Jane Austen’s Names: Riddles, Persons, Places, by Margaret Doody – A Review

Jane Austens Names Margaret Doody 2015 x 200From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP:

Historical allusions abound in [Austen’s] fiction–they are part of the consciousness of each novel in itself. Combinations of place names and personal names point both back and forward. Or rather, references and images are more than just allusions; we find we are within history all the time. The writing is dense with allusion, thick with multiple sensations and meanings.” (389)

If I could, I’d drop everything to go study at the feet of the great Canadian, Margaret Doody, professor of literature at Notre Dame University. In her latest book, Jane Austen’s Names, Doody offers readers insights into the history that saturates each of Austen’s novels. In this way, the text resembles Janine Barchas’s excellent work Matters of Fact in Jane Austen (2013); but Doody’s work is both more minute and more expansive than Barchas’s in how it incorporates etymological origins for names and places, both real and imaginary, and cross references many of the historical events and literary texts that influenced Austen. Of course, when Doody adds her own analysis of Austen’s novels, the effect is bewilderingly fascinating, like the publication of any gifted professor’s notes after a long tenure of research and teaching.

In Part I of the book, Doody introduces the fine line that Austen walks between allegory and allusion on the one hand and restraint and originality on the other. Doody reminds us that Austen’s Britain is a complex etymological canvas thanks to the presence of Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Normans, and others; she further reasons that “No set or string of events is ever entirely over. Austen’s England is a place of strains and tension, of disharmonies potentially revived or momentarily perhaps forgotten.” (14). To lay the foundation for the other two parts of the book, Doody gives a quick overview of major topics of British history, such as the Norman Conquest, the Tory/Whig divide, and the Tudor/Stuart tug of war for the throne. These topics are important, because they underlay Austen’s word choices, thereby exposing her political and religious sympathies. Continue reading

Fan Phenomena: Jane Austen, edited by Gabrielle Malcolm – A Review

Fan Phenomena Jane Austen 2015 x 200From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

Jane Austen fans cannot be filed neatly into a single category any more than Austen’s works can be limited to one literary genre. How might an editor attempt to do justice to the multiplicity of Janeite fandom in a slim volume of essays and interviews? This question was uppermost in my mind as I began reading Fan Phenomena: Jane Austen. The Fan Phenomena series website explains that the goal of the series is to “look at particular examples of ‘fan culture’ and approach the subject in an accessible manner aimed at both fans and those interested in the cultural and social aspects of these fascinating–and often unusual–‘universes’.” 

What is the joy of Jane? What is it about her work that keeps readers, and viewers, coming back for more? Is it the Darcy effect? Is it the irony, the wit, the romance? Or is it a combination of all these factors? Many critics and authors have compiled works to analyse this vast and still growing phenomenon of fandom…This collection offers material about the fans, for the fans, by the fans, and offers a combination of the popular and the academic. (5)

Editor Gabrielle Malcom’s introduction provides a clear description of the purpose and scope of the collection. She acknowledges the differences between mainstream fan culture and the academic treatment of Austen. After setting Austen’s work in its historical context with a few concise and insightful paragraphs, she provides brief descriptions of the essays and interviews that follow. While Fan Phenomena: Jane Austen has the look of an academic journal, its design and use of color photographs creates a visually appealing experience for the reader, with the exception of the excessively small font size used for the text of the essays. Although I suspect that the text format is dictated by the Fan Phenomena series as a whole and not unique to this volume, the cramped appearance distracted me from the content at times. I found the format used in the Fan Appreciation interviews to be much more appropriate and reader-friendly. Continue reading

The Hidden Jane Austen, by John Wiltshire—A Review

The Hidden Jane Austen, by John Wiltshire (2014 )From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP: 

What is it about Pride and Prejudice or Mansfield Park or any other of Jane Austen’s novels that draws readers in and then keeps them coming back again and again, even though they already know what is going to happen? In The Hidden Jane Austen, Australian Austen scholar John Wiltshire argues that the answer to this question lies in two related features of the novels. Firstly, Austen displays a keen comprehension of human behavior in all its complicated, messy manifestations—in particular, the way that humans misinterpret or misremember events in their efforts to build identities, establish and maintain relationships, and find a place in community. Secondly, Austen crafts her narratives with these human behaviors in mind, making them central elements not only to characterization, but also to plot structure. But she does this in such a way that requires her readers to “keep up”—meaning they have to be attentive not only to what is on the page at hand, but to what was on all the other pages before, and even to what wasn’t on any page at all, the silences that are provoking in their ambiguity. For it is in the unspoken that readers find the “hidden” Elizabeth or Fanny or, indeed, the “hidden Jane Austen” herself, the master writer relying on readers to pay attention.

To illustrate his thesis, Wiltshire conducts a psychoanalytic study for each of the six major novels, which basically means he tries to uncover the underlying motivations for character behavior. His angle for Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice is memory and attentiveness. Why, for example, does Catherine Morland forget John Thorpe’s clumsy marriage proposal hint, but internalize all too thoroughly Henry Tilney’s playful ghost stories? Simple, she was in love with Henry, not John (18). This same principle of memory is explored more deeply in Pride and Prejudice, a novel whose intelligent heroine somehow misinterprets and misremembers all too frequently. But Darcy is guilty of this too, although he is kinder to Elizabeth than she is to him (64). Wiltshire argues that it’s Austen’s memory games that make these two playful novels so pleasing to readers and re-readers—especially to those interested in finding out how they too were so easily mislead. Continue reading

Jane Austen and Names, by Maggie Lane – A Review

Jane Austen and Names, by Maggie Lane (2014 )From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

It seems only natural that an author would be interested in names. My writer friends collect interesting names for future characters and are constantly putting together different combinations. A young Jane Austen playfully tried out a selection of husband names for herself in her father’s parish register of marriages. Expectant parents pour over lists of baby names and struggle to find just the right one. As Maggie Lane points out in the introduction, “The pleasure of choosing names for progeny is one that maiden aunts normally forfeit. But not Jane Austen.” Jane Austen and Names explores her choice of character names and what these choices reveal about the culture she lived in. We also learn about Austen’s personal likes and dislikes through excerpts from her letters.

Ms. Lane begins with a chapter titled, “A Brief History of Names” in which she outlines the changing “common stock” of English Christian names. Names are drawn from a variety of sources and each name has an origin and meaning. The author asserts that these are much less important to most name choosers (parents and authors) than the cyclical rise and fall of names on the social scale. The following describes the cycle that applies as much to our current-day name choices as it did to Regency England. Continue reading

Northanger Abbey: An Annotated Edition, by Jane Austen, edited by Susan J. Wolfson – A Review

Northanger Abbey An Annotated Edition by Jane Austen edited by Susan J. Wolfson 2014 x 200From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress:

Harvard University Press is seriously spoiling me. With the release of Northanger Abbey: An Annotated Edition, they have now produced five glitzy coffee table editions of Jane Austen’s major novels. What true Janeite could possibly pass up an unabridged first edition text, an extensive introduction and notes by an Austen scholar, full-color illustrations, over-sized hardcover format and copious supplemental material – all wrapped up in a beautifully designed package? Not me!

I have enjoyed all of the editions in this annotated series so far, with only one exception. I am greedy. I want more annotation and was quite annoyed when I turned a page of a previous edition and saw white space in the sidebar columns instead of text. Such a waste when there is so much to write about and Janeites and newbies are eager and grateful readers. The first thing I did when I cracked open this new edition was to skim for the dreaded white space. It looked plump and promising.

Northanger Abbey is indeed the wallflower of Austen’s oeuvre. Like its young heroine Catherine Morland, it is a naïve, wide eyed debutant in comparison to its light, bright and sparkling older sister Pride and Prejudice. My heart sinks to admit it, but it is true. While readers continually rank it as one of Jane Austen’s least popular novels, I think it is one of her hidden gems—highly under-rated and completely satisfying. I find its exuberant humor laugh-out-loud funny, hunky hero Henry Tilney witty and irresistibly charming, and the spooky Gothic parody brilliant. Why is my reaction so different to the average reader’s? Knowledge. It is extremely helpful to be able to place the novel in social context and to understand Austen’s layered tongue-in-cheek underpinnings. That’s where this new annotated edition comes in handy. I believe that editor Susan J. Wolfson has pulled together a masterpiece. Continue reading

Jane Austen, Game Theorist, by Michael Suk-Young Chwe – A Review

Jane Austen Game Theroist Michael Chwe 2013 x 200From the desk of Lisa Galek:

According to Wikipedia, game theory is “the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent, rational decision-makers.” So, what the heck does that have to do with Jane Austen and her novels? A lot, as it turns out. In Jane Austen, Game Theorist, we explore how Austen’s works tie into contemporary theories about strategic decision-making nearly two hundred years before they came into fashion.

The book doesn’t presuppose any familiarity with game theory. This was a very good thing, as I knew next to nothing about this branch of the social sciences before picking up the book. Really, the simplest way to explain game theory is to say that it’s the study of how people make strategic decisions. Most people will make a decision based on what they would like to do. In other words, they make a personal choice. But, a good strategic thinker will also consider what others might do in turn. Basically, when choosing, you also consider how others will act.

Let’s look at an example from Pride and Prejudice to illustrate the point. Mr. Darcy agonizes over whether or not to marry Elizabeth Bennet, a woman who he is slowly falling in love with despite his best efforts to resist her charms and fine eyes. A choice like this can be represented visually through a decision tree. Mr. Darcy’s would look something like this:

Jane Austen Game Theorist image 1 Continue reading

What Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved, by John Mullan – A Review

Image of the book cover of What Matters in Jane Austen, by John Mullan © Bloomsbury Press 2013From the desk of Sarah Emsley

The closer you look, the more you see,” writes John Mullan in What Matters in Jane Austen? Elizabeth Bennet learns this lesson in Pride and Prejudice when she reads and rereads Mr. Darcy’s letter “with the closest attention” to understand why he separated Bingley from Jane and why he doesn’t trust Wickham. Mullan’s compelling analysis of detail in Jane Austen’s novels persuades us that “Little things matter.” In a series of chapters on what he calls “puzzles,” he asks questions about details and discusses how and why they matter. In the process, he demonstrates that the popular pastime of answering quizzes about the novels is not necessarily trivial, but can lead us to a deeper understanding of Jane Austen’s careful craftsmanship and her innovative contributions to the history of fiction.

Mullan pays attention to everything from the ages, names, looks, reading habits, sex lives, incomes, and deaths of Austen’s characters, to the narrative techniques she uses when she shows us their thoughts, when she breaks the pattern of narration to address her reader directly, and when she departs from the consciousness of her heroine to give the point of view of another character. Details about income, for example, show how in Mansfield ParkThe reader truly attuned to the value of money should know that the Price family could live a more comfortable life than they do.” Mullan makes the excellent point that “Willoughby reads his way into the Dashwoods’ hearts”—and that while the 1995 film of Sense and Sensibility shows Willoughby and Marianne reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, in the novel they read Hamlet, a choice of play that “testifies to the literary seriousness of the Dashwoods, and to the willingness of Marianne’s suitor to take on the most demanding parts.” When he asks “What Makes Characters Blush?” he shows how Austen uses blushes to signal guilt, which sets her apart from other contemporary novelists whose heroines blush virtuously, and he points out that the spontaneous “Austen blush” is nearly impossible to perform on screen or stage. Continue reading