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

As Mr. Darcy sees it, he must decide whether or not to marry Elizabeth. In the end, his objections can’t outweigh his love and he makes the choice to tell her how ardently he admires and loves her.

But, one of Mr. Darcy’s biggest mistakes is that he doesn’t seem to realize that the decision tree that will lead him from love to matrimony with Elizabeth actually looks something like this:

Jane Austen Game Theorist image 2

Mr. Darcy’s choice isn’t to marry or not marry Elizabeth. He can only choose to propose. He seems to forget that the lady also has the right of refusal. Or else he never really considers that a viable possibility. Elizabeth must be wishing and expecting his addresses, right? That’s why he lets her in on his honest feelings and struggles, which she considers highly insulting. Mr. Darcy has made his choice, but he has entirely forgotten about Elizabeth’s preferences. She would prefer not to marry an arrogant, prideful man who has insulted her along with her family all while trying to profess his undying love.

Luckily, Mr. Darcy’s strategic thinking improves throughout the course of the novel and he’s able to turn Elizabeth’s point-by-point refusal into a strategic plan for winning her heart. Or at least that’s what game theory would say.

The author goes through each of Austen’s six novels giving countless examples of both good and bad decisions, characters that excel in decision-making and those who don’t. Elizabeth Bennet may be a good strategic decision-maker, but she is also blinded by prejudice when it comes to Mr. Darcy. Anne Elliot and Elinor Dashwood come ready-made with good strategic skills. Catherine Morland and Fanny Price must learn to act strategically. Emma Woodhouse completely overestimates her own ability to guide others, read situations, and see eventual outcomes.

We not only dive into the ways in which Jane Austen’s work ties in with contemporary game theory, but the author explains how he believes Jane breaks new ground with her novels. Her characters use strategic thinking within themselves to control the interior picture they present to he world—think Anne Elliot or Elinor Dashwood. They also sometimes change their preferences (which is a very good thing for Mr. Darcy). In the end, Austen seems to be saying that the best spouse is someone who you can partner with to work strategically in the world. It’s more romantic than it seems.

One of the most interesting points the author makes about game theory is that good strategic thinking often develops naturally among people who find themselves in an “inferior” or “outsider” position in society. Austen writes as a female in a world where women are almost totally dependent on men. Her heroines don’t think strategically in order to win wars or navigate economic markets. They do it to survive and insure the best possible life for themselves in a system that’s stacked against them. Indeed, characters in positions of power—such as Lady Catherine, Sir Walter Elliot, and General Tilney—often have the biggest blind spots when it comes to making good decisions.

Since the book was written by a professor who teaches game theory and political science at UCLA, the language sometimes felt overly academic and scholarly. While he does a good job explaining complicated concepts to readers, the book isn’t aiming to simplify game theory or Austen for a mass audience. It’s no Freakanomics or The Tipping Point. It definitely doesn’t qualify as light reading, though it is extremely interesting. I tend to like academic writing, but I found some chapters very difficult to get through because the material was so dense.

One of the things that made the book so tough was that it seemed to lack balance throughout. In the beginning, the author spends quite a bit of time (helpfully) explaining game theory. But, he uses examples from other literary works such as Shakespeare or folk tales. It isn’t until Chapter Five that we start to get into Jane’s novels. At that point, the Austen examples became so dense and numerous that it began to feel like I was reading a laundry list of quotes that had been culled from her six novels. More Jane was needed in the beginning, and less, more illustrative example from her work would have helped the last part be much more clear and impactful.

I’d recommend the book if you have an interest in learning more about the science of game theory or if you’re already on your way to being an expert. Austen is a fun backdrop to that. The casual Janeite, though, may be overwhelmed with how dense and academic the language is throughout the book. I know I had my moments of confusion even though, overall, the subject and ideas were really engaging.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Jane Austen, Game Theorist, by Michael Suk-Young Chwe
Princeton University Press (2014)
Trade paperback (296) pages
ISBN: 978-0691162447

Additional Reviews:

Cover image courtesy of Princeton University Press © 2014; text Lisa Galek, Austenprose.com

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

The Marriage of Faith: Christianity in William Wordsworth and Jane Austen, by Laura Dabundo – A Review

The Marriage of Faith Christianity in Jane Austen and William Wordsworth, by Laura Dabundo (2012)From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP.

“What I want to examine in this study is how the poet Wordsworth and the novelist Austen represent a marriage of interests, an economy of literary sympathies, and a shared thematic melody that plays across their often-disparate works” (Dabundo, 9).

Laura Dabundo joins a number of scholars who have begun to show great interest in examining the works of Jane Austen in light of her Christian faith. One thinks of Laura Mooneyham White’s Jane Austen’s Anglicanism (2011), Peter Leithart’s Miniatures and Morals: The Christian Novels of Jane Austen (2004), Michael Giffin’s Jane Austen and Religion (2002), and Irene Collins’ Jane Austen and the Clergy (1993), not to mention more devotional and reflective works like Steffany Woolsey’s A Jane Austen Devotional(2012) and William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education (2012). It seems the trendy intellectual bias against discussing religion is giving way to a greater emphasis on appreciating the complete context of beloved and respected authors like Austen. This is particularly important in Austen’s case because, as Dabundo states from the very start: “The deeply rooted significance of church and faith creates the rich earth out of which characters develop, her plots blossom, and her themes flower. It was her reality; it is the reality of her art” (1). To ignore Austen’s Anglican faith and spirituality, therefore, is to only half-read her novels and so to potentially mistake her intention entirely.

Given the many works listed above and the many others not mentioned, Dabundo has to create a niche for her discussion of Austen’s Christian faith. For this, she incorporates a comparison with William Wordsworth, the great Romantic poet and contemporary of Austen. But what do these two literary giants have in common? Simply put, a faith in Anglican Christianity as the saving “glue” of British society, for both believed that in Anglicanism the British people found the harmonious marriage of nationalism and Christian morals—a marriage that gave birth to the ideal community. Indeed, this community is not only the source of obligation (duty to others), but also the deeper motivation for the individual’s being (inspiration) (64). Dabundo unpacks this interesting claim over several chapters, but she does so by examining the two artists’ works separately. While I understand her reasons for doing so, I found the four Wordsworth chapters to be of less interest to me than the three Austen chapters, mainly due to my own unfamiliarity with the poetry being discussed and my greater interest in the novels. As such, I will restrict my comments to the book’s latter chapters, perhaps to the chagrin of the author and Wordsworth devotees.

Happily, the chapters on Austen were superb and a delight to read. The first of those chapters, bearing the provocative title of “The Devil and Jane Austen: Elizabeth Bennet’s Temptation in the Wilderness”, compares the famous clash between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the desert. While this clash is certainly famous, the comparison to Jesus helps underscore the fact that Elizabeth “…has been isolated, tested, and shown to be resolute, deserving, and true” (94). There is a spiritual depth to Dabundo’s analysis which is refreshing and enlightening, especially as regards her claim “…everyone’s favorite heroine is also finally one of the most morally upright, a true daughter of the church” (97). Who? Playful, sassy Elizabeth Bennet? Comparable to long-suffering Elinor Dashwood or contemplative Fanny Price? Dabundo has me revisiting a character I thought I knew so well—the sign, of course, of a good book.

The next Austen chapter, “‘The Redemption of the World’: The Rhetoric of Jane Austen’s Prayers”, gives a thorough examination of the three extant prayers that Austen composed for family vesper services at home. As others have done, Dabundo notes that there is evidence that Jane Austen regularly participated in public and private liturgies, that receiving Eucharist was important to her spirituality, and that she held rather staunchly to the tolerant, established brand of Georgian Anglicanism dominant at that time (101). Dabundo also notes similarities between Austen’s prayers and the language of the Book of Common Prayer, indicating not merely that she was familiar with that text, but that she had imbibed its central characteristics and accepted its vision of the faith (109). What I found most interesting about this chapter however, was the claim that “The rhetorical purpose of the prayer indicates that it is their world that is to be redeemed, following the sacrifice of Christ and realized through the reformed examples and good works of Elinor Dashwood, Catherine Morland, Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny Price, Emma Woodhouse, Anne Elliot, and their mates, inspired and emulating Christ’s exemplum” (99-100). It is so easy to read the novels as fairy tale, happily-ever-after comedies. Dabundo invites us to see a certain heroic virtue playing out in the lives of these women—an interpretation that transforms familiar scenes like the clash between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine mentioned earlier—into the very types of scenes in regular life in which lay Christians are called upon to make moral decisions that ultimately prove their saintliness. Dabundo’s vision here is not only the key hermeneutic for understanding the religiosity of the novels, but the spiritual depth of Austen herself, whose Christian struggles were not fought in the monastery or in a public ministry, but day-by-day in the context of home-life amongst family and friends.

In “The City of Sisterly Love in Jane Austen”, Dabundo’s focus on community comes full circle as she examines the novels through the lens of sisterhood. She writes, “In short, within the compass of sisterhood often lurk the specters of the same sorts of social conflicts writ larger in the contexts and contests of the novels themselves. The families, in other words, may mirror through their daughters the issues that these novels seek to resolve…The progress of the novels, then, is toward the achievement of a community of sisterly affection” (113). She goes on to discuss some of the fascinating groupings of sisters found in Austen’s canon: The Bennet sisters in contrast to the Bingley sisters, the Dashwoods versus the Steeles, surrogate sisters in Emma and Northanger Abbey, and broken sororities in Mansfield Park and Persuasion. A community of sisters is so important to Austen, she argues, because it provides “an enclave of strength against the vagaries of fate and the challenges and vexations of life” (126). In other words, where there is a Christian sister on hand, the heroine’s own moral compass remains true. Undoubtedly, Austen learned this lesson first-hand living so closely with only sister Cassandra.

Dabundo’s final point is that there is more to marriage than what meets the eye in both Austen and Wordsworth’s visions. For both, Christian marriage is a metaphor that combines the earthly goal of building a righteous community and the heavenly goal of keeping one’s hopes set on the next life with God. Christianity’s central concern of redeeming the world finds its undimmed light shining out from these literary depictions of Christian marriages. In particular, for Austen, the marriage of men and women who have been transformed through “naked self-disclosure”, who have acknowledged their mistakes and who are now “poised to be active forces for good in their spheres, from village to town to nation to world” (133). In this Dabundo finds what Austen and Wordsworth both must have understood to have been the merit of Anglican Christianity: its moral thrust to transform the world through the establishment of communities of discerning, conscientious Christians.

While I did not savor every minute of my reading of this book, namely its chapters on Wordsworth, I hope it is clear that I found plenty to enjoy here. I only wish Dabundo had included more commentary on the novels and was better able to integrate her thoughts on Wordsworth with those on Austen, as the book felt like two separate projects put together under an umbrella theme of community. I also regret that she neglected works like Lady Susan and the fragments of “The Watsons” and “Sanditon”, as they could have further illustrated some of her points about moral struggle, community, and sisterhood. In the end, however, this is the kind of work that has an impact on my thinking long after I have returned it to the shelf, as it invites me to revisit these favorite novels and to find in them an earnestness and depth I sometimes, like a novice, underestimate.

5 out of 5 Stars

The Marriage of Faith: Christianity in William Wordsworth and Jane Austen , by Laura Dabundo
Mercer University Press (2012)
Hardcover (152) pages
ISBN: 978-0881462821

Br. Paul Byrd, OP, is a solemnly professed Dominican friar of the Province of St. Albert the Great (Chicago, USA). He currently teaches theology at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, IL, and studies creative writing and secondary education at DePaul University in Chicago. He earned his M.A. at the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, MO.

© 2012 Br. Paul Byrd, OP, Austenprose

Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, by Claudia L. Johnson – A Review

Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures, by Claudia L. Johnson (2012)Review by Aia Hussein-Yousef

In chapter five of Claudia L. Johnson’s new book Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, she notes that in the first Jane Austen Society Report for the years 1943 – 46, a memory belonging to an elderly village woman named Mrs. Luff was recorded in which she remembers watching Jane Austen walking across a field to a visit a family. “We called her the poor young lady,” recalled Mrs. Luff as indicated in the report, “and now she’s gone” (177). Stop for a moment and reflect on that. The elderly woman remembered Jane Austen not as “the venerable author” or “the national treasure” but, for whatever distressing reason, the “poor young lady.”

How interesting is it to think that at one point in time Jane Austen was nothing more than a woman named Jane who lived in an English village and visited families and did all the other things that women did in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries? That the sight of her did not immediately inspire admiration for her written accomplishments but, rather, recalled contemporaneous events or gossip attached to her? I certainly have to take a moment to remember that especially given that evidence of her talent is now on display everywhere – her novels are still prominently displayed on bookshelves at the local bookstore (no relegation to the dusty, shadowy corner for this author), new film adaptations and mini-series are advertised almost every year, her image and images inspired by her works can be found on mugs, tote bags, note cards, posters, you name it, it’s on it. The constant and formidable engine that drives the power of Divine Jane can be seen almost everywhere so much so that it can be hard to remember that she was once just Jane, a quiet author who probably would have parodied her commercialization if she were alive today to see it.

The question of how the quiet author became the modern-day celebrity or, in other words, Jane Austen’s “afterlives,” is tackled in Johnson’s new book, released this month by The University of Chicago Press. The Murray Professor of English Literature at Princeton University, and the author or editor of several works on Jane Austen, Johnson historicizes Austen’s canonization by tracing how the very concept of Austen has changed over time and how it has shown itself to be amenable to sometimes contradictory ideas and feelings about a variety of things including history, taste and manners, and language.

In the first chapter, Jane Austen’s Body, Johnson examines how representations of Austen’s body have developed alongside the public’s perception of her art and, interestingly, how her family may have played a role in all of this. In the second chapter, Jane Austen’s Magic, Johnson explores the reception of Austen during the Victorian period, how she was used to relieve anxieties about modernity by a placement within a context of fairies and enchantment (strange, because we rarely think of Austen in this context, but fascinating). The third and fourth chapters, Jane Austen’s World War I and Jane Austen’s World War II, place Austen against the backdrop of these wars and explore the vastly different reasons why she was read by both soldiers and the larger public. In the last chapter, Jane Austen’s House, Johnson explores the almost obsessive relationship Janeites have with objects that have had both a direct and indirect relation to Austen with a specific look at the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton. This last chapter is extremely gratifying in the way that it invokes Austen characters Fanny Price and Anne Eliot to give shape to the reader’s relationship with the author, successfully demonstrating that the best way to invoke Austen is, not through objects that may or may not have held significance to her, but through the result of actions that we know she highly valued: her writings.

It was a real pleasure to read this book. It is richly informative and clearly outlines the ways in which Austen has been constructed and her writings interpreted by readers from the Victorian period through now in a way that is both scholarly and accessible and, sometimes even, playful with such delightfully accurate lines as “the Austen they adore has more to do with the world of wonder than with the world of reason” (5) and “to be a Janeite is really a form of possession, with a profound contentment in being thus possessed” (7). Johnson also includes in the appendix to the book three folk tales known to be told by Edward Austen Knight, and possibly heard by Jane Austen herself as a child, and a collection of Austen-related images throughout the book. This book is highly recommended for those who are interested in how Austen’s legacy has changed throughout the years.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, by Claudia L. Johnson
The University of Chicago Press (2012)
Hardcover (240) pages
ISBN: 978-0226402031

Aia Hussein-Yousef, a proud member of JASNA, pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading. She will be leaving the DC area in the fall to begin a doctoral program in Comparative Literature at Princeton University.

© 2012 Aia Hussein-Yousef, Austenprose

Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination, by Juliette Wells – A Review

Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination, by Juliette Wells (2012)Review by Aia A. Hussein

The epigraph to chapter 3 of Juliette Wells’ new book Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination is taken from Michael Chabon’s “The Amateur Family” in Manhood for Amateurs (2010) and is one of the most interesting, almost poetic, descriptions of amateurs that I have ever read (it is quite long but worth reproducing in its entirety):

Perhaps there is no perfect word for the kind of people I have raised my children to be: a word that encompasses obsessive scholarship, passionate curiosity, curatorial tenderness, and an irrepressible desire to join in the game, to inhabit in some manner – through writing, drawing, dressing up, or endless conversational trifling and Talmudic debate – the world for the endlessly inviting, endlessly inhabitable work of popular art.  The closest I have ever come for myself is amateur, in all the original best sense of the word: a lover; a devotee; a person drive by passion and obsession to do it – to explore the imaginary world – oneself.

Admittedly, the word amateur has negative connotations but not so in Wells’ book.

An amateur is simply someone who is passionate about books and pursues that passion as a hobby rather than a scholarly profession, she argues.  In the last couple of decades, Wells, an Associate Professor of English at Manhattanville College and features editor for the Penguin Classics enhanced e-book edition of Pride and Prejudice (2008), has noted the rise in Austen tributes – the countless fiction, nonfiction, biographies, films, merchandise, and so forth, inspired by Austen’s novels.  Wells offers through her new book what could arguably be thought of as a tribute to the tributes, a critical examination of Austen-mania that acknowledges the important role it has played in keeping Jane Austen culturally relevant.

Everybody’s Jane, released this month by Continuum, takes into account scholarly work on fan cultures and fictions to explore Austen appreciation and appropriation, particularly its appreciation and appropriation in the United States.  After introducing the book in chapter 1, Wells begins her study by looking back to the early twentieth-century to introduce Alberta H. Burke, an American collector and self-confessed Janeite who Wells argues can be thought of as a direct forerunner to modern fans.  Later chapters explore such topics as literary tourism, Austen images, and Austen hybrids where, in addition to exploring hybrids such as Austen-paranormal fiction, Wells also takes a look at the little-studied phenomenon of Austen fan fiction aimed at evangelical Christians.

One of her most fascinating chapters, titled Reading Like an Amateur, explores the sometimes sticky subject of amateur reading versus professional reading or, in other words, the enthusiast versus the scholar. Striking a conciliatory tone, Wells suggests that there is room for both and that, perhaps, the two reading practices that the amateur and scholar are thought to adopt are not so very different.  Quoting scholar Roger Sales, Everybody’s Jane suggests that:

…popular modern texts are relevant to the academic study of Austen since readers constructs an idea of the author, and therefore of her works and their historical period, from the materials that are readily available within a particular culture at a particular time.  It would be very arrogant indeed to assume that all those who teach and study Austen are necessarily exempt from, rather than implicated in, this cultural process. (10)

Wells examines such topics as why and how amateurs read Austen, the reading experience of the amateur, and the juxtaposition of amateur reading with professional reading in this very important chapter.

In the book’s last chapter, aptly titled Coming Together Through Austen, Wells shares her belief that a deep appreciation for Austen can bring together amateurs and scholars and that the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), since its inception in 1979, has auspiciously offered a home to a broad spectrum of Austen lovers.  An examination of the organization and a call to arms to continue exploring the works and influence of Austen conclude the book.

Wells uses novels, scholarly materials, sites of importance to Austen studies and fans, images, and films to beautifully illustrate her points in a way that is accessible to the ordinary reader but also valuable to the more professional one.  Each chapter begins with a clear and concise overview which helps give structure and order to an extremely comprehensive account of Austen in the popular culture.  It’s impossible to know if Austen will continue to remain a point of fascination for modern writers and fans in the decades to come but, nevertheless, the explosion of Austen-related materials over the last two decades makes this a phenomenon worth documenting and, thankfully, scholars like Wells agree.  This is a fascinating study.  I highly recommend this book.

5 out of 5 Stars

Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination, by Juliette Wells
Continuum International Publishing Group (2012)
Trade paperback (256) pages
ISBN: 978-1441145543
Kindle: ASIN: B0071GVQRC

Aia A. Hussein, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and American University, pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading.  She lives in the DC area.

© 2007 – 2012, Aia A. Hussein, Austenprose

Why Jane Austen, by Rachel M. Brownstein – A Review

Why Jane Austen, by Rachel M. Brownstein (2011)Guest review by Br. Paul Byrd, OP

It was about thirteen years ago when I first met and fell in love with Jane Austen. I was up late flipping through the channels on T.V., when I came across the 1996 adaptation of Emma starring Kate Beckinsale. From the moment I began watching the story about this self-absorbed, charming busybody, I was hooked. I went to the library the very next day to check out the novel, and went on to read Austen’s other five major works. By now, I have reread all of the novels, watched most of the film adaptations, peaked into some of the sequels and spinoffs, studied many of the commentaries, and have even gone on pilgrimage to Chawton, Bath, and Winchester.  Like so many others, I have a devotion to Blessed Jane.

If you can relate to the above confession, then you will want to read Rachel M. Brownstein’s intelligent, insightful, and illuminating new book Why Jane Austen, a work that explores the origins and characteristics of what the author calls “Jane-o-mania.” She writes in her introduction: “The pages that follow are experiments and explorations in what might be called—if the term is broadly defined—biographical criticism. I am interested in why Jane Austen is on our minds now, and in her relationship to her characters and her readers…” (12).

Brownstein’s project is an intricately accomplished one, and perfect for either the seasoned Austen scholar or the neophyte groupie eager to learn more. Within the five chapters of the book, she weaves commentaries on the entire Austen canon, including lesser known works like Lady Susan. Brownstein’s thoughts are disarming at times, due to the wisdom that comes from teaching for quite a while. Her questions about the famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” for example, made me second guess whether I actually understood it, and for that matter, whether I understood the novel itself. Likewise, she brilliantly noted of Mansfield Park: “…in this novel more than the others, where characters so easily stand in for and replace one another, the narrator seems to mock the very possibility of the unique, complex, important individual self that romantic narrative makes so very much of” (119).  In her review of Austen’s oft neglected short stories, she argues they display the early genius at work—a young writer critiquing the English novelists who came before her (181-185). Brownstein’s richest insights, however, are about Emma, a novel seemingly about nothing (plot-wise), but really about the power of language and the importance of speaking the truth (204). Brownstein writes, Emma Woodhouse “goes nowhere, stays the same, resists change” (220), and she wants us to ponder what that means.

Brownstein’s project goes far beyond the actual works of Austen. She presents a survey of the film adaptations of the novels, as well as comments on movies like Clueless and television shows like Lost in Austen that borrow or play with Austen’s standard plot elements. Her review is invaluable for appreciating the breadth of the Austen market. Ultimately, however, Brownstein is critical of the adaptations declaring: “To make movies of Jane Austen’s novels [is] by definition to alter them” (35-36) She argues that the movies, the sequels and prequels and mash-ups and spin-offs, tend to get things wrong by focusing on the landscape—whether we mean the natural wonders of the countryside, the lavishly decorated rooms of a manor house, or the beauties of the human body (35-36), details Austen purposefully made little of.  A classic example of adaptation gone wrong is Rozema’s film version of Mansfield Park, where Fanny Price is conflated with Elizabeth Bennet, and even Jane Austen herself (51). Running away with Austen often means leaving her behind.

According to Brownstein, reading the novels is not enough to know or understand Jane Austen. To avoid oversimplification, we must contextualize her, learning the history of Georgian England and reading the authors who inspired or annoyed Austen: authors like, Richardson, Radcliffe, West, Smith, Burney, Fielding, Edgeworth, Wordsworth, and Scott, as well as, other contemporaries like Byron, Wollstonecraft, and Shelley. And we cannot stop there, but ought to read her literary children: authors like Henry James, the Brontes (who rebelled against her), and her literary grandchildren like Ian McEwan, author of Atonement. If you are daunted by this reading list, which should also include Inchbald, Oliphant, Eliot, Forster, and Pym, don’t be; reading Brownstein’s book will give you a great head start.

Furthermore, Brownstein urges us to avoid the pitfall of believing that fiction is merely “veiled autobiography” (25), rather, she insists that the historical Austen eludes us (134). She was an artist, and art is bigger than biography. Indeed, she argues, “They [Austen’s short stories] make it clear that her literary concerns and techniques are in effect all we know of her, all we can love that we are not making up” (181). I am not quite with Brownstein on this point, as I believe that in reading the creations of this literary genius, we get a powerful testimony of how she saw the world, what made her laugh or cry, and what she put her faith in—and what is this, but a glimpse into Austen’s essential being?

After masterfully analyzing the original texts, along with their historical context, the important academic interpretations of them, and the on-going life they enjoy in popular retellings, one might ask if Brownstein answers her question, Why Jane Austen? She does. For her, people read and reread Jane Austen, because Austen wrote so convincingly about human nature and the intricacy of character (8, 121), and because her impact on the Anglophone world is extensive, through her perfection of the style of English expression (3). They declare she is to the novel what Shakespeare was to drama (71-72), an artist whose art saves lives (106-107). She was a moralist who did not moralize (199), rather, she teaches readers how to pay attention (202) and to value the intellect over more superficial traits (204). Her works are sources of wisdom not found in information books (234), because she wrestles with the “hard truths and evils of life” that all of her readers of every culture have to face (247). And, in the end, people crave the neatly ordered, comprehensible world she depicts (64).

Brownstein proves all this in language that itself is a delight to read, with interesting stories from her own life and those handed down by the Austen family about Jane. I can only conclude by saying, if you love Jane Austen, you will probably understand why you love her better after having read this book.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Why Jane Austen, by Rachel M. Brownstein
Columbia University Press (2011)
Hardcover (320) pages
ISBN: 978-0231153904

Br. Paul Byrd, OP is a solemnly professed friar of the Dominican Order of Preachers. Originally from Covington, KY, he earned his bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Thomas More College and his master’s degree in theology from Aquinas Institute of Theology. In the fall of 2011, he will begin classes in the masters of writing and publishing program at DePaul University in Chicago, IL.  He is the author of the Dominican Cooperator Blog

© 2007 – 2011 Br. Paul Byrd, Austenprose                   

A Jane Austen Education, by William Deresiewicz – A Review

A Jane Austen Education, by William Deresiewicz (2011)Guest review by Br. Paul Byrd, OP

I hate William Deresiewicz for writing this book—but only because I would have loved to have written it myself. A Jane Austen Education resonates so closely with my own approach to studying the Austen canon—living and learning from Austen’s works, as if from a collection of sacred texts (as the term “canon” suggests to a student of theology like me)—that I can only feel that there is nothing left for me to say.

Well, I really wouldn’t go that far, but I do think that Deresiewicz has accomplished something impressive with this latest addition to Austen studies. Indeed, he has done something I think many Janeites—scholars and lay folks alike—would love to do, exploring the meaning of Austen’s major works, while articulating the impact these novels have on how one understands his or her own life and society. His memoir, therefore, demonstrates perfectly why literary works of art matter, showing that these six popular novels are not mere stories of England’s Regency Period—they are communications of what one highly intelligent person thought being human was all about—sociology, theology, philosophy all rolled into the very comprehensible and down-to-earth package of stories about ordinary women and men.

By doing so, Deresiewicz challenges the perception that Austen’s works are romance novels concerned with fairy-tale marriages only. Indeed, these are not light and airy lessons; they come with an ethic that is certainly Christian and heavy in a particular morality. Although Deresiewicz does not emphasize this religious angle, he does lay out Austen’s religious conclusions rather bluntly. In the chapter on Emma, he says Austen condemns a society of elites whose boredom, rooted in a sense of superiority, only camouflages their inattentiveness to others and lack of charity (12-13). In Mansfield Park, he says Austen shows that “the only people who can really feel are those who have a sense of what it means to do without” (156), and in Persuasion, he says Austen argues that true friendship is about self-sacrifice and putting one’s friend’s needs before your own (194). As for romantic love, Sense and Sensibility advocates finding partners that challenge one to grow and improve, rather than people who are just like oneself. Indeed, “True love, for Austen, means a never-ending clash of opinions and perspectives” (237). And the key to success, as Northanger Abbey reveals, is a continual openness to learning, change, and growth (116), not to mention the ability to distinguish true goodness from specious appearances, as the other five novels also stress. Clearly, then, Austen was not an exponent of “I’m okay, you’re okay,” rather she was critical of popular society and the ignorant, idle, or selfish people who fashion and lead it.  She demanded much of her heroines and heroes precisely because she wanted them to experience a greater level of happiness—one rooted in the disciplined life of a Christian. (Again, the Christian emphasis is my own.)

Deresiewicz’s epiphany moments and subsequent insights help us to see these familiar stories and their characters in a fresh new light. Before reading A Jane Austen Education, I used to dismiss Mr. Woodhouse with his hypochondria and Miss Bates with her prattle as caricatures to be laughed at; but Deresiewicz saw something more at work in them. Mr. Woodhouse may have been obsessed of illness, but this did not devolve into self-absorption, rather he had a remarkable propensity for caring about the welfare of others. And Miss Bates, he reminds us, was a woman who had suffered many disappointments and trials in her life. At times, she may have seemed lost in a sea of trifles, but she was actually just being attentive to those around her and the joys of the present moment. Both Miss Bates and Mr. Woodhouse are happy people, despite their hardships, and so have something to teach Emma and us (29-31). Likewise, in Northanger Abbey, I missed the importance of Catherine’s learning to love a hyacinth, but Deresiewicz saw in that little detail Austen’s moral that it is possible to learn to love (107). This contradicts the idea that love just happens to us, that we are passive “victims” of it, and it says that we can actively seek it and learn to have it for new things we might never have expected to love. Thus, rather than a romantic fatalism we find a philosophical theory of hope rooted in the idea that humans can learn—not bad for a novel branded a Gothic parody.

But what about Deresiewicz’s work as memoir? While the anecdotes he shares about his life are entertaining and well told, they are unremarkable. I do not recall a single one of them with much clarity, except the impressions I have of his unhappy relationship with his father, his friendship with a fatherly professor, his struggles as a graduate student and neophyte teacher, and his journey away from a superficial circle of acquaintances to one of true friends. Of course, I was only interested in the details of Deresiewicz’s life secondarily, as a way of understanding Austen’s novels better. I think this was the author’s intention, and I would say he was successful in his goal of teaching us about Austen and her message by simply telling us how her novels have helped him understand his own life better (or how his life helped him to understand Austen’s novels better).  It is fitting that Deresiewicz was able to glean so much meaning from such ordinary events in his life, since he says Austen herself offers her readers “just the everyday, without amplification. Just the novel, without excuses. Just the personal, just the private, just the little, without apologies” (36).  Deresiewicz attempts to tell his story in the same way, and I applaud his efforts, giving A Jane Austen Education four stars and highly recommending it to others.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Br. Paul Byrd, OP is a solemnly professed friar of the Dominican Order of Preachers. Originally from Covington, KY, he earned his bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Thomas More College and his master’s degree in theology from Aquinas Institute of Theology. In the fall of 2011, he will begin classes in the master’s of writing and publishing program at DePaul University in Chicago, IL.  He is the author of the Dominican Cooperator Blog

A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter, by William Deresiewicz
Penguin Group (2011)
Hardcover (272) pages
ISBN: 978-1594202889

© 2007 – 2011 Br. Paul Byrd, OP, Austenprose