Why Jane Austen? by Rachel M. Brownstein

Brownstein writes with obvious education and intelligence, but also with humor. She comments at one point about her realization as a young woman that she could learn a lot from Jane Austen “about choosing both men and words” and, parenthetically, that she “was beginning to suspect that those difficult matters were related” (10). This text, whose title reflects the title of the last essay—unfinished—of Lionel Trilling, is an homage as well to the scholar on whose “tweedy shoulders . . . with trembling knees” Brownstein says she stands (12).  Rather than any highfalutin argument, “the claim [she] make[s] about Jane Austen here is that she is a great writer, delightful to read” (12). I can handle that :-).

In terms of range, there’s a picture of the JA action figure on the cover (though the face looks different from the one on my action figures), which hints at Brownstein’s analysis of what our world has done with Jane; the acknowledgements read like a who’s who in the Austen world (Juliet McMaster and Elsa Solender included); and Brownstein discusses contemporaries of Austen, reactions to Austen both then and since then, and, ultimately, why we read her today. This book combines astute literary and historical analysis (hello, language I don’t need to edit) and lovely photos of Colin Firth (70); it’s a delightful combination.

The introduction opens with a hilarious drawing I had never seen before (and which was published by the New York Times on my birth date, but in 1949). Carl Rose depicts “The Two Camps of Jane Austen Devotees,” the one on the left banging a drum, holding “Hooray for Janie” signs, and tossing confetti; the one on the left standing in polite devotion, applauding in some cases and holding onto the books in others. I laughed. I could see myself in either camp, and, in fact, I have done both types of behavior in my admiration for our writer. The intro itself presents the intriguing idea that Austen has been part of the canon almost since the works were published, so much so that “hers was among the big names that got trashed in the revolutionary sixties” (3). She was not excluded from the canon because she was female. In fact, some feminist critics have had some trouble with Austen, deploring “her allegiance, as they saw it, to the status quo and to the marriage plot,” though of course, “shrewd critics” like “Reginald Farrer and D. W. Harding had shown that Austen was more satirical and complex than those people saw” (5).  Interestingly, Brownstein argues that it was “the popular vogue of the 1990s” that suddenly emphasized the heroines’ goals as “marrying up, marrying money, and marrying the best and sexiest guy” and virtually eliminated analysis of “Austen’s critique of selfishness and greed and a society that measured human worth and human relationships in terms of land and money” (7). It’s simply “beside [Brownstein’s] point” to study Austen’s novels seeking “truths about the author’s personal life . . . or wisdom about the reader’s own” (8).

Part of Austen’s appeal to us is that she includes us. In Brownstein’s efforts to bring the greater reading public to a real appreciation of Austen, she teaches Pride and Prejudice. Among other observations on teaching the first chapter: “The assumption that the reader will look for and see beyond truths universally acknowledged” flatters readers by “including them” in “an exclusive, exclusionary in-group of the knowing” (28). Trilling was the first Jewish person “to be granted tenure in the English Department at Columbia,” and indeed, an attraction to Jane Austen, who herself, became great because of her intelligence not her birth” brings many writers and scholars into the “charmed circle,” as opposed to “out” (66-67). Brownstein also seriously contemplates the task of speaking of standards and values “to an audience which each year grows younger” as the teacher “grows older” (quoting Trilling) and whether, in fact, when we analyze the novels according to our own theories, be they “Freudian, Marxist, queer, [or] postcolonial,” if Austen “would have agreed that” we were talking about her at all (29). In her tribute to Trilling, Brownstein explains his argument that we crave Jane Austen because “human nature requires the restraint, civility, decorum, and organized beauty of art” (64). Further, that Austen “seems to promise that civility and civilization are possible,” and, “in her continuing appeal . . . there is the hope of [our] understanding others, therefore of understanding ourselves” (65). Austen’s world makes things right.

In this text about stories, Brownstein includes some of her own, including one about meeting a heart surgeon from Oman for breakfast when they both happened to be staying at Bellagio, and then discussing Jane Austen with him. The doctor who literally saves lives makes the point that without art, humans “would be living as if we were already dead,” and thus, in teaching Jane Austen, Brownstein actually saves more lives than he does (106).

Though we read (and watch) Austen today, Brownstein argues that, in many ways, we are misreading her. Brownstein quotes Austen, in a letter to the Prince Regent’s librarian, as saying she is “fully sensible” that “an historical romance . . . might be much more to the purpose or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as” she deals in, but that writing a romance she could do “no more” than she could write “an epic poem” (9). How ironic, then, that “too many readers today believe she wrote” that kind of novel! (9) If, in fact, Austen meant the “stormy, steamy Mr. Darcy” as a “put-down . . . of that notorious sexual athlete, Lord Byron,” then our visions of the Austen hero may be more than slightly askew (47).  She argues that the BBC Pride and Prejudice helped, “by the beginning of the twenty-first century,” to turn Austen into “an adjective and a brand” (50). If we continue in this vein, she predicts, in five years or so, the view of her graduate students will be that Austen “will have supplanted Lord Byron as a byword for romantic love, and English Romantic literature” (54). (Oh, the horror!)

Austen’s novels are “discreet, polished, lapidary” (137). As such, new readers to the brand “have to be carefully taught, these days, to read Jane Austen,” and Brownstein works “to get [her] students to read for anything but the plot,” which means that sometimes, even strong readers, are just not yet ready for Austen. I have a colleague, whom I respect, who assigns volume 1 of Pride and Prejudice and then tests them at the end without discussing the text each day. She believes Austen’s tale is fairly straightforward, a love story with some funny narration, and the students need her guidance for more challenging work. The plot, yes, is straightforward, but nothing else is, and I worry those young people are missing what makes Austen live on 200 years after she wrote these books. That is precisely Brownstein’s subject throughout this text.

I think of Austen as embodying more neo-classical values than Romantic ones, though of course, if we assess by years, she could reflect the latter, but Brownstein makes the point that Austen, in fact, modifies the “Enlightenment emphasis” of “the dichotomous opposition of mind and body” with a “Romantic insistence that emotional knowledge and sympathy, intuitive understanding of one’s own heart and other people’s,” is not only “as important as intellect” but also  “bound up with it” (211-212). I may quibble with details—Don’t classicists have some knowledge of the self, even if it isn’t their primary subject? How intuitively does Emma or Elizabeth know her own heart?—but overall, Brownstein’s claim makes sense.

Brownstein provides substantial discussion of writers we know Austen read—from the well-educated, “prolific” Charlotte Smith to the neighbor whose novels “contain identifiable portraits of the neighbors,” Egerton Brydges (137, 134). Brownstein comments that George Eliot, “whose thinking was strongly influenced by Austen’s novels, . . . believed that sympathizing with” fictional characters “strengthened the politically vital muscle of human sympathy,” and that such sympathy “with others who are not like you” has become increasingly precious in the frightening times of the modern world (148-49). These points will lead to Brownstein’s grand conclusion, but before we’re ready for that, first we have some fun with many speculations about what encounters Austen and Byron (whom she calls “contemporaries”) might have had (and what delight we take in “imagin[ing] them” as “secret friends” (156). There are, in fact, big blocks of text on other writers—not just Byron but also Mary Wollstonecraft, Henry James, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. At one point, I wasn’t quite sure how we had slipped into a discussion I didn’t have the interest to follow quite as closely, but perhaps it was in service of the claim that “some authors are more likely objects” of readers falling in love with them “than other are” (174). Then Brownstein spends a good deal of time discussing the juvenilia and what we can reasonably learn in our analysis of it. We know Austen “wrote to amuse and please her large, literate, and cozy family,” but Brownstein reminds us to recognize “that from the beginning, [Austen] had the greater reading public in mind” (183).

We ask ourselves again and again what about Austen draws us to her. When Brownstein discusses the brilliance of Clueless, among her observations is that “high school is a perfect analogue to the hierarchical society of a country village” (32). Is our interest in the woman herself and how we see ourselves “as in a mirror in Jane Austen,” emerging from the fact that we are “desperately hoping to find [our] Mr. Darcy” (I was not thrilled with her choice of adverb) or as “men and women who dearly love a laugh? (87) After exploring some of Austen’s biting commentary from the letters, Brownstein says it is no wonder that “many readers and writers”—Virginia Woolf and W. H. Auden among them—“imagined that had they met [Austen] they would have been afraid of her” (130). Is that part of what draws me to her? Brownstein argues that Austen is “most useful today, politically and morally,” as an example of “linguistic precision” (203). Perhaps this phrase should be my response when people ask me why I love Jane Austen (they usually ask why I’m “obsessed,” but I politely correct them): Austen values language as being beautiful and precise. Furthermore, in leaving the reader with only vague details about private moments, Austen “creates the complicity” between reader and storyteller—we understand “certain social constraints and conventions” and sympathize “with related literary conventions of discretion and decorum”; Brownstein shows us that that restraint, too, “makes for much of our pleasure in reading” Austen (209).

Brownstein occasionally makes an argument with which I don’t immediately concur. She describes Emma’s situation as “unromantically marr[ying] her avuncular thirty-seven-year-old bachelor almost brother-in-law” (91). She tosses in the occasional “meta-fiction” or “socially constructed self” (14, 12).  She makes a disturbing link between the disturbed Briony in Joe Wright’s film version of Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Jane Austen. “The notion of the virginal author of Pride and Prejudice as a preternaturally wise child—a bad seed, even” in the Wright interpretation, Brownstein says, “seems satisfyingly and ironically to match the moral chaste Jane of earlier legend” (191). I disliked the film, both for its too deliberate cinematography and because it felt, to me, more “Brontesque erotic fantasy” than “Austenian precision,” though Brownstein’s argument is that McEwan “cleverly and unfairly.  . . conflates” the two “in Briony’s play” (189).

Such quibbling is more than overcome with the way Brownstein helps experienced readers see matters anew. She says that “this novelist’s genius” is “for noticing the details,” which Brownstein supports strongly with Mrs. Norris “wheedling of a cream cheese from the housekeeper at Sotherton” and then “making [Fanny] hold it on the carriage ride home so as to give her cousin Mari more room” (101). Those little moments are “worth paragraphs of character analysis,” but Austen does it quickly and powerfully (101). Though the McGrath Emma was what started it all for me, I hadn’t made the connection between the “old-fashioned framed miniatures on ivory of the town’s major inhabitants” as being “an allusion to Austen’s ‘bits . . . of ivory'” (37)! Brownstein enhanced even my film-watching. She later speculates that Highbury is “possibly an anglicized version of ‘Alton’ (from the Latin ‘altus,’ meaning high),” the name of the larger village near Chawton (215). I had wondered when we arrived in Alton just in time for Jane Austen Week three summers ago, why I had not heard more about the place, but maybe Austen alluded to it in Emma! And at the very least, we’re back as fans of Henry Tilney, whom Brownstein describes as “the cleverest of Austen’s heroes” (90).

In Brownstein’s hands, I feel I am with my people again, not only as she describes a JASNA convention but also as she, without naming the Tolstoy allusion, analyzes the Hartfield dinner (in which Mr. Woodhouse and Isabella discuss their various health concerns and Mr. John Knightley gets disconcerted) this way: “While all happy families—and, indeed, other happy groups—may not be exactly alike, the people in them and of them often behave and speak in character”—we know what will happen, and there’s nothing Emma can do to stop it (242).

Why Jane Austen? Ultimately, because her novels make us hearken for times “that seemed more comprehensible and coherent,” because these novels tell “the story of civilization,” and because Jane Austen conveys “an integrity, innocence, health, and prosperity, a hopefulness and seriousness of purpose, that has been or is being lost” (251). As book stores close down and new forms of reading gain acceptance, perhaps we may still recapture those glorious days of refined language and civilization within the text of an Austen novel—and with other people who read them.

Published in: on October 13, 2013 at 5:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

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