The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Taking a breather

Posted on: October 12, 2007

I’ve handed in assignments, marked essays and examinations, and have taken a breather from TCM. (I was seeing about 4-5 films a week, on  average.) I can shake out of my brain all of the little (remembered) things that I wanted to blog about.

I asserted last week that, on having read almost all of Austen’s novels, I can’t quite fall in line with the widely accepted conclusion that she was a remarkably unconventional writer on matters of class and gender. Sylvia and Jacob Russell (who has a blog worth exploring and I tried to tell him so but only received a bounced e-mail :/) disagreed, with Russell’s proving to be the most persuasive. It forced me to look back and reconsider why I formed the opinion in the first place to see if I was way off the mark. (Please note that I’ve yet to read Persuasion so my comments do not take it into account.)

The result was that I was able to narrow in on the friction I see in her novels. Here’s an excerpt of what Russell wrote in comments:

Imagine yourself in the grand drawing room, the manner house of a local landed gentleman. Your very life depends on everyone believing that you are the very model of decorum and public virtue. How do your convey to those in attendance that you see their hypocrisy, their inability to think beyond received notions, to convey in terms others more discerning might recognize as the real configurations of power at work?

You can see the hypocrisy in Austin’s [sic] novels; there is no doubt where power lies, or what will happen to any women above the lowest class who does not secure for herself a protector of means. The whole game is about just that–women securing themselves protectors–else they are forced to sink into servitude or prostitution.

The friction I see in her novels is that, taking all that into consideration, she then rewards her characters with the prizes that, save for the selection of the winner, the power structure would approve in every other way. In every single case it is always the female marrying up, in class and financial status, and where that is not possible, the beau must have some other claim to unreachable authority. In Emma it is Mr. Knightley’s unimpeachable, crystal clear moral judgement, which never falters, while dear Emma must toil on, limited by human failings (and therefore more deserving of the spotlight). I suppose one could turn it around and say it’s simply her way to spit in the eye of the ruling class by connecting their kind with less illustrious wives (by their standards) but to me it looks like a partial submission to the status quo.

I hope I’m being clearer this time around. To me it would be like a political thriller in which a dogged Ottawa investigative reporter leaves no stone unturned in her mission in uncovering any of assorted government scandals, and is then rewarded by being the Prime Minister’s Office press person, and the reader is supposed to be pleased for her. When the same writer produces books along the same vein with similar conclusions, after a while it just gets kinda…weird.

I don’t find this contradiction surprising, mind you, I don’t expect Austen’s novels to be straightforward feminist and egalitarian manifestos of any kind. But it seemed to be that others thought she was, at least as far as gender went, and to a greater extent that I’m willing to give her credit for. Maybe Persuasion will change my mind. Or maybe I’ll get schooled again in comments.

I finished Od Magic by Patricia A. McKillip recently and am about to conclude that she may be a one-hit-wonder. Like Alphabet of Thorns she returns to a more conventional fantasy plot with a cast of characters each given their own sub-plot connected to the main thread. Unfortunately, McKillip is leagues better at stories focusing on one or two characters, with a supporting cast, rather than ensemble works in which she is determined to give each star equal page time.

Again, like Alphabet, there is a good character and story simply aching to be set free from the other mediocre talents. In this case it is a young gardener, Branden Vetch, who is suffering in the wake of his parents’ death, his elder brothers departure for brighter lands, and a failed relationship with a girl in the village who eventually leaves as well. From my take on Winter Rose you can see that I think McKillip does the dark and tortured best; the way in which she described his sorrow as a pile of stones he would struggle to lose and leave behind was quite effective. What made it even more interesting was that many of the stones was his untapped potential at a kind of wordless magic that he is completely unaware of, only knowing that he is able to communicate with trees, herbs, and understand the wind in a way that makes him good at herbal remedies. It would have been really interesting to see him struggle to make a life for himself, reconciling with the guilt of his past, and using his power to help create a new identity for himself.

The icing on the cake was the giant Od, a plain woman who walked around covered with animals, some of them recovering from injury, who was more or less Mother Earth on legs.

Alack and alas, we’re stuck with a kingdom called Numis, with the wizard Yar who once showed a similar potential to Branden, but was corralled into the Royal Magic School which was chained under the vigilance of a king suspicious of any kind of magic unfamiliar and/or not under his control. We also have to deal the King’s daughter; her fiance Valoren, the king’s eyes and ears in the school; his cousin who’s with Yar; the High quarter warden’s son Arneth and his soon-to-be girlfriend Mistral, who’s the daughter of Tyrammin (sp?) an elaborate illusionist who nearly incited a magic students rebellion, and is back in the city to provide some entertainment. None of their stories are as promising as Vetch’s, although one and two aren’t bad. Yar’s personal journey back to a time when he was eager to learn and explore his own powers and other lands could have maybe kinda been something, especially considering who his girlfriend was; and Valoren’s journey from the dark side could have fired a neuron or two, since McKillip was nice enough to not include a convenient one-dimensional villain. But she decided to prevent either from happening by using Od as a convenient deus ex machina to cut all of that unnecessary action short.

It really is too bad. Another (potentially) interesting thing about McKillip is the way she incorporates language into her world of magic. In Alphabet of Thorns the heroine is a translator, so we get to see a bit of what languages are like in the other lands or from their historical periods in her world,which often turned out to be different kinds of hieroglyphics. Alphabet‘s Mysterious Magical Artefact was a book written in a language whose letter forms were pictorially represented by thorned tree branches, and the act of translating the book would bring about the destruction of the kingdom. In Od Magic language has more negative connotations again as it is embodied in the controlling, prohibitive Numis law that strangles its burgeoning magicians into a single political point-of-view, one which you either wholly accept or reject in peril of being severely limited in the ways you can realise your talent. In contrast is Od’s and Branden Vetch’s magic, a wordless means of communicating with the natural worlds that is more instinctive, on equal footing with their subjects, and necessitates an intellectually curious mind.

I find it curious that a writer would position language as a destructive force, in a good way, and I’d like to sit back and consider it more if the books were worth more my time. I’m certainly not going to re-read the things. For a more positive take on the book try the Bookslut review by Colleen Mondor, for one that bolsters and fleshes out my opinion and makes you laugh, try Danielle L. Parker’s review at Bewildering Stories. I, too miss McKillip’s ability to make her stories bleed. Sigh.

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8 Responses to "Taking a breather"

So, you don’t think Austen is revolutionary because the heroines get married to men they love? That’s bad how…?

I don’t understand your question. These are characters in a book over the which the author has complete control. Or maybe a better response is that Austen does not write novels that encourage the reader to take the romance out of the social context. Because Austen is moral, complex author she takes matters rather than class and estate into consideration, but the women are always inferior to the men in matters of class and estate, and if there isn’t that convenience they’re given some other impeccable quality. The women’s good character, healthy intellectual curiosity and compassion are not simply rewarded with good, like-minded men but ones who also just happen to own Pemberlys and barouches and blah blah blah.

I never said this was “bad”. I went to pains to establish that whatever issue I have is primarily with the image other readers, and especially the films, try to give to her novels. They emphasise one aspect of her writing at the expense of another in order to fit her in more nicely with modern perceptions.

Some well-made arguments Imani, though I worry you’ve gone and upset the Austen Mafia.

Don’t you see the wealth and character of the grooms as a metaphor for the worth of the women as the intelligent, principled, and sensible human beings that they are? Since the novels are rooted in reality, Austen couldn’t very well have the women becoming millionaire entrepreneurs. If worldly success for genteel women is a good marriage, then these women achieved it, without even trying, through character and goodness, things they had control over, and not through received wealth or beauty. If they had ended up with men of their own level, that would say nothing about their real superiority over women who thought themselves superior by virtue of superficial qualities. Undoubtedly there are other ways to achieve this, but the dream of worldly reward for good character is pretty irresistable.

Sylvia No, I don’t see wealth as a “metaphor” for the grooms. If so it is too bad for them that Austen could manage to find intelligence, principles, and a sensible head for the women but left the grooms to depend so much on their annual income. (I suppose the women’s comparative poverty is their virtue?) Many would say that having most of her heroines marrying, to varying extents, well above their station is only a degree or two less unrealistic than female millionaire entrepreneurs. (Never mind the fact that my point does not request or require the women to be wealthy.) Emma more than answers the point about the efficacy of levels (in addition to the fact that Jane Austen approached the perils in superficiality from more than one angle).

I have no problems with Austen finding “worldly rewards” irresistible. The noticeable trend in how she exhibits this in her novels, and the friction it causes in her themes, makes the books more interesting for me.

John hopefully the fact that I’m in love with Austen’s style and diction makes up for it. 😀

No, I mean the grooms and their weath are a metaphor for the women’s worth.

You say your email bounced? Hmm… wonder why?

And you have my permission to correct typos, though I appreciate your kindness in pointing them out with [sic]s… that I may learn to mend my ways.

Read the closing paragraphs of Sense and Sensibility again. There’s something rather double edged in how she phrases that happily-ever-after convention.

It pays never to underestimate Austen’s (ahem, see–do know it’s an ‘eeee’) irony–especially when she is praising a character. “such and such was not ungenerous, unless to be x, y and z is to be ungenerous”

Family life is something purchased at considerable cost–Jane managed to avoid it, and I find much in her representations that might serve to explain why.

I’m sorry about the bounce. Next time just click my blog and leave a comment. You are always welcome!

Yes, I am never quite sure what to think of that Sense and Sensibility ending. Some days I consider it to be Austen at her most brutal, other times I feel cheated.

Oh, I try not to underestimate her. In arguing against myself I considered that in Emma, Austen intends for us to realise how never-go-wrong-Knightley could do with a good injection of Emma’s open mind and willingness to grow and improve. But I can’t quite persuade myself.

It’s a pertinent remark you’ve made on her family life portrayals, however, I shall consider it. And no worries about the bounce.

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