Critical Essays on Jane Austen
Edited by Laura Mooneyham White.
G.K. Hall & Co., 1998. 247 pages. Hardcover, $49.00.
Reviewed by Mary Jane Curry.
Critical Essays on Jane Austen, edited by Laura Mooneyham White, comprises eight often-cited studies and two new ones, by White and Devoney Looser. Most of the essayists are familiar to JASNA members: Deborah Kaplan, Looser, Mary Poovey, Moira Ferguson, Nancy Armstrong, Claudia L. Johnson, Alistair Duckworth, John Halperin, and D.A. Miller, in addition to White. Four essays appeared previously: Kaplan's Jane Austen Among Women (1992), Poovey's The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer (1984), and Armstrong's Desire and Domestic Fiction (1987).
White's introduction surveys the scholarly and public reception of Austen's work from her lifetime through the late 1990s. Unfortunately, she waxes defensive about the book's feminist-historicist (and in one case Marxist) approach and arrogantly attacks "the doings at Jane Austen Society meetings," implying that JASNA fosters mindless, uncritical praise of Austen's work. White seems unaware of the often feminist, historicist, Marxist scholarship represented at the AGMs and in Persuasions.
Duckworth's essay is a slightly revised version of his much-cited "Jane
Austen's Accommodations" (1985). As always in reading him, I find insights
expressed eloquently. The "accommodations" are Austen's attempts "to bring
her dreams [for women's status, for personal happiness] into conformity
with the exigencies of real life." She does so, he believes, with varying
success from novel to novel. Nevertheless, he argues, "she also puts 'desire'--her
own as well as her readers'--in ironical perspective." One instance is
her foregrounding of the artificial ending of Northanger Abbey.
Calling Austen's parody of the stock romance ending "worthy of Cervantes,"
Duckworth nevertheless sees her description of Henry and Catherine's marriage
as part realism:
Jane Austen's conclusion allows "desire" a measure of triumph. Henry's marriage to Catherine finally rests on a realistic basis; the General learns... that the Morlands are "in no sense of the word. . . poor," that Catherine will have 3,000 pounds, and that the Fullerton estate is entirely at the disposal of its proprietor, Mr. Allen, and therefore "open to every greedy speculation." Thus, while Catherine may not be entitled to become mistress of the Abbey, she does have a claim on Woodston parsonage...
Accommodations from another perspective are also the subject of White's essay, "Traveling to the Self: Comic and Spatial Openness in Jane Austen's Novels." White argues that Austen's novels treat both closed and open places ambiguously: the open "represents pure freedom and...pure anarchy," while enclosed areas--from shrubberies to rooms-- represent "coherency or social restrictions." Spaces signify on two levels: the social which, like Duckworth, White finds treated conservatively; and the personal, with space representing "the self and its quest for identity." About the private she argues, "Austen's understanding of psychological realities shuns the sort of monolithic certainty we find in her social vision." Although I disagree with some conclusions such as that Austen's social vision is "monolithic," I enjoyed how White showed that Darcy's and Elizabeth Bennet's new-found flexibility, their "openness" to other attitudes, is represented by Pemberley's open grounds.
Looser's new essay "Reading Jane Austen and Rewriting 'Herstory" considers "history primarily as . . . a changing genre in the 18th Century field of letters." Examining Austen's letters, History of England, and Northanger Abbey, Looser shows how these joined "a struggle for gaining readers" of that somewhat-maligned genre, the novel. Austen re-defined the novel by combining "genres said to be 'masculine" [history] or 'feminine' [novels] into something that was both--or neither." The omission of facts in her History of England signals not only parody but also a female focus on the emotional lives of famous people "rather than the prominent features of war and turbulence" that Goldsmith recounts. Looser's other arguments are equally stimulating, and she presents them in relation to other historical and historicist scholarship.
Moira Ferguson's extensive historical research ("Mansfield
Park: Slavery, Colonialism, and Gender") suggests that despite Francis
Austen's abolitionist influence, Mansfield Park "entertains the
option of emancipation--[not] abolition--only through the sound of muffled
rebel voices." Unfortunately, occasional jargon (e.g., "a new colonialist
dispensation of gradualist politics at home and abroad") mars a cogent
argument. As a whole, however, White's edition makes for worthwhile reading.
Mary Jane Curry is an Associate Professor at Auburn University Montgomery,
where she is currently teaching "Austen and the Brontes in Literature and
JASNA News v.16, no. 2, Summer 2000, p. 21
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