Once upon a time and everytime…..

So the Classic Club’s September Meme is contributed by Brona from Brona’s Books –

Rereading a favorite classic at different stages of your life gives you different insights with each reading. Is there one classic you’ve read several times that also tells a story about you?

Please be forewarned, this is going to be a loooooonnnngggg post!

Like a lot of people I began my formative years reading a lot of classics and like many I always thought of myself, especially in my teens as (Yup! You guessed it!) Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice by the greatest of all, Jane Austin  – I wanted to believe I was clear-headed, was quick  and witty and above all could give it back with all due decorum and politeness! Of course, there was always the sneaky feeling that if I became a Lizzy Bennett, I will find a Fitzwilliam Darcy – I already had a bit crazy and extremely hyper mother and a very laconic and sarcastic, albeit thoroughly sensible father. But life has different plans in place and as I grew older and read all of Jane Austin’s work more closely, I began to realize that I am actually a Marianne Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility, again by Jane Austin – I was an intellectual and cultural snob, who would turn her nose at anything low brow. I was extremely passionate about everything, still am, the only difference is at that point and this is the University years, I was passionate to the point of fanaticism. I also believed that there is only and only one true love and no secondary attachment could be that passionate. I had even found a semi – Willoughby! (Yikes!!! Super Yikes! Let’s not even get into that!) But now in my more respectable and mature 30 years of age, I know despite every plans and intentions, I have settled down to being a Jane Bennett (from Pride and Prejudice, the elder sister to the much aspired, Ms Elizabeth Bennett)  – how colorless can one get????? But facts are facts – though I do not have the legendary beauty of the eldest Ms Bennett, there can be no denying that I am a fool and do not see faults in anyone unless I am run over by avarice and selfishness of the other.  I am so busy, ensuring everybody else is happy, that no matter how unhappy I am, I keep up the demeanor, without realizing that those that are close to me can never be truly happy unless I am happy! The only thing lacking is Mr Bingley ( Mr Soulmate is nothing like Bingley – he is nothing like any of Jane Austin’s heroes!) and a sanguine temper – I am short fused and this is a carry-over from my Marianne Dashwood days!

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is another book, whose re-reading has made me identify more and more with her. As a teenager, when I read the book, I was not particularly impressed by the namby pamby Jane Eyre and her stiff upper lip stance. I wanted fire and courage in my heroines and Jane was a calm stream of water. But re-reading the book during an interesting phase of my life (The Willoughby phase!), I realized how much of strength it takes for an ordinary governess to stand up to a Mr Rochester – to demand to be treated as an equal and what’s more to seek respectability and honesty in a relationship, even when your heart is breaking and you are completely in love with the person. Jane Eyre clearly was one of few books to take such a strong equality stance between men and women, with the subtle underlining of a simple message that took me years to learn, vis-à-vis, matters of the heart, that something simply cannot be compromised on – no matter how high the cost!

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand was another novel which I read during my teens and could not really relate too. It took me good 9 years in a corporate environment to understand what it is to be not only very good, but absolutely excel at your job and how the larger crowd with mediocre talents will try to pull you down. Though I am blessed to be working for a great company that actually has very limited if any Corporate politics, but there can be no getting away from the truth – the mediocre crowd would always find flaws with you if you are really good. They would rather you confirm to their average standards, that stand up alone and raise the bar! Individuality is good and having a mind of your own is even better – it’s difficult to stand alone holding the reins of success, but I rather hold the reins than become a blind horse treading the known path!

East of Eden by John Steinbeck is yet another book that made me realize a lot of home truths very early. In my Marianne Daswood phase, I could not fathom anyone making big mistakes in life and living on – the concept of forgiving and moving on was alien to me and therefore for a very long time I could not relate to Caleb’s actions in igniting Aron’s mind against their father Adam Trask. It was only much later as I became closer to my sister who was 14 years my senior and always the golden child of the family; therefore for a long time in my eyes taking the place of Aron (though she is undoubtedly more kind to the parents!) that I learnt about making mistakes, accepting them and moving on to make a better life. The day I accepted that I transitioned from a Marianne to a Jane!

Finally and I know I have already written a blog on this but no book at any point of time made me what I am and whose re-reading over the years has just made me appreciate a little more about such non tangential things like courage, honor and integrity – about standing up for one‘s beliefs no matter what and about strength that comes in all forms – To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. My basic principle of life came from this book and has only become stronger over the years – unless I can look myself in the eye, nothing is worth it!

Liking Jane…..

This blog is in response to the March Meme of The Classics Club. The subject is Jane Austen…now how can I ever pass out on opportunity to wax eloquently on my all-time favorite author – the very witty, the very talented and an acute observer of all the fallacies of human nature.

While Jane Austen has always been at the very top of my ladder of veneration that I reserve for my most beloved writers, it is very surprising that I never wrote about her before. But then what can I say for Ms. Austen that has not been said before – what can I say that is original and not hackneyed or trite?  However let me attempt to spell out why I resort to Jane Austen, when I am happy, when I am sad, when I am confused, when I need distraction or simply when I need to attain a Zen state of mind!

By now, the very first question of The Classic Club for this subject should be answered by now – I do not love Jane Austen; I am obsessed with her!!!!!

Now to broach why I love Jane Austen – I love reading her because she is one of the original fountain of all wisdom pertaining to relationships, especially those between a man and a woman. All those of who had been nourished on a healthy and completely untrue diet of Prince Charming carry poor little Cinders away, despite strong objections against her background got of first taste of reality through Austen’s work. Whether it is Mrs. Bennett or her relations, there can be no denying that improper behavior by the family of the protagonist will always be a hindrance in the path of true love and will always make a lover hesitate in declaring his intentions. How many times in your adult life have you heard your boyfriend say that your mother/aunt/sister is too loud and an embarrassment in public which led to an eventual showdown between the two of you, regardless of the validity of criticism? I feel this keenly and therefore try as much as possible to shield my guy from my extended family.  She was one of the first writers to put forth that while filial respect is always important and should always be of greatest import, one cannot turn away from the obvious shortcoming of the parents, which at times may lead to disastrous effect on the child. Example of the same is Mrs. Dashwood who does not try and control the imprudence of Marianne in her relations to Willoughby leading to heartbreak for one and exposing another to the censure of the world. Sir Elliot’s vanity and pride deprives his daughter Ann Elliot from happiness for seven long years. These were revolutionary concepts, especially when we look at the era that Ms. Austen was writing from.

Many claim Jane Austen had written a 18th century Mills & Boone through Pride and Prejudice. But this  in itself is a very simplistic understanding of the novel – this was one of the first books where the heroine asserts not only her own self-respect but also forces the male protagonist to respect her family through sheer force of character. Ms. Eliza Bennett is not a milk and honey  miss, like her other fictional compatriots, who faint at anything remotely stressful; nor does she give away to hysteria when ill befalls her family – instead she faces them as a strong individual, sharing burdens with her sister and keeping her own repining in check and rarelyhas moments of self-indulgence. She does not go around being pedagogic to her suitor, but speaks to him on equal terms, in mixture of humor, angst or anger as dictated by natural human tendency.  Pride and Prejudice was also one of the first writings to throw an egalitarian twist – while Mr Darcy had 10000 a year and Pemberly, he is dismissed as a gentleman by Elizabeth, who claims equality as a gentleman’s daughter and is completely unapologetic about the comparative material inequities between the two.

Ms. Austen was one of the first writers to create a flawed heroine, whether it was Elizabeth Bennett’s initial liking for Mr Wickham or Emma Woodhouse’s meddling and sometimes rude conduct towards her friends and neighbors. She makes her heroine fall to only make them rise, realize their mistake and become better human beings, woman, wife, daughter etc.

Finally many critics have condemned Jane Austen as parochial and not addressing some of the pressing concerns of her time, like the Napoleonic Wars. She does refer to the Napoleanic Wars when there is a need – Persuasion is filled with allusion to peace after the war; but mostly she wrote about the country – the kind of place she grew up and spent most of her adult life. She wrote about things that she understood and had complete command over than attempt something for which she was dependent on second-hand sources and which may have a false bearing on the tale. After all, since Ms. Austen’s celebrated examples of writing about spheres understood by the author, more than 200 years later, the apparently modern and up-to-date social networks, work on her principle of writing locally!

Jane Austen is not out dated, she is not boring and she is not parochial – she is in fact very cool, with writings that can be handed down from one generation to another, because it addresses the really never-changing mores of human interactions!

To address the last part of The Classic Club Challenge – my favorites in order of 1 to 6 are (with 1 being the best!)

  1. Pride and Prejudice (No Surprise there!)
  2. Emma
  3. Sense and Sensibility and Persuasions (I know…I cannot decide between the two!)
  4. Northanger Abbey
  5. Lady Susan
  6. Mansfield Park (Only Austen that I consider tedious and didactic!)

Do let me know what you think about Ms. Austen as well!

Oops I or (did he) do it again!!!

I know I have been away and I would like to believe that in the infinite logic of time and space, the “away’ becomes an insignificant, atom of nothingness. No I was not away at some abstract Physics or Metaphysical conference and no I have not been hit on my head….I am merely trying to look at the macro level picture as I am being advised by all and sundry and really …..IT DOES NOT HELP. Me is micro and “me” is what is important, at least at this point of time, rather than whole wide world.

I am rambling….so let me get down to the specifics –

I hope there are some young parents who will read this and take some valuable lessons, namely, never ever read out fairy tales to your daughter so that she grows up thinking that there is truly a “Prince Charming’ out there and then spend her whole life un-thinking this thought! My parents were not that considerate- they had a beautiful and romantic 8 years courtship at the end of which they tied a knot. Naturally, from their point of view Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty was a good place to start for their daughter, both in terms of literature and belief system! Things did not improve as I grew older and graduated to young adult literature – There was always a Tom to Anna  of Green Gables, a Ned Nickerson to Nancy Drew and unlike any other girl of my age….I thought Frank Hardy was so much desirable over Joe Hardy.  And then came Ms Austen to completely morph and change the way I thought about men –

  • Mr Fritzwilliam Darcy will I believe always remain the best and the most popular among women as the most desirable partner of all times – whether it’s his “handsome mien”  or his honourable conduct (remember the Lydia Affair) or when we get down to the bass tactics his “Pemberley” or his unchanging love for a spirited and and intelligent Lizzy.
  • Captain Fredrick Wentworth was the man who made it big on his own in the conservative Regency society and loved and eventually persuaded and was perused to marry the intelligent and accomplished Anne Eilliot, daughter of the impoverished Sir Walter Elliot, Bt., despite the more pleasant though vacuous attention of the Musgrove sisters.
  • George Knightly is of course all that is noble, kind hearted and generous with all the trappings of noblesse oblige, whether he is considerate to the Bates or in his dealings with his tenants, even going to the extent of advising them on matrimony (the Robert Martin piece) and his quiet and deep love for a feckless Emma that sears into ones heart’s.

My ideas were therefore set at a very young age and they would be further refined and developed, thanks to the following –

  • M M Kaye’s The Far Pavilion – Anyone who has read this book will know what I am talking about – Ashton Pelham Akbar Martyn is the stuff dreams are made off (Yes! Ms Kaye did not consider that she was setting all of us for a fall…) his love for India, his adopted country, his sense of justice and fairness, his courage, his loyalty and his unwavering love for the ill-fated Anjuli Bai
  • M M Kaye‘s The Shadow of the Moon – How can one not absolutely love Alex Randall? In the lines of Ashton Martyn, he too possesses unbridled courage, passion, a sense of righteousness, a sense of justice and honour and his searing love for Winter De Ballesteros and thus representing everything a hero ought to be!
  • Leon Uris’s Exodus – Ari Ben Cannon’s character was not written by women, so he does not overtly possess what a Darcy or a Randall seems to carry off with an ease. But scratch the surface and you will find honour, courage, passion and righteousness of all that should matter to any individual and is deeply rooted in his vision of an independent state of Israel.

Now back to the main plot……after years of being fed on such literary diet, I am not sure if any of you have run in such emotional maelstrom that I have, vis-à-vis relationships. While I epitomise all the honourable, honest and courageous traits of my fictional heroes, I seem to be doomed in finding only those characters who have no sense of responsibility, will never take accountability of their actions and will lie through their teeth, even when there is absolutely no reason to do so, because they presume, you will not like the truth!!!! You ask why would one go for such a man? Well …that’s the whole point…one does not!! He just keeps forcing his attention on one and the fact that he is extremely bright and absolutely ha ha funny, kind of complicates the issue…..But finally when you do sit up and take notice, well he has other things to do, places to visit, people to meet and can you please manage while I gallivant across the world and finally you are wondering…”Duh!! What was I imagining?” And the inevitable, “Oh! Not again!”

Then recently thinking hard about the whole thing, I realise that my expectations are incorrect and it’s all Ms Austen/Ms Kaye/Mr Uris’s fault. Had they not set up larger than life characters, I would have had no expectations, if I had no expectations, I would not expect him to be any better, if I did not expect him to be any better, I would be at peace with all his irresponsibility, if I was at peace with all his irresponsibility, I would not give him hell, If I did not give him hell and became a Musgrove sister, then I would be in a long, albeit potentially silly relationship. But now thanks to my immense literary baggage, I have to be sane and rational and more importantly expect him to be all that as well and that….that is never good!!!

Ergo….do not let your daughters/nieces read the kind of books I read!

The ‘romance’ of romantic novels…..

I was just 12 years old and I wondered into a book shop. The owner showed me all the books a young adult would like – Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Anna of Green Gables. I picked them and one more – a vague book with green cover, called Shadow Princess. I picked it up because the back cover said that the heroine was a Ph.D student and even at that age I knew a doctorate was ‘the thing’ for me; so I was going to read up everything even remotely related to it. My ever encouraging dad paid for the books and we walked out.

However it was not till two years later that I got around to reading Shadow Princess….I do not quite remember what happened; but  I think I lost a couple of books traveling and then found them two years down the line. Anyway that’s not the point. The point is at the age of 14, I read the “Shadow Princess” and after reading the slim book, I decided that romance was a piece of nonsense! It took the protagonist (who by the way was supposed to be intelligent; what with a Ph.D in chemistry) 180 pages realise that she loved the male protagonist for no better reason that one point his father had dated her sister!!! Oh! Lord!!

That was my introduction to Mills & Boons……..

So many years down the line, my view has not changes. It has just expanded to include Silhouette romances and all flowery cover jacketed books with apparently, the key word is “apparently” intelligent heroines and the silent strong men. Give me a break!!!
I defy anyone to show me such a piece of work which does not adhere to the following premises – 
  1. The writing is always from the woman’s point of view considering most these things are written by women
  2. The obviously stunning girl whose looks are played down in the initial part of the book for the “wow” effect later with large black/blue/green eyes (they always have large eyes!) meets “the guy” at some gathering
  3. The girl is obviously someone who is supposed to have substance though she has done very little in the first 10 pages to show it and might be in some kind of trouble which only “the guy” can rescue her from.
  4. The Guy” is obviously extremely tall, extremely good looking, extremely intelligent, extremely rich, extremely popular among opposite sex, extremely in love, extremely rude…extremely annoying!!
  5. They get off to a rocky start because they have a past or because they are trying to deny their attraction for each other because of some weird twisted logic that will be revealed at the end of novel that will want to make you barf!
  6. We will now spend 80 -100 pages skimming through various ups and downs where the two fight, detest each other and end up making out (Have you ever made out with someone you truly detested?????)
  7. The novel ends with “the guy” doing some incorrigible act of daring and chivalry that will make the girl declare her undying (yawn!) love for him (now that was an ending I never so coming!!) with some trite vapid wannabe joke!

Oh!! Please!!

Long back, a friend’s brother told me at an impressionable age, when I voiced my disgust for such writings that we can thank Jane Austen for introducing us to such plots via, Pride and Prejudice.

Agreed…. P&P does follow this plot line….but Jane Austen actually originated it. Furthermore, she addressed some very serious concerns of that age – marrige as the only security for educated women; the case of entailment of estates; marriage between people of unequal status….I can go on!! Besides, her humour is subtle and sarcastic!!  I refuse to believe in today’s day and age, women marry for security and in a more and more democratic world where Princes are marrying commoners, one writes about an unequal marriage where a rich ‘the guy” marries our woman of apparent substance, albiet of lower social standing and there is an ado about it! If she has substance, she will cope!!

I know this will put many in a tizzy, but can’t we do a book, a romance novel, where the heroine is fat or taller that the hero. Also what if the hero is an average guy with a good job, but is not a power wheeler dealer. I am told such books would not sell….really? Is our reading population so insipid? Maybe there is a certain section of the population that will never read such books and thrive on traditional romances, but I am sure, if a romance is a good book that truly depicts the poetry and humour of our lives, people will read.

In the meanwhile, if you like many of my friends feel the need for an out of the world, so unreal romance, there is always Messer’s Mill & Boon!