Bitch in a Bonnet is a hoot and a half. This is a collection of recaps, commentary, and criticism of Jane Austen novels, from the blog of Robert Rodi. The first collection includes chapter-by-chapter commentary on Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Sense and Sensibility. I didn’t always agree with Rodi but I sure did have fun disagreeing with him – he’s insightful and very, very funny. Rodi’s main stance is that Jane Austen is perceived as a romantic, whereas she is actually a sharp satirist.
I tried three different ways of reading Bitch in a Bonnet. First I read the commentary on Pride and Prejudice, which of course I have already read. In this case, I had some previously formed opinions. It turned out that Rodi and I have pretty much the same opinions. The biggest difference here was that Rodi, curse him, is funnier than I am (gnashes teeth, rends hair).
The one major problem that I had is that Rodi tries to make his point about Jane Austen being a satirist by bashing romance novels. This comes up more often in the critique of Pride and Prejudice than in any of the other novels and it just about drove me bonkers. Romance novels are not similar to Jane Austen and I don’t think they are trying to be. Rodi’s point about Jane Austen being watered down and misunderstood is perfectly valid but it has nothing to do with the quality of romance novels. In some cases he goes completely off the rails – for instance, he seems to think it’s evidence in his favor that Austen couples often hate each other on sight and all their interactions are prickly. Has he not read any romance? Has he somehow missed the fact that “loathe at first sight” is, if anything, more common in both romance and romantic comedy than “love at first sight?” His snobbery is insulting and what’s worse – it’s inaccurate, and it undermines the actual valid point that he’s trying to make.
And by the way, why can’t Jane Austen be both a sharp, rather cynical writer of satire, which she is, and also a romantic? In Pride and Prejudice, people can grow and change and make each other better – that’s romantic. Doesn’t make her satire any less biting. She's not sentimental or prudish but I do think she's romantic – sometimes.
I realize that right now many of you are scratching Bitch in a Bonnet off your list forever, but if you have any ability to compartmentalize when you read, and if you are an Austen fan, then you won’t want to miss out on the 99% of this book that is astute and funny and clever. So if you can stand it, just waltz right by the snobbery with your head held high and reap the benefits of the book, which are many.
Next up we have Mansfield Park, which I had not read before. I read the original and the commentary side by side. I thought Rodi was shockingly indifferent to poor Fanny Price’s sufferings. He loathes Fanny, and I spent twelve chapters indignantly defending her. Of course she behaves like she does! Think of the abuse and neglect she’s endured! I was enraged on Fanny’s behalf!
Then I realized that I was on Chapter Twelve and that I would be hanging out with Fanny for thirty-six more chapters. Just because I understand Fanny doesn’t mean that I want to hang out with her for days. I gradually shifted from wanting Fanny to go mad and kill everyone with an axe to wishing that a large bomb, possibly nuclear, would land on Mansfield Park and do away with all the characters, Fanny included. I still think that Rodi misses the boat when he fails to address how Fanny’s character is shaped but I feel we bonded over our shared suffering by the end.
This leads me to an important point – Rodi’s style is funny, sharp, and personal. I have never met or corresponded with this person but I can’t stop myself from saying things like “we bonded over how frustrating Mansfield Park is” and “We had a spirited debate about romance novels”. I’m neither delusional nor predatory – it’s just a tribute to the tone that the author maintains throughout. It feels like he is talking to you, and you can talk back. I loved it, and I promise that should I ever meet Richard Rodi I won’t terrify him by mentioning our deep post-traumatic Mansfield Park bond.
I read the chapters on Sense and Sensibility without reading Sense and Sensibility. I enjoyed them because they are funny and entertaining but I missed the arguing. I could hardly say, “Dude, you are SO TOTALLY WRONG” about this book” without having read the book. So I’d suggest reading this as a study guide as you are reading one of the novels, or as commentary on a novel you’re familiar with simply because it’s more fun.
Bitch in a Bonnet 2 is out now as a trade paperback. The website indicates that it will be released as an eBook soon. As a huge fan of Northanger Abbey, which is covered in BB2, I’m very excited about this.
As far as assigning a grade, I’m assigning this collection a B instead of an A because I think there are some areas where he truly does drop the ball. Yes, I know, I’ve used “hoot and a half”, “off the rails” “miss the boat” and “dropped the ball” in the same review, but I’m severely sleep deprived and I’m not going to come up with something less cliché tonight. The point is, there are moments in which Rodi has a valid opinion, which he backs up and that I agree with, and moments in which he has a valid opinion, which he backs up and which I disagree with respectfully, but he also has a couple of moments in which he espouses a total misunderstanding of something. The most glaring example of this is his misunderstanding of romance novels and their relationship to Jane Austen. Romance novels are not turgid (not all of them, anyway) and romance readers and authors are often well aware of the vast difference between Austen’s style in which most passionate emotions are revealed subtly and the more overt passions, both emotional and physical, in romance novels.
I do hope Austen fans will look past the anti-romance bias because on the whole, with the exception of the few lines about romance novels, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It made me laugh and it made me think and it will be a great resource for me the next time I sit down to read an Austen novel (I have three down and three to go). It’s much more fun to read when I have someone to argue with, even if only in my head!