I might be setting myself up for some backlash here, but I never used to be a huge Jane Austen fan. I signed up for a course on 18th century literature in my fourth year of undergrad, and the professor only announced on the first day of class that by 18th century, he really meant just Jane Austen. Four months of Austen would be a dream for some people, but I think I was too busy feeling tricked and indignant to really fall in love with her writing, at least initially. But then (predictably) I read Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet forever, etc., etc. When the class ended, I never sought out another novel of manners, written by a woman, featuring biting social commentary and a feisty heroine, primarily because I didn’t really realize that there were others.
Enter John Oliver Hobbes. Claire and Laura have already done a great job of celebrating her writing and pointing out what makes her so worth reading, but I don’t think there’s any harm in adding to the list. For me, the best part of reading Some Emotions and a Moral is JOH’s vibrant characterization, especially of Cynthia. Cynthia is a character to get behind, even as she’s described as frequently violating the Victorian feminine ideal. Her “curious laugh” indicates “good health, considerable wickedness, and a fellow-feeling for the ungodly,” (22) and her father notes that her force is “wholly beyond the range of mathematical calculations – her impetuosity, a decided willfulness, and a fatal obstinacy rendered her moods peculiarly various: if she married at all, her husband should not be too much given to mental analysis” (24). Cynthia’s spirit translates well to a modern audience, and her witticisms are some of the most quotable parts of the text. Here, some particular gems:
“I detest common sense…particularly in Edward. Beef and common sense and Edward are to me synonymous terms” (25). Correct me if I’m wrong, but that seems like a pretty spectacular burn.
“System…is an excellent thing if one has no spirit, but spirit will accomplish in five minutes what system cannot do in as many centuries” (21).
Rather than simply describing Cynthia, John Oliver Hobbes demonstrates a masterful ability to create a compelling character by revealing aspects of her complex personality in each of her interactions with the other characters. Through her conversation with her father, we learn that she shares his impulsiveness, which endears her to him, albeit reluctantly. From her relationship with Agatha, we learn that Cynthia is lively, impatient, quick to anger, but equally quick to apologize. Through her interactions with Provence and Edward, we learn that she desires an equal romantic partnership, that she is prone to theatricality, and that she is just as stubborn and proud as she is gay-hearted.
Working on my annotations has forced me to pay close attention to JOH’s use of language, and to the specific methods she uses to weave her plot and construct her characters. I’ve come to love her style, and reading Some Emotions and a Moral now has me wondering how many more undiscovered counterparts to Cynthia and Lizzie Bennet are still waiting to be brought to light.