Edited by George Justice

Imagination and History

Jane Austen: Illusion and Reality

By Christopher Brooke.
D. S. Brewer, 1999. xii + 224 pages.
Hardcover. $45.

Reviewed by Laurie Kaplan.

In 1988, when I was Visiting Scholar at Newnham College in Cambridge, I had the pleasure of studying the history of Cambridge's medieval churches and libraries with Professor Christopher Brooke of Gonville and Caius College. Now it is my pleasure to review Professor Brooke's Jane Austen: Illusion and Reality, a work that contextualizes the themes and topics that captured Jane Austen's creative imagination. Professor Brooke looks at Jane Austen's novels and letters through the lens of a variety of 18th and early 19th Century historical materials. His method is to excavate contemporary documents, to explore the evidence of the novels and letters, to synthesize the records of the past, and to ascertain the role of Austen's oeuvre in the history of society, marriage, morals, and feminism.

In this book, Professor Brooke offers a contemplative analysis of some of the larger problems faced by the community in Jane Austen's era. He brings to the study of Jane Austen and her times the historian's sense of the past; his careful attention to details and his breadth of knowledge about social history make the book a fascinating example of how our knowledge of history can help us read literature more deeply. Professor Brooke offers insightful chapters on the individual novels as well as informative sections devoted to "Church and Clergy" (with references to Irene Collins's work), "Rank and Status," "Marriage in the Novels," and "Convictions and the Moral Code." His overview of how marriage functions as a social construct in Jane Austen's works is particularly revealing, informed as it is by his important book The Medieval Idea of Marriage (1989). Professor Brooke argues against Lawrence Stone's central doctrine of "'the growth of affective individualism'--freedom of choice and marriage for love," which situates "companionate marriage" in the 17th and 18th Centuries. He suggests instead that there is too much evidence for "marriage for love" during the 12th to 16th Centuries to support Stone's theory.

Writing more with an eye on the needs of the non-specialist reader than the scholar, Professor Brooke uses concrete "evidence"--from the novels, from Austen's letters, "edited," of course, by Cassandra, and from almanacs of the period. The letters are historical evidence and, as such, must be interpreted with "consideration and imaginative insight." He bids interpreters of the letters to "tread delicately" in their assessment and use of these very personal pieces of writing. Professor Brooke stresses the fact that the letters "reproduce the conversation of the sisters … and preserve the environment in which the novels were written. They sometimes tell us more, much more, than this: of her views and attitudes and prejudices; of her wonderfully charitable views of those about her…." What is not revealed in the letters, Professor Brooke notes, is "the work of the day": the writer's method of composition--THE detail that everyone wants to know about. Jane Austen "never once reveals the work of the day--the hours spent in composition …." They were private hours, kept even from her sister."

In an interesting paragraph he sums up what "The Archive"--the works and letters--offers to students of Jane Austen's works. The archive is most interesting to the historian, in fact, for what is missing (the manuscripts of the published novels, for example) as much as for what it contains (what Jane Austen published and what Cassandra decided to save). "Although Cassandra had the run of all Jane's own papers," Professor Brooke points out, "she left to posterity none of her own letters to her sister and only a tiny number of anyone else's."

The chapters and the sections on the individual novels provide an overview of the problems in the texts and cover such topics as "the poor relation" and the play within the play at Mansfield Park. Professor Brooke is especially enlightening on the theme of sexual indulgence in Mansfield Park, and he brings the historian's perspective to bear on his explication of the virtue of chastity. I also like the way he approaches the theme of gratitude in Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice, but I thought that there would have been more "reality"--that is, historical background--in the section on Persuasion's Lyme scenes.

Professor Brooke completes this thoughtful and enlightening work with a reflective chapter on Jane Austen's feminism: "there is no overt feminist doctrine in Jane's novels," he asserts, "but she knew a woman's worth." If her novels do not serve up angry arguments it is because they "were evidently meant to entertain, not to offend; they are not in any superficial sense didactic or moralising or polemical. They are, up to a point, models of decorum. They undermine many cosy social assumptions all the more devastatingly for that: mercenary marriages, gross and petty snobbery, the treatment of less privileged women--the treatment of women altogether."

Laurie Kaplan, Professor of English at Goucher College, is the Editor of  Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal.


JASNA News v.17, no. 2, Summer 2001, p. 24

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