Just as you never step into the same river twice, you can never read the same book twice. You always bring something new to it. I recently listened to the divine Juliet Stevenson reading Sense and Sensibility. I first read Jane Austen when I was around the same age as the young women in her novels, and I find that these days, when I’m . . . well, let’s say a woman of a certain age, I see some aspects in a very different light. This time I felt unsatisfied by the ending of Sense and Sensibility. To summarise – I feel that in the case of such well-known novels, it’s not necessary to avoid spoilers – it is pretty clear early on that the recklessly romantic Marianne is going to come a cropper when she falls in love with the dashing Willoughby. Austen does make it clear that Mrs Dashwood failed in her duty to her daughter by allowing the seventeen year old Marianne full rein. But did Austen (and Mrs Dashwood) really have to go to the other extreme by marrying Marianne to Colonel Brandon, who is nearly twenty years older and decent but dull? Certainly not what I would have wanted for Marianne had I been her mother.
And there is the rub. Now that I am a parent myself, I find myself casting a critical eye over fictional parents (not that I am perfect myself, I freely admit). What about Mr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, who is presented as amusingly wry and ironic in contrast with his wife, who is foolish and vulgar. Yes, she IS foolish and vulgar and often misguided, but she is also right to be anxious to get her daughters settled with good husbands. The estate is entailed and they will lose most of their income when Mr Bennet dies. Not other career but marriage is open to them. The novels are in fact full of terrible parents – Mrs Price in Mansfield Park, Sir Walter in Persuasion, to name only two more.
Of course it’s not just Jane Austen. It wasn’t until I had children myself that I really understood what it meant for Anna Karenina to leave her son behind when she elopes with Vronsky.
This revisiting of old friends and seeing them in a new light is one of the pleasures of getting older and I’m interested in what other people feel about this.
While I am here, I’ll just mention that my first newsletter comes out tomorrow. You can subscribe here: http://www.christinepoulson.co.uk/newsletter/