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After reading Kindred, which is about slavery in the USA a short time after Jane Austen was writing, I decided to re-read the one Jane Austen novel which explicitly mentions slavery, Mansfield Park.

I actually first read Mansfield Park recently enough that my thoughts are on LJ, and my opinion hasn't really changed; I know a lot of people dislike Fanny Price, but I still find her sympathetic and relatable, and her quiet determination in the face of pressure to accept Henry Crawford's proposal (and, indeed, the careful observation which allows her to understand Henry's character in a way that no-one else, except perhaps Mary Crawford, does) is all the more impressive for coming from a character whose life has shaped her into a person who always puts other people's wants and needs before her own. Yes, a shy, anxious, insecure heroine isn't as fun as a sparkling, witty Lizzy Bennet, but Fanny feels very real and I found it easy to care about her predicament. I do wonder if some of the dislike for Mansfield Park comes from people expecting a fluffy romance and not getting that, because while none of Jane Austen's novels are actually fluffy romances (honestly, I can't think of one that isn't really an anti-romance when you look at it closely) Mansfield Park is one of the hardest to see that way; although Fanny does end up with the man she is in love with, he isn't in love with her and they have a marriage of best friends rather than a grand romance.

I also really enjoy the glimpses of the wider world we get in this novel; Sir Thomas's business interests (and yes, the slavery that his wealth is founded on), the Navy in the Portsmouth scenes (which feel as though a Patrick O'Brien novel could be taking place only a few yards away). Like all Austen's novels, it also has interesting things to say about the position of women in English society in the early nineteenth century; the experiences of Maria and Julia Bertram, Mary Crawford's catalogue of the woes of her friends' marriages, and the pressure exerted on Fanny herself to marry Henry, despite her conviction that he is fickle and insincere (and while I think she is probably too hard on Henry, because she is so much in love with Edmund, his attachment to her clearly isn't all he would have her believe it to be), all show how constrained women's lives were, how the crucial question of marriage, answered on the basis of very little real information or knowledge, would make or break the rest of life.

I'm not sure I can have a favourite Jane Austen novel; there were moments during this re-read when I thought maybe Mansfield Park was my new favourite, but then I remembered Persuasion and Northanger Abbey; Pride and Prejudice is justly acclaimed a classic, and I really like Emma too, so I think all I can actually say for it is that it's definitely in my top five, though they are all so close, and the only one I think I actually like less than the others is Sense and Sensibility.
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I wanted some comfort reading, so decided to turn to Jane Austen (where else?). I don't think Sense and Sensibility is her best novel; it definitely feels like an early work, and the characterisation lacks the subtlety of her later novels. Elinor Dashwood is too much of a paragon to feel quite true (clever, sensible, patient, kind, able to bear disappointments stoically) and most of the other characters feel more like caricatures, with even the kindest being mocked for their foolishness or lack of common sense, taste or interesting conversation. Still, there are some lovely moments of social comedy, and I was particularly struck by John Dashwood's reasoning for not giving his stepmother and half-sisters any money following his father's death, because "They would only enlarge their style of living if they felt sure of a larger income, and would not be sixpence the richer for it at the end of the year." I feel sure I have heard that argument in the mouths of opponents of the welfare state very recently...
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To get the titling quibbles out of the way, I still don't understand why anyone would decide to make a film of Lady Susan and call it Love and Friendship (and not even Love and Freindship, ffs!). But, that aside, this is an utterly delightful film; it has gorgeous locations, pretty frocks and plenty of romance, and is also very, very funny. Obviously, I am not at all surprised to discover that Jane Austen wrote social comedy, because I have actually read her, but adaptations usually end up producing the occasional wry smile or maybe a gentle chuckle; this was proper laugh-out-loud funny.

Kate Beckinsale is fabulous as the manipulative Lady Susan Vernon; she's awful but you can't help feeling a sneaking admiration for her audaciousness, and the film shows enough of the difficult position of a widow with little money to feel very true to Austen's depiction of women in her society (and also to occasionally make me feel I could have been watching a live-action version of Manfeels Park). The other standout performance was Tom Bennett's wonderfully dim but rich suitor, although the supporting cast is strong generally, with nice turns from Jemma Redgrave and James Fleet and a remarkably restrained cameo from Stephen Fry. All in all, highly recommended.
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I can't remember when I first read Persuasion, but as I don't appear to own a standalone copy of it I suspect it must have been before I moved away from my parents' house, and I don't think I'd read it more than once before. Generally, I haven't re-read Austen nearly as much as I should have done, which is a shame, because whenever I do I find something new.

This time round, what I found was much greater sympathy for Anne and Wentworth than I had when I was nearer their ages at their first meeting rather than their second; a surprisingly modern-feeling depiction of the relationships between the party at Uppercross; and a description of "that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself" which struck me very powerfully as being, basically, the best summing-up of the concept which is now known as "resilience" and which appears to be a pop-psychology flavour of the month I've ever read. In your face, pop psychology; Jane Austen got there two centuries before you.


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