Part I: Rachel Brownstein on Why Jane Austen? ~ An Interview and Book Giveaway!

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.


Book Giveaway!!

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].


Further reading:

**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. 

Book Reviews:

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:

at Bluestalking Blog

this just added: “A Pleasure, but not a guilty one” at –

 Copyright @2011 by Deb Barnum, of Jane Austen in Vermont

39 thoughts on “Part I: Rachel Brownstein on Why Jane Austen? ~ An Interview and Book Giveaway!

  1. I am so intrigued that I have already bought the book and plan to read it before my elementary classroom comes back in Sept. I’m also interested in the 1982 book, too. Is that one still available? I’ve read William D’s book and I believe I picked up Kathryn Sullivan’s book while at Oxford last August, not realizing just what a treasure I had found.


  2. Yes, Karen, the Heroine book is still in print [the CUP edition of 1994], as isTragic Muse, sure proof of the value and importance of Brownstein’s work.

    Thanks for stopping by Karen – I look forward to hearing from you after you have read it!


  3. Enthusiastic Rachel Brownstein fan here, though as a contemporary of hers I don’t know what I think about her being called an “early” feminist! Kindly put me in the pot for the giveaway, Deb. All best, Diana (P.S. I’m just back from England, doing a six-part blog series as part of decompression phase!)


    • Yes, I agree with you about Brownstein, but she does have a decade on us Diana and was there at the beginning of it all [she was in college in the 1950s] – her 1982 Heroine book addresses all that. –

      I have been following your blog posts [even commented!] – re-entry is very hard isn’t it?! – nice of you to share it all with us – I still have many posts in the waiting wings on my trip to London in May but they don’t seem to get written all by themselves!

      Thanks for stopping by Diana!


    • Hello Kirk, were you the gentleman who asked about “work” in Jane Austen’s time? – yes, you must read this book – will add your name to the mix…
      Thanks for stopping by – would love to have you visit us in Vermont sometime…


      • Thanks, Deb! A couple of bookclub members have talked about going up to VT. Alas, it wasn’t me who asked any questions. Really enjoy the Penny Post. Cheers! Kirk


      • Well hopefully one of these days you will make it to one of our meetings – the next one is Sept 25 with the president of JASNA on Houses in JA’s fictions and life – not one to miss I think! – what do you read in your book group? Austen??


  4. Pingback: Interview and Book Giveaway! ~ Why Jane Austen? by Rachel Brownstein « Jane Austen in Vermont

  5. Hello, Deb–

    Thanks for a very interesting couple of posts (this one and the interview). The book is going into my Amazon cart if I don’t win the drawing; almost all of what Brownstein says in the interview resonates with me.

    And thanks also for (1) writing a wonderful blog (JAIV sets the standard for all JASNA regional blogs, I think!), and (2) including JASNA Syracuse’s blog in the “JA Societies” links.

    Cheers, and I hope to meet you in Fort Worth!–A. Marie Sprayberry


    • Thanks for commenting Lev and letting us know about your new book, a Pride and Prejudice mash-up – will give it a mention in my “weekly” [I wish!] round-up…

      Glad you stopped by,


  6. What a fascinating post and interview. And thank you for the wonderful bibliography as well. I have read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice once a year every year since I was nine years old. (I am 52!) I was introduced to her works, the works of the Bronte sisters and the works of Georgette Heyer by two little old lady sisters, retired librarians, who lived next door to us when we were stationed in England.

    I’d always felt so odd, so out of place in school and with my peers. Reading Jane Austen gave me examples of women very like me. Her characters became my friends and made my childhood so much better than it might have been.


    • Yes, re-reading P&P is definitely an annual adventure, isn’t it?! – what a lovely tribute you have given Jane Austen here Louisa – it seems she has been an important part of you own life as well as your writing life – what would she say to all of us who have been so touched by her?!

      Thank you for visiting!


  7. I have just recently within the last couple of years became a Jane Austen fan. And now I can’t get enough of her books and anything else that has to do with her or her wonderful characters! I wish that I had discovered her when I was younger but I will make sure my two little readers at home will find her much earlier than 30!!:)


    • It is never too late [or too early!] to discover Jane Austen! – I read her as a teenager, but then rediscovered her when my daughter was in college – glad that you found her when you did – think of all those years you have ahead of you of re-reading her! – and to your “little readers”!

      Thanks for stopping by Kelli – will add your name to the mix…


    • Great question Lev! – I should ask this in a post on the blog and see what responses we get – love the clydesdale tale – and who can beat a hammock in Tel Aviv! –

      I have been to a good number of exotic places in the world – but do I dare say I had left my Austen at home?! – but I can say that a group of us began meeting in the White Mountains of New Hampshire to share our love of Austen a number of years ago; so does the base of Mt Washington count as exotic enough? – and that we still continue to meet 2x every year and call ourselves the Wild Women? – I know – not exotic enough, but the best I can come up with!

      Let’s hear from others…


  8. Laying on the back of a Clydesdale in a horse chestnut grove in a little village in England. He moved very slowly and I would often spend an entire afternoon reading Jane Austen under the blue English skies.


  9. Checking in from Canada where I spent several years introducing High school seniors, including even reluctant readers, to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Now in retirement, my students still contact me to reminisce about those days. Thank you for making your draw an international one.
    B. Babich


    • You must have been a wonderful teacher if you taught P&P and they are still contacting you! – will add your name to the mix and see if this book will end up in Canada!
      Thanks for stopping by Brenda,


  10. Pingback: Why Jane Austen? – Book Giveaway Deadline… « Jane Austen in Vermont

  11. Jane Austen has always been in my life but becomes a lifeline for me in times of stress. I can pick up a book and be “there”, no learning new characters or strategies. Her beloved characters become a comfort and sense of warmth to carry me through.

    Since the sudden death of my beloved 29 year old nephew in March of this year I have been to “Pemberley” and feel a calmness hard to feel in the everyday minutia we all have to tend to, even in times of duress.


    • Hello Constance – I am so sorry to hear about your nephew – how sad for all – and yes, Jane Austen is a fountain of comfort for all that life can hand out – glad that you have her to rely on at this time of mourning…
      Thank you for sharing,


  12. Why Jane Austen? I certainly agree about the wit, brilliance, etc. For me, Jane Austen takes me to a life with a slower pace that calms and soothes the soul. And I love the language in her books, some of which, after many years of re-reading, has crept into my own vocabulary, to the amusement of many who do not know Jane Austen. I am eager to read Brownstein’s book.


    • Yes, Marcia – I hear that Austen language creep into your words now and then! – one of the few of your friends who absolutely understands! – Thanks for sharing Marcia – I know how Austen has been a great soul comforter in your life – how I love that we can share her with each other! – and find endless chuckles over Mr. Collins or Mrs. Bennet, or spend a few moments drooling over Henry Tilney or Capt. Wentworth! Thank you!


  13. I’m looking forward to reading this book. Jane Austen books bring a certain feeling of peace and comfort that is so valuable in the busy lives we live.


    • So many people mention the comfort she affords us as readers, and why we return to her again and again! – thanks for stopping by Char – will enter your name into the mix…


  14. Pingback: Reminder! JASNA-Vermont ~ June 3, 2012 ~ Rachel Brownstein on Why Jane Austen? « Jane Austen in Vermont

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