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.