Why Jane Austen? – Rachel M. Brownstein
Columbia University Press, 2011
Review Copy through Netgalley
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I am sure many of you know about my devotion to the books by Jane Austen, how whichever way I turn, I will always, sooner or later, return to them, reread them, search for new passages that strike me. My reading of these books may not be as clever as Nicola or Carolyn, but I do always enjoy my forays into Austenland.
Rachel Brownstein, an English professor at Brooklyn College, in her Why Jane Austen? explores the many ways of reading Austen through the ages and tries to answer why we still read and should read her, by looking at the many reconstructions of her life, the language and themes in her work, her possible influences and her fandom. She does so in ways that I haven’t come across before. For example, when Brownstein turns to Jane Austen’s life, she does not simply retell her life story, but rather discusses why her life story seems to be of such importance to us. How again and again we try to reconstruct it from the tiny amount of source material left to us.
We read about other people, in biographies and novels, looking for bad or good examples, trying to escape out own lives and seeking models that might help us improve them. Master shapers of narratives about lives and selves, novelists are promising biographical subjects, women novelists most of all: the lives of Bronte and Eliot and Woolf, of George Sand, Izak Dinesen, Colette, and Edith Wharton continue to be chewed over. We read about them to learn how they came to be succesful – and what their love lives were like. In the case of Jane Austen, the record is skimpy and full of holes, and there is no strong story line. A writer from girlhood, she had to have written a great many more letters than remain.
This lack of source material, in turn, leads to reading the novels as sources for her life, or as Brownstein says: “The novels are the lens through which we look at the life and read the letters of the writer”. Her exploration of the many ways in which these novels have functioned as lenses, in which her letters have been interpreted, are fascinating.
The parts discussing questions of her life and authorship, as well as the parts that discussed the themes and language in her novels through close reading, were the chapters that I found most interesting. Brownstein managed to convey what I so love in Austen, but that I never yet managed to put into words myself. The ways in which nowadays Austen is seen as a romance writer, and how
Austen’s critique of selfishness and greed and a society that measured human worth and human relationships in terms of land and money somehow got lost in the course of all of this.
Or Brownstein’s fascinating observations on how in Pride and Prejudice, the voice of narrator and character are often mixed, so that as a reader you are unsure if you are hearing Austen’s observations on Elizabeth, or Elizabeth’s thoughts herself – which makes you feel more connected to Elizabeth at the same time.
There was much of interest in Brownstein book, but I felt it suffered from two things. First, Brownstein spends a large part of this book discussion books by other authors: Austen contemporaries, but also authors and books that preceded Austen, as well as book inspired (in part) by Austen. Not the sequels, but books like Atonement. I had some problems with understanding exactly what was the relevance of the discussion of all these authors and books preceding and succeeding Jane. But perhaps this is merely my ignorance speaking, as I am sure that academically speaking these texts are relevant when compared to the work of Jane, or when read as allusions to each other. However, as an unschooled person in the arts of literary analysis, it seemed to me that Brownstein did not always succeed in arguing the case of relevance for her discussion of these authors and texts. And quite frankly, parts of the discussion of these texts left me feeling bored and it often made me put the book down for a while. I even for a second thought to myself: “Perhaps it is not so bad that I didn’t decide to study literature – if this is what I would have had to read endlessly.” However, at the same time, I feel it is only fair to note that for a text written by an academic, Brownstein did a tremendous job at keeping this book accessible to academics and non-academics alike. She uses little to no technical terms which made that I could understand (almost – given that I’m not sure I gathered the relevance of all the texts she compares Austen to) everything she was trying to convey.
The second problem I had with the book was that Brownstein at times seems rather dismissive, or, dare I say? elitist. Sometimes explicit, but never overly so, it was mostly a feeling I received throughout reading Why Jane Austen. Let me try to illustrate this: For one, Brownstein obviously feels the recent mania surrounding Jane Austen misinterpreteds, or even forgets about, the texts. She does not condemn the movies per se, but she clearly does not enjoy them herself. I have no problem with this. I enjoy watching the movies, but I do appreciate how in movies, much of the original text gets lost. However, at times I felt she too easily dismissed the form of fandom that surrounds Jane Austen right now. As if people who read the follow ups to her novels misunderstand the true meaning of her works. As if not reading Jane Austen stories for their literary merit makes it the wrong kind of reading. I often feel these prequels, sequels and rewrites are not that enjoyable, or really couldn’t be called Austen-inspired except for the names, but I find she dismisses the whole group of them too easily.
Even if I could in part agree with the criticism summarised above, I felt Brownstein became elitist in her assertion that Austen’s novels “do not work well as escape reading” when “read well with any degree of attention”. This surprised me, really, because it seems to suggest that when read with proper attention, Austen could not be considered escape reading and that people who consider her novels an escape, are at that moment misreading her or not reading her work right. I do sometimes read Austen as an escape, not always for the storyline of romance that has been superimposed on many of her novels (I do agree with that observation), but precisely because of the setting, the characters, the themes and the social critique, combined with the love stories that I enjoy. It is the fact that Austen’s novels can be read and enjoyed on so many levels, that make her work worthwhile for me, even after having read most book more than thrice. And I do sometimes feel other people read and interpreted her work, or her characters, completely different than I do, but I think that is what makes comparing these readings interesting. And considering that Rachel Brownstein sets out to discuss the many ways in which Austen has been read through time, it struck me as weird that she ends with something that could almost be called derisive of the ‘simple’ readings of Austen.
Why Jane Austen? was a slow read, sometimes hard to follow, although Rachel Brownstein always managed to keep her text accessible to scholars and non-scholars alike. I am glad I read the book, especially for the parts that concerned themes and style of Austen’s writing, but I was a little put off by her seemingly elitist interpretation of the worth of Austen’s novels. Nevertheless, I would recommend this to those who like me, would like a peek into the world of academic discussions on Austen, and are looking for a more thorough understanding of the language and style of Austen.
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