‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.’
Oh Emma, I think at the moment you’re my favourite Austen heroine! If the opening line gives us an enviable young women then Jane Austen quickly shows another side of her life. Her mother died before she had a chance to know her, her sister has married and lives with her family in London and on the day the novel opens Miss Taylor, her governess for sixteen years, has left to be married. Emma has lost her companion and confident and sits in ‘mournful thought‘ as she contemplates life alone with her father.
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‘Fanny Price was at this time just ten years old, and though there might not be much in her first appearance to captivate, there was, at least, nothing to disgust her relations. She was small of her age, with no glow of complexion, nor any other striking beauty; exceedingly timid and shy, and shrinking from notice; but her air, though awkward, was not vulgar, her voice was sweet, and when she spoke, her countenance was pretty.’
The three Ward sisters have made very different marriages. Miss Maria Ward has married a baronet, Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park, her older sister has married a clergyman the Rev. Mr. Norris and has taken the living offered to him at Mansfield Park and the youngest, Miss Francis Ward set out to rebel and married a Lieutenant in the Marines, with no connections, fortune or education. When he’s disabled from active service and spends their small income drinking and socialising Mrs Price realises that she can get rid of one of her nine children onto her rich sister. After much worry Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, egged on by Mrs Norris decide they can make room for Fanny, with their own four children Thomas and Edmund, Maria and Julia
When the Rev Norris dies, Mrs Norris moves to a small house on the estate and a new vicar arrives with his wife. In turn her step brother and sister, Henry and Mary Crawford arrive, like the glamorous Kuragins from War and Peace. Now Maria and Julia have Henry to flirt with and Edmund falls head over heels for Mary and as Tom seeks his pleasure elsewhere that just leaves Fanny. Quiet and contemplative, always at the beck and call of her aunts or with her nose in a book, Fanny never loses her meekness but she’s no pushover. She’s not afraid of being serious and doesn’t need the validation of popularity but she’s always present, she observes everything and knows that Mary Crawford needs an audience to believe she exists and Henry Crawford is nothing more than a rake.
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‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in
possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’
Lizzy and Jane, Darcy and Bingley, Longbourn and Pemberley – the characters and locations are so seeped into my consciousness they could be real. Mrs Bennet finding husbands for her 5 daughters, Mr. Bingley arriving at Netherfield with his sisters and proud friend, Mr Darcy. Ridiculous Mr Collins who’s to inherit Longbourn and smarmy Wickham, inveigling himself into their affections. I’ve seen so many screen adaptations that I thought I already knew the story and wondered what I would gain from actually reading the book. And maybe for the first 50 or so pages that was true as the characters and locations are put in place and the story really rattles along, by page 39 we already know that Darcy has noticed a ‘pair of fine eyes‘!
But then the book came into its own and I realised how wrong I was. This is very much the story of Elizabeth Bennet (rather than the family and neighbours), who despite the constraints of society is assertive and strident, she holds her own strong opinions and with the added characteristic of insight manages to be herself.
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‘The family of Dashwood had been long settled in Sussex.’
I love that opening line, the words can’t be read quickly, they seem to have a slow authority that tell us what to expect. That this is a family drama, about an old family and it hints that change is afoot. We know straight away to settle in and allow ourselves to be wrapped up in their story.
The Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne are forced to leave Norland, their family home when their father dies and their brother John inherits the estate. They take up a cottage in Devonshire with their mother and younger sister Margaret and it’s from here that they must navigate their way to matrimony and happiness whilst avoiding the stumbling blocks of Lucy Steele and Willoughby.
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‘No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine’
From the very beginning Northanger Abbey sparkles with wit and fun. The daughter of a clergyman, never handsome and called Richard and a mother full of ‘useful plain sense’, Catherine has led a sheltered life amongst her ten siblings in an English village. So when their rich neighbours, Mr and Mrs Allen invite her to Bath for six weeks, everyone is delighted. Six weeks of discussing muslins, parading in front of the Pump Room and hopefully making new friends and falling in love!
Catherine is 17, naive and impressionable and thoroughly loveable. Her kind-hearted character is the perfect foil with which to satirise the absurdity of ‘society’, young girls’ intense friendships and the problems of mixing up reality and make-believe! Written for family entertainment, contemporary readers must have revelled in reading about the actual buildings they went to, the streets they walked along and the novels they read. If Dublin could be re-built from Ulysses, what an easier time the city planners of Bath would have!
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