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Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Guild Publishing, 1980, 280 p. First published in 1811.

Expectations count. When you’re told something is good – excellent even – your anticipation is heightened, but perhaps also tinged with the thought, ‘Well go on. Impress me then.’

So what do you say about an acknowledged classic of English literature? Well, the first thing is that the past was different. This was written over two hundred years ago. They did things – and wrote – differently there. There is a prolixity to the prose here also present in Walter Scott’s novels (an only slightly later vintage) – though Austen is by far the better stylist and aphorist – yet to begin with I found this more of a slog than Scott and the similarly vintaged Mary Shelley stories I have read in the past few years were a smooth read by comparison. I don’t suppose my familiarity with Sense and Sensibility’s plot due to TV series and film adaptations helped with this.

For expectations count. I had been told that Austen’s dialogue was exquisite, but what I found in the first few pages was very little in the way of dialogue but instead, screeds of exposition, a large amount of telling rather than showing; backgrounding if you like, but still.

I don’t give up on books though. Not even poor ones. And this is by no means a poor book. It just didn’t grab me overmuch.

People don’t change, but social circumstances do. The constraints Austen’s characters – and the author herself in the writing of them – were under are/were formidable. She was writing for her time and a degree of prolixity would have been welcome back then.

Sense and Sensibility demonstrates behaviours recognisable today – Mrs John Dashwood’s selfishness disguised as concern for her offspring, well-meaning but overbearing neighbours, imputations derived from the slimmest of evidence, money driving people’s motivations. The centre of the main plot, though, Marianne Dashwood, is seen through her sister, Elinor’s, eyes and is shadowy as a result, Colonel Brandon, nearly always off-stage, seemed more of an absence than an agonist in the book, Willoughby’s attempts/protests at self-exculpation, though underlining his cupidity, are an unlikely ploy.

I’m not giving up on Austen, though. My expectations tempered, my exposure to her style as a prime, I’ll need to see what I make of the rest of her œuvre in the light of those.

Pedant’s corner:- There are some 1811 spellings – ‘dropt’ ‘wrapt’ ‘farewel’ ‘stopt’ ‘befal’ ‘seisure’ sooth for soothe etc, sprung for sprang and sunk for sank, but some which may be exclusively Austen’s, ‘chuse’ (but ‘choose’ also appears,) ‘scissars’ ‘wo’nt’ (but ‘won’t elsewhere) ‘stilish’ ‘expence’ (yet expenses for the plural, and, later, expense for the singular,) ‘extatic’ (but ‘ecstasy’ and ‘ecstacy’ later.). Otherwise; the Miss Dashwoods, the Miss Careys, the Miss Steeles (the Misses Dashwood, the Misses Carey, the Misses Steele,) “carried away be her fancy” (by her fancy,) “the whole party were assembled” (was assembled,) “in whatever shop the party were engaged” (the party was engaged,) “these kind of scrutinies” (these kinds of scrutinies,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “in her way to the carriage” (on her way sounds more natural to me.)

Transformation by Mary Shelley

Alma Classics, 2019, 105 p plus 7 p Note on the text plus Notes.

 Transformation cover

This is a reprint of three of Shelley’s short stories originally published in the 1830s in the literary annual The Keepsake. “Spelling and punctuation have been standardized (sic), modernised and made consistent throughout.”

The first and title story, Transformation, is the tale of a prodigal waster, keen to worm himself back into the good books of his sweetheart’s father, offered a body swap by the devil to effect the desired outcome. The writing is obviously of its time but to modern eyes, overwrought.

The unfortunate narrator of The Mortal Immortal seemingly spurned by his beloved, inadvertently drinks an elixir concocted by his employer, the alchemist Cornelius Agrippa, and finds, eventually, he is immortal – or, at least, very long-lived. This is in the now long tradition of unexpected consequences stories.

The final tale, The Evil Eye, is a story of thwarted inheritance, skulduggery, child kidnap and coincidence in the Greece and Albania of Turkish times, apparently influenced by Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Thomas Hope’s Anastasius and Prosper Mérimée’s La Guzla. It suffers a little through being told rather than shown to us.

Reading these stories in the twenty-first century is an odd experience. What may, when written, have seemed fresh and new is perhaps diminished by the time that has since elapsed and the many authors who have followed in Shelley’s wake.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Bloomsbury, 2006, 174 p. First published with the subtitle The Modern Prometheus, 1818. This edition also contains ii p Why You Should Read This by Benjamin Zephaniah and 35 p Extra! Extra! of snippets dealing with the history of the author’s times in the style of a modern tabloid newspaper and 3 p listing significant events in her life.

 Frankenstein cover

This is seen in some quarters as the prototypical Science Fiction text though other fantastical tales of course preceded it. It is also an example of Gothic Fiction. The outlines of the story are part of the general background, Frankenstein a cultural reference point (though the name is often attributed to the “monster” rather than to its creator,) as a symbol of meddling gone wrong. The book itself is one I had never got around to till now.

Shelley’s tale is narrated, sometimes at third hand, in the letters of one Robert Walton to his sister, telling of his meeting with Victor Frankenstein on the ice plains of the Arctic Ocean and embedding the relation of that man’s moment of hubris in his act of creation, and the monster’s response to its various rejections.

Unlike in film versions the mechanics of the animation of the creature are not gone into, nor the moment of creation (beyond the opening of an eye.) Such considerations are left mysterious, which arguably means the novel is not Science Fiction, by some later definitions of the term. The ethical consequences for Frankenstein, his responsibility for his creation’s welfare and its actions are the main themes of the book. To create a being in a distorted image so that it is reviled, to refuse it suitable companionship, is a heavy enormity. I found my sympathies lying with the creature, even despite its own iniquities, which, again, occur off-stage. As with the Greeks, hubris leads to nemesis.

The epistolary form, the different forms of phrase and rhythms of story-telling of the Gothic to the modern are a hurdle, but not a high one. In any case I’m glad I finally read it. For completeness if nothing else.

Pedant’s corner:- several archaic spellings – phænomena (oh what a delight,) minutiæ (ditto,) oxyds (oxides,) stept, paradisaical, outstript, æra (era,) doated ,wrapt, controul, pennyless, phrenzy – and usages – sprung, sunk, lighted. Otherwise; “the greatest fluency of potassium and born” (boron???) “and laughed aloud Clerval at first attributed” (is missing a full stop after aloud,) ecstacy (ecstasy,) “when the heavens poured forth its waters” (their waters, surely?) “endeavouring to identity every spot” (identify,) eventufl (eventful,) “nothing is so painful to the human mind as as a sudden change” (only one “as” necessary,) “these are are virtuous” (only one “are”.)

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