Saturday, November 21, 2020

Review: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

 Rating: 4/5 stars

The Old Drift is a sweeping epic, tracing three family lines through three generations, exploring inter-generational inheritance of the effects of trauma, capitalism and colonialism. Woven into these stories is the history of Zambia, a nation similarly struggling with these wounds. Reading The Old Drift, I get the sense the Namwali Serpell feels both loving pride and intense despair about the state of her country, and has poured so much of herself into her first novel. She has a lot to say - about politics, motherhood, sociology, racism, sexuality, science, disappointment, identity, capitalism, global warming, love..... It's a tall order to successfully conduct such a symphony of ideas, and although I think at times the individual melodies get overpowered or off-tempo, it's still a very impressive book.

The three grandmothers each have some supernatural feature. One woman grows hair all over her face and body at a magically rapid pace. Leaving behind a sheltered childhood in post-World War Italy, raised by a brokenhearted mother who was worried her daughter would be stoned as a monster, she starts a new life in Zambia with her lover. Another grandmother's promising tennis career is interrupted with inexplicable blindness. She, too, makes her way to Zambia with her lover, but her immigration is instead an escape from her parent's disapprobation of her interracial relationship. The third grandmother is Zambian born and raised, and her brilliance and sense of adventure bring her to join Mukuka Nkoloso's team of revolutionaries [The Old Drift is impeccably well-researched - some of this research into Nkoloso went into a great New Yorker article]. She falls in love, becomes pregnant, and is abandoned by all her friends and family. This despair causes her to weep endlessly for decades, the skin under her eyes scarring.

The members of the mother generation escape magical distinction, but struggle to set their roots and thrive in the soil they are planted in by their mothers. They grapple with issues like being treated as a commodity by an unloving and ambitious aunt, sex work and homelessness, forming a sense of identity as an idly rich white woman in the expat enclave, an unfaithful spouse, miscarriage, AIDS, and loneliness. Their stories touch every now and then, but it isn't until the grandchildren's generation that the three storylines really merge.

The stories of the grandchildren stretch from the 2010s into the 2020s, and revolve around several fictional technological advances and how these inventions impact a developing country: smartphone successors surgical embedded into the palms of the user (exploited by the government for spying on and controlling its citizens), vaccines against AIDS (tested on brown, poor bodies without their consent), tiny drone swarms (exploited by the government for warfare, spying, controlling its citizens, and used by anti-government revolutionary forces).

The story concludes with intentionally loose ends - the final chapter literally ends halfway through a sentence. I suppose this conveys that history is never over; the offspring of the grandchildren will still be fighting the aftermath of colonialism. Still, I found that I hadn't quite had time to get invested in the final story arch, in which the grandchildren, in a move of rebellion against the government, attempt to take down the dam built by one of their grandfathers. And so the abruptness of the book ending where it did didn't quite have the impact it could have. Nor did I feel fully satisfied by the last sightings of all the mothers and grandmothers.

Parts of the book are incredibly depressing. Every relationship, no matter how strong they started, fizzled or rotted. It's a bleak look at love in general, and particularly one in which the central conceit is that each main character must have a child to narrate the next chapter. I found myself dreading the pages where the characters started to fall in love or found out they were pregnant. Beyond that, some characters - Matha and Sylvia in particular - have so much horribleness thrown their way that I found myself wondering what the point of showing so much misery was. 

Still, beyond these issues, I loved the writing. There were some lyrically beautiful passages:

Can mosquitoes and humans live peacefully together, can we forge an uneasy truce? Hover around each other enough and symbiosis sets in. Over moons, you’ll grow immune, and our flus will move through you – a mild fever and maybe a snooze. This balance can even come to your rescue, defend you against rank intruders. As Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe once said, the lowliest creature, the tiny udzudzu, is what kept the imperialists at bay! Thus when the whites first swooned to the tropics, they saw that the blacks never fell: the raging calenture that gripped the bazungu passed over the huts of the bantu. This place was The White Man’s Grave. But it wasn’t bad lands that caused their downfall – it happened on the seas as well. They say La Amistad’s crew caught a fever, while the black mutineers were spared it. Was it African skin or sweat? It was neither. It was us, and a matter of time. Reckon the wars, how a battleground festers: the British armies in the American South, the Japanese in the Pacific. Even the fall of the Roman Empire was due in part to our diseases. In every case, the nature of grace is that one side is simply more used to us. Call it invasion or world exploration: either way, it upsets this balance. Your desire to conquer, to colonise others, is both too fixed and too free. Nothing escapes your dull dialectic: either it takes a village to live or to each his own to survive. Even your debate on the best way to befalls on either side of this blade. The social contract or individual free will; the walls of a commune must keep us close or capital must run rampant. That’s how you froze your long Cold War, with this endless, mindless divide.

Other passages were just perfect little needles:

She was mainly struck by how small she looked in her reflection. She didn’t feel that small from the inside.

What sort of preparation, what sort of entertainment does a dying man want? Last things? Joseph had no idea what those would be – he was still obsessed with first things.

All she wanted was to be at home in bed, curled in a ball, alone and quietly bleeding.

During his time at university, Ronald had learned that ‘history’ was the word the English used for the record of every time a white man encountered something he had never seen and promptly claimed it as his own, often renaming it for good measure. History, in short, was the annals of the bully on the playground.

But Sibilla’s marriage had long felt like a handbag that she had neglected to empty out, that she still carried around even though she kept her money, handkerchief and comb elsewhere on her person. 

The baby started to cry again. Matha had never considered that being female would thwart her so, that it would be a hurdle she had to jump every time she wanted to learn something: to read a book, to shout the answers, to make a bomb, to love a man, to fight for freedom. She had never thought Ba Nkoloso, Godfrey and Nkuka would each abandon her in turn to poverty and lone motherhood. Matha bounced her baby in vain. Go to sleep, baby, she whimpered. Shut up, baby. She had never imagined that to be a woman was always, somehow, to be a banishable witch. Now, as her baby wept for hunger and as she herself wept distractedly – weeping was just what she did now, who she was – Matha felt that dawning shock that comes when you look at yourself and see a person you once might have pitied

Each character had a distinct voice - not an easy task for a novel with nine main characters. 

Many of the dialogues were fairly in-depth discussions of big concepts. Capitalism versus Marxism. Racism. Free tuition. The right way to effect societal change. These Socratic dialogues feel like characters naturally exploring a topic shaping their lives, rather than the author attempting to argue her own views. (Indeed, at times, I wish the author came down a little harder on what she believes.)

‘The protests,’ he said. ‘It’s crazy right now. End-times shit.’ She laughed so hard that it rocked her onto her back. ‘Are you joking?’ she asked the sky. ‘That’s why I wanted to go! They’re frikkin trying to do something! Fight the power and that!’ ‘How about fight the power cuts?’ He was surprised to hear himself echoing his grandfather. ‘Why make free education a priority when people still don’t have food or electricity or running water?’ ‘They did it in Chile!’ she exclaimed, sitting up again and crossing her legs. ‘They made it completely free. Uni for everyone, paid for by those corporate oil companies and shit.’ ‘Are you sure you want to use Chile as the example of democratic progress?’ ‘Who said anything about democracy, men? Democracy’s bankrupt. People from the West shout “democracy” but they’re vampires, sucking our resources. Bloody capitalist stooges.’ ‘Stooges?’ he chuckled. ‘You really are Zambian. So what, you give all your money away?’ ‘I’m Marxist,’ she said with disgust. ‘I’m not stupid.’

 I opened the book knowing almost nothing about Zambia, and I closed it having been inspired to read up on its history, its traditional clothing, its cuisine, its language. Serpell did a fantastic job at painting the country and its people. The books hold on me didn't end upon putting it down; various parts of the book have rattled around in my mind since I read it. And I think that is the mark of a successful book.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Review: Lady Susan by Jane Austen

 Rating: 3/5 stars

I have a fondness for a good female villain. Yzma in particular holds a special place in my heart. But The Little Mermaid's Ursula, A Song of Ice And Fire's Melisandre and Cersei, Mean Girl's Regina George, Morgan Le Fey from the Arthurian legend, all rank as some of my favourite characters. Many of these women operate at the boundary (or just outside of it) of social acceptability, and their flaunting of roles ascribed to women, or their ability to play with these norms to meet their own needs, is often thrilling and satisfying. 

Lady Susan fits perfectly in this category of wicked women. She is charismatic, confident in her power and willing to reach out and take what she wants.

I have made him sensible of my power, and can now enjoy the pleasure of triumphing over a mind prepared to dislike me, and prejudiced against all my past actions.

It was delicious to see this sort of character portrayed by Austen, whose main characters have otherwise ranged from the churchmouse-like Fanny (Mansfield Park) to the spirited but still sensible and moral Elizabeth Bennet

Lady Susan aside, the plot was fairly simple and short. I had hoped that Fredrica would turn out to indeed be a wicked woman. Lady Susan holds Fredrica in so little regard, and Catherine Vernon considers her to be so poorly misjudged by Lady Susan. I think it would have been a great use of the epistolary format of the novel, and played in well with the theme of trusting someone's word versus their reputation. Fredrica turning out to indeed be a perfectly normal woman that was ill-treated by her mother was a little disappointing and boring.

The ending breaks from the epistolary format to general prose as the narrator accounts for what happens to all the characters. I found the tone shift a little jarring at first. Still, Jane Austen's prose is very enjoyable. I get the sense that, with this book, written somewhat later in her life, Austen perhaps had something to say about the idea of women's beauty or desirability fading with age.

 Miss Mainwaring; who, coming to town, and putting herself to an expense in clothes which impoverished her for two years, on purpose to secure him, was defrauded of her due by a woman ten years older than herself

Review: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

 Rating: 5/5 stars

I left Pride and Prejudice as the last Jane Austen novel in my Summer/Fall 2020 Austen binge. I've read it several times: once in high school, a couple times during my undergraduate degree. I thought that it probably wouldn't hold up against Emma or Persuasion - my two favourites so far. After all, Pride and Prejudice was from Austen's "early" period. Presumably, I thought, it would be like Sense and Sensibility or Northanger Abbey, a delightful story about charming and slightly flawed heroines whose adventures portray the ridiculousness of socialites. The satire wouldn't have yet matured into the dark, sharpened censure of the gentry found at the heart of Persuasion, I assumed. The character study would probably not be as detailed as in Emma, nor would the protagonist's point of view shape the reader's interpretation of events to the same extent, resulting in an interesting reveal.

None of these assumptions that I brought with me to this reading were necessarily wrong. Austen's social critiques are pointed and varied: women's rights to property and inheritance; women's social reputation being particularly precarious versus that of men; the wealthy/landed being just as often rude and cruel as their less fortunate countrymen. However, I read optimism in her satire in Pride and Prejudice. For all the narcissism, frivolity, greed and obsequiousness in the Mr Wickhams, Lady Catherines, and Mr Collinses of the world, there is a trust that there will be kind, thoughtful, generous, empathetic Jane Bennets and Mr Bingleys and Mr Darcys to even things out. There isn't the same sense of social rot and decay of the gentry class, as explored in Persuasion.

So I wondered, as I devoured Pride and Prejudice over the course of just three days, why do I love this novel so much? In part, I think it is because Elizabeth is so relatable and so delightful. She's smart, playful, bold, thoughtful, caring, idealistic. She experiences things familiar to me and in a similar way: her bristling at being wrongly assessed by Mr Darcy, her mortification at her parents' and sisters' behaviour, her love for her family, her navigating a social scene packed with people richer or more educated than her.

In part, I think love this novel particularly because, I think alone of Austen's novels, the love interest has a significant character arc too. Mr Darcy is socially awkward and proud - another set of characteristics I can identify with! - and learns to overcome his shyness and to see the world through a different perspective. Yes, the ending is a little bit too "fairy tale." But I didn't care, I was just excited to see Lizzie and Darcy together.

Finally, the dialogues are just so memorable. The adversarial flirting between Lizzie Bennet and Mr Darcy, and their fiery argument during the proposal scene, are particularly fun. But I equally loved many other scenes: the opening dialogue where Mr and Mrs Bennet discuss going to see Mr Bingley. Mr Darcy's rant about "accomplished" women (a thread Austen picks up also in Emma and in Sense and Sensibility), Miss Bingley's failure at flirting with Mr Darcy as he writes a letter to his sister, the dinners at Lady Catherine's. Between reading the book a few times, and watching the movies and tv shows based on the novel, so much of the dialogue and the characters were surprisingly familiar to me. Maybe that is why I loved this read so much - it was returning to old friends.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Review: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

 Rating: 4/5 stars


I love Sense and Sensibility for being a story of female friendship between two rather different women. Despite disagreement and disappointment in each other, Elinor and Marianne remain loving and supportive. It seems rare, even in 2020, to have such a detailed character study of two women that remain friends throughout. Elinor and Marianne feel like 'real' people to me, despite being personifications of the themes of the novel, sense and sensibility, or being guided by rationality (sometimes to the detriment of emotional happiness) versus being guided by emotion. These two sisters as foils of each other made me think a little of the Zoey versus Zelda dichotomy proposed in Bojack Horseman (itself a parody of fictional personality clustering paradigms like Hogwarts Houses or Sex and the City characters; I'm an Elinor, a Zoey, a Ravenclaw, a Miranda).

I also enjoyed Jane Austen's critique of idleness in the gentry. It's a more gentle version of the censure of the idle rich that Austen penned fifteen or twenty years later in Persuasion. Although not wealthy, Elinor and Marianne surprise their acquaintances by being always preoccupied with art or music or reading. Edmund's character arc is about him recognizing that his misplaced love for Lucy Steele is actually a product of his idleness, and then him finally choosing a profession and becoming a productive, if less wealthy, gentleman. ("Instead of having anything to do, instead of having any profession chosen for me, or being allowed to choose any myself, I returned home to be completely idle; I had therefore nothing in the world to do, but to fancy myself in love.") The Middletons are respectable, apparently happy rich folk, with nothing to do except hunt when it is nice weather (Mr. Middleton), mother their children (Mrs. Middleton), and arrange dinner parties. 

I thought the framing of motherhood as Lady Middleton's sole occupation being a form of idleness was particularly interesting. In Race, Women & Class, Angela Davis discusses in detail how during this period of history, well-off women had many of their responsibilities removed from them by increasing industrialization, and that this reduction in their contribution to their households increased sexism towards women. Upper class women were restricted to the role of doting mother, with little to do to occupy their idle days. Mrs. Jennings similarly does little except care for her daughters and attempt to marry off her single female acquaintances. Mrs. John Dashwood breaks this mold a little, manipulating her husband into carrying out her wishes by expressing everything in terms of the potential benefit or harm (however tangential!) to her child.

Austen contrasts these limited social roles allowed to wealthy women with real social and economic power held by women. Mrs. Ferrars disowns Edmund when he refuses to break his engagement to Lucy Steele. Mr. Willoughby's aunt similarly cuts him off financially when she hears of his affair with Eliza. Inheritance and wealth is arbitrary, precarious, and its victims are not just women (like the impoverished Miss Dashwoods).

I thought Sense and Sensibility was notable for being one of the earliest examples of mansplaining in literature I can think of. Mr. Dashwood is so unable to imagine Colonel Brandon's generosity towards Edmund that he insists Elinor is mistaken and that she must be mistaken, Colonel Brandon clearly bequeathed the parsonage only temporarily. Elinor has to quite firmly insist that, as the person entrusted by Colonel Brandon to convey the offer to Edmund, she is quite aware of the terms of the agreement. Her begrudgingly accepts this explanation without really apologizing.

Sense and Sensibility was a little more overtly comedic than Persuasion or Mansfield Park. For example, there was a scene of Elinor and Mrs Jennings misunderstanding each other regarding what exactly Colonel Brandon discussed with Elinor. I enjoyed the fairly broad cast of somewhat ridiculous characters: Mr. John Dashwood and his conversations with his wife and with Elinor were a highlight of these. Lucy Steele's sly meanness coated in friendly civility was also amusing.

As much as I loved Elinor and Marianne's character arcs, I found those of their gentlemen rather lacking. I thought Edmund was rather flat and unremarkable (although I might be a little prejudiced against religious characters). Colonel Brandon seemed like a kind, thoughtful man, if you can get past his whole mooning-over-women-half-his-age-from-a-distance thing (a taller order in 2020 than 1820).

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Review: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

 Rating: 2/5 stars

I finished Northanger Abbey wondering if I was particularly disposed to identifying with Austen heroines, but in Mansfield Park's Fanny Price I discovered at last a protagonist that I never really "got." For the first two thirds of the novel, Fanny does little more than exist as a fly on the wall, meditating disapprovingly as her cousins and their friends flirt, rehearse a play, and discuss religion and landscaping. Fanny finds much to dislike, and takes little joy in anything in life outside of her relationship with her brother William, who sees her briefly in between sea voyages, and being cared for by her cousin Edmund Bertram. Unlike Northanger Abbey's Catherine Morland, who delighted in dancing and books and discovering the world, or Emma's Miss Woodhouse, who enjoys art and wit and society, Fanny Price just seems like a bit of a dour, passive wet blanket. Even her love for Edmund is expressed predominantly in terms of acquiescent sadness as she watches him develop feelings for Miss Crawford (rather than Catherine's consuming giddiness for Mr Tilney or Emma's playful admiration for Mr Knightly). The climax of the novel is in Fanny quietly standing firm in her resolution to not marry Mr Crawford, who she views as improper and amoral. And I highly value convictions and a sense of right and wrong - in myself, in my friends, in my fictional characters - but I don't have patience for people who lack passion.

The fallout to Fanny's heroic decision not to marry a charming and wealthy man felt a little facile. Everyone who was superficial or improper or mean to Fanny met an unpleasant end, unless they were able to recognize quickly enough how right and proper Fanny was to refuse Mr Crawford. The few people who were nice to Fanny and valued her had good fortune and enjoyable lives.

Austen asks "what makes people good?" But I don't feel she satisfactorily provides an answer. Fanny's cousins, Julia and Maria, become silly and superficial women because their father cares only that they "check the boxes" of being accomplished young ladies without ensuring that they are actually godfearing young ladies. Maria is particularly spoiled (and thus meets a particularly demeaning fate) because her Aunt Norris spoils her and views her absolutely without faults. Sir Thomas Bertram pats himself on the back for polishing Fanny into being an elegant young lady, but notes that her beauty is her own. But what makes Edmund a considerate and conscientious young man? He was raised in the same toxic household as his fatuous, ostentatious cousins. Most of Fanny's siblings are self-centered, but what makes her sister Susan immune to these endemic flaws? Are some of us simply born with strong moral character while the rest of us must hope that our parents and guardians instill in us a strong sense of ethics?

 The other themes in Mansfield Park seemed a little dated and uninteresting. One of the key concepts explored was the role and the respectability of the clergy - which has changed quite a bit! The position held by the improper, hedonistic characters is that men of the cloth are hypocritical and that their only ambition is to minimize their duties. The position held by the moral characters is that the clergy plays an essential role in the health of a community and are smart and self-sacrificing. The "bad guys" believe that no one really cares about religion, and that everyone simple attends for the sake of performing piety, and that church bells are a bit of a nuisance. The "good guys" long for regular chapel services to be held in Southerton Hall and that all the servants ought to attend. I found myself rather more sympathetic towards the arguments presented by the villains.

Another concept was that of remodelling and landscaping. Some types of landscaping are virtuous. Some are silly and superficial. I was a little amused that privileged people 200 years ago were as disposed to spending an entire dinner discussing landscaping as they are now. These are not my favourite types of dinner parties. Still, conversations like these can be delightful ways of exploring characters! 

However, the cast of Mansfield Park was not as colorful or as familiar or otherwise as interesting as the casts in some of Austen's other work. The personal flaws lampooned in Mansfield Park also just seem to present themselves differently now than they did then. There are still the checked-out parents, like Sir and Lady Bertram, miserly people like Mrs Norris, and ladder-climbing superficial women like Miss Crawford and Maria Bertram. But I didn't find these flaws as poignantly presented and explored as, for example, those of Sir Walter Elliot and Mary Musgrove of Persuasion.

If there are two themes in the books I've read in the last three or four months, it would be the novels of Jane Austen and nonfiction exploring the fallouts of Colonialism and slavery (for example: Race, Women and Class or The Autobiography of Malcolm X). I had some hopes that Mansfield Park, as the only work by Jane Austen that references slavery and the colonies, to be an interesting dovetailing of these two themes. However, it played an extremely minor background role, and I feel that discussions of portrayal of slavery in this book are really trying very hard to make mountains out of molehills. Is Fanny/Austen pro-slavery? Anti-slavery? You could read the handful of lines that reference the issue either way depending on your desired thesis.

I still enjoyed Jane Austen's prose, and her ability to design a scene and portray the thoughts and emotions of her characters. There were plot points I enjoyed - Fanny making her own little space in the East Room, and finally being allowed to have a fire in the hearth there, for example. But if I were in the mood for some Jane Austen, I think I would pick up perhaps any other book but this one.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Review: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

 Rating: 4/5 stars

Am I a particularly Austen-like woman, or is Austen so astute at creating realistic, relatable characters that most people find some parts of themselves in her heroines? (See my reviews of Emma and Persuasion, for example.)

I loved Catherine's dramatic imagination, her loyalty to her friends and her innocence/naiveté regarding General Tilney and Isabella's social ladder climbing ambitions. My heart rose and fell with hers as she discovered the wide(r) world of Bath and made new friends, discovered too late the social impropriety of riding in an open carriage, learned of her acquaintance manipulatively canceling her social plans or lying to her to spend more time with him, received an invitation to Northanger Abbey and was discovered poking around her friend's deceased mother's apartments. If the specifics of my own teen years were really quite different, the general tensions and reactions Austen portrayed were so vividly familiar.

John Thorpe and Isabella Thorpe were delightful antagonists. There is a particular type of pompous self-absorbed twit from whom I've previously had to disentangle myself from conversation with and it is nice to have a literary reference for the archetype... Seeing the hints of Isabella's upcoming betrayal through Catherine's unwitting and overly generous eyes was fun. Mrs Allen and Mrs Thorpe's supposed "conversations" in which they both discussed their own interests at each other rather than with each other was memorable.

Henry Tilney left a lot to be desired as a love interest. I found him rather unbearably smug and overly pleased with his own wit, and rather condescending. Still, Catherine's being so in love with him was just so adorable that I still shipped it.

In the present instance, she confessed and lamented her want of knowledge, declared that she would give anything in the world to be able to draw; and a lecture on the picturesque immediately followed, in which his instructions were so clear that she soon began to see beauty in everything admired by him, and her attention was so earnest that he became perfectly satisfied of her having a great deal of natural taste. He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances – side-screens and perspectives – lights and shades; and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape.

Overall, the plot of Northanger Abbey was quite simple relative to her other works. The social tensions were less layered than in Emma. Social critiques were narrower in scope and the character flaws of the protagonists and antagonists were less complex than those of Emma or Persuasion. It was fun to watch Austen aim her satire at literature and pop culture. While many of the tropes she skewers (wives locked up and murdered, manuscripts hidden in surprising old chests, spooky houses) are very familiar, I got the sense that some (many?) references went a little over my head. Still, I don't feel the need to brush up on centuries-old gothic novels - Jane Austen's satire about an extraordinarily ordinary teen girl delighted nevertheless.

Review: Emma by Jane Austen

 Rating: 4/5 stars

"Emma" is a dramatic romance about a girl named "Jane".

There's a somewhat traditional romantic story line in Emma, in which two young people fall in love and become engaged, and yet hide their engagement out of fear of familial censure due to their different in class status and wealth. However, the strain of keeping the relationship secret makes the two lovers miserable. In a dramatic series of events involving a lost break-up letter, a frantic horse ride across the countryside and a sudden death of a parent, the two young people re-unite and come forth about their relationship.

Nearly all of this story line occurs off-screen, however, and involves Jane, not the titular heroine.

I loved this sort of bait-and-switch. It was effective at demonstrating how our perceptions of people are influenced by our own personal goals or struggles or the partial information we receive about the world. Just as Frank Churchill was quite sure Emma had sussed out his secret engagement (given his own preoccupation with his forbidden love), the reader thinks the story will be a romance arch of some sort centered around Emma and including also Mr Churchill, Mr Knightly and/or Harriet. Instead, these relationship tensions dissipate easily, with the climax of the novel really peaking instead at the discovery that Emma, all of Highbury, and the reader themselves have been much mistaken about two major characters and the meaning of dozens of social interactions.

Austen does such a good job at portraying all the little nuances and the subtext of interpersonal relationships and conversation. Through the portrayal of a few people planning a party, for example, we get vivid character portraits and critique of social structure. There are some reviews of Emma on Goodreads that bemoan how many pages are spent discuss, for example, how to cook a particular cut of pig. And I want to moan back at them "but you see it's the way they talk about the cut of pig, through which we feel Emma's exasperation at suffering the overly chatty Miss Bates, and see Mr Woodhouse's arms-length paternalism and hypochondriac anxiety, and we feel the claustrophobic, limited set of acceptable activities available to Emma as a woman of her station and...."

One of the things I loved about Persuasion was Austen's bitingly sarcastic prose. I felt like this sort of authorial voice was de-emphasized in Emma, in favor of showing Emma's reactions to events instead. In consequence, dialogue played a much larger role in demonstrating the various follies of the rich. Perhaps because of this difference, I felt like the cast of Emma was somewhat more lovingly portrayed by Austen. Although Mrs Enton was delightfully insufferable in her condescending sense of superiority!

Another possible effect of this difference was that Emma is much more a character study and less a social critique. To some extent, this is in its favour. Emma is a fantastic portrayal of the difficulties in navigating social relationships as a young woman, when you feel you know enough to play as an adult, and yet you still haven't really grasped viewing things from other people's perspectives, nor have you mastered reflecting on your own emotions. (I enjoyed Emma reacting to something, thinking first of how Mr Knightly might react, and then thinking of how Mr Churchill might react, and then thinking how silly she is thinking always of Mr Churchill first - how crazy to be in love; during this part of the book, she of course thinks she is in love with Mr Churchill and not Mr Knightly).

To some extent, however, this makes Emma a little more limited. The "moral" of the story is that one shouldn't dream of marrying too far above one's social station. The book ends with us, and Emma, learning that Harriet is just a tradesman's bastard, and there for Emma was very wrong to have impeded her happily marrying a farmer. This "moral" translates somewhat poorly to today (or, if it doesn't, it ought to...). Charitably, one could think of Emma's meddling in Harriet's life (and the mirror, of Mrs Enton meddling in Jane's affairs) as a lesson in checking your privilege and not enforcing your standards of what "a good life" should be on people with different ways of lives. That is a lesson still relevant in 2020. Still, this ending leaves a bit of a sour taste, and was really my only reason I dropped my rating from 5 to 4.