George Justice, Editor

A Feast for the Eyes

Jane Austen: The World of  Her Novels

By Deirdre Le Faye.
Harry N. Abrams, 2002. 320 pages.
100 illustrations, 80 full color plates.
Hardcover. $29.95.

Reviewed by Joän Pawelski.

It was Mae West (the actress) who said, “too much of a good thing is…wonderful.” This book, the latest off Le Faye’s Austenworld assembly line, is wonderful. It is beautiful—a downsized (81⁄2"x6") coffee-table book. Printed on glossy paper, high production values are apparent, especially in the 80 color plates. The illustrations are from Austen’s time or are photographs or drawings of items of interest (e.g., brother Edward’s Wedgwood dinnerware, a japanned table cabinet, coins). The book provides a great deal of information without descending into academic minutiae. There are no notes, references, or bibliography. Half the book considers Austen’s world, the other half her novels (including The Watsons and Sanditon). Seemingly, the primary intended audience is one less familiar with Austen than the readers of this newsletter (whom I envision as those who have read each of the novels multiple times, four or more of the biographies, Marilyn Butler, Alistair Duckworth, possibly D. W. Harding, and certainly Claudia Johnson).

After a biographical summary and a somewhat simplified and sanitized overview of the world and England during the reign of George III, Le Faye gets down to business and tells us virtually everything we need to know about everyday life (from clerical livings to chamber pot handling) of the strata of society that Austen wrote about. She discusses the arithmetic of childbearing and the economics of slave use unsentimentally. Manners with their subtleties and nuances are explained.

What makes the discussion of the novels so interesting is the placement and descriptions of their geography. As Le Faye says, “The sensation that we are visiting genuine places and joining the lives of genuine people, whom we get to know and to like or dislike…is part of the endless fascination of Jane Austen’s novels and a tribute to her skill as an author.” Locating imagined places onto actual landscapes is challenging and one always wonders how Austen does it so successfully. Does Uppercross seem less real than Lyme Regis? Using the charming maps (which would have been available to Austen) and showing a number of houses that Austen either had visited or knew about, Le Faye shows where many of the places of Austenworld may have come from. For starters, Godmersham seems the likely model for Mansfield Park and Highbury is thought to be Leatherhead (or, is it the reverse?).

The portraits (often miniatures) and other “people” drawings are generally by lesser-known artists. An exception is the rarely seen collection of Gainsborough portraits of the Royal family (1782, from Queen Elizabeth II’s collection). This page alone makes the book worth owning. Le Faye ties each of the illustrations to one of Austen’s characters with a quote or suggestion, although some with greater success than others. It would, for example, break my heart if Colonel Brandon looked even remotely like the dopey fop showing off his assets on page 165. And I do not understand the use (shown as the frontispiece and again on page 39) of the unfortunate Victorian portrait of Jane Austen reconstructed from Cassandra’s watercolor sketch for the nephew’s 1870 Memoir. But these are quibbles.

This book is wonderful—fun, fanciful, and a great gift too.

Joän Pawelski was co-editor of JASNA News, is co-chair of programs for the Illinois/Indiana Region, and convener of the organizing committee to bring the 2008 AGM to Chicago.

JASNA News v.20, no. 2, Summer 2004, p. 17

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