This book is #3 on my Austen in August reading list.
I’m sure I’m not the first person who has frequently found themselves, after revealing their appreciation of Austen’s novels, being asked that impertinent question, the one that drives just about every fan of the famous writer up the wall: ‘Why Jane Austen?’.
It drives us crazy because it is so often difficult to put into words why we read – and love – Austen’s novels. And it’s difficult, too, because the question implies that there is little reason for people in the modern world to be reading two hundred year old ‘love stories’. The question can be delivered in a tone of genuine curiosity or, alternatively, of resounding condemnation (‘Why Jane Austen? Wasn’t she that spinster woman who wrote books about women falling in love because she was trying to fill some sort of void?’ Incidentally, these are the ones I’d dearly love to reply to by returning the favour, and stuffing the particularly gaping void that is their mouth with passing vol-au-vents. But since I don’t want to be thrown out of the first annual meeting for the local Wine and Cheese club for assaulting one of my fellow gastronomes, I desist).
Of course, this particular question is also frustrating because it’s almost impossible to know where to begin to answer: Austen’s intelligence? Her inscrutability? The tightly polished language of her novels, which reveals a mind dedicated to perfecting every sentence? Her satirical eye? These things are, in any case, difficult to pin down, and almost impossible to do justice to in a succinct, well-spoken way.
For me, it’s easier to begin with dispelling stereotypes. Apologetically – as if ashamed of my Austen preference – I quickly race through my stock speech, which generally goes something along the lines of, “There’s a lot more to Austen than most people assume, you know. Most people think she just wrote soppy love stories, but it’s only because her humour and intelligence is so subtle that most people are too obtuse to grasp it at first”. At which point my conversational partner will usually say something along the lines of, “Well, I certainly didn’t think Pride and Prejudice was very funny” and walk away. After which I’ll feel like a right tit because the person inevitably turns out to be the President of the Wine and Cheese club, my ride for the evening, or the Archchancellor of the university. Literary pretentiousness almost always turns out to be my Achilles’ heel.
So it’s perhaps because of my abysmal record in this department that I turned to Rachel M. Brownstein’s Why Jane Austen?. Partly, I was looking for an eloquent way of discussing the topic, one that didn’t make me seem like a pretentious idiot. But I was also, as always, desirous of feeding my curiosity about what Austen means to other devotees. Am I the only one who has trouble articulating why it is that Austen is important, why we keep re-reading her, and why she is so popular today?
The beginning of Brownstein’s book is promising; she rejects wholeheartedly the assumption that Jane Austen is read purely nostalgically, that she is a chronicler of the ‘Olde England’ myth. She states outright that her book does not attempt to give us some new, brilliant insight into the novels or Jane Austen the woman; instead, Brownstein’s aim is simply to emphasise the sheer pleasure of reading Austen, as well as interrogate some of the arguments and ideas that have sprung up around the figure of Jane Austen over the course of two hundred years – what Brownstein loosely defines as “biographical criticism” (‘Introduction’).
Unfortunately, it very quickly becomes clear that these somewhat vague introductory ideas are insufficient for an entire book, and certainly one which lacks a clear structure. Brownstein weaves autobiographical tidbits about Austen’s life with anecdotes about Austen’s readers, past and present, intense breakdowns of key passages from the novels (focusing particularly, in the final chapter, on Emma), and recollections from her own long career teaching Austen to students.
What emerges is a picture of Austen that is blurred, one that seems to get more and more out of focus the longer we look. In contrast, the view of the novels becomes sharper, honing in on particular passages and sentences, focusing on the effect of Austen’s extraordinarily fine prose and the subtlety of her language throughout the novels. It’s a good approach, and I appreciate Brownstein’s decision not to try and bring ‘Jane Austen the woman’ – whoever that really was – to the forefront, but rather focus on the novels and, more importantly, the readers of those novels.
Yet for a book with as tantalising a title as Why Jane Austen?, the book is a little bit of a letdown. It lacks the driving force of a truly powerful argument, opting instead for a more rambling approach. For many readers, I’m sure this is exactly the sort of book they would enjoy reading. Personally, however, I was expecting a book with a forceful title like Why Jane Austen? to have a little more of that same inquisitive, direct attitude.
In the end, Brownstein cannot answer the question, ‘Why Jane Austen?’ with any other reply but – nostalgia. Despite her insistence at the beginning of the book that Austen is not really a nostalgic writer of romantic ‘Olde England’, she concludes her book by suggesting that Austen’s novels evoke in readers a desire for a lost literary world; “for a world that seemed more comprehensible and coherent, and for the novel itself in its youthful vigour, the novel endowed […] with an integrity, innocence, health, and prosperity, a hopefulness and a seriousness of purpose, that has been or is being lost” (‘Afterwords’). Considering Brownstein’s insistence earlier on the importance of teaching Jane Austen, on her continued relevance to thousands of readers, she nevertheless returns to the old answer: that Austen’s novels are the embodiment of nostalgia, albeit of a particularly literary nostalgia. For those readers eager for a bit more of an insight into why Austen is relevant to the youth of the twenty-first century, to users of Kindles and iPads, to men and women who otherwise claim to dislike and mistrust ‘the classics’, this is a profoundly unsatisfactory conclusion.
And does this book give one a better idea of how to answer that ever-present question, ‘Why Jane Austen?’, the next time it is sent in their direction? Not for me, at any rate. Perhaps, for now, the best approach to answering the question, ‘Why Jane Austen?’ is simply to reply: ‘Why not?’.
Rating: 4 Stars