Tag Archives: Sense and Sensibility

Sisters in Fiction

Why do fiction writers so often use sisters in their novels? Is it because sisters usually have good relationships, certainly long ones, and allow authors to explore a variety of themes: growing up, marital prospects, contrasting experiences, enduring relationships or rivalries. Here are some thoughts on sisterly novels.

What little girls must learn? Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Everybody’s favourite gives us the lessons that must be learned about how little girls turn into grown ups. Who doesn’t identify with Jo Marsh, and who doesn’t yearn for the simplicities of 19th Century New England childhoods? We learn that sisters must grow up right, and that more than two of them ensures terrible trouble for the family.

The marriage market: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Five sisters, again a problem for their parents, and here specifically in the meat market that was an un-moneyed middle class Georgian England search for husbands. How will the sisters get their men? They are beautiful (Jane), intelligent and with bright eyes (Elizabeth), wanton (Lydia), boring (Mary) and stay-at-home (Kitty).

The delights of this novel include the mutually supportive relationship between Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, and the satisfaction in them both getting nice (rich) husbands.

Contrasts: 1. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Fiction is full of examples of sisters who grow up differently in the same household. The convenient contrast allows authors to look at the effects of birth order: the older having more responsibility than younger sisters. That is certainly true of the saintly Eleanor who is thwarted by Marianne’s gullibility in Sense and Sensibility. Jane Austen’s novels are full of contrasting sisters: Anne and her sisters, (patient, selfish and grasping) in Persuasion, and the play-acting rivals Maria and Julia Bartram in Mansfield Park.

Contrasts: 2. Easter Parade by Richard Yates

248 Easter Parade Cover

 

Richard Yates took the contrast between two sisters’ lives from before the war to the 60s to tell a sad story of alcoholism and marriage failure.

Sarah, the older sister, quickly settles for the most classy man her mother finds for her. He turns out not to be classy, and also turns out to be a wife beater. His attitudes are typical blue collar American despite his English education.

Emily, the younger sister, chooses lots of men, and also ends up lost, without success and unemployed. Only her nephew, who is an ordained minister, seems to offer any hope or understanding. Everyone else has been consumed by drink.

Easter Parade Richard Yates (1976) Published by Everyman 188pp

For a very good review check out Jacquiwine’s Journal on Easter Parade.

Contrasts 3: They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple

248 Dorothy Whipple

I haven’t read this yet, but the Persephone catalogue describes it as ‘A 1943 novel by this superb writer, contrasting three different marriages’. Dorothy Whipple has a good eye for family relationships. See my review of Greenbanks.

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published by Persephone.

Loyalty: Housekeeping (1980) by Marilynne Robinson

This novel defies description. The sisters, Ruthie and Lucille, live in a weird and rather isolated environment, called Fishbone, in the American Mid-West. They are orphans and a succession of relatives fails to look after them. Finally, their aunt cares for them until the younger sister breaks away. The scene of the flooded house lives in my memory.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, published in the UK by Faber & Faber 224pp.

Long-lasting: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

The central mystery of this successful novel is Maud’s attempt to find out what happened to her sister since she disappeared at the end of the war. She pursues the clues, despite the passage of time and her own fading mental powers.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (2014) published by Penguin Books. 275pp

For more on this novel see the post in the older women in fiction series.

Rivalry: The Looking Glass Sisters by Gohril Gabrielsen.

248 Lglass Sisters cover

The unrelenting horror of this story of a co-dependent relationship turned worse and more destructive by the page is a contrast to the other novels mentioned here.

The story is set in the remote far north of Norway. Two sisters live in a house, their parents have died. They are middle aged but the narrator recalls their earlier lives. She is younger and disabled, having lost the use of her legs in childhood, an outcome she partly blames on her sister for not alerting her parents to her worsening illness. The younger sister riles and deliberately provokes and annoys her older carer. The situation is changed by the arrival of Johan, and his inability to cope with the invalid and the invalid’s jealousy of her sister. The situation declines and declines and in the end everything is terrible.

The Looking-Glass Sisters Peirene (2008) 183pp

Translated from the Norwegian by John Irons

Sisters in fiction always a happy ending?

Sisters are doing it themselves!

On the whole, sisterhood is good in fiction, as in life. It is not surprising that the second wave of feminism took to calling all women sisters.

But there is ambivalence in these novels (and perhaps life). The relationship is not always easy. In novels, especially from the 19th century it seems that there is always a fear that one woman’s marriage/achievements will spell another’s poverty.

Over to you

Have you any suggestions about why sisters appear so often in novels? What other fictional sisters would you recommend?

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Lady Susan by Jane Austen

I came late to Jane Austen. While everyone else was reading Pride and Prejudice for O Level I was with a group who were fast tracked, avoiding O Level English Literature, to use the time to read more. I wasn’t much impressed with the MGM 1940 film they watched of P&P: the young girls all seemed to giggle a lot and were dressed like shepherdesses. In the event I didn’t do A Level English Literature either. Jane Austen had to wait.

She had to wait until my adult reading years. I have read both P&P and Persuasion several times and her other novels at least twice. And biographies: Jane Austen, a life by Claire Tomalin and The Real Jane Austen by Paula Byrne. This second biography, despite its questionable title, is interestingly organised around objects in the author’s life.

170 Lady s coverBut I had never read her ‘other works’, those novels or fragments that were not published in her lifetime: Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon. And then finally I couldn’t resist the temptation of a new Jane Austen.

I needed something to clear my palate after a rather dark novel recently and so I picked up Lady Susan. It is an early work, never published in her lifetime, although she did make a fair copy as if at some point she was preparing it for publication. It is an epistolary novel, told through 41 letters and a postscript in just 60 pages.

The story

The story is somewhat racy, featuring a woman of questionable morals, a coquette. Not only is she sexually active with several men, but quite ruthless in her pursuit and use of them. Lady Susan is extremely lively and attractive and recently widowed, but she needs to leave the house of the Manwarings’ in a hurry. We learn from the opening letters that not only has she seduced Mr Manwaring but also a visitor intended for the Manwarings’ daughter. Lady Susan has plans for her own neglected daughter to marry him. She goes to stay with her deceased husband’s brother, where she is already in disfavour because some years before she tried to prevent his marriage.

For sport, and perhaps to keep her hand in, she ensures that the wife’s brother, Reginald de Courcy, becomes her intimate friend. It is testament to her powers that she succeeds in this when he already knew about her disgraceful reputation and when the mores of the time would usually prevent any intimacy between them. Her plans are ultimately thwarted, but not before we have been shown her full range of skills with men and women and her bullying cruelty to her daughter, Frederica.

Reading Lady Susan

It is a challenge to read a novel formed by letters. At first it was really hard to work out who all these people were, and their relationships. I solved my problem by making a chart. I had the same problem with Evelina, by Fanny Burney. In her introduction in the Penguin edition, Margaret Drabble suggests that epistolary novels were more popular in the late 18th early 19th centuries, for women in particular spent a great deal of time writing letters to family members and friends. Jane Austen herself was a voluminous correspondent. It’s how we know so much about her life.

Writing Lady Susan

Jane Austen's writing desk

Jane Austen’s writing desk

In the introduction Margaret Drabble discusses the limits of the epistolary form. It was also the original idea for Sense and Sensibility and you can trace this in its plot. The author must introduce to the reader the correspondents and their social circle who are known to each other, but not to the reader. For the novel to be authentic every letter writer is, to some extent, unreliable, and at least self-serving.

The first letter is from Lady Susan, and shows Jane Austen’s skill in alerting the reader to something not quite right:

My dear brother,

I can no longer refuse myself the pleasure of profiting by your kind invitation when we last parted of spending some weeks with you at Churchill, and therefore if quite convenient to you and Mrs Vernon to receive me at present, I shall hope within a few days to be introduced to a sister whom I have so long desired to be acquainted with. (p43, letter 1)

So why does Lady Susan need a new place to stay so urgently, and why has she not previously met her sister-in-law? The answers to both these questions are revealed in letters between different correspondents and reflect no good upon Lady Susan.

The second challenge of the form is the frequent changes of point of view. The first letter is short, the second (also from Lady Susan, but to her confidante) gives us a different view of the events. The third is from the sister-in-law to her mother (hope you are still with me) giving her account of the inconvenience of the impending visit and some background and responses to Lady Susan.

And every letter must add something to the story, move it on, reveal something about the writer, its recipient and about Lady Susan. Again, it is a remarkable skill in one so young that Jane Austen achieves this.

At the end of the novel after 41 letters, Jane Austen gives up the letters and summarises the final events. Lady Susan gets her comeuppance, the dim but rich young man she selected for her daughter.

It is also a challenge to write a novel (in any form) in which the main character is evil, difficult to like or sympathise with. There are some – Lolita by Nabokov, Money by Martin Amis for example. They are both written in the first person, which may or may not be relevant. Lady Susan is reviled by all the letter-writers, except herself and her confidante. And they get plenty of opportunity to show this. Again, it is Jane Austen’s skill to make Lady Susan a real person, rather than a cipher for badness. Nice young women in challenging circumstances are much more sympathetic characters. It is surprising that a young woman of 20 was skilled enough to make such a good job of it.

But Lady Susan does provide us with the pleasures of a bad person justifying themselves and revealing their darker side in unguarded prose. Here is Lady Susan planning her attack on her sister-in-law’s brother, Reginald de Courcy. She has been complaining to her confidante about being bored at her brother’s residence.

There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person pre-determined to dislike, acknowledge one’s superiority. I have disconcerted him already with my calm reserve; and it shall be my endeavour to humble the pride of these de Courcies still lower, to convince Mrs Vernon that her sisterly cautions have been bestowed in vain, and to persuade Reginald that she has scandalously belied me. This project will serve at least to amuse me, and prevent my feeling so acutely this dreadful separation from you and all whom I love. (p52 letter 7)

But the risqué subject matter was not to the taste of the new century, according to Margaret Drabble, which might have influenced Jane Austen’s decision never to publish. The terrors of the French Revolution and anxieties of the wars with France, together with reaction to the excesses of the Georgian period resulted in a changed view of morality, the introduction of what we have come to see as Victorian attitudes. People thought it was better to hide vice, along with ankles and sex generally, rather than explore it in novels.

170 CassandraAusten-JaneAusten_(c.1810)I look forward to reading her other unpublished works.

A review can be found that considers Lady Susan alongside Jane Austen’s other novels, on Australian Whispering Gums here.

An interesting look at 2013 as a celebration of Jane Austen and associated events from the Los Angeles Review of Books in January 2014, Jane Austen, Feminist Icon by Devoney Looser.

Lady Susan by Jane Austen, in Penguin Classics series; included in the same volume are The Watsons and Sanditon. pp200

 

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NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE!

Not need to shout. It’s only a movie. Reading the book, I am sure, was a better experience. It’s no recommendation to me that a novel has been adapted for the cinema. Movies generally speaking are likely to be less subtle and complex than the original text, because the contents have to be compressed into a continuous presentation of two hours or less. A novel can be experienced in a more selective, repetitive, episodic way, according to the whims of the reader. My experience of movies is of disappointment for the most part, and frustration with adaptations on nearly ever occasion. Here’s why I avoid them.

They are different things

104 filmTo start with, movies and books are different things. I have to ask: why make a film when you have a perfectly good book? Money, of course – none to be made from books without a film option. Annie Dillard suggests that movies have an irresistible attraction.

Films and television stimulate the body’s senses too, in big ways. A nine-foot handsome face, and its three-foot-wide smile, are irresistible. Look at the long legs on that man, as high as a wall, and coming straight toward you. The music builds. The moving, lighted screen fills your brain. You do not like filmed car chases? See if you can turn away, Try not to watch. Even knowing you are manipulated, you are still as helpless as the make butterfly drawn to painted cardboard.

This is the movies. That is their ground. The printed word cannot compete with the movies on their ground, and should not. You can describe beautiful faces, car chases, or valleys full of Indians on horseback until you run out of words, and you will not approach the movies’ spectacle. (The Writing Life p18)

Films and novels share storytelling, but they tell stories in very different ways, as Annie Dillard suggests. Hitchcock spoke about the adaptations of stories for film, referring to the ‘suitability of the language of cinema for the written word’. But it hasn’t stopped some writers writing with an eye on the more lucrative cinema audience. Annie Dillard is sharply critical and suggests that such an approach harms the writing:

Novels written with film contracts in mind have a faint but unmistakable, and ruinous, odor. I cannot name what, in the text, alerts the reader to suspect the writer of mixed motives. I cannot specify which sentences, in several books, have caused me to read on with increasing dismay, and finally close the book because I smelled a rat. Such books seem uneasy being books; they seem eager to fling off their disguises and jump onto screens. (The Writing Life p18-9)

Storylines are mangled

104 ticketThey may share storytelling but adaptations are often simplifications, with storylines adjusted or changed to appeal to movie audiences. Stanley Kubrick famously offended Anthony Burgess with his adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, which prevented general release in the UK for many years. Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend has been adapted four times but never to his satisfaction.

I don’t know why Hollywood is fascinated by my book when they never care to film it as I write it. (See Joe Dunthorne’s article in Guardian in 2013.)

Film requires less imagination

NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE belittles the original. Here’s the cover of a copy of Sense and Sensibility that I own. The cover promotes the book through the film with its starry cast of great British actors.104 Now a major

104 S&S

Movies don’t let you work very hard with your imagination. Richard Ayoade (director, actor and comedian) says that movie watchers and readers experience their media differently. He suggests that in reading you can identify closely with the protagonist, but in film the separation is increased by ‘a physical otherness’, especially when the lead actor is a star, known to be famous, wealthy, good looking, etc. (See Joe Dunthorne’s article again).

Films also have big landscapes, gorgeous scenery and fabulous clothes – suffused with a kodakifying glow. The movie Sense and Sensibility, presented as a bit of a rom com, takes place in continuous English summer sunlight. And in the opening sequence of the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley, even the farm animals behaved picaresquely. And just in case you miss their emotional drive movies have music. Novels have words, plot and character development, descriptions, dialogue, no music.

Film adaptations can stunt the imagination, fossilise the experience of the book. A strongly expressed view in our reading group is that it’s best to avoid the film until you have read the book. We were discussing Julie & Julia by Julie Powell. But even reading the book first doesn’t avoid that. Jonathan Coe suggests that ‘adaptations of pre-20th-century novels on celluloid usually end up as mummification rather than reinvention’. Exceptions are Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones and John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd although they are really sixties romps in period costume. (See his article Made for Each Other in the Guardian Review. And shouldn’t that be Henry Fielding and Thomas Hardy?)

Films obstruct reading

It can be argued that films promote reading and add to the enjoyment of, say, JK Rowling and the Harry Potter series (involving classic British actors, of course.) But there is an argument that films stop people reading the original because the film adaptation is seen as a the same or an adequate substitute. Some people appear to get confused about reading and viewing. Have you had a conversation like this?

Me: Have you read We Need to talk about Kevin?

Them: No, but I’ve seen the film.

Which can only mean that the story is everything, and the medium is not significant. That all the work that Lionel Shriver put into it, all the craft, the skill, the detail, the nuances and complexity of being the mother of an unlikeable child. I’ve even heard someone say, ‘I’ve never read Jane Eyre, but I saw the tv series. That’s the one where she’s going to marry the rich guy, isn’t it?’ Oh yes. That’s Jane Eyre.

What I didn’t want to see

There are films I would rather not have seen, they spoiled the experience of reading the book: three examples The Borrowers, whose updating to the twenty-first century removed most of the whimsy and make-do-and-mend ingenuity that was the charm of the books. Catch-22 whose chaotic plot, overblown characters, expose of the craziness of war could not be represented by the realism of film. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, which updates Elizabeth Taylor’s difficult novel and gives ageing a charming or eccentric face. Read the novel to get a quite different understanding of what Elizabeth Taylor was showing about age.

Any good film adaptations?

The Hours from Michael Cunningham’s novel which is in part derived from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. (Although I am having doubts about it having just read Hermione Lee’s essay Virginia Woolf’s Nose.)

Shipping News adapted from E Annie Proulx’s novel, and in which the New Foundland scenery and her story is hauntingly brought to the screen.

And for Jonathan Coe one of the best adaptations is Housekeeping:

Bill Forsyth’s film version, made in 1987 is an unswervingly faithful adaptation, preserving the narrative shape, the tone, the desolate backwoods atmosphere, even finding visual correlatives for Robinson’s scriptural, luminous prose. And yet it has been almost completely forgotten. It’s never been available on DVD, and none of the Robinson fans I’ve spoken to recently, either in Britain or America, seems to be aware of it.

104 Housekeeping mineThe film, apparently, is unmarketable. So that’s one film I wont be seeing then. And I will be very happy with the novel.

 

Can you recommend any worthwhile adaptations of film to screen? Do you have anything to add about films and novels?

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