Books that start out as blogs are often problematic. If the material is available for free online, why would you pay to have it in book form? For me, it’s a matter of convenience, but also of presentation- I’d rather read on my Kindle than stare at a computer screen, plus most books compiled from earlier materials go through another phase of editing before being packaged for sale (I hope, anyway). Plus, I can help support an independent author.
Bitch in a Bonnet started out in 2009 as a blogging project. The premise is simple: Robert Rodi was sick of what he saw as the droves of clueless Austen fans who focus in on her romance plots and period piece film adaptations, so he decided to do a close reading of all of the major novels to highlight what so many seem to be missing. I have found myself annoyed by these types, too, especially when they decide to write books themselves (I’m looking at you, Flirting with Pride and Prejudice). They so obviously miss the point. Never mind that it’s unfair to dictate the “point” of a book for any given reader, sometimes you just can’t help being frustrated by those who seem to bypass what truly makes an author great and thus waters them down and propagates a bad system. I’m being a snob- as is Rodi- but since you are perfectly at liberty to bypass his book and my review if you don’t like them, I’m just going to go with it.
This book was so much fun! Since Rodi’s mission was specifically to bring Austen’s biting wit into focus, he fills the pages with the sharpest dialogue and most ironic scenes. There are few things calculated to entertain me more than sharing the best of what Austen has to offer, with snarky commentary besides. However, though I thoroughly enjoyed the book, it wasn’t a one-sided kind of enjoyment; I had an ongoing argument with Rodi through nearly the entire thing. I don’t consider this as anything negative- good books should promote a dialogue with the reader and this one certainly does.
Volume II covers the last three of Austen’s books to be published: Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion. This immediately presents difficulties for anyone trying to trace any kind of development or growth, as the publishing chronology does not reflect the order in which the books were written. Rodi acknowledges this in the section devoted to Northanger, but I still found the order somewhat problematic. Northanger was likely the very first novel Austen ever wrote, though it was the penultimate one to be published (posthumously). This creates problems when Rodi says that Emma “prefigures” Fanny Price, because I don’t think she does. It’s true that Austen revised the novel later in life, but it so clearly derives from her almost anarchic juvenilia, I can’t help but think it would have been much more thoroughly revised if she expected it to actually be published.
One of my biggest gripes with Rodi’s first volume was his treatment of Fanny Price. I know she is not a favorite with many readers, but I think Rodi sacrifices her on the altar of snark, without looking into the profound psychological nuance of her character and situation. (I also think he gives Henry and Mary Crawford too much credit- buying into their charm as dangerously as Maria Bertram did.) I mention this because he often compares characters, specifically Jane Fairfax, to Fanny, and because I find fault with his treatment of Fanny, I can’t get on board with those comparisons. He is generally fair to Jane, but there is a moment that pulled me up short and had me ranting (probably out loud). Jane makes a comment about her future prospects- that is, becoming a governess- and is less than thrilled about it; Rodi says she “whines” about this future position, which will be nothing more than “looking after a few spoiled brats in their parents’ undoubtedly comfortable home.” This is particularly grating as, not far into the book, he mentions how Austen treats servants like they are invisible and this is a weakness of hers. Which begs the question: just what does he think a governess is? They were liminal figures, maybe one notch above “regular” servants, and many below the family. It would have been a fairly bleak future after having lived in relative luxury with her best friend and loving guardians- Mrs. Weston’s outcome is not typical. Call it nitpicking, but it is things like this that get me all worked up.
I also had issues with his view of Henry Tilney- I think he misreads the tone of Tilney’s remarks, and paints him as vain and self-centered, when I’ve only ever seen him as witty, fun, and perhaps a little insecure. But this is personal perspective, so it’s still fun to carry on my mental arguments, even if it’s simply a matter of taste.
There were other moments like this, but I don’t think they detracted from my enjoyment. If I wanted to read a book 100% in alignment with my personal interpretation of literature, I would need to write my own book, for other people to then argue with. I must have highlighted about half of the text, capturing dozens of witty remarks, astute observations-and yes, points of contention. There are quite a few passages where the only note I left was “Nope.” I won’t go through all of those here, but for every “nope,” there were dozens of agreements- and lots of laughs. He separates Austen fans just a little too cleanly into separate camps- romance vs. social commentary- when they are not mutually exclusive categories, but his comedy requires it on some levels, so it generally doesn’t interfere with the overall intention of the book.
In Sense and Sensibility, Austen gave me one of my favorite lines in all of literature: “Elinor agreed with it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.” Rodi has put together a fun project, and because it is intelligently written, I have no problem paying him the compliment of rational opposition.