Why Jane Austen? indeed! We might all ask that of ourselves, the question of why she is still avidly read these 200 years later; why the movies; why the many continuations, the fan fiction and the mash-ups; why all the Austen-related blogs and social networking sites; and why the continuing scholarly interest in finding and discussing yet another approach, another meaning. A few years ago we had Jane’s Fame by Claire Harman (Cannongate, 2009) and Jane Austen’s Textual Lives by Kathryn Sutherland (Oxford, 2005), both brilliant analyses of the past two centuries of Jane Austen studies and cultural popularity. Now in the bicentennial year of Austen’s first published work, Rachel Brownstein has given us an engaging treasure-filled meditation on Jane Austen as writer, woman, social commentator, and 21st-century icon. Don’t miss reading this book…
I had the good fortune to hear Dr. Brownstein speak to the JASNA-Massachusetts region this past May. Brownstein has been one of my very own heroines ever since the publication of her Becoming a Heroine: Reading about Women in Novels (Viking, 1982), where she weaves her own personal narrative into an analysis of the various feminist literary critical approaches to late 18th and 19th century literature. Heroine is notable also for its loving critique of Austen’s six novels – it is a must read. [She further discusses Richardson’s Clarissa, Bronte’s Villette, George Meredith’s The Egoist, Daniel Deronda by George Eliot, Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.]
But what I love most about this book was her own story, her hiding in the bathroom at fifteen, behind a locked door, discovering literature, and “feeling transformed into someone older, more beautiful and graceful, moving among people who understood delicate and complex webs of feeling, patterned perceptions altogether foreign to my crude ‘real’ life … [all the while hugging] the secret knowledge that [her parents] were harboring a viper in their bathroom.” [p. 5] – didn’t we future English majors all find ourselves in that bathroom?
So what does an early feminist critic make of Jane Austen’s continuing popularity? And how as an English professor does Brownstein make Jane Austen relevant to a college student in the 21st century, most all baffled by and suspicious of Austen’s world where “virgins are bent on finding rich husbands and no one works”, where everything is really about love and money, but we are shown nothing of the sex or the working [quoting Brownstein, May, 2011].
At this May talk, Dr. Brownstein read from her first chapter, surely making each of us wishing to be transported into one of her classrooms, to have her question our complacent assumptions, to dare to strip the works of all the critical analysis and take each sentence, each word back to the writer who wrote them – she dares us to be better readers, closer readers, understanding more with each re-read. What does Jane Austen say to us and why does she continue to speak to us 200 hundred years later?
I read this book on the heels of William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter (Penguin, 2011) – also a meditation of sorts, a very engaging personal one on how reading each of the novels changed the author’s life, each chapter a probing essay on how he saw way too much of himself in the least–liked of Austen’s characters. Deresiewicz’s is an easy read, a well-written journey of discovery and we willingly and happily go along for the ride, having countless ah!-ha! moments as we nod in agreement at his insights. But while Brownstein’s Why Jane Austen? is similar in its personal aspects, it is a far more scholarly text, with extensive notes, referencing previous criticism, biographies and popular culture run amok [what she calls “Jane-o-mania”, deliberately following the term “Byromania’ [p. 6]] with such a slight-of-hand, so jam-packed, that just like an Austen novel, a re-read is absolutely required!
Deresiewicz, incidentally, offers a lovely tribute on the cover of Why Jane Austen? – it is worth sharing:
Why Jane Austen? Is a warm-hearted, personal, and humane meditation on Austen and Austenolatry. It is also in the tradition of Becoming a Heroine, smart, witty, eloquent and joyfully wide-ranging, a mixture of anecdote, cultural criticism, biography, literary history, and close reading. By bringing serious literary thought to a wider audience – the book is accessible to anyone acquainted with Austen’s novels – it performs one of the most important services of humanistic scholarship.
I cannot say it better myself! In this book where the emphasis in on truth, the truth that fiction affords us, Brownstein shows us by beginning her work with an epigraph of Katherine Mansfield’s famous comment on Austen:
The truth is that every true admirer of the novels cherishes the happy thought that he alone – reading between the lines – has become the secret friend of their author.
- she shows us that we who read and re-read Austen indeed become sure and fast friends, illusive though she be. Brownstein just brings us closer, and it is a lovely journey.
Dr. Brownstein has been most gracious in doing an interview here at Jane Austen in Vermont [as well as coming to speak to our JASNA-Vermont region in June 2012! – we cannot wait!] Please join me tomorrow when I post the interview, and hear directly from Prof. Brownstein as to “why Jane Austen?” - any comments and questions will be forwarded to Dr. Brownstein for her response – you indeed might like to address “Why Jane Austen? in your own life!
You will be entered into the Book giveaway contest for a copy of Why Jane Austen? by leaving a comment on either this post or on tomorrow’s interview – the deadline is midnight next Wednesday night August 10, 2011 – Winner will be announced on Thursday August 11, 2011 [worldwide eligibility].
- Rachel Brownstein’s website:
- Her facebook page:
- Publisher: Columbia University Press:
**Note the following upcoming event: Reading at Gibson’s Bookstore, Concord, NH. Thursday, August 25 at 7 p.m. – come in costume! see the flyer here: Why Jane Austen
Becoming a Heroine: Reading about Women in Novels. New York: Viking, 1982 [reprinted Columbia UP, 1994 with a new postscript]
“ChosenWomen.” Out of the Garden: Women Writing on the Bible. Ed. Christina Buchmann and Celina Spiegel. New York: Ballantine, 1994.
“Endless Imitation: Austen’s and Byron’s Juvenilia.” The Child Writer from Austen to Woolf. Ed. Christine Alexander and Juliet McMaster. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. 122-37. [reviewed in JASNA News:
“England’s Emma.” Persuasions 21 (1999): 224-41.
“The Importance of Aunts.” Fay Weldon’s Wicked Fictions. Ed. Regina Barreca. Lebanon, NH: UP of New England, 1994. [pp.]
“Interrupted Reading: Personal Criticism in the Present Time.” Confessions of the Critics. Ed. H. Aram Veeser. New York: Routledge, 1996. 29-39.
“Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice.” The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Ed. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 32-57.
“Out of the Drawing Room, Onto the Lawn.” Jane Austen in Hollywood. Ed. Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield. Lexington, KY: UP Kentucky, 1998. 13-21.
“Personal Experience Paper.” Personal Effects: The Social Character of Scholarly Writing. Ed. Deborah H. Holdstein and David Bleich. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 2001. 220-31.
“Rachel, au Coeur des lettres.” Rachel, Une Vie Pour le Théâtre, 1821-1858. Paris: Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judäisme, 2004. 41-55.
“Romanticism, a Romance: Jane Austen and Lord Byron, 1813-1815.” Persuasions 16 (1994): 175-84.
Tragic Muse: Rachel of the Comedie-Francaise. New York: Knopf, 1993.
Rev. of Jane Austen, by Deirdre Le Faye.
“Tenderized.” Rev. of The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett. Commonweal 135, 10 May 2008.
Rev. of Our Kind: A Novel in Stories, by Kate Walbert. WSQ: Gender and Cutlure in the 1950s. 33. 3-4 (2005): 365-68.
“What Becomes A Legend.” Rev. of Blonde, by Joyce Carol Oates, and Seeing Mary Plain, by Frances Kiernan. The American Prospect, August 28, 2000.
Rev. of Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette, by Judith Thurman. Boston Sunday Globe, October 31, 1999.
Rev. of God’s Funeral, by A.N. Wilson. Boston Sunday Globe, June 20, 1999.
Rev. of I Married a Communist, by Philip Roth. Commonweal, January 15, 1999.
Rev. of Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom. Boston Sunday Globe, November 1, 1998.
Recent web articles and links:
A radio interview with Mark Lynch of “Inquiry” on WICN (90.5 FM), on NPR:
Rachel Brownstein’s response to the Kathryn Sutherland kerfuffle last November on the Language Log blog:
The Daily Beast – her response to V. S. Naipaul on Jane Austen
The Huffington Post: Jane Austen books you may not have discovered yet – Professor Brownstein offers up 11 lesser known works:
The Page 99 Test blog:
An essay by Professor Brownstein at Austenprose:
An essay at the Montreal Review:
Reviews of Why Jane Austen?:
At the Chronicle of Higher Education, by Gina Barreca:
At The New York Times: “Lessons from Jane Austen” by Miranda Seymour:
at Simple Pleasures Books blog:
this just added: “A Pleasure, but not a guilty one” at Commonweal.com –