Review Fridays: The Lathe of Heaven

The details:

Title: The Lathe of Heaven
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 192
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

What right do we have to change the world, even for the better? And what is better, anyway? That’s the question George Orr asks himself in The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin. When he dreams very vividly, or “effectively” as he calls it, he wakes to find that his dreams came true. The world has moved into an alternate reality. No one but George can remember what the world was like before his dream.

Any other person might love that power, but George finds the burden too great to bear. He lives in Portland, Oregon, but his world isn’t the same as ours. It is somewhat recognizable, but contains some very bleak changes. His Portland features food rationing, overpopulation, and global disasters. In an attempt to stop dreaming effectively, he overdoses on drugs. A doctor who treats him assigns him to voluntary therapy. The alternative, if he refuses, is involuntary incarceration. And so there isn’t really a choice at all; George decides to go to therapy, hoping that the psychiatrist, Dr. Haber, can cure him.

Haber specializes in dreams and uses a machine he has spent years developing, combined with hypnosis, to treat George. He puts George into a deep sleep state and suggests what he should dream about. After a couple of test dreams, where the mural in Haber’s office changes from a mountain to a horse and back again, Haber can’t resist the power George gives him. He uses George’s dreams to give himself a better office with a nice window view, to secure a prestigious job, and to “solve” the world’s problems. At first, George isn’t sure if Haber knows that he is telling the truth about his dreams, but, as time progresses, it becomes clear that Haber is manipulating George to change the world.

Wanting to know what his rights are, George visits a lawyer, Heather Lelache, who dubs the tentative, slight man “Mr. Either Orr.” Heather thinks that George is insane, but agrees to visit one of his therapy sessions, and, by experiencing it in person, she can remember the division between what was and what is now. The world keeps changing with Haber’s subsequent “improvements,” however, from one dream to another, and in some realities, George doesn’t even know Heather. She isn’t a lawyer; she doesn’t exist; she isn’t the same fierce woman he has come to admire.

I didn’t particularly care for any of the characters, which is usually a necessity for me to like a book, but the philosophical issues kept me interested. What right do we have to change the world? What is progress? Haber’s ideal world doesn’t sit right with George. When Haber orders George to solve issues of racial prejudice, everyone ends up with gray skin. The problem of overpopulation is solved through a devastating plague. Sick people are euthanized. The constant, world-wide war comes to an end with the introduction of a new enemy: aliens, turtle-like creatures who speak from their elbows.

The message is that there are no easy solutions to the world’s problems. Dr. Haber reaches a point where he has the power, with his important government job, to change the world himself. But he won’t do that. He becomes so obsessed with the idea of a quick and easy fix that he completely overlooks what he can do by himself, through his own agency. Haber is an adherent to utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest number, might sincerely believe that he is acting from altruistic motives, but he is flawed. Le Guin reminds readers that so-called easy solutions can have disastrous consequences, even if meant well.

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Review Fridays: The Bottle Factory Outing

The details:

Title: The Bottle Factory Outing
Author: Beryl Bainbridge
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 200
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

What a strange book!

I mean that in the best way possible. I absolutely adored it. Dame Beryl Bainbridge used a slight, understated writing style that enhanced the comedic elements of The Bottle Factory Outing, first published in 1974. This is my second book by her, and both managed to be laugh-out-loud funny throughout tragedy. By all accounts, she was an original character herself, and this novel pulls semi-autobiographical aspects of her life into the plot.

Brenda and Freda share a bedsit and work together in a wine bottling factory. The factory is owned by Mr. Paganotti, who is revered by the myriad of Italian workers. Most of the workers don’t speak much English and treat Brenda and Freda with a ridiculous level of deferential respect.

The factory manager, Rossi, pursues Brenda in a cringe-worthy way. He corners her in rooms and chases her around dusty furniture in storage at the factory; she is too polite to tell him to leave her alone, too polite to even avoid him. But it’s hard not to feel bad for him. His reverence for Mr. Paganotti is excessive and is his ultimate downfall. In one sad anecdote, he recalls that Mr. Paganotti had invited him to see his house one day. Rossi dressed up for the occasion, but Mr. Paganotti forgot all about it and left without so much of a mention to Rossi. Mr. Paganotti often forgets things, doesn’t always follow up on his promises, but still the workers admire him. His charity is meager: a box of old clothes on the factory floor for the workers to pick through, directly next to a box for them to deposit payment for whatever they take.

Brenda separated from her abusive husband, ran away to London from her rural life on his farm, and met Freda while crying at a butcher’s shop. Where Brenda is pathologically nice to the point that she won’t say what she is really thinking, Freda is confrontational, abrupt, assertive, often yelling. They are two opposites who sleep in the same bed, separated, at Brenda’s insistence, by a divider of books lined up in the middle of the mattress.

The action is punctuated by bizarre little scenes. For instance, Brenda recalls that her mother-in-law leaned in to kiss her at her wedding but instead bit her ear, would sneak into the chicken coop and draw faces on the eggs with a Biro (ball-point pen), and once locked Brenda in a barn with a bunch of geese. Someone tries to shoot Brenda, but it’s softened by comic relief. Brenda, with her typical mousiness, believes that she deserves all of this as she has done a million wrongs in her head. She is so afraid of offending anyone that she lies constantly, saying whatever she thinks the person she is talking to wants to hear. Freda reminds her that she is pathetic and born a victim, but Brenda can’t help it.

As the title suggests, Freda plans an outing for the workers, including Vittorio, Mr. Paganotti’s nephew, to whom she is attracted. Things don’t go as planned. They never do. This is a very funny book, but it steadily builds a sense that something awful is about to happen. Even after it happens, the tone remains light. The reader knows rationally how horrible it all is, but still Bainbridge can make us laugh.

I’ve never read anything quite like Bainbridge’s novels and am not even sure of how to recommend her. The Bottle Factory Outing is definitely dark comedy, but it’s unique in a way that could be off-putting. The characters are realistic; the tragedy is that we can recognize ourselves in Brenda or Freda, in Rossi or Vittorio. They’re pathetic people who are trying their best in a flawed world, one that’s hard to make sense of at the best of times, impossible to understand at the worst of times. Still, the characters try. And, maybe, that’s why I’d recommend reading Beryl Bainbridge; she reminds you to keep smiling through life’s tragedies.

Review Fridays: A Wreath of Roses

The details:

Title: A Wreath of Roses
Author: Elizabeth Taylor
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 252
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

It all starts off innocently enough. Camilla is going to meet her friend, Liz, for their usual summer holiday. Every year, they stay for a few weeks with Frances, Liz’s childhood governess. Camilla and a handsome stranger sit in the same car on the train and seem to be headed to the same place. They don’t talk, but Camilla notices him and his movie-star good looks. She is intrigued. He thinks she is probably a school teacher. Half-right, she’s a school secretary. So far, I thought, this has the makings of a cute romantic comedy.

But the author is not of that genre. Elizabeth Taylor (not the famous actress) wrote novels with keen observations on loneliness, isolation, and the role of women in a rapidly changing post-war Britain. Published in 1949, A Wreath of Roses was her 4th novel. Taylor had an immense skill for characterization, the way that she deftly managed to draw out her characters in just a few words. A Wreath of Roses lives up to that reputation, although it is much darker in tone. Camilla and the handsome man have not experienced a meet-cute on the train. Their opinions of each other will not rapidly flutter from indifference to love.

And so it is that, while changing trains at a station, they witness someone commit suicide. This unites Camilla and the man, whom we learn is named Richard Elton, in conversation and leads to an odd sort of relationship during their holiday. Camilla seeks Richard out, hanging around the bar at his hotel and hoping that she will see him, but she doesn’t even particularly like him. She just wants him to write her letters to brighten her next term at the school where she is a secretary. She wants excitement in her dull life, and she gets it and then some. The perspective shifts at times and we see what Richard is thinking. He writes troubling diary entries. He lies about this past. The novel is going to a dark place, but the reader doesn’t learn the full extent of the darkness until the last fifteen pages.

A Wreath of Roses isn’t just about the relationship between Richard and Camilla. Instead, Taylor offers a stark examination of the way relationships between women can alter as they age. Liz is married and has recently had a baby, and her friendship with Camilla suffers as a result. While Liz’s life is just beginning, Frances is growing old and declining. She is a painter, but increasingly she cannot move her arm. Over the course of Liz’s and Camilla’s visit, Frances is coming to terms with the fact that she will not complete any more paintings. She realizes that she may have to rely on Liz’s help, just as Liz relied on her when she was a child.

Added to the fray is an admirer of Frances’s work, Morland Beddoes. A film director, he saw one of Frances’s paintings of Liz and immediately became a fan of her work. He and Frances exchanged letters for years and are meeting for the first time. Their conversation progresses shyly in front of Liz and Camilla (“the girls”), but in private they talk about painting and life in a frank way. Morland may or may not have feelings for Camilla, but all Camilla cares about is Richard and the excitement he exudes.

This is a very dark and subtle examination of characters, but maybe not the best Elizabeth Taylor work to begin with. I first read A Game of Hide and Seek and loved it; then, I immediately started reading the much-praised Angel. Tastes will vary (I personally couldn’t stand Angel), but even the most average Elizabeth Taylor novel is better than most. I will definitely be buying more of her books and adding them to my endless to-read lists.

Review Fridays: The Living Mountain

The details:

Title: The Living Mountain
Author: Nan Shepherd
Genre: Nonfiction
Pages: 190
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

I have to confess, before beginning my review, that I am not at all outdoorsy. I much prefer a quiet evening inside with a book, but Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain made me to want to venture forth into the Cairngorms to experience what she did. This is a meditation on hill walking, a book about the connection between humans and nature, and the ways in which one can come to know more about oneself by walking into a mountain. I have read other books about nature, but never one as beautifully written, that inspired such a sense of self-transcendence and connection to the author. The journey into the mountain offers glimpses into the nature of being.

“Water, that strong white stuff, one of the four elemental mysteries, can here be seen at its origins. Like all profound mysteries, it is so simple that it frightens me. It wells from the rock, and flows away. For unnumbered years it has welled from the rock, and flowed away. It does nothing, absolutely nothing, but be itself.”

Hill walking, for Shepherd, was not just about conquering the mountain, although she did enjoy the dizzy feeling that came from altitude and the view. Instead, it was about the journey, both into the mountain and into oneself. She wrote about the introspection that one can experience by fully giving oneself over to one’s surroundings. She listened to the sounds of the running water and the animals, but there were also moments of complete silence that could only be found in those rare moments alone on the mountain.

The chapter about the human population of the Cairngorms helped me to better understand the characters of her novels. Sometimes, the conditions were harsh and the children longed to get out, but they always kept with them what they had learned from living so close to the mountains. She keenly watched the animals around her, the birds soaring overhead and the hares that turned pure white in the winter, sometimes too early, showing up stark white against the gray backdrop. While sleeping in the mountains, she would sometimes awake to find that the animals had crept close to her in her stillness.

It is not just plants, animals, and people who make up the living mountain. Shepherd wrote about the ways that the nonliving elements, the dirt and the water and the granite, combine to create the conditions necessary for life. The mountain itself is living and changing and changes us when we open ourselves to experience it. It is not as important that a person has climbed a mountain, to put a flag at the top and say that the task is finished, as it is to take the time to observe.

“Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.”

Nan Shepherd also wrote a volume of poetry called In the Cairngorms, which I have unfortunately been unable to find, but her background as a poet is very evident. The soul of a natural poet is on full display in The Living Mountain. There is such a lyrical beauty in this work that I know I will read it again, hopefully the next time after experiencing the wonders of the Cairngorms firsthand.

Review Fridays: The Mysteries of Udolpho

The details:

Title: The Mysteries of Udolpho
Author: Ann Radcliffe
Genre: Gothic
Pages: 736
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

I first learned of The Mysteries of Udolpho when I read Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, a Gothic satire that describes the horrors of the black veil and Regency-era teenagers obsessed with this book. Catherine Morland was so taken by it that she began imagining all sorts of horrible happenings around her, only to realize that the world was not so bleak and villainous. I avoided reading it myself for such a long time mostly because of how ridiculous Jane Austen made it seem, but I think, upon finishing it and thinking about Austen’s gentle satire, that she enjoyed it too. Even Austen’s hero, Henry Tilney, had good things to say about it.

Ann Radcliffe had a big following among Romantic poets. John Keats called her “Mother Radcliffe”, and, with the gratuitous descriptions of scenery, it did not take long to realize why. If, like me, you enjoy that sort of thing, you are in for a treat, but it can be off-putting to a modern reader. The introduction to my edition was extremely helpful in approaching the book. It advised taking the long descriptions as a sort of meditation and to view the commas (so many commas!) as pacing as if the words were read aloud.

Emily St. Aubert begins the story living a secluded but very happy life with her parents in the French countryside during the 16th century. Radcliffe places an emphasis on country values versus city values. The St. Auberts do not care for riches or status, and instead value a simple life amid beautiful scenery, filled with quiet moments with loved ones. After her mother’s death, Emily travels to a warmer climate with her father for the sake of his health. During their journey, they meet the Chevalier Valancourt, of whom, Monsieur St. Aubert thinks approvingly, “This young man has never been at Paris.” The three travel together for some time, sharing an appreciation of nature and talking of books and common interests.

This cannot last, however. When Monsieur St. Aubert dies, he leaves Emily to the care of his sister, Madame Cheron. Madame Cheron does not have any patience for the newly-orphaned Emily, does not sympathize with her sensibility, and wants Emily to marry purely to better her aunt’s social standing. Emily is reunited with Valancourt, then cruelly separated from him when Madame Cheron marries Signor Montoni. She and Emily go with Montoni to Italy and eventually to his home, the Castle Udolpho. Once Emily and her aunt reach Udolpho, the plot begins to pick up. I could finally understand why Henry Tilney stole the book and would not wait for his sister Eleanor to continue reading aloud with her.

This book is filled with secrets, from the infamous black veil to the letters Emily’s father asks her to burn. Our heroine sometimes reacts with strength to the challenges she faces, but she also tends to faint a lot and then forget the horrid thing she saw. The frustrated reader then has to wait hundreds of pages to find out what is behind the black veil, though whatever it was is so awful that Emily will not go near the room again. The plot meanders at times and could use a good editor, but when it is gripping, it is truly so, and I found myself losing track of time during particularly exciting passages.

Reading it will enhance my appreciation during my next re-read of Northanger Abbey, but I hesitate to recommend it. If you have an interest in Gothic or Romantic literature, it may be for you. However, it requires a great time commitment and patience to make it through what may be, to some readers, tedious descriptions of scenery and frustration with the long intervals between introducing and revealing the secrets of Udolpho.

Review Fridays: Shelley: The Pursuit

The details:

Title: Shelley: The Pursuit
Author: Richard Holmes
Genre: Biography
Pages: 830
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

I knew very little about Percy Bysshe Shelley prior to reading Richard Holmes’s Shelley: The Pursuit, besides the fact that he was married to the author of Frankenstein and was friends with Byron. The going was slow in the first parts of biography, as Shelley is sent down from Oxford and treats his first wife rather poorly. But, the more I read, I found myself surprised by my own empathy for Shelley and my respect for his moments of genius. This is all owing to Holmes’s skill as a biographer. He presents Shelley as a flawed yet brilliant man who took part in political causes and espoused egalitarian ideals, even as his personal life was something of a mess.

Shelley was born into a very privileged position, the elder son of Sir Timothy Shelley. If he had only followed tradition, finished his degree at Oxford, and lived according to the rules of 19th Century English society, he would have had a very comfortable life. However, Shelley was born with a rebellious nature and had no qualms about announcing his atheism and radical social and political opinions. He even eloped with his mentor William Godwin’s daughter, Mary, and stepdaughter, Claire Clairmont, while still married to his first wife, Harriet.

Shelley eventually became an exile from his home country and saw his poetry first ignored by the public and then not even released by his publisher. Holmes does a good job of explaining the historical context of Shelley’s work. Since Shelley was not in England, his publisher would have been prosecuted for any content deemed unsuitable (and some of it was likely to have been judged so). The publisher was not willing to take that risk. Instead, letters went unanswered, and some of Shelley’s most brilliant work remained unpublished at his death. Reviews of his published work included negative commentary on his personal life. He struggled with his own feelings of inadequacy, perceiving himself to be in the shadow of Byron’s fame, and did not write much while in the company of the more renowned poet.

Holmes offers a balanced narrative of Shelley’s life. Shelley’s personal life was often in turmoil. He was at times hopelessly immature and spendthrift, accumulated debts he could never repay, and often treated the women in his life in an unsympathetic way. But Shelley also created works and voiced opinions that would impact future generations. The Masque of Anarchy, a poem Shelley wrote after the Peterloo Massacre, contained theories of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance. It was particularly influential to later political thinkers Henry David Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi. Holmes’s respect of Shelley’s genius is very clear, but it never got in the way of his portrayal of Shelley as a mixture of good and bad, a person with flaws and talent.

Shelley was also an avid sailor, and, unfortunately for him, could not swim. Holmes foreshadows Shelley’s eventual fate. He died at the age of 29 without the level of fame he deserved. The ending to this biography was perfect, and it contained a brief note about the fates of the rest of Shelley’s circle. This was one of the best biographies I have ever read, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in literary history or the Romantic poets.

Review Fridays: The Brontës Went to Woolworths

The details:

Title: The Brontës Went to Woolworths
Author: Rachel Ferguson
Genre: Fiction, published in 1931
Pages: 208
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

Rachel Ferguson’s The Brontës Went to Woolworths begins with a wink to bookworms, and to call it charming would be a criminal understatement. When Deirdre Carne and her family are asked if they like reading, Deirdre tells us:

“…how could one tell her that books are like having a bath or sleeping, or eating bread – absolute necessities which one never thinks of in terms of appreciation. And we all sat waiting for her to say that she had so little time for reading, before ruling her right out for ever and ever.”

Deirdre also says that she hates books about sisters, but that is just what this book is. The Carne family consists of a widow and her three daughters: Katrine, the eldest; Sheil, the youngest; and Deirdre, the middle daughter and our narrator for most of the book. Sometimes the story slips into a third-person narrative; this becomes significant as the story progresses.

The Carne family is lost somewhere between reality and imagination. After Mrs. Carne was chosen as an alternate for a trial, they pretend to know the judge, lovingly called Toddy, who, Sheil says, “yawns like tiny jam tarts”. Toddy is always there for them, even if not actually physically present, and helps them to get through difficult times. Other imaginary companions include a Pierrot named Saffy and a snobbish doll called Ironface. Their dog, Crellie, was a hero in the Boer War or the Pope depending on the mood of the family. Their governess, Miss Martin, is exasperated by their inability be absolutely present in reality.

During a trip to Keighley, which is quite close to the Brontë sisters’ home of Haworth, the family experiences the intrusion of ghosts into their existence. This frightens Sheil, who has difficulty coming to terms with the lines between reality, imagination, and death. Further complicating matters is Deirdre’s real-life meeting with Toddy’s wife, Mildred. Mildred takes an instant liking to Deirdre and her family, and so reality begins to mesh with imagination as the real Toddy becomes their friend.

This is the sort of book that I personally love, but I could understand that others might hate it. The Carnes are sometimes snobs. Their attitude towards their governesses seems off, but I felt like that was the point, since the Brontës play such a large role in the book. Miss Martin apparently went to Newnham College, Cambridge, before her family lost their money, and she is so caught in an outdated belief in the way things ought to be that she becomes a governess. Since she doesn’t seem to enjoy teaching, this felt like old-fashioned thinking in the extreme, given that Katrine tries for a life on the stage and Deirdre is a writer. Would fiery Jane Eyre have been a governess if she had had other options?

In varying ways, the characters cling to the past and tradition in a rapidly changing world. Although she is well-educated, Miss Martin is still a governess during a time when it seems an increasingly irrelevant profession. As a real-life comparison, Dorothy L. Sayers, who went to Oxford, worked in an advertising agency during the 1920s. Miss Martin lacks the imagination to find a different life for herself, eventually following the man she loves (who possibly does not return her love) and choosing the life he has chosen. Even the Carnes, while modern in some ways, are terribly snobbish about marriage, rejecting Katrine’s suitor as being of the wrong social class.

As readers, we might wish to be accepted into the Carne circle and not excluded like the steady stream of governesses. However, with the change in point-of-view, from the intimate first-person to the distant third-person, we, too, are kept away from being part of the fun. We are reminded that we are only spectators. We are here to watch the story unfold, nothing more.

Despite the distance created by the ending, the landscape of the family’s imagination instantly took me in and held me. Lines like this became a favorite of mine:

“I often think that perhaps there is only a limited amount of memory going about the world, and that when it wants to live again, it steals its nest, like a cuckoo.”

At just about 200 pages, this is a slim book that somehow manages, in its few pages, to create so much character depth that I am constantly amazed at it with each re-read. The characters seem to pop off of the page with their quirky view of the world. The Carnes are not perfect, but it is their dreamy inventiveness that brings me back to this novel again and again.

Review Fridays: Eligible

The details:

Title: Eligible
Author: Curtis Sittenfeld
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Pages: 512
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

Despite the press surrounding Eligible, it might be best to forget that it is supposed to be an update of Pride and Prejudice. Curtis Sittenfeld is a good writer, but she is no Jane Austen. It is unfortunate that the connection between the novels forces the reader to compare them. Where Austen’s novel is light, bright, and sparkling, Eligible is too long and has a heroine who thinks she is more witty and clever than she actually is. The modern-day Darcy comments on this latter point, that Liz Bennet thinks she’s funnier than she is, and that is a problem.

In Eligible, Liz Bennet is a journalist. The charm of Pride and Prejudice is that the heroine is confident and smart, but she is young enough that she still has a lot to learn about herself. Instead, we have a heroine in her late thirties who accepts that, although she is dating a married man, it is excusable because his marriage is supposedly over. He and his wife are staying together for the sake of his wife’s mother who would disinherit them if they divorced. Liz is completely taken in by this excuse. Jane Austen’s clever and intelligent heroine would never have fallen for something so preposterous.

Jane is a yoga instructor, living off of her family’s money, and is trying to have a baby through anonymous donation. I wasn’t completely convinced that ever-optimistic and kind Jane would have given up hope of finding someone she loved or a career that could pay the bills. Bingley is a doctor and reality TV star on a show called Eligible that is like The Bachelor. Yes, Bingley is a big pushover in the original, and perhaps he could be talked into reality TV (surely Darcy would convince him not to do it?), but, by the end, even Jane is talked into it, which seems wrong.

Jasper, our Wickham, is a journalist just like Liz, but it is never quite clear what Liz sees in him. He is not charming enough. It was difficult, as a reader, to care about him at all, and part of what made Wickham so dastardly in the original was that he was initially likable and believable. Instead, in Sittenfeld’s version, the reader can only wait impatiently until Liz realizes she is just wasting her time with him.

Liz’s relationship with Darcy is just as unsatisfying. Liz and Darcy, a doctor who works long hours, start a physical relationship purely because they hate each other. I have seen some other reviewers cheer on this development, but to me it screams very awkward plot device. The scene that mirrors Darcy’s first proposal feels hollow. I do not understand what Darcy sees in Liz, besides physical attraction. Why she eventually falls for Darcy is more obvious, but it does not make sense for Liz to hate him as much as she does. Darcy’s moment where he redeems himself in helping Lydia feels unnecessary and strange, and Lydia certainly is not grateful for it.

Even Jane and Liz do not seem as close. Couldn’t Liz have talked Jane out of doing a ridiculous reality TV wedding? And I won’t even get into the drama involving the rest of the Bennets who occupy a run-down mansion in Cincinnati.

Added to all of the faults is the fact that this book is twice as long, page-wise, as my paperback copy of Pride and Prejudice. The writing isn’t bad, so it’s a shame that the plot is so convoluted and tries so hard to follow the original. I hope that the last two novels of the Austen Project will keep with the spirit of Jane Austen’s novels rather than trying to tediously update each and every single plot point.

Three tips for taking risks in your career

I am experimenting with a series about the intersection of literature and career advice. I have read a lot of novels, and I have read a lot of career advice. The two surprisingly have a lot in common. Today is Edward Ferrars and what he can teach us about taking risks in our careers. 

Edward Ferrars from Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility might not seem like the most obvious choice for a risk taker. He is a quiet, mousy sort of character, unobtrusive, someone you probably would never notice at a big party. In fact, he wouldn’t be at the party at all. This doesn’t bode well for him. After all, how can someone who doesn’t put himself forward achieve success?

Out of all of Jane Austen’s characters, Edward has the most to lose. He is from a wealthy family. His mother and sister have picked out a wife for him, have a vision of a clever career path, and would like to see him jaunting about town in elegant modes of transportation. His family wants him to be fashionable. If he chooses to go against their wishes, chances are very good that his mother will disinherit him.

But all Edward wants is a quiet country life as a clergyman. The safe route would be to do exactly as his family wants, to marry well, and to inherit the family fortune. Instead, his honor matters more to him than security. He is willing to risk everything for his happiness.

The way he takes risks, and how he rebounds from them, can tell us a lot about taking risks in our careers while still maintaining a safety net.

1. Stay patient.

At first, it looks as if Edward isn’t on his way to success. He has engaged himself to a woman he doesn’t love, and he intends to marry her anyway because this is 19th century England. Many of us view our careers this way. We don’t really love them, but they offer security and, anyway, we committed to them. Most of us are inclined to stay the course.

Sometimes, the first careers that we choose when we are young and lack life experience will not make us happy. Know that you will make mistakes, but no situation is irrevocable. It is important to stay patient and meet new people and try new things until you find the career that seems right.

2. Pursue the things that make you happy.

Edward’s first scheme for happiness is a total disaster. He goes against his family’s wishes, but he ends up engaging himself to a woman who would never make him happy. He is completely seduced by the glittery, cunning option, only to realize too late that she lacks substance.

Despite his youthful mistake, Edward makes his scheme for happiness in another area. He will be a clergyman, and he will find at least one point of happiness in a quiet life. But it turns out the woman he was engaged to was just after his money. In your career, don’t chase money. Trust that pursuing the things that make you happy will attract the people you want to have in your life–and drive away those you’d rather avoid.

3. Build a network.

Edward can afford to take risks. He doesn’t need to worry about where money will come from because he has friends who care about him and his future. Colonel Brandon, an acquaintance through the Dashwoods, hears about his predicament and wants to help. He gives Edward a living on his estate, saving him from destitution. It is far less likely that you will fail if you have a network to fall back on if your risk taking doesn’t pan out.

If the idea of networking fills you with existential dread, just remember that no one likes networking. Think of it instead as making friends with people who happen to have the same career as you. And if that doesn’t help, don’t think of it as trying to exploit other people to get their help. What can you contribute to the careers of other people? Chances are if you help them, they will be willing to help you later in your career, too.

Five steps to get your career back on track

I have been thinking lately about the intersection of literature and career advice. For instance, Jane Austen was wise before her time, and a lot of her characters’ choices mirror those of job hunters in the modern world.

Most career advice will tell you that pursuing your passion is stupid. The top priority, apparently, should be to make money and to forget about happiness. There will be time for hobbies in your free time, they say. Focus on making money. In literary terms, be more like Charlotte Lucas and less like Elizabeth Bennet.

Even though Jane Austen wrote about courtship, she actually has a lot to say about careers. I am going to give you five steps for getting your career back on track inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

1. Make a list of any values you would never go against.

In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet turns down not one but two very lucrative offers. In modern terms, it is like she was offered jobs but decided that they didn’t quite fit in with her principles. Charlotte Lucas accepts the first man who shows any interest in her. This is practical. She is doing the thing that most of us do in our career searches.

Elizabeth is the heroine because, despite her mother yelling at her for making such stupid decisions, she is not really making stupid decisions. She is willing to hold out for perfection and so gets her happy ending. Most of us get scared before reaching this point because we value security over perfection. And that is OK as long as we are honest about it and stop making ourselves unhappy because our jobs aren’t perfect.

2. Gain self-knowledge.

Charlotte is comfortable, but she’s also likely extremely bored. She has chosen to hole herself off in the countryside with her pompous husband and his overbearing, snooty patroness. But she values security over everything else. She knows this about herself, and she is able to make the decision to marry Mr. Collins without being miserable about it.

On the other hand, Elizabeth would never make that decision. She is self-aware enough to know that she cannot sacrifice her happiness to guarantee financial security for herself, her mother, and her sisters. She is willing to risk that either she or one of her sisters will make a suitable match to give them a place to live when their father dies. Although they take different paths, both Charlotte and Elizabeth possess enough self-knowledge to pursue what will make them content. You can’t know which path is right for you unless you have that self-knowledge.

3. Take inventory of your skills.

Lady Catherine, one of the main antagonists of the novel, believes that she could be proficient at anything if only she would devote time to it. So would her daughter, if her health allowed it. What she is saying is that she doesn’t think it is worth her time to become that good at anything because she is already rich and doesn’t value learning for learning’s sake.

There is nothing inherently wrong with that point of view. Becoming very, very good at something takes a lot of time and effort. Really exceptional athletes, for example, spend most of their free time on training and practice to the exclusion of everything else. Most of us will never achieve that kind of persistence. We try once and fail and binge watch TV. Even Elizabeth Bennet isn’t the best pianist. You have to be able to honestly answer whether you are willing to put in the time and energy that a new path requires.

4. Know when to try something new.

Mary, the middle Bennet sister, devotes a lot of time to gaining accomplishments. She does so to the exclusion of spending more time with her sisters, going for walks to the village, and building relationships. Yet, we know that she is wasting her time. At the Netherfield Ball, she embarrasses herself and her family by putting herself forward to play complicated piano pieces, and she is not good at it.

You don’t have to be a natural at the thing you want to do, but if you are devoting a lot of time and energy to it and not improving, maybe you should try something else. It might be that you will never be good at calculus or weren’t meant to be an engineer. Maybe you are like a fish who is trying to climb a tree. It is futile, and you would be better off finding a place where you can swim instead.

5. Decide when to take risks.

For most people, the answer to this step will be never. You will likely be best off in your current job, boring but stable, but maybe try tweaking small aspects. Find a shorter commute or a better boss. In other words, most of us will value security, and we can find that in our boring career path.

If, after taking inventory of your life and skills, you decide that you do want to take risks, I have three tips for you in the next post. Those tips come from Edward Ferrars, Jane Austen’s ultimate risk taker (yes, really).