Published by Columbia University Press on 2013-08-13
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From the first publication of Pride and Prejudice to recent film versions of her life and work, Jane Austen continues to inspire fantasies of peculiar intimacy and provoke enthusiasm and debate. Celebrated in the nineteenth century for her realism and patrician gentility, condemned by some second-wave feminists but adored by others, imagined now as politically conservative and then as subversively satirical, Austen generates passions shaped by ideologies and trends—as well as by her own memorable stories, characters, and elusive, perennially cool tone. In this book, Rachel M. Brownstein considers Jane Austen as heroine, moralist, satirist, romantic, woman, and author, along with the changing notions of these categories over time and texts. She finds echoes of many of Austen's insights and techniques in contemporary Jane-o-mania, a commercially driven, erotically charged popular vogue that aims to preserve and liberate, correct and collaborate with old Jane. Brownstein's brilliant discussion of the distinctiveness and distinction of the novelist's genius clarifies the reasons why we read Jane Austen—or why we should read her—and reorients the prevailing view of her work. Reclaiming the rich comedy of Austen while building a new narrative of authorship, Brownstein unpacks the novelist's fascinating entanglement with her readers and admirers.
I hadn’t planned on writing reviews of academic books on this blog, but when NetGalley offered me a copy of Why Jane Austen? to review, I couldn’t help myself.
I tend to study early American women authors, but Jane Austen is a particular British favorite of mine. The problem with Austen is that the rest of the world is equally fascinated with her; there are SO many sequels, papers, and academic books written on her that the field of Austen studies should be saturated and in no need of further contributions. I expected Why Jane Austen? to be redundant and dull, but found that Brownstein actually accomplished something amazing – new contribution to Austen studies.
Brownstein uses “biographical criticism” (using Austen’s life to uncover clues in her writing) to examine the inconsistencies with modern interpretations of Austen’s work and her intended meaning. In a general sense, many modern readers read her stories because of how romantic they are. By exploring Austen’s life in an intimate way, Brownstein shows us that only considering her work romantic does not do her, or her work, justice. We have romanticized the author and transformed her from “a thin-lipped old maid” to a “glamorous popular celebrity.”
Brownstein also makes an intriguing connection between Jane Austen and Lord Byron, suggesting that Colin Firth’s steamy portrayal of Mr. Darcy illuminates the “Austen-Byron connection,” a literary connection that shows Austen’s relationship with Byron’s poems and how they might or might not have impacted her writing. Both authors imitated and mocked romance, yet Byron was the celebrity during the time period. Jane’s work was published anonymously for quite a long time. Interestingly enough, Brownstein proves that Byron, the celebrity writer of the late eighteenth century, has lost the attention of modern readers while Austen, who was not as popular, has skyrocketed to celebrity status in the modern era. Plain and ordinary Austen has achieved the kind of lasting power that most authors only dream of.
I don’t have any particular problems with this book. It is pretty standard fare if you read academic monographs on a regular basis. Even for the every day reader, Why Jane Austen? can definitely be a worthwhile read, especially if you’re interested in the subject matter. Brownstein doesn’t give us a comprehensive biography of Jane Austen’s life (this is a good thing, as it has been rehashed over and over again by several different scholars), but she does give us new ways of thinking about Austen and a fresh perspective on her lasting influence. I especially loved that Brownstein included a section on modern interpretations of Jane Austen’s style. The most interesting was her reading of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, a take on “truth, universally acknowledged” and Jane Austen’s penchant for country manors. I read Atonement several years ago (didn’t particularly like it – it was just ok), but Brownstein’s reading of it makes me want to revisit it again and look at the relationship McEwan has with Austen.
If anything, Rachel Brownstein gently scolds those of us who only see Austen as a writer of romance. In showing us bits and pieces of Austen’s life, she shows us the complexity of her writing – which is ultimately the reason why her writing has such staying power. “First Impressions” was the original title for Pride and Prejudice. Perhaps our own first impressions of the novel, like Elizabeth and Darcy’s first impressions of one another, are wrong.
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