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A pleasure, but not a guilty one

On the cover of Rachel M. Brownstein's new book Why Jane Austen? is a photo of a Jane Austen Action Figure perched atop a row of books. You may have seen, may even have purchased or received, one of these figures -- part of a cheeky assortment of novelty gifts for nerds. The figurine has jointed arms to permit the only action for which Jane Austen is known: the doll can write.

How did Jane Austen, the early-nineteenth-century novelist who died at forty-one, become Jane Austen, the pop-culture phenomenon? Why does she attract such a clubby following, despite her relatively hidden and uneventful personal life? Why have her lapidary novels inspired so many vulgarizations? Whence all the sequels and imitations? Why are there so many more film versions of Pride and Prejudice alone than a culture could ever want or need?

Brownstein's book reads like a collection of notes from a long acquaintance with the novelist: reflections on Austen's writing, on others writing about Austen, on Brownstein's experiences teaching Austen, and on the many facets of Jane-o-mania. She investigates the surge in Austen's pop-culture presence beginning in the 1990s, from Clueless to Bridget Joness Diary to the BBC's much adored (and exhaustive) Pride and Prejudice. Brownstein meets with Janeites at pilgrimage sites and ponders their fantasy of a personal connection with the author. But she also insists on evaluating Austen as a writer, an artist, not a woman-who-wrote or a biographical puzzle to be solved. If the question in the title is interpreted as Why bother reading Jane Austen?, Brownstein has a simple answer: "The claim I make about Jane Austen here is that she is a great writer, delightful to read."

This fact -- which Brownstein reiterates later as the obvious, if forgotten, truth that Jane Austen is a serious writer -- can get lost in all the popular fuss and fondness that Austen provokes. Can Austen be great when she is so easy to like? There is also a longstanding tendency to dismiss Austen's work as good for a woman, or to write off her novels as fine but inconsequential because they deal so narrowly with domestic concerns. What I most valued about Brownstein's book is her analysis of Austen's skill as a writer. At different points she calls attention to Austen's careful diction and disciplined style; her manipulation of the reader via the shifting perspective of the narrator; her attention to character in both the dramatic and the moral senses of the word. "Austen is most useful today," she argues, "as an example of linguistic precision."

Brownstein is shrewdly critical of the ways textual analysis can slide into biographical reading. For instance, she cites differing theories about why Austen deleted a particular phrase from the second edition of Sense and Sensibility, theories that rest on judgments about Austen's personality and propriety. But if one looks just at the text, there is a simple, more plausible explanation for the deletion: it eliminated a redundancy and strengthened the overall work. She revised to improve the text, in other words. What does it say about the way we read Austen, or any writer -- especially any woman writer -- that we strain for insights while disregarding the possibility that the author was primarily motivated by craft? "The unique specificity of [Austen's] genius is what the novels most importantly convey," Brownstein observes, "and ignoring that to look for other truths about Austen or her times is to read through or around or past the novels, when it might be better and more rewarding to simply read them as they are."

The book is a bit scattered, and sometimes repetitive -- I grew tired of the recurring references to Byron (though my lack of familiarity with or interest in his work is my own fault). But it is full of fascinating observations about the novels and insights into Austen's craft as a writer. And it helps that Brownstein -- a sometime Commonweal contributor -- is herself delightful to read. Her writing is fluid and full of delicate wordplay, as when she describes a memorial tribute Austen wrote as "an awkward, guilt-edged poem." Not many can write about writing with so much lightness and style.

As for the frenzy that surrounds Austen, Brownstein is sympathetic, to an extent: she knows that there is fun to be had in sharing the same imaginary world. But her verdict is ultimately (and, for me, gratifyingly) sharp: "Jane-o-mania, in its wrongheadedness and banality, reveals our own inadequacies: stupidity and ignorance, arrogance and greed, the qualities Jane Austen mocked." This book is among other things a helpful corrective to the popular image of Austen as a soft-edged, sweet-hearted, romantic lady novelist. She was a gimlet-eyed judge of character, and not overly inclined to compassion for her less-than-upstanding characters. That is part of what makes her so much fun to read. "Her thrilling absolute judgments of characters she disapproves of give the reader the same kind of satisfaction: some people are a pleasure to know and loathe."

I can't imagine how anyone walks away from Pride and Prejudice (for example) with the sense that Jane would have been a great friend if only they had met. Some Janeites do seem to harbor that conviction. I only know that I am very glad my own character never had to withstand Jane Austen's scrutiny.

It probably goes without saying that this book will be most interesting to those who have read some or all of Austen's novels, and recently at that. It will also likely inspire you to pick them up again, with a new eye for the linguistic precision and artistry that Brownstein teases into view. You might want to start your reading or rereading with Emma, which, Brownstein notes provocatively, is most interesting to a reader who's read it before.

I have, but only once, and years ago. In fact, I realized as I was making my way through this book, the last time I read anything by Austen was when I was working on this review of Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club (and this accompanying sidebar -- my own encounter with Jane-o-mania). So, when I needed a book to keep me company during a long doctor's visit, I brought along Pride and Prejudice. I've been working steadily through it ever since -- now I'm reading the last chapters out loud to my son while he nurses, to entertain us both. (If he's confused about what he missed before he was born, he hasn't complained. Perhaps he simply knows he'll get more out of it the second time through.) This is at least my third time reading the book, but aside from the very broad outline (Elizabeth and Darcy start out mutually disliking each other, and -- spoiler alert -- end up in love), I am finding it as fresh as if I'd never read it before. The sharp character sketches, the precise vocabulary, the elusive narrator, and the densely layered plotting are all keeping me engrossed. It seems that even I may have fallen victim to the tendency to underestimate Austen's greatness due to her great capacity to give pleasure. I'm glad Brownstein's book gave me the motivation I needed to meet Jane Austen all over again.

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.