Home and Family in Literature and Life

Do we ever really think about what first piques our interest in a particular subject? Whether it’s history or science or literature or society or food, we tend to generalize our initial interest in a topic or hobby – “it was in my early 20s” or “sometime in my youth” or “when I heard about it from a friend.” But do we really think through the very thing that truly led us to want to learn more, do more, and find more out about something that intrigued us? And do we stop to wonder why?

So you like military history; okay, what was it that first attracted you to it? Why? Was it because you have a personal connection to it, through your own experiences or via a family member or friend, or is it because of a particular incident in history that calls out to more strongly than others? Or say that you really got into sculpting. Is there a specific work or artist that inspired you? A reason you wanted to sit down and build something with your hands?

As I’ve spent the last two and a half years exploring what I want to do with my life and reflecting on my various interests and hobbies, I’ve noticed a few recurring themes and connections. I’ve especially noticed this when I think about my favorite books, authors, and stories over the years.

Jane Austen. Laura Ingalls Wilder. Lucy Maud Montgomery. Louisa May Alcott. Ginny Dye. Jan Karon.

Okay, they are all women writers. And with the exception of Karon’s Mitford series, they all wrote in or write about times past; “period” literature, as some may call it. We’ve got the Edwardian era, Civil War and beyond, pioneer times, and turn of the century and WWI. But it’s more than that – a lot more than that, I’ve recently realized. In all of these authors works, there is one thing that stands out loud and clear, when I really think about it: the importance of home and family.

It’s kind of an aha moment; these are two of the most important things in my own life, and two of the things I most enjoy writing about myself. A coincidence? Likely not.

As Janeites know all too well, Austen’s novels aren’t exactly filled with adventure and crazy plot twists. She used everyday happenings and personal dramas from the family home and that of close neighbors and friends to create witty, romantic, and realistic stories of life in Regency England. Laura Ingalls Wilder shared the mundane and sometimes frightening details of prairie life, as her family moved from house to house to house, but always making it home. Montgomery’s series about a lovable red-headed, precocious orphan girl named Anne who was adopted by an elderly couple on Canada’s Prince Edward Island is all about family and home. Alcott’s Little Women is based on her own family and their struggles in the mid-1800s New England, and her other books all have a strong sense of family, centering on spirited, smart, and self-reliant young women. Karon’s series about a small-town pastor shows us the comical, joyful, and sometimes sad lives of Father Tim and his friends in the quaint town of Mitford. And Ginny Dye’s historical fiction series, The Bregdan Chronicles, features an entire cast of fiercely loyal, passionate, and ambitious family members and friends – black and white, former slaves and masters – that continue to call a Virginia plantation home base even after the Civil War has ended.

I’d be silly to not also notice that all of these authors’ works intrigue me because of their portrayals of resilient, independent, ambitious, and compassionate women, with a drive to do something more and be something more in their world (in the Mitford series, this comes through with Father Tim’s wife, Cynthia). While they are all extremely devoted to their families and to creating a sense of home, wherever they are, they also feel a calling to explore beyond their boundaries — both physical, and the ones placed on them by society because they are women.

In Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet knows she must marry, but she is not about to settle for the first man that shows her attention or that her mother sends her way. It takes time of course, but ultimately she chooses a man that will make her happy as well as comfortable, and all the while, she’s pushing for her sisters and friends to make their own choices as well. In Little Women, Jo March leaves home and an opportunity to marry her best friend to become a writer, and ends up meeting an older man who challenges her mind as well as her heart. And in The Bregdan Chronicles, Carrie Cromwell fights convention and risks her life by first freeing her father’s slaves, then by attending a women’s medical college up north, leaving her husband, family, and friends behind (temporarily).

These themes, which often fight against one another as much as they work together, have come up often in my own life – especially so in the last couple of years. My intense desire to be independent, to explore the world around me, and to pursue my passions keeps my mind and my heart constantly churning, constantly looking for what’s next and how to get there. Yet at the same time, I’m pulled home, to my parents, to my family in Louisiana, to a stable and comforting environment that brings me joy and peace. I yearn for a companion and prefer structure and routine, yet feel I am meant to do more and be more – for myself, if not for anyone else. I don’t like feeling stuck, yet I stick to safe routines and lifestyles because it’s easier, or less intimidating. Finding the balance is what I keep coming back to – what IS the balance? What IS the combination of home and family and a life of adventure and exploration that I’m looking for, and how do I find it?

For now, I’ll keep reading and continue learning. Perhaps some of the answers will come from the authors and characters that I’ve loved for so many years.

Have you noticed any themes in your favorite books from over the years that go deeper than genre? Are they relevant to your own life?

Whom do you love? Virtue vs. villainy in literature

goodvillain

In last weekend’s New York Times book review, Bookends asked, “Can a virtuous character be interesting?” Two writers, Thomas Mallon and Alice Gregory, present their case for which type of literary character makes for more interesting reading: a good person, or a villainous one?

Mallon begins his argument for the “villain” with classic examples: Scarlett over Melanie in Gone With the Wind, Becky over Amelia in Vanity Fair, and perhaps the most fundamental and obvious example of all, Lucifer over God in Paradise Lost. He also references the recent controversy over Atticus Finch’s true colors illuminated in Harper Lee’s recently released Go Set a Watchman (I blogged on that here), and how Atticus may be an exception to the rule that we love to hate the bad guys, and that reading about flawed and even evil characters is more wholly satisfying than reading about do-gooders. Without the bad guys, Mallon says, we lose the opportunity to appreciate the virtue in the good guys – and in some cases, like in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello, we lose the entire essence of the play, and the larger lessons and messages that come with it.

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Six Life Lessons from Jane Austen

I’ve loved Jane Austen’s works since I first received “Emma” as a Christmas gift more than 20 years ago. But I only recently began reading essays and books on why we love her stories so much 200 years later, and what they mean to us on a personal level, beyond the basic lit class critiques.

I just finished reading “A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter” by William Deresiewicz. The author begins the book by explaining how when he began graduate school, he had never even glanced at one of Austen’s novels because he felt above them, and above her style. But when he had to read “Emma” in one professor’s class on 19th century English literature, his view of Austen, and himself, started to change.

Deresiewicz reads and rereads all six of Austen’s novels over the course of a few years of graduate school and even incudes a chapter in his dissertation. But even more important than learning to like Jane Austen and all of her heroines, he learned more about life, love, and literature than he ever imagined.

Although I thought the author could be a bit rambling and repetitive, each of the six core lessons he pulled from Austen’s works resonated with me, and I found they applied in my own life. They are as follows:

“Emma”

Many think the plot of one of Austen’s most popular novels, frequently translated into film, is lacking. But the author latches on to Austen’s ultimate goal to get people to pay attention to the little stories and happenings of the people in our lives, no matter how small and ordinary they may be.

Deresiewicz says, “She understood that what fills our days should fill our hearts, and what fills our hearts should fill our novels.” Instead of just focusing on the big milestones and events and drama, Austen encourages us to remember the small stuff and to talk about it, perhaps again and again, if that is what brings us closer to our community.

“To pay attention to ‘minute particulars’ is to notice your life as it passes, before it passes,” says the author, and of Emma, her father, and their best friends. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always valued the little things like snuggling on the couch with coffee and my dogs, frequent chats by phone with my parents, or hearing the “minute particulars” of small town life from my family in Louisiana.

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Happy birthday, Jane Austen

Circa 20 years ago, I received my first Jane Austen book, a copy of Emma, a Christmas gift from an aunt who knew of my passion for reading. At the time, even though I was already reading classics and other advancing literature, I thought perhaps it might be a little above my head. But I only let the book sit for about a year on my shelf before I couldn’t wait any longer, and promptly devoured it. I was hooked.

Next, I read Sense & Sensibility and then Pride & Prejudice. I followed that with Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, and finally, Persuasion. I have loved Jane Austen before I had heard of Colin Firth, or before Keira Knightley became a star. I’ll admit something — I’ve never even seen the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice, but I’ve read the book at least five times.

People always tout P&P as their favorite Austen novel, and for many, it is king among classic literature. But like many of the essayists in Why We Read Jane Austen, I agree that choosing your favorite Austen novel is akin to picking a favorite child, or for me, a favorite dog. It’s nearly impossible. If I’m forced, it would be P&P, but from there, there is a close tie between Mansfield Park and Emma.

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My first love: books

IMG_8178Today I headed to down to the Mall for the National Book Festival. I arrived with hopes of getting one of my Nicholas Sparks’ books autographed by the author, but my spirits quickly sagged as I saw six lines of people waiting for him, and was promptly told by an event staffer that Sparks was only signing his newest book. So much for bringing my copy of The Wedding. I couldn’t just jump the book sale line either – people stretched around the corner of the tent for that, too.

I picked up my token festival poster and checked out the Target dog, Spot, and headed back home before the rain hit. Annoyed at first because the event was so packed that I would have had to arrive at 8am if I wanted a shot at hearing anyone speak or sign a book, I left happy that so many people were there, because after all, it must mean they love books! There were tons of kids, too, which pleased me, because you hear so much these days about kids not reading as much, or reading crap like Gossip Girls and the like. But here you could find works by authors like Judy Blume, Julia Alvarez, Sue Monk Kidd, and Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried by this last author is one of my favorite books).

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