Beauty Is in the Details
A Fine Brush on Ivory: An Appreciation of Jane Austen
By Richard Jenkyns.
University Press, 2004. xiv + 215 pages.
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.
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
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.
v.21, no. 2, Summer 2005, p. 20
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