The most Sensible of all

sense-sensibility

JANE AUSTEN – Sense and Sensibility

“I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold; surfaces strange and uncouth, which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight, which ought only to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere.”

This telling line comes from Edward, our protagonist Elinor’s love interest. And as is so common in an Austen novel, the questions of sense and who we are, people in general and how varying things drive us, take central focus.

From pride and our bias in judging others, to how we differ wildly in similar circumstances, and hold and present ourselves to the world in light of it all… Sense and Sensibility is a novel of character study, and a novel one at that. 😉

But isn’t a novel about people, and who we are inherently, going to maybe, bore a reader? All those questions of why, how, and then throw in class and money… how can that be at all entertaining? How can it fill 394 pages with tiny type, and keep you enthralled?

Why, it is fascinating simply by being the focus on one of the most interesting animals on the planet… humans! We are the most unique species, in all of our differing views, the things that drive us, our individual opinions and those things that light our fire… the way we respond to things or NOT, and even how we conduct ourselves in our day to day… Jane Austen takes these questions and applies them to, yet another love story.

An interesting one. (There is no other option for her).

The story focuses primarily on the two eldest sisters in a family of 3, after their father has fallen to illness and passed on. Elinor, our protagonist: reserved, careful and smart with her statements which are well thought out and considered before they are brought to air –

“…as Elinor had had time enough to collect her thoughts, she was able to give such an answer, and make such observations, as the subject might naturally be supposed to produce.”

And then Marianne, the slightly younger sister, and also you could say, young and immature in heart and nature. Because Marianne is such a polar opposite of her sister, it is this difference that makes the story move in such an interesting fashion. Marianne is passionate, liberal with her thoughts and opinions, and thinks anything that isn’t bold and brash and colourful is just plain boring.

“I could not be happy with a man whose taste did not in every point coincide with my own. He must enter into all my feelings; the same books, the same music must charm us both… to hear those beautiful lines which have frequently almost driven me wild, pronounced with such impenetrable calmness, such dreadful indifference!”

And an interesting picture begins to form. Perhaps Elinor says it best (and so eloquently as she does) in regards to Marianne’s statement about having no one to watch falling leaves with:

“It is not everyone who has your passion for dead leaves.”

The outline of the story is that Elinor has feelings for a man named Edward – he like her is serious, introverted and takes care before he speaks, but whether that is due to a regard for others or due to his own character, is either here or there. Marianne meanwhile falls head over heels for the animated and vivid Willoughby – a character to match her own, he is passionate and robust, and the two hit it off immediately and you can imagine nothing but a bright future for the two… or can you? It is a novel after all, and if the characters are happy at the start, you can be assured that romance will not ride a steady course right through to the end.

Not only does the love story for both girls take a decidedly different course from the other, both still with an emphasis on the unfavourable, but the way both girls take to their disappointments also varies wildly. It is summed up perfectly and with such eloquence by Marianne when she says:

“..our situations then are alike. We have neither of us any thing to tell; you, because you do not communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing.”

Marianne cannot be reminded of Willoughby and her distress at his parting; she seems to be reminded of him wherever she goes, as portrayed here:

“…and though her family were most anxiously attentive to her comfort, it was impossible for them, if they spoke at all, to keep clear of every subject which her feelings connected with him.”

It is so true how when you are missing someone, you tend to see them in every place you go, every song you hear, every spot of sunshine and drop of rain… all these things, in one way or another remind you of the absence of who you love. Their loss, amplifies the memories and the reminders.

Elinor on the other hand takes an entirely different approach. It reads:

“Elinor sat down to her drawing-table as soon as he was out of the house, busily employed herself the whole day, neither sought nor avoided the mention of his name, appeared to interest herself almost as much as ever in the general concerns of the family, and if, by this conduct, she did not lessen her own grief, it was at least prevented from unnecessary increase, and her mother and sisters were spared much solicitude on her account.”

We see this theme dominant within Elinor throughout the novel, and even though she can be ‘practical’ around her loved ones and play pretend that all is ok, she cannot hide from her true inner feelings only known to herself in private, and us the reader:

“In Edward – she knew not what she saw, nor what she wished to see; – happy or unhappy, – nothing pleased her; she turned away her head from every sketch of him.”

This quiet torment isn’t lost on Marianne who is otherwise preoccupied with her own unattachment, or even their mother Mrs Dashwood, who later reflects that Elinor’s suffering may not have been as grand, loud or excessive in display as Marianne’s, but that does not mean it was not as strong.

Even in happiness, Elinor is subdued:

“Elinor could not be cheerful. Her joy was of a different kind, and led to any thing rather than to gaiety… it led to no outward demonstrations of joy, no words, no smiles. All within Elinor’s breast was satisfaction, silent and strong.”

The starkly different characters that Austen paints does not stop with the two sisters. As is common in a Jane Austen novel, the supporting cast are hilarious, comical, and so vividly clear as your read their lines, it is hard to imagine Austen not basing these on actual people she came across, so precise is her description of them.

A fantastic passage that very accurately paints a clear picture of many characters is this section:

“Here comes Marianne,” cried Sir John. “Now, Palmer, you shall see a monstrous pretty girl.”

He immediately went into the passage, opened the front door, and ushered her in himself. Mrs Jennings asked her, as soon as she appeared, if she had not been to Allenham; and Mrs Palmer laughed so heartily at the question, as to show she understood it. Mr. Palmer looked up on her entering the room, stared at her some minutes, and then returned to his newspaper. Mrs. Palmer’s eye was now caught by the drawings which hung round the room. She got up to examine them.

“Oh! dear, how beautiful these are! Well! how delightful! Do but look, mama, how sweet! I declare they are quite charming; I could look at them forever.” And then sitting down again, she very soon forgot that there were any such things in the room.”

The subtleties and nuances on display here are so obvious in reading, and they paint such a vivid picture of each person. Another example of character is here, with the animated Mrs Jennings talking:

“… and how forlorn we shall be, when I come back!-Lord! we shall sit and gape at one another as dull as two cats.”

Some of these lines are so ridiculous, I think they surely came from a real person, they are just that outrageous to make up. Nonetheless, Austen’s ability to show character through dialogue is remarkably strong and a true talent.

Elinor makes her own observations on character when thinking about Mr and Mrs Palmer:

“…wondering at Charlotte’s being so happy without a cause, at Mr. Palmer’s acting so simply, with good abilities, and at the strange unsuitableness that often existed between husband and wife…”

Perhaps Austen’s character descriptions ring so true, because at their foundation they do display the genuine human condition. Regardless of this being written over 200 years ago, human emotions are fundamentally the same, and whether we have servants or not, how we react to misfortune, to good news, and to others, will remain as is through the years… subject to our own personal character of course.

It led me to calling out ‘I know people like this!’ when I read the following. In talking about her sister Marianne’s temper, Elinor thinks:

“Opposition on so tender a subject would only attach her the more to her own opinion.”

Ha! Tell me you don’t know someone like that!

Again with Marianne, and also her mother, Elinor reflects:

“They gave themselves up wholly to their sorrow…”

You know there are people who just get on with it and try to move on when something bad happens, and then there is the aforementioned, who wallow in pity and feel it in every part of their bones, body, and soul, and let ALL who pass their path know about it?

She captured that perfectly.

Even the practical Elinor falls prey to this pity at times, with the humorous thought:

“After sitting with them a few minutes, the Miss Steeles returned to the Park, and Elinor was then at liberty to think and be wretched.”

And there can even be stark differences between two outwardly passionate people, especially where matters of the heart are concerned. Here Elinor is observing Marianne at the shop compared to Mrs Palmer:

“Restless and dissatisfied everywhere, her sister could never obtain her opinion of any article of purchase, however it might equally concern them both: she received no pleasure from anything; was only impatient to be at home again, and could with difficulty govern her vexation at the tediousness of Mrs. Palmer, whose eye was caught by everything pretty, expensive, or new; who was wild to buy all, could determine on none, and dawdled away her time in rapture and indecision.”

Perhaps it was most hilarious (or I found it so as I have a child and know it to be true!) at the following observation early on in the novel:

“On every formal visit a child ought to be of the party, by way of provision for discourse. In the present case it took up 10 minutes to determine whether the boy were most like his father or mother, and in what particular he resembled either, for of course every body differed, and every body was astonished at the opinion of the others.”

SO TRUE.

As is the case with a Jane Austen novel, you (at least I) find things to be highly fascinated with, at the very least because of the time and era her stories were based in, as well as the way she writes and how she paints certain characters… well this time it was the reoccurrence of a certain word… monstrous.

Monstrous pretty. Monstrous glad. Monstrous lucky. There were so many ‘monstrous’ mentions, and by so many differing characters, I almost went around saying it myself… monstrous!

And then again, the era difference came through strongly in specific moments. Not just with their hierarchies of class or strong dependence on continual income through inheritance, but in the way they dealt with stress, or sickness.

Wine. Now I know that people do de-stress with a glass of red, I am not throwing stones from my glass house, since I do it too. But when you are sick with agony and distress and feel weak with an aching head, and the treatment is, wine?

Hell maybe they had something going there.

This is what Elinor ‘procures’ for her sister upon receiving some devastating news for her. It allows her to finally ‘speak.’

Of course.

And on another slightly more comical note, when Marianne leaves a room beside herself with sadness, Mrs Jennings laments:

“…how it grieves me to see her! And I declare if she is not gone away without finishing her wine! And the dried cherries too! Lord!”

Excuse me for a moment for being so blunt… but lady, the girl doesn’t give a shit about your cherries. She is heartbroken!

Be prepared, for there are a lot of characters. I am ashamed to say it took me well over a year to start and finish this book, to no fault of the novel, but moving house happened somewhere in between the reading, and every time I read the book in dribs and drabs, I honestly had to turn back to earlier pages and remember who everyone was, and why so many names seemed so alike… from Dashwoods to Steeles to Ferrars’ and Jennings’… not to mention the Sirs, Colonels and Lady’s! Keeping them straight was a task, yet towards the end of the book it was slightly easier to remember a cast you had been acquainted with for a while already.

But while we are at it, can I say, what kind of daft name is Fanny? Why, Austen cast that name perfectly I think 😉

At the end, things wrap themselves up perfectly, as is common in this type of classic literature… but Austen’s clever storytelling definitely has you stressing and guessing ‘how,’ repeatedly. In fact she writes herself into such a corner, that at one point I could see no way out! And then, an escape hole!… and not the garish “wake up and realise it was all a dream” weak attempt to solve everything and bring everyone to some kind of equilibrium. Austen managed to untangle the situations she had set up so brilliantly, doing it so realistically, and using the one main important trait the whole book was about: sensibilities.

And yet it was this thing that slightly irked me. Sure I was content with the ending… but the way it came about, and what was said… no, not really. Sacrifice and settling were themes that prevailed, and in one such situation the matter of ‘duty’ was heavily featured… I was at first quite jarred by this sentiment, but I took a step back and looked at the time this book was set in… and even though I was in complete disagreeance with the choice and how it came about, I was understanding that that is just how it was at the time.

My frustration due to my preference for passion and outward displays continued with the theme of ‘settling’… what? This seemed like a bit of a weak explanation for me, and even though things evolved to something grander and fuller, still this was something that upset me. I could understand the story, the realistic ending, sure, but it was something that did not sit well, even now as I think back. I still like the story, and yet this one thing, maybe more so than the ‘duty’ theme, irritated me to no end. I wondered, just because I disagreed, does that mean it was not right, it was not true? Many questions may arise when reading this book, and nothing more so than the ending will have you questioning: what would you do? What would you be happy with?

This novel in short, is a great character study on why we do the things we do, what drives us to do them, and more specifically, why we do the things that we do when in love. What makes sense for some can be completely alien for another, and yet it is in these differing ways that we learn about each other, we grow, we experience something we have not been privy to before, and we gain an enormous insight into the ‘monstrous’ complicated human condition.

And that is what Jane Austen does so well, and explores methodically with great humour, wit and sensitivity.

I will close on some lovely observations. I loved the insight and attention to detail in the following expression:

“Mrs. Ferrars,” added he, lowering his voice to the tone becoming so important a subject…”

Oh wow. Just magical. Her observation of how people speak and react is another level. She has to be one of the greatest writers of all time. And lastly, this gem:

“But it was too late. Hope had already entered; and feeling all its anxious flutter, she bent over her sister to watch – she hardly knew for what.”

Ahh… Goosebumps. If you haven’t already, please do yourself a favour and read this book… it would be highly un-sensible, not to. 😉

Please let me know your thoughts on Sense and Sensibility in the comments below, I would love to discuss with you. 🙂

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The Root of all things

dark roots

CATE KENNEDY – Dark Roots

“The butcher becomes my friend. All day he bashes up the carcasses of dead things, and I’ve never seen the smile off his face. Now there’s a puzzle for you.”

Not only is that my little homage to my own smiley butchering Hubbie, but it beautifully represents the regular juxtaposition the following book presents… that beneath the common every day, lies something unknown, deeper, darker…

Dark Roots.

I came across Cate Kennedy and her work in a round-a-bout way. The year was 2013, and I was about 6 months pregnant.

It was also Hubbie and mine’s wedding anniversary, and on top of that I was going to a writing workshop up in the Dandenongs, hosted by none other than the above, yours truly.

I had been writing my young adult novel for a while, and when I heard about the workshop, was more than intrigued. More so because it was in a location we had been to the same time last year, and it was the foundation of this picturesque setting, that I decided to take a day off work, and take myself out of my comfort zone, and to a place, both figuratively and literally speaking, where I would be alone, vulnerable and at the mercy of possible harsh elements.

2013-05-03 17.16.13

Not just the bush, but the critics.

The day was eye-opening in many ways. I learnt much, discovered not to compromise my style, whether in life or in writing, and found that as much as some people there were truly lovely and supportive, others eyed me off judgmentally and with deep critique.

It’s to be expected when there are many of the same field in the one room, and abundance isn’t the universal language of all.

At the end of the day, I purchased a book from Cate, as I had never even come across her name or style. Dark Roots it said, and she wished me well in the inside cover.

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And finally, I started reading it over a year later, once baby girl was about 6 months old.

Let me start by saying that reading darkly-themed stories isn’t probably the best idea when you have a newborn.

Not to say the themes were horror and kept me up at night, when I already had a little monster doing that for me – no, not at all. Cate’s short stories embody a sense of unease about the world, about life, where people are placed in unfair situations, and in many of these they stay there. There’s a deeper meaning, a greater picture, a portrait to paint of the human condition. And it ain’t all fair and pretty.

Even when the endings are happy, and there are only few, they are so only by being bittersweet, where the happiness is tinged with just enough sadness to make you go, “oh, damn.”

Three things became apparent to me as I made my way through the stories. The first was how bleak the stories at the beginning of the book seemed, and how mid-way through they seemed to lift just that little bit to keep me going.

The second was the double-meaning of the story titles. Habit became an early favourite of mine, and very cleverly penned, both about drug use and a Nun. Resize becomes not only about resizing your wedding rings, but resizing your entire relationship. And The Light of Coincidence was another enjoyable one, talking about a favourite topic of mine, but one that showed the incredulity of life and how sometimes, things can work out in the most remarkable of ways. A game I started to play at the beginning of each story was to try and determine why the story name was as it was, only to find out it in fact had two meanings, almost every time.

However my third observation and confirmation, came early on in the realisation that I was not cut out for short stories, even more so, ones that had ‘dark roots.’ I prefer to fall in love with a set of characters and a different world over a period of time, where I dedicate myself to their path, rather than the quick chop and change, 15 or so pages dedicated to each story in this book. Having said that, Kennedy is one who performs this niche art form like the artist she is, capturing your attention, your heart and your mind, making you feel for a character who may be insane, pathetic, or a murderer, and make you root for them the whole way. She has an innate ability to pull at your heart strings by showing the rawness of life, and it’s because she does this so damn well, that I just can’t fathom the sadness of it all.

Her ability to represent life in its true form, either through dialogue or description is on key. She also brings an acute awareness to every day tasks, things that you wouldn’t normally think about, but reading her words you think ‘I get it.’ For example, in the first story the main character is climbing out of bed:

“This is how you slide from a bed: move your foot out and over the edge, find the floor, slide sideways supporting yourself on the bedside table, your fingers touching the fake antique lamp your parents gave you a pair of for a wedding present. Haul out from under the doona…”

And suddenly, I was the one climbing out of bed. Not only does she paint the picture as if she were watching you try to stealthily get out of bed undetected, but the addition of those physical descriptors, not just the antique lamp, but FAKE antique lamp from your parents no less, well here lies another back story…

Another story has a man fishing, and the visual imagery is so beautifully striking in its sadness:

“The trout lay there drowning in the air, and I could see the miraculous gills opening and closing, its eyes moving as it gulped the wrong element, two old scars on its big mottled back, and then everything slowed down and I reached my fingers, fumbling with agonised realisation, into the trout’s mouth to get that hook out, and I snatched the fish up in both hands and threw it into the water.”

And finally, when I read the following:

“Three years ago I tried some street coke and the hit was just enough, through the glucodin and speed percentage that seared into my nasal cavities, to make me make a vow to myself. I decided that if I ever had the chance, I would try the real thing: the purest, whitest, Colombian cocaine available to the casual buyer.”

I had to question, how did she know this so accurately?

However I had to remind myself of the funny fact I had once read, that writers become a neuro-blah expert on whatever they have set out to research, often overnight! It is just the life of a writer, to be as real as you can be about a subject matter… whether from living it, or studying it like hell.

In the story Habit, I found myself rooting for the protagonist to get through customs with their drugs, even before I knew they were dying, and needed the drugs! How does she do that? And when all became even clearer at the end, without giving too much away, suddenly all the Godly mentions and phrases had a double meaning that shone with heavenly clarity 🙂 I absolutely loved it, and it was probably the first ‘kinda’ happy ending that hit me, right there.

But many times, there was no ending. The story was just a window into another person’s world, their often difficult, uncertain life. There was the woman in Soundtrack, who suddenly had a child many years after having her first daughter, and how the ambulance couldn’t get there in time, so her teenage daughter helped deliver her child. And then life kept on going, to the soundtrack of life in the background. Then there was the story The Correct Names of Things, where Ellen worked in a Chinese shop in the 80s paying her way through uni. Another piece on how life is lived, and how you learn and attach names to things, where I had absolutely no idea where the story was going – it seemed, nowhere in particular, since it appeared to be more an explorative piece.

In Kill or Cure, the description of farm life was so meticulous, that I recalled Kennedy mentioning her own life on the farm many times, and suddenly it all made sense. The story of a woman moving to a farm with her farm husband, trying to adjust to the land, the life, and be accepted by him, the town, and his best friend, the dog… it was all so melancholy and lonely, I also had to wonder again, how much of it was fiction. Even without a proper ending here, you couldn’t not feel.

But for many of these stories, it didn’t appear to matter whether they had a purpose or ‘real’ ending, or not. They served their purpose by just providing a snapshot into another’s life, and I realised without my usual necessary closure need, that I kind of enjoyed it. The journey, and not the destination.

It was common to feel achy, sad and despondent when going through the book, like in the short story Angel, where the assault of a young child is hinted at and made definite by the direct retribution that happens after, and also Cold Snap, where a young boy is ridiculed and made to feel inferior. Here the boy is laughed at, with others saying in his earshot “it looks like the light’s on but there’s no one home,” so when those same few get what they deserve, you smile menacingly, while still feeling a pang of longing for a boy who doesn’t exist, and yet somehow, you know somewhere, he does.

Kennedy’s pace is fast, as suddenly you are here, then you are there, but it all happens in such continuous fluid motion that you didn’t even know you moved until you realised the sun was on your face as opposed to the bed you were just sleeping in. I felt like I could learn a thing or two from her genius. But I guess this is the way that short stories have to be, and when they are like this, they work brilliantly.

Her language is telling and cheeky too… like in the story Resizing, ‘lubricate’ is used in the context of getting a car started again, and yet it means so much more in a steamy car of a formerly fighting couple on the verge of reuniting. In The Testosterone Club, a house wife concocts some comedic revenge on her untrusting husband and his friends in the form of slowly curing pickles, which says so much about manhood and the ‘flaccid’ nature that it can fall into. Here, the routine and mediocrity of a boring housewife existence was captured well, recorded as so monotonous and regular, and yet so unexpected in its satisfying final outcome.

But, I found as I read, and continued to look back on my notes for Dark Roots, that there was Hope. Both in the form of me finding a short story that I really liked, and then the realisation that I might too, want to dabble in and try my own hand at short stories. I found my inspiration brewing in her story The Light of Coincidence. Not only did my home town and its landmarks feature prominently, but so did an area of speculation and great interest to me: Coincidence, fate, and how they play together. From the middle:

“Let me tell you a story, a connoisseur story of coincidence. There I was trundling down the ‘down’ escalator at Flinders Street Station, jammed into crowds of people, when who should I see but an old girlfriend I hadn’t seen in ten years going up the escalator across the way. She was in blue. Oblivious to my calling and waving, she disappeared up the moving stairwell. I was seized with an overwhelming urge to say hello, and at the bottom I turned and raced back up her escalator and was deposited in the whirlpool of commuters on the ground floor. No sign of her. I raced outside and saw her blue jumper, sixty or so metres up Swanston Street, so I barrelled across the road and caught up. Tender greetings followed.

‘What a coincidence,’ I said. ‘I just looked up at the right time to see you on the escalator in the station.’ A puzzled frown crossed her face.

‘I wasn’t in the station,’ she said.”

Chills, or what? The goosebumps I got from reading that grabbed my attention, and kept it more firmly for a good while after. Because when a writer develops in you some kind of emotion, whether that be sadness, grief, or more happily, belief and Hope, that is when one tends to turn up more often, and listen.

And after reading this book, I am listening.

There is Hope (and coincidence) for me just yet.

Kennedy’s short story title accurately portrays the content which you will find inside. Surface level will show you the every day, whereas when you go beyond this, and to the roots of the matter, you will find that in the character’s thoughts, lives, and ideas, some darkness lives. In doing this, she helps us teeter on the thread of human existence, where on one side it is sunny and well, and the other shows the motivations, fears and hopes that drive us, with the overwhelming blackness that can sometimes unify and occupy us all.

I see short stories in a different light now. Much lighter than the Dark Roots they came from, and I have Kennedy to thank for that. I am now looking forward to reading her other short story collection, ‘Like a House On Fire,’ waiting for me on my bookshelf.

I guess it takes time, but often things will work themselves out like that. Like the closing sentence in my favourite story, The Light of Coincidence:

“I slide it out and fit it into place, feeling the whole configuration resist, and move slightly out of skew. I move it back with the flat of my hand, feeling it shift. Strengthen. Interlock.”

Please let me know your thoughts on Dark Roots in the comments below, I would love to discuss with you 🙂