Wednesday, March 31, 2021

S&S Read-Along: Ch. 23 & 24

Please note that this is the only read-along post I'll be writing this week.  I'm just too busy during Holy Week, and I suspect a lot of you are too.  We'll go back up to six chapters next week.

I've got to admit I don't have a lot to say about these two chapters.  First we have Elinor thinking about what she learned from Lucy about Edward, and then we have Elinor and Lucy discussing Lucy's situation in obliquely sly and snarky ways.  And that's that.

My annotated edition did have one really interesting thought in it that I want to share, though.  It says of Edward that "[e]ven his hesitation to choose a profession might result in part from his reluctance to take a step that, by providing him with a more regular income, would advance the day of his marriage to Lucy" (p. 255).  I had not thought of that!  Ever!  I always just thought Edward couldn't figure out what he wanted to do, but I do think this is really possible, that he's just delaying this because he can put off marrying Lucy this way.

Discussion Questions:

1.  Do you think it's possible that Edward has been delaying choosing a profession because it means he can put off marrying Lucy?

2.  If you haven't read this before, are you surprised by how much of the book revolves around monetary concerns?

That's all for this week, friends.  May you have a blessed Easter!

Sunday, March 28, 2021

"Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" by J. K. Rowling

This is my favorite Harry Potter book.  It's the book that made me a real fan of the series, and it's the book that gave me my favorite character in that universe, Sirius Black.

I love this book so much, I lingered over it and made it last me for days and days instead of gobbling it down like I did the first two.  I would pause at favorite bits and savor them.  I reread my favorite page in the whole series multiple times.  I stopped and reread my favorite two chapters.  I let myself savor the story, the characters, the writing.  It was a glorious reread.

Happy times.

I was very much struck, this time, with Snape's correct assessment of Harry's character flaws.  He says, "famous Harry Potter is a law unto himself.  Let the ordinary people worry about his safety!  Famous Harry Potter goes where he wants to, with no thought for the consequences" (p. 284).  How right you are, Snape!  Harry really does think he can do just about anything, and so far, he's gotten out of some bad scrapes pretty handily that he wouldn't have really needed to get out of if he hadn't gotten himself into them in the first place.  

This is a common thing in kids books, where kids just ignore the wise adults and go their merry way and solve everything on their own by doing ridiculously dangerous things.  I'm glad Rowling addresses that issue in her series, that she shows that this is NOT a good way to go about things, especially as the series progresses.  Yes, Harry is not an ordinary boy... but he's also only a boy.  And his stubborn belief that He Knows Best does have serious consequences at times.  As Lupin says about himself and his friends at Harry's age, "We were young, thoughtless -- carried away with our own cleverness" (p. 355).  It's a dangerous business, being young and thinking you're invincible.

Part of me wants to just stop here, with a vast array of possibilities ahead for Sirius and Harry, everything hopeful and unknown.  I won't.  I'll keep rereading the series.  But I'm also going to very much enjoy the next couple of weeks before I start book four, of living in this in-between world for a bit.

(Mine from my Instagram account.)

Particularly Good Bits:

Meanwhile, in the rest of the castle, the usual magnificent Christmas decorations had been put up, despite the fact that hardly any of the students remained to enjoy them.  Thick streamers of holly and mistletoe were strung along the corridors, mysterious lights shone from inside every suit of armor, and the Great Hall was filled with its usual twelve Christmas trees, glittering with golden stars.  A powerful and delicious smell of cooking pervaded the corridors, and by Christmas Eve, it had grown so strong that even Scabbers poked his nose out of the shelter of Ron's pocket to sniff hopefully at the air (p. 222).

"What was there to be gained by fighting the most evil wizard who has ever existed?" said Black, with a terrible fury in his face.  "Only innocent lives, Peter!" (p. 375).

Black's gaunt face broke into the first true smile Harry had seen upon it.  The difference it made was startling, as though a person ten years younger were shining through the starved mask; for a moment, he was recognizable as the man who had laughed at Harry's parents' wedding (p. 379).  (That's basically my favorite paragraph in the whole series.)

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: PG for some rude humor, mild bad language, peril to children, discussion of executions, and the very scary Dementors.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

S&S Read-Along: Ch. 21 & 22

In which Lucy Steele waltzes into our lives and drops her bomb.

Also, I feel like this cover is pretty much the most perfect match for how I felt the first time I encountered this story.  Anyone else here pop-eyed from shock?

But, you know, at least we know now why Edward has never declared his feelings for Elinor or asked her to marry him.  It's because he's been secretly engaged to this chick for four years!  The nerve of some people!

Okay, so, I had to explain this to my husband, because he started singing that bit from The Phantom of the Opera where Raoul wonders, "Why is it secret?  What have we to hide?"  (It's been stuck in my head ever since, so it might as well be stuck in yours too.)  I figured maybe I ought to explain it here too, in case anyone else is wondering.  This is kind of a huge part of the plot, so I'm just going to dig into it.  If you know all this already, well, skim ahead to the discussion questions.

The reason people would get secretly engaged at this point in history is if one or both of them had parents who would object.  Which is totally the case here.  Mrs. Ferrars, Edward's mom, is a very ambitious woman.  We've already heard Edward talk about how she wants him to have some kind of fashionable, high-profile profession, and all he wants is to be a minister living quietly in the country somewhere.  And Fanny Dashwood, Edward's sister, warned Mrs. Dashwood that her mother has high hopes for Edward to marry someone with a good fortune of high social standing.  Elinor doesn't have either of those, and neither does Lucy Steele.  

So if, four years ago when Lucy was 19 (which is how old Elinor is now) and Edward was presumably only 18 or 19 himself, Edward and Lucy fancied themselves in love, they would get engaged secretly and not reveal their engagement until both sets of parents were more amenable to the idea, at which time they could ask their parents for permission and make the engagement public.

And why would Edward not want to do that right away?  Because his mother has the power to disinherit him and leave the family fortune to his younger brother Robert.  Which would leave Edward penniless.  And Edward, the dear boy, is just a little bit fond of living well at his mother's expense and not having to choose a profession yet.  Not only that, but Lucy is pretty obviously attached to the idea of marrying a rich husband, so she doesn't want to make the engagement public until she's sure Edward won't lose his inheritance.

Now, the trouble with secret engagements is that either party can just disavow them, or break them with little real ramification.  A public engagement is a kind of safeguard against either party backing out without the other party's consent -- the more people who know about an engagement, the more people will hold you to it.  This is why Elinor and her mom were so shocked that Marianne and Willoughby were behaving as if they were engaged, but not announcing an engagement -- neither of them really had any reason to keep it secret.

Also, by the rules of the day, since the man was the one who asked the woman to marry him, then the woman was the only one with the real power to break the engagement.  A man could ask a woman to end their engagement, but if she wanted to hold him to it, he was stuck.  Or he could break it and be considered dishonorable and disgraced.  This was a safeguard for women, who had very little real power over their own lives except in the choice of whether or not to accept a proposal and whether or not to allow an engagement to lead to marriage.  

So.  Somehow or other, Lucy got Edward to propose to her, four years ago.  She's holding onto that engagement because it's her ticket to the big-time.  She's obviously from a lower class than the Dashwoods, who are the wife and daughters of a gentleman, and undoubtedly poorer than the Ferrars, who are rich and landed gentry.  If she can marry that much higher up the social ladder, not only is she going to have a really nice life, but she can probably pass some of financial assistance on to her family, and maybe even help her old maid of a sister live a comfortable life too.  Lucy has hitched her wagon to a star, and she knows it.  

BUT.  Obviously, Lucy has heard about Elinor.  Her secret fiance has been noticeably attentive to a woman much closer to himself in class, intelligence, personality, and so on.  Elinor is competition, and Lucy won't stand for that.  So she pretends to need a confidante and an advisor in order to inform Elinor of Edward's secret engagement so Elinor will back off.  She hasn't been educated very well, but she is clever, and she is very, very devious, isn't she?  By swearing Elinor to secrecy, she's keeping Elinor from making this engagement public or telling Mrs. Ferrars about it somehow.  But she's also making her own position more secure because now, if Edward tries to break the engagement or disavow it, she can call on Elinor to witness that she knew about it.

Poor Edward is stuck with this conniving viper for a fiancee, and poor Elinor is stuck with this secret knowledge that the man she loves (and who, she is convinced, loves her) is not free to be with her.  Ugh!  And we thought Marianne's love life was a mess!

Discussion Questions:

1.  Marianne refuses to tell polite lies, and would rather be rudely silent than have to say things she doesn't mean.  Which do you prefer doing?

2.  What do you think of Edward at this point?  Was he leading Elinor on?  

Thursday, March 25, 2021

"The Winter King" by Christine Cohen

Wow.  This book hit me a lot harder than I was expecting.  I went into it thinking, "Okay, a fantasy winter story for early teens could be fun" and came out thinking, "That was so intense and illuminating!"

Cora's family has fallen into hard times ever since her father died while ice fishing.  Shunned by many villagers who think they're cursed, Cora's widowed mother and her three siblings struggle for basic necessities like food and socks.

The village is watched over by a remote deity called the Winter King.  Cora blames him for her father's death and her family's struggles.  When a coughing sickness strikes the village, Cora becomes determined to confront the Winter King.  When she finally does, she learns more than she could have ever expected and brings true peace not only to her own heart, but to the lives of her whole village.

This book started a little slowly, but it built steadily until I was totally gripped by Cora's fight to find a way to save her family and understand her god.  It can be read as an allegory for the Protestant Reformation, with sacred texts and the truth they hold being withheld from the common people, but also as simply a coming-of-age story of a determined young woman trying to make sense of her world with too little guidance.  I'm labeling it as Christian fiction, but it's not overtly Christian, only allegorically so.

Oh, and before you start comparing the "coughing sickness" to Covid-19 too strongly -- this book was published in 2019, before the virus was in our public consciousness here in the US.  So that's totally a coincidence.

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: PG-13 for a man who presses his attentions on a woman he has power over, some scary moments with monsters, descriptions of death, and a few kisses between young adults.  No bad language, no racy content, no gory violence.

This is my 14th book read from my TBR shelves for #TheUnreadShelfProject2021.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

S&S Read-Along: Ch. 19 & 20

Oh my goodness, the Palmers crack me up so much!  Do they make you laugh?  I was chuckling aloud several times during these two chapters.  I absolutely love how Charlotte is so determined to be happy and cheerful, and how successful she is at it.  She's not very intelligent, but she is a ray of sunshine, and I could hug her for that.

(Randomly, is this not one of the weirdest covers I have found yet?  I bet it was made in the '70s.  All '70s book covers are bizarre.)

It's very nice of the Palmers to arrive and cheer us all up after Edward's melancholy departure.  I never noticed before how much Edward's leaving mirrors Willoughby's -- both are sad about having to leave, and leave behind many questions about their behavior.  Elinor tried to convince her mother and sister not to keep excusing Willoughby's more inexplicable actions... and now she's finding all kinds of excuses for Edward's fluctuating attentions.  This does round out her character nicely, showing that she's not infallible.  

Of course, Edward has been a lot more circumspect in his behavior.  In fact, he's kind of the reverse image of Willoughby -- Willoughby was much too uninhibited, and Edward is too inhibited.  I think Austen is pointing out here that a middle ground is much better than one extreme or the other, rather like she does with Marianne being too little in control of her emotions, and Elinor sometimes too much.  

Speaking of Edward, all through his discussion of his lack of any kind of useful thing to do with his time, I kept thinking what a blessing work is.  We tend to moan and groan about work, but it's actually a blessing from God that keeps us from the emotional and physical idleness that can make us dissatisfied, even get us into trouble.  Idle young men with no need to earn their keep, like Willoughby and Edward, certainly can get themselves (and others) into an awful lot of trouble that could have been avoided if they just had something to do to occupy themselves. 

Lastly, I love Elinor's observation of Mr. Palmer that he is wishing for "distinction" that made him turn up his nose at absolutely everyone and everything.  "It was the desire of appearing superior to other people" (p. 212) that made him decide he disliked everything, not an actual fault in those things.  I was just discussing this with my bff last night, how we can't understand people who go around looking for reasons to dislike things or people, or who seem like they can't be happy unless they find something to be offended by.  It certainly sounds like a miserable way to live your life.  I really do think a lot of people have the idea that if they tell everyone how much they don't like something, it will make them seem intelligent and discerning, so they find flaws and faults in every movie, book, author, acquaintance, painting, whatever.  And it really just makes them seem petty and arrogant.  I often struggle to be patient with people like that, I'm afraid.  I often just want to roll my eyes at them and say, "Get over yourself already.  Allow yourself to enjoy things and admit it!"

Er, sorry for the little rant there.  I was just pleased to find something in our reading today that addressed that!.

Discussion Questions:

1.  Elinor thinks that Mr. Palmer's realization that he married a very silly woman has made him kind of crabby, but "she knew this kind of blunder was too common for any sensible man to be lastingly hurt by it" (p. 212).  Can you think of any other instances in Austen's books where a sensible man has married a very silly woman?  Has it hurt them?

2.  Does anyone here actually believe Col. Brandon would ever have married Charlotte (Jennings) Palmer?

Monday, March 22, 2021

S&S Read-Along: Ch. 17 & 18

I love how much we get to learn about Edward Ferrars in these two chapters!  Like that he knows how to make Elinor laugh.  We finally get to hear him say more than a sentence or two, and I don't know about you, but I am charmed.  I had forgotten that he's actually kind of sarcastic!  But also kind.  He mocks Marianne about her devotion to Romantic ideals about scenery and the outdoors, but not in a mean way.  His is a self-deprecating sort of sarcasm -- he insists he just doesn't know enough about Romantic sensibilities to please her with his descriptions of scenery and so on, but at the same time, he actually shows that he has a pretty detailed knowledge of such things.

And he makes Elinor laugh.  Which is awesome.

And I love this description of himself:  "I never wish to offend, but I am so foolishly shy, that I often seem negligent, when I am only kept back by my natural aukwardness [sic]" (p. 178).  That sounds exactly like me.  I am shy and socially awkward, and so often will either say the wrong thing at the wrong moment, or not say anything and make the other person feel awkward.  I am extremely bad at small talk, especially with people I don't know well.  I will sit there thinking, "I should say something!  I should ask them a question!  What can we talk about now?  I am failing at this conversation thing again!" and just... hate on myself inside.  Ugh.  Naturally awkward and foolishly shy, that's me.

Oh, and I have totally been told I'm not shy, I'm reserved.  I think the person who said that meant that being reserved was better than just being shy, but it struck me the opposite.  I don't want people to think I'm reserved, I want them to think I'm nice!  Quiet, but nice!  Argh!  Edward, I feel your pain.

The whole thing with that ring he's wearing is very mysterious though, eh?  And he's embarrassed by it -- very different from Willoughby, who would probably be singing little songs about how on the first day of Christmas, his true love gave to him a lock of hair to wear in a ring so everyone could see it all the time.

I had to laugh aloud over this line:  "With the assistance of his mother-in-law, Sir John was not long in discovering that the name of Ferrars began with an F" (p. 188).  Like, my dude, what OTHER letter would it begin with?  Cracked me up.

Discussion Questions:

1.  Would you rather be called shy or reserved?  Have you ever been called either one?

2.  Do you identify with the idea of buying multiple copies of favorite books just to give them a good home?  (I have totally felt the urge to buy books I dearly love and already own at yard sales or thrift stores because then I would know they will be properly appreciated.  It's a weird urge, but very real.)

Friday, March 19, 2021

"The Scarlet Pimpernel" by Baroness Orczy

WHY did I wait this long to read this delightful book?  I absolutely loved this jolly story of derring-do.  It's escapist fiction at its finest -- no one in this story really takes their grave danger too seriously, and you never doubt for a minute that the Scarlet Pimpernel will triumph.  The fun is in finding out how.

I watched the 1934 movie starring Leslie Howard close to twenty years ago, and the 1982 miniseries starring Anthony Andrews much more recently than that, so I knew the basic story (and the real identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel) already.  But most of the plot had kind of faded from my memory, so that was fresh and exciting for me.  By the last ten chapters or so, I was on tenterhooks to see how it would all get resolved.  In fact, I did my housework extra-fast so I could finish it :-)  And that's just what I want from an adventure novel!

I took a class in college on the French Revolution, so I know that Orczy doesn't particularly cling to facts in this -- hundreds of heads weren't actually getting chopped off every single day, and so on.  But the atmosphere of fear and antagonism was very, very real, and I think she got the emotional truths just right.

After I finished the book, I read the introduction in my MacMillan Collector's Library edition, and it annoyed me so much.  The intro was written by Hilary Mantel, and it is snide, holier-than-thou, and seems to entirely miss the point of this book being about people using their wits and talents in the service of others.  Mantel's whole attitude grated on me so much, I've deleted her books from my to-read lists.  I was especially vexed by her missing what I believe Orczy's point was in the part where she repeatedly describes a Jewish man as being despised, degraded, cringing away from other people, and so on -- Orczy constantly talks about how the French people are despising them, reviling them, and behaving very racistly toward this Jewish man.  I think she's making a point here about the horribleness of her villains, NOT trying to say that Jewish people are despicable, degraded, or animal-like.

Anyway, I definitely recommend this book, just not that introduction ;-)

Particularly Good Bits:

The rest is silence! -- silence and joy for those who had endured so much suffering, yet found at last a great and lasting happiness (p. 315).  (Awww, it's a Hamlet quotation!)

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG for some scenes of peril and violence.

This is my 17th book read and reviewed for my 3rd Classics Club list and my 13th read off my TBR shelves for #TheUnreadShelfProject2021

Thursday, March 18, 2021

S&S Read-Along: Ch. 15 & 16

Turbulent times, eh?  Willoughby takes leave of everyone in an uncharacteristically constrained way, Marianne is thoroughly enjoying (in a backwards sort of way) being as miserable as possible, and now here comes Edward on a completely unexpected visit, but he's not acting particularly happy to see the family either.  Oh my goodness, so much emotional turmoil!

Notice how Willoughby's farewell is all about sparing himself pain as much as possible.  First he says, "I am suffering under a very heavy disappointment" (p. 144), but says nothing about what's caused Marianne to run weeping from the room.  Then he ends by saying, "I will not torment myself any longer by remaining among friends whose society it is impossible for me now to enjoy" (p. 146), but never mentions that staying there might be a comfort for/cause pain to Marianne.   (All emphasis mine.)  Wow.  Self-absorbed much at the moment, Willoughby?  (Also, wow, Austen is so good at subtle nuances like this that illuminate characters if we notice them!)  

Contrast his behavior with that of Marianne when Edward arrives, when "she dispersed her tears to smile on him, and in her sister's happiness forgot for a time her own disappointment" (p. 164).  Marianne may frustrate me sometimes, but she is not selfish or unfeeling toward all those around her.  In fact, she often tries to promote the happiness of others instead of focusing steadily on herself.

I do get irritated with her here, though.  She's so insistent on being miserable.  In fact, she's continually nourishing her grief.  Feeding it and coddling it and making sure it keeps on making her miserable.  I have seen people do this, and I think it's unwise at best and dangerous at worst.  It's like picking at a scab so your wound won't heal and will continue to hurt.  Healing is good.  Healing is necessary.  Let it happen.  Feel your pain, don't deny that this hurts, but don't force it to hurt more and more, longer and longer.

By the way, my annotated edition points out that Willoughby and Marianne have now known each other for about a month.  And have been acting as if they were engaged to be married for about two weeks.  In the history of whirlwind courtships, this must rank awfully high.  I'm with Elinor here (as I generally am, I freely admit) -- Marianne and Willoughby are so free and open with their expressions of their affection that if they are concealing an engagement, their secrecy is awfully suspicious.

And here's my favorite part of this whole chapter.  Elinor says, "I will not raise objections against any one's conduct on so illiberal a foundation, as a difference in judgment from myself, or a deviation from what I may think right and consistent" (p. 155-6).  In other words, she is not going to condemn something someone does simply because they think differently than she does or act differently than she does.  We need more of that kind of thinking in this world right now, y'all.  Immediately.

Discussion Questions:

1.  Have you ever enjoyed being sad, in a way?

2.  Do you share Marianne's passion for dead leaves?

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

"Laura Ingalls Wilder Country" by William Anderson

This book was so lovely!  I read most of it in one afternoon, engrossed in studying the photographs of various places that Laura Ingalls Wilder lived throughout her life, and learning a bit more about her actual history.  She did leave some things out of her books, like the hotel in Iowa that her family ran for a couple of years and the fact that they went back to Wisconsin after the events of Little House on the Prairie, not straight to Plum Creek.  So those was really fascinating to learn a bit about.  

Plus, it was just lovely to get to see actual photographs of her family!  I've seen a couple of them before, but this had many more than I had ever encountered.  If you're at all a fan of her books, this is definitely a great resource to pair with them.  My only complaint is that I wanted there to just be more and more and more, hee.  

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: G.  Great for all ages!

This was my 12th book read off my TBR shelves for #TheUnreadShelfProject2021

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

S&S Read-Along: Ch. 13 & 14

So much to discuss in these two chapters!  Let's get to it.  ::rubs hands eagerly::

I chuckle a bit over the description of the picnicking party assembled at Barton Park:  "They were all in high spirits and good humour, eager to be happy, and determined to submit to the greatest inconveniences and hardships rather than be otherwise" (p. 120).  Boy, if that's not a perfect description of people ready to set off on a pleasurable outing, what is?  It especially makes me think of going on field trips with our homeschool co-op.

If you're wondering why they're having breakfast all together first, and so late in the morning, my annotated edition's notes explain that 10 am "was a common breakfast time.  It resulted from the generally late hours of wealthy people... and their habit of late evening suppers" (p. 121).  Now you know.

Goodness, I could shake Mrs. Jennings for her ridiculous nosiness!  Pestering poor Colonel Brandon when he clearly has Important Things on his mind!  Grr.  And then Sir John as the effrontery to suggest, "I suppose it is something he is ashamed of" (p. 124).  More grr.  :-(  I'm not pleased by this behavior toward my avowed favorite!

So, just in case anyone here doesn't know what a "natural child" is, it's a genteel way of talking about an illegitimate child.  Mrs. Jennings is convinced that Colonel Brandon, who has never been married, has an illegitimate daughter called Miss Williams.  People were supposed to be very shocked by the idea of children born of out wedlock, and young maidens such as Marianne and Margaret, and possibly even Elinor, really weren't supposed to be aware of them, or at least not to acknowledge that they understood how an unmarried person could create a child.  It's kind of shocking that Mrs. Jennings will talk so openly about this to Elinor, who's not only unmarried, but only nineteen!  Her doing so is evidence of her enjoyment of gossip outweighing her consideration of propriety or how her words could hurt or harm even her listeners.

Anyway, isn't Elinor and Marianne's argument in chapter 13 interesting?  Elinor insists that "the pleasantness of an employment does not always evince its propriety" (p. 130), but Marianne maintains that "we always know when we are acting wrong, and with such a conviction I could have had no pleasure" (p. 130).  Once again, we're getting at the heart of this novel -- should you be ruled by your emotions, or should you use your own good sense to sift through and understand them?  Can we even trust emotions?  Should we allow our feelings to guide us, or should we guide them instead?  And if we only ever do one or the other, will that present problems?  So much to chew on here!

Okay, so Willoughby and Marianne visiting his aunt's estate basically equals him declaring he intends to marry her.  First, they were alone in a house (except for possibly some servants belonging to the house, but not any accompanying them) for a long time -- long enough to go through all the rooms.  Several hours.  That could (and does) expose Marianne in particular to gossip.  She's considered a virtuous young woman, but if she does things like that, her reputation will inevitably suffer.  However, discussing furniture with her and talking about refurnishing the rooms to Marianne's taste is basically Willoughby saying, "When we get married, this will be your home and you can change things to suit yourself."  Nobody is going to understand anything different from that.  Which is why Elinor is starting to wonder very strongly about why Marianne and Willoughby have not announced their engagement to their family and friends.  They have no reason to keep it a secret, and the longer they delay in announcing it, the more people are going to notice and wonder if there is something untoward going on.

Still, chapter 14 ends happily, with Willoughby's actions in particular "declar[ing] at once his affection and happiness."  Good place to stop for the day, eh?

Discussion Questions:

1.  Jane Austen is obviously of the opinion that feelings should not be trusted more than good sense.  Can you think of any characters in her other books who also illustrate the dangers of following your feelings rather than your sense or your conscience?

2.  Do you find it rude that Willoughby says he would rather that Mrs. Dashwood remain poor forever rather than be allowed to improve her home?  What does this tell us about him?

Sunday, March 14, 2021

S&S Read-Along: Ch. 11 & 12

Boy, things are escalating quickly between Marianne and Willoughby, aren't they?  By the end of chapter 12, they are calling each other by their names without the words 'miss' or 'mister' in front of them.  That's huge.  According to the notes in my copy, that would be seen as tacitly acknowledging an engagement without formally announcing it yet.  (Now, Elinor and Edward do sometimes refer to/address each other by their first names, but that was allowed because they were sort of in-laws, since her half-brother married his sister, and that meant they would be seen as being related enough to address each other more informally, but not related by blood and thus not unable to marry each other.)

Remember how Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood convinced themselves that Elinor must be in love with Edward and basically started planning their wedding?  Just because Elinor and Edward were spending a lot of time chatting?  Well, Marianne, it's time to get a taste of your own medicine.  Only it's not just your mom and your sister assuming you must be secretly engaged to Willoughby, it's evvvvvvvverybody.  Because when you behave toward a young man the way that young ladies ONLY behave toward a young man they're engaged to, then obviously, you must be engaged to him!  This is not an entirely unexpected sort of conclusion.

Willoughby and Marianne have quite the Mutual Admiration Society going on, don't they?  Marianne decides that "[e]very thing he did, was right.  Every thing he said, was clever" (p. 100).  They dance only with each other as much as is remotely allowable.  (According to my copy's notes, there were strict rules about how often you could dance with the same partner, and dancing more than two dances in a row with the same person was basically not permitted, so they're basically just dancing twice with each other, then sitting out for the next couple dances instead of dancing with other people, and then dancing together twice again.)  They talk only to each other whenever they're together.  I'm pretty sure that Austen is making a point here about how inadvisable it is to ignore the rest of your family and friends while pursuing a romantic partner.  At the least, it's rude.  It will probably expose you to gossip.  And it might even cause estrangement from those who love you already.

Meanwhile, poor Elinor is stuck talking to the irksome Mrs. Jennings and the boring Lady Middleton.  Even though Willoughby tends to be really kind toward Elinor, he does monopolize Marianne whenever possible, which means Elinor is kind of left in the dust.  Unless Colonel Brandon is around!  Then she has someone intelligent and filled with sense to talk to, at least.  I like how well they understand each other.  And I LOVE this description of him:  "Colonel Brandon, who was on every occasion mindful of the feelings of others" (p. 116).  What. A. Prince.  (And how different from his friend, Sir John Middleton.)

Possible Discussion Questions:

1.  How do you think Marianne has reconciled her conviction that people can never fall in love a second time with the fact that her own mother was her father's second wife?

2.  If someone offered to give you a horse, would you take it?

3.  What's your opinion of Margaret right now, having told Mrs. Jennings that Elinor has a beau whose name begins with 'F' and then come to tell Elinor that Willoughby has cut off a lock of Marianne's hair?  

Saturday, March 13, 2021

"Dearest Josephine" by Caroline George





Let's begin with the things I liked a lot.  Oliver!  I liked Oliver so much.  He is everything I like in a guy -- helpful, kind, thoughtful, never pushy, respectful, relaxed, funny, playful, and great at chopping wood.  He was definitely my favorite, and I basically liked him from the get-go.

Josie was also an interesting bundle of conflictedness.  She's mourning her dad, she's trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life, she's convinced she's falling in love with a guy who lived two hundred years ago... Josie has a lot going on.  She struggles, she flails, she rises, she sinks, she rises again.  Half the time I wanted to hug her, and half the time I wanted to give her a stern talking-to.  So I'd say she was a very realistic character in a lot of ways.  But she tried my patience at times.  Still, in the end, I liked her.

Elias, I just... was frustrated by.  It bothered me how he convinces himself he's in love with a girl he's met once and can't stop obsessing over her, to the point that he pushes away everyone trying to help him and be kind to him.  I get that he's had a really hard life, and I get that he's been emotionally abused in the past.  But I found him clingy and obsessive.  I was happy for him by the end, though.

Josie's best friend Faith was nice, and I liked how supportive she was of Josie, but I never felt like I really got to know her very well.  Mostly, she was just a sounding board for Josie's thoughts.

SPOILERS: I was also frustrated by the lack of closure on the possible time-travel?  It was talked about and played with, and I just wish there had been a definite "yeah, he totally met someone else" or something.  This is a ME thing, though -- I demand closure and don't handle ambiguous endings and unresolved plot strings well.  That's part of why I love specific mystery writers so much -- I know I can trust them to deliver definitive answers. Usually.  END SPOILERS.

I do have a nit to pick with the author and editors, though, and that regards their sloppy historical inaccuracies.  Coasters for drinks were a thing in the early 1900s, not the early 1800s.  I'm quite confident no one writing in the 1820s would have used the phrase "had messed with his mind" (p. 133).  'Okay' comes from American slang of the late 1830s and was spelled as "OK" until well into the twentieth century, when 'okay' became the new spelling.  Those were all used by someone writing in the 1820s, and I'm not cool with it.  When I write and edit my books, I spend hours and hours and hours checking words, phrases, and names for things to see if they would have been in use in the year the particular book I'm writing is set.  My editor does the same.  I'm sure we miss a few things, but there are only two of us.  This is a book published by a major publishing house and presumably passing the scrutiny of multiple editors and proofreaders.  Tsk tsk.  (There's also an anachronistic use of the term 'turducken,' which wasn't coined until the 1970s, but that gets a pass because of plot points later on, and because the concept of cooking animals inside other animals has been a thing since Medieval times, at least.)

Yes, that's nit-picky.  Yes, those were minor things.  Yes, it did bug me enough to write that whole paragraph up about it, though.

So, in the end, this was a fun, fast read.  I liked how it wove emails and texts and letters and a novel-within-the-novel together, and it was never hard to follow who was saying what, so that's pretty impressive.  It had a lot of great lines and some wonderful themes about grieving, support, loss, friendship, kindness, and real love versus imagined love.  I especially liked how it showcased the dangers of wrapping all your emotions around a person you don't know, be they a person you met once or a fictional character (and it could extend to obsessions with celebrities too), while not caring for those real people in your real life.  So I do recommend it, overall.  Also, it's nominally Christian fiction, the kind where characters sometimes talk about praying.

Particularly Good Bits:

"I blame literature for her behavior.  A lady who reads too many words eventually feels the need to voice some of her own" (p. 49).

Nobody knows what they're doing.  We just put our best foot forward and give life a go (p. 58).

People who laugh at themselves make superb company (p. 115).

"I do believe literature holds the best of us... or perhaps it reflects the better versions of who we are" (p. 138).

...grief can't be hurried or pummelled with self-help.  It's just there (p. 195).

We are moulded by our circumstances, but we are not our parents' mistakes.  We are not the errors inflicted upon us (p. 269).

Lots of girls believe they'll be happier once they find Prince Charming, but marriage isn't a fairy godmother waving a wand to change a pumpkin into a carriage.  It doesn't instantly transform people into better versions of themselves.  Instead, it brings couples together and asks them to use love as a reason to become better (p. 296).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: PG for the use of the repeated use of the word 'bastard' in its literal meaning of 'an illegitimate child.'  No actual bad language, no racy scenes, no violence.  Some kissing.

This is the 11th book read off my TBR shelves for #TheUnreadShelfProject2021

Thursday, March 11, 2021

S&S Read-Along: Ch. 9 & 10

Here we go, then!  We've started clicking up the first hill of the rollercoaster.  In other words, Willoughby has arrived on the scene and captured Marianne's affections by being exactly the sort of Romantic hero she was convinced she would never find.

And he really does make a romantic-with-a-small-r entrance, it's true, swooping to the rescue through the storm at exactly the right moment.  Ignoring propriety in the interest of getting Marianne safely home.  Carrying her around in his manly arms like a superhero.  Is it any wonder she's overcome with pleased embarrassment?

I sometimes think Sir John is a little dim to not know more about Willoughby than what kind of rider and hunter he is, though of course, those are his own primary interests.  But when we see Willoughby sort of morph, chameleon-like, to suit Marianne's exact tastes, I cease to wonder at Sir John because I bet Willoughby has done the same thing with him.  Sir John is super enthusiastic about hunting and other sportsman-like pursuits, so when Willioughby hangs out with him, that's what he's into too.

Anyway, we once again end with people making insulting remarks about Colonel Brandon, so we once again end with me frowning mightily.  Grr.

Random small thing that used to confuse me, so I thought I'd explain it in case it confuses some of you too, and that's the use of names in regards to unmarried ladies.  The eldest unmarried daughter gets called "Miss" and her last name.  The younger daughters then get called "Miss" and their first name.  If the eldest gets married, then the next-oldest advances to being called "Miss" plus the last name.  So Elinor is properly called (by those who are not family) "Miss Dashwood," but her sisters are "Miss Marianne" and "Miss Margaret."  If Elinor was to get married, then Marianne would be called "Miss Dashwood" instead.  Now, Willoughby refers to Marianne as "Miss Dashwood" when he first brings her to the house and says he will call again the next day to see how she is, but that's because he doesn't know the family and doesn't know she's not the older sister, plus he also doesn't know her first name anyway.  Once he knows that Elinor is the eldest, and what Marianne's first name is, he is free to address her as "Miss Marianne" within all bounds of propriety.

Discussion Questions:

1.  Do you think Mrs. Dashwood is wise to avoid taking Sir John up on his offer of letting the Dashwoods borrow his carriage to travel around getting to know people in the area?

2.  Do you enjoy spending time with people who, like Willoughby, "acquiesced in all her decisions, caught all her enthusiasm" (p. 90)?

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

"The Adventurer's Guide to Successful Escapes" by Wade Albert White

One of the joys of raising kids who read is that, eventually, they'll start recommending books to you!  Which is what happened with this book.  My kids read it, and the two sequels, and laughed sooooo hard over them.  They began to quote them constantly.  A couple of weeks ago, my son said to me, "Maybe you should just read the first book, Mom.  Then you'd know what we're talking about."  I think he was surprised when I said, "Okay!"  You should have seen how ridiculously pleased all three of them were whenever they'd see me reading this book.  They'd ask me what part I was at, and if I'd met such-and-such a character yet, and so on.  It was pretty adorable.

This book is really funny.  It has unexpected, quirky humor, which is my favorite kind.  Too many books for kids this age rely on potty humor or rudeness to be funny, but this has genuine, clever humor to it.  It made me laugh aloud too!

It's all about a couple of orphan girls who go on a Quest thanks to a magic gauntlet one of them gets stuck on their hand.  With the aid of a somewhat inept young wizard and an unpredictable instructor, they set off to find out where they belong and fulfill their Quest before time runs out.  They encounter everything from a giant robot to wolves made of sand on the way, and have a series of more or less successful escapes, thanks in part to a magical book that sometimes tells them what they need to know.

Particularly Good Bits:

The man smiled the smile of someone who didn't much care for smiling, felt smiling generally to be a nuisance, and whose facial muscles were so out of practice they seemed to have forgotten most of the required movements (p. 84).

"An archaeologist tried to kill us," said Hiro.
Jocelyn nodded.  "They can get like that sometimes" (p. 229).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: PG for adventurous peril and lots of dangerous situations, including fending off zombie sharks.  No bad language.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

S&S Read-Along: Ch. 7 & 8

I don't have tons to say about these chapters.  We get to know Sir John and Lady Middleton a bit more, and they're both kind of shallow people.  But at least they're kind (Sir John) and polite (Lady Middleton) -- they're like reverse images of John and Fanny Dashwood, aren't they?  Like a photograph and the negative.  

And then there's Mrs. Jennings.  Um, yeah, I'd probably run away and hide from her if I met her in real life.  Or I would have, in my teens.  I might handle her better now that I'm an old married woman of forty.  I mean, Mrs. Dashwood seems pretty chill around her, and she's forty.  Anyway, as a book character, Mrs. Jennings makes me laugh because she's quite absurd and funny.  

You know what I'm not amused by, though?  Marianne's constant harping on how old Colonel Brandon is, and how insistent she is that nobody who's older than about twenty can ever be passionately in love.  Like, I get that she's seventeen, and she's a big fan of emotions and being guided by emotions and feeling emotions to the utmost... but wow, she's way harsh here.  Though I might be a little extra offended by her because Col. Brandon is possibly my favorite character in the book.  Definitely ties with Elinor, and maybe surpasses her.  We'll see how I feel by the end of this read-through.

Randomly, reading chapter seven inspired me to have a picnic with my kids at lunchtime today.  I didn't have any cold ham or chicken, so we had to make do with pizza, but hey.  Go with what you've got!

Discussion Questions:

1.  Why do you think Lady Middleton is so different in temperament and behavior from her mother, Mrs. Jennings?

2.  The Middleton children, and John and Fanny's son, are all described pretty unflatteringly so far.  In fact, I'd probably call all of them brats.  What might Austen be saying about child-rearing in "good society" by this portrayal?

Monday, March 8, 2021

Jane Austen This or That

Cordy posted this at Any Merry Little Thought, and it looked like fun, so I thought I'd give it a whirl myself!

(All photos are mine from my Instagram.)

1) Who is a cuter couple? Emma and Mr. Knightley or Jane and Mr. Bingley?  

I think Jane and Mr. Bingley are much cuter.  I'm not sure I could ever call either Emma or Mr. Knightley cute, to be honest.  I'd be just a little too afraid of them.

2) You must go to tea with Mrs. Jennings or Mrs. Bennet. Who would you rather go with? 

Mrs. Jennings!  I'm already married, so she'd only have my own husband to tease me about, and I am very used to that.  We are an affectionate couple, and we have withstood a great deal of teasing over the last twenty-some years.  Aside from her propensity for teasing, she makes me laugh, and I enjoy laughing.

3) Dance with Edward Ferrars or Charles Bingley?  

While I like Edward Ferrars better as a person, I think Mr. Bingley would be a much more fun dancing partner.  He wouldn't mind a bit if I didn't know any of the steps, I suspect.

4) Who would you rather have as a big sister? Jane Bennet or Elinor Dashwood?  

I'm too much like Elinor to want to have a sister so similar to myself, so I pick Jane :-)  Besides, she would be the nicest sister ever!

5) Worst villain? Wickham or Willoughby?  

Neither -- John Thorpe!  Ugh, I loathe him so much more than either Wickham or Willoughby.  I suppose of those two, I think Willoughby is worse.

6) Take a walk with Mrs. Weston or Mrs. Gardiner?  

Mrs. Gardiner!  She's an extremely sensible, kind woman and I think we would get along famously.  I like her almost as well as I like Mrs. Croft.

7) Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley?  

Definitely Mr. Darcy.  I can never help thinking there must be something slightly wrong with Mr. Knightley's brain because he falls in love with Emma Woodhouse.

That was such a fun little tag!  If you want to do it yourself, here are the questions, for ease of copying:

1) Who is a cuter couple? Emma and Mr. Knightley or Jane and Mr. Bingley? 
2) You must go to tea with Mrs. Jennings or Mrs. Bennet. Who would you rather go with? 
3) Dance with Edward Ferrars or Charles Bingley? 
4) Who would you rather have as a big sister? Jane Bennet or Elinor Dashwood? 
5) Worst villain? Wickham or Willoughby? 
6) Take a walk with Mrs. Weston or Mrs. Gardiner? (Mrs. Weston is Emma's old governess and Mrs. Gardiner is Elizabeth's aunt.) 
7) Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley?

Sunday, March 7, 2021

S&S Read-Along: Ch. 5 & 6

I do admire Mrs. Dashwood for being "exceedingly rapid in the performance of every thing that interested her" (p. 48).  This is something I wish I had more of -- often, I'll have things I want to do and know I will enjoy doing, but I'll put it off because of silly reasons, and then it just never happens.  So I say, good for you, Mrs. Dashwood, for getting your moving plans all settled so swiftly!  And she even politely invites John and Fanny to visit them... though I suspect she knows they won't ever take her up on the invitation, so it's kind of a safe offer, lol.  She also pointedly invites Edward Ferrars to visit them, in his sister Fanny's hearing, so that Fanny knows that Mrs. Dashwood is NOT leaving simply because Fanny told her that Elinor would be an unsuitable wife for Edward.  She's a canny one sometimes, that Mrs. Dashwood.

You know, for a romantic hero, and suitor to one of the two main characters of this novel, Edward Ferrars doesn't get much page time in this first part, does he?  I don't think we get even one direct line of dialog from him!  People talk about him a lot, but that's all.  Makes him shadowy and mysterious, I suppose?

I absolutely love this about the Dashwood ladies:  "each for the sake of the others resolved to appear happy" (p. 52).  Isn't that the kindest thing they could do for each other, and for themselves too?  All of them are sad about having to leave their home, but they are not going to add to the sadness of those around them by showing how sad they are.  Not even Marianne, who waxes so eloquent about "Dear, dear Norland!" (p. 50) when they depart.

And I laughed aloud over the beginning of that second paragraph in chapter six, where Austen says that Barton Cottage is a total disappointment when it comes to the Romantic ideals of a cottage because it's too comfortable and modern and well-built!  Oh, I love Austen's snark.

Interestingly, Barton Cottage has about the same number of rooms as the house I live in.  We have four bedrooms, a dining room, a library, a living room, and a kitchen.  And yet, our house feels huge to me!  But that's because until we bought Tir Asleen about ten years ago, we lived in small apartments.  We also have a full basement, though, which the Dashwoods wouldn't.  But still.  Maybe I should have named this something with "cottage" in the name instead.

My annotated copy tells us that "Jane Austen would have an excellent sense of how much Mrs. Dashwood could afford, for in the last part of her life, the time when this and other novels were published, she was in a very similar situation.  She and her mother and sister inhabited a house of comparable size, also called a cottage, and enjoyed around the same level of wealth, having a little less than five hundred a year in income" (p. 55).  Write what you know, right?  Austen lived in Chawton Cottage, which belonged to the estate her brother inherited from a wealthy relative.  She and her mother and sister did not have to pay rent, however, which gave them a little more freedom and comfort than the Dashwoods.  

If you would like to see what Chawton Cottage was like, where Austen lived while publishing her novels, you can take a virtual tour right here!  I'd love to visit there for real some day, but for right now, this is a pretty nifty option.

Isn't Sir John Middleton sweet?  A little overbearing, yes, but sweet.  Note:  I'll be referring to him as Sir John, so as not to confuse him with John Dashwood, the ickmeister.  Notice how Sir John actually DOES all the things John Dashwood just thought about doing, like sending fresh game and a large basket of vegetables to the Dashwoods to welcome them, and even offering to be their own private postman.  There wasn't any home delivery outside of large cities like London at that time, so you had to go to the nearest post office to get and send your mail.  The Dashwoods had to give up their carriage, so they would have had to walk all the way to the village, so this is a very helpful thing to do for them!

Notice that Sir John is about forty, but his wife is about twenty-seven.  Marriages with a fairly large disparity in ages were common at that time, and we'll talk more about that later.  Sir John is so nice and friendly, but his wife is only coldly civil, so she's not going to be an option for a new friend for any of the Dashwoods, it looks like.

I cracked up again over Austen's aside that "[o]n every formal visit a child ought to be of the party, by way of provision for discourse" (p. 58).  I liked having babies and toddlers who wanted to be held a lot when we were visiting with people because they gave me something to do with my hands and something obvious to talk about.

Okay, that's all my musings for these two chapters!  By the way, do NOT feel like you need to stick to the discussion questions in your comments -- feel free to mention anything you noticed or wanted to discuss.  And ask your own questions for me or other people to answer!!!

Discussion Questions:

1.  I mentioned that Edward Ferrars really only gets talked about in these first chapters.  Do you think there's a reason Austen leaves him off the page so much in this early part?

2.  Do you prefer a smaller or a larger house, yourself?

3.  Are you more inclined toward music, like Marianne, or toward visual art, like Elinor?

Friday, March 5, 2021

S&S Read-Along: Ch. 3 & 4

Side note: I had a lot of fun finding pictures of book covers for all these posts.  Some of them are funny, some are weird, some are boring, and some are just plain puzzling.  Like this one.  I mean, wow, there's a lot going on here, and I'm not at all sure who's supposed to be who.  Like, why are there three girls on the cover when it's mostly about two sisters?  Is one of them Lucy Steele?  And why only one guy when there are three guys involved?  I give them props for kind of getting the Regency clothing right for the chick in purple, and turbans were a Thing at the time, so that's cool too.  Don't know what's going on with the saloon-girl-in-a-'50s-western look for the girl in pink, or the wedding dress on the the other girl.  And why is the dude holding onto his hat?  I have so many questions.  And why the Tudor-style houses down below?  That makes me think Shakespeare, not Austen.

Ahem.  Annnyway.  Chapters three and four.   Poor Mrs. Dashwood, putting so much trust in her step-son John and then discovering he's not the man his father was.  I always assume John was probably fairly grown before his father remarried, and living on his own or off at some kind of school or something, and so he and his stepmother really don't know each other much.  Saw each other at Christmas and so on, I expect. 

Now, Mrs. Dashwood does have the good sense to see right through Fanny, right from "very early in their acquaintance," or at least to feel contempt for her.  So it's not like Mrs. Dashwood isn't capable of seeing others are trying to act nicer than they really are.  But of course, she'd want to think well of her husband's son.  Until she just can't anymore.

However, it's really neat how she decided to put up with them as long as she can, for Elinor's sake.  Of course, Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne are viewing Elinor through their own feelings-heightened lenses and assume she and Edward Ferrars must be attached to each other and contemplating marriage because they themselves would be doing the same if they'd spent that much time with one particular eligible man.  I'm kind of annoyed how Marianne just pooh-poohs Elinor's insistence that there is no strong attachment.  Can she not simply believe her sister?  It reminds me a little of Mr. Collins' proposal in Pride and Prejudice where he insists that he's being refused just because Elizabeth is an elegant female who never says what she means, when the opposite is true.  I don't get willfully misunderstanding someone that way.  I'm usually the opposite extreme, and I take people at their word and then am surprised later to learn that they didn't mean what they were saying.

EDIT: We have a couple people with us now who haven't read the book OR seen a movie version, so I WILL be marking spoilers a bit.  Then it can be up to the individual whether or not to read the paragraphs with the spoilers in them.

(This paragraph contains SPOILERS.)  Anyway, so, those of us who have either read this book before or seen a movie version know why Edward is displaying a "dejection of mind" (p. 40) around her at times:  he's stuck with this secret engagement to Lucy Steele.  Being a reasonably honorable man, he's trying not to lead Elinor on unduly, or give anyone else the idea that he's trying to woo her.  But I really think he should have divulged his ineligibility to Elinor.  He wouldn't have had to give her particulars and break his promise to Lucy to keep it a secret, he would have just said, "Look, I'm not free, due to a youthful infatuation with another girl.  Until I find out if she's still interested in me, I can't get involved with anyone else."  BUT, of course, that would ruin a lot of the suspense of the story, so we can't have that.

We end with the happy prospect of moving away and making a new home in a cottage, which the Romantics thought were the Best Houses of All Time because they were Picturesque and Quaint.  How happy Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood must be at the idea, in the midst of their continued grief!

Discussion Questions:

1.  Some people roll their eyes at this story because, basically, the Dashwoods are so upset because they're not rich anymore, and they have to move into a smaller house.  They say this story is too fakey because that's not a real crisis, and they can't believe how much importance everyone is putting on their "poverty" when they aren't homeless or forced to go begging.  What do you say to such critics?

2.  "All [Edward Ferrars'] wishes centered in domestic comfort and the quiet of private life" (p. 28).  Do you think this is a personality thing, or is he sort of rebelling against his mother, sister, and brother, who are all obsessed with station and importance and public display?

(SPOILERS)  3.  Do you think Edward is doing the right thing by concealing his secret engagement?  Is there any right option for him in this very confusing situation?  What should/could he have done instead?

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

S&S Read-Along: Ch. 1 & 2

Here we go!

One quick note: I don't know how your chapters are numbered in your copy.  Some editions use the numbering from the original publication, which was in three volumes, and so these first two chapters would be listed as "Volume I, Chapter I" and "Volume I, Chapter II."  Other editions just number them sequentially entirely, from 1 to 50.  Because it's the easiest, I'm using the latter method for these post titles, even though the annotated copy I'm reading uses the former system.  I hope it won't be too confusing for you if they're numbered differently from your copy, as we get into later chapters!  But now, you at least understand how I'm numbering things.

Okay.  On to the good stuff.

First, what a dismal way to open a novel!  Death, more death, and terrible disappointment.  Also, enter one of the meanest Austen characters almost at the very beginning.  I feel like this is Austen's darkest novel, and that darkness doesn't come on gradually.  Rather, we start off in the darkness and move forward through more darkness until we finally find some light at the end.

A bit of background info on this book:  Austen was nineteen herself when she wrote the first version of this, called Elinor and Marianne at the time.  That's how old Elinor Dashwood is in the story, and some people think she's far too self-possessed for someone who's only nineteen.  But I was pretty self-possessed myself at that age.  As a matter of fact, that's how old I was when I met my husband.  And Austen's having conceived of this character and written the first version of her when she was also that age makes me feel like those critics were just immature at nineteen and don't believe someone couldn't be the most adulty adult in the room at that age because they weren't that way themselves.

This was the first novel Austen had published.  Like Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, it's an exploration through fiction of some more abstract ideas, such as how personality and behavior affect not only our own lives, but those around us.  Once in a while, the characters do behave a bit more like archetypes than real people, more the side characters than the principals, I think.   

It's really interesting to me that the whole first chapter is entirely exposition.  The only moment of any sort of dialog is John Dashwood telling himself how much money he's going to give his step-sisters.  And then the second chapter is almost entirely dialog, just page after page of Fanny Dashwood convincing her husband not to give his step-sisters the money he decided to give them in the first chapter.  Anyone here have a strong urge to slap Fanny Dashwood?  ::raises hand::  What a selfish, conniving, smug person.  Blech.

It also interests me that Austen flat-out tells us what her characters are like.  Elinor has "a strength of understanding, and a coolness of judgment," and "an excellent heart."  "Her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them" (p. 8).  We don't learn that by watching her interact with people, we know this going in and get to see how these characteristics affect her and those around her, as well as the events of the book.

Likewise, we get told that Marianne is "sensible and clever, but eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation" (p. 8).  And we see right away how she and her very similar mother let their emotions rule them, reveling in their grief, in a way.  "They encouraged each other now in the violence of their affliction.  The agony of grief which overpowered them at first, was voluntarily renewed, was sought for, was created again and again" (p. 8).  My annotated edition talks about how, at the time this was written, there was almost a "cult of sensibility" in the culture -- feeling things deeply and showing your emotions to the world was a sign of being very sophisticated.  Restraint and calmness weren't very fashionable, and this gave rise to Romanticism, with its emphasis on instinct and feeling over rational thought.

It's pretty clear from the start which sister Austen thinks has the wiser and healthier temperament.  I myself thinks that Elinor also carries things a little too far, maybe in a reaction to her mother and sister's own excesses.  We'll see as we read if I still feel that way this time through the book.

Discussion Questions:

1.  Why do you think Austen straight-up tells us what the sisters are like instead of letting us get to know them through the story?

2.  Do you find it credible that the Dashwoods' uncle left everything to a little boy?  Or is that just a convenient plot device to make them poor?

3.  Which of the three Dashwood sisters is your favorite?