S&S Saturday– Leaving Norland

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It’s not until Chapter Six that the Dashwood ladies leave Norland, their home of about ten years, and make their way in the world without the benefit of a husband and father. In terms of story structuring, this is the inciting moment. The women leave and nothing will ever be the same again. Every story needs such a moment.

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This is a little later than most modern-day writers structure their stories. In the first five chapters of Sense and Sensibility, we meet the two protagonists, their mother, younger sister, half-brother, and sister-in-law. Oh, and Elinor falls in love. That’s not a small thing or anything.

However, it is not the loss of their father that makes the girls lose their innocence. Neither is it Elinor falling in love. No, it is this permanent estrangement from the home which symbolizes the last time they were happy, content, and care-free. Every thought must be different now and not because their father is dead or they’re in love. I don’t mean to say these things didn’t affect them–how could they not? I only mean to point out that it is the severing from this relationship to a house that is the turning point.

It’s worth noting that the move to Barton Park comes through Mrs. Dashwood’s family. They are now to be like sojourners in a land where Dashwood means nothing. For the very first sentence we read is that the Dashwoods had long been settled in Sussex and they are now to live in Essex. In a world where having the right name could open doors for you, it means something that these women have no protector in truth and their name offers none in his stead. This should shame John Dashwood more than anything.

While all the departing women felt the loss of Norland, it is Marianne who displays her emotions the most clearly.

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“Dear, dear Norland!” said Marianne, as she wandered alone before the house, on the last evening of their being there; “when shall I cease to regret you!—when learn to feel a home elsewhere!—Oh! happy house, could you know what I suffer in now viewing you from this spot, from whence, perhaps, I may view you no more!—And you, ye well-known trees!—but you will continue the same. No leaf will decay because we are removed, nor any branch become motionless although we can observe you no longer!—No; you will continue the same; unconscious of the pleasure or the regret you occasion, and insensible of any change in those who walk under your shade!—But who will remain to enjoy you?”

In addition to being the inciting moment, this passage shows very clearly Marianne’s issue. She is not crying that she will miss memories of family. She is not saying she will miss the comforts of a large house and all the securities and luxuries that went with it. She is not complaining about the difficulty in going so far or expressing anxiety or fear of the unknown. No, she will miss trees! She knows she ought to miss Norland and its grounds are worthy of praise but somewhere along the way has gotten it in her head that it is merely the leaves and branches she will miss. All the while she congratulates herself on openly displaying her emotions and ardently feeling them at some spiritual plane in which Elinor cannot comprehend.

Let me translate that for you. She is faking it. The sorts of things she is trying to espouse were popular in the era. Jane Austen wrote on the cusp of the Romantic Era (characterized by its emphasis on emotion and individualism as well as glorification of all the past and nature, preferring the medieval rather than the classical.) William Wordsworth might have written about wandering as lonely as a cloud or rejoicing at a field of daffodils but I do not think he missed all genuine human emotion at the loss of connection with people in preference to nature.

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Trust me, I’ve moved a lot. I’ve hardly ever missed a house or a tree as much as I missed the people or memories in the house. Now, I’m aware as anybody that some people just feel different than others. The irony, however, is that Marianne holds herself as an authority on feelings. If others don’t feel as she does they must be heartless. Keep telling yourself that, Mar. Does it make sense to ask others to feel about trees the way you do? Does it not make more sense that they would miss their father, their home for ten years, good memories? Something tangible about human interaction?

Now, I don’t hate Marianne. I am merely pointing out what her fatal flaw is. It is as though she takes a page from Mr. Darcy’s book. She was given good principles–the Romantic works are not wrong in and of themselves. She borrows from Emma–better to be without wits than to misapply them! Like Catherine Morland, she has allowed literature to over-influence her. It gets even worse under the direction of Willoughby much like Catherine’s understand suffers at the hand of Isabella.

Why all this focus on Marianne at the story’s inciting moment? Well, Elinor doesn’t really evolve as a character. She moves just an inch or two but it is Marianne that has the real transformation. Elinor’s romantic conflict is presented earlier in the story and seems to resolve last but it is Marianne who is in real danger of become a victim to sensationalism. In future posts, I will delve more into the story structure but if you know the story, I bet you can guess what each highlight from the three-act structure above is.

Tuesday Thoughts– Unlikable Heroes

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Recently, I’ve read a few books that have left me dissatisfied. I even stopped reading in the middle of them. Gasp! They were not JAFFs or even Regency Romance. They were Contemporary Romances which are always a hit or miss for me anyway.

The contemptible sin?

The hero was unlikable.

Oh, they didn’t begin so unlikable. In both situations that I am thinking of, the hero and heroine had a past together and were separated by the hero’s wanderlust. Then, a chance thing throws them together and all seems well for weeks or even months. The heroine works through layers of distrust and just when she seems to have come all the way through it, he leaves again.

Logically, I understand this is the “dark moment” of conflict which all stories require. However, if he leaves the woman before the story even starts, we then go through the entire book and it seems like he has had actual character improvement, and then he reverts back and does the same thing–nope, not reading that. Especially when there is less than 30% left of the book. He’s going to get a second aha moment and somehow just when the heroine’s distrust is totally proven and justified they’re going to get through it again? What were all the other pages for then?

It’s worth adding that although this is a second chance theme, at least one of the books was not labeled as such. There was nothing in the blurb which suggested they had known each other first.

This scenario doesn’t have to apply only to heroes with wanderlust. This character regression scenario can happen in any sort of plot and with a heroine as well. When I write a story, I try to be very aware of the journey my characters are on. If Mr. Darcy is suddenly arrogant again at the climax of the story when he seemed to have learned his lesson and behaved well for the last 15 chapters–that’s a major structural issue. If Elizabeth swears she has learned from her past mistakes and then we see her doubting Darcy in the last third of the book–how can I trust her character arc?

Consider how Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice. Darcy is revealed to have not been as awful as Elizabeth supposed. After his letter, she realizes that there were signs with Wickham she ought to have always seen. However, it’s not a sudden reversal of her opinion. She continues to think Darcy is unlikable until they meet at Pemberley. Then his behavior is so different and general reports of him so good that she comes to realize that she had never fully understood him before. She trusts him enough to tell him about Lydia’s elopement. Once Lydia is married, she doesn’t worry that he will be vindictive and spread the news around. She doesn’t even worry too much that Lydia’s elopement would keep him from Longbourn except at the idea of being brother-in-law to Wickham. That concern is due to a belief that Darcy is so justified he should not be subjected to such a degradation. When she hears that Darcy helped arrange Lydia’s marriage, Elizabeth does not doubt it or assign mean motives. And when Lady Catherine storms to Longbourn and insists that Darcy will marry her daughter, Elizabeth can only think that his aunt’s arguments might, justly, fall on his weakest side. She is entirely humbled from her earlier opinion about Mr. Darcy. When they next meet, she opens the conversation with gratitude, not remonstrances or sly comments as she had done a year before.

Elizabeth Bennet is not always likable. She makes fun of people. She makes mistakes and they hurt innocent people. However, as she continues on her arc, she truly changes. When everything seems darkest for Darcy and Elizabeth, the story does not rely on Elizabeth reverting to her old behavior and way of thinking. That, to me, would be an unlikable character.

What do you think? Is that sort of character arc important to you when you read?