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.

Austen wants her readers to think about sex and death, although she is not always obvious about the way she calls our attention to these matters. From the first line of Pride and Prejudice, in which we’re asked to believe the universal truth about a rich bachelor’s desire for a wife, “Austen’s stories rely on an acknowledgement of men’s sexual appetites,” writes Mullan. Very few deaths happen within the novels—only Mrs. Churchill in Emma, and Dr. Grant and Lord Ravenshaw’s grandmother in Mansfield Park—yet Mullan shows how the responses of Austen’s characters to these deaths and others, such as the deaths of Fanny Harville, Sir Walter Elliot’s still-born son, and Lady Susan’s husband, tell us much about the living. While he argues that such details about money, reading, blushing, sex, and death matter because they “reveal people’s schemes and desires,” however, he focuses more on what they tell us about social history and Austen’s narrative strategies than on what they say about her understanding of psychological complexity and her moral vision.

At times Mullan overstates his case or doesn’t fully develop his argument. After discussing the often-overlooked role of the lower classes in the novels, he concludes, “the servants see everything.” While he’s right to claim that “we as readers should see them watching and listening,” there are still many private scenes and conversations they do not witness. In discussing right and wrong ways to propose marriage, he claims that a “good man” would be bound to honor his first proposal, as Edward Ferrars does in Sense and Sensibility, but “A woman … can change her mind.” I wondered why he doesn’t explore the question of whether Austen believes a “good woman” may reverse her decision after accepting a proposal. The women he cites who change their minds, including Lucy Steele, do so for radically different reasons. Lucy’s moral character is not improved by her decision not to marry Edward Ferrars, even though the decision improves his life and that of Elinor Dashwood. When Mullan discusses why Austen’s plots rely so much on “blunders,” he suggests that a line from the ending of Emma could serve as a motto for her fiction: “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure.” At the same time, however, his own approach in reading and rereading the novels, just as Elizabeth reads and rereads Darcy’s letter “with the closest attention,” points to another line from the novels that could equally serve as a motto. Almost no one tells the complete truth, but Austen suggests it’s always worth paying attention to the details to get as close as possible to it.

Image of the book cover of What Matters in Jane Austen, by John Mullans UK ed  © Bloomsbury Press 2012Little things do matter in Jane Austen, because they tell us about bigger things. Janeites, rejoice! This beautifully written book about Austen’s six major novels, plus Lady Susan and the unfinished novels Sanditon and The Watsons, is both a helpful, highly readable guide to Austen’s work, and a scholarly contribution to criticism that analyzes Austen’s achievement. Such books are rare. Mullan argues persuasively that Austen knew she was creating a kind of fiction quite different from what her contemporaries and predecessors produced, and he highlights her successful experiments in conveying the thoughts and inner lives of her characters (pioneering the technique that later came to be called “free indirect discourse”).

What Matters in Jane Austen is a thoroughly engaging close reading of Austen’s fiction that encourages us to read closely to see and understand more. I can’t help but wish, however, that Mullan would take his argument even further: little things matter not only because they show us Austen’s “extraordinary narrative sophistication,” as he concludes, but also because they reveal the subtleties of her insight into the moral lives of her characters. Ethics matters in Jane Austen, as well as craft.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

What Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved, by John Mullan
Bloomsbury Press (2013)
Hardcover (352) pages
ISBN: 978-1620400418

Cover images courtesy © Bloomsbury Press 2012 & 2013; text © Sarah Emsley 2013

Celebrating Pride and Prejudice: 200 Years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece, by Susannah Fullerton – A Review & Giveaway

The Pride Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge (2013)This is my second selection for The Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge 2013, our year-long event honoring Jane Austen’s second published novel. Please follow the link above to read all the details of this reading and viewing challenge. Sign up’s are open until July 1, 2013.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Besides being trotted out for the opening of every news article containing anything vaguely related to Pride and Prejudice, its author, its characters, its plot or any other self-serving cause, I have seen this famous first line from the novel on T shirts, mugs, book bags and stationary. It is indeed a truth universally acknowledged that Pride and Prejudice is a phenomenon!

Exalted by scholars and embraced by the masses, Pride and Prejudice is indeed a literary treasure for the everyman. In this year of its 200th birthday, the outpouring of celebration in the press, online and in print confirms our longstanding love affair and addiction. We just can’t get enough of it.

Just in time for the year-long festivities is Celebrating Pride and Prejudice: 200 Years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece, an in-depth exploration of Jane Austen’s classic novel by Susannah Fullerton. At 240 pages, it is packed full of text and many full-color illustrations—something for everyone from the novice reader to veteran Janeite. The volume covers a range of topics as the chapters are broken down by categories such as the writing of, the reactions to, the style of, the heroine, the hero, illustrations, sequels and adaptations, theatrical versions, and, of course a whole chapter devoted to the famous opening line quoted above.

My “first impressions” of this tribute to one of my favorite novels was the stunning cover resplendent with the plume of a peacock (the iconic symbol or pride) and appropriately in peacock blue! They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but I do. If a publisher does not care enough about that “first impression” then why should I buy their book? Flipping through the pages the overall design is polished and each of the illustration is credited. Huzzah! And boy do the illustrations pop. Each page has something iconic or new, even to this die-hard Austen book collector who owns numerous illustrated editions of Pride and Prejudice dating back to the 1890’s!

Fullerton discusses every aspect of this novel imaginable, but one subject is of particular interest to me: Sequels and Adaptations. Are you surprised dear reader? Yes, I have read a few Austen-inspired novels in my day and can appreciate Fullerton’s keen eye for the sublime and the ridiculous and the “uses and abuses” by many. She does however look at the phenomena of the Austen spinoff with her tongue firmly set in her cheek; occasionally taking a painful stab.

There is only one Pride and Prejudice and for many readers, that is simply not enough. They want more! And if Jane Austen could imagine lives for her characters after the ending of her novel – a clergyman husband for Kitty and one of Uncle Philip’s clerks for Mary – why should not other authors do the same?” p. 155

Many could argue the point, and do, but Fullerton is celebrating Pride and Prejudice and its impact on readers and culture, warts and all. She goes on to enlighten us on the differences between mixed sequels such as Old Friends and New Fancies, by Sybil Briton (misspelled Brunton), continuations like A Match for Mary Bennet, by Eucharista Ward, “Jane Austen would surely have been the first to scoff at such Evangelical claptrap,” (ouch) and retellings and their variation the “what if” like Fitzwilliam Darcy An Honourable Man, by Brenda Webb. However, we were not amused when her historical outline turned into finger pointing and our eyebrows often reached our hairline over such statements as…

Abigail Reynolds has written “A Pemberley Medley of five variations of Darcy’s story, and Mary Simonsen has had at least three goes at making Darcy do what she wants him to do. Perhaps readers should pause over Mr. Darcy Takes the Plunge to ask what depths this hero must be further expected to plumb?” p. 160

The chapter continues with explorations of Austen-inspired mysteries, paranormal, children’s adaptation, chick lit and regencies, and pornographic novels. Fullerton states that no other novel has inspired so many prequels, sequels etc. than Pride and Prejudice. She bluntly asks if these other books are vital to the enjoyment of the original or “simply derivative rubbish we can all live without?” and then softens her blow in the last line of the chapter, “For with Pride and Prejudice it has turned out that “The End” was really just the beginning.” p. 173

Celebrating Pride and Prejudice, by Susannah Fullerton (2013)Fullerton has supplied her view of a great novel and given us a volume to treasure and debate. I greatly enjoyed the details and images, and most of the observations in this tribute, yet I have come away feeling my heart divided between admiration and resentment for the author. Could it be that our “personal” Pride and Prejudice and its characters are so deeply entrenched in the hearts of many, and interpreted so differently by most, that others will be at odds with her choices too? Am I pulling a Lizzy Bennet and “not making allowance enough for difference of situation and temper”? Quite possibly, but I will not let it ruin my happiness. Celebrating Pride and Prejudice is a must read this year, if only to rejoice in our differences of opinion and laugh in our turn.

4 out of 5 regency Stars

Celebrating Pride and Prejudice: 200 Years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece, by Susannah Fullerton
Voyageur Press (2013)
Hardcover (240) pages
ISBN: 978-0760344361

A GRAND GIVEAWAY

Enter a chance to win one hardcover copy of Celebrating Pride and Prejudice, by Susannah Fullerton by leaving a comment or your favorite Pride and Prejudice quote by 11:59 pm, Wednesday, February 20, 2013. The winner will be announced on Thursday, February 21, 2013.  Shipment to US addresses only please. Good luck!

© 2012 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose