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Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen 
ed. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster
Cambridge University Press (Available at Amazon.co.uk & .com)
Level: Intermediate

The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, edited by Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster, is helpful, scholarly and to be recommended. However, it has its own idiosyncrasies. It was published in 1997 and has been reprinted up to and including this year (2002). A good deal of interesting work on Jane Austen has been published since its first appearance, so no account is taken of significant interventions since, like Clara Tuite's counter-intuitive Romantic Austen (Routledge), John Wiltshire's recreational Recreating Jane Austen (Cambridge), or Edward Neill's impolitic Politics of Jane Austen (Macmillan). Adaptations, too, get short shrift, although works like Adaptations: From Text to Screen, Screen to Text, ed. Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan (Routledge) impinge on Austen studies, and the well-known scholar Roger Sales, in Jane Austen and Representations of Regency England (Routledge) remarks that it might be "arrogant" not to concern oneself with media treatments of Austen. Indeed, such interventions in Austen studies are sometimes more intellectually sophisticated and open to theoretical ideas than those of traditional Austen critics. See, for example Esther Sonnet's essay, "From Emma to Clueless: Taste, Pleasure and the Scene of History" in the Cartmell and Whelehan collection.

In The Cambridge Companion the emphasis is professedly on Austen's cultural context, with attendant close readings, and this is underlined in the opening contribution, a precise and impressive "Chronology of Jane Austen's Life" by the well-known scholar Deirdre Le Faye. Jane Fergus writes with equal authority on the forms of publication open to Jane Austen and the publishing options she actually took, emphasising her life as a would-be independent professional author. After her transfer to the publisher John Murray, she fascinatingly indicates that Austen would have been better off accepting the £450 he (on the face of it, ungenerously) offered for the copyrights of Emma, Mansfield Park, and Sense and Sensibility. Rachel M. Brownstein writes on "Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice", noting the conjunction of "romantic narrative and ironic commentary" in these works. She senses that Austen's "sense of the novel's limits permeates her moral, witty fictions", a theme embraced in a different register in Margaret Anne Doody's suggestive essay on "The Short Fiction", in which the rompish, even savage spirit of the juvenilia and early fictions, cued by the world of the Augustans, is followed by a chastening process she thinks Austen reluctantly initiated in order to get published at all -- in deference to realism and the experiential exclusions and ideological closure it exacts.

John Wiltshire deftly and expertly presents a sense of the "psychological depth and narrative orchestration" in the mature novels -- Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion, a good corrective to the philistinism or naivety which happily takes any filmed version of them as automatically an authentic restatement of their artistic achievement. Carol Houlihan Flynn's sophisticated approach to Jane Austen's (surviving) letters reads them off in terms of coded sentiments of female enclosure, "exploring the limits of a stream of consciousness located somewhere between Lawrence Sterne and Samuel Beckett" - but also between the prolixity of Miss Bates and the severe self-containment and reserve of Jane Fairfax in Emma.

Juliet McMaster has the eye of an expert when she looks to Austen's novels and to their social context to calibrate class distinction(s), noting how Austen is ready enough to find a buffoon in the Senate House (Johnson's example from Shakespeare), from effete Sir Walter Elliot of Persuasion to fatuous Lord Osborne of the fragment The Watsons, pointing out that Austen's own amphibious social status as a genteel spinster, which grew too close to that of Miss Bates for comfort, enabled her to see more, and more clearly, the nature and consequences of social relationships. She tends to treat the novels as quasi-simultaneous productions, which suspends the question of altering inflections and perspectives as they comment on or contradict their predecessors. The great landowner Knightley in Emma is a kind of English deity whose very house and grounds inspire something like reverence, at least in Emma herself. The landowner who follows him is Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion. The treatment of rank and class is also perhaps rather equable. "Mortification" is a key word in Pride and Prejudice and Emma, and such extreme emotion often results from people not quite knowing their places where so much is ideologically contested ground. Also, when she adds that "Austen doesn't share the snobbish prejudice against trade", she seems to know more than perhaps most critics might claim to. Otherwise, this is an expert piece of work, offering a highly informed Grand Tour of Austen's high, low and middling social places, or spaces.

Edward Copeland writes on "Money", a chapter soundly based on his research into such contemporary ladies reading as the Ladies Magazine, with its Mrs-Bennet-like priorities, and the resulting, much-consulted book on Women Writing about Money: Women's Writing in England, 1790-1820 (Cambridge). For him, "the heartbeat of romance lies in a good income", with a few servants and carriages about the dauntingly large place acting as status symbols. The only problem is that, like Stendhal's idea of the American lady who, proposed to, can think only of the size of her prospective husband's pocketbook, it looks as if the novels deal plainly with people, young women in particular, who are "all out for what they can get", as Mrs Bennet, who should know, puts it. But we admire Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice because she has the character to tell men with money who assume they can have her because they have it, to be off, rather than because she does, in the end, "marry money".

In "Religion and Politics", Gary Kelly describes the cultural context with reference to both, seeing Austen's novels as transposed versions of a kind of "comedic", fundamentally optimistic Anglicanist emphasis on "something like grace" - under pressure, naturally. Isobel Grundy writes particularly well on "Jane Austen and Literary Traditions", showing how Austen's deep engagement with books does not lead to a straightforward deployment of canonic wisdom, but rather a tendency to quote slant, to sustain an unpretentious approach to learning, to disavow the role of literary pontificator. Somehow this makes Austen seem more, not less formidable. On the other hand, if you merely seek information, the main examples are all there, from Dr. Johnson, Richardson and Fielding to Shakespeare, Milton and Cowper, not forgetting the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible itself. Grundy emphasizes how, in Austen, book knowledge always enters into combination with other forms of knowledge and ways of getting at wisdom and understanding.

Claudia L. Johnson's expert essay on the uses to which Jane Austen has been put begins with Henry James's strictures on those who exploit "dear Jane, everybody's Jane" for commercial purposes which are achieved partly because we're all already, so to speak, hooked. The essay passes through Kipling's "Janeites" essay from his Debits and Credits (1926), reminding us of the oddity of many of those who have purloined Austen's image and the oddity of their purposes, yet finally deprecating the processes by which academic critics deprecate Austenian admirers outside the academy even as they police and convoy her.

However, her own perspective on the idea of Jane Austen as "cultural semiosis" or a process of sign-formation is itself not uncritical. For example, her reference to the "campy anglophilia" of American amateur reading clubs contrasted with the "brisker antiquarianism meticulousness" of British ones, real or imagined, implies her own sharp responsiveness. A responsiveness which the essay, in performative contradiction, seems to wish to deny to others: the over-insistence on the centrality of the marriage-plot to all those spanking (sic) New Critics doesn't seem to entail welcoming anything which ignores them.

At the same time, having entered the general realm of Jane-reproductions through all sorts of queerly-oriented cults, the non-engagement with film adaptations (seen by millions who are not on oath or by examination bound to have experienced Jane Austen through the act of reading) becomes a deafening silence. But this is a classy, helpful, suggestive and informative essay for all that. Bruce Stovel ekes out the critique with a conscientious attempt to present prospects for "Further Reading" in Austen criticism, in an overfraught essay threatening to become mere listings, but in general useful as a winnowing "bibliography plus", while John F. Burrows, the expert in computer science analysis, tries to rescue the notion of "Style", and Austen's in particular, from being a phantom of aesthetic figuring to a definable and scientifically recognisable entity.


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Mansfield Park and Persuasion: Contemporary Critical Essays. ed. Judy Simons
Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997. (Available at Amazon.co.uk & .com) Level: Intermediate

This is a very useful selection of criticism, though advanced and even formidable, though it could be used in the upper ranges of school level study. Summaries by the editor at the end of each essay are clever, a propos and helpful, if not themselves retreating from this general effect of formidableness. The collection rightly opens with Marilyn Butler (“Mansfield Park: Ideology and Execution”), a good critic and magisterial scholar whose hugely influential Jane Austen and the War of Ideas re-presented a Jane Austen whose Rec-tory upbringing guaranteed a reactionary novelistic discourse, purged of dialogic inconvenience. This is clearly demonstrated in her trenchant diagnosis of just why the Kotzebue play which the Bertrams and Crawfords perform at Mansfield represents everything Jane Austen might be expected to mistrust. However, her claim that MP is the most “visibly ideological” of her novels might be questioned, if only because, once you have taken the endlessly suggestive and helpful idea on board, novels like Emma and Persuasion pop into your mind, the former savaging those “of low origin, in trade, and only moderately genteel”, the latter ousting the gentry from their country seats and hymning the happy warriors who take lucrative prizes from gory sea-battles.

D.A. Miller, in “Good Riddance: Closure in MP” pursues the idea that “closural meaning depends on a purgation of excess signifiers”, he notes how the novel liposuctions out P&P-style ironies en route to its slaughterous ethical field day, letting us glance at the genealogy of the morals it formally upholds. Nina Auerbach in “Jane Austen’s Dangerous Charm” sees Fanny as a surprisingly Romantic character auto-authorising what seem communal norms and ethical hests whose bearings are utterly astray in the mouths of the characters who invoke them. Frankenstein and Grendel (in Beowulf) are two archetypes found for Fanny’s disturbingly abnegating power-crescendo in a novel which celebrates her as an instance of “the monstrous and the marginal”.

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, in “The Boundaries of Mansfield Park” enters as an anthropologist of sorts, soberly ludic as she investigates what we might call Fanny’s fear of being a “dirty girl”. Filth and Maria Bertram’s behaviour entwine in her imagination, suggestively combining with her fear of ingesting something unsavoury and her compulsive desire to police borders in search of an “other self” last spotted in Portsmouth. Finally, it seems, there’s no place like home (so long as it isn’t Portsmouth), and, despite genuflections to Christianity, the true gods are, finally, the local Lares and Penates. Espousing Fanny’s cause less equivocally, demonstrates proper lady property and propriety, romantic expectations are twinned with ethical sternness formation by Edmund affection, though, ironically, her female passivity is nicely calculated to provoke rather than repress the ardent pursuit by the libertine Crawford seeking to quench the very libertinage the demureness originally intensified. Though in the end she does not deny a Butlerian sense of novelistic conservatism, she points out that “Austen alerts her readers to complexities of the ethical code which the conservative moralists overlooked”.

In Mary Poovey’s “The True English Style”, excerpted from her The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer (1984), she argues that Jane Austen’s goal “is to make propriety and romantic desire absolutely congruent”, as Fanny upholds the strict moralism taught her by Edmund and Sir Thomas Bertram even as they fall from their own idea of ethical grace. The congruence she speaks of its threatened by the rightness of feeling itself vouchsafed to Mary Crawford when she falls for Edmund in spite of her mercenary ideology, and Henry Crawford when he “falls for” Fanny in spite of his ludic traducings of principle(s). Austen’s very creative ability to find embodiments of what Keats her contemporary called “the true voice of feeling” troubles her ethical grid-like ethical schemata.

Edward Said, emphasizing locations and the dreams of empire, finds thoughts of marginal Antigua invading the cultural space of Mansfield, where Sir Thomas Bertram will also prove to have produced slavery of sorts, and where various forms of exploitation are also the order of the day. “Displacements” might prove to be the master-metonymy of these thoughts for the day of Mansfield Park; a small sign that his erudite eye isn’t always on the object is the reference to Lydia as one of the Bertram daughters, equally a tearaway with Maria and Julia, but more at home in Pride and Prejudice. Moving to the later text, for Julia Prewitt Brown, Persuasion investigates alienation and the pessimism of the beautiful soul unsustained by social structures in a novel which looks forward to the unhoused free condition in an unhappy sense experienced by nineteenth-century novel heroines like Dorothea Brooke and Isobel Archer; but on occasion at least Anne seems to find this destructive element as congenial as a Jacuzzi, while her naval prerogatives are supposed to guarantee the social solidarity danger augments. Gilbert and Gubar, rough critical diamonds bavant boue et rubis celebrate Persuasion as a place where men may “value and participate in domestic life” and women contribute to public events. Anne is refracted through other characters like Mrs Smith, who provide antithetic parallels to each other, while wonderfully named Nurse Rooke, an extortionist of sorts, bears some resemblance to Jane Austen herself, purveyor of narrative nick-nacks and privy to secret histories. The glass coffin of femininity breeds monsters -- and invalids; the marriage plot secretes savage ironies.

For Claudia L. Johnson, in “Persuasion: ‘The Unfeudal Tone of the Present Day’”, the novel pursues the ironies attendant on the desertion of the faith in country house culture, the hereditary principle, and the “comforts we [have come to] despise” associated with it, happiness lodged less in the secret sharers of what Lawrence called “snobbish, knowing apartness”, than in those who reject such a mentalité with contempt. In Laura G. Mooneyham’s “Loss and the Language of Restitution in Persuasion”, the very structure of [Anne Elliot’s] society works against honesty and sincerity, in a world of distorted communication, which might attract the attention of writers on Habermas, for example. At her wit’s end to sustain the semiotics of desire and semaphore her personal predilections, much-enduring Anne Elliot will find ways to signal, if only by indirect communication, the reassuring love-message which a faltering, Wentworth is gratifyingly seen to need.

In a medicinal essay, “Persuasion: The Pathology of Everyday Life”, John Wiltshire probes the body of the text of the last of Austen’s completed works, pinpointing it as a “Novel of trauma”, dealing with the effects of physical and psychological wounding, and of the physical vulnerability and susceptibility to decay which the embalming narcissism of Sir Walter Elliot declines to countenance, in a novel finally not so much about nursing unacted desires as just nursing. Cheryl Anne Weissman in a brief, perceptive essay on “Doubleness and Refrain in Jane Austen’s Persuasion” replicates a sense of a return of the repressed, a recovery. Where the doubling in names and actions suggests the dream-work, in a narrative so hauntingly elemental as to suggest a fairy-tale becoming the stuff of night-mare as Anne’s Prince Charming courts the Ugly Sisters by mistake and a dismayed Cinderella, already wounded by past events, is forced to observe the “love-making”. A doubling at the level of names and actions combines with “a cadence of poetic refrain” gives the reader a sense of a novelistic “palimpsest” as we glimpse the determining, yet “re-forming” past through the floating uncertainties of the present. All in all, then, a splendid collection. Highly recommended.


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