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                   

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.)

The Janeite likes to mix it up—characters in the novels and Austen friends and family members, and people who have written about Jane Austen all tend to slide together in a blog post or a story or a conversation.  Slippage is part of the pleasure and the point: when you tell her that the woman you met on the train reminds you of Mrs. Jennings, a sister Janeite will know the kind of person you mean: affinity, complicity is the point and the pleasure.  In Why Jane Austen?, I write about Jane Austen’s family’s neighbors and also a bit about mine.

Blurring the line between actual and imaginary worlds seems to have been fun for Jane Austen herself.  She read her stories aloud to friends, looked for portraits of her characters at art exhibitions, even speculated about their afterlives. The reader who gets her tone feels as if she is in league with a friend.  Reading Jane Austen—still accessible, miraculously, after all these years—you feel invited to agree with the author about the people she reads so well; feeling (as Katherine Mansfield put it) like a secret friend of the author, you seek out her other friends, and join together with them in an Austen club.  It’s an unusually social result of a solitary practice.

Rachel M. Brownstein (2011)Author bio:

Rachel M. Brownstein is professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.  A graduate of Hunter College High School and Barnard College, she received her Ph.D. from Yale University.  She is the author of two critically acclaimed books, Becoming a Heroine: Reading about Women in Novels and Tragic Muse: Rachel of the Comédie-Française, as well as many articles and reviews.  She lives in New York City and enjoys summers in Vermont.  For many years she has talked and written about Jane Austen’s novels, critics, characters, imitators, adapters, admirers, and wannabes. Visit Rachel at her website Rachel M. Brownstein, at Facebook, or at Columbia University Press.

Giveaway of Why Jane Austen?

Enter a chance to win one of two copies of Why Jane Austen? by leaving a comment answering what intrigues you about this new lit/cultural history of Jane Austen or why you are a Janeite, by midnight PT, Wednesday, July 13, 2011. Winners to be announced on Thursday, July 14, 2010. Shipment to US addresses only. Good luck!

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

© 2007 – 2011 Rachel M. Brownstein, Austenprose