Book review: Black Mischief, by Evelyn Waugh, 1932


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In many of my previous reviews I have struggled to respond to texts that either contain offensive language – that use racially insulting terms, that denigrate gay people or women, or otherwise offend my twenty-first century sensibilities. I usually try to draw a distinction between those texts that use offensive language which was in common usage in the period in which the text was written – Huckleberry Finn, for example, with its widespread use of the n-word – and texts that are more broadly offensive, that perpetuate stereotypes or go out of their way to be insulting to racial or other groups. Sometimes I find offensive novels that have not generally been considered in that category – Perfume being the obvious example, which most reviewers found harmless but which I took great exception to. 

In almost all cases however, I have been able to find redeeming features in the text. The novelist may have been reflecting outdated attitudes towards race, gender or sexuality, but they have nevertheless managed to write something worth reading. But that is mainly because I have been careful not to read those books that should be forgotten and which don’t merit a wider readership today. History has edited these novels from our bookshelves. But this is not always the case with authors who have written otherwise well thought of work, such as Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Black Mischief’. Because ‘Black Mischief’ is an embarrassingly offensive novel. 

The events of ‘Black Mischief’ take place mainly in the island kingdom of Azania, one of the few independent countries in Africa between the world wars. Waugh’s intention appears overt – he sets out to demonstrate that allowing African peoples to run their own countries is a ludicrous proposition that leads to profound mis-Government, chaos, and conflict. His argument is that Africans simply don’t have the intelligence, judgment or ability to run their own affairs.

Seth, emperor of Azania, inherits his role shortly after graduating from Oxford. He determines to modernise his country, but his ambitions are portrayed as utterly unrealistic – not only does he not understand what modernisation entails, but his efforts are undermined by his people, who have no interest in the modern world, and his officials, who just want to steal anything not nailed down.

Basil Seal, a feckless college friend, journeys to Azania on a whim to escape his debts in London, and is quickly appointed Minister of Modernisation. His sidekick is the Armenian businessman Yokoumian, an equally unpleasant and racist portrait. The small group of Europeans in Azania, diplomats, businessmen and missionaries, do not escape Waugh’s satire – they are all crooks and bored idiots, particularly the British consular staff headed by Sir Samson Courtenay, but there is a venom in the portraits of the Africans in the novel that is missing when the focus turns to the Europeans. 

A pageant to celebrate birth control is used as cover for the launch of a coup against Seth, with the French consul planning to install a puppet Government headed by his senile uncle Achon, who promptly dies at his coronation. In the bloodbath that follows the League of Nations steps in and claims the country as a League of Nations Mandate. The natural order with the white man running matters is restored, and Basil returns to London, where his absence has passed largely unnoticed. 

Many reviewers claim this novel is a satire. I am not sure that is right – what precisely is it satirising? Certainly not colonialism – Azania is not a colony. Modernisation? Perhaps, but it is hard to see what aspects of modernisation are problematic. Or is it modernisation in Africa? Is Waugh telling the reader that modernising Africa is pointless, because they will just use mis-use whatever modern devices or ideas we ‘give’ them (the wires used in the railway’s construction are used as jewellery, for example). The most striking example of this is the poster drawn up to advertise the benefits of birth control, showing one family wealthy and healthy with one child, and another family with many children where life is hard and poor. These posters are misunderstood by the Africans – silly people unable to understand a simple poster – and they think the single child family is the one that is being presented as the one to avoid. 

Life is cheap in Azania – people are killed casually throughout the novel – and cannibalism is widespread. There isn’t a racist stereotype untapped. There isn’t a single positive African character, not even for contrast – they are all either evil, conniving, mercenary, or murderous. Or all four. 

Waugh is not a bad writer, but I can’t help thinking that this novel should be allowed to quietly fade away. It’s not funny, the casual and incessant racism is hard to take, and the ending is callously brutal. For the first time ever I was embarrassed to be seen read this novel (with the front cover shown above) on public transport, which probably says it all. 


Book review: Life, the Universe, and Everything, by Douglas Adams,


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The novels in the Hitchhiker series have a complex publishing history. ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’ (the answer to which is, of course, 42),  was originally an outline for a Doctor Who series, Dr Who and the Krikketmen. For some unknown reason the proposal was rejected by the BBC, and it went on to eventually become the third novel of five in the Hitchhiker trilogy. It’s never been filmed, and did not form part of the radio series, which explains why the novel had a less familiar feel than ‘Hitchhiker‘ and ‘Restaurant‘. 

When I read the first two novels each scene was like revisiting an old friend. I could see jokes coming a long way off, but they were still golden. ‘Life’, by contrast, was a lot less familiar; while I recalled the plot and the overall structure, some of the individual events were unfamiliar, and all the more enjoyable for it.

The question I can never avoid asking when reading a series is ‘When will the quality start to dip?’ When will the author start repeating themselves, or ironically referencing themselves, or even worse in a desperate attempt to avoid repetition start taking the characters into ever more unlikely situations. This last option wasn’t possible for Adams, who had already sent his characters to the restaurant at the end of the universe, and I am pleased to say that the quality of the writing, the originality of the ideas, and the jokes do not suffer by comparison with the earlier novels. Possibly the storyline is stretched a little thinly, and any peril is completely missing – Arthur and co. have been blown up and shot at so many times that we know an utterly unlikely escape route is always bound to turn up at the last minute. Plot armour in other words. But the compensation is in the high quality jokes and ideas, such as the immortal creature who decides to insult everyone in the universe, the explanation as to why the bowl of petunias thought “Not again!”, and the concept of bistromathematics.

The novel picks up where ‘Restaurant’ ends, with Arthur stranded on pre-historic Earth. Ford Prefect, his friend from Betelgeuse, arrives to take him to see the cricket at Lords. The game is interrupted, first by their arrival and then in an even more unlikely development by a squad of white robots, who steal the Ashes. On cue Slartibartfast, award-winning creator of Norwegian fjords, arrives in the starship Bistromath, and asks Ford and Arthur for help in saving the universe.

The Bistromath is more powerful than the Heart of Gold, being powered by the mathematics of Italian restaurants (this is the imagination and creativity of Douglas Adams, and if you don’t like it take a good long look at your life). As they travel, Slartibartfast uses a hologramatic film to explain that he is trying to prevent the robots from collecting the legendary Wikkit Gate, which will unlock the planet Krikket, and unleash galaxy-wide armageddon. It seems a little more plausible when Adams tells the story – not much admittedly.

Picking up Zaphod and Trillian along the way, the team fail miserably in stopping the robots collecting the various pieces of the key or unlock the time lock. Our crew instead hopelessly transport to the planet to attempt to negotiate with the Krikkit people. To their surprise, they find that the people seem to lack any desire to continue the war, and are directed to the robot and spaceship facilities in orbit about the planet. With Zaphod and Marvin’s help, the group is able to infiltrate the facilities. There are some definite Star Wars echoes here – an intrepid band of outcasts and renegades fighting to prevent the end of the world – it is a classic story I suppose. Trillian works out (the reader will have been ahead of her I think) that the Krikkiters have been manipulated into their galaxy-hatred and galaxy-destroying capability, and confronts the mastermind behind the evil plan. No, not the Sith. 

I won’t spoil the ending for you, although as Simon Brett says in the introduction to the Pan edition of the novel, “You don’t read Douglas Adams for the plots any more than you read Raymond Chandler for his”. Which might explain why with my varied reading diet of Chandler and Adams I am probably overdue something a bit more plot driven!


Book review: The Lady in the Lake, by Raymond Chandler, 1943


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My binge reading of Chandler continues with ‘The Lady in the Lake’, a title that does two things. It tells us to expect a body to turn up sooner or later in a lake, and hints more obliquely that there may be Arthurian elements to the narrative.

Marlowe takes a case that he would normally avoid – a MisPers (missing person). Crystal Kingsley has run out on her husband, Derace, sending him a telegram saying she was divorcing him and marrying her lover Chris Lavery. But Lavery denied all knowledge of an elopement plan when Derace met him a few days after he received his wife’s letter. Marlowe begins his investigation with a visit to Lavery in Bay City, somewhere Marlowe has had run ins with the local cops before. It’s no surprise therefore that while watching Lavery’s house, Marlowe is threatened local cop Al Degarmo, who accuses him of watching Lavery’s neighbour, Dr. Almore. Almore’s wife had died in suspicious circumstances about a year earlier. Anyone with any experience of detective fiction will jump to the conclusion that Marlowe’s missing persons case and Mrs Almore’s death will, in some way, be connected.

Lavery leads Marlowe nowhere except the run in with the local law enforcement, so he decides to drive up to the Kingsley’s holiday cabin at Little Fawn Lake, where Mrs Kingsley was staying before she went missing. Yes, that’s the lake we were waiting for. Marlowe meets the caretaker, Bill Chess, who in a highly suspicious, red lights flashing coincidence, has just been walked out on by his wife, Muriel. The scene where Marlowe and Chess chat on the boardwalk by the lake, and eventually discover the secret hidden in the water, is a masterpiece of controlled writing:

“The depths cleared again. Something moved in them that was not a board. It rose slowly, with an infinitely careless languor, a long dark twisted something that rolled lazily in the water as it rose. It broke surface casually, lightly, without haste. I saw wool, sodden and black, a leather jerkin blacker than ink, a pair of slacks. I saw shoes and something that bulged nastily between the shoes and the cuffs of the slacks. I saw a wave of dark blond hair straighten out in the water and hold still for a brief instant as if with a calculated effect, and then swirl into a tangle again.” 

Chess is arrested for his wife’s murder, although Marlowe  is sceptical. Marlowe tries not to be distracted by this discovery, although even he begins to wonder why death seems to follow him around: 

It’s only Marlowe, finding another body. He does it rather well by now. Murder-a-day Marlowe, they call him. They have the meat wagon following him around to follow up on the business he finds.

He goes back to interview Lavery again, and it is no surprise to anyone when he finds him shot in his bathroom. Without a solid lead, he picks up the Almore case, and visits Mrs Almore’s parents, who suspect their daughter was murdered. Another run-in with the local police who are trying to prevent Marlowe investigating the Almore case derails this thread of the investigation for now, but there is no time to pause for breath before he receives a call from Derace Kingsley saying that Crystal has telephoned him asking for money to help her leave town. He asks Marlowe to make the pay-off –  by now he just wants rid of his wife, even if she seems the most likely suspect for Lavery’s murder.

Marlowe is never going to give money to help a murder suspect flee the jurisdiction, but when he confronts and accuses her she pulls a gun on him. As they struggle Marlowe is sapped. Some time later he comes round:
“I smelled of gin. Not just casually, as if I had taken four or five drinks of a winter morning to get out of bed on, but as if the Pacific Ocean was pure gin and I had nosedived off the boat deck. The gin was in my hair and eyebrows, on my chin and under my chin. It was on my shirt. I smelled like dead toads.”

Crystal lies strangled to death on the bed, presumably by whoever sapped Marlowe, and with a view to framing him for the murder. Degarmo the Bay City cop, who we have learned was in love with Muriel Chess, arrests Marlowe but quickly accepts he was not responsible for Crystal’s murder. He drives him back to Little Fawn Lake to arrest Kingsley, now chief suspect. There a final confrontation ensues and all the complex threads of the mystery are drawn together in a very satisfying finale. 

I’ve raved enough in recent posts to make it unnecessary to write further about the magnificence of Chandler’s prose. His imagery in particular is to my mind some of the best in modern fiction. Can you find a better simile than this, anywhere?
“She looked playful and eager, but not quite sure of herself, like a new kitten in a house where they don’t care much about kittens.” 

His descriptive passages are vivid and his character portraits have a wonderful economy. Here’s Kingsley’s assistant for example – note how the imagery just can’t be kept out of his writing even if he wanted it to:
“She wore a steel gray business suit and under the jacket a dark blue shirt and a man’s tie of lighter shade. The edges of the folded handkerchief in the breast pocket looked sharp enough to slice bread.”

‘The Lady in the Lake’ is not one of Chandler’s most popular or well-known Marlowe novels. It should be; it is classic Chandler, in full control of his material and at the top of his game. Marlowe is cynical but not bitter, hard-boiled but still open to romance. For me Chandler transcends detective fiction, while at the same time defining it. I guess if my reviews haven’t persuaded you of this now then I probably should quit trying, but in case you are in any doubt, give him a try, you won’t regret it. 

Book review: The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler, 1953


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I first read ‘The Long Goodbye’ around 25 years ago, and returning to it was an absolute pleasure. It is another Marlowe novel, and is (as they all are), a gem. Some novels change over time, but Chandler’s work has a timeless quality. It doesn’t matter what is happening in the outside world, Marlowe will always be there with a smart line and a stiff drink, even if he has just discovered a body and been socked over the head.  ‘The Long Goodbye’ is late Marlowe/Chandler, with a reflective quality that shows that both men have been through a lot, and are beginning to feel their age.chandler

The plot is complex, as you would expect. Marlowe meets a drunk, Terry Lennox, outside a club. Lennox is a lush, married to a rich women who is serially unfaithful to him, and has a mysterious past, testified to by the scars down one side of his face. Marlowe and Lennox become unlikely and occasional drinking friends until Lennox shows up late one night needing a ride to the airport, no questions asked. Marlowe knows he must have very good reasons for this request, but doesn’t ask any awkward questions. He is a good enough detective to know there are only one or two reasons why someone in Lennox’s position would want to fly the country in the middle of the night. So it is no surprise when on his return from the airport, the police confirm that Mrs Lennox has been murdered. Marlowe refuses to co-operate with the police, and is slung in jail for his efforts. But his interrogation is cut short when news arrives that Lennox has committed suicide leaving a confession. Marlowe later receives a letter from Lennox containing a Madison, a $5,000 bill, and some cryptic comments that leave Marlowe with some questions about what has happened.

Chandler’s novels are often built around earlier magazine stories. Knowing this I was expecting a new storyline to be introduced at this point, and it comes when Marlowe is asked by a publisher to work out the dark secrets of one of his (the publisher’s) writers, Roger Wade. Wade is being driven to drink by whatever is troubling him, and when drunk he becomes violent, not least towards his wife. Wade has also gone missing.

Marlowe quickly tracks Wade down to a detox facility in an isolated ranch. Case solved. Inevitably that is not the end of Marlowe’s involvement with the Wades. They try to convince him to work for them as what we would now call Roger’s sober companion, but Marlowe is not interested. Meanwhile, the Lennox ‘case’ refuses to go away, even though there appears nothing left to investigate. Marlowe’s work with the Wades leads other people to conclude that he is still looking into the deaths of Mrs Lennox and her husband. This is a close-knit community where everyone knows everyone else, and there is a suggestion that Wade and Mrs Lennox were lovers . Marlowe is menaced by a mobster friend of Lennox’s, Mendy Menendez, and by Lennox’s ultra-rich father-in-law, to drop the case, even though he tells them repeatedly that he is not investigating it. Slowly, details emerge of the lives of these troubled people. Marlowe learns that Terry Lennox had lived in England, fought in the Second World War, and had been previously married.

Wade starts drinking again, and then apparently commits suicide. Marlowe is suspicious, but because he was alone with Wade at the time of his death it is he that becomes a suspect, although never seriously. In a traditional reveal scene Marlowe walks us through who really killed Mrs Lennox and Wade, and finally what really happened to Terry Lennox.

Chandler’s byzantine plots mean that even though I have read this novel before I was constantly kept guessing as to who killed whom. But as I have said before you shouldn’t read Chandler for the plots, but the wonderful prose:

When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes, people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped, and murdered. People were hungry, sick; bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness. It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is. I didn’t have one. I didn’t care. I finished the drink and went to bed.” 

This is a melancholy and reflective novel in which the portraits of two serious drinkers, Wade and Lennox, are both considered self-portraits of the author.  Marlowe still takes a punch with the best of them, but it takes him just that little bit longer to come round. He is still a sucker for a pretty face, and when he takes a lover it forms part of the long goodbye of the novel’s title. I can’t rank Chandler’s novels against one another, and they are equally hard to compare to other detective fiction, such is their distinctiveness. All I can say is that if I had a desert island disc decision to make, Chandler would be very near if not at the top of my list. He is one of the language’s great stylists, and if you haven’t read him before, and aren’t offended too easily, I can’t recommend his work highly enough.

Comment: Structured or formulaic?

I have been trying to decide whether there is really a difference between a text that is highly structured, such as a sonnet for example, and a text that follows rules of composition that are formulaic. I have a suspicion that the difference may be limited: when we like the text we say it is structured, and we use the term formulaic when we want to be derogatory. However, the suspicion nags – can it really be that simple?

What set me down this track was a binge read of the Sherlock Holmes short stories. I don’t think it is controversial to say that Conan Doyle constructs most of these stories to a tight formula. The reader knows (and finds comfort from the fact) in outline what is going to happen at each stage of the story. Everything will be neatly wrapped up in a couple of thousand words. Some of these structures derive from the medium Conan Doyle was using – the magazine story – while others are self-imposed. They aren’t the rules of the genre, because Conan Doyle was pretty much inventing the genre himself. For me these stories – and there are exceptions of course – feel formulaic, as if the writer is providing the reader with what he assumed they wanted. We know that Conan Doyle eventually came to resent Holmes because of this.

But the rhyme structure of a sonnet is prescribed. The Harry Potter stories follow a rigid formula, but this doesn’t stop them being compelling. So what is the difference between adherence to form and writing within structural constraints? In a formulaic text the author is aware of the clichéd nature of the structures they are using. It is simply easier to allow the text to run along well-worn grooves. In a structured text the forms are there to guide the construction, not to govern it. The author can step outside the lines at any time. To offer some examples: Shakespeare’s most famous line – “To be or not to be, that is the question” – is an eleven syllable line in which the stresses can go almost anywhere we want them to. Anyone watching a Shakespeare play who thinks “What wonderful iambic pentameters” is really missing the point. In school we are taught that a sentence must have an object and a verb. But Charles Dickens opens ‘Bleak House’ with a one-word sentence – “London.” in which the reader is given almost completely free choice in the implied verb. Greater writers break rules. In a formulaic text the structures hold the text together, and without them it would just be a string of sentences. Conan Doyle could and did deconstruct his form – most famously when he killed off Holmes – but for too many of his stories he is on auto-pilot.

I am sure there’s more to this issue than the ground I have covered here – what do you think? I confess I have been tweaking this post for weeks trying to get the ideas straight on paper, and am close to giving up and just posting in the hope that someone might have some more insight on the issue than I have been able to muster!


Book review: Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett, 1988


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‘Wyrd Sisters’ sees the return of Terry Pratchett’s magnificent three, Granny Weatherwax; Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick, Discworld’s most chaotic coven. The opening of the novel is closely modelled on Pratchett’s source text, Macbeth: King Verence I of Lancre, a small mountainous kingdom high in the Ramtops, is murdered by his cousin, Duke Felmet, and the duke’s homicidal wife. So far so Shakespeare, but from this point the novel WSdeviates somewhat from its source. (For the avoidance of any doubt, this is of course a joke – Macbeth is a source for ‘Wyrd Sisters’ in the same way that Hamlet is a source for the Lion King, i.e. barely).

The king’s son and his crown are smuggled out of the castle and handed to the witches for safekeeping. They foster the child with a troupe of travelling actors, hide the crown in plain sight in a box of props, and settle back to watch destiny take its course. Their confident expectation is that the prince, Tomjon, will grow up, defeat Duke Felmet and take his rightful place as king.

However, this is Discworld, so of course things don’t work out as easily as that. Lancre is a highly magical and very slightly sentient kingdom, and is angry about the way the new King mistreats the land. Reluctantly, the coven casts a spell over the kingdom, freezing it in time for 15 years and allowing Tomjon to grow into a young man and therefore (in theory at least) able to challenge his er…second cousin (uncle would have been better) for the throne. Tomjon is also, as it happens, a highly talented actor…. Continue reading

Book review: Lies, Inc, by Philip K Dick


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I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of books that I have failed to finish in the last few years. Mainly this has been through sheer stubbornness – I can’t imagine any other reason why anyone would work their way through the nine volumes – nine! – of Samuel Richardson ‘Clarissa’, or get beyond the first few pages of F R Rolfe’s hilariously bad ‘Hadrian 7‘. But I didn’t finish, or get beyond halfway, Philip K Dick’s ‘Lies, Inc’.Lies inc

‘Lies, Inc’ was originally a short story, ‘The Unteleported Man’. It’s a perfectly ordinary sci-fi story about the establishment of a space colony. For reasons known only to himself, Dick decided to turn the story into a novel. Instead of expanding the plot, adding characters, etc, he injected (deliberate choice of verb) a long middle section involving a drugs trip. Characters turn into rats, the plot collapses, and frankly it becomes utterly unreadable.

Don’t just take my word for it. I turned to Goodreads to try and find out whether I was missing the point somewhere, and there is a strong consensus that this novel is an utter car crash. One reviewer advised that even PKD completists should avoid it, reserving it only for ‘PKD masochists’.

Continue reading

Supplementary: Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice – a comparison


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As I read ‘Sense and Sensibility’ earlier this month I was struck by the many similarities between the novel and ‘Pride and Prejudice’. My initial theory was that ‘Sense’ was an early draft of ‘Pride’, but that didn’t withstand much research – as Claire @ pointed out in a comment on an earlier post, although ‘Pride’ was published second it was written first. Nevertheless, ‘Sense’ is, to me, the junior or lesser work. Components of ‘Sense’ which work well are even more impressive when portrayed in ‘Pride’.

Both novels focus on the romantic affairs of a family of women, in which a father figure is to all intents and purposes missing. Mr Bennet is of course alive, but disastrously abdicates any involvement in his daughters’ romances, until in Lydia’s case it is too late. In both novels the families’ inheritance situation is precarious – if Mr Bennet dies the family will have to leave Longbourn; Mr Dashwood’s death leaves his second family in a position where they have to leave their home and take a cottage donated by a charitable family member, taking at the same time a large step down the social ladder.

The events of the novels are each described through the narrative perspective of an older sister. Elinor and Elizabeth are both sensible, mature young women who are embarrassed and scandalised by the conduct of their younger sisters. They are not perhaps completely reliable narrators – they withhold information from the reader and perhaps themselves, but their judgment is the one we are invited to trust. In terms of the family dynamics they take the place of their mothers who are portrayed as less intelligent and lacking in mature judgment. Younger teenage sisters are a cause of drama in the household. Marianne nearly engages herself to an unsuitable young man; Lydia does so, and goes further. Willoughby is immature and flirts with Marianne while never seriously contemplating an engagement – his financial affairs and his profligacy means he has to marry well; Wickham is equally focussed on marrying for money while having fun as a single man, with little concern for the feelings of the women he dallies with.

Each novel also has a spare sister. Margaret Dashwood plays little or no part in ‘Sense’, in terms of the plot nor as a commentator or observer; Mary Bennet plays arguably a slightly more important  role in Pride, but is easily forgotten amongst the noise generated by her siblings.

Secrets and lies are at the heart of both novels. Much of what occurs in the texts is hidden from the reader. Marianne has no idea why Willoughby leaves Devon so suddenly, nor why he gives her the cold shoulder when they meet in London; all Mr Darcy’s efforts to salvage the situation with Lydia and Wickham is equally hidden from the Bennet family until near the end of the novel. Elinor has to bear the secret of Mr Ferrars’ engagement with Lucy Steele until it is finally broken; at least Elizabeth has someone to share her secrets with in her sister, Jane.

Finally, it all comes down to money. This is the central obsession of both novels. Many conversations revolve around character’s income, their savings, the inheritance they are likely to receive, etc. In ‘Pride’ there is an inflation of expectations – the sums Mrs Bennet talks about as being suitable for her daughters’ prospective and theoretical husbands gradually increase through the course of the novel. The despicable Mr Collins explains to Elizabeth that he is prepared to overlook her relative poverty, and later Mr Darcy makes a similar point, with broadly the same result. The same conversations dominate ‘Sense’; we are never far away from speculation about the worth of an individual in terms of income and savings, and Willoughby’s marriage to an heiress allows other characters scandalised by his behaviour towards Marianne to quickly overcome their scruples.

In comparing the novels I am not of course suggesting that Austen has recycled her material. She famously accepted that her work was narrow in scope, once writing:

“What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of variety and glow? How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour?”

It is her ultimate achievement that she produced such stunning novels with such fine material. Van Gogh painted sunflowers many times, but each painting is unique. In considering ‘Pride’ the more successful novel, that’s a personal view mainly in relation to how the central romance is portrayed – I enjoy the love story of Elizabeth and Darcy, while Edward and Elinor never really go through the same journey or face the same challenges. What do you think?

Supplementary: On servants and their powers of invisibility


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Much has been written about the invisibility of servants in society, an invisibility that is apparent in Austen’s novels. The middle class families that we follow in these texts are supported by a large cast of characters who wash their clothes, clean their houses and cook their food, but whose existence is barely acknowledged and who are largely silent. Convention of the time and for decades to come dictated that the upper classes act as if the servants attending them did not exist. Because many employers disliked seeing servants at work, housework had to be done before the family or their guests breakfasted. In larger houses to avoid awkward encounters between master and servants the latter used special entrances and corridors. Doors linked to connecting corridors were covered by screens, fake bookcases or wallpaper, so that servants could appear quietly and efficiently when called. The concept of a tradesman’s entrance at the back of a house has persisted to the present day in many parts of the UK.

There is a really striking example of this phenomenon in ‘Sense and Sensibility’. It’s worth first reading this extract from chapter 16. I have edited it slightly but I think you will spot what I mean:

One morning, about a week after his (Willoughby’s) leaving the country, Marianne was prevailed on to join her sisters in their usual walk. …Amongst the objects in the scene, they soon discovered an animated one; it was a man on horseback riding towards them. In a few minutes they could distinguish him to be a gentleman.“

Marianne, in a case of wishful thinking,  mistakes the man for her missing lover, even though Elinor warns her that “The person is not tall enough for him, and has not his air.” It turns out the gentleman in question is Edward Ferrars, who on reaching the ladies “dismounted, and giving his horse to his servant, walked back with them to Barton, whither he was purposely coming to visit them.”

So at the risk of stating the obvious, let’s analyse what happens there. They spot a man on horseback coming towards them. He is unquestionably alone. Not a man and his companion or servant, just a man. As he gets nearer there is something about his appearance – we are not told what – that allows the ladies to deduce that he is a gentleman. This could be his clothing, his bearing (air), his horse, or something else. A few yards later, all of a sudden he has acquired a servant, who can take care of his horse for him.

I suppose there are any number of theoretical explanations for this sudden appearance, but for me the most obvious one is that the servant was there all the time, just not worthy of mention. He is so unimportant he just doesn’t count, or is effectively invisible.

There is a further example of this phenomenon towards the end of the novel, (chapter 47) when the rumour of Edward Ferrars’ marriage reaches the Dashwood ladies. What is striking in this extract is that it is one of the few instances in all Austen where a servant gets to speak at length to his employers. The phrases in brackets are my annotations, of course.

“Their man servant had been sent one morning to Exeter on business; and when, as he waited at table, he had satisfied the inquiries of his mistress as to the event of his errand, this was his voluntary communication—

I suppose you know, ma’am, that Mr. Ferrars is married.”

(This in itself is pretty remarkable. Although the anonymous servant has thus far been replying to questions from the ladies, his comment about Mr. Ferrars is a “voluntary communication” – he offers up this information without being asked. In many other households this would have been considered impertinent – you speak when you are spoken to, and not before.)

Marianne gave a violent start, fixed her eyes upon Elinor, saw her turning pale, and fell back in her chair in hysterics. (Again) Mrs. Dashwood, whose eyes, as she answered the servant’s (still no name) inquiry, had intuitively taken the same direction, was shocked to perceive by Elinor’s countenance how much she really suffered, and a moment afterwards, alike distressed by Marianne’s situation, knew not on which child to bestow her principal attention.

The servant (still), who saw only that Miss Marianne was taken ill, had sense enough to call one of the maids, (who also has no name) who, with Mrs. Dashwood’s assistance, supported her into the other room. By that time, Marianne was rather better, and her mother leaving her to the care of Margaret and the maid (ok, you get the point), returned to Elinor, who, though still much disordered, had so far recovered the use of her reason and voice as to be just beginning an inquiry of Thomas, (at last!) as to the source of his intelligence. Mrs. Dashwood immediately took all that trouble (all that trouble? hardly a day’s shift down the mines, is it?) on herself; and Elinor had the benefit of the information without the exertion (stretching the definition of the term exertion here) of seeking it.

“Who told you that Mr. Ferrars was married, Thomas?”

“I see  Mr. Ferrars myself, ma’am, this morning in Exeter, and his lady too, Miss Steele as was. (we can tell Thomas is working class because he makes grammatical mistakes in his verb cases) They was (were, young man) stopping in a chaise at the door of the New London Inn, as I went there with a message from Sally at the Park to her brother, who is one of the post-boys. I happened to look up as I went by the chaise, and so I see directly it was the youngest Miss Steele; so I took off my hat, and she knew me and called to me, and inquired after you, ma’am, and the young ladies, especially Miss Marianne, and bid me I should give her compliments and Mr. Ferrars’s, their best compliments and service, and how sorry they was they had not time to come on and see you, but they was in a great hurry to go forwards, for they was going further down for a little while, but howsever, when they come back, they’d make sure to come and see you.” (very little sentence structure, another indication of Thomas’s lack of formal education).

“But did she tell you she was married, Thomas?”

“Yes, ma’am. She smiled, and said how she had changed her name since she was in these parts. She was always a very affable and free-spoken young lady, and very civil behaved. So, I made free to wish her joy.”

Thomas is then grilled in detail as to what he see, what happened, etc. Finally:

“Mrs. Dashwood could think of no other question, and Thomas and the tablecloth, now alike needless, were soon afterwards dismissed.”

Yes, you read that right, Thomas and the tablecloth were alike needless. A servant and a piece of linen are lumped together, inanimate objects, both worthless.

Is Austen reflecting the contemptuous attitudes towards servants of her class, or satirising them? It is hard to tell – Mrs Dashwood can be thoughtless but she is never cruel or impolite, even to servants.

What do you think?

Book review: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, 1811


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Six years after Trafalgar, while the Peninsular War rages on the continent and social discontent stirs at home, Jane Austen turned her attention to the challenges facing a very specific class of young women in Georgian England.

A complex will, and the early death of the family’s father, see the widowed Mrs Dashwood, and daughters, Elinor, Marianne and Margaret, left with a small income and no residence. The family heir, John, half brother to the sisters, undertakes to care for his family, but quickly reneges on the promise in one of those acts of self-persuasion in which Austen’s characters specialise. Treated as unwelcome guests in what has been until recently their family home, the Dashwood family relocate to to Barton Cottage in Devon , near the home of their relative, Sir John Middleton, although not before oldest daughter Elinor has ‘formed an attachment’ with Edward Ferrars, brother of their half-brother’s wife. I hope you are following this because there will be a quiz. (In following the narrative it helps to understand the convention that if there are two or more unmarried sisters, the eldest will be Miss Dashwood, and the younger Miss Marianne Dashwood, etc. A pen and paper help as well).

Settling into their modest new home in Devon, the Dashwood ladies also settle into what constitutes Devon society, assisted by Sir John, his wife, Lady Middleton, his mother-in-law, the rather common Mrs Jennings, and family friend, Colonel Brandon. The Colonel is attracted to Marianne, although she finds the almost twenty-year age gap off-putting. To be fair she is only sixteen, so you can understand he concerns.

While out walking one day, Marianne sprains her ankle, and is carried home by a charming young rescuer, John Willoughby. Willoughby and Marianne quickly become very close, and their intimate behaviour soon suggests to Mrs Dashwood and Elinor that they are engaged. Willoughby takes Marianne to see the home he expects to inherit one day, and cuts off a lock of her hair. Taking a lock of hair is a traditionally symbolic and intimate act. But the long awaited engagement fails to materialise. Then out of the blue Willoughby informs the family that has to go to London on business,and is unlikely to return within the year.  Marianne is devastated.

One beau is replaced by another. Edward Ferrars comes to visit. Remember him? Mysteriously, his earlier intimacy with Elinor is missing. He is restrained and diffident. Shortly after his puzzling visit, the Misses Steele, Anne and Lucy, cousins of Mrs. Jennings, come visiting, and in the first of many plot twists Lucy secretly tells Elinor she is engaged to Edward. Unable to see any wrong in a man who had apparently wooed her just a few months earlier, Elinor speculates that this is a loveless engagement which Edward’s sense of honour will not allow him to end.

At this point the speed of events accelerates. The Dashwood sisters (apart from the near invisible Margaret) travel with Mrs Jennings to London, to join the parties and dances that are a way of passing the time for the idle rich. Knowing him to be in town, Marianne writes to Willoughby, trying to arrange an assignation, but her letters go unanswered. Several days later, as Marianne’s distress at his silence escalates, they meet by chance at a dance, and Willoughby, with another woman, brushes Marianne off coldly. A blunt letter follows which claims that there was never any substance to their relationship, and telling her than he is now engaged to another woman. Young heiresses are a stock figure in these novels, along with cads, bluff uncles, giddy younger sisters and indulgent fathers. Marianne is once again devastated, and falls into a decline in which her health suffers. In a self-interested attempt to help, Colonel Brandon reveals to Elinor that Willoughby is a scoundrel who has previously seduced, impregnated, then abandoned Brandon’s young ward, Miss Eliza Williams.

Meanwhile, the Steele sisters have come to London as guests of Mrs Jennings. Unable to keep a secret, talkative Anne Steele betrays Lucy’s engagement to Edward. Chaos ensues. The Misses Steele are turned out of the house, and Edward is ordered by his wealthy mother to break off the engagement. He refuses and is promptly disinherited in favour of his brother, Robert.

So where does that leave the Dashwood ladies. Elinor’s love Edward is marrying someone beneath him, and who she suspects he does not love. Marianne’s love Willoughby is by now married to his heiress, and forever out of reach. And the novel is in its concluding chapters, so the author needs to hurry up and sort this out!

Marianne, moping over Willoughby, catches a cold and becomes dangerously ill. Colonel Brandon goes to fetch Marianne’s mother to her bedside. Unexpectedly, in a moment of what I suspect is intended to be high drama, Willoughby arrives. He confesses all to Elinor – his love for Marianne was genuine and having married for money he is now miserable. This is all well and fine but doesn’t really explain away his seduction of Colonel Brandon’s niece does it? Elinor softens somewhat but there’s not much she can say to him by way of comfort – he has made his choices.

Happily, Marianne recovers from her illness, and is told of Willoughby’s visit. Marianne, showing a maturity sadly missing only weeks earlier, tells her family that she could never have been happy with Willoughby, and dedicates herself to a monastic life of study and good work. Here the sound of ends being tied up becomes deafening. Edward arrives and reveals that Lucy has implausibly married his now wealthy younger brother, Robert. Edward and Elinor marry, and finally Marianne comes to terms with his advanced old age and marries Colonel Brandon.

Nobody reads Austen for the car crashes and the suspense. We know what is going to happen, and little gets in the way of the long-awaited happy ever after. So the entertainment value of the novel, and in many ways in all of Austen’s work, resides not in incident but in the portraits of human nature she sketches. She is particularly good at catching the stifling nature of the lives of middle class women, unable to join the men in hunting, so condemned to sketching, music, reading (Marianne claims to have read everything in her family library, and anticipates reading six hours a day) and so bored. All they have to do is gossip, size up the value of people’s estates and income, and plan romances between the younger people.

Austen’s portraits of her minor characters is a particular strength of this novel. For example, Mrs Palmer, second daughter of Mrs Jennings, (Chapter 19)

was several years younger than Lady Middleton, and totally unlike her in every respect. She was short and plump, had a very pretty face, and the finest expression of good humour in it that could possibly be. Her manners were by no means so elegant as her sister’s, but they were much more prepossessing. She came in with a smile, smiled all the time of her visit, except when she laughed, and smiled when she went away.”

Her wonderfully grumpy husband clearly has little or no respect for his kind wife; he:

was a grave looking young man of five or six and twenty, with an air of more fashion and sense than his wife, but of less willingness to please or be pleased. He entered the room with a look of self-consequence, slightly bowed to the ladies, without speaking a word, and, after briefly surveying them and their apartments, took up a newspaper from the table, and continued to read it as long as he staid.

The interaction between Mr Palmer and his wife is comedy gold:

“Well! what a delightful room this is! I never saw anything so charming! Only think, Mama, how it is improved since I was here last! I always thought it such a sweet place, ma’am! (turning to Mrs. Dashwood) but you have made it so charming! Only look, sister, how delightful every thing is! How I should like such a house for myself! Should not you, Mr. Palmer?”

Mr. Palmer made her no answer, and did not even raise his eyes from the newspaper.

“Mr. Palmer does not hear me,” said she, laughing; “he never does sometimes. It is so ridiculous!”

When it is revealed that Mrs Palmer is pregnant (“in her situation“), Lady Middleton is shocked that such matters are openly discussed, and

could no longer endure such a conversation, and therefore exerted herself to ask Mr. Palmer if there was any news in the paper.

“No, none at all,” he replied, and read on.”

Austen can at times be harsh with her characters. She creates some wonderful monsters that are never just caricatures. Lady Middleton is described as having “a kind of cold hearted selfishness” and Mrs. Ferrars was “a little, thin woman, upright, even to formality, in her figure, and serious, even to sourness, in her aspect. Her complexion was sallow; and her features small, without beauty, and naturally without expression; …She was not a woman of many words; for, unlike people in general, she proportioned them to the number of her ideas”.

The other obsession everyone seems to have is with money. One’s worth is weighed in savings and income to the nearest penny, and futures are decided on the basis of who has how much. Willoughby does not seriously consider marrying Marianne because of her relative poverty, but his wife has:

“Fifty thousand pounds, my dear. Did you ever see her? a smart, stylish girl they say, but not handsome. I remember her aunt very well, Biddy Henshawe; she married a very wealthy man. But the family are all rich together. Fifty thousand pounds! and by all accounts, it won’t come before it’s wanted; for they say he is all to pieces. No wonder! dashing about with his curricle and hunters! Well, it don’t signify talking; but when a young man, be who he will, comes and makes love to a pretty girl, and promises marriage, he has no business to fly off from his word only because he grows poor, and a richer girl is ready to have him.” (Chapter 30)

Writing about boredom without being boring is difficult. Austen uses her observations of how ridiculously people behave in these situations, drawing humour from the absurdity. Here for example the women are discussing the heights of their children,

Harry Dashwood, and Lady Middleton’s second son William, who were nearly of the same age. Had both the children been there, the affair might have been determined too easily by measuring them at once; but as Harry only was present, it was all conjectural assertion on both sides; and every body had a right to be equally positive in their opinion, and to repeat it over and over again ……The two mothers, though each really convinced that her own son was the tallest, politely decided in favour of the other.

The two grandmothers, with not less partiality, but more sincerity, were equally earnest in support of their own descendant.

Lucy, who was hardly less anxious to please one parent than the other, thought the boys were both remarkably tall for their age, and could not conceive that there could be the smallest difference in the world between them; and Miss Steele, with yet greater address gave it, as fast as she could, in favour of each.

Elinor, having once delivered her opinion on William’s side, by which she offended Mrs. Ferrars and Fanny still more, did not see the necessity of enforcing it by any farther assertion; and Marianne, when called on for hers, offended them all, by declaring that she had no opinion to give, as she had never thought about it.”

Austen is also one of the greatest users of narrative point of view. Most of the novel’s events are shown through Elinor’s eyes – we know what she is thinking and feeling, but events elsewhere are effectively “off-screen”. When this perspective shifts, as it does occasionally, the reader knows to sit up and pay attention, such as in this scene where the point of view switches to that of Mrs Jennings, observing Elinor and the Colonel having a private conversation (Marianne is playing the piano making it hard to  overhear:

on Elinor’s moving to the window …he followed her to it with a look of particular meaning, and conversed with her there for several minutes. The effect of his discourse on the lady too, could not escape her observation, for though she was too honorable to listen, and had even changed her seat, on purpose that she might NOT hear, to one close by the piano forte on which Marianne was playing, she could not keep herself from seeing that Elinor changed colour, attended with agitation, and was too intent on what he said to pursue her employment.”

She assumes there has been a proposal. Austen gives us a “what really happened” explanation very shortly thereafter. There is a similar and even more dramatic shift of perspective in the novel’s concluding chapters when Edward comes to tell Elinor he is a free man, and to propose to her.

His errand at Barton, in fact, was a simple one. It was only to ask Elinor to marry him;—and considering that he was not altogether inexperienced in such a question, it might be strange that he should feel so uncomfortable in the present case as he really did, so much in need of encouragement and fresh air. How soon he had walked himself into the proper resolution, however, how soon an opportunity of exercising it occurred, in what manner he expressed himself, and how he was received, need not be particularly told. This only need be said;—that when they all sat down to table at four o’clock, about three hours after his arrival, he had secured his lady” (Chapter 49).

“need not be particularly told”! I beg to differ. There is another example of this turning aside at the last minute and leaving the fictional lovers a moment of intimate privacy at the point of engagement in Northanger Abbey. Perhaps this was a literary convention of the time, although if it was Austen ignores it in Pride and Prejudice for example.

The novel concludes with a wrapping up of events that the reader has expected from the start, albeit with a touch of regret for the loss of innocence in Marianne

Instead of falling a sacrifice to an irresistible passion, as once she had fondly flattered herself with expecting,—instead of remaining even for ever with her mother, and finding her only pleasures in retirement and study, as afterwards in her more calm and sober judgment she had determined on,—she found herself at nineteen, submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties, placed in a new home, a wife, the mistress of a family, and the patroness of a village.”

Notice how almost all the verbs used to describe Marianne’s future are passive – she falls. remains, submits, and is placed in a new home. You have to wonder what element of choice she genuinely exercises, even though the answer is of course none, because she is fictional!

Two final thoughts on what is already an overly long review:

  1. I can’t help but wonder what happens to poor forgotten younger sister Margaret?
  2. You may have noticed that I have not illustrated this review with a copy of the novel’s book cover – this is because they were all universally awful!