Northanger Abbey
a surprisingly good read

Northanger Abbey
a surprisingly good read

Northanger Abbey was my first Jane Austen novel. It won’t be my last. My previous experience with Jane Austen was limited to having once watched Pride and Prejudice while on our honeymoon.

Like most men, I always assumed that Jane Austen novels were simpering, sappy, romance novels of the victorian era. Sadly, the movie I watched did little to dispel that assessment. But this year I have been engaged in a reading challenge that has forced me out of my comfort zone a bit when selecting books. I’ll explain more of the particulars in a future post, but I had several categories that lent themselves to reading a Jane Austen novel, not the least of which was, A book written by Jane Austen.

Lauren had a large volume containing seven of Austen’s novels. I looked it over and chose Northanger Abbey for two reasons. First, I had never seen or heard anything about it. Second, it was the shortest novel in the anthology.

I fully expected to toil through it and be glad when it was over so I could move on to reading something more to my liking. How wrong my expectations were! Beyond all hope, I actually enjoyed the book. In fact, I intend to read one or two more before the end of the year. But I digress. Let me tell you about Northanger Abbey.

The story of Northanger Abbey

The book’s central character is a young woman named Catherine, who is 17 years old for the majority of the story. She goes on vacation with a neighboring family, who have no children of their own, meets a boy, falls in love, has lots of drama with friends, and, in the end, is happily married to the man of her dreams. Along the way she attends dances and dinners, has long conversations with other young women about young men, dresses, and whatnot. It sounds as bad as I’d imagined, doesn’t it? It’s not.

Jane Austen writes with wit and sarcasm. She relays much frivolous conversation and shows it to be frivolous. She makes fun of the empty-headed female characters who can’t think past how much nicer their dress is than anyone else’s. One such character is Mrs. Allen, the wife of the couple Catherine goes to live with.

Mrs Allen was one of that numerous class of females, whose society can raise no other emotion than surprise at there being any men in the world who could like them well enough to marry them. She had neither beauty, genius, accomplishment, nor manner. The air of a gentlewoman, a great deal of quiet, inactive good temper, and a trifling turn of mind, were all that could account for her being the choice of a sensible, intelligent man, like Mr Allen.

When Mrs. Allen meets an old friend who proceeds to tell all about her children, we are told,

Mrs Allen had no similar information to give, no similar triumphs to press on the unwilling and unbelieving ear of her friend, and was forced to sit and appear to listen to all these maternal effusions, consoling herself, however, with the discovery, which her keen eye soon made, that the lace of Mrs Thorpe’s pelisse was not half so handsome as that on her own.

Austen wants her reader to see Mrs. Allen as a frivolous, empty-headed character.

She also makes fun of the male characters who are all brag and no substance. Beyond that, she shows the repulsiveness of people who are entirely selfish, concerned only with money, and other vices.

The strengths of Northanger Abbey

But what she does best is show us a main character who grows and matures over the course of the novel. Catherine becomes less frivolous, less concerned with the opinions of others, and more discerning of character in her friends and acquaintances. She learns the dangers of jumping to conclusions before having all the facts. Above all, she grows more interested in the things that really matter, like truthfulness, generosity, integrity, good friendship, and the beauty of creation.

Austen also weaves social commentary into her story. She critiques her society’s habit of arranging marriages on the basis of economic and social standing and advancement. Likewise, she critiques the popular entertainment of the day, the gothic novel. One wonders what she would have to say about entertainment in our day!

Why men should read Northanger Abbey

But the thing Austen does surprisingly well that caught my attention is to portray an admirable manly hero in Mr. Henry Tilney. Tilney makes this book worth reading. First, Austen spares us the simpering description you might expect from a romance novel, instead, she gives us this,

He seemed to be about four or five and twenty, was rather tall, had a pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and, if not quite handsome, was very near it.

So, he’s a gentleman, he’s tall, pleasant, intelligent, lively, and almost handsome. That’s a breath of fresh air. No attempt to portray the hero as muscle bound or handsome to the point of making the women swoon. He’s an average man with a good personality. Interestingly, Austen knows how to write a manly hero. He teases Catherine, provokes her even, a couple times in conversation. He acts with integrity in all situations. He sees to his duties and responsibilities even when shirking them would be advantageous. He has good judgment of both people and circumstances. He takes control and acts when a situation calls for it, but sometimes he sits back and lets events play out, letting others deal with the consequences of their actions.

When his brother may be making a bad decision, Catherine pleads with him to speak to his father about it,

but he did not catch at the measure so eagerly as she had expected. ‘No,’ said he, ‘my father’s hands need not be strengthened, and Frederick’s confession of folly need not be forestalled. He must tell his own story.’

‘But he will tell only half of it.’

‘A quarter would be enough.’

When Tilney discusses dancing with Catherine, he compares it to marriage.

in both, man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal; that in both it is an engagement between man and woman, formed for the advantage of each; and that when once entered into, they belong exclusively to each other till the moment of its dissolution; that it is their duty, each to endeavour to give the other no cause for wishing that he or she had bestowed themselves elsewhere, and their best interest to keep their own imaginations from wandering towards the perfections of their neighbours, or fancying that they should have been better off with any one else.

There are some ideas here that might strike modern readers as old-fashioned. Regardless, his prescription for marriage would solve many of the problems with today’s divorce-ridden culture. Jane Austen, a woman who never married, teaches us a lesson on the secret to a happy marriage, and puts it in the mouth of a male character!

Later in the novel, Mr. Tilney catches Catherine in an act of snooping and quickly discerns her reasons. He rebukes her for letting her imagination and fear run away with her and cause her to think ill of someone unjustly. This rebuke, followed by his “astonishing generosity and nobleness of conduct, in never alluding in the slightest way to what had passed,” plays a major part in her maturity as a person.

And in the final chapters, he stands up to his own father, when the elder Tilney acts from greed and pride, but at the same time, submits himself to the authority of Catherine’s parents, and their wishes, as regards his desire to wed their daughter. He does so, even though this causes a delay of many months as he awaits his father’s favour on the union. Henry Tilney is the sort of hero and role model we need more of. He has quickly become one of my favourite literary characters.

I would challenge men to give Jane Austen a try. She surprised me with this first novel and I will be reading others before the year is out. This is the only Jane Austen novel I’ve read so far, but I do believe it is a good place to start.

Buy Northanger Abbey on Amazon.com

Custom Fountain Pen

Custom Fountain Pen

Turkish Walnut Custom Fountain PenThose of you who know me, know that I’m a bit old school. I still prefer paper books and I enjoy writing with a fountain pen. It will be no surprise that I’m now using a custom fountain pen as my main writing instrument.

For a couple of years now I’ve written with a Sheaffer Intensity. It’s a good pen, slender, but a bit heavy, especially if you cap it when writing (which I don’t because of the weight).

This year, as my birthday and Father’s Day present, I got a new pen. This one is custom-made from Turkish Walnut with an extra-fine iridium nib.

The pen was made by a former band mate of mine. Being made of wood, it’s much lighter than my Sheaffer, which is a good thing. The lighter weight of the wood allows your hand to relax when writing, which improves penmanship and reduces muscle strain. Speaking of wood, the Turkish Walnut is beautiful, as you can see. It has a nice deep color in the marbled grain, along with a few highlights.

This pen has a magnetic cap, rather than the standard screw on cap you normally find on fountain pens. It’s unique and fun, but not as secure as the screw on type cap. I’d be reluctant to carry this pen in my bag on a daily basis, but since I plan to use it at my desk, that’s not a problem.

After a tune-up at my favorite pen shop, the pen writes smoothly with just the right amount of ink flow, and produces a beautiful line. The nib has just the right amount of flex to produce a beautiful script, at least as beautiful as my handwriting can be.

Mark has set up an Etsy store where you can pick up one of his pens or contact him to have one custom-made from the material of your choice.

If you’re already a fountain pen user and looking to add a custom fountain pen to your collection, then I suggest you check out Mark’s work.

If you’re not a yet a fountain pen user, I urge you to do yourself, and your penmanship, a favor and pick up the ultimate writing instrument. What better place to start than with a custom fountain pen?


Is manliness obsolete in the gender-neutral society?

Is manliness obsolete in the gender-neutral society?

Harvard University Professor Harvey C. Mansfield doesn’t think so. In Manliness he asserts (a very manly thing, asserting something) that manliness is not only not obsolete, but very much needed, in our modern, gender-neutral society.

Despite the title, “Manliness“, and the assertion that manliness is needed, Mansfield isn’t opposed to our gender-neutral society, though he does prefer to use the word sex rather than gender when talking about men and women. In fact, he says that a gender-neutral public society is “long overdue”. He then asserts that manliness is required to maintain it. Of course, this requires defining manliness, not an easy thing to do, and then proving his assertion. To do so, Mansfield takes the reader on a tour of philosophy and literature from Plato and Homer to feminist authors of our modern age.

Interestingly, he didn’t write the book to teach men how to be manly. You can’t teach manliness. Rather, the book was written for a surprising audience and purpose.

Manliness, the quality mostly of one sex, gets in the way of an equal or reasonable distribution of tasks and rewards; it seems to promote a bias in favor of men over women. In this book I begin from manliness as the irrational obstacle to a rational project that seeks to remove this bias. By the end I hope to convince skeptical readers–above all, educated women–of the reverse: that irrational manliness deserves to be endorsed by reason. [p.ix]

The problem of manliness

As any good thinker does, Mansfield begins by examining the problem. In this case, the problem is that changes are being made to our society, moving it toward “a practice of equality between the sexes that has never been known before in all human history.” Yet, in spite of these changes, manliness refuses to quietly fade away.

The capacities and inclinations of the sexes do not differ exactly or universally, but they do seem to differ. These differences are, one could say, all the more impressive now that they are no longer supported, indeed now that they are denied or opposed, by society’s ruling conventions. The old Adam is still effective and still visible despite all that Hollywood and the media (when they want to be serious) do to instruct us in gender neutrality. [p.12]

So the questions are, Why do these differences still exist? The answer is because Manliness still exists. But should it? Are we done with manliness? Or do we still need it? And if so, for what purpose?

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Too much, too little, just right

Too much, too little, just right

“[The manly man] knows his job, and he stands fast in that knowledge. If he doesn’t really know his job, his confidence is false and he is just boasting. If he knows it but lets himself be pushed around, he’s also not really confident; he merely has the basis for confidence. The first case of boasting is manly excess, the second is a defect of manliness.” – Harvey C. Mansfield, Manliness, p.16, 17

No one likes a braggart and the one who brags rarely has the grounds for it. At the same time, no one respects a coward, even if he has the grounds for confidence but doesn’t use it. The sweet spot is something we might call confident humility, or simply–manliness.

Buy Manliness (the book not the virtue) on Amazon.com

Trying to have it both ways

Trying to have it both ways

Now supporters of the gender-neutral society (call them feminists) are torn between showing that they are as competent as men and doing away with gentlemen who might oppose them. In the first mode, they want to show they are manly; in the second, they want to deny there is any such thing. – Harvey C. Mansfield, Manliness, p.15

The peddlers of this new gender-neutral society aren’t the only ones who are torn. Our society itself is being torn apart by infighting over this moral collapse.

I’ve only just started reading this book but based on the first chapter I’m guessing this will be one you’ll want to read.

Buy it on Amazon.com – Manliness