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Ire and Irritability

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I am having another stab at Jane Austen.

Friends beg me to keep trying, anxious for me not to miss what they tell me is an unrivalled view of a luminous literary landscape. I have made efforts on and off over the years and never found her to my taste. Somewhere along the line at school I passed through Northanger Abbey without retaining much impression of it. But now I have made a pledge with a friend who works at the Royal Society of Literature. I must endeavour to read some Austen and my friend will attempt to read Wuthering Heights, a book she has heretofore avoided. She suggested I start with Sense and Sensibility, so I did.

Well, there are certainly notable descriptions of handsome houses, mansions set in parkland and snug but sensible cottages. By chapter five of Sense and Sensibility I am wondering whether or not Austen should have been an estate agent. The division of an estate, the properties, the provisions of a will, its legal intricacies, the inheritance – all of which Austen understood well – the landed gentry, all these are hitting a nerve. Images of precise but insipid watercolours float across my mind alongside scenes costumed by Laura Ashley.

The truth is I am already trying to suppress a mounting fury, the source of which I cannot fathom. However, I do appreciate the brevity of the chapters. I must remember that as a useful technique for encouraging a reader to continue.

Why the fury? I start to examine my extreme and visceral reaction to various kinds of literature and am surprised to realize how far back it goes. I could not have been more than 5 when I took an intense dislike to the nursery rhyme ‘A frog he would a-wooing go’. We sang it regularly at school. I try to remember now why I disliked it so much. After all, I liked the song about the old woman who swallowed a fly. I enjoyed the satisfying menace of the Teddy Bear’s Picnic. But I hated the amorous frog. I took a vio

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I am having another stab at Jane Austen.

Friends beg me to keep trying, anxious for me not to miss what they tell me is an unrivalled view of a luminous literary landscape. I have made efforts on and off over the years and never found her to my taste. Somewhere along the line at school I passed through Northanger Abbey without retaining much impression of it. But now I have made a pledge with a friend who works at the Royal Society of Literature. I must endeavour to read some Austen and my friend will attempt to read Wuthering Heights, a book she has heretofore avoided. She suggested I start with Sense and Sensibility, so I did.

Well, there are certainly notable descriptions of handsome houses, mansions set in parkland and snug but sensible cottages. By chapter five of Sense and Sensibility I am wondering whether or not Austen should have been an estate agent. The division of an estate, the properties, the provisions of a will, its legal intricacies, the inheritance – all of which Austen understood well – the landed gentry, all these are hitting a nerve. Images of precise but insipid watercolours float across my mind alongside scenes costumed by Laura Ashley. The truth is I am already trying to suppress a mounting fury, the source of which I cannot fathom. However, I do appreciate the brevity of the chapters. I must remember that as a useful technique for encouraging a reader to continue. Why the fury? I start to examine my extreme and visceral reaction to various kinds of literature and am surprised to realize how far back it goes. I could not have been more than 5 when I took an intense dislike to the nursery rhyme ‘A frog he would a-wooing go’. We sang it regularly at school. I try to remember now why I disliked it so much. After all, I liked the song about the old woman who swallowed a fly. I enjoyed the satisfying menace of the Teddy Bear’s Picnic. But I hated the amorous frog. I took a violent antipathy to the character, the song and its silly chorus. Frankly, I found it childish. At the other extreme, I was passionately engaged by a series of books about a small koala bear called Wonk which I was just able to read for myself. I can still see the illustrations – Wonk leaning over the side of a ship with his scarf fluttering; Wonk discovering a nice place to sleep on board, a cabin with a large bed and a salmon-coloured silk bedspread. I am not sure if he had run away to sea and whether that was the origin of my own attempts to escape. But to this end I kept a small and scuffed brown suitcase under the bed. It contained my red woollen polo-necked sweater and nothing else. It was my running-away kit. I took off more than once with my little suitcase, informing any neighbour I passed that I was running away. No one seemed bothered. I can’t remember where I went or how long I was away. But I do remember that when I returned, no one noticed that I’d gone. Our household did not contain books. One day my Auntie Ella heard that for the first time there were going to be Penguins in Selfridges. Assuming it was some sort of new zoo department, she rounded us children up and took us to Oxford Street: ‘There you are,’ she said, refusing to acknowledge her mistake and addressing a group of disgruntled and disappointed children: ‘There are the penguins,’ and we were obliged to examine the tiny image of a penguin printed on the spine of each orange and white book. Fortunately for me, there was a wonderful Carnegie library not far from us and I spent much of my time there. Looking back on my own history in relation to books it is likely that I shared with many others a flaring of rage when Jo March, the aspiring writer in Little Women, hooked up with dull, bearded Professor Bhaer. I liked tomboyish Jo although I did not think then that writing could be a satisfying occupation. I had my eye on becoming a trapeze artist. And the professor with the unpronounce-able name was the pits. But this does bring up the question: when does a reader become aware that there is a writer? Child readers enter the magical world of a book without realizing that someone has written it. I remember an early experience of my own awareness of the writer. In the story I was reading I came across the word ‘pasty’ – unsurprising seeing that the story was set in Cornwall and the object in question was a Cornish pasty. But I could not believe that someone had been unable to spell ‘pastry’. It was shocking to find such a mistake. Some enchantment was broken and I was shaken out of the world of the story to realize that there were other people behind the book, people who operated printing machines, a writer who couldn’t spell pastry. It was somewhat akin to the discovery that the wizardry in The Wizard of Oz was only the mechanical trickery of an ordinary man. I am now at chapter fifteen of Sense and Sensibility and am becoming more engaged by Austen’s shrewd observation of character and astute, understated wit. Both Willoughby and Colonel Brandon have made mysterious departures. I sense careful plotting as in a chess game, the pieces gliding from one point to another, some characters making unexpected moves forward or sideways guided by a firm but unseen hand and sometimes, with a swoop, disappearing from the board altogether. I notice the chapters are getting longer. There is a parlour game: Are you for Austen or Brontë? Are you for Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? It comes down to whether you are, by temperament, Apollonian or Dionysiac, whether you prefer the beauty of order to the explosion of order. On reading Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Brontë found only ‘a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers’. D. H. Lawrence called Jane Austen ‘English in the bad, mean, snobbish sense of the word’. A puzzled Joseph Conrad asked H. G. Wells, ‘What is there in her? What is it all about?’ Vladimir Nabokov told a critic: ‘I dislike Jane . . . could never see anything in Pride and Prejudice.’ Now I am at chapter twenty-one. Two more smart ladies have arrived to talk of eligible acquaintances and marriageable beaux. Nobody seems to go to work. Their life is a ceaseless social round, punctuated by walks or drives in the countryside. There is not even a far-distant echo of the French Revolution or the Napoleonic wars, and not a hint of the slave trade which probably funded some of the landowners who grace these pages. Perhaps it is unfair to criticize an author for the lack of something he or she never intended. Austen did not aim to write anything profound. She was not a tragedian. Having said that, I’ve just reached chapter thirty-one and illegitimacy, consumption and death have put in an unexpected appearance. But they are soon passed over in favour of the pains of unrequited love, being jilted, and the worry of who might be two-timing whom. All the same, my fury is subsiding. Austen’s deft touch with social manners is unsurpassed. To be observant and entertaining was enough for her. I am enjoying the book and am beginning to appreciate the nice distinctions between being betrayed, dumped, slighted, misled or simply mistaken. Now we are at chapter thirty-four and despite the despair, heart-break and deception I have a horrible feeling that all is going to work out well. By chapter thirty-seven, a long chapter much concerned with the value of estates and settlements and prospects and the financial requirements of any liaison, I am beginning to wonder if I have mistaken Austen for a High Tory when she is, in fact, a precocious Marxist, agreeing with the construct that the economic base determines the ideological superstructure. After all, throughout the novel there are delicate, well-defined attacks on the bourgeoisie, although the satirical pin-pricks would not cause much damage to any Gulliverian hide. Chapter forty-three. Marianne is desperately ill. Could a death be in the offing? No such luck. I see why I myself might have been the object of Austen’s derision. Undoubtedly, she had a healthy reaction to the burlesque and melo-drama popular in her time: maybe I have some leanings towards the Gothic romances that she mocked. Now I have finished the book and am more than half won over, although somewhere, at the back of my mind, is the feeling of still wanting to upturn the chessboard. However, I would not go as far as Mark Twain who, on reading Pride and Prejudice, said of Austen that it made him ‘want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone’. My friend has just told me that it wasn’t Sense and Sensibility at all that she recommended. It was Persuasion. I find I’m ready to discard both my pride and my prejudices and give it a try.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 62 © Pauline Melville 2019


About the contributor

Having failed to pursue a career as a trapeze artist and having turned down the opportunity to tour with Bertram Mills Circus in favour of joining the National Theatre, Pauline Melville now confines herself to flights of fiction, short stories and novels, some award-winning and some not.

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