Friday 31 December 2010

In Which I See Out The Year In Style And Comfort

Alas, as the second innings** of my book blogging journey draws to a close, I am once again agonisingly short of a century, caught in the nervous nineties, set to finish on a creditable, but disappointing, 93.  Of course, my injury-enforced rest towards the end of my innings is largely responsible for this (no runners in book blogging), but I'm still happy overall with my reading in 2010.

One interesting statistic (yes, I know, an oxymoron if ever there was one) is that up until Christmas, I had a quite staggering 32-book run of new reads with not a single reread among them.  This may not be that impressive to some bloggers, but to people like me who specialise in classics, it's a phenomenal run.  However, just like the Aussie cricket team's Ashes dominance, all good things must come to an end, and what better way to break that run, and finish off the year, than with two sweet cover drives from the 19th century?  Padded up for your pleasure today, C.J.H. Dickens and J. Austen, ready to face up to pace and spin alike.  When you're quite ready...

What that all means is that after a hard year of punishing literary grind, I decided to see in the festive season by spending time with a couple of old friends - namely, Great Expectations and Emma.  Dickens' novel is a wonderful, tightly-plotted Bildungsroman, narrated by its hero, Phillip 'Pip' Pirrip, in which he looks back at his childhood and youth, paying close attention to the events set in train by a chance encounter on the Kentish marshes one cold Christmas Eve.  Comic, melodramatic and powerful, Great Expectations is one of Dickens' best works, and however Oprah Winfrey decided upon this novel for her book club choice (and regardless of what you think of her and her club..), it's certainly deserving of as wide an audience as possible.

Emma, while a little narrower in scope, is also worthy of a place in the canon.  The reader accompanies the titular heroine, Miss Emma Woodhouse, through a series of seemingly trivial encounters, misunderstandings and frustrations.  As she tries to pair up all and sundry in her circle, it slowly becomes clear that she too is both the recipient of amorous addresses and the owner of a lonely heart.  Will it all end in tears, or will she be able to cut through the tangle of miscommunication to find true happiness?  Oh, come on - it's Jane Austen!

The main difference between the two novels is the point of view adopted by the writer and the effect this has on our attitude towards the main character.  Dickens uses a first-person narrative, where a presumably middle-aged Pip recounts his youthful (mis)adventures, not concealing any of his blunders and holding his many flaws and imperfections to the light.  In contrast, the third-person style utilised by Austen allows the reader to live through the experiences with Emma and, in a sense, grow with her as she matures and realises the folly of her youthful ideas.  In this sense, Emma is perhaps as much of a Bildungsroman as Great Expectations, if not more so.

It's much more interesting though to consider the similarities between the two booksOne of the more prevalent themes covered is the idea of class differences; their importance and their tendency to blind people to true values.  In his desperate desire to pull himself up and prove himself worthy of Estella, Pip begins to consider Joe and Biddy, the companions of his youth, in a rather unfavourable light and is only too eager to run away to London in an attempt to become a gentleman.  Emma, for whom class is everything and who is only too quick to dismiss people based on their background, also blunders in her dealings because of her prejudices and in doing so almost causes severe hurt to her friends - and, at times, herself.

Another similarity is in the way the writers use language to create a plot and suck the reader into believing the same things the hero(ine) does, before casually revealing a quite different truth.  On a first reading, you are sucked into seeing things from Pip and Emma's point of view, unwitting dupes in the authors' little games.  On rereading, the fun lies in analysing the text for clues as to the authors' intent; a second reading reveals cunning wordplay and an ambiguity which is only fully realised when the reader already knows what is going to happen.  I once read a quote which stated that a classic novel is one where you know what is going to happen but which you can't wait to read anyway - these two novels definitely fall into that category.

Of course, another thing Dickens and Austen have in common is their appreciation of humour in writing.  Dickens expertly captures the confused grasp a child has on their surroundings in the first scenes of Great Expectations, where Pip is at the graveyard, confusing his parents' physical appearance with the shape of their headstones, and the scene where he reencounters Herbert Pocket, and receives casual tips on etiquette (such as hints not to put his knife in his mouth and to avoid draining a wine glass so joyfully that you end up with it balancing on your nose) during a hearty dinner is a wonderfully underplayed example of Dickens' style.  With Austen, however, the humour is less obvious and lies primarily in her characters' being given enough verbal rope to metaphorically hang themselves in the eye of the reader (if that's not mixing too many metaphors!).  Nevertheless, reading Emma certainly brings its fair share of wry smiles and little giggles too.

All in all, there aren't many better ways to close out the reading year than with a couple of old friends, and I was very glad to catch up with Pip and Emma again, and spend a week or so strolling around Little Britain and the Kentish marshes, or paying my respects at Hartfield and Donwell Abbey.  Before, I finish though, there is perhaps one final (and it does pertain to the books' respective endings) crucial difference between their fates.  Pip's future remains a little uncertain, but - being a gentleman - the world is his oyster, and the possibilities are almost endless.  Emma, on the other hand, while ostensibly happier at the end of her novel, has effectively run her race; we can be fairly sure as to what the future will bring.  A sobering thought as to gender differences in the 19th century to send you on your way...

** The first of a number of cricket-related puns in this introduction - many of you will know why :)