Edited by Inger Sigrun Brodey
Austen for a New Generation
How to Study a Jane Austen Novel
By Vivien Jones. MacMillan Press, 1997.
xvi + 173 pages. Paperback, $18.
Understanding Pride and Prejudice: A Student Casebook to
Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents
By Debra Teachman. Greenwood Press, 1997.
xiii + 163 pages. Hardcover. $39.95.
Reviewed by Susan Morgan.
More than just movies and television series are being made of Jane Austen's novels these days. The range and success of those on-screen productions is at least partly to be credited for a resurgence of books about Austen's books. These include not only complex critical studies aimed at the serious Austen scholar--be that a professor, a graduate student in literature, an advanced undergraduate English major or, best of all, a dedicated lover of Austen's work but also a different kind of book. And that is cause for celebration.
These different kinds of books are not designed for the
specialist and/or the aficionado. They make the optimistic and
wonderful assumption that there is a new kind of audience for
Jane Austen's novels out there, and not in the usual sense we
have all come to count on that in each new generation of readers
there will be a cherished few, hopefully even more than a few,
who discover the greatness of Austen's fiction and become her
dedicated readers in much the same way we did. Rather, this new
kind of audience is almost certainly made up to a large extent of
those who saw the adaptations of Austen's books in the movies and
on television before ever reading an Austen novel. At last
Austen's novels, and all those who encounter them, are able to
benefit from the enormous reach of the
visual media. Because of that reach, the newly expanded audience for her work includes both those who probably would have discovered Austen anyway and also those who probably would not. And it is at those who probably would not that these new kinds of books are primarily aimed.
Vivien Jones' How to Study a Jane Austen Novel and
Debra Teachman's Understanding Pride and Prejudice both
came out this past year, though the Jones book is a "newly
revised and expanded" reissue which was originally published
ten years ago in British Macmillan's "How To" series.
The aim of this book in the series is not to explain or interpret
any specific Austen novel but instead to teach a "basic
analytic method" whereby a student who has to write an essay
or take an exam about any particular Austen novel will have a way
of figuring out for him/herself an interpretation of that novel.
Given the gap all readers, beginners and pros, have felt
"between the enjoyment of reading the novels and the task of
critical analysis," Jones' advice is certainly desirable. It
is also solid. Jones gives her readers such classic advice about
interpreting narrative as that they should focus on the
"why" and "how" that things happen, on what
information the narrative voice gives, on the qualities of the
settings (place), and on the sections of events that make up the
structure of the plot. But all that was in the 1987 version of
this book. What has been added, along with some minor changes,
clarifications, and improvements, is a significant new chapter
discussing current critical debates about Austen's achievement
and significance. It is a chapter which takes as its informing
assumption not just that a student might need to take an exam but
that the meaning and reputation of Austen's writings are to be
understood as of great contemporary interest and concern. And
that what is at stake in these critical debates is not simply an
artistic evaluation of an individual writer, but perspectives on
some of the major debates of our own troubled times
Debra Teachman's Understanding Pride and Prejudice is a completely new work. While it focuses on one novel, it offers only one chapter of "Literary Analysis." Instead, the focus of this book is on certain issues: inheritance and marriage laws, attitudes to marriage and to unmarried women, and women's education. It presents selections about those issues taken from essays written near the time Austen was writing. The result is that suddenly we hear all these other voices roughly contemporaneous to Austen speaking about the same topics, giving a way to measure the originality and the power of her views. It is a wonderfully effective device for teaching both history and literature. The book closes with a discussion of the public issues in the 1980s and '90s which haunt us as thoroughly today as they did the characters in Austen's work.
Both Teachman's and Jones' work, each in different ways, are part of a present effort in publications about Austen to reach that new audience of people interested in Austen's fiction. The line between writing for the "student" or for the general public is hard to draw, as is the line between writing too simply or too complexly. Both Teachman and Jones struggle with both problems. Yet both have offered us approaches to appreciating Austen that all of us, old and new fans alike, will find useful and pleasurable. Both keep us thinking about Austen's work. We really do have cause to celebrate.
Susan Morgan is a professor at Miami University of Ohio. She is the author of In the Meantime: Character and Perception in JaneAusten's Fiction (University of Chicago, 1980) and is currently working on a biography of Anna Leonowens.
JASNA News v. 14, no. 3, Winter 1998
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