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

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

A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter, by William Deresiewicz – A Review

A Jane Austen Education, by William Deresiewicz (2011)We have long harbored the belief that everything worth knowing about life and love can be learned in a Jane Austen novel. William Deresiewicz thinks so too, and we could not be happier. In A Jane Austen Education he soundly reaffirms our opinion that the world would be a better place if everyone just paid attention and listened to Jane Austen.

We realize that he is preaching to the choir here, but thought it important to point out that he started out in a much different place as a twenty-six year old graduate student who thought Austen was all girly romance and banal social drivel. He may have been as arrogant as Mr. Darcy, as clueless as Emma Woodhouse and opinionated as Lady Catherine de Bourgh when it came to acknowledging Austen’s understated writing skills and message to her readers, but during the process of reading Emma, one of Austen’s most scrutinized and acclaimed novels, he had an intellectual epiphany. This will certainly grab the attention of half the population. A man admitting that he likes Jane Austen is unusual. Writing a whole book about the process of conversion, understanding what Austen wants to teach us and applying it to his own life, is a revelation! Dear reader. I must curb myself from gushing for fear of losing my credibility.

How William Deresiewicz came to evolve into an enlightened Y-chromosome is one heck of a great story. We are encouraged that other Janeites will think so too. We also hope that his tour through each of the six major novels will convert a few naysayers. Even though he was an associate professor of English at Yale University, he does not talk down to us from an ivory tower. Part literary criticism, part personal memoir and a lot of Austen doctrine, his prose is open, engaging and very humorous. There are several “light bulb” moments. Here is some of the pithy advice he learned from the master.

  • Emma: Pay attention to everyday matters. Be in the moment.
  • Pride and Prejudice: Nobody’s perfect. We are destined to make mistakes. Just learn from them.
  • Northanger Abbey: Life is an adventure. Be open to change and growth.
  • Mansfield Park: Understand the difference between being entertained and being happy. It’s a big one.
  • Persuasion: Be honest. Unconditional friendship serves no one. A true friend remains constant even if the truth hurts.
  • Sense and Sensibility: Love means never having to say you’re sorry! (just kidding) It’s actually the opposite. Healthy conflicts keep relationships sound.

Our favorite chapter was number four – Mansfield Park: Being Good. We regularly seek out opinions on Jane Austen’s controversial novel, considered by some to be her dark horse, hoping for further enlightenment. He certainly nails it on the head by pegging the heroine. “Prim, proper, priggish, prudish, puritanical, Fanny simply couldn’t deal with the threat of adult sexuality. And to top it off, she didn’t even like to read novels.” Characters who do not like to read novels are a red flag in Austen canon, so we were more than a bit piqued on how he was going to deal with this and turn it into an Austen lesson. Fanny Price was the heroine after all. How could Austen make us dislike her? He also admitted that the rest of the characters were “mainly different flavors of awful.” Too true. Paralleling his own life was an adventure of a Jersey boy playing high with rich Manhattanites, and questioning who he was becoming.

“I returned to my dissertation (on Austen), that somehow had already told me everything I needed to know about that world before I’d even encountered it, only I hadn’t been able to listen. For where was I, I finally saw, but smack in the middle of a Jane Austen novel – and one of them, in fact, in particular? What was the realm of luxury and cruelty, glamour and greed, coldness and fun, if not a modern-day version of Mansfield Park?” Page 91

Like Fanny Price during the Mansfield Park theatrical, he realized that he could only ever be a powerless spectator in the alien environment of New York City. He eventually begins to understand Austen’s cunning strategy in the narrative of Mansfield Park and how it applied to his life, his friends and his responses to them. We will not reveal the final outcome, but for those who do not understand Mansfield Park, you might see it in a new light. That alone was worth our price of admission.

We love this book, and not just because it has the best cover we have seen in years (we concede to being swayed by book eye candy), but because it is embodies Austen’s craft of “minute particulars” and reinforces our personal belief system! We were truly agog and enchanted with every word.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

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 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

The Heroine’s Bookshelf: Life Lessons, from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Erin Blakemore – A Review

Behind every unforgettable heroine stands her remarkable creator. Debut author Erin Blakemore explores this theme in The Heroine’s Bookshelf, twelve essays devoted to her favorite literary heroines and the unique correlation between their writer’s life and the character she created. From Jane Austen’s spirited impertinence of Elizabeth Bennet, to the effervescent optimism of Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Anne Shirley, to the dogged determination of Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlet O’Hara, anyone who has ever sought solace in the pages of a classic novel or inspiration for new perspective during troubling times will be enthralled by every essay in this book.

Literature is comfort food for me and there is something inherently reassuring about reconnecting again with the books that we read for the first time during our childhood and early adult years. Blakemore and I share this affinity which she elaborates upon in her introduction.

“Call me a coward if you will, but when the lines between duty and sanity blur, you can usually find me curled up with a battered book, reading as if my mental health depended on it. And it does, for inside the books I love I find food, respite, escape, and perspective. I find something else too: heroines and authors, hundreds of them, women whose real and fictitious lives have covered the terrain I too must tread.”

The twelve heroines and their authors she chose to evaluate and share with us are several of my favorite too. Some fight physical hardships, poverty and hatred, snobbery and prejudice and emotional insecurities, and others the foibles and follies of human nature. Each is memorable to me because they faced struggles and challenges, confronted them boldly and creatively, and emerged victorious; a stronger and better person for their endeavor. Just their names alone: Scout Finch, Jane Eyre, Francine Nolan, Mary Lennox, Jo Marsh and Laura Ingalls evoke nostalgia, sending me in an instant to a faraway happy place of comfort, adventure and romance. In addition to revisiting my favorite heroines, my pleasure was heightened by knowledge of their author’s lives that I had not previously known, giving me a deeper understanding and respect for each of the heroines and their creators.

Besides blogging about Jane Austen, I am a bookseller at Barnes & Noble. Occasionally, when a book just bowls me over like The Heroine’s Bookshelf, I select it as my staff rec and talk it up amongst my fellow booksellers. A group of us were seated in the break room yesterday afternoon; ladies who are passionate about reading and love classic literature. As I lifted up the cover and firmly told everyone that this book is a must read,  I proceeded to list all of the twelve heroine’s discussed. The ooo’s, ahh’s and immediate enthusiastic chatter that erupted sent shivers up the back of my neck. Just the mention of each heroine’s name sparked such vivid and happy memories. Everyone had their favorite heroine and a personal story to go with it. It was like a drug, a literary endorphin rush! I asked who wanted to read my copy next and a unanimous reply of “me” resounded like the joyous hallelujah chorus in Handle’s Messiah!  Sweet music for a passionate reader, joyous bookseller, and dedicated book blogger.

The Heroine’s Bookshelf is a frothy literary latte; rich and sweet and deeply satisfying. Beautifully designed, it will make the perfect gift for the literature lover in your family or circle of friends. I wholeheartedly praise it to the skies and recommend it to all who wish to become the heroine of their own life.

5 out of 5 Stars

The Heroine’s Bookshelf: Life Lesson’s from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Erin Blakemore
HarperCollins (2010)
Hardcover (200) pages
ISBN: 978-0061958762

A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen, edited by Susannah Carson – A Review

When the new Austen literary tome A Truth Universally Acknowledged edited by Susannah Carson started off with a foreword by Harold Bloom the famous American writer, literary critic and current Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University, I was more than a bit anxious fearing the book would be over my head. Firstly, I am neither a scholar nor a brilliant intellectual and have trouble understanding all the pedantic puffery about Jane Austen that passes as literary criticism these days. Moreover, do I really need 33 great writers making me feel inadequate? Secondly, if these great minds explain to me why I read Jane Austen, the last veil will have fallen and the party will be over. After years of awe and admiration, do I really want to see the wizard behind the curtain? 

My apprehension was softened after reading Bloom’s foreword. I smiled deeply when he expressed why we read Jane Austen. This was a promising beginning. “[S]he seems to know us better than we know ourselves, and she seems to know us so intimately for the simple reason that she helped determine who we are as both readers and as human beings.” He makes her sound like she sits on the right hand of God! He is definitely on to something. The balance of essays are from a wide range of Austen admirers: contemporary and classic authors, movie directors, literary critics and scholars. Some of the essays are newly commissioned from contemporary writers such as Anna Quindlen, Jay McInerney, A.S. Byatt and Amy Heckerling. Others are from deceased literary giants such as C. S. Lewis, Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster and W. Somerset Maugham and previously published in the last century. The editor Susannah Carson has also contributed her own slant on Austen’s current appeal from her essay Reading Northanger Abbey. Here is a memorable passage. 

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that Austen’s novels are about marriage: they all end with at least one successful match, and sometimes as many as three. Dating guidebooks have been compiled from advice culled from her novels, suggesting that much of Austen’s current appeal lies in her treatment of romance plot. If we read Austen, will we improve our chances of finding the right mate? Perhaps, but such instruction is incidental: Austen does not set out to describe ideal relationships. Her interest is in flawed characters who achieve a greater level of self understanding throughout the course of each novel and who are rewarded at the end with the relationship which, although never entirely perfect, are perfect for them.”   

Carson hit the nail on the head for me. Austen’s characters and plots are indeed perfect imperfections. That is why I am so drawn to them. There are also many other tidbits of wisdom and insight throughout the book, along with some pure folly and nonsense. Some still think Fanny Price is a prig. (C.S. Lewis defends her bless his heart). One felt that the sparkling Elizabeth Bennet’s appeal is diminished by accepting Mr. Darcy who is a dud and not her intellectual equal. Another had mixed feelings about Austen’s masterpiece Emma. And those in the Henry Tilney camp will need a strong dose of aromatic vinegar after reading that he and Catherine Morland are ill suited for marriage; his acerbic wit quickly growing tired of her vapid naivety. The upside of a book containing essays is that you’re not stuck for very long with an author you’re not enjoying or learning from. The downside is when the majority fall into that category. Happily, opinions on Austen vary as greatly in this book as her enduring appeal to readers. There is something here for every level of adulation, Janeite or scholar; even some “Till this moment I never knew myself” epiphanies. 

Like Austen’s characters, this book does have its endearing flaws. To understand the context of the essays, you must have read Austen or seen a movie or two. Hopefully the former. Unfortunately, the essays are not dated, so the reader is left to peruse the biographies of the writers in the back of the book to understand the timeframe of when the essay might have been written. It also suffers from some wobbly bits of unevenness in cohesion as a whole. 33 great writers enthusiastically enlighten us on why we read Jane Austen, wander a bit, individually entertain, but do not always directly address the primary theme. Honestly, in their defense, I do not think the question of why we read Jane Austen is answerable to everyone’s satisfaction. It is far too personal, and therein lays Austen’s brilliance and success. In actuality, what should be asked is why we continue to read Jane Austen? There is big a difference. Many read Austen for the first time in school because they were required to. Those who return to re-read her offer the greatest compliment that an author can receive and a testament to her enduring appeal. After nearly two hundred years of complements queuing up in support of her works it is no wonder that she is the literary and pop media phenomenon that many of the essays expound upon. 

Regardless of my quibbles with the semantics, if you are enthralled by Austen’s alluring prose and are intrigued to learn what great writers have said about her over the last century, this volume is the most accessible and enjoyable ensemble of Austen essays I have read. Kudos to editor Carson (who by-the-way is herself a doctoral candidate and literary scholar) for having the foresight and ingenuity to pull together a collection of writers who do not all look down at Janeites from an ivory tower and are not afraid to show a personal side of their adulation. This everyman Austen reader is most grateful, and happy that in conclusion, Austen is as enigmatic as ever. 

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen, edited by Susannah Carson
Random House (2009)
Hardcover (288) pages
ISBN: 9781400068050

Further Reviews

Jane Austen: An Illustrated Treasury, by Rebecca Dickson – A Review

An Illustrated Treasury, by Rebecca DicksonHas Jane Austen risen to a major pop-culture presence? Author Rebecca Dickson confidently thinks so, and her thoughtfully researched and beautifully illustrated new edition Jane Austen: An Illustrated Treasury is quite a persuasive testament. Any doubting Thomas’ will be hard pressed to argue against the evidence skillfully presented in this volume. Not only are the carefully chosen Regency era images complementary to her expertly written text, the overall friendly and visually appealing design and its incredible value place it as my number one choice of Jane Austen inspired books of 2008. 

Surprisingly, this volume is not just a fluffy image gallery packed with pretty pictures. Rebecca Dickson is an Austen scholar and instructor of writing and literature at the University of Colorado at Boulder with a doctorate in English Literature with a specialty in eighteenth-century writers. A professed Austen enthusiast since reading Pride and Prejudice in High School, Dickson has written an inspiring tribute to her favorite author geared to the everyman reader. Her style is open and engaging and I never once felt the scholarly mantle descend to befuddle the text. The opening introductAn Illustrated Treasuryion and short biography are followed by six chapters devoted to each of Jane Austen’s major novels: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Within each novel chapter, Dickson not only discusses the novel’s plot, characters, highlights and impact on classic literature, but places it in context to Jane Austen’s life and her times. In the chapter on Pride and Prejudice for instance, she has included its publishing evolution from first draft in 1797 as First Impressions, to Austen’s father’s failed attempt at publication, to its final acceptance and publication sixteen years later in 1813, interweaving the changes in Austen’s life and her financial situation adding impact and interest. Interspersed throughout the chapter are quotes from the text acting like ‘fact bites’ emphasizing important points. The images selected stunningly present illustrations from Austen’s novels by the late Victorian artists Hugh Thomson, C.E. and H.M. Brock, vintage paintings and contemporary movie stills. The surprise bonus is removable reproductions of actual documents ranging from copies of handwritten letters by Jane Austen to a page of the rough draft of Persuasion

An Illustrated Treasury (2008)

My one disappointment (and it is a trifle) is in the cover design which is adequately pretty, but has nothing to do with Jane Austen, nor adds any Regency era feel or interest to entice buyers to open, explore and purchase this book. Given the length of thoughtful research and numerous images included in this glorious edition, one hopes that buyers will truly not judge its value by its cover. Highly giftable as an introduction to Jane Austen or as a tribute to the indoctrinated Janeite, reading this lovely volume will leave few in doubt of Jane Austen’s position as pop-culture icon and literary genius. 

5 out of 5 Regency Stars 

Jane Austen: An Illustrated Treasury, by Rebecca Dickson
Oversized illustrated hardcover (157) pages
Metro Books, New York (2008)
ISBN: 9781435104686

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