Fanny Price, the necessary ninny

Image via Penguin
Cover images courtesy of Penguin

Mention Mansfield Park to a devoted Austen-ite and you get the tell-tale sigh: yes, but Fanny Price! Why does she have to be so …



Blessedly, teeth-grindingly annoying?

In any situation, you can count on Jane Austen’s heroine (a poor cousin taken to live with rich relatives at age 10) to be terribly proper. She’ll be concerned that everyone’s comfort is given due consideration, and aware of her own low station. She’ll say things like, ‘a whole family assembling regularly for the purpose of prayer, is fine!’ and ‘never happier than when behaving so dishonourably and unfeelingly!—Oh! What a corrupted mind!’

Cue the eye-roll.

Mansfield Park—which was published after Pride and Prejudice and celebrates its 200th anniversary this year—is acknowledged to be Austen’s least-loved novel. A seminal essay on the book (by Lionel Trilling) goes so far as to say that for Austen admirers, the book “is likely to make an occasion for embarrassment” while “nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park.” But so far this year, I’ve read it three times. There’s that same lovely Austen eye—showing us how people are ridiculous without sneering at them, making us laugh and drawing us in to the lives of characters invented two centuries ago. It doesn’t sparkle the way that Pride and Prejudice does, but its heroine (bullied as she is by her Aunt Norris and ignored by almost everyone else, except her cousin Edmund) is not (and nor is she meant to be) Elizabeth Bennet. She’s poorer, more alone, and daily reminded of her lowly position. Trilling, for all that he noted its mixed reception, pronounced Mansfield Park a great novel. And it’s Fanny—quiet, upright, moralising Fanny—who makes it so fantastic.

How can this be? So much of what Fanny does rubs a contemporary reader up the wrong way. She’s treated like a servant, pitied for her ‘deficiencies’ and excluded from the privileges her cousins enjoy—and she just accepts it. Nods demurely and fetches the sewing for her awful Aunt Norris. Is pitifully grateful that her flaccid Aunt Bertam wants her company, even though it means staying home while the others gad about having fun. You want to shake her—‘come on, Fanny, don’t be such a ninny! Show some spine!’ But this reaction, though understandable (even Austen’s mother judged Fanny ‘insipid’) rather misses the point.

I think Fanny’s pious submissiveness is in fact a clever armour, leading up to the point at which she utters those remarkable words: “I cannot like him, Sir, well enough to marry him” and “I think it ought not to be set down as certain, that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself.” Remembering that this is a time in which women could not vote, or own property—and bearing in mind Fanny’s precarious financial situation—her decision to refuse the wealthy (and untrustworthy) Henry Crawford is an act of self-assertion. Unlike those around her, Fanny Price’s insight and intellectual integrity allow her to see Mr Crawford and his sister for who they really are; next to Fanny, the Bertrams (including Sir Thomas, the respected patriarch) are dullards who misread just about everything that happens in the novel. The fact that Fanny is so serious and submissive means she that when she does think (and act) for herself, she is morally untouchable enough that even Sir Thomas, though angered by her refusal, can’t completely write her off. Presumably the same applied to readers in 1814.

We see this more clearly in looking at a modern version of the story. The 1999 film adaptation (the one starring Frances O’Connor) does two particularly interesting things: it hands Fanny Price a pen (and a sense of humour), and adds more events around the Bertrams’ sugar plantation in Antigua. These elements are sketched more lightly in Austen’s story—we know Fanny has a small study, where she goes to read and write, but we hear little of what she produces; and we know Sir Thomas travels to Antigua, and that Fanny asks her uncle about the slave trade, but the issue is not explored in detail.[1] In the 1999 version, Fanny Price has taken on elements of Austen herself; the film draws on the author’s letters and diaries, giving Fanny a gift for language and seeing her, at the end of the film, about to publish her first book. She’s still reserved and accepting of her situation, but we’re allowed to interpret it differently—she knows her own mind and holds independent ambitions. Contemporary readers don’t need Fanny to be cloying, carefully toeing the line and knowing her place. Things have changed. In a similar vein, viewers today are unlikely to be satisfied with the Bertrams’ interest in the slave trade being in the background—it requires explanation. But of course whatever her personal view may have been, Edward Said notes that it’s not reasonable to expect Jane Austen to “treat slavery with anything like the passion of an abolitionist”—she, like us, is a creature of her time.

For all that, the two centuries that have passed since Mansfield Park was published can’t diminish my enjoyment of this book. Fanny Price might require a bit more of an empathy stretch than Elizabeth Bennet, but she’s more than worth the effort.

Fanny navigates poverty and patriarchy, landing on a place (however eye-rollingly virtuous it may seem) where she can assert herself. So if she sometimes comes across as a ninny, then it’s a necessary calculation—and we’re all the wiser for seeing the world through her eyes.



[1] For a detailed analysis of Mansfield Park and attitudes to slavery, see Edward Said’s book Culture and Imperialism (Vintage, London, 1993). Paula Byrne also provides some interesting thoughts about Austen’s deliberate use of names and language in alluding to slavery.

Making pretend people matter

Brokeback Mountain cover
Cover of the 1998 Fourth Estate edition. The story was first published in The New Yorker in 1997.

When my husband was four, he asked for a clock. Any kind, really. As long he was going to be allowed to pull it into tiny little pieces.

Over time, he moved on to old TVs, broken video recorders, radios, cars. Eventually he learned to put things back together—and at some point, he even found there were no pieces left over.

Meanwhile, I spent years with my nose pasted between the pages of a book. I’d read one, then read it again. I was a very happy consumer of those imaginary worlds. It didn’t occur to me to unscrew the back, and see what made it all tick.

So I thought I’d come late to the take-it-apart party, and have a closer look at some stories I admire. First, I had a look at Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts (which is a gorgeous book about selkies, love and beauty). This month, I’ve been thinking about Brokeback Mountain, by Annie Proulx.

Like a lot of people, I’d seen the film. But I hadn’t read the book—nor had I realised that it was actually a short story, coming in at 58 small-format pages of pitch-perfect prose.

Now I’m sure there are lots of ways of thinking about Brokeback Mountain, but I’m going to focus on it as a love story—because in essence, that’s what it is. The relationship between Proulx’s two characters, Ennis and Jack, isn’t an easy one, but we believe it; it’s real love. And given how tough that can be to recognise in real life, bringing it not just convincingly—but beautifully, and honestly—to life on the page is a pretty neat trick. So in taking a look inside this particular clock, I want to know: How does Proulx bring love between two pretend people into the real world, and make it matter?

In trying to answer this question, the first thing I did was make myself a little diagram. (Warning: there are no big spoilers here, but there are plot points—so if you don’t know the story and you’re the kind of person who likes to be surprised … well, you’ve been warned).

Brokeback mountain

Now this is just a very simple outline showing how I see the story’s structure (I certainly wouldn’t set your watch by it). The first thing I noticed was the ‘frame’ that Proulx has put around the story—represented here by the two dark blue rectangles on the far left and right. Both of these sections are set at the same time, and they use two key motifs: Ennis dreaming about Jack, and a pair of shirts hanging on a nail. The opening section gives us a glimpse of the shirts (they’re explained later on), and we only get hints about what’s in Ennis’s dream—but by the time we learn that he’s had it, we’re right there with him, at 5am on a windy morning, in a flimsy aluminium caravan.

From this frame, we go ‘back’ to hear the main story—represented by the four light-to-dark rectangles in the middle of the diagram. The main story brings our two protagonists together by circumstance (they both sign up to work on Brokeback Mountain), and through the simple act of having them share a paragraph:

They were raised on small, poor ranches in opposite corners of the state, Jack Twist in Lightning Flat, up on the Montana border, Ennis del Mar from around Sage, near the Utah line, both high-school drop-out country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life.

We know that these two somehow belong together; Ennis and Jack are a “they”. From here, the story follows the contour of a relationship which in its most basic sense (they meet, they fall in love, there are difficulties) is familiar. But Jack and Ennis’s difficulties are major: openly having a relationship would pose the real risk of violence, and even death. And this matters—it really does. But for us in the real world to care, first we have to believe in the ‘truth’ of these pretend people, and their love.

So how does Proulx do it? My theory is that it’s a combination of intimate connection, tension, and distance. From the beginning, these two characters share the frame—they’re talking, drinking beer, setting off up the mountain together. We know it’s a story about them. And then once they’re involved, there’s tension: after that first summer, will they see each other again? Will they get along, are they truly connected? And all along, there’s a distance that animates everything. This is most beautifully captured early in the story:

During the day Ennis looked across a great gulf and sometimes saw Jack, a small dot moving across a high meadow, as an insect moves across a tablecloth; Jack, in his dark camp, saw Ennis as night fire, a red spark on the huge black mass of mountain.

What this story does so well is hold two people simultaneously together, and apart. It does that structurally (through plot and so on) as well as with gorgeous words: from the description of Jack’s buckteeth as “not pronounced enough to let him each popcorn out of a jug, but noticeable”, to Ennis as “a little cave-chested … a small torso on long, caliper legs” and the way the two of them sat in front of the fire, “boot soles and copper jeans rivets hot”. Proulx takes an ordinary scene and makes it strange for us; gives us pause, makes us look again.

In convincing us of the truth of her pretend people, Proulx performs a powerful act of empathy—not on herself (she’s already there), but on us. If we believe the truth of these two characters, and in their genuine connection, then their story really matters. It matters because it reminds us that there’s a whole world inside the head of every person we meet, and that there is often a wide gulf between what we think we know about someone, and the truth.

Looking back, perhaps I didn’t try to ‘pull apart’ books when I was a kid because I didn’t want to spoil this kind of magic—the stuff that made a story matter. And there is a difference between reading with the clock back open, watching the gears turn, and looking at it from the front. But we can read both ways, right? And at least with a story, there’s no danger of finding stray words hiding under the toolbox when you’re done.

Running’s not about, um, running

Thanks Patrik for the use of this image under Creative Commons.

When I was 14, my foster sisters told me they were going for a run. It’d only be about 1km, they said. Would I like to come?

By the time I’d ‘jogged’ down the driveway and onto the road, the two of them were blurry, heat-affected smudges in the distance. My ankles were searing. My lungs felt like they were collapsing. My foster sisters tried to help, but I was moving glacially. And I hurt. Oh, my giddy-burning-airways-aunt, I hurt. After about 200 metres, I turned around and went home.

I’d been known to roll my eyes at exercisers before, but after that day I moved to open sneering. The sight of someone in sneakers was enough to make me snort. Ugh, I’d think. So bloody happy, so well-adjusted. Because derision is a constructive way to deal with failure, right? (It’s great for concealing envy, too. No-one can even see that green-eyed monster. Like a ninja.)

Twenty years later, I decided it was time to try again. Armed with some woefully inadequate sneakers and an asthma inhaler, I ‘ran’ the third of one street length on my block. Oh. My. Jelly. Legs. It hurt. But it was great. For 15 whole minutes, I’d escaped the apartment and my ever-expanding parental to-do list. Music blared in my ears, my feet flailed over the concrete, the ventolin worked, actual distance was covered. When I got back, I felt like someone had scrubbed out my brain with a clarity cloth (and like I was about to vomit).

So I got ‘into’ running. I bought better shoes, made an iPod playlist, figured out what baseball caps are for (no windscreen wipers on my eyes). I started going regularly(ish), and even did a few fun runs (the short ones). I was slow and ungainly, but I felt like this was something my body was meant to do. And in a way, it is. According to Harvard University’s Daniel Lieberman, modern humans (with our big brains and ability to use tools for essential skills such as whipping up a raspberry blancmange) evolved at least in part because we learned to run. Our bodies—long tendons in the legs, sweat glands aplenty and a head able to stabilise itself independent of the shoulders—are well adapted for running. Humans might not be the speediest member of the animal kingdom (Lieberman says horses and greyhounds can reach twice our fastest sprinting speeds), but we’re good at going the distance. Lieberman thinks that early humans used this running ability to ‘endurance hunt’ big game (basically, chasing them till they’re worn out). This led to a protein-rich diet and ultimately, bigger brains.

In other words, people were running before we were thinking big thoughts (and making blancmange). So you could say that it’s ‘hardwired’ into us. And it turns out (much to the irritation of my sneering inner teenager) that it has all kinds of benefits not just for the body (yes, yes, stronger legs, fitter heart, etc), but for the brain, too. Studies have shown that running helps with memory, and that it not only helps with cognitive ability, but it actually builds neurons.

On hearing this, my teenaged self can’t help but sneer. Just a little. So those running types can’t be content to totter past in their expensive shoes and tighty-tights: they have to be so clever, too. Doing what they were born to do, and always striving to do it better. So of course, when you think your 3km lunchtime jog is an achievement, there’s someone doing more—if it’s not the lycra-clad gazelle on the treadmill next to you, it’s the sweaty man shuffling past on your circuit of the park. Or the colleague taking you through their training program for next year’s New York Marathon. Or—perhaps even worse—the friend who thinks it’ll be fun to run together, jovially bouncing along beside you while you slowly melt into the pavement. At which point I’m right back there, gasping after those shimmering figures in the distance.

And of course, people will tell you that competitive sport isn’t a bad thing. It’s about beating your personal best, and all that. But I say hang my personal best. (It stinks anyway). When I go out running, having any kind of goal spoils it for me. Sometimes I don’t run for weeks, or even months. But when I do, I just want to be cruising along, pounding the pavement. I don’t want to be ahead of, or behind, anyone. I’m pretty happy in my own head—and that’s okay. If I’m going to sweat my way to some endorphins, I’d rather do it alone, thanks very much.

It turns out that for me, the problem with running (other than the undiagnosed asthma, which was also an issue) was those figures on the road ahead of me. I can’t connect with my running ancestors if it’s a race. And I’m a bit skeptical about applying evolutionary theories too liberally anyway, since the fact that humans may have evolved one way or another needn’t dictate behaviour today (I don’t see too many people chasing down big game in my neighbourhood). Which is not to say the benefits aren’t there. Running is good for you. As is any exercise: one of the studies about neuron growth looked at older people walking regularly, and found they were neurologically two years ‘younger’ after one year of exercise. So, you know, this whole cardiovascular exercise business is actually pretty good.

If I could go back to that teenaged self now, I’d tell her two things. First: the reason you feel you don’t fit in with your foster sisters is because you don’t. Relax. It will work out. And second: Running doesn’t have to be about running. Think of it like a dance. A brilliant, brain scouring, solitary dance in which you’re free to celebrate the specific arms, legs, ankles, eyes you were born with. Throw those feet at the pavement, and get on with it.

Oh and by the way, you have asthma.

Sea Hearts, love … and hair

Image from Allen & Unwin
Image from Allen & Unwin

Really pleased to have a piece on Killings, Kill Your Darlings journal’s blog, today. It’s about Sea Hearts, a novel by Margo Lanagan. Here’s a taste:

“There’s a right mess unfolding here, but it’s not moral condemnation we’re being served with. It’s a kind of truth. These are people in all their difficult, mean, loving glory.”

You can read the whole piece here.

Knock, knock

On Day 14, Kat drew this:

Kat Day 14

On day 10, this:

Kat Day 10

And on Day 3, this:

Kat Day 3

Day 3 is my favourite. Something about that feather-ish headdress, the Big Top-like shape in the backdrop, and the rings radiating from the figure.

Every day now, for the past two-and-a-bit weeks, my friend Kat—whom I share housed with back in the dark ages, when we were both at university—has been drawing one picture. Whatever comes to mind, whether she thinks it’s good or not. Then she posts it online that day, so there’s no time (in her words) to “put off being out there until I feel brave enough. It helps that it’s daily so I know I can try again the next day … or the next day”. She’s doing this while teaching, raising children, cooking, washing, reminding. Probably walking the dog in there somewhere, too.

Kat’s daily art challenge has got me thinking about three things:

  • Creativity
  • Eleanor Roosevelt, and
  • Halloween.

I almost want to put that first point in inverted commas—creativity is a word I’m quite comfortable with when we’re talking about kids and Clag, but makes me a bit squeamish when applied to Proper Grown-ups. With, like, Houses. And Responsibilities. I mean there are the Serious Novelists, right, or Serious Artists, and no-one goes off laughing at them. Because they’re Serious. But the rest of us, well—if we’re really trying to make art, perhaps we’d rather not let on.

I know Kat feels a bit like this. Coupled with the desire to create is the fear of being told you’re rubbish; the worry that the people you admire will scoff at the things that you made. And these things don’t just come from your pen. They come actually from you: your eyes, your memories, all the things you think about the world and the way it works. Talk about feeling exposed.

Which brings me to Eleanor. I’ve just finished reading a wonderful biography of Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt (who was the 32nd President of the United States). Biographies are great because they epitomise hindsight—we usually know how things are going to turn out, that the struggle will be worth it, the battle won. So when I read about Eleanor’s mother mocking her (she used to call her ‘Granny’, because she looked so serious), or the fact that both Eleanor’s parents were dead before she’d turned ten, I could see it as part of a broader success story. Because Eleanor grew up not just to be America’s First Lady, but a real force in American politics: she was highly influential in the U.S. Democratic party, and as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations was a driving force behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The biography charts her course through a slew of difficulties: the heartbreak of discovering her husband’s affair; the judgement she bore for her appearance (apparently she didn’t inherit her mother’s good looks); and FDR’s struggle with polio, which meant that he would never walk unaided again.

But I wonder what would happen if, as we read about other lives, we were able to stay suspended in each moment? Because when Eleanor Roosevelt was standing in that doorway, sucking her fingers and being called “Granny”, she didn’t know how it would all turn out. Nor could she see the future, when she watched her husband in the grip of a raging fever, unable to move his legs. Life is a series of moments in which we don’t yet know the outcome.

Which brings me to Halloween.

Now I know there has been a bit of debate in Australia, about whether Halloween is just an over commercialised ‘American import’ that has no place in the Southern Hemisphere. After all, October 31 is spring in Australia, and it’s daylight savings. But we also celebrate Christmas in summer, and Easter in autumn. Besides, it’s not only an American festival—and it’s great fun.

I first experienced Halloween in the U.S. several years ago. We walked a block from our apartment and the darkening streets were full of people—kids dressed up as pirates and teddy bears, adults in rainbow clown wigs, teenagers wearing mustard bottle and ghoul costumes. My neighbours had draped fake cobwebs over fences; put jack-o’-lanterns on front porches; some had gone all-out on the decorations, and were inviting the neighbourhood in to their ‘haunted house’. People where either on the street shepherding children with candy receptacles, or answering doors and handing out sugar (one hold-out was distributing raisins).

This year, we did Halloween closer to home. We found at least 10 decorated houses (etiquette states that you only knock if the house is decorated) and the group of kids I was with brought in a decent candy haul. We knocked on strangers’ doors; they smiled and wished us a good night. Sure, the sugar was nice, but the welcome was lovely. It was a neighbourly enactment of ‘opportunity knocking’.

Which brings me back to Kat’s daily art challenge. To make anything new—to be creative—we have to be able to try our best, while also suspending judgement. Kat’s actually found that some of her ‘failures’ (that would have otherwise ended up in a drawer) are the ones people identify with most. But you only find that sort of thing out, if you get out there. There’s no way of knowing whether the story will end with a fizzle, or success. Which can be pretty unpleasant, especially in the dead of night when you’re wondering if everyone knows you’re a total fraud who has no right to even hold a pencil, let alone create anything.

But the story’s not written yet. We can keep working harder, push ourselves, enjoy making stuff. And then, when we’re ready, make our way out the door and into the street. If we’re lucky, we’ll meet some friendly faces. But whatever the outcome, the first step will sound something like this:

Knock, knock.

Everyday strange

Cover of the Vintage edition

So you wake up one morning, and you’ve become a bug. You’re flailing on your back, the bedroom door is locked, and you’re really worried: you’ve missed not just one, but two early trains to work.

You may well recognise this as the opening sequence of Franz Kafka’s novella Metamorphosis. I didn’t. I only picked the book up because I saw Andy Griffiths (of The Day My Bum Went Psycho fame) on the telly, calling Metamorphosis “as close to perfect a piece of fiction as you could possibly want”. It looked very nice on my shelf—and gave me that satisfying feeling of reading something rather highbrow, without actually opening it. And then I got the overdue notice from the library, and figured, all right. Just a quick peek before I return it.

I was hooked. Metamorphosis is fantastic—clever, sad, funny, a bit gross, beautifully ironic. And not difficult. I was drawn in to the world of Gregor Samsa, a young man who works hard at a job he doesn’t like in order to support his family. By the end of the first paragraph, I was totally on board with the bug transformation, and eager to see how it was all going to pan out.

Now as they pointed out on the The Book Club, there have been thousands of books written about Metamorphosis. Lots of them will be by clever literary types who have read all these other books, and can give you a summary of global scholarship on the subject. I’m not in a position to do that. What I want to do is talk a bit about how Metamorphosis makes everyday life just the right amount of strange—forcing us into a double-take, so we look at things afresh, and recognise them again. This, incidentally, is one definition of that fancy-sounding word, Kafkaesque: something familiar, but also strange.[1]

To me, this attitude is the whole point of reading. It flexes the part of your brain that says: am I happy? Do I need to do things this way? Should I really be eating meat/unethically fished tuna? Do I even like this? Or whatever. It’s important to step into those gaps sometimes, and think. The rest of the time, we rely on everything obvious, and unsaid. Because that’s how we look after ourselves, and the people around us. We use what we know.

So when Kafka gives Gregor bug legs and antenna, we see a dutiful son in a strange (yet familiar) light. Gregor is stuck in bed, unable to answer the worried cries of his family—and one of his chief concerns is that he’s slept through the alarm. He’s missed the 6am train, and will soon miss the next one, too. Waving his little bug legs, he convinces himself he might be able to go to work anyway—that somehow, he’ll explain it all to his boss. He has to keep his job, and he knows he must get up, since “in bed … his meditations could come to no sensible conclusion.”

On the one hand, this scene is genuinely funny—here’s a guy who’s just turned into a bug, and he’s worried about getting to work? He thinks that getting up will solve his problems? But of course we see that in the daily course of his (pre-bug) life, these acts have been the answer. To love my family, I must work. To be myself, I must continue. Going on is what matters.

In this light, the central metamorphosis isn’t the one that turns Gregor into a bug. It’s the changes that take place within Gregor after he’s an insect. When we first meet Gregor, he’s a bug who feels human on the inside. As he adjusts to his new body, his senses and tastes change. He feels moments of sad rebellion, and dreams of a life outside his locked room. But there would be no fascination in the story if Gregor transformed inexorably into an insect: the drama is in his struggle to find his new self in these changed circumstances.

This is a theme we can all relate to. Well, not the bug part—but the idea that we have to adjust to what the world (our families, jobs, social status, random chance) asks of us. Sometimes, this coincides with our deepest wishes (such as looking after our loved ones); sometimes, it doesn’t (as when Gregor finds himself working long hours, or turned into a bug). But just as Gregor’s new body is not simply a uniform that he can take off, the roles we take on—and the choices we make—become part of who we are. In Gregor’s case, this is both sadly ironic (worrying about catching a train when he can’t roll his bug body out of bed) and a kind of shrug-your-shoulders status quo (noticing that he’s repulsed by fresh food, and attracted to garbage). Yet all through these changes, we’re reading along with the same Gregor. I think this goes to what scholars call Kafka’s notion of ‘indestructibility’: “a going on when you can’t go on”.[2] We adapt, we work hard to do what’s required—and somehow, we remain ourselves.

In turning Gregor into a bug, Kafka opens up a chink in reality; another angle for peering at the world. And although nearly a century has passed since Gregor’s story was published, the characters are as real and recognisable as someone you’d meet on a bus (or indeed, over Christmas dinner). The weirdness of Gregor’s situation is enough to make us pause and do a double-take: and while we’re looking, perhaps find some everyday strangeness of our own.


[1] Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon, p448

[2] Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon, p462

Failing, blathering … playing

piano keys

Breath trembling and vision fuzzing around the edges, I picked my way through the crowd. Messed it up. Started over. Crept away.

The kids in the front row were encouraging, and the applause was friendly, but I left that stage – my first piano recital – feeling that I’d failed.

We tell our children that making mistakes is important. It’s how we become accomplished, successful adults who handle social situations adeptly and eat job interviews for breakfast.

This is the part where I confess that the recital I’ve just told you about took place not in the dim, safe recesses of childhood – but last month.

As adults, we’re mostly able to limit ourselves to our sphere of expertise. This builds our sense that we are, generally, the grown-up people we need to be. We read the newspaper. Make sensible choices when it comes to cheese. Deliver sage advice about commitment and hard work. All of this is relatively easy, when the outcome isn’t earth-shattering. I know how to use the vacuum cleaner. I’m pretty sure I know where that semicolon goes. I understand the worth of good-quality shoes.

But what about when you’ve really, really, tried, and fall short anyway? When the outcome really matters?

Well, such situations are clearly designed to turn one into a blathering fool.

That’s certainly what happens to me every time I confess my secret ambition: to write and publish fiction. It just brings me undone. I’ve approached a publisher at an event, only to respond to polite queries about my book in monosyllabic whispers (“it’s about a boy”). Told friends and family that yes, I’ve written some stuff, and laughed it off (in that uneasy way that shouts, not laughing. Not at all). Then when the self-pity gets beyond toe-dipping and progresses to full-blown wallowing, I try to give myself the talk that I give my kids: persistence is the key. Just keep at it. Do it because you love it. And then I think: Lordy, I’d roll my eyes at me too.

Of course, lots of clever people have written about failure: its importance as part of any creative process, and its inevitability in life. I rather think Julia Gillard might have a thing or two to say about it – as, I suppose, would Kevin Rudd. Meanwhile, bestselling writer Graeme Simsion told this year’s Emerging Writers Festival in Melbourne that he’d fulfilled his dream of giving up his day job, but still found himself fretting about film rights; Melbourne author Jo Case wrote about thinking she’d have finally ‘made it’ when she published a book, only to find herself as uncertain as ever; and the philosopher Kierkegaard apparently said that anxiety (let’s assume he means the blather-inducing kind) is necessary for creativity. No matter where you’re at, it seems that success – or even satisfaction – is elusive. The Irish novelist Anne Enright put this rather beautifully when she said: “Success may be material but is also an emotion – one that is felt, not by you, but by the crowd. This is why we yearn for it, and can not have it, quite. It is not ours to hold.”

For Enright, the ultimate goal is to “meet people in their heads”. It’s not so much about whether your work is judged well (though of course you don’t want it to be junk), but whether it connects. And doing that – or even just trying to do that – is really a privilege. One is lucky to be in a position to try.

Which brings me back to the recital. Not my own part in it: fortunately, that was over pretty quickly. I’m thinking about the other performers – the kids. They played piano, drums, trumpet, guitar. They sang. Watching them, it struck me that children inhabit the first-recital stage every day. Kids are expected to put themselves out there. Often. School reports, sport, music concerts. Even shy kids find their paintings displayed on the art room wall.

But one of the great things about childhood is that although you’re forever on the first-recital stage, you’re always – in theory at least – on the way up. Being young is about potential. You don’t yet have the disadvantage of being an expert on dull things that don’t really matter (such as how to put back the toilet brush, or where to store the butter), nor do you know yet what you’re going to be good at. That’s scary, but liberating. You can just get up on stage and play – in both senses of the word. Produce the piece of music, and tinker with it. Enjoy yourself. Try, and fail, and try again, and shrug, and smile.

Of course that’s not always how it will be, for kids – but it’s how it should be. And I’m going to try to channel those kids’ performances, the next time I submit a story or find myself blathering at a publisher. Because there’s no avoiding the fact I don’t know what I’m doing. Or the fact that I still want to do it. Which means sitting down at the desk, taking a deep breath – and having a play.

The Katniss strategy

Image courtesy of Scholastic
Image courtesy of Scholastic

I don’t like games. Don’t care about sport. Can’t see the point.

I realise this makes me a freak.

In Melbourne, having an AFL team is a tribal thing. I’ve had friends who grew up interstate tell me that you can’t live in Victoria and not follow footy. But I’m here to tell you – you can. I have. And this ambivalence didn’t only spring from my own ineptitude with a ball (although that certainly helped). I just don’t like (what I see as) arbitrary rules. You kick the ball through the sticks. Whatever. You wear red or blue or brown. Whatever. I mean good for you – you’re fit and healthy – fantastic. I just don’t care.

But for all of that, I’ve spent the past month engrossed in a game. A terrific, gripping, high-stakes, I-care-who-wins game. I even had a favourite player.

I’m referring, of course, to Katniss Everdeen, of The Hunger Games.

For those who haven’t yet indulged in the books (or the film), Katniss Everdeen is the 16-year-old protagonist of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. Katniss is thrown into a reality TV, fight-to-the-death arena with 23 other youths when her sister is chosen as a contestant in the ‘Hunger Games’. These games are staged each year to punish the population of a future North America (known as Panem) for past uprisings against the despotic rulers in the Capitol.

Before I proceed any further, I do just want to say that Katniss is pretty great. She’s been called a “new female warrior”, a brilliant creation who cuts through the princess-heroine mythology with a bow and arrow, a gift for survival and a refreshing ambivalence about romance. She can be called feminist. And she’s wildly popular, if the numbers (50 million copies in print and digital format in the US alone, and an opening-weekend take of  $US155 million) are anything to go by.

And not only is Katniss a great character – the books are a terrific read. There were things I didn’t like so much (such as the frequent descriptions of her outfit/makeovers/hair), but I roared through all three books with the kind of speed and absorption rarely seen since my teenage years. I made unscheduled trips to the library. Returned blank stares when asked what was for dinner. And I’m twitching to get away from my desk long enough to pick up the boxed set I ordered from my local bookstore.

Reading these books (and I’ll focus mainly on the first one) got me thinking about games. The way they impose rules which seem, in some back-to-front kind of way, to give people the freedom to act. You’re not just standing on the grass with a squished ball. You’ve got something to do with the ball. (Kick it through the sticks, and all that). There’s competition, cooperation, and structure. We certainly see all of these elements in the ‘Hunger Games’ arena (where the stakes are, of course, somewhat higher than a golden cup). But what I think is most interesting is how the combination that Collins presents – a fiercely independent female protagonist and a dystopian, rule-bound future – helps make these books so appealing.

Ours is a culture of persuasion. There’s no despotic overlord, forcing us to live in one place, rather than another; no law that says some people have more rights than others. We vote, we debate, we agree. But there’s all kinds of unfairness in the world. The causes are complicated, not least because we’re standing right in the middle of everything, as it’s happening. We’re working within a kind of mutually agreed truth that tells us who we are, and how we fit in. There’s no single rulebook for that truth. And high-school aged readers – at whom this series is targeted – are in the throes of working that out.

Katniss, on the other hand, is living under the despotic overlord. She and her family would starve if she didn’t flout the law, and go hunting in the woods. She lives in a fenced-off area, called District 12, which is designated for coal-mining. School lessons are largely about coal, and the greatness of the Capitol. The District can’t afford doctors, and even those among the well-to-do ‘merchant class’ have little more to eat than stale bread. Life in the other ‘resource’ districts is similarly grim, if not worse, while those in the Capitol live in modern, clean housing and dine on delicacies like pork chops and orange juice.

Yet we never think – not really – that Katniss is defined by her poverty.

This is possible, I think, partly because (to reuse a quote from Harold Bloom) “the function of convention is to liberate the will”.[1] In The Hunger Games, inequality is writ large – it’s turned into a kind of rulebook. There’s a terrible hierarchy at play, horrible people to blame, something to clearly push against. And on top of that there’s a particularly nasty twist, in the form of the games themselves: by making the fighting into a festival[2], the Capitol tries to not just subdue the population, but persuade them, too.

But Katniss is a fighter, and we see that precisely because there is something to fight. She steers clear of politics (arguably making her a more relatable character than one radicalised by a particular point of view), but she comes out swinging, subverting the oppressive regime in the early pages of the first book, when she volunteers to take her sister’s place in the arena. She continues to do this throughout the trilogy, although things get murkier as the series progresses.

Now I’m not going to buy into the trilogy’s politics – or even the question of whether the books are meant to be social criticism at all (although I will note that one young reader recently asked me which developing country would be most like District 12).[3] What’s interesting about Katniss’s story is not just the detail of her reality; it’s the clarity of her vision. The way the rules that constrain her, also allow her to act.

Imagine, in contrast, the situation of the adolescent reader of these books. You’re young, not sure who you are yet. You’re at the mercy of your parents, of school, of who the world seems to think you might be. And depending on your circumstances, you might be coming to think that life’s not always fair. That some things are denied to you, even if you can’t always put your finger on what those things are, and why you can’t have them. You might even think you know who to blame, but get no traction. None of these hardships, thankfully, will be anything like what Katniss is up against – but I think there might be some moment of relief, in identifying with a character who knows what’s holding her back, no matter how impossible her odds are. Even if you’re losing the game. There’s some certainty there.

Of course, there are plenty of grey areas, too. Just as there are in life. The Hunger Games invites us to condemn violence, while we watch it; presents us with a corrupt dictator, while showing us how he co-opts others into believing in him; and presents us with a game which is both a barbaric tool of oppression, and an entertainment. Ultimately, though, these grey areas play to the story’s strengths. Because Katniss’s genius is in her ability to hit the sweet spot between using the game’s momentum, and remaining absolutely herself – thereby turning the rules in her favour.

If I were the game-playing type, I’d say that’d be the way to go about it.


[1] The full quote was about Jane Austen, whom he said “understood that the function of convention was to liberate the will, even if convention’s tendency was to stifle individuality, without which the will was inconsequential.” From The Western Canon, Papermac, 1996, p258

[2] This is, as others have pointed out, reminiscent of Roman gladiators. Collins drew the notion of  sending ‘tributes’ to a ruler appears from the myth of Theseus and the Minotuar.

[3] Laura Miller writes in the New Yorker that “only someone insensitive to the emotional tenor of the story could regard social criticism as the real point of Collins’s novel. The Hunger Games is not an argument. It operates like a fable or a myth, a story in which outlandish and extravagant figures and events serve as conduits for universal experiences”.


On Beauty

Image courtesy of Penguin
Image courtesy of Penguin

Let’s pretend.

Let’s pretend that I spent my high school lunchtimes in the library because I was an undiscovered genius with an unquenchable love of books.

And not because I was – ahem – between friendships.

These days, I mostly visit the library to stock up on picture books and novels featuring mystery-solving mice. Occasionally, I also manage to pick up something for myself. This month it was On Beauty, by UK writer Zadie Smith.

At first I thought I wouldn’t like this novel. The protagonist is a middle-aged, English-born professor of art history – he’s nervy, self-satisfied, and faintly ridiculous. He’s married to a fabulous African-American woman. And he cheats on her. Naturally.

Perhaps it’s just me, but the older I get, the more PG-rated I find my tastes have become. I don’t tend to go looking for morally sticky situations. I don’t like watching someone make a mess of things. It just makes me squirm – and go bolting back to Jane Austen.

But this book got me in. I read it like I consumed books in high school: at the breakfast table, on the train, into the night. There wasn’t one big plot point that I was wanting resolved – no mystery, no big twist I was waiting for. I just cared about the characters, and the world they were moving in. I even, by the end, gave a damn about the self-obsessed professor, Howard Belsey.

I actually picked up On Beauty[1] because it looked (on the shelf) like a non-fiction book. And in a sense, it is an essay: about race, and gender, politics, and ambition. And in the tradition of the best essays, it resists the temptation to offer simplified answers. It explores, teases, reveals. It spins a good yarn.

Now I won’t presume to unravel all – or even a few – of the novel’s threads here.  I’ll just focus, for a moment, on its notion of beauty. Smith gives us a beautiful, large black woman and a rangy white man. Howard has two particularly inappropriate affairs. He knows this is vile. Meanwhile, he’s stomping about the university campus denouncing Rembrandt’s genius (for what appear to be largely postmodernist reasons), and grinding his teeth about the success of a conservative academic whose book about Rembrandt has actually been written, and is selling well. Howard continues to love his wife, Kiki – and she’s surprised, at least initially, by her own ability to forgive.

It’s clear to me that Kiki is the most beautiful person in the book. She’s honest, wise, and real: “Her chest gave off a mass of signals beyond her direct control: sassy, sisterly, predatory, motherly, threatening, comforting – it was a mirror-world she’d stepped into in her mid forties, a strange fabulation of the person she believed she was. She could no longer be meek or shy … And yet she had been a tiny thing for years and years!” The narrator shows us both Howard’s desire for his wife, and his awareness of this change in her. We also see Kiki’s love for her husband, and her frustration at his pomposity (the family, in deference to Howard’s theoretical sensibilities, don’t hang any representational artwork in their house – abstract pieces only). And through Kiki’s ‘mirror character’, Carlene (the wife of the conservative academic Howard despises), we see the honour and sadness of a woman who has “staked her life” on home, marriage and family.

Beauty, in this telling, is love. Love among people who measure themselves and find, in various ways, that they don’t quite meet the mark.

All of this is sketched in rich, well-paced prose that re-creates a family, and a world (specifically, that of a US east coast college town). But it’s not magic. It doesn’t give me the twitters, quite in the way that Austen does; I didn’t come away from this story wishing I could re-live it, inhabit it.

Not that this is a criticism, as such.

Perhaps it just points to difference between reading contemporary fiction, and an older work. The language and the setting of this book – its themes and preoccupations – are familiar. I’ve experienced autumn in that part of the world, seen the “hint of yellow curl on the leaves of the trees, like the catch fire thrown at something about to go up in flame” (so beautifully described). When I think about On Beauty’s social and political themes, I don’t have the clarity of looking back at the early 19th century, and feeling able to sum it up in a sentence fragment (very early suffrage movement, women living limited domestic lives). I can’t just give in to imagining history. What I want to do, is look for what I recognise – try to trace the seams that hold the book together, and see where it draws, selectively, on messy reality to make its argument.

This is useful, even if it does suck the fun out of things a bit.

Of course I don’t think such distinctions ever bothered my teenage self, hiding out in a library corral, searching for something to hold on to in the pages of a book. That person (having failed to live up to the physical and social ideals of high school) was, I think, looking for ambiguity. For new ways to look at things; for a sense that big social problems played out in ordinary lives and could be, if not solved, then at least begun to be understood.

That’s what I got, from reading On Beauty: a sprawling, social essay of a book which gives us imperfections, families, children, love and infidelity. That resists stereotyping, while playing with it: that tells us we’re all a bit rubbish, really, but we try to be good.

I also got a renewed enthusiasm for those white metal shelves, and the Dewey Decimal system. Beautifully coloured book spines; pages in varying shades of yellow; whole rooms full of possibility.



[1] Okay, for those who are interested (and didn’t already look it up), a little dust jacket history: Smith was born in London in 1975, and still lives there. She became famous for her first novel, White Teeth, which was published in 2000. On Beauty was published in 2005, won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005. Smith now has four novels to her name: the most recent, NW, was published in 2012.



In praise of Miss Bates

Image via Penguin
Cover images via Penguin

As every politician knows, the trick is to push – but not too much.

You want to hit that sweet spot between keeping people comfortable, and stirring them up.

Jane Austen understood this.

But okay, first things first. Having mentioned Austen, I need to say that her writing is gorgeous, her characters finely drawn, her irony pitch-perfect. But of course we know all that.

What I’ve been thinking about, as I re-read Emma over the past few weeks, is how Austen makes things possible. Which reminded me that Hetty Bates – the dittery, chattery spinster of Emma – is one of my fictional heroes. Because she’s all about possibility.

Miss Bates is, to my mind at least, the most interesting – and amusing – character in this book. She’s poor, unmarried, and lives with her (partially deaf) mother in pretty humble circumstances. But she loves everyone, and is generally loved back – in spite of her tendency to go on somewhat. For example:

“So very obliging of you! – No rain at all. Nothing to signify. I do not care for myself. Quite thick shoes. And Jane declares – ”

Oh, it’s lovely writing. The pauses – the gaps – the way Austen captures the breathless joy and squirrel-like distractibility of a lady who finds goodness in everything: well, it makes me happy.

Now I wouldn’t be the first to point out that Miss Bates, like Austen herself, is the daughter of a clergyman; that she also, like Austen, finds herself unmarried; and that this status gives her a position sufficiently outside of the expected (ie, married) path for women that she’s able to observe, and occasionally offend, without serious consequence. After all, Miss Bates has fallen pretty far down the social ladder – there’s not much more she could do to injure herself.  We’re therefore free to enjoy her social blunders – such as when she lets on that she, along with probably the rest of town, is well aware that the pompous Mr Elton once had designs on our heroine, Emma Woodhouse:

“Well. I had always rather fancied it would be some young lady hereabouts; not that I ever – Mrs Cole once whispered to me – but I immediately said, ‘No, Mr Elton is a most worthy young man – but’ – […] At the same time, nobody could wonder if Mr Elton should have aspired – Miss Woodhouse lets me chatter on, so good-humouredly. She knows I would not offend for the world.”

No indeed, Miss Bates would not offend: but she frequently sees, and says, more than she’s meant to. Throughout the course of the novel – just to give you a sample – Miss Bates ‘accidentally on purpose’ lets on:

  • That she ignores the advice of Mr Woodhouse (Emma’s father, and patriarch of Highbury) and bakes apples only twice (a deeply serious matter for the food-paranoid Mr Woodhouse);
  • That she and her niece, Jane Fairfax, often speak of the “charming” Frank Churchill (who we later learn is Miss Fairfax’s secret fiancé);
  • That Miss Fairfax and Mr Churchill have been secretly writing to one another (though this revelation is indirect, and apparently unintended).

But in the study guides (which were the pick of the Emma books I gratefully checked out from my municipal library), Miss Bates is perhaps best known for her role in Emma’s journey to self-knowledge. Full of impatient pride, Emma insults Miss Bates at a picnic. Emma’s repentance is of course a central plot point in the novel, but that’s not what I find most interesting about this exchange. What draws my eye is Miss Bates’s response:

“Ah! – well – to be sure. Yes, I see what she means (turning to Mr Knightley,) and I will try to hold my tongue. I must make myself very disagreeable, or she would not have said such a thing to an old friend.”

This is a dignified reply from a woman who boasts ‘neither beauty nor cleverness’. But we absolutely believe it. I, for one, can very clearly hear her saying it (and not only because I’ve seen one or two movie adaptations). We see that Mis Bates is ridiculous – we know we’re supposed to sneer, just a little bit, at her spinster status, and the small-mindedness of her incessant chatter – but we sympathise with her, and we learn to trust what she tells us. She’s a kind of comic Cassandra.[1]

How, then, has Austen made this possible? How has she placed an ‘old maid’ of low status among the ‘best families’, and not only made her respectable – but admirable?

Well, I’d say it’s all about balance.

In a sense, Austen gives us two spinsters in Emma – Miss Bates and Emma herself, who declares that she’ll never marry (though of course by the end of the book, she has). As Emma tells a friend, a single woman of fortune need not be ‘comtemptible’ – she may even enjoy some measure of independence. In this way, Emma stretches the norm, but only just so far – she has money (and youth) to cushion her. Miss Bates, of course, has neither money, nor youth – but she has a ‘gift of happiness’. She accepts her situation, is interested in others, and receives charity cheerfully.  She’s neither completely cowed by her circumstance, nor resentful of it. She’s therefore acceptable enough (a bit silly, without ambition above her station) to be allowed to speak her own turn and behave, in some ways, as an independent woman. Which – when you consider that Emma was written around the time that Mary Wollstonecraft was fighting the frippery of women’s domestic lives, and 90-odd years before Australian women were allowed to vote – is an achievement.

So Austen has pushed things, but not too much. I might add that I see a similar pattern at work in Emma’s marriage to Mr Knightley – after all, it’s a bit unusual, given the time and place, that he moves in with her. But of course everything evens up, to make it possible: it’s all to pacify her father; she’s attained some degree of equal intellectual footing with her husband-to-be (but not too much); and the house, after all, will ultimately belong to Mr Knightley. Sure, some of today’s readers may feel disappointed that Emma has given herself to marriage, and turned away from independence; but mostly, we’re happy for her.  We’re able to close this book, ready to smile with her at the misunderstandings and misjudgments the future will undoubtedly bring, knowing that whatever happens, Emma will be a woman who – in her own time, and place – knows herself.[2]

Miss Bates, meanwhile, is heading for a future in which her beloved niece Jane is comfortably married (to the secret fiancé), and the Bateses continue to hold an esteemed place in Highbury society. Everyone who should be married, is suitably settled; and everyone who deserves respect, is given it in appropriate measure.

As the lady herself would say: “Excellently contrived, upon my word. Nothing wanting.”




[1] Well … sort of. Readers who clicked the link will see that I’ve stretched the metaphor somewhat – but she does have a strange kind of insight and is, in her own way, a bit of a tragic figure. (I also note that others have also made the connection).

[2] In other words, Emma, within the bounds of convention and society, will remain resolutely ‘herself’. Harold Bloom put this rather more eloquently when he wrote that Austen “understood that the function of convention was to liberate the will, even if convention’s tendency was to stifle individuality, without which the will was inconsequential.” From The Western Canon, Papermac, 1996, p258