George Justice, Editor
Literature and History

Pride and Prejudice

By Jane Austen. Edited by Robert P. Irvine.
Broadview Press Ltd., 2002. 493 pages.
Paperback.  $7.95.

The Recess

By Sophia Lee. Edited by April Alliston.
University Press of Kentucky, 2000. xlviii +  lii + 364 pages.
Paperback. $17.95.

Reviewed by Elisabeth Lenckos.

I am fond of history—and am very well contented to take the false with the true. (Miss Tilney, Northanger Abbey, Part I, Chapter XIV)

In the 21st Century, readers, teachers, and even lovers of Jane Austen feel keenly that they are no longer allowed to share Miss Tilney’s sense of complacency towards historical accuracy in Northanger Abbey, but instead must bow to the necessity of explaining the author’s place in literary, social, and cultural history. For these reasons, the two books under review, the Broadview Literary Texts Pride and Prejudice, edited by Robert P. Irvine, and the University Press of Kentucky edition of The Recess by Sophia Lee, edited by April Alliston, are deserving of special attention.

The introductory discussion of the Broadview Pride and Prejudice by Dr. Irvine is especially compelling as he examines the novel’s lasting appeal under the aspect of the modern reader’s penchant for “the fantasy of Englishness.” He traces the beginnings of the national myth to Austen’s time, when fears about the French Revolution spreading its reign of terror to Britain led to the cultivation of the idea that British “character” ensured the stability and continuation of an essentially self-governing society. Irvine suggests that Austen in Pride and Prejudice relies on this notion of “continuity,” and that her romantic comedy transports the debate as to “who would inherit England” into the aesthetic sphere where the British aristocracy survived not as political leaders but as “custodians of a national cultural heritage.” To Irvine, Elizabeth Bennet’s ability to make Darcy, his class, and his estate Pemberley “an object of her…aesthetic appreciation” signifies the moment when Britain’s elite is being delegated from a central position in society and politics to the realm of art and culture. There, we still contemplate them as incorporating “a set of values that are essentially English.”

Another “essentially English” aesthetic phenomenon is examined in the recent reissue of Sophia Lee’s The Recess (1783), a once popular 18th Century gothic novel about the twin daughters of Mary, Queen of Scots, at the court of Elizabeth I. The novel was last published by Ayer in 1979. This new edition of The Recess will interest both lovers of the gothic genre and those wishing to explore the literary tradition to which Austen pays smiling tribute in Northanger Abbey. As April Alliston explains in her excellent, extensive introduction to the book, although we cannot be certain that Austen read The Recess, it is likely that Ann Radcliffe, whose Mysteries of Udolpho are spoofed by Austen in her fine comic work, did.

Alliston suggests that The Recess is proof of the novelist’s prerogative, the artistic license of the free-roaming literary imagination, to do what the historian could not, that is, write history from a new and different perspective and revise some of its traditions and assumptions. Thus, Sophia Lee shifted the center of her readers’ attention and sympathy from Elizabeth to Mary, from the public to the private sphere, and rewrote some important chapters in Elizabeth’s life to accord with her view of the British queen as the villain of the story. Lee’s imaginative rewriting of history, so it may be argued, paved the way for future authors of historical novels, a development from which the young Austen perhaps benefited when she wrote her own highly irreverent History of England (1791). This is a work in which, coincidentally, Elizabeth receives, to put it mildly, a less than sympathetic portrayal.

For modern audiences, The Recess is fascinating because it reminds us that works such as Lee’s, and the better known The Italian, The Monk, and The Castle of Otranto, commingling turbulent history and dark romance, were smash successes in the 18th Century. They spawned the cult of the rascally hero, an entire school of architecture and landscape design, masterworks such as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, and are regarded as the forerunners of the historical novel and the country house mystery. For readers of Austen’s Northanger Abbey, The Recess provides interesting reading because it constitutes part of the popular novelistic tradition, which Austen knew as a girl, inspiring her later in life to write one of her most sublime romantic comedies. There are few funnier incidents in literature than the conversation taking place between Catherine Morland and Eleanor Tilney before the revelation by Henry Tilney that the first lady is not speaking of a London riot, but of a “dreadful” gothic novel, when she mentions “something very shocking…[has] come out in London.”

It is also a surprisingly modern moment, in which Austen points to the strange idiosyncrasy of taste in readers who consider “murder and every thing of the kind” a means of diversion, while remaining blissfully ignorant of the real blood being shed close to home. Austen’s own impeccable sense for good literature, her keen awareness of history, as well as her insight into her own situation within the current of groundbreaking events is at all times amazing. The Broadway Literary Texts Pride and Prejudice and The University Press of Kentucky The Recess help us appreciate even more clearly Austen’s standing as a superior novelist writing in the context of her age, yet still speaking to our age, as if from no distance at all.

Dr. Elisabeth Lenckos teaches at the University of Chicago. She is the editor of All This Reading: The Literary World of Barbara Pym (2003).

JASNA News v.18, no. 3, Winter 2002, p. 21

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