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.

The chapter on Sense and Sensibility is a fascinating character study of Elinor Dashwood and the way in which silence is both imposed on Elinor and used by her to wage war against her romantic rival, Lucy Steele. Wiltshire highlights the harshness of this novel’s setting and the ways in which Elinor’s manipulation of others mirrors that of Lucy. Even more fascinating is Wiltshire’s claim that while the narrative approves of Elinor’s use of concealment, it nonetheless reveals Austen’s anger at society for requiring levels of duplicity which, in turn, compromise one’s moral integrity (50).

Equally fascinating are the two chapters dedicated to Mansfield Park. The first focuses on Mrs. Norris—Austen’s most glorious villain. While Wiltshire isn’t interested in exculpating Mrs. Norris, he is happy to piece together her back-story in an effort to explain her behavior. What he offers is a delicious psychological theory of sibling rivalry and coping mechanisms. He writes, “[Mrs. Norris] needs continuous self-soothing and self-appeasing, and that is because in her deepest sense of herself she is a victim” (89). If this is true of Mrs. Norris, what can be said of Fanny Price? His second chapter on Mansfield Park answers that question, tackling superbly the age-old critiques of Austen’s most underappreciated heroine by pin-pointing the tell-tale signs of her coping behavior: over-compensation, self-abasement, psychosomatic ailments, and, of course, passivity (98-100). But rather than these making Fanny into the obsequious niece both Mrs. Norris and Sir Thomas expect her to be, Fanny manages to resist their bullying, because she isn’t half as blind to the sins of others as they are to her virtues. But—and this is Wiltshire’s point—she has to resist without showing all of her cards, without, that is, exposing the forbidden love she has for her cousin Edmund. Because of this delicate balancing act, Fanny is misread, both by other characters and by readers (115).

In his last two chapters, Wiltshire explores the role that overhearing plays in Emma and Persuasion. Overhearing implies attentiveness to others, particularly to what they say. But what one thinks one hears (and sees, for that matter) may not match what is actually being said (or seen) due to the interference of one’s own preconceived notions or personal desires. In Emma, this discrepancy is used to comedic effect, as a way to educate the heroine on her own flawed reading of the world. What is brilliant about Wiltshire’s exploration of this is how he highlights Austen’s construction of the miscommunications. He does this with Persuasion, as well; but in that novel the attentiveness to the speech of others is accented, Wiltshire says, by Anne Eliot’s “chronic depression” (147). At first, this may seem a startling diagnosis, but to support it he carefully analyzes Austen’s structuring of her last completed novel. In the first half of the story, Anne has a recessed presence, and her silence and exhaustion contrast sharply with Wentworth’s confidence and activity (153-154). This contrast must soften in the second half of the story in order for Anne to have a successful end, which is why, Wiltshire argues, that Austen realized she had to revise the original conclusion. In order for the psychology to be right, Anne had to finally emerge from her depression by gaining her voice (162).

As Wiltshire points out most overtly in the Mansfield Park chapters, Austen’s eighteenth century Enlightenment-influenced Anglican spirituality plays an important role in shaping the psychology of her novels. She accents self-reflection in such a way that it becomes key to understanding the internal moral lives of her heroines and heroes (91). Wiltshire deftly balances his academic expertise with his clear, often poetic, writing style. Best of all, in rooting his psychoanalysis of the novels in discussions about Austen’s crafting of narrative structure, he models for Austen fans of all backgrounds the way to conduct credible dialogues on their favorite characters. His views are modern and original, and not one chapter failed to inspire in me a greater appreciation for Austen’s masterful portrayal of human nature. That is why I give this excellent book, whose best points I have barely highlighted here, five out of five Regency Stars and recommend it as the best book on Austen I have read all year.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

The Hidden Jane Austen, by John Wiltshire
Cambridge University Press (2014)
Hardcover (204) pages
ISBN: 978-1107061873

Cover image courtesy of Cambridge University Press © 2014, text Br. Paul Byrd, OP © 2014, Austenprose.com

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

Living with Shakespeare: Essays by Writers, Actors, and Directors, edited by Susannah Carson – A Review

Living with Shakespeare, edited by Susannah Carson (2013)From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP:

Is there, as an English teacher, anything more intimidating and yet thrilling than teaching Shakespeare? He is, after all, the one author whose works are thought essential to a “good education.” But having just finished a three week unit on Macbeth, I am confident only that I have invited my students to the conversation about Shakespeare’s greatness; I’ve yet to really convert them. In Living with Shakespeare, Susannah Carson–who previously compiled the excellent essay collection in praise of Jane Austen entitled A Truth Universally Acknowledged–brings the conversation about Shakespeare to a whole new level by presenting over forty extraordinary voices in dialogue about their connections to Shakespeare. Carson writes “I’ve attempted to bring together as many perspectives as possible, not in order to be exhaustive–but to celebrate the many different approaches to appreciating Shakespeare that there are possible” (xvii). To that end, there are actors and directors, writers and professors, united in a chorus of myriad accents all acclaiming the undisputed genius of the Bard.

Not surprisingly, some may find reading Living with Shakespeare to be as intimidating as studying the plays themselves. However, although many of the essays are heavyweight academic or professional reflections, there are others that are much more accessible to the general reader, including those readers who are more interested in learning what their favorite graphic novelist (say Matt Sturges) or their favorite film star (say James Franco) has to say about his relationship to Shakespeare than they are about discovering the glories of the dramatic masterpieces themselves. Accordingly, I think this volume equally suitable for the well-stocked library as the classroom or college library.

Indeed, if you bought this book for Dame Harriet Walter’s essay “Two Loves, or the Eternal Triangle” alone, you would have spent your money well. Walter, whom Janeites will fondly remember as Fanny Dashwood in Ang Lee’s 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, masterfully writes about her wrestling with Shakespeare’s conflicted presentation of women from the perspective of an actress with modern sensibilities. Shakespeare, she argues, often pits the female leads against the heroes’ male best-friends in competition for the heroes’ love, as in Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, and Merchant of Venice, to name a few. This creates an interesting, semi-homoerotic love triangle and explains the sometimes seemingly irrational actions of the heroes’ friends (390). It was coming to appreciate this male perspective in Much Ado About Nothing that helped Walter to then understand her own role as Beatrice, particularly her harsh, anti-bromantic ultimatum to Benedick to “Kill Claudio” (392).

However, full reconciliation with Shakespeare isn’t quite possible sometimes, according to Walter, especially given that many of the female roles demand women themselves pronounce misogynistic views (396). Eve Best, another English actress who has worked through the “problem spots” to find the soul of the female roles, writes beautifully about her compassion for Lady Macbeth, one of most iconic of Shakespeare’s characters. According Best, Lady Macbeth’s bloody-thirsty drive to make her husband king of Scotland, is all “…about love. And, very possibly…about finding a replacement for their child” (384). Of course, the play’s a tragedy, so the plan goes horribly wrong, dividing Lady Macbeth from her husband forever. The does not change the fact that Lady Macbeth was a woman driven by love.

I admit that I was most fond of the essays written by actors who share an abiding sensitivity for the humanity of their characters, as Rory Kinnear describes with Angelo from Measure for Measure and Hamlet, and F. Murray Abraham with Shylock from Merchant of Venice. Given he’s played the role seven times, James Earl Jones’ depth of understanding and compassion for Othello’s tragic situation is remarkable –but then so is Eamonn Walker’s, who writes “Othello is about many different kinds of love: it’s about the light, beautiful side of love, and it’s about the twisted, darker side of love, and it’s about how, if you flip the emotional coin, love can make you do terrible things” (145).

For those not in the theatre business, the insights from directors may be equally interesting and helpful for appreciating the importance of encountering dramatic works, even those from the sixteenth century, as living, evolving texts to be molded, edited, and re-envisioned. Essays by Karin Coonrod, Julie Taymor, Ralph Fiennes, Jess Winfield, and the Fiasco Theatre all invite the reader to attend a play or to pick up the text and start over–refashioning the story based on time, place, and circumstance, while remaining true to the story’s essence. As Coonrod writes “I’ve always wanted to identify what, for me, is the essential line or scene that distinguishes each [play]” (291). Often, the key to unlocking the story’s secrets lies in a simple image.

Ironically, I found that some of the essays that I least enjoyed were written by career writers, authors whom I respect. Isabel Allende’s tale of encountering Shakespeare in translation was charming, but not very insightful. Jane Smiley, who wrote the powerful King Lear inspired novel A Thousand Acres, talks about her inspiration, but without illuminating the original text or her own much further. Joyce Carol Oates tediously plods through the plot of Antony and Cleopatra. And Maxine Hong Kingston’s essay is a mostly a series of quotes, including a huge passage from a story she herself wrote. Equally disappointing (though well-meaning) were Peter David’s diatribe against modern ignorance about Romeo and Juliet and Sir Ben Kingsley lament about the loss of beautiful speech in contemporary language. It is sad, of course, that people are not reading Shakespeare, and tragic that they they do not speak in elevated syntax and diction, but, alas, tell us something we did not know already.

Fortunately, the bulk of this collection is simply amazing, insightful, and entertaining. I would even argue that a few of the essays are actually important, in terms of their significant contributions to the on-going discernment of Shakespeare’s relevancy to the modern world. Among the best, Brian Cox’s essay “I Say It Is the Moon” about how Shakespeare, through characters like Edgar in King Lear, Rosalind in As You Like It, and Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew, “teaches us how to live between one political paradigm and the next, in the middle of social contradictions, and right at the heart of all the emotional paradoxes of the human condition…The ultimate paradox, of course, [being] that even though we’re all going to die, we’ve all got to live in the meantime” (218).

Do you have to have read or seen all of the plays to understand this book? No; but I bet you will want to after you’ve read so many talented people express their life-changing experiences with Shakespeare’s immortal heroes and heroines, ghosts and witches, gods and monsters, since they all turn out to be so profoundly human like you and me.

5 out of 5 Stars

Living with Shakespeare: Essays by Writers, Actors, and Directors, edited by Susannah Carson
Vintage (2013)
Trade paperback (528) pages
ISBN:  978-0307742919

Cover image courtesy of Vintage © 2013; text Br. Paul Byrd, OP © 2013, Austenprose.com

Giveaway Winners Announced for Jane Austen’s England!

Jane Austen's England by Lesley and Roy Adkins (2013)80 of you left comments qualifying you for a chance to win one of six copies available of Jane Austen’s England, by Lesley and Roy Adkins. The six winners drawn at random are:

  • Carol Settlage who left a comment on Aug 19, 2013
  • Lindsay who left comment on Aug 19, 2013
  • Emily Bell who left a comment on Aug, 19, 2013
  • Jim Nagel who left a comment on Aug 20, 2013
  • Betsy on Aug 21, 2013
  • Jane who left a comment on Aug 24, 2013

Congratulations ladies and gentleman! To claim your prize, please contact me with your full name and address by September 4, 2013 or you will forfeit your prize! Shipment to US addresses.

Thanks to all who left comments, to authors Lesley and Roy Adkins for their great guest blog, and to their publisher The Viking Press for supplying the giveaway copies.

Book cover image courtesy of The Viking Press © 2013; text © 2013 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

Jane Austen’s England Virtual Book Launch Party with Authors Lesley and Roy Adkins & Giveaway

Jane Austen's England, by Lesley and Roy Adkins (2013)Let’s face it. Life in a Jane Austen novel is a fantasy to us two-hundred years after they were originally set. Who wouldn’t want to wear a pretty silk frock, dance with Mr. Darcy at the Netherfield ball or ride in Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s barouche? But life in Jane Austen’s England was not all elegant country houses and fine carriages. It took an army of servants and working class people to make life comfortable for the landed gentry and aristocrats.

Authors and historians Lesley and Roy Adkins have taken us behind the green baize curtain in their new book Jane Austen’s England. Here we discover what life was really like for a gentleman’s daughter like Elizabeth Bennet or the Bertram’s of Mansfield Park and all of their servants.

In celebration of the launch of Jane Austen’s England, Lesley and Roy Adkins are visiting us today to share their inspiration to write their new snapshot of the Georgian-era. Leave a comment to qualify for a chance to win one of three copies available of their intriguing new book. Contest details are listed at the end of this blog. Good luck to all.

Welcome Lesley and Roy:

Thank you, Laurel Ann, for inviting us to an online Austenprose launch party of Jane Austen’s England. We raise our glasses to you all (filled with smuggled wine and port, of course, because Jane Austen’s England is at war with the French and such liquor from Europe is hard to obtain).

This is not the occasion to inflict on you a history of our writing careers, but we have always been restless, moving between topics and trying to piece together fragments of history to create fascinating stories. Our last three books (Nelson’s Trafalgar, The War for All the Oceans and Jack Tar) concentrate on Georgian Britain’s naval history – Jack Tar describes the daily lives of seamen during the period 1771–1815, from when Nelson joined the Royal Navy to ten years after his death, at the end of hostilities with France and America.

After all that, we were yearning for some shore leave and had also re-discovered Jane Austen. We blame her brothers. It had been so exciting to find that Frank and Charles were naval officers, and we wish we could have stopped Nelson sending Frank for supplies, which kept him from Trafalgar. Suddenly we were drawn back to her after years of neglect. Geographically, we already felt a bond, because Lesley was brought up in Jane Austen’s home county of Hampshire, while much of Roy’s childhood was spent in visits to north Hampshire, with forays in Frank’s footsteps to Nelson’s flagship Victory at Portsmouth.

There was, though, something that always bothered us about Jane Austen’s fiction, and approaching her sideways through her naval brothers, we realised that little attention was given to everyday events and the mass of people. Because she was writing modern fiction, not historical novels, her readers did not need explanations of the things they experienced daily. Instead, she could concentrate on characters and plots. With our research into the period, we began to see these stories as Jane Austen’s earliest readers saw them, and it was a revelation!

Little phrases that we passed over without proper attention took on a new significance. To take a small example, in Persuasion Lady Russell enters Bath amidst “the ceaseless clink of pattens”. Readers of the time knew that pattens were an overshoe, a kind of wooden-soled sandal, to the bottom of which was fastened an iron ring. When women slipped their flimsy shoes into pattens, they gained several inches in height and so raised the hems of their gowns above the worst of the wet and mud. Pattens were an essential fashion item so familiar that they are rarely mentioned. The phrase “ceaseless clink of pattens” does not just evoke a unique sound that Jane Austen knew well, but it meant the streets were full of women walking, despite the wet weather. The main street surface would have been mud and manure, churned up by horses and carriage wheels, and so the clink of pattens also shows that Bath is a civilised place with paved sidewalks.

We realised we were missing so much that we decided to explore the England in which Jane Austen lived, to see how ordinary people fitted into the period when she was alive, and how her world and her fiction connected with the England around her. We were soon overwhelmed by the sheer volume of fascinating things that we unearthed – from horrific dental treatment to how quill pens were made – so we had to be selective, with endless discussions about what to include in the book. In the end, the picture we were left with was an England deeply divided. Although going to one of the balls that Jane Austen wrote about in her novels and letters is an irresistible idea, in reality most people were not one of the glittering company on the dance floor, but lowly servants, toiling endless hours.

Having finished our book and seen it through to publication, we are left with a sense of being very privileged. We now have a greater understanding and enjoyment of the novels, and living in southern England we can travel the same roads as Jane Austen and visit the places she knew so well – from the church at Steventon, her birthplace, to the house at Chawton where she did much of her best work. We hope that when people have read our book, they will go back to the novels and see them in much the same way that the very first readers did when they were published two centuries ago.

Authors Lesley and Roy Adkins (2013)Author Bios: Roy and Lesley Adkins are husband-and-wife historians and archaeologists who live near Exeter in south-west England. They are bestselling authors of books on history and archaeology, including Nelson’s Trafalgar, The War for All the Oceans, Jack Tar and The Keys of Egypt. Their work has been translated into sixteen languages. They are Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries of London and Members of the Institute for Archaeologists. Jane Austen’s England is published as Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England in the UK, where their 2013 schedule of talks includes: Theatre Royal, Bath, September 20, during the Jane Austen Festival; Henley Literary Festival, October 5; Appledore Book Festival, October 6; Ilkley Literature Festival, October 10; Off the Shelf festival, Sheffield, October 23; and Bridport Literary Festival, November 13. Visit Lesley and Roy at their website.

Many thanks to Lesley and Roy for sharing their new darling child with us. Best wishes for its success.

A GRAND GIVEAWAY

Enter a chance to win one of three hardcover copies available of Jane Austen’s England by Lesley and Roy Adkins by leaving a comment by 11:59 pm, Wednesday, August 28, 2013. Winners will be announced on Thursday, August 29, 2013. Shipment to US addresses only. Good luck to all!

Jane Austen’s England, by Lesley and Roy Adkins
The Viking Press (2013)
Hardcover (448) pages
ISBN: 978-0670785841

Cover image courtesy of The Viking Press © 2013; text Lesley and Roy Adkins © 2013, Austenprose.com