Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Trapped in Creepy Houses

Currently Reading: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and Welcome Joy: Death in Puritan New England

I read a quote today that I found on BronteBlog from an interview with an author named Chloe Hooper describing a key aspect of both Jane Eyre and Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. (You all know how much I love the former, but the latter book is fantastic as well).

Ms. Hooper says, "I love all of those Gothic classics such as Jane Eyre and Rebecca, stories of heroines trapped in spooky houses and heroes of dubious backgrounds...But I think those stories of women trapped in houses are often linked to women's ambivalence about domesticity and marriage. And the thriller, which is a genre that works on ambivalence about our fears and desires, is also a perfect way to talk about marriage."

This especially intrigued me, not only because it is a fantastic analysis of the structure of both books, but also because it resonates with the book I am currently reading: The Turn of the Screw. All three books feature young, often naive, female protagonists who inadvertently and unintentionally find themselves in circumstances outside of their control. All with a touch of Gothic creepiness, each story takes place in a large, well-to-do country house in which dark and terrible secrets are hidden. This plot device is not, as the quote above states, coincidental. As I think about it more, I see the connections better and better. In each novel, the young woman is an inferior by status (the main female character in Rebecca is the only one who is not a governess and is in fact the lady of the house, but she is still inferior by birth, age, and (seemingly) in relation to Rebecca), and come through some means to a grand but seemingly innocuous house. The master is secretive, an enigma to the women. (In Turn of the Screw, Peter Quint replaces the master in this way). He is hiding something, but no one seems to know what. The protagonist's seemingly normal existence is soon replaced by sinister and dire circumstances within her new home that spiral out of her control. She is caught right in the thick of it all, but often without understanding or knowing the entire truth. I am fascinated by the implications of Hooper's analysis- while I have always known that each novel focuses on female social and sexual limitations, I have never made a connection between the setting (and the "trapped" aspect) and women's fears about the limitations of marriage and their personal battles against the limitations of their gender. As I see it now, the male masters represent the ways in which many males and husbands were perceived by their wives at these times: as dominant and enigmatic, while the houses- foreboding and secretive- represent the terror of women's own daily realities, shut within house and home, with no control over her life. In Jane Eyre, she escapes this; yet when she returns, it is to a different house and a changed man. A different house and a changed man! In all of my readings, I have never contemplated the implications of this. I feel as if another window has opened, revealing a different view, a different angle. This is why I read... there is always something new to discover.

Turn of the Screw has turned out to be the perfect Halloween read, as a chill-inducing ghost story and a psychological thriller. A new addition to my fall must-reads!

Give me your thoughts on all of this... I'd love to hear more!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

An Austen Convert

Currently Reading: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and Welcome Joy: Death in Puritan New England by Gordon Geddes

I have a slight confession to make: I have never really been a Jane Austen fan. (Please don't hate me. I understand this is tantamount to murder in some circles, but I must be honest here.) Of course her books are interesting and well-written, but none of them (except perhaps Sense & Sensibility) really excited or captivated me. Her characters always seemed two-dimensional and unrealistic; I couldn't identify them with anyone I had actually met in the real world. The plots, frankly, tend to be a bit boring and predictable; with some variation on characters and situations, they usually follow the same recipe.

The only Jane Austen book I ever found myself truly enjoying was Sense & Sensibility. I read it two summers ago and actually fell in love with the characters of Elinor and Marianne. For once, two Austen characters I could identify with! That summer, I found myself enthralled with an Austen, which I had never thought possible. Sense & Sensibility revived my interest in Austen and made me resolve to read and re-read more in the future. Several weeks ago, my "classics itch" set in with the onset of cooler weather and I decided on Northanger Abbey as my classic of choice. With only two more Austen's to read, I settled on Northanger because my sister, whose judgment on books I trust wholeheartedly, had enjoyed it.


Remind me to always listen to my sister. Not only was Northanger Abbey enjoyable, it literally made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion. Yes, the plot follows a similar thread as Austen's other works, but the difference for me lay in the character of Catherine and the tone of the writing. For the first time, I felt like Jane Austen was fully present, as if I was eavesdropping on a conversation, not reading a published work. She was not invisible within the work, but right there with me, providing witty comments and often extremely humorous and even snide comments about the characters or the circumstances. I found myself thrilled to travel with her from Fullerton to Bath to Northanger, my 19th century travel companion. How could I have ever thought her boring and predictable before? Here she was, in the flesh, each tongue-in-cheek comment leaving me in a small fit of giggles.

For instance: “She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance - a misplaced shame. Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well−informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.” 

Or this one:  “Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom, so common with novel-writers, of degrading, by their contemptuous censure, the very performances to the number of which they are themselves adding; joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronised by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another- we are an injured body.” 

And finally: “I read it [history] a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all — it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.” 

These don't include the myriad of other slight "asides" slipped into a conversation or a description that caught me completely off-guard but really did delight me in the reading of them.

Because of Catherine, because of Northanger, I can now say that I really am a Jane Austen fan. In one short book, I feel as though I came to know her intimately as a writer, a woman, and a person. The plot is good and the characters interesting, but the writing is what really swept me away. I think I'm going to have to make a new spot on my shelf.

What's your favorite Jane Austen? Is anyone else a Jane Austen convert, like I am? Which book converted you? I'd love to know!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Cemetery Wanderings

Currently Reading: Welcome Joy: Death in Puritan New England by Gordon Geddes and I Am America (and So Can You) by Stephen Colbert

Today was spent at a local orchard with my mom, sister, cousins, aunt, and Nate. Spending an afternoon petting goats, drinking cider, sampling fresh apples, and indulging in hot apple pie is one of my favorite autumnal activities. Especially with my family.
Welcome Joy: Death in Puritan New England is turning out to be the perfect fall read. While it may sound morbid to some, it is absolutely fascinating. A dissertation on Puritan attitudes toward death, it examines the way in which the Puritan colonists viewed death, faced death, and dealt with the deaths of loved ones, especially as it related to their doctrinal beliefs. In many ways, we are blessed to be much more separated from the reality and haunt of death than our forebears were. It is not the constant presence it once was, when most families lost several children and many people succumbed to diseases that are unfamiliar to us today. Yet unlike many other things about our world and society that has changed in the intervening 300 years, we all still must face and come to terms with the reality of death at some point in our lives. It is something that connects us all, and it is quite interesting to reflect on the commonalities and differences between the ways in which we face death.
And speaking of death...... One of my favorite things: exploring cemeteries. Especially at this time of year. When one of my best friends came to visit several weeks ago, we did just that.



Besides my husband, she's my favorite person to explore cemeteries with.


She was talking to me about a symbol on one of the stones. I caught her mid-speak. Sorry, Ash!
One of the cemeteries we went to is a small cemetery for a settlement in the 1840s and 1850s that has now disappeared. It is close to our home, tucked into a small copse of trees between two farms.



A small rusted gate leads into it and the stones are all over a century old, weathered by time.


I feel my soul quieten and still every time I wander a cemetery. Images fill my mind as I walk past the stones- the mourners in black circled around freshly dug graves, prayers and Psalms spoken into the wind, families and neighbors creating a community of strength in the face of loss. So many stories are told with each stone, in each family plot. I am always humbled by the strength of memory permeating such places. And in the act of bending over to read the faded words, they are remembered again, and exist briefly once more.
Little things that are exciting me lately: squash, my "to-read" list (ooh, I've got some good ones coming up), my cat, chili in the Crock-Pot, wearing my prayer shawl as I read, finishing homework, clean laundry, and good coffee. How about you?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Birthday

Currently Reading: Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

A quick post this morning, in between homework, cooking, and getting ready for work. It is simply beautiful outside- bright autumn morning sunlight glancing off of our balcony, a chill breeze blowing the leaves, and a perfect palette of blue sky against brown fields. I have never been able to get over how lovely it is outside in the fall. Driving to school on Monday mornings is a little bit dreadful (because I am so tired) but mostly amazing, as I literally watch the sun rise on the fields and barns dotting the land, transforming everything from the still, silent wakefulness that comes with the pre-dawn darkness to a world vibrant with color and light. In those moments, I feel closer to God in a way that is outside the liturgy of Church. It is difficult to explain, but I revel in the feeling of being so wholly alive. As Jane Eyre says, "We know that God is everywhere; but certainly we feel His presence most when His works are on the grandest scale spread before us."

Coincidentally enough, today is the 165th anniversary of the publication of my most treasured book-friend, Jane Eyre. You can read all about my relationship with, and musings over Jane Eyre in several past posts from June. To celebrate today, I'm pulling out some more of my favorite quotes:

"It is in vain to say that human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it."

"Now I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fear, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils."

Helen Burns to Jane: "Yet it would be your duty to bear it, if you could not avoid it; it is weak and silly to say you cannot bear what it is your fate to be required to bear."

Jane to Rochester: "I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you."

165 years later, they still have such a powerful meaning, such relevance, so much emotion and truth within each line. 165 years from now, I know they will still have that same hold for future readers. Happy Birthday to a fantastic book. How will you celebrate today?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

An Affair with Autumn

Currently Reading: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen and Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

As I knew it would, the demands of schoolwork has affected my blogging. I obviously do not write and post as often as I would like, and though it sounds silly, not being able to blog on a regular basis makes me feel guilty- like I'm not a good blogger because I participate so infrequently. While I wonder how this affects my readership, I must remind myself that I write for myself, first and foremost.

About a week ago, I finished The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, listening to it on audiobook as it accompanied me to and from school. The novel is set in the 1980s in an alternate reality, where the Crimean War is still being waged and literature is taken as seriously as religion is in this country. The story follows a Special Operative LiteraTec named Thursday Next, who must rescue Jane Eyre after she is abducted from the pages of her book. Yes, it is possible in this novel to go into other novels- Martin Chuzzlewit, a Wordsworth poem. It was a fun book- quirky and imaginative, a book one reads just for fun. I absolutely loved all of the literary references: a hotel called Finis; a reporter named Melinda Floss (say it quickly: it sounds like "Mill on the Floss"..hehe); people going door to door Jehovah-witness style to convert people into believing that Francis Bacon actually wrote Shakespeare's plays; people stepping into poems and wandering the corridors of Thornfield Hall. The scenes at Thornfield Hall were of course the highlight of the book- (I may have squealed a bit when Mr. Rochester came on the scene)- though perhaps it was a bit irreverent to a Jane Eyre lover- key plot points are different, and anything can happen in the margins (tourists come and go, villains escape into the environs of Millcote, a certain LiteraTec lives for months hidden inside the hall-all without Jane's knowledge, so as not to disrupt the story-line.) It all adds up to a purely delightful reading experience, one that kept me hooked from beginning to end.

Annnnnnnd...... it's autumn again!


My favorite season of them all. Fall is a time of remembrance and reflection for me, a time to look back on the year and look forward to the year ahead. I think there is something within me and probably within all of us- a genetic memory of sorts- that awakes at this time of year. Something that remembers the harvest, the preparation for winter, My soul leaps at the farm fields bathed in a chill autumn sunrise, a V of geese overhead, the smell of dead leaves, butternut squash soup, slipping my apron over my head, chilly air filling my lungs. As I wrote in my "Halloween Book List" last year, my book list often reflects the time of year as well. Falltime is when I pull out my history books on the Puritans, on colonial history, on the Salem Witch Trials. I have done it for so many years that fall seems like the only backdrop now against which I can read these books. While right now, I am finishing up Northanger Abbey, which I will talk about in my next post, and just started Brooklyn as an audiobook, I have already reserved a book that I am really looking forward to: Welcome Joy: Death in Puritan New England. Oh yeah, baby. It may sound morbid, but I have always been fascinated by the history of our perceptions and relationship with death. "History toward the Attitudes of Death" was my favorite class in college, and I just eat up books and documentaries about cemeteries, funeral rites, beliefs about death. I think my job has something to do with it- or perhaps I have my job because of this interest I have always harbored. Either way, it gives me so much to look forward to, to ponder over, to learn.

My reading and my blogging may have taken a bit of a backseat to this thing we call grad school, but I still have it here, waiting for me and for those moments when I can stop and take a breath. That's a nice reassurance. Have a great week! Go find a fun Halloween read!

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