Completed: Northanger Abbey

Cover - Northanger Abbey, An Annotated EditionNorthanger Abbey: An Annotated Edition
Jane Austen
2018 (posthumous), England
Susan J. Wolfson, ed. (2014)

“And what are you reading Miss——?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her books with affected indifference, or momentary shame.–“It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;” or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language. (Vol I, Ch. 5)

Here I am, sneaking in at the very last minute a post for “Austen in August.”

This isn’t because I’ve been avoiding Austen, or a lack of enjoyment, no, the tardiness is entirely of the busyness type; I barely had time to read this month, alas, and so only finished my reread of Northanger Abbey late yesterday. And enjoy it I did. It has been years—at least ten!—since I’ve read the entirety of an Austen (longer for one of the “big six”), and my memory of how delightful they can be didn’t fail me, though I admit to a bit of surprise at how quickly and easily the reading moved along. Which makes the following seem a bit of an odd statement: rereading Northanger Abbey made me feel, as I have so often of late, that I am still not that good of a reader. But this is perhaps not so unexpected once it is known that I read an annotated edition, which was only too happy to point out all the tricks and twists of language that I surely would have missed otherwise. The play of the words “fortunate” or “misfortune” to hint at the high importance of a fortune to so many of the characters. The shifts of meaning in words such as “awful” from the 18th to 19th to 21st centuries. It was obvious, indeed, that Henry Tilney is a pedant, too-overly precise in choice of word or phrase, but the annotations began to make me feel as naïve and ignorant as Catherine Moreland!

But here I’ve run on ahead, tossing out names without so much as a one-line plot summary.

Northanger Abbey is perhaps best known as a parody of the Gothic romances which were greatly popular at the time of its writing (c. 1798-99). Many such are mentioned (including Castle of Wolfenbach, which I confess I only read for its connection to the Austen), and the late-mid section of the novel provides the most direct satirization, in the form of Miss Catherine Moreland, our heroine, letting her overfed-by-Gothic-romances imagination run quite away with her. Yet, setting this section aside, the novel is not unlike any of the other of Austen’s primary novels: more realistic than not, with much of the focus on romances and relationships and characters. As alluded to above in mentioning the wordplay on “fortune,” the marriage market is of utmost importance. While Catherine may be content to let her fancy run free–whether in a Gothic novel or a more mundane romance–many of the surrounding cast are laser focused on marriage as investment and profit-making venture. What chance has a naïve country girl? And indeed, though this is Austen and we may know what to expect of the ending, we discover that the extremes of the Gothic romance Austen so fondly teases may have found appeal in the very real dangers that could befall an unprotected–or unmoneyed–young woman.

Even had I read this without annotations (which despite my inferiority complex, were actually quite helpful), I would have concluded much the same as I recently did with Beowulf: I don’t know enough of the context. I’ve only read two of the Gothic novels Austen might have known, the aforementioned Wolfenbach, and The Castle of Otranto. I think perhaps a wider reading–especially of Ann Radcliffe–would give me a better context. For that matter, reading more of Austen’s near-contemporaries–Richardson, Burney–must surely be helpful as well. As I’m finding so often of late, every book I read seems to pull me into a more complex web, with many strands leading to and from it. But surely, these are the best books to read, the ones that intertwine so that the richness of the experience can only grow the deeper we venture.

Week’s End Notes (25)

View through the screen porch

  • So. It’s officially the first day of summer today. Though by the weather, it’s seemed it for a while. It’s been warm–though outside of a few days, not particularly hot–and very humid much of the past few weeks. And rain. Lots of rain. Everywhere I go in Northeast Ohio, everything is lush and verdant. I’ve had reason recently to travel parts of NEO I don’t normally visit, and several times now–avoiding interstate congestion–I’ve travelled through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Driving alongside the old Ohio & Erie Canal and Towpath Trail (well used by bicyclists), past old farmsteads and canal locks and all the lovely forested scenery is so relaxing, I’ve found I don’t mind taking a few or more extra minutes at all. And it’s lovely that it’s free to enter–I actually didn’t realize until recently that most U.S. National Parks charge entrance fees–though I don’t know, really, how they could as there are so many roads that pass through the park. (Ohio state parks are also all free.)
  • The weather’s not only been perfect for enjoying all the green around us, it’s been perfect for reading. Lovely weekend mornings on the back porch, lemonade and book in hand–perfect. Which is perhaps why I’ve gotten a little carried away with my to-read-soon list, especially regarding my library selections. I did decide that I will put on hold reading Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf or his essay “Beowulf and the Critics” until I’m ready to do a bit of Icelandic or other similar reading as well. But I’m in the middle of three other books, and my ambitions for the rest of the summer are perhaps a tad unrealistic.
  • First, the current reads. I’m still working my way through The Piazza Tales (included in the Library of America volume, black cover, in the image below), and I’m finding that I’m becoming more comfortable with Melville as I’ve been reading. There’s still about 100 pages to go, but I WILL finish this summer! Anne of Avonlea is a slow reread, one I pick up on occasion in evenings to read a bit from before I fall asleep. I know these books so well, and it’s such a nice bedtime read that I don’t care how long it takes me  to finish.
  • The most exciting current read, however, is Pioneer Girl, the unedited original manuscript of the memoir Laura Ingalls Wilder would later modify into The Little House books. It’s a lovely annotated edition, full of lots of historical tidbits and explanations. I’m almost through the section that corresponds with By the Shores of Silver Lake and hope to finish by the end of June. Although I’m reading a library copy, I am planning to order my own copy soon. And it’s prompting me to contemplate some Little House rereads. Maybe not the whole series, but if nothing else, I don’t remember some of the middle books that well, so perhaps those.

June 2015 Current Reads

  • And then the hope-to-read-soon pile. (Including a Little House book as mentioned above.) Realistically, this could probably take me to the end of the year, although if I were to make that pile, I’d include my next Sherlock Holmes (The Valley of Fear) for fall reading, and perhaps a few others. But for now, these are the books I think I’d most like to get to soon.
  • Actually, I may or may not read Off With Their Heads!, which is a nonfiction book about fairy tales and the way we use and read them. I’d originally planned to read it this spring, but never quite got to it. I think I’m down to my last renewal, so it probably won’t happen.
  • There are two titles that are definitely planned for July, as Stu and Richard are again planning a Spanish Lit Month. (Yay!) I went the “what’s on my shelf that I haven’t read yet” route for this one, which leads me to Love in the Time of Cholera and The Book of Imaginary Beings, which I keep misnaming in my head as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (J.K. Rowling). Completely different authors! But both the Borges and the Rowling are in the tradition of the Medieval Bestiary. (And did you ever imagine a mention of Borges and Rowling in the same sentence?)

Summer-Fall 2015 Plans

  • The other “dedicated” read is Northanger Abbey, for Adam’s Austen in August. I started to reread it early this past spring, but didn’t get far before I was distracted by other things. An Austen event seemed the perfect time to actually make some headway.
  • Out of Africa is at the suggestion of several other bloggers (plus my mom) from a few posts back. And the other books–Enter Jeeves, The Farm, The Bluest Eye, A Wrinkle in Time–are all books that for some reason or other, I’m drawn to read soon. At my current reading rate, I should make it through all these by next June! Guess I need to work on that.
  • Of course, I did manage to read two books (Beowulf and The Scorpio Races) for Carl’s 9th Once Upon a Time reading event, ending today. That was one better than I had planned. So perhaps I’m not too ambitious after all?
  • Happy reading!

Completed: Beowulf

BeowulfCover: Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney
England, between 8th-11th cent.
Translator, Seamus Heaney, 2000

Sitting down to write about Beowulf, I feel woefully ignorant of the context of the poem—and therefore completely unqualified to write more than some cursory thoughts. (I should point out that Cleo provides some great background info to the poem, which is very useful.) I know that is it old—somewhere between the 8th and 11th centuries. That it was written in Old English (which can also be called Anglo-Saxon, as I read…somewhere?). And based solely on my reading, the anonymous writer was clearly very religious, specifically Christian. But the literary context of the poem: how does it relate to other writings of the era/region? It is a poem, in the Germanic form, Cleo tells us, but I’ve not read anything else in the style. Used to end rhymes and syllable-based rhythms, it barely feels a poem to me. This is not the fault of the writer, nor the translator, it is me.

Looking in the other direction, on the other hand, I can clearly see Beowulf’s influence, specifically on the writing of J.R.R. Tolkien. Some time back, Tom at Wuthering Expectations commented that he wasn’t sure why more Tolkien fans didn’t read the Icelandic Sagas, given the relation between the two; this applies also to Beowulf. Even beyond Tolkien’s essay, “The Monster and the Critics,” (which I have still to read—I’d hoped to get to it this week, but instead paid the price of a week off work with extra hours), and his recently published translation of Beowulf, there seem to be clear lines of influence on his fictional works. I marked quite a few scenes in my notes, from noting in general the fondness for lays to descriptions that seemed reminiscent of scenes from The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion, to the powerful chain-mail that was perhaps the prototype for Bilbo’s–later Frodo’s–mithril shirt, and even a reference to an “Eomer.” But it was a passage towards the end that struck me most vividly:

…until one began
to dominate the dark, a dragon on the prowl
from the steep vaults of a stone-roofed barrow
where he guarded a hoard; there was a hidden passage,
unknown to men, but someone managed
to enter by it and interfere
with the heathen trove. He had handled and removed
a gem-studded goblet; it gained him nothing,
though with a thief’s wiles he had outwitted
the sleeping dragon; that drove him into a rage,
as the people of that country would soon discover. (2210-2220)

It was as if I was reading a poetic rendition of the dragon Smaug and the thief Bilbo, hired by the dwarves.

I also saw Beowulf in contrast to other more ancient works I am familiar with, some of the Greek plays and myths. Over and over, I noted that Beowulf seemed to boast of his prowess—and yet his boasting didn’t bring him low or or his end. Were this a Greek tale, I felt sure that the gods would punish him for his boasts. But the worldview is different here: it is a brutal world, and whatever is fated will be—and in the writer’s Christian worldview, it will be God who will decide that fate, a belief Beowulf acknowledges even as he claims the power to defeat Grendel.

‘When it comes to fighting, I count myself
as dangerous any day as Grendel.
So it won’t be a cutting edge I’ll wield
to mow him down, easily as I might.
He has no ides of the arts of war,
of shield or sword-play, although he does possess
a wild strength. No weapons, therefore,
for either this night: unarmed he shall face me
if face me he dares. And may the Divine Lord
in His wisdom grant the glory of victory
to whichever side He sees fit.’ (677-688).

Overall, I quite enjoyed reading the poem, and should very much like to read the Tolkien translation and commentary, hopefully soon. This was only my first reading, and really my first familiarity with Beowulf and its world, and I feel like I have only started to grasp what it is about. My way in was via the Tolkien writings, but I think there is probably still much more the glean from it. And perhaps this will prove my way in to other Old English works as well as a stepping stone towards reading some of the ancient sagas and mythologies of the northern countries.

Thank you so much, Cleo for hosting and prompting me to finally read Beowulf! As a bonus, it also counts as my second selection for Once Upon a Time IX (and I thought I’d only read one this spring) and as my seventh title completed for The Classics Club.

Completed: The Scorprio Races

Cover - Scorpio Races

The Scorpio Races
Maggie Stiefvater
2011, U.S.

“Fifty years ago, it was a man they killed up there, just like every year before. The man who will not ride.”

“Why?” I demanded.

Her voice is bored; there’s a real answer, possibly, but she’s not interested in knowing it. “Because men like to kill things. Good thing they stopped. We’d run out of men.”

“Because,” cuts in a voice that I recognize instantly, “if you feed the island blood before the race, maybe she won’t take as much during it.”

This wasn’t the title that I had in mind when I decided to participate in this year’s Once Upon a Time challenge, but it was the one that somehow managed to make its way home with me from the library–and more importantly, get read. I’ve read several of Stiefvater’s books now (the first three books in the Raven Cycle plus this), and she seems to write just the sort of thing I can’t resist. I saw a list–I don’t remember where now–of books from she read growing up that she recommended to her fans for when they run out of her books to read. So many of them–The Dark is Rising series, Arthurian mythology, among others–were stories I either loved growing up or have (belatedly) discovered since. No wonder I am drawn to these.

The Scorpio Races introduced me to a myth I was not previously familiar with (reminding me I still want to read more Celtic mythology), that of the water horse, or capall uisce (or glashtin, capall uisge, cabyll ushtey, aughisky, each uisge, or kepie according to which mythology/language is being referenced), a flesh-eating November-associated, ocean horse. In Stiefvater’s version, the island men race these dangerous creatures each November–and more than one man is almost certain to die. This race is the background for the novel, which focuses on two young people, Sean, a multi-year champion of the races who seems to be one of the only to understand the wild horses, and Kate (or “Puck”), who, out of desperation enters the race–the first woman to do so, a grave challenge to convention, but also a grave risk to her life. Although I suppose I could say that the story is largely plot-based it also focuses much on the characters, specifically Sean and Puck, who both narrate the story. They both have desires and dreams, and it is really their chase after these that forms the heart of the novel; the climatic race is just the means by which they hope to achieve them.

As with the other Stiefvater novels I’ve read, I was completely pulled in by the story–by the magic, of her words, of the horses, of the setting. The Thisby of the novel reminded me of the descriptions of the remote Shetland islands in Ann Clevees’ Raven Black. As I turned the last pages, I found I was reluctant to leave Thisby–and its dangerous, magical horses–behind.

Once Upon a Time IX Logo

Midweek Musings

The 21st of May. How is it the 21st of May already? I feel fairly certain it should only be April. Like April 3rd. The spring seems to have entirely gotten away from me this year, and most dispiritingly, I’m not sure why or where. Have I really been doing that awful of a job of paying attention to the passing of time?

The number of renewals on my library card–the library must surely regret upping the renewal limit to twenty–suggest that I’ve been tossing aside time cavalierly, as if it’s of no matter. I don’t even believe I can blame that constant scapegoat, work, as outside of the previous week, I’ve not really put in much in the way of extra hours. No, it all comes down to me.

And it’s really just a matter of taking time. Of where I place it. How I manage it.

This is, I suppose, primarily about my reading. I’ve certainly found time for other things–I have a lovely new, very warm knitted scarf (that I, per usual, finished just in time for spring…), I’m actually caught up on DVR (even as I wonder why I watch so many things). And there’s been work and family things of course. By work, I don’t mean just work hours, no, I mean work events: the grill out for the departing intern, bike-to-work day. This last required much biking beforehand to get anywhere close to being ready–I work with people who train for triathlons–including one woman who’s run at least two (three?) iron-man distance races. I was definitely the slow one! (We met up at a trailhead about 8 miles from the office and were able to ride a rails-to-trails bike/walking path almost all the way to the office.)

But this week I’ve been off (lovely, glorious “staycation”), and along with other miscellaneous odds ‘n’ ends, I’ve been reading. Finally.

I was supposed to read The Piazza Tales for the latest Classics Club spin (by May 15), but have only made it through two, “The Piazza” and “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Perhaps I’m just out of practice at reading 19th century American authors, but Melville is making me feel rather like I can’t really read and should just shelve the grown-up books and stick with kid’s lit. Thanks a lot Melville.

Fortunately, I had also signed up for the Beowulf read-along hosted by Cleo at Classical Carousel. I started it yesterday morning, and after only a few hours I’m at the 2/3 mark. Thank you, Ancient Epic Poem for restoring my faith in my ability to read above a 3rd grade level! I’m not participating properly, as we’re supposed to read a section a week and comment on it, but I will be good and post my overall thoughts on time. Especially since I think I’ll finish it today.

Of course, now I’m not sure what I’ll read next. I’ve found the downside of not having any specific reading goals or plans–too many choices and not enough direction! I think I’d better go for something off my bookshelves…. Or perhaps another Classics Club book to make some more progress. Any recommendations off my list?

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