The Absentee – Maria Edgeworth

In 1814 Jane Austen jokingly wrote to her niece, Anna, “I have made up my mind to like no Novels really, but Miss Edgeworth’s, Yours & my own.” Maria Edgeworth was one of the best-selling novelists of the early 19th century & one of the first regional novelists. Her novels of Irish life influenced Sir Walter Scott, who decided to do for the Scots what Miss Edgeworth had done for the Irish. The Absentee is the story of an Anglo-Irish family. It’s the story of the evils of absentee landlords but also a story of fashionable London life & a romance as well.

The novel begins with three women gossiping about another woman’s party. The Duchess of Torcaster, Lady Langdale & Mrs Dareville are snobbish society women & they’re deciding whether or not they will go to Lady Clonbrony’s gala. Lady Clonbrony is the wife of an Irish Lord who wants desperately to be accepted into London society. While society is quite willing to accept her hospitality (if nothing better offers), they also look down on her pretensions. Lady Clonbrony is a foolish woman, trying to ape the manners & accent of high society while being fleeced by fancy tradesmen & scorned by the very women whose circle she wants to enter. Lord Clonbrony has been prevailed upon by his wife (who brought him a fortune & never lets him forget it) to leave his Irish estates in the hands of land agents & move to London. Lady Clonbrony’s fortune is long gone & Lord Clonbrony is out of his depth in London, bored with society & deeply in debt. Their son, Lord Colambre, has just returned from university & is shocked by the state of his parents’ affairs.

Colambre decides to go to Ireland to investigate his father’s estates & see what can be done to remedy their financial situation. Colambre is a serious young man. He left Ireland as a child but is very aware of his family’s responsibilities for their tenants. His mother tries to encourage a marriage with Miss Broadhurst, a rich heiress, but Colambre is in love with his beautiful, sensible, noble but penniless cousin, Grace Nugent. Grace was orphaned as a baby &, although her mother insisted that she was married to her father, no proof of the marriage could be found & her family cast her off. Colambre cannot allow himself to marry a woman whose mother was of questionable morals so he tries to ignore his feelings for Grace. Grace, meanwhile, has been brought up by Lady Clonbrony almost as a daughter & is much loved by her. However, it has always been made clear that a marriage between Grace & Colambre would be out of the question so Grace has honourably suppressed her feelings. Colambre’s trip to Ireland becomes a quest to investigate Grace’s origins as well as look over the family estates & discover where the money has gone.

Colambre visits the estates incognito & discovers the best & worst of the absentee system. His own inheritance, an estate called Colambre, is managed by Mr Burke, the perfect agent. Honest and diligent, Mr Burke is blessed by the tenants for the care he takes of  the estate. His wife runs a school where Catholic & Protestant children share the same benches & the local priest & vicar dine happily together at their table. The land is well-cultivated & every care is taken of Lord Clonbrony’s property. Unfortunately, Lord Clonbrony, desperate for cash in London, is influenced by Sir Terence O’Fay, a sponging hanger-on, to sack Mr Burke & transfer both this estate & the Clonbrony estate to the tender offices of Nicholas Gerraghty, the model of a dishonest, wicked agent. Gerraghty cheats the tenants at Clonbrony, forces them to pay exorbitant rents, never improves their land & cuts down forests to make a quick profit.

‘And is this my father’s town of Clonbrony?’ thought Lord Colambre. ‘Is this Ireland? No, it is not Ireland. Let me not, like most of those who forsake their native country, traduce it. Let me not, even to my own mind, commit the injustice of taking a speck for the whole.What I have just seen is the picture only of that to which an Irish estate and Irish tenantry may be degraded in the absence of those whose duty and interest it is to reside in Ireland, to uphold justice by example and authority; but who, neglecting this duty, commit power to bad hands and bad hearts – abandon tenantry to oppression, and their property to ruin.’

 As this shows, Lord Colambre is a humourless young man, but his heart’s in the right place. Edgeworth has a definite didactic point to make about the evils of absentee landlords & there are few shades of grey in her portrayals of the evil & saintly agents or the poor oppressed tenants, living for the day when their lord (who they never blame for their troubles) returns to sort out the mess.

I especially enjoyed the scenes in London & Dublin society, full of vicious gossip & sparkling wit. Lady Dashfort is a woman living on her wits, forever scheming to find a rich husband for her daughter, Isabel. She decides to ensnare Colambre &, although armed against her wiles, even he is entertained by her at first.

‘Ay, I knew how it would be,’ said (Lady Dashfort) … ‘He began by detesting me, and did I not tell you that, if I thought it worth my while to make him like me, he must, sooner or later. I delight in seeing people begin with me as they do with olives, making all manner of horrid faces, and silly protestations that they will never touch an olive as long as they live; but, after a little time, these very folk grow so desperately fond of olives, that there is no dessert without them. Isabel, child, you are in the sweet line – but sweets cloy. You never heard of anybody living on marmalade, did ye?’

The Absentee is an entertaining novel with lots of humour & wit. Edgeworth knew Ireland & her Irish characters are far from the caricatures that had been standard in fiction & plays up to this time. Quite a few of her other novels are in print, I have Belinda & Helen on the tbr shelves, & I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.


Sunday poetry – Romantics

This beautiful poem by Kathleen Raine (picture from here) is not a conventional romantic poem to a lover. To My Mountain is about a love of landscape, of a place, that the poet obviously knows well. But I wonder if she’s not also addressing a human lover using the metaphor of the mountain to express the pain of unrequited love? I’ve dipped into Raine’s poems & autobiography over the years but I would like to read more of her work.

Since I must love your north
of darkness, cold, and pain,
the snow, the lovely glen,
let me love true worth,

the strength of the hard rock,
the deafening stream of wind
that carries sense away
swifter than flowing blood.

Heather is harsh to tears
and the rough moors
give the buried face no peace
but make me rise,

and, oh, the sweet scent, and purple skies!

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontё

Jane Eyre is one of my favourite books. I’ve read it at least 20 times &, after seeing the latest movie adaptation last weekend, I had to read it again! My original 1970s Penguin paperback is so fragile that I had to buy a new reading copy a couple of years ago. I enjoyed the new movie version. The music was beautiful & I thought Mia Wasikowska was very good as Jane. It’s so difficult for an actor to convey Jane’s passion as outwardly she’s so quiet & still, but she did a good job. The first person narration of the novel is full of fire & passion but it’s almost all interior. I was less excited by Michael Fassbender as Rochester. I liked the structure, it begins in the middle of the story as Jane leaves Thornfield after the aborted wedding & uses flashbacks to show her childhood. I was pleased that the later section of the book at Morton with the Rivers family was there because that’s often left out of a 2 hour movie. But, what I noticed most was the dialogue. They used some of the original dialogue & conflated some scenes but changed quite a bit where I thought they should have left Charlotte Brontё’s words intact. I sat there hearing the original words from the novel in my head & I could hardly wait to get home & start reading the book all over again.

Jane Eyre is the story of a passionate, uncontrolled child who grows into a passionate, controlled woman. Jane is an orphan, left to the care of an unfeeling aunt & cousins. She is sent to a charity school, Lowood, where she is first starved & neglected but eventually gains an education. She becomes governess to the ward of Edward Rochester of Thornfield Hall, an abrupt, ugly but fascinating man. Jane falls in love with her employer but he seems to favour a beautiful, haughty woman, Blanche Ingram. There are also mysteries at Thornfield. Jane hears strange laughter from the upper stories, Rochester is nearly burnt in his bed in the middle of the night. A visitor from Jamaica arrives & is stabbed in mysterious circumstances. Rochester proposes to Jane but their wedding is interrupted by the revelation that Rochester is already married. Jane leaves Thornfield after refusing to become Rochester’s mistress & wanders, starving, on the moors for three days before being taken in by a clergyman, St John Rivers, & his sisters. Jane becomes a village schoolmistress until she receives an inheritance & discovers that she does have a family with whom to share it. She cannot rest until she discovers what has happened to Rochester & so she returns to Thornfield Hall.

I tried not to reveal too many spoilers in that summary but surely there can’t be too many people who don’t know the story. When I reviewed Villette recently, I said that it’s the narrator’s voice that is so beguiling. So, I’m just going to quote some of my favourite passages.

Jane’s time at Lowood is famous because it’s based on the experiences of Charlotte & her sisters at the Cowan Bridge School. Her two eldest sisters, Maria & Elizabeth, left Lowood suffering from tuberculosis & went home only to die. The chapters at Lowood are so searing in their condemnation of Mr Brocklehurst & his version of Christian charity, so horrifying in the depiction of mental cruelty & bodily suffering,  that the fact that this period of Jane’s life up to the death of her friend, Helen Burns, is only about the first few months of her time there, is often forgotten.  The chapter after Helen’s death skims over the next eight years of Jane’s life as a student & teacher at Lowood until the day when her kind friend & mentor, Miss Temple, marries & leaves.

I went to my window, opened it, and looked out. There were the two wings of the building; there was the garden; there were the skirts of Lowood; there was the hilly horizon. My eye passed all other objects to rest on those most remote, the blue peaks: it was those I longed to surmount; all within their boundary of rock & heath seemed prison-ground, exile limits. I traced the white road winding round the base of one mountain, and vanishing in a gorge between two: how I longed to follow it further!…I tired of the routine of eight years in one afternoon. I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer; it seemed scattered on the wind then faintly blowing. I abandoned it , and framed a humbler supplication; for change, stimulus: that petition, too, seemed swept off into vague space; “Then, ” I cried, half desperate, “Grant me at least a new servitude!”

Then, out of all the scenes between Jane & Rochester as they fall in love, the proposal in the garden at midsummer is one of the most beautiful scenes in literature. Rochester has tried to make Jane jealous by pursuing Blanche Ingram & she tells him that she must leave Thornfield after he is married,

“I tell you I must go!” I retorted, roused to something like passion. “Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton? – a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? – You think wrong! – I have as much souls as you, – and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty, and much wealth, I would have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: – it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal – as we are!”
“As we are!” repeated Mr Rochester – “so,” he added, enclosing me in his arms, gathering me to his breast, pressing his lips on my lips: “so, Jane!”

Finally, when Jane has fled Thornfield & ended up at Morton with the Rivers family, she rejects St John’s cold proposal that she should marry him & go with him as a missionary to India.

I saw nothing: but I heard a voice somewhere cry – 
“Jane! Jane! Jane!” Nothing more.
“Oh God! what is it?” I gasped.
I might have said, “Where is it?” for it did not seem in the room – nor in the house – nor in the garden: it did not come out of the air – nor from under the earth – nor from overhead. I had heard it – where, or whence, for ever impossible to know! And it was the voice of a human being – a known, loved well-remembered voice – that of Edward Fairfax Rochester; and it spoke in pain and woe wildly, eerily, urgently.
“I am coming!” I cried. “Wait for me! Oh, I will come!” I flew to the door, and looked into the passage: it was dark. I ran out into the garden: it was void.
“Where are you?” I exclaimed.
The hills beyond Marsh-Glen sent the answer faintly back – “Where are you?” I listened. The wind sighed low in the firs: all was moorland loneliness and midnight hush.

Every time I read Jane Eyre, I find something new in it. Every time I watch a TV or movie adaptation, I want to read the book again because no adaptation can ever really satisfy. My favourite is the 1980s BBC version with Zelah Clarke & Timothy Dalton. There was real chemistry between them & they used lots of the original text. I may have to find time to watch it again!

Sunday poetry – Encounters

Today’s Scottish love poem is one of the most famous poems by the most famous Scottish poet. Robert Burns (picture from here) wrote some of the lightest, loveliest love lyrics in the language & I always hear this one in my mind as a song, traditionally sung to the tune of Common Frae the Town.

Comin’ thro’ the rye, poor body,
Comin’ thro’ the rye;
She draigl’t a’ her petticoatie,
Comin’ thro’ the rye.

Oh, Jenny’s a’ weet, poor body,
Jenny’s seldom dry;
She draigl’t a’ her petticoatie,
Comin’ thro’ the rye.

Gin a body meet a body
Comin’ thro’ the rye;
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?

Gin a body meet a body
Comin’ thro’ the glen,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need the warld ken?

Settling in

Well, 10 days after moving in, Phoebe & Lucky are relaxed & feeling more at home. I still haven’t taken them outside & I’m worried about Phoebe as she’s such a daredevil, loves climbing & I’m concerned that she’ll wander. I never had to worry about Abby because she was an elderly cat when she came to live with me & never climbed further than my lap. Phoebe has been on top of the laundry cupboard, the fridge & the top of the blinds in the lounge room as well as sitting on every window sill in the house as you can see.

Lucky is much calmer. She also enjoys looking out the window but from a more sedate distance. She loves sitting on the TV unit (notice the expensive but neglected cat tree in the background). They do use the cat tree as a scratching pole which is great but neither of them want to sit on it, although I think Phoebe used it as a launching pad for her trip to the top of the blinds this morning. Lucky loves sitting on my lap. As soon as I sit down, she’s there.

I try to give Phoebe some lap time when Lucky’s asleep in her other favourite spot, burrowed into Abby’s old rug . It must be a need for security as she loves burrowing right into it. I’ve also rearranged the furniture so there’s room for Phoebe to curl up on her blanket next to me in the evenings when Lucky’s on my lap. (Phoebe’s half-asleep on my lap at the moment).

They’ve been getting on quite well together. A few spats & Phoebe likes to play when Lucky isn’t in the mood but they’ve been rubbing noses as well. They both love chasing after little balls with bells in them although Phoebe’s broken the feather on a stick already! I may be able to fix it with a strong elastic band…  So, apart from my worries about letting them outside, we’re getting on very well. I went back to work on Monday & they seem fine left alone all day. Happy to see me at night, of course, because they know it’s dinner time.

As to books, well, I’m reading Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman with my 19th century book group. It’s one of his tales of the Crusades &, after a slow start, it’s become quite exciting. Lots of conflict & tension in love & war. I’m also halfway through Maria Edgeworth’s The Absentee, about a young man exploring his Irish heritage in early 19th century England & Ireland. Lots of social comedy & a romance that seems doomed but all may not be lost. I hope to finish it tomorrow. This afternoon I’m off to see the new version of Jane Eyre at the movies. The reviews have been quite good so I hope it’s a good adaptation & they’ve used lots of the original dialogue!

Conference at Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

Vintage are reprinting several novels by Stella Gibbons, author of one of my favourite books, Cold Comfort Farm. My copy of the sequel, Conference at Cold Comfort Farm, arrived on Friday & I settled down last Saturday afternoon to read it. Sixteen years have passed since Flora Poste, Robert Poste’s Child, arrived at Cold Comfort Farm to sort out the lives of the Starkadder family. Flora is now married to vicar Charles Fairford, living in London & the mother of five children. The opening of the book is just so evocative of all the qualities I love in middlebrow mid 20th century fiction,

On a sunny morning in the midst of the Second Dark Ages, Flora and Charles Fairford were seated at breakfast on the vicarage overlooking the Regent’s Park where they had lived since Charles’s ordination thirteen years ago. Flora, it may be remembered, had been Flora Poste noted for the straightness of her nose and the efficacy of her restorative work at Cold Comfort Farm in Sussex. The nose retained its classic elegance; the work she seldom thought of nowadays, for Flora had five children. The post had just arrived, and the family party were occupied in reading its letters.

One of Flora’s letters is from Mr Mybug, the pseudo-intellectual poseur she encountered all those years ago whose favourite theory was that Branwell Brontё had written Wuthering Heights. He asks Flora to help him run a conference of the International Thinkers Group to be held at Cold Comfort Farm, no longer a farm but a conference centre run by a Trust that buys rundown houses & renovates them in true olde worlde style. At tea with Mary Smiling,  the brassiere-collecting friend of her early days & an awful woman called Ernestine Thump, Flora decides to take up Mr Mybug’s offer & return to Cold Comfort Farm.

On arrival she is met by her cousin, Reuben Starkadder, & he tells her the dreadful news that there are now no Starkadders at Cold Comfort. All the boys have gone off to farm in South Africa, the girls are working at the Centre as cleaners & cooks, Judith is living with a cult, Seth is a balding movie star in Hollywood & Amos is in America preaching at his very own Church of the Quivering Brethren. Reuben couldn’t keep farming to meet the standards of the interfering Ministry & was forced to sell. All he has left is Ticklepenny’s Field.

He were a Mr Parker-Poke. He sets up his bed down at Th’ Condemned Man (Mrs Murther, honest soul, nigh kills him wi’ her cookin’ for th’ farm’s sake, but o’course she dare not finish un off quite), an’ ivery day un comes up to th’ farm an’ de-dottles me wi’ advice. There were no peace, an’ things did go from bad t’ worse. He – he did say as I were niver agricultoorally eddicated.

Flora is dismayed by the prettification of Cold Comfort. Her favourite sitting room is now called The Quiete Retreate & other rooms have been renamed The Lytel Rush-dippe Roome, the Greate Bedderoome & the Greate Scullerie. She decides to get the Starkadders back to Cold Comfort Farm.

Stella Gibbons is poking fun at the pretensions & absurdities of post war Britain. The guests at the conference include the modern artist, Peccavi, the monumental sculptor, Hacke, Messe, the Transitorist craftsman & a mysterious sage known as the Master.  There are Swedish Existentialists & a modern composer who plays themes from his latest opera at great length during a Reading Picnic on the downs. The satire of these pretentious types is funny but for me, the delight is in revisiting the Starkadders & their friends. Elfine Hawk-Monitor is still beautiful, the mother of a large family & still writing not very good poetry. Urk is still irksome. Best of all, Adam Lambsbreath returns to hunt for his liddle mop which has gone missing. Adam now works for the Hawk-Monitors & the cows are called Mishap, Mislay, Misdemeanour & Mistrust instead of Feckless, Graceless, Aimless & Pointless but he’s just as daft as ever.

‘How did you come to lose it? Surely you took it with you when you went to Haute-Couture Hall?’
‘So I did. So I did, Robert Poste’s child. But there was them still livin’ at Cold Comfort as bore me malice in their black heartses, and ’twas them as did steal un from me.’
‘I say, what a shame!What did they do with it?’
‘Nay, how should I know, Robert Poste’s child? One says a-one thing, one du say a-nother, to be-dottle me, like. Some says as Mus’ Ezra, afore he went off to South Afriky, did fling un down th’ well up in Ticklepenny’s.’

It’s a short book, only 150pp, but just long enough. In the Introduction, Lynne Truss says that Gibbons longed to return to the Starkadders, to recapture the spirit of her first big success. I was very happy to revisit the Starkadders with her. Conference at Cold Comfort Farm can’t compare to the glorious original but it’s a funny, affectionate book that made me laugh several times & smile very often.

Stormy Petrel – Mary Stewart

I bought several of the lovely new Mary Stewart reprints a few months ago. I think I read all of her books when I was a teenager but I’d weeded all my old paperbacks long ago so I was ready for a reread. Being in the mood for all things Scottish at the moment, Stormy Petrel was the one I chose.

Rose Fenemore is a Cambridge academic & writer. She sees an advertisement for an “ivory tower” to rent on a Scottish island just when she’s feeling the need for a holiday & arranges to rent the cottage with her brother, Crispin, a doctor who also loves wildlife photography. Rose travels up to Moila in the Hebrides on her own with Crispin to join her in a few days. She soon feels at home in the cottage, Camus na Dobhrain, in a remote location but not far from the Big House, Taigh na Tuir, the House of the Tower. The House has been empty since the last owner, Mrs Hamilton, died. Crispin is delayed by a train accident but Rose is content to write, walk & explore the island.

On a stormy summer night, two men come in from the sea & take refuge at Rose’s cottage. The first, Ewen Mackay, has a key & lets himself in, much to Rose’s surprise. Ewen’s foster parents had once lived in the cottage but he’s been travelling for years & didn’t realise they’d moved away. Then, just as Rose is coming to terms with her first intruder, a knock at the door brings another. John Parsons is a geologist camping nearby while he examines a rock formation on a nearby broch or rocky island. His tent was blown away in the gale & he was lost until he saw Rose’s lights. Except that his name isn’t really John Parsons & Ewen Mackay’s charm can’t hide the fact that he has secrets of his own.

The more Rose discovers about John Parsons who is really Neil Hamilton, the heir of the old lady from the House, the more intriguing he seems. Neil has to decide on the future of the estate & the only offer he’s had so far is from a man who wants to turn it into a conference centre & resort. Ewen Mackay’s story is well-known to the locals & they’re not too happy that he’s returned. He was a wild boy who became a con artist & ended up in prison. Why has he returned to Moila? As Rose finds out more about both men, she has to decide who to trust.

I think Mary Stewart’s Scottish books are her best. She really knows & loves the landscape. The island is lovingly described, I felt I was there, especially as Neil & Rose explore the broch, accessible only by a causeway that’s cut off by the tide & home to innumerable midges & a colony of thousands of birds. The Big House, with its overgrown garden & overturned statues of Echo & Narcissus, is like Sleeping Beauty’s castle, waiting for the right moment to awaken to life.The romance is gentle & tentative but it’s the mystery of Ewen Mackay & his reasons for returning to Moila that really drive the plot. This is perfect comfort reading. A hauntingly beautiful setting & interesting characters add up to a very satisfying afternoon’s reading.

Sunday poetry – Longing & Waiting

A short poem but a lovely one today. George Mackay Brown (photo from here) was an Orkney poet & writer. I know Desperate Reader is a big fan, here’s just one of her posts about him, but I haven’t read much of his work. Only a little poetry & a few short stories. I’m reading quite a bit of Scottish history & fiction at the moment as well as this lovely anthology of Scottish Love Poetry so I may have to investigate Mackay Brown further. This poem, Fiddler’s Song, appealed to me because it reminds me of an old ballad like The Unquiet Grave or The Demon Lover. Especially the last line with its practical bluntness. I wonder if the speaker has designs on the mourning lady himself?

The storm is over, lady.
The sea makes no more sound.
What do you wait for, lady?
His yellow hair is drowned.

The waves go quiet, lady,
Like sheep into the fold.
What do you wait for, lady?
His kissing mouth is cold.

Introducing Lucky & Phoebe

I’ve had a very exciting few days as I’ve adopted two cats, Lucky & Phoebe. I knew when I lost Abby in May that I would have to get another cat, preferably two so they could be companions for each other while I’m at work. I took a few days off work last week just to have a break & also because I was ready to look for my cats & I wanted to have a few days at home with them so we can get to know each other.

I went to the Animal Aid shelter at Coldstream on Tuesday to visit the cattery & see who might want to come home with me. They have a lovely website with lots of photos, videos & information on the cats (& dogs) available for adoption. I was looking for older cats as I know they can be hard to find homes for but I really didn’t have any ideas except that I didn’t want kittens.

Lucky is 3 1/2. She was left at the shelter when her owners moved house. She had been an outdoor cat, locked in a shed at night & seeing her curled up in a basket in front of the heater just made me want to take her home straight away. I felt she hadn’t had a lot of affection in her life so far. She came right up to me & rubbed against me & was happy to be patted & talked to. She’s a tabby with gorgeous green eyes. I haven’t been able to get many photos of her because she’s either been sleeping under my bed or right next to me, following me around or sitting on my lap.

She’s on the desk as I’m writing this, looking out of the window. She loves looking out the window, as you can see here. I set up a cat tree with platforms & a scratching post near the front window & they’ve both been on that but Lucky is just as happy sitting on the TV unit watching the birds & the dog walkers going by.

Phoebe is just over 12 months old & is already the daredevil, mischievous one of the pair. I have lots of photos of her because she’s always on the go. Here she is on the computer desk just before she jumped over to my rolltop desk & inspected the books. Then, she thought climbing the bookshelves was a good idea. Luckily she can’t get very high, too many books! I think she looks quite a bit like Abby which is probably what attracted me to her. She also loves being up high. While Lucky loves my lap, Phoebe has decided that laying along the top of the chair behind my head is pretty cosy. Keeping Phoebe off the kitchen bench is my big challenge at the moment.

She does sleep though as you can see. Usually when she’s exhausted herself running after the ball I throw around for her or trying to eat the feather on a stick.

They came home on Thursday & spent the first afternoon exploring the house & getting to know me. They’re a bit wary of each other. There have been a few spats but they’ve also rubbed noses a few times & I’m trying to give them equal time so I hope they’ll get along. It’s lovely having someone to talk to & it’s been great to have time to get to know them a little. We haven’t ventured outside yet, probably next weekend. I can’t wait for some warmer weather so I can get some photos of them in the garden. It’s just as well I’m going back to work on Monday, I could quite easily stay home all the time with these two to play with.

Sense & Sensibility – Jane Austen

2011 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s first novel, Sense & Sensibility. I’ve read it 3 or 4 times over the years but it’s been a while so I was pleased to have the anniversary to prompt yet another reread. Sense & Sensibility is probably my second favourite Austen after Persuasion. I love my old 1980’s Penguin paperback with the portrait of the Linley Larks by Gainsborough on the cover. Elizabeth (who married Richard Brinsley Sheridan) & her sister Mary were famous singers & actresses in the late 18th century. This is how I always imagined Elinor & Marianne. Even after the 1990’s movie, I still see them this way although I found I had the music from the movie in my head as well. One of the loveliest movie soundtracks ever, I think.

It’s hard to review such a famous novel. The story is that of two sisters, Elinor & Marianne Dashwood. Left very badly-off after their father’s death, Elinor & Marianne, with their mother & younger sister, Margaret, must leave Norland, the family estate & eventually rent a cottage in Devonshire, part of the estate of Mrs Dashwood’s relation, Sir John Middleton. Elinor, calm & prudent, has met her sister-in-law’s brother, Edward Ferrars, at Norland & they have formed an unspoken attachment. Marianne is all sensibility, all romance & when she meets the dashing John Willoughby, she is ready to fall passionately in love.

Sir John Middleton is a hospitable man with a very boring wife & a vulgar, garrulous but kind-hearted mother-in-law, Mrs Jennings. Sir John’s friend, Colonel Brandon, is immediately attracted to Marianne but she dismisses him as a virtual invalid. He’s in his 30s & wears a flannel waistcoat, his life is practically over. Willoughby is young, handsome, drives a curricle & is just as passionate about Shakespeare’s sonnets & dancing as Marianne could desire. Their absorption in each other makes them a source of gossip to Sir John & Mrs Jennings & concerns Elinor, who hopes they are engaged but has no definite information from either of the lovers.

Elinor is also hoping to hear from Edward but knows that his mother & snobbish sister, Fanny, would not welcome the match. Elinor’s hopes are dashed when she learns from Lucy Steele, a young relation of Mrs Jennings’s that she has been engaged to Edward herself for four years. When Willoughby suddenly leaves Barton without explanation & is soon after heard of courting a young heiress, it seems that both Elinor & Marianne will never have their heart’s desire.

A brief plot summary can never give the flavour of Austen’s witty, romantic writing. Elinor & Marianne are loving sisters but they are contrasted in their responses to every situation. Elinor is the sensible, polite, courteous one who does all the work of keeping up their social relationships with the Middletons, the Steeles, their own half-brother, John & his horrible wife, Fanny, while Marianne is rude to everyone & totally self-absorbed. Elinor’s situation regarding Edward is just as hopeless as Marianne’s but while Marianne indulges her misery, forgetting to sleep or eat & ruining her health in the process, Elinor keeps up appearances while keeping Lucy’s secret from everyone. The scene where Elinor finally admits to Marianne her heartbreak is very moving, as much for the fact that Marianne finally begins to see how selfish her own behaviour has been, as for Elinor’s emotional declaration of love & misery.

The famous opening chapters when John & Fanny Dashwood discuss how much help they can give his stepmother & half-sisters (ranging from £3000 to an occasional chicken or some vegetables) sums this mercenary, selfish couple up immediately. The minor characters are also wonderful. I love Mrs Jennings. She may be vulgar & irritating but she has a kind heart. Trying to cheer Marianne up with a glass of the best Constantia wine is one of my favourite moments in the book. Mrs Jennings’s pretty, flibbertigibbet daughter, Charlotte & her sarcastic, bored husband, Mr Palmer (I must admit I always see them now as Imelda Staunton & Hugh Laurie). Edward’s brother, Robert, a fop who enthuses about living in a cottage of palatial proportions & spends hours choosing a toothpick case. Sly, knowing Lucy Steele, engaged to a man she knows prefers another woman but enjoying the fact that she can torture Elinor while having sworn her to secrecy.

If I started quoting lines & passages, I’d never stop, so I won’t start. If you haven’t read Sense & Sensibility, you must. It’s an astonishing first novel, although we know that Jane Austen had written a lot of juvenilia & Sense & Sensibility was revised in 1811 from an earlier epistolary novel called Elinor & Marianne. I plan to reread all Jane Austen’s over the next few years as the anniversaries of their publication come round. It will a delight & I’m looking forward to it.

It’s taken me over a week to write this review as I’ve been preoccupied with two new additions to my household. If I can get some good photos, I’ll introduce them to you over the weekend.