Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park

Warning: do not read the below if you haven’t read either of these books, because I will almost certainly accidentally tell you who ends up married to whom.

Having finished and only quite enjoyed Emma, I’m not sure why I immediately picked up Northanger Abbey, but I did and I’m glad, because I loved it. It’s a bit disjointed, but it’s funny and pacy and has characters who are either comically awful or likeable and charming – especially the heroine, Catherine Morland, who is the most engaging heroine I’ve come across since Anne of Green Gables. And for once she falls in love with someone who actually sounds attractive, rather than with a pompous buffoon. Good.

I was less keen on Mansfield Park. For one thing, it’s really long, and though structurally it makes more sense than either Northanger Abbey or Emma, there’s lots that feels repetitive. For another, the heroine is a pissy, prissy little wimp. I kept hoping that her saintly self-sacrifice and po-faced piousness were hiding something more interesting, but no. Fortunately, she gets to marry someone quite as mealy-mouthed and solemn as herself, presumably so that they can spend eternity pointedly disapproving of everyone else. Good for them, but I wasn’t sure the 400 pages it took me to get them there were worth the time I spent on them. And although there are nasty characters, there are no laughs. It reads rather like one of the dreary but morally improving novels which Austen is so wittily rude about in Northanger Abbey. Perhaps she lost her cheek as she got older and more ill.

I still have Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility to read, but I think I’ll give myself a short break from Jane Austen first. Last week I accidentally bought three science books, so I might read one of those next, after which I’ll no doubt be desperate to fling myself back into the world of matrimony and means (one of the books should have been called that. Actually, all of the books could have been called that).

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Emma

As I approached the entrance to Brixton tube yesterday morning, I had a train of thought which went like this:

Please don’t try to give me a copy of Stylist magazine, please don’t try to give me a copy of Stylist magazine…you bastard! Why didn’t you try to give me a copy of Stylist magazine? Is it because you think I look like a MAN?

After I stopped reading Stylist for the fun of spotting the typos (it gets old quite quickly), I started reading it for the content, but that only lasted a week because it’s full of exortations to spend lots of money on really stupid things, and I am going through one of my periodic phases of disgust at the amount of stuff I have. When I moved from north London to south London three years ago under dramatic circumstances, I left everything behind. Well, almost everything – I kept my clothes, my books and my piano. I moved into a rented room in Brixton and felt the peculiar lightness that comes with leaving everything behind, including most of your responsibilities. I have new responsibilities now, ones I chose myself rather than picking up by accident, but I still don’t have that much stuff. I don’t need any new stuff.

So Stylist magazine isn’t for me. Sometimes I pick up a copy of Metro and read the celebrity gossip, the Nemi cartoon (I am the only person in the world who likes it, but I like it enough to make up for all those other people) and the football pages, along with anything else that catches my eye, but that lasts for less than half of my commute. So I read my book. At the moment, my book is Emma, and it’s the first Jane Austen I’ve attempted as an adult. And it’s sweet and funny and I’m enjoying it, but good grief, everything that happens is flagged up at least fifty pages in advance. And then there’s a hundred pages where actually nothing happens at all. I think it’s the perfect example of style overcoming substance.

Bath, Box and points west

Forgive me if I seem a little distracted: I’ve just returned from a weekend in the countryside, and it’s left me so calm I’m almost unconscious.

February is a difficult time to take a weekend break in the UK, because it’s too cold to visit the seaside (though we did it anyway this time last year) and the best attractions in the cities are often still closed for the winter. But after a busy few weeks at work and at home the time seemed ripe for a weekend away, and somehow the various options were whittled down until we had arrived at Bath as our intended destination.

Well, I would never stay at a hotel which wasn’t recommended by tripadvisor.com, and Foggam Barn B&B in Box, a village five miles outside Bath in Wiltshire, had better recommendations than any other guest house in the area, so we booked for a two-night stay. The first pleasant surprise came when I told the owner, Denise, that we’d be arriving by the five o’clock train and taking a taxi from Bath. “Don’t take a taxi,” she emailed; “I’ll come and pick you up from the station”. And she did, and dropped us off again yesterday, and gave us a lift to the restaurant a mile away where we ate on Saturday night.  She also put fresh flowers, chocolates and champagne in our room, unprompted and at no extra cost, and cooked us two very nice breakfasts. Ten out of ten for Foggam Barn.

We spent most of Saturday and part of Sunday in Bath itself. It’s quite as beautiful as everyone tells you it is, with no shortage of interesting things to do. The baths themselves are fascinating, and in places quite enchanting. Also warm, which had become a key consideration to me at this point. Everywhere outside London is colder than I expect it to be.

Afterwards, we tramped up the hill to take a look at the Circus and Royal Crescent, both of which I was keen to see, avid student of architecture that I, um, used to be. The Royal Crescent in particular is possibly more impressive at a distance than up close, the beauty of the individual buildings somewhat obscured by decades of dirt. You would think there would be cash available for the basic maintenance of a world heritage site, but what do I know? The overall effect is still very impressive, and a flat in the Royal Crescent remains on the list of properties I will consider buying when I come into my millions.

Next, we visited the Jane Austen Centre, just down the hill on Gay Street and a few doors away from the house where Austen lived with her mother and sister for a few years in the early 1800s. The rosy-cheeked lady behind the counter told us to take our tickets and wait upstairs in an ante-room. “Your guide will join you there shortly”, she announced grandly. We duly took our tickets and trooped up the rickety stairs to a small room where we watched a film of an unnamed man stripping to his pants. I think he then dressed up in Regency costume, but to be honest with you the memory of his hairy white belly is all I’ve managed to retain. Sorry.

Eventually, the double doors ahead of us swung open dramatically. “Hello”, said the same rosy-cheeked lady who had sold us our tickets a few minutes earlier, “and welcome to the Jane Austen Centre. Please take your seats in here ready for the introductory talk”.

We walked into the front room, elegant with its bay window and original fittings. Chairs were set out in rows, all of which bar the front and the back were filled before we got there. “Shall we sit at the front?”, I asked my beloved. “Let’s sit at the back”, he replied, and thank goodness, because if I struggled to keep my subsequent giggles at bay whilst hidden safely away in the back row, I don’t know how I’d have coped had I been within inches of the rosy-cheeked lady, who proceeded to give us a talk in the style of a Hitler parody delivered by somebody whose first language is not English. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to make an audio recording, because I can’t possibly do it justice in writing. She had obviously learned the whole thing from a script, and either had no interest in the subject matter or was so awkward about public speaking that she couldn’t work out where to place the emphasis. Sentences were cut off midway, dramatic pauses occured in the most unexpected places, sections were entirely incomprehensible and the whole thing was delivered at high volume and in a rattling style that would make an army major proud. It was brilliant. Particularly enjoyable was the fact that in her mind she had so completely separated the words in her script from anything she might say of her own accord that the speech ended like this:

Robotically: “…so thank you for visiting the Jane Austen Centre.”  Pause, breath. Brightly: “Thank you for visiting the Jane Austen Centre!”

Next, we were herded through to a third room where we got to watch another video, this one a knowing turn from actor Amanda Root, full of quizzical looks to camera and lines like “it’s easy to imagine Jane sitting in the window of this house…witty, wise and ironic”. If you say so, Amanda.

The reason for the elaborate preamble became evident as we made our way into the permanent exhibition, which contains – well, nothing. There are some costumes from screen adaptations (but none of the ones you’ll have seen), reproductions of portraits of Austen and various members of her family, and a few photos of modern Bath residents and Austen fans (and she does have fans, in the way that only certain writers seem to) pretending to be at a ball. And that’s it. It’s the most curiously content-free exhibition I think I’ve ever been to, which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. The whole visit was terrific fun, but perhaps not quite in the way intended.

There are Colin Firth-as-Mr Darcy fridge magnets on sale in the shop, which I think makes up for everything. I wish I’d bought one and I can’t think why I didn’t. Two excellent meals and a good night’s sleep later we arrived back in Bath with five hours to kill before our train home, so we had a walk around the city centre, stopped for a cup of tea and then went to see A Single Man, in which Firth stars as a bereaved lover, his more dramatic scenes punctuated by whispered “phwooooaaar”s from the beloved.

The only blot in an otherwise perfect landscape was provided by the local bus services, which seem to be operated by two rival companies. We bought return tickets into Bath on Saturday morning but our driver failed to warn us that the return halves would only be valid for one in four buses running on the return route, so we had to buy new tickets for the journey home. We ended up spending £17 on bus fares that day, which seems extortionate, especially when compared with London prices for public transport. But I’ll forgive Bath and the surrounding district for its shoddy bus service on the grounds that everything else was a delight, and there is almost nothing as cheering as waking up to the sound of a cock crowing (quiet at the back, there). When I’m a grown-up I’m going to go and live in the countryside (as long as I can live somewhere where I can still go to the theatre, and get the Guardian delivered, and buy milk at 3am, and won’t get snowed in).