Thursday, April 15, 2010

Spring has sprung!

Yes, I know the calendar said spring arrived a few weeks ago, but the calendar doesn't convince me it's spring like the following signs I've been observing recently:
  • My daffodils are blooming, and my new maple tree has leaves! (This is a relief, as the first tree we planted in that location didn't leaf out.)
  • Our neighborhood is filled with flowering crabapple trees. There are white buds everywhere; I really should get a picture of the long stretch of Sheldon Center Road that has dozens of them lining the street. It's quite a sight in the spring (and in the fall).
  • I saw a great blue heron last week! They migrate out of the area in late fall, so when I see their pterodactyl-like silhouette in the sky, I know the cold days are mostly gone.
  • The sun comes up soon after I get up, and sunset holds off until I'm done with most of my activities, so I don't feel like a cave-dweller any more.
There are also a few less-exciting signs that spring is here:
  • The Road-Kill Rodeo is in full swing! Over the last couple of weeks, I've seen an increasing number of squished animals on my weekly drive to Ann Arbor. Mostly raccoons, but also including deer, possum, squirrel, skunk, and one kitty.
  • The fur is flying! Better that than more furballs (which also increase this time of year), but yesterday I brushed the cat for five minutes and ended up with half a dozen brushfuls of orange fur, which the stupid cat tried to eat.
  • Ants. In my kitchen. Not a lot of them, and not the big ones (thank goodness), but enough to be irritating and call the exterminator.
Those are minor annoyances, though; it's worth it to have warm sun shining through my (sometimes open!) window as I work at my computer. So hooray for spring!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Janespotting: Mansfield Park (Austen's original)

It's time for me to start looking at Austen's third published novel, Mansfield Park (1814), and I have to admit I wasn't really looking forward to the prospect. I've always considered it my least favorite of her novels, and I suspect I'm not alone in this opinion. The problem for many modern readers is Mansfield's heroine, Fanny Price. She doesn't have the wit and liveliness of Elizabeth Bennett or Emma Woodhouse, the innocent charm and naivete of Catherine Morland, or even the superior sensibility of Elinor Dashwood or Anne Elliot. Fanny Price is a character who triumphs through endurance and inaction, not through any particular achievement or virtues (aside from virtue itself).

A short summary: Fanny is a poor relation who is taken in by her aunt's wealthy family, the Bertrams. She comes to Mansfield Park and finds little kindness nor affection from her relations, who seem most concerned that she remember her place. Her Aunt Bertram is ditzy and thinks of nothing but her own comfort; Sir Thomas Bertram is stern and intimidating; Aunt Norris is most concerned that Fanny not overstep her role or interfere with Aunt Norris's own plans; oldest cousin Tom is in pursuit of pleasure and can't be bothered with a little girl; and her older cousins Maria and Julia ignore her except when they find a third playmate useful. Only her cousin Edmund shows her any kindness when she arrives, and he soon becomes a trusted friend for Fanny.

Not much has changed as Fanny turns eighteen: Tom is more interested in gambling than in business; Sir Bertram is distant (often physically, taking care of the family's business interests in the Caribbean); Aunt Norris is still bossy; Edmund is preparing to enter the clergy; and Fanny stays home to keep ditzy Aunt Bertram company while Maria and Julia go out in society. Maria has just got engaged to very wealthy (if stupid) young man, as suggested by Aunt Norris, when the society at Mansfield Park is interrupted by two visitors, brother and sister Henry and Mary Crawford. Both are attractive, lively, and flirtatious, and they and a friend, Mr. Yates, encourage the group to begin rehearsals for a play. Fanny refuses to participate, thinking the subject (romantic intrigue) inappopriate and believing that Sir Thomas would not approve of a home theatre in general. Even Edmund joins in against his better judgment, thinking it the only way to keep things from getting out of hand. Despite his efforts, Henry Crawford flirts with both Julia and the engaged Maria, and Mary Crawford seriously attracts Edmund's notice.

Sir Thomas's return to Mansfield puts a stop to the business; the Crawfords leave and soon Maria marries, taking Julia with her on her honeymoon. Fanny is left home with a newly appreciative Sir Thomas, and when the Crawfords return to the neighborhood, Henry decides to entertain himself by making Fanny fall in love with him. She is secretly in love with Edmund, however, and her steadfast refusal intrigues Henry to the point where he offers marriage. The family thinks she should be grateful and accept, but when she doesn't she is eventually sent to her parents in Portsmouth to think about the alternative. Her parents loud and slatternly household is a contrast to the peace and quite of Mansfield, but Fanny won't yield. Finally word reaches her that Maria has run away with Henry Crawford, and Julia eloped with Mr. Yates, and Fanny is needed home at Mansfield to comfort the Bertrams. Edmund realizes that Mary Crawford is not the woman he thought she was, and that Fanny would be the perfect mate instead.

This is where I should sigh, I suppose ... it's a happy ending, after all, although Austen shows us very little of it. (No romantic words, a la Mr. Knightley's "if I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more," and not even a scene where they discover their feelings. Hmmph.) Fanny triumphs by doing nothing, saying nothing, and being steadfast in her virtue. She's always right, about everything! How boring.

Although as I read the novel this time, I began to wonder ... why is Fanny so inactive? After thinking about it for a couple of chapters, I realized: because it's her survival strategy. She comes to Mansfield at a young age, and soon learns her place is not to stand out:
"I should wish to see them very good friends," (says Sir Thomas of Fanny and his daughters), "and would, on no account, authorize in my girls the smallest degree of arrogance towards their relation; but still they cannot be equals." (Chapter 1)

Though [Fanny was] unworthy, from inferiority of age and strength, to be [her cousins'] constant associate, their pleasure and schemes were sometimes of a nature to make a third very useful, especially when that third was of an obliging, yielding temper. (Chapter 2)

"I am not going to urge [Fanny to act in the play]," —replied Mrs. Norris sharply, "but I shall think her a very obstinate, ungrateful girl, if she does not do what her aunt and cousins wish her—very ungrateful indeed, considering who and what she is." (Chapter 15)

"People are never respected when they step out of their proper sphere. Remember that, Fanny," [said Aunt Norris.] (Chapter 23)
It's pretty clear that if Fanny were the type of Austen heroine we adore—witty, assertive, vocal—she wouldn't have lasted long at Mansfield Park at all, and its quiet surroundings are really more suited to her personality. So on this re-reading I came out with a little more respect for Fanny Price and her steadfast correctness ... although I still think Austen could have written a more romantically satisfying denouement. Maybe I'll find one in the several "sequels" that have made written to the novel. We'll soon see.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Photo of the Week--4/12/10

Another day in Spain, another pigeon to be chased! It's a little hard to pick it out in this picture, but there's a white pigeon that has taken flight because of Boy's persistent efforts to bring fitness to Europe's pigeon population. If you look to the right of the big blue box, you'll see someone who looks like they're wearing a white hat; look half an inch above the hat, and you can just make out the wings in motion. This one was in Seville, and even though it was February, you can see the trees in bloom and the bright sun reflected off the windows. I'm glad spring has come here, or I'd be tempted to jump on a plane to the Mediterranean right now.