Plane Babies

Exhibit 17.3


Jane Austen’s last novel is the perfect length to read on a plane, something I imagine Miss Austen did not have planned. I appreciated it just the same (even if the book might be her worst, or at least the worst that I’ve read).

Worst is relative, of course, and the book traffics in the same delicate circles and concerns as her other novels with all of the satire and insight one would expect (not to mention an aristocratic family in financial peril, sisters, men with ulterior motives who seem good, men with pure motives who seem cold, etc.) It’s actually a little like the plots of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice thrown together, accelerated, and made good without as much complication. A woman, Anne, had her engagement broken over a suitor’s lack of title or money and is now on the brink of becoming a spinster while her younger sisters have either married for money or plan on it because their pompous baronet of a father has lost most of his fortune. So they let the property and move to Bath where, in some order, the old suitor reappears as a wealthy Navy officer, the baronet’s estranged heir makes amends with the family, and the messy business of figuring out who marries whom is undertaken.

There is no doubt that someone will marry the bachelors, and it’s clear from the beginning that the impediments are not so great to keep the just from getting what they want. As opposed to P&P where we’re to believe the characters fundamental manners are at odds, everyone here seems perfectly suited to be together and even the secondary concerns like money and class (which, I suppose, are really the primary concerns of the era for everyone but Austen’s heroines) have been overcome by the time the book begins. Austen clearly favors the nouveau riche class of Navy officers to the old aristocracy and makes a joke of how quickly the vain (but poor) baronet goes from objecting to any weathered and ugly officers renting his property to pleased to have them in his company. It’s a nice, droll little turn, but it’s also symptomatic of the book’s drive toward a happy ending.

Austen clearly wants Anne to end well and so complication is often replaced with simplicity here without much in the way of justification. From the beginning we know that the baronet will object to any marriage beneath his daughter’s stature, that Anne has lost her youth, that no one listens to her, that her old suitor holds her in disdain for the ending of their last engagement. These facts hold true only as long as convenient. Suddenly the baronet seems happy to see almost any engagement. Suddenly Anne is beautiful again and becomes the most eligible sister, the one people can’t stop talking about, the one the old suitor still loves.

There is an awareness on the author’s part that she’s not exactly earning these developments, and so toward the end the book turns to more general talk about class and honor and the difference between men and women in love. The plot is clearly a rack for Austen’s thoughts on what bothered her the last few years of her life, and it’s somewhat rewarding that she’s so hopeful. The old are young, the spinsters wives, the undeserving poor, the well-mannered but untitled exalted. So maybe it’s a bit of a wish fulfilled, but it’s a fair, particularly human wish.

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Plane Babies

Exhibit 1.7

So Heather sent me this article which ends with the often pondered scenario of what would happen if a group of infants found themselves stranded on an island in the Galapagos (which is surprisingly specific on the location of the island of abandonment but disturbingly ambiguous on the number of children. Would some parents just not come forward when the Baby Plane crashed?) Would the children create a language? If so, how long would it take and what kind of language would it be?

Of course, nobody answers with Yes, 9 years, French which is, of course, correct.

Far more interesting to me are the other tangents here about what kind of society these plane babies would construct on a well-charted island in the middle of a tourist destination. I imagine them staring longingly at passing nature cruises but unable to express their confusion because another plane baby has the conch and is berating a local waiter in perfect French.

I’m surprised no one pointed out that these plane babies would most likely be assholes. Actually, Noam Chomsky probably did.

The question linguists should be asking–and, by the way, I think it wouldn’t be all that hard to get this experiment off the ground. Babies, land, and time are pretty much our most abundant resources–is how complicated the rules governing the conch would be. The correct answer is, of course, very.

Comment / Posted in Language, NY Times, Plane Babies