Ex Libris Online: Sense and Sensibility; A Memoir of Jane Austen


Review: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen; A Memoir of Jane Austen by J. E. Austen-Leigh

“The more I know of the world, the more I am convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love. I require so much!” –Marianne Dashwood

“It is not everyone,’ said Elinor, ‘who has your passion for dead leaves.” – Elinor Dashwood

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Jane Austen continues to resonate in our culture 200 years after her stories were first published, with more adaptations and variants seeming to release yearly… from novels like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, to Bollywood films like Bride and Prejudice, to modern perennial favorites such as Clueless (based on Austen’s Emma.) The Folio Society has released a collection of fine editions of Jane Austen’s work, two of which are recently released in time for Christmas.

The two fabulous quotes above from Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility illustrate so well the poles at which the two central characters — sisters — reside. It comes as no surprise, even and especially in today’s world, that two siblings, while close and intimate friends, can be complete opposites, and Austen takes delight in portraying this phenomenon. She explores the ramifications of each contrasting disposition in two women who otherwise have the same opportunities and acquaintances.

S&S 1Elinor quietly conceals her opinions and emotions, filtering her behavior through proper and polite etiquette, Marianne refuses to veil her thoughts and insists in openly expressing her emotions. While the narrative is told from Elinor’s perspective, it is Marianne who exhibits the most character arch, growing and maturing through the consequences of her choices, to become more like her sister in the end. Marianne does not lose her open vivacity, but rather grows to a maturity and discretion that tempers and softens her bluntness. However, she does not adopt Elinor’s strong reserve but retains her animation, thus proving that good manners do not intrinsically inhibit the expression of feelings, but can be creatively coupled through discernment. Thankfully, in true Austen form, both ladies find their “happily ever afters,” despite their differences in disposition. They both retain their tight-knit bond and marry their own Prince Charmings.

S&S 2The novel concludes, “And among the merits and the happiness of Elinor and Marianne, let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands.”

In the introduction to The Folio Society edition, novelist Elena Ferrante writes, “The relationship between the sisters is full of perils, and if we read the novel attentively we realize this, thanks to the skillful play between what is said and what is not said… The relationship that has been at the centre of her novel, the relationship that is the hardest to examine truthfully, [is] the relationship between sisters. But [Austen] does it lightly, and only to emphasize the fact that, thanks to the careful management of sense and sensibility, Elinor and Marianne, although they will live for the rest of their lives within sight of one another, have overcome that dangerous obstacle as well.”

JaneAustenCassandraWatercolourJane Austen’s own life is sadly much more obscured than any “Janeite” enthusiast would prefer. Her sister, Cassandra, dutifully burned nearly all of their letters at Jane’s request upon her death at age 41 following an illness, and the only picture of her that is completely confirmed to be her portrait is a watercolor by Cassandra, painted from behind and thus obscuring her face. Her work was not well known in her lifetime and only achieved the fame and popularity with which it is so well acquainted today after her death. One catalyst for the surge in popularity of her work was her nephew’s memoir of her life, published more than 50 years after her death in 1869 by James Edward Austen-Leigh.

He writes, “I have a distinct recollection of her person and character; and perhaps many may take an interest in a delineation, if any such can be drawn, of that prolific mind whence sprung the Dashwoods and Bennets… Aided by a few survivors who knew her… I am the more inclined to undertake the task from a conviction that, however little I may have to tell, no one else is left who could tell so much of her.”

Austen-Leigh then undertakes to share not only stories about his famous aunt and to sketch her personality and character, but also to reflect on the changing ways, customs and culture of the 19th century.

In this new edition published by The Folio Society, Fay Weldon writes, “The volumeMJA_S_03 is, of course, more than a mere memoir of Austen, though that would be rewarding enough. It is a look back over an urbane mid-Victorian shoulder to the customs and manners of Georgian times, and we must thank the Gods of chance and literature that James Edward Austen-Leigh who, just happening to be Jane Austen’s nephew, also happened to take such an informed and lively interest in the changing face of England, and to write with the same kind of diligent clarity and descriptive grace as his more famous aunt.”

SSB_S_01Both of these volumes, as well as the others published so far in this collection, Pride and Prejudice and Emma, would make wonderful Christmas gifts. The watercolors by Philip Bannister in Sense and Sensibility are simply breathtaking.

MJA_S_01*Do take note that as these editions ship from London, the cutoff for receiving by Christmas is this Wednesday, Dec. 9th and this Monday, Dec. 14th for standard and expedited shipping, respectively.

 Buy Sense and Sensibility here, A Memoir of Jane Austen here
Illustration from The Folio Society edition of  Sense and Sensibility © Philip Bannister 2015

Ex Libris Online: Shackleton’s Boat Journey


Review: Shackleton’s Boat Journey by Frank Worsley

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The first time I heard of Sir Ernest Shackleton was when National Geographic did a big spread on his famous expedition on the Endurance when I was a child. I don’t think I had ever even read much of National Geographic at that point, but my dad must have known that I would find this particular feature interesting, because he put it down beside my 5th grade homework on my desk. I was absolutely captivated at the incredible feat of survival that this leader and his men accomplished against such odds, and that every man survived… even the young Welsh stowaway Perce Blackborow.

Shackleton (right) and another crew member leaning over the Endurance as she is crushed by ice. 19 October 1915

Upon picking up Captain Frank Worsley’s firsthand account recently– this year marks the 100th anniversary of the voyage– I found that the enthusiasm I first felt for this tale was by no means ungrounded. In Shackleton’s Boat Journey, Worsley gives a detailed narration of their remarkable survival off the shores of Antarctica, beginning when they reached the edges of the ice floe. This particular Folio Society edition was introduced by venerated polar explorer Ranulph Fiennes, who, with his wife, was the first man to circumnavigate the world’s vertical surface, crossing both Poles in the course of a single journey. He writes a thorough summary of the events leading up to Shackleton’s voyage and of the catastrophes they encountered when the Endurance was crushed by pack ice.

Worsley picks up his tale a few days before they were able to launch the three life boats five months later. I frankly expected a rather dry sailor’s account of primarily longitudes, latitudes and nautical miles. On the contrary, Worsley narrates with descriptive flair all of the characters with whom he journeyed and recalls the many jokes that kept their spirits alive. He also often waxes poetic in his descriptions of the scenery surrounding them, including the hurricane which struck them just as they were about to land in South Georgia:

Landing the James Caird on South Georgia

“The ocean was everywhere covered by a gauzy tracery of foam with lines of yeasty froth, save where boiling white masses of breaking seas had left their mark on an acre of the surface. On each sea the boat swept upward till she heeled before the droning fury of the hurricane, then fell staggering into the hollow, almost becalmed. Each sea, as it swept us closer in, galloped madly with increasing fury for the opposing cliffs, glaciers and rocky points. It seemed but a few moments till it was thundering on the coast beneath icy uplands, great snow-clad peaks and cloud-piercing crags. It was the most awe-inspiring and dangerous position any of us had ever been in. It looked as though we were doomed – past the skill of man to save.” (86)

The remaining men marooned on Elephant Island wave farewell to the James Caird sailing for South Georgia. 24 April 1916

It is well known that without Worsley’s exceptional navigation skills—using nothing but a compass, a chronometer and the stars—the group never would have made it from the ice to Elephant Island, not to mention from there to South Georgia. From his point of view, however, he did nothing more extraordinary than the other men on the expedition.

By the time Worsley published his account, Shackleton had succumbed to a heart attack. Many men would have taken the opportunity to then publish an inflated memoir of their personal superior wisdom during the journey, taking perhaps quite a bit more credit than their proper due. Worsley in every situation defers to Shackleton’s judgement, even when they disagreed. His respect and veneration for his “Boss” is a high testament to the man and leader Shackleton was. He tells of countless situations where Shackleton willingly put his life on the line for the survival of the other men, including giving up his warm boots before crossing over the deep snow-drifts of the Allardyce Mountain Range of South Georgia and breaking the trail through their entire trek– leading through the snow. Worsley notes, “How Sir Ernest avoided frost-bite, wearing leather boots, is a mystery… Responding to Shackleton’s unselfishness, teamwork was pulling us through. “ (120, 6)

Captain Frank Worsley

Worsley adds, “Looking back on this great boat journey, it seems certain that some of our men would have succumbed to the terrible protracted strain but for Shackleton… He seemed to keep a mental finger on each man’s pulse. If he noted one with signs of the strain telling on him he would order hot milk and soon all would be swallowing the scalding life-giving drink to the especial benefit for of the man, all unaware, for whom it had been ordered.” (95)

This book is going down in my log as an all-time favorite… I strongly recommend it for anyone who enjoys a good tale of adventure, survival, comradery and miracles. The most incredible part of this book is that it is all true.

 Buy this book here
Binding illustration by Simon Pemberton, courtesy of The Folio Society edition of  Shackleton’s Boat Journey (c. 2015).

Ex Libris Online: Emma


Review: Emma by Jane Austen

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“I am going to take a heroine whom nobody but myself will much like,” wrote Jane Austen upon embarking on the novel that would become Emma. Her opening line, therefore, of what many consider her finest and most mature novel, reads, “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

Title page of first edition in 1815, volume 1 of 3

Austen’s beloved heroine, and her only title
character for that matter, absorbs the novel in a way that no other character in her other novels does.  One arguable reason for this is that Emma is the most obviously flawed of Austen’s heroines, and the story centers around the consequences of her behavior as well as her growth and self-realization. Another significant factor in Emma’s ability to drive the plot is her independence—all of Austen’s other heroines inhabit households run by others and are subject to their whims and wills. Emma, however, is not only the mistress of her estate, but she is also the unrivaled social leader of the community.

This universal independence points to an unexpected dimension of Emma’s character, quite endearing to Austen, which is her masculinity; Austen describes Emma as she does her marketable, charming young men of other novels, fashions Emma’s conduct with traces of male behavior, and places her in masculine roles in her relationships. In crafting this character whom she expects will delight no one else, Austen subtly reveals her unconventional support of women’s social equality.

1898 illustration of Mr. Knightley and Emma Woodhouse, chapter XIII

Dedicated to the Prince Regent, one of Austen’s most devoted fans, Emma is what is considered a “novel of manners.” Defined by the Encyclopedia Britannica, a novel (or comedy) of manners is “a work of fiction that re-creates a social world, conveying with finely detailed observation the customs, values, and mores of a highly developed and complex society. The conventions of the society dominate the story, and characters are differentiated by the degree to which they measure up to the uniform standard, or ideal, of behaviour or fall below it.” Jane Austen and Henry James are iconic writers in this genre, and of Jane Austen’s novels, Emma is the epitome.

Recently listed as The Guardian’s choice of Jane Austen novels in compiling the 100 greatest novels written in the English language, Emma has never been out of print since its publication in 1815.

Buy this book here.