Book Review: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

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It is a daunting prospect to review Pride and Prejudice: where do you begin? This is the fourth time I’ve read it, and I know I love it, but why? The story is well-known, and despite being written over two hundred years ago, it has an enduring quality about it.

Pride and Prejudice is a classic comedy. Not a laugh a minute, but there is a subtle flow of humour that ebbs throughout it. Jane Austen, her own narrator, constantly picks fun at the social customs of the time. I think Mr and Mrs Bennet are one of the best double-acts that have graced the pages of a novel. Jane Austen writes incredible dialogue (accepting that the manner of speaking is dated), with some hysterical one liners. When Elizabeth Bennet turns down Mr Collins’ marriage proposal, Mrs Bennet appeals to her husband to make her daughter see sense, and threatens not to engage with her again if she refuses him. Her father replies…
“An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see to you again if you do not marry Mr Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”

In the protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Austen delivers a strong and likeable character. Elizabeth is feisty and quite mischievous. She is painted as head-strong, but we also learn that Elizabeth has great powers of reasoning and self-reflection. Elizabeth develops and learns. If Mr Darcy’s Achilles heel is his pride, then Elizabeth’s is her prejudice. At the outset they seem an unlikely couple, but Jane Austen creates a spark of passion between them, one that you do not see between others in the book. Miss Bennet and Mr Bingley are more obviously the ‘beautiful couple,’ who have obstacles of their own to overcome, but it is in the potential relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth that you see the most promise, and fun. The reader wants them to be united.

In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen depicts plenty of relationships that are stale, at best. Mr and Mrs Bennet’s marriage has no affection, no love and no pleasure in it. Mr Bennet, we are told, fell for Mrs Bennet’s beauty, but found little else of substance once his infatuation had subsided. You cannot help but think that Lydia, their silly daughter, takes after her mother. It is no wonder that Elizabeth is Mr Bennet’s favoured daughter.

After Elizabeth’s rebuttal of Mr Collins, he settles on Miss Lucas, Elizabeth’s best friend. This match is heralded as a good one, by all except Elizabeth, who cannot appreciate it. After Miss Lucas and Mr Collins marry, Elizabeth goes to stay with them for an extended period, and sees for herself what a lucky escape she has had. The stagnant marriage is a by-product of ‘duty,’ a theme that runs throughout the novel. The sense of duty is set out by the book’s infamous opening line.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

From the outset the fascinating, if in today’s world slightly vulgar, subject of fortune is introduced. It is here that we see how times have changed. In Jane Austen’s day it wasn’t vulgar talk. Everyone calculated fortune, and what the annual allowance might be – therefore the carriages, the size of household and everything else that might come with it. These are referenced throughout the book. Fortunes are tied in with the expectations and duties of society. Along with fortune, the hierarchies of society are explored, often to comic effect. There is no finer example than the esteemed Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who has a clear idea of what she expects, and will go to any length to let it be known. Another great scene in Pride and Prejudice is the confrontation between Lady Catherine and Elizabeth Bennet over Mr Darcy. Elizabeth will not give in to her, despite her inferior standing, much to Lady Catherine’s disgust.

Pride and Prejudice was written in 1813. Times were different, social pressures were also different, but what Jane Austen illustrates is that the human condition endures. In this respect, Pride and Prejudice is timeless. Jane Austen is a master observer of people, like Elizabeth Jane Howard since, and through this we learn that the heart and soul of man and woman doesn’t change over time. We all still want to fall in love, be loved, and be happy in love. For this reason alone, I hold Pride and Prejudice (and Jane Austen) in the highest regard.

Pride and Prejudice is part of my Reading Challenge for 2016, and is ‘the book you have read at least once.’ Another possibility was Josten Gaardner’s Through A Glass Darkly.

 

You must drink champagne immediately…

THE END!
THE END!

I typed THE END last week. Then I wrote it in my scratchy pen on my scene tracker. Then I nearly cried. I texted my sister, my mum, Jane (of Writing Retreat fame). My sister was the first to come back with, ‘you must drink champagne immediately.’ Unusually for us, there was none chilled, but that was soon rectified.

I’m a little under the word count I was aiming at, but the story had reached its conclusion, so I decided there was no point in punching out scenes to hit the 100,000 word mark. In most cases, at least the bits that will survive the chop, it is underwritten. And anyway, I don’t really care, because the words have to serve the story, and the story is going to be as the story is. I’m feeling like I’m sounding like Forest Gump.

How did it feel? Oh… oh so strange. THE END. I hadn’t even thought about writing that (so clichéd), but when I’d wrapped it all up, I was compelled to finish like that. I did nearly cry. Mostly, I just sat and stared at the screen, feeling overwhelmed. It was like a big fog swirled around me, and then out of the wispy feeling, I was aware that I felt very grounded, and very proud. Right in the centre of me, this very tangible feeling, like a strength. I think this was the sense of achievement, a kind of wonder, but in a solid way. It’s light and substantial at the same time. I’m not sure that this is making any sense, but I’ll resist the temptation to edit. It is what it was (cue Forest Gump again).

What excites me, not only having achieved a massive goal in my life… Hey. I’ve written a novel! It’s a long way short of publishable standard, but I’ve stuck it out! Get back on point, what excites me is the idea of making it better. I am so looking forward to the first cut, which I will plan out in the next couple of weeks. Jane and Kath, the wallpaper is coming out, but perhaps more of that when I live the technique. Structure next, and then the pruning and polishing can begin.

For now, I’m just living the dream. I have achieved something really quite substantial.

Book Review: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

 

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Maud’s been getting forgetful. She keeps buying peach slices when she has a cupboard full, forgets to drink the cups of tea she’s made and writes notes to remind herself of things. But Maud is determined to discover what has happened to her friend, Elizabeth, and what it has to do with the unsolved disappearance of her sister Sukey just after the Second World War.

There were bits about Elizabeth is Missing that I thoroughly enjoyed, like the writing and the moving account of an elderly woman, Maud, probably suffering from dementia (although that is never offered as a diagnosis in the book). There were other bits that thoroughly frustrated me, like the unreliability of the protagonist, the fact that it was not a ‘dark thriller’ (as stated on the book cover), and the gaps in the plot, which would have been exposed more with a stronger narrator. In terms of characterisation, I thought that Maud (the protagonist) was strong, but others were not. Maud’s daughter, Helen, was flat by comparison.

Elizabeth is Missing moves between the present and the past, when Maud was a young girl as Maud (old woman) tries to solve two mysteries to her. Her friend Elizabeth has disappeared, although it rapidly becomes apparent that no one else thinks she has. Maud’s failing short-term memory means that she repeats the same loops – with her daughter, Elizabeth’s son, and the Police. The muddle becomes greater when Maud tries to solve the disappearance of her sister, Sukey, who vanished at the end of the Second World War.. The reader, or this one, quickly does not believe that Elizabeth is missing, but that something has happened, which Maud cannot recall. That is revealed in the latter stages of the novel, when Helen blurts out what has happened with Elizabeth, and at this point, I could have hurled the book across the room. Healey committed the great writing sin of no new information in the closing stages of the book. If Healey had chosen to give us this earlier, which we know has been said repeatedly, then the book would have lost its premise, and its title.

The more intriguing mystery about Sukey is examined when Maud travels through the chambers of her mind, with quite forensic details. This is more credible, of Maud, of the disease, and is far more interesting. The writing here comes alive, with vivid descriptions, beautiful dialogue and a move away from the frustrating, repetitions of the present. The element of ‘dark thriller’ at last arrives with the Mad Woman, as seen through a child’s eyes. It is the most thrilling part of the book, the book that is not a thriller.

Ultimately, the mysteries are resolved in Elizabeth is Missing, and the book ends. However, the manner of ending is somehow not plausible, it demands something of the behaviour of Helen that I simply do not believe. Perhaps I had paid too little attention to the prologue, which points the way to the mystery, but I am no real fan of a prologue. It’s in the book or it is not.

All of these elements underlies the dilemma of Elizabeth is Missing, for me. It is original, brilliant in places and comes unstuck in others. I understand this is Healey’s first novel, and that there was a bidding war between publishers. I also understand that the TV rights have been sold. I can imagine it more as a TV drama, but I fancy that the producers will want something done to the ending, as the drama for a TV audience will not be able to sustain the first person narrative. Perhaps then the flaws in the structure and plot will be fixed.

I look forward to what Emma Healey does next, because her writing is absorbing, and was the saving grace of Elizabeth is Missing.

A book reading challenge for 2016

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Read more is something I always say that I want to do every year, but that somehow feels a bit vague. I saw this on my friend Elspeth’s Facebook feed, and thought ‘yes.’ I’m beginning at the end of the list with Pride and Prejudice, and I’ve got a couple lined up in my mind too. One book a month. Eminently doable?  Let’s see… That rather depends on if I’m brave enough to add War and Peace!

Goodbye 2015… Hello 2016

What a way to wind up 2015 with… The Caribbean. Antigua is utterly beautiful, and I fell in love with the island, its people, and those warm, warm waters. It was perfect to just escape from this relentless revolting weather, let alone the happy reunion with my salty sea dog.

We saw out 2015 back here in Cornwall with friends, and it’s taken me a few days to gather myself for the annual appraisal. I know, it’s not for everyone, but it works for me.

When I look back at my goals for 2015, I’m feeling pleased with my achievements. Specifically my writing ones. I entered three competitions, and had success with  Sherbourne, I pitched an article, accepted, but hasn’t been published! Better luck next time. I’ve been disciplined with the daily journal and also the travel journals (Thailand, and almost done with Antigua), but only a B+ for the blog. It’s my WIP that I have most to shout about… 83,000 words last year, from nothing a year ago. I am immensely proud of this.

So, turning my mind to 2016, the year hangs around time, and the phases of the year. From now until May it’s a major on training for the Scillies (for the World Pilot Gig Championships) and getting the first draft done, and working out the direction for the first edit. I’m also hoping to sneak in a field trip to Lanzarote at the end of February. May – July we will then turn our attention to sailing on Whinchat, but where will we go?  July/August I want to see friends and family and FUN. Then the Autumn clocks around, and I will pick up the WIP and work hard on the first edit. There is much to fix, of course.

Do something that scares you? Scillies are terrifying to me, particularly as the weather has meant our training sessions keep getting cancelled, and I’m just not fit enough. New running shoes are on order! I should buy that wetsuit and get on the paddle board, my friend’s husband said he’d teach me. Body board – I’ll be stronger come May after all that training!

Learn something new – the Uke. I did so well earlier in the year, and then hit a rut. I’m going to push through that and learn some more chords so that I can strum my way around whichever body of water we end up sailing in.

I think that’s enough for now, don’t you? It’s up to me to make 2016 count.