Well, here it is at long last – the final book I read for this year’s Austen in August readathon. Let’s forget for a moment that it’s already December, shall we?
In the first chapter of Searching for Jane Austen, entitled ‘Dear Aunt Jane: Putting Her Down and Touching Her Up’, Emily Auerbach wonders:
Why … do readers of The Ancient Mariner, A Christmas Carol, and Moby-Dick give little thought to the marital status of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Dickens, and Herman Melville (or should we call them Samuel, Charles, and Herman)? When we think of Milton’s Paradise Lost, do we wonder about John’s marriages (he had three)? Was there a Mrs Chaucer?
Rudyard Kipling (did he marry? do we care?) felt moved to write a verse tribute in 1926 called not “Austen’s Writing” but “Jane’s Marriage,” beginning with the writer ascending into heaven … Finally “Jane” finds every woman’s true reward: not immortality or pride in her own craft, but Mr. Right.
Auerbach’s examples here might not be the best; part of the reason why readers are obsessed with Austen’s marital status is because she wrote about marriage so often. It might have been better to replace A Christmas Carol with another of Dickens’ novels which end with happy marriages; Nicholas Nickelby, for instance? It might go some way towards proving that even when Dickens writes about marriage, readers don’t really care about his own marital status. This comes with a whole host of problems (what about Dickens’ own unhappy real-life marriage?), but I don’t think that detracts from the central problem; Dickens’ unhappy marriage may have provided fodder for his fiction, but it is an issue mentioned in passing, a tiny contributing factor to Dickens’ art. For Austen, it is her defining one.
Despite the problems with this passage, the central argument is sound. I quoted it at length because Auerbach makes a very wry point about the way Austen is treated by popular culture. She points out that Austen is one of the only writers who is referred to by first name (“or should we call them Samuel, Charles, and Herman”?). We would never dream of calling Dickens ‘Charles’ or ‘Charlie’, yet people persist in calling Austen ‘Jane’. It demeans her work, makes her more personal and domestic – and consequently less respected.
Auerbach’s book is a so-called ‘Search’ for the real Austen. I found it very easy to trust Auerbach as a writer, because she occupies a very similar position to myself; her book is focused on arguing against the ‘Austen myth’, presenting Austen as an intellectually stimulating writer, one who is in tune with the society of her time and critiques it with great wit and subtlety. Auerbach begins by dismantling the ‘Aunt Jane’ myth, charting the process of ‘touching up’ which her image received after her death. She points to the way that ‘Dear Aunt Jane’ is still with us today, obscuring the right of her books to be treated as ‘serious’ and ‘intellectual’.
The chapters which follow are each devoted to one of her novels, as well as her juvenilia. The final chapter examines Austen’s place in popular culture, highlighting the way that the modern media continues to belittle Austen, even in an age when feminist criticism is so pervasive. Auerbach also includes a short and interesting discussion of male reactions to Austen, pointing out that that the marketing of Austen books and films in the twenty-first century has given them a permanent label of ‘women’s books’ and ‘chick-lit’, earning the disparagement of ordinary men everywhere (in the final essay she quotes an amusing example where a man claims Austen can have nothing to offer him, that he has never read her, and that he has never read “Evelyn Brontë” either. “[H]ave any of us?” wonders Auerbach drily). She writes that “In some ways, we have moved backwards” from the time when Walter Scott could exclaim, “What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!” and W.H. Auden wrote verses in her praise. Auerbach suggests that Hollywood has played a large part in this, noting the way that the 1940s film version of Pride and Prejudice was marketed; with the Bennet sisters exclaiming on the poster, “We Want a Husband!”
The volume ends with an essay by Auerbach entitled ‘A Barkeeper Entering the Kingdom of Heaven: Did Mark Twain Really Hate Jane Austen?’, where Auerbach provides some evidence that Twain, despite his supposed hatred of Jane Austen, read her repeatedly, picked up on a great deal of her humour, and even borrowed fictional elements for his own stories from her. Although the essay is interesting, for a book which is very neatly set out (beginning with the remaking of Austen’s image, followed by in-depth discussions of her work, and ending with her reception in the twenty-first century), the essay feels a little out of place, even if it is in an appendix and therefore not a part of the body of the book. Furthermore, after the essay Auerbach includes a copy of Twain’s unfinished essay about Austen. For a book that claims to focus on Austen’s art, it seems a little wrong to finish the text with the words of one of Austen’s most infamous detractors. Though Auerbach has cut Twain’s comments down to size in the preceding essay, the order is still a little worrying; the essay did not need to be included to enhance the arguments made in the book. She argues them convincingly enough already.
On the whole, however, this is a very worthwhile book. Although published by a university press and written by a professor of English, the book toes the line between scholarly and lay, and I think both academics and everyday readers could benefit from it. It sets out some excellent arguments for Austen’s right to be included in the English canon. For those who doubt that Austen was a great writer, or continue to believe that she has nothing to offer them, this book might very well prove them wrong.
Rating: 4 Stars