A review of Why Jane Austen?, by Rachel M. Brownstein

With Why Jane Austen?, Rachel M. Brownstein, professor of English at Brooklyn College, offers a defense of her subject. "The claim I make about Jane Austen," she writes in answer to her title's question, "is that she is a great writer, delightful to read."

Here, it would seem, is a truth universally acknowledged. Along with Shakespeare and Dickens, Jane Austen unites excellence with popularity; she is, in Brownstein's pithy appraisal, both great and delightful. The charm of such a combination has proven irresistible, inspiring countless sequels and spin-offs, mash-ups and parodies, film adaptations and television mini-series. Hardly a year can pass without some tribute to the "divine Jane": Brownstein's own offering comes on the heels of William Deresiewicz's memoir, A Jane Austen Education (2011); Jane's Fame by Claire Harman (2010); and A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen by Susannah Carson (2009)—not to mention the 2009 novelty (and forthcoming film), Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

"The Novels of Jane Austen / Are the ones to get lost in," wrote novelist E.C. Bentley in 1905. Brownstein agrees: In her travels through Austenland, both figurative and literal (she makes stops in "Jane Austen Country" in Hampshire and at a Jane Austen Society meeting in New York), she learns how much fun there is in "sharing the same imaginary world." Yet she also cannot help worrying that as much as we love to get lost in Jane Austen, Jane Austen has gotten lost in us. In our adoration of Jane Austen—our "Jane-o-mania"—we have neglected "the obvious, if forgotten, truth that Jane Austen is a serious writer."

Like the young and wealthy bachelors in her novels, Jane Austen can inspire bitter jealousy. Brownstein quotes another Austen scholar, Juliet McMaster, on the possessiveness with which Janeites regard Austen: "We all want to write about Jane Austen, but we each of us want to be the only one doing it. We want everyone to admire Jane Austen, but we each suspect the others do it the wrong way. We want her to be our particular Jane, and to share her with a multitude too."

Brownstein admits to wanting her own "particular Jane," and she certainly suspects everyone else of admiring her beloved author the wrong way. She is both charmed and put off by Austen's more zealous fans, the kind of people who show up at Austen fan-meets in full Regency-era garb. She laments the shallowness of Austen's film adaptors whom she finds too preoccupied with the show and surface of Austen's world—the manor houses and estates, the dashing heroes, the exquisite costumes—never minding that Austen herself made little of such details. She is scornful of those "die-hard conservatives" who would make Austen "a moralizing goody-two-shoes," too fogyish to comprehend the "more satirical and complex" aspects of the novels. And she is positively scandalized by the existence of those giddy, love-sick Janeites for whom the Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt version of Pride and Prejudice is the only one.

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Incorrect as these Janeites may be, they are not the worst offenders in Brownstein's book: that dishonor, rather refreshingly, belongs to the author herself. The desire for her own "particular Jane" has led Brownstein into error too, and her aim with Why Jane Austen? is to correct her own earlier, feminist work on Austen, most notably her 1982 study, Becoming a Heroine: Reading About Women in Novels. She writes "to atone for joining the chorus that has ended by imagining Jane Austen as first of all and most of all a woman, the paradigmatic prisoner of sex and gender, and a paragon of proto-feminist romance—in other words, by misreading her, and not reading her as she meant to be read."

Why Jane Austen? "boasts no bright new take on Jane Austen," nor does Brownstein have much interest in the "themes of the latest vogue." In attempting to read Austen as she meant to be read, in seeking to understand the author's intention, she realizes she has taken on a project her academic colleagues would regard with either hilarity or contempt. Her preferred approach is close textual reading, not to "read through or around or past" the novels to supposedly deeper "truths" about Austen and her times, but to actually grapple with what Jane Austen ("an example of linguistic precision," Brownstein reminds) was saying.

To that end, she produces a fine, if not original, analysis of Austen's style: her mastery of narrative perspective and her attention to character, in both the dramatic and moral sense of the word. She captures well the "tantalizing tautology" of the famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice ("It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife") and what it suggests about the nature of truth and what kinds of truth get acknowledged and go unsaid. The book's finest essay explores the various meanings of the word "understanding" in Emma, and how the heroine must gain an "understanding" of her situation, both intellectual and sympathetic, in order to arrive at the "mutual understanding" with Mr. Knightley which will lead to their marriage.

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Yet Brownstein is seeking more in Jane Austen's novels than just the "best-chosen language." Although she insists repeatedly—perhaps to disassociate herself from those "die-hard conservatives"—that Jane Austen, while a moralist, never moralizes, she confesses that she re-reads Austen "because she persuades us to be nostalgic for what we never knew, and because we want her clarity." The clarity Brownstein desires is a moral clarity, which she finds lacking in our relativistic age: "[M]any of us see civilization now as a fiction, a story threatening to come to an end. Jane Austen is the focal point of nostalgia for that old story, a name for it." She wants to reclaim the values of Austen's novels "where translating human worth and human relationships into cash is criticized, and the truth gets told and trusted, and good people look for real civility and love, a rootedness, relatedness, and belonging that is more enviable than wealth and manners."

There is another focal point for this book's nostalgia, although Brownstein does not identify it as such—the literary culture of the 1950s when she was an undergraduate at Barnard College, the women's college of Columbia University. There she received what Lionel Trilling called a "traditional humanistic education," first embarking on serious literary study during her freshman year in a course unapologetically titled "Man and His World." (It is either coincidence—or indicative of something in the cultural moment—that the critic Adam Kirsch has recently published Why Trilling Matters.) Brownstein notes that Jane Austen was not listed in the curriculum—not because she was a woman but because it was expected that a literate person would already have read her. In her classes, Austen was simply "the author of great works," and those great works deeply mattered—hence the close study of texts Brownstein learned as a college student and champions today. "What we talked about in class in the late fifties," she recalls, "was the beauty and the lucidity, the poise and the balance, of Jane Austen's sentences and scenes, and the charged constellations of characters and motives that composed her moral calculus."

How different from the classes Brownstein soon found herself teaching! Twenty years after her college days, she is facing "students who assumed that Pride and Prejudice, their very first ‘classic,' had the same purpose as articles they read in a women's studies course." Few of them have read Austen, and none have read her various detractors "but they do watch television, and ideology trickles down." Thus they arrive in the classroom "knowing" that Mansfield Park is a racist book; that Jane Austen was sexually-repressed, unless, that is, she and her sister Cassandra were incestuous lesbians; that she defended class privilege and was a snob. They are not in the "habit of talking seriously about moral issues," and thus prefer to talk in the language of pop science, dismissing the family relations of the Bennets, for instance, as "dysfunctional."

Brownstein labors mightily against her students' assumptions, trying to turn their attention back to the text. In teaching Emma, she works to build sympathy for the spoiled heroine, while at other times, she seeks to "alienate" her students from the text, zeroing in on the prevalence of the letter "e" in the book (missing from Mr. Weston's puzzle spelling "Emma" as "M and A," but present in Mr. Knightley's name). "[A]s I stand in front of my class, I find myself preaching that paying attention to each and every detail leads the attentive reader to the truth," she writes, "That Jane writes fiction, but she doesn't lie."

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For to ask "why Jane Austen?" is ultimately to ask "Why literature?" Why spend time reading fictions that don't tell us anything "true"? The dramatic decline in serious reading, particularly among the young, suggests that many don't see the point. In "our sophisticated, liberal urban circles," Brownstein writes, it no longer seems "obligatory…to educate oneself by reading the classics." Yet millions of readers still turn to Jane Austen for delight, and even, on occasion, for edification; she is what remains of a shared literary culture. In Austen, we still seek truth and beauty; she reminds us of the "importance and saving grace of the literary classics," that "human nature requires the restraint, civility, decorum, and organized beauty of art." Jane Austen persuades us to become nostalgic not "for what we never knew"—but for what we once knew and lost.