George Justice, Editor
Teaching Notes

Mastering the Novels of Jane Austen

By Richard Gill and Susan Gregory.
Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. xviii + 373 pages.
6 B/W illustrations. Paperback. $22.95.

Reviewed by Laura Mooneyham White.

What kind of book should one recommend to someone beginning the study of Austen, especially to someone hoping to find, all in one place, answers to most of his or her basic questions regarding all the major novels? One possibility is this new addition to Palgrave Macmillan’s “Master Series.” This book is designed for undergraduate students and others working to gain competence in Austen as an exam subject or to gain a foundational knowledge in Austen for its own sake. These volumes are not, however, the equivalent of Cliffs Notes; the Austen volume contains none of such standard Cliffs Notes fare as synopses of the plots, short descriptions or lists of major characters, chapter by chapter summaries, or study review questions. In other words, nothing in this volume helps the reader replace reading Austen’s novels with reading only the volume itself. What Mastering the Novels of Jane Austen does provide is an overview of the main issues in the six novels, accompanied by a good deal of relevant and helpful political, literary, and cultural context.

One key strength of this introductory text is the numerous, and thorough, explanations of cultural commonplaces of Austen’s own day which pose interpretive puzzles for contemporary readers: how enormous an insult is it, for instance, when Catherine Morland is unceremoniously sent home from Northanger Abbey? Or why was solitary female walking considered both improper and dangerous? The explanations of how things really were in Austen’s time are accomplished gracefully throughout. An allied strength is the text’s continual placement of Austen’s concerns within the world of late 18th Century and early 19th Century literature (broadly understood). The authors incorporate, and usefully explain, the connections between Austen and an array of figures, including poets and novelists such as Coleridge, Milton, and Richardson, but also essayists, historians, and moralists such as Law, Burke, Clarendon, and Godwin. For instance, Darcy’s pride in his library and his comment that “I cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library in days such as these” is set in context with not only the political flux of post-revolutionary Europe and the assaults on English Toryism but also with a publication of 1811 (the year in which the action of Pride and Prejudice begins) which Darcy almost certainly would have not included on his shelves: Shelley’s The Necessity of Atheism.

The volume also focuses on the important relation between Austen’s novels and the Christian—especially Anglican—beliefs and traditions of the author, a focus which, read in concert with a treatment such as Michael Giffin’s Jane Austen and Religion, helps to remedy a long standing gap in Austen criticism. The volume gives proper attention—not merely confined to a discussion of Mansfield Park—to such matters as the role of ordination, the priesthood, vocation, and livings; debates about the proper conduct of the Anglican Church, its doctrines and political influence; and the role of Evangelism in such matters as abolition and personal conscience. One rarely finds a treatment of the religious as respectful of Austen’s own beliefs as this ending to their chapter on Mansfield Park:

Only this most Anglican of her novels closes with the Prayer Book duties and vocations of parenthood. …What we are…certainly assured of is that Mansfield…will survive, and that Fanny’s children will be brought up in “the fear and nurture of the Lord” to praise his holy name.

Other interpretive focuses of the volume include a continuing interest in the importance of topography, the symbolism of space, and the idea of “home” in Austen’s novels. Gill and Gregory pay ample attention as well to the many feminist issues raised by the novels, including women’s education, vocations, “accomplishments,” and the financial, social, and emotional pressures on young women to marry. The volume features the foregrounding of Austen’s vocabulary; using Johnson’s Dictionary and other 18th Century authorities, the authors bring out the then-contemporary connotations of words such as “government” (as in “government of feelings”).

The volume’s greatest weakness is its formatting, especially its reliance on a prominent but not particularly helpful outline structure. Four larger categories are established for each novel with a number of subpoints herded under each, with subpoints themselves generating further subpoints not enumerated or noted in the outline structure. That these sub-subpoints lack enumeration makes some sense because their treatment is often so necessarily spotty as to create a strong sense of discontinuity in the presentation of critical issues in the novel. For instance, in the Sense and Sensibility section on “Geography” called “Responsibility” (that’s section 8.11 for those keeping score at home), we have four further sections: “Norland and Delaford,” “Colonel Brandon’s family,” “The state of the nation,” and “The Ferrars family,” the latter again subdivided into “Social origins” and “Miss Grey.” No one of these sub-subsections is more than four sentences long. The intervening white spaces no doubt make the text seem more approachable and less demanding to the reader it has in view. If a reader desires to delve deeper in the Austen mysteries, the good introductory bibliography of secondary criticism and the recurrent references to the ideas of such key Austen critics as Alastair Duckworth and Claudia Johnson, make the volume a good starting place.

Laura Mooneyham White is Associate Professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the editor of Critical Essays on Jane Austen (1998) and the author of Romance, Language and Education in Jane Austen’s Novels (Macmillan, 1988).

JASNA News v.19, no. 3, Winter 2003, p. 27

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