Contrary to the main current of popular opinion today, Jane Austen’s novels are not first of all and most importantly about pretty girls in long dresses waiting for love and marriage; and they are not most importantly English and Heritage, small and decorous and mannerly and pleasant. Read with any degree of attention, they do not work well as escape reading: there are too many hardheaded observations and hard, recalcitrant details in them…
[ Rachel Brownstein, Why Jane Austen? p. 247]
Hello Professor Brownstein! And welcome to Jane Austen in Vermont.
I had the pleasure of hearing you read from your newest work Why Jane Austen? at the JASNA-Massachusetts May meeting [see photo below]. You have very graciously agreed to this interview (as well as to speak at our June 2012 JASNA-Vermont gathering!] – so I heartily welcome you today to discuss your new book on Jane Austen.
JAIV: You strive in this work to undercut conventional thinking on Jane Austen, by offering us a good number of “essays” on novels, authorship, women writers [but much on Byron!], neighbors, gossip, language, biography, the importance of re-reading – you move from the real life, the fictions, the use of words, and personal anecdote in such a seamless weaving of thoughts, that I marvel at the weight of each sentence [for example, I love this one: “Emma is as nosy as a novelist about private lives” [p. 223] – one could think about that sentence for hours!
But to start, just tell us a little about why you titled your book Why Jane Austen?
RB: The book asks why there is so much interest in this particular long-dead woman novelist: why Jane Austen right now and not, say, George Eliot or Virginia Woolf, or Jane Austen’s contemporary, the novelist and poet Charlotte Smith?
JAIV: And one must ask about the cover! – Who decided to use the Jane Austen action figure?
RB: It was I who brought my action figure—along with other pieces of Austeniana I own–to the office of Columbia University Press. It was the brilliant art director who decided to put it on the cover, and the brilliant photographer, I think, who placed the figure on top of the books.
JAIV: I completely agree with your insistence on calling her “Jane Austen” – unable to call her “Austen” (“would have startled her, makes me wince a little” [p. 11]), nor just “Jane”, nor certainly “Dear Jane” – why is this so for Jane Austen and for no other author?
RB: I think it’s Claire Harman, in her book, “Jane’s Fame,” who observes that she’s the only author people call by her first name alone. This is a really interesting question. I think she’s “Jane” because of a mix of doting indulgence and a condescension that verges on contempt—the kind familiarity brings. It’s partly a function of her being a woman, and unmarried, and long-ago, and therefore girlish, and in some way small—you know, they talk about her small canvas, her narrow range. It’s deplorable, really—and really a function of misreading her novels as merely delightful.
JAIV: One of the main themes in your book is based on the Katherine Mansfield quote that serves as an epigraph:
“The truth is that every true admirer of the novels cherishes the happy thought that he alone – reading between the lines – has become the secret friend of their author.”
Is this why you think that Jane Austen has and continues to have such a profound pull on her readers?
RB: Yes. I think her conspiratorial confidence in her readers is flattering and engaging. After all, she’s so smart and so charming, and she takes us into her confidence.
JAIV: Your first chapter begins with Pride and Prejudice and its emphasis on “truth” – the first sentence staking its claim on the rest of the novel with this term: “it is a truth universally acknowledged” (certainly the most discussed opening line in literary history!) – you say the word “truth” occurs in Pride and Prejudicetwenty-four times, and one of your main themes is to show the power of the novel to reveal truths. This isn’t a question, but please explain a little if you can.
RB: One of the reasons I start there is to begin to suggest it’s worth looking at the words in Jane Austen’s novels—not only the stories and the characters and the themes, but the words that convey all those. Also, the great matter of truth is the question about novels, isn’t it: why spend time reading fictions that don’t tell you anything that’s true? What’s the value of other people’s fantasies? What can we learn from novels? What truths do they have to tell? Jane Austen wrote that novels are about human nature; George Eliot suggested later on that novels give a reader “a shape” for her “expectations.” Neither of these is clear, but both seem to me very suggestive.
Jane Austen’s novels, it seems to me, raise questions about the language in which we say what’s true and not true, and therefore about the capacity to know and tell truths, or the truth.
JAIV: Your seminal book Becoming a Heroine: Reading about Women in Novels was published in 1982, and re-published in 1994 with a new postscript. You were then trying to place your own learning and thinking and writing in the context of the feminist criticism of the previous decade. Are there any shifts in your thinking since then that you could comment on? [You mention that this new book is really an atonement – that such previous readings of Jane Austen as “a paragon of proto-feminist romance” are misreadings, i.e. “not reading her as she is meant to be read.” [p. 8] – and that Why Jane Austen? is written in “defense of Jane Austen and in self-defense as well…” [p. 10]]
RB: I’m a little tongue-in-cheek about the matter of atonement, and a little serious too. I’m sorry about some things that have been done in the name of feminism, but I continue to be a feminist, and a feminist literary critic, and I am especially feminist as a meta-critic, or critic of the critics. It seems to me immensely important that Jane Austen was a woman.
Austen’s relationship to romance is complicated: she wrote romances that are also anti-romances. Reading them as books about women’s issues, I think, does Jane Austen a disservice. They are about men and women, and dreams and realities, and greed and social climbing. She said they were about human nature; and she adds that they are written in “the best chosen language.” My argument is that it’s worth paying attention to all of that, not only to some of it.
JAIV: Again about Becoming a Heroine: Would you write about the same books today? [note: Heroine contains a full chapter on Jane Austen that touches on all her novels; the other works discussed in separate chapters are: Richardson’s Clarissa; Charlotte Bronte’s Villette; The Egoist by George Meredith; George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda; Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady; and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf]
RB: No—but I still love all those novels, and enjoy teaching and talking about them.
JAIV: So if “No”, what works would you write about now?
RB: I don’t think I can answer your question about the books I’d include in another version of “Becoming a Heroine”–I’d have to write another book. In other words, the novels I DID write about there come together in a series or sequence that (to my mind) suggests a development in the idea of a heroine. A novel reader who has an even slightly different idea could set up a different sequence of novels. So no, there’s nothing I’d change, unless I changed everything–or something basic in the central idea.
JAIV: This new work is similar to Heroine in being more a meditation on Jane Austen, combining scholarly and textual analysis, literary biography, historical context, all melded together with your own story as a reader, a student, and a teacher. I found it a very engaging read, each sentence packed-full, the approach to the subject very different from the usual scholarly work. As soon as I finished, I knew a re-read was required, not to mention the need to re-read all of the novels and look again with your critical eye! If one could take only one thing from this book, what would you want it to be?
RB: Thank you for your very kind words. The one thing I would want a reader to take from my book is this: go and reread Jane Austen!
JAIV: You write constantly posing questions to the reader – a wonderful teaching strategy! – and especially effective in one’s efforts to make a “Life of Jane Austen” out of the details in the novels – and in our efforts to find her in her characters, in her language, in her plots, we find her all the more illusive.. We cannot help ourselves – we have only such scant tidbits of information! Why do you think this is a dangerous approach?
RB: It’s dangerous if you believe the life story you compose for Jane Austen—but taken with a grain or two of salt it’s fun.
JAIV: Your personal story that you so generously weave through this book is similar in some ways to William Deresiewicz’s new work A Jane Austen Education [and he indeed writes a lovely blurb for your work on the jacket cover (note: this is quoted in yesterday’s post)] – at least your “confession” of early on being way too clever and cool to read Jane Austen, then later way too clever and cool to not be in the know about Jane Austen – do you think that this is still the view of readers / non –readers of Jane Austen?
RB: Deresiewicz, who is a generation younger and a man, says he started out thinking those classic novels were dull and boring, and not for readers like him. My story is very different. When I was in college—and I went to a woman’s college, in the mid-1950s–literary girls were expected to know Jane Austen without taking a course in the novels. My freshman English teacher engaged me in a conversation about Pride and Prejudice although it was not assigned reading: it was as if just because you were a young woman reader you already knew your Jane Austen. Things are different now: being in the know about Jane Austen has changed a lot since then. Today, for many people, it means being up on the latest pop-cultural Jane-related phenomenon, the zombies or whatever.
JAIV: Any comment on Deresiewicz’s book? – it seems to have generated mixed reviews.
RB: Let’s take another page from Jane Austen’s book—Northanger Abbey—and leave the reviewers out of it. The Deresiewicz book is a lively read and the voice is engaging. And I am amused by the idea of a man owning up to learning life lessons from Jane Austen.
JAIV: I like your answer of taking that cue from Jane Austen!
There are a number of anecdotes you tell where you put yourself in time and place (and these are not always pleasant encounters!) – is there any concern of people discovering themselves between the pages? – or is everything politely disguised?
RB: I don’t know about politely. I scrambled details, left things out, and added bits, and no one actually real is all there, I sincerely hope. You’ll recognize the echo of Henry Austen: my aim was to write about human nature, not individuals.
JAIV: Which Jane Austen novel did you first read? Does it remain your favorite? [a horrible question, but one must ask!]
RB: Pride and Prejudice: a predictable answer, but one must try to tell the truth.
JAIV: Your commentary about the movie adaptations – “adaptation is translation” [p. 35] is a wonderful essay. You mention loving “Clueless” – can you share what other of the various adaptations worked the best? The least?
RB: I admire Roger Michell’s beautiful film version of Persuasion, and I found lots to like in the astute choices made in making the Emma Thompson -Ang Lee Sense and Sensibility. And of course I love the BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice—so much that Joe Wright’s version, starring the thoroughly miscast Keira Knightley, seems to me all wrong.
JAIV: The inevitable Sequels / Continuations question: What are your thoughts!?
RB: Some work; others don’t; several work well in parts, but don’t measure up. Jane Austen sets the bar very high. I was surprised and delighted by the first half of Colleen McCullough’s The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet.
JAIV: Well then, I must ask what you think about the second half!
RB: I was disappointed in the second half of “Miss Mary Bennet” because the emphasis moved–disproportionately, I felt–from Mary to Darcy, and the plot thickened too much. I liked the stuff that seemed Austenian but a little outre–Mary and her money falling in the muck–and was less interested in the stuff about enslaved children imprisoned in caves. It is of course very professional–being by a pro–but then it gets extravagant and falls apart. It’s Darcy’s fault.
JAIV: Oh dear! – I thought Darcy could never be at fault for anything!
But as for another of Jane Austen’s heroes, you call Edward Ferrars “morose, depressed, self-involved, and boring” [p. 247] – are you in the camp of preferring Colonel Brandon as the more proper mate for Elinor? What then happens to Marianne?
RB: I was writing as a reader, not a novelist.
JAIV: Good answer!
You speak of Jane Austen’s best readers being those who feel they are complicit with her take on human nature – I could say the same about your writing – you invite the reader into your secret world of ‘Understanding the truth about Jane Austen’ – you brought me into your world years ago when I read of you [in Heroine] as a fifteen-year-old hiding out in the bathroom reading Henry James hugging your “secret knowledge that [your parents] were harboring a viper in their bathroom.” [p. 5] I love this! Do you find students still coming to you with that wide-eyed wonder of discovering literature as transporter, as transformer?
RB: Yes. This is one important reason why I continue to love teaching.
JAIV: You make many references to “best readers” or “reading well” or “close readers” – how I would have loved to taken one (or more!) of your classes, where you question, question, question, to make the student sit up, take notice, and shift his / her thinking – [you offer a wide range of bibliographical references that shall add weight to my bookshelves and deduct funds from my book budget!] – How does one become such a reader without going back to school?!
RB: I’m with Elizabeth Bennet, when she tells Lady Catherine, of her and her sisters, that “We were always encouraged to read.” Read and reread, is my advice—and don’t believe everything you read.
JAIV: Your chapter on “Why We Reread Jane Austen” focuses on Emma – and you devote a number of pages to just the use of the word “understanding” – can you tell us a little about this?
RB: I’m fascinated by the word and by the process of coming to understand something or someone and by what Locke called “the understanding,” the mind. And you can see that word as a key to Emma, where insistent repetitions of the word begin to make the reader understand its shades of meaning. The heroine prides herself on her understanding, or intellectual power, but she misunderstands what’s going on, and imagines mutual understandings among her friends—relationships, we call them–that sometimes do and sometimes don’t exist.
JAIV: Your last sentence:
“And in the face of the Kindle and the Nook, the iPad and the graphic novel, not to mention the ongoing crisis in education and the widely lamented decline of serious reading, there is some anticipatory nostalgia as well for the once-thriving, once-glamorous, once-literary book business.”
Can you explain your concerns?
RB: I was nostalgically harking back to a time when the book business was more literary, and not so commercially driven.
JAIV: In your Heroine, you tell an amusing anecdote about visiting your Doctor and his comments about Georgette Heyer, and in so doing give a lovely tribute to her writings. Have you continued to read her? Can I ask that horrible question again of which is your favorite?
RB: I haven’t read Heyer for such a long time – I adored all the novels with their saucy heroines years ago; I’m going to revisit them again; but I’m afraid I have nothing more to say about them now… sorry!
JAIV: The oft-asked question of a writer: How do you work?
RB: In fits and starts—and with a lot of false starts. I’ve finally learned to write on my laptop, but I still have to print the thing out and go over it with a pen, and that remains my favorite part of the writing process.
JAIV: And finally, have you ever written any fiction yourself? Is there a novel in you somewhere??
RB: Yes I have, and Yes I think there is, but No, I’m not ready to talk about it.
JAIV: Anything else you would like to share?
RB: Thank you. I enjoy the opportunity to clarify what I might have left unclear, and I enjoy the chance to keep on talking about Jane Austen. One of the things I learned from Lionel Trilling—the mid-20th-century critic whose last unfinished essay, “Why We Read Jane Austen,” is echoed by the title of my book—is that the conversation around Jane Austen is almost as interesting as what she herself says. I am always eager to engage in that conversation, which always interests me.
JAIV: Thank you so much Rachel for joining us today – it is true that the conversation around Jane Austen is endlessly interesting! – and your book asks many probing questions of its readers for those conversations to continue!
l. – r.: Marcia Folsom, Rachel Brownstein, and Nancy Yee,
JASNA-Mass Meeting, May 2011 at Wheelock College
[photo – D. Barnum]
If anyone has a comment or a question for Professor Brownstein, please post it on either this post or yesterday’s post – – you might like to answer “Why Jane Austen? in your own life! –
You will be entered into the Book giveaway random drawing for a copy of Why Jane Austen? – the deadline is midnight next Wednesday night August 10, 2011 – Winner will be announced on Thursday August 11, 2011 [worldwide eligibility].
Why Jane Austen?, by Rachel Brownstein
Columbia University Press, 2011
ISBN: 978-0231153904 ; $29.50
search inside at Amazon.com
About the Author: Rachel M. Brownstein is professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of two critically acclaimed books, Becoming a Heroine: Reading About Women in Novels and Tragic Muse: Rachel of the Comédie-Française.
Click here for my review and bibliography.