Edited by George Justice

Learning--or not Learning--about Austen

Student Companion to Jane Austen

By Debra Teachman.
Student Companions to Classic Writers, Greenwood Press, 1995. ii +148 pages. Hardcover. $29.95.

Austen's Pride and Prejudice

By Marie Kalil.
Cliffs Notes, IDG Books Worldwide, Inc, 2000. 86 pages.
Download, Adobe PDF. $4.99.

Reviewed by Amanda Kenny.

Debra Teachman's useful companion to the works of Jane Austen begins with a chapter on her "Life." Smoothly combined with the biography is information that provides context for the novels, forestalling criticism that Austen's scope as a writer is limited, and offering background on aspects of the works that might puzzle readers, especially American students, such as a brief explanation of how Anglican rectors attain "livings." Additionally, Teachman includes excerpts from a variety of contemporary accounts of Austen's life, introducing students to primary sources.

Teachman also places Austen's work within the context of the development of the novel, describing its different genres and antecedents, including The Gothic Novel, The Epistolary Novel, and The Conduct Book. This section refers to many contemporary novelists, such as Walpole, Swift, Burney, and Richardson, giving students a resource for additional reading. Furthering this end, Teachman's bibliography is a well-organized guide to "Historical Documents," "Biographical Material," and "Reviews and Criticism."

The rest of the Companion is divided into six chapters, one for each of Austen's major novels, in order of publication date. Each section opens with an introduction to the novel containing publication history, and further biography. Then Teachman comments on "Plot Development," "Character Development," and "Thematic Issues." Finally, she offers a critical perspective on each novel--feminist readings for Sense and Sensibility and Emma, historical contexts and an economic reading of Pride and Prejudice, a psychological interpretation of Mansfield Park, a metafictional approach for Northanger Abbey, and a sociohistorical reading of Persuasion. Without providing startling insights, these mini-essays introduce different ways of interpreting Austen's novels and survey the practice of literary studies. One of the strengths of the Companion is the briefness with which it presents a great deal of material--it does not pretend to be all-inclusive, but offers extensive opportunities for independent study and allows students to form their own opinions.

The "Plot Development" segments are essentially summaries, but they are not so thorough that they could be viewed as a substitute for reading the text. They provide a review, but nothing more. Furthermore, I found one detail in the summary section of Pride and Prejudice that I felt was in error--Teachman states that Wickham "courts Elizabeth quite openly, while, at the same time convincing the fifteen-year-old Lydia to run off with him secretly." Although that was the only place where I questioned her reading of the texts, I would caution students that this is a helpful, but not infallible, guide to Austen's novels.

Although not perfect, Teachman's Companion is far superior to the Cliffs Notes (sic) guide to Pride and Prejudice. In terms of content, the downloadable version of the Notes is not much different from the old familiar Cliffs Notes. I found the detailed summaries and commentaries to be both accurate and comprehensive, though of course the "what happens" and "what it means" format of Cliffs Notes stifles alternative interpretations. The Notes also offer a glossary and short analyses of each major character, in addition to other study aids. The list of resources for further study is hardly worth mentioning, especially in comparison with Teachman's excellent list--it is a potentially misleading mix of scholarly books, not-so scholarly books, web sites, and videos.

The Notes end with two sample essays. One addresses "Women's Roles in Early Nineteenth Century Britain" and the other explains "Money in Pride and Prejudice." The information contained in each essay is harmless, and may even illuminate a reading of the novel, but their packaging is dangerous. No author is given for either essay (presumably they were written by Kalil) and they contain only one reference to an outside source. As general introductory material they would be acceptable, but under the heading of "Critical Essays" they give a false impression that such essays need not be carefully researched with full documentation of sources used. Furthermore, their lack of authorial attribution seems to invite borrowing.

This is especially disturbing since all of this easily digestible information comes in a cheap, slick, and user-friendly electronic package that purchasers can save onto their computers, copy, and excerpt by cutting and pasting. The download is fast, easy, and inexpensive enough for almost any student, and available at any time. To make improper use of paper Cliffs Notes a student has to find an open bookstore and be willing to retype the material. The Adobe version is all too accessible to a student in a panic about an assignment in the middle of the night.

However, both of these sources provide a teacher with an opportunity, if their limitations become the subject under discussion. Helping students to question the authority, reliability, and comprehensiveness of resources for study can help them become more critical readers, more confident in their own readings of texts, and thus less likely to make inappropriate use of Cliffs Notes and the innumerable sources of papers and uncited information available on the Internet.

Amanda Kenny is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

JASNA News v.17, no. 3, Winter 2001, p. 18

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