Monday, November 5, 2007

2 Books: Janey A and Teenage Pregnancy

I can't get Johnny U out of my mind, so much so that when I just finished Jane Austen's first novel, Sense and Sensibility, I thought of her as Janey A and tried to find the comparisons to Johnny U. Let's see, when the Dashwood sisters and Mom fall on hard times, they have to reduce the number of servants down to two and move into a smaller grand estate of a relative. Johnny U helped his poor widowed Mom by delivering dirty bags of filthy coal.

Yet Sense has much to offer. Right up front, Austen lays out the basic plot: Old Man Dashwood dies and, by law, must leave his estate to his eldest son (product of his first marriage). If only Lear had a son he could have died in bed and avoided all that bloodshed. Mr. Dashwood's surviving second wife and their three daughters get nada. All four have to leave the mansion to fend for themselves. The eldest son, at the urging of his shrewish wife, reneges on the father's deathbed charge to very generously look after the half-sisters. He arranges instead, a pittance. This bit of nasty business, made me think long on how much of life is like this, things out of one's control that we can't know about. I remember the story of my father having to wrest his mother's bequest to him from his evil executrix sister. That has to be bad karma to deny your parent's last request, let alone all the other ones.

After Mom and brood are taken in by a relation, the mystery left is whom will the sisters marry? That's the only life destination these ladies can hope for. There is talk of them doing "work" as they talk away the day and I look forward to seeing the 1995 film to see what it is Janey was talking about. There is a scene where the ladies are working, literally basket weaving, and I thought this must be where the joke started about make-work jobs or easy classes for college athletes.

Inverted sentences and double negatives made my reading slow, about a chapter a day. We might say, "His friends would be happy to hear how much you like him," but Janey writes:

"I am sure," replied Elinor, with a smile, "that his dearest friends could not be dissatisfied with such commendation as that. I do not perceive how you could express yourself more warmly."

The characters are fully realized, which means you think you know them, then Janey gives you a jolt of the unexpected. Characters leave without warning, fueling one of the prime activities of this social glass, gossiping. I have read that most real-life dialogue among people today is also gossip so I won't judge 19th c. England harshly.

The teen sister, Margaret, appears so briefly that she's almost not there, disappearing for dozens of chapters at a time and making a cameo in the last scene. Not being an English major I wondered if it this was some well-known literary joke and the inspiration for famous unseen characters of radio and TV such as Duffy of Duffy's Tavern, Norm's wife on Cheers, Niles' wife on Frasier.

Idle talk and speculation and a bit of mistaken identity coupled with a secret romance conspire to make the happy ending. Good character is rewarded and low character is given a comeuppance. The sisters are supposed to represent SENSE (Elinor, the older and proper) and SENSIBILITY (Marianne, the younger and instinctive). My interpretation is a little more didactic in terms of Anglo history. Property rights and orderly transfer of property (SENSE) is the foundation of English and American stability, but it gets in the way of romance (SENSIBILITY).

Up next: Slam by Nick Hornby

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