Thursday, March 25, 2010

Guess What I'm Reading?

I am not reading Jane Austen. At least, not exactly. I am listening to the audiobook of Pride and Prejudice.

I'm also reading Searching for Jane Austen by Emily Auerbach, which I am finding extraordinarily interesting. Auerbach opens the book by examining how Austen was sanitized - and sanctified - by her nieces and nephews during the Victorian era, both in her appearance (they commissioned a new portrait based on Cassandra's sketch of her sister, then made her increasingly prim (and plump) in subsequent printings. A niece opined that the new drawings were very nice, but didn't look much like Austen. They also suppressed many letters (or portions thereof) and much of her juvenilia. You see, Austen wrote with a Georgian sensibility, which was far less "delicate" than the sensibility of the Victorians. Like Austen's first biographer, her brother Henry, they put out stories emphasizing those of her qualities that Victorians found important in women - quite possibly including ones she didn't actually possess. They downplayed others of her less desirable characteristics, including her desire to be published, her pride in her work, and her delight in being paid for it.

Auerbach's approach to Austen is based in a feminist perspective, but it includes a number of scholarly approaches. After the introductory chapter, Auerbach examines Austen's works and discusses what can be learned about Austen from her juvenilia and novels. While I've seen a review calling that particular inference into question, thus far (I've read all but three chapters) I see no flaw in Auerbach's methodology. She draws her deductions by following "clues" Austen herself put in the manuscripts - meanings of names, tracking down literary references, etc. One of the most fascinating chapters I've read is on Mansfield Park, which includes noting that Austen references Crabbe's Tales as one of the books owned by Fanny Price, and that Crabbe's Tales includes a story with a timid young heroine named Fanny Price. Her deduction that Austen was smiling as she reference Tales has to be correct - or an understatement. The same holds true for the many references to the slave trade that are scattered throughout Mansfield Park, many of which are not overt to modern readers, but, when read by Austen's contemporaries - particularly those who were up on their reading in her time - they'd have been pretty clear.

Oh. And the other book I'm reading? It's a new poetry collection by Marilyn Singer that I purchased today entitled Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse. I had to get it once I read the first three poems. Singer has written an entire book of "reversos" - poems that can be read forward or backwards, with each direction telling a different side of the fairy tale in question. I haven't finished reading it yet, but you can expect a review soon. After all, I bought it because I wanted to examine her form, and because I wished I'd written those opening poems myself.

So tell me, what are you reading?

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