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

My Idea of the Best Company

Erin Blakemore & Laurel Ann Nattess B&N Event May 20, 2011

“My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.”

“You are mistaken,” said he gently; “that is not good company; that is the best. Anne Elliot & William Elliot, Persuasion, Chapter 16

A wonderful time was had by all at the discussion and signing for Erin Blakemore, author of The Heroine’s Bookshelf: Life Lessons, from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder on Friday at my Barnes & Noble in Lynnwood, WA. Erin gave an engaging speech on her inspiration to write the book (those amazing literary heroine’s that we all grew up with) and then opened it up to the attendees for a lively discussion. Also in attendance was Katherine Cox, blog mistress of Gaskell Blog. Here are a few photos.

Erin Blakemore B&N Event May 20, 2011

Erin Blakemore B&N Event May 20, 2011

Continue reading

Erin Blakemore, Author of The Heroine’s Bookshelf at My Very Own B&N on Friday

Author Erin Blakemore (2010)The patience of saints has been applied by all involved, but after many months, and much preparation, the day is almost upon us.

Erin Blakemore, author of The Heroine’s Bookshelf: Life Lessons, from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder arrives in Seattle on Friday, May 20th for a discussion and signing at my very own Barnes & Noble in Lynnwood, WA. Come join us at 7:00 pm for an exploration of classic heroines and their equally admirable authors.

One of my favorite books of 2010, here is my introduction from my 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…The Heroine’s Bookshelf is a frothy literary latte; rich and sweet and deeply satisfying.

Erin is not only a talented writer, she is a professional speaker on writing and just participated in the event “The You Factor: Get Noticed, Get Published” in Broomfield, CO, organized by writing coach Lori DeBoer of The North Metro Area Writers Group. Here is what they had to say about her: Continue reading

A Trip to the Emerald City to See William Deresiewicz, Author of A Jane Austen Education

The Wizard of Oz (1939)I have to admit I am a homebody. I like my nest and my creature comforts: my computer, my books, my diet Dr. Pepper, my antique iron bed splayed with pillows, and, my Jane Austen. *sigh*

There is no place like home. So says Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz. I could not agree more. Dorothy, her little dog Toto and I would have been BFF’s if we had been cast in the same novel. I would of course introduce her to Jane Austen and she would discover (to my delight) that Lady Catherine de Bourgh was in her story too, but, wore black bombazine and flew on a broomstick.

It takes a lot to pull me away from my comfort zone, especially after a long day at work, AND, one of the ten days of the year in the Pacific Northwest when the sun is shining and it is not raining, (I kid you NOT). However, I was determined to drive into the Emerald City (Seattle) and attend the reading and book signing at Elliott Bay Books by author William Deresiewicz. He was speaking about his new book, A Jane Austen Education, which I had recently read and reviewed. I had been agog with his evangelical Janeism and loved every word of it. No, I didn’t really need to be converted, but reading about a man’s personal experience of being transformed from a Jane Austen naysayer to one of her worshipers was a compelling tale that any literature lover and Janeite could relate too. He also throws in some excellent literary criticism and amusing personal stories that make the book very accessible and humorous.

A Jane Austen Education, by William Deresiewicz (2011)I tore myself away from work and hit the road (NO, I did not follow the yellow brick road) in my trusty carriage with detailed Google maps and driving instructions. In the nine years that I have lived near Seattle I have only driven once in the city by myself. I got terribly lost. The wicked one way streets are merciless. This time I made it in one straight shot. Huzzah! The downside was that the parking was $10.00. I hoped the experience would offset the financial setback!

For anyone who has not been to Elliott Bay Books (and I assume that is most of you) it is Seattle’s legendary independent bookstore. Since I work as a bookseller for the world’s largest chain bookstore, we could say that I was walking into the polar opposite in the bookselling universes. It was a refreshing change. The space was open, eclectic and inviting, and, they displayed thousands of books on their cedar lined shelves. Delightful. Continue reading

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