Sunday, July 19, 2020

Jane Austen; Writing, Society, Politics - Tom Keymer

Officially out later this week, I was sent a copy of this by Oxford University Press to review. It's been sitting on my desk for a couple of weeks looking appealing, and so for once I've read it in good time. Part of it's appeal is that it's a short (148 pages) and pocket sized - it makes it an easy book to pick up. It is essentially an introduction to Austen's novels that can be read whole in a few hours, or referred back to on a novel by novel basis.

Taken chapter by chapter you have a decent introduction to each book, or adaptation, which when put together form a decent overview and assessment of Austen's career. The various adaptations are worth thinking about here, and Keymer occasionally touches on them, because I've watched Pride and Prejudice many more times than I've read it. It's easy to forget when they're so ubiquitous that these are only interpretations, and far from complete representations of the novels.

For such a short book there's a lot packed into each chapter, and Keymer makes excellent arguments against some of the charges against Austen and the scope of her writing. The Northanger Abbey chapter persuasively suggests that it's far more than a parody of Gothic fiction for example, and the Mansfield Park section ('The Silence at Mansfield Park') is just as persuasive in how it talks about the way Austen doesn't talk about slavery. She brings it up - and this is a theme throughout her work - but then leaves the reader to join the dots.

The silence Fanny Price is met with when she asks questions is enough to silence her in return. Do we need Austen to spell everything out for us or is it enough to know that this was to sensitive or unpleasant a subject to openly confront in the family circle? And so it goes on.

In 'Sense, Sensibility, and Society' there's some really interesting quotes from Mary Wollstonecraft about the cult of feeling and sensibility (it's hard not to apply them to twitter culture) alongside a defense for Marianne's sensibility against Elinor's stoic sense. Throughout Austen's work is put into context with some of the writers she would have been familiar with and who immediately follow her. My reading list now not only takes in wanting to re read most of her work, but also finally to read Ann Radcliffe, Thomas Love Peacock, and Mary Wollstonecroft (thank god I've already read enough Henry Fielding, and Samuel Richardson not to feel the need to make the experiment again) and a whole lot of other things happily sitting on my shelves.

Major threads of literary criticism around Austen are summerised, and there's a decent list of further reading if you want to go follow that path. For my needs this book is probably enough. It has already enriched my understanding of Austen and will definitely continue to do that as I read more and again. It's concise, informative, and accessible (how often do you find yourself reading about Mansfield Park long after midnight and thinking just one more page, maybe another chapter?) an excellent companion to Austen's that gives plenty to think about without feeling like it's going to get between you and the text*. I thoroughly recommend this one for anybody who has even a passing interest in Austen's work.

*I'm still vaguely annoyed by everything I've ever read about Jane Eyre, all of which has robbed me of a little bit more of any enjoyment I found in that book.


  1. I feel the same way about Jane Eyre commentary, starting with the foreword which ruined the Bertha surprise the first time I read it. Also cannot stand Jane Eyre adaptations, but Austen adaptations are fine. Not sure why that is... maybe because Jane Eyre was written as a more personal and less universal book? Or maybe I’m just weird.

    1. I find Jane Eyre a bit bonkers and troubling. It sort of works when you're reading it but I imagine Charlotte as the sort of woman who's friends would always have been on the verge of staging an intervention over the latest disastrous partner she'd found. To make it anything like palatable you have to cut quite a bit (I also think the least obnoxious thing Rochester does is keep his crazy wife in the attic, and on some level I'm not really convinced Jane would object to being his mistress/bigamous wife). Austen's main characters are more convincing, and she's funny, and like you say much more universal.