George Justice, Editor

The Beauty Is in the Details

A Fine Brush on Ivory: An Appreciation of Jane Austen

By Richard Jenkyns.

Oxford University Press, 2004. xiv + 215 pages.
Hardcover. $25.00.

Reviewed by Patricia Meyer Spacks.

How can anyone presume to add another book to the vast pile of Austen studies? Fully aware of this question’s force, Richard Jenkyns offers a disarmingly simple explanation of his own daring: “I thought myself to have something to say.” The work that follows this assertion bears out the impression the author’s statement conveys, of an engaged and confident intelligence. Jenkyns indeed has something to say: most effectively, about how Austen’s urgent sense of detail helps her construct intricate plots and exacting moral schemes.

Jenkyns’s own eye for detail serves him well, on occasion supporting large arguments. Take, for instance, his account of Miss Nash, headmistress of the school where Harriet Smith has been educated. I would have claimed with utter conviction that we know nothing of Miss Nash beyond her name. Jenkyns, however, by pondering two of Harriet’s vapid utterances, shows how Austen hints the schoolmistress’ ungratified romantic longings, providing a momentary glimpse of depth in the most minor of characters.

The discussion of Miss Nash participates in a wide-ranging series of reflections about the applicability to Austen of E.M. Forster’s familiar distinction between “flat” and “rounded” characters. Jenkyns argues that Austen rarely constructs flat fictional personages—characters who satisfy readers by their predictability and provide background for more fully realized individuals. Even Austen’s minor figures, he points out, even those who verge on caricature, retain power to surprise. Mrs. Bennet’s reaction to Elizabeth’s revelation that she will marry Darcy provides one instance. Elizabeth herself doesn’t know how her mother will take the news. When Mrs. Bennet responds to her prospective son-in-law’s wealth rather than his putative character, that seems exactly right: we knew she would. In fact, we didn’t know: Austen has created a figure possessing some of the ambiguities that abound in our literal experience of other people. The characters have substance, Jenkyns says. They contain possibilities. The novels’ evocation of experiential richness stem importantly from this fact.

This study’s extensive account of Mansfield Park reveals most fully its writer’s critical powers and his imaginative commitments. Jenkyns thinks highly of Austen’s most perplexing work. He actually claims that Mansfield Park is “not far from being a perfect novel,” supporting his judgment by astute and illuminating investigation of Fanny’s character and Mary Crawford’s, careful tracing of moral and thematic patterns in Mansfield Park, and penetrating insight into Austen’s technical skills. He uses Mrs. Norris as a starting point for the persuasive claim that lovelessness is a recurrent condition in and problem of Mansfield Park. Fanny, Jenkyns maintains, is the most powerful of Austen’s heroines, “a kind of virtuous usurper” and a female force whose decisions transform the lives of others around her. The marriage of Knightley and Emma or that of Elizabeth and Darcy makes relatively little difference to the available possibilities for other characters. In contrast, Fanny’s rejection of Henry and acceptance of Edmund alter the shape of a small social universe. Gentle and self-effacing Fanny follows essentially the course of “the successful adventuress,” becoming a benign version of Becky Sharp.

This is perhaps Jenkyns’ most startling assertion. Often he specializes in the sharp aperçu rather than the extended argument, noting such crucial fictional facts as the emotional emptiness of Mr. Bennet’s life and the aloneness Emma endures or associating the novelist, “in the taxonomy of genius,” with Vermeer rather than Mozart as an artist who focuses on doing a few things well. His relaxed, graceful reflections, bolstered by a wonderfully suggestive range of literary allusions, provide easy and often delightful reading. Without looking back at the text, I recall references to P. G. Wodehouse, Dickens (repeatedly), Daisy Ashford (a Victorian child who published a delightful novel at the age of nine), Maria Edgeworth, Kingsley Amis, Frances Burney, Virgil, and David Lodge—and there are many more. They enlarge the reader’s sense of the critical enterprise here. As Jenkyns’ possibly half-defiant subtitle may suggest, his study offers an “old-fashioned” version of that enterprise, eschewing critical jargon, extensive historicity, systematic coverage, and consistently detailed analysis in favor of sensitive responsiveness.
The writer’s manifest desire to appeal to a broad spectrum of readers leads him into the occasional jarring colloquialism: Mr. Elton, in his formulation, is a “mean-spirited creep”; Fanny Price, at least twice in Jenkyns’ commentary, “looks good”; the unattractive characters in Austen’s novels are “baddies.” Yet more discordant, to my sensibility, are assertions that Darcy’s first proposal indicates his overwhelming desire to get Elizabeth into bed, that Mrs. Norris suffers from sexual frustration, and that Henry discovers Fanny’s passionate nature from her response to her brother. Austen’s own avoidance of sexual allusion, except in relation to such deviant characters as Lydia and Willoughby, partially defines her tone; to excavate for sexual meaning strikes me as violating critical decorum. These are small complaints, though, about a smart and appealing book.

Patricia Meyer Spacks’ Narrative Experiments: Eighteenth-Century British Fiction will be published next year by Yale University Press.

JASNA News v.21, no. 2, Summer 2005, p. 20

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