This month is the start of my second year DIY English Literature education, a.k.a my ‘Reading Oxford’ project. Last year I wandered mostly in 19th and 20th century. This year I’m going back slowly in time and this month I was at the beginning of 19th century and later 18th century. It was delightful to find that I could still understand the English from 200 years ago with no great difficulty. I’m sure by some point this year I’ll reach my limit, maybe when I get to Chaucer or even Bunyan. But I’ll keep pushing on on this exciting adventure.
Lady Susan, the Watsons and Sanditon by Jane Austen****
I chose Jane Austen to start with. One reason is that she is one of the most famous and well-read authors of the English speaking world. The other reason is that I want to ease myself into the Romantic Age and her work is familiar and relatively easy.
These three titles are the unfinished and unpublished novels of Jane Austen. According to the introduction of the book, Lady Susan was written in about 1794, that was before she wrote Sense and Sensibility. The Watsons was from 1804-5, after the writing of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey. Sandition was from 1817, just before she died.
Among the three – and with her six published novel as a context – Lady Susan is the most shocking. The story was told in a series of letters. Because letters are mostly private, they brutally reveal the wickedness of the senders’ character: selfish, manipulative, cold-hearted, without any manner or social courtesy to embellish or rein in the ugliness. There’s not the usual humour or wit you find in her novels. There’s only the repulsive evil of the human heart.
The Watsons put the reader back onto a more familiar ground: four unmarried daughters and their dying father in a parsonage and a ball featuring our heroine Emma Watsons and all the potential suiters. There’s one section of Northanger Abbey where Fanny Price left her wealthy adoptive family and visited her birth family in poverty for a time. Emma Watsons was in a similar but worse situation – she was adopted by a rich aunt but now was forced to go back to live permanently with the poor family from which she was away for 14 years. While Jane Austen was still writing, her father died. According to her sister, Emma Watsons’ father was also going to die and left Emma’s fate to her unpleasant brother and sister-in-law. Maybe Jane stopped writing because she worried the less-than-pleasant depiction of the brother and sister-in-law would injure her relationship with her brothers and their wives, and she couldn’t possibly afford that, now that her fate was dependant on them (even though she did a bit of family satire in Sense and Sensibility, but her father was still alive then).
Sanditon‘s heroine felt like Fanny Price too. In the sense that she was an outsider of the family she was staying with and an outsider of the town and its inhabitants. Along with the same type of moral uprightness that Fanny had, Charlotte Heywood was the observer. The story throws a wild collection of characters at the reader. I think the man for our heroine is Mr Sidney Parker, who does not physically appear until chapter 12 and we’ll never know because the story was cut short by Austen’s death.
Oxford World’s Classics edition also includes ‘Opinions of Mansfield Park’ and ‘Opinions of Emma’ from friends and families at the time of publication. It was fascinating to read people’s comments on the books then. Some of them I wholeheartedly agreed with, some I found hilarious. One thing that came out clearly was that Pride and Prejudice was the most popular even then.
Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley****
I learnt many invaluable things from this biography of Jane Austen – her family members, her homes in various places over different periods of time, her various romantic relationships and her writing. It gave important context to her novels. For example, I realised for the first time that Jane Austen was a war-time author; England was at war with France during the whole of her lifetime. And if you know where to look, there are traces of the war and its effects on ordinary people everywhere.
It was also interesting to read her experience in publishing her books. Knowing the fact that even Pride and Prejudice was rejected at the beginning by publishers, I think all budding writers can take comfort and go boldly forth.
I also read 50 pages of Jane Austen’s letters. It would be interesting to read her biography, her novels and poems, and her letters from corresponding periods of life side by side. That’s a reading project for next year.
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen***
It’s very well-known so I won’t say too much about the story. One thing new I learnt this month was that this novel was written as a response to the ‘women and sensibility’ discussion at the time and its first readers would see it from quite a different perspective to ours.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley***
Another famous women novelist from the Romantic Age and another well-known novel. It’s a familiar story with an unexpected narrative structure. If you’re interested in the non-linear narrative structure head to my separate post here.
It discusses many interesting topics, like the relationship between a creator and a created being, the origin of good and evil, the humanness of non-human beings – this last one especially reminds me Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, where the main characters are ultimately no different to Shelley’s monster except that they don’t look like monsters.
And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini****
A 2013 novel. The book has nine chapters. Each chapter is an independent story, told from the perspective of a different character, which we have met from a previous chapter. The stories are set in Afghanistan, parts of Europe and the US. The timeline of the stories spans from early 20th century to 2010. The readers see the individual lives intimately and have glimpses of the larger historic and social context which the individual stories are set against.
The stories are mostly about family relationships. The one comes through strongest to me is the relationship between parents and children. Another one is between siblings and cousins.
The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley****
A 2021 historic fiction. The most fun book this month. A newly-set-free house slave Joe Tournier with a curious case of memory loss travelled from a French-occupied London to Scotland which was still in resistance hands after the loss of the Napoleon War. As he searched for the missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of his memory, he also discovered the reasons for England’s defeat in the War…
Obviously this was all mind-bending and intriguing on its own account. But because I just read Jane Austen’s biography and this was the era she lived in, this book brought on another layer of meaning to her life. Her brothers Frank and Charles both served in the English Navy during the Napoleon War. They would have been sailed in ships just like the ones in The Kingdoms, they would have been in action right there and then – how exciting! The novel really brought her brothers’ toil and glory on the sea to life.
The Secular Creed by Rebecca McLaughlin****
A Christian non-fiction book. Here’s the blurb:
Black Lives Matter
Love Is Love
Gay Rights Are Civil Rights
Women’s Rights Are Human Rights
Transgender Women Are Women
You may have seen signs with some of these messages in your neighbourhood. They offer us an all-or-nothing package deal—in short, a secular creed.
In this provocative book, Rebecca McLaughlin helps us disentangle the beliefs Christians gladly affirm from those they cannot embrace, and invites us to talk with our neighbours about the things that matter most. Far from opposing love across difference, McLaughlin argues, Christianity is the original source and firmest foundation for true diversity, equality, and life-transforming love.
I just thought that was too good a blurb to ignore the book. It’s one of those dense books – it’s very small, only about 100 pages, but it takes quite a while to digest. Again the author has a great deal of respect for and expectation from her readers, people who have been closely following the news and debates would get the most out of this. And for every Christian who aims to live ‘in the world but not of the world’, this is a must-read.
Looking ahead, I’ll spend some time in the Romantic Age in October, especially Mary Wollstonecraft and the Romantic poets. I know, poetry, yes, wish me luck! If you heard of ‘Victober’, you’ll know that October is also the month to read Victorian novels. I might throw one of those in the mix.