I know I’m supposed to be reading American literature, but this sounded irresistible when it came out, and it’s been on my library hold list for weeks, and when it finally came in…I couldn’t help myself! I have been immersed in it for days, actually looking forward to going to work so that I could read it on the train!
I am a self confessed Janeite; I wrote about this a few months ago, just after visiting Chawton Cottage. I love her books like old friends, and return to them often. Every re-read adds a new layer of richness to my appreciation of these novels, as different things strike me anew and my increasing age enables me to gain a deeper understanding of and insight into the struggles and joys of the deeply beloved characters who come so alive to me on the pages. Reading this collection of wonderful essays was such an enlightening and pleasurable and exciting experience, and I am now desperate to pick up everything Jane Austen wrote and have a Jane Austen marathon, taking the insights of some of these authors and bringing them with me as I read. Obviously not all of the essays are as good as the others, and some are a little too academic and clinical for my liking, but you can easily skip over those and move onto the better ones.
Susannah Carson has brought a depth to Northanger Abbey that I never considered as being there before; far from just a mockery of gothic novels, it is, she argues, a mockery of the novel form itself, and a very clever one at that. Perhaps the marriage of Catherine and Henry is supposed to be unbelievable, and Austen purposely places a very artificial romance at the heart of her novel to poke fun at the general artifice of romance. I like this take on things, and as I haven’t reread Northanger Abbey in years, I’m now keen to do so, and see whether I think Carson’s comments ring true. Martin Amis, in a wonderfully funny essay, highlights the spirit, sociability and character reformation in Pride and Prejudice, and the irony of having a silly, frivolous character in Mrs Bennett, who actually turns out to be right in her machinations. Forcing her daughter to catch cold does result in two very fine marriages, and so really, is she as silly as she seems? Amy Heckerling writes a fascinating essay on how she transported the cast of Emma from 19th century Highbury to 21st century Beverly Hills in the movie Clueless, exploring the timeless quality of Austen’s novels in the process.
Most of the other essays touch on similar topics; Jane’s morals, her manners, her emphasis on wit, her small and precise milieu, her reasons for not writing about the immediate political environment of her novels, her lack of emphasis on description of appearances and surroundings – our impressions of ‘Jane’s Regency World’ all come from the televised costume dramas, not her words. They are all interesting, all eye opening, all full of passion and appreciation for this most beloved author whose novels have endured over two centuries of massive social change, and are still just as enjoyed as they were on the day they were published. What makes them so timeless? Well, the humanity of them. As J B Priestley argues, if Jane Austen had written about war and political unrest, her novels would be dry and dusty and too tied to their specific point in time. By making them about people; their personalities, their mistakes, their foibles, their romances; she has made them completely and utterly relatable to any human being at any point in time. I don’t know what it was like to live through the Napoleonic wars, but I do know what it’s like to love. Tolstoy is admired, but adored? I think not. Jane Austen knew what she was doing. She was not a trivial, uninformed woman. She was an intelligent, far thinking one. She knew what really mattered to people, and here we are, still nodding with recognition at Emma’s soon to be regretted smugness; crying at Captain Wentworth’s letter; rejoicing at Elinor’s realisation that Edward is free to marry her after all; swooning at Mr Darcy’s gruff proposal; railing with frustration at Edmund’s blindness to Fanny’s purity over Mary Crawford’s artifice, and smiling indulgently at Catherine’s naivety, two hundred years later.
Do read this collection, if you can. It is a wonderful homage to Jane Austen, and I know I will certainly be buying my own copy to dip in and out of often.