A Friendly, But Limited, Companion
The Friendly Jane Austen: A Well
Mannered Introduction to a Lady of Sense & Sensibility
By Natalie Tyler.
Viking, 1999. xix +299 pages.
Reviewed by Natalie Goldberg.
What kind of "passionate reader of Jane Austen" are you? This question opens Natalie Tyler's book and a quick and quirky quiz will place you within one of four schools. The multiple-choice questions, reminiscent of self-help surveys, test knowledge of pop culture--and so Austenites are asked to rate Meg Ryan movies (not including my favorite When Harry Met Sally), decide on favorite planets, Beatles, tenors, advice columnists and choose among several tongue-in-cheek situations. Consistently romantic answers identify the "Janeite" or the "Jane-as-comfort food" schools. I was divided between the "gentle Jane" and the "ironic Jane" schools, which surprised me, since T always thought of myself as a member of the "Jane as subversive" class. Six additional quizzes placed among the discussions of major works challenge the reader with harder identification questions for quotations, food preferences, book choices, and illnesses. Be forewarned: these quizzes include the Juvenilia and Sanditon and are not for dabblers.
Tyler's preface announces her intent: "I promise unalloyed adoration of Jane Austen's works." In this service, she presents enthusiastic, intelligent readings of the novels alongside interviews with actors, directors, writers, critics. Although part of the academic community herself (the book jacket identifies her background as "a Jane Austen scholar and lecturer for more than a decade... [and] currently a professor at Ohio State University"), Tyler rejects academic jargon for its tendency to "treat the characters [as] verbal constructs" and not as neighbors or family members. Her disingenuous comments about academia notwithstanding, Tyler does include many interviews with academics who bring a scholarly context to the novels; thus, Mark Conroy comments on Austen's free indirect discourse as an important innovation; Marlene Longenecker connects Jane Austen to her famous contemporary Mary Wollstonecraft on educating women to make rational choices. However, the brief interviews just acquaint the reader with the cultural milieu and do not remain academic in tone. For example, after contrasting Austen's spirit to the Romanticism of her contemporaries, David Riede is asked to name his favorite character for a daughter (predictably, Elizabeth Bennet) and select his favorite choice for a son-in-law (not Mr. Darcy). Phoebe Spinrad rates mothers and fathers; Jan Fergus compares male and female whiners. Joan Vredenburgh is asked why she selected Northanger Abbey for her dissertation topic, and she describes her visit to Bath where she could "imagine being in an Austen novel." Asked about her article on General Tilney, she pictures him "spitting nails seeing himself characterized as a salesman."
The style is lively and pleasurable to read. The book opens with a snapshot of Austen's family and her Juvenilia; the long middle section focuses on major works; the last part surveys Austen's influence in contemporary culture including soap operas, films and sequels. Presented in order of publication, each novel is given a two-page plot summary, publication history, and brief, informative articles about the characters' world, such as Rumford fireplaces, ha-has, and circulating libraries. The explanation of money matters includes a useful table of relative incomes in Austen's England. Thus we understand why Wickham would be very delighted indeed for such a catch as Miss Georgiana Darcy. Commentary on conduct books, Gothic novels and novels of sensibility explain targets of Austen's satire. Quotations open sketches that reveal character. Augusta Elton's affectation of the outdated caro sposo betrays her vulgarity. "The liveliness of your mind," Darcy's compliment to Elizabeth Bennet, begins the discussion of Elizabeth's intelligence and wit. Conversation topics such as Henry Tilney's interest in muslin are related to tensions in the Regency world. A sly reference to slave trade is embedded in Mrs. Elton's maiden name, as Tyler reveals.
New readers of Austen will find much pleasure in exploring the commentaries. The three-and-a-half page selective bibliography and detailed index are useful. Austen Society members would enjoy the interview with Elsa Solender about JASNA and Tyler's witty depiction of the Richmond, Virginia Annual General Meeting. But this book is not for specialists; the topics, though entertainingly written, are brief. Nor is it perfect. Commentaries depicting Austen as an Augustan writer ignore recent scholarship placing her within English Romanticism. Pages of short quotes are often tedious. Missing are descriptions of dance, music, and art. Tyler might have depicted the Crown Ball or the dance held in Fanny's honor. Moreover, the checklist of sense and sensibility is silly. Why, for example, label Wagner as "sense," but Mahler as "sensibility?" The accruing of "Eltons" as a measurement of vulgarity, however, cleverly focuses on behavior observable within the novels. The case for a "5E" rating is both amusing and insightful. All-in-all, Tyler has provided a delightful book to browse.
Natalie Goldberg teaches English at St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago, IL.
JASNA News v.16, no. 3, Winter 2000, p. 27
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