Review: Why Jane Austen? by Rachel Brownstein

Review: Why Jane Austen? by Rachel BrownsteinWhy Jane Austen? by Rachel M. Brownstein
Published by Columbia University Press on 2013-08-13
Pages: 285
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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.


© 2011 – 2016, Jessica Workman Holland. All rights reserved.

  • Anonymous

    You know, I’ve never read a single Austen biography.  

    • Anonymous

      She’s actually a fairly fascinating woman and not at all like we tend to portray her. If you’re interested in reading one, I suggest the one by Carol Shields called Jane Austen: A Life. It’s short, sweet, and to the point. 🙂

      • Anonymous

        Thanks. I’ll check it out!

  • Arnie Perlstein

    My entire blog is one long chain of evidence that readers not only can read Austen as more than just romance, but that Austen intended her readers, particularly her intelligent female readers, to read her novels as cautionary tales about the dangers to women in her world from both courtship and marriage:

    Brownstein’s book, while in the right direction, only scratches the surface of the more serious side of Austen’s writing!


  • Maria Grazia

    Her work  is definitely so much more than romance. If you read her carefully, she is one of the least romantic women writers you’ve ever read. Her happy endings are always very quick and sudden and she never insists on tenderness or flirting, nor describe any body contact and emotional reaction to it. Most of the sentimentality was added by the film/drama adaptations -which I don’t mind at all! Why I read her novels, then? Well, better say re-read, study, teach  and blog about her novels. Because I think she is one of the most gifted women writers who ever lived and were published. I love her incredible wit, her smart use of words, so humourosly and to the point!  She is a master of irony and a talent in wit. Maria Grazia
     @My Jane Austen Book Club 
    @Fly High

  • Oh, yes. Austen was far more than a romance writer. (I love the concept of “biographical criticism.” I am drawn to the authors as I read; I’m thinking that might be the form of lit criticism that best fits the way I read.)

    Anyway, this book sounds really fascinating. I’ll need to read it at some point.

    (No on Atonement? That’s one of my favorite novels. I’ve read it twice now.) 🙂