives thoughtful insight to how “we, and by we I mean our culture, we kinda hate teenage girls.” So because Twilight was shamelessly geared towards this demographic, it became a target for that wider, societal contempt.

I’m not saying that there isn’t any legitmate criticism that can be made against the Twilight series. There are a slew of feminist arguments that can be made for the sublte and sometimes overt misogyny represented, but a cultural phenomenon such as this in literature and film should be taken in stride as a learning lesson, not as a call to grab one’s pitchfork and set the author’s house ablaze.

The popularity of Twilight and the like reveals unflattering elements of the human condition that many wish just didn’t exist or at most were restricted to a small minority of teenage girls and wine moms. But with over 100 million copies sold, this reveals the painful reality that we haven’t evolved as a society as much as we would like the think we have. So rather than analyze why some unhealthy social constructs represented in books still have a dangerous hold on our collective psyche, people instead choose to lash out at the author for the unforgivable offense of writing the book in the first place.

I find the distain for Meyer in a small way comparable to the distain for Trump. The current president makes himself very easy to hate, but I must admit that I don’t so much hate Trump as I am saddened by the sizable chuck of society that gave Trump power. Before Trump I would have thought American society as a whole has moved beyond racism and sexism at least enough to easily dismiss someone like Trump. The fact that he now runs the United States is very telling of all the blind spots our society still has.

In short, we shouldn’t hate Stephanie Meyer nor think of Twilight as this blasphemous stain on modern literature.  She didn’t do anything that society didn’t allow her to do. Twilight is not the worst in the YA romance genre when it comes to promoting sexist stereotypes, but because the series grew to be so big, Twilight and its creator have been highjacked as the ambassadors for everything we despise about certain social problems that we still face.

You can hate Twilight, but that hate should be directed towards something constructive, not mindlessly fuel disgust for the author and anyone who dares to enjoy Twilight.