Why Mr. Darcy is the ultimate hero

Jane Austen created the perfect hero when she wrote Mr. Darcy into existence. Handsome and most conveniently rich, he regularly tops lists of reader’s favorite heroes in all of literature. He loves a woman for her wit and intelligence, a woman he first met at a party and readily admitted he found merely “tolerable”, but not beautiful. After getting to know her a bit better, he admires her eyes, but it is clear that the thing he likes about her best is that she knows her own mind and speaks it.

Not only does he fall in love with an exceptional woman, he proves his character by his actions. He does not believe that Jane loves Bingley, so he separates them. This divides a lot of readers, but Darcy is showing his loyalty to his friend above all. He continues to love even after he has been rejected, acting decently and generously instead of with hostility during the surprise encounter with Elizabeth at Pemberley. He saves the Bennet family from ruin by enticing Wickham to marry Lydia. In other words, he fixes things without prompting, without any ulterior motives. He does it because he believes it is the right thing to do.

Jane Austen knows how to write compelling heroes. The thing that sets them apart is that, if you asked Mr. Darcy why he loved Elizabeth (or Henry Tilney why Catherine, and so on), the response would not be a superficial rant about beauty. Rather, there would be discussion about personality and the characteristics that unite to make a perfect couple. As Captain Wentworth said about the heroine of Persuasion, “no one so proper, so capable as Anne.” The heroes and heroines mutually respect and appreciate the unique qualities each side brings to the relationship.

There is no love at first sight in Jane Austen’s novels. Romance is the result of real conversation and understanding instead of irrational passion. I think that is one of the main reasons her books are so beloved and have survived through generations of reading.


Review Fridays: The Weatherhouse

“Hine up on the head of the house like Garry Forbes and his twa fools.” –The Weatherhouse by Nan Shepherd

Nan Shepherd was a Scottish writer with only three novels to her name. Writing in the period between World Wars I and II, she focuses on the beauty of landscape and the lives of women during a period when the world was perched precariously between conflicts. She is concerned with the clash between old and young, tradition and modernity. and her great love for the land she lived in and the people who inhabited it comes across in all of her works. I read her first novel, The Quarry Wood, immediately before The Weatherhouse, and while both are impressive in different ways, the latter is her masterpiece.

The Weatherhouse is a book about the dangers of getting caught in one’s own imaginings. Louie Morgan pretends that a man who died was her fiancé, She goes so far as to steal a ring to add weight to her own fantasy. At various points, she is found acting out scenes by herself, in which she stars and imagines scores of men in love with her. Middle-aged Ellen Falconer invents a romance involving her stolid, practical daughter, Kate, and eventually realizes that she wasn’t precisely focused on Kate, that she had in fact put herself at the center of it all, in love with a young man who barely acknowledges her existence. It is a story about how fiction can entangle one’s senses and lead one astray.

In the midst of it all, there is still hope and humanity. Young Stella Ferguson had a conversation with Ellen Falconer that stays with her for the rest of her life and acts as a positive force for her. The writer knows the impact small moments can have, moments we might not even remember days from now, but which have meaning for others. Ellen is not respected by her own family, the Craigmyles, who inhabit the Weatherhouse. However, Stella could see the inner light that made Ellen great and showed her tribute with “hardy yellow scotch roses.”

There is also Garry Forbes, who has returned from the war because of severe shell-shock. While trying to repair his aunt’s house after a fire, he is also battling Louie Morgan’s claims. He was friends with David, the man Louie says she was engaged to, and he cannot imagine that David was in love with her. Yet, in the course of the novel and of his relationship with Lindsay, a relative of the Craigmyles who is staying with them in the Weatherhouse, he learns sympathy. He realizes that Louie is as fragile emotionally as he is and no longer wants to expose her for being a liar, although it happens anyway.

In the list of writers of the interwar period, Nan Shepherd’s name is often excluded. She is not as famous as her work warrants. Nonetheless, for those who have found and appreciate her, she remains a writer whose work evokes the Scottish landscape and whose characters stay with the reader long after finishing her books.

Reading familiar books in other languages

Lately, I have been trying to teach myself new languages. While language apps have been helpful, there’s only so much that can be gleaned from translating “Where is the courtroom?” into French, and from French back into English. I decided to approach this the way I always approach learning: read a book. While it will not improve my spoken language or accent, I’m optimistic that it will help with learning new words I won’t find in an app.

I picked a book very familiar to me, the first Harry Potter, which translates into “Harry Potter at the Sorcerer’s School” in English. Surprised to realize I understood most of what I was reading, I took out notecards for unfamiliar words, writing the French on one side, the English translation on the other. From one sentence in the second chapter, I discovered more fascinating words than I had in the course of my months with the language apps. For example:

  • Rafistoler = patch up. Harry patches up his glasses. The verb can also mean vamp (jouer la femme fatale) or botch.
  • Le papier collant = sticky paper (Scotch tape?), which is what Harry uses to rafistoler his glasses.
  • Coups de poing = punch; how Dudley broke Harry’s glasses. Breaking it down, coups = knocking, poing = fist.

I don’t have enough grasp of the language to understand the changes to proper names. Hogwarts becomes Poudlard, Muggles are Moldu, and even a character as central as Snape becomes Rogue. How does a translator get from Snape to Rogue? I have been unable to find any convincing arguments for this through an online search, but it’s an interesting change, even if it does eliminate the lovely alliteration of Severus Snape.

Review Fridays: Jane Austen

Dear Jane,

You are a phoenix. Not only do your novels delight, but your juvenilia shows the brilliant and hilarious promise of a talented writer. Anyone who thinks that you are not funny need only look at the early works to see the sense of humor, refined as an adult. “The Beautifull Cassandra” is one of my favorites of your early work, telling the (very short ) story of a milliner’s daughter who steals a bonnet and sets off to make her Fortune.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the first line of Pride and Prejudice is so famous that a journalist need only quote it to evoke the spirit of you. Your works are oft turned into movies, so often that scarcely five years pass before a new adaptation. Your readers so love you that they attempt to figure out what your life was like and modern writers make fiction of your life. There are even movies, Jane, which I feel would half-amuse and half-horrify you, but mostly amuse.

Over 198 years after your death, could you have guessed at your continued popularity?

There are societies in your honor that meet to discuss your works, and your old home has been made into a museum. Dear Miss Austen, your face will even appear on money! All deserved honors, I assure you, no one could deserve them more. After all, your works have been beloved for generations and have inspired writers to works of their own.

Fans debate your novels, defending their favorites. Mine, at the moment, is Persuasion. It always seems to shift to the novel I have read most recently, so whenever I read Pride and Prejudice again, or Emma, or any other, I feel that it is my favorite. I adore all of your heroines, but I shall defend Fanny Price to the death. She is not dull and insipid. She shows strength in the face of her uncle’s wrath. No matter what the consequences, she will not go against her principles and what she believes is right. I think that she was probably an INFP, you who drew such fine characters, who made each of them feel like a real person. That is what leads to debate.

The heroes cause fans to faint alternately on a sofa. All one has to do is mention Mr. Darcy, Colin Firth, and a wet shirt scene and millions of your readers will begin to fan themselves. No, it is not the book, but the miniseries comes close to perfection. And it is not just Mr. Darcy, though he is a favorite with many. All of your heroes are written in such a way as to deserve your heroines, each is just as unique and finely written. You once described your writing as “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush.” The characters, the plots, the very language show that wonderful attention to small detail.

Your novels are a comfort. I re-read them once a year, in silent awe, admiring your ability to write so well.

Yours, etc.


Quest for the best deal

A recent story in the New York Times about working conditions at Amazon has provoked mixed responses. Some want to use governmental action to enact change. Others think that, if people want to work long hours in the pursuit of their goals, they should be allowed to do so. Since Amazon is a big company with a prestigious name, workers are eager to get their foot into the door there and rise through the ranks. Whether the hours and competitive work environment imposed are reasonable or not is an interesting question.

I do not see that as being the only issue in this case. In the search for the cheapest possible option, consumers have long ignored other factors that should influence their purchasing habits. As of March of last year, Amazon had a 41 percent share of all new unit book purchases, and, when considering only online purchases, print and digital, they account for 65 percent of all sales. Is the best book to purchase really the cheapest?

Price has become such a primary factor when buying that companies will do almost anything to lower cost. Many consumers will purchase the least expensive items without much thought about where they came from or the impact of where they choose to shop on their local economy. The price war has led to Amazon gaining a lot of control over the American marketplace, shutting down retailers and small businesses that cannot possibly compete. Amazon also pushes their employees, as the New York Times article shows, so that the company can continue to grow and gain a larger percentage of the market share.

Amazon is able to sell goods cheaply because they can easily use their position as a large retailer to bully those who provide goods into charging the price Amazon wants, which is particularly true of books. Amazon is probably the most prominent place to promote a new book so they receive large discounts from publishers. Goodreads, which sponsors giveaways and which most readers use to catalogue a list of what they read or to find reviews before purchasing, is owned by Amazon. But Amazon is hardly the only example of the effect of price on consumer and industry habits.

If you purchase a product from Apple, it is usually shipped from China. The factory conditions there have become notorious, so much so that most people are (or should be, given the media coverage) aware of the problems, yet most continue to purchase Apple products anyway. The standard business model revolves around the idea that consumers do not care about the labor that goes into the product as long as it leads to a less expensive price. There are many examples, not just from Apple, of electronics companies and clothing companies who show a complete disregard for the human labor that creates what they sell.

However, people still chase the cheapest deal from Amazon, to the detriment of their local businesses, and buy from Apple when they know that their iPhones are produced under harsh working conditions using cheap labor. The media blames Apple or Amazon, but the problem lies equally with the consumers who do not change their purchasing habits. There is a hidden cost, which we sometimes ignore, behind the cheap goods we purchase every day.

The burden falls to the consumer. Times are tough. For some, budgets are an issue. We feel the pressure to purchase the cheapest option. Nonetheless, conditions will not change unless savvy consumers take factors other than price into account when making a purchase.

After the hour

“Children, there will be tears.” -The Hour (TV show, 2011-2012)

The Hour, a BBC television series, is one of my favorites to re-watch, despite the fact that it was cancelled after two excellent seasons. The first season is set during the Suez crisis and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. It follows the lives of Bel Rowley, producer, and Freddie Lyon, home affairs correspondent, for a nightly news program called The Hour. Bel got the job Freddie wanted, and she tries to prove that she deserves it. The fictional news program gains momentum as the season progresses, eventually becoming a serious and respected source of current events.

Freddie is in love with Bel, but Bel has commitment issues and fools around with unavailable men, including the married presenter for The Hour, Hector Madden. Although the romance plays a big role in the series, these characters are also grappling with larger issues. In a time when women’s roles were changing, Bel sees marriage and children as the potential end to her career ambitions, so she avoids any romantic relationship that could turn serious. She is career-focused first and foremost, which is refreshing. Hector wants to be taken seriously and not simply be the handsome face of the show. Freddie doggedly pursues the truth in his reporting, completely disregarding his personal safety in the process.

A subplot follows the death of a debutante, whose family Freddie lived with during the war, and involves Soviet spies and intrigue and something (or someone) called a Brightstone. The reveal of the real spy in the sixth episode surprised me, though, when re-watching, I felt as if I should have guessed. The plotting is at times over dramatic, but the characters, their interactions with each other and their motivations and goals, are what makes the show great.

Not only does the show have top-notch acting and a set of likable but flawed main characters, the supporting characters are compelling as well. Hector’s wife, Marnie, is sympathetic and gets her own storyline and fictional cooking show in the second season. Isaac, Freddie’s assistant, has aspirations of becoming a comedy writer. A press advisor for the prime minister, Angus McCain harbors a secret that could ruin his career and send him to jail. Although McCain is an antagonistic figure, his personal life lends his character a broader spectrum, shading what could have been merely a villain into a balanced character.

The real star of the supporting cast is Lix Storm, played brilliantly by Anna Chancellor, a hard-drinking (“Whiskey is God’s way of telling us he loves us and wants us to be happy”), independent woman who is often found in the office during the weekend. She covers foreign affairs and is intelligent, witty, and tough. Like Bel, she struggles at times with what it means to be independent, with retaining a sense of herself as a woman and as a journalist.

I highly recommend this program for anyone who likes a good period drama. And always remember: no one will want to steal a yellow lamp.

Practicing gratitude

“Selfishness must always be forgiven you know, because there is no hope of a cure.” –Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

About a year ago, I read Paris Letters by Janice MacLeod. The book chronicles her journey from fed-up office worker with a dearth of vacation time to her decision to save money and then quit her job to travel in Europe. I am sure that many of us dream of living that scenario, but how practical is it? How can we justify dropping everything to live a dream? It seems wrong and selfish from everything we have been taught to want and taught to value.

The goals we set for ourselves, that we are given from a young age, to get a good job, to get married, have kids, buy a house and car, tend to weigh us down with expectations. When we do not meet those expectations by a certain age, it is as if we have failed in some way. Haven’t met the perfect spouse by age 30? Failure. No kids or (gasp) do not want kids? Not only a failure, but selfish. We tend to be judged against the potential that other people see in us to be like them, and, when we fail to become the person in those potential versions of our lives, it leads to dissatisfaction and a feeling of being lost.

MacLeod’s account is not very specific when it comes to financial planning. She arbitrarily decides on saving $100 a day, is able to sell artwork and make money buying and selling stocks through methods that she does not completely explain. However, she is savvy enough that she meets her goal, cuts down on clutter, and is able to pack her life into a suitcase and travel. Through her journey, she discovers a means of earning an income without going back to an office job.

I have thought a few times of taking a risk like MacLeod did, but each time I am stopped by a feeling of selfishness. It seems wrong to complain about a life that is pretty stable when I have a job and people who care about me. Perhaps I need to be more grateful. Apparently, lots of people keep gratitude journals, though I cannot say for sure that that kind of positive reinforcement would work for me. Feeling forced to make a list each day would possibly lessen the gratitude, no?

Instead, I am trying to stay focused on what is around me, to be grateful for sunshine and good weather, flowers and trees and shade on a hot day. And to see the possibility that the life I want is not as out of reach or as selfish as the world leads me to believe sometimes. There is sunshine in Europe too. And castles and Cadbury Crème Eggs. Perhaps, with my meager vacation time, I can see some of the world, and, if I save enough, I can take a trip like in Paris Letters.

Part of the message of Paris Letters, to get rid of unnecessary clutter and expenses, to live a minimalist life to save for the things that matter most, is something I can implement today. And perhaps those small changes can help me to accomplish something larger.

Dorothy Parker

“The cure for boredom is curiosity.
There is no cure for curiosity.” -Dorothy Parker

I very often judge a book by its cover, sometimes with bad, sometimes with good results. One very good instance happened in my younger and more impressionable days when I came across The Portable Dorothy Parker at a bookstore. I had never heard of Dorothy Parker, but the artwork and author’s biography told in pictures made it a must-purchase book. I took it home and laughed for 656 pages.

Dorothy Parker was a humorist, a writer of reviews (“Theodore Dreiser / Should ought to write nicer”), short stories (such as this little one), and pithy poetry (“Men seldom make passes. / At girls who wear glasses”). She is, even today, endlessly quotable and hilariously relevant. A master of one-liners, Parker is one of my favorite writers, one that I go back to when I am feeling down or in a reading rut. She never fails to cheer one up.

I like to think that we all have our biases when it comes to writers, that we feel as if we know them well from what we have read. Dorothy Parker falls under this category for me, along with Jane Austen and George Eliot, Sylvia Plath and Dorothy L. Sayers. They are all writers that I came across by what feels like kismet in a bookstore or library, a chance meeting which altered my life for the better. Books can have that impact. As an introvert who cherishes my time spent alone, I have nonetheless filled my free time with the voices of women who came before me, those who wrote books that speak to who I am and who I want to become.

What characterizes Dorothy Parker’s writing style is her voice. In every line, in every word, she conveys to the reader an immediate sense of a past time. Yet, she does it in such a way that it does not feel dated. She is funny, and she knows that she is funny. It is like spending time with a friend who can tell joke after joke, one as hilarious as the next. She seems to be telling us not to take ourselves too seriously. It is easy to fall into complaining, of seeing only the dark and dismal in the world, but there’s a great deal of the ridiculous too, so we might as well sit back and watch and amuse ourselves.

Oh, and I want a horse too. Just a little one, darling.

Review Fridays: The Bell Jar

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” –The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath is perhaps best known today for her poetry, her tempestuous marriage to poet Ted Hughes, and her tragic suicide at the age of 30. She has achieved a status of legend that lends itself to erasing her person as if we are entitled to speak for her. After her death, vandals regularly scratched out the “Hughes” on her gravestone. Hughes was criticized for, among many accused wrongs against Plath, destroying one of her diaries, for publishing a censored version in 1982, 18 years before the complete, unabridged version was made available in 2000. People read her journals and make of her what they will.

When The Bell Jar was originally published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, the reviews were not kind. It is a book about a young woman, and books about young women by women tend to get thrashed in the press as trite or not significant of notice. The female experience, particularly one involving mental illness, is something taboo. The Bell Jar is about a time when women were starting to experience a duality, with expectations of being pure when men were not held to the same standards, of having options of going to college and having a career balanced with the pressure of also having a family and children and caring for them.

The story follows the largely autobiographical Esther Greenwood who is spending the summer in New York City after winning the chance to intern at a magazine. Esther is a brilliant student and holds a scholarship at her college. But she is starting to realize, as she is shunted from one event to another that summer, that something is wrong. She does not know what she wants to do with her life. There seem to be countless options, those around her are pulling her in opposing directions, and she no longer sees a clear, obvious path in front of her. After years of collecting prizes and accomplishments, the future seems like a blank.

Added to that, she is feeling a bell jar descend upon her, distorting everything. It is one of the starkest descriptions of mental illness, going first to a doctor who does not seem to understand or care about her, incorrectly done and therefore torturous electric shock treatments, watching the clock hands turn every night while being unable to sleep. It is not until a botched suicide attempt that Esther finally gets the help she needs.

When an ex-boyfriend visits her at a time that she is feeling more like herself, he asks her if it was his fault. But, as Esther’s doctor vehemently explains to her, it is not anyone’s fault. The bell jar descends unexpectedly and cannot be lifted without treatment and support from others. The optimistic tone of the ending feels especially bittersweet knowing Plath’s ultimate fate.

The Bell Jar is Plath’s only published novel. It remains, years after its publication, a message of support and hope and sympathy to young women who may not know what they want to do with their lives and to those who feel the bell jar descending.

The Wonder Woman Pose

“And so I want to say to you, don’t fake it till you make it. Fake it till you become it. Do it enough until you actually become it and internalize.” -Amy Cuddy’s TED talk entitled Your body language shapes who you are (Filmed June 2012)

Imagine that you are on a bus or train or any other public transportation that involves close contact with others. There is a window seat, which you snatch up, and the vehicle slowly gets more and more crowded. Someone takes the seat next to you, a man (it is usually a man who does this, to you, a woman) who sits with his legs far apart, his arms stretched out. The contact makes you uncomfortable, so you attempt to scrunch yourself a little more towards the window. He uses that opportunity to take up more space. You, too polite and hating confrontation, simply stay in your awkward hunched pose and try to ignore it, but you feel small and sort of insignificant.

Whether consciously or not, taking up more space is a power play, a way of asserting dominance.

Take a moment to watch Amy Cuddy’s TED talk about how body language affects how powerful you feel. It is worth the time to realize that something as simple as how you sit, how you present yourself to others in your posture can affect how you feel about yourself.

I tend to slouch and make myself smaller when I sit. Crossed legs and arms. Hands kept closely to my body. I easily give way on buses when someone sits next to me and attempts to stretch out. I did not realize, until I watched that video, that when I shrink physically, it also happens mentally. It is as if I am backing away, going into protection mode, feeling unimportant instead of powerful and confident.

Cuddy suggests that a simple change can improve confidence. Stand with your hands on hips, feet apart, chin up. That is called the Wonder Woman pose after the superhero. It’s as simple as that. If you do not want to do it in front of others, go to the restroom and, just for a few minutes, stand in the pose. It is feels a bit strange at first, but it makes a difference.

After I first watched the video, I did this for a few minutes each day, but then I stopped and sunk back into a lack of confidence. I felt like an imposter. I felt like I did not deserve to feel so confident. I wanted to shrink back into myself. Change is such a nebulous concept that it can take a few tries to really get it. I want to be the one in class who gives a brilliant comment, like the student Cuddy talked about, instead of the one who says nothing and is invisible. Saying that is what you want to be is easy. Making the faking a habit is the hard part.

Whatever your goals, fake it until you become it. And each day it will get a little easier until it is a part of who you are.