Maggie Lane on Understanding Austen: Key Concepts in the Six Novels

I had the pleasure to converse a bit with author Maggie Lane at the Brooklyn AGM last month – she signed a copy for me of her new book co-authored with Hazel Jones Celebrating Pride and Prejudice (Bath: Lansdown Media, 2012]


But Ms. Lane has been very busy! – I also purchased her just published Understanding Austen: Key Concepts in the Six Novels (London: Robert Hale, 2012) and in February 2013, her invaluable Jane Austen’s World: The Life and Times of England’s Most Popular Novelist (Carlton, 2013) will be published in a new revised edition with a new cover.

[You may pre-order here at  ]

Those of us who subscribe to the Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine [and who does not! – if you have perchance let this fall through the cracks, it is a perfect holiday gift to request for yourself and / or give to your Austen friends:

… but those who do already subscribe will know that Maggie is the consultant editor, and author in each issue of the always interesting take on Austen “minutiae”, wherein she will take what the average reader will often gloss over and suggest the significance of the most obscure terms, themes or ideas, thereby making a reading all the more interesting and compelling.  Indeed in the latest Nov – Dec 2012 issue in her essay on “Shoelaces and Shawls”, Maggie addresses the clothing accessories in Emma’s Highbury, offering a discussion of shawls and shoes, and tippets and umbrellas, and the “elegance” of Mrs. Elton’s garish purple and gold; and she too makes reference to the importance of the already-famous Mr. Knightley’s gaiters

But today I want to share with you some of Maggie Lane’s own words on her book Understanding Austen.  She has most graciously written us a lovely essay on how the book came into being.  If you have any questions for Maggie or would like more information on the book, please comment below – she will be happy to answer you.

For some years now I have enjoyed being Consultant Editor of, and writer for, the Jane Austen and her Regency World magazine.  While other contributors explore the visual, social or political aspects of the world that Jane Austen inhabited, or discuss prominent personalities of the period, when writing my own articles I see my brief as keeping close to the novels themselves.  In each issue, I attempt to illuminate some theme or idea that plays a subtle yet vital part in Austen texts.  Thus it was that I hit on the idea of investigating some of the abstract nouns – elegance, openness and reserve, to take three examples – that feature so often in the six novels.

I soon realised that there was far more to say about these concepts than could be encompassed in the word-length of an article.  The idea for a new book was born!  The subject seems to me replete with interest.  There is the linguistic interest of how the meanings of certain words have shifted in the two centuries between Jane Austen’s time and our own.  Candour is a good example of that.  It now means frankness amounting sometimes even to rudeness, yet in Austen’s time it still carried the sense of generosity of spirit, of giving other people the benefit of the doubt, which Elizabeth Bennet so admires in her sister Jane.  And then there is the moral weight which Austen attaches to certain words.  Composure is almost always a quality to be recommended and tried for.  It preserves the individual from unpleasant notice and calms the nerves.  Yet when Willoughby displays composure in his London encounter with the deeply distressed Marianne, he is behaving as a heartless cad.  Anne Elliot’s “elegance of mind” is of a wholly different calibre from “the sameness and the elegance” of her eldest sister’s way of life.

The nuances which Jane Austen accords to all her favourite abstract terms make them an endlessly fascinating study.  By focussing on her vocabulary, noticing which words keep company with others, juxtaposing and comparing familiar sentences from across the novels, I gained new insights and new understanding which I hope my readers will share.


Thank you Maggie!

I append here the Table of Contents to the work – an abundance of terms under discussion!

  1. Genius, Wit and Taste
  2. Elegance
  3. Openness and Reserve
  4. Exertion and Composure
  5. Liberality and Candour
  6. Gentility
  7. Delicacy
  8. Reason and Feeling
  9. Person and Countenance
  10. Air and Address
  11. Mind
  12. Temper
  13. Spirit
  14. Sensibility, Sense and Sentiment
  15. Firmness, Fortitude and Forbearance
  16. Propriety and Decorum
  17. A Nice Distinction

By way of example, let’s look at the Heroes of the novels and how they fare comparatively in the chapter on “Person and Countenance”:

Henry Tilney had a pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and if not quite handsome, was very near it; Bingley was good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance and easy, unaffected manners; but alas! his friend Mr. Darcy is soon discovered to be proud, to be above his company and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance.

Wickham had all the best part of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and a very pleasing address.

Edward Ferrars does not at first appeal: at first sight, his address is certainly not striking, and his person can hardly be called handsome; Brandon: though his face was not handsome, his countenance was sensible, and his address was particularly gentlemanlike. And Willoughby? His person and air were equal to what her [Marianne] fancy had ever drawn for the hero of a favourite story. – which should send up red flags to the reader immediately!

Frank Churchillhis countenance had a great deal of the spirit and liveliness of his father’s – he looked quick and sensible.

And this description of Henry Crawford has always given me a chuckle: he was plain to be sure, but then he had so much countenance, and his teeth were so good. !

And Elizabeth Elliot is quick to observe [in the chapter on “Air and Address” which links quite nicely with “Person and Countenance”] this about Captain Wentworth: [she] had been long enough in Bath to understand the importance of a man of such an air and appearance as his…Captain Wentworth would move about well in her drawing room. Indeed!

And so it goes – are you not intrigued to find how Mr. Knightley is so described? I highly recommend this book – you will find you shall choose to re-read all the novels all over again, all the more appreciating the language and narrative meaning through Maggie’s insightful view – it is perhaps another holiday gift to add to your own ‘want-list’?

Do you have a favorite term or description in Austen that you would like to share? or a question about a term that might be confusing to you? – please comment below, along with any questions for Maggie.

About the author:

Maggie Lane is the author of numerous (and invaluable!) works on Jane Austen [see list below]–
She has also published articles in the Jane Austen Society Annual Reports,
the JASNA journal Persuasions, and has lectured on Austen
in the UK, the US, Canada, and Australia.

Having served for many years on the committee of the Jane Austen Society UK,
she is now Chair of its South West branch; she lives in Exeter.

Maggie Lane.
Understanding Austen: Key Concepts in the Six Novels.
London: Robert Hale, 2012.
ISBN: 978-0-7090-9078-6
£16.99 ($24.95)

Her works:

  • Jane Austen’s England (1986)
  • Jane Austen’s World (1996, 2005, new edition out in Feb 2013]
  • Jane Austen’s Family Through Five Generations (1984, 1992)
  • Literary Daughters (1989)
  • Jane Austen and Names (2002)
  • A Charming Place: Bath in the Life and Novels of Jane Austen (1988)
  • Jane Austen and Food (1995)
  • The Jane Austen Quiz and Puzzle Book (1982) [and various other quiz books on Dickens, Hardy, Bronte, Shakespeare, and more!]
  • Jane Austen in Lyme (2003)
  • Celebrating Pride and Prejudice: 200 Years of Jane Austen’s Darling Child
c2012, Jane Austen in Vermont

3 thoughts on “Maggie Lane on Understanding Austen: Key Concepts in the Six Novels

  1. Well Maggie, the popular use of a range of words have always depended on situation and context whatever era they are spoken in. I don’t really think words have changed their subtle shades of meaning that much since the 18th century. There obviously were words used more often then than they are now, but I’m not sure about that, that might not be quite true, it depends on class and situation, in Britain anyway. Language is an ever developing thing but it also is quite a static thing too. The roots of words have remained the same, perhaps because most have Latin derivations,.What is wonderful is the power in words.
    .I think the biggest difference in word meaning is between us British and Americans. Dear me the tangles we get into over the words we use, Ha! Ha! . Perhaps your book is more useful to you Americans rather than us British.


  2. Pingback: Meet my new publsiher! « Maria Grace

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