Thursday, June 24, 2010

Novel Ideas: Jane Austen

I recently started reading about Jane Austen because (a) I love her books, (b) you can never learn enough, and (c) what better person to learn from but Jane Austen when it comes to novels.

I started reading Jane Austen for Dummies which surprisingly is much better than I thought it would be. This is my first "For Dummies" book (in the English department) and oh boy is it a great one. I never knew they created something like this for the greats of literature.

Its really amazing the impact that she has had on our world from women to men, from homestead to trenches. Its also interesting to see how she infers things about her time (social class reform/change and the slave trade) and its goings on (political unrest and foreign affairs) that make sense for her time but for us it is foreign. Similarly if she were to come to our time when we refer to airport security in a story. We know what happened and why it is so strict but to her (saying she was aware of airports) it would be curious because she has no context as to why it is the way it is.

What is also pretty neat about this book it explains the differences between Austen's time (Georgian) and the time many people think she is from (Victorian). For instance in the Georgian Period (100 years of George monarchs plus one William) is full of satire, straightforwardness, and dry humor but for Victorian times satire, and such openness wasn't well thought of. The evidence is seen in Austen's nephew's biography of her which was written in the Victorian period.

The book also briefly touches on the other women writers of Austen's time and what differentiated her from them. One of the things that made Austen special was that under her pen name ("By a Lady") she set herself up as gentry meaning that she wasn't writing for the money but rather for the joy of writing. Many women of her time wrote because they had to support themselves and their families not because they enjoyed it. During Austen's time novels as a whole had a negative view because of the history of England. It was thought that being emotional as well as imaginative was what cause the unrest that led to the English Civil War and novels being made up stories of fictional people that seem real, could lead to a similar stirring up. As a matter of fact another thing that set Jane Austen apart is that there were no fanciful twists that were outside the normal possibilities. Many of her contemporaries actually added fanciful twists so that way they could not be mistaken as actual events of real people.

This "Dummies" book also describes what it takes for a book to be a novel and how it came to be through other writings. For instance novels contain the news of a characters life events and environment. The character's lives provide us with an account of how they live their life like a personal guide book (see: self-help). We are also generally privy to the character's thoughts and feelings like that of autobiographies, biographies, and diaries. Novels are just like all the other ways of writing about life and people except they are made up by the writers or if we take a line from the play Wicked (based on Gregory Maguire's book by the same title) it all depends on how you see things.
(spoken) Elphaba, where I'm from, we believe all sorts of
things that aren't true. We call it - "history."

(sung) A man's called a traitor - or liberator
A rich man's a thief - or philanthropist
Is one a crusader - or ruthless invader?
It's all in which label
Is able to persist
There are precious few at ease
With moral ambiguities
So we act as though they don't exist
-Wizard, Wicked
Although this is said by a fictional character it eerily rings true in regard to fiction and non-fiction, novels and news. If you look at what we now think of certain historical events as a country compared with during the times such as suffrage and the civil rights movements. At the time they were initially seen as controversial and thus negatively but now we see them as great surges in basic human rights and events that righted what was once wrong. The views of the Crusades are another great example, people at the time thought it was what was the right thing but now we see it as a foolhardy waste aside from it bringing about good things such as the expansion of trade. If we bring this over to the view of novels during Austen's time imagination was something to be careful with and thus some novels were passed off as "true accountings" such as Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders as the "Memorandums" in 1722. When Defoe first introduced his novel he passed it off as a true accounting but later came out as his creation. What if we never found out, then for all intents and purposes today we would still think that it was a real person and that this was their life.

Aside from the interest in reading about others be they real or fictional the novel was also growing into its own around Austen's time regardless of what the consensus thought, due to industrialization. So much more was read around Austen's time because they finally had extra time due to less chores. You would think with all the automation that goes on today people would in general have more time to read or at least enjoy reading, whereas I generally find men and women who haven't picked up a book in ages with few exceptions.

I have yet to finish this book but to me its amazing how much I have learned from this book and not just about the background of the books and the nuances within Austen's writing but also the writer, history, and its affects on today (just to name a few).

Image Source: ("Colored Version of Jane Austen Portrait.") Wikimedia Commons. Web. 24 Jun 2010. .

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