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Bitch In a Bonnet: Reclaiming Jane Austen from the Stiffs, the Snobs, the Simps and the Saps (Volume 2)

Bitch In a Bonnet: Reclaiming Jane Austen from the Stiffs, the Snobs, the Simps and the Saps (Volume 2)

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Bitch In a Bonnet: Reclaiming Jane Austen from the Stiffs, the Snobs, the Simps and the Saps (Volume 2)

3/5 (19 évaluations)
670 pages
14 heures
Aug 24, 2014


Novelist Rodi (Fag Hag, The Sugarman Bootlegs) continues his broadside against the depiction of Jane Austen as a “a woman’s writer ... quaint and darling, doe-eyed and demure, parochial if not pastoral, and dizzily, swooningly romantic — the inventor and mother goddess of ‘chick lit.’” Instead he sees her as “a sly subversive, a clear-eyed social Darwinist, and the most unsparing satirist of her century.” In this volume, which collects and amplifies three years’ worth of blog entries, he combs through the final three novels in Austen’s canon — Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion — with the aim of charting her growth as both a novelist and a humorist, and of shattering the notion that she’s a romantic of any kind. “Hiarious ... Rodi’s title is a tribute. He’s angry that the Austen craze has defanged a novelist who’s ‘wicked, arch, and utterly merciless. She skewers the pompous, the pious, and the libidinous with the animal glee of a natural-born sadist’ ... Like Rodi, I believe Austen deserves to join the grand pantheon of gadflies: Voltaire and Swift, Twain and Mencken.” - Lev Raphael, The Huffington Post

Aug 24, 2014

À propos de l'auteur

Robert Rodi was born in Chicago in the conformist 1950s, grew up in the insurrectionist 1960s, came of age in the hedonist 1970s, and went to work in the elitist 1980s. This roller-coaster ride has left him with a distinct aversion to isms of any kind; it also gave him an ear for hypocrisy, cant, and platitudes that allowed him, in the 1990s, to become a much-lauded social satirist. After seven acclaimed novels set in the gay milieu, Robert grew restless for new challenges—which he found in activities as wide-ranging as publishing nonfiction, writing comic books, launching a literary-criticism blog, and taking to the stage (as a spoken-word performer, jazz singer, and rock-and-roll front man). In 2011, excited by the rise of digital e-books, he returned to his first love, publishing new fiction inspired by the work of Alfred Hitchcock. He also organized the republishing of his seminal gay novels under the banner Robert Rodi Essentials. Robert still resides in Chicago, in a century-old Queen Anne house with his partner Jeffrey Smith and a constantly shifting number of dogs.

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Bitch In a Bonnet - Robert Rodi




Chapters 1-3

Jane Austen’s fourth novel, Emma, is arguably as beloved as her second, Pride and Prejudice; in fact Austenites will often define themselves by which one they prefer, even a bit contentiously, which is sort of like taking sides over which champagne you like better, brut or demi-sec. For my part, I don’t care, just top off my glass, please.

In each of Austen’s novels we find her trying to achieve something new, and in Emma it’s to do with her heroine. Having just given us (to disastrous effect, I think) a protagonist so passive and repressed as to render her utterly inert, she swings to the opposite extreme here. Emma Woodhouse is everything Mansifeld Park’s Fanny Price is not: rich, beautiful, spoiled, self-confident. She has character flaws you could steer an oil tanker through, but her rank makes her virtually unassailable; as a result of which she’s a charming, beguiling, utterly relentless terror. The novel is about her metamorphosis into a human being. I’m reminded of the story of Greta Garbo at a screening of Beauty and the Beast, reacting to the hero’s climactic transformation into a prince by exclaiming, Give me back my beast! Readers of Emma may feel similarly when our pushy, tart-tongued heroine is finally brought down a peg or seven, and learns to play nice. But it’s only a small vexation, because the solution is obvious: just go back to page one read the whole damn thing over again.

Emma begins with the entrancing plangency of a folk tale by the brothers Grimm, as Austen lays out the particulars of our heroine’s biography: mistress of a large house from an early age, after the death of her mother and the marriage of her elder sister—both of whose places in her life have been filled by a governess, one Miss Taylor, whose mildness of…temper had hardly allowed her to impose any restraint, so that Emma has grown up doing just what she liked; highly esteeming Miss Taylor’s judgment, but directed chiefly by her own. Austen doesn’t mince words:

The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much of her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.

But now things have changed, because Miss Taylor has become Mrs. Weston and left the Woodhouse establishment for one of her own. Emma consoles herself for the loss of her friend to a man of unexceptionable character, easy fortune, suitable age and pleasant manners by remembering that she’s the one who pretty much threw them in each other’s path in the first place, and blocked any avenue of escape until they looked around and noticed each other and thought, Hubba hubba. So she takes credit for the match; but it was a black morning’s work for her, because it’s now left her alone at home with her voraciously infirm father, and no one to follow her around all day and listen to her prattle and watch her kick up her heels and just generally reinforce her belief that God created Emma Woodhouse on Day One and then the rest of the cosmos on Two through Seven.

Austen’s narrative tone here is gentler, kindlier; but I think this is a deliberate dodge, an attempt at ironic dissonance. For instance, she says of Emma’s father that having been a valetudinarian all his life, without activity of mind or body, he was a much older man in ways than in years; and though every where beloved for the friendliness of his heart and his amiable temper, his talents could not have recommended him at any time. This has fooled many people into imagining Mr. Woodhouse to be an adorable old darling with a shawl over his knees and a twinkle in his eyes; but as the novel progresses it becomes ever clearer that he’s the sheerest horror. He represents a kind of tremulous nihilism, a nervous entropy; he’s like a bubbling tar pit, trying to entrap everyone in the vicinity and fossilize them before they can grow, change, breathe. He’s terribly funny, of course, but he’s a genuine danger; if he and Fanny Price ever came within a dozen yards of each other, their combined frigidity would snuff out the sun. When he sighs over how much he’ll miss Poor Miss Taylor, Emma reminds him that the Westons only live a half-mile off.

"…We shall be always meeting! We must begin; we must go and pay our wedding-visit very soon."

My dear, how am I to get so far? Randalls is such a distance. I could not walk half so far.

"No, papa; nobody thought of your walking. We must go in the carriage, to be sure."

The carriage! But James will not like to put the horses to for such a little way;—and where are the poor horses to be while we are paying our visit?

They are to be put into Mr. Weston’s stable, papa. You know we have settled all that already. We talked it all over with Mr. Weston last night…

You can bet she’ll have to settle all that about six hundred times more before anybody gets anywhere near a carriage. You get the sense that Mr. Woodhouse is a temporal anomaly; he can slow time, stop it, and on good days even set it creeping in reverse.

He and Emma live in a great house called Hartfield, whose palatial grounds abut a small village, Highbury, in which the most of the novel’s other characters live in the kind of rustic cheerfulness that makes them no match at all for Emma. She’s basically a queen on a chessboard where the only other players left are pawns. And as we’ll see, that’s pretty much how she treats them.

But she does long for someone who isn’t abject or overawed in her presence—someone with whom she can have an actual conversation. And here he comes now, dropping by to relieve the tedium in which Mr. Woodhouse has been so happily marinating: Mr Knightley, a sensible man about seven or eight and thirty, a longtime friend of the family and, since Emma’s sister’s marriage to his own brother, a member of the extended family himself.

Emma is delighted to see him, though Mr. Woodhouse is concerned that he’s come at so late an hour; I am afraid you must have had a shocking walk—as though a stroll through the chill night air were the equivalent of being beset by bears. Mr. Knightley assures him of having been assaulted by nothing more discomposing than beautiful moonlight.

But you must have found it very damp and dirty. I wish you may not catch cold.

Dirty, sir! Look at my shoes. Not a speck on them.

Well! That is quite surprising, for we have had a vast deal of rain here. It rained dreadfully hard for half an hour, while we were at breakfast. I wanted them to put off the wedding.

With just a little more youth and vigor, Mr. Woodhouse would be the kind of character you find in Gothic horror fiction, burying children in the basement to save them from the cruel world. As if to reinforce this, he now hangs his head, for talk has turned—inevitably—to the day’s festivities. Ah! Poor Miss Taylor! ‘tis a sad business, he says, lamenting that the lady in question has got away from him before he could have her walled up in the linen pantry. Mr. Knightley tries to make him see that the change is a happy one for the bride, it being better to have only one to please than two.

"Especially when one of those two is a fanciful, troublesome creature! said Emma playfully. That is what…you would certainly say if my father were not by."

I believe it is very true, my dear, indeed, said Mr. Woodhouse with a sigh. I am afraid I am sometimes very fanciful and troublesome.

"My dearest papa! You do not think I could mean you…I meant only myself. Mr. Knightley loves to find fault with me, you know—in a joke—it is all a joke. We always say what we like to each other."

After three novels, we know instantly what Austen is setting up here. In the oeuvre of this supposedly proto-romantic writer, lovers are marked as predestined for each other not by deranging fits of attraction, or attacks of galloping passion, but by spiky, brittle, stinging bouts of conversation—in fact, by mockery and sarcasm. Emma and Knightley’s snarky verbal jousting is just Austen’s version of a full-throttle Puccini duet, with trills and crescendos and a chorus of sixty on the bridge.

And if you need any further proof, this early in the novel, that the romance quotient going forward will be hovering at just about zero, here’s Emma’s retelling (to Knightley, who wasn’t there) of the nuptial ceremony itself, in all its giddy, flowery, transcendent sentimentality:

Well, said Emma…you want to hear about the wedding; and I shall be happy to tell you, for we all behaved charmingly. Every body was punctual, every body in their best looks: not a tear, and hardly a long face to be seen. Oh, no; we all felt that we were going to be only half a mile apart, and were sure of meeting every day.

For Austen, who usually dashes out descriptions of weddings in a single line, with all the ardor of a Post-It note reminder to buy mouthwash, the fragment above really is an outpouring of detail.

Emma then adds that, much as she’ll miss her governess, she takes pride in the marriage being of her own devising. I made the match, you know, she brags, four years ago; and to have it take place…when so many people said Mr. Weston would never marry again, may comfort me for any thing. At which her father begs her never, ever to do any such thing again, for whatever you say always comes to pass. Pray do not make any more matches.

I promise to make none for myself, papa; but I must, indeed, for other people. It is the greatest amusement in the world!

And there it is, right there: the rest of the novel all laid out for us. Because we can see what Mr. Knightley sees: that despite Emma’s long (very long) account of her campaign to land Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston at the altar together, the resultant wedding can scarcely be claimed as her success.

"Success supposes endeavour. Your time has been properly and delicately spent, if you have been endeavouring for the last four years to bring about this marriage. A worthy employment for a young lady’s mind! but if, which I rather imagine, your making the match, as you call it, means only…your saying to yourself one idle day, ‘I think it would be a very good thing for Miss Taylor if Mr. Weston were to marry her,’ and saying it again to yourself every now and then afterwards,—why do you talk of success? where is your merit? what are you proud of? You made a lucky guess; and that is all that can be said."

Emma shoots back that a lucky guess is never merely luck. There is always some talent in it, which Knightley waves away with, A straight-forward, open-hearted man, like Weston, and a rational unaffected woman, like Miss Taylor, may be safely left to manage their own concerns. You are more likely to have done harm to yourself, than good to them, by interference

…and yes, I confess, I could happily sit and listen to them snipe at each other like this until my spine permanently curved. As I noted earlier (in my discussion of Lizzy and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice), Austen’s acerbic, sarcastic, unwitting lovers belong to a tradition that goes back at least to Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick, and on through Tracy and Hepburn, right up to…well, choose your sitcom, basically. But nobody has ever done it better than our gal J.A. and her baaaad attitude.

Emma then brazenly flouts Knightley’s judgment of her by announcing that she’s already settled on the new clergyman, Mr. Elton, as the next beneficiary of her matchmaking skills. He’s been at Highbury a full year and it’s high time he was saddled with a wife, and besides, when he was officiating at the wedding earlier that day, he looked so much as if he would like to have the same kind of office done for him! I think very well of Mr. Elton, and this is the only way I have of doing him a service.

So right away, we know Mr. Elton is in trubbah. And so does Knightley, who says, Invite him to dinner, Emma, and help him to the best of the fish and the chicken, but leave him to choose his own wife. Depend upon it, a man of six or seven and twenty can take care of himself. But this bit of wisdom doesn’t reflect quite as handsomely on Knightley as it might, because if he were really wise he’d realize that saying it aloud will have precisely the opposite effect of the one intended. Unless he wants Emma to go rushing out into the larger world, grabbing people by their collars and making a first-class idiot of herself. Which, now that I think of it…hmm.

The succeeding chapter switches gears in order to give us the back-story of the bridegroom. Here’s where Austen’s juvenile years, penning three- and four-page epics in which people meet, love, and die amidst all manner of tumult and tragedy, show their bounty; because the story of Mr. Weston functions almost as a little novella all on its own.

The youngest of three brothers, he eschewed their homely pursuits in order to enter the militia; then, as Captain Weston, he met a certain Miss Churchill of a great Yorkshire family, and the two fell in love. Miss Churchill’s brother and his wife, full of pride and importance, which the connection would offend, opposed the match; but Miss Churchill defied them and married Mr. Weston anyway, and her relations threw her off. Alas, the resulting union was not a happy one.

[Miss Churchill] had resolution enough to pursue her own will in spite of her brother, but not enough to refrain from unreasonable regrets at that brother’s unreasoning anger, nor from missing the luxuries of her former home. They lived beyond their income, but still it was nothing in comparison to Enscombe; she did not cease to love her husband; but she wanted at once to be the wife of Captain Weston, and Miss Churchill of Enscombe.

If we must have modern writers undertaking Jane Austen sequels and prequels, you’d think one of them would at least be enterprising enough to tackle this intriguing creature, instead of yet more intensive scrutiny into the navel of Fitzwilliam Darcy.

Anyway, the former Miss Churchill bore a son and died, leaving Captain Western a whole lot poorer and burdened with a baby. But the brother and sister-in-law stepped in to relieve him; having had their tempers softened by their sister’s illness, and having no children of their own, nor any other young creature of equal kindred to care for, [they] offered to take the whole charge of little Frank soon after her decease.

Suddenly liberated from all responsibility, Captain Weston left the militia, went into trade, prospered, moved to Highbury, and the next eighteen or twenty years of his life passed cheerfully away, apparently so very cheerfully that we can’t be sure which it was, eighteen or twenty, which every alcoholic reading the book is sure to sympathize with. Little Frank, in the meantime, so ingratiated himself in his uncle and aunt’s affections that they bestowed their name on him as well. He has grown up a very fine young man, as Mr. Weston is able to report to all his neighbors, for he sees his son every year in London, and they’re on very good terms. In a small provincial town with a limited pool of inhabitants and a higher-than-average ratio of middle-aged biddies, this kind of material proves tinder for a whole firestorm of gossip.

Mr. Frank Churchill was one of the boasts of Highbury, and a lively curiosity to see him prevailed, though the compliment was so little returned that he had never been there in his life. His coming to visit his father had been often talked of but never achieved.

Now, upon his father’s marriage, it was very generally proposed, as a most proper attention, that the visit should take place.

Then, as if to swell the excitement to first-strike nuclear proportions, we find out that Frank Churchill has written to his new stepmother to congratulate her on the marriage.

For a few days every morning visit in Highbury included some mention of the handsome letter Mrs. Weston had received. I suppose you have heard of the handsome letter Mr. Frank Churchill had written to Mrs. Weston? I understood it was a very handsome letter, indeed. Mr. Woodhouse told me of it. Mr. Woodhouse saw the letter, and he says he never saw such a handsome letter in his life.

Aside from being a wonderfully funny evocation of the head-banging monotony of what passes for interest in village life, this is also our first indication that in fact Mr. Woodhouse is really one of the novel’s cast of clucking old hens; but after the first twinge of surprise, it does seem entirely right.

The handsome letter provides Mr. Woodhouse a distraction from his continuing distress over the loss of Miss Taylor to the rapacious world in which people insist on actually doing things. We hear of occasions on which he and Emma left her at Randalls in the centre of every domestic comfort, or saw her go away in the evening attended by her pleasant husband to a carriage of her own—and each time Mr. Woodhouse heaves a sigh and says, Ah, poor Miss Taylor! She would be very glad to stay. But soon enough the novelty of the wedding subsides, and Mr. Woodhouse enjoys some welcome relief.

The compliments of his neighbors were over; he was no longer teased by being wished joy of so sorrowful an event; and the wedding-cake, which had been a great distress to him, was all ate up.

That’s right—in addition to being a control-freak and a gossip, Mr. Woodhouse is also a crank. His own stomach could bear nothing rich, and he could never believe other people to be different from himself. Austen riffs on this for a while, turning the wedding cake into the prop for a whole comic monologue, but while we’re laughing we’re wondering what new ghastly trait Mr. Woodhouse will exhibit next. Maybe he’s parsimonious, or flatulent, or beats the household dogs with a crop.

We have a chance to see him now in a new setting, as the scene shifts to an evening party at Hartfield—this being a regular occurrence at the great house, because Mr. Woodhouse was fond of society in his own way. He liked very much to have his friends come and see him, for which reason there was scarcely an evening in the week in which Emma could not make up a card-table for him.

Alas, not all is pleasure for the paterfamilias on these occasions.

He loved to have the cloth laid, because it had been the fashion of his youth; but his conviction of suppers being very unwholesome made him rather sorry to see anything put on it; and while his hospitality would have welcomed his visiters to every thing, his care for their health made him grieve that they would eat.

Not that anyone can really tuck in anyway, with Mr. Woodhouse hovering over them and parceling out crumbs as though they might be radioactive:

"Mrs. Bates, let me propose your venturing on one of these eggs. An egg boiled very soft is not unwholesome. Serle understands boiling an egg better than any body. I would not recommend an egg boiled by any body else,—but you not need be afraid, they are very small, you see,—one of our small eggs will not hurt you. Miss Bates, let Emma help you to a little bit of tart—a very little bit…Mrs. Goddard, what say you to half a glass of wine? A small half glass, put into a tumbler of water? I do not think it could disagree with you."

(I like to picture him attempting this kind of thing at one of my Italian family’s free-for-alls. Interpose yourself between a guest and the pasta platter there, and you risk having your arm devoured along with the pappardelle.)

The Miss Bates to whom Mr. Woodhouse addresses himself here is one of several new characters we meet in this chapter, and the only one who can match him for sheer comic verve. She is the single daughter of an ancient mother—the widow of a former vicar of Highbury…a very old lady, almost past every thing but tea and quadrille—and the two live alone very humbly (or, since most of Highbury lives humbly, I should say very very humbly).

Miss Bates stood in the very worst predicament in the world for having much of the public favor; and she had no intellectual superiority to make atonement to herself, or frighten those who might hate her, into outward respect. She had never boasted either beauty or cleverness. Her youth had passed without distinction, and her middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible. And yet she was a happy woman, and a woman whom no one named without good-will.

But beyond this, she is a talker; perhaps the most voluble and indefatigable of any talker Jane Austen ever invented. She doesn’t say much in this first chapter of our acquaintance with her—or rather, Austen doesn’t report much of what she says, because you can bet both your ass and your assets she’s off in the margins somewhere firing away like a gatling gun—but we’ll become exhaustively familiar with her epic chattering before too long.

The other new characters—who join Mrs. and Miss Bates, the Westons, and Mr. Knightley as the dinner guests this evening—include Mr. Elton, the young cleric Emma has chosen to play Cupid for (a young man living alone without liking it, for whom the privilege of exchanging any vacant evening of his own blank solitude for the elegancies and society of Mr. Woodhouse’s drawing-room and the smiles of his lovely daughter is just the ticket, thanks).

Then there’s Mrs. Goddard, the mistress of a school; she’s one of Austen’s blander creations, but provides the opportunity for one of her more spirited snarks:

Mrs. Goddard was the mistress of a school,—not a seminary, or an establishment, or any thing which professed, in long sentences of refined nonsense, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality, upon new principles and new systems,—and where young ladies for enormous pay might be screwed out of health and into vanity,—but a real, honest, old fashioned boarding-school, where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price, and where girls might be sent to be out of the way, and scramble themselves into a little education, without any danger of coming back prodigies.

And finally we have Harriet Smith, a pretty young girl who happens to be one of those non-prodigies. She is the natural daughter of somebody. Somebody had placed her, several years back, at Mrs. Goddard’s school, and somebody had lately raised her from the condition of scholar to that of parlour boarder. This was all that was generally known of her history. Miss Smith has fallen into easy intimacy with some tenants of Mr. Knightley, named Martin, but Emma, impressed by Harriet’s looks and demeanor, thinks she deserves better, and needs only a little notice and encouragement to rise higher. Which is of course just the thing Emma loves better than a hound loves a hambone.

She would notice her; she would improve her; she would detach her from her bad acquaintance, and introduce her into good society; she would form her opinions and her manners. It would be an interesting and certainly a very kind undertaking; highly becoming to her own situation in life, her leisure, and powers.

At this point you may actually find yourself thinking a little bit ahead; and if the train of your thought is along the lines of, Aha! Emma wants to marry off Mr. Elton, and she wants to improve Miss Smith’s situation. Two birds, one stone, maybe?—well, then, give yourself a big gold star and as many goddamned boiled eggs as you want, you great big genius, you.

Then read on to see how it all starts going horribly awry.

Chapters 4-6

We return to Hartfield to find Harriet Smith not only a regular visitor to the house, but totally BFF’s with Emma. Though what Emma requires of a friend is maybe a tad different from you and me.

As a walking companion…Emma had very early foreseen how useful she might find [Harriet]. In that respect Mrs. Weston’s loss had been important…since Mrs. Weston’s marriage her exercise had been too much confined. She had ventured once alone to Randalls, but it was not pleasant; and a Harriet Smith, therefore, one whom she could summon at any time to walk, would be a valuable addition to her privileges.

In Austen-land, the standard for perfection is set by Lizzy Bennet, who, as you’ll recall, was an enthusiastic—in fact a relentless—walker, and so far from being unhappy to walk alone, seemed actively to prefer it. So Austen is clearly inviting us to judge Emma here; this girl’s ego is so big, she can’t stroll half a mile on her own (it was not pleasant) without someone trotting along behind her to listen to all her idle thoughts, and to coo and gasp and applaud and fill up the distance from point A to point B with continual affirmations of Emma Woodhouse’s complete and utter genius. And Harriet Smith, being totally free from conceit; and only desiring to be guided by any one she looked up to, is just the gal for the job. You could put a collar on her and throw sticks for her to fetch, and keep her busy for the better part of the day.

Though from Emma’s skewed point of view, Harriet is the one who’s benefiting from the friendship. She means to be useful to Harriet—in the way Christian missionaries were useful to happy, guilt-free, self-reliant Pacific islanders—and her first attempts at usefulness were in an endeavour to find out who were the parents; but Harriet could not tell. Emma is completely vexed by Harriet’s inability to satisfy her desire to know what isn’t even remotely her business anyway. She "could never believe that in the same situation she should not have discovered the truth. Harriet had no penetration. She had been satisfied to hear and believe just what Mrs. Goddard chose to tell her; and looked no farther." Just what Emma would have done differently under those circumstances she doesn’t say; maybe get Mrs. Goddard in a chokehold and refuse to let go till she divulged?…Or engage in some Haley Mills-style breaking into the school’s office after lights-out and rifle through Mrs. Goddard’s desk, while a pliant and easily spooked schoolmate (Harriet again) nervously stood watch?

Thwarted in her attempts to suss out her new friend’s origins, Emma means at least to break off Harriet’s intimacy with the Martins, the lowly farming family who are her only friends outside the school…excepting, of course, now Emma. Not that Emma’s a snob, exactly; in fact at first she actually encourages Harriet to tell her about the Martins, amused by such a picture of another set of beings; she enjoys hearing of their "eight cows, two of them Alderneys, and one a very pretty little Welsh cow, indeed; and of Mrs. Martin’s saying, as she was so fond of it, it should be called her cow". This is all Jules Verne to Emma; if Harriet were to speak of hoeing the chickens and milking the cat, Emma wouldn’t blink.

But she quickly changes her mind when she learns that the household—which she had believed to comprise a mother and daughter, a son and son’s wife—is in fact entirely short on the latter; which means that pretty, tail-wagging, eager-to-please Harriet has been lurking in the vicinity of a hot-blooded single fella. Suddenly on red alert, Emma prods Harriet on the subject of Robert Martin, which unleashes a torrent of gushy, girlish anecdote, some of it alarmingly courtly—He had his shepherd’s son into the parlour one night on purpose to sing to her, for instance; which, let me just give props to the guy, is a totally smooth move and would probably work even today. If you could find a shepherd’s son. Or a parlour.

Her suspicions confirmed, Emma now switches to another line of questioning—all phrased with such particularity that you can almost see the grimace on her face, as though she’s trying to dislodge something caught in her back teeth. For instance: Mr. Martin, I suppose, is not a man of information beyond the line of his own business. He does not read? Fortunately, Harriet is impervious to subtlety of any kind, and responds by enthusiastically listing everything Robert has ever read, from the Agricultural Reports to "some other books that lie in one of the window seats—but he reads all them to himself," which I’m sorry, just makes me think Robert retires to that window seat on the pretense of reading, then curls up for a good, long snooze. In a house brimming with all those wimmenfolk, could you blame him?

When Emma asks What sort of looking man is Mr. Martin?, Harriet begins to explain (not a hottie, it turns out; but the kind whose appearance improves the more you know him), then asks Emma, But did you never see him? Because of course it would be incredible if she didn’t, there being only twenty-three people in all of Highbury. Emma draws herself up, Lady Bracknell style, and says:

…I may have seen him fifty times, but without any idea of his name. A young farmer, whether on horseback or on foot, is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity. The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do. A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other. But a farmer can need none of my help, and is therefore, in one sense, as much above my notice, as in every other he is below it.

Right, then. We love us some haughty Emma, but when it comes to it, we won’t be entirely sorry to see her with egg on her face. A fully-loaded bacon-and-three-cheese omelet, even.

When Emma asks how old Robert Martin is, Harriet says, He was four-and-twenty the 8th of last June, and my birthday is the 23d; just a fortnight and a day’s difference; which is very odd. These are the kind of lovely little flourishes that reveal Austen’s genius,; because of course a fifteen-day difference in birthdays isn’t remarkable at all; it would only seem so to someone who’s passionately smitten. We see this; and possibly Emma does too, because she now declares him far too young to marry.

Six years hence, if he could meet with a good sort of young woman in the same rank as his own, and with a little money, it might be very desirable.

Six years hence! dear Miss Woodhouse, he would be thirty years old.

Well, and that is as early as most men can afford to marry, who are not born to an independence.

Emma’s about as subtle as a pile-driver in this scene; fortunately, she’s talking to Harriet, who’s so naïve you could chain her to a radiator for two solid years before she would infer any ill intent. I mean, just listen to the absolutely shameless way Emma goes on from here; a slightly sharper-than-average gibbon would twig to what she’s trying to do.

I wish you may not get into a scrape, Harriet, whenever he does marry.—I mean, as to being acquainted with his wife; for though his sisters, from a superior education, are not to be altogether objected to, it does not follow that he might marry any body at all fit for you to notice…There can be no doubt of your being a gentleman’s daughter, and you must support your claim to that station by every thing within your own power, or there will be plenty of people who would take pleasure in degrading you.

Harriet flutters and clucks and curtseys and rolls over on her back, so grateful is she for Emma’s patronage; but Emma tells her, I would have you so firmly established in good society, as to be independent even of Hartfield and Miss Woodhouse, and let’s give her the benefit of the doubt, maybe at that moment she actually, honestly believes what she’s saying; but of course she is who she is, and her real motive is to be able to go through life pointing out Harriet at dinner parties and boasting "I made her—just before pointing to Mr. and Mrs. Weston and nodding, Them, too."

Emma gets a chance to judge how well the seeds she’s planted have taken root, because the next day she and Harriet run into Robert Martin in the flesh. Emma—who stands aside during the encounter (because Robert isn’t fit to be introduced to her)—observes him, and finds him presentable enough, but when he came to be contrasted with gentlemen, she thought he must lose all the ground he had gained in Harriet’s inclination. Harriet was not insensible of manner…Mr. Martin looked as if he did not know what manner was.

Accordingly, when they part, Emma wastes not a moment in quashing the little tizzy of happiness Harriet has taken away from the encounter, by hammering it hard with a great big gentleman-shaped cudgel.

He is very plain, undoubtedly, remarkably plain; but that is nothing, compared with his entire want of gentility. I had no right to expect much, and I did not expect much; but I had no idea that he could be so very clownish, so totally without air. I had imagined him, I confess, a degree or two nearer gentility…At Hartfield, you have had very good specimens of well educated, well bred men. I should be surprised if, after seeing them, you could be in company with Mr. Martin again without perceiving him to be a very inferior creature,—and rather wondering at yourself for having thought him agreeable at all.

Harriet immediately acquiesces—if she had a tail, she’d tuck it between her bloomers—and says yes, of course, you’re right, I’m so stupid, I’m an idiot, and Emma just keeps banging away, relentlessly, asking Harriet only to consider Robert Martin next to gentlemen like, for instance, purely chosen at random, Mr. Weston and Mr. Elton. When Harriet basically gags at the idea of Mr. Weston, who is just so totally ancient (being, ahem, between forty and fifty—thanks a lot there, Harriet), Emma admonishes her by asking her to consider what Robert Martin will be like at the same age: a completely gross, vulgar farmer,—totally inattentive to appearances, and thinking of nothing but profit and loss.

But then, having defended his honor, Emma sets Mr. Weston aside to focus on Mr. Elton, which has been her plan all along. She bends Harriet’s ear about what a sweet, sweet piece of superfine he is:

…I think a young man might be very safely recommended to take Mr. Elton as a model. Mr. Elton is good humored, cheerful, obliging, and gentle. He seems to me to be grown particularly gentle of late. I do not know whether he had any design of ingratiating himself with either of us, Harriet, by additional softness, but it strikes me that his manners are softer than they used to be. If he means any thing, it must be to please you.

And with that, she’s off and running. She can practically smell the flowers strewn about the nuptial altar already. And she’s congratulating herself for having put it all together, especially because Mr. Elton is that rarest of creatures, being quite the gentleman himself and without low connections; at the same time not of any family that could fairly object to the doubtful birth of Harriet. Emma’s only worry is that the match is so obviously a perfect one that no one will give her much merit in planning it, which of course is the real motive for the whole shebang. But she hopes the sheer speed with which she lashes the young couple together for life will earn her an extra credit or two; and she doesn’t doubt Harriet will fall right in line with what’s expected of her, for a girl who could be gratified by Robert Martin’s riding about the country to get walnuts for her might very well be conquered by Mr. Elton’s admiration.

All of Jane Austen’s early novels are to some degree about class—certainly more so than about romance—and we’ve become accustomed to seeing her heroines struggle against the barriers that their unspectacular births have set for them. So it’s a bit of a shock, in this novel, suddenly to see an Austen heroine on the other side of that struggle, in the role usually reserved for the likes of Caroline Bingley or Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Emma’s snobbishness, and her virtual brutality towards Harriet and Robert Martin, seem at first to be ameliorated by good intentions; by being inspired by a desire to help Harriet improve her lot in life. (Women could leap up a class ranking or two by means of marriage; unlike men, who were basically stuck. Occasionally an industrious man might pull himself out of what Emma calls the yeomanry by making a fortune, but that didn’t land him in the gentry—it landed him in the brand-new merchant class, which to the gentry was just the same pigs in a different pen.)

But Emma’s presumed kindness to Harriet is, as we have seen, more selfishly motivated than not. And Emma dipping below the class barrier to befriend Harriet isn’t so beneficent a character trait as it might seem, because if she didn’t stoop so low, she’d have pretty much no one to hang out with at all. It’s not like Highbury is crawling with debutantes. Emma’s endeavors on Harriet’s behalf are designed to manufacture, from raw materials, a friend worthy of the great Miss Woodhouse; one whom Miss Woodhouse may also then have the satisfaction of displaying as her own creation, a là Henry Higgins (or, for that matter, Victor Frankenstein).

What follows now is a scene remarkable for Austen; it’s a chapter devoted entirely to a conversation between Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston. Only rarely does Austen tack away from her protagonist’s point of view to give us a slice of narrative from someone else’s perspective; in Pride and Prejudice she occasionally cuts away to Darcy and the Bingley siblings at Netherfield, and in Mansfield Park she teases us with an occasional private bout of banter between Henry and Mary Crawford. What makes the present instance so surprising is that it occurs so early in the narrative; we’re only four chapters in, and Austen’s already abandoning her titular heroine so that other voices can have their say. Clearly she’s feeling her powers—flexing her muscles and extending her reach.

But while Emma may not be present in the flesh, she looms large in Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston’s thoughts. Knightley has sought out the former governess to bitch about Emma’s sudden friendship with Harriet Smith; he maintains that neither of them will do the other any good. Mrs. Weston disagrees, and warns him, This will certainly be the beginning of one of our quarrels about Emma, which tantalizes us with the suggestion that there have been others…going back how far, we can only wonder. (Given that it’s Emma, infancy wouldn’t strain our credulity.)

Mrs. Weston argues that the two girls will do each other good, accusing Knightley of objecting to Harriet for not being the superior young woman which Emma’s friend ought to be. But, on the other hand, as Emma wants to see her better informed, it will be an inducement to her to read more herself. They will read together. Knightley scoffs at this.

Emma has been meaning to read more ever since she was twelve years old. I have seen a great many lists of her drawing up at various times of books that she meant to read regularly through—and very good lists they were—very well chosen, and very neatly arranged—sometimes alphabetically, and sometimes by some other rule.

In other words, the road to hell is paved by Emma Woodhouse. Or by her lists, anyway, whether alphabetical or otherwise. Knightley goes on to say that Emma is spoiled by being the cleverest of her family. At ten years old she had the misfortune of being able to answer questions which puzzled her sister at seventeen. She was always quick and assured, and the implication here is that she’s so clever she outwits even herself. Emma can talk herself into believing anything she wishes, and can persuade herself that anything she desires, she ought to have. She is, in short, a total Heather.

Mrs. Weston takes this criticism a tad personally, because (ahem) until recently she was in charge of both Emma’s reading and Emma’s character. She tells Knightley she’s glad she didn’t have to leave Hartfield for another post and rely on him for a reference, because he clearly thinks she blew chunks as Emma’s governess. Knightley backpedals, but without quite bothering to deny it.

"You are better placed here, very fit for a wife, but not at all for a governess. But you were preparing yourself to be an excellent wife all the time you were at Hartfield…you were receiving a very good education from [Emma], on the very material matrimonial point of submitting your own will, and doing as you were bid…"

Mrs. Weston points out that obedience and submission aren’t exactly skills she requires as the wife of her easygoing, what’s-for-dinner-that-sounds-perfect husband; but she thanks Knightley for the compliment anyway, though we can guess she privately would like to give him a gentle shove out the sitting-room window.

Knightley—who’s on quite a tear, here—then lays into Harriet, calling her the very worst sort of companion that Emma could possibly have, given that she knows nothing herself, and looks upon Emma as knowing every thing. She is a flatterer in all her ways…How can Emma imagine she has any thing to learn herself, while Harriet is presenting such a delightful inferiority? He adds for good measure that Emma’s company will likewise ruin Harriet, because she will grow just refined enough to be uncomfortable with those among whom birth and circumstance have placed her home, which makes me suspect that Knightley has cheated by reading ahead.

Somehow Mrs. Weston manages to steer the conversation onto Emma’s looks, which is one area where she and Knightley can agree, and they spend a few paragraphs going all moony over how luscious and creamy and delicious she is, to the point that it starts to feel just a hair creepy (oh, what a bloom of full health, and such a pretty height and size; such a firm and upright figure. There is health, not merely in her bloom, but in her air, her head, her glance). But finally Knightley, who must be having some kind of gastric trouble today, manages to swing the topic back around to something he can bitch about.

I think her all you describe. I love to look at her; and I will add this praise, that I do not think her personally vain. Considering how very handsome she is, she appears to be little occupied with it; her vanity lies another way.

Aaaaand then it’s back to the races, with more Harriet Smith bashing and general this-will-not-end-well spouting. Eventually he and Mrs. Weston agree to a truce, which Knightley caps by sighing, I wonder what will become of her, then adding:

She always declares she will never marry, which, of course, means just nothing at all. But I have no idea that she has yet ever seen a man she cared for. It would not be a bad thing for her to be very much in love with a proper object. I should like to see Emma in love, and in some doubt of a return; it would do her good.

Ah, but what about in love and with every indication of a return?…As we’ll soon find out, Mr. Knightley won’t be quite as sanguine about that, and will be driven to fuming and snorting and stamping his great big feet on the carpet. Because…? Well, we know why, and so does Mrs. Weston, who acknowledges his little outburst while taking care to conceal some favorite thoughts of her own and Mr. Weston’s on the subject as much as possible.

And on that note, we check back in on Emma, who’s pretty content with her own favorite thoughts on the subject of Mr. Elton and Harriet Smith. She’s been drawing the two together, and is now quite convinced of Mr. Elton’s being in the fairest way of falling in love, if not in love already. Her evidence? He talked of Harriet; and praised her so warmly—but hold on, let’s just hear a little bit of that warmth and ardor, shall we?

You have given Miss Smith all that she required, said he: you have made her graceful and easy. She was a beautiful creature when she came to you; but in my opinion, the attractions you have added are infinitely superior to what she received from nature.

I am glad you think I have been of useful to her; but Harriet only wanted drawing out…I have, perhaps, given her a little more decision of character,—which taught her to think on points which had not been in her way before.

Exactly so; that is what principally strikes me. So much superadded decision of character! Skilful has been the hand.

Not being idiots, we can immediately see that Mr. Elton is falling all over himself to compliment Emma and her influence, not Harriet and her improvement. And when he reiterates his praise, with a sort of sighing animation which had a vast deal of the lover, Emma just takes it for granted that the object of the sighs is Harriet. So Mr. Knightley is correct, and she isn’t vain about her own beauty; but her vanity is on titanic display here all the same—because she’s just blithely presuming that the various human beings around her will easily bend and twist themselves to her will.

Emma continues what she considers a flirtation by proxy with Mr. Elton—unaware that he considers it a flirtation front-and-center—by saying how much she’d like to have a good picture of Harriet in all her improvement. I would give any money for it. I almost long to attempt her likeness myself. Which is all Mr. Elton has to hear before he’s down on one knee entreating her to please, please, oh pretty-pretty-super-please take on the project. I know what your drawings are. How could you suppose me ignorant? Is not this room rich in specimens of your landscapes and flowers? and has not Mrs. Weston some inimitable figure-pieces in her drawing-room at Randalls? Emma allows the compliment, but wonders what has all that to do with taking likenesses? Really, a blow to the back of her head couldn’t make her any stupider than she is right here.

Mr. Elton dances around her some more, beseeching her in the kind of fawning language that makes Mr. Collins’s spectacular ass-kissing of Lady Catherine de Bourgh sound almost half-hearted. Emma rewards him by fetching her old portfolio, which contains all her previous attempts at portraiture, before she let the habit lapse—the way, we’re told, she’s let every serious attempt at mastering any accomplishment wither away. She played and sang, and drew in almost every style; but steadiness had always been wanting…She was not much deceived as to her own skill, either as an artist or a musician; but she was not unwilling to have others deceived, as witness how she clearly doesn’t mind Mr. Elton’s gasps of admiration now.

There was merit in every drawing, Austen concedes—adding pointedly, in the least finished, perhaps the most. Yet Emma spends an entire page taking Mr. Elton through every single likeness, elaborately explaining whose it is and how she came to do it and why she ultimately gave it up and what the weather was that day and what shoes she had on and when she broke for tea and whether she had biscuits or cake, and Mr. Elton can scarcely draw a breath, so spellbound is he by the entire narration. Emma could conclude by setting the whole portfolio on fire and beating him about the shoulders with it, and his raptures wouldn’t diminish one bit.

Finally—as if there were any doubt—Emma decides to end her long abandonment of the painter’s muse and take up her brushes again. [For] Harriet’s sake, or rather for my own, and as there are no husbands and wives in the case at present, I will break my resolution now. Mr. Elton latches onto that "No husbands and wives in the case at present" bit and repeats it just often enough, and with enough implied meaning, to make Emma go all smug about her mutant matchmaking powers again.

Before long she’s sketching away, with Harriet posing before her smiling and blushing, and with Mr. Elton hovering over her shoulder and letting out little chirps and twitters of delight. Emma gave him credit for stationing himself where he might gaze and gaze again [at Harriet] without offense; but was really obliged to put an end to it, and request him to place himself elsewhere. When the picture is finally finished and presented to the family, Mr. Elton was in continual raptures, and defended it through every criticism—as when Mr. Knightley dares to suggest that Emma has made Harriet too tall.

Oh, no—certainly not too tall—not in the least too tall. Consider she is sitting down, which naturally presents a different—which in short gives exactly the idea;—and the proportions must be preserved, you know. Proportions, fore-shortening:—oh no; it gives one exactly the idea of such a height as Miss Smith’s;—exactly so indeed.

Perhaps sensing that his role as the novel’s resident one-note gasbag is being usurped, Mr. Woodhouse interjects that while he likes the picture, Harriet seems to be sitting out of doors with only a little shawl over her shoulders; and it makes one think she must catch a cold.

But, my dear papa, it is supposed to be summer; a warm day in summer. Look at the tree.

But it is never safe to sit out of doors, my dear.

At which Mr. Elton vaults back into the fray, proclaiming it as a most happy thought, the placing Miss Smith out of doors, and the tree is touched with such inimitable spirit! Any other situation would have been much less in character, and yadda yadda yadda until Emma must feel tempted to go fetch her paintbox and revise the whole background with a good thick blanket of snow.

The next item of business is to have the thing framed, and only a London framer will do, and only Mr. Elton is to be considered, at his own insistence, for the near-sacred duty of taking possession of the canvas and escorting it to town and seeing it done, to the point at which he really seems fearful of not being incommoded enough.

What a precious deposit! said he, with a tender sigh, as he received it.

At which point even Emma has to roll her eyes. This man is almost too gallant to be in love, she thinks. In fact, she’s not a big fan of his; he does sigh and languish, and study for compliments rather more than I could endure as a principal. No, in fact, if she were the object of all his gushy moistness, she’d have to roll up a newspaper and swat him repeatedly on the nose with it. But for Harriet’s sake, she’ll put up with anything.

Anything, that is, except Harriet deciding for herself who she is and whom to love. And frankly, that’s a lesson it’s going to take more than the coming Mr. Elton meltdown to drive home.

Chapters 7-9

Mr. Elton has now gone off to London to have Emma’s portrait of Harriet Smith suitably framed—though you get the impression, by the interminable hosannas he keeps heaping on the picture, that for him the only suitable frame would be made of unicorn’s horn dusted with flecks of dandruff from the head of the god Apollo. As irritating as all his fawning and fluttering may be (and it’s very, very irritating), Emma wallows in it, because in her eyes it’s proof that he’s crushing just super hard on Harriet. What other possible explanation can there be? Especially when you’re Emma Woodhouse, and you’ve arranged your whole life so that your first idea about anything is bound to be a one-hundred-percent slam-dunk?

But then—alas, a complication. Harriet, far from waiting for Mr. Elton to return from London to bestow on Emma the framed portrait (and take as payment for his efforts the hand of its subject), comes boomeranging back to Highbury about twenty minutes after having left it, explaining at length (and we’re talking about Harriet here, so at length means basically a week and a half) that she’d no sooner got back to Mrs. Goddard’s than she found a letter awaiting her there, from Mr. Robert Martin, proposing that he yoke himself to her and spend the rest of their lives plowing the same furrow. Harriet is predictably surprised and flattered and abashed and uncertain and agog and exhilarated, and that’s just her first six syllables. After she’s finished bashing her way through the gamut of maidenly reactions she turns to Emma and asks what she should do, as though she only has enough mental energy to spare for things like maintaining basic respiration, with none left over for tough jobs like The Future.

Emma, however, is so taken aback by Robert Martin’s affrontery (Upon my word…the young man is determined not to lose any thing for want of asking. He will connect himself well if he can), that she doesn’t answer right away, so Harriet urges her to read the letter herself, to help frame her mind. Emma, we’re told, was not sorry to be pressed, presumably because it saves her having to snatch the thing out of Harriet’s fingers. And what do you know, she actually finds it to be a well-written piece of work, one that wouldn’t shame a gentleman. There were not merely no grammatical errors…It was short, but expressed good sense, warm attachment, liberality, propriety, even delicacy of feeling. So Emma’s left with all her scorn rolling around on her tongue, and no place to put it.

At least, not for long; for she quickly decides that one of his sisters must have helped him, and tells Harriet so. But, no—on second (or third?) thought, she admits that it is not the style of a woman…it is too strong and concise; not diffuse enough for a woman. No doubt he is a sensible man…Vigorous, decided, with sentiments to a certain point, but not coarse. A better written letter, Harriet (returning it to her) than I had expected.

Harriet is practically jogging in place in anticipation. Well…well—and—and what shall I do? Emma—and we can picture her

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Ce que les gens pensent de Bitch In a Bonnet

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  • (4/5)
    I finished the first volume of Bitch in a Bonnet, covering Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I'll pick up the second on Kindle when we get back to the states. There's one reason I wish I had it in hard copy, which is to give you more of his wonderful, funny quotes, like his description of Bingley and Jane: "Mr. Bingley, who's basically a man-sized plush toy, has fallen for Jane, the vanilla ice cream cone of the Bennett sisters. There's not enough erotic spark there to charge an AA battery."I thought he was right on the money with S & S and P& P, but not so much with Mansfield Park.I agree that MP is generally the least-liked of her six novels, and it's certainly my least favorite. And I agree that Fanny Price is the most difficult of Austen's heroines to warm up to. (A spoilery discussion of his take on MP follows).MANSFIELD PARK SPOILER: But his theory is that in MP she is trying to stretch herself with more complex characters and more subtle shadings than what has come before in S& S and P &P. The novel fails, in his view (although full of all sorts of good Austenian stuff), but it allows her to triumph with all she's learned in Emma. The problem for me is the characters are not more complex and the shadings are not more subtle. Mrs. Norris and Lady Bertram - please! It's just she's chosen a very reserved and reticent heroine (who's been taken from poverty to high society, so her caution seems reasonable), and she has the sibling Crawfords, who are a little reminiscent of Wickham - able to seem awfully good, but unable to overcome their baser instincts. (Well, Henry Crawford can't; Mary Crawford just wants to live in a high style and makes no bones about it).Rodi also thinks that Edmund should have married Mary, and Fanny should have married Henry, because reserved and somewhat dull Edmund and Fanny would have benefited from the Crawfords' liveliness, and the Crawfords would have been led to lead more kind, moral, sensitive of others lives. What he misses, from my POV, is that those relationships are about constancy vs. inconstancy. There's no way Mary could have lived the life of a clergyman's wife (as she well knew), and a life together with Edmund would have been a misery of entrapment and dissatisfaction. If Fanny had married Henry, there's no way he would've remained faithful, and even Mary acknowledged, while trying to put a happy face on the idea, that he would continue flirting with other women. Fanny would have been miserable, and she didn't even respect him in the first place. END OF SPOILERAnyway, it was great fun to read. Rodi's deeply steeped in Austen, wonderfully non-stuffy, like he's sitting and chatting with you, and quite insightful. He picked up on all sorts of things I missed, even though I've read the books multiple times.He believes Austen is widely mis-viewed as "a woman's writer . . . quaint and darling, doe-eyed and demure, parochial if not pastoral, and dizzyingly, swooningly romantic, the inventor and goddess of chick lit." Au contraire. She's "a sly subversive, a clear-eyed social Darwinist, and the most unsparing satirist of her century." She is "wicked, arch, and utterly merciless. She skewers the pompous, the pious, and the libidinous." He'd seat her with Voltaire, Twain and Swift.Yes! It is her dazzling wit, her eloquent way with the subtle but devastating skewer, that keeps so many coming back again and again. I think he goes too far and generalizes too much, though, in distancing her from romance novels and chick lit. We also come back because we care about Lizzie and Jane and Darcy, and Anne Eliot and Captain Wentworth and so on. But I like very much that he ranks her up there with Shakespeare. Me, too.
  • (2/5)
    As lovely and intriguing as the title is, the book itself just seems to be summaries of the plots of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park, with some commentary interjected about how some of the phrases used by the female characters were sharp, spiteful, sarcastic, etc.

    If you are reading the books themselves, i.e. instead of this one, you'd be able to spot for yourself if a character was being sharp, spiteful, sarcastic, etc.

    I don't generally need a study guide to point out the author's intent. If the author doesn't manage to do this in the original book, I tend to be of the opinion that either the author has failed me, or I have failed the author.

    So, as far as my estimation of this particular book goes...Meh.
  • (4/5)
    Taking part in the group read of Mansfield Park gave me an excuse to get a copy of this book. Along with Mansfield Park, it also contains his witty, opinionated and intelligent commentary on Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Reading each chapter in Austen followed by Rodi's commentary was like having an animated discussion with a good friend. He made me look at [Mansfield Park] from a different angle. I disagreed with him on some things (he dislikes Fanny Price!) and found myself agreeing with him on others. I had thought to save the other commentaries for my next reread of those books, but found myself unable to do so, having had so much fun with Mansfield Park. Rodi, who is very familiar with Austen's personal correspondence as well as her published books, sees her as not the genteel romantic she's stereo-typed as, but as an astute observer of social practices with a cutting wit that would make Mary Crawford blush. He points out the sly humor and finds both Elinor Dashwood and Lizzie Bennet to be utterly hilarious and charming women. This is an excellent companion for any reread of Austen, but also great fun for those who are familiar with her novels.
  • (5/5)
    Reading Bitch in a Bonnet by Robert Rodi is like getting together to discuss your favourite books with your wittiest, brashest, cleverest friend. Rodi clearly has an in-depth knowledge of the Austen novels, and what Austen is about, although if you're looking for very deep analysis I recommend going to a Norton Critical Edition, a Cambridge Companion, or the JASNA website. But they won't be this fun. Bitch in a Bonnet was originally published as a blog. There is also a Volume 2 that covers the other three main Austen novels.Some examples of favourite quips pulled out while flipping through the book (some of these are a bit over the top--the whole book isn't like this--that would be exhausting!):Sense & Sensibility:Describing the sisters: "Marianne is the girl outside the bar, alternately shrieking 'Wooo!' and throwing up on the sidewalk, and Elinor is the one pulling up to the curb to rescue her, saying,''This is absolutely the last time I do this,' which even she doesn't believe."On Marianne mooning over Wiilloughby: "Instead she spends her time banging gently against the front window, like a moth."Pride & Prejudice:Introducing characters: "Mr Bingley, who's basically a man-sized plush toy, has fallen for Jane, the vanilla ice-cream cone of the Bennet sisters. There's not enough erotic spark here to charge an AA battery."On Col Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth teasing Darcy at Roslings: "Possibly he and Lizzy high-five after that one; Austen doesn't say."Mr Gardiner at Pemberley: ". . . they aren't ready to go yet. Mr. Gardiner still has E tickets in his booklet and he's not budging till he's used them."Jane & Bingley after their engagement: "This leaves Bingley and Jane to lead the way, billing and cooing and disporting themselves in Arcadian bliss--perhaps Bingley wears a tunic and sandals, and strums a lyre while Jane makes figure-8's in the air with a sash . . . "Mansfield Park:On Lady Bertram: "Lady Bertram doesn't venture out to witness her daughters' triumphs, because that would require things like listening to other people speak, not being in the supine, and a pulse. Seriously, at this point I doubt her ankles even work anymore. When she dangles her feet over the edge of her chaise, I imagine they just drape there, like Salvador Dali's clocks."and"This leaves Fanny to stay at home and keep Lady Bertram company, which has got to be a fairly easy task, given that Lady Bertram mainly passes the time by making mouth bubbles."I think his treatment of Mansfield Park is the weakest of the three, as he strongly dislikes Fanny Price and I think he lets that get in his way. Conversely, he adores Elizabeth Bennet (as do I) and some of his best material centres on her.Recommended for: this is a must-read for anyone who loves reading Austen and who dearly loves to laugh.