Jane Austen’s youngest works fill three bound folios, and though many show hints of the fine mind that would one day write and publish great books, all of them naturally share similar limitations consistent with a child author. Some are left unfinished, others merely under-developed. What makes these stories less compelling—aside from the author’s young age—is a subject of curiosity for students of literature. Catherine, or the Bower—which appears in Volume the Third of Austen’s notebooks of juvenilia—represents one of the author’s first serious attempts to write a novel. She no doubt spent a good amount of time crafting the piece, and making amendments. Unfortunately, Catherine struggles to get off the ground, hindered by a remarkably awkward opening paragraph that stretches over four pages. In it, Austen overreaches, attempting to explain and introduce far more than many readers can absorb on first reading. Moreover, her inadequate pronoun references and loose sentence structures contribute to the impression of verbosity and ambiguity, and fatigue the reader.
Austen logically opens Catherine with a description of her heroine’s history and unfortunate circumstances. Almost immediately, however, the subjects of sentences become difficult to follow in a cascade of pronouns. We know Catherine is an orphan, and that she goes to live with her aunt. We are told that “she tenderly loved her,” but it is not particularly clear whether Austen is telling us that Catherine loves her aunt but is not convinced that this aunt loves her, or that this aunt loves Catherine but has not convinced Catherine of that fact. The multiple potential antecedents of “she” and “her” leave some doubt.
Austen attempts to minimize the ambiguity further along in the paragraph by setting her pronouns in context. Thus, when the narrator tells us that “Kitty had heard twice from her friend since her marriage, but her letters were always unsatisfactory, and though she did not openly avow her feelings, every line proved her to be unhappy,” we recognize through context that it cannot be Catherine who is married and unhappy. Still, within one clause the word “her” refers to both Catherine and Catherine’s friend. Likewise, the same holds true for “she” (and “her” and “herself”) in reference to Catherine and her aunt in this astonishing sentence:
Her aunt was most excessively fond of her, and miserable if she saw her for a moment out of spirits; Yet she lived in such constant apprehension of her marrying imprudently if she were allowed the opportunity of choosing, and was so dissatisfied with her behavior when she saw her with Young Men, for it was, from her natural disposition remarkably open and unreserved, that though she wished for her Niece’s sake, that the Neighborhood were larger, and that She had used herself to mix more with it , yet the recollection of there being young Men [sic] in almost every Family in it, always conquered the Wish.
In Catherine, we must scour preceding lines to identify the subjects and objects of pronouns with multiple potential antecedents. “They” and “them” confuse as easily as “she” and “her.” One potential solution to this problem would be to replace some pronouns with characters’ proper names.
Lamentably, though Austen introduces a great many characters, she initially leaves some nameless. Of the fourteen figures introduced within the first paragraph of Catherine, three are not given proper names at all, but remain “husband,” “daughter,” or “son.” Those left unidentified may be incidental figures at this early stage in the novel, but some important characters’ identities are treated haphazardly. Catherine’s only friends are first described simply as “two amiable Girls” before being labeled the “Miss Wynnes.” Curiously, they are called by surname before their father, who, though introduced earlier, is still known only as “the Clergyman of the Parish.” After more than a full page the Miss Wynnes are referenced again, this time as “Sisters,” then, finally, as Mary and Cecilia. Austen might have tidied the first paragraph of Catherine considerably, and eliminated some ambiguity, by referring to the Wynne daughters straightaway by first name.
Shockingly, Austen treats the identities of the most important figures in the first paragraph of Catherine in similar fashion. Many readers will recognize Kitty as a nickname for Catherine, and, therefore, be spared confusion when the narrator begins using both names interchangeably. But Catherine’s aunt is left nameless until two and a half pages into the story, when, inexplicably, the narrator tells us that “the living at Chetwynde was now in the possession of a Mr. Dudley, whose family unlike the Wynnes were productive only of vexation and trouble to Mrs. Percival and her Niece.” Thus, it appears to be in passing that we learn our heroine’s name is Catherine Percival, and her guardian attains an identity besides “aunt.” Six other characters have been referenced by proper name before Mrs. Percival. Austen’s neglect on this count seems almost careless.
Perhaps most striking of all the idiosyncrasies in the first paragraph of Catherine is the seemingly meandering nature of the text. Syntactically, the sentences appear to proceed without direction, drifting from subject to subject:
They were the daughters of the Clergyman of the Parish with whose family, while it had continued there, her Aunt had been on the most intimate terms, and the little Girls tho’ separated for the greatest part of the Year by the different Modes of their Education, were constantly together during the holidays of the Miss Wynnes.
In those fifty-seven words, the subject of the action changes four times, from the daughters, to the family, to the Aunt, then back to the daughters. Absent periodic or parallel structure, no author could hope to hold together such long sentences (one quoted above exceeds a hundred words). Given the affinity the young Jane Austen was known to have for Samuel Johnson—an acknowledged master of complex sentence structure—it is surprising that her syntax in Catherine could be so awkward.
All successful authors of fiction improve their craft and hone their skills through practice. Mature works will, in general, display a certain polish that early pieces lack, even if, in many instances, young authors write with more energy and enthusiasm. Through experience, all great artists find their own voices and adopt means of expression that suit them and, if they are lucky, satisfy legions of readers. Jane Austen undoubtedly achieved both mastery of her craft and considerable success during her career. An odd paradox for Austen—and many other creative artists besides—is that the same talent and skill she employed in her mature masterpieces has caused a spotlight to be cast upon on her less finely wrought creations, and exposed to scrutiny much of what she never intended for public consumption. Some readers have approached these youthful pieces from the perspective of the mere fan. But students of literature, in particular, find it useful to examine Austen’s juvenilia for insights into her creative process, and mine her early works for evidence of the great author that first emerged publicly in 1811 with Sense and Sensibility.
Had Austen, once established, wished to resurrect Catherine for publication, she would have no doubt begun her revisions by breaking apart the novel’s first paragraph. Thirty-six long sentences are too many to hold together in the absence of a coherent narrative, and few authors could hope to lay out a cohesive plot in the short space of an opening paragraph, even one that extends beyond four pages. In an unforgettable way, however, Jane Austen would prove that the converse holds true; that by reducing the opening paragraph to the barest essentials, she could convey the most meaning in the fewest words: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
The back two rooms in my home were added long after the rest of the house was built. Directly off the kitchen is a room that was likely meant to be a utility room, but which we use as a dining/laundry room. Though it was a bit rough when we moved in, it’s delightful now. Off that room is another that was surely intended as an office (or Rock Room, as was the case with Josh Ney, from whom we bought the place). It, too, was a tad dingy when we moved in, but I fixed it up a few years ago, and it is a fine room today in nearly every respect, but it was lacking a certain something: a closet. Without a closet, a space cannot be called a bedroom, and Miriam really did deserve to have a better place to hang her clothes. So, on my spring break I set out to build her a closet.
Building in a finished room is a much bigger challenge than building in a room with exposed studs and ceiling joists. For one thing, you cannot build a wall flat on the ground and tilt it up. The framing for my closet had to be installed piece by piece.
The first step in the process, of course, was determining how large the closet would be. That decision was mostly made for me, because of the placement of a door and window, and an electrical switch and socket. Unless I was willing to move those things, the closet was going to be about forty-eight inches wide, and thirty inches deep. (A closet can be made as wide as you like, but if you intend to hang clothes inside, don’t make it less than twenty-seven inches deep.)
Once I had decided on the dimensions, I had to cut some 2x4s to make the top and bottom plates into which I could secure the vertical studs. Since the ceiling had drywall on it already, installation of the top plates was tricky. In one direction I could screw directly into the ceiling joists. In the other direction I used large toggle bolts. Those toggle bolts required a fairly large hole in the wood, and I used fender washers to ensure that the bolt didn’t just pull through the wood. To make sure the top plate and bottom plate were in perfect alignment (because the walls could not be plumb otherwise), I used a plumb bob, and marked the location for my bottom plate. The finished floor is parquet, and below that is concrete. There are a number of ways to attach walls to concrete floors. I used Liquid Nails and cut masonry nails. Those incredibly strong nails can drive straight into concrete. Of course, the top plates for each of the two walls I built (since I built the closet in a corner, I used two existing walls for the back and right side of the closet) went the entire width of the walls, but the bottom plate on the door wall needed much less lumber, since the door opening was over thirty-six inches.
Once the top and bottom plates were in place, I could begin erecting the studs. That was straight-forward. The ceiling in that room has a shallow pitch equal to the pitch of the roof at that part of the house, so I had to cut each stud carefully. Since I couldn’t build the wall laying flat on the floor, nails were not a practical choice. I selected a specialty screw called Spax that I found in the decking section. It has a special Torx drive that held the screw on the bit while driving it, and it is almost impossible to strip. I screwed all the studs into the plates with those Spax screws. Where my new walls intersected existing walls, I either screwed the studs into existing studs behind the drywall, or used toggle bolts again.
Framing for the door gets a bit technical. I bought a thirty-six inch door. The doors actual dimensions are somewhat smaller, and the finished opening needs to be just slightly larger. So, I had to carefully account for the extra space that the trim would take up, and that meant that the studs I erected needed to be thirty-seven and a half inches apart. I made a similar calculation for the height of the header. Incidentally, since these walls aren’t really bearing any of the weight of the roof, I didn’t worry about building a double top header on edge. I did install cripples above the header, though.
With the framing done, I carefully measured the dimensions of my walls, and cut the drywall to fit. Cutting drywall is messy, but not terribly difficult, particularly if you have a long straight edge. It screws into the studs easily with a power drill. I made the joints as tight as I could, especially at the one outside corner. It’s not possible to get that perfect, which is why they sell a corner strip that covers the joint, and gets covered in compound. Applying joint compound is exponentially easier than using traditional plaster. It stays moist and pliable for hours. That’s good and bad. Good because it allows you to correct any mistakes, bad because waiting overnight for it to dry slows down progress.
With the walls up and the joints taped and plastered, I began my trim work. Trim carpenters are the best carpenters. The work they do is highly visible, so it must be precise. Of course, one is almost never lucky enough to be working in areas that are perfectly square, and there are always small obstacles along the way, and those make trim carpentry harder. In this case, I was lucky to be dealing with relatively simple cuts and angles. I had removed the baseboards in that corner of the room before I began erecting the walls, so I had some material I could trim a little and put right back where it was. On the right front side of the closet, though, I had cut the existing baseboard in place, without removing it. I cut it in such a way that I would be able to but another piece of baseboard against it at a ninety-degree angle, and my calculations were perfect. But to put the new shoe mould in, I couldn’t just miter it like all the other pieces. I’d have to cope it. I did, and it fit perfectly.
Trimming a door is always a pain, because everything has to be perfect or the door will either not function, or will, at least, look bad. I took very careful measurements, cut my pieces, and dry fit them in place. I only needed to shim the jamb in one small place, so that pleased me. Shims are the most useful, cheapest thing in the world. The casing was straightforward. I used a simpler casing on the inside of the closet (where nobody will ever see it) than I did on the outside. I set all my nails, filled the holes, and caulked the edges of the baseboards and door casing. I painted the walls and trim to match the existing colors.
The last component was, perhaps, the most important: a rod system for hanging clothes. We had browsed the various modular systems, such as Closetmaid, but were not impressed. While they are highly configurable, they can get expensive, and, since all Miriam really needs to do with her closet is hang clothes on hangers, she really just needed some rods. I decided to make a two-tiered set up, with one rod high, and another lower, to make the best use of the space. Some website somewhere probably explains exactly where to place rods when building a closet, but I didn’t bother looking; I just took a couple a couple blouses and dresses on hangers, and held them up in the space, and marked for my rods that way, remembering that I couldn’t place the top rod too high for Miriam to reach.
I first cut four equal lengths of 1×4 from a longer piece, then marked out their positions on the closet wall, using a line level to make sure they were all placed correctly. I used my wonderful Spax screws and screwed the 1×4 pieces through the drywall, into the studs, which I had marked ahead of time. On the already existing right wall, a stud was situated ideally about twelve inches from the back wall, but there seemed to be no stud at the back right corner, so I had to use toggle bolts at the back. On the left wall, which I erected, I knew that I had a stud twelve inches out from the wall (again, the perfect position for placing a flange for a closet rod), and I knew that I had a stud butted up against the existing back wall, too, so I could drive my Spax screws into studs at the front and back of the 1×4 strips into which I would screw the flanges for the rods. Of course, I could have just screwed my flanges by themselves directly into the studs, but by installing them into pieces of 1×4, I made convenient supports for shelves. For rods I used one and a quarter inch poplar dowels. They were a few cents more than steel conduit, but much easier to cut, and somewhat less industrial-looking.
More than almost anything else, I hate phony outrage. That is, I cannot abide the loud shouting by those whose indignation is not sincere. You see it constantly these days. Politicians and the public on one side will pretend to be enraged by the behavior or policies of some other politician or group, when, in fact, those “outraged” people know that they have committed the same misdeeds, or supported policies no better than the ones about which they now pretend to be angry. Rush Limbaugh derided illegal drug users for years while hiding his own drug problem. Republicans, who praised President Bush for ignoring the polls and going ahead with the troop surge in Iraq, today criticize Democrats for ignoring the polls on healthcare reform.
Phony outrage bothers me because it is simultaneously false and hypocritical. And it gets attention. A man holding a sign and shouting is bound to have a television camera pointed at him, no matter how ridiculous his claims.
It would be easy to dismiss those in the “Tea Party” movement as simple phonies. After all, members of that group, which burns President Obama in effigy, only a few years ago claimed that any criticism of the president was “unpatriotic”, and that those who opposed George W. Bush’s policies were “with the terrorists”. That is phony outrage, pure and simple.
But the Tea Party movement presents another, equally troublesome phenomenon: ignorant outrage. As Bruce Bartlett, the outspoken Republican and former Reagan adviser, writes at Forbes.com, most Tea Party people completely misunderstand the issues about which they are so angry. Members of the Tea Party movement were surveyed about taxes under President Obama, and, “no matter how one slices the data, the Tea Party crowd appears to believe that federal taxes are very considerably higher than they actually are”. When asked, for instance, whether, under Obama, taxes are higher, lower, or the same, two-thirds thought taxes were higher. In fact, as Bartlett points out, “federal taxes are very considerably lower by every measure since Obama became president”.
Tea Partyers were asked how much the federal government gets in taxes as a percentage of the gross domestic product. According to Congressional Budget Office data, acceptable answers would be 6.4%, which is the percentage for federal income taxes; 12.7%, which would be for both income taxes and Social Security payroll taxes; or 14.8%, which would represent all federal taxes as a share of GDP in 2009.
Tuesday’s Tea Party crowd, however, thought that federal taxes were almost three times as high as they actually are. The average response was 42% of GDP and the median 40%. The highest figure recorded in all of American history was half those figures: 20.9% at the peak of World War II in 1944.
As Bartlett points out, “it’s hard to explain this divergence between perception and reality”. I’m not so sure. How often do talk radio hosts criticize Democrats for raising taxes? A lot, from what I can tell. And yet, “there hasn’t been a federal tax increase of any significance in this country since 1993″. Nevertheless, politicians and pundits drone on and on about how high taxes are burdening families, and driving down the economy. Those politicians and pundits know better (or ought to). Their outrage is phony. But the public–which by and large, doesn’t read the newspaper, or know the first thing about economics, history, geography, or almost any other subject–hears the talking heads and believes. Thus, phony outrage becomes ignorant outrage.
Don’t get me wrong. I wholeheartedly support righteous indignation. That is, if you really believe something, state your position honestly, and advocate for your cause, I will, at least, respect your efforts. However, as the saying goes, everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. Be honest; be consistent. That goes for both sides.
Today is Johann Sebastian Bach’s 325th birthday. I listened to the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 (my favorite of the set), and the cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden and selections from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Last week I listened to the St. Matthew Passion. This week I intend to hear the St. John Passion, as well.
I know this older photo doesn’t show the composer’s correct age, but I love it anyway.