Friday, November 4, 2011

Why Jane Austen?, by Rachel M Brownstein: A Review

Guest Review by Laura Handlin (@opheliacat on Twitter)

Explaining Jane
Why Jane Austen? is not only the title of Rachel M. Brownstein’s book—it is a provocatively posed question, open, like so much about Austen and her work, to multiple interpretations. Brownstein’s purpose is, in part, to try “to account for the continuing popularity of the novelist and her novels . . . ” The title is also a nod to scholar and critic Lionel Trilling’s final, unfinished essay, “Why We Read Jane Austen.” Through references to Trilling as well as to numerous other critics, Brownstein shepherds the reader through the changing trends in Austen criticism from the nineteenth century to the present. These critical writings draw upon an area of scholarly endeavor of which even Austen’s most dedicated readers, unless they are scholars themselves, may not be aware.

The prevailing views of Austen have changed over time: early twentieth-century writers viewed her as socially conservative writer who was approved of the conventional society depicted in her novels. The feminist revolution of the 1970s brought about a change in the way critics viewed women writers; their works were examined, for the first time, as products of the female experience—a development that led, one could argue, to a resurgence of interest in Austen. Scholars also began to examine her writings in the context of history, including ever-present background of the Napoleonic Wars. The 1990s—and the films and mini-series of Austen’s books that became so popular in that decade—played up the subversive, satiric side of the novels, the “inside joke” that she shares with her readers (an aspect of her writing that Brownstein illustrates at length). This historical tour of works about Austen makes her seem like a kind of Regency Rorschach, a mirror each age holds up to itself in order to illustrate the values and issues it deems important.

Although the book is divided into chapters with specific subject matter, it seems to blend into a whole, becoming more of a meditation on Austen and an eclectic, although at times unsorted, treasure trove of information about the author, her life, times, and work. Brownstein is a professor of English Literature at Brooklyn College, and some of the book’s most interesting and illuminating offerings are her accounts of how she teaches Austen to her classes—introducing students at a large, public, urban school to the world of early nineteenth-century rural English gentry. The students’ questions and her responses make fascinating reading, and are windows into an accomplished and knowledgeable teacher’s classroom techniques.

Why Jane Austen? contains lots of treats for the Austen devotee, in particular an in-depth analysis of Emma as well as a discussion of English tourism, the cult of scenery, and visits to great houses (Pemberley, anyone?) This includes a mention of what is known as the Frog service of tableware—painted with views of England—that the firm of Wedgwood and Bentley made for Catherine the Great of Russia in 1773–74, a highly publicized commission that jump-started, if you’ll pardon the pun, the English craze for scenery—at a time when travel to the Continent was limited by world events and domestic travel in England became very fashionable.

There is also, of course, Jane Austen the woman—who remains an elusive figure despite all the attempts that have been made to learn more about her from her novels and any other evidence researchers can find. The reticence that Austen displayed in life, Brownstein argues, was a “conscious aesthetic choice,” a rejection of what Coleridge called the “age of personality”—and he had never even seen a reality TV show.

In the introduction, the author describes her work as “biographical criticism,” telling readers that she provides “no bright new take on Jane Austen.” She offers, instead, an enticing assortment of thoughtful analysis, historical context, literary criticism, and personal anecdotes. We continue to read Austen and to reread her because, as Brownstein says, we see ourselves in the novels—and maybe because we think Jane Austen can see us.

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