Why Jane Austen?

I’ve been a reader of Jane Austen since my college days, when I first read Northanger Abbey in a class on the Gothic novel and spent a spring break immersed in Pride and Prejudice for my own pleasure. However, as much as I love her books, I’ve never been a student of her work. Aside from reading Northanger Abbey for a class in which our study focused on the mock Gothic aspects of the work, I’ve always read Austen purely for the story and the humor. And to be honest, I’ve never been certain that there was more there. In the back of my mind, I knew there must be, but I never bothered to dig for it.

With that background, I found Rachel Brownstein’s Why Jane Austen? tremendously helpful. Brownstein, an English professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, delves into Austen’s language and themes, her possible influences, her life, and her fandom to give readers a sense of why Austen has been not only enjoyed but also studied.

A great deal of Brownstein’s attention focuses on the different ways people have thought about Austen and her work. She quotes scholars and authors and her own students, all of whom have their own views about who Austen was. Austen has been so widely discussed that it’s difficult to imagine coming up with anything original to say, and our knowledge of her life is so limited that speculation is unavoidable if we are to say anything at all. Brownstein acknowledges the challenge:

Jane Austen is a daunting subject to write about because she was so smart and because so many clever and intelligent people have already risen to the challenge. As Juliet McMaster wisely observes, “We all want to write about Jane Austen, but we each of us want to be the only one doing it. We want everyone to admire Jane Austen, but we each suspect the others do it the wrong way. We want her to be our particular Jane, and to share her with a multitude too.” Hers was a specifically comic genius, and while that truth is insufficiently acknowledged, the often too-solemn discourse around her is rich with comic possibilities. In the course of writing the following pages, in defense of Jane Austen and in self-defense as well, I have been laughing a little at myself as well as at other people. Seriously but also for the fun of it, I engage with Jane Austen yet again.

As Brownstein examines both Austen’s writing and others’ writings about Austen, she points out the sometimes comic misreadings—such as the treatment of Austen as a romance writer when she herself said she could never write romance. I wonder, however, if the term romance has shifted in meaning enough since Austen’s time to make this statement less ironic that it appears at first glance. I’m more convinced by the argument that the love stories so central to Austen’s plots are so grounded in economic concerns. No one gives up a fortune for love—for principles, but not for love. For the most part, when people make grand romantic gestures (running off with a lover, say), it’s treated as rash, even scandalous.

Brownstein spends a fair bit of time on the popular film versions of Austen’s novels and how they’ve contributed to “Jane-o-mania” that draws attention to the books, even as they push people toward interpretations of the novels that don’t always jibe with the text. Brownstein does not seem to dislike the films, but she does make some good points about how the loss of the narrator’s voice is significant. (My own personal hobby horse about the films is the fear that some Austen fans have forgotten—if they ever knew—that Mr. Darcy never actually appears in a wet shirt in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I’m not complaining about Andrew Davies’s clever addition to the awkwardness. It’s just that it has become so iconic that I wonder if first-time readers see a not-quite-dressed Colin Firth when they read that scene—the scene as originally written is awkward enough without that.)

The close readings of certain passages of the novels, such as the opening of Emma, were especially helpful to me because I don’t always pay close attention to an author’s language. It has to be extraordinarily good or extraordinarily bad for me to take note. Brownstein shows how Austen uses language not merely to communicate a story, but to illuminate and guide her readers’ thoughts. Vowel sounds and deliberate pauses have meaning, and Brownstein’s close readings helped me to appreciate Austen’s skill in a way I hadn’t before.

As pleased as I am to have found these new ways of reading Austen, I must take issue with Brownstein’s assertion, late in the book, that “Read well with any degree of attention, [Austen’s novels] do not work well as escape reading.” I’m sure many of you would agree that Austen can make wonderful escape reading. The crux of Brownstein’s point here may be that to read her books in such a way is not to “read well,” but I question whether it is poor, inattentive reading to read purely for plot. Certainly it’s not the deepest way to read, and to read purely for plot is to miss a great deal, but for me, the genius of Austen’s books is that they can be appreciated on multiple levels. Indeed, many of my favorite books operate in this way.

When Brownstein focuses on Austen, the book is enjoyable and interesting, but I got frustrated with her lengthy discussions of Austen’s contemporaries. There is value is looking at Austen’s possible influences, but Brownstein doesn’t make a strong enough case for Byron’s or Wollstonecraft’s actual influence on Austen’s work to warrant the length of time she spends on them. Her examination of the Henry James story “The Aspern Papers,” while interesting, is almost entirely irrelevant. It seems to be included partly because it involves a fan falling in love with an author in much the same way that readers love Jane Austen and partly because it is based on a story about Austen’s contemporary Percy Bysshe Shelley. The pages devoted to Ian McEwan’s Atonement make a little more sense, because McEwan referred to the book as his “Jane Austen novel,” and Brownstein’s analysis of why that might be true helped me appreciate Atonement more (as it’s another book I read almost entirely for plot).

Why Jane Austen? offers a lot of interesting commentary for readers already familiar with Jane Austen’s novels but not necessarily with the scholarly conversation about Austen. It’s readable enough for the non-scholar but has enough substance to benefit the reader looking for something other than an affectionate tribute to Austen as a story-teller.

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28 Responses to Why Jane Austen?

  1. I’ve been reading this but find I can put it down for long periods of time. I keep meaning to pick it up again.

    • Teresa says:

      It definitely doesn’t need to be read straight through. That’s just my usual mode of reading–it’s the only way I can finish anything!

  2. This sounds very interesting. Like you, I only read one of Austen’s books for college, although it was Pride & Prejudice, not Northanger Abbey. Since then, I have read all her books, with the exception of the half finished Sandition.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve read all her six of her major novels, but hadn’t read any of her minor or unfinished works until yesterday, when I read Lady Susan and enjoyed it very much.

  3. Frances says:

    Think that the number of Austen “misreadings” is also part of her popularity. The complexities that lurk behind the wit can be easily read over, and people tend to make their reading experiences with Austen distinctly personal. Each book seems in many cases to be what each reader requires it to be. I know I am not making much sense but as I have read through gazillions of Austen posts over the years, sometimes I think that people have not been reading the same book. Funny. But wonderful that each reader can a find a comfortable place in her pages. No need to always be a “student.” :)

    • Teresa says:

      Exactly. Being a student can be a wonderful and rewarding way to read, but so can escapism. It’s a rare author who works on both levels, and I think Austen is one. I love what you say about how her books tend to be exactly what the reader requires.

  4. bookssnob says:

    I always find people’s interpretations of Austen intriguing. I did study her novels at school and university and while I can appreciate them from an academic point of view, I also appreciate them from the ‘escapist’ point of view – they are funny, well plotted stories with a happy ending, as well as being brilliantly written. They can be appreciated on many levels, and, as Frances says, they become personal to each reader, because they are about love, and the lack of it, and the pursuit of it, and the loss of it, and that universality of experience is essentially why Austen has endured, I think.

    • Teresa says:

      I do wish I’d gotten the opportunity to read more Austen in school, only because I’d love to get at those other layers. However, I was really surprised at Brownstein’s assertion that Austen doesn’t work as escapist reading because that’s precisely how I’ve tended to read them, and they worked fine for me, even though I knew I wasn’t getting at everything that was there.

  5. Bookish Hobbit says:

    I keep thinking I must be one of the odd readers out there because I don’t really like Jane Austen’s books.

  6. Jenny says:

    I like what Frances says about each book being what the reader requires it to be, because I have also found the books to be what I needed them to be at different stages of my life. Particularly Persuasion, which was farther down on my list when I was younger, and is now perhaps my favorite.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, Persuasion has grown in my estimation as I’ve gotten older. And then there’s the fact that second and third readings can draw out points that we didn’t notice earlier.

  7. justbookreading says:

    I don’t usually read books about Jane Austen’s books, I prefer the books instead, but after struggling with Mansfield Park, this sounds like something I might like.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve not read any books about Austen (or any of the sequels and whatnot) until this one. She has some helpful things to say about Mansfield Park and how it might be read as a sort of counterpoint to P&P because the heroines are sort of opposites. I hadn’t thought about that, but it was an interesting argument.

  8. Dorothy W. says:

    This sounds interesting, although I wonder if I might get impatient with it because I have read a lot about Austen already, including some scholarly work, and the material in the book might be too familiar. Not that I know everything about her though, and I’m sure Brownstein has new insights. I wrote a paper on Emma in college, but I writing on Austen in grad school because I felt that was no way I could say anything new about her. I’m very familiar with that feeling!

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve read so little about Austen that this was ideal for me, and I have no idea how original or new her ideas are because it was all at least sort of new to me. There’s just about as much on the conversation about Austen as there is about Austen herself, so that might be at least a slightly original spin.

  9. litlove says:

    I’m intrigued by this simply because there are SO many Austen books out there and it must be very hard to find a fresh angle. I’d be curious to see how the author does that – so it’s worth looking out for this in the library, I think.

  10. Cori says:

    I’m currently reading Northanger Abbey, the final Austen novel that I have to read (I’ll take a moment to be sad right now). I’ve read a couple books about her, but find her actual novels more to my taste. That being said, this looks like a very interesting read. Once I finish NA, I’ll have to pick it up and see if it adds to my knowledge of her whole body of work.

    • Teresa says:

      I’d also much rather read Austen that read about her, but since I haven’t read anything at all about her, I wanted to try something, and this was a good choice for me.

  11. JaneGS says:

    I loved reading your review of this book, which I haven’t yet read but will get to eventually. Interesting that you haven’t studied Austen. I came to Austen early, and by the time I was a senior in high school had read the lot, some several times. I ended up writing a senior paper on P&P, and hated the process, thinking I was stealing its charm by studying it. Of course, in college, i studied Austen a great deal and learned I could study the novels without milking them dry, and since then love to read lit crit of Austen.

    • Teresa says:

      It is odd that just the one professor assigned Austen, and then for that specific purpose. I got the Brontes (specifically Jane Eye and Wuthering Heights) multiple times.

      I’ve heard people say that lit crit saps the pleasure from a book, but I often ended up loving books more after I studied them, just in a different way that didn’t get me from also loving them as good stories.

  12. Christy says:

    I never had Jane Austen assigned to me for reading. I was an English major but I took more writing classes than literature classes and the lit classes I took were not of her time period. I’ve read all of her major novels, with P&P and Emma as my favorites.

    I’ve not read any scholarly works on Jane Austen, but I’m intrigued by some of what you describe in Brownstein’s work. I’m especially curious about Atonement being McEwan’s ‘Jane Austen’ novel. I didn’t realize he referred to the book that way. I think very highly of Atonement.

    In a recent film adaptation of Northanger Abbey, the narrator makes a few appearances in voice-over.

    This was a great review of this book – I like how you drew out the author’s points and your comments and criticisms of the book.

    • Teresa says:

      I only took a few classes that could have included Austen. Most of my classes were Victorian or later.

      I had never heard McEwan say that either, but I really enjoyed the way Brownstein pulled apart that idea to see what he might have meant. It made me appreciate Atonement all the more. (On Chesil Beach is my favorite McEwan.)

  13. Pingback: Comfort Reading | Iris on Books

  14. Jillian ♣ says:

    Sounds like such a good read. I love drinking in all of the varied reactions to Jane Austen. :-)

  15. rebeccareid says:

    I started this one, but I think i like reading other’s reviews of it more than I like reading it. Sigh. I have been in a major reading funk this summer…

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