Baby lit

Speaking of the matchless Miss Austen, Olivia has a baby version of Pride and Prejudice which tells the story, more or less, in fewer than 30 words. It's in fact a counting primer: “One English village, Two rich gentlemen, Three houses,” all the way up to “Ten thousand pounds a year.” It's clever and rather sweet, and it looks like this:

Olivia's cousin Elinor has a different baby version of the same novel, told in even fewer words, and illustrated with gorgeous photography. This is less educational for the under threes, but certainly a more faithful rendering of the story. It looks like this (note the muddy hem on Elizabeth's dress):

Both are lovely. I don't know if the babies prefer these classics to more contemporary infant literature, but for parents who like Jane Austen they're a delightful variation in a reading diet that otherwise consists almost entirely of bears. And ducks. So many ducks.

Autumn in prose

My favourite season has arrived, and since I've already posted plenty of Autumn poetry over the past five years (Herbert, Blake, Shelley, KeatsRossetti, Logan, Frost) I wondered this year about descriptions of Autumn in prose. These are harder to find, but here are a couple to start with, both from Jane Austen. The first is Anne Elliot in Persuasion, trying to take her mind off Captain Wentworth by thinking about poetry. 

Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves, and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn, that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness, that season which had drawn from every poet, worthy of being read, some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling. She occupied her mind as much as possible in such like musings and quotations; but it was not possible, that when within reach of Captain Wentworth's conversation with either of the Miss Musgroves, she should not try to hear it; yet she caught little very remarkable.

And here is the unromantic Elinor Dashwood, in Sense and Sensibility, making fun of Marianne's romantic love of Autumn.

"And how does dear, dear Norland look?" cried Marianne.

"Dear, dear Norland," said Elinor, "probably looks much as it always does at this time of the year. The woods and walks thickly covered with dead leaves."

"Oh," cried Marianne, "with what transporting sensation have I formerly seen them fall! How have I delighted, as I walked, to see them driven in showers about me by the wind! What feelings have they, the season, the air altogether inspired! Now there is no one to regard them. They are seen only as a nuisance, swept hastily off, and driven as much as possible from the sight.”

“It is not every one," said Elinor, "who has your passion for dead leaves.”

Jane Austen: Game Theorist?

I like this. In a book out this year, Michael Chwe, a polisci professor at UCLA, posits that Jane Austen was a proto-game theorist, roughly a century and a half before game theory. Game theory (apparently) is about choices and preferences, thinking strategically not only about your own moves but about how others will respond to your moves. Austen and her characters are constantly engaged in this kind of strategic thinking. Nor, says Chwe, is this accidental. He argues that exploring and relentlessly theorising strategic thinking is Austen's explicit intention in her six novels. This might seem far-fetched, but if you consider game theory as arising from rational choice theory, Austen's mind and model seem a neat fit. Her novels are all about rational versus irrational choices, conceiving rationality in the most liberal sense. As well as her actions, Austen's conversations are full of cause and effect, decision analysis, binary choices, rational responses. Her characters conceptualise the world in terms of relationships and causalities, and the characters with the least social agency, usually women, think in the most strategic ways to gain advantages. “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies,” cries Mrs Croft in Persuasion, “instead of rational creatures.” The rational creatures who are both the heroines and anti-heroines of Austen's world make perfect subjects for Chwe's reading. This is insightful and entertaining stuff, but I like the bigger point that the humanities themselves, not only the soft and hard sciences, are amenable to new ideas about how humans work. 

Brontë on Austen

I mentioned in my last that Charlotte Brontë was not an Austen fan. I had a vague recollection of some remarks she'd famously made on the subject, and went looking for them. They appear in letters she wrote to the critic GH Lewes, and to her publisher's reader WS Williams, both of whom admired Austen and encouraged Brontë to give her a try. 

“Why do you like Jane Austen so very much?" she complained to Lewes in a letter of 12 January 1848. On his advice she had read Pride and Prejudice, but all she found there was a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck... [George Sand] is sagacious and profound; Miss Austen is only shrewd and observant."

To Williams she wrote, in 1850, that she had just read Emma: “read it with interest and with just the right degree of admiration which Miss Austen herself would have thought sensible and suitable—anything like warmth or enthusiasm; anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstration the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outre and extravagant. She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well; there is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting: she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress."

It's a difference of period as well as temperement, but it's also, I would venture, a misreading. Brontë's own preference for sturm und drang (the aspect of her novels I find least appealing) leads her to read Austen's calm as a preoccupation with surfaces. In fact surfaces are precisely what Austen is concerned to trouble and displace. Customs and courtesies cover a seething multitude of relational subtleties and human failings. Masks and impressions fall before knowledge and revelation. Austen's sharp penetration of civil surfaces makes for inspired comedy and an enduring social realism for which Brontë never strove. 

Jane Austen's inward world

There's plenty to read about the 200th birthday of Pride and Prejudice, but I especially enjoyed this piece from the archives of The Atlantic. It was published in 1863, on the novel's 50th anniversary. It's fascinating to read something so old that feels itself to be modern, so removed from its subject and yet so much closer to it than we are. In general the Victorians were not wild about Austen, preferring Dickens' more florid and surreal portraiture, or George Eliot's wider intellectual and social compass. But this reviewer, one Mrs R.C. Waterson, is warm and eloquent in her praise. She puts her finger on Austen's quiet genius: Infinite sameness, infinite variety, are not more apparent in the outward than in the inward world, and the work of that writer will alone be lasting who recognizes and embodies this eternal law of the great Author. Jane Austen possessed in a remarkable degree this rare intuition.” 

She quotes the diary of Walter Scott, who wrote in 1826 of Austen's exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from truth of the description and the sentiment.” And she concludes that though Austen will not be everyone's cup of tea (a nod to Charlotte Bronte, perhaps, who found Austen insipid), yet “while the English language is read, the world will always be provided with souls who can enjoy the rare excellence of that rich legacy left to them by her genius.” I couldn't agree more.