Despite the fact that Michael Ruse—usually dear, woolly, comfy Michael Ruse!!—wants you to think otherwise, there is indeed a valuable new book published by a university press on the subject of literature that you need to read this summer.
You need to read it because you’ll enjoy it—how’s that for a reason?
(Note to Prof. Ruse: How could you? I feel myself getting all weepy at the very thought of your betrayal. Agreeing with, shall we simply say, The Opposition, are you? Oh, perfidious man!)
The book you should read is titled Why Jane Austen?. It was written by the distinguished scholar Rachel Brownstein, who also wrote Becoming a Heroine: Reading About Women in Novels, and published in the spring by Columbia UP (read more about it here).
Brownstein’s genuinely erudite book is a fun, lively, almost always loving, and always provocative romp through the sometimes bizarre world of Austenalia.
Brownstein has a good time with the book and the sense of her own pleasure comes through on every page. She talks abut her own life, friends, grown children, and colleagues even as she talks about the dozens and dozens of adaptations of Pride and Prejudice (as well as the paper dolls and Zombie-filled editions) and the role of rebellion and the denial of the desire in Mansfield Park. Why Jane Austen? doesn’t pretend not to have an author, and, as you get to know the author it does have, you become agreeably delighted by her company.
Best of all, you are reminded why you were intrigued by Austen in the first place.
For purposes of full disclosure, I should admit that Rachel Brownstein and I know each other; I never actually took a class from her while I was at the Graduate Center at CUNY (my loss, of course) but instead we met at a panel at a Jane Austen Society of North America gathering in New York. There we were, two women from Brooklyn surrounded by grumbling scholars, high school teachers, Jane-ites, and a shocking number of women dressed in Empire-waist calico and gingham.
I’d been a fan of her work ever since reading Becoming a Heroine; I was honored to be on the same dais. I was also really happy to sit next to somebody who was not wearing lace.
(Professor Ruse, do you wear lace?)
We were all talking about Austen’s juvenilia, and I was meant to address the way that Austen doubles the irony of a woman’s apparent submission to her assigned role even as she re-writes it from within. I always felt that Austen’s real power as a writer rests on the reader’s ability to detect the core of refusal wrapped within the layers of acceptance, rather like the princess has to feel the pea under all those mattresses.
As I recall, Rachel and I both talked about Margaret Oliphant’s 1870 piece instructing readers to recognize that Austen is writing from a position necessarily marginal because necessarily feminine; in short (and although Oliphant would have hit a person over the head with a walking stick rather than say such a thing), she was asking readers to recognize that writing is gendered. I’m going to indulge myself here by quoting my favorite passage from Oliphant: “[Austen's] position of mind is essentially feminine … [a] despair of any one human creature ever doing any good to another—of any influence overcoming those habits and moods and peculiarities of mind which the observer sees to be more obstinate than life itself—a sense that nothing is to be done but to look on. … It is not absolute contempt either, but only a softened tone of general disbelief. … Miss Austen is not the judge of the men and women she collects round her. She is not even their censor to mend their manners; no power has constituted her brother’s keeper.”
Isn’t that a hoot? (Dr. Ruse: Surely you approve of Mrs. Oliphant? Do you think she deserved publication?)
Brownstein is like Oliphant: She holds Austen up to the light as a kind of prism through which much—literary, political, cultural, social, and sexual—is filtered.
Imagine, therefore, how much I enjoyed reading a new book that brought the good conversation we had all those years ago up to date, but this time with anecdotes, illustrations, footnotes, and an even more wide-ranging vision: Why Jane Austen? draws together materials from Austen’s contemporaries and from our own contemporaries—and everybody in between, bringing Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Wharton, Said, Kipling, Jong, Lodge, O’Brien, Twain, Byron, Weldon, and Ephron into the circle.
Perhaps—and I’m saying this only to appease Prof. Ruse because he usually writes such nice things about his family and so can’t be all bad—some books aren’t worth much attention.
Why Jane Austen?, however, is one that is.