Emma by Jane Austen — Reread Review

As someone who loves character development, it’s probably not surprising that Emma is my favourite Jane Austen novel, out of the ones I’ve read, anyway. ‘Character grows from selfish, spoiled child to empathetic woman’ is probably my absolute favourite development trope, and that’s certainly the broad outline of Emma Woodhouse’s arc, with some romance thrown in.

I find Emma’s faults particularly relatable. She lacks the consistency to devote herself to practice, and so her skills are never as good as she feels that they should be. Not only that, but what young woman hasn’t deceived herself as to the signs that somebody else is interested in the relationship she wishes that they were? In Emma Woodhouse’s case, it’s made even more cringe-worthy by the fact that all her incorrect assumptions about people’s behaviour end up making life more difficult for others far more than for herself.

‘No. I think, Miss Woodhouse, I may just as well have it sent to Hartfield, and take it home with me at night. What do you advise?’
‘That you do not give another half-second to the subject.’

Emma, Jane Austen

Jane Austen’s comic characters in Emma are every bit as good as the inestimable Mrs Bennet, and I think definitely funnier than anything you’ll find in Sense & Sensibility. Humour is subjective, of course, but I laughed out loud a few times, which is pretty impressive for a book written over 200 years ago!

The obsession with people marrying within their social rank is a little troubling for a modern reader. It’s hard to get behind Mr Knightley’s objections to Harriet on the grounds that she’s ‘too low’, and it’s especially galling that, although Emma argues against these at first, she ends up agreeing by the conclusion of the novel. That, and Mr Knightley’s having been in love with Emma since she was 13 (and he was 29), are truly the ‘stuck in its time’ elements, to steal a phrase from the great All About Agatha. I can definitely see how readers would be put off by this, even if they can make it through Emma’s deliberately flawed personality.

Mr Knightley somewhat redeems himself in my eyes, however, by being the one person who’ll tell Emma hard truths about herself. In a novel that’s all about character development, it’s hard to imagine a more attractive suitor than the one who sees your faults, will help you overcome them, and love you for the efforts you’ve made! That’s true love right there, as I’m sure both he and Emma would agree.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Lost Gods by Micah Yongo — New Review, Bookclub Edition

I’m really struggling to decide whether my indifference to Lost Gods was because there was too much going on, or too little. In terms of actual actions, there didn’t seem to be enough to keep me interested, but in terms of the overarching plot and world-building it felt like the scope was too broad to be adequately captured in the number of pages. The ending is clearly leading towards a sequel which will, hopefully, explore more of the central mystery. Unfortunately, having not managed to capture my attention with any of the characters, I was left not really caring enough to follow it up.

But it’s better you know your own fictions, Neythan, the weaknesses of your sha, the better to keep from being deceived by them.

Lost Gods, Micah Yongo

Neythen is a particularly blank space emotionally, which is certainly intentional; his training seems to have taught him to repress his emotions. This risk doesn’t really pay off, at least for me, as it makes it hard to root for Neythen as he continues his quest. Other characters, who as far as is explained, haven’t undertaken such training, also seemed to lack emotion and motivation. The closest Micah Yongo seemed to get was with the young sharif, Sidon, but even he didn’t have the kind of emotional range that one usually associates with teenagers.

Daneel saw the white-gold light sweep over Josef, turning his drenched hair and sodden leather iridescent, as though clothed with a million tiny jewels.

Lost Gods, Micah Yongo

In short, Lost Gods simply failed to catch me up in its narrative or characters. The world-building had interesting hints, which may well be further mined in future novels, but it wasn’t enough to compel me to add them to my TBR.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett — Reread Review

Portrait of an Unknown Woman is the first book I read by Vanora Bennett, but I decided to revisit it because I knew I’d also enjoyed The People’s Queen. I’d forgotten almost everything about it, so I thoroughly enjoyed rediscovering how clever it is.

One look at father’s face turned the mood at table to ice.

Portrait of an Unknown Woman, Vanora Bennett

Characters almost always come first with me, and Vanora Bennett manages quite a complicated family cast with more ease than many authors I could think of. I was occasionally confused about the less important husbands of our main character’s sisters, but the core members of her family circle were always clear — as were a wider range of friends and political figures. As with A Thousand Acres and Salt Creek, we have a controlling, capricious paternal figure — though this one is more ambiguous than in either of those novels.

Even having read Portrait of an Unknown Woman before, the twists of the plot managed to take me by surprise. The fact that I was able to intuit certain things, but not the ultimate outcome of those facts, is a sign that Vanora Bennett’s handling of plot elements is truly deft.

We grew up in a world where there was nothing but the fear of darkness. When death was waiting round every corner. When London could be surrounded at any time by an army threatening to string up every man and rape every woman and throw babies onto their sword blades and torch every parish church. When books were rare and locked up inside monasteries, and our only hope of salvation was the One True Church and the priests who could mediate for us with God.

Portrait of an Unknown Woman, Vanora Bennett

I have some familiarity with the particular period of history Portrait of an Unknown Woman is set in. It’s always hard for me to understand what the religious differences between Catholics and Protestants were really all about, but Vanora Bennett has her characters explain their viewpoints in fairly compelling ways. Instead of seeming solely like a way for Henry VIII to serve his own ends, Protestantism in Portrait of an Unknown Woman is actually portrayed sympathetically.

Hans Holbein could hardly restrain himself from throwing himself down beside her and raining kisses on her, like apples.

Portrait of an Unknown Woman, Vanora Bennett

By contrast, my familiarity with the art history of this period is basically zero. Nonetheless, Vanora Bennett made all of Hans Holbein’s paintings interesting! Whether the secrets she describes him putting into his paintings were real or not, I found myself impressed by the inventiveness and eye for detail.

The only quibble I had was with the occasional shifts from Meg’s first-person perspective to Hans Holbein’s third. I can see why it was necessary overall, but jumping back and forth twice within three paragraphs seemed jarring. But everything else, I enjoyed!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Moab is My Washpot by Stephen Fry — Reread Review

Moab is My Washpot is one of those books I read once, as a teenager or young adult, found one quotation that really mattered to me and so decided that I must love. (I suspect Brideshead Revisited, which I will revisit, is another.) Rereading it, not only did I not remember vast swathes of the book, I also found myself not really enjoying much of it.

I am not actually sure that I am capable of thoughts, let alone feelings, except through language.

Moab is My Washpot, Stephen Fry

Perhaps this is jus because I don’t really get on with autobiography, but I just didn’t find it that interesting. Stephen Fry’s description of himself as a child is quite different to what I might have imagined, but his life is still fairly normal. There are a few funny incidents – though on this reread, I found the story of the mole rather too infused with artificial significance.

Stephen Fry’s tone seemed patronising to me, in a way it didn’t when I read Mythos and, presumably, in a way it didn’t when I was a young adult because more of the material was actually new to me then than it is now. There were passages and offhand references which seemed quite dismissive of certain groups of people – namely his fans and anyone who enjoys revising media multiple times.

And then I saw him and nothing was ever the same again.
The sky was never the same colour, the moon never the same shape: the air never smelt the same, food never tasted the same. Every word I knew changed its meaning, everything that once was stable and firm became as insubstantial as a puff of wind, and every puff of wind became a solid thing I could feel and touch.

Moab is My Washpot, Stephen Fry

In short, it was fine, particularly if you go in with measured expectations. It didn’t hold up to the memory I had of it as being in some way supremely insightful. Even the one quotation that I liked had no resonance for me now.

Rating: 2 out of 5.