Read Jane Austen For Dummies Online

Authors: Joan Elizabeth Klingel Ray

Jane Austen For Dummies (4 page)

BOOK: Jane Austen For Dummies
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Icons Used in This Book

This book uses different icons to point out different kinds of information:

This icon indicates memorable things regarding Austen, her work, and her times.

This icon alerts you to interesting, but not necessary, information. How technical can I get in a book about a novelist? And I'm not into fashionable literary jargon!

When you see this icon, you're alerted to fascinating and surprising information about Jane Austen.

Where to Go from Here

The only chronological chapter in this book is Chapter 3, which is about Austen's life. So you can move around in the book where you want. For example, if you want to find out more about the dancing that occurs in Jane Austen's novels, head to Chapter 5.

But if you want to place Austen's novels in the context of her times, start with Chapter 2 and move forward from there. And if you want to know why we're even publishing
Jane Austen For Dummies,
start with Chapter 1.

Part I
Getting to Know Jane Austen, Lady and Novelist

In this part . . .

A
n Austen blog claims that Austen is everywhere, and that's true. Austen's writings are studied and analyzed by scholars, yet also loved by ordinary folks — this part explores why. Chapter 1 speculates about why Austen's work, nearly 200 years old, continues to enchant and challenge readers. Granted, readers enjoy her novels for their charming heroines and good stories. But Austen also had certain expectations of her readers, readers who, like her, were a part of English society. Chapter 2 reveals the expectations of Austen as well as her contemporary readers by giving you a glimpse of what life was like in her world at her time. Chapter 3 gives you biographical info on Austen and her wonderfully witty and intelligent family who encouraged her writing from childhood on. And Chapter 4 discusses the writers she read who influenced her writing, as well as some of the persons she met who inspired her — after all, writers of fiction need to be somewhat voyeuristic!

Chapter 1
Introducing Jane Austen
In This Chapter

Understanding why Jane Austen is so popular

Examining Austen's critical reception

Appreciating the many ways Austen is celebrated

I
t's challenging to introduce someone who in a way “needs no introduction.” Jane Austen isn't just the female writer from days gone by who writes love stories. Yet ironically (and Austen loved being ironic) she's the queen of the courtship novel and the originator of the
Regency romance
(courtship literature set specifically in England's Regency period, 1811–1820, during which Jane Austen actually lived, as opposed to authors today who write Regency romances, copying Jane Austen). She's a keen observer of her world (late-18th- and early-19th-century England), a subtle
satirist
(one who writes works that attempt to improve society or humanity), and a shrewd analyst of human behavior (a century before psychologists decided that observing human behavior was a reliable way to understand human beings).

Her small literary output of six major novels, two fragments of novels, about two dozen youthful pieces of fiction (later called her
Juvenilia
), and a
novella,
or short novel, is in inverse proportion to her popularity. Type her name into an Internet search engine, and within seconds you can explore nearly 13 million results. But reading a novel by Jane Austen is far more fun and enlightening than clicking through Internet Web sites. So, too, I hope, is reading this book.

Her novels are always selling. They inspire commercial films and television miniseries, as well as Broadway shows. Readers who can't get enough Austen buy dozens of sequels by authors who attempt to continue the events of her novels, which I believe she has already brought to closure. Her face, or the image that's believed to be an approximation of what she looked like, appears on tea mugs, T-shirts, computer mouse pads, and tote bags, prompting people who already own these items to buy more of the same items, but with Austen's face on them. Writers attach her name to dating guides, which always strikes me as ironic: Sure, guys have always been guys, but Austen's characters didn't date as we understand dating. (You can find more about how young people got to know each other in Chapter 6.) Writers also attach the Austen name to cookbooks, tea books, decorating books — anything writers and publishers can relate to Jane Austen. That's because she's hot stuff today.

Identifying the Lady Writer

The current blog that “Austen's everywhere” would undoubtedly shock Austen because during her most productive writing years (1809–1816), even her readers didn't know her name. Her first published novel,
Sense and Sensibility
(1811), appeared with the title page reading “By A Lady.” And her second published novel was no help because
Pride and Prejudice
was published with the byline “By The Author Of
Sense and Sensibility
.” You can guess how the bylines of her other novels read: “By The Author Of. . . .”

Do you see a pattern here? Being a lady meant more than being a courteous woman. A lady was a member of a social class called the
gentry.
This class owned land and was genteel. While some female (and note, I didn't write the word “lady” just now) novelists had their names in their bylines, they usually explained that they wrote because of financial distress — an ailing husband or wastrel husband with a brood of young children to support, and so forth. But a
lady
didn't write for money; she wrote for personal fulfillment — though Jane Austen enjoyed making the money, too! At the same time, the cryptic byline preserved her anonymity, which Austen desired. The byline identifying the author as a “Lady” also told the contemporary reader what to expect: a polite, well-mannered book with ladies and gentlemen as characters. And Austen didn't disappoint.

While Austen's identity as an author was leaking here and there, it was only after Austen's death at age 41 that the public finally discovered, through obituary notices, that Jane Austen was the “Lady” who wrote
Pride and Prejudice, Emma,
and so on. Her literary executor brother Henry prefaced a “Biographical Notice of the Author” with her name and the titles of her four previously published novels listed in the first paragraph to a two-volume set of her first and final completed novels,
Northanger Abbey
and
Persuasion,
which were published together in January 1818. Finally her reading public knew her name.

Keeping a Personal Record

Just because Austen published anonymously didn't mean she didn't care about her books. On the contrary, she wrote letters that served as her personal thoughts about her works. In her letters she specifically called
Sense and Sensibility
and
Pride and Prejudice
her children. She kept lists of friends' and family members' comments about
Mansfield Park
and
Emma.
She happily reported in letters to family members when a novel was going into a second edition or when someone praised one of her books. Austen also wrote to her naval brother Frank, who was at sea, to proudly report earning a total of £250 from her writing, £140 of that from
Sense and Sensibility,
which had sold out its first edition, plus getting the copyright to it back (Letter, July 3–6, 1813). (For info on Austen's writing and publishing, head to Chapter 3.)

But Jane Austen wasn't a publicity seeker. In another letter to Frank written the following October, she told him that the “Secret” of her novel-writing was spreading. What's worse, their talkative brother Henry, hearing
Pride and Prejudice
praised while in Scotland, blabbed in a moment of fraternal affection that his sister was the author. “I am trying to harden myself,” she writes to Frank. Saying this, she means she's trying to strengthen herself intellectually and emotionally to endure any publicity that follows.

Getting Reviewed

Austen found herself reviewed by not only the critics of her time, but also her family, friends, and future readers.

Checking out the comments from the critics of her day

During her productive, publishing years, Austen preferred life in her native county of Hampshire, surrounded by a loving family and dear friends of both genders. But her books were starting to get noticed by the critics.

In February of 1812,
The Critical Review
printed an unsigned
Sense and Sensibility
review, which praised the book for showing well-drawn, natural characters in realistic events and presenting instructive morality.

The May 1812
British Critic
's reviewers were even more flattering of Austen's work, saying that they thought so highly of
Sense and Sensibility
that they wished they had room among the major articles in that issue to discuss the book. Commending the novel for having believable and consistent characters, the review recommends the novel to female readers for its conduct lessons.

While these aren't rave reviews, they were certainly encouraging to an author who'd been writing since her adolescence and was now finally published at age 36.

The same publications as abovereviewed
Pride and Prejudice
in 1813. This time the reviews more fully praised Austen's work. Calling it the best novel they had seen recently, the
British Critic
's reviewer loved the way the author wrote the character of Elizabeth Bennet and praised the novel's energy. The review concludes by encouraging the author to continue writing — which she, in fact, was. Austen completed
Mansfield Park,
while her publishers issued second editions of
Sense and Sensibility
and
Pride and Prejudice
— all by the end of 1813.
The Critical Review
opened its evaluation of
Pride and Prejudice
noting that the author presented an entire family that interested the reader, and echoing the
British Critic
by calling this novel the best of any they'd recently seen that dealt with familiar, home life.

Commenting on the early reviewers

The two journals that reviewed Austen's first two published novels used the typical criteria for literary evaluation: the book's morality and probability. Today, Austen's work is considered realistic. That is, her characters represent human nature, which is always the same. Thus, the controlling Lady Catherine, the jealous Miss Bingley, and the manipulative Lucy Steele are all familiar because at one time or another, you've met someone who behaves just like they do. But Austen's characters aren't types; they're neither flat nor one dimensional. Each person is unique. So, while
Pride and Prejudice
's Miss Bingley is jealous of Elizabeth, her jealousy manifests itself very differently from
Sense and Sensibility
's Lucy Steele's jealousy of Elinor. Today Austen's novels may be called psychologically realistic, which is why readers of the present can relate and respond to characters created in 1812.

Getting the big review for Emma

While Austen's anonymous reviews in 1812 and 1813 were from respectable publications, getting a review of
Emma
by Sir Walter Scott, the most famous novelist and poet of the day, in the
Quarterly Review
(1815) was a real coup. Even though
Emma
's publisher, John Murray, requested Scott to review the novel, Murray, the really big-time publisher of the period, did so because he knew he had something new, special, and unique in
Emma.

Scott used the review to talk about the development of the novel, which was a comparatively new
genre
(form of writing). Noting that while recent novelists such as Henry Fielding
(Tom Jones)
and Fanny Burney
(Cecilia)
had been realistic and set characters in ordinary life, they still had extreme, unrealistic moments such as sword fights, dramatic illnesses, or the specter of poverty and ruin hanging over their characters. More recent novels had tried to be truer to everyday life, but they still found their excitement in well-worn ways such as heroic feats or excessive sentimentality. But then there was
Emma.
Scott praises
Emma
's author (remember, he never heard the name “Jane Austen”) for presenting original and spirited characters and actions while remaining within the boundaries of ordinary life — in other words, the book does not depend on heroic sword fights or dramatic illnesses to hold the reader's interest or arouse the reader's excitement. In accomplishing this, Scott said, the author of
Emma
was unique, or nearly so.

While there is much about Austen's work that Scott doesn't recognize, his high praise of
Emma
shows that he sees the writer's talent for doing something new in the novel form.

Glancing at later reviews

The important mid-19th-century critic, George Lewes, observed in 1859 that Austen's novels continued to be read, while many authors of her own day who surpassed her in reader-popularity had become neglected. (In other words, she was slowly becoming a classic in the sense that she was a writer whose works were outliving their author.) Lewes also praised Austen's artistic economy: She never wastes a word. But he also claimed that Austen was for the more “cultivated” reader. (La-de-dah!) This statement led to a certain snobbery because it suggested that you needed to be especially refined to read and appreciate Austen. By the later 19th century, some critics pointed to Austen's limitations, such as her not including showy scenes of great events, for which Scott had praised
Emma.
They complained, for example, that while she lived in the age of the Napoleonic Wars, she never really dealt with them. It would take later 20th-century critics to see all that is subtle in Austen: that she does deal with politics, social change, economics, and so forth. Likewise, modern critics fully recognized that perhaps Austen's greatest achievement was taking the incidents of everyday life, with which readers can identify, and treating them with humor, irony, sensitivity, and
élan
— a favorite word and desirable trait of Austen's meaning distinctive style or flair. Isn't her combination of realism, wit, and style the big reason that people still read Austen today?

Listening to Austen's current readers

Although Austen's novels inspire shelves of critical analysis by literary scholars, her main readership comprises people who don't pick up her novels professionally. They read Austen because they love her novels and find her work meaningful.

Between October and December 2003, BBC-2 television in England ran a reader's poll throughout the United Kingdom called “The Big Read.” The goal was to determine the reading (and obviously TV-viewing) public's favorite 100 books of all time. Austen had three in the top 100, and she came in second overall with
Pride and Prejudice.
And what was number one?
The Lord of the Rings,
which was playing to box-office records in movie theaters just at the time of the poll. Now, I'm not saying “coincidence,” but . . . to give you an idea of how the voting went, other titles in the top 21 were
Gone with the Wind,
Winnie the Pooh,
and
The Wind in the Willows.
I'd speculate that of the five titles, Austen's is the only one that turns up regularly on college reading lists, unless you take a “kiddie lit” class. So regular folks who watch TV, enter polls, and read voted for
Pride and Prejudice.

The following year, 2004, BBC-Radio 4's “Woman's Hour” ran a poll to determine the novel that women can relate to the most. Ninety-three percent of the respondents, presumably all female who listen to the show, named
Pride and Prejudice
(1813) as the book that not only maintains its relevance to them but also makes them proud to be women. (I love the Brits for doing these polls! They take reading seriously and popularly over there.)

The two polls point out that ordinary readers read Austen without being assigned it by a teacher — even though teachers and professors assign it for its literary value, too. Austen is a writer who inspires countless doctoral dissertations, as well as bumper stickers that proclaim, “I'd Rather Be Reading Jane Austen.” Why? Keep reading to find out — and see if your reason for preferring to read Austen's works match those I suggest!

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