I have just finished Why Jane Austen? by Rachel M. Brownstein. It is a scholarly book, a serious discourse that attempts to interpret why Jane Austen is considered such a great writer and why she has become such a phenomenon in this day and age. The author strives to explain and understand from many viewpoints: Jane Austen’s contemporaries, her family, the young girls who are looking for a simple courtship story, women who see early feminist messages á la Mary Wollstonecraft, white-haired ladies who ooh and aah at the neat writing of her manuscripts and letters, and the zealots who would defend, to the death, her genius. It is a well-written book; the author, a professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center and who has lectured at meetings of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), knows her stuff. I enjoyed reading it but found parts of the book dry and, at times, confusing. I am wondering if my dense reading of this book is because it wasn’t what I expected. The well-known axiom, “don’t judge a book by its cover” is appropriate here as the cover picturing a Jane Austen “action figure” atop a stack of books belies its content. I thought it would be a “light, bright and sparkling” book appropriate for summer holiday reading. Beach reading it was not.
No sooner had I read the last page I began to question why I love Jane Austen so much. Oddly enough, it is a tough question to answer, most likely because my outlook towards her has changed over the years. I must admit I came to her quite late. I never read Pride and Prejudice as a giddy schoolgirl; I discovered her in college. I am embarrassed to say that my introduction to Jane Austen was through the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth as Elizabeth and Darcy. I remember loving it as I tried to watch while being teased by a neanderthal who felt that the highly mannered society, the clothes and stately settings, and period language were pretentious. I read the book and soon after the other five novels. I fell in love.
Since then, I have read the biographies, the Juvenilia, the letters, magazines, articles, on-line blogs, and have re-read the books countless times. I would rather go hungry than not purchase the newest edition of any of the novels, biography, or critical essays. I even watch and enjoy the cinematic versions of the books and Jane Austen’s life. My favorite P&P is no longer the Firth one; he being much too Byronic for my tastes and not the Darcy of the novel. I have read each book in different ways, sometimes I focus on character, sometimes it’s the language, I like to focus on reading between the lines to gently uncover Jane Austen’s witty and humorous and very accurate assessments of the people we still come into contact today. She was a master of language; her writing so exquisite and at the same time so humble. Unless you are looking for it this can be easy to miss. Virginia Woolf summed it up best in A Room of One’s Own,
“Anyone who has the temerity to write about Jane Austen is aware…that of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.”
So why Jane Austen? Because I am the giddy girl seeking romance, the intellectual woman looking for discourse on the perfect novel, the feminist fighting for female independence and a break from the accepted docile rendering of womanhood, the gray-haired lady who values penmanship, civility, and manners. Jane Austen answers to all of these various parts of my personality and so much more. I’ve never been let down by her and have always been able to find a kernel of wisdom, laughter, and joy no matter my mood. Her words have uplifted my spirits, answered difficult questions, and given me an understanding of people through the behavior of her characters. She is great. It is as simple as that.