My first choice (predictably) is a Jane Austen novel. I love them all, so it is very difficult to select one, but since I am forced to do so it has to be Persuasion. This is Jane Austen’s last novel, and was first published posthumously in 1818. It has a less exuberant tone than Emma or Pride and Prejudice, and is regarded by many critics as less polished than these earlier novels because Austen died before she was able to revise it. But the biting wit for which Austen is famous is much in evidence, and I can’t help having a soft spot for a heroine called Anne. Towards the end of the novel, Anne has a lively discussion with one of the minor characters about the portrayal of women in fiction. She says: ‘[I]f you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.’ This reminds me how fortunate I am to live in an era in which it is possible for many women to get an education and to have rewarding careers (as writers or otherwise), even if there are plenty of equality battles yet to be fought.
AT A LUNAR ECLIPSE (POEM)
My second choice is a poem by Thomas Hardy, entitled At a Lunar Eclipse, from Poems of the Past and the Present, published in 1901. It forms part of the song cycle Till Earth Outwears, by Gerald Finzi, a twentieth century English composer who had a particular genius for setting Hardy’s complex metrical forms to music. Hardy was a prolific poet and novelist, with outputs of varying quality, but At a Lunar Eclipse is a little gem. In a few short lines, Hardy captures both the beauty and the messiness of human existence and sets it against the perfection of the created order. Hardy is often regarded as a rather gloomy writer but I think it is useful to be reminded of our own insignificance from time to time:
And can immense Mortality but throw
So small a shade, and Heaven’s high human scheme
Be hemmed within the coasts yon arc implies?