Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Appreciating Austen as Austen

To me, one of the most frustrating aspects of the enduring obsession on both sides of the pond with all things Austen is that -- so far as ground-breaking discoveries or observations -- there is so little left to be said. Sometimes, in groping for a new and startling angle, admirers and scholars start proposing things that are simply silly. The worst is when people -- usually womyn in academia -- co-opt Jane to their own political agenda. All of a sudden, Miss Austen loses an "i" and a "s," and it is a bitter Ms indeed who writes subversive proto-feminist manifestos against the patriarchal Western cultural structure of Regency England. Oh please.

My fellow weary Janeites will be happy to hear that there is a recent volume of critical essays that bucks these vicious trends. Richard Jenkyns of Oxford has offered us a rare treat in his A Fine Brush on Ivory: An Appreciation of Jane Austen (Oxford University Press, 2004). Here, at last, is Austen without sensationalism; Austen without revisionism; Austen without an agenda. I nearly missed this slender book when perusing the shelves at my local library branch. Thank heavens that I didn't, for to read this thoughtful thesis is to drink from the refreshing well of elegance and sanity.

The main theme of A Fine Brush on Ivory is found in this declaration a bit of the way into the second chapter, "The Shape of Comedy": There are good, even great, novelists who are not good story-tellers, and there are highly gifted story-tellers who write thoroughly bad books. Jane Austen was a very good story-teller and a very good novelist. How did she do it? Mr Jenkyns then proceeds to show us how. That he is able to dissect and expound upon Miss Austen's craft in a way that, far from detracting from the mystery of her artistry, magically seems to enhance the reader's appreciation of it is a singular accomplishment for which he deserves not only our approbation, but our gratitude.

The book opens, appropriately enough, with a chapter titled, "Beginnings." And it is in this chapter that you discover that you are on excitingly uncommon Austen ground. Mr. Jenkyns uses the famous first lines of Pride and Prejudice as a springboard to examine what makes Miss Austen so very innovative and unique among novelists. I had never stopped to notice how differently P&P opens, not only compared with other writers both before and after her time, but also from Austen's other novels. Mr. Jenkyns points out that she begins with a pair of bold and succinct aphorisms, delves immediately into dialogue, and ends the chapter with a brief character study. Not only does this mark P&P as a comedy from the outset, not only does this structure read more like a play, but the character vignette at the end serves to congratulate the astute reader on what he has already discerned. In other words, by describing and defining Mr. and Mrs. Bennet at the end of a fast-paced and highly comical discourse, the author shares with her reader a sly, knowing wink when she "reveals" that Mr. Bennet is an odd mixture of "quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve and caprice" and his lady possesses "mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper."

That is just a small slice of what awaits the lucky Austen fan who stumbles upon this tender tribute. Mr. Jenkyns not only delights in his subject, he has both the critical chops and the graceful pen to write a substantial contribution to Austen scholarship without sounding as though he were in the throes of a bowel complaint.

Richard Jenkyns touches upon all the novels, but his main concentration is upon Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma. In each, he brings to light different ideas to ponder in subsequent re-readings of Miss Austen's work. Will Mrs. Norris seem any more sympathetic when we realize that she is the only loveless character in Mansfield Park?* Will our view of Emma change when we read Mr. Woodhouse as the villain of the piece? And, will Mr. Jenkyns assertion that Mr. Darcy's first proposal to Elizabeth reveals that "he is so desperate to get her into bed that he will marry her even though it will be a degradation to him" make Darcy even more of a sexy beast the next time we enjoy Pride and Prejudice?

Though, in the end, Richard Jenkyns's fine work may not be at the top of your mind the next time you revel in Austen, you will be infinitely richer for having had the experience of reading his thoughtful observations beforehand. Let them seep into the rivers of your subconscious, and you may just find something newer, deeper, even more fulfilling on Miss Austen's famous "little bit[s] (two inches wide) of ivory." I find it always easy to get more from Austen with every reading -- her bounty seems limitless -- but A Fine Brush on Ivory gives you a headwind on the next journey, and a kindred spirit to sail with as well.

*Having since re-read MP, I can answer that, for me, the answer is, "No."

1 comment:

vermonster said...

I purchased this book months ago after your twitter recommendation but it has been at on the book stack. I do believe it's time to pick it up.