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

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

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

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

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

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. Continue reading

Giveaway Winners Announced for Why Jane Austen

Why Jane Austen, by Rachel Brownstein (2011)52 of you left comments qualifying you for a chance to win one of two copies of Why Jane Austen, by Rachel Brownstein. The winners drawn at random are:

  • Jennrenee who left a comment on 28 June 2011
  • Pinkseele who left a comment on 08 July 2011

Congratulations ladies! To claim your prize, please contact me with your full name and address by July 20th, 2011. Shipment is to US addresses only.

Thanks to all who left comments, and to author Rachel Brownstein for her fabulous blog on Janeites! I am thrilled to be currently reading Why Jane Austen.

© 2007 – 2011 Laurel Ann Nattress, 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

Why Jane Austen? Blog Tour with Author Rachel M. Brownstein and a Giveaway!

Why Jane Austen, by Rachel M. Brownstein (2011)Please join us today in welcoming Austen scholar Prof. Rachel M. Brownstein for the official launch of her book blog tour of Why Jane Austen?, a new literary and cultural history of our Jane’s rise and continued fame that is being released today by Columbia University Press.

Jane Austen’s eruption into popular culture in the mid-1990s got me wondering: Why Jane Austen, and not another equally long-dead novelist?  What is it about her in particular?  When the vogue spilled over into the twenty-first century, and more and more people were proudly calling themselves Janeites, I knew I was onto something.  And now, finally, here is my book: Why Jane Austen?, published in June, 2011, by Columbia University Press!

The term “Janeite” was coined in the 1890s by the English critic George Saintsbury (he spelled it “Janite”).  Picked up by Rudyard Kipling in the 1920s, it has been used in different tones of voice since then.  As words do, it has gone through changes over time; and Janeites have also changed.  Today they include admirers of Jane Austen’s novels, and of the author because she was a woman or a wit; some are fans of the dressy movies or the romantic fan fiction, while others prefer the sexed-up send-ups and the mysteries.  They include mischief-makers and members of the Jane Austen Society, bloggers and buyers of Jane-related dolls and coffee mugs, note-cards and refrigerator magnets. Writing Why Jane Austen?, I was astonished and fascinated by the range of Austen movies, spin-offs, products, and devotees—and the enormous changes in those over the last twenty years and more.

A Janeite today is sometimes exclusively interested in Austen and her novels, but she (usually) is often also involved in the culture that has grown up around them.  She revels in being a member of a club, exchanging thoughts and feelings about matters more or less related to Jane and pooling thoughts and feelings with those of other Janeites.  Janeites tend to support one another, also to seek converts.

Of course the fantasy of entering a world of Regency dresses and manners, an elegant world where people say “whilst,” begins in solitude, as fantasies do–and reading novels also does.  Ditto the dream of finding your Mr. Darcy, and being carried off by him to a Pemberley of your own.  But private fantasy turns into sociable Janeite practice once you gang up with others to hate Miss Bingley, or to compare the erotic charge of Austen’s Pemberley and Bronte’s Thornfield Hall, or to confess you can’t understand what Elinor Dashwood sees in Edward Ferrars, or to discuss why Jane turned down Harris Bigg-Wither. (The simple dropping of these names makes a Janeite feel cozy all over.) Continue reading