33. ‘Jane Austen and Her Times, 1775-1817’ by G.E. Mitton

Recently I’ve been embracing my obsession with Miss Jane Austen through forming my own challenge for Austen in August. Something else I’ve been trying to accomplish is to read more nonfiction. Jane Austen and Her Times, 175-1817 has been sitting on my shelves for years, so I thought this would be a great occasion to finally read it. I thought it would help give me further insight into Austen’s writings and lead me to an even stronger appreciation of her work. While it wasn’t quite what I was expecting, I did find plenty of useful background information about the time period she lived in. 

 

Image result for g.e.mitton
G.E. Mitton with her husband J.G. Scott (Credit: Wikipedia)

First, let’s talk about the author. Geraldine Edith Mitton (1868-1955) was an English novelist, biographer, and editor. She co-wrote several novels set in Burma with her husband Sir George Scott in addition to penning his biography. A true fan of Jane Austen, she published this book about her life and historical background in 1905. I was impressed with the amount of detail Mitton included in this work. History is not my strong point, but I learned a lot more about the historical context and culture of England during Austen’s life.

“Her stories are as fresh and real as the day they were written, her characters might be introduced to us in the flesh anytime, and, with the exception of a certain quaintness of eighteenth-century flavoring, there is nothing to bring before us the striking difference between their environment and our own.”

This was an interesting revelation for I never considered just how often people made the mistake of placing the era when Austen’s novels were written. According to Mitton, many believed her to be a contemporary of writers like Charlotte Bronte or George Eliot. Austen’s keen insights into human behaviors and foibles truly make her timeless.

One of my goals for reading this book was to better understand the person behind these novels. Little is actually known about Austen herself, outside of the places she lived during her all too short lifetime. Most of what is known can be found in her letters to family. Mitton spends a lot of time covering the history and culture of Austen’s time interspersed with excerpts from some of her letters and passages from her novels. For examples, there’s a chapter devoted to dress and fashion, a chapter on travel, one on contemporary writers of the time. Throughout the book, there are illustrations highlighting relevant people and settings. It was interesting learning about some of the major events surrounding Austen such as the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, but little of these historical events actually find themselves into the pages of Austen’s writings.

Some chapters in this book were interesting, while others bored me a bit. I don’t really this of this as a biography, but more a nonfiction account of the world during Austen’s time. The areas that most interested me were in regards to her actual novels. Also, this was written more than a century ago, so this might not be the most up-to-date reference guide. However, it did appear well researched. 

“Jane Austen seized on qualities which are frequently found in human nature, and developed them with such fidelity that nearly all of us feel that we have at one time or another met a Miss Bates or a Mrs. Norris…it is this which makes the appeal to all humanity.”

I think I would have loved it had Mitton done more in-depth character studies in Austen’s novels (recommendations always welcome). Austen had such a gift for developing these memorable characters that really are personalities that exist today.

Another area that I wish the author had touched more on was an examination of Austen’s early works as well as her incomplete final novel. Although Sandition was touched on, I would love to read more on this favorite of mine.

Image result for jane austen g e mitton
illustration example from this book

Although more modern nonfiction accounts of Austen exist, this was still worth the read to gain a better understanding of the society that author lived in. It was so rewarding to complete this as I accomplished my Austen goal for the year!

“If, as has been said, happiness on earth demands someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for, she had all these, and much more.”

Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!

 

Advertisements

32. ‘The Variable Man’ by Philip K. Dick

Lately, I’ve been wanting to read more science fiction. What better way to embrace my obsession with turning to one of the greatest writers of the genre. Ever since reading his masterpiece Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? last year, I’ve been wanting to experience more by Philip K. Dick. I downloaded this novella for free along with a few other of his shorter works. The Variable Man was a fun little story that I managed to finish in a day.

In the year 2136, the Terran system is desperately trying to escape the tyrannical clutches of the corrupt Centaurian Empire. For years, Terra has been at war with the Centaurians. However, there hasn’t actually been a shot fired in decades. The Terran scientists are constantly developing new advancements in weapons to pull the war into their favor. However for every development, the Centaurians manage to counter with advancements in their defensive systems. This has led to a stalemate where the two empires have sat frozen. With each new development, computers are used to predict the outcome of war. The Terrans patiently wait for the day when the odds swing high enough in their favor so they can attack the power base of Proxima Centauri.

Image result for the variable man ebook

It all seems rather hopeless until two major events occur. Terran scientists have been working on Icarus, a mega-bomb that can travel faster than light so as to be undetected by the Centaurians. As the scientists work to perfect the bomb, something extraordinary happens. A time bubble being used for research purposes is brought back to the present, returning with an unexpected passenger. Thomas Cole, a man with a gift to repair anything, has time traveled from the year 1913. His sudden arrival has thrown all the computer predictions off. Cole may be the variable that is humanity’s salvation or its complete annihilation.

The first thing that struck me while reading The Variable Man was the world-building Dick manages to put into so few pages. There is a sense of tension throughout the book despite the fact that the fighting itself only occurs over a few sentences. I think this points to how the mere idea of war can be a frightening concept. This is no small feat considering we actually never see one of the Centaurians at all. Their very idea and the oppression that they instill upon the Terrans is felt. We learn very little about their empire, other than being old and corrupt. Perhaps, we would see a completely different side had their been a section from the point-of-view of the Centaurians. Dick manages to place a few touches here and there to flesh out this dystopian world.

Another aspect that I enjoyed was the idea of natural ability versus specialized knowledge. Cole is an uneducated man who simply relies on his gift of being able to repair anything. His natural affinity for machines gives him skills that the people of the future lack. In the book, it is explained that too much emphasis is placed on someone learning one specific specialization. You can be working side by side with someone and have no understanding as to that job or function. I wonder if Dick was writing a commentary on the dangers of being told what to learn. Personally, I’m a huge believer in interdisciplinary learning. This might explain why the Terrans struggled for so many years as each person sticks to their own field without any understanding of others.

It was interesting how the Terrans relied on computer predictions to decide their next course of action. The arrival of Thomas Cole represented the wild card factor. Human beings are essentially unpredictable beings. No technology will ever become advanced enough to fully predict our actions. The ending was great, truly fitting. Without giving it completely away, let’s just say that war wasn’t necessarily the answer after all.

This was a short read that reminded me of old school science fiction. It can be finished in one sitting and is well worth the time. I’m excited to read more Philip K. Dick soon!

“He fixed things—clocks, refrigerators, vidsenders and destinies.”

Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!

 

 

 

 

 

SnapShorts: the magic ends at midnight

DSC_0550
Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

It feels like all the time in the world.

The ball is as magical as promised, and I can dance all night long.

The clock chimes eleven.

Of all the magic in the world, why couldn’t I be given the ability to stop time?

I consent to a final dance, which turned into three.

Only minutes left so I have to hurry.

He follows, and I hurry so fast, well never mind losing a shoe.

Back with only seconds to spare as everything changes back.

The magic is gone.

Felt like a moment.

 

 

31. ‘Northanger Abbey’ by Jane Austen

Now that I’ve officially read all of Jane Austen’s six major novels at least once, I thought it was time to reread an old favorite. Although Sense and Sensibility  was my introduction to Ms. Austen, it was Northanger Abbey that turned me into the male Janeite that I am. Since it had been a few years, I wondered if I would still enjoy it as much as I did the first time. As it turns out, I loved it even more the second time around!

ABBEY
Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

Northanger Abbey has a very different feel from Austen’s other works; it is much shorter, has a lighter feel, and is more humorous. Despite being considered a romance, I wouldn’t say it should fall into that genre. It has more the feel of a satire. This is one of the first novels Austen wrote, but it wouldn’t see publication until after Austen’s death. The heroine of Northanger Abbey is Catherine Morland who lives a fairly boring life. Her only escape is her love of Gothic novels, that is until she is invited by some family friends to accompany them to the exclusive town of Bath. Catherine’s life is forever changed through her relationships with two families, the Thorpes and the Tilneys.

“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her to be an heroine.”

Out of all of Austen’s heroines, I admit to having a strong affection for Catherine Morland. In my opinion, her two best qualities are her love of fiction and her determination to be a good friend. Austen provides a great description of Catherine in the opening chapter. In fact, I think it’s one of the best descriptions Austen writes on one of her heroines. While she is not as sensible as Lizzie Bennet or as intelligent as Emma Woodhouse, I admire her abilities to dream and to stand up for herself in the name of friendship. Despite what Austen’s true opinions of Gothic romance were, I love how she escapes into literature and views herself as the heroine.

Catherine shares her love of Gothic romances with her friend Isabella Thorpe. Isabella is in a relationship with Catherine’s brother James, leading Catherine to have to deal with Isabella’s pompous brother John. Despite her constant irritation with John Thorpe, Catherine tolerates him because of her fierce loyalty to her brother.

The Tilneys are older brother Henry, younger sister Eleanor, and their father, General Tilney.  I love Henry Tilney, as I find him ridiculously charming. Catherine finds herself instantly drawn to Henry who also appears to return her affections. The two are able to share their love of literature which to me is an important quality of any serious relationship. As I mentioned earlier, the romance element is merely a small part of this story, as Northanger Abbey to me is more about the friendships between Catherine and the Tilneys.

“There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature.”

The Thorpes are actually quite jealous of Catherine’s friendships with the Tilneys. John and Isabella actually go to great lengths to create friction between them, even resorting to lying and being forceful with Catherine in order to get her to spend more time with them. However, Catherine does not stand for this. She stands up for herself and makes sure to always do what is right by her friends. This is the other quality about Catherine I admire. Austen always creates such strong women, and Catherine Morland is no exception.

The second volume of the novel takes place at Northanger Abbey, the ancestral home of the Tilney family. Catherine is thrilled as she loves the idea of old and crumbling castles filled with romance and mystery. Fueled by her love of these types of stories in addition to some good-natured fun from Henry, Catherine lets her imagination run wild. She begins to imagine all manner of horrendous and terrifying events occurring there. At one point, she even imagines that General Tilney may have had a hand in the death of his wife years ago.

As Catherine is sneaking around playing detective, she runs into Henry who immediately scolds Catherine for jumping to conclusions based on the books that she reads. Catherine immediately comes to her senses and is devastated at falling out of favor with Henry. The two manage to reflect and then talk over everything, and eventually the friendship (and later romance) is repaired. I love Catherine’s growth as she learns that while she can appreciate fantastic novels for what they are, she can also keep her feet firmly rooted in reality. I find that I have reached a point in my life where I can balance reality while still appreciating the magic and wonder found in literature.

For me, Catherine Morland represents some great character development. Considering this is one of the earliest works penned by Jane Austen, I find this quite a remarkable feat. Catherine truly is a heroine with her loyalty and maturing personality. Sure, she has an overactive imagination, but really that’s the worst I can say about her. Besides a little imagination is a wonderful thing providing you have balance in your life.

As a parody of Gothic thrillers, Northanger Abbey is a fun read. However just like with all of Austen’s novels, there is so much more beneath the surface. The development of Catherine as a maturing human being surrounded by colorful characters make this a true classic. This novel also stays true to the qualities that make Austen such a master of understanding human behavior with plenty of incidents of miscommunication as well as life lessons on growing as a person. Since I’ve dreamed of traveling to England (and staying in a real castle), I think I will include this as one of my entries for Back to the Classics 2017 as set in a location I’ve always wanted to visit.

“It ‘s only a novel… or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language”

 

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!

 

 

SnapShorts: the wish fairies

DSC_0494
Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

The rules are simple. Think hard, reflect on what your heart truly desires, then throw a coin into the fountain. This is how it has been for centuries. However, you must be certain. Above all else, you are only allowed one wish to be granted. Just one.

For you see, the fairies that stand guard do not tolerate selfishness. Doubt is also a sin to them. They say that if you become too greedy or have even an ounce of uncertainty in your heart, you will pay a price.

And the price is quite steep.

Once long ago, a young girl who couldn’t have been more than seventeen or eighteen approached the fountain determined to have the heart of the man she thought she loved. She only had one coin and as she began to wish, hesitated on throwing the coin.

What if he isn’t my Prince Charming after all, she thought.

The fairies grew quite angry. That girl would marry the boy she thought she loved and endure thirteen years of abuse and heartbreak before earning her freedom.

Another time, there was a man who couldn’t decide if he would rather have wealth or power. He threw the coin in and wished for both.

The fairies granted neither. That man is now homeless and begs for money on the street corner every day.

When you approach the fountain, the wish fairies will gaze upon you with their mischievous expressions.

Now make your wish.