Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

in which I am just a bit pedantic

I just finished reading Veronica Bennett's Cassandra's Sister, and in many ways I liked it very much. Cassandra's sister is of course Jane Austen (she spends a good bit of the novel trying to get people to stop calling her "Jenny," and is in the end successful) and she is a charming main character, much like her own Marianne Dashwood or, perhaps even more, Elizabeth Bennett. The novel details her life from about 1794 to 1802, ending before the publication of any of her novels but after the major composition of Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey--and, perhaps more importantly for the novel, after the two "love affairs" with which she is credited.

I am no Janeite, but I do love the novels and the characters, and I'm always happy to spend some time in Austen's world. Unfortunately, this novel kept throwing me out of that world with minor details. One particularly annoying detail was Mrs. Austen's habit of referring to her husband as "the Reverend," which seemed unlikely to me. In Austen's novels, wives always refer to their husbands by their formal names (Mr. Elton, Mr. Bennett, etc.). If they are ordained they are still "Mr.," not "Reverend" (which, as my father always reminded me, is an adjective and thus not suitable for direct or indirect address--it would be like calling someone "Honorable" or referring to him as "the White-haired"). Even the annoying Mrs. Elton, in Emma, refers to her husband as Mr. Elton (or, to Emma's chagrin, her "caro sposo").

The other thing that threw me out of the time period was "Jenny's" anxiety about originality--she worries that her fiction is taken too directly from life. But in an age when mimesis was the reigning aesthetic, would that really worry her? It seemed unlikely to me, and more of a device to demonstrate that her novels really did have their roots in her own life. That point, however, is amply demonstrated by the novel without that odd intrusion of anxiety.

I did enjoy the consideration of the material conditions of a young woman's life at the turn of the 18th into the 19th century, the recognition of the restrictions but also some of the freedoms she might have had, and the evident affection the author maintains for her characters--much like Austen's own. But I couldn't give myself over to it fully, and that annoyed me.

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