Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Emma Woodhouse - Why do readers love such a snob?


This girl easily collects her share of critics down through the centuries because of her massive, inflated ego. And no wonder.

1) She's manipulative
Her matchmaking activity reminds me of a little girl playing with a dolls house, and saying, 'These ones can go here, and these can go over there.' On the surface, it may come across as a generous interest in others. That's Emma's intent, but it conceals her smug opinion that she knows enough to oranise not just herself but everyone else too. And as the story proves, her busybody activity simply causes hassles. If Emma's plans had worked out, she could have ruined people's lives.

2) She's a super snob
Giving good young farmer Robert Martin the thumbs down for her friend Harriet is just the start. Remember Emma's abysmal attitude toward the Cole family, who decided to hold a ball? She thought it would be audacious of them to invite such important people as her father and herself, and intended to coolly refuse, to keep them in their place. Only when the invitation was slow in coming did she realise it might be fun to attend after all.

She's like the popular head girl of an elite private school. It's easy to be amiable and pleasant when everyone pays you homage and wants to be like you. Big fish in small ponds keep getting their high opinions of themselves reinforced by general praise. Harriet boosts Emma's ego until she almost launches into space. It seems to be a sort of vicious circle of big-headedness. Everyone thinks you're wonderful because you seem to be good-tempered, so you continue to be good-tempered because everyone thinks you're wonderful. Negative qualities can remain dormant for a long time because nothing happens in your well-ordered little world to shake them out.

So who cares to read about a main character like that? Lots of people don't. On every Jane Austen forum or review of this book, you'll find readers who can't bear Emma for those very reasons. Yet her popularity seems to stay constant over the years. And if you were to ask me, I'd say that in spite of these qualities, she always grows on me. Here's why.

1) Her author knows she's a snob
You may ask who cares, since the author isn't part of the story? It makes a bigger difference than we might think. Perhaps the crucial difference between Emma Woodhouse and enormously snobby main characters from other books is that the author wrote her that way on purpose. Austen levels with us right from the start that Emma had 'too much of her own way and a disposition to think too well of herself.' Getting this straight from an omniscient narrator's mouth humanises Emma. We enter into her world hoping that her haughty edges may be smoothed by circumstances. The type of characters I really can't stand are those whose authors evidently don't realise they're stuck up! We're supposed to love them too, but just want to smack their faces. Emma isn't like that. Or at least we trust that the metaphorical smack in the face is coming. (A modern, animated male counterpart may be Emperor Kuzco from 'The Emperor's New Groove.' They're horrible snobs, but we know there's some heart buried there somewhere.)

2) She's relatable and real
Emma inner attitudes, which she won't ever to admit to others, may strike a chord with similar secret feelings we may have harboured ourselves. Take as an example her reasons for not liking Jane Fairfax. Emma knows that Jane is more accomplished than her in many ways, and feels shown up. Also, she senses that the reserved Jane may be holding part of herself back, and hates to think that anybody has private thoughts she's not privy to. Emma's feelings aren't honourable to reveal, so she keeps them to herself. And that appeals to parts of us we might have decided to keep hidden too, because they don't quite show us up in the light we'd choose. It gives us a sort of camaraderie with Emma, which we can acknowledge secretly to ourselves as we read.

3) She really is something special
That's partly why so many people admire her. It's not all about her wealth, although that holds huge sway with gold diggers like Mr Elton. But Emma is also beautiful, intelligent, and athletic too, for a girl of her era. Mrs Weston, her former governess and biggest fan takes every opportunity to rave about Emma's superiority. 'There is health, not merely in her bloom, but in her air, her head, her glance. One hears sometimes of a child being the picture of health. Emma always gives me the idea of being the complete picture of grown up health. She is loveliness itself Mr Knightley, is she not?' He has to agree it's all true, and the fact that Emma has a fussy, hypochondriac father probably makes the validity of all this even more admirable.

4) She speaks up when she's offended
You've to got cheer on someone who makes an excellent point! Emma learns that the good-looking Mr Frank Churchill had been using her as a foil, to hide his romantic interest in Jane Fairfax. She's understandably furious because he never stopped to consider that he was trifling with a lady's heart.

The phrase 'two timing jerk' hadn't been coined back then, but you've got to applaud Emma for her Regency era equivalent. 'What right had he to come among us with affection and faith engaged and manners so very disengaged?' Then she goes on to rage about his, 'hypocrisy and deceit, espionage and treachery,' which we can't help grinning at, under the circumstances. 'It is fit that the fortune is on his side, for the merit is all on hers!' Frank's loyal stepmum suggests that Emma might be going a bit far, but no, we readers don't mind her going on and on! Nothing like the satisfaction of someone voicing their indignation.

5) She has many resources 
I love it when Emma declares her intention to never seek a husband for herself, and Harriet asks, 'Well, how shall you employ yourself when you grow old?' Emma doesn't even need to think about it. 'Mine is an active, busy mind, and I don't see why I should be more in want of employment at forty or fifty than at one and twenty. Woman's usual occupations of hand and mind will be as open to me then as they are now, or with no important variation. If I draw less, I shall read more. If I give up music, I shall take to carpet work. As for objects of interest for the affections, I shall be very well off with all the children of a sister I love so much to care about. There will be enough of them, in all probability, to supply every sort of sensation that declining life should need.' Bravo! Emma clearly wasn't a bad influence on Harriet in every respect.

6)  When the crunch comes, she has the grace to feel bad
We surely all remember that turning point. Emma's impromptu comment to Miss Bates at the picnic is pretty witty, but considering the social positions of both of them, is in poor taste. But when Mr Knightley tells Emma it was 'badly done', she suddenly has a long-overdue blast of empathy, and it breaks her heart. She cries all the way home in her carriage, and next day pays a call on the Bates', with a different motive than ever before. This time it's genuinely with a desire to give pleasure, rather than be a duty. The scales have been ripped from Emma's eyes at last, and the fact that she was so snobby to start with may make her even easier to like at this point. If there's hope for such a habitual snob as Emma Woodhouse, there might be hope for anyone.

So that Jane Austen's attempt at presenting readers with a main character who is so unlikable in one main point, but coerces us to like her anyway. If you've read Emma, did you like the main character or not? And if you haven't, how do you feel about the thought of reading a whole novel about a main character you're told straight off is an awful snob?  


Friday, May 18, 2018

The Royal Book Game

We're witnessing significant times for the British Royal Family, with the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, not to mention the recent birth of a new little prince for Will and Kate. So whether you're a staunch royalist, a republican or something in between, you can't miss what's been happening on the news. I saw this bookish tag game and decided to share it on my blog to mark the occasion, as my tribute to Harry and Meghan. Please play along. The rules are easy. Just match a book with the royal criteria.

QUEEN ELIZABETH (An old book you treasure)
There are several lovely antique books on my shelf that fit the bill, including an edition of L.M. Montgomery's Pat of Silver Bush from the 1930s. Such a gem.

KING GEORGE (A popular book you don't want to read)
Which George are they talking about? Mad Farmer George from the era that was named after him, or our current queen's father in the early-twentieth century? Anyway, I'll go Fifty Shades of Grey. We found proof from a second hand shop to back up my decision not to bother reading it. My son, who was along with me that day, amused himself by setting all the copies on one shelf, and there were almost eighty altogether. Why do so many former owners of this book continue to toss it out?

PRINCE CHARLES (A book everyone loves but you)
Lol, it's got to be Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. So many readers adore that book, but it didn't work for me at all. Mostly because I didn't like the leading man, Maxim de Winter. He was cantankerous, patronising, not at all sexy, and a crook to boot. I don't know what the nameless heroine saw in him, let alone generations of female readers. (My review is here.)

PRINCESS DIANA (A book fellow bloggers made you buy)
Well, I actually borrowed it from the library, but it was An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alammedine. I'd never heard of it, but it was well worth tracking down. It's about a quiet lady who persists in her literary passion of translation, even though nobody has a clue what she's doing. (My review is here.)

PRINCE HARRY (A book that took you on a wild ride)
Whoa, let me choose two, because they spring to mind at the same time. One is Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White. The villains sure knew how to put a helpless heroine through a torturous ordeal, almost sending her mad in the process. (My review is here.) The other is A Cast of Stones, by Patrick W Carr. It's a fantasy novel that dragged its naive young hero through all sorts of danger, while he wondered why he was the target of so many wannabe assassins, having no idea he was the chosen one. (My review is here.) I highly recommend both of them.

DUCHESS KATE (Your last book purchase)
Technically she's not really the latest member of the British Royal family any more, because she's added three little children to the mix and after this weekend, there'll be Meghan Markle too. But I'll choose David Copperfield. I had a very thick copy which my dad used to own, but it was making my hand sore, so I bought a smaller edition from Dymocks. It's still thick as a brick, because it is nudging 1000 pages, but is far more manageable to handle. (Review soon to come.)

So those are my choices. How about yours? I challenge you to do it for Harry and Meghan. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

'By the Shores of Silver Lake' by Laura Ingalls Wilder

This year, I'm hosting a read-along of all of the Little House on the Prairie Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which you'll find here. We'd love you to read along and share your thoughts, if you feel so inclined. I haven't included a sign-up sheet of any sort, but kept it all very informal. Here we're up to the month of May. And you can see by the state of my old book cover, that it was very well loved. There's not a single page still intact.
*    *    *

The Ingalls family leaves Plum Creek.

Pa heads west to the unsettled wilderness of the Dakota Territory. When Ma, Laura, Mary, Carrie, and Grace join him, they become the first settlers in the town of DeSmet. And Pa begins work on the first building in what will soon be a brand-new town on the shores of Silver Lake.

The story picks up four or five years after the events of On the Banks of Plum Creek. New developments include the addition to the family of little Grace. But there's only been a couple of measly wheat crops since the grasshoppers decimated everything. And a bout of scarlet fever has swept through, making Mary blind. It's one of the saddest events of the series. As a kid I kept waiting for her sight to return, then realised it wasn't going to happen.

At the start, Pa's sister Docia arrives one evening and invites him to join her new family out west. She offers him the job of accountant and store keeper for a railroad camp. Best of all, the government is offering homesteads to settlers eager to travel, so he convinces Ma that it's their newest providential opportunity. The land is huge and wild, just the way Pa and Laura like it. So they're up and off again, and Ma and the girls get the chance to catch the train out there; an experience they find mildly terrifying.

I feel we get a bit of insight into why Laura was such a perceptive writer, with the skill to bring the most tiny, colourful nuances to life. It was surely because of her faithful promise to be eyes for Mary all those years ago. She was able to hone in on subtleties other authors might miss because she was used to it. Way back in her teens she'd trained herself to pay specific attention to detail until it became second nature, and put it to use again writing books. Wow, nothing is ever wasted. Pa meant it to be just for Mary, but Laura's talent blessed so many more. Mary said, 'You paint pictures when you talk, Laura.' She does when she writes too.

Those two sisters were always totally separate people who processed things differently, so there was bound to be communication misunderstandings. Mary was a realist who thought in terms of clear fact, while Laura had a more fanciful imagination and way of expressing herself. 'We should always say exactly what we mean,' says Mary. This frustrates Laura, who tries hard to put optical illusions and poetic insights into metaphors. To us, it all goes to show that there is more than one way of expressing truth.

Pa was a great dad who treated each of his four daughters differently, and I get the impression that Laura was closest to the son he didn't have. They shared the same restless streak, making them kindred spirits, always wanting to explore, keep moving, and just soak in the wonder of creation. It makes his bond with his daughter 'Half-Pint' or 'Flutterbudget' very special. Similarly, I sense that Ma and Mary were the ones on the same wavelenth. It happens in families.

8248What a contradiction Laura must have seemed to her mother and sisters, in what she chose to love and fear. She was bold when it came to nature and animals. She says she was so scared to ride the wild, bareback pony at the railroad camp that she 'just had to try it.' Yet a crowd of strangers was enough to suck away all her courage. (She did not feel alone and happy on the prairie now. She felt lonely and scared. The town's being there made all the difference.) To me, Laura has nailed the huge difference between being 'alone' and 'lonely.' It's the same solitude, but a person's preference and character makes it far more than just semantics. One is liberating and the other horrible. I can imagine how puzzled Ma and Mary must have been though. ('I declare Laura, sometimes I don't know what gets into you.')

The story drew me in just like the others, because it's like an invitation to visit simpler times. I love our internet era, but singing and dancing to Pa's fiddle sounds like an awesome substitute. And it's fun to imagine all the sewing, knitting and textile projects secreted away prior to Christmas. We're introduced to jolly Mr Boast and his young wife, who lends Ma and the girls a stack of serialised magazines, so now they can branch out from their one copy of Millbank. (See On the Banks of Plum Creek.)

Reverend Alden from Plum Creek shows up too, and offers the family another precious gift in the form of a new goal. He tells them about a college for the blind in Iowa, and everyone starts imagining how brilliant it would be for Mary to attend. It's obvious by now that the Ingalls' never have any spare cash, but one of their favourite sayings is, 'Where there's a will, there's a way.' If they manage to pull it off, it'll be another case of what Pa and Laura discuss the afternoon they watch the railroad being built. Before anything becomes real, it starts off as a desire in somebody's mind. He says, 'If enough people think of a thing and work at it, I guess it's pretty nearly bound to happen, wind and weather permitting.' So if anyone can make Mary's new dream come true, her family can collectively. But it'll be a long, hard road.

Of course it wouldn't be a Little House book without the occasional dash of danger, which the Ingalls family just manage to slip out of. Pa's payroll job almost makes him the victim of a potential riot. And there's the time Laura and Carrie skate straight up to the front door of a wolf den at night, like a fast food delivery. I love Pa's characteristic reaction when they arrive home puffing. 'It's too late to be scared now.'

Toward the end we glimpse a couple of familiar faces from Farmer Boy, all grown up. It's the Wilder brothers, and Almanzo's dream of owning flash, pedigree horses has come true. Pa says they're the finest horses in the country, as they watch the boys ride past. At this stage, Laura is more interested in the beautiful matched horses than the cute guys in the wagon :) Suddenly, poor old Sam and David, their Christmas horses from Plum Creek, no longer seem to cut it for her.

I love her description of a town mushrooming up where there wasn't one before, transforming the whole character of the landscape and quality of the silence practically overnight. What a gem these books must be for the people who live in twenty-first century De Smet. What crazy times they were, when crowds of men turned up to take advantage of the land offer. And although it didn't wring a tear out of me when I was young, this time round I was crying about good old Jack's passing to the Happy Hunting Grounds, where Pa says all good dogs go. Their faithful old friend represents the steady passage of time, and it really touched my heart. 

Now I'm looking forward to getting stuck into next month's continuation, The Long Winter.


Tuesday, May 8, 2018

'Emma' by Jane Austen

Beautiful, clever, rich - and single - Emma Woodhouse is perfectly content with her life and sees no need for either love or marriage. Nothing, however, delights her more than interfering in the romantic lives of others. But when she ignores the warnings of her good friend Mr. Knightley and attempts to arrange a suitable match for her protegee Harriet Smith, her carefully laid plans soon unravel and have consequences that she never expected. With its imperfect but charming heroine and its witty and subtle exploration of relationships, Emma is often seen as Jane Austen's most flawless work.

This is a classic with a single word title, and my choice for that category in the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge.. Great classics don't always have a lighthearted nature, so it's a bonus when they do. This story is all about matchmaking. The title character thinks she has enough insight to decide who would be perfect together, and considers it an excellent personal hobby to promote their happiness. But from her lofty, know-it-all stance, Emma fails to take into account that they may be keeping their own agendas, blind spots and secret lives concealed from her. It makes for a comedy of awkward mix-ups, a bit like Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.'

Jane Austen needed a range of complex characters to carry it off, all living deeper lives than Emma sees on the surface. The execution is great, because Austen was always master of the whole spectrum. The reader is hoodwinked too, although when all is revealed, we can turn back and see that she did leave a trail of clues. The characters were all brilliant creations so I'll focus on them, although I'll leave Emma herself for a separate discussion. There's just too much to say about this main character to squeeze in here.

I think this novel has some of Jane Austen's coolest men, who stand out for either their goodness or badness. There's Mr Weston, a male Pollyanna, always latching onto the brightest way of regarding setbacks. His antithesis is Emma's dour brother-in-law, John Knightley, who can be counted on to deliver some cynical comment. I really like John, which is a bit of a worry, since they say it takes one to know one. Worst of all is Mr Elton, the oily-tongued flatterer who carefully crafts his behaviour to look after himself. And then there's Mr Weston's tricky son, Frank Churchill, the hot young stud who may accidentally trample over a few ladies' hearts in his effort to keep his own secret. But the overall hero is the novel's voice of wisdom and integrity, Mr George Knightley, the only man who will ever admit to seeing faults in Emma. In fact, he's usually right about everything. While other characters are blinded by the fog of their mistaken hopes and assumptions, Mr Knightley sees so clearly, he's like the Sherlock Holmes of romance.

The females are great too and one who fascinated me is Harriet Smith, the sort of girl to be swayed by the first busy-body who claims to know what's best. She is always looking for cues from others as to how to think and behave. She's so indecisive, she can't even say which address to have her packet of ribbons delivered to. I got mad at one point, when Mr Knightley said that a blank slate like Harriet needed a good man like Robert Martin to shape her opinions. No, come on George, she needs encouragement to think for herself, not a boss to tell her what to do! It was a relief later on, when he decides he'd been too hasty to judge Harriet as totally devoid of character. Hopefully the end of her story, when she accepts something as huge as a marriage proposal off her own bat, is the beginning of a stronger, more confident young woman.

Even characters we rarely encounter on the page in person come across more 'real' than many characters from other authors who get heaps of exposure. I'm thinking of the modest and sensible Robert Martin, who does a great service for young farmers without having to say a word. Through him, Austen is telling her readers not to make snappy judgments about an entire class of people. I liked him so much, I wanted to see more of him on the pages. At the other end of the spectrum is the autocratic Mrs Churchill, who uses her position at the top of the social ladder to fill others' lives with misery. We never see either of them, but they're still large as life.

The thought of that lady begs the question, 'Who is the biggest tyrant?' Mrs Churchill or Mr Woodhouse? They are obviously opposite in personality. One is bossy and selfish while the other is caring and loving. But their impact is similar. Mrs Churchill keeps her 23-year-old nephew on a ridiculously short leash, but Mr Woodhouse does the same to virtually everyone he knows, although his intention is different. His misguided sense of fear and protection means that his guests have delicious food pulled from beneath their noses, people must give up pleasure trips to keep him company, and Mr Knightley feels forced to move out of his own magnificent house, because he knows there's no other way he'll be free to marry Emma while the inflexible old worrywort lives. That's one of Jane Austen's incidental lessons. Control freaks come in all shapes and sizes, and don't have to be malicious to fit the bill.

Another thing I love is the treasure trove of clever dialogue. There's nothing quite like the wit and excellent points made in fictional conversations, where the author has had time to sit down and fine tune them, to give the illusion they're completely spontaneous. Here are my favourite three.

1) Emma and Harriet discuss the possibilities open to an unmarried woman of means. (It was so convincing, it was almost a shame Emma did get married. What a powerful role model in busting stigma she could have been.)
2) Emma and Mr Knightley debate the character and duties of a true man.
3) Emma speculates with Frank Churchill over the anonymous giver of Jane Fairfax's piano. 

This time round, I love the frequent revelations that the small things in life are really the big things. Gifts to Mrs and Miss Bates of hog meat from Hartfield and apples from Donwell Abbey really help them to make ends meet. No wonder they are so greatly appreciated. These acts of kindness are not just the fiddly extras it may be tempting to read over, but the whole fabric of life. The reason why they get such prominence in the novel is because they deserve to. The ending delivers the perfect mix of working out exactly as many readers hope (it is a romance after all), and delivering some super surprises, which turn out to be true to character after all. Never assume you can predict the inner lives of anyone :)

Now, do stay tuned for my musings about Emma's character, coming soon.


Friday, May 4, 2018

Books for Star Wars Day

In case you didn't know, today's date is the unofficial, tongue-in-cheek Star Wars celebration day. If you wonder why, just say out loud, 'May the 4th be with you.' And now to celebrate, I'm about to give you this challenge. The rules are simple. Just choose a book to fit each of these categories, based on Star Wars characters. I once did it as an Instagram challenge, but would love to share it on the blog too to mark the occasion. Click on the links to see my write-ups and reviews. Here goes. 

LEIA: A book that splits your heart in two.

I choose The Light Between Oceans for that one. It made me 'ugly cry' so hard, I had tears pouring down my face. Although I love home-grown Australian stories, I refused to go to the movies to see the film, because I knew the same thing would surely happen in the cinema.

HAN SOLO: A book you didn't want to read but loved.

The Brothers Karamazov. I had to choose a Russian classic for last year's 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge, but I'd never read any before and felt daunted. Well, it impressed me so much, I'm now on a quest to hunt down more Russian classics to read.

PADME: A book where the character fell in love with the wrong person.

Wives and Daughters, with which I kicked off this year. I'm thinking particularly of Roger Hamley and his love for Cynthia Fitzpatrick, who wasn't really on his wavelength at all. It would've been a terrible match, to the extent that I wished I could get involved and tell them both to wake up.

KYLO REN: A dramatic character we all love.

I'm going with Mark Watney from The Martian for this one. Everyone who reads or watches this resourceful castaway on Mars can't help cheering him on. Who else could keep himself alive by drawing on such flimsy threads, including his own self-made fertiliser and a huge roll of duct tape that seems to never run out? And he does it with such an attitude of generosity towards those who stuffed up, and sense of humour.

REY: A strong female character.

Well, I can never go past Hermione Granger when I face a question like this, but I'll also go for Mary Yellan from Jamaica Inn, who had a horrible, heartbreaking and scary year, facing what would make many 23-year-old girls in her position crumple. But she still held her head high and made sound decisions.

FINN: A couple you shipped but didn't happen.

Whoa, I have a whole list here. Why not have a look at them all? But to single out specifics for this, I'll say Luna Lovegood and Neville Longbottom. They were mutual outcasts, sympathetic to the same cause who could have been great together. And the thing is, we just don't know enough about each of their real future spouses to atone for our disappointment.

YODA: A book with a different chronological order.

That sounds tricky to pin down, but I'll choose Wuthering Heights. The story begins at a specific point in time, then delves back into the past, when the first narrator, Lockwood, asks Nelly Dean to relate Heathcliff's history. And also The Time Traveler's Wife, in which the hero Henry's whole life was one mixed-up, chronological disaster, the poor guy.

JAR JAR: A book you found boring and abandoned.

There have been a few but I'll choose On the Road by Jack Kerouac. It fit the bill so much that I don't even have a link to it. I gave it a good try, hoping for the philosophical masterpiece its reputation promised, but got lost somewhere in the sordid morass of people partying and getting drunk with not much else happening. I wanted out.

So those are my choices, and now I'm wondering what yours might be. If you agree with mine or have any alternative suggestions for one or all, please let us know in the comments. And also tell us if you celebrate Star Wars Day in any particular way. I have to say I normally don't, but couldn't resist this challenge.  

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

My super Russian hero

I get a kick out of creating lists about why my favourite heroes deserve our love, and this man became super special to me. It's Konstantin Dmitrievitch Levin from 'Anna Karenina.' Perhaps it's because he does far more than just make us admire him, but provides hard-earned tools we can take on board for living a good, meaningful life. He's definitely my main reason for persevering with the book, and here are my reasons why. 

1) He tones down his idealistic tendency.
It's presented as one of Levin's major faults, if you can call building lofty standards in your mind a fault. Reality always falls short for Levin, as it does for many of us dreamers. He idealises his notion of the model family, his impression of Kitty Scherbatsky as the perfect woman, and his concept of the ultimate working environment for land-owners and peasants alike. Castles in the air tend to hurtle to the ground, but Levin handles disillusionments well. Instead of griping when things don't meet his expectations, he chooses to flow with what he gets. He decides in effect, 'I thought I'd prefer A, but B is turning out to be pretty good too.' Levin comes to see that the life he gets isn't necessarily inferior to the life he thought he wanted. It's just different. And it even contains its share of happy surprises that take him off guard. A good example is his reaction when Kitty cares so much about things which don't interest him in the least, such as home decor, and when she sees fit to argue with him about things he wouldn't normally waste his breath on. She's annoying, but also sort of charming. (See here for my article about Kitty and Dolly, and why they make the book so memorable too.)

2) He proves that a quiet life can be extremely full.
Whenever Tolstoy chooses to show the beauty of pastoral Russia, Konstantin Levin is bound to be in the scene. He brings the appeal of a quiet country life alive for us. After reading long sections about the two-faced, hedonistic, fashionable lifestyles of other characters, we need a frequent Levin break. His closeness to nature always comes as a breath of fresh air. Immersing himself in the great outdoors always makes him happy, and his dealings with the peasants often have a lyrical, 'Fiddler on the Roof' sort of feeling about them. It's a great balance for the rest of the book.

3) He doesn't let others stop him being happy in his own way.
 Levin loves the physical challenge of mowing his own property, although he knows he's being laughed at by all around him. The peasants sneer because other landowners never bother, and his own class sure aren't into getting up close and personal with the land. But our boy decides to ignore what both sides say, simply because he enjoys mowing. He doesn't have to do it but he really wants to. And having fun is a good enough reason to do something productive. Those who follow their own hearts don't have to waste energy keeping up an act. Even his condescending older brother Sergey can't help admiring Kostya for his action. 'He was disinclined to be parted from his brother, who seemed positively beaming out freshness and energy.' Yeah, we get it through the page, Sergey, and I hate to be parted from him too!

4) He's good with kids.
It's presented as the sign of a very decent bloke. Stiva and Dolly's children, who don't know Levin all that well at the start, respond to his lack of hypocrisy, which sets him apart from other adults in their estimation.

5) He gives us some of the best romantic moments in literature.
This is a big claim, because I've read my fair share of classics and other literature. Other readers of this book will remember Levin's cryptic second marriage proposal to Kitty, which she figures out with very sparse clues, but that's not all I'm thinking of. Before that, there's the moment when Levin is walking along in the dawn, set on the idea of living with the peasants, when he suddenly spots Kitty through a coach window. One glance at the girl who rejected him convinces him to drop the peasant notion, because 'there are no other eyes like those in the world.' I was jotting little hearts all over my notes <3

6) He has an unflagging craving to be a better man.
It's an extension of my first point. Nobody can be as idealistic as Kostya Levin without feeling that they personally don't measure up. It's obvious early on that self-esteem is not his strong point. He compares himself with the impressive achievements of his peers and rates himself 'a fellow with no ability, doing what according to the eyes of the world is done by people fit for nothing else.' When Kitty rejects his proposal he's not surprised, because all along he'd wondered what could possibly give him the nerve to think she'd ever accept him. I had a feeling he'd have to come to some sort of peace with the idea that he had nothing going for him, and kept looking forward to finding out how he'd come to it.

Furthermore, I started off with the mistaken notion that he's stodgy and plain, and imagined him that way, because it was how he chose to think of himself. Yet I stood corrected when I saw him through the eyes of other characters, such as Kitty and Dolly. To them, he's actually quite handsome, charming and attractive. OK, so now I'm with it.

7) His feelings about bureaucratic red tape ring true.
We are all forced to jump through bureaucratic hoops, but Levin's way of expressing the frustration makes me grin. He considers it, 'a feeling of misery akin to the helplessness one feels in dreams when one tries to use physical force.' Also, he can't figure out whose interest it is to keep stuffing him up and causing the roadblocks. If he could understand why they exist he'd find it easier to be patient, but nobody can even explain why the hitches were ever created. Yep, I've been there.

8) He's a true introvert.
This one may appeal mostly to those of us who can relate to him. I'm definitely on his page. Small talk drains him and intense social focus exerts a great weariness on his spirit. The challenge to take things in directly as they happen is taxing on his attention span, and he could really benefit from the chance to step back and process it all. But social events aren't designed to let us do that. The mental fatigue of trying to behave like the more extroverted personalities all day sometimes causes him to say inane things he later regrets. And at one point, he feels a flash of disappointment to see that the people he's socially obligated to call on are at home, as he'd hoped they'd be out. Now all he can do is try to figure out the social cues to disappear as soon as he can. Gotta love him.

9) His final epiphany gives us permission to be ourselves.
Konstantin realises he's been over-thinking far too much, for far too long. When he simply lives his life and immerses himself in his daily routine, he's happy enough. But he comes unstuck whenever he starts agonising over the meaning and value of his own life. His realisation at the end of the story stikes a double blow, at both his low self-esteem and the agnosticism he's been struggling with. He's been straining his brain to understand something which can really only be accepted by faith. God's got it all sorted and we haven't. There's a point where human struggles to delve into the deepest mysteries bring us up against a brick wall, because faith and reasoning are totally different from each other. Letting go of a need for a rational explanation for belief in God's presence and our own worth is a vast relief for him, freeing him up to enjoy his family, work on the land, and dealings with his workers, without the angst of feeling obliged to justify it all. I love how Kostya himself chooses to put it. 'I've been living right, but thinking wrong.' It's an excellent loophole for those of us who've been sucked into the trap of doing similar things.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A Great Pair of Sisters

This Russian classic is one of those books you can easily keep mulling over long after you've finished. But since you've put in so many hours to read it in the first place, you owe it to yourself to prolong the experience anyway. In my original review of Anna Karenina, I promised to feature my favourite character, Konstantin Levin. (Update, you'll find that here) But I've also been thinking about all that we can take on board from the Shcherbatsky sisters. And since it's polite to put ladies before gentlemen, I'll have my ramble about them first. These girls lighten my heart a lot more than the title character, Anna Karenina. The more I think about it, the more sure I am that it's all about their attitudes. Taken together, what a great pair of sisters. It's a good challenge to pleasure to describe why.  

She's recuperating with her parents after a long illness, at a German Spa, and beginning to take an interest in the events around her. There's plenty of time for reflection, and more than anything, Kitty wants to live a worthy life. She befriends a girl named Varenka, who loves to help others and do as much good as she can. With such a great example, Kitty immediately sets out to do the same, assuming that if she copies Varenka's behaviour, she'll become a person with the same goodness and charm. Instead, she finds herself burnt out, and her awesome intentions stir up some awkward trouble.

I applaud Kitty for realising her mistake at a young age, since some people never do. Without giving away the catalyst, she comes to see that her show of mercy and goodness was 'all a sham.' She sincerely wanted it to be true, and hoodwinked herself as much as others, but deep down, her activity was all an effort to impress people, God, and even herself.

It sounds harsh to call her a phony since she was acting with the sincerest intentions she could muster in her heart, but it's just being honest. I know, because I performed some similar role-playing at a similar age, trying to convince myself it was really coming from my heart. I went around with a list of patients to visit at the city hospital, given to me by an Anglican chaplain. I wanted to make my life count for something, but it sort of ground to a stop when they wanted me to hop into the contagious ward :) Ah, no thanks, I'm actually pretty busy with Uni stuff.

Efforts which aren't a good fit sometimes come to light, even if it's just in the form of stress and deep fatigue. Yet sometimes they don't. This sort of self-deception can keep well-meaning performers exhausted in a lifelong effort to convince themselves that it's really their style. It seems tragic to me now, to think of productive people worn out because they're always living somebody else's best life without even knowing it.

So Kitty is a great example to be ever vigilant for self-deception in our lives. I'm sure we can unwittingly keep it up to our dying day, but it's much better for peace of mind to shrug it off so we can live our own best life. Kitty's not a good fit as a philanthropist, but eventually becomes a fulfilled and satisfied wife, mother and household manager. The narration puts it this way. 'She felt all the difficulty of maintaining herself without hypocrisy on the pinnacle she wished to mount.' I'm glad Tolstoy created her, because if Kitty's plight strikes a chord with any of us readers, we should get off our own exhausting mountains we're trying to scramble up. It's much better to leave that to those with a genuine desire to ascend to the top.

So she's a great example for all of us accidental phonies and hypocrites with good intentions.

I felt deep empathy for this poor lady in the book's opening chapters, when she discovers that her husband, Stiva, is a hopeless womaniser who's been having multiple affairs. Devastated, Dolly (or Darya) dreams of leaving him, but knows she's trapped. Everyone loves her husband, because he's one of those smarmy Mr nice-guys who present a fantastic face but lives for his own pleasure. He's president of a Moscow government board purely because of his fortunate connections. Of course he's popular with all he comes in contact with. Dolly feels that moving back with her brood of children to her parents' house is impossible. All she can do is make threats she's in no position to carry out.

So she does what many feminists have probably deplored her for, and decides to major in what she can control, which is being a loving mother. She only dresses well for the sake of fitting in with her gorgeous children and not causing them shame. I suppose you could argue her identity is being swallowed up with her total consent. As you read, you can't help wondering if empty nest syndrome will some day hit Dolly hard. At one stage, she sits in a coach, seriously wondering if she's wasting her life.

Being a parent is an existence of anxiety, poverty, sacrifice and occasional heartache, all for the meager satisfaction of raising a few decent, well-functioning human beings. Dolly even wonders if the beautiful Anna Karenina, who has chosen life on her own terms, is not to be envied. But after a day in Anna's empty, hollow household, Dolly thinks differently.

All the aspects of motherhood she found frustrating now seem so appealing she can hardly wait to get back. 'The world of her own seemed to her now so sweet, so precious.' I guess she embodies a great lesson in perspective. You have to observe the inside scoop in someone else's life before you can deem it desirable. She decides that on no account would she spend an extra day outside of her own little world. And I love her for that conclusion, because it invites us to examine the benefits of our lives, regardless of our lifestyles and occupations. If a hard-working lady who knows her husband for a scoundrel can find joy, then maybe there's also some for us.

These lovely sisters become heroes of changing what they can. There's not a lot they're in a position to do, but they seem to stumble upon the key to a contented life. Thoughts may seem like small, intangible things on the surface, but they're really all we need to lift our lives. They seem to demonstrate that changing our thoughts, rather than being the cop-out move, is more powerful than changing our circumstances after all. Hurrah for Dolly and her little sister Kitty, and for more of these two, you only need to get stuck into Anna Karenina.