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Posts Tagged ‘Jane Austen’

It is strange to be reminded that Jane Austen’s classic romance, Pride and Prejudice, was published (sans zombies) just five years before the first edition of Mary Shelley’s gothic horror tale, Frankenstein. The contemporary social upheaval caused by the competing ideologies of the Enlightenment, Industrialisation and the Romantic Movement is evident in Shelley’s text but can seem invisible in Austen’s more restrained social novel. Austen, however, was not unaware of social injustice and three key issues are relevant to an understanding of her novels.

1. Enclosure. By th19th Century, almost all arable lands in England had been enclosed,by hedges or fences, restricting their use as pasture to the owners. Prior to this, much land had been available for grazing to the landless poor. One of the consequences of enclosure was to increase the number of seasonal labourers requiring poor relief. In Pride and Prejudice, this allows Darcy to be held up as a more generous land owner than others (and his housekeeper to brag about him to Elizabeth). Although enclosures began as early as the 13th Century, it was really during the Industrial Revolution, when land was increasingly commodified, that the practice became dominant.

2. Entailment. The Bennet sisters’ desperate situation is due in part to entailment laws. The purpose of these laws was to ensure the line of succession for important houses. The reality of them was that the owner was unable to sell or bequeath their estate. It was, instead, entailed to the legal heir. The result of such laws was often families who were impoverished by debt in spite of being in possession of impressive estates or, as in the case of the Bennet sisters, women being left at the mercy of, often distant, male relatives. The abolishment of individual entails was made simpler in 1833 but it was only in 1996 that the law was abandoned altogether.

Military Meritocracy. Although during the Regency it was still common practice for a young man to purchase a commission (that is, an officer’s rank) in the Army or the Navy, it was during this period that the military in England (particularly the Navy) began to reward meritorious service with rank – both military and social. This allowed landless gentlemen to improve their social standing and aspire to more profitable matches. Perhaps the best example of this in Austen is Captain Wentworth in Persuasion, who becomes wealthy and a socially acceptable match for the daughter of a Baronet, through his service in the West Indies. The social signficance of the soldiers quartered at Meriton in Pride and Prejudice is another example.

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The final aspect of belonging on the ETA list and the one my students have had the most difficulty with is belonging through textual engagement. Like all of the aspects, and the concept of belonging itself, belonging through textual engagement seems ephemeral to the point of meaninglessness. However, if you can master it and apply it to your texts it will help to enrich your responses.
Belonging through textual engagement has two parts to it:
the sense of belonging you feel when you really connect with the characters, themes or setting of a text.
the sense of belonging you feel when you find a person or group of people who share your appreciation of a text or texts.
Make a list of your favourite stories. Why are they your favourites? Do you relate to the main character? Do you want to be like him/her? Do you empathise with their plight? Or is it the setting that appeals? Is it a place you know or somewhere you think you could belong?
Now for the hard part… why do you feel connected with this text? Character, theme, plot and setting (the elements of story) are conveyed through words on a page and the effect of those words is often due to the use of techniques. What are the techniques that connect you to the text?
An example of belonging through textual engagement is the empathy we might feel for the persona of Dickinson’s poem ‘I had been hungry all the years’. The speaker of the poem feels awkward and out of place at the table. The use of slant rhyme (words that almost rhyme but don’t quite – “crumb” and “room”) conveys this awkwardness through language to the audience, creating a sense of empathy from the reader to the speaker.
Similarly, the gesture of rubbing the soil of a battlefield between his hands, repeated throughout the film Gladiator by the hero Maximus, reminds the audience that the general is actually a humble farmer, who wants nothing more than to return to his wife and son. This reinforces our sympathy for his plight and creates a connection between us and the text.
The second aspect of belonging through textual engagement is the connection we feel with others who appreciate the same texts. Consider the clubs that exist for fans of authors from Jane Austen to Neil Gaiman. As we know, texts are not limited to novels. I was, a long time ago, president of the ANU Slayer Society, a club dedicated to the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Some of my best friends at uni were people I met through that club. What is it about books, films and tv that bring us together? This idea might also be an interesting prompt for a creative piece.

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Belonging is the new HSC Area of Study but it’s more than that, it’s a fundamental human need. I tend to conceptualize belonging in the negative, to think of the outsider, of the person who doesn’t belong. I always identified with those characters in books, with Erika Yurken in Hating Alison Ashley, with Elspeth in The Obernewtyn Chronicles and with poor ignored Anne Eliot in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Each character was competent in her own way but out of place within their family, school, society. What made them not fit? What made these characters square pegs in round holes? For Erika it is simply a matter of perception, she thinks herself better than (or different from) what she is and, when she finds herself, she finds that she fits exactly in her own place. Anne and Elspeth are both out of place because they are extraordinary. I was always attracted to this idea of not belonging because of being special.

I love this quote about Belonging:

Belonging is a circle that embraces everything; if we reject it, we damage our nature.
The word ‘belonging’ holds together the two fundamental aspects of life:
Being and Longing, the longing of our Being and the being of our Longing.
– John O’Donohue

It is what we are and what we want to be all wrapped up into one. In this module I’m looking forward to exploring the idea of belonging to a Place as well as to groups, communities and families.

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All three of my texts end with a relationship being firmly established. In P&P and B&P, this relationship is a marriage and this has been the goal, if not of the female leads then at least of their mothers, all along. Bridget ends up with her Darcy but, in the modern western tradition (begun, I think in Four Weddings and a Funeral), they are not married. In fact, they have not yet reached the committed stage of “moving in”. The values portrayed by this are clear: women need men, preferably men of high social status and great intelligence and it is up to the women to somehow catch these men regardless of the obvious initial indifference of both parties.

What if we changed the ending of on of the texts? The cultural pressure in both P&P and B&P towards marriage is perhaps too great to be disregarded but I think we can work with Bridget.

‘Come on,’ said Mark Darcy.

‘What?’ I said.

‘Don’t say “what”, Bridget, say “pardon”,’ hissed Mum.

‘Mrs Jones,’ said Mark firmly, ‘I am taking Bridget away to celebrate what is left of the Baby Jesus’s birthday.’

I took a big breath and grasped Mark Darcy’s proffered hand. Then I shook it firmly. ‘Thank you for all your help Mr Darcy but I’m afraid I have other plans.’ I smiled as both Mark and Mum gaped at me in astonishment.

Outside in the snow Jude, (no-longer-Vile) Richard, Shazza and Tom were waiting by the mini. ‘Come the fuck on,’ called Tom as I squeezed into the back of the tiny car.

Tuesday December 26

9st something, alcohol units lost count at twelve, cigarettes 0 (but one fat cigar), calories outnumbered by warm festive thoughts.

10am Woke in a hotel room in Paris. Little bit hungover but secure in the knowledge that Daniel, Mark, Julio and well-meaning but interfering parents are an ocean (well, a channel) away.

11am At itty bitty bistro on Left Bank with best friends. Have finally realised the secret to happiness, and it is with deep regret, rage and an overwhelming sense of defeat that I have to put it into the most cliche words in the English language: Be yourself and surround yourself with people who love you.

Next post: how does Bridget represent all five Bennet sisters?

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During discussion in class today a student asked, “isn’t that the one where they randomly burst into song?” He was, of course, referring to one of my chosen appropriations, the Bollywood film, Bride and Prejudice (see previous post for an example of a musical number from the film). This got me thinking about the links between the cultural context of a text, the values portrayed (and questioned) in the text and the narrative and stylistic conventions of the genre. Characters randomly burst into song because it is a Bollywood film, not because it is an appropriation of a Jane Austen novel.

Similarly, Bridget Jones chronicles her weight loss and gain and smoking and drinking habits as well as the ups and downs of her love life, not because she is supposed to be a modern Elizabeth Bennett but because she a single woman of a certain age. What she shares with Lizzy (and with Bride‘s Lalita) is the pressure to marry and to marry well. In all three texts marriage equals social mobility, something that is valued across the three texts and their cultures.

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Following the example of Dr Shann, I have decided to begin work on the Term 3 project being undertaken by the Preliminary Extension English classes. These journal entries will chronicle my progress and, hopefully, serve as a guide to the students who are tackling the idea of a learning journal for the first time. This is an important skill as it will be one of the major assessment pieces for those undertaking the Extension 2 course. My core text for the major project will be Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, the most popular of her completed novels but not, I must confess, my favourite. At least part of the ongoing appeal of this text has to be attributed to Austen’s construction of characters through dialogue and the technique of free indirect speech (which she pioneered). The two main characters, Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett (or as I like to think of them Mr Pride and Ms Prejudice) still charm audiences with their wit two centuries after being written. This choice of text will also, of course, require me to not only reread the novel but to view the two most influential adaptations, the 1996 BBC mini series starring Colin Firth and the 2005 Keira Knightly and Matthew McFadyen effort

For my two modern appropriations I am considering the Bollywood film Bride and Prejudice and the novel by Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary. Both are very deliberate appropriations of Austen’s novel, in terms of character and plot. Both also transpose the characters and plot of the original into interesting and different settings that come with their own culture, values and narrative traditions.

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